Brown, dry leaves in every direction blew with rustling sound, a soft autumnal drizzle and icy wind added to my woes. I still walked aimlessly with so many thoughts rushing like traffic on a busy intersection. I reached almost the outskirts. My legs refused to take up one more step. Reluctantly I stepped inside the white wooden gate. To my dismay it was a graveyard with stone slabs end to end.
Though it was creepy , I decided to take some rest before I could start my unknown journey. At seventy five , one can never imagine to be caught in the vagaries of destiny . Only few weeks back all the materialistic comforts were at my beck and call. But the sudden twist of fate, left me a homeless vagabond.
“ Ouch! Mind you! You are sitting on my head”, came a gruff voice. I froze half way. Did I hear right? I looked at the head stone of a cold black stone slab where I was about to sit. It’s was already getting dark and my old eyes had difficulty to see clearly. Slowly a head with thick black hair, came out of dark, torn blanket. Except for his shining eyes and long brown arms, he almost looked like ghost coming out of the cold slab.
Though my heart was racing, I tried to be brave. My voice sounded harsh even to my own ears.
“ Who are you? Is this the place for anyone to sleep?
You are young !You could earn money and lead a decent life !
I know your generation . Just enjoys the life of a parasite on the money earned by forefathers”.
I expected a vehement protest .
I was pleased that still could command the way I used to do few days back but the stock of my sermon was over but there was no reaction from the graveyard stranger.
Slowly the fellow put his thin, long legs on the bare brown earth. I could see his faded trousers was few inches short clearly indicating that it was either borrowed or stolen. He definitely looked like a street urchin. The T-shirt was a faded blue with a half torn pocket-hanging like kite struck on a tree . He stretched his arms, bent his back, turned his neck front ,back, sideways and walked slowly towards a freshly dug grave.
I never tolerate such an indifference and at the same time it was weird to be left alone in this morbid place so walked after him.
I tapped on his shoulder.
“ Hello, what do you do for your living?”, with sneer I asked him.
“I am a thanatologist”, he replied.
“ pray! What’s that”I wondered but didn’t ask him. I didn’t want to appear dumb in front of him.
“Hmmm”, I nodded my head.
“What are you doing here?”, I sounded now bit soft and there was this hidden curiosity of a child. The graveyard stranger must have been in his early thirties and this was no place for a young man, I thought.
He gave a crooked look and questioned me, “What are you doing here! This is no place for an old man here !Alive , I mean” flashing a sadistic smile.
Before I could get the import of his words, he again spoke, “Have you come to reserve your place under the elm tree or to be next to your old girl if she’s already here or you have been thrown out of your home to go to the final destination?”, he laughed loudly.
His words hit me hard. A year ago Kate had left me . But I am a rascal who never had the time to visit her grave even once. I was too busy earning for those ungrateful children who had indeed thrown me from our home. But I decided that I should not discuss my family with a total stranger.
“ Would you care for a cup of tea? “ asked my graveyard host. The words sounded sweet to me. I was dying to have a cup of tea.
Piping hot tea was served in two paper cups along with two cookies. I greedily drank the tea and munched the cookies with relish. I felt warm. It never occurred to me how he had managed the hospitality in such a gloomy place. He lit a cigarette and both of us smoked in turns.
My thoughts again drifted to the past. I was a famous baker. People thronged to my shop to buy fresh bread early in the morning. Kate managed the shop and I used to manage the oven. I loved to make variety of bread like sweet bread, milk bread, cinnamon bread and arrange special bread basket during weddings which was customary for the bride to take along with her. I also baked bread bangles which children ate with relish. Life was beautiful. We were blessed with four children of our own. We provided good education and good life style. Jimmy, our older boy came back after his studies and I was expecting him to take over the shop since Kate had left to the heavens abruptly.
I was unhappy but continued to do my work for the sake of kids. The other two boys and our daughter Martha too joined us. I was hoping to expand the business and make more money for the children. First year everything went as per my direction. A happy family but we all missed Kate.
One bright morning while I was kneading the dough, Jimmy came in and told that we should sell our bakery. The land would fetch good price. Anyway the business had gone down since now people had so many options to eat and bread was no more the king of the breakfast. I tried to reason out with him and through the other three would support me.
But alas! All the four ganged up and forced me to sign the papers and later that evening asked me to leave since he prospective buyers would come anytime. They didn’t want anyone to know how reluctant I was to sell my shop.
“Ouch!” The smouldering cigarette butt burnt my finger and my chain of thoughts broke. My grave yard host keenly looked at my tears flowing on my wrinkled up cheeks.
I quickly brushed those tears. I didn’t want to appear weak. Why even today I could bake bread enough to feed an entire village.
It was almost midnight. My host pointed at one of the stone slabs and asked me to lie down.
“ Don’t worry. There are no ghosts here. I have been here for quite sometime. Only the bats, barn owls and crickets give company. It’s pretty peaceful here than the big bad world out there”, pointing his finger towards the gate, my host smiled at me.
I had still could not understand why he was here and why he was throwing tantrums about his job profile. I tried to ask him again.
“What do you do ,for your living I mean? Are you into some research work?”, I asked him cautiously.
He laughed and said , “ You are indeed an intelligent person. Yes I did lot of research. How folks come and bid adieu to their loved ones. Four minutes of weeping, five minutes of hug, two minutes of prayer and one minute of good bye. The coffin goes down under the earth. People walk back , tipping the grave digger ,may be to ensure that the loved one is securely buried! I pity the poor soul down there who must have sweat all the years, to please those ungrateful relatives who spend less than twenty minutes to say the final goodbye”, he let out a sad sigh.
Who knows better than me about the betrayal of loved ones. But somehow I felt at peace now. I appreciated that my graveyard host though he appeared poor but carried such rich analysis of human relations.
The day light was breaking slowly and I decided to leave my night shelter. I stood up, started walking towards the gate.
A warm hand tapped my shoulder, I turned and saw my host smiling at me .
“Good morning. You forgot your bag”, he said.
“ No this isn’t my bag “, I said bit puzzled.
“I know. My research says whoever spends a night here has the right to things left by the last passenger going to His heavenly destination. So this is yours. Someday we meet”, he laughed loud.
I gingerly opened the bag. It had cash worth enough to open a dozen bakeries. I looked at him and asked a stupid question.
“ What work does a ‘Thanatologist’ do?
My host laughed “ It’s synonym of a grave digger”
The white gate slowly closed on me.