The Burial by Hazem Shekho

Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

Someone stopped me in the street. He was obviously a homeless man, surrounded and mounted by many pigeons; two on his shoulders, one on his head and others circling him, and, by and by, circling me with him. One pigeon was also on the big bag hanging from his shoulder. Before I could ask him what he wanted he started talking. But his speech was mute. He was passionately talking but no word passed to me. I can’t hear you, I told him but he continued in his effort, not heeding my interjection. The birds on his shoulders fluttered with every gesture from his hands. Only the one on his head kept stolid and preen. The one on his bag jumped at the first opportunity and joined his fellows on the ground. I looked at them, perceiving some kind of loyalty in them towards the man.

I shifted my focus once again to the man speaking to me, or perhaps shouting at me considering his agitated face. I can’t hear you. What are you saying? I repeated my protestation, but then it came to me that perhaps the man couldn’t hear me as well. The same as his words failed to reach my ears, mine also were inaudible. I could hear myself speaking. He had to be experiencing something similar, which means that the whole scene must have sounded futile.

 I thought of leaving him and to carry on with my walk to my destination. Yet, I decided to give him a chance. I thought of grabbing his arms and shaking him, so perhaps his voice would finally come about as concrete vowels and consonants, or at least wake him to the fact that I couldn’t hear him. But the look of the pigeons perching on his body was preventive. So, I kept waiting, or anticipating any change in the scene. I have to admit I was a bit amused by all this; him mutely expressing something to me, but also the birds, who could have heard him very well, but might also not.

Eventually, he gave up. He threw his hands down in frustration and looked disappointed and reproachful at me. Then, he turned and walked away, taking with him the pigeons, who were either flying for short distances ahead of him or hopping diligently after him. I lingered a bit to see them off, and later proceeded to the café, somewhat hesitated.

I arrived there, hearing a repeated banging and breaking of rocks. When I entered the place, I saw three workers in the middle of the space toiling in breaking the floor tiles with axes and sledgehammers. They were surrounded with many small tables, occupied by people silently watching the workers. I heard someone say, you’re late. I looked around to spot the speaker but everyone was focused on the digging going on before them. I couldn’t figure out who had spoken, but certainly he was addressing me.

I found a chair and sat on a table occupied by an elderly couple. I looked around and saw only solemn faces. So, I followed suit and watched the workers. Someone brought me tea and I started drinking. Soon, the workers stopped breaking the stones. But it was a brief respite for one of them brought a jackhammer and the deafening din started again.

The noise made me look away from this travail and started viewing the people surrounding me. Not everyone was sitting. Many were standing. I’d guess there weren’t many available chairs for still people were coming. They were entering the place and looking around – without the slightest surprise or annoyance regarding the noise – and then dispersing among the circling crowd. The newcomers made me wonder who had said I was late – given that his words were directed at me, which I was certain they were. I wondered how I could be late if still people were coming. Why did no one chastise them for their tardiness? However, it wasn’t a big concern. I let it go and kept on watching the long faces. They were absolutely engrossed in the work in front of them.

When my tea dried up, I was served another. This was bitter like the one before. I didn’t protest. On one hand, it wasn’t a huge bother for me, and on the other, it would’ve been impossible to impart my complaint with the racket of the digging. The latter, however, soon stopped and I heard many sighs of relief. And the crowd came to life a little bit, for I began to hear some murmurs and conversations breaking among some people. I looked at the broody couple with me at the table; they didn’t look inclined to talking which relieved me for I wasn’t in the mood for pleasantries either.

The work wasn’t done yet. The poor men started digging with axes and shovels. They piled two small mounds of sand on both sides of the grave they were setting up. They were done before long. They left their tools and went outside for their break and smoking cigarettes. I followed them with my eyes and noticed that it was drizzling outside. I wondered if it was raining when I came as well, but my memory at that moment was grey and foggy. Despite that, seeing the rain outside, I felt pleasantly content.

There was some commotion among people when the workers left. It was now their turn in the process; it was time for the burial. One young woman, who had been standing alone in the remotest corner, looking wretchedly into her hands, approached me. I wanted to rise from my chair for her but out of awkward embarrassment I kept sitting, for it didn’t sound to me that she was expecting me to rise. She didn’t look at me but at her hands; she held a greeting card, which she handed to me. There was nothing on it,  just a blank surface. I opened it; inside it was also blank. I raised my eyes towards hers and for the first time she looked back at me. We both smiled ruefully at each other. She then went back to her old position at the corner.

The old woman sitting on the same table with me rose from her chair and paced towards me. She gently grabbed my head and clutched it to her breast and began sobbing. She smelt familiar. Her face, along with her partner, escaped me the whole time; just like her scent it was close and intimate. The old man later overcoming his tears and tried to pull her away from me. He couldn’t do it alone, others joined in the effort and managed lastly to disentangle her from me and assist her to her chair.

It’s time, someone whispered in my ear. I looked behind me but still couldn’t figure out who said that. I stood up but, before moving, I took a hasty last sip from my tea and slowly walked to the pit. I climbed down and serenely lay down. Everyone surrounded me, and watched me mournfully. Someone suggested calling the workers from outside, but others insisted on doing the work themselves. I still couldn’t know who was suggesting and who was answering. Everyone I could see was stately and grave.

Someone grabbed a shovel and threw the first batch of sand and by the next one I started coughing. They stopped and waited respectfully until I gathered myself and the itchiness in my throat simmered down. However, someone prematurely shovelled again and dust entered my eyes, which I had not  yet closed. This was burning and someone rushed to bring me water. I splashed and rubbed them. This took a while but everyone was patient and unfailingly solemn. Finally, I rested and closed my eyes and the men waited a minute or two before they resumed their shovelling while the weeping in the background still persisted.

About The Author

Hazem Shekho is a writer and translator. He’s written articles and short stories in Arabic, published on different platforms. He now lives in Germany.

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