- Burial of the Poor
There is nothing sadder than the burial of the poor. Because the poor begin to be buried in life. So said Antonio, a man sculpted from the clay of a humility older than he. A man who is ashamed even to speak, and when he speaks, is afraid of speaking too loud. And when he lifts his eyes, he's worried that the mere boldness of lifting them will offend his boss right in the face. So said Antonio Antunes. Who had just buried the casket of a son whose face he didn't know. A two-pound, one-ounce baby who died in its mother's belly. Antonio wanted a glimpse of his son's face, but the employee who went to fetch the child from the cooler wouldn't allow it. Antonio had purchased a little outfit for four dollars in downtown Porto Alegre so his son wouldn't be buried naked, like some critter's pup. But Antonio couldn't dress him. He was left with the small white casket that he cradled in his arms to grave number 2026 of Mercy Hospital's Holy Ground Cemetery.
When the dirt had covered his son's shallow grave, the father knew his own heart would remain unburied. Because at that instant, Antonio Antunes realized that a shallow grave and a donated coffin, sown in a hillside cemetery, would be the fate shared by him, his children who survived him, and his grandchildren yet to come. Just as it had been the lot of his parents and grandparents before him. And it was when he reached the foot of the hill at Holy Ground, after burying his nameless child, that Antonio pronounced his sentence, head lowered, the flame in his eyes smothered by tears, by a rosary of pain that might well predate the discovery of Brazil. Antonio Antunes said, "This is the path of the poor."
And he said it with such anguish, with so much despair, that the words slashed through the burial grounds of poverty. Because a sentence only exists when it is an extension in letters of the soul of whoever utters it. It is the sum of words, and the tragedy held within them. Otherwise, it is just a sham of vowels and consonants, a waste of sound and space. And Antonio pronounced it with such pain that even the thrush warbling on the other side of the wall fell silent, as if divining that this phrase of death was a man's life.
This account could end here, because everything has already been said. But sometimes a story has to be told more than one way if it is to be thoroughly understood. [End Page 36]
There is nothing sadder than the burial of the poor because there is nothing worse than living and dying off others. There is nothing more brutal than having nothing of your own, not even a space for death. After a life without a place, not having any place to die. After a life owning nothing, not owning even six feet under. For the poor, the ultimate tragedy is that even in death they don't escape life.
This is what Antonio Antunes, feller of trees, had come to understand. And this is what had finally broken him. Because it was just the beginning, and because there was no end. Only more of the same. Because men like Antonio are born and die the same way. And in this sense, the baby who hadn't lived had merely saved time, relinquishing the interludes between all the forms of death reserved for him in life.
To understand the end, you have to understand the beginning. Antonio left the cemetery without any money for the bus fare back. Just as he hadn't any for the fare out. He was guided by his sister-in-law, who was putting him up in Porto Alegre because he had traveled to the city from a coal-mining town. He'd been peeling bark off a eucalyptus tree on a Friday when his wife felt the warmth of blood running down...