My father looked healthy on the day of his death. His face was radiant; there was light in his eyes, his cheeks were ruddy.
It was December 6, and there was a slanted snowstorm outdoors. When you looked out the window, you had a feeling that the whole household was ascending into heaven sideways. The snow was like the down of a huge celestial bird whose one wing covered our whole valley. The wing must have been flapping, because it was windy. As soon as the snow touched the ground, it melted.
After spending the whole day in the clog-making workshop, praying rather than carving wooden soles, my father stepped into the living room, solemn and luminous. Two months before, he had become powerfully religious. He had gone around town and begged everybody for forgiveness “in the name of Christ” for all the wrongs that he had wittingly and unwittingly done. He even gave his former assistant, who now had his own shop, two bales of ox-hide. Earlier, my father had sold him a rotten bale, creating a bad reputation for the assistant’s new business. Moreover, Father had brought home an astonished old peasant, and gave him a large sum of money; several years before, Father had forced the peasant to sell him wood too cheaply.
Father used to preach at our Baptist church as a lay minister. Even though it was my father preaching, I was bored, cutting my thumbnails into the soft wood bench to make deep creases between the grains, each crease representing one year. That’s how long the sermon seemed to last. Once he had preached about the death of Christ on the cross, of His giving up His ghost, and in the middle of the sermon he began to weep. I had blushed for him.
On clear nights he took me into the garden, pointing at the winking stars. “See, God created the stars. It takes millions of years for the light to reach our eyes, and God’s thought is everywhere in no time at all. God’s thoughts are right here with us.” I said I could not feel God’s presence, and he replied, “In a way you are lucky you cannot; it’s overwhelming. Moses could see His radiance only from behind; most would have died from seeing even this much. You cannot be close to God and live!”
Now, as he came in, he sat at a table and saw my older brother, Ivan, reading an Asterix comic book. Father looked at him sadly, and said, “Don’t blaspheme against God by reading trash. Why don’t you read the Bible, or study math?”
“I don’t feel like it,” said Ivan.
The cat, which had been sleeping on top of the large clay stove, now coiled her tail as if scared Father would deliver her a blow, and jumped off the stove. Usually she rushed to sit in his lap. Now she sat on the Bible on the chair next to my bed and licked her paws.
“And you,” he addressed me, “how can you allow this dirty animal to sit on the Bible?” As if in reply, the cat twisted her body and licked the root of her tail. I chased her off the somber book. Mother’s slow and heavy steps were heard on the stairs, her clogs resounding against the cement, louder and louder. She walked in, carrying a basket of wood, and breathing heavily, knelt in front of the stove to stir the thin ashen embers with her bare fingers. She never burned herself, but her method of doing it always disturbed me.
“Sons, why do you let Mother carry the wood? Why don’t you help her?” We made no reply. He addressed me: “Yozo, bring me an apple from the attic.” I went up the creaky wooden steps, and the flashlight didn’t work. I was scared of the dark. But I knew the attic well, so I found the apples, and pressed them with my thumb to find one that was large, neither too hard nor too soft, but crunchy. Taking the red apple in his large hand, he said, “I didn’t know we had such beautiful apples. You chose well! I hope you choose your wife as well, so you won’t be tempted to look at other women and sin in your heart.”
“But I thought that good looks are not important. The soul is what matters.”
“That’s right, but there’s nothing more joyous in this life than the beauty of a woman.”
My mother said, “That’s no way to talk to a child!” and he replied, “It is.” Then he dug his teeth, some of them made of gold, into the apple, his gray mustache spreading like a brush on its red skin. Saliva collected in my mouth as if he were chewing a lemon. He ate one half of it slowly, and left the rest on the plate. The white meat was soon covered with a brown haze. His face suddenly lost color, turning ashen, and he said, “I don’t feel well.”
“Let’s go to the doctor’s, then!” said my mother.
“No, I don’t want to go there.”
“Let me go fetch him.”
“No. Maybe I’ll go there tomorrow, if God wills.”
“You speak strangely, let me go.”
“No, it’s no big deal. Everything will happen the way God wills it.”
My mother didn’t look pleased at his words and she left for the bedroom. In the doorway my father looked long, sadly, at Ivan, who continued reading the comic book, and at me, as I patted the purring heathen goddess. He closed the door quietly. Later, reading The Secrets of the Town of Paris in bed, I came across a passage about drunks, and wondered what it was like to be so drunk that you sing without noticing you are doing it. I fell asleep with the book dropping out of my hands.
Late at night I heard a scream. Ivan was shaking me violently. “Father’s dying!” he shrieked. It was pitch-black in the room. I sprang out of bed, and both of us ran to our parents’ bedroom. “Where’s Mother?”
“Gone to get the doctor.”
There was a feeble light from the night table. It cast an orange hue over our father, and the corners of the room were in darkness. In their bed, which was two beds put together, he lay in his striped blue-and-gray pajamas; gray hairs stuck out through his unbuttoned shirt. He was propped up on a pillow. His eyes were closed and he breathed slowly. Above the bed was a photograph, framed in wood, of him in a military uniform and my mother, at their wedding, cheek against cheek, both of them handsome and unsmiling.
His breath was partly a snore, partly a sort of choking. His face was pale, and as he hadn’t shaved that day, his chin was blue and gray. Ivan and I were so terrified then that we couldn’t go to his side of the bed; we went to our mother’s side. We started screaming prayers, whatever came to our minds, to the Heavenly Father to let our earthly father live. We had been taught to keep our eyes closed when praying. I closed my eyes to pray, then opened them to see how our father was. Gurgling noises came from his throat, as if he were using a mouthwash. White foam appeared on his lips and began to trickle down his chin. “God, don’t kill him!” I yelled.
“God,” Ivan shouted, “let it be your will to let him live! We cannot change your will, but make it your will, if . . .”
A drop of blood trickled from our father’s nose onto his mustache. A loud breath came out of him, and it lasted long, without him drawing another. More air wheezed from his throat, and red foam appeared at the corners of his lips. His head dropped forward. Ivan and I grabbed his left hand. He had taught us where to find the pulse, hoping we would become doctors. I pushed Ivan’s fingers away, so I could feel; he pushed mine, so he could feel. No pulse. Father’s hand was cool and swollen. Ivan, his face green, knelt on the empty side of the bed, and pressed his palm against Father’s chest.
“Nothing,” he said. “His heart’s stopped. It’s finished.”
I looked at the clock on the dark brown cupboard, next to the preserved cherries and blackberries. “It’s midnight!” I exclaimed. “And it’s the midnight between the sixth and the seventh day of the month! Isn’t six the number of man, and seven the number of God?”
“Yes! Yes! That means he went to God!” Ivan said. “That’s a sign!” We stared at his face. It bore no expression, neither joy nor sadness, neither peace nor war; he looked as if he were listening attentively with his eyes closed, like an icon.
Ivan said, “Look!” and pointed to a piece of paper. “In his last hour, when Mother went to the doctor’s, he called me and asked for a piece of paper. He calmly wrote out a will. See, his handwriting is no different than usual. Just read. See how clear his mind was!
“Then he said, ‘Look, I will die very soon. Don’t forget to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. Don’t ever forget that, and all else will come from it. Let us pray.’ We began to pray, he prayed for all of us, except for himself. Then he grew quiet and closed his eyes and began to breathe heavily. I began to pray for him aloud. He opened his eyes, and said, ‘Not for me, pray for yourself! You are remaining on earth, and now leave me in peace, I must breathe out my soul to God.’ Then he lay back on the pillow, like now.”
As my brother was recounting what had happened, my whole body trembled and my teeth chattered. I looked around as if to get away.
“So,” said Ivan, “I prayed again to God, to spare him. Father opened his eyes once more, and looked at me, then turned back, and said, ‘I am going!’ He meant he was going to heaven. He said it with certainty.” Ivan’s face was yellow-green and his eyes slanted, as if he had changed his race to Mongolian. “What will become of us?” he asked me. There was silence in the house. Through the window we looked at the blackness of the night, and the clock ticked like a time bomb.
We went into the living room, turned on the lights, and didn’t dare to leave the room. I prayed to God to resurrect my father, as He had Lazarus; I promised to serve Him all my life then. Yet I was scared that Father would indeed be brought back to life, but not be the same as he used to be; he might have something heavenly in him, something that would kill me on the spot as soon as I beheld it, turning me into ashes.
Then we heard the doors open. Mother came in with the doctor, both wet with snow. Ivan and I stood in the middle of the room in our long flannel pajamas, with broad blue vertical stripes, in the fashion of Turkish soldiers from an old picture book. With the doctor came the stink of tobacco and booze. “Where is he?” he asked.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“But where is he?”
“He is in heaven!” said Ivan. “You won’t find him here.”
“Oh, my God,” cried our mother. She ran into the bedroom. We watched from the door. The doctor listened with his stethoscope, searching for sounds. “It’s too late,” he said.
Our mother was pale. Looking at us, she said, “My God, what will I do with them?” Besides being terrified, I was scared, if that makes sense. There was a strong fear, relating to my father’s death and God, and a weaker fear, regarding my future. How would we live? The doctor walked out with his chin on his chest.
Ivan and I were sent to bed, while our mother went to fetch the minister, a neighbor, and my father’s favorite brother, Pero. When we were in our room, Ivan switched off the lights, and I switched them back on. “Why do you want the lights on? You can’t sleep with the lights on.”
“I’d be scared in the dark,” I said.
“What more is there to be scared of?” he snarled.
“I want the lights on,” I said, and he let me have my way. Soon he was wheezing, asleep. What if I die, too? I couldn’t breathe well. Maybe I am dying? No, children don’t die just like that, unless they have a high fever. I touched my forehead, and it was cool. Well, I don’t have a fever! But why should fever be dangerous? Fever should be healthy, the furthest from death; death is cold. I shivered under my covers. I looked at the window, which was one big black square in the wall. I propped myself up in bed, realizing I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Now I am in the same position in which he died! When will the dawn come? Is it possible to live without a father? Will we have enough to eat? This must be terrible for our mother. What if God doesn’t exist, and here we are almost envying our father for having died a holy death. I watched Ivan sleep. See, he’s a good Christian, he has peace. He has seen the whole death, and I missed it. When I came in, Father was no longer conscious; maybe he was already dead, or in the last stretch of dying; perhaps he would have told me something, like Jacob to his son Joseph. I was envious that I had not been the one to stay with my father during his last moment of awareness.
Then I heard firm boot steps, first on the staircase, and then in the corridor. My oldest brother, Vladimir, who had been serving as a physician in the army in Novi Sad, stepped into the room, and said, “Don’t be afraid, everything will be all right. Why don’t you switch off the lights? It’s daybreak.”
“Is it?” I asked. “Look how dark it is.” I pointed at the black square in the wall.
“Look!” He switched off the lights, and the square changed to light gray-blue. “And if I turn it back on, it’ll look dark outside, but it isn’t.” He was in a green uniform and a cap with a red star. He wore a benevolent and encouraging expression. Then our mother came in and said, “You know, that lout of a doctor, Slivich, was not at the hospital when he was supposed to be there. He had left a message that he was at the Happy Cellar, but went instead to the Last Paradise on Earth. By the time I found him, drinking and gambling, your father was dead.” She pointed in the direction of the bedroom, tears in her nose. “Cerebral hemorrhage, he said.”
Vlado went to see the corpse. He came back and said that it was a heart attack, and that Father could have been saved with a timely injection of adrenaline.
“But he didn’t want me to get the doctor,” she said. “Everything that happens is His will, he said, and not a single one of our hairs falls out without His will. Maybe it’s better for him this way. He had ruined his health, two years in the army before the war, five in the war in the rain, sleet, snow, sun. He had taken so many medications in his life for kidneys and high blood pressure that his heart grew too big. It loomed so large on X-rays that it always astonished the doctors. He worked frantically, and then the religious seizure: he did not even sleep, he prayed and prayed for the last two months!”
“He could have lived on. A large heart is not necessarily a terrible thing,” said Vlado.
Several hours later there were more than a dozen relatives in the living room, discussing the dead man. My sister-in-law said, “When we saw him last at the train station, he waved to us for a long time, as if he knew he wouldn’t see us again. Before that he’d been in such a good humor. He joked wittily, played with his granddaughter” — a blonde little brat who at that moment dug her fingers into the soil of a flowerpot, and began to knead it into a cake — “and lifted her onto his shoulders. I thought, what a healthy man!” All evoked their last images of him in tones of regret, amazement, and admiration for the integrity of his death. I thought I should contribute. I said, “You couldn’t imagine how I felt. Ivan shook me out of sleep in the black room. He screamed, ‘Father’s dying!’ I leaped out of bed, and there he was, purple foam sliding down his chin, gurgling noises coming from his throat, and then he choked, and the blood trickled from his nose . . .”
Everybody in the room looked at me strangely, their eyebrows knit. I shut up. There was silence. I saw I had said something wrong. I put my right shoulder over my chin, to hide my mouth. I had wanted to impress them with how much I had suffered rather than with how much my father had! I should have told them how he looked happy, something uplifting.
During the day, my mother washed the corpse and dressed him in a suit, his Sunday best, that he had worn to preach about the death of Christ. However, now he had no hat on his head. His swollen hands with the two purple nails (from hammer misses in work) were intertwined as if in prayer. Maybe the hat should be put over the hands, I thought. He lay in a casket on the dining table where he used to sing, joke, and play the guitar, as well as tell Biblical stories, adding more and more adventures of Jonah, things I couldn’t find in the Bible. The undertaker had brought the casket with my father’s name and age written in gold. He dusted my father’s ears and nose with a white disinfectant, and then placed cotton into his ears and nostrils — to keep his death inside.
The curtains were rolled down. My mother went to the neighbors across the road, to an old woman whose husband, also a clog-maker, had died three years before, and returned with the black flag. I went into the street to see how the house would look with the flag. The black flag came out through the same opening in the red tiles where my father used to stick the flag of our Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on national holidays. The house looked like a castle, with a simple and ominous emblem.
Many people came to pay homage. My mother led them into the living room without turning on the lights. There were no candles near his head. Some light came through the half-opened door and through the curtains. The disinfectant stung my eyes and nose. And why the smell? To disinfect the dead from death, or from the last traces of life?
I wanted to touch my father again, but couldn’t, as if death were in him, and might devour me, too. His cheeks were growing purple; the capillaries around his eyes were breaking open. His chin was covered with white and black stubble. Yet he still looked somehow good-natured and attentive with his arched bushy eyebrows and the clean parallel lines on his large forehead. His relatives and friends gathered around the casket. Some crossed themselves. Some wept. It made me glad to think that others were sad too, though I wished they wouldn’t stare. It was obscene. They looked at my father as if he were a new species, a spectacular addition to the zoological gardens. I wandered around the circle of people. Ivan and I stood in the corridors all day long, and asked each other, “Do you want to see him one more time?”
“I think I couldn’t anymore,” the other would say and then we went back in.
The day of the burial arrived. It was cold and windy. Father’s corpse was purple. “This is your last chance to see him,” our mother said. She walked to the casket and kissed him, her tears dropping on him. The mortician, a dry, bony man whose mustache was white on the sides and yellow beneath his nose from smoking (it looked like a yellow bird with white wings), said, “Time to go!” He seized the casket cover, which had been leaning against the wall like some great gilt shield, and laid it atop the casket. He took a hammer and nails in his hands, but Vlado snatched them away. As a child Vlado had worked with hammer and nails, helping to nail leather onto the wooden soles; even Ivan and I had to do it, and several times we stayed up all night to meet the glass-factory deadline; we all took pride in being the best. Vlado hammered the nails through the yellow metal holes on the side of the cover. He hit with measure. Both the living man who was hammering, and the dead man who was being hammered in, must have hammered at least five million nails each, the dead one even more. The sound of the hammering was dull; there was no echo from the box because the box was full. Our mother wanted to take Ivan and me out of the room, but we wouldn’t let her. I wondered why I wasn’t crying. I could barely breathe; there was pressure on my chest, and my body was cold and electrified.
Several people carried the casket through the doors and down the steps of black-spotted stone. The casket was carried through a varnished oak door into the yard, with the carriers maneuvering and panting as if it were a heavy piece of furniture. There was a crowd waiting next to the thorn bushes, which in the spring would turn to red roses, and next to the cherry trees, on which there were no leaves, and next to the flat wall of our neighbor’s house. The wall had no windows, except a small one in the larder, with iron grates over it.
The crowds parted to make way for the casket like the waters of the Red Sea before Moses. In the midst of the yard stood a black hearse. It had a cover, with silver paint over it. Two black horses with blinders stood in front of it, and steam rose from their backs. They stood patiently, not moving their tails; the function of tails is to chase away flies, and in December there are none. They bowed their heads, as if there were grass among the wet gravel, or they were reacting to the human emotion, expressing it better than the people themselves. The casket slid onto the hearse with a screech. The horses moved their ears as if the noise had tickled them, while a chalky whiteness entered the face of my sister, Kornelia, who had just arrived from West Germany, where she was studying to become a nurse. I used to irritate her by driving big pots over cement, because I knew that she hated above everything else the screeching of dry chalk on blackboards and pots on cement. Men in black, among whom I recognized a variety of relatives, hooked green wreaths with purple tapes onto the feeble frame of the hearse.
A procession was formed. I chose to walk next to Kornelia rather than Ivan. The procession was very slow. Now and then I turned to see how my uncles were. They all looked thoughtful. The steadfastness of the pace held a lesson to us, some lesson anyway, as we shifted from one leg to another. However slowly we went, however many places we knew along the way, we could not deviate from the crooked path that led to the graveyard. We went across the railroad tracks, the casket bumping up and down. Then over a hill, past the shabby house where my father and his nine siblings had grown up. The house had been sold a long time ago. Now in the back yard white geese greeted the funeral with hissing, as if recognizing that the crowd had a good appetite, which could very well push some of the white birds into pots. We walked around the cemetery onto a hill, where there were three crosses in imitation of Golgotha: Jesus crucified between two robbers. Jesus was missing; somebody must have stolen him. But the robbers were on the crosses, with white pigeon paint making stripes down their cheeks, as if they were weeping.
The Baptist cemetery was fenced off from the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Communist cemeteries, which corresponded to our sectarian isolation within the community. Wherever we went, fingers pointed at us, and hushed whispers followed us; we were called the “new-believers” in derogatory tones, the meaning of which was the “wrong-believers.”
The hearse got stuck in the muddy ditch between the road and the Baptist cemetery. The coachman whipped the horses with a thin leather whip. The hearse nearly toppled over. The problem was solved as my three uncles and a gravedigger carried the casket off the hearse to the grave. The horses pulled the hearse out of the ditch then, and were left at the side of the cemetery. They bowed, staring at the ground, but now and then they lifted their heads and watched the burial with large moist eyes, their foreheads contorting into thoughtful expressions.
In the Baptist cemetery wooden crosses, cracked from heat, rain, and cold, tilted in the soft soil; the names of the buried were erased. Others were made of old thin stone, with moss on their northern sides. Ivy snaked around them until they resembled emblems of medicine. Some graves did bear tombs, but most of these had sunk nearly a quarter of their height into the soft earth; tall weeds grew around them. Over the edge of the hill on the western slope, facing the “Whore of Babylon” (as the minister called it) — Rome, that is — was the Catholic cemetery, filled with large stones, marbles, and fat little angels that looked like cupids; all they needed were bows and arrows. Between the graveyards were three evergreen trees, from which several pigeons descended in the hope of getting crumbs of bread. I took the pigeons to be doves, and their descent a sign from God.
Beneath one of the trees there were two fresh heaps of yellow and green soil, like the spread wings of a large bird. Between the wings was no bird, but a rectangular hole. People gathered all over the soft cemetery, trampling old graves, sinking into them in their best shoes, totally disregarding the ones who had been dead, and giving all their attention to the newcomer, or rather, the new-leaver. The minister stood right next to the tree, turning his back to the Catholic slope. On his left were ten members of the church choir. They sang a sad song about death, heaven, faith, grace, and all the rest, addressed directly to my father in the coffin. After the song, the minister shouted a sermon. Some foam appeared on his lips, and trickled down his closely shaven round cheek, which was pink in the wind. The strands of his shiny hair showed the distance between the picks of his comb. “. . . We cannot even sing about how we miss him, because without him we do not have a good bass! We all miss him, but clear honorable citizens and comrades, brothers and sisters, I tell you, there is no point in our being sad, for this man is alive!” Saliva shot from his mouth like sparks. He paused for effect. His thunderous voice echoed off a steep hill covered with apple orchards.
I looked at the coffin, expecting the lid to break open.
After a hush, there was a commotion and murmur in the crowd, especially at its edges, where the nonmembers of the church, including the communists, stood.
My shoes grew soaked. My toes were freezing and I wished the minister would end his speech — he said we hadn’t had such a good death in years, and went into the details of my father’s death, drawn verbatim from Ivan’s account — but there was no way of stopping him. From the corners of my eyes I observed the crowds. My classmates and our teacher were there. A couple of girls wept, some boys looked gleeful, nudging each other with their elbows. They were scrutinizing me and taking bets regarding whether I would cry or not. I wished I could throw stones at them.
Then two gravediggers, who had been waiting impatiently for the speech to be over, each shifting his weight from one soiled rubber boot to another, dropped their shovels, and with the help of two uncles, withdrew the planks of wood from beneath the casket and began to lower it on ropes into the soil. The casket dropped out of sight, and I had a sinking sensation, as if my heart had sunk into my bowels. The ropes grated against the casket, sounding like dull saws cutting into wood.
My mother and grandmother, arm in arm, walked to the grave, and my mother leaned to the ground, grabbed a chunk of soil, and handed it to my father’s mother. The old woman tossed it into the grave. There was a loud thump as it hit the coffin. Then my mother tossed some of the soil into the grave. A loud thump was heard. I could not breathe. The pressure returned in my chest and there was a burning sensation in my nostrils, akin to what I had felt under anesthesia several years before when my tonsils had been extracted at the urging of Vlado, who had just studied tonsillectomies at the medical school; when I had regained consciousness, having seen the red mesmerizing light, and felt the scorching sensation, I screamed, “Am I in hell?” and the nurses laughed, but a doctor had to intervene, because my scream had made my throat bleed.
Next Vlado and Ivan threw pieces of soil, and so did my sister Nada, with tears flowing down her cheeks. Kornelia and I refused to throw the soil. I walked to the grave and Ivan wanted to stop me but I walked on, and his pulling at my coat made me slide on the mud and I nearly fell into the grave. I stood on the edge fighting for my balance and staring at the soiled casket in muddy water, atop which sat a bloated green frog, like a beating heart.
With shovels, the gravediggers threw soil over the casket. The thumps grew softer. The gravediggers hurried their work, and one of them spat into his fists to avoid blisters.
The crowds began to disperse and from the hill you could see how they went away to all sides, church-bound, or pub-bound, or homebound. We too began to walk away, even though the grave had not yet been filled.
We walked to the church. There was a gust of warm wind. I felt somehow cheerful, and wondered at the inappropriateness of my feelings. When I didn’t watch myself, I began to skip my steps, and hop around. My sister Kornelia began to sing a cheery German song.
At home all the relatives gathered and we ate chicken paprikash and cakes which my mother had somehow managed to prepare for us in the midst of all the confusion. I knew it was she who did it, because nobody else made such poppy seed cakes, cheese pies, and apple strudels. I laughed though there was no joke being told. My sister told me to stop it. She pulled out a toothbrush and brushed the poppy seeds from between my teeth, which tickled me and made me laugh even more.
The cat, who had been outdoors for three days, scratched her back against my shin, blinked flirtingly, and purred as if everything were in the best possible order and none of us were missing. That was one peculiarity of hers: she could not count; if she had four kittens and two were taken away to be drowned, she continued purring, not noticing that some of her children were missing. But if you took all of them away, for days she would moan so sorrowfully and dreadfully that you had to shudder. There were enough of us left for her. Perhaps soon I, too, would grow used to there being one less among us, to having no father. I slipped her some white meat beneath the table when nobody was watching, and she devoured it without chewing, and continued to blink for more.
When the relatives had gone, even though Vlado and Kornelia were there, Mother kept repeating that the house was empty, and I agreed, and said that there was more echo on the steps. “Wherever I open the door, I see him there, sitting and reading the Bible, or kneeling, or pacing around the room,” she said.
My mother raised the tombstone to my father. She inscribed my father’s name on it — which happened to be the same as mine — to my displeasure; and to my horror, she engraved her name with the date of her birth, leaving the date of her death blank. After the tombstone was erected, she walked to his grave almost every day.
For my part, I avoided the cemetery. But willy-nilly I returned a year later when Uncle Pero died; in a harvest, he got drunk and fell off a barn, breaking his neck. The stone was black, spotted with gray, and so smooth that I saw my shadowy reflection in it.
At home I had a fear of the room in which my father had died. My brother Ivan didn’t. The unsmiling brown wedding picture of my parents stayed above the bed, both of them looking alert. For years I couldn’t eat apples, remembering them as my father’s last meal and somehow connecting them to the evil apple in the Garden of Eden. And when I did eat them, I began to choke.
Each December 6 for several years I remembered. I kept the lights on, fearing that I myself would die. The first year was the most unbearable. I was certain I would die on that date, though I knew my belief was completely irrational and unfounded. I put the Zenith watch which had belonged to my father next to my bed and stared at it to see when I would die. I would pray and at the same time stare at the watch, thinking, thirty seconds left, ten seconds left; my heart skipped beats, and pounded against my chest like a hawk in a glass cage; I was sure it would burst in a couple of seconds. When it was exactly midnight, and I was not yet dead, I was jubilant and thanked God.
I dreamed of my father often. In one dream he appeared to be in his room, dying. He called me to his side and said, come, Yozo, I’ll tell you something.
What will you tell me?
You know, you are the only one who knows that I am alive.
But we buried you, you are dead.
Yes, you buried me, but I am not dead. However, I am about to die now.
For the second time?
Yes, for the second time. But first bring me an apple, and choose a beautiful one.
This story originally appeared in Ploughshares.