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My Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather

 

Book I: The Shimerdas

Chapter XVI

 

MR.  SHIMERDA LAY DEAD in the barn four days, and on the fifth they buried him.  All day Friday Jelinek was off with Ambrosch digging the grave, chopping out the frozen earth with old axes. On Saturday we breakfasted before daylight and got into the wagon with the coffin.  Jake and Jelinek went ahead on horseback to cut the body loose from the pool of blood in which it was frozen fast to the ground.

 

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When grandmother and I went into the Shimerdas' house, we found the womenfolk alone; Ambrosch and Marek were at the barn. Mrs. Shimerda sat crouching by the stove, Antonia was washing dishes. When she saw me, she ran out of her dark corner and threw her arms around me.  `Oh, Jimmy,' she sobbed, `what you tink for my lovely papa!' It seemed to me that I could feel her heart breaking as she clung to me.

 

Mrs. Shimerda, sitting on the stump by the stove, kept looking over her shoulder toward the door while the neighbours were arriving. They came on horseback, all except the postmaster, who brought his family in a wagon over the only broken wagon-trail. The Widow Steavens rode up from her farm eight miles down the Black Hawk road. The cold drove the women into the cave-house, and it was soon crowded. A fine, sleety snow was beginning to fall, and everyone was afraid of another storm and anxious to have the burial over with.

 

Grandfather and Jelinek came to tell Mrs. Shimerda that it was time to start.  After bundling her mother up in clothes the neighbours had brought, Antonia put on an old cape from our house and the rabbit-skin hat her father had made for her. Four men carried Mr. Shimerda's box up the hill; Krajiek slunk along behind them.  The coffin was too wide for the door, so it was put down on the slope outside.  I slipped out from the cave and looked at Mr. Shimerda.  He was lying on his side, with his knees drawn up.  His body was draped in a black shawl, and his head was bandaged in white muslin, like a mummy's; one of his long, shapely hands lay out on the black cloth; that was all one could see of him.

 

Mrs. Shimerda came out and placed an open prayer-book against the body, making the sign of the cross on the bandaged head with her fingers. Ambrosch knelt down and made the same gesture, and after him Antonia and Marek.  Yulka hung back.  Her mother pushed her forward, and kept saying something to her over and over.  Yulka knelt down, shut her eyes, and put out her hand a little way, but she drew it back and began to cry wildly.  She was afraid to touch the bandage. Mrs. Shimerda caught her by the shoulders and pushed her toward the coffin, but grandmother interfered.

   

`No, Mrs. Shimerda,' she said firmly, `I won't stand by and see that child frightened into spasms. She is too little to understand what you want of her. Let her alone.'

 

At a look from grandfather, Fuchs and Jelinek placed the lid on the box, and began to nail it down over Mr. Shimerda. I was afraid to look at Antonia.  She put her arms round Yulka and held the little girl close to her.

 

The coffin was put into the wagon.  We drove slowly away, against the fine, icy snow which cut our faces like a sand-blast. When we reached the grave, it looked a very little spot in that snow-covered waste. The men took the coffin to the edge of the hole and lowered it with ropes. We stood about watching them, and the powdery snow lay without melting on the caps and shoulders of the men and the shawls of the women. Jelinek spoke in a persuasive tone to Mrs. Shimerda, and then turned to grandfather.

 

`She says, Mr. Burden, she is very glad if you can make some prayer for him here in English, for the neighbours to understand.'

 

Grandmother looked anxiously at grandfather.  He took off his hat, and the other men did likewise.  I thought his prayer remarkable. I still remember it.  He began, `Oh, great and just God, no man among us knows what the sleeper knows, nor is it for us to judge what lies between him and Thee.'  He prayed that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger come to a far country, God would forgive him and soften his heart. He recalled the promises to the widow and the fatherless, and asked God to smooth the way before this widow and her children, and to `incline the hearts of men to deal justly with her.' In closing, he said we were leaving Mr. Shimerda at `Thy judgment seat, which is also Thy mercy seat.'

 

All the time he was praying, grandmother watched him through the black fingers of her glove, and when he said `Amen,' I thought she looked satisfied with him.  She turned to Otto and whispered, `Can't you start a hymn, Fuchs? It would seem less heathenish.'

 

Fuchs glanced about to see if there was general approval of her suggestion, then began, `Jesus, Lover of my Soul,' and all the men and women took it up after him.  Whenever I have heard the hymn since, it has made me remember that white waste and the little group of people; and the bluish air, full of fine, eddying snow, like long veils flying:

 

          `While the nearer waters roll,

           While the tempest still is high.'

 

Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross.  As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it.  I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me.  I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence-- the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.  

 

 


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