Thursday, April 12, 2007

Skin and Blood


by Edward Bryant

Heinst Bremer levered his tired and aching old body up from the equally decrepit Barcalounger. He fumbled for the plastic vial of nerve pills that customarily sat on the TV tray by the chair's arm. It was dark in the living room, though the man knew that the sun must still be high outside. Bremer habitually kept the drapes drawn. He needed a lamp. The bulbs in the overhead fixture were always burning out, and Bremer no longer desired the risk of standing on a rickety kitchen chair to replace them. He found the container of pills beneath the chair. The faded Burger King Bullwinkle glass was empty; he must have drunk all the water before falling asleep. He turned toward the kitchen door and shuffled to the sink. He loathed being old and frail. He detested the lack of control. It was not good being a retired immigrant grocer in America. Bremer turned to the spigot, listened to the pipes cough, waited for the water to turn a temperature cooler than tepid.
As he filled the glass, he could feel the nerve endings tingling in his fingers, the palms of his hands, his arms. He knew that if he didn't swallow a pill soon, the tingling would itch unbearably, then turn to searing pain. The slightest touch would generate agony. It had been this way for years. His doctor told him it would be this way until he died. There was nothing to be done medically.
The war. That was how he had laconically explained the complaint to his doctor. The war. The doctor had nodded sympathetically and probed no further.
Bremer put the nerve pill in his mouth, took a bit of water, moistened the pill, rolling it over with his tongue, greedily sucked in more water, and swallowed. Someday, he feared, the pill would hang up in his throat and choke him. Not today. The sticky lump went down quickly, leaving a sweet residue on his tongue. The man waited a minute for the pill to take effect, then turned and walked slowly back into the darkness of the living room.
He found the lamp in a sidewalk sale outside the lanai apartment building in the middle of the next block. He had been out walking in the bright California sunshine--his doctor's orders. Bremer searched desultorily through the junk--broken tape players, warped albums, chipped mirrors. And then he saw the lamp. It was a somewhat old-fashioned table lamp with an ornate, if tarnished brass base. Fastened to the single bulb with a tension clip was a dark tan cylindrical shade. The leathery material had been laced to the wire frame with darker thongs.
It will do, Bremer thought. "How much?" he said to the dark, ancient woman scrutinizing the passersby with gimlet eyes.
"Five dollar," said the woman.
"Too much. "I'll give you two."
"Three dollar." She said it with obvious boredom, as if her heart were not in the bargaining game.
"Two fifty."
"Okay." The woman's lips showed the trace of a smile.
I jewed her down, Bremer thought. "I don't suppose you would deliver this lamp?" The woman looked at him as though she had suddenly lost the gift of English. "I thought not," he said. Mongrel bitch.
He gave her two tattered dollar bills and a pair of worn quarters. When he picked up the lamp by its shade and the base, it seemed to Bremer that the thing was far hotter than even sitting in the San Fernando Valley sun warranted.
That night he sat in his lounger in the center of a pool of golden light cast down by the new lamp. The bulb even worked. He squinted through bifocals and could make out the small print in the Herald-Examiner. When Bremer finished the retrospective on the Klaus Barbie travesty in France, he disgustedly set the paper down on his lap and leaned back. Would there be no end of it? People's memories were simply too long.
Then he fell asleep. He dreamed one of the memories he had not dreamed in a long while. It was what he had called the de-boning contest on Christmas Eve, 1944. It had been a bitterly cold Bavarian night, the evening of a day in which Berlin had increased his load of paperwork by a quantum jump. Herr Dr. Bremer was out of sorts. Holidays usually did this to him.
Even after the incident happened, Bremer was never quite sure why he had drawn all the participants together. He remembered going out to the frigid barracks with some of the rougher guards to pick six children of approximately equal sizes and physiques, along with their mothers. Then they had gone to the deserted storage shed and tied the child prisoners securely down, spread-eagled across the heavy worktables. Other guards brought in six camp cooks, prisoners also. The schnapps had flowed freely that night, but not, of course, for the prisoners.
Bremer devised the rules on the spot. All the cooks were handed razor-sharp boning knives as the guards hefted their Schmeissers significantly. Nonplayers would be shot on the spot. So would mothers who cried out or moved from where the guards had placed them by the tables. On command, the players would start to remove the skin from the flesh, and the flesh from the bones of the six children on the tables. The cooks would be graded on both speed and style. They would receive bonus points for the length of time their subjects lived. Winners would receive extra rations on Christmas. Losers would be rendered incapable of enjoying the holiday at all. Bremer ordered the contest to begin. Soon the cries of some of the cooks were nearly as loud as those of the prisoners on the tables. Fortunately the shed was far from the other quarters, and the night wind swallowed up screams. Two of the cooks didn't last more than the first minute. Each was shot through the head. The young prisoners on the tables screamed and cried. Five of the mothers did likewise, and died. One mother cursed. Silently. The bright crimson of flayed flesh and the gleam of freshly exposed bone all shone moistly in the unshaded lights.

Heinst Bremer jerked awake, the long-ago night before Christmas filling his mind with cries and blood. The living room was dark now. It shouldn't be. Maybe the bulb in the new lamp had burned out. Perhaps the bulb was merely loose.
He fumbled in the darkness, reaching for the lamp, carefully trying to find it without knocking the damnable thing over.
He touched human skin, warm flesh, and jerked his hand away, breath expelling with a hiss from his lungs. "Who--?"
There was a sharp click, and the lamp came on. It was not the gentle golden radiance he recalled from earlier in the evening. This was a bright, unshaded glare, the illumination throwing everything in the room into harsh relief. Bremer squinted, willing his eyes to adjust.
He saw a beautiful boy-child standing beside the TV tray. The intruder was about twelve, slender and clean-limbed, his skin dark and glowing like polished hardwood. He was naked. His wild hair was black and curly. His eyes were equally dark as they scrutinized Bremer sharply.
"Do you remember me?" said the boy. "Or my mother?"
Bremer said nothing, staring.
"I'd have expected--" said the boy. His voice dropped off. "No matter. I suppose the corpses all looked alike to you after a while. Even the ones skinned and dressed like dead hares."
Bremer found his voice. "Who are you?"
The boy shifted his weight, face solemn. "Just one of too many, I expect."
Bremer felt the telltale prickling starting in his fingertips, the ominous feeling moving up his arms toward his trunk. He started fumbling for the bottle of nerve pills. "I suppose," said Bremer, "you are a Jew?"
"Hardly." The boy shook his head.
"You are a young recruit from Mossad? Your nudity is an odd uniform."
"Aren't you here with your friends to drag me in chains back to Israel for trial? Or will you shoot me right here?"
"Hush, old man," said the boy irritably. "Do I have to explain everything? Don't you recall the memory you just relived?"
"The dream?"
"No dream. Unless you think it my nightmare and that of my fellow prisoners and their mothers."
"This is craziness," said Bremer. He started to search for the pill vial in earnest.
"That was craziness," said the boy.
"You are a Jew!"
"Don't be a bore, old man. There were twenty million of us, you know. Not just the six million Juden. The others are not my concern. My grief is saved for the one million of my people."
"A mere million?" said Bremer. "I still don't understand."
"The Romany," said the boy. "You hounded us as doggedly as all the rest. We ignored your rules, paid no attention to your borders. You envied our freedom."
"Gypsies," said Bremer disdainfully.
"The People," said the boy. "Some of us were doubly cursed."
"I still don't understand this." Bremer felt panic beginning to creep through his brain. Where were the pills? He could feel the pain starting to stir just beneath his skin.
"You are looking for this?" said the boy. Still naked, he seemed to be more hirsute than a minute before. He held up the older man's vial of pills.
"Yes!" Bremer lunged past the bare lamp, attempting to snatch the medicine.
"No." The boy sidestepped, holding the pills just in front of Bremer's face. "Do you know," he said, "that this is the night of the full moon?"
"Give me the pills," said Bremer.
"No," the boy said again. "The reaping moon." Bremer saw that the other's fingers had sprouted ragged, bladelike nails. The boy's jaw was longer and narrower now, with his sharp white teeth gleaming in the bare bulb's glare.
"Please," said Bremer.
The boy just laughed, a barking, baying sound that spiraled upward like a howl. "The time for mercy is long past," he said. "Ask my friends and their mothers. No charity now. Only memory."
Bremer felt his nerve endings start to tingle as though brushed with electricity. He needed those pills. The boy closed his hand, and the vial with its contents crushed into powder. "Now," he said, "a loving little bite, and then another, and a thousand to follow. As many as it takes. Perhaps twenty million." His eyes blazed like bare electric lamps. Heinst Bremer turned and broke for the door. But he was old and slow, and he never made it. No one but the Gypsy boy and he heard the twenty million screams.

There being no known next of kin, Heinst Bremer's worldly possessions were given over to the management of the apartment building and eventually found their way to a sidewalk sale conducted by a small, dark, sad-eyed woman.
On a brittle, cloudless day in December, very close to the Christian holiday, bargain hunters had the opportunity to pick up and examine an ornate brass table lamp. Some looked at it, but only one possessed the curiosity to thoroughly examine the darkly tanned shade. The old woman touched it fondly before handing it over. Only the most select of customers looked inside to see the ragged line of small blue numbers tattooed along one neatly stitched seam.

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