The Cemetery of Outcasts by Gershon Ben-Avraham

I heard this story from Zofia Unger, the grandniece of Adam Weiss, may his memory be for a blessing. She heard it from her grandmother Helena, and shared it with me one autumn afternoon while we sat on a park bench by the Schiff Fountain in Seward Park on the Lower East Side. Children were laughing and playing by the fountain. Zofia would pause at times while telling the story to watch the children, as if to catch her breath, or collect her thoughts. Then she would turn back to me, smile, and continue.

Her granduncle, Adam Weiss, she told me, grew up in Poland in the 1920s. His father, Jacob, owned a general store in the small town of Grezhiv in southeastern Poland. Most of the time, Jacob was able to manage the store by himself. Sometimes though, typically around the holidays, business would pick up, and Jacob, finding himself in need of help, would have his son Adam assist him, usually by answering customers’ questions, or restocking the shelves, or delivering packages.

Once, around Succos, when he was fourteen or fifteen years old, his father told him that a package needed to be delivered to a man in Rymanów the next day. Adam rose early, said the morning prayers in his room, strapped the package on his back, stuffed two bread rolls in his pockets, and headed out. Rymanów was about ten miles from Grezhiv. His plan was to finish his business by noon and return to Grezhiv before sunset. However, when he got to Rymanów, there was some confusion about the man’s address, and it took him longer to find it than he had anticipated. By the time he found it, it was already midafternoon. Adam had walked the road between Grezhiv and Rymanów many times before, and felt confident about being able to find his way home, even in the dark if need be. He started out.

He had not been on the road long, however, before it began to rain. It started lightly, but then the wind picked up, and the rain began to come down hard. In those days many of the roads in Poland were not paved. The road between Grezhiv and Rymanów was one of them. It didn’t take long for the road to turn into a sea of mud. Cold, and wet to his skin, Adam slogged on through the rain. As it began to grow dark, he noticed that he was approaching the Jewish cemetery located about halfway between Grezhiv and Rymanów, still a considerable distance from home.

He knew the cemetery’s caretaker, and decided to seek shelter with him. He was disheartened, though, to see no light coming from the caretaker’s cottage, and to find its front door locked. He knocked and called out several times, but to no avail. Standing with his back to the door, he looked across the road at the cemetery. He noticed a faint light there. Thinking perhaps the caretaker with a lamp in hand was in the cemetery, he crossed the road and pushed open the heavy iron gate. He walked in the direction of the light. As he got closer, he could see that the light was coming from the window of a small hut near the back wall of the cemetery. He didn’t remember any hut being there before. He walked to it and knocked on the door. After a few moments, the door opened slowly. Peering inside, he saw the oddly shaped figure of what appeared to be an old man.

“May I come in?” he asked.

The man did not reply, but opening the door wider stepped aside and pointed to the fireplace. Adam removed his cap and jacket, hung them on the end of the wooden mantelpiece and stood, rubbing his hands together, in front of the fire.

“Would you like something hot to drink,” the man asked, “a bite to eat, perhaps?”

“That would be much appreciated.”

When the man returned with his drink, Adam, his eyes having grown accustomed to the dim light now, could see that, indeed, his host was a rather odd looking man, if a man he was. He appeared to be malformed. His eyes were very large, bulging out of his face on each side of his small, nearly flat nose, his lips thin, almost nonexistent, and try as he might, Adam could not see the man’s ears, though circular patches of skin were visible just behind his eyes. He walked at an angle, leaning forward, bent at the knees, with a kind of hopping gait, his long arms hanging loosely beside him.

“Who are you?” Adam asked.

The man did not reply, but motioned Adam to sit down at the table and placed a bowl of hot soup in front of him.

“Eat,” he said.

Though he tried not to stare at the man, Adam found it difficult not to do so.

“Who are you?” he asked again.

“Does it matter?” the man replied. “If you must know, I am the cemetery’s caretaker.”

“Caretaker? No, you’re not. Shmuel is. He is the caretaker. Where is he? What have you done with him?”

“Ah!” the man replied. “You misunderstand me. I am the caretaker of the cemetery of outcasts.”

“I’ve never heard of any cemetery of outcasts.”

“Most humans haven’t, but animals have. It is the place where creatures, outcast by their own kind, are buried. It is not unlike what sometimes happens among humans, I think. My father and mother are buried here. In time, so will I be.”

“I don’t understand. Why aren’t your parents buried in a regular cemetery?”

“Hmm,” the creature sighed, and looked away. “Can’t always be done. My father was a Hyla Arborea, a European tree frog, elegant, with slender long legs. He fell in love with my mother, a beautiful and intelligent cricket. And me, I am their only child.”

“Unusual, is it not, I mean, for different types of creatures to fall in love with one another?”

“Not as much as one might think. Love, true love, crosses many borders. There were difficulties, however. Both sets of parents…well, anyway.”

He paused, before continuing.

“When my father died, my mother approached his parents for assistance with his burial. She thought perhaps he could be buried in the family plot, that they would want him buried there. She received a polite, but firm, refusal. A similar request to her parents met with the same result.”

“That must have been difficult.”

“Indeed! In the afternoon, the day after my father died, my mother and I were sitting alone at home, wrapped in our grief. To try to lift my mother’s mood, I suggested we take a walk. Reluctantly, more it seems because I had asked her than because she wanted to do so, she agreed. We walked the very road that you were walking, I believe, just now. At a turn in the road we came upon a procession of humans following a wagon carrying a coffin. They were on their way here. Men and women were walking beside and behind the wagon, the men singing a plaintive melody. We followed them to the cemetery gate. They passed through it, but my mother and I stopped at the entrance. We stood in silence for several moments watching the party as they moved on.

‘Do you see that beautiful old oak tree in the corner, there, close to the wall, at the back?’ my mother asked.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘What would you think if we were to bury your father there?’

‘Oh mother, it’s perfect,’ I replied. ‘I think we should bury him there.’

“So we did. That was many years ago. Over time, word spread about what we had done. So now creatures come here from all over to bury their outcasts.”

He rose and walked to a window, pushing aside its curtain, he opened it and turned to me.

“Please, come here,” he said. “There is something I would like to show you.”

With a long bony finger, he pointed to a copse of trees at the crest of a small hill.

“There,” he said, “under the tallest tree, it’s there my parents are buried.”

Adam looked out across the cemetery. It had stopped raining, and the moon shone brightly, casting long shadows from the gravestones upon the ground, the wet grass glistening in the moonlight. The two of them stood together in silence for several minutes, breathing in deeply the cool night air.

At last, Adam said, “Sorry, but I must be going now. My parents will be worried. Thanks for your hospitality, and for telling me about the cemetery.”

They walked to the door, and Adam departed. When he got home, it was after midnight. His father was waiting up for him.

“I was worried about you,” he said. “There was so much rain and night had come. Are you all right? What took so long?”

“I’m fine. I apologize, father. I got a late start back, and the road was muddy. I had to travel slowly.”

*

            Last spring I took a trip to Poland, and one beautiful morning walked the road between Grezhiv and Rymanów. I could not find any cemetery, nor the remnants of any cemetery. I asked an elderly farmer ambling along the road with his cow. He said he didn’t know about any cemetery.

“Perhaps,” he said, “it was destroyed during the war.”


Gershon Ben-Avraham lives with his wife Beth and the family’s collie Kulfi in Be’er Sheva, Israel. He holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University in Philadelphia. His story, “Grandma’s Postcard,” was published in the Winter/Spring 2016 edition of Steel Toe Review. His story, “The Ecstasy of Alma Leitner,” was published in the Spring 2016 edition of the Broad River Review, literary magazine of Gardner-Webb University. His story, “The Janitor,” was published in Issue 18 of Jewish Fiction.net, in September, 2016.

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