Bazyl the gravedigger sat on a pile of earth that he himself had created and, as usual, smoked his cheap cigarettes. His short-cropped hair was completely gray. His arms, bony and covered in thick veins, rested on his knees. His back was bent into a hump. His eyes stared fixedly downward, into the perfect darkness of the grave.
Zakhar felt a burning sensation in his chest as soon as he came through the cemetery gates and saw Bazyl. The latter looked like an old angel caught in a trap. Only his shovel, sticking up among the speckled marble gravestones, spoiled the picture.
“Fill it in. Our client’s refused to kick the bucket,” Zakhar said hoarsely, “His grandson called, said he told them to dig out from under his pillow everything he’d been saving for the funeral and bought himself another three months. Still a fan of breathing it seems.”
“The old swine. He should stop polluting the air already.”
“Yeah, well you could say the same about us. What are you doing smoking that rubbish?”
“You’ve never paid me enough. What do you want me to smoke for your peanuts?”
“Don’t start.” Zakhar sat down on a mound of damp earth.
“Don’t get too comfortable there, Mr. Director, you’ll get a chill in your backside.”
“Ah, who cares? I’m not your director anymore anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re closing us down, brother.”
“What the hell do you mean closing us down? Why?” Bazyl threw his cigarette butt into the hole.
“You know very well why. People have gotten used to not dying. And the ones that do kick the bucket don’t want to rot in the ground—it’s all embalming or cryocapsules in their wills these days. There was one guy who wanted to be buried the old-fashioned way, but then changed his mind. People have eternal life now. They don’t need our funeral services.”
“They don’t need God, and they don’t need the devil,” Bazyl added.
“And least of all us. Do you know what they call us? Retrogravers. It’s not fashionable anymore. They want us to retire and sit on our pensions for the rest of our days, and not a single corpse will remember us.”
“I’ll die myself if I have nothing to do,” Bazyl groaned, releasing a puff of smoke from his mouth. “At least you’ve got a wife, nearest thing I’ve got is this hole. Nearest thing I’ve got to a warm embrace.”
“I know.” Zakhar got out his pipe.
They sat for a while in the silence and the cold. The cemetery director sniffed as he filled his pipe with fragrant tobacco. He took off his cap, baring his old bald head to the cynical April winds.
“Since you’re not the director anymore, give me one of your smokes,” Bazyl said more cheerfully.
“As if you couldn’t have asked before! Here . . .” Zakhar said indifferently.
“Well it’s one thing to ask the director himself, and another to ask some useless retro-whatever-you-call-it. Now we’re even.”
“Even my ass,” grumbled Zakhar.
“Mmm, good stuff! What an aroma!” Bazyl breathed out.
Zakhar looked up at the woolly clouds speeding past over the rusty poplar trees like horsemen of the apocalypse. Spring smelled achingly of damp, unlived life, it hissed in the ears and rumbled in the stomach.
“Fill it in, Bazyl, fill it in.”
“No, seems this hole is meant for me. You know, I dug it as though I was digging my own. A hole can’t stand emptiness. You have to respect that.”
“Don’t talk rubbish. Fill it in, or some stray dog will fall in it and howl all night. And we have to leave the place in good order. Think of the dead.”
“Howling won’t wake the dead.” Bazyl took a draw on the pipe. “I’ve been digging here so long, never seen a single ghost.”
“I’ve seen one. With a shovel,” Zakhar winked.
“You can fill this hole in yourself. Would you be so kind?” Bazyl sprang lightly into the hole and lay down on the bottom.
“You old fool! Get out of there! You’ve got my pipe too!”
“Ah, so Mr. Director’s missing his pipe already is he? Well, come and get it then. Don’t worry there’s plenty of room. I always make sure I dig a spacious new home for our clients, so they have room to stretch out. After fifty years I know what I’m doing. Well?”
Bazyl’s face was barely discernable in the dark grave. Zakhar looked gloomily at the crosses surrounding him. His beloved cemetery was being encroached upon by a hoard of vagrant weeds, themselves driven out to the edges of the city. Flashes of green were only just beginning to appear among them.
“You get a good view from down here. Entirely uncluttered. Although the skies are heavy. God’s not in a good mood,” said Bazyl.
“I’m not surprised with creations like his,” Zakhar snapped.
“Jump down. God’s kinder to those who are already in a hole.”
“I’m afraid of the smell of your socks.”
“God as my witness, I’m not wearing any socks. You never paid me enough, how do you expect me to buy socks?” Bazyl theatrically pulled one of his boots off to reveal a bare, scratched heel.
“Here you go then, since I’m such a villain,” Zakhar unlaced his boots, pulled off his socks and threw them into the hole.
“Oh, nice white ones! Now I won’t be ashamed to show myself in front of Saint Peter,” Bazyl’s voice rang in the darkness.
“All the same, what an antediluvian pair we are, you and I. The world’s changed. The miracles they work these days, it’s frightening. And while we’ve been busy digging graves we’ve missed it all,” said Zakhar, listening to the old man wheezing as he pulled on the less-than-fresh socks.
“Let me tell you one thing, brother: it’s all delusion. So you missed out on the delusion: I wouldn’t feel too sorry for myself. They think they’ve saved themselves from death! Ha! She’ll take what’s hers, sooner or later. And what’s life without death anyway??
Bazyl sniffed, trying to revive the pipe. A magical, gray stream of smoke spiralled out of the hole. The wind had died down, but a fine, cold drizzle had begun to fall. Zakhar pulled his threadbare hat over his bald head and coughed.
“Come out, Bazyl, quit playing the fool. You’ll get pneumonia.”
“The earth doesn’t make you ill. It soothes you. I know it.”
“Stop philosophizing and give me your hand.”
Zakhar crouched down at the edge of the grave, reached out his hand to Bazyl and . . . fell headfirst into the grave.
“Ha ha, so, Mr. Director, decided to make yourself at home after all?”
“If I was still the director I’d dock you half your pay for your jokes!” moaned Zakhar, spitting the dirt off his face.
“It’s OK, wait a minute, I’ll get you out. But lie here for a bit—you’ve been in charge of the cemetery half your life and never even tried out a grave—sat in your office the whole time. You have to know how to lie in a grave, you have to learn it. Back in the day I used to sometimes say to the relatives: ‘The deceased lay beautifully.’ They’d thank me, they’d be flattered. Nobody was ever offended, and neither should you be. Forgive an old fool.”
“Ah . . . Forgive me, Bazyl. And anyway, I’m older than you.” Zakhar waved his hand, lying down with his head next to Bazyl’s.
Two pairs of tired eyes watched the rectangle of sky slowly turning to lead. Somewhere in the distance thunder rumbled, like the coughing of an enormous troll. The bottom of the grave became completely wet. Lumps of damp earth dropped from among the countless spiralling roots protruding from the walls of the hole. Zakhar found his cap and put it under his head. He remembered that it was Friday, and that his wife was baking a cheesecake, the same one she’d been baking for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, and he’d have to take Bazyl with him, because the latter had nobody who’d even give him a crust of bread. Today they had a reason to have a modest celebration of their mournful labors. Suddenly the sky above the grave split open, sliced by a yellow lightning bolt. The downpour began, bringing relief to the two figures in the hole: now they no longer had to hold back their tears.
© Квітень 2045: Яма. Taras Antypovych. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Uilleam Blacker. All rights reserved.