Glass covers everything. Outside, I hear the heavy slap of running feet and and chorus of crude shouts. The sounds come in through our broken front window.
The brick responsible for the breaking is nestled against the smooth wooden leg of the couch. We are both motionless. The brick lies still, proud and content, boasting from the remains of our window. I stand, rigid with fear, listening from the hallway.
The shouts grow louder, filling the naked room with angry noise. From the hall, I can make out shadows, long and sinister, growing across the living room from outside. They stretch higher and higher, pulling themselves into the shifting monsters of my dreams.
I haven’t seen Father since bedtime – since before – and Mother is screaming from the kitchen.
“Get your brothers!” she pleads, her voice muffled and urgent.
The shadows grow tall enough to block the light and, I run. The stairs rattle, creaking into my bare feet on my way to the second floor. I trust Mother, she knows what to do, what things are necessary and what can be forgotten. When I first dripped blood last year, two weeks after my thirteenth birthday, she smiled and hugged me, and said everything would be different. She said I shouldn’t feel afraid. That I should always look to the future with hope and strength. I don’t feel very strong. She couldn’t know something like tonight. She couldn’t look to this with hope. She had no way of knowing.
I felt this. I sensed it growing larger and larger on the horizon: something menacing, something evil. I could feel it in my skin, waiting: a shadows of something to come.
Ehren and Simon are hiding under the bed like they do when a storm comes. Simon looks angry, his eyes hard and eager. Ehren is crying, looking up to me with big, scared eyes. I pick up Ehren and he grabs my neck. He doesn’t weigh as much as most two-year olds – his small frame is light against my chest. He has grown so slowly. I can barely feel his tiny arms. He whimpers into the coarse fabric of my dress, his face hidden against the wool.
Simon is almost ten and full of fire. He bounds from under the bed and pulls me forward. We go back down to look for Mother. His legs are strong and it is hard to keep up. I hold Simon’s hand and he rushes forward, brave and foolish. His small fingers dig into the soft meat of my palm, sending pain up my forearm, but I say nothing.
Mother screams again.
“Mother!” I call out.
“Run, Delia!” she screams back. She sounds faraway, deep in a horrible dream.
I try and call out, but Ehren pulls me forward. The last stair catches the bottom of my foot and we stumble into the hall. Large men storm out of the living room a few feet ahead. They wear plain, street clothes, not uniforms like the frightening men that bully us. The men who tell us to go home, tell our father to go away, to go back somewhere not here.
Somewhere not Germany.
I hold Ehren close, pull myself up, and dart for the back door. The men rush but we are quick. Twisting for the door, Simon’s hand slips from mine, his defiant run degraded into a wild stumble. He falls toward the plain clothed men as I swing the door open and rush into the yard. I gasp the night air and scream.
The cool yard is silent for a moment before I hear Simon’s high scream mimic my own. He cries out like when he broke his arm running along the river last spring. I stop, pivoting with Ehren, and scream.
The doorway is dim. Large shadows twist into themselves from the hallway within.
“Simon!” I scream again.
The doorway bursts with movement. The men in everyday clothes lurch across, their large frames blocking the light. Something swings wild across the space.
His head makes a wet sound as it connects with door. There is a horrid cracking noise but the wood remains rigid, unbroken. He slides down it, then is still.
I start for him but the men have turned and are advancing towards us, snarling. I hold Ehren tight and rush out of the yard.
Tears burning my eyes, I run.
There are shouts from all directions. Distant glass breaks and the sounds of smashing wood echo across the alleyway behind us. The whole town seems to laugh in demonic unison.
I will come back for him, I will. He will be fine. Hurt, but alive. A concussion, that’s all. I will return in the morning, when they have gone home to laugh about the night. He will wake up and laugh and Mother will cook. Then, he will smile at us with his clever, twisted smile, and tell how he lay still all night, fooling the men in everyday clothes.
Inside, I know none of this is true.
I have always known things, thing not meant to be known, things no one should ever know. I can feel weather approaching, sometimes a week before. I can tell when someone is about to enter a room. At nine, I told my mother her sister would die of pneumonia before her next birthday. She spanked me and sent me to bed without dinner, appalled I would come up with such a morbid fantasy. Within two months Aunt Kamilla was dead. Mother eyed me with fear after that and made me promise to keep it all quiet, keep it to myself. They would think me an agent of the devil. So, when the Schäfer’s boy, Johann, ran away to another town and I knew all of it in my own, strange way, I said nothing. I never told that he had fond his mother’s family and that his father had beat him and covered the bruises with his wife’s makeup.
For months, I have know there would be a bad storm tonight. I tried to tell Mother, but she just shook her head and said to keep quiet. There was nothing to do for the weather but suffer through. No storm could tear down such a sturdy home despite all its huffing and puffing. Not in this city. Our weather is too predictable. Now, I know better.
A different kind of storm.
This is a human storm come in the dark. Things have been building, people leaving, running from the anger rising across the country. And here I waited, expecting wind and rain. I am so stupid.
I know Simon is dead and the sound I heard in the doorway was his neck breaking.
Ehren cries and I put his mouth to my shoulder to keep him quiet. In a small recess cut back from the alley, I crouch low in the quiet dark. I squat behind a cluster of garbage bins and push Ehren’s mouth deeper into the cloth of my dress, leaving just enough space for him to breath.
The alley in front of us thunders with grunts and laughs. I hold my breath and wait.
“They say vom Rath died cursing Abraham.”
“No, really. He called out to God to throw that tired old bastard out of Heaven.”
“Oh, and I bet he mouthed ‘avenge me,’ as well?”
“How would you know anything about that?”
“Just talk, but that doesn’t change that fact that he’s dead.”
“Goddamn Zionists, they’re all in on it, this fucking Jew order.”
“Everyone knows that. They call our children from God and feed them to the devil, he says there’s no…”
The voices fade around a corner, humming low down the alley. I allow myself to breathe again.
Ehren whimpers at my shoulder, his breathing quick. His eyes are red and deep and he works his mouth open and closed.
“It will all be okay,” I whisper. My eyes fill with tears again and I think of Simon, lying senseless in the doorway, and the same promise I made to him.
Rabbi Eichorn will know what to do; he is wise. I will find him and he will make it all right.
The edge of the alley leads into the street beyond. I see the shadows of the men who passed the garbage bins disappear down a side street. Then, the street is empty. I sneak up to the edge and look around. On the other side of the small square, two figures heave a large block into a storefront window. I shutter at the harsh sound. Then, they’re yelling, running into the store, waving long shadows over the heads. I don’t know if they’re guns or broom-handles. Thin voices plead from inside.
I clutch Ehren and run, low and fast, across the now empty square. Small bits of glass tear into my bare feet. Only when I am out of sight, do I finally stop. There is searing pain in my left foot. I balance Ehren on my hip, and dig out a sliver of glass the size of pencil lead. The wound bleeds, my foot red and sticky from a dozen smaller pieces.
I limp on. The synagogue is a block away and each rustle makes me jump. Every echo a demon. I flatten to the wall, Ehren’s head to my shoulder, and hold my breath. The street is possessed by something unseen, something waiting for the perfect moment to pull us into the dark. I pull Ehren’s tiny arms tighter around my neck.
A large group runs past – maybe fifteen men. I hold Ehren close and shiver behind a parked car. The curved wheel-well and sharp chrome bumper radiate dim light from the electric bulb down the street. I slowly peek over. They all wear brown.
One man stops. His eyes narrow and he squints in our direction. He brings massive arm up to shield his eyes from the electric bulb, and stares across at the car. In the dim light, I think I see him smile. I drop low, all my limbs shaking. He never comes, but I stay behind the Olympia for a while longer, my heart shuttering in my chest. I look over and the street is empty. I cup Ehren’s legs to my waist and run, my foot throbbing.
A street away from the synagogue, the buildings ahead burst with light.
The storefronts twist in horrid, convulsing color. Their shadows shrink and grow in a pulsing orange light that hurts my eyes. I stop and gawk at the terrifying display as Ehren cries harder into my chest. Terror holds me still, my legs frozen in the grotesque dance of the light ahead of us.
It comes from the square ahead. From where we gathered to pray, where we made plans for meals, where we talked about our lives, our hopes, and grumbled long lists detailing the misdoings of our neighbors.
I finally move, breathing in short bursts of shallow air. I stop. They couldn’t have. Not there. My heart thundering, I look around the corner.
The synagogue is burning. Every bit of the old building is turning black, searing under a hateful moon. The window’s of our God’s home spit smoke into the cold, November sky. They burn the air, burn out the innocence of a night when we’ve done nothing wrong.
Ehren is silent. Some things are too much to articulate, too much to feel out into words. There are no words, no formula of language, or sounds, horrid enough to capture the turmoil unfolding in my eyes. I feel the moisture leave my mouth.
A large group surrounds the building. Black clouds pour out, disappearing in the familiar dark. Ribbons of fire lash up from the Star of David at the apex to the center arch, cutting the dark with razors of color. The windows glow with hell light. The towers of each corner of my synagogue still reach out for heaven, obscured in a moving blanket of displaced air. They fade in and out, wavering like a dream.
Through the hiss of flame, I hear screams rise from inside the building. Ehren moans against my chest. I sneak forward to huddle behind a bush on the edge of the lawn.
“What did he have to prove?” one of the brown shirts says.
“Had the option,” another says.
“Devoted to the devil, if you ask me. Rather burn than repent their cult of murder.”
“Killed our Lord, but He came back and here He is,” the figure spreads its arms wide. “Bringing judgment down on their ungrateful heads.”
Another man in everyday clothes nods his head in agreement and puffs on a cigarette, admiring the carnage.
The thin, white smoke twists against the column of darkness rising before it. Each figure stands tall, their stances wide and proud, taking in the wide expanse of flame.
The screaming rises, growing shriller in the inferno.
Then, it stops.
Only the crackling hiss of fire licking up the sides of the building remains. The outside brick has turned black, baking in the intense heat. In the center, the Star is hanging loose, threatening to fall into the flames. The windows are all gone and fire climbs higher and higher, up each tower and out the middle window. Despite the season, sweat drips into my eyes.
Something pulls at me. With sudden violence, I feel the crisp coolness of the late-night air as my face falls from view of the fire. My head hits the ground and Ehren is gone from my arms. Pain erupts from the back of my head and I cry out.
“What is this?!” a voice snarls from directly behind me.
I turn and there is a man in brown. His eyes are sharp and eager.
“Don’t dare speak!” He hisses down at me. The collar of my dress in a tight fist, he drags me away from the bush, away from Ehren, away from the crowd in front of us.
I kick, and try to find footing enough to pull myself up and run, but the man drags me on. My bloodied feet smear over the stones and find no traction.
There are more brown shirts across the open stones of the street. They swing pickaxes in the graveyard. The axes clang against stone, and the men laugh over the opening graves of my family.
“Look at that!” another brown shirted man shouts from the group at the fire. My skin is slick with sweat. My hands press into the heavy stones below, and I whimper.
“Found sneaking!” one cries.
I claw at the stones under me.
“Must be a Jew! Only Jew sneaks.”
The whole crowd turns to stare.
“A sneaking Jew!” my captor shouts.
He picks me up by the scruff of my dress. The fabric begins to rip, and I scream.
.”What devilry are you about?” he roars down at me.
“I…I’m not!” I stammer. His grip tightens. Ehren cries from the bush far away.
“Lies!” The crowd makes angry faces at me and a whole section of the synagogue’s roof falls into the inferno. One of the crowd turns back to watch the flames.
“No! We’re just scared. We didn’t do anything!”
“My brother and–” I cut myself short.
“This him?” another cries from the bush. He holds Ehren in the air by one tiny arm, his body dangling loose below it. He screams.
“Please don’t hurt him,” I cry to the brown shirt not much older than myself.
“Shut up, Jew!” A wide palm slaps my face and knocks me back to the ground.
The stones of the street outside the synagogue have always intrigued me. Each piece, set with precise detail, every one interlocked and flush to the next, built up into a road that goes on and on. As a child, I ran over them, laughing, wonder who had set each one with such loving care, who had thought to place them just so. I would feel the rough edges through my shoes, the hard stones vibrating the soles. I would run over them, holding newborn Simon in my arms, until Mother would tell me to stop, saying I would drop him and dash his tiny head.
My head crashes to the street. There is no happy noise on the stones, only pain. My eyes fill with tears, and everything blurs into vague shapes and figures.
“I will take care of this one!” the growling voice continues, just above me.
The words are hazy and float down in a lazy wave.
“What about this one?”
I look up to see the crowd start forward, away from the smoke – towards me. My forehead is pain, my once thick hair plastered, thin and damp, across it. Warmness drips into my eyes and down my nose; when it reaches my lips, I taste copper. The man grabs me by my collar. This time, the dress rips and hangs loose down my back. He grabs my arms and stands me up. My eyes burn with sweat and blood.
He shoves me.
“Ehren…” I cry, my words falling from me in an exhausted whisper.
The crowd is all around and my ears fill with buzzing, angry noise. I can’t see Ehren. I turn to look, but someone shoves my head back. They look down at their hands, at the blood that has come away from my head. A wide man with a large mustache and large, nearly calming eyes, wipes them down the front of my dress.
“Jew blood,” he sneers, the bunched mustache under his nose, quivering with anger.
The large man pulls me along, out of the crowd, away from the collapsing synagogue. He screams for them to get back, says its nothing of their concern, and drags me into the cooler air of a narrow street. I hear the whine of the beams of the synagogue as they fall.
When he finally stops, the street is quiet. He shoves me to the side with a grunt. My back hits cold brick. He holds me still with one arm and leans back, looking up the street. My back prickles against the brick where my skins lies exposed through the tear in my dress.
He turns and slaps me with his free hand. My head jerks from the blow. My face burns and I begin to cry, quietly, thinking of my lost brothers.
Minutes pass and shouts and cries continue ringing out in the distance.
A tall, thin man in crisp clothes strides out of the shadows with a detached grace that makes me shiver again. His shoes cut sharp reflections of lamplight from their polished tops. From one of his long arms, he swings a wide, leather bag, almost as if he is coming home from an office in the bright, cheerful colors of an afternoon sun. When he comes near, he puffs up his chest from the double breast of his sharp jacket and grins, amused by something only he knows.
The thick-armed man relaxes and smiles, his teeth wide and dominant. The two dip their heads to each other in greeting.
“This the one?” the thin man asks, stretching up behind the larger man, his stance domineering.
“Are you sure? I don’t have time to waste.”
“I understand,” the thick man answers. He looks back at me with hard, triumphant eyes. “I have been watching her for a while, now. I followed her from home, even passed her on the street before she came to the square. The righteous burning of–”
“Yes. Yes. We all know the tune.” The thin man rolls his eyes and click his teeth with annoyance. “Is she what we need?”
“Very much so. Even knew her aunt would go, the hour and minute.”
I stare at the two men, the thick one still holds me to the wall. Terror twists my insides, and I writhe under his wide hand. He pushes harder on my chest and I struggle to breathe.
“Good,” the thin man whispers.
He sets his leather bag on the rough stones at our feet. “And you got her there just in time to see what she needed to.” He turns to me and smiles a toothy, ugly smile. He pulls a small gun from the inside of his suit jacket, and points it at me.
“You will remain still, if you care to live.” He turns to my captor, still holding the gun to my face. “Release her,” he commands, waving his free hand. “And take off your shirt.”
“No questions,” the thin man says. “Just do it.”
The hand comes away from my chest and I suck in a ragged breath and swallow. My throat burns the new air into my lungs and I taste smoke and singed wood. I cough, terrified the quick motion with startle the man and his gun. The thick man remains motionless. His eyes shift to the gun at my temple, and back to the thin man. He grunts and begins to unbutton the brown shirt with slow fingers.
“Today, please.” The thin man looks off down the street with an anxious flick of his neck. The gun stays still.
The large man hurries.
Once the brown shirt is off, the thin man reaches into the bag and pulls out a black shirt of thick, wool-like fabric and throws it to the shirtless man. He is not as impressive now: his breasts sag and he has the gut of a seasoned drinker. He catches the shirt with one hand and looks back with confused eyes. He stands in the street, half-naked and shivering.
“Just put it on,” the other commands.
He buttons the shirt and straightens himself. It is too small and his thick arms bulge beneath it, the cuffs three inches above his wrists.
“Give me the brown one.”
“Oh, shut up and give it here.”
He takes the shirt, stuffs into his bag, and pulls something else out of the hard leather. He tosses it to the other man. I strain in the half-light.
It is a siddur.
The same as the one I read from each day. The same prayers I know, have taught to my brothers, have said over and over and over into the air, praying for a good lives and protection. The pages are new and crisp. It is dark brown and bound with thin, golden edges.
“What do I need this cursed thing for?”
“Just read the marked part.”
“Now, look here. I’ve done my part, but I will not read this vile–”
“You’ll do just what you’re told or get nothing.”
The large man, now in the thick shirt, gulps the air and grimaces. He pulls the pages apart, finds the marked page and sighs. He fumbles with loose paper and begins to read. His voice is slow and unsure:
“For slanderers, may there be no hope; and may all wickedness quickly be destroyed.”
He stops and lowers the book. “What is this nonsense,” he grunts. “Are we–”
“Hush and read, please. Then, only then, will our business be concluded.”
The large man huffs, and continues reading:
“…and may all your enemies be cut off swiftly. The intentional sinners,
swiftly may they be uprooted, broken, cast down and subdued, swiftly and in our days.”
As he reads, the thin man smiles and looks to me, his foot tapping with happy impatience. His eyes are glad, his wire-line mouth twitching anticipation, jumping with each word. I frown, and pull my lips into a tight, confused line.
The large man finishes.
“What was the point of–” he says, staring to pull the siddur down.
Before he can lower the book, the taller man pulls the gun away from my face and thrusts it into the spine of the book.
He fires three shots.
The prayer books explodes into scraps of ink and paper. His head snaps back, and hits the hard wall inches from my shoulder. His body smears red down the brick and slumps away from me. His large frame slides down, finally coming to a rest against the base of the wall.
I scream, and try to pull away from the rag-doll contortions of his body.
The thin man smiles wide and grabs my arm.
“Now, now it’s alright.” He puts a hand over my mouth and holds me still, both of us watching the dying man twitch. When he stops, the thin man lets out a happy, chirp of appreciation.
“See? He’s done,” he chortles, then laughs outright. He slides the gun back into his pocket, and produces a bundle of papers from the top of the leather bag. He tosses them down onto the slumped corpse, and smiles again.
“If they don’t think hard enough, which I doubt they’ll trouble themselves enough to, they’ll think him one of your lot.” He laughs again. It is short and nimble, ringing up the dark windows. “As for the reading,” he smiles, wide and sinister, his teeth glowing in the lamplight. “I just like the sound,” he says.
I look over. The thick man’s face is caved into a tattered hole, his eyes gone – buried deep in a gushing crater of gore and blood. Half the nose is torn away, and his mouth is frozen, frowning with the sacrilege of the siddur. The wall behind glistens red in the dim light.
I heave, and nearly vomit. A stern look from the thin man stills my nausea.
My arm is jelly when he pulls me from the hard stones. He drags me along, taking me from the last, receding flicker of the burning synagogue that dances along the desolate rooftops. He hums and take me away, into the dark. My exposed back explodes in violent goose pimples, all the hairs of my body rising with fear and cold.