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A Country Funeral

The train stopped briefly in Nieczawy. Stefan had barely pushed through the crowd to the doors and jumped off when the locomotive wheezed and the wheels began to drum behind him. For an hour he had been worrying that he would miss his stop; that problem had overshadowed all others, even the goal of the journey itself. Now, breathing sharp outdoor air after the stuffiness of the train, he walked uncertainly, squinting in the sun, at once liberated and helpless, as if he had been jolted out of a deep sleep. It was one of the last days of February and the sky was streaked with light clouds pale at their edges. The snow had been partly melted by the thaw and sat heavily in tire hollows and gorges, exposing clumps of brush and bushes, blackening the road with mud and baring the clay hillsides. Chaos, harbinger of change, had appeared in a landscape once uniformly white.

  This thought cost Stefan a careless step and water seeped into his shoe. He shuddered with disgust. The snorting of the locomotive was fading behind the Bierzyniec hills; Stefan could hear what sounded like an elusive chirping of crickets that seemed to come from all over: the unvarying sound of melting. In his woolly raglan, soft felt hat, and low city shoes, he knew that he cut an incongruous figure against the background of rolling hills. Dazzling streams danced and flashed along the road up to the village. Hopping from stone to stone, he finally made it to the crossroads and glanced at his watch. It was almost one. No specific time had been set for the funeral, but he felt he ought to hurry. The body had left Kielce in its coffin yesterday. So it should already be at the church, since the telegram had contained that vague mention of a Mass. Or was it exequies? He couldn't remember, and it annoyed him to be pondering a liturgical question. It was a ten-minute walk to his uncle's house, and just as far to the cemetery, but what if the procession went the long way to stop at the church? Stefan moved toward the bend in the road, stopped, took a few steps back, and stopped again. He saw an old peasant coming along a path between the fields, shouldering the kind of cross usually carried at the head of a funeral procession. Stefan wanted to call out to him, but didn't dare. Clenching his teeth, he strode toward the cemetery.

 The peasant reached the cemetery wall and disappeared. Stefan could not tell whether he had gone on toward the village; in desperation he gathered up the folds of his coat like an old woman and charged through the puddles. The road to the cemetery skirted a small hill overgrown with hazel. Ignoring the way his feet sank into the snow and the twigs lashed his face, Stefan ran to the top. The thicket ended abruptly. He came back down onto the road just in front of the cemetery. It was quiet and empty, with no trace of the peasant. Stefan's haste evaporated at once. He looked mournfully at his muddy trouser cuffs and, gasping for breath, peered over the gate. There was no one in the cemetery. When he pushed it open, the gate's dreadful shriek subsided into a sad groan. Dirty crusted snow covered the graves in billows that left mounds at the foot of the crosses, whose wooden ranks ended at a wild lilac bush. Beyond stood the stone monument of the Princes of Nieczawy and the larger, separate crypt of the Trzyniecki family, black with names and dates in gold letters, three birches standing at the granite headstone. In an empty strip that separated the mausoleum from the rest of the cemetery like a no-man's-land gaped a freshly dug grave whose clay blotted the surrounding white. Stefan stopped dead, shocked. Apparently the mausoleum was full, and with no time or way to enlarge it, a Trzyniecki would have to go into the ground like anyone else. Stefan imagined how Uncle Anzelm must have felt about this, but there was no real choice: since Nieczawy had once belonged to the Trzynieckis, all the dead were buried here, and although only Uncle Ksawery's house now remained, the custom endured. At each death family representatives came to the funeral from all over Poland.

Translated by William Brand, Harcourt Brace 1988