The car stopped behind two-three other cars that were parked in front of the two isolated houses in the mountain. While the women were taking out bunches of flowers and other little things that were usually carried in such occasions, I could notice some people in front of the bigger basement house, relatives and friends of the deceased person, lined up in a restrained expectation to accept condolences and let the newcomers pass in. It seemed to me that it lasted too long, but however we went out, shook hands and kisses the relatives, with the rest we only shook hands, expressing our condolences for the great loss.
The fear that we might be late seemed to be exaggerated, but the winter day was swiftly coming to its end. We went into the house. In the big room where we usually cooked the sheep milk during the summer time, or we all gathered, watched TV and chatted with our relatives, stood about ten women and some men. The deceased person lay in the midst of stringy winter flowers in the same bed opposite the windows where he used to sleep and rest every day and night. I stayed there for a while, and then I went into the narrow hall between the rooms. I met the son there, who was also master of the house. I shook hands with him and kissed, and only said in a restrained voice: “So, we let the father pass away”.
He took me to the other room, we sat and had cigarettes. He told me about the old man’ last days and moments. A friend of the old man had come from the lower village and brought him a bottle of wine. The old man was not allowed to drink wine, but he had drunk it sip by sip. Moreover, he had vomited for three days, couldn’t eat and felt bad, but didn’t want to call a doctor.
“Daughter-in-law, I will tell you something tonight”, the old man had said to the middle-aged woman.
That afternoon he had felt very bad. The son had gone to the lower village to order a doctor. When he had come back, his father had already passed away. He had not managed to tell his daughter-in-law that “something”. The son was wondering in front of me what that could have been. Was that his last will? Or the revealing of secret of his? Or a message?
The old men lay motionless in his bed among the flowers and the women came in and out the room. The priest had already come, too. We stood up and parted.
After a while they took the dead man to the front of the house. That was announced by two pierced voices, actually two screaming cries, one female, which probably belonged to one of his daughters, and the second male, coming from one of his sons. Those voices, there screaming cries, seemed to express a painful pull out of the oldest and deepest root of the house.
The priest, a middle-aged man with a short black beard and clean mantle, sang some holy songs and the procession begun. The cemetery was not far form there. The low hill called Tumba was about a hundred or two hundred meters from the house. The grandchildren took the cross and the garlands and a few men took the coffin. The procession set off. The road let upon a gentle rise where we went in summer time to collect dry twigs or to correct the crease. The procession looked strange to me. About twenty-thirty men and women, who had come from the low village or the nearby town, climbed Tumba slowly. Their gray, blue and orange clothes made a sort of living organism that crawled over the rise with its stingily vegetation. They usually say: death is equally bad everywhere. But, maybe because of the quiet, light air or the clear winter-day transparency in the mountain, death and everything about it looked like it was getting something of the mountainous lightness and transparency.
We climbed the steep slope and we got to the Tumba. There were more stones than earth around the grave. There’s a stingy earth in the mountain. The priest conducted the funeral service. Those who were closer listened to him, and the others were talking with each other. Since the room is space was limited, on Tumba hill some old already forgotten raves were crowded with people from the old village. A man close to me asked, pointing to an almost evened grave:
“Whose grave is this?”
“It is Stojan’s grave, of the Petko’s”.
“Shame on his sons”, my neighbor said. “When he was alive he did everything for them, and here is how they have paid him back”.
The quiet conversation stopped, and the priest was still singing. According to the movements and glances of the inmates and those who helped them I noticed that the funeral sermon was brought to an end. The man standing near the open grave asked quietly:
“Haven’t you brought a rope? The grave is a little bit cramped”.
“No, we have forgotten”.
“I am going to bring it”, volunteered a young boy with fair hair in front of me.
“It is behind the haystack near the house. Bring two of them”.
The boy ran down toward the two isolated houses. The priest sang like a quiet water, and the winter sun almost sat on the high mountain crest in the west. Maybe it needed a rest too.
For those who didn’t follow the priest’s singing it stopped all of a sudden. Then he addressed the people directly, the small group of people gathered on the low hill above the valley. With temperate words and serene voice the priest unobtrusively but quite precisely touched the gathered people with thoughts and feelings. He gave details of the dead man’s benefactions, not forgetting to emphasize among them his great devotion to that ground and the old village, his persistence to stay to the end of his life.
After the “last kiss”, they put the cover on his coffin with the corpse, and four experienced men put it down in the cramped grave. The best among the present bricklayers, a tall thin man with tanned face and arms on the windy and sunny sites, went down into the grave, got on the coffin and started building the foundation of the future grave from the side of the corpse’s legs.
“The bigger stone first”, he turned up those who were helping him.
He arranged the stones from one to the other end of the coffin with restrained easiness, as if he were building a house. When the foundation became taller than the coffin, the bricklayer stopped, and a man from above passed him a white sack with the bones of dead man’s wife.
“What a nice woman she was”, said my neighbor next to me. “Tall, with a strict glance but with the hands of gold. Each member of her household would have gotten a task in the morning and everyone would have carried it out without any complain. Lots of chores and jobs with the sheep were done good and promptly, and the house was shining clean. She was a real house pillar. A rare woman”.
The bricklayer put the woman’s bones carefully beside the dead man’s legs, left the grave and said: “Now you can throw on some earth”.
The earth started covering the dead man, and in the west, behind the rocky crest, the cold sun lay behind the mountain. The winter day is as short as a human’s life.
Then it seemed that everyone was in a rush. They washed their hands with cold water in the yard, wiped them with clean towels, and went into the house. Since there were more guests than seats at the tables, they had lunch in shifts. The first shift had already taken their seats in the room with a view of Tumba from its windows. The women and some of the young people served drink, bread and food, and the sitting people helped themselves, taking to the each other.
“It is good that a small factory is going to be built in the village”, said a pale-faced man with a big sharp nose. “But, it would have been better if they had built it in ten or maybe twenty years ago. Then it would to be necessary to move two hundred houses. People, we are late, we are always late, we are very late and the land is being neglected.
“And the old master, God have mercy on his soul, passed away just in time. He was either early, like some of them, nor late. He lived over eighty years and passed away. If only we lived that much”.
There was no answer to those words. It was like a sound that trembles a little, just enough to appear and die itself.
The cattle breeder asked the guests to help themselves, and they quietly, but very quickly enacted the ritual. Some of them already looked towards the door. And when the half of the sitting people finished their lunch, one of them said:
“Let’s hurry up, people, because there are other people standing outside and waiting to take our places”.
We all stood upon and went out into the coolness. Another group of people went into the room. Half an hour later some of the cars started roaring. They said goodbye, invited each other for a visit, but all that was said in a sort of hurry, looking with one eye toward the mountain and sky—as if they were scared that the night might catch them there.
The household gathered at home. It seemed that in a few minutes both the yard and the mountain were deserted. There were some people, gathered I think for something essential, something very important in our lives and they suddenly all disappeared. What was that? Mourning with the loss of a close friend’s life, or it was a fear for our own lives? Running away from the night that covered the day with a heavy darkness, I sheltered behind the wide stone walls of the little house—in serenity full of uncertainty.