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The Country of the Dead
by Janice Keefer

WE ARE DRIVING to the cemetery; it is a Saturday afternoon, and we are

leaving behind the city streets on which people are fingering silks

and oranges at market stalls, or talking on street corners in the mild spring sun. We are dressed in Sunday clothes, although it is Saturday: it is not a ritual occasion, no priest will be there to splash holy water on the graves, water sweeter, heavier than any rain. My mother has pots of hyacinths to leave at the headstones: one for my father's parents, one for her own. Except that this is some indeterminate time in the past, and only some of them are gone; we will, in fact, go on to my grandmother's for tea after this visit. It is the fact that on the stone marking her husband's grave a space has been left for her, a space to be inscribed with name and dates - this is what blurs and fringes memory, so that I cannot recall this visit to my grandfather's grave without remembering the first time I saw my grandmother beside him, metamorphosed into letters chiselled into granite. So that my memory of this place is like those illustrations of ancient Rome we used in Latin class. A sheet of remnants -- broken pillars, toppled columns you could mend by folding down transparencies on which were inked the lineaments of forum, temple, colosseum as they'd been in the first morning of their construction, whole and new and shining in no predatory light.

This empty space on my grandfather's gravestone is the most absolute reminder of mortality I know, though mortality means little more to me than laws like that of Gravity or "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted." Because I have failed my swimming exam, I don't yet know the temporary bliss of buoyancy, of freedom from everything that must drag you down; because I've only been taken for walks in city parks I've never felt the urge to shimmy under barbed wire; leave the press of my body on forbidden ground. But I have seen my mother shiver, looking at the empty space under her father's name; at the grave of my father's parents I have heard her say to us and yet to no one in particular, "That's for us," pointing to the empty page, the unwritten half of the book that makes up my grandparents' deathstone. It is not the mythic terrors of the grave that worm into my heart; it is the fact of her already knowing where she will end, how every harsh or lovely movement of her arms, the play of her eyes and mouth will stop right here: be finished in this rigid, crowded place.

We have exchanged the crowded, noisy city streets for the thin white roads that angle past the rows of printed stones, roads so labyrinthine that you need a map to find your way around. I cannot remember the name punched out of white-painted iron on the gates into the cemetery: Mount Pleasant or Prospect or Pinewoods - I simply will not know. Neither will my sister. She says that all she can remember about that small, walled country in the city is there never being any weather there, no change of season, as if time itself had been suspended since the dead were no longer sensible to its effects. It was as though I left myself outside the gates as we drove in, she says; it was just the shell of me that got out of the car and looked at the headstones and behaved.

THERE ARE marble stones and stones of polished granite, with rough parts carved to make the image of a flower or urn. Some of the stones are shaped to resemble open books; this makes me think of watching the movies my father made when we were too small to speak; the bluish cast of the film, the smoking projector, the close-up of a giant hand turning the pages of a soft, large volume, inscribed in flowing script: "Our Living Album"; "Our Firstborn"; "A Family Is a Precious Gift, of Hope and Beauty Intermixed." And then my mother holding one of us swathed in blankets and lace, walking out from the hospital entrance into sunlight so harsh it looks like holes burned into the film. Shots of us lying in bassinettes and baby carriages and suddenly, miraculously, sitting plumply on blankets, being pushed in a swing. And then the film stopping with the hand, again, pointing to a page inscribed "The End" and closing the book as if under duress, as if it knew something we didn't - we who thought "The End" meant the finish of a roll of film, a simple running out of celluloid.

WARE AT home, it is a dull Saturday afternoon towards the end of winter. There is a phone call that my sister and I hear not as an addition to the noise of the house - the television no one is watching, the distant radio, the quarrel we are too listless to finish.

And then suddenly all noises stop; it is as if a hundred hands have switched everything off at the same instant, and we know, without being told, that something has happened, though not what we'd wanted when we'd started fighting out of sheer boredom, for want of something to do.

Something's gone badly wrong - we know this by the abruptness with which my parents make arrangements - my father running out to the car and returning as suddenly with his older sister, the aunt who is easily flustered and easy to fool and who, therefore, is never asked to baby-sit. But she is suddenly with us for the rest of the afternoon and the evening: she tells us our grandfather has had an accident and is in hospital where the doctors can make him all-better-soon; she makes us 7UP floats and lets us watch Invasion of the Giant Crabs, and she jumps to answer the telephone, which keeps ringing and ringing, becoming part of the soundtrack of the film we go on watching in order to have an excuse for being frightened. Our parents do not come home; it is 10:30, 11:00, midnight, and still they are not home. Finally we go to bed - we are not sent, we decide it is high time we should have been put to bed, like our brother, who is only a baby and who may wake any moment and cry out for our mother.

And then it is morning, and we wake up knowing. Our mother is still not home, though our father is downstairs, making breakfast. Nothing on his face or in his words gives him away as he pours out juice, makes pancakes, as if it were any ordinary Sunday. We are waiting for him to speak, to make what we know real. Yet only after we have made the pretence of eating something does he say, not to us, but to the lamp hanging from the ceiling, "Last night God took your grandfather up to heaven."

What is curious is that we know, even before he says them, that the words are not right; this is not what has happened, we do not want, we do not need this explanation. It is like the dialogue in the horror film we saw last night - phoney, pretend, a general conspiracy to defraud, like the animations that were supposed to be giant crabs, like the looks of terror and disgust on the faces of the actors who must have been looking at empty space that the technicians would later fill with special effects. We do not blame my father for this, but neither do we eat the rest of our breakfast; I go to my room and lie down on my bed and I say, under the covers but aloud, over and over again, "He's dead, he's dead. I will never see him again, I will never talk to him or hear him speak to me. This is what 'dead' is; this is what 'never' means.

After this there is nothing but the grief of others; my mother, whose mourning is utter, abject; my grandmother whose shock is frayed by guilt - had she not sent him outside to fetch apples from the cellar, he would not have slipped on the ice, hit his head. My mother's sister, the aunt who is a doctor and yet who could not save him. Later, when we ask her what killed him, we are told that a small explosion happened in his head; part of his brain exploded and he could not live. The explanation does not help; the language is wrong, just like the words of my father's telling. The first time we were taken to my grandfather's grave I looked at the headstone for the true text, the one that would let me understand. But there were only names and dates and a space left clear, the way spaces are always cleared by small explosions.

THE STORIES we've been told about the other country where our mother and aunt were born and which they left as children little older than ourselves are stories full of deaths, but the deaths have always to do with motion, not this delivery, full stop, into plotted earth. Young men shot trying to flee across the border from Poland into Russia; lovers, ice poor to marry, their bodies found swinging from the rafters of barns. My mother and my aunt would filch black veils and scarves, dress up as mourners so the young men would have someone to weep and wring their hands for them as their coffins were lowered into the grave. I know exactly the degree of gravity with which they'd walk behind the priest, the intensity of scorn they'd rum on anyone who dared to laugh, or even smile at them, their scarves dragging along the earth, catching under their mudcaked shoes. And I know how they'd have thrown back their heads to look up at the lovers swinging so gently in the thick, rich air of the barn; how they'd have listened to the whispering as they walked past the coffins, hearing how the girls' thick, black braids would have to be wound round and round their throats to hide bruises left by the cord, skin ripped like a burlap bag. And how the dead lovers' tongues would have been cut off at the root, so that their mouths could be shut as firmly as their eyes.

I DON'T KNOW if my family was peculiarly obsessed with death as property, as plots of earth in which life's plots were silenced. Perhaps these visits to the cemetery had something to do with the land my grandmother had never sold, but lost, all the same, in Poland during the war: land in which she'd buried the aunt and uncle I had never known, the phantom children for whom I'd search in the black-covered photo albums filled with strangers fixed beside painted windows, gardens, castles. My mother's father, besides being an extremely gentleman, was, I am told, given to melancholy. And yet he is debonair in the photographs taken in Canada, lounging on verandas or running boards with the air of a soldier on bivouac, a cigarette held carelessly, splendidly in his hand. Perhaps it is not a cult of property so much as pride - for ours, after all, is a shame culture: 'Ne mayesh shtihdu" - Have you no Shame - is the refrain I hear when, dancing at a cousin's wedding, I lift my crinolines to make butterfly-wings; when I hurl names at my sister on a public street; when I kick the varnished pews at church. Have you no Shame and People are Always Watching. And so the graves must be immaculate: yew and forsythia and barbary clipped, vases emptied once their flowers whither, and slime begins to crust the glass. If we don't come to visit the graves, people will talk; when we do come we must behave, lest people disapprove. Even when we arrive with garden shears and trowels and watering cans, we must be dressed neatly, decently, so that no one can catch us out and spread the wrong sort of stories.

At school I have learned about the Elysian Fields, the place where dead heroes walk, light and fleeting as shadows on a windy day. Fields of asphodel, and a stream, and endless grass. I have never seen even a picture of asphodel, but that is not important; I imagine it as both flower and animal, as something pale and succulent, grazing on blades of deep, green grass, brushing tender lips against the feet of the dead. There are no fields in this place; no one could wander along these chalk-white roads or in amongst the trees. There are too many boundaries and markers, too many stone rows fencing in the dead, ghetto by ghetto. Hungarians lie beside Hungarians; Scots with Scots; Ukrainians in an island of their own. I think of the dead lying underneath these rigid rows; I imagine them stretching out arms and legs, each body an opened pair of scissors, hand touching stranger's hand, feet out-turned. As if they're all dancing, so far below you cannot feel more than a tremor, hear more than a noise like a creaking branch, or the toss of leaves in summer storms.

I AM ONLY FOUR when my father's father dies; I never think of him when we drive up to the cemetery plot and get out of the car and stand before his grave. Something shuts off in me - I can see and say nothing, as if my eyes and tongue were weighted down with stones. It is only when we drive down Dupont Street, past my grandparents'old house that I remember. A flight of stairs, so small and strict they seem to have no slant at all, to be pure vertical; a white room at the top of these stairs; inside the room a white bed and an old man whom Iam forced to kiss. Everything about this memory is blank, silent; colour and noise begin again when I am safely at the bottom of the stairs. Many years later I will ask my mother what happened in that room and she will tell me that I was not made to kiss my grandfather at all; I was sent, instead, to bring him a flower from the garden. When I held out the flower to him, he gripped my wrist instead of the stalk; gripped and would not let go until I began to scream and my mother came rushing up the stairs to rescue me.

Many years later my father's mother dies in hospital, after falling down that same flight of strict and narrow stairs. I am old enough, now, to feel shame all on my own; my grandmother lifts up her hospital gown to show me the bruise staining her ribs but all I see is a terrible jumble of veins and bones and skin hanging like the flaps of the winter hats she would crochet for me, flaps to cover my ears and that now uncover my grandmother's nipples, dark, flat, heavy as huge, tarnished pennies. I am ashamed and yet I cannot tell her to tug down her gown and cover herself. Look, she is saying, look. Her brown eyes are filmed with what looks like gauze or fat hardening over jugs of gravy; I cannot guess what it is she sees when she asks me to look. All I know is that in place of the shame I feel at her showing a part of herself that should remain hidden, she feels pride: she owns this bruise that floods her old body - it is hers, a mark of distinction, of heroism, like a duelling scar. Pride that she has had the best of death this time, as she has had the best of age - this woman whose hair is still dark, who was so arrogantly beautiful in youth, and who blazes, still, in this hospital room. Two weeks later, when she falls asleep forever in a chair beside an open window, her book in her lap and the curtains catching inside the window, the way, on a windy day, your hair can blow into your mouth and choke you, it seems like an error that can easily be put right, a misappropriation. For my grandmother has always been in power, in control of every crisis. Deciding to flee to Canada so that her husband would not he forced into an Austrian uniform, sent off to fight in a language he did not speak, to die in a trench in a foreign country. Deciding that their children, ill with diphtheria, would be left behind in a neighbour's care and, if they survived would join them later. If they survived; pregnant with my father when she boarded ship, she had another child in Canada, and neither my father nor his small sister would know, when the astonishingly lovely girl stepped off the train at Union Station 12 years later, that she was their sister; that she knew nothing of their existence and remembered no more about her parents than their name. The astonishingly lovely girl who was married off a year later to a furniture upholsterer; who would never learn to read or write and who, after the one great journey of her life, would travel no farther than a suburb of Toronto, and from there, to an old age home on the outskirts of the suburb, a home she would mistake for a hotel in which she was lodged overnight, in the course of a permanent journey.

Yet when her mother died, this eldest surviving child wept and tore her hair and beat her breast - only the Biblical words will do for such extravagance of grief. The flesh of her beautiful face had become blurred and weighted down with age; she wore her grey hair the way a child would caught at the side of her forehead with a bobby pin, or a plastic barrette. She would have thrown herself into the grave, I heard someone say, if my father hadn't been there to hold her back. And I know exactly how she would have fallen, I who walked past the hole that had been dug out of the black, lazy earth, and who threw onto the coffin wedged below a rose that had been given me, cold and perfectly closed, but which the heat and pressure of my hand had forced to open. My aunt would have thrown herself into the grave and fallen like Alice down the rabbit hole, longer and farther than anyone could imagine. And when she reached the body of her mother lying so far below, the worn, bruised body that had opened to let her pass into the world, and then taken itself away from her for so many years, my aunt would have changed from the soft, stout, elderly woman she had become into that closely folded beauty you can see, still, in the photographs she brought with her from a studio in Galicia. To be set beside the poses taken in the Bloor Street shop in which her parents had so proudly posed with their new, Canadian children.

THE CEMETERY is not a place for grief; or at least, for grieving over others. It is ourselves we weep for by the gravestones -- we, who will never see again, speak again with the ones we have lost as if through carelessness, through some momentary lack of attention.

But I try, I try so hard to have conversations with the dead; if the granite stone is a wall that throws my words back to me, then I talk into the grass at my feet, trying to push my words through layers of earth and roots into my grandparents' ears. The one I love best, my mother's mother, dies when I am in another country, over the sea she crossed so many years ago. When I left she was sick, pate, thinner than I had ever known her, and yet, I thought, indomitable. A Latin word, a hero's word; fit for someone who could take her place in the Elysian Fields. Two weeks after she died I received a letter from my cousin, who had been with her during her dying; my grandmother, she wrote, was nothing then but bone and skin and will. The morphine made her mind wander, the letter said, so that she would misidentify the people crowding into her hospital room; often she mistook my cousin for me, and so it was for her as if I'd never left her side, as if I'd been there for her until the end. But I wasn't there, neither at her deathbed nor at the funeral; it was years before I visited the cemetery, map in hand, to find the space filled, at last, with her name and narrow band of time. I stood only a short while beside the grave; I said the words I had so carefully rehearsed, addressing them not to the stone or to the grass beneath my feet but to the only thing within those walls and gates that seemed to me alive and ambient - the air itself. And then I turned and walked away, knowing that if I were ever again to hold speech with my dead, it would have to be away from here, in a different kind of country altogether, and in a language far too imprecise and volatile to be inscribed on stone.

IN THE OLDEST part of the cemetery the graves are not so strictly ranged; instead of rows there are clusters of tombs, with statues and thickets and islands of grass. On some of the gravestones here I find photographs: crystal ovals with small, dark figures prisoned underneath. They look at me like faces with one small and misplaced eye; I cannot pass them without walking up and staring deep into each eye, taking the impress of the dead within and then holding both my hands over the crystal, as if to make for it the lids that each eye lacks. All of these graves have messages carved in italics: Asleep in God's Garden; Rest after Toil; In His Bosom. Deliberately, I leave the avenues and roads of stones behind; I walk right across the burial plots, scuffing my shoes against small stones marking the graves, for all I know, of children too young to have been given names or sets of dates.

I find these tombs and statues, these gravestones, each with its single crystal eye, only because I have run away, refusing to weed the grass over my grandparents' bodies, to water the flowers we have brought; to stand by the headstones and look stricken or consoled. I have run away from the strict, stone rows; dirtied my shoes with grass and dirt. Soon I am lost; soon they will come looking for me - I think I can hear them, now, calling out my name. Still, I run past cypresses and cedars, in amongst clumps of headstones weathered back to stone. And when at last I lift up my eyes from the ground beneath my feet, ground that shakes with the enormity of my trespass, I see no endless row of stones. Instead, there are people in the distance, strangers standing side by side, and holding up their arms to me. They hold up their arms as if asking something from me, something I can neither give nor name. So I stand where I am, holding out my arms to them; I stand here waiting, my arms aching, waiting for someone to come and find me; someone to take me away, either from them or to them, I cannot tell.


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