By Askhat Omirbayev
Translated by Mirgul Kali
Kunbike opened her eyes. She was shivering. It was as if there was a sheet of ice underneath her. Only half awake, she didn’t at once grasp where she was. If only there was a glimmer of light! I must have woken up in the dead of night, a faint thought ran at the back of her head. She couldn’t move her arms and legs: they seemed to be held down by a rock. Had her entire body become paralyzed? She panted heavily, suddenly feeling out of breath. Trying not to wake up her children, she softly called her husband:
“Sabyr, hey, Sabyr!”
Sabyr didn’t answer. The man who lay snoring by her side every night was silent. Had he gone out? She tried to call the children for help.
“Rustem, hey, Rustem!”
“Rustem, Rauan! Would you get up, please? I am parched, get me a sip of water, please!”
There was no response. The children, sleeping in the other room, must not have heard her, so she spoke louder. Her voice came out hoarse.
“Perizat, dear, wake up. Your mother can’t move. It’s probably because I’ve been in the garden all day yesterday; my arms and legs feel numb. Could you please come and give them a rub? If you could open the window too; it’s stuffy in here. Is the power out again?”
Her family wasn’t there to lend her a hand in a tight spot. If only she could have one of them to drip some water into her mouth. A scent of dank soil hit her nose. She tried to move her head and realised that her body was shrouded up to her chin in some cloth. It suddenly dawned on her that this place, filled with the blackest shade of the night, was unfamiliar to her. At first, she took it for a room in the cool, damp house of hers made of adobe brick. The moist chill penetrated her back. A bit of dust sprinkled down on her face. “Where am I?” A trace of fear in the depths of her consciousness sent her clenched heart racing. The panic, that at once engulfed her mind, caused a tremor in her body.
“Did they . . . did they bury me? No, no, no . . . I am alive, I am not dead!”
Immediately, she scurried to rip the shroud, to break free. She was so terrified that she let out a loud shriek. She screamed violently, deliriously. The darkness only intensified her fear. She broke into a croaking laugh in an attempt to calm herself down, but her limbs kept shaking. A sense of extreme fatigue enveloped her for a split second. In desperation, she threw herself around and screamed at the top of her lungs. Startled by her own voice, she saw her heart almost leaping out of her chest. The air thickened as she kept panting. “My heart will burst any minute now. So be it, I’d rather be dead than suffer like this,” she whimpered. She waited wearily for her death. Her shrill was so intense that her throat became raw. She fell quiet for a few minutes letting the prospect of dying alone in bleak silence to sink in. The sand seeped from above.
“O Lord!” Unable to bear the pain any longer, she turned to God. “Why don’t you take me now and spare my going through this ordeal? Or will I get to see the light of day yet?”
The sun was setting outside. Darkness and angst slowly tightened their grip on the earth, and people cheered themselves by switching on the lights in their houses. Sabyr and his children, mourning the sudden death of Kunbike, were oblivious of her struggle below the surface.
Kunbike wasn’t aware that a strand of her hair had turned grey in the last hour. She couldn’t stop quivering; a sense of crushing dread forced every nerve in her body to stand on end. She recoiled at the thought of an insect, snake or mole piercing, biting, and gnawing at her soft skin. At once, she imagined hearing a rustle, and the sound of her pounding heart reverberated in her ears. Time stretched into eternity.
She thought of how she used to send her husband to fetch things from a cellar below their house. Once, when guests unexpectedly called on her, she went down into the dark cellar to get a large jar of pickled dills from a shelf in the basement. That day, afraid of some creature grabbing at her foot, she hurried to get out of the gloomy place. Here, there wasn’t even a tiny crack, let alone an opening, to let the light in. Kunbike wondered whether it was day or night. The grave is a place of the eternal gloom, she thought, and the most frightful old stories began popping up in her mind. Her heart beat fast. She recalled stories of a pair of angels who descended to question the dead after they had been laid to rest. The angels’ halos were so bright that one couldn’t look at them directly. She had heard a local mullah talk about two angels, Munkar and Nakir, who appeared before the deceased and asked them: “Who is your God? What is your religion? Do you know who Muhammad, peace be upon him, is?” At that moment, the fear rendered a person mute, and their heart was forced to speak. If the deceased had faith in God, His angels, His revelations, and His prophets; if they trusted that both the good and evil came from the Lord; if they believed in the judgement day, read their five daily prayers, fasted during Ramadan, gave zakat and made pilgrimage to Mecca, they were admitted to heaven. Those who didn’t perform these acts of worship were sent to hell for eternity.
Grandmother Asiya’s words came to her mind too.
“Dear, would you pray with me? All you need to do is to turn your face toward Qibla and let your forehead touch the floor once.”
“I wish she quit nagging me! Couldn’t she just pray by herself?” she lamented then. But she only said, “Grandma, I’ll do it later. Also, if the Soviet authorities will find out that we read namaz we might get into trouble.”
“A girl of your age is mature enough to carry out her religious duties,” was her grandmother’s usual response.
Five or six years later, she went to college. Fell in love with Sabyr and married him. How fast the time went by! She was in her early thirties, and there was not a care on her mind. How did she end up in the grave? She recalled holding an electric teapot, the power cord. A shudder caused by a jolt of immense force and a scream of pain. Then . . . oblivion.
“No, I am not dead; I am still alive!” said Kunbike to herself. “I had uttered the Kalima and called myself a Muslim, but I haven’t followed any of my duties. Today, God is giving me a chance, for I am still alive! O Lord, a thousand times—thank you! Forgive me my sins—those I have committed knowingly and unknowingly! Please, save me from the fires of hell and from the torment of the grave!” As she softly said her prayer, her heart began settling down too. Feeling regret for not praying while she walked on earth, she unwittingly bit her lip. The warm drops trickled down the chin.
“I am alive! Yes, alive! If I were dead, the angels would have been here as soon as I was buried. I must get out of here somehow.”
She raised her upper back and tried to sit up. Fortunately, the akym, a niche dug on the side of the grave, was spacious. When she got herself upright, she proceeded to tear the shroud apart. The fabric yielded to the efforts of the determined woman, and, after making a small rip in the cloth, she was able to pull her right arm out first, then the left.
Sabyr was still dazed by the sudden death that turned everything in his life upside down. His eyes were swollen from crying. He kept going back to his memories of meeting Kunbike, their wedding, and their happy days. Those who are bound must obey, they say. But he couldn’t shake off a sense that any minute now Kunbike would come through the door and restore the peace in the household. He couldn’t yet accept this crushing change; he rejected the disruption brought to his life. Yet, what choice did he have but to yield to his fate?
Meanwhile, Kunbike made up her mind to find her way to the world of the living. How she yearned for the blazing rays of the sun to strike her eyes! After freeing her arms, she tied the ends of the fabric her legs had been swaddled in around her torso. A sudden pain in her chest caused the sweat to pour down her face. She kneeled and decided to try dismantling the brick wall built on the left side of the akym. Luckily, the plaster hasn’t dried yet. The wall appeared to give way when she pressed against it with both hands. Although it didn’t collapse, the soil began streaming in. Kunbike realised that if she didn’t want to be buried alive for the second time she had to be patient and think carefully before proceeding. It was getting harder to breathe; her entire body was covered in sweat. She knew she had to move fast if she wanted to stay alive. In the dark, she ran her hands over the wall until she found a brick that jutted out slightly. When she carefully pulled it out, the earth came pouring onto her hands. Kunbike resolved against tearing the wall down at once and began to shove the soil rushing from the hole to one corner of the niche. When the silt, mixed with sand, filled half of the akym, she was ready to make her escape, come what may. As soon as she began knocking down and throwing the remaining bricks aside, the bulk of dirt surged in, almost burying Kunbike. She took a moment to rip out a piece of the fabric and tie it around her face before she forged upward. Shaking with fear, she burrowed through the dirt with both hands. She was running out of the air, so she squatted on the growing mound of dirt and pushed up, using her knees. Before long, the mass of earth from the upper part of the grave came plunging down. The dust clung to the cloth covering her face, making it nearly impossible to breathe. She gasped for air desperately; her throat and lungs were on fire. In the last frenzied attempt, she reached up with her hands and suddenly sensed the warmth in her palms. “Air! O heavens! That’s air!” She thrust her body up and emerged from the ground, choking and panting. For the first time, she reveled in the splendour of a night sky shimmering with stars. How brilliant, how ravishing they seemed to her wretched eye! She was so happy to be alive she couldn’t get enough of the view.
After surviving the horror of being buried alive, she wasn’t bothered by the sight of the moonlit tombs that surrounded her. She tried to pull herself out of the ground, but she was too weak and tired. She rested for a while and renewed her efforts. Scraping the ground near the edge of the grave with her delicate nails, she tried to clamber up the wall but struggled to extract her legs buried in the dirt. She kept slipping back into the hole. Summoning all remaining strength, she gripped the edge, pushing against two corners of the grave with her feet, and finally climbed out. She collapsed next to the grave and lay there, recovering, for a while. Her lungs hurt. Her mind was listless as if it existed somewhere between reality and dream. “How long was I there?” she wondered.
Half an hour went by. The woman in a shroud tried not to look at the ravaged grave—a gaping entrance to another realm. She feared that if she threw a glance, the impenetrable blackness at its bottom would swallow her along with the entire world. She got up and tottered ahead.
She used to think of moonless nights as bleak and dull, but she hadn’t known the true gloom of the night until now. Forlorn, she walked under the sky abundant with stars. It was a warm summer night, and though she was not cold, she shivered from some strange, incessant angst inside her. She reached the old part of the graveyard where her parents were buried. She imagined them rejoicing quietly at her successful escape from death and suddenly broke into violent sobs; the tears came streaming down her face. She dropped on her knees, folded her palms and brought her head down to the ground.
“Please forgive me, please, forgive me!” she said with tears in her eyes. “O Lord! I am begging you to forgive me! I knew of your existence, but I didn’t believe in you! You blessed me with the good life and children, and I didn’t even thank you for the air I breathe. I was ungrateful, and you’ve made me realise it. I’ve become enamoured with the fleeting delights of this life and forgot about heaven and hell. O God, you are a saviour; you are the most gracious. Please, forgive our sins! From now on, I will worship you, and only you, God!”
The moonlight enveloped the surroundings in the silver glow. A gentle summer breeze fluttered her shroud. The woman spent a long time bent in prayer, her forehead touching the earth. When she sat up, she held her hands out toward the sky, then grazed them over her face. Momentarily, she felt as if a heavy load came off her shoulders. She wiped the tears, got on her feet and took to a nearby road.
Kunbike was very happy to be out of the grave. Now, she had to get home as soon as she can. Speaking of home, hadn’t her family and friends just buried her after crying their eyes out? How was she going to get back to her house, to the family? All her relatives from faraway Almaty and Semey had probably come to her funeral to throw a handful of dirt into the grave and wish her soul to rest in peace. Even Sarah, who was always envious of Kunbike’s good fortune, must have been disheartened with her death. How was Kunbike going to show her face to all these people? Forget others; would Sabyr, her lifelong partner, believe that she was not dead? He will have a heart attack when he catches sight of her in this shroud. And what about the children? They must have been told that their mother had gone to heaven. Would they be frightened to approach her and snuggle around like before? All these thoughts made her feel anxious.
She knew she would scare to death anyone who saw her now, shaken and desperate, making her way out of the cemetery. The woman didn’t look back; if a creature emerged from a tall adobe tomb nearby she would keep staggering along without paying any attention. Exhausted, she continued walking. The breeze played with the ends of her once white garment made unsightly by the recent frantic burrowing through the dirt. Leaving the graveyard behind, she lumbered along the dirt road. When she reached the top of a hill, the shimmering lights of the town of Ayagoz came into view. But all she could think of was how her family would react to her return. Kunbike reached the asphalt road that led into the town.
When she heard the sound of an approaching vehicle, she decided to hitch a ride. “Better than perishing here in this desolate land.” In a little while, the headlights of a GAZ-53 truck blinded the woman waving on the side of the road. The driver, headed toward the town, was surprised to see her. What was this woman doing here in the middle of the night? The folds of a shawl she was wrapped in trembled in the wind. Further away, behind her, the scattered tombs stood in the glaring moonlight. The driver hesitated. She must have set out to get to a nearby village this afternoon but fell sick on the way and wasn’t able to make it. What if she was a devil? He knew spooky stories told by old men who had come across a lone goat in a desert which vanished as soon as they said bismillah upon catching it. In other stories, people would sight a campfire down in a gully but find nothing when they reached the spot. The only purpose of these tales is to scare people, he decided. He was unsure of this woman on the road, however. “It would be a shame not to pick her up. And if people find out that I left someone stranded alone in the steppe, I might lose my party membership card. Forget the card, I can live without it, but won’t I regret not helping out a person in need? She certainly looks like she needs help. Why am I hesitating then? As long as she doesn’t get me into trouble,” he muttered to himself.
The heavy truck stopped abruptly. “Bismillah,” whispered the young man. Turning toward the small window to his right, he said:
“Where are you heading?”
“The town. Can you please take me? I am exhausted. Halfway, at least?”
“I am going in that direction, so it’s your lucky day,” he said reaching out and opening the door. “Get in.”
“Thank you, dear,” she said, barely moving her lips. The “dear” sounded warm to his ear. The woman faltered as she struggled to climb into the cab. The driver gaped at the stranger’s clothing that looked like an Indian sari he had seen on women in the Bollywood movies. He wondered if she was a drifter.
“Don’t be afraid, young man,” Kunbike said. “I am not a witch. I just need to get to the town—the sooner the better.”
The driver didn’t respond; he put the vehicle in gear and pulled onto the road. The cab went dark. They didn’t exchange a word during the trip. Thoughts kept rattling through the young man’s mind. When they drew closer to the edge of the brightly lit town, the woman cleared her throat and asked:
“What is your name, dear?”
“Elserek,” he replied without taking his eyes off the road. He was afraid to look at her.
“Elserek, why don’t you take me all the way to my house? I know you are wary of my burial sheet. But such was my fate: to die and then come back to life. You’re shocked, but that’s the truth. This is what someone who climbs out of the grave looks like. I don’t know how I’m going to show up at home looking like this.”
“What? What are you talking about? What burial sheet? You climbed out of the grave?” The young man’s face turned pale, and he abruptly turned the wheel. The heavy truck gave a jolt before swerving back onto the road. They almost rolled over.
“Don’t be afraid, dear. I know it sounds awful but it’s true. I came back from the dead.”
“Really?” Elserek was lost for words. “That’s crazy!”
The cold sweat broke out over the young man’s body. His heart was racing. He’d never been in this state before. He threw a cautious glance at her and quivered at the thought of sitting next to this frightening creature in the dark. He tried not to make his fear apparent. Was all this really happening or was he dreaming? He gave in to a swarm of disquieting thoughts in his mind, suddenly aware of the trembling of his hands on the wheel. No reason not to believe this woman; just look at her . . . She spoke convincingly too. He shuddered, feeling very small next to her. He was afraid of her charging at him any minute. “I climbed out of the grave.” The words kept ringing in his ears.
“Astaghfirullah! Is it possible for people to come back from the dead? What’s the world coming to? I should probably not be surprised at anything these days,” concluded Elserek. He used to dismiss the fellow drivers’ stories about seeing ghosts during their long night trips, yet here he was, with one of those ghosts beside him.
They drove into the town.
“Young man, you did a great favour by bringing me to the town. But they say, “Be generous in giving.” You don’t seem to be a guy who is easily daunted. Would you please go to my house and tell my family that I am alive and well? Ask for a suyinshi gift for bringing the good news. Tell them that I didn’t die; only fell asleep for a little while. Please do this for me, dear, help me,” she said candidly.
Elserek used his sleeve to wipe the beads of sweat from his forehead. He heard what she said but decided to keep his doubts to himself. He drove to the address she gave him and pulled up at the blue gate. He didn’t turn on the lights in the booth, worried about neighbours and random passers-by seeing Kunbike.
“You know what to do?” asked Kunbike.
“Yes,” responded Elserek, hopping out of the booth. He went toward the house. The front yard was illuminated; the canvas tents, which had been set up to serve meals during the funeral wake, were still up. He pulled at the handle and found the gate unlocked; a dog didn’t bark. In these small hours of the night, no one was seen tending the fire-pit in the front yard. The members of the household must be asleep, exhausted from hosting people who normally visited the mourning family for two or three days in a row, figured Elserek. He knocked on the door and waited. The front door made a squeak as it opened to reveal Sabyr, Kunbike’s husband. Only close relatives who lived far off would come this late in the evening to pay respects to the deceased, so when Sabyr saw a stranger at the door, he was surprised.
“Assalam Aleikum,” Elserek said with a sullen voice.
“Is this Kunbike’s house? I am a driver.”
“Yes, this is the one.” Sabyr gave a sigh. “It was a sudden loss.” “These days, people come even at night to express their sympathy. Well, he must be traveling from afar and wanted to offer his words of consolation,” Sabyr thought to himself.
“Who is with you? Bring them in,” he said coldly.
“It’s not what I’m here for.” Elserek looked straight into Sabyr’s eyes. “Can I come in? We need to talk.”
Sabyr hesitated. “What does he want? Did he come to ask for the money that Kunbike might have borrowed? Still, he could’ve said his condolences.”
Elserek stood looking at him.
“Well, come inside,” said Sabyr leading the guest into the house. At that time, the children were fast asleep. He told his younger sister Yerkezhan, who had emerged, rubbing her eyes, from one of the back rooms, to make tea. Sabyr’s brother Shanzharkhan and his wife Kunae, unable to fall asleep with the visitor in the house, got up too. They greeted the late guest. Elserek took a seat at the table and looked at Sabyr:
“Could you tell me how you are related to Kunbike?”
“I am her husband, Sabyr. And what brings you here?”
“How should I put this . . .”
“We are listening.”
“I am going to ask you to stay calm. I work as a driver for one of the companies in town. I am telling you this, so you don’t think of me as a swindler or crook when you hear the story. Let me show you my passport, the driver’s license, and the paperwork for my trip.” He retrieved the papers from his breast pocket.
“I have no idea what you are showing all this for,” said puzzled Sabyr.
“I am going to tell you something that may shock you.”
“Please stop scaring us and just say it already. We’ve got enough on our plate as it is.” Yerkezhan’s voice quivered.
“All right. What I wanted to say is that Kunbike . . .”
“Did she owe you money?”
“No. Kunbike is . . . she is alive!”
“What? What are you saying?” The women, stunned, rose from their seats.
“Friend, what kind of joke is this? I buried her today with my own hands. Have you been drinking, by any chance?” Shanzharkhan raised his voice.
“No, not at all. Honest to God.”
“Are you saying that our grief is fake?”
“Do you think I like going around and knocking on strangers’ doors at night?”
Sensing that the conversation was heading in the wrong direction, Sabyr exclaimed:
“Why don’t we all calm down and listen to what he has to say?”
“On the way to the town I drove by the cemetery,” Elserek continued. “I stopped when I saw a woman on the side of the road. She asked me to take her to the town. I didn’t want to leave her there alone at night, so I told her to get in. I was surprised to see her wearing a shroud; well, shocked, to be honest. During the ride, she told me what happened.”
Sabyr turned white as a sheet. The women stood with their mouths open.
“Where is she now?” Shanzharkhan said impatiently.
“In my truck.”
“What? You’re out of your mind! What did we do to you? What could you possibly gain from bothering people mourning their dead? I will make you answer for this,” Shanzharkhan darted toward him in fury.
“Stop! Enough!” Sabyr yelled. “Now, if what you are saying is true, bring my wife here!”
Elserek headed out without saying a word. He opened the door of the truck cabin and said to Kunbike, “Don’t worry, everything is all right.” He helped her get out of the truck; the other women watched in silent awe as he led Kunbike to the house. Shanzharkhan, stupefied, stood between them. He glared at Kunbike when her face came into the light.
“Jenge, is it you?” Shanzharkhan gripped her in an embrace, tears in his eyes. The women greeted her with loud wails. Sabyr sat in the house, restless, his heart sinking at the sound of the voices outside. He got up and paced frantically around the room. When Kunbike entered the house, Yerkezhan grabbed an old robe hanging in the entryway and threw it on Kunbike’s shoulders. Sabyr froze in the middle of the room, unable to believe his own eyes.
His head began spinning, and weakness slowly enveloped his body. His brother rushed to grab him at the shoulder and helped him to get to a sofa.
“Take jenge into the back room,” he heard Shanzharkhan’s whisper. Sabyr’s ears were ringing. Breathing heavily, he put his hand on the left side of his chest.
“Hey, Kunae, bring water! And the pills, quick!”
Shanzharkhan’s wife ran to the kitchen and came back with cold water and the drugs. Sabyr took the pills and took a sip of water. His mind was drowning in dark, heavy thoughts.
“No, she is not my wife. It’s not possible,” he bellowed, jumping from his seat.
“Easy, easy,” said Shanzharkhan.
Sabyr fell heavily back on the sofa. A quarter of an hour went by before he began feeling like himself again. How does one live with a woman who’s been dead? Creepy! To sleep with a person who’d been in the grave . . . no, I can’t even imagine it, he thought while the other voice inside him argued, But she is a woman you married for love. How can you reject her? She didn’t choose to go through this. Be reasonable. How can you be disgusted by your own sweetheart who had just fallen asleep for a little while?
Soon the morning came around. Worn out by anxious thoughts, Sabyr dozed off. When he woke up after a short nap, he overheard people in the other room expressing their delight at the happy news shared by his relatives. In a little while, the visitors left, and the house became quiet.
After taking a shower and changing into clean clothes, Kunbike looked at her reflection in the mirror. She was startled to see grey strands in her bangs. But she didn’t regret it; she was grateful for being alive. Her children, who missed school today, ran in and flung themselves onto her neck. Sabyr stared at his wife but said nothing. He decided to sleep in another room. The news didn’t upset Kunbike; instead, she knelt in prayer.
Kunbike’s kinsfolk gathered at the house and celebrated her return to life. They showered Elserek, who helped her in a desperate moment, with their gratitude. They threw a feast where everyone attended to him. They told the story of the brave young man to all their friends and neighbours. In the evening, Elserek was driving home in a new car.
Askhat Omirbayev is a Kazakh journalist and writer. He holds a BA in History of Kazakhstan from the Semey State University and MA in Journalism from the Karaganda State University. Recipient of several national literary awards, he had published two collections of prose and a children’s book. He currently serves as a director and editor-in-chief of the Karatal District regional newspaper.
Mirgul Kali is a native of Kazakhstan currently living in the U.S. Kali began translating short stories by classic and contemporary Kazakh writers in 2017. Some of these translations appeared in Tupelo Quarterly and Asymptote. She has recently been selected to participate in 2018-2019 American Literary Translators Association’s Emerging Translator Mentorship Program.