MINSK, 1987;
ODESSA, 1988

Dust settled onto dust, on and on--
a lilac-grey layer of feathery motes,
repeated over months--years, in fact--
forming an intricate patina
born of deathly sickness
and indifference to life.
Human strength does not suffice
to alter the awful circumstances.
They arrived, sat down
and unpacked groceries
from the shopping bags,
then hurried to the antiquated kitchen
in order to warm the broth
in a soup pot coated with enamel.
There were two usable plates,
one fork, one spoon and a teapot--
all the rest was too vile to touch.

Even a short time ago, Raya could rise
from her bed and, leaning on a cane,
make several feeble steps.

And what to do with him?--who came
to the town where Raya had lived
for twenty years at the same address,
receiving the quarterly postal checks
from her namesake aunt in Odessa,
the same house she never went out of
for years on end. His job had been
to forward the money, fill out the forms,
compose the postscript birthday greetings.
(God--when was her birthday? What day
did she die?) How the place would look
had never occured to him. The texture
of her world, he would have no need to know.
Their connection was indirect.

So what should he do with himself
at night in the apartment from which
Raya was removed to hospital
one week ago? No way will she return
from there. He stands amid the grey dust
and the flickering lamps, in the twilight
and the squeaking from the corners,
not unlike the old Christmas story,
but minus the Yule tree, the music
and the dancers.

She never replied to the letters
or acknowledged receipt of money orders;
after her (likely unwilling) departure for Minsk,
her Odessa relatives ceased to exist,
just as she once decided death didn't exist,
and therefore graveyards and the graves
of parents also did not exist. Now things
have changed--but after death there remain
fewer opportunities to influence the course of events.

And so, one month later,
he and his father stood
within the brick hulk
of the Minsk crematorium.
A loud voice said,
"Go over to your old lady."
Raya was past sixty,
but what he saw,
her wasted, withered body--
while it was possible to incinerate it,
it was impossible to obliterate it--
and when father whispered,
"This isn't Raya." (though it was,
aged, if that is possible, after death),
the master of ceremonies
nearly keeled over.
He talked in an unctuous voice
about the dear departed
who had sacrificed all to her children,
to the ordering and care of her household
(a preposterous fairy tale
when applied to Raya,
though she, preoccupied
remained unsmiling);
then the bier
ratcheted downward,
the hatch flapped shut.

Half-a-year later still, a famous actor
brought to Odessa a glossily-manufactured
plastic urn bearing the image of something
remotely resembling a flaming torch.
They drank tea, syrupy with amber-clear quince jam
and talked of this and that.

A monthafterward, he and his father
brought the ashes of Raya-the-neice
to the ashes of Raya-the-aunt,
who died the year before
just short of age ninety.
Was it the third (or fourth)
in line to finish with the shovel?--
the work was minimal.
On the way over, Father kept saying
that this is a burial, that he must carry
the urn before him, in outstretched hands.

Rich gypsies are buried now
in this section with monuments
twice as tall as a man
so he can no longer see
the gravestone of grandmother
or mother's cousin.
He walks along the lane
of the third Jewish cemetery
(the first two were destroyed
and there will never be a fourth);
faces crowd him from all directions, carved
in the black stones in defiance of tradition.
The eyes seem to follow him as he moves--
tracking effect, it's called--so it's only natural,
the shape of his dreams, and the meaning:
Here lies so-and-so--died. . . and was gathered to his people. . .
died. . . and was gathered to his people. . .
died. . . and was gathered . . .
and. . .

© 1996 Boris Khersonsky. All rights reserved.
Translation by Ruth Kreuzer and Dale Hobson.