All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that goodmen do nothing.
Edmund Burke 1729-1797
In the Shadow of the Wolf
Walt slid his chisel into its slot at the back of his bench and sipped the tea he’d let go cold. He eased a sepia photograph from his wallet. For thirty-four years, he’d carried Miriam’s likeness, faded and tattered around the edges: she’d left footprints in his heart trodden deep and clear. Her voice echoed still, and his heartbeat quickened, the memory of the tramp of feet, marching from the spring of 1944, jarring the brick floor beneath him into hard-packed grey earth. Left, right, left, right…
Yet again, he marched with them: dust scoured his eyes and throat and gritted the sweat on his back. The kommando of haeftling, their striped berets and coats creating an army of Colorado beetles, kept time with the SS guards. Despair choreographed their movements; controlled by an evil puppeteer, they stared straight ahead, their arms hanging limp, their wasted faces blank while, behind them, ambulances rattled to a stop.
The thud of boots and clogs faded beneath the hiss of steam and the clatter of couplings as the rumble of iron on iron ground to a halt. A line of cattle wagons, each bearing the insignia of their country of origin and some with a painted yellow star, snaked into the Stygian distance. Smoke and steam mingled with the sickly sweet pall that hung over the camp day and night, and flakes of ash from the chimneys danced with smuts of smoke and floated to the ground with the grace of angels. Already the day was hot. Inside the wagons, it would be suffocating.
Wagon doors rolled back with squeals and grinding crashes, drowning the swing tune belted out by the camp orchestra. Eyes stark with bewilderment blinked against the light.
‘Aussteigen.’ An SS officer waved his pistol. ‘Schnell! Schnell!’
Men tumbled onto the ramp. Women clutched babies to their breasts and gathered children to their skirts, their eyes searching the surrounding faces.
One woman cupped her hands in supplication. ‘Viz.’ A yellow star emblazoned her coat. Hungarian. Jewish. They’d been arriving by the wagon-load. ‘Viz… kérem.’
The words for water, bread, and help were burned into his memory in every European language. The woman begged for water, but he could offer no drop of water, no morsel of bread, or shred of hope.
‘Viz. Wasser… Bitte.’ A stooped, grey-bearded figure held up four fingers. The journey from Hungary had taken four days: four days without food or water.
The crowd swelled across the ramp as the wagons vomited more souls than they could possibly contain, bringing with them the stench of excrement. A guard hustled the men and older boys from the women and children, forming them into two ragged lines along the tracks, and a detachment of haeftling quick-stepped forward to heave bodies from the wagons and lay them in rows upon the aching ground. The old, the little children: their bodies weren’t heavy even for those barely fleshed themselves.
A young woman bent to retrieve her possessions, but an SS officer strode past. ‘Leave. Luggage afterwards.’
She stood, wide-eyed like a startled deer, one arm cradling a baby. Beside her, an elderly woman clutched a battered suitcase. The girl’s eyes darted from soldier to painted signboard and back. ‘What are we doing here, Grandmother? Why have they brought us here?’ The wind teased at her cheerful red shawl, revealing and lifting long black hair. She straightened and attempted a smile. ‘It’ll be all right, Grandmother. God has protected us on our journey.’
‘Where’s your father?’ The elderly lady adjusted her shawl, covering shock-white hair. ‘Miriam, I can’t see my Jani.’
‘Father will be helping Efah and Mother with the children.’
‘And where are our precious things?’
‘They’re here, Grandmother.’
Voices rasped, whips cracked, and dogs barked. He waited, trying to be inconspicuous, for orders that didn’t come. The men and boys were marched away, craning necks for a glimpse of wives, mothers, sisters, and children. At a signal, the remaining haeftling searched the wagons and carried bundles and suitcases to waiting lorries. Miriam’s grandmother’s case fell open: a beetle snapped it shut and scurried it away. Something had fallen out: in the bustle, no one saw him pick up the small wallet of photographs and tuck it inside his shirt.
More orders followed: more cracking whips and snarling dogs. The line of women and children stumbled forward across the railway sleepers, leaving behind tumbled heaps of abandoned lives.
The march through the camp took forever, yet it was over too soon. At the junction, guards ordered the women to a halt. Smoke from the chimneys obliterated the sky: a wind from the west blew the stench across their path.
‘Zwillinge, vortreten!’ He, the hated hauptsturmführer,stood before them, dark hair smoothed back and his Iron Cross worn with casual pride. His eyes pierced the crowd, and his gloved hand held a cane with which he directed bewildered women to the left or the right.
He shuddered, knowing what the man sought.
An SS officer pushed towards a woman of about fifty. ‘How old?’ She didn’t respond, so the officer shouted the question.
He edged closer. As a doctor, he held a privileged position, but he’d also discovered a gift for languages. He translated German to stilted Hungarian, adding in a low voice, ‘Say you’re under forty-five. Say you are well. Stand here with the younger women.’ He moved from woman to woman intercepting those he could. ‘Say you are well. Tell them your daughter’s sixteen. Say she’s well. Say you can work or have a skill. Tell them you’re not pregnant.’
The hauptsturmführer waved his cane. ‘You, to the right. No, the children to the left.’
A woman clutched her children’s hands. ‘I can’t leave my babies.’
He froze, fearing for them all. The thunder of another train grew closer, and the SS officer gestured her to the left with her children. He breathed again, ashamed at feeling relief, and hurried to intercept the next group.
The girl with the red shawl was there in front of him: the old lady had called her Miriam. He touched her arm. ‘Say you’re well, Miriam. Say you can work and are not pregnant. Give the baby to your grandmother, and tell her she must stand to the left with the children. You must stand to the right.’
‘My grandmother isn’t well. I’m a nurse. I can look after her and little Mary.’
A guard strode past. ‘Together afterwards.’
He nodded, compounding the conspiracy of silence. ‘Together afterwards.’
The old lady held out her arms for the baby. ‘Go, Miriam. God be with you.’
Miriam’s eyes glistened. ‘May He rescue us from the hand of every foe.’ She touched her grandmother’s cheek, a gentle, lingering movement, and placed a tender kiss on her baby’s forehead.
She moved where he pointed to stand with a group of about thirty young women: only thirty? Her eyes followed her grandmother and daughter as they were swallowed into the thousands who straggled towards the anonymous buildings beneath the smoke. Ambulances passed, carrying those who were unable to walk; a truck bearing a red cross followed behind. She watched until they disappeared from sight and then searched the faces of the women that remained.
Miriam’s eyes met his. He had no way to tell her he had given her life: no right to tell her to abandon hope. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
The doorknob rattled, jolting Walt back to the workshop at the end of the garden: Kettering, England, 1978. He slipped the photograph away and covered his work, heart thudding. He turned the doorknob. ‘Charlotte – did you want me, little one?’
‘You promised us a story, Grandpa.’
He shooed Charlotte ahead of him and turned the key in the lock. He clipped the key to a chain, alongside a smaller brass one, and put both keys in his pocket.
‘Grandpa…’ Charlotte plucked his sleeve.
Lucy, her mirror-image, mimicked Granny’s best exasperated sigh. ‘The little girls, Grandpa. Tell us about the little girls.’
Machines, clattering from open windows in the shoe factory behind the workshop, settled into a rhythm steadier than his heart. He ruffled Charlotte’s blonde curls absently and sank into his deckchair, but already, he stood outside the snow-wrapped building many miles and years from the garden of the backstreet terrace. A wolf stalked the edges of his mind, and long-dead faces pleaded for help he couldn’t give.
He found a smile. ‘A woodcutter lived deep in the forests of Günsburg with his wife, two small daughters, and some chickens. They were happy and free except for the wolf.’
Blue eyes widened. ‘A wolf?’
He nodded. ‘The woodcutter was afraid to let his daughters into the forest alone, so he decided to slay the wolf. He put on his green jacket and his hat with a feather and went outside to kill a chicken.’
Charlotte sobered. ‘Why?’
‘His daughters’ lives were more important to him than the chicken’s. He put poison inside the chicken, set off to find the wolf’s lair, and dropped the chicken onto the ground. Then he climbed a tree to watch.’ He pushed away memories of guard towers, electrified barbed wire, hunger, thirst, and relentless cold. ‘The wolf crept from his lair. Sniff, sniff, sniff. I smell chicken. He dragged the chicken inside.’
Charlotte tilted her head to one side. ‘Did the wolf die, Grandpa?’
He brushed a stray curl from her face. ‘The woodcutter thought he was dead, but he was only sleeping a long, long sleep.’
Lucy screwed up her face. ‘So he might still eat the little girls?’
He sought for a prettier tale to distract her, but he’d been only three when the mud of the Somme had sucked the life from his father. His mother’s struggle to raise him and his sister alone hadn’t included fairy tales.
Charlotte slashed at an imaginary foe. ‘Grandpa won’t let the wolf eat us, Lucy. Grandpa will kill him, dead, like this.’
She had the courage he’d lacked. Would it have made a difference? ‘It’s not good to kill, Charlotte. No one has the right to take another’s life.’
‘But if he’s going to eat me!’
Why had he got into a moral debate with five-year-olds? They always found holes in his logic big enough to fall through.
Lucy picked at a scab. ‘Granny says eating people is a sin.’
‘She says it’s a comment from God.’
‘A commandment. Eating people is a sin, but people believe all sorts of different things, Lucy. A long time ago, people believed in lots of gods.’
‘When we were little?’
‘Longer ago than that. Long before even I was born.’ Charlotte’s mouth made a circle round enough to fit a whole plum. He smiled. ‘They thought the sun was a god and the moon was a goddess.’ It made more sense than the Catholic dogma he’d absorbed from his mother. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Her plea had struck terror into his young heart. Take me from the dark. Hear me now, O Lord. Her God hadn’t heard him in his darkest hours; He hadn’t heard her when the aerial bombardment razed her home to the ground, burying her and his sister when the Second World War was all but over.
Jane arrived with drinks and biscuits and drove both wolf and God from the twins’ minds with an ease he envied.
‘I’ll take my tea in the workshop, love, and do more work to Dobbin. Come and see what you think.’ Dust motes danced in the beam of sunlight that shone through the workshop window and onto the rocking horse that stood on the bricks, awaiting a coat of primer: it was a present for the twins’ fifth birthday. Arturas and Peti had been five.
Jane put the mug on the bench among shapes hidden beneath dustsheets. ‘The twins will love him.’ Dimples chased the wrinkles from the corners of her mouth. ‘Don’t let your tea go cold again, Walt.’
His gaze lingered on his wife’s plump form, measuring the too rapid drip of time they had left together as she retreated down the path towards the kitchen. Breathing in the scents of roses, lavender, and leather, he locked the door behind him and removed the shroud from his other, secret, more pressing task.
He brushed back a strand of grey hair. He took no pleasure from the work, for each stroke of mallet on chisel laid his soul bare, and yet he found a release of sorts as if he were at last keeping a promise too long unkept. With a surgeon’s precision, he gouged his nightmares into the tortured shapes, sanded truth into each curve, and wrote in them his guilt, but even now, he wasn’t keeping his promise. Even now, he procrastinated, but he had to do something.
Part of him desperately wanted to be confronted, to have the unspeakable truth he hid each day torn from him, to share his burden and his pain, the discovery of his past left to capricious fate as so much of his life had been. He should never have survived – there were others more worthy who’d perished. He sighed. He couldn’t blight his family’s lives, but he ached to have his truth known while still protecting them.
It had been instinctive for him to turn to his woodworking tools for a solution to ease the restlessness in his soul, and he’d toiled at five carvings. Four were living flames in burr elm. The fifth, carved from straighter-grained lime-wood, depicted a wolf leaping through flames. Two short burr-elm cylinders, shaped like lighted candles, echoed the theme of fire and completed the work. While thoughts of mortality had urged him to take up his chisels, he was desperately afraid of what would happen if he reawakened the wolf too soon.
But no one would ever guess his ridiculous puzzle, would they? Not even the twins who loved his treasure hunts and games. He went through the fail-safes he’d put in place to protect Jane, Jennie, and the girls – his truth would be known, but not while they lived. He’d made a promise before God though he and God had long since reached a mutual understanding: neither believed in the other. Nor would he be a party to his mother’s Hail-Mary forgiveness – at least the Greek goddesses spoke to him of a price to pay. Anyway, a promise was a promise, however long it took to keep it, and he owed his dead their truth.
A shadow fell across the window above the bench, fighting the naked bulb that hung from twisted flex, darkening the workshop’s interior, and making his heart thud.
He covered his work and the rocking horse and opened the door. Charlotte ran into his open arms. A lump formed in his throat as he hugged her. Lucy stood in the doorway, the sun gifting her bleached-straw hair with the touch of Midas and lighting her delicate features.
‘Don’t get in Grandpa’s way, you two. Send them in if they’re a nuisance, Dad.’ Jennie took a deep breath. ‘I love this place. The smells, the junk. Nothing changes.’
He rubbed the back muscle he’d pulled digging: bending to catch Charlotte had tweaked it. ‘We can’t hold back time, love.’
‘Or turn it back.’
‘If you want to talk…’
‘Since Vince’s accident – It’s as if I’m walking out of step.’
‘Charlotte, Lucy, ask Granny how long tea will be.’
Jennie nodded her thanks.
He held her close. ‘You’re doing well, love. It takes time to find a way through grief. I had an aunt who repeated a mantra. God grant me the strength to bear what can’t be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
She caught a breath. ‘Maybe it’s wisdom I need.’
‘She’d put each problem in its own mental box, solve those she could, and close the lid on those she couldn’t. You’ll find the strength to move on.’
‘How could I lie beside someone at night and not think of Vince?’
She couldn’t as he knew too well. ‘You mustn’t think like that. A candle doesn’t burn dimmer because you light another one.’
‘You sound as if’ – Jennie’s eyes searched his – ‘Dad?’
What part of his soul had she read?
‘Who was she?’
‘Just a girl.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘The war happened – to both of us.’ He pursed his lips: subject closed. ‘Sweetheart, don’t build a prison out of grief. Vince would want you to be happy.’
Lucy ran up the path. ‘Granny says five minutes.’
Jennie caught Charlotte at the door and shepherded her outside. ‘Come on, you two. We’ll help Granny.’
The kitchen door closed behind them, and he felt for the wallet in his back pocket. He drew out the sepia photograph again. ‘Just a girl…’
Thank you for sharing.