Logo

Love in a Dark Place






Love in a Dark Place







            In his mid-twenties, a person could mistake Gregor’s leathered face for an older man.  To blend into the city’s grey destruction, he wore a filthy German army uniform.  A young man in civilian clothes would attract attention, but the disguise itself could kill him.  Gregor leaned heavily on his cane to simulate a disabled veteran to deter the military police from lynching him as a deserter.  Impatient as a ticking clock, he moved in rapid, contorted steps.  Despair spread through him like the growth of ice crystals up a wintered window.

            In every way, Monika had lied to him: her blond hair, blue eyes, and the bullshit story she told about her father being a submarine captain serving in the North Sea.  From the moment he met her—no, from the very beginning—from the instant of her birth, she was a Jew.

            Gregor planned to meet her in Berlin’s Tiergarten.  He would take her to an abandoned office building.  There, he would use an electric cord to strangle her.

            While waiting for the bus, he studied the cobblestones that variegated the road.  They would outlast him by a thousand years.  A toothless, unkissable girl stood in the queue, holding a string-bag containing a potato.  Distressed by the sight of her, he turned his attention across the street where two cocks in separate crates outside a market’s door attempted to fight through the bars.

            Finding a place on the bus, Gregor listened to skeletal women discuss the discomforts of childbirth.  He changed his seat for one in the back.  Beyond the grit-gray window, a couple of young people held hands.  Their faces, bloodless as parchment.

            Monika—his vulnerable, beautiful, darling, beloved Monika—sold people to the Gestapo.  They paid her a hundred Reichsmarks for each Jew hiding in Berlin that she betrayed. 

            The night before, the Jewish council confronted Gregor.  By the light of a candle, Sheldon, the council’s leader, hissed at him, “She’ll wipe us out.  The bitch has an instinct.  It’s as though she can feel a Jew’s vibrations in the air.”

            Calev, an old man with red-rimmed eyes, leaned over the table.  “Several times this week, she passed our front door.  She took Golda Spellman and her two little ones yesterday on the corner by Hecke’s Bakery.”

            “When she discovers that you’re a Jew,” Sheldon sneered, “she’ll sell you like a chicken in the market.”

            Gregor studied his hands entwined on the table.  “Why don’t you do it.  I’ve done more than my share.”

            Sheldon’s eyes narrowed.  “We’re not the kind of people who can kill other people.”

            “Then you should learn.”

            “I haven’t noticed you suffering qualms over the others.  If you don’t do it, it won’t be done.”

            “Then it won’t be done.”

            “Gregor, please,” Sheldon’s wife, Edna, said.  “You can get close to her.  She won’t suspect a thing.”

            “You’re all too good to do it.  Is that it?” Gregor said.  “But I’m not?”

            “We need you to be who you are,” Sheldon said.

            “You can go to Hell.”

            Edna placed her hand on Gregor’s.  “As long as she’s on the street, we don’t dare step a foot out the door.  If you don’t do this,” she said, “you’ll have passed sentence on us all.”

            “Without our support,” Calev said, “you can’t survive.  And without your services, neither can we.  This community depends on you.  If that changes, you will get no help from us.”

            On the bus, Gregor closed his eyes and envisioned Monika’s smile.  “If the tiger shows her teeth,” Calev said the night before, “don’t mistake them for a smile.”  Gregor’s head was on fire, his belly, full of ice.  I hate her, he told himself.  It would make everything easier if he did.  Gregor closed his eyes and listened to his breathing.

            In Berlin’s Tiergarten, people lay on blankets like lizards in the springtime sun.  A derelict woman stumbled about, maundering to herself in a mystical language.  A woodpecker hammered its brains out against a weathered oak.  A broad tree trunk, splayed like a sculpture of the sun, expressed the blast that gave it birth.  Gregor sat on a bench.  At its antipode, a mother spoke Nazi to her small son.  “Darling, don’t pick your nose.  Hitler won’t like that.”

            On the far side of the park, Gregor spotted a young woman.  He rose to make himself visible and waved to catch her attention. 

             As she walked toward him, her hips swayed.  She reached her hand up to push a strand of hair out of her face.  Every movement, a jewel.  Every gesture, as delicate as a dulcimer’s ting.

            Monika greeted him with a kiss.  She had the scent of lilac.  Her eyes were soft as an adolescent’s.  Her expression transformed to concern.     

            “Gregor, your face is filled with pain.  Is something wrong?”

            Her hand, soft as warm wax, took his in sympathy.

            “A friend of mine has been sentenced for execution.”

            Monika dropped his hand and stepped back.  “Let’s not talk about that.  Today should be a happy day.”

            A tendril of hair blew across her face.  Gregor reached his hand up to brush it back and coil it behind her ear.  He didn’t mean to do that.  He had to shut himself up to preserve his fortitude.

            “We don’t need to talk about that,” he said.  “I have a place we can go.  It’s a little unusual, but we can be alone.”

            She kissed him.  “Today should only be about us,” she said.  “Everything else must be blocked out.”

            Unable to respond, Gregor covered his inarticulateness by taking Monika into his arms and kissing her neck.  The warmth of her body unnerved him.  He held her for a long moment before taking her hand to lead her down the sidewalk.

            “It’s this way,” he said.

            They walked through a world laid waste by war, turned gray by the dust of concrete blasted into talcum, passed buildings rising out of the rubble like rotten teeth.  As they approached their destination, Gregor walked faster, pulling Monika in her high heels behind him.

            “Gregor, please, not so fast.” 

            “Here, this is it.”

            Monika looked up at five stories of a ruined building.

            “Are you sure this is safe?  It looks like it might collapse.”

            “No, I’ve checked it out.  It’s fine.”

            Her eyes expressed doubt.

            He pulled her into the building and up the stairwell.  The place was all concrete and tangled rebar, and it smelled of mold.  They had to watch their step.  Holes in the floor dropped down bottomless pits.  On the fifth floor, they walked down a long corridor to a large office.  A blast had blown the windows out and piled desks and chairs against the wall.   Glass littered the carpeted floor.

            Monika put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, no.”

            Gregor slapped her, knocking her backward.

            “You damned bitch!  How could you work for the Nazis?  How could you betray your people?”

            Monika screamed and put her hands up in defense.

            He grabbed her by the hair, dragged her across the room, and slammed her against the wall.

            “Damned you,” he shouted.  Damn you!”  He slapped her.

            Monika tried to block his blows.

            “Stop!” She screamed.  “I’m not a Nazi.”

            Gregor swung her around and catapulted her across the room, causing her to lose her footing and fall to the floor, cutting her hands on the glass.

            “Stop!” Monika screamed.  “Please stop.  I didn’t do anything.”

            “A friend of mine,” Gregor shouted, “saw you betray Golda Spellman and her two children.  Others say you’ve turned dozens into the police.  And you, a Jew yourself!”  He dropped to his knees and punched her.

            Monika shook her head in denial and screeched, “Stop, stop, stop!  I didn’t do anything.”

            “Lies, nothing but lies.”  He stood and stomped over to the window.

            Monika’s eyes darted around the room.  Gregor moaned and covered his face with both hands.  Monika jumped up and ran out the door and down the hall in her bare feet.  Gregor went after her.  He caught her by the hair and carried her back screaming and kicking into the room where he threw her on the floor.  Breathing heavily, he stood over her with his fists clenched.

            “Do you hate me?” Monika wept.

            In tears, Gregor cried, “No, I love you unbearably.”

            “Then how could you do this to me?” she shouted.

            “Children, Monika!  You sent children to their deaths.  You murdered my friends.  You have broken my heart.”

            Trembling, she stared at him in astonishment.  “I haven’t killed anyone.”

            “You turned them over to the Nazis.  That was the same as putting a bullet in their heads.”

            “I told the truth, Gregor.  That’s all I did.  I told the truth.  They were Jews, and I admitted it.  There is no crime in telling the truth.”

            He slapped his forehead, “Oy, what rationalizations.  You’re a Jew.  How could you betray another Jew?”

            “I’m not a Jew.  I have never been a Jew.  The priest baptized me a Catholic when I was an infant.  Because my grandparents are in the tribe, the Nazis made me a Jew.  They had no right to do that.  They said if I helped them, they wouldn’t deport my mother and me.  They said they’d make us honorary Aryans.”

            “And you believed their lies,” Gregor shouted.

            With tears running down her cheeks, she pleaded, “I wanted to, so I did.  I’m not a bad person.  I’m not responsible for what the Nazis do.  I have no control over them.”

            “No, you don’t, but you know what happens when you feed people into the meat grinder.”

            “That’s not true.  I don’t know.  Once the Nazis deport them, they’re out of sight.  I can’t know what happens to them and neither can you.  They’re going to a work camp.  That’s all I know.  Besides, I’m not responsible for anything the Nazis do.  I’m not guilty of their crimes.  It’s not my choice to hurt anyone.  I don’t want to be hurt myself.  I’m not made of iron.”

            Gregor reached for the wire in his pocket with which to strangle her, only to discover he’d forgotten to put it there.

            “Are you going to kill me?” Monika said.

            His face tensed.  “Yes.”

            “We could do it together.  You said you wanted to die with me.  I’m afraid of dying alone.  Gregor, I don’t want to die alone.  We could go to the window and jump.  We could hold hands and do it together.”

            “I’m not ready to die,” he said.

            Monika stared at him with incomprehension, “But you said you loved me.”

            “I never meant to die.  When I said that, it was in a moment of despair.”

            Monika crouched over as though he’d punched in the stomach, and she bawled like a child.

            Gregor looked down at her and then at his hands covered in her blood.  His jaw dropped.  He quickly wiped the blood onto his tunic then fell to his knees and took her face in his hands, “Stop!  Stop that.  Stop crying.”

            Monika wept.  “I exist only to love you, and I love you madly, and you are destroying me.”

            He felt her breath on his lips.  He lost himself in the delicate scent of her face powder.

            He pulled her to her feet and pushed her against the wall.  This was no time to lose his nerve.  He had to stand his ground, stony as a cathedral.  There could be no room for pity.  Gregor removed his pistol from its holster and pointed it between her eyes. 

            Monika turned her face away.  She crossed herself.  “As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be.”  Turning to look into Gregor’s face, she added: “I suppose.” 

            Breathing heavily, she stared into the pistol’s bore.  “God has abandoned me.”

            Gregor’s hand holding the gun trembled.

            “I’m pregnant with your baby.”

            “That’s a lie.”

            “It’s true.  I swear to God.  If you kill me, you will kill your child.”

            “Shut up!  I said, shut up!”

            Monika bent her head and studied her bloody hands.  “My child will never know his father.”

            Gregor pulled the trigger.  Nothing happened.  His eyes flared.  He had forgotten to undo the safety.  He grappled with the pistol and clicked the safety off.  Pointing the gun at Monika, he stood, panting.

            “The Nazis are holding my mother hostage,” she said.  “If I don’t return, they will torture her to death.”

            “I can’t be responsible for that,” he said.

            “Are you saying you can’t be responsible for what the Nazis do?”

            Gregor stood holding the gun.  The only sound was his breathing.  Like flotsam, his mind had gone afloat.

            “Stop talking,” he shouted, as she was saying nothing.

            “My mother will think I deserted her.”  Monika put her hands to her mouth and cried, “Oh, my God!  She will think I abandoned her to the Nazis.  I can’t stand this!”

            Gregor turned the gun on himself, pressing it to his temple.

            “No, Gregor, don’t do that.”  Monika leaped on him, pushing the gun away and knocking him to the floor.

            The gun tumbled across the floor.  Gregor crawled toward it.  Monika jumped atop him and struggled to hold him back.

            “Don’t, Gregor!  Don’t do it.”

            Exhausted, his body slumped in surrender.  Monika lay on top him, crying.  He rolled over and took her in his arms.  He rested his forehead on her shoulder and wept.

            “I can’t do it,” he said.  “I love you too much.”

            For a long time, they lay on the floor in each other’s arms, unable to speak, deep in their thoughts.

            A springtime breeze blew through the window and filled the room with a floral scent.  Outside, birds chattered, and the roar of trucks filled the air.  Gregor lay on the floor with Monika’s head resting on his arm.  In silence and shame, he studied the bruises on her face and the cut on her lip. 

            After what seemed hours, Gregor sat up with his back braced against the wall.  He tried to imagine what was now to follow.  If the Jews withdrew their support, he could not survive.  And Monika, how could she deal with the Nazis who held her mother hostage?  If she failed to bring in any more Jews, the Gestapo would deport the two of them or perhaps do something even worse.  And then there was that horrible, indisputable possibility: Monika might betray Gregor.

            He bit his lip and banged his head against the wall several times.

            “You have to promise, not to turn anyone else over to the Gestapo.”

            “I promise,” Monika whispered.  “I swear, I’m finished with that.”  She kissed him on the forehead and then the lips.

            “You have to stay off the streets,” he said.  “If the Jews find you, they’ll kill you.”

            “Why would they do that?”

            “What the hell kind of question is that?”

            “I’m not a bad person,” Monika said.  “Why would they want to do that?”

            “How many Jews have you sent to their deaths?”

            “None, I haven’t killed anyone.  I have never been deliberately cruel.”

                                                                                                                                    END



 John McLennon





  


John McLennon spent most of his life in the U.S. Army.  After retiring, he earned a BA in English Literature and a teacher’s certificate from the University of Texas at San Antonio.  He currently teaches English to high school students and is a member of several writer’s groups as well as the San Antonio Writer’s Guild from which he has won two first-place prizes for short stories.  His first and only publication is in the November 2018 issue of The Brisilia Review

Post a Comment

1 Comments

  1. Vivid imagery, and the question of morality you presented here was brilliant. Frightening but well versed. Emotions rang through as did the conflict. The weight of one life, let alone many, is not a weight to be considered lightly.

    ReplyDelete