WE’D HEARD RUMORS of the difficulties that had befallen our neighbors, the Samsas, but we’d certainly never expected to become embroiled in their misfortune. In the five years that they occupied the flat opposite ours on Charlotte Street, while their familial habits offered us no grounds for complaint, they had held themselves conspicuously aloof from the leaseholders’ meetings and the May Day festivities that composed the life of our building. My wife, Ryba, who also happened to be a distant cousin of Marjeta Samsa, and who had attended the Beis Yakov School for Girls with her when she was still Marjeta Berg, insisted that Josef Samsa was a closeted anti-Semite whose ineffable politeness masked deep shame at his wife’s origins. In hindsight, I suspect the man was merely ashamed of his own commercial failings, which had taken his family from a seventeenth-century mansion within shouting distance of Prague Castle to a four-room flat on the outskirts of the city. Whatever the causes of the Samsa family’s reserve, the result was that we had little reason to interact with them until their adult son was transformed into a monstrous vermin. Even then, if the son had maintained his health, I suppose we’d have kept our distance and allowed the ill-fated Samsas to keep theirs. But when Gregor died, I insisted—over Ryba’s objections—that we pay a condolence call, as we always do when a death occurs in the block. Why should it matter to the sight of an all-merciful God that the deceased had become a gentile and a dung-beetle? As a rabbi, one must set an example.
Being uncertain when the Samsas would be home for visitors, as Marjeta had raised her children in the Catholic faith and could not be expected to sit seven nights of shiva, I dispatched the day maid, Lida Rikena, upstairs to their flat to inquire if we might pay our respects, and she was told we would be welcome that very evening at eight o’clock. Ryba and I then spent the better part of the noon hour discussing whether the occasion called for an offering of confections or pastry to sweeten the lives of the mourners, seeing as neither the traditions of the halakha nor common sense has much to say about grieving over enormous insects, and we finally settled upon a tasteful plate of cold prune kolaches. Or rather, I settled upon a plate of cold prune kolaches from the bakeshop in Jan Hus Square, and Ryba shook her head indignantly. At precisely eight o’clock, as the carillon pealed above Saint Adalbert’s, we climbed the three wooden flights from the ground floor to the Samsas’ landing. From within the apartment rose a desperate, nearly inhuman wailing—a lament of biblical intensity.
“I do hope another of them hasn’t turned into a vermin,” said Ryba. “You don’t think it’s catching, do you?”
“They’re mourning,” I said. “Please, doll.”
“All the same,” my wife answered, hugging my arm. “You can’t be too careful.”
We did not have time to confer any further, because at that moment the daughter, Grete, opened the door herself and invited us inside. She was a big-eyed, buxom young woman, far fairer than her mother, but she wore a dazed expression of the sort one sees on the survivors of streetcar accidents and young husbands who have lost their wives in childbirth. “I do apologize for keeping you in the cold,” she said—in German, not Czech. “The servant girl gave her notice earlier this morning.”
She led us down a narrow foyer into a spacious, well-lit parlor. We found the elder Samsas seated in adjacent high-backed chairs: Josef done up in his bank messenger’s uniform, Marjeta bundled into a rather frumpy housedress and a black crepe bonnet. Nobody had made any effort to drape the mirrors or to stop the mantel clock, but at the center of the room stood an enormous plywood crate labeled: preserved meats. In my mind, I had anticipated other guests—I had understood the son to be well-connected in the hosiery trade—and so a part of me regretted subjecting my dearest Ryba to this intimate encounter with her former classmate. When Josef rose to greet us, I handed him the box of kolaches and expressed my sincerest condolences. My wife pecked Marjeta on the cheek. That was all it took to send the woman into another fit of convulsive sobs.
“Let us be strong, Mama,” said the daughter. She held her mother’s head to her chest and gently patted the distraught woman’s shoulders. “Gregor would have wanted us to be strong.”
My wife took her cousin’s knobby hand and squeezed it—an act that seemed quite natural, unless one understood how much this cost my Ryba. “You’ll get through this,” she said generously. “We’re all here to help you get through this.”
“You don’t understand,” cried Marjeta. “It’s not your fault, Ryba. You don’t have any children. If you’d had children of your own, then you’d understand….”
My wife’s back stiffened as though—heaven forbid—she had been struck with a sudden bout of the polio. She glared at me, her jaw tight-set, her nostrils flaring, and I mouthed to her the words, “I love you,” which was true. In the course of visiting sickbeds and shut-ins, a rabbi’s wife must endure an excessive share of slights, and on occasions such as this one, Ryba’s dignity and forbearance reminded me that I had chosen the right bride.
“We’ve had a most trying day,” said Josef Samsa. “Most trying.”
He patted the seat of an upholstered chair beside his own—a gesture well-suited for attracting a spaniel or a toddler—but I understood that he wished for me to sit down, so I did. The chair squealed under my modest weight and I could feel the iron springs poking into my buttocks.
Samsa leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “The truth of the matter, Herr Zeitz, is that we were hoping you might help us.”
“Papa,” interjected the daughter. “I’m sure the rabbi and his wife don’t want to hear of our troubles.”
“What choice do we have?” demanded Samsa. He threw his daughter a look of pained frustration—almost a plea for forgiveness—and then he continued. “I trust that by now, Herr Zeitz, you are aware of my family’s difficulties,” he said. “The peculiar difficulties preceding the death of my son, Gregor.”
I nodded. Marjeta sobbed into her handkerchief.
“Then you must understand the additional burdens that we now face with regard to my son’s remains,” explained Samsa. “The cook had promised us that she would tend to arrangements, but I soon discovered that she’d packed the body in sawdust, and had the grocer’s messenger haul it downstairs to the curbside for the rubbish men—which, even if I had been willing to accept this painful fate for my son, is not an end that his mother can tolerate.”
“Assuredly not,” I agreed. “Family is family, regardless of circumstances.”
That was the moment I realized that the dead man’s corpse lay inside the meat crate.
“Unfortunately, Father Cerny won’t allow Gregor to be buried at Saint Ludmila’s. He says that any man who suffers such a singular misfortune must be heavily yoked with sin—even if the precise nature of that sin remains unclear. I am afraid that the priest is not to be reasoned with on the subject,” said Samsa, fingering his beard. “So I was hoping that, as a rabbi, you might find space for our son at the Jewish cemetery.”
I will readily admit that I was caught off guard by this request. It is not very often that I find myself asked to dispose of a colossal vermin’s cadaver. Yet the boy had been born Jewish. Indeed, there was no questioning his matrilineal descent. And the burial of the dead is an obligation not to be trifled with—no matter how inconvenient it may prove.
I did not dare look at Ryba, who had cleared her throat audibly during the silence that followed Samsa’s request, but I could sense her gaze boring into my flesh like two sharp, angry beams of sunlight. Instead, I focused on Josef Samsa, who had quickly diverted his own dark, depleted eyes toward the floorboards.
“Please help us,” said Samsa—his voice barely audible. “We are desperate.”
Watching this once proud man—a former member of the stock exchange—debase himself in front of his wife and daughter reminded me that I had no choice.
“I will do what I can,” I offered.
I rose immediately and shook Samsa’s hand.
“You’ll send someone for the body?” he asked.
I found this request remarkably pushy, but a man cannot bestow half a gift.
“Very well. I’ll send my nephews tomorrow before breakfast,” I agreed. Then a flicker of concern passed through my mind. “On which side of the box are the feet located?”
Samsa appeared perplexed. “Honestly, I can’t say. There were so many feet, you understand, poking in all directions.” He toyed with his silver watch chain, training his eyes on the legs of his chair. “Do you know about the feet, Grete?”
“The cook did the packing,” said Grete.
“Please make certain you look within that crate and mark the side containing the feet before my nephews arrive,” I insisted. I was relieved to be assuming control of the situation again, although I still had not made eye contact with my wife. “I will not be having Damek and Karel carry a corpse head-first into the stairwell—and inviting half the neighborhood to follow the departed into the hereafter.”
Then I shook Josef Samsa’s hand and we took our leave quickly, before Ryba’s kinsfolk had an opportunity to impose upon us any further.
My wife did not speak in the hallway. Once we were safely ensconced within the warm and secure confines of our own flat, she stormed into the kitchen and slammed the iron teapot onto the gas range. Her hands trembled as she ignited the safety match.
“Please don’t be angry, doll,” I pleaded.
“I’m not angry,” snapped Ryba. “I’m too upset to be angry.”
“I’m sorry I put you through that,” I said. “You’ve done a generous mitzvah.”
I tried to wrap my arms around her waist from behind, but she shook herself loose.
“Did you hear that woman? She still thinks she’s better than me.” Ryba turned to face me and her eyes welled with tears. “She thinks that because some rich goy took a fancy to her thirty years ago, she can trample all over me.”
“He’s not rich anymore.”
“Tell her that.”
“I don’t need to tell her that. It’s true. And I’m sure she already knows,” I said. “Now would you rather be married to a rich goy or a dashingly handsome Jew?”
I knew this question would force a smile from Ryba, in spite of herself. She reached toward me and let me embrace her. Her hair—still its original chestnut hue—smelled wondrously of almond-scented perfume.
“Did you really have to offer to help them bury that thing?” she asked.
“It’s not a thing, doll,” I answered. “And yes, unfortunately, I did.”
“Very well. I just hope you know what you’ve gotten us into,” said Ryba. “A giant vermin isn’t something that one disposes of every day.”
With God’s help, I thought—but I didn’t say it. The Lord had transformed the dead man into a monstrous vermin, after all, and the fear crept into my heart that by assisting with his burial, I might not be furthering the divine plan, but rather standing in its way.
The next morning, as soon as we had concluded the shacharit prayers, I set out from the synagogue to the New Cemetery on foot, to speak directly with the chairman of the chevra kadisha. Yitzak Offener had taught natural sciences at the university for many years before retiring to administer the burial society, and I had always found him both honest and reasonable. While he certainly performed his duties most scrupulously—I have no doubt that every corpse interred under his watch had been appropriately cleansed and adorned—he was not above glancing the other way to permit the burial of a passing traveler, even if the deceased’s origins and righteousness could not be unequivocally established. So traversing the Strasnice District and passing through the ivy-coated Renaissance gates of the burial ground, I clung to the hope that Offener and I might reach an understanding regarding the Samsa boy.
I had crossed the city quickly, braced by the crisp autumn air, and it was only half-past seven when I arrived at my destination. Not wishing to accost Herr Offener before he had had an opportunity to savor his morning newspaper, I ventured into the oldest section of the cemetery to place stones atop the graves of my wife’s parents. Then I paused at the open patch of earth beside my brother’s monument, where Ryba and I had plans to rest. Gazing out at the sea of departed Pollaks and Zeitzes and Smolkovas, I found myself wondering what that poor salesman, Gregor Samsa, had done to earn his misfortune. Had he truly sinned in some unspeakable, unpardonable manner? Or had he simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Susannah falsely accused by the elders? And how does a person reconcile his faith in a benevolent God with the bald fact of a grown man turned into a dead bug? All I knew for certain was that I was now in possession of that grown man’s earthly shards—my nephews had delivered them at dawn—and that I had a responsibility to see them tended to properly.
I followed the slate paths to Offener’s headquarters, a small stone cabin tucked into the farthest corner of the cemetery. An unfamiliar clerk instructed me to wait on a long wooden bench in the antechamber, but seconds later, the chairman of the chevra kadisha ushered me into his busy office. A conspicuous cloth bandage was wrapped around his forehead and tucked under his hat, but he did not appear to be in pain.
“You’re all right?” I asked.
“An old war wound,” Offener explained, grinning. “I went to war with the underside of the medicine chest in the washroom and it appears to have gotten the better of me.” He adjusted the bandage and scratched beneath it with the tail of his fountain pen. “A few more soldiers like me would be the downfall of the empire, I suppose…. And may I ask what brings Rabbi Zeitz all the way to Strasnice on a weekday morning?”
“A mitzvah for the both of us.”
“That makes me nervous,” answered Offener. “Your mitzvahs have a way about them.”
I took a deep breath. “You are familiar with the Samsa boy?”
That was as far as I got before my host held up his hand. The casual cheer had melted rapidly from his features, replaced with a marble frown. “It cannot be done,” he said.
“Please hear me out, Yitzhak,” I persisted. “The mother is my wife’s cousin. Don’t you imagine we could find an out-of-the-way spot for him? Someplace where he might go unnoticed? As a personal favor, I’m asking you….”
“I would notice,” answered Offener. “God would notice.”
“Then what is to be done?” I demanded—trying to keep my frustration in check. I rose from my chair, bracing my palms against the mahogany desktop. “It is the body of a Jew. A human being. One can’t just leave it at the curbside for the rubbish men to haul away.”
The chairman of the chevra kadisha nodded sympathetically. “I’m not disagreeing with you,” he said. “In the eyes of God, you may well be correct. But I’m not a rabbi, Jakub. I manage a cemetery. If I let you bury that thing here, there are many people who will feel that I have done something unholy—that I have polluted the ground where they’ve entrusted me to look after their loved ones.” Offener scratched his wounded head more aggressively. “It’s not a matter of looking the other way, I’m afraid. It simply cannot be done.”
“Very well,” I said curtly. “You are the chairman of the chevra kadisha.”
“It’s not personal, Jakub. If I could help you, believe me that I would.” Offener stood and shook my hand vigorously. “My best to your wife.”
I thanked him for his time and hurriedly exited the building. A cold drizzle was falling, plastering damp leaves to the headstones. I had left my umbrella at home, so I had no alternative but to hail a Hansom cab. We cut through the Kleinseite and got caught in traffic on the Charles Bridge, which was to be expected, then followed the banks of the Moldau straight to Žižka Square. The driver wished to gossip, but I silenced him with a series of short replies. When we finally arrived at Charlotte Street, it was nearly time for the midday meal.
The door of our flat stood ajar and Lida Rikena was nowhere to be found. But in the center of the sitting room stood the crate labeled preserved meats, emitting the musty and faintly noxious odor of long-sealed travelling chests. I found my Ryba in bed, sobbing, accusing Marjeta Samsa of once again ruining her life.
The trouble had begun shortly after I had left for the synagogue, when Lida Rikena learned second-hand from one of the Pastarnack’s servant girls what the Samsas’ former cook had told her regarding the contents of the wooden crate. Now Lida Rikena had been with us for three years at that time, and the girl was as sweet as a honeycomb, but mightily superstitious. As soon as she discovered that we were harboring the remnants of what she called the “person-roach,” she had immediately, and in no uncertain terms, informed Ryba that she would not set foot in the apartment again until the offending article was removed. No amount of pleading or cajoling on my wife’s part could change her mind. In the end, Ryba had been forced to call off her sewing circle and to postpone the singing lessons she gave the orphaned Marcus twins.
“Come into the kitchen,” I begged Ryba, stroking her hair. “We’ll have a hearty lunch and we’ll talk this through.”
“What is there to talk through?” she demanded. “How am I supposed to lead a normal life with a tremendous vermin rotting in my sitting room.”
“Please be reasonable, doll.” As I said this, I could not help feeling that I was the one being unreasonable. “It will only be with us a few days. I’ll write to the Jewish cemeteries at Bruenn and Pressburg…. We’ll ship it to Vienna, if it comes to that.”
“I don’t want to be reasonable. I want you to take that thing down to the curb immediately—let the rats and the beggars make off with it.”
“You don’t mean that,” I pleaded.
“Like hell, I don’t mean that,” snapped Ryba. “Marjeta Berg lorded it over me for her whole life—and even in poverty and shame, she has once again managed to leave me holding the bag of her crusts and rinds. So let her son rot with the vegetables! What do I care?”
She lurched off the bed suddenly and stormed out of the room. I found her moments later in the sitting room, pounding the makeshift coffin with her tiny fists. Never in my entire memory of our thirty years together had I seen my Ryba so distraught—not even after the miscarriage, not even after Doctor Loesser warned her there could be no children. I grabbed hold of her fragile hands in fear that she might bloody them.
“I’ll get rid of it. I promise,” I said. “Give me twenty-four hours?”
Ryba cupped her palm around her fist and I could sense her struggling for composure.
“Fine. Twenty-four hours,” said my wife. “But put a cloth underneath the damn thing because it’s starting to ooze. And don’t you dare use any of my linens.”
Between the mincha services and visiting Rabbi Buchmeyer’s widow, who had been struck overnight with fever, I walked down to the central post office at Malé náměstí and sent person-to-person wires to the directors of the chevra kadishim in Bruenn, Pressburg, Vienna and even Krakow. At first, each proved reasonably accommodating. However, once they understood the nature of the deceased’s condition, they served up implausible excuses regarding space and customs certification that made their position unmistakably clear. In frustration, I even approached the Lutheran pastor, Hruska, at the church on Leopold Street, as he had a reputation for tolerance and had set himself up against the unvarnished Jew-hating of certain among his Orthodox and Roman-Catholic brethren, but the clergyman explained—in deep earnestness—that there was a difference between assisting Jews and assisting dead vermin, and that one had to draw a line somewhere.
Ryba made no mention of the coffin at dinner. She took pains to talk around it—like a physician speaking of cancer—and a stranger, listening to her speak about an article she’d read on the foods of Palestine and of plans for her niece’s engagement feast, might have thought nothing amiss. But I could tell she was counting down the hours, keeping her frustration in check until she could justly demand the removal of the body.
I slept fitfully that night—all I could think of was how ordinary the Samsa boy had seemed, a handsome lad who might have made a good marriage—and I nearly slept through the morning prayers, arriving at the synagogue after the minyan had already assembled. All day long, I conjured up ways to dispose of the cadaver, and even contemplated burying it on my own, but the space in the Jewish cemetery was carefully accounted for, and we did not have a yard of our own, so that would mean leaving it in strange and unhallowed ground, where a building crew or a stray animal might easily disturb it. When time came to return home for supper, I still had no plans for the boy’s remains, so I sent an errand boy to Charlotte Street with the message that I would be working late. Then I wandered the city through hours twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, knowing that every minute I was violating my pledge to Ryba.
When I finally built up the strength to confront her, it was nearly ten o’clock and she was already wearing her sleeping gown. I made no effort to explain my absence, and she made no effort to inquire where I had been. We embraced—as we always did—and she placed my overcoat on the brass tree in the foyer.
“I am going to bed, Jakub Tzvi,” said my wife firmly. “When I wake up in the morning, I expect that…monstrosity to be gone. If you can’t do that for me after thirty-one years of marriage…I don’t know what!”
“Please, doll. Let’s not end the day with bad feelings between us.”
“I don’t have any bad feelings,” she answered. “Because I know you love me far too much to let that awful thing be here in the morning.”
I waited at the dining-room table until Ryba had turned off the electric lamp in the bedroom. She was already sleeping like a lamb when I tiptoed into the chamber and kissed her gently on the forehead, careful not to rouse her from her dreams. Then I rummaged through the foyer closet until I found my spare frockcoat—part of a stylish wool suit that I had inherited from my father. It was such a finely tailored garment to discard, but what choice did I have? I quickly retrieved the claw hammer from beneath the sink and pried open the wooden lid of the meat crate. Holding my handkerchief over my mouth and nose, I dropped the coat into the crate and scooped up the contents. Wrapped inside this crude swaddling, the remains felt like a thick, lumpy pudding. One hideous antenna protruded from above the collar of the jacket. In desperation, I immediately removed my own vest and used it to plug up this unfortunate gap in the shroud. When I was certain that the cadaver was not dripping—I didn’t want to be the one to trail vermin blood across Ryba’s parlor carpet, not to mention the city—I retrieved my top hat and overcoat from the foyer and set out into the night.
The storm clouds had blown away with the twilight, replaced by a bitter chill, and a sharp, clear moonlight now bathed the streets. As the hour was past eleven, there was little likelihood that I might encounter an acquaintance, yet still I walked rapidly and kept to the shadows. Occasionally, a night watchman shined a kerosene torch in my direction—but then merely tipped his cap in courtesy and continued on his patrol. Of far greater concern was the heft of the cadaver, as the Samsa boy had weighed in excess of thirteen stone, and while as a vermin he appeared to be somewhat lighter, he was still quite a challenge for an old man of fifty-eight. By the time I reached the Strasnice District, my forearms had gone numb.
If there was a guard on duty at the New Cemetery, he was not at his post. While the front gates were locked, as I had anticipated, not much effort was required to scale the low perimeter wall on the side farthest from the boulevard, where it met the adjoining hillside at a height of only about four feet. In my haste, I had made no provision for a shovel—I had been far too concerned with keeping the body from leaking—but now fortune smiled upon me, for I found a pair of iron spades in a wheelbarrow beside the chevra kadisha offices. I selected the sturdier of the two, although it was smaller. I also tried on the sheepskin gardening gloves that had been abandoned inside the barrow, but they proved too small for my hands. Then I mustered one final torrent of energy and lugged the corpse into the oldest section of the cemetery. Even in the darkness, I had little difficulty finding the open patch of earth, surrounded by Pollaks and Zeitzes and Smolkovas, which would belong to Ryba and me for eternity. I took one look up at the heavens, where the Great Bear twinkled benightedly, and then I started to dig.
I returned home shortly before daybreak, my trousers caked in dust. The meat crate remained in the sitting room where I had left it, the lid propped against the icebox. I deposited the cover inside the container, without daring to look inside, and carried the foul-smelling box down to the curbside for the rubbish collectors. I am cognizant of the halakhic duty to collect even the fragments of a dead man’s body for interment—and once combed the concrete myself after the boiler explosion at the glassworks—but I am optimistic that the Lord will forgive me under the strain of the circumstances. The vast majority of Gregor Samsa’s remains lay resting safely in my grave, and let us hope that is enough. Where Ryba and I are to be buried—for I am certain my wife will not consent to sharing a plot with her cousin’s damaged son—is a quandary whose vast expanse I have only recently begun to fathom.
That night my primary concern was with putting the immediate vestiges of the vermin episode out of sight, so that our lives might return to their usual course. Yet I will confess, passing through the darkened parlor on the way to my marital bed, I was struck with the momentary dread that I would open the bedroom door to find my beloved transformed into a monstrous dung beetle. That did not happen, of course. I found Ryba as I had left her, beautiful and peaceful. She had done nothing to warrant transformation into a vermin—I am certain she was incapable of such a magnitude of sin—and for a moment I convinced myself, watching her delicate breaths, that such a revolting fate was reserved for only those truly worthy.
This story was selected for Best of the Small Presses 2009.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.