When Gabriel left his country for the first time he was 55 years old. At first he thought he was lucky to have escaped the communist hell. In his own city of Sighet it had become impossible for him to practice his watch-repair trade. His shop, like many other private enterprises, was confiscated by the state and he was forced to work for many years as a night watchman. His wife Lea-who had been deported to Transnistria in her youth-insisted they emigrate to Israel, but when they finally received their passports after a very long wait, they chose Sweden, because an acquaintance had described that country as one of the most civilized and boasting of a hospitable Jewish community.
Later on, after many years of struggle attempting to adapt to the new conditions, they realized that they had been cheated by fate. They were now almost certain there was no such thing as a dream country. Still, Gabriel continued hoping that one fine day he would be able to open a watch-repair shop, though that modest dream was becoming progressively unrealizable. The country they lived in was affluent, but its gates were locked; the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
In order to escape his lackluster life, Gabriel went from time to time to the synagogue. Lea waited at home and looked out the window. She hid behind the curtains whenever she saw someone walking down the street because it seemed to her that the Swedes looked strangely at those who had arrived from the communist countries, as though they had been transplanted from Mars.
When Gabriel returned home, her mood became merrier. Gabriel’s head seemed to carry in its white curls something of the glow of the songs that Cantor Gelber sang at the synagogue. It was as though the Cantor could tell that among those who came to the synagogue a few nonbelievers were sneaking in, and for them-perhaps-he would sneak in a song in Yiddish to the words of the poet Itzhac Manger. The rabbi, who was from America, was Reform and encouraged those unconventional songs. The words of the song were about a man who had lost his way in the dark and was looking for the light. There was another synagogue in Stockholm, very orthodox, where Manger’s ballads would have sounded like blasphemy against the traditional religious spirit.
Gabriel, who had lived now for many years on public welfare-which was humiliating to his legitimate desire to contribute something to the prosperous life of that country-had the impression that the Reform synagogue, which boasted a large number of well-off believers (among which were also a few like him who lived off the mercy of the state), would somehow provide him with something that would restore his dignity. Something that would even make Lea happy, because she never ceased criticizing the insane idea of emigrating to so uniquely complicated a country.
Saturday at the synagogue was a day of veritable happiness for Gabriel; he had the opportunity to meet Jews from all the Eastern European countries. Sometimes he had the great pleasure of shaking the powerful hand of the American rabbi. Everyone admired that man because of his enterprising business sense but especially because of his luminous spirituality. He spoke Swedish with a strong American accent, but when he addressed someone from an Eastern European country, he spoke Yiddish with the lilt of his Polish ancestors.
One Saturday after the service, Gabriel, taking a chance on the rabbi’s good disposition, quickly told him about his misfortune of not being able to practice his watchmaker trade in the new country. The rabbi, who seemed to listen with one ear only, understood the essence: Gabriel was looking for work. The very next Monday Gabriel received an urgent call from the synagogue’s administrative office. He hadn’t expected to run into the rabbi, but when he opened the door and found himself face to face with the smiling man, he felt himself becoming even shorter than he already was and a light tremor began to sway his white curls.
“I found work for you,” the rabbi announced radiantly.
Gabriel emitted a sound reminiscent of an O, then started to rub his hands timidly-because he had no idea what to do with them in such a circumstance.
“I hope that you are a real mensch,” said the rabbi while searching through the papers on the desk where he was sitting.
“Yes,” Gabriel replied quickly. “I am cut from the same cloth as God’s Chosen people,” he added jokingly.
“Then sign here, you are hired to begin right now.”
Gabriel brought the piece of paper to his myopic eyes, then asked prudently:
“Is it a watch-repair job?”
“Oh,” the rabbi sighed, a little irritated. “No, my dear friend, it’s not a watch-repair job. Did you forget that we don’t tell time the same way other people do?”
“Then what kind of job are we talking about?” Gabriel inquired curiously.
“We’re talking about washing the bodies of the sons of our community, before they join those of the past and the long line of our patriarchs.”
The rabbi now seemed absorbed by other things, as though his good disposition had come to an end. He had to constantly answer the phone. There was an anti-Jewish demonstration now being prepared in Stockholm. He had to do everything in his power to counteract it. But between phone calls he found the time to take another look at Gabriel, who was staring at him silently, with his eyebrows raised like a pair of parentheses.
“You will wash our community’s dead,” he repeated convincingly. “He who was entrusted with this work before you has joined the long list of our fathers: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. It’s holy work,” the rabbi added in a hurry.
Gabriel sat there as though struck by lightning; he had absolutely no idea what was going on with him. Finally he shook himself awake and said:
“Thousands of thanks!”
He signed the contract, and when he headed for the door the rabbi came to him and shook his hand in that special way that gained him the love of the Stockholm Jews.
A man from the synagogue walked Gabriel to the room where the previous corpsewasher had been laid down. He gave him the keys and a few summary instructions, then left Gabriel alone with the dead.
The body had to be washed according to the Jewish custom and afterward wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a simple wooden box. It was cold in the room with the dead. The beautiful community coffin was awaiting in a niche. The wooden box had to be placed inside the golden encrusted coffin in which the dead would be taken to the cemetery. Thus the burial was simple, and beautiful, and, especially, inexpensive for the family in mourning.
Gabriel began to wash the body carefully. He was feeling strangely alone, as though face-to-face with eternity. The body of the old corpsewasher made him neither nauseous, nor afraid. On the contrary, he had the feeling that suddenly, after so many years of living falsely, he was now face to face with the truth. He was standing before the end of earthly life, the inevitable end for each and every person. Rich or poor, humble or illustrious, everyone had to end up in this perfect motionlessness.
There was something pathetic in having to wash the body of a man who had fought and loved so much during his lifetime as a man. Without understanding how this was possible, Gabriel suddenly felt the spirit of the old corpsewasher move about him. The light too became more powerful, brighter. It was as though the spirit of the dead man surrounded him with sympathy, helping him do his work with a sure hand.
Gabriel wondered why he had never met the previous corpsewasher at the synagogue; he didn’t even know his name. But now he felt as though he stood before an old acquaintance-an alter ego. His closed eyes concealed a secret. Without a doubt, thought Gabriel, we are all brothers and sisters. Further on, beyond life, we must all return to the one who sent us to earth.
Just as Gabriel was getting ready to wrap the body in the immaculate linen, the door opened abruptly and the corpsewasher’s widow appeared in the doorframe, dressed in black. She nodded to him and headed toward her dead husband, leaning over his face. She cried for a time, face to face with the dead, like two lovers preparing to separate for a long time. Then she lifted her face and wiped her tears. She thanked the new corpsewasher, handed him a hundred-crown note, and left the room, with a kind of lightness, as though having no weight.
Left alone once again, Gabriel wrapped the dead in the white linen, placing him slowly in the wooden box, then slid the box into the beautiful coffin in which the dead of the community were taken to the cemetery. He washed his hands and combed his hair, looking once more at the dead. Everything was in order. He left the synagogue in a great mood, bought some flowers and a box of chocolates for Lea. When he got home he gave Lea the flowers and the chocolates.
“I have some good news. The rabbi gave me a job.”
The couple spent a happy evening together. Gabriel refrained from telling Lea what sort of a job he had got. He thought he would tell her later. People were full of prejudice. It was kind of shocking to live off the dead. But as far as he, Gabriel, was concerned, he found it natural to feed off death.
Before he went to sleep he embraced his wife passionately. Then he prayed to his guardian angel. Only now did he understand why his mother had told him that his name would be of great help in his life. One single invocation was enough, and he, as a friend of the archangel, received the desired help. He recalled all those things only now, when he accepted a job that he had never thought about and which he had had absolutely no idea existed. She was right, his mother, she who had linked him through the name she had given him to an angel, she who had never told lies.
That was the law of life: that there would always be people dying in the Jewish community. And the synagogue paid Gabriel a good salary. Besides, he received gifts from the generous widows, so that he lacked nothing. When there were no dead to wash, Gabriel spent his time putting the wooden boxes in order. In short, there was always something to do while awaiting the dead.
Lea was shocked that they had become well-off overnight. Nothing upset her anymore; she even began to smile when Gabriel came home with gifts: flowers, dresses, shoes, jewelry and furs. There was one thing, however, that she soon began to notice: along with the abundance, a bad smell crept into their house. In vain did she try to make it disappear by putting flowers in every room, spraying the air with all kinds of perfumes, and cleaning every day, after the Swedish custom. The bad smell persisted as though it were invincible. And the most horrifying thing was that the smell became even more horrible when the couple went to bed.
Lea asked herself constantly: is it possible that my husband is beginning to smell bad? Gabriel noticed, too, that for a time now, she had kept rejecting him.
“What’s with you?”
“Why are you avoiding me?”
“Something smells bad.”
Gabriel, who perfumed himself before going to bed, asked himself if it wasn’t the cologne he used that offended his wife’s delicate sense of smell. The very next day he bought a light cologne with a scent of spring flowers: L’air du Temps.
But it was all in vain: Lea never ceased letting him understand that he smelled bad, of rotten flesh. Those words worried poor Gabriel. He hadn’t told her anything about his work. Lea knew that her husband worked at the synagogue as a kind of jack-of-all-trades and that he received generous gifts because of his benevolent nature. Gabriel was horrified at the thought that Lea would discover one day that he washed the dead and that probably the heavy smell that suffocated her was a smell from the next life.
Evenings she turned her back to him, concluding: “You smell like you’ve been embalmed.” Then she began to cough and it was clear that she couldn’t breathe.
Eventually they decided to sleep in separate rooms. Gabriel tried to console her, but she was stubborn:
“It’s a synagogue smell. Only old men come to the synagogue and they smell of death.”
“You are wrong,” answered Gabriel, “if only you came by every once in a while you’d see, there are young men who come there, even children.”
During the days that followed Gabriel bought the finest perfumes for Lea and gave them to her in order to avert the bad smell. But she maintained that the bad smell prevailed. She seemed unwell, her usual ill feelings emerged again.
“It smells like corpses,” she screamed, at the end of her rope.
Gabriel was at the end of his rope too. He decided he should her the truth.
“The smell is from my work.”
“I’m not the jack-of-all-trades who fixes everything. I wash the bodies of the dead. The bodies of those who were alive once, like you and me,” Gabriel added.
“I live with a corpsewasher, I eat and I breathe the same air! Without even knowing it, I live with death!” Lea screamed.
“Don’t be afraid, life and death are always together, you can’t have one without the other.” But Lea locked herself in her room, refusing to have dinner with him. Later she came out to tell him:
“You have to choose between me and your dead.”
The next day Gabriel went to work disheartened. Other dead were waiting to be washed and their widows showed up with tears and gifts. But Gabriel was thinking of his wife. He didn’t know how to convince her that death was not a stranger to life but on the contrary, it lived in its very womb. His wife’s words still rang in his ears: you must choose between me and your dead.
Gabriel was filled with despair. Why should he lie to himself? He felt better with his dead, it made him think of the ultimate truth. Didn’t Lea know that one day she too would die, like so many others? But she persisted in seeing herself immortal, like so many others . . .
After a week of fighting, Lea asked for a divorce and Gabriel had to move out. The rabbi consoled him and gave him a temporary small room not too far from the place where he washed his dead. Gabriel bought himself a bed, a table, and a chest of drawers. His life changed. He became more downcast and thought all the time about Creation and the end of all that was. Sometimes, in his solitude, he seemed to hear a benevolent voice: “Don’t be afraid, your wife is wrong, one lost, a thousand found.”
As shadows turn to light, so was Gabriel’s sadness turning constantly into something else. He began to get to know other women. He was always invited to come over by one woman or another, so that the only place where he could rest was the room where the dead awaited him.
One day he heard about a young woman with whom he was slightly acquainted who had attempted suicide because of her husband. She jumped from the eighth floor but happened to fall between the branches of a tree. She was stuck there till someone saw her and called the police. At the hospital all the woman could think of was how to attempt another suicide.
Gabriel visited her at the hospital with flowers and caramels. The woman’s face was shrouded in a plaster cast. Gabriel kissed her hand, as was the custom in the country that he came from.
“Who are you?” asked the woman, surprised.
“I am the one who told the tree to stop you from falling.”
“You know how to talk to the trees!” she smiled.
“Yes, and I came to bring you good news.”
“Is there good news in this world?”
“Yes, the one who made you suffer is now suffering more then you are.”
“No, in reality murderers forget the evil they committed.”
“That my husband left me, you call that a crime?”
“Yes, because he pushed you to destroy yourself.”
“How do you know this?”
“From my own life.”
“I am tired.”
“Close your beautiful eyes.”
“Are you trying to flatter me?”
“Flatter you? No. Seduce you? Yes.” Then Gabriel looked at his watch and said: “I am going now. We’ll see each other again.”
When he arrived at his dead, his heart was light. While he was combing the few remaining strands of hair on the head of a stranger whom he thought he had met but couldn’t remember when or where, old man Melchior showed up.
“A good day to you,” he said. “I hear that you can do everything.”
“Almost everything,” joked Gabriel.
“My brother lost his dog and now he is sick with pain. A red terrier, we did everything we could to find him, but all for nothing.”
“Give me the address.”
Old man Melchior left with his mind at peace.
In the afternoon Gabriel took a walk in the park by the synagogue. A young woman was sitting on a bench with a dog in her arms. She was laughing and joking with another lady who sat next to her. When the dog jumped out of the young woman’s arms, Gabriel called him in a whisper. The dog leaped up in his arms and he found it easy to hide it in his coat. He took its leash and went to old man Melchior. He opened the door, looked at the dog for a while, and then he said, clearly:
“This is not our dog.”
“That’s not important,” Gabriel replied, “dogs know many things about us, many more than we know about them.”
Gabriel took the dog to the bed where the brother lay. The dog leaped on the bed and began to lick his face and hands. Gabriel left in a hurry.
After a few days, when he had forgotten completely the story of the dog, Gabriel was unexpectedly visited by Melchior’s brother, who looked like he had risen from the dead and was holding the dog in his arms.
“It’s not my dog.”
“It’s the same thing,” Gabriel replied, a little embarrassed.
“You cheated us, it’s a stolen dog!”
“Here’s the leash, you can take him to the owner yourself!”
A week later he saw Melchior’s brother at the synagogue with a young lady, whom Gabriel recognized as the lady whose dog he had stolen. Everyone stared at the new couple and some even whispered in Melchior’s brother’s ear: Where did you find such a woman? To which the happy man answered, joking as they do in Stockholm: “I put an ad in the classifieds, that’s how.”
One evening after a hard day at work, Gabriel was getting ready for bed. There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” said Gabriel, yawning.
It was the writer Isaac Bell. He came to the synagogue only from time to time, when inspiration left him.
“I’ve had it,” he said, sitting on the edge of Gabriel’s bed.
“Did your fiancée leave you?”
“Much worse. I can’t write a word.”
“Did you pray?”
“Yes, but God won’t answer my prayers. I am more dead than the dead. I was wondering if you could help me.”
“You must eat parsley.”
“A bundle everyday, an entire bundle.”
Isaac looked at him, smiling; he thought Gabriel was joking.
“Where can I find parsley now, all the stores are already closed!”
Gabriel stood up immediately and took out a bundle of parsley from a bag.
“There you are, bon appetit.” Then he closed the door after Isaac and sat on the bed. He was thinking constantly about his friend Raul who had just died. Tomorrow he would wash his body and close his eyes forever. He thought again about his profession: it was much easier to wash the dead than sweep aside the dust from one’s soul. Like crystals, souls must be cleansed almost every day. It sometimes seemed to him that he was flying between the dead and the living like a messenger, borrowing power from one to the give to the other in the eternal struggle between light and shadow.
When he thought again about Isaac Bell, he began to smile. Some things remained inexplicable. For instance, why did he recommend parsley to Isaac Bell in order for him to regain his inspiration? It was simply as though someone else had thought for him and this someone else whispered the word to him. He began to laugh like a madman, singing by himself: parsley, parsley!
His head, shrouded by a rich growth of white hair, was swaying like a great chrysanthemum, seeking the corners of the tiny room in which the unseen souls were moving about.