After what seemed a thousand years to the gaping gravedigger, his tormentor asked him, “To what do you pray for forgiveness?”
The Gravedigger by Khalil Gibran (translated from the story in Arabic by Greg Deane)
The grave-digger walked through the valley where life was in shadow, among the bones and peering skulls; he was veiled in a heavy fog of gloom as he made his way along the stony, bony path that even befogs the forks of fiends lurking to prod wandering souls to Hell.
He stood there through the night, as if on the banks of the River Styx, running with blood and tears, the fruits of sin that were faded dreams. He stood listening to the lost, moaning ghosts who had died the day before, staring at the unfamiliar sights that now haunted them.
Having made it half way through the night, alone save for the company of spirits lurking around their dens, their graves and tombs, when he heard the sound of galloping hooves, the tramp of a living visitor, approaching him. He called out, “Who are you? What do you want?”
He looked intently into the eyes of the newcomer who left his saddle, answering him, his words like thunder, “I do not want anything, yet I want everything.”
The gravedigger observed, “Your way is a mysterious, riddling thing.”
The visitor smiled, as he asked, “What path would you choose as your own? My way will become your way. Travel with me and you will come to a place of perfection. Would you know why you are called?”
“I am not a club-footed child who has need of special consideration.”
The stranger asked him, “If you are not afraid, why do you shudder, crippled and unable to move your legs in the presence of the ghostly nomads wandering in this valley of shadows?”
The cemetery attendant was not flustered but held his ground and explained: I fancy it was the dryness of the season that slowed me. I do not dither, as you say.”
The other laughed loudly, like the thunderclaps of a storm, then continued, “You quail in fear; you are a coward. You are a club-footed poltroon consumed by fear, who taps his foot as his fear grows. Your fear is awakened even before a flimsy gossamer of a spider’s cobwebs.” He then returned to his saddle and sat staring in amusement at his victim’s involuntary reflex, his feet trembling in terror so that he dared not move.
He answered: “For causing God sorrow.”
He said: What more can you do in the service of God? Your greatest troubles and tribulations stem from your service to God. You joke when you think of yourself as a master of demons. You are guilty of self-mockery.
The gravedigger stalwartly replied: I grieve for God as his servant. The day I was born my father named me Aziz Abdullah – the mighty servant of God; I have not replaced that name by another and I strive to abide by it in my daily life.
The other sneered, saying, “Yet you and your family have endured calamity, because of flaws in your parents’ lives’ work; for they did not protect themselves from death with the gifts bequeathed by your grandparents. Now they are dead and will remain among the dead until the day when all are dead.
While he spoke the undertaker was distraught thinking over his words, jibes that put a pall over my fond dreams, the cost of hearing words that could be truthful. Witnessing the gravedigger’s dismay, the messenger returned to his mission, asking, “What is your industry? What is the purpose of your work?”
He tore at his hair, strewing it on the earth searching for an eloquent answer, before replying, “I prepare them for the road into the afterlife; I join the past with the future.”
He tore at his hair, strewing it on the earth searching for an eloquent answer, before replying, “I prepare them for the road into the afterlife; I join the past with the future.
The other said, “Your profession is obsolete. Entombing the dead is an occupation overlooked by the living. You are not hurting them, so you are not noticed.”
He answered “That is not the reason that I spend my days and nights; I do not seek notice. Instead I serve to avail mankind.
The stranger asked: Between his wife and his children is a man’s life anything other than misery; a black door to unhappiness is hidden by a veneer of whiteness and virtue? For the very young, both girls and boys, are cursed to be haunted in their marriage by some malevolent goblin that haunts them in the shadows.
Astounded by his interlocutor’s cynicism, the gravedigger was bold enough to challenge him: If we would know the truth we would not blame any goblin for our unhappiness. There is no backdoor that admits a maleficent goblin; it is the folly of the young who do not know how to negotiate their way in a world of uncertainty and confusion.
But his opponent would not yield, and said, “The goblin that foils mankind is youth that is distracted by worldly circumstances and the allure of beauty. These circumstances persist throughout our lives, and the allure of beauty never fades.”
The gravedigger replied, “Show me the goblin of whose existence you are so sure.
“If I took you to the place where you would find her you would be shackled to her as to a wife in an unhappy marriage.”
His companion asked, “What is the profit of marriage to a wife one does not see nor touch?”
The other told him, “The benefit is the slow extinction of the Creator and his dead religion that commands humanity to stand before him, shivering in a storm front, but who does not walk with his faithful in the valley of death-the valley where you walk alone, gravedigger.”
He went round behind the gravedigger looking at the back of his head for a moment, then came back. He looked into his face and asked him, “Are you convinced that what I have taught you is true?”
“I am convinced of the mercy of God and his prophets and His love of virtue; I hope to be with Him in the hereafter.”
The tempter told the gravedigger, “These words you speak are no more that the rote lesson that was formulated generations ago and quoted by mothers to their naked children. The mere fact that you have not brought yourself into a condition to receive the honours you fancy for yourself reveals that your faith does not protect you from the dangers of the risks you avoid. From the beginning of his life a man worships himself; but as his conditions worsen, he looks for succour to other gods, depending on his work or his calling. He may call on Baal to help him at one time; at another he will appeal to Astarte.”
Like Baal himself from some other time, his features exploded in laughter, expelling a bolus of garlic. The thin disingenuous veil that had masked his cynical contempt was rent apart and he continued, “But what the strangest forms of worship that are as odious as skunks.” Moments passed while the gravedigger thought over his bitter words of disillusionment that had embittered his companion’s life. His belief in evil was deeper and stronger than any truth. But the gravedigger’s view of death was a combination of its manifestations to him in the graveyard, and the advantages he hoped to find in it. In its approach he looked forward the revelation of secrets and mysteries, as a reward for his good deeds, a blessing from the Lord.
The strange visitor said: “I am the same Lord that you worship.”
“What form do you take?”
“There is no God; there is only insanity; the goblin of fevered brains.”
“And where were you born?”
“I have been born everywhere.”
“When were you born?”
“I am born every moment in time.”
Unflustered, the gravedigger said, “I learned from the wise. But who has revealed to you esoteric mysteries of life and existence?”
He said, “I have no need for wisdom learned from the wise to decipher the qualities of human beings; from my own strength I fathom the vulnerability of men. I know the timidity that renders them fretful, maddened prisoners of the earth. I stand astride their beloved earth and look down on humanity with the same supercilious indifference as the constellations of stars that proceed over the world high in the heavens. I have learned how to mock mankind from the devils that play havoc with them. I know the secrets of human devils, and I understand the secrets of existence and of nothingness after passing ten nights with giants who live and hunt among the stars.”
The gravedigger asked, “How do you spend your days in this harsh valley and what to do in this rugged valleys behavior and how do you pass your nights?”
He said: “In the morning sun I spend the hours blaspheming at God; in the afternoons I pass my time in anathematising human beings; the early evening is the time I give over to scoffing at nature; in the darkness of night. But in the darkness of night, I kneel before an image of myself which I worship, for I am made in the image of God.”
Bringing the conversation back to a more mundane level, his companion asked, “Tell me, what do you eat and drink? And where do you sleep?”
He answered, “I pass the time for sleep by the sea. Like my fellows, I devour the bodies of humans and drink their blood.”
He fixed his eyes on the gravedigger, as he seized his arms tightly to and gripped them to his chest. He spoke in a deep voice, booming like Hades, “Farewell; I am going to sniff out ogres and giants.”
Before he left, the gravedigger called to him, “Give me just another minute; I have one last question.” He deigned to answer that the eyes of the gods had not seen the two conferring for their eyes had been blocked by a fog; the conferences of madmen were hidden from them. The mysterious traveller then disappeared forever from the gravedigger’s sight, vanishing behind curtains of darkness. But he was left fearful and perplexed, unsure of the certainties that had comforted him until now. Yet the jinn comforted him-for he had no doubt it was the jinn. He seemed to soar in the sky, moving air with his wings like a wondrous falcon; the gravedigger sensed the gently thunderous rippling of his powerful voice. It was reassuring him, saying, “Farewell! Farewell!”
When the day broke, without a moment’s hesitation, he divorced his wife. Straightaway he married a girl from among the daughters of the jinn. When day broke, without a moment’s hesitation, he divorced his wife. He then gave each one of his children a shovel and told them to make their own way in the world; that whenever they saw one of the dead to bury it in the earth. But he had been deceived; his good fortune was short-lived. As his own death approached he saw he had been foolish. For he was alone without children to bury him; he was weak but had to dig his own grave. He was alone at his end, except for the dead who were all around him.