Grandpa John's Death
I couldn't have been more than seven when Grandpa John died. You see, he died quite ordinarily if, that is, death is an ordinary occurrence, just like any other old man could have died: his face haggard and black like earth itself; a sparse little beard, long since neither gray nor yellow, indeterminate as though the advanced age had given it a lichens appearance and it had stopped growing; eyes extinguished, sunken, watery not from a cry or suffering, but from old age itself, as though dissolved in themselves; and yet — conscious. That consciousness had to be quite unusual, special, perhaps divested of any material power and highly diminished but for that very reason sharpened and strangely calm. Funny, even a child and 1 barely knew the alphabet at the time could not help feeling it. How could I otherwise still remember every little detail?! And yet, at the time when I retained them I noticed nothing. A child as any other. It was only later that I started irrepressibly to think about it and found it strange that I remembered the details so well; it was only later that I discerned that it was not just „fresh child brain“. What was for breakfast or lunch that day, that I do not remember. Nor do I remember who was by Grandpa's bedside: Mother, Aunt, our neighbor Dunda?! But I do remember the withered eyes, the tortured shrunken mouth, suddenly pouting as though blowing something inaudibly upward, who knows where, and the hand, bony, thin, black, frail, which suddenly clenched convulsively for the last time. There is no doubt that in his last moment, his last breath, last quiver the old man discovered something, knew something that I, after all these years, can only surmise not even knowing if it was a message, a thought, or perhaps a sense trembling before the certainty of that enormous secret, hair-raising as indifference itself, as the final settlement with no claims and no liabilities, nothingness, serenity itself. Yes, he who was born in 1854 and belonged to the peasant generation which still believed that the Earth „is kinda plate which Lord 'olds on 'is li'l' finger“, he knew something at that moment, something utterly simple and yet as certain and sure as birth itself, something that all the science in the world still ignores.
Otherwise, he was my mother's grandfather, a sturdy and tough peasant. There was, no fooling around with him even in his advanced age: on a snowiest of nights he would pull himself out of his straw-bed to go to the outhouse in the yard. Trampling the snow with his bare feet. And in his youth?! Not even a bitch could wag its tail with impunity. Not a single one. To wink gust like that over her shoulder and never mind. No, sir! One moonlit night he put his shoulder to a door; the whole house shook. „Open up, I tell you, or I'll tear this cottage down, so help me!“ — and all her maidenish playfulness and laughter stuck in her throat. And he took her, our Grandmother, and headed straight to the church with her. „Up, you sleepy priest, or I'll sin against God tonight, and we'll have a party in good time!“ Where do you find that nowadays?!
And that is how he went on until very old age, till he was ninety-two. It was only sometime near the end that he began, how shall I put it, that he started to be troublesome. For instance, Mother was about to go out and said to me: „Son, pour some water over the beans, about half a pot, in an hour“, and Grandpa grabbed my arm: no, he'll do it!
„Grandpa, you can't see, your hands shake, you'll spill it.“
„I shall do it!“ insisted the old man stubbornly and his frail hand would not let go of the pot.
We even wrestled once; I a child felt I had some strength in me too. And Grandpa clenched his teeth tight, breathed quickly and wheezily and did not let the pot go even when we found ourselves on the earthen floor. The beans burned. Mother scolded me and scolded Grandpa; I didn't say a word keeping my thoughts to myself, and neither did he keeping his thoughts to himself... God knows which! Anyway the next time he turned even more aggressive: he won't only add water, he'll cook the beans himself. So the old man fussed about, pottered around, stirred something with a wooden spoon one couldn't say whether to stir with it or support himself with it. We ate his concoction for two days and then could not any more. Then Mother began to give me secret advice: when the old man dozes off, you chop the wood, then do this and that and I'll be back by then. Grandpa stopped meddling as if he did not see a thing. Except that he continued to tinker about with frenzied energy, like fixing himself lunch, getting the wood ready, making preserves, going around the yard, peeping, hammering at the fence, fixing. And all that in a strange fever. His foot was slow, his hand was slow, his back weak and bent and the eyes fiery. For everything else his mind was sluggish, no feeling, no interest whatsoever but for this pottering that produced a sparkle in his eye. And the greater this feverish lust for life in him the further he was from it. And then his eyes fused out, dried up. He took to bed. It was curious how he suddenly turned quiet, not a shade of discontent, protest, spite, not a trace of all that; one would almost say that if that lightened little body had tried to raise itself, it would have done so. Even today when I think of his last days, I almost shiver with admiration and awe: with what patience and with what calm dignity he never even tried to lift himself up or move.
And then one day, I remember the sun had already risen well above the turbid clouds, he called me and I was almost angry that he was interrupting my play:
„Milosh, Milosh!“ I was not even surprised by that unexpectedly resolute voice.
I stepped into the room: „I'm here, Grandpa, what is it?“
Someone lifted up his head from the pillow. He looked at me for a long time and it seemed to me that he did not see me because of some immeasurable distance in which his empty gaze had put me. And then it seemed as though his eyes glowed for awhile and soon only a contorted hand was left of Grandpa.
I remember that afterwards I was very surprised at everybody's fuss about that hand, hither and thither they ran, before it turns cold, press here, hold there... The dead old man refused to let go. When they finally did press the palm open, there was a key in it, an ordinary key, the key to that old trunk of his, a real big one. An enormous trunk and only a few papers in it, land deeds I presume, and less than twenty ducats. Otherwise it was empty.
There was no end to my surprise then. I stared at that key, ordinary key and even rusty here and there. I stared at the old man, his fingers still, half-clenched, not knowing what to think, not knowing even what to feel until someone remembered and shouted:
„Take the child away! Heat up water! Take him away, he shouldn't look, quicker, quicker! Water, water!“
They took me out, confused. Vague thoughts stirred in my head. I suppose...
(The very beginning of ESSAY ON GOD,
translated by Miroslava-Mirka Janković)