Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Direction of Our Fear

On BBC television news this morning, the awful memories of a survivor of Auschwitz - a child of fourteen when he entered the camp - moved me to tears. His harrowing description of a Nazi officer standing at the head of a line making cold decisions of left or right, life or death, was somehow awfully familiar. And then I remembered why. Some years ago I wrote a short story for a competition. The subject had to be 'fear'. My entry, written after a considerable amount of disturbing research was called The Direction of Our Fear. It has been published twice in print *, but never before online. The significance of today's date suggested now might be an appropriate time. I hope you agree but please forgive me if you consider I'm wrong. If you have time to read my story, I think you will realise why this morning's testimony gave me cold shivers. Please be advised, this short piece pulls no punches and could cause offence to some people.

The Direction of Our Fear

On February 7th 1979, Wolfgang Gerhard went swimming. Witnesses reported that he had entered the sea in some haste from the beach at Bertiog, a near Embu das Artes, Brazil.
His corpse made landfall further down the coast, bewildered horror frozen in its eyes.
Forgive me. I must explain. We had entertained Herr Gerhard every night for years. Our theatre served to aid his failing memory, for we could not permit our subject to forget.
In youth Wolfgang Gerhard showed great potential. He achieved a doctorate in philosophy at Munich and in medicine at Frankfurt. Early in World War Two he was a hero, saving the lives of comrades under fire, and then power corrupted his mind and dark ideas seduced his soul. Some generous folk say he was an aberration, a simple anomaly in facets of personality common to us all. But you must judge for yourselves. Come back with us.
The lights grow dim. Herr Gerhard's entertainment is about to start.
'Come, Doctor, take my hand. It is time to revisit your achievements.'
Wolfgang Gerhard rolls his eyes as if seeking escape, but there is none. He grunts in futile protest. His heavy eyelids droop.
The monster with film star looks stands frigid, his green uniform pressed, his black-peaked cap set at a rakish angle. He waves a baton as if conducting an orchestra, or directing traffic in a Berlin street. To the left he swings his white-gloved hand, then to the right. He is whistling as he conducts lives that shuffle to the crossroads of kismet, the junction with his power. Breathing snatches of Wagner he directs their fate, employing dark criteria known to him alone, to the right, to the left, to death, to life. Such life, for which some show relief, may yet make death seem kinder.
A woman pleads for her child, designated to the alternate stream. A polished Luger pistol rises in a white-gloved hand and two sharp shots settle the matter, leaving two spare appointments.
The conductor tosses the soiled pistol to an underling.
'Zwillinge? Zwillinge?' SS guards move among the lines, seeking twins for purposes only their master understands.
For the first time since they herded us aboard that train I can feel Mother's fear. She grips my brother and me, pulling us close to her emaciated body. Father is wracked with fits of guttural coughing but insists that he feels neither cold nor hunger. He moves to the front. The line slows. A command, 'Schnell!' rings out and the baton waves to the conductor's right. Father vanishes in the crush, leaving Mother softly sobbing.
A pair of polished jackboots stands before our down-turned eyes.
'What are you hiding?'
The crush has lessened. We are the focus of his attention. Fingers in a spotless linen glove pass beneath my chin; lift my face toward his. The eyes are dark, the skin swarthy, gypsy-like. The mouth forms a smile, which the eyes do not join.
'Twins?' he says, voice lifting with anticipation.
Mother gasps, 'Is "twins" good?'
'Yes, "twins" is good,' he says, staring for too long at my brother.
'You can help your uncle with his medical research. Take them.' Rough hands snatch us. Mother screams.
'Be silent, Mother. Please. For all our sakes, be silent,' I shout, too late. His face betrays irritation. He gestures to the underling cradling his pistol.
The gun is in the good doctor's hand, aimed at Mother's head. A pure white finger tightens on the trigger. The gun emits a sharp metallic click. He laughs. 'Take away this shit,' he screams, sighs, and resumes directing lives.
Oh, how hard you must have worked, Doctor, in less than two years to conduct four hundred thousand souls - such dedication. Three thousand twin children, fifteen hundred pairs like my brother and me.
How to list your achievements? Where to start?
Your own clear vision said blue eyes were good. In our eyes, dye injections always failed. Often they resulted in mere blindness, though sometimes, inconveniently, death.
Once dead, you dissected us with care and pinned our eyeballs to your office wall. We watched the doctor at his tireless toil.
If too small, or sick, or when we’d served your scientific purpose, you cast out our worthless frames; deloused your Aryan world of infestation. When insecticide ran out, you set light to fuel-filled trenches. By lorry load, the living with the dead, they tipped us in, those brave SS with poles who barred escape from one hell to another.
How proud you must be: you and your kind.
'Do you remember this, Doctor? Do you still believe you were supermen as Friedrich Nietzsche taught you?'
He slavers into his moustache, muttering.
'Look, Doctor, look here, at my wrist.'
The rheumy eyes stare at everything except my arm. But I can wait. What is time to me? Then, as they must, his eyes converge on that dark number. He shudders.
'Yes, you see it, your special mark for twins.'
The wizened mouth forms a clear but soundless plea.
'What was that? Forgive you?' I smile at his naivety. 'I did that long ago. My forgiveness set me free. I am here not for myself, but for my brother and for all the others who cannot or will not forgive.
'Come now, Doctor, you are a cultured person. You appreciate the music of Richard Wagner; you have read the works of Goethe. You were once a spiritual man, brought up in the Catholic faith. You surely know that there’s a price to pay? Keep in mind that other doctor, Johann Faustus.'
I summon up my multitude: suffering souls from space and time, from then and now and days to come. A fitting chorus for my closing act.
He covers his ears in a futile attempt to silence the cacophony of wailing spirits. His aged eyes dilate with hatred turning now to fear. He scans the open beach and empty sky. 'Why do you torment me so? Who are you?'
'Through the ages men have named me Adrasteia or Rhamnusia. Some have termed me Nemesis. But, Mortal, you may call me Legion for to you I am Every Child, in whose names I bestow Hell and endless torment. Such hubris, Doctor; you usurp my fame. For I am the Angel of Death.'
Wolfgang Gerhard gasps, staggers and begins to run. Slapping flat foot fast across the beach, eyes wild, hands thrown skyward, he pitches headlong screaming into the waves.
According to news reports in June 1985, forensic examination of human remains from the grave of Wolfgang Gerhard at a cemetery in Embu das Artes, Brazil, proved they were in fact those of Josef Mengele. Although exactly why the chronically unfit sixty-nine year old Nazi should have gone swimming remained unclear.
In 1990, a Baptist missionary set up a home for orphaned or abandoned children in Embu das Artes, Brazil.

We must travel in the direction of our fear.
John Berryman – poet

The Direction of Our Fear was published by the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers as Editor's Choice in their 'Ghostlight' magazine, 2010, and again by Verulam Writers' Circle in their anthology The Archangel and the White Hart, edited by Jonathan Pinnock, in 2011.