A DEAD MAN TO GET RID OF
They have been carrying him for fifteen days. He has been put into Hold #4 because the temperature in there is the lowest - minus 20 degrees C. An oblong black package shaking along with them, on their way to Lagos - they have tucked him in a black sack and tied it up with a mooring line. Why didn’t they throw him in the ocean? They could have forgotten him by now - tie him to an anchor, and to the bottom with him, farewell.
Although nobody can see him down there in the dark over the packages of fish, innocent, harmless and helpless, he has been torturing the souls of the crew all these fifteen days. The sailors on the deck have refrained from doing anything near Hold #4, but they imagine it: the tiny, fine bundle (he had been a small man) in the hold has disrupted the ship’s monotonous, unruffled rhythm.
In the beginning they had felt pity. Just a few days before, someone had drunk a cup of coffee with him. He was part of the working team, and they recalled all the finest details, retelling them to each other: how he had opened the door for somebody, how he had given another man a light... Suddenly someone remembers that it does no good to talk about him. But in a minute they start up again. They can’t keep from thinking about him. Too many men aboard have had their nerves wrecked by alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, the rapid changes of climate, the noise, the vibration. Everyone is jumpy, bundles of nerves...The dead man is like a red light warning of damage, of danger. You can’t ignore it or wish it away. He has stolen their peaceful dreams; they’ve stopped imagining the sumptuous villas in the virgin forests at the movies in their last port, stopped dreaming of making love to magnificent women right on the carpet. The dead man - the innocent, harmless and helpless dead man - has, it seems, put an end to those moments of solitude when a man longs for his children, for the woman he had left on the shore; he has driven away the comforting round of thoughts that visit sailors from time to time and make their shipboard lives a little easier. Sailors dislike gloomy thoughts. It is hard enough just being here, over the deep. They often tell themselves they have been forgotten by everyone, and they are right. There probably are days when nobody remembers them. It’s a sore subject, one they prefer not thinking about at all. Day after day, nothing extraordinary happened on the ship, and they were satisfied with their monotonous existence. They felt good when nothing reminded them of the shore, the radiograms passing like quiet white birds over their heads, always pleasant and trite; these did not particularly set them thinking. Their dead man had died silently: heart attack. He was dead in a couple of minutes. They packed him, put him in the frozen dark, loaded the ship, started up the engines and sailed off. Nothing had changed. But bit by bit, without honestly admitting it, the sailors began hating this half-decayed body. “I’ll throw him overboard some night, tie him to two cramp-irons and get rid of him,” the boatswain is heard to say one day, he who was always able to dispell gloomy thoughts - but now that is no longer possible. Death is aboard, haunting the ship: in the cabins, on deck, hanging over the seamen who hammer out the rust, on the mechanics’ watches, on the captain’s bridge, everywhere. Not only the boatswain, but all are worked into a rage, unable to get rid of her. She is here, elusive, invisible, terrifying.
They arrive in port Friday at noon. There is no place along the quay so they drop anchor in the roadstead. The captain informs the authorities that there is a dead man aboard. He is told they will come to ascertain the facts of the death and will do what is necessary for the funeral. The next morning a doctor and a major, a representative of the port authority, come aboard at about nine. Plunge into the hold and position lights to get a good look at the body. The doctor is smoking. The chief mate looks at him several times, but the doctor just stares at the frozen face of the dead man, blowing out smoke right over it. The chief mate stretches his arm out, takes the cigarette from the doctor’s mouth, casts it onto the deck and stomps on it. The doctor looks at him in amazement but says nothing.
All seems in order. They write out a death certificate and tell the captain that in the afternoon a coffin will be delivered. The captain gives them whisky and cigarettes; he too wants to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible. In the afternoon the officer who brings the coffin says there is no permission for the funeral but perhaps he can manage something tomorrow morning. The captain also gives him a bottle of whisky. In the morning, a military launch brings Mister B in dress uniform with epaulettes and a sabre and two military officers alongside. Until noon they negotiate, drinking whisky in the captain’s cabin. They say they are the only ones with the authority to arrange the funeral. Let the body be transported to shore: they will see what can be done.
Monday morning they take him out of the hold, untie him and pull him out of the sack. His face, his clothes, are all covered in hoar frost. While preparing the boat to haul down, while convoying him (they had gone to breakfast and forgot him on deck for awhile), he begins to thaw out. They lift him, water streaming out of him, his face and hair wet. The clothes they had put on him are wrinkled and crumpled. They hurriedly put the body in the coffin, looking sideways, close the lid and load him into the boat. On the beach they are met by the same officer who delivered the coffin. He tells them they should wait at least until noon.
Someone remembers that the “22”Club is open all day long.
They leave the boat there, with the dead man in it. Who would steal him?
Someone might rob the coffin for the lumber, two or three chime in.
If he doesn’t pass out from fear, says the boatswain.
They set off together for “22,” where they drink beer, the big Star bottles. Some go hastily upstairs to the single rooms. One or two even do it twice. Most of them booze.
They return at about one o’clock. Still no one has arrived. The coffin is there, swaying heavily in the bottom of the boat, untouched. They sit on the quay’s warping bitts and begin smoking, waiting for someone to come and tell them what to do. They are on tenterhooks even more than they had been during the transfer. This wait is killing them. They wonder if they should go back to “22.” After all, no one has given them a baby to mind. The coffin... They are dying to be out of there.
Finally at about five o’clock an official from the funeral agency comes and says the grave is ready, that they should transport the coffin to the graveyard. Most of them breathe a sigh of relief which they don’t try to hide. They take the coffin in their arms and carry it to the main street. Put it down on the sidewalk and try to find a taxi to take it to the graveyard. The Negroes immediately clear the sidewalk and gather on the opposite side of the street, where they point - terrified - at the black coffin. The taxi drivers stop at first, but the moment they see the “passenger” they’re expected to drive, their frightened eyes begin to roll and they slam into gear, hit the gas and disappear.
So it is decided that they will carry the coffin in their arms. The sun is still shining fiercely. Every two or three hundred meters they trade off, groaning and cursing, seemingly not in the proper devoted spirit toward their departed comrade. But it has crossed everyone’s mind that they could simply leave the coffin somewhere, in a small garden, and disappear, just like that. Someone would surely haul it away. They are sick of it. A nuisance of a man could be sent to hell, could be killed to get rid of him. To a dead man you can do nothing; he is just dead.
The two gravediggers stand leaning on their spades in front of the shallow grave - at about the height of a man’s knees. This is all they can manage in the scorching heat. They are told to dig a little more; that is what they have been paid to do. They begin to dig, but soon they hit water and it is impossible to go any deeper. One of the gravediggers wants to say something, but nobody knows enough English.
- He is your friend...
This is comprehensible. Of course, he was our friend. They all nod together.
- So he should be buried properly.
The gravedigger makes a gesture, as if pouring a bottle into the grave.
They guess his meaning, and curse. This one wants a bribe, too. They have nothing. They say: There is no need - let’s just bury him and get it over with. No need for ceremony.
The gravedigger looks at them. Like a dog, eh?
The boatswain goes to the nearest store, comes back with a bottle of whiky and shoves it into the gravedigger’s hands.
It is already dark. The other gravedigger stirs himself, and brings candles. They click their cigarette lighters, lighting them, illuminating the coffin slightly as it lies on the newly dug earth, waiting. Against the candlelight the background becomes even darker. Finally they hold their breath. The gravedigger opens the bottle and asks for a glass.
Idiot! someone spits. Have a drink out of the bottle! There is no glass.
Then the digger pours a little of the yellowish drink into the cap, empties it into the grave, says a few words, takes a sip and hands the bottle to the other digger. He also sips a bit and hands the bottle along. By the time the last man takes a swig, the bottle is empty. The gravedigger says that now they can bury the man fittingly, according to his native custom. Two of the seamen have brought a piece of paper, previously written. One reads from it as the others hold candles. Nice words they are, and they would have sounded nicely being read for any dead man, but in the dark they are illegible and the reader skips some of them, omits two paragraphs and finishes.
Finally they lower the coffin and begin burying it. Then it occurs to them that they should somehow mark the grave. No cross, no headstone? But what fool had thought of this? Now there is no way around it: they must figure out something.
The boatswain takes one of the shovels they have been using to bury the body and shoves the blade into the ground, leaving the handle sticking up. The shovel is T-shaped, the handle ending in two crossed laths. It looks vaguely like a cross.
They have just finished when one of the gravediggers comes running and begins to yank out the shovel. He and his partner need it. The boatswain brushes him roughly aside, sticks two banknotes in his hand. The man goes off, grinning.
The next day the same grinning gravedigger, standing over the grave, with great effort pulls the shovel from the earth.
© Atanas Stoychev