The first mass grave I dug was for victims of plague. I had dug graves before. Many times. I assumed a mass grave was like the cemeteries I’d seen, so I set to work digging carefully portioned holes, side by side.
About ten graves in, the wagon bearing the Toledan Jews arrived. There were dozens of bodies. The chevra kadisha man, Abroçal, threw down his reins. “Are you without sense, or do you want all of Castile to be graves?” He pointed behind him. “We need one deep pit. This is just the first load.” He marked some dimensions, shaking his head.
Of the rabbis still alive, none came to bless the dead; the driver had cowed a rabbinical student into the cart, a teen who was clearly terrified of the boil- and fly-covered bodies. He rattled something off while the chevra kadisha man unhitched his horse. They rode away, leaving me with the cart. It had been stacked inefficiently, the dead thrown on as quickly as possible, uncovered and unwashed.
Three more carts arrived. I recognized nearly every body I untangled. Amatu, Lebanza. Menahem de Sos, the wheelwright. His daughter Basseva. I would walk behind her as she wheeled her deliveries through a bad street. Don Abram ben Sasson, whose tree stumps I had cleared.
The student did not return. “One prayer will do for all,” Abroçal muttered. He hauled several piles of splintered wood off the last cart. I looked at it, not understanding.
“Kindling, you idiot. Why do you think we’ve come so far from the city?” Then he held out a tinderbox.
Haiti has pushed Ruth over the brink. She was already showing signs of a bad spell—sentences trailing off, long pauses between actions, a certain confusion at the objects around her—but until the first pictures came in, she was holding it together. That’s a phrase my friend Jesus taught me, “holding it together.”
Front-page splash: extreme close-up of a little girl covered in cement dust, ash-white except for her mucous membranes. Eyes closed. The dust had mingled with sweat or blood or who knows what to become a cracked layer of grease, every speck in focus. Her face was the uneven city landscape, complete with spots of wetness, but mostly dry. Ruth touched the newsprint.
“It’s the dry season,” I said. “That’s a good thing.”
“Everybody thinks they’re going to heaven. What if we’re doing some evil and don’t know it? ‘Sorry, you ate bananas, turns out that’s wrong.’” And that was when Ruth declared that she would no longer be holding it together. That it was as far from together as it could be. It was, in fact, no longer even an it, and parts of the former it had been flung to foreign time zones.
Ruth lies on the sofa. I fetch food for her. When she gets in these states, she only moves from sofa to bed and, maybe once a day, to the toilet. This time, the sofa. The television. I turn it off, an hour later she turns it back on. And there’s always something new. Tension escalating, blood supply drained, knock three times if you’re alive.
“Tent shelters grouped two minutes from the airport,” Ruth says. “Nothing to do but wait.” It’s cruel to have news move so quickly while men move at the same pace as they ever did. Good things come to those who wait, while no one ever had to wait for disaster.
The year of the plague was also the year of the earthquake. Not in Spain, but on the far side of Italy. News still moved at the pace of men, yet monastic men were speedier than most. When an abbey collapsed, word spread. In most minds, two examples prove a truth, and to the religious, the final truth is always the same. To a society hit by one act of Hashem, another, even in the distant Alps, confirms many fears. The plague spread from the east to devour us, so the quake must follow to scorch the earth.
Abroçal came back two days later and surveyed the smoldering remains. I was repacking the dirt. He told me to go back to town until another load was ready. I stopped shoveling.
“‘From the ground you were taken, to the ground you will return.’“
Abroçal stepped backwards. He didn’t know I could speak, let alone cite Torah.
“There were too many to wash, and no sheets, and no time. A whole city full of this. The whole world, maybe.” He looked at the pit, then glared at me. “No one else would even touch them. They should be thanking me.”
He knew what I meant. A man trusted with the tahanah, the burial rites, had ordered the dead to be burned. Desecrated. Even the Christians hadn’t gone this far yet. He waited for me to defy him.
I stayed silent. Abroçal slumped and wiped his head.
“Trust me, there are worse things to come,” he said, mounting his horse. “Light the carts after you’re done.”
Ruth can’t be helped when she gets like this. I tried to look for stories of hope—and succeeded. All you need is to Google “Haiti stories of hope.” I told some to Ruth, who covered her ears.
“There’s nothing anybody can do.” She was watching footage with the sound off. “How do we know what’s good? All the torturers, in the name of the good.”
“Were they shocked when they ended up in hell? ‘What do you mean, I’m in hell? I was doing good!’ Everybody thinks they’re going to heaven. What if we’re doing some evil and don’t know it? ‘Sorry, you ate bananas, turns out that’s wrong.’ A thousand years from now, ‘Boy, she ate a lot of bananas, didn’t she know she’d go to hell?’“
I thought of “the sin we have committed before thee unknowingly.” Judah and Moses ibn Ezra had debated that. I said, “Hell changes with the times. It’s not reliable.” I don’t know if Ruth processed that. It looks flippant, here on the screen.
The year of the earthquake was the year a trial was held in Savoy. They had found the cause of the plague: poisoned well water. And they had found the poisoners: 11 Jews. I didn’t bury these bodies—maybe no one did, since they were already burned—but I knew it wouldn’t be long before the same cure came to our part of the world. There are always more heretics to judge. Before the year was out, I was digging large graves for them.
Maybe fire is best and interment is unnatural. There isn’t room for all the dead. Not in Castile, not anywhere. The new world promised enough land to bury each one decently. That’s partly what drew me here. But it didn’t last. The dead are waiting in Haiti, just like the living.