A new judgement every night.
A solitary exhumation.
Out of nothing I pick a stranger
and I let him go.
-János Pilinszky, Különitélet
The shot rang out and echoed between the cold stone walls of the prison across Walnut Street. I finished the coffee Jadranka had brought, covered Plato's Republic with a section of The Peoples' Daily News, then shuffled off to the gates to meet the new arrival.
They came that night as they always did, tall blond Vladimir at the head, short dark Sergei at the feet of the awkward canvas bundle. They kept to this arrangement only from perverse habit: Sergei always tripped over the last step and then cursed as he retrieved the inert enemy of the people for its last voyage. Vladimir only looked on with hollow, pale blue eyes and grinned, a subtly malevolent show of even teeth.
``Rotten swine!'' fumed Sergei and kicked viciously at the body. Even in death, the struggle continued. The swarthy little slav could carry a horse, but would never outsmart one. His dark brown eyes were vacant, set deep into concrete features hardly blurred under a week's growth of beard. Not a bad sort, just utterly dull, he might have been just as content to clean the latrines, though his current employment probably struck him as a distinction of some sort.
Vladimir, on the other hand, appeared to have no delusions about his lot in life, but would do what he had to do, would be whatever he had to be, to come out on top. He was a survivor. Tonight, he looked uncharacteristically nervous, his customary grin replaced with a wandering, nervous stare.
``Good evening, Comrade Péter,'' he said without the usual hint of sarcasm, ``I trust all is well?''
I only nodded my reply. I detested these men not only for the work they did, but for the enjoyment they derived from it.
``Speechless as always, eh Comrade? Well, be so kind as to assign this lucky fellow a resting place for the night -at the public expense, of course!'' He laughed at his joke, and was joined in laughter by his dimwitted accomplice. It was a successful pairing of master and slave, typical in the New Regime.
``Plot 27C,'' was all I said.
The body should have gone unmolested from the prison to the grave, but as there was a shortage of canvas, this rule was typically ignored. Sergei bent down and untied the drawstring, then widened the opening and held on to the dead man's ankles as Vladimir yanked the sack from the body. Each one knew his part and executed it flawlessly. Sergei next searched the pockets and relieved the erstwhile threat to the integrity of the New Regime of all its remaining valuables. He usually took the shoes, if they did not already belong to a prison guard who might have acquired them in exchange for cigarettes. The suit and shirt were useless; the preferred method of execution at Stonehenge State Prison was the cheap and efficient bullet, but the pants were sometimes worth keeping.
But that night, Vladimir was not in the mood, and gave Sergei no time to complete his main part in the evening's play. I knew why as soon as I saw the prisoner's face, for I recognized him immediately. It was István Saint-George, hero of the resistance, favorite of the underground press, and public enemy extraordinaire. He had been missing for months. Government tabloids still insisted he had escaped to foreign lands to continue fomenting insurrection from outside the borders, while the underground press rumored that he was incarcerated at Stonehenge. Now, he was in my anteroom, just arrived in a canvas sack, about to be planted in plot 27C.
I was struck by how much we resembled each other. To look at him then was to see myself death-distorted. Though glazed and magnified through the wire-rimmed glasses that still clung defiantly to his face, his eyes were as green as mine. His mouth was open, slack, not to shout or curse at his executioner, but to sigh or sob with the final release from his duty, the weight of the nascent revolution finally lifted from his strong but tired shoulders. His black hair was clean-cut about his freshly shaven face; he had met his maker with dignity. Like me, he was in middle age, and the only reason it was he, not I, who lay on the cold concrete floor, his blood still spreading across his muddied white evening jacket, was his outspokenness. István's body was still warm.
I didn't let on that I knew who he was. I kept my job as gate-keeper of Freedom Cemetery -and probably my life- because they thought me dumb enough to be no threat. And it was my plan to survive the New Regime.
Sergei neither knew nor cared who he had been lugging across the street, but he did not try to hide his disappointment at having to let the shoes go.
``So, Sergei, who shall we bury tonight?'' said his master.
Sergei only grinned back stupidly, lingering uncertainly over the polished black leather.
``George, perhaps. No...Allan, yes; that will do nicely. Allan Smith.''
Vladimir liked to amuse himself with the invention of names for the cemetery records, but tonight he hurried through the paperwork with the spasmodic attention that the New Regime paid to irrelevant detail. Before someone could be interred at Freedom during my shift, their name had to be entered in the cemetery's ledger next to the plot number they had been assigned. The representatives of the New Regime wanted records to be carefully kept. We went through this parody of efficiency in triplicate before the peoples' henchmen carted the body off to the already prepared plot 27C. It remained for them only to toss enough loose dirt over the grave to cover it respectably, and then return to their card game and their vodka at Stonehenge. They rarely lingered when they had a good game going.
I remember that night well, for it should have been the end of the resistance. István had been its last hope. All the others lay in the north end of Freedom, under shallow mounds known only to me, to Vladimir, and -though I doubt he could have remembered their locations- to Sergei. István's poems and letters had appeared regularly in the underground press, urging the people to take a stand against the abuses and contradictions of the New Regime. He tore into the system with the fervor of the poet and hammered away at the fictions created by the government with a logic and rhetoric tempered with a biting wit, and the people listened to him as they listened to no one else. He wrote, and the people read, right up to the day of his arrest.
When his letters stopped, other writers were able to sustain the movement simply by invoking his name. As long as István lived, the revolution would not die. But now he was dead, silently holding up a fresh mound of fertile earth in plot 27C.
But the revolution did not die.
The very next week, a letter from István Saint-George appeared in the underground press. It was in his style, imbued with vigor and charm, and it demonstrated convincingly that he was free, and safely abroad. Letters over the next weeks described the dates and manner of execution of his fellow revolutionaries with a degree of detail whose veracity no reader could doubt, and the resistance continued to gain support.
Istvan smote the New Regime unrelentlessly, even from the grave. I would have given much to have witnessed the reaction in the offices of the New Regime when the Director confronted first the Warden of Stonehenge, and then its resident doctor, but this luxury was never granted to me and these events are shrouded to this day in sweet mystery.
The best thing about my glorified night-watchman position at Freedom was Jadranka. Soon after I began working there, we struck up a lasting friendship. On the pretext of bringing me a bite to eat, she would linger in my dingy anteroom to talk after the night's business was done. The coffee she brought in the big thermos was black and delicious, and I was sustained through hard days by dry pieces of heavy rye, which I smeared with grease and ate with any withered vegetables I might have been able to scrounge. She never ate, but watched me or read my books until I finished.
There was nothing we couldn't say to each other, no subject was out of bounds, and in those fearful, tight-lipped days it was an indescribably fulfilling relationship. Far more satisfying than any physical contact would have been -though she was a beautiful, full-figured woman- our private world nourished us through the terror.
About a month after István was planted in plot 27C, I was disturbed at an unaccustomed hour by a knock at my door. Jadranka had just arrived, and I spilled the fresh coffee on a smuggled Ulyssees in my haste to hide it behind The Peoples' Daily News. Jadranka had thus far been able to avoid Vladimir and Sergei, whose visits had become increasingly unpredictable, and she was pale and visibly shaken as she retreated to my room.
I threw the bolt and let in three men. Vladimir led, followed by a stranger, and Sergei trailed characteristically. He carried a rusty old spade in one hand and a pick in the other. There was no body, and I grunted at them inquisitively.
``Good evening, Comrade Péter,'' said Vladimir. ``I have the pleasure of introducing you to Comrade Andrássy, Prefect.''
Not just Prefect, I thought. Andrássy was a chief officer of the secret police, special operations branch, external affairs. I'd never seen him before, but his reputation was well known. He was brutal, and I knew which of my late arrivals came to me directly from his interrogation rooms: the very bloody ones, the disfigured and mutilated ones.
``It is an honor, Comrade Sir,'' I said, forcing my eyebrows up in a gesture of surprise, ``How may I serve the people this morning?'' I finished my question with the mix of humility and conceit that was required in the peculiar idiom of the New Regime and waited with the outward attentiveness of an anxious schoolboy.
Vladimir grinned cunningly, full of loathing.
``I require nothing of you but your cooperation in a small matter,'' said Andrássy evenly, ``Kindly provide us with the plot number of István Saint-George, and we will be about our business.''
``Who?'' I mumbled, gathering up the weighty ledger, avoiding the trap in his question as a matter of old habit.
``István Saint-George,'' he continued quietly, watching me closely, ``the peoples' arch enemy. You buried him. I want to know where.''
``I bury many of the people's enemies, Comrade Sir, why does one of them deserve to be remembered more than another?''
``Describe him,'' Andrássy gestured dismissively at Vladimir, amused by the interchange.
``White evening jacket, glasses. About a month ago. Buried somewhere in the north end, towards Center Street.''
``Nice black leather shoes,'' offered Sergei mournfully.
``Ah, you mean Allan Smith,'' I exclaimed.
``Yes, of course,'' mouthed Andrássy, ``Where is he?''
``Plot 27C. In the North West corner. Can you find it by yourselves?''
``What's that smell?'' inquired Sergei, genuinely.
``Perfume, stupid,'' said Vladimir, nodding at my bedroom. ``He's got a woman in there.''
Andrássy barely cast a curious glance at me as he marched briskly out the door, leaving the others to follow, and I let myself relax. Sergei tramped after, obviously hesitant; the ghoulishness at hand pushed his stodgy peasant sensibilities to their limit, but he had no choice.
Vladimir stayed behind. This was a first. Vladimir had never shown any interest in me, and that was the way I had hoped to keep things.
``So, Comrade Péter speaks to the chief of the secret police, but not to Vladimir, faithful servant of the people, eh? What other surprises does the lowly gatekeeper have for us?'' He looked inquiringly in the direction of my bedroom, but he suddenly lurched across the room to where I had been sitting.
``He reads too! Why look, what have we here, The Peoples' Daily News! Comrade Péter wants to stay informed, like every good citizen! But he doesn't know who István Saint-George is. Do you read, Comrade, or do you just look at the pictures? Or maybe you only wrap your sandwiches in the Peoples' News?''
He reached for my newspaper and I had a fearful moment when I thought he would expose the copy of Joyce, but Andrássy's voice sounded impatiently from among the nearer gravesites.
Vladimir smiled with undisguised contempt.
``Later, Comrade, later; I leave you and your whore to read whatever turns you on,'' he said, and hurried off.
I joined Jadranka by the little window in the bedroom to watch the two men glisten with sweat under the light of the full moon as they worked in the distance, at plot 27C. We watched the shorter Sergei and the lanky Vladimir dig alternately, while Andrássy looked on, leaning against an adjacent marker with his arms folded at his chest, smoking.
We stood in the dark and watched through the wedge of the barely open window. My arms encircled her in an instinctive, protective ring. We had never been closer, and I knew she felt as comfortable as I.
``They are evil men,'' she whispered. ``These are the beasts of the Regime, and they are nothing more than grave-robbers.''
Her voice was barely audible, and I made no reply. Everything was perfect; I had nothing to say. In the unlikeliest of romantic settings, we were perfect lovers in a field of death where even the dead could not sleep. She turned to me, our bodies still touching.
``It is men like you, Lajos my dear, who will lead us from this God-forsaken time into a better world. You do not know your own worth. But I do.'' With a finger on my lips she forever silenced my inchoate objection and said: ``Do you think I feed you every night because you are Freedom's gatekeeper?''
We kissed then for the first time, and though we touched many times after that, we never again flamed the way we did that night. We often laughed that we had the secret police to thank for this delightful new phase of our relationship.
Andrássy lit up five times before he joined his henchmen to forage about in the pit. A flashlight flickered on and off a few times, and then Andrássy departed, letting himself out the gates in a hurry, while his understudies covered up.
Nothing much happened after that for some time, but I knew by then what I had to do. And I was very busy. István's letters continued to appear in the underground press with ever greater frequency and urgency. The midnight visits grew more regular, and hardly a night went by that did not see more than one new arrival; the New Regime was finally crumbling, but many would yet die in its death throes. I was so busy every night, I hardly had time for my Jadranka, who -though she still brought me my coffee and my dinner- sensed the growing distance between us and left me alone.
Vladimir returned early one morning. He had been in a particularly foul mood during the evening's delivery, and had even taken a swing at the hapless Sergei when he tripped on the stair. I had correctly judged that Vladimir would not be satisfied with bloodying his associate's nose, and was ready later when he knocked at my door. I let him in.
``Now that I know you have a tongue, Comrade, I look forward to lively discussions of current affairs, the arts, entertainment...maybe even a little politics, eh? I will come, Comrade, whenever I have the time, as I do now, to discuss these learned matters with you.'' His pale blue eyes flashed, so that I wondered idly what had put him into such a stink.
``Nothing would please me more, Comrade,'' I returned brightly, waving him in.
``Oh? Not even your sweet-smelling whore? Will you be as pleased to see me? Are you pleased now, Comrade?''
His voice trailed off, and he gaped at the collection I had assembled for him: Whitman, Orwell, Kafka, Camus, they were all spread out on the table before him. Vladimir whistled under his breath and moved toward the table. I waited breathlessly for his selection; I couldn't let this opportunity go by. He reached for L'Étranger, in the original French.
``Comrade,'' he murmured, ``you will roast in the hell of the decadents for this. To think that you-''
I knew it would be easy. Vladimir would not have seen through his thick shell of egotism to suspect me, the deferent gatekeeper, of harboring such thoughts or of the capacity for action. But each night at the cemetery, each midnight delivery hardened me. Every victim of the state, every enemy of the people I helped bury prepared me for an implacable destiny.
Even so, I was surprised when he came down with a single swing of the heavy spade. Vladimir crumpled silently at my feet, an absurdly disjointed doll. Not even a twitch. I checked; he was quite dead, no different from the host of corpses that had passed through my gate-house. I arranged for him to lie not far from my quarters, thereby minimizing my exertion as well as the risk of discovery, but there was not much of either. It was with a small thrill of satisfaction that I wrote a few minutes later in the ledger: ``Albert Camus, enemy of the people, 53C.''
I survived the New Regime. All the others are gone: Vladimir is in plot 53C, and even the dimwitted Sergei has been provided for in the crowded halls of the dead. Their graves are the hastily dug, shallow, unmarked midnight mounds of enemies of the people, and only I know where they all lie.
Now, I make the weekly pilgrimmage to Freedom that the people have learned to expect of me. Every Sunday, I give my driver the day off. I dress in my best white suit and relax past familiar scenery on the tram. I greet the new gatekeeper at Freedom and make my way past old gravestones to the newer sections, where only mounds of earth commemorate the sacrifices of opponents to the New Regime. I pay my silent respects to all I helped bury over those frightful years, and I visit my dear Jadranka, who sadly found her way to Freedom under the wheels of a truck. Some say she was pushed, but who can be sure of anything amidst the chaos of a violently thrashing crowd? In a revolution, one death can be no more or less accidental than another.
And every week I stop at plot 27C, where a simple tombstone has been erected, and I read aloud the inscription before depositing a small bouquet. The gravestone reads:
Lajos Péter, gatekeeper of the cemetery during the New Regime.
Murdered before the liberation to ensure his silence.