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19

A bright summer day. The blinds in the parlor were drawn. Rebecca would recall this day trying to calculate how old shed been, how old her mother had been, how many months before Anna Schwarts death. Yet she could not, the brightness of the air so dazzled her even in memory.

It was summer, she knew: a time of no school. She had been tramping through a sprawling wooded area behind the cemetery, shed been tramping along the canal towpath watching the barges, waving at the pilots who waved at her, as shed been forbidden. Shed been at the township dump, too. Alone, and not with her friends.

For Rebecca had friends now. Mostly they were girls like herself, living at the edge of Milburn. Quarry Road, Milburn Post Road, Canal Road. These girls lived in run-down old farmhouses, tar paper shanties, trailers propped up on concrete blocks amid weedy trash-strewn yards. To such girls Rebecca Schwart was not scorned as the gravediggers daughter. For the fathers of such girls, if they had fathers, were not so very different from Jacob Schwart.

Their brothers, if they had brothers, were not so very different from Herschel and Gus.

And their mothers

Whats your ma like?-so Rebeccas friends asked her. Is she sick? Something wrong with her? Dont she like us?

Rebecca shrugged. Her shut-up sullen expression meant None of your damn business.

None of Rebeccas friends had ever had a glimpse of Anna Schwart, though their mothers might recall having seen her, years ago, in downtown Milburn. But now Anna Schwart no longer ventured into town, nor even left the vicinity of the stone cottage. And of course Rebecca could not bring any friends home.

That day there was a funeral in the cemetery, Rebecca saw. She paused to watch the slow procession of vehicles from behind one of the sheds, not wanting to be seen. Her coarse dark hair straggled down her back like a mane, her skin was rough and tanned. She wore khaki shorts and a soiled sleeveless shirt covered in burrs. Except for her hair she might have been mistaken for a lanky, long-legged boy.

The hearse! Stately, darkly gleaming, with tinted windows. Rebecca stared feeling her heart begin to beat strangely. There is death, death is inside. Seven cars followed the hearse, their tires crackling in the gravel drive. Rebecca glimpsed faces inside these cars, women with veiled hats, men staring straight before them. Now and then a younger face. Especially, Rebecca shrank from being seen by anyone her age, who might know her.

A funeral in the Milburn cemetery meant that, the previous day, Jacob Schwart had prepared a grave site. Most of the newer graves were in hilly terrain at the rear of the cemetery where tall oaks and elms grew and their roots were tangled in the rocky soil. Gravedigging was an arduous task. For Jacob Schwart had to dig the graves with a shovel, it was back-breaking labor and he hadnt mechanical tools to aid him.

Rebecca shaded her eyes sighting her father at the rear of the cemetery. A troll-man, Jacob Schwart was. Like a creature who has emerged from the earth, slightly bent, broken-backed and with his head carried at an awkward angle so that he seemed always to be peering at the world suspiciously, from the side. Hed torn a ligament in his knee and now walked with a limp, one of his shoulders was carried higher than the other. Always he wore work clothes, always a cloth cap on his head. He was one to know his place among funeral directors and mourners whom he called sir, maam and with whom he was unfailingly deferential. Herschel spoke of seeing their father downtown on Main Street headed for the First Bank of Chautauqua, what a sight the old guy was in his gravedigger clothes and boots, walking with his head down not seeing how he was being stared at, and not giving a damn if he walked into somebody who didnt get out of his way fast enough.

Herschel warned Rebecca, if she was in town and saw Pa, not to let Pa see her-Thatd make the old bastid mad as hell. Like us kids is spyin on him, see, goin into the bank? Like anybody give a shit what the old bastid is up to, he thinks nobody knows.

So many millions dead and shoved into pits, just meat.

Ask why: ask God why such things are allowed.

Gazing upon her father when he wasnt aware of her, Rebecca sometimes shuddered as if seeing him through anothers eyes.

Ma?

The interior of the stone cottage was dim, humid, cobwebby on this sun-bright day. In the kitchen dishes were soaking in the sink, the frying pan remained on the stove from breakfast. A smell of grease prevailed. Since her illness Rebeccas mother had become careless about housekeeping, or indifferent. Since the Marea, Rebecca thought.

Blinds were drawn on all the windows, at midday.

From the parlor came a strange sound: rapid and fiery like breaking glass. The door was shut.

Now that Pa no longer listened to the news every night after supper, the radio was rarely played. Pa would not allow it when he was in the house grumbling Electricity doesnt grow on trees, want not waste not. But Rebecca heard the radio now.

Ma? Can I-come in?

There was no answer. Cautiously Rebecca pushed the door open.

Her mother was inside, seated close beside the floor-model Motorola as if for warmth. Shed pulled a stool close beside it, she was not sitting in Pas chair. Rebecca saw how the radio dial glowed a rich thrumming orange like something living. Out of the dust-latticed speaker emerged sounds so beautiful, rapid yet precisely rendered, Rebecca listened in amazement. A piano, was it? Piano music?

Rebeccas mother glanced toward her as if to ascertain this wasnt Jacob Schwart, there was no danger. Her eyelids fluttered. She was lost in concentration, and did not want to be distracted. A forefinger to her lips signaling Dont speak! Be quiet! So Rebecca kept very still, sitting at her mothers feet and listening.

Beyond the Motorola, beyond the dim-lighted mildew-smelling parlor of the old stone cottage in the cemetery, there was nothing.

Beyond Ma leaning to the radio, nodding and smiling with the piano music, beyond this moment, beyond the happiness of this moment, there was nothing.

When there came a break in the music, the briefest of breaks between movements of the sonata, Rebeccas mother whispered to her, It is Artur Schnabel. It is Beethoven that is played. Appassionata it is called. Rebecca listened eagerly, with no idea what most of her mothers words meant. She had heard of Beethoven, that was all. She saw that her mothers soft-raddled girls face shone with tears that were not tears of hurt or grief or humiliation. And her mothers eyes were beautiful eyes, dark, lustrous, with a startling intensity, that made you uneasy, to see close up. When I was a girl in the old country, I played this Apassionata. Not like Schnabel I played, but I attempted. Ma fumbled for Rebeccas hand, squeezing her fingers as she had not done in years.

The piano music resumed. Mother and daughter listened together. Rebecca held on to her mothers hand as if she were in danger of falling from a great height.

Such beauty, and the intimacy of such beauty, Rebecca would cherish through her life.


| The Gravedigger`s Daughter | c