I don’t know what woke me up just now, but my head feels like there’s an overweight clown with leaden boots performing cartwheels in my skull. I caress my temples thinking my eyes are going to pop out like a frightened wolf in a Merrie Melodies cartoon. Jacob, one of the skin-and-bones men sleeping in the wooden, unforgiving bunk above me, leans over and asks if I’m okay. His voice is weak, almost as lifeless as his eyes. I groan, tell him yes, but even so, I’m still not sure.
Getting up, I stretch, shake off the fatigue that enveloped my frail 14-year-old body throughout the night, slip into my leathery, weather-beaten clogs, and don my cloth cap, its broad blue stripes matching those on my pajamas. It’s cold this morning. Even though this is expected because we’re in the midst of winter, today seems especially chilly. I’m sure the uncontrollable chatter of my gritty teeth can wake the dead. My chapped feet feel frozen, like I’ve been trekking through the Himalayas for days. I look at them. They’re bloodless; the frigid pads of a near-corpse. I don’t understand why the room is so icy. It isn’t a particular spacious hut, or barracks as I’ve heard people refer to it. In fact, with the two parallel rows of three-tiered bunk beds along the walls, a narrow walk space between them, and 60 ragged men sardined in them, one would think there’d be enough heat just from the bodies to survive comfortably. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This shelter does remind me of the schoolhouse I’d attended just a month ago. I sincerely wished they had a fireplace or stove of some kind in here. I doubt anyone would complain, not even weak Jacob in the middle tier.
“Hey,” I whisper to him, “are you getting up, too?”
“Please,” he answers, his pleading red eyes piercing me, “today is going to be just like the rest – hard. Let me get a little more sleep.”
Nodding, I turn and tiptoe towards the center of the dusty room lit solely by the early morning light sneaking in through the openings in the rafters. My pajamas, as thin as moth wings, barely comfort me, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. Glancing around, I stifle a giggle because, even to this day, this room’s creaky wooden floor, bare, cobwebbed ceiling, and unfinished wooden walls, remind me of the outhouse in the back of Uncle Shmuel’s small farm in Stahnsdorf, that little town in Brandenburg where I used to spend my summers. Except this crowded giant latrine smelled worse, like someone left a mud-rotted sheep carcass out in the open. Gazing around further, it seems like everyone else is sleeping, not just Jacob. I’m surprised I’m the first one awake, considering I’m the youngest.
I’ve been cloistered with these men since I was brought to this campus with my sister Elisheva by graven-face soldiers a month ago. At least I think it’s been a month, on a train, packed in with hundreds of strangers I’ve never met before. Our mother and father didn’t come; we never knew why. A stranger in a black felt coat with a yellow Star of David over his heart had said it’s best we forgot about them, but I still hold on to the hope they’ll come for us some day. Later, separated from Elisheva, another stranger told me to just go along with the soldiers and everything will be all right. “Elijah,” he told me, “even though you’re only a lad, you’ve already seen a lot, probably more than other boys your age. “Yes,” I agreed, “like people getting shot in Potsdamer Platz in brought daylight. I even saw young girls running away with foreigners, most likely to Switzerland or Poland.” “The depths of our troubles are many,” the lanky stranger, whose name I’ve since forgotten, added. “I’ve seen queues of grown women crying on Tauentzienstrasse and other streets in West Berlin although I never knew why.” Still, somehow, even though he said I needed to be brave, the lines by his sullen eyes betrayed the notion that perhaps he was wrong.
Because there are no other boys my age in this wooden cottage, I occupy my time by playing checkers with myself using strips of cloth for the pieces and lines drawn in the dirty floor as a checkerboard. As usual, I win. My invisible partner isn’t all that much of a challenge. Maybe he lets me win out of sympathy. Kind, thoughtful compatriot. I would never beat him or take him away like the outsiders who are bad to us.
The sun is coming up now, rising slowly like a just-caught burglar. I can hear the black crows cawing on the barbed wire fence in the distance. Soon, the grownups will be awakened and whisked from this room for hours. I’ve learned not to make deep friendships with any of them because, sometimes, one of them won’t come back and I’ll have to befriend someone new. That’s not easy to do considering how quiet they tend to be, not like the kids I used to play with in the past.
Even though it’s hard here – bleak and hopeless as some of the men say – one of the things that sustains us is the Schubert Quartet. They are a group of four men who sleep in the bunks on the other side of the room. At night, they get together and sing or hum their individual parts of classical string quartets. So far, they’ve performed Boccherini and Mozart, but their fervent concentration on the music of Franz Schubert is why they received the nickname. They are a wonderful troop. I know the man who hums first violin. His name is Ben but I’m not sure what the others’ names are. Jacob might know but, like the others, doesn’t talk much. As a matter of fact, he’s quite secretive. I’ve asked him about his wife, children, his job, everything. His answer is usually the same. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Jacob, I think, must be the saddest man in the universe. The depth of his barren eyes speaks volumes.
During the day, the stone-faced, heavy-booted outsiders lead me to a building across the campus to sew clothes for hours. They place me in an area with about thirty silent, somber women, all of them perched in front of sewing machines and barely making eye contact with each other. Since I’m forbidden to strike up conversations with any of them, I just do as I’m told. Besides, the ever-present soldier continuously walking around piles of clothes makes me nervous enough to keep my mouth shut. Somehow, I can sense the ladies, their thin, wan, colorless faces, like unfinished portraits beneath their scarves, try desperately to hide their ache. Some of the younger ones are beautiful, but they are still melancholy. There used to be a sewing girl around my age. Her name was Leah. She had straggly brown hair and a face like a cherub. I only saw her a few times, then one day she left and I never saw her again. I’d built up the courage to ask one of the seamstresses what happened to her but she told me to be quiet and continue my work. I don’t care much for the outsiders. They can be caustic sometimes.
At dinner time, I return to the Big Room. My housemates also return. One by one, they file in like dreary ants in an airless, glass display. Every single man, fatigued with slumped shoulders, possesses the mask of defeat so obvious in their faces. I secretly count them as they walk through the door. One, two, three…fifty-nine. Hmm. One less than last night. I can’t really tell who is missing, but I also know better than to ask.
Two outsiders in studded black suits, visor caps, and red armbands with rifles strapped across their backs, bring in a huge, dented, aluminum tureen of soup and place it on a rickety table. The men line up to the table while one outsider ladles soup into each person’s enamel bowl. Like ants at a picnic, we line up single file, none of us daring to utter a word. Minutes later, sitting on my bunk, I notice the thin, watery soup has carrots and potatoes. That’s a change from yesterday when it contained only slices of beets. I had a hard time swallowing the crimson borsht as I don’t like beets, but since hunger had me caught in its iron grip, I had no choice.
After dinner, and after the two outsiders leave with their empty tureen, I lie down on my bunk with my hands behind my head thinking about my mother Nechama, a name I learned that meant “generous.” Mother was definitely generous with her love and care, never turning a blind eye to anyone in need. Not the strict type, she allowed us to stay up as long as we wanted, even encouraged our school friends to sleep over if they wished. I ponder about her whereabouts; our separation was so sudden. My father Sam, a robust man with curly black hair like mine, always groaned she was spoiling us, but she didn’t care. We were her only children and enjoyed the spoils of being her progeny.
My good friend Eli wasn’t as lucky. He had a big family with three brothers and three sisters but always believed he was the black sheep, the forgotten one, because he was born with a lazy eye and one leg shorter than the other. The noise in their household, and constant teasing from our classmates, were reasons enough for him to spend nights with me at my house. I don’t know where he is now. I haven’t seen him since I got here but I’m sure his family was also caught up in this dire political climate. He was fun to play checkers with. He usually beat me, but I think I secretly allowed it because I had no other friend.
The moon, I notice, is especially bright tonight. If there is a man on the moon, he must be watching us just like I’m peering at him now. I wonder what he must be thinking. Maybe he’s wondering why this country is changing so quickly and asking why all the shops are closing down. He’s probably thinking about where everyone is going to. I know I did. I watched my own neighborhood turn into a ghost town and there was no one around to tell me why.
Just as I’m yawning and starting to drift off to sleep, the Schubert Quartet starts. Jacob whispers to me that they’re singing the allegro from Schubert’s Quartet No. 3 in B flat. I take his word for it. He seems knowledgeable. Jacob is a wonder to me. For an educated man, I expected he would be full-figured, bespectacled, even brag about the virtues of fine dining with delightful wines. Since he is skinny, I think perhaps he has some intestinal disease or a family of tapeworms in his colon. His teeth are rotten, though, so maybe he caught something I’ve never heard of. It’s kind of funny how he, as well as a few other men here, cough and wretch a lot. I’ve seen their splatters of blood and sputum. Although it makes me cringe, it still makes me wonder.
I awaken the following morning after some outsiders loudly kick the front door open, torrents of angry snow flying in behind them. Their guns drawn, they storm into the frigid room, the arctic breeze cutting a swath through the barracks like a mad witch on an uncontrollable broom.
“Everyone up!” one outsider shouts. “Right now!”
Being an easy sleeper, I am the first to stand. Within seconds, the other fifty-nine hop to their feet.
“All of you men have been selected,” the outsider bellows, “for a new experiment.”
Immediately, some of my housemates start crying. I don’t understand. It is just an experiment, so why the tears? In school, we had different experiments all the time. The science teachers taught us how to create clouds using water and dry ice. We studied physical properties such as centrifugal force, friction, heat dispersion and so on, so I’m not alarmed at all.
“Everybody, line up!” another outsider blurts, his frozen breath hovering in the air.
“What about me?” I ask, raising my hand with my empty stomach crying to be fed.
The outsider removes his pistol from his side holster and points it at me.
“You, too!” he orders. “Stand in formation!”
Compliant, I do as he requests and stand in line with the others.
“Good!” the outsider yells again. “You gentlemen ought to feel privileged. Not every cottage has this honor. Now march outside where you’ll be greeted by the Obersturmführer.”
I swallow a small lump that had stuck in the walls of my throat. I don’t know what an Obersturmführer is, but if he’s conducting the experiment, I hope it can wait till after breakfast. I’m famished.
Robin Ray's works have appeared at Crossways, Tipton, Across the Margin, Rabid Oak, Delphinium, Bangalore, Squawk Back, Outsider, Jerry Jazz Musician, Underwood Press, Neologism, Spark, Big Pond Rumours, Aphelion, Vita Brevis, and elsewhere.