I play in the graveyard everyday but Sunday because that’s the day people come to visit their dead. They arrive from town in a steady procession after the morning mass, dressed in their best, carrying candles and fresh cut flowers bound by ribbons. I see them enter the grounds from my great-grandmother Babcia’s kitchen window.
My parents tell me it’s disrespectful to play games in the cemetery. At the beginning of each day, I plan to stay in the yard under Babcia’s kitchen window as I’m instructed to do, but somehow always end up at the graveyard. I’ll chase the cat into the street and look up to see where she has gone and there lies the field of headstones lit by the sun and engulfed by trees, flowers and tall grass. It’s a great place to play hide-and-seek and chase. My great-grandfather, Dziadzio, Babcia’s husband, who is buried there, has good hiding spots: a wooden bench, an old tree and knee-length shrubs. He has his own little nook sheltered from the rest, like a summer cottage near forgotten and overgrown with plants. An empty space beside him is being saved for Babcia.
When I run among the graves, I remember things that happened before I was born. I’m sure I lived here as someone else, or at least a part of me did. I imagine walking through a forest with heavy boots on my feet and a rifle slung over my shoulder. Even though I am a girl now, I was a man then, a soldier, much like my great-grandfather. My battalion split up, and I was heading home because the war was no longer one to fight. I walked for days and hid in the shadows of the trees to stay safe from the enemy approaching from both the east and the west.
Recalling these images in the cemetery fills me with joy because here I am again, and the bad things did not prevail over me.
Our cemetery is continually expanding. It now has three distinct sections in the same way our town has three different neighbourhoods. The oldest graves up front, each unique and intricate, are set between trees and plants and have benches in front of them. They resemble the houses with big yards on the outskirts of our town. The smaller graves further back, with similar-shaped headstones rising up among bushes and flowers, are like the three-storey buildings with balconies and tall windows downtown. The newest graves in the back of the cemetery, unadorned identical squares set in even rows along a levelled field, echo the communist blocks in the suburb past the church,.
On Sundays people scatter across the three sections to kneel and pray at the feet of their loved ones underground. If a grave is forgotten, strangers light candles on it. I once watched my mother pull weeds from an overgrown grave and place fresh cut flowers across its hump even though she said she didn’t know the person buried there. I feel sorry for the dead whom no one visits.
At end of the day, when everyone leaves and the sun begins to set, the entire graveyard glows with soft flickers of candlelight. Babcia opens her windows and the smell of burned wax and decaying flowers drifts across the table covered in white linen and white dinner plates.
Babcia places a bowl of steaming mashed potatoes, a plate filled with fried meat and a side dish of coleslaw in the centre of the table. She crosses herself, bows to the picture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and then begins to eat.
I separate the food on my plate into three sections and eat one at a time. I save the potatoes, my favourite, for last. I flatten the potatoes to cover the entire plate and run my fork diagonally across the surface creating thin even rows and eat one line at a time.
My little sister Elwira, who sits beside me, layers her food into a mound atop a piece of bread; all her meals end up looking like a sandwich.
After dinner, my mother takes the dishes to the kitchen and calls my father to help her. Elwira and I play with our toys and Babcia warms her back against the tiles of the oven.
I’m not sure how much time passes before I grow suspicious of my parents in the kitchen. I go in to check on them and find the unwashed dishes stacked on the counter and the window wide open with the curtains billowing in the wind.
They come back through the front door a few hours later, their cheeks rosy from the evening cold. I stand in front of them with my arms crossed at my chest waiting for an explanation, but they are so happy I instantly forgive them for sneaking out without us.
Elwira and I put our shoes and coats on and the four of us walk back to our apartment in town.
Under the streetlamps, we walk abreast taking up the entire sidewalk. We step across our shadows watching them slip under us and immediately rise up again like waves.
But once in a while when dinner runs late, Elwira and I spend the night at Babcia's. She brings out a thick feather comforter and over-sized feather pillows from the wardrobe, and makes our bed on the couch near the dinning table.
Our parents sit at the table drinking tea and talking with Babcia. The backs of their chairs are pressed against our bed. I stretch my hand out of the comforter and touch my mother’s back through the rails of the chair. She reaches her hand around and squeezes my fingers.
Babcia talks about a man buried who was mistaken for dead. His wife had a dream the night after his funeral that he was alive in his coffin and calling out for her. The dream was so vivid, she returned to the cemetery the next morning and asked the gravediggers to dig his grave up. When they lifted the lid of the coffin, they found the white silk lining ripped and covered in blood; the man’s knuckles were worn to the bone.
As he was really dead then, they lowered him back into the hole and covered it with dirt. I contemplate the horror of his waking to find himself buried, and the desperate and hopeless struggle to escape, and tell myself I never want to be buried no matter how dead they say I am.
My father tells a story about a well-known rich lady who was buried with all her gold jewellery. The night of the day she was buried, three grave robbers set out to pillage her casket. They dug her out by moonlight and heard a shuffle from inside. Struck dumb by the sound, they stiffened and stared at the lid of the coffin opening, fingers covered in rings clutching the side. She sat up with eyes wide open to see their horror-filled faces looking down at her. They ran away full-speed, hollering into the dark night before she could speak. She called after them wanting to thank them for saving her life. She spent years trying to find out who they were, her saviours, her angels, to reward them but they never came forward. To them she was a ghost come from hell to pull them down to purgatory, to make them pay for their sins for all eternity.
I listen intently, not moving a muscle so no one will know I am awake.
Rats are possessed by the devil, Babcia says. There were more rats than people in the villages out east.
When her children were small, they had to guard the door with pails filled with water to keep the rats from getting inside. The pails were covered with cloths. When the rats tried to get into the room they stepped onto the cloth, fell into the water and drowned. The brave ones crawled into the house in the light of day. Babcia once found a rat sitting in the crib staring at her baby boy sleeping. She scooped the son up and ran out of the room. Dziadzio, my great-grandfather, went in after it with a shovel. Babcia stood outside the door listening to him fight the rat. He eventually came out victorious, his face, neck and arms scratched and bleeding, holding the dead rodent in his hand by its tail.
“I saw a big rat in the cellar when I was getting coal,” my mother says. “It was scraping its nails on the coals―sent shivers down my spine. I smashed it over the head with the shovel and it got up and ran off. I’m not going down there anymore.”
“All you have to do is burn one of them in the oven,” my dad says. “The other rats will smell it and never come back again.”
“Ania, go to sleep,” my mother says looking over the comforter and seeing my eyes wide open. “They are just stories. They aren’t true.”
But I believe them.
When I wake in the morning, I feel strange and imagine the rats in the cellar and the newly buried who might still be alive. I keep the covers pulled up to my chin.
Babcia is awake sitting on the edge of her bed in her nightgown and looking out toward the window. She unconsciously slips her nightgown off and her bare breasts stretch down to rest on her knees. She lifts them up into her bra and rolls her hair up in a bun. Her head looks naked without a scarf. I can see the white of her scalp. She layers on her blouses and sweater and pulls on her skirt and socks. She slides her feet into her slippers and shuffles around the room putting her comforter and pillow in a wardrobe and folding her bed up into a couch. She then takes the pee pail out of the kitchen and goes outside to dump it.
I like waking up at home, and seeing my young beautiful mom and handsome dad. I like the four of us sitting around our table eating the bread that my mom buys fresh from the store on the corner of our square. Things are musty and old at Babcia’s. The bread is a bit stale and the kitchen smells bad from the pee pail. There is a strip of yellow sticky tape, covered in flies, that hangs down from the ceiling over the pail. The flies swarm to the tape believing it's covered in honey. Entrapped in the golden glue, they buzz and flap their wings until they die. I know that dozens of dead flies are cemented there now.
Babcia makes our breakfast next to the little corpses. I can hear her in the kitchen pouring water into a pot on the stove. I hear the squeak of the oven door opening, the strike of a match and the crackle of dry paper burning. She pushes ashes and coal with the steel poker, and then the door latch clatters into place. She opens a cupboard, takes out the bread, and begins to slice it on the cutting board. Then I hear a scrape on the counter and know she is getting the steel pail of lard to smear it on our bread.
Elwira sits up beside me with her hair stuck to the sides of her face with sweat. I slip out from under the comforter and sit on the edge of the bed and she follows. Then we both jump onto the dining room chairs to avoid putting our feet down on the cold floor. At times I feel like my little sister slows me down and I regret having to look after her, but at moments like these, I’m glad she’s here with me.
A trace of crimson in the morning sky slips in through the lace curtains and lays petal shadows across the table cloth. Elwira and I move our hands across the table and shift the shadows to our palms.
Babcia comes out and gives us two glasses of tea with lemon and sugar on the side. I like dropping the lemon slice and sugar in, spinning the tea with a spoon and watching the sugar crystals glide down and the tea turn to gold from the lemon slice. I lift the tea to my lips and blow to cool it down. Elwira does the same. We slurp tiny sips of the tea while it’s still too hot: small cautious swallows that warm the throat, chest, and stomach as they flow down.
Next she brings out our bread with lard and two soft boiled eggs. The bread has a yellowish brown crust with a bit of salt glazed on top. It’s thin and stretches when we pull to bite it. We crack the egg shells with our spoons and put a pinch of salt on the edge of our plates. We lick the tip of the spoon and dip it into the salt before scooping out the egg. Elwira spreads her egg out on the bread and eats it as a sandwich. I like to eat the runny yolk first. I lean close to the egg and scoop it out, wishing there was more of it.
We eat in silence. The room warms from the sun and the tile stove, and by the time we’re finished breakfast, my strange feeling is gone. I change into my red dress and tights. Babcia helps Elwira put on her brown pants and green shirt and lets us go outside.
The yard is drenched in sunlight. The chicken’s feathers are all lit up as they peck grain from the dry dirt and rocks. We wave at the pigs’ snouts poking out of the wooden slats, on our way to the outhouse tucked away past the barn. It stands two steps up over a big hole in the dirt and is surrounded by the buzz of insects, coarse weeds and butterflies; all the colours pale in the bright sun. I fear that hole. It’s so terrifying down there, the worms and smells. I try not to look down it, but I always do, then turn away quickly, vowing to never look there again. The horror is overwhelming anytime, but it's especially dreadful in the light of day.
I use the outhouse first while Elwira waits her turn a few feet back. I leave the door ajar so she can see that I’m there, and when it’s her turn, I stand back to wait for her. She sits leaning over staring at me through the crack of the open door, her eyes glowing bright in the dimness inside. I ran away on her once. She was so terrified, she jumped out screaming, and her fear frightened me. Now I never leave her there.
Elwira doesn’t like to be alone, not for a second. She is afraid of something that I can’t see. No one knows what it is, but she thinks it is behind the door, under the table, in the closet or in the air beside her when it’s dark.
She likes to stay close to me; I do what I want and she follows. In the evenings, she’ll climb into my mom’s lap and then I am free to move on my own.
Recently Babcia has begun an afternoon ritual in which all three of us get down on our hands and knees and crawl under the table. She says that if we do this daily, making sure to cover all four corners of the floor under the table, the thing that is frightening Elwira will go away. By legitimizing this thing, Babcia has begun to worry me. Before I thought it was Elwira’s imagination, but now I believe Elwira has special powers and can see things the rest of us can’t.
We’ve been crawling under the table for a few weeks now. Everyday Babcia folds the white tablecloth on top of the table, and stacks the chairs on the beds so that we can see clear through under the table. She puts a rosary around her neck, and with great effort stoops down on her hands and knees and begins a quiet chant of prayer. She ponderously crawls from one end of the table to the other, crosses herself and does the same three more times, once for each side. Elwira and I crawl behind her and cross ourselves when she does. So far it hasn’t helped Elwira be less afraid. But Babcia believes it is only a matter of time.
This exercise makes me anxious, but I pretend to be fearless and encourage Elwira to do the same. But Elwira won’t pretend. When Babcia asks her to look under the bed to prove there is nothing there, Elwira shakes her head and hides her face in Babcia’s skirt.
I build a fort with the chairs and tablecloth. Babcia takes a nap and Elwira and I lie on the floor inside our fort and watch the light dance across the top.
When Elwira falls asleep in the fort. I sneak out of the apartment and go to the second floor. An older couple lives up there with a young boy and a dog. The old man rarely comes out. He is large and scary looking with grey hair greased across his forehead, a bloated belly, saggy arms and bloodshot eyes. The woman, who is thin and almost always looks tired, comes and goes carrying groceries up the stairs. She walks up slowly, holds the railing and rests between steps, as if uncertain whether to continue. The boy, who is a year older than I am, has thick blonde hair and blue eyes. A good looking kid, is what people say about him. He spends most of his time in the yard with Elwira and me.
I knock on their door and the man opens it wearing slippers and a housecoat. He has a drink in his hand and his eyes are glossy. Before I get the chance to speak, their dog, a hairless mutt with pointy ears, lunges at my face and bites my right cheek. The man yells at the dog, yanks him in by the collar and slams the door shut. I cover my cheek with both hands, run down the stairs and head straight outside. I sit on the ground against the wall under Babcia’s window and try to deny the blood seeping through my fingers. I lean my face over the ground in front of me and watch drops of blood sink into the earth. After some time the blood stops dripping and I relax into the pain.
I build a castle from the ground in the yard. I dig a circular moat, fetch a pail and fill it with water from the fountain in the lobby. Then I concentrate on decorating the castle with twigs and rocks. I break a stick for a bridge and pluck a snail from the wall behind me to guard the castle gate. But as soon as I place the snail on the bridge, he begins to slither away. I plop him back on the bridge again but he resists by retreating into his shell. I prod at him with a twig to try and coax him out but he coils farther back inside. I find a thinner stick and dig him out with it. He comes out in tacky pieces, limp slug parts clinging to the end of my stick; no use to me like that. Piece by piece, I scrape him out and fling him down into the mud and place his hollow shell on the castle wall.
Then my mother’s legs appear at the foot of the bridge and the pain in my cheek comes back. She kneels down beside me and searches my face turned to the ground. She lifts my chin and sweeps away hair stuck in dried blood on my skin. I moan and push her hand away.
“The upstairs dog,” I say.
“Ania, I told you not to go up there,” she says.
“I didn’t mean to go,” I say and believe it wasn’t me who actually decided to do it.
My cheek slowly heals. There is a large scab I am told not to touch. It shrinks and eventually falls off revealing pink raw skin. That too begins to shrink until one day it looks just like my other cheek and all physical traces of the bite disappear.
I never go up to the second floor again. Elwira and I play with the boy who lives upstairs only when he shows up in the yard and comes over to us. He doesn’t talk much. He throws rocks at the chickens and follows us to play in the graveyard.
Born in Poland, Anna Karpinski immigrated to Canada with her family at the age of eight. She obtained an Honours BA in Political Theory and Russian Literature from York University and then began to travel the world writing and taking documentary photographs. Anna lives in Prince Edward Island with her husband and daughter.