Posted on | October 31, 2012 | No Comments
Most of you who knew me during my teenage years and early twenties remember the book I wrote a couple hundred times through ups and downs, pot highs and life lows. Some thought I wasn’t writing but was in fact watching porn. My friend Phillip Miner spent 13 months with me helping me craft these words. He taught me how to be a writer. I figured it was time for it all to see the light of day. Every day I will post a chapter on my blog until it’s all out in the ether. To all the people who helped make this possible I thank you. This is for Phil, my father and everyone who’s ever loved me even if they no longer do. This is how I learned to write. I hope you like it.
The Most Important Thing
“It’s all my fault.”
The boy will not stop screaming. His fingernails scratch at the six inches of water, trying to tear the eyes out of his reflection.
In a dark cave, away from the devastation, I am torturing the boy who was supposed to save the world.
“You’re going to have to stop crying for a moment,” I say. “It’s not your fault. You were trying to do the right thing. And if it helps, remember you put a smile on my face.”
I grasp the boy’s hand in my own, smile again within the darkness and snap both of his wrists.
He screams and howls thinking he understands what pain actually is.
“I am going to tell you a story. If you can tell me what the story means I will let you live.”
He jerks when he feels my needle pierce the back of his neck, twists as the plunger pushes the fluid into his bloodstream,goes slack as the drug begins to have its effect.
“My story begins with a beautiful girl smiling. How it ends is entirely up to you.”
A beautiful girl smiles in Auschwitz.
No one bothers her.
No one has bothered her since the day she emerged from the showers wearing this same joyful smile. It seems that nothing can affect her happiness.
There is nothing more contemptible than falling in love.
Over the gates of hell, I wrote: “Love Made Me.” Over the gates of Auschwitz, someone wrote: “Arbeit macht frei” In English this reads: “Work will make you free.”
No one who walks through the killing factories of Auschwitz will be free of the work done. Someone thought these factories would make the world a better place.
Locomotives arrive at the station every few hours. Then the factory comes to life and cogs begin to turn. Second hands tick, checks are added to the list and a few thousand more workers disappear. Next to the trains is a boardwalk, where a welcoming committee waits for the new arrivals. The welcoming committee is in a good mood today. The unwashed children were actually given rations.
The women and little girls in their soot-covered clothing wait with their fingers on their instruments, ready to play for the third time that day.
The signal goes down the line and the orchestra begins a particularly hopeful melody on their dusty, half-broken violins and cellos. The Smiling Girl walks past them and they pretend not to see her. The children know what happens when the strangers get off the trains. They cannot forgive somebody who has the same knowledge and somehow manages to smile. A few have spit on her. To this, like all else, she responds with a smile.
An old man in a perfectly pressed suit and midnight black bowler cap approaches the Smiling Girl. Deep circles under his eyes indicate his lack of sleep. She is his dream and following her has deprived him of sleep entirely. In his hands, he holds a decanter of port and two glasses. He has followed her for centuries and has rarely left her side. “We don’t have to stay here,” he says. “We can go somewhere else. I promise we can be happy there.”
The Old Man does not know where there will be. He has yet to take her somewhere that she did not cause problems. The Old Man knows that the girl will be dangerous if she becomes emotional. He watches her. As always, her gaze finds the most broken human and draws him in.
Today, her eye is drawn to a brown-haired man, in a gray uniform, his arms branded with numbers, a yellow star decorating his chest.
The brown-haired man had agreed to work with the Nazis in a special unit called the Sonderkommando.
The Sonderkommando are volunteers, prisoners who assisted the Nazis in getting the newcomers off the trains, conveying them to the showers, and in cleaning up afterwards, which also meant ripping out gold teeth, collecting clothing and disposing of the mess. Sometimes, the Sonderkommando are Jews. In this case, the man was born a Jew but never believed in god. This man sends families to die in the hopes that he will one day be reunited with his own.
Today his wish has come true.
The Smiling Girl walks past him as he makes his way through the door into the darkness of the chamber. He could not understand why she was smiling or how she was still alive and could walk past him. He rarely notices her anymore.
He can remember the first day she walked out of the showers completely unharmed, a shimmering miracle in a world of nightmares. He has ceased wondering why she makes the trip every day. He has his own daily adventures to concern himself with.
This Sonderkommando had been ordered to clean the showers after the occupants were gassed. Having done it so many times before he knew to hold his breath. It was dark inside. He told himself not to be scared. He wondered if he would end up here someday.
He stumbled over a stray arm dangling out from the pile. He shone his flashlight and his breath caught in his throat. The hand was wearing a rusted silver ring he remembered giving to his daughter for her seventh birthday. He recognized the long thin scar on her palm from when she fell and broke her mirror. Step by step his mind assembled each and every feature of his daughter. Suddenly it occurred to him that any creature that has all the parts of his daughter’s body must be his daughter. This nightmare was too much. He had to get out.
He pulled at the hand and the little body was dragged from the pile. Another body was attached to it because they were holding hands. The bodies belonged to his thirteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, and eight-year-old son, Ari. He stepped back and his feet landed on a baby’s head.
The beam of his flashlight went down and he saw his littlest boy Nathaniel.
He had a habit of waving to the prisoners as they moved toward the showers to make them feel hopeful. He wondered if his family saw him waving, if they thought they were going to see him soon.
He wandered out of the dark chamber into a blaze of sunlight holding little Ari in his arms. He walked all the way to the train station until he stopped directly in front of the Smiling Girl.
Now meeting her eyes, he begins to cry at the sight of true happiness.
The guards notice him holding his little package. The orchestra stops playing. Another train is coming soon. He thinks he might wave at the newcomers; he does not think he will put down his child to do so.
The Nazi guards demand to know why work has stopped. No one is supposed to be on break. This disruption is absolutely unacceptable. Unprofessional. Intolerable.
The Sonderkommando lets his child fall out of his hand, holding only the empty blanket, it was as empty of his son as the corpse lying at his feet.
The supervisor of his unit desperately tries to explain away the man’s actions to the guards as if he had simply been late for work.
The man’s fingers rip at the Star of David imprinted on his chest. This Jew wanted to be killed as a member of the Sonderkommando, to die for what he did rather than for the crime of being born Jewish. But the damned thing would not come off.
The Smiling Girl steps in front of the Sonderkommando. The guards do not know what to do. The soldiers are trained to kill, but there are some things a person cannot do and they understand that killing the Smiling Girl will be one of these things.
“Get out of the way,” barks a young guard. The guard hadn’t realized his summer job was going to involve executing people. He can’t pull the trigger.
“Move out of the way, miss.” This time his voice cracks with tension. His moustache trembles between his teeth, sweat pouring down his forehead, hands shaking.
“Please!” the Sonderkommando begs the Smiling Girl. She turns and smiles at the young guard and he feels as though his heart will stop. As if she was the angel of death and he caught her eye.
To his surprise she steps out of the way.
The Sonderkommando finally succeeds in ripping off the yellow star; the guards fire their guns at him in congratulation.
The Sonderkommando pinwheels as the bullets hit him. Then he falls, which does not quite recall what happened to his living body as the life was stolen from it.
The boys who shot him look at the corpse, expecting him to wake up.
The Old Man in the Midnight Black Bowler Cap takes off his coat and uses it to cover the body of the slain man. The Smiling Girl drops gingerly to her knees on the boardwalk next to him.
Four bullets have left the man’s face, neck and chest a shredded mess. Tenderly, she touches his destroyed features. She opens the man’s hand and takes his yellow star and presses it to her chest. When she removes her hand, the bloody outline of the star remains behind on her chest.
Another train arrives on schedule. The remaining Sonderkommando assemble. Someone brings out a wheelbarrow to load the corpses and take them away. The musicians begin to play again.
The people getting off the trains try not to notice the beautiful smiling girl with the bloody hands.
“Close your eyes,” The Old Man in the Midnight Black Bowler Cap begs her.
The Smiling Girl closes her eyes, forgetting the scene, walking past the new arrivals, towards the next fool with whom she falls in love.
On January 27th, 1945, seven thousand survivors— too tired to leave Auschwitz—greet the arriving Red Army.
One of them, a Red Army Captain named Igor Wolsky does not know he is about to change the world.
He had been lucky at Auschwitz so far. His backpack weighed down with newly minted gold bars. His unit given a short break from duty. Unfortunately this place is not the most ideal for a vacation. He almost feels at home; the war in the East had been filled with places where healthy bodies were mutilated for what someone considered a perfectly good reason. However the longer he stays here, the less likely he feels that he will be able to leave. To keep himself sane he tries to help the poor refugees left behind. Like most fools he finds himself drawn to the Smiling Girl.
He follows her during her daily journey around the broken compound, as she smiles at empty spaces, smiling at people who cannot smile back.
In this war, smiles are few and far between. He likes to think that she looks like his daughter and that’s the reason he wants to keep her safe. He is about twenty feet behind her and tries to be that close at most times. His comrades have not had a woman in quite some time and the war has deprived them of his sentimentality.
Everyone in the camp has a different theory on the Smiling Girl. Most suppose she is in shock and that her smile is a sign of tremendous grief. Some suspect she is an orphan. Others think she is a young mother who lost her children in the showers. Wolsky cannot imagine her holding a baby and crooning it to sleep. In his experience, women can have beautiful smiles or they can have dead children, but they can never have both.
A few say that she went into the showers and emerged unscathed from the other side. He cannot find any evidence of that in her soft skin.
He thinks The Smiling Girl is pretty, though not beautiful. The Smiling Girl’s brown eyes were once soft and might have had some intelligence in them. Now they are bricks in the structure of her face and her smile is a steel door. A lot of faces here have become closed doors. She has a yellow star on her breast. He wonders why she does not have bruises like other Jews he has seen. The Germans probably used her.
Fucking Germans. Fucking slut for fucking the Germans.
Not that his men were any different. Russian soldiers were allowed to confiscate up to a hundred and fifty kilos of German property for themselves. Most women weighed less than 150 kilos.
“Is there anything I can do for you, miss?” Wolsky asks her. He speaks in Russian, knowing the girl is unlikely to understand. More than her answers he wants his men to see that he cares about her. The longer they stay in this place the less likely she is to remain safe.
“What is your name?” asks Wolsky. This time he asks the question in Polish. Still the girl does not reply. He asks the question in German. He glances to see if any of his men are close by. Then he asks her name in Yiddish. She continues to give him a blank stare. “Is there anything I can do for you, miss?”
Suddenly, she grasps his hand and leads him past the gray concrete buildings. The touch of her warm skin makes Wolsky feel awkward. He is having bad thoughts. He wonders where she is leading him. Is he just like the Germans? He is twenty-two and has a daughter back in Russia.
This girl is someone’s daughter too.
He stops looking at her and sees she has brought him to a mountain of bodies, bones and decaying flesh, none of which look remotely human but resemble the remnants of an ancient civilization.
As a child, Wolsky had gone to the museum in Saint Petersburg and became obsessed with the dinosaur exhibit. He asked his father what the dinosaurs had been like. Now looking at this pile of bones, this species, he asks himself the same question.
Out of the pile flies a long limbed black crow, its beak and the short feathers of its neck stained with stale blood. The bird looks Wolsky in the eyes and begins to gnaw on its own spindly legs. The legs crack. Marrow sprays on its side. The bird eats its second leg, licking its beak, filled with rapacious hunger.
The Smiling Girl’s eyes lose their blank stare and her smile falls away in stages slipping back through rigor mortis into life. Tears trickle down her cheeks.
The Smiling Girl’s first conscious thought is of the crow still in the process of eating itself. The beasts feed on the dead; this is natural and, in its own way, beautiful. The bird is a part of Nature, which accepts itself completely, leaving nothing, not even its dead to waste.
But now the bird is mimicking the men who made the pile. Nothing has been gained, no one is eating.
She takes his hand, her grip tightening. He tries to rip his hand free but cannot; her grip is too tight. Her soft as silk fingers break all the bones in his hand.
The bird finishes and begins to lick its lips.
She is screaming now, and recognizes its sound as that made by the Sonderkommando as he came out of the chambers with his baby.
Wolsky is more concerned for her state of mind than the state of his hand. The look of terror in her eyes is beyond imagining, no one should be so fearful.
Looking into Wolsky’s eyes she recognizes he is returning her stare. Her pain is becoming his. His eyes become wider as her screaming gains more attention and his men gather to see what all the fuss is about. Guns are raised at the woman screaming like a banshee. Fingers are tightening on triggers, desperate to hear the end of that sound. All eyes are turned to them, as her smile falls like the last shadow on this dark place.
But how well she remembers when there was nothing but darkness. How well she remembers the moment when she created this universe.
Out of her smile had come the plants and the trees, and the animals in all their naked savagery. It had been magnificent. Memory is beginning to form like a concrete tumor in her skull.
Memory to the Smiling Girl is more shocking than sudden sight to the blind. She has lived like Nature, completely invisible to herself, as all animals that lack memory are. Now she can see the consequences of her actions.
Slowly her smile becomes a grimace. She remembers the fire that consumed the world before time began and the first smile when she saw the apple tree on the black and white plain of ash white Paradise. She remembers smiling as Visigoths raped Roman women, smiling as men ran through Vimy Ridge into an endless storm of metal in order to claim a few meters of mud… smiling her way through the horrors of history, inextricably attracted to the worst scenes.
The world’s history slowly unspools like a reel projector, each picture a fraction of a second in the massive marathon of history, slowly moving through her head until the pictures end and she is left to face herself. The torture of this process is beyond words. The moment she has been waiting for is about to occur.
Wolsky had long since given up trying to get her to release his hand and instead holds her against his chest, trying to calm her down.
For now she screams, and her head slams into his chest, his heartbeat providing a clock to countdown toward the end of the world. Guns are raised and cocked. This is a serious breach of decorum. Prisoners are gathering in gangs, shouting for the Russians to leave her alone, watching in horror as Auschwitz claims its last victim.
You can see the thought in their eyes.
“She used to be so pretty.”
Wolsky prays to a god he does not believe in for her to be quiet, for the guns to be lowered and her life to be spared.
She places her finger on his face. She is looking for his smile and, like much else, it can be found if you think to look.
Wolsky’s men have noticed him talking to the Smiling Girl and, misunderstanding, want to get in on the action too. He waves them away.
A comrade in arms reaches out and grabs at her dress from behind. Her dress tears into pieces revealing her naked chest. More men gather. Their smiles remind her of sharks circling before a kill.
The commanding officer begins to yell at her in Russian. He demands that she stop screaming or she will be killed.
She wails louder and louder, like she is about to explode.
“Shoot,” says an officer from behind him.
“Don’t!” Wolsky countermands the order.
Did he just say that?
He reaches behind his back for his rucksack and tears it open. He shows the soldiers the secret golden treasure he had found at Auschwitz. He had been planning to buy his family a house; he had been planning to get out of the army and leave Russia forever. The gold weighs less than a hundred and fifty kilos; he could have taken it.
“All for you,” he tells the soldiers. “Let her go.”
The soldiers slowly lower their guns.
They tear Wolsky’s rucksack out of his hands, and stare in wonder, unable to believe he would give away so much for one woman.
He does not know he is buying The Smiling Girl’s life with the melted-down gold teeth the Sonderkommando had collected.
Wolsky takes the girl’s hand and walks her towards the barbed wire fence with an unfamiliar feeling in his belly. His ploy had worked, his triumph only slightly tinged by the fact he has just given away his future. He helps her over the barbed fence with one hand, letting her rest her weight against his arm. Little flecks of grass grow just outside of the barbed wire, nature still alive despite man’s most terrible degradations.
Lighting a cigarette with his good hand he sits down on a patch of wet grass, beside her. He offers it to her; she shakes her head. His eyes go back to his gun, deciding without reason to save her life from all comers. She tends to have this affect.
She looks at the violence in his eyes and recognizes what he is feeling.
Her anger has not subsided, nor has she determined whether she will let this place stand. The man makes her want to forgive. For now, she continues to cry before a pit of incomprehensible filth.
They walk through the camp holding hands and only stop when they reach the apple trees growing next to the gas chamber known as Little Whitehouse. Officers give him wearied looks as they discuss his conduct. Still he refuses to release her hand.
“I love you,” she says.
She heard someone say that once and it matched with her feelings right now. She was leaking out and he plugged her up. She knew he could die for helping her yet he chose to help her anyway. She buries her head in his chest, hearing his heartbeat calling her home.
A new smile appears on her face, different from the last. It is this smile that Wolsky will remember until he is a very old man.
“If you could have anything, what would it be?” she asks.
Don’t be like the men in your unit. She reminds you of your daughter. Be better than that. “I don’t want anything for myself, just my family.”
The Smiling Girl listens to his heart; its beat relaxes her, slowly easing the tension out of her shoulders. She can read the language of the man’s body; he wants to fuck her. She waits for him to disappoint her and feels his gentle arms around her body, stroking her shoulders, kissing her hair.
“Be okay, little girl. Be okay.”
She takes his hand and slowly massages his broken ligaments, warmth flooding the bones at her touch. He stares at her in shock.
“Anything you want?” she says, staring into his eyes, offering all she has.
Looking into his eyes, the Smiling Girl sees a small echo of her pain. His footsteps and the blood he walked through are a prelude to this kindness. His stubby hands twist an apple off the tree and put the fruit to his face. He sniffs and walks back to her, stepping on his own footprints. He offers her the apple as if it were a prize.
Don’t go under the apple tree with anyone else but me. Anybody else but me.
She takes the proffered fruit and weighs it in her palm. She opens her mouth and pierces into the red skin, a smile forming as her teeth tear the fruit to pieces, juice dripping down her chin.
“So what happens next?” asks Wolsky.
“The end,” says the Smiling Girl. A soft beam of light brushes her skin as she leans in close to Wolsky whispering the date of the end of the world in his ear.
Don’t go under the apple tree with anyone else but me. Anybody else but me.If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
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