Today marks the 30th anniversary of Marek Zulawski’s death, an appropriate day to share this passage he wrote about a friend’s funeral. Marek was a man who kept himself in prime health until his unexpected parting in 1985 – it seems his heart couldn’t keep up with the rest of him. The translated excerpt below is at once a meditation on age, death, virility and, of course, Marek’s own vanity.
Brompton Cemetery. Stefan Osiecki’s funeral.
From a distance, I could already see a group of people eagerly surrounding a fresh hole, on the bottom of which rests a coffin. It rests. Eternal rest….
The priest mixes English prayers with Polish ones. It’s mostly just Poles – there’s a Krystyna, two Stefans, a Wojtek, a Wlodek… and three Jans. There’s also the Themersons, wise and loved, and there’s mountain-like George Him – his bony frame won’t be able to keep withstanding that burden of meat and fat.
“Which of us is next?” he asks in a deathly voice as I greet him with a look.
I’m standing on the periphery and can see the whole group. It’s 1977 already. We haven’t met up in years. Some I recognise with amazement – others with terror. Bent over, grey, heads projected forwards like vultures – the collars of their striped suits perched away from the napes of their necks.
These are my peers.
I’m together with these men on the firing line, in the very first row. With every passing moment, one of us falls and disappears from the field of view. But the women are even more dreadful. They’re torn apart by cracks and lines like in a bad dream. With crooked smiles that reveal false teeth, with tears in their eyes, they greet each other. Their wrinkled faces made up as if they had young complexions, peeling like the paint of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”.
“Do you recognise me?” they ask as we move away from amidst the grave. “Why don’t you ever pop by and see us? Phone me. I’m in the phone book.”
Yes, that same address, the same as always… It’s just that Wladek’s not there anymore.
I kiss whitewashed faces. Some belong to women I had loved. When was that? Perhaps a thousand years ago. I don’t want to remember – I don’t want to reminisce.
I see a Polish athlete, once splendid in days of yore, now hobbling on crutches through fresh clay – a man from another epoch. His black frock coat spread out like a raven’s wings.
Everybody here carries grief with them. They assail me from every flank. They crave my blood.
“You’re ageing beautifully,” they say, their eyes twinkling with greed.
“I’m not ageing at all,” I reply in panic, my voice alien. I feel endangered.
“Maybe you’d like to drop by for a coffee?”
I lie about having a meeting in half an hour. We kiss on both cheeks. I promise to give them a call and nimbly lose them amongst the crying angels and weeping willows.
On the main footpath, I’m finally alone. I listen raptly to my own steps: they crunch into the gravel. I must be alive.
A great joy overcomes me. But it’s no frivolous joy. I’m focused and observe myself carefully.
My heart beats regularly. My spine is straight – I move quickly and competently, while around me the leaves of young shrubs tremble and tulips stand stiffly like phalluses. Underfoot, I feel grains of gravel and small pebbles – none of them bother me. In fact, they help me grip my foot against the surface of this globe of earth, my homeland.
If this wasn’t a cemetery, I could run down this path in large bounds. I feel my blood circulating. I stretch the muscles in my shoulders and along my spine – they function, they react to every friendly order I feel like giving them. I joyfully advance with large steps. I don’t have a neck bent forward like a sparrowhawk.
Above me, it’s sky blue.
Listen, my friend, together with whom I scaled rocky peaks and slept on cabin floors. Snow sparkled beneath our skis during those blue afternoons we schussed down Kasprowy.
Listen, dead friend from my youth…