Karim Kattan: “The Gravedigger”

15 June, 2022


Karim Kattan


The beautiful young woman’s face felt familiar. She had started coming a few weeks ago, and every time, he was left pondering. A familiar face. He didn’t exactly recognize it, but he know he had been intimate with something that lurked beneath the grey eyes, the thick eyebrows, the olive complexion. She painted a striking picture, in her white dress, standing straight and stiff, in front of the white shrine that marked the entrance to the graveyard. Behind her, the endless yellow and blue expanses of the desert and the sky stretched to infinity.

Even in the constant fog of his mind, he understood that this graveyard was something of a miracle. Here, in the middle of this blighted, sunburnt barrenness of a country; here in this blistering wasteland where colors were like the ashes of old pictures, here where men came to throw their dead like trash, flowers bloomed. It was magical, he conceded. Perhaps the sheer number of rotting bodies made the soil particularly fertile; perhaps it had been so preordained before existence itself by God; or maybe a trickster spirit had spread these flowers, this fake oasis, to ensnare the souls of men. He had many theories; he enjoyed spending the mornings when no one visited him pondering on the origin of flowers.

Few of his theories were joyful; mostly, he believed these flowers were the result of a cataclysm. Every single one of them, like a hex holding him hostage. This theory made sense; he liked it. It explained why he had never mustered the courage to leave the graveyard. It would have been a simple matter, he imagined: he only needed to push open the small metallic door next to the shrine, take a few steps, and he’d be out. That was the only way: on the other side, where he buried the bodies, the desert was — strictly speaking — infinite.

As far as he could tell, no one had ever asked him to dig graves. He couldn’t remember when it had all started. He could not recall anything that happened before. He knew he’d had a life before this life. In the first years, he used to try to remember. Now, when he focuses on the time before, he quickly grows tired and his memory bumps into an invisible wall. Something was behind it; an answer, a recollection; he can see it in the distance, but he cannot access it. Recently, he had stopped trying. And, eventually, most of the attributes of his personhood had started fading. Sometimes, he wondered if he was a shadow of a person; but some things — his vision distorted by the heat at high noon, the rough edges in his thoughts, the way his lungs felt like they were shrinking and he would choke — reminded him that he was more than a shadow; he was a body that could feel pain. He knew, darkly, that he had been familiar with bodies that feel pain.

He only dug at dusk and in the early evening, when everything turned orange, then purple, then black. Before that, he would sit in the shade of a palm tree, with the shrine looming behind him, and drink tea. He often had visitors. Over the years, he had started understanding things about them, according to the hours at which they arrived. Those who came in the early morning were the brisk kind; business-like and wound up, they sat straight on the chair and took small, perfunctory sips from their teacup. They knew why they were here and left quickly. They made sense of their emotions and disposed of them like tasks on a list. Whereas those of the afternoon were slower, and uncertain. They were the messy ones. They were weak, timid, and their emotions were oceanic, messy.

As for the bodies he buried, he figured they came from the country he had belonged to. He knew that because the visitors spoke his language and because he recognized how they had died. Often, they were maimed and contorted. He knew the method. He had — it was a light shimmering in a corner of his brain — seen it done to bodies. Choking, spitting up, turning blue.

Memory was a tricky thing, he’d tell the visitors. God has a way of making you forget. You could spend your life thinking you remembered all the details of your past and wake up one day and there you are, a guy with a shovel, dead bodies that turn up every morning, and all of eternity to bury them. Yes, dimly, he remembered bodies tortured like that but could not, for the life of him, tell whether he had been a perpetrator or a victim. These memories emerged and disappeared as if under the tentative light of a bulb dangling from the ceiling and barely pushing the edges of shadows. He knew he had been up close and his body seemed to remember something, a movement he made mechanically, something he did or could have done to bodies that made them writhe in pain. These memories were wedged somewhere in the crevices of his mind. Groans, elbows, fingers and eyelids.

No one had told him what the huge, rectangular white building at the entrance of the graveyard was. It just made sense that it would be a shrine. He never went in. Over the years, it had started becoming something of a friend; a giant who watched over him. Maybe that’s why he had never felt lonely.

The very beautiful young woman came every morning, before the sun set the air ablaze. He recognized beauty, still. He didn’t know why, he didn’t know the use of it, but he recognized it like the distant taste of something with which he had once been familiar. And so, on her first visit, she sat, near the entrance of the graveyard, shaded by the looming white giant and the palm tree. She ran her finger on the surface of the small, white metal table to remove some dust. She shuffled on her small, white metal chair. There were only two chairs, one for her and one for him. He was never visited by groups.

He enjoyed having a cup of tea with the visitors. Some came once, and paid him a yearly sum to upkeep the graves, change the flowers, water the plants. He was not very diligent about the flowers and plants. His was the domain of corpses, not flowers. Yet, they had to pay him every year. After all, he was the only one they could count on. He had no use for the money — everything he needed was right here — but it amused him to swindle them like that. It gave him pleasure to see them think they could own him with money. It made him realize how far from the realm of humans he now was.

He knew what he looked like to them: an ancient gnome, as ancient as the land, with a face like a prune and eyes so black you thought he was blind. He knew it unsettled them when he looked at them and it seemed he was studying their souls with surgical precision. Sometimes they paid him just so he would stop looking. He remembered using that look, both vapid and deep, in his older life. He could use it to strike fear in people’s hearts.

He had buried her father recently, she informed him, and she had come to visit. He felt she was scared, or upset, by this little shell of a sunburnt man with whom she found herself alone on the edge of the earth. He could not remember all the corpses, he answered. “I understand,” she said but her demeanor indicated that she, in fact, did not understand, suspected him of lying and would press him to tell the truth. She smiled at him: “What is your name?” She asked this in the way a lady will ask her porter his name; to extend both her benevolence and her authority on him.

Somewhere in the corners of his brain, a light flickered occasionally, reminding him that his name had been Amin. “Amin,” he said. “An honor to meet you, O believer,” she answered her eyes holding his gaze. “Are you sure you do not remember where you buried my father? It must have been only a month ago.”

He did not remember. “Look,” he said, “see how big this graveyard is? How do you expect me to remember?” The flowers rustled softly in the wind. “I understand. Thank you, Amin,” she said, taking his hand. “If you happen to recall, at any time, where my father is buried, please let me know. I will come back.” She spoke like a lady; her accent was all supple vowels and subdued consonants; the singsong of cities of the north. There were syllables that were so harsh she did not even pronounce them, as if the words had come down from the moon and remained light as feathers.

He resented that she made him feel like a worker, like her own personal bellboy. He was the gravedigger, who struck fear in the hearts of men and before that he had been — something. Something no less terrifying than a gravedigger. This flash of pride was new; a feeling he had been unfamiliar with for decades.

The young woman came back every day. She brought lilies. It was very unimaginative, she coyly conceded, but she had no idea what sort of flowers to bring. She didn’t feel brave enough to go looking for her father’s grave yet, so she laid the flowers at the entrance before sitting for tea. Every morning, wearing her wide-brimmed hat, she drank a small cup of tea and gazed at the distance. Somewhere, over there, was her father’s grave. Did he remember today, where he buried him, she asked every day. And every day he said he did not. She looked at him, like he was a kid. She had a way. They did not speak much.

But ever since she had started coming, a searchlight had lit up in his mind. He came to understand that she truly felt like someone he had known in his previous life. As if that person’s soul had slipped into her. He wanted her to leave. He explained that the graveyard was huge. Out of scale, really. He couldn’t remember when it had become so huge. He did remember that, at some point, years ago, it was only a modest square of flowers where a mere dozen of people were buried. But people kept dying, and the flowers spreading. Contorted bodies, bodies tortured and thrown here, day in and day out by an invisible hand, fodder for the flowers. Today, the graveyard was a labyrinth. His domain. His life’s work. The young woman sat on the floor, near the entrance of the graveyard. She gazed into the distance. “How far,” she asked aloud, “to my father’s tomb?”

This is my life’s work, he felt like answering. And somewhere, in my life’s work, is your father’s grave. I do not know where. He is one body among millions. One wrenched, bulging, disfigured carrion among the flowers. Yet, the searchlight in his brain continued looking in every fold of his memory for that sense of someone she embodied. Ever since she had started coming in his garden, the outline of his half-forgotten memories was slowly becoming more specific; sounds and colors arose. They were much clearer than before, though he could not make sense of them. Faces disfigured by pain, and screams and eyes eyes eyes looking at him searing his brain. He could feel how the pain spasmed and throbbed. Was she one of those eyes from long ago?

One day, he remembered something. It was merely a something he could barely formulate. A general direction of where her father might be. His sense of time and distance had been warped over the years. He only knew the rising sun and the setting sun. The next morning, she arrived, carrying her usual bouquet of lilies. “Good morning,” she said. He pointed in the general direction and said, “somewhere over there.” She looked. “How far away from here?” she asked. A day, or two perhaps, to the grave. Eyes eyes eyes etched clearly in his brain, opened up in surprise and pain, and the darkness surrounding them.

“A day, or two perhaps,” she repeated.

“You better have tea first,” he suggested. They sat at the table. It was a surprisingly fresh morning. He could tell she confused the morning’s crispness with hope. Weather, he wanted to tell her, is not an emotion. She asked him if people often came to visit. They did, yes, but most often they stayed here with him, drinking tea and looking wistfully at the horizon. She asked what the shapes were, that she saw swinging in the distance.

Well, he answered. More death. You see, those who set out to find their loved ones — they rarely ever came back. He never was curious enough to wonder what they had become. Many of them simply vanished. Some, he assumed, overwhelmed with grief, were swallowed by their loved one’s grave. Or perhaps the anger, the resentment they felt and could never express anymore, made them explode. Others, he imagined, died of thirst somewhere along the road and became one with the flowers. He saw her clutch the bottle she brought with her. He also guessed — but how could he be sure? — that in this out of scale cemetery, some just lay down after walking for hours, tired, and turned into dirt, into the ground, into flowers. It wasn’t his job to know, or care.

There were trees, too, lining the little paths that connected one grave to the next. He’d often stumble upon one of the visitors that had hanged themselves, above the grave of whoever they had been visiting. He never saw them hang themselves. It always happened far away, or behind his back. He would not have intervened anyway. Who was he, he mused, to decide who gets to die and how? Keeping someone from dying, he reflected, was as dangerous as murdering them. Both actions dispossessed them from their lives. But occasionally he would discover a new body hanging from a tree. The horizon, in fact, was dotted with them. “What a horrible sight,” the young woman had remarked. He did not think so. It filled his heart — whatever was left of it — with a sense of wonder. That people were able to thus take charge of their lives. He usually left them there. Whenever, in the random itinerary of his walks and burials, he came close to one, he would cut down the rope and add the body to his list of burials to come.

He didn’t know which bodies ended up here exactly. He suspected it was those whose lives were unimportant to those around them and those who remained ungrieved. There was a general aura of malice to this place, which he’d been breathing in for decades. So many of these bodies turned up alone, washed up like trash on his shore. The visitors, often, reeked of guilt and regret, of things unsaid. He told her that. “Don’t we all feel guilt and regret?” she asked. “Even the most well-adjusted…”

He tried to muster the most mysterious gaze he could and interrupted: “You did not like your father very much, did you?” She looked slightly aghast. It was a wild guess. If her father was buried here, her relationship to him was bound to be complicated. “He probably wasn’t the best father there is,” she said, and, with a flash of sudden guilt, she added “but he was my father and I loved him dearly.” The gravedigger had learned, in this place, that saying that one loved someone dearly was a substitute phrase used to express the wish that they had never existed; it was code for, “I have been saddled with the existence of this person, living or dead, they will weigh heavily on my chest forever.”

The gravedigger’s brain seemed to have been split in two. His own memories, his sense of self, had long ago disintegrated. Only these eyes in the shadows, and the flames, and sometimes the shrieks, remained. But he was able to understand other people’s minds with great ease. “How did he die?” he asked, and the young woman did not answer.

“Did you kill him?”

“I did no such thing!”

She was not lying. They remained silent for some time. “You wish you’d had the opportunity, don’t you?” he asked. The young woman looked at the horizon and sighed. She did, yes, if she was being honest. She smiled at him: “Well, I guess that’s why I am here. I might have provoked his death by wishing it.” He thought that was rather stupid but did not say so. “I will see you tomorrow,” she said. He watched her leave, her white dress billowing among the flowers, a blue parasol in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. In her trail, he saw the eyes emerge, in the shadows of the flames, asking for help or pleading with him to stop. He could hear cries of anguish coming from unseen mouths. Then, he stood up, finished his cup in one gulp, and grabbed the shovel which he had left upright on the wall of the shrine.


Le Jardin d’Afrique (photo Rachid Koraichi).

He had no idea where the woman went when she left the graveyard. He did not know what existed around this ever-expanding place. He really did not understand where exactly he was situated and did not really care. He saw the sand swirling in the distance, and the heat, which made him assume he was in some kind of desert. Sometimes, it also looked like the sky. He imagined her getting in a car, a convertible, and driving down a pristine highway, suspended up in the clouds, until she reached a small bed and breakfast where she stayed every night.

She had started telling him about her father and herself. Her recent memory had been wiped clean as soon as she set foot in the graveyard. How she had gotten here, she did not know, nor why her father was buried here. She recollected everything in her life up to the point where she arrived in this place. She knew she could remember, if she’d only tear down the wall in her mind that kept her from remembering. He recognized this. The first time she arrived, she had looked at the patch of dirt for what felt like hours. On the horizon, the winds of sand swirled, eddied and whirled in shapeshifts all around the desert garden. Then, she had taken a breath and pushed the small metallic door. And that’s where the recent memories started.

Her father had been in prison for as long as she remembered. A political prisoner; her father, the hero. They visited him with her mother, when they were allowed to. It was rare. Her father, the hero. Yet, she never could help it: she resented his absence. She hated him for it.

A prison: the gravedigger knew what that was like. It echoed in his mind, something of his past life. Children and adults brought in the dead of night. The young woman was blabbering on, “What’s the use of being in prison, I wanted to ask him, if you can’t be there for your daughter?” but he wanted her to stop talking for a minute, he was trying to focus; there were dark corners and living, trembling bodies brought to him in the night. As a child, she had assumed her father wanted nothing to do with her. And so, she had built her adult life, on the assumption that her father’s absence, therefore, her father’s politics, had shaped her and — he couldn’t follow the thread of her thoughts, and did not care. It struck him, now, that these bodies were not from his country. They were from the other one. He remembered now, boots in the face, in the groin. He had been in charge of — no, he hadn’t been in charge of anything. He had been a handyman, an unthinking, complicit torturer. He remembered he took exceptional, vicious pleasure in — she hadn’t stopped talking.

“So, I was relieved when I learned of his passing,” she was saying. And then, she said, she felt robbed; robbed of the neatness of comeuppance; the ribbon-tied ending she deserved with her father. His head pulsed, as he remembered. Yes, she came from that other land, the one from where the bodies came back in his previous life, and in this one; the land where he and his kin spread death like a million colorful flowers.

Now, in this half-remembered world, she gave herself up to her rage. She felt her body grow more incandescent by the day. She had been taught to breathe in and out when rage took over, she told the gravedigger. It had never worked: she focused on the breath, travelling from her chest to her head and all the way down to her feet. The air seemed to carry her anger, to the innermost parts of her body, as if she were feeding on rage.

What did she hope to do, the gravedigger wondered aloud as if she weren’t here, when she found her father’s grave? She did not know, she answered. She was moved by rage beyond her control. It was something that fed itself, that grew and took over as if her body were rioting against her mind.

A riot in the body. The phrase flickered in his mind all day; he had heard it a long time ago, in his previous life. Political prisoner. This is a word he knew well too. The feeling that he knew something of the woman persisted. For the first time in years (centuries? He did, sometimes, believe that he was in hell; it made sense that hell was an insipid eternity where the senses and the self were eroded and dulled beyond recognition) he was unsettled. His body felt off; and the world he lived in creaked. Eyes eyes eyes pleading and looking at him.

Sometimes — very rarely, and those were the worst times — the graveyard would lose a bit of its geography; everything would shift, for a couple of minutes, ever so slightly and his head would reel, and the universe would start sliding and these were the moments when he was properly terrified because, he would start hearing yells and shrieks and pleadings and heavy breathing coming from the graves and from the flowers. This is when the graveyard felt maleficent. This is when he would curl up close to the shrine, eyes wide shut, hands behind his head and elbows covering his ears and wait for the graveyard to settle, for silence to creep back in.

She came earlier still the next day. She brought no lilies. The wind was fresh, and the world was silent. Time spread before them both, like a promise.

“There is hope,” she declared and, once again, he wanted to remind her that it was not because the flowers were vivid today and the wind fresh like a kiss that there was hope. Hope was of another order entirely. “There is hope,” she repeated, with determination and, opening her umbrella, she bid him farewell and walked in the direction of her father’s grave. He remained in the chair, watching her walk, a delicate walk, a walk for theatre stages and movies, a walk for leisurely sunny afternoons in well-tended and demarcated gardens. It was a polite, ridiculous walk. He watched her become smaller and smaller for what felt like hours. Eventually, as the sun reached its zenith and seared the land, she disappeared over the horizon.

Days passed. The gravedigger went back to his usual life. His name faded back to the recesses of his brain. No one came. It was the first time that no one had come along for weeks and months, he felt. He reverted to the unthinking thing he was. He shovelled. He dug. He placed bodies in the earth. He watched the flowers, which held no beauty for him, grow. No one came. Bodies piled up and, as if they were the most precious of fertilizers, they gave birth to increasingly more colorful flowers. His graveyard, he reflected, was a continent. Every morning he saw flames and from the flames eyes that begged him to — stop, help them, save them, kill them?

Some weeks or months later, as he was making his way to a further plot of land, the gravedigger happened upon her body. She lay, as if curled asleep, near a tree. He recognized her. He remembered his own name. He was amazed that he recognized her, amazed that he remembered his own name. The believer. She was the first visitor he had ever remembered. It struck a profound fear in his body, memories reverberating. He planted the shovel firmly in the ground next to her and, gripping the handle, knelt close to her face. He knew it should have been impossible, but he swore he could hear her breathe.

There was only one thing to do. He patted the earth around her father’s grave. He was soon on all fours, patting the earth, looking for an appropriate spot. And then he found it. It was only a meter away from her father’s own. The earth was slightly wet. It would be easy to dig a grave right here. He got up, grabbed the shovel, and started digging.


Karim Kattan is a Palestinian writer, born in Jerusalem in 1989. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from Paris Nanterre and writes in English and French. In French, his books include a collection of short stories, Préliminaires pour un verger futur (2017), and a novel, Le Palais des deux collines (2021), both published by the Tunis-based Éditions Elyzad. Le Palais des deux collines was awarded the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie in 2021 and was shortlisted for many other awards. In English, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, Strange Horizons, The Maine Review, +972 Magazine, Translunar Travelers Lounge, The Funambulist and others. Kattan was one of the co-founders and directors of el-Atlal, an arts and writing residency in the oasis of Jericho (Palestine).


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