You will die. This is as sure to happen as tomorrow's sunset. In less than so many years (or so many minutes) you will neither see nor hear nor touch nor taste nor smell nor think nor desire, nor will there be any possibility of your regaining consciousness, for decomposition will have set in, that is to say you will stink more and more pungently until the survivors dispose of your carcass, if there be any (with modern technique there is no telling, but you do stand a good chance of effusing a horrible smell when you are no longer able to participate in the sensation).
You may retort that the same applies to me. For one thing, I am not listening, so what is the use of retorting? And for another, as you are reading this, though it be two hundred and forty years hence, I am still alive. Dead men tell no tales. Yet I admit that philosophical quibbling notwithstanding, at some future date I shall be physically dead. So what? Does this add to your life expectancy? And whichever way I look at it, it seems that life, yours or somebody else's, is all you live for and strive for and hope for and suffer for, and die for.
And now to my story. I did not invent it, so I cannot oblige with the end, as you will see presently.
I was a soldier, and this is a joke. By now almost everybody with the minimum of limbs and age must have been a soldier, but some people can be imagined in uniform and some cannot. None of my present colleagues was in the army, and this makes me more of a freak.
As an old hand in the profession I can give young recruits a word or two of advice. Wherever you are, avoid notice. Do your best not to be conspicuous, anywhere, even in camp. Blend with the background, so that you can be neither observed nor recalled. Because if the Sergeant notices you, you are in for it. It may be anything unpleasant, down to plain hard work.
And I would not shave. The only one in the company. All the others shaved as if possessed, every morning before parade, and swore at me, because they were in a hurry and the water was cold and they all crowded around one tap, in the open, sitting crosslegged or kneeling and making faces at mirrors set precariously on bricks or stones. Did they look stupid! But it never occurred to any of them to desist from this daily self-torture, so I stood out very distinctly with a shaggy face. It was not very convenient, and it needed a daily shampoo or it would itch, still I refused to shave. In the morning I do not like to be rushed.
Our camp was the most bombed area, per square inch, in the country. The Egyptians considered it an important target, and it had very distinct landmarks. At the beginning we had no fighter planes. So we would have the Egyptians over us four times a day, emerging as if from the sun, swooping down, dropping their bombs in a hurry, and then strafing with bullets as big as dates. I never got used to it, and every time they came I was scared anew, but they did very little damage. They must have been scared too, for we downed two of them with machine-guns, and one captured Spitfire was hardly scratched, so that it was repainted and in use by our pilots in less than two days.
But the first day they came they did hurt. It was Saturday, the 15th of May, 1948. Early in the morning they hit a hut and in the afternoon a tent. I was visiting the anti-aircraft men and so I was not called to help, but when I was back Aduya told me he had to carry raw meat. It was taken to town.
Monday morning, when we were all doing nothing or patronizing the high-school boys who had been sent over to dig, Sergeant came busily, and everybody tried to sneak away. He caught me napping under a campbed, where I was hiding from the flies. “Aha!” he said, “Medad! Just the man I want. And you, and you, and you, and you, and you too. Come here all of you. You have five minutes to inspection parade.”
We were inspected and told to get into a truck.
“What is it about?” I asked Sergeant.
“Funeral,” he said.
“For such a job,” I said, “we don't need these.” (I was disgusted with my rifle. It kept collecting sand in the most hard-to-get-at places.) “We want spades.”
“The Holy Society is looking after that part of the ceremony,” Sergeant said. “All you are called for is to fire three volleys. And mind you clean the rifles well afterward. I don't want to see any soot tomorrow morning.”
The Holy Society are the undertakers. It is an exclusive fraternity, very religious.
We were taken to town, and parked back of Hadassah Hospital. We were told to jump out, and stood on the pavement, waiting. I knew the place. We were opposite the gate out of which the dead were carried.
It was quite a busy place. When the hospital was built, it was situated at the outskirts of a suburb. Now it was right in the middle of the business center, though the gate opened to a side street. Almost any day you could see people standing there, waiting for a funeral. There was a bookshop and a restaurant on the other side of the street, and people went their ways, sometimes glancing furtively at the mourners, and sometimes getting gooseflesh when they heard a wail.
It looked odd. Here was I in uniform, unable to move unless so ordered, and here were people walking or riding as they pleased. Some acquaintance in mufti who happened to pass by, shouted, “Medad, what are you doing here?” “I joined the Holy Society,” I shouted angrily. “Special rates for carcasses like you.”
“Shut up,” Sergeant said, and turned around and shook with suppressed laughter. I did not think it was such a good joke, but we were not well disposed toward civilians. I think I must have been offended because they could carry on without me.
Just then I felt an urge to relieve nature. “I say,” I said, “may I go for a minute?”
“Too late,” Sergeant said, “Here they come.”
A small, jerky old man in a crumpled gray suit, with a gray felt hat, dusty shoes, a gray face with white stubble and red eyes, and a little woman bent to half size, so that her gown reached to her shoes, her head and face almost completely hidden in a black shawl, appeared suddenly, God knows from where. They were leaning, almost hanging, on younger people. The man seemed to be muttering something but I could not hear what he said. The woman was sobbing or coughing or hiccuping.
There was some rustle in the air, and a stretcher was carried out of the gate by two bearded men. Their beards were longer than mine, the foremost one yellowish brown and the rear one black. I saw why Sergeant had laughed. Every head was covered, but only these two met the occasion with gala headgear: fine, fashionable soft felt hats, very dark gray and almost shiny. The Holy Society was all dressed up for the show. Parents of the corpse must be well to do.
The stretcher was sagging in the middle, where it was stained to a darker shade, and dripping. The worst of it were the flies that adorned the poles in a swarm, like a halo. It seemed to me that I heard their buzz, and I was afraid one might sting me, in my bare arms or legs or even in the face, and my blood would be poisoned and I would die, like Yossl Zaiger.
I was stamping nervously when I was hit by the stench. My head began to swim. I held my breath lest I disgrace myself, and then I tried to play with the thought that those members of the Holy Society were having it worse. But it did not help much. When dead, a man smells worse than a chemical factory. He stinks like that donkey's carcass which was washed out of the sea near Nabi Rubin.
I stole glances at my comrades, and they did not look to be feeling better than I. There was a fly on Pinny's upper lip, but he did not seem to notice.
In my mind I goaded the Holy Society. Get it over with, damn you. Quick, before I am sick. What is the delay? Can't you move more quickly?
I was furious. I hated Sergeant for dragging me there. I hated the corpse for stinking. Why was he not privileged with storage in an icebox? Could he not be disposed of without all the ceremony? I hated his parents for their masochism. I hated the Holy Society for the display and for their mocking beards. I hated the audience watching and obviously enjoying the thrills. I was quivering with helpless fury.
They lifted a white bundle, stained pink underneath, from under a black covering, and put it in a long, black, lidless box, with four handles, and they lifted the box and moved it gingerly into a black van, and two of them entered the van and sat facing the thing, and the double door was closed on them. I expected when we reached the cemetery we would have three corpses.
People were getting into cars and into a bus, and we were told to climb back into our open truck. The column began to move slowly.
Soon we were out in the thoroughfare, and I felt better. The sweat on my face was cold. Again I wanted to make water, and as we were at the rear I thought perhaps I could do it from the moving truck, with my back to the wind. But there was traffic on the road. Presently we turned into a by-road and crossed the Musrara bridge, and then we were between the gray concrete walls of the twin graveyards. The road is very narrow there, and we had to park single file, after some maneuvering, so as to leave room for traffic. As we were disembarking we heard the wail of the alert, rising from all the suburbs around. There was nothing we could do about it, so we stood there and waited.
Cows were chewing their cuds in a field nearby. The light was sweet and pleasant to the eyes. It was good to exist and to have nothing to do.
I am not partial to death. Funerals I find repulsive, so much so that I do not go even to my enemies'. But cemeteries I like. I suppose human nerves can be jarred only to some degree and then they slip out of it somehow: then a man goes crazy or numb.
When I was nine years old, our grade was taken to the funeral of Etan's mother. She had lain ill for a long time in that small house way out of the village. I had never seen her, but I had heard her deep coarse voice calling Etan from inside. Now Etan's father, the little watchman, was wiping his eyes with his cap, blubbering perfunctorily, and Etan was trying to make his baby brother put on shoes, but the little brat was feeling too important to comply. She was taken into the dark cell under the synagogue, and some of the daring boys peeped through the barred window and said she was being washed.
She was brought out as a long white bundle on a stretcher, and four men carried her on their shoulders all the way to the cemetery on the hill, where the ancient hollow sycamore is surrounded by giant eucalyptus trees and graying tombstones, that tranquil hill from which we had watched the air maneuvers over Sarafand, when airplanes were such a wonder. We followed, and a brisk walk it was in the sandy road, so that when we reached the cemetery we were out of breath and sat panting around the open grave.
The stretcher was put down, and the men wiped the sweat off their faces and took Etan's mother and gave her to the two men who were in the deep narrow grave, and she was laid very deep down, face up. She was wrapped in white all over. Only her chin and the thin purple lips and the tip of her nose were not bandaged, and her hands were tied on her breast. They covered her with boards and filled the grave with earth. My mouth opened and my breath came in a sob: I thought she would choke.
When they were done they gave the mound a few pats with their shovels, and Etan said Kaddish, constantly clearing his throat and hoarsely repeating the words after his lisping father. Moishe-arn sang in his sour voice, “O God full of mercy.” The adults plucked out grass and threw it over their shoulders. We did the same, though we did not know why it was done, and scampered home.
That night as I lay in bed I thought I was going to die and be choked in a deep narrow grave, with my hands tied, and my fear grew so intense that I fell asleep. For months afterward I was afraid that in my sleep, while I was covered with white, I would be taken to the cemetery and be buried, and it must have been a year before I was convinced that my death would come only in the future, probably when I would want it myself. But I would not go near that dark barred window under the synagogue.
Sergeant said something sharply, and I saw that the others were already in two lines. I hurried to join them, and we were marched into the cemetery and in a narrow path that squeezed our two lines together, and we were halted and brought to attention.
One bearded man was in the grave, perfecting its geometry and throwing some earth out with a shovel. He was handed narrow boards. When he stood up only his head was visible.
Again there was that awful stench, but now the wails were worse. They must have been tuned to words, but I could not make them out. It was the old woman. She would begin piano, with a moan, and then climb up to forte, to a horrible shriek, and all of it with some chatter. When they took her to the grave, for her last look at her son, she collapsed on her knees, but her voice lost nothing of its vigor.
O shut up, shut up ! I had had enough. That shriveled old lady must have iron lungs. I know, I know. It is terrible, but why show off? How I wished it was over and I could piss and smoke to my heart's content. But I was standing at attention.
They covered it up with earth, very efficiently, in quick rhythmic motions, and there was a mound, and they stuck a wooden sign at its west end, and we were stood in two lines facing each other across the mound, and Sergeant was giving orders in a whisper. Of course Aduya would have trouble with the bolt. We waited for him, and then we fired the three volleys almost together, so it was good enough, and we turned and marched away single file, and stood at ease. We could not smoke, for we were not yet out of the cemetery, and we did not feel like talking, not even to poke fun at Aduya and his bolt.
A cantor was trilling affectedly “O God full of mercy” when we saw the old lady approaching us quickly, almost running, like a hen, but still bent double. The black shawl slipped to her shoulders and her long gray hair was undone and there was a neat tear on her breast. I was afraid she would give us trouble, because two women were after her. She was too quick for them, and she stopped almost touching us, and sighed, and nodded her head, and said quite loud, “Gott soll eich shitzen, meine kinder,” which is Yiddish for “May God guard you, my children.”
1 Copyright © 1964 by Medad Schiff.