Translated by John Hodgson
They were kind enough, or had enough time on their hands, to carry out the funeral and pay for the undertaker, the parish priest, the carpenters, the sextons, and the hearse that carried his body from the hostel to the cemetery. They were in a sense his brothers and sisters, if of different mothers and religions. Their were only really distinguished by their names, or at least their nicknames, which they had brought from their home countries or acquired through some unusual exploit here. They had known him only as “the guy the bitches don’t bark at,” because he was the only person who, in the yard in front of the dormitory, at the windows, in the dining hall, or on the street that led to the town. was left in peace by the hungry, continually pregnant bitches who guarded their litters hereabouts. Perhaps he knew the language of dogs.
The parish priest, accompanied by two singers for the occasion, absolved him of his sins, committed knowingly or unknowingly, waved his thurible as if sowing seed, and then made a cross in the air above the head of the deceased migrant, nodding to the gravediggers as a sign to start lowering the coffin into the grave.
The soil suddenly seemed light and friable. It was hard to imagine that it would swallow with the same greed anyone who was buried in it Some of the congregation said that foreign soil received strangers with a certain gentleness.
As they were hammering the nails in the coffin, one of the girls rushed at the men with the hammers, and shouted:
“No,” she cried, “I’ve just remembered. One day when he came back from fishing he had a serious talk with me, and said...”
“What?” asked an elderly migrant.
“He wanted to be cremated, Yes, and have his ashes scattered at sea.”
“Which sea?” asked another in the congregation. “How do you know that he meant this sea?”
“We just had no money to take him to any other.”
“At sea in general,” the girl insisted. “That was his last wish.... Perhaps he wrote it down somewhere.”
The priest frowned. He was not allowed to bless a deceased person who had expressed a wish to be cremated.
“You had better hold your own service,” he said. “I’ve finished my duties.”
The coffin was loaded onto the bier again and carried towards the crematorium. They had to hurry, because strangely, as has often been noticed, in the few hours after death a body becomes five times heavier, and almost impossible to lift. This found this to be true in this case when they reached the crematorium entrance.
“He’s as heavy as lead,” said the attendant. ‘As if you’d come here to melt lead.”
“We’re peace-loving people,” grinned one migrant. “We’re not the sort who melt lead for bullets.”
The crematorium director quoted a horrendous price for his services. Everybody knew that this was because of their lack of language. If you don’t know the local language, you get robbed left right and centre. In this case, there was also what was called an Aliens Tax, levied by the crematorium which assumed responsibility for the risks incurred in cremating foreign bodies, such as the spread of unknown toxins, or gases of unknown origin and with incalculable effects.
As they grieved and lit cigarettes in the desolate crematorium yard they watched the wisps of smoke that were their one-time friend, and saw in this smoke their own histories and desires, Cremation had been a good solution. “Poor guy,” said the girl. “He could have lived longer.”
The eldest among the migrants curled his lip.
“Why?” he said. “To make blacker smoke?”
“He’s out of it now.” said a woman. “And you would have wanted him to live longer. Were you in love with him perhaps?”
The girl did not answer immediately. She wiped away a hint of tears and added:
“I don’t know. Perhaps. In fact, no. Not an ordinary kind of love. He loved someone else. A girl in his own country.”
“But that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have loved him, does it?”
“Well, it was possible. But in fact he was impossible to love, not passionately anyway. You could see his heart was elsewhere.”
“And the poor soul doesn’t even know that he’s dead,” another woman added.
“What poor soul?” asked the girl in bewilderment.
“The girl he loved, of course.”
“Ah yes... she’ll have to be told too. In case she’s waiting for him to come back.”
The old man cast her a reproachful glance.
“Let her find out for herself,” he stammered. “We can’t interfere with a woman waiting for a man she loves. Who knows, does she have anything else in her life as precious as this waiting?”
“That’s right,” said one of the women. “Let her find out herself. She’ll notice that letters aren’t arriving any more, no news, no phone calls... She’ll understand herself, like we all did.”
“Nobody I have loved has ever died in a foreign country,” said the girl.
“It’s never too late,” said the old man.
The wisps of smoke that were once their friend had dispersed.
The older man had had the time and inclination to count them.
They decided to take lots for who should scatter his ashes at sea.
The lot fell to a woman, who had just finished her first month abroad.
“This is a good omen for the start of your adventure.,” the girl said to her.
“What adventure?” said the woman, taken aback.
“Your journey into hell,” said the older man.
They came from totally different countries, and understood each other with difficulty in the language of the country that had brought them together. They accepted each other’s blunders and inadequacies without even the most covert of smiles.
One of the crematorium staff handed over the urn and laughed, wishing them a long life. “God rest his soul.”
“God rest your mother,” the old man butted in angrily.
They walked to a small bay on the seacoast. This “guy the bitches didn’t bark at” had had the habit of diving in each morning, after work, to catch fish, or perhaps to soothe away monstrous visions of homesickness.
The older man took on the task of scattering the ashes, He deserved the role, because he more than anyone else had been the undeclared leader of this group of exiles. He had coped with the bitter collapse of so many dreams, without losing heart.
The women had begun to weep. They wept briefly for the youth of “the guy the bitches didn’t bark at.” They thought, in these long ashen days and nights and in their half-waking dreams of returning or not returning to their home countries, that they would all one day be poured through the mouths of urns like these.
The older man took care to scatter the ash on the water and not let the wind blow the ash back onto the shore.
“How terrible to be caught on a hook,” the eldest among the women broke the silence. “To be a fish... Imagine, no hands, no way of saving yourself... Caught by the throat with a hook, in the stomach, or the lungs...”
“We aren’t here to scatter the ashes of a fish,” the old man gritted his teeth. “Better remember what it means to be a mother or a father. When some unknown foreigner, at the ends of the earth, scatters the ashes of your son.”
The older man had been the first to notice the absence of the young man and had informed the camp director and the divers. He had dived into the water with them, searching randomly among the rocks, algae, and hungry crabs, until they had found him eighteen metres below the surface. However, understanding that he had no chance of returning to life, they were struck less by the extraordinary colour of his body, or the almost living, enheartening expression of his eyes, than by the appearance of the fish. It was a giant fish, the size of a boat. The young man had caught it on his hook and in order not to let it escape had tied the line round his waist. And the fish, perhaps likewise in order not to let his captor escape. had plunged deeper and deeper into the water and remained there until the man had yielded up the the ghost.
The old man was familiar with this kind of fish. In the Balkans, and beyond, in the Caspian Sea, they called it a “koran.” It was a carnivorous fish, and whenever it chanced to be caught on a hook, it died, thrashing with rage. The colour of its scales then changed completely, and you might imagine a totally different fish on your hook. But this fish had not wanted to die and had retained the colours of its birth. With its back turned towards the man’s body, it had waited until the migrant’s blood burst from his ears, mouth, and nose, and its captor’s writhings had ceased. When the old man and the divers arrived below, they stared dumbfounded as the fish snorted, and dived even deeper. The hook came loose from its chest together with a chunk of innards the colour of a persimmon. Only then did the tardy rescuers turn to the man, and were amazed a second time. He was naked, the colour of wax, luminous, and surrounded by a halo of sanctity The fish and other sea creatures had eaten his underwear and leather bracelet. He looked as if newly born from his mother’s womb, a man born without a childhood, at the age he was when he died, about thirty, the son of a mother who might have been life, or death, itself.
The urn was quickly emptied.
The ashes mingled with the salt water and turned to mud.
“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” the priest had sung so many times.
Only when the urn was emptied of slightest trace of unburned bone and was emptied too of its dust and ashes of dreams, they began to ask each other what it was that had distracted the guy the bitches didn’t bark at. He must have had some kind of premonition. It was as if he couldn’t live without diving into the water of this bay every morning after he returned from work. He went to carnival in a fish’s costume. But he never ate fish. The fish he caught, he kept for a couple of hours in a large aquarium in his room before releasing them. He was as delighted as a child when he saw that the fish had not forgotten how to swim. Had he not known that fish and drowning men, even if they have forgotten how to swim, learn very quickly from the motion of the waves? Or had he been trying to do destiny a favour, in the hope that the latter, having caught him on her hook, would merely keep him a while and release him?
They returned from the bay at about three o’clock in the afternoon. They were not hungry. The canteen was empty, but even if they had asked, nobody would have given them anything to eat at that time.
The old man smoked a roll-up.
The bitches emerged from their stinking lairs but made no sound. Perhaps because they didn’t know who not to bark at. The man whom they had never barked at had known the old saying, that it was easier to extract a fart from the dead than a dollar from a migrant. He had settled his accounts with the world above water, before he had caught that fish as big as a boat. Under the aquarium in his room, he had left a sum of money in an envelope. He had written on the envelope, “for subsequent expenses.” When the old man counted the money, it turned out that the guy had paid for everything except the scattering of the ashes, something which they had all carried out for free, as a mark of respect for him and for themselves. Now they would have to endure the desperate howls of the dogs, like the wails of souls of the dead cast from that sandbank into the air and salt water, and they would wait to see at whom this barking would sometimes cease.
They never swam again in that beloved bay, and when they chanced to pass that way, especially early in the morning, listening to the barking of the dogs, and so exhausted that they would not care if the world came to an end, they would shake their head, each in the manner of their own country, and say you shouldn’t catch larger fish than was proper, except when the barking becomes impossible to endure.