This story is for sale on Amazon (for 99 cents US). Feel free to read it here, or buy it on Amazon and read it on a Kindle instead. Whatever works for you. It’s a departure for me, not genre fiction at all.
An old man stands on a platform, form hunched like a bird of prey, layers covering his frail shape. His hands, clawlike, cup a cigarette, breath drawing hot smoke deep into his lungs, the meager warmth fighting the frigid air. He is the only life in this frozen tableau, a solitary silhouette.
The tracks below have drifts of snow between dark pebbles, dead weeds, their roots deep underground carrying the only trace of life, poke up between wooden ties. The surface of the tracks is starting to show signs of rust, of disuse.
The platform itself has seen better days. Cracked tile, walls dirty and stained, the glass in the windows filigreed, lace made of frost.
Ruth and Jacob are in love. Young, Jacob is handsome, a craftsman, he is apprenticing to a jeweler. He has dark hair, dark eyes, dusky skin, broad shoulders. Ruth is beautiful, and artist as dedicated to her craft as Jacob is to his. She paints with fury and intensity. Her long hair, burnished walnut, falling over pale shoulder, pale skin. Every moment they can they spend together, not planning a future, because their city lies in ruins around them, a wall separating them from friends, possibilities, life. They do their best, living with family, even marrying, there is no place for them to be by themselves, so they carve what they can out of the space, a small corner, a room shared, a curtain their only privacy. Food is scarce, so Jacob works harder, Ruth paints harder, they go without.
They are happy. So long as they are together they are happy, those moments when Ruth looks into Jacob’s eyes, in those moments they were free from the walls.
Life there is hard, but not empty, not hopeless. Jacob starts working on meaner projects, things that don’t require his delicate touch, he makes walls, repaired furniture, crude carpentry. They make a home, first in their corner, then as the year turned they move into a room, an uncle had died of typhus, they mourn his passing, but revel in each other.
“Jacob, can this be ours? This room, can this be forever, our whole world, never leaving this place?”
“Of course, we have love, what else could we ever need?”
“Nothing, nothing ever. Hold me, hold me close.” she would fall into his arms, kissing his face, his chest. Sometimes they make love, but not often. Before, when there was food, they were insatiable, but now they are thin, energy is hard to come by, neither one wants to bring a child into this place. They don’t talk of children anymore, it fell from their conversation when the wall was built.
Seasons pass, spring to summer, back to fall, and when the snows falls again the sickness spreads, like a fire, throughout the ghetto. Ruth sickens, a racking cough, her whole body caught in its talons. Jacob knows that she needs medicine, that he can’t lose her. He will do anything, anything at all, to get that medicine. He steals, where he can. He even joins the children sneaking across the wall, his body has shrunk to the point where he almost seems like one of them. He gets antibiotics, the ones another uncle, this one a doctor, has told him are the ones she needs. He give most of them to Ruth , whatever is left he gives to the uncle, so he can treat people. Unlike so many others she recovers, her body growing stronger as the weather warms. They don’t talk much anymore, so little to say, instead they hold each other, starving bodies that hurt with a touch, but they need each other too much, the pain a small price to pay for contact. They don’t fight, it would take too much effort, they don’t make love at all anymore. “Is this hell?” Ruth asks. “I think this is hell, except that you are here with me. If it was truly hell they would have taken you away from me, left me one my own.”
“I think that this is purgatory. The Christians were right. We are must repent, find their god. I used to hear them say that all the time, that they must find Jesus.”
“The Rabbi will be quite upset with us.”
“Well, maybe he needs to find Jesus too.”
It is silly talk, nothing of substance, a way to pass time. Work is ongoing though, every day Jacob takes his tools and goes out, to find things to do. Lately he has been working at the theatre, building props. Ruth works with the children, teaching them to paint where there is paint, or canvas, but mostly just watching them, teaching them to read, to write. The days blend.
Every day some of their neighbours are deported, taken by train to what is promised to be a better life. Jacob doesn’t believe this, that there is a better life elsewhere, that the Germans are giving them anything but death and pain. Ruth however pretends, holding a sliver of light inside herself, a tiny voice of hope. Jacob pretends too, for her sake, with the sickness so recent her body is weak, if her spirit fails he knows he will lose her.
One day the Germans come and take Jacob, as he works. He cries that he needs to tell his wife, that she won’t know where he has gone. A German officer hits him with his rifle, knocking him to his knees. The officer, young and blonde, and arrogant, is about to shoot him when an older one stops him “The man is a carpenter, he might be useful at the camp. Just take him.” Jacob has never been so thankful to another human being, and his gratitude shames him to the core. Better to die free than to be a slave, so he has always believed, but now, he chooses life as a slave, embraces each breath, at least it is a chance, a possibility, no matter how fleeting, that he will see Ruth again, stare into her eyes, hold her frail form close to his own.
The train is crowded, so crowded that a few of the people in his car suffocate. Jacob is shoved against the wall, air passing through open slats. He almost freezes to death, despite the press of bodies, his one side numbs as the train travels, by the time they disembark he has frostbite in his left hand. His right is still good, still able to swing a hammer. One finger on the left will never recover, the damage is too great, but he survives.
He is pushed into a room, stripped naked, his body is so frail now, so thin. Nobody around him is any better off. He feels shame under the watching eyes of the Germans, tall and strong every one of them, muscular bodies under neatly pressed uniforms, the look of disgust clear in their eyes. His head is shaved, dark curly locks fall to the ground at his feet. He is given a pair of striped pants and a striped shirt.
Life in the camp is hard, and then harder, and then harder still. Jacob is a skilled carpenter, even weak. His hands are steady, he works well, so they keep him alive, give him more duties. He sees more people arrive every day. Many of his fellow prisoners die, of disease, of starvation, something in him won’t allow him to follow them. The thought of Ruth, of her eyes looking up at him, her pale skin touching his, just a fingertip tracing the back of his hand, that keeps him going.
When the Doctor arrives things start to change. Jacob is working in a new place, a new part of the camp. It’s a distance away, they are taken there every day, building new buildings, new fences. The Doctor is different, healthy, essential. The Germans rely on him. He talks of escape, of how to take the armoury, to kill the guards, how to make it into the world. Jacob is on the edge of these talks. They are dangerous, these talks, if a guard hears them anyone involved will be killed, on the spot. Prisoners are killed for any reason. Often Jacob, one of the youngest, watches for guards.
One day it happens, the thing he dared not imagine, dared not accept. He sees her, on the other side of a fence. Ruth, out of reach, but it’s her. She doesn’t see him, not right away. He just stares, her long hair is gone, shorn from her head, and she is so thin, emaciated, starved. The striped outfit hangs off her frame, her breasts have shrunk, vanishing with hunger. Her body, once lush, is now dry, sticklike, to him she is the most beautiful sight in the world. He realizes he has looked too long, that the guards are going to notice him staring in a moment, so he forces himself to look away.
That night he manages to trade for a small scrap of paper, a bit of pencil. One of the older men has it. He can’t talk to the women, they are kept separate, always, but there is a way, some of the men know it, to pass a note. He writes in darkness, the faintest glimmer of light through gaps in the walls, something he has always cursed has now become a blessing. The draft is worth it to be able to talk to her, to tell her how much he loves her, that he is alive.
“Dearest Ruth, I had not dared pray to ever see your sweet face again. Today, I saw your face through the fence, it was both the happiest and saddest day of my life. I would have given anything to see you again, but not here, not in this place.
I love you, and pray that we will be able to touch each other again, that I will feel the sweet caress of your fingers on my cheek, that I will hear the sweet sound of your voice in my ears. You are my life, my light, my source of all joy.
He puts her name on the folded paper, and slips it into the place where the women will find it.
The next day Jacob is anxious, delirious with need. Did she see it? Did she reply? He left the pencil, so precious, with the note. The day, always long, was an eternity. He worked, never slacking, the guards couldn’t see him lose focus, not now. She was so close to him.
When he returns to his bunk one of the older men passes him a piece of paper, his scrap with his words erased. In their place is her feathery handwriting, the writing of an artist, clear, but far from neat.
“Jacob my dearest – how is it you are still alive? I had given up hope, long ago. When I saw my name, in your clear hand, my heart leapt. I almost cried out with joy, and our captors be damned, but then sense took me and I kept silent, inside my heart was singing. Please God, I had feared I was truly finally in hell when you vanished, now I know that it was a test, that heaven is still possible.
I know not how, but I know that I will hold you again, that you will be in my arms and I in yours. Any thought, any sense of giving up is now gone, forever behind me. Even death, even the dread fuhrer cannot separate us truly.
Yours forever and a day,
Over days, and then weeks, they pass notes back and forth. Finally they talk of the future, of their children, a son named Avi, a daughter named Sarah, of moving to America, starting a new life together, away from the memories, the dead. They talked in a way they had not while together in person, the loss of each other freeing them, letting them both know that any words they left unsaid might be unsaid forever.
Winter leads to spring, as happens, and the work on the second camp continues. The Doctor continues his plans, setting a day. The truth of the second camp becomes clear to Jacob when it finally opens. That first day a group of Jews is brought in, and taken to the showers. The men go first, and the women and children have to listen to their cries, their screams, the sound of their death. Then the women and children are forced in, gunfire peppering the ground around them, sending them running. One woman chooses to stand, to brave the guns. She is cut down where she stands. Jacob, a good worker, is used to carry bodies to a pit. The bodies are naked, stripped of all humanity by starvation, heads shaved. He carries men, women, children, dropping them like sacks of flour in the dirt. After a time they lose all meaning to him, become nothing more than sacks of flour in his soul. If it weren’t for Ruth he would join them, let his body fall into the pit and rot, let his soul leave his body.
The weak are taken, every day, over to the new camp. New trains come to the new camp, not the old one. Bodies are cremated once the crematorium comes online, fed into ovens and released into the air, the soot of corpses covers the ground, covers even Jacob’s skin. He knows that the stain on his skin matches the one on his soul, that he will never be clean again.
One day the cry goes out, the Doctor has killed himself, a step ahead of the guards. He has taken his life by poison, to prevent the guards from learning of the escape plan under torture. A setback, but not the end. The organizing committee is now in full swing, planning nightly. The children who are used to sort the weapons have copied the key to the armoury. A date is set.
Ruth and Jacob talk every day, their one sheet of paper becoming thin, so thin. Jacob is in perpetual fear of tearing it, of breaking his link to Ruth. Now the messages include not only hope for the far future, but plans for the near, “What will we do if we are separated in the escape?”
“Meet on the platform at the train station in Bern. Wait six weeks, then move on, go to America together.”
“What if I don’t make it, will you promise to go on?”
“Never. I will die without you.”
“You must not, our children, Avi and Sarah, they need to live. If they cannot be ours, they need to be yours. You must promise me. Avi and Sarah. No matter what, they will be.”
“I surrender, Avi and Sarah, no matter what, they will be part of you and part of me. You must make the same promise then, you will survive and you will bear them.”
“Yes husband, as you command I will obey. Six weeks, you will wait that long at the platform. If I cannot make it in six weeks I will never come, instead I will watch you from beyond death. A pesky thing like the end of my life won’t keep me from gazing on your face.”
It goes like that, until May. An explosion happens at the other camp, on the platform. A prisoner manages to sneak a grenade in with him, killing himself and a guard when it goes off. The plan has to be delayed, they are being watched too closely. It is all Jacob and Ruth can do to keep their notes going. They do, never missing a day. When the paper finally tears Ruth manages to get another sheet, and they continue.
Jacob is stronger, working harder. The guards notice, ignorant of the cause they load him with more work, more bodies to carry. They have started to dig up the corpses from the early days, to burn those as well, leaving no trace in the earth. The days are hot now, summer sun beating down on the workers, and the corpses. The smell of death carpets the land, mixed with ash and soot from the burning bodies. Jacob yearns for Ruth every day, and lives only for the brief notes in the night, read in secret, now that the days are long there is enough light for that, at least.
The trains stop coming, there are no new bodies stacking up. The ovens are still running, clearing the corpses from the ground, but the work is slowing as summer goes on. At first it is a relief, but then a fear spreads through the camp. If the workers are no longer needed to clear the bodies, will the workers end up in the ovens themselves? It is early August, and the days are hot, sweltering, the flies cluster thick on the bodies as they move them into the ovens. Finally, on a Monday, it is time. Mondays the ovens don’t run, the workers are left at the first camp, to rest, or to work within the camp. The Germans take it as a day of rest entirely. Many of them, and a number of the Ukrainian workers leave the camp, leaving it poorly guarded. Jacob is tense, terrified, but excited to finally be doing something. Ruth will be with him in minutes.
One of the old men gives Jacob a hand gun, full of bullets. The children have done their job, they have guns now. Grenades as well, not enough for all of them, but some. Jacob waits, impatient, in his bunk. Finally, an explosion rips through the air, deafening, but strangely quiet at the same time. Gunfire erupts, the pops of handguns from the prisoners, the louder sound of rifles from the guards. There is fire, everywhere. Prisoners are heading for the fences, dropping blankets over the barbed wire, filling in holes with boards to make the climb easier. Jacob goes a different way, goes to find Ruth. He moves across the fence into the women’s area.
He finds her, almost instantly. They take a moment, just an instant, to touch each other, then they run for the fence to outside. Flames fan the sky, buildings burn. Gunfire cracks through the air, from every direction. As they run a guard comes into sight. Jacob aims his pistol at the man, and for the first time sees how young his guards are. This man is barely more than a boy, even younger than Jacob. There is fear in his eyes as he realises Jacob has him, that there was no way he can get the rifle at his waist trained before Jacob can pull the trigger. He tries anyway, and Jacob fires. The gun jumps in Jacob’s hand, throwing the shot wide. The young soldier ducks at the noise, dropping his rifle, fear filling his face now, clear on his features. He looks down at the rifle at his feet and dives for it. Jacob runs closer, pulling the trigger again. This time the bullet finds a mark, a shin bone. The soldier turns white, and collapses, blood spraying across the ground, a sickening spurt.
They are past, to the fence, embroidered with blankets, and then over. The woods beckon, green and welcoming. A world waiting for them, outside the walls. They run, fast, then faster, as the sounds of pursuit emerge from the camp.
By nightfall they are away, solidly away. “Ruth, wife, I thought we would never escape, that we would die in that place. Our lives, they begin today.”
She is so weak, her rations were so small for so long. He forages, not knowing what to eat, and what is poison. They don’t know the woods here at all, so they improvise. Berries, they taste. If the berries are sweet they eat them. They experiment, chancing death often, but convinced of their own immortality. The weather is warm, and the forest deep, dark, hidden. The Germans can’t find them now, each day they get further from the camp, traveling south and west, half remembered lessons about moss on the side of trees mixed with the rising and falling of the sun keep them roughly, oh so roughly, on track.
They even gain weight, a tiny bit, the scarce calories from the forest more than what they were receiving in the camp. Always they conserve energy, moving in that slow way only starving people really understand. For a time they have something that has been missing, they have hope, a future. The world is not kind, and the weather turns colder, as it does. They are deep, deep in German territory, their tattoos branding them as Jews, making any contact with people too much, too dangerous. The clothing they are wearing is thin, falling apart. Once the snow falls they have to do something else.
There is a field, open, brown and yellow, fall colours. They can see a house in the distance, clothing on the line. It’s a cold day, grey and leaden. They sneak through the brush, their bodies by now so in tune they don’t need to speak, they know other in a way that is all encompassing. Their target is the clothesline, its bounty of warmth filling their vision, filling their minds.
Jacob grabs a shirt and a pair of pants, far, far too large for him. Ruth grabs a dress, a childs thing, it is not too large for her, not anymore. They dress, rapidly, grabbing more layers, more things to wear. Socks bring warmth to feet cracked and hard from months barefoot. The sky begins to open, soft flakes drifting down, coating the ground. A door opens, the owners of the house coming out to take in the clothes from the line. Jacob dives for the field, too late. “You, thieves, stop!”
A rifle cracks through the cold air, breaking the stillness of the day. Ruth is with him, right next to him. He grabs her hand and runs, deeper into the field. They run for an hour, desperate, if the farm owners tell the Germans will search for them, find them. Better to live as animals in the forest, even to die in each others arms, than to be recaptured.
When the cold once again forces them out of hiding they have traveled far south, no way to know how far. They need food, winter has stripped the land of even the meager leavings they had been surviving on. They are more animal than human now, having talked to nobody except each other. Their clothes, the remnants from the farm, bits of leaves and bark, some fur from a dead creature, maybe a wolf, maybe something else, hard to tell with how decayed it was when they found it. They are not thriving.
This house is dark, and they approach in the night, scared creatures of the forest approaching a human dwelling, hoping for a scrap of food, a sheltered corner to escape the wind. Jacob’s finger, never recovered from the train ride, is now black and dead. Ruth has lost toes, three of them. Her hair is back, not the lustrous silky hair of before, a matted thing on her head, long tendrils filled with dirt and leaves. Jacob knows he is no better. Still, they have each other, they hold each other through the night, they still kiss each other, still stare into each others eyes, that same wonder still there, despite it all.
There is a man, outside, a cigarette in his hands. Sharp black uniform silhouetted against the white snow. He sees them, before they can move. Reaches for his side arm. Jacob ran out of ammunition ages ago, trying to kill a rabbit, a futile effort. They have no way to defend themselves, it’s too far back to the woods. The man yells “Stop, stop now, in the name of the Fuhrer.”
They don’t stop, don’t listen, instead they run across the driven snow, back to the forest, back to the cold. Again, better to freeze to death than to be captured. The pistol barks, a sharp report. As they run Ruth calls out “Remember my love, Bern, the platform, Avi and Sarah.” then Jacob is swallowed by the forest.
He is reckless now, taking risks he would not have imagined with Ruth by his side. He has one goal, make it to Bern, make it to the platform. He promised her, and if he can just do it, just make it, she will have to meet him there, be there for him, with him. Clothes are the first thing. He breaks into a home, there is an old woman there. He snarls at her, tells her to be silent. She quakes in fear, keeps silent, as he goes through her dead husbands things, taking warm boots, a thick sweater, even a winter coat. He then raids her kitchen, stealing more food than he has eaten in months, dropping it all in a bag he finds. The old woman wails, tells him she can’t afford the food, that she needs it to survive the winter. His heart is hardened to such pleas, the old woman is fat, has never known starvation the way he has. He takes his food and walks out into the night.
His path is blessed now, empty of obstacles. He takes insane risks, walks through the centre of towns in the middle of the day, looking like an animal. Steals what he needs, from wherever he wants, and nobody stops him.
After months of walking he is in the mountains, the people he sees no longer speak his language, nor do they speak English, in which he is passable, if not fluent. Finally, Switzerland. Now he travels in the open, on roads. He is able to find signs, able to find directions to Bern. The walk, hard but nothing to his body as it is now, hard, lean and packed with muscle. These last few months have restored his strength, made him hard in body and soul.
The city, he walks up to the first person and asks “Where is the train station?”
The man looks at him, uncomprehending. Of course, they don’t speak Polish, or Hebrew. He tries English. This time the man shows comprehension. “Sir, I think there may be other things you need. Your hands, you need medical treatment”
“Later, I need the train now. I am to meet her, on the platform. Please, tell me where the train station is” Jacob is sobbing, weeping at the depths of his soul. The man takes his arm, touching him despite the filth coating him, and hold him up, points. “There, you go there, and then two blocks to the left, you will see it.”
Jacob walks on, sobbing as he goes, spent, soul empty. He reaches the train station and sits down on a bench, to wait.
Six weeks. He gets medial treatment, gets put on a list for the United States, but every day he waits, hair cut short, beard tamed and trimmed, wearing clothes donated by a stranger. He is nervous, always, looking side to side like a rabbit or a deer, the look of the hunted. After six weeks she has not come (he knew she wouldn’t, deep inside, can’t face that last glance back, the site of crimson spreading over white snow, white flesh). He leaves for America.
“You know we don’t mind him here, but the station is closing. Lines been discontinued. It won’t be safe after today, this place is getting torn down, turned into a mini mall or something.”
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s Alzheimer’s, he doesn’t know where he is. He keeps waiting for a train. Nobody even knows why.”
The younger man walks out to the old one. “Dad, it’s time to come home”
“Who are you?”
“Dad, it’s me Avi. There is no train today.”