A young woman with a scarf over her head comes to visit me in the necropolis. How did she know I am here? I lie in the sun, too tired to run away. She brings a clean blanket and food in a plastic bin, rice with chopped chicken. She waits while I eat. Then she asks questions.
“Do you live here? Are you alone?”
I do not want to answer. She is gentle and persistent, like fine rain that soaks through the leaves of a tree. I talk without looking at her.
After I was robbed, beaten and left for dead, I took refuge in the necropolis. That was years ago. I forget how many. Somehow I healed, but the scars repel people. When I beg on a busy street, I wear a hood to shade my face.
Most days, I scavenge for food or for things to sell to scrap dealers. They want metal, cloth, glass, and wood. No plastic. They pay very little, by weight. If you argue, they throw you out. I eat what I find, unless it smells too bad. People give me stale bread, bruised fruit and bones. I buy leftover vegetables from street vendors.
At dusk, I leave the garbage heap or the city and return to the necropolis. The valley is somewhat sheltered from the wind. No major roads pass nearby, no neighbors. It is quiet here, street after street of old tombs and graves.
The mausoleums, built like stone houses, are owned by wealthy families who keep them locked. I tried the doors. There are ruins, empty sarcophagi. I did not want to live in one of those.
Against the circuit wall, I found a shed. Maybe it was used for garden tools. I patched holes with scraps. The shed has a dirt floor, one window, shelves and pegs. I keep things there—rags, water jugs, a bowl. I never sweep around it or light a fire. The smoke would attract attention.
There are plane trees, cedars and cypresses, but the ground is dry. I fetch water from a secret source. It is a long walk, and the jugs are heavy.
People seldom come here. On holidays, when they bring flowers to lay at the grave of a loved one, I hide. I don’t dare make a sound, but I watch. People stare at the grave, weep, and mutter.
Sometimes they sing a short, mournful song. When they leave, I can relax. After the flowers wither, I clear them away.
I have no fear of the dead. It is the living who frighten me.
I walk and look at the names and inscriptions on the tombs. I recognize words such as born, died, years, peace, bosom, father, mother, wife, and eternal. The necropolis is a great book spread over the ground. Its pages are stones, flat or upright. Statues and carved symbols are everywhere—sheep, angels, stars, doves, wreaths, torches, ivy leaves, columns, skulls, obelisks, urns and hourglasses.
At night, I look at the moon and the bright stars. Clouds sometimes pass between them and the earth. The cold makes me shiver. I huddle in my shed until dawn. But in midsummer I sleep under the sky.
Once, a group of officials walked through the necropolis. It was noon on a day when I felt too sick to scavenge. I hid and overheard them. A fat man in a black suit led the way. A thin man in a gray suit trotted just behind him and to the side. Five or six men followed.
“The place looks shabby,” said the fat man.
“Yes, your honor,” said the thin man, “it is sadly neglected. The department has no budget for maintenance, let alone restoration. As you see, the historic tombs are crumbling. Some are centuries old.”
“Vandalism? Are the tombs defaced?”
“No, your honor. Just weather.”
“What about the private owners?”
“They visit, pull weeds, pick up debris. No one can afford repairs.”
“What’s over there—fresh flowers?”
“So it appears, your honor.”
“Is the necropolis still in use?”
“You mean, are there new burials? Old families have the right to continue to use their tombs.
There are no plots for sale. New tombs are prohibited.”
“My assistant tells me that vagrants camp here, that the poorest of the poor live among the tombs.”
“The wall is in disrepair. It is not difficult to enter. My staff report no permanent residents. Other than those laid to rest.”
“We cannot allow gutter trash to lie among our ancestors. That would be indecent.”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Make a sweep. Evict anyone hiding in the ruins. Ask the owners to contribute to repair the wall, clear the drains, and so on.”
“The council can levy an assessment.”
“The council! That will be the day.”
“You honor knows best.”
“I’ve seen enough. What about all of you?” The fat man stopped and turned to his entourage.
They murmured assent. The thin man bowed.
“Thank you, your honor. If I may be of further assistance, please do not hesitate.”
The officials walked away. Some days later, a crew of laborers spent an hour sweeping fallen leaves and twigs into piles. Then they talked and smoked and threw pebbles at the tombs. They left and the piles stayed.
I give the young woman the empty plastic bin. I feel better now that I have eaten, and sleepy.
I yawn. The young woman is worried, unhappy.
“The blanket is for you,” she says. “May I visit again?”
“Why come here?”
“It is my good deed, as we are commanded. No one will follow me.”
“Maybe I will not be here.”
“Where will you go?”
The young woman does not believe me. I look at the sky. She gets up from the ground where she has sat. Dust is on her skirt.
“There is nothing to worry about,” I say.
She waits. What does she want, a blessing? But I am done with talking.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His website is boucheronarch.com. He writes on housing, communities, gardens, electric motorcycles, and love gone wrong. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Blue Lake Review, Cerise Press, Construction, Cossack Review, IthacaLit, Montreal Review, Mouse Tales Press, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Niche, North Dakota Quarterly, Poydras Review, Talking Writing, Zodiac Review.