Dying is easy, and yet how my weary spirit clings to the world of the living. This is my funeral and I am amazed to see that I had so many friends. Friends, humph. They have come to eat and drink of my wife’s hospitality – cheap wine, meager food. A poor wake for a poor man.
I know poverty like my grandfather’s grandfather knew it. It was bred in our blood and we never expected more. But there once was a time, in my youth, I had the fantasy of going to the western land where the lights never go out. Men and women who went there did not come back to this country. Such a long-forgotten fantasy. It’s only now, from this crate of a casket that I see the unopened doors of a squalid life. Only now does God give me the space between the ears like angels and philosophers must know.
I will not be so stupid as to blame communism for this hard life, just as I cannot blame these people for coming to fill themselves up on the occasion of my death. That is the way. This celebration will cost 10,000. Ten thousand that I did not have.
“He looks peaceful,” says my nephew Andriy, fourteen years old.
“His death was anything but peaceful,” says my sister, his mother. “God bless his soul.”
A humiliating death after a dull life. Who can I blame? My sons? The other man? The system? Let this ceremony end at last and bury me. Let my body rest in peace. I died 343 kilometers away at the mines where I worked. Heart attack. In my sleep. What? Were you expecting something more gruesome? My wife blames my drinking; my educated daughter blames the stress of communist rule. Bah! Death resembles deep slumber…except no more dreams.
It is a common story - my comrades at the worksite think I just need a few extra minutes in the sack, and leave me alone. But when I don’t appear at breakfast, Danilo comes back, shakes me, slaps my face laughing, and says: “Look alive old man, we start in ten minutes. Come, you need to eat.” His grin turns fearful and then spooked, as he feels my dead pulse. He reports my death. The police contact my family: my wife – I can see her dense rounded shoulders, her eyes darting from side to side, her lips closed in a tight line – and our three grown children.
“Go get him. Bring him home. He will be buried here, at his home,” she says to her sons.
“Mother we will go, we will bring him back. But mother, a hearse costs 30,000. And the plot, another 30,000. Mother?”
“Go. Bring him to his home for a proper burial,” she repeats. “Go now!”
That night my sons arrive at the morgue. The authorities’ awkward condolences are met with my sons’ stone faces, and they leave us alone. In spite of my gradual stiffening, my sons dress me in my suit and overcoat.
“Should we shave him?” Yakiv whispers.
“Put on his hat,” says the younger one, Ivan. “And these sunglasses.”
They lift me up, stand me between them, and walk me through the darkness to the train station. I am small but they are big strong boys. I have left my family too poor for transportation. It is a sin and a crime, but I understand my boys.
At the station they buy three train tickets. We wait outside huddled together in the freezing night air until the train pulls up and we get on. This is a difficult maneuver but my sons are swift and forceful and in minutes I am positioned in the window seat of the compartment, next to my youngest and across from his brother. My body stiffens with each moment and this is helpful for their mission. The train pulls out of the station and no one else enters the compartment. Now that their plan is in action, they begin to relax.
“We’d better not fall asleep, we might wake up dead,” Ivan tests his brother’s sangfroid.
Yakiv tries to outdo his brother’s wit: “It’s a good thing this decrepit train already smells bad.” They roar with unusual laughter – we are a joyless lot. Their young nerves make them giddy.
“It will soon be 11 o’clock. Let’s go for a beer before the canteen closes,” says Ivan. They lower my hat, adjust my sunglasses and are out the door in high spirits. I like to see my sons like this. The beer is cheap and it will take some ten hours to get home.
The train stops at the village of Iza, of course, and a couple enters the compartment. The man, who I suspect has been drinking, sprawls across the bench opposite me, while the woman sits next to me because my stupid son has left his coat and my bag on the far end of the bench. A living body next to my corpse. They nod and give the usual greeting for strangers of the same land. They assume I am a crude peasant, or maybe asleep.
The train rocks and jiggles. My hand slips off my leg and lands on the woman’s thigh. She jumps. My dead weight begins to move. The wall supporting my back is polished with thousands of third-class shoulders like mine. As we round a bend through the hills, I slide sideways until my stiff neck and head meet her shoulder. She lets out a yelp. The next second, my face is in her lap. The glasses are intact but the hat has rolled away. She cries out, squirming. Her husband is on his feet swearing at me. My head rests there, on her thigh, motionless but for the roll of the train as it screeches through the hills. He takes my silence as arrogance, and strikes me across my face with his clenched fist. My glasses fall off and I fall to the floor like the dead carcass I am.
Silence in the compartment. The peal of the train.
The woman bends down and turns my head, too filled with terror perhaps to notice my stiffness. Her fingers seek the pulse on my neck.
“He is dead! You have killed him!”
The man places himself in front of the compartment door and extinguishes the light, casting the deed into obscurity against curious eyes that pass in the night. He quickly shifts from drunken fool to scheming thug.
“Get the glasses and hat”, he orders, opening the window of the compartment to a deafening clamour. The cold outside air rushes in.
“What are you doing?” she cries.
“Shut up and get them,” he commands.
In the darkness, she snatches from the bench the glasses reflecting the light of a half moon.
“I can’t find the hat!” she sobs.
“Never mind. Get the bag and the coat!”
Grabbing my collar and belt, the brute lifts me with surprising ease – am I lighter dead than alive? He heaves my head and torso out the window into the cold night air; then in seconds it is done. I land with a thud and lay on that dark hill like a piece of rubbish alongside the tracks until daybreak when a shepherd finds me frozen stiff, Ivan’s bag and coat ten metres away.
“Get a grip on yourself”, the man says, squeezing the woman’s arm till she writhes. Satisfied, he settles down feigning sleep on the bench.
The compartment door opens and the light comes on. The boys are back from the canteen. For a second, nothing moves. Yakiv’s face turns white, his eyes riveted on the corner window seat.
“Where is the man?” he asks.
The husband rouses himself and says, ‘He…left about ten minutes ago.”
“I don’t know, that way.”
“It’s not possible,” growls Yakiv.
“It’s true,” the woman says.
“He…he…it’s impossible!” Ivan shouts.
Yakiv pulls him out of the compartment by his lapels and throws him against the wall of the train.
“They have done something. This is big trouble.” says Yakiv. “We must find out their names.”
They re-enter the compartment and sit in silence. Yakiv eyes his father’s hat under the woman’s legs, and seeks out the missing bag and coat.
“Tickets please. Tickets,” chimes the conductor approaching the compartment, accompanied by the state police.
“Sir, they have stolen my bag and coat,” says Yakiv hurriedly, gesturing at the couple.
Expressionless, the officer says, “Papers, identification,” looking at the husband.
“Koval, Georgiy”, he says reading the man’s identification, “What do you know about his bag and coat?”, nodding at young Yakiv.
“Nothing!” lies the husband. The officer sniffs the air.
“Maybe you’ll find your things when you’re sober,” he says looking at the boys, and is gone.
By the time they get home, the police are waiting for them at the station. My wife is there too, furious and humiliated. News travels fast. The boys tell their story. My sons could not make it to my funeral. They will be in prison for six months for their crime. The man who thought he killed me got five years. Five years for killing a dead man.
Now I am safe in my plain casket. My head rests on a small pillow made for the dead. My wife joins my sister, and her boy Andriy who stares at me with the curiosity of the young.
“Can you afford…?” my sister asks.
“No, we will put him in the seven-year grave. After that…” she waves away the thought of my remains needing attention in seven years.
Andriy listens with destiny tracing lines on his young face. A growing realization makes his hair stand on end and he brushes the back of his head with a shudder.
He leans over and whispers, “I understand Uncle. I will break the chain. I will go to the land where the lights never go out.” He roughly kisses my forehead.
My timeless spirit softens at these words, leaving me in peace at last. Go Andriy, you'll never know unless you try.