The following story written by Grace Sandles, took out the youth short story section of the Joseph Furphy Literary Prize recently.
The fire licked the books, tentatively, gently, before devouring them wholly. Every word, unfit for our lowly minds, rose towards Him while I watched. What a wonder to see everything you knew crumble to ashes. Not just the books, but the world as it was.
Home didn’t feel like home. I felt like a stranger. My mother told me she felt it, too. Had felt it since the Great War ended. Eyes that surely weren’t trained on me followed me down streets, and smiles that surely didn’t disappear when my family walked past did just that. But these were small things, weren’t they? And apart from them, life continued in the same forward roll it always had, days seeming to blur and blend together in the universal fatigue of our nation. The newspapers felt the same, and the books I’d read before their burning, and maybe it was just me but everyone seemed tired, even the supporters of the Nazis, with the effort of maintaining their proud voices and confident postures.
The static hum of our old wind-up radio was the soundtrack to our lives these days. I went to bed to the sound of muffled voices, woke up to them, ate breakfast... ate lunch... ate our evening meal at the table, the family quiet to allow our co-occupants their interminable turn to speak. About their day. About all of our day. September rolled around to the same noise, and my birthday passed unmentioned, forgotten perhaps. For the day after was the Nuremberg Rally. And its ever-loud approach carried with it on the golden wings of fall, a promise.
The village centre was ablaze with the phoenix-coloured trees, rising from the ashes of a burning nation. My family were quiet, sombre, my father clutching at the radio with desperate hands, hands that had once stroked my cheek until sleep consumed me, night after night. And then night fell, and horror and fear and confusion muddled my dreams, and finally the radio was turned off. I was in the midst of my youth. What right did Hitler have to forbid my marriage to a German man if I came to love him? What rights did we even have anymore?
I watched the world descend into an auburn glow through a window, and found myself hating red. It seemed to represent everything that had put me firmly by the window, disallowed to leave the house, because the former looks had dissolved into violence, finally codified by shouted words across a nation. They wore it, splashes of the colour stained the streets, even the Red Front’s existence, culminating in such a fervent opposition — I could barely stand it engulfing my vision. And yet, I could not look away.
My uncle lived a little ways down the street, and around the corner. My father’s brother. He used to visit each week, with some bread from his bakery and millions of stories from each side of the counter, each as eagerly awaited as the other. One night, he was over, and my parents smiled merrily within the comfort of our home with him, drinking the outside to a bearable distance. My body began to ache from sitting in the old wooden dining chair for so long, and so I slipped to my feet and skipped to the sofa. It was, as it had been my whole life, nestled in the crook between the front door and the fireplace, a window along the same wall. It bowed a bit, grand valleys worn into the faded cushions. I settled into one of these and rested my foggy head on the arm. A pounding started in my skull, and I knitted my brows together to ease it. I brought my fingers up to aid in the massaging, but the sound got louder. I sat upright, my stomach broiling with a sense of unease. My parents looked to me, and my uncle was whispering words to the heavens, and if desperation could take the form of wind they would surely arrive, when I fingered the heavy curtain open.
Have you ever felt completely lost for words? Not speechless, no, that’s different. But utterly incapable, though you try, to put what your eyes can see into words. Something in the sight, on the way to the brain, blocks the synapses through which language runs, it seems. The night was alight, but this time, it wasn’t red. It was blue. There were flames, sure, but they were different. The cobbled road was cracked and windows were smashed but beyond our street, in the village centre, an inferno of terror burned. My heartbeat washed out any other sound, and out of the corner of my eye, I watched my uncle flee towards the village, my father after him, and my hysterical mother after him. I was alone in the house, and I had no one to stop me from following them too.
Kristallnacht, they would come to call it. Night of the Broken Glass. My chest would burn until I died, I knew, with the anger of an entire religion, its beautiful symbols warped into something evil. Arriving at the town square, adrenaline coursing through my veins, my breath heaving unfelt, I watched in horror as mothers and fathers and cousins and sisters and brothers and grandparents fell like puppets, their strings cut. Their family already fallen. In my ears and through my body, the smashing of the glass, the crystal, played like a horrible music box I couldn’t shut.
Little fires burned.
I would never get married.
Stores were pillaged.
I would never smash the glass beneath my foot.
People were shot down, the beat of the track of cries and shrieks.
I would never walk happily away, tears of love and joy running down my face.
Bodies crowded the streets, most of them on the ground.
I was battered back and forth by the chaotic flow of people in all directions.
Not when broken glass would forever remind me of this.
My eyes locked on to my uncle’s bakery, where he stood on the steps, arms flung out to make a weak, crudely laughable barrier, my father between the Storm Troopers and him.
Maybe I would never love again at all.
My father flew to the ground; my uncle couldn’t risk looking at his crumpled form.
It’s too dangerous, to love.
The Storm Troopers mounted the steps and took their time to climb them, no need for haste.
It makes you vulnerable.
And my uncle, he died with his chin in the air, and his arms out to protect the building his late wife too had died in.
At least they were together.
After that night, I shut my eyes and ears to the world. I mourned my uncle. My mother and I cared for Father, his ribs broken, and bruises like dark clouds smudging the sky that was his skin.
I didn’t hear Hitler invade Poland. I did not see the war start. In truth, I barely noticed that we left my lifelong home with few belongings to live in the Ghetto. I didn’t hear the names of the family we shared three rooms with. I didn’t see my body waste away, starvation sending me spiralling, and disease only helping me along. For months, I didn’t even see beyond the four walls my family slept in. The millions of others — untermensch they called us — cramped into the same closed section of the city, didn’t exist to me, let alone the rest of the world, at war. Only the little songbirds who landed on the windowsill. My companions through my sickness.
The poor creatures too were starving, and so I fed them the few measly crumbs of bread I received. I didn’t need them. I would soon be dead, and even if I weren’t, they, at least, could fly away if they regained enough strength. I was doomed. Sometimes, the clever little things would leave some, as if to insist that I ate it myself. But I would leave it on the sill, and soon enough, they would return and finish it off, driven to selfish desperation by hunger. And I did not blame them. Occasionally, they would even chirp out a short tune. And I would feel okay again, able to forget the things I did not know.
It was a day, I didn’t know which, and I didn’t know when, that my mother and father came into the sleeping room, and sat down beside me. Mother wasn’t crying, as she usually did when she saw me, and I suspected that she had run out of tears. I put my hand on hers, though it tired me out, and a whisper of a smile clung to her cracked lips. Father gently placed his hand over ours, and for a moment, or a hundred, we stayed like that. When Mother murmured my name, it sounded sweeter than any song the birds would ever sing. And when she told me we were leaving, it was the loveliest lullaby in the whole world.
We did not have much to pack. Along with many others, we were herded like the cattle who live in conditions like ours, to the railway track. We lined up beside the lines, a gentle breeze wafting my limp hair over my shoulders. The fresh air almost hurt and the sun was brighter than I thought I could remember. A long whistle pierced the morning. Within moments, a black smudge appeared on the horizon and hurtled towards us. As it got closer, seemingly too fast, the group collectively scrambled back. At the last instant, the brakes screeched on, and the upper carriages shot past. When the train halted, it was the freight carriages that loomed in front of us, and a confused murmur broke out among the group. Some men hauled the huge roller doors open, and one mumbled words that should have been accompanied by an apologetic tone, explaining we were to ride in these carriages. The people all around me shuffled forward towards the train, and the sound mingled with a buzzing in my ears and in my toes and up my legs and into my fingers. And then my vision got patchy and the ground got rocky like an ocean and I was falling. My father’s big warm hands caught me and my mother cupped my cheeks and kissed my forehead, the action imploring me to hold on a little longer. I was lifted like a doll and placed into the crowded train and I lay among the legs of my parents and strangers with eyes closed.
The rattling of the carriage was not nearly as torturous as the darkness. Without being able to see, one could almost believe they were elsewhere, or alone, when in fact this was a darkness for millions to observe. All the ghettos, in all the country, and in others too I was sure, would have emptied their guts into this utter blackness. It was universal, and it was pigmented with all the shades of terror and expectation, hope and fear.
The thing about utter darkness is that it shadows time too. Before the war, we’d learned in school, that without external cues, namely light, our body would revert to a 25-hour cycle instead of 24. I wondered to myself if that was why. It did another odd thing; swallowed sounds of laughter and comfort, and amplified crying and screams. Such sounds ricocheted in my silent mind. Had hours passed? I felt too weak to waste breath asking someone, who would have equally little clue.
I drifted frequently between a blissful, nauseous oblivion and deafening awareness. I stared with such vigour upwards, that my eyes fabricated stars for me to count in these awarenesses, but the dizzying pain of doing so incited my bittersweet stupor. As countless as my stars were the times this pattern recurred, and in a moment of stark clarity, I realised I was dying. The thought comforted me, somehow, but then it passed and on my torment went.
At some point it ended. And at some point after that, so too did the train ride. I opened my eyes as the doors rolled open and I gasped when the wind hit me. My father squatted down and hooked his arms under my back and knees and lifted me, and I felt distinctly as though I was an object, arrived and unloaded for my new owners.
Wind whipped past my face as my father strode towards the throngs of people being organised into lines, Mother at his elbow. My head bumped against Father’s arm to the beat of his stride, my skeletal hands grasping tightly to his shirt.
I rolled forward suddenly and my mother’s arms looped around my body, while my father was bustled away in the hordes of men. My eyes pricked with tears. Burned. I felt scared. A promise of love emerged from my scorched throat, but was tossed away, like a leaf in the wild wind. Another woman rushed forward to help Mother support me, but I barely noticed. A quiet explanation of showers, of being reunited afterwards, reached my ears and the ache eased. Only women and children surrounded me, as we approached the large buildings, and in the corner of my eye, I saw that Mother’s hand gripped a small bar of soap. Watching that desperate action of clinging to mundane life, I surrendered to the perpetual unknown, and we entered the showers.
I lifted my face to the ceiling. My naked form shivered in the dank air. Fear seemed to melt away in the burning cold and my body and mind were utterly ready for the train ride to be washed completely and thoroughly and finally away from them. But water did not fall. And all I could smell was red.