Monday, February 05, 2007

Inheritance

I watched him tap the wolf's teeth and run his opisthenar along the stuffed muzzle. The taxidermist's gift made it the only living thing in Herr Oswald Pohl's office. I wished Herr Pohl would quickly take the file from me and let me go home. The five hour ride on the scooter had left my buttocks sore and my exposed knees and knuckles, brittle.
"Do you know why a wolf teaches her cubs to kill early?"
I waited for him to add something more to his question to help me see the relevance. At length, I said, "To let them learn to survive in the wild?"
He laughed loudly and patted my cheeks. I hated it when he did that. If being called schüler wasn't enough, I also had to put up with the extra bread slices that the others would drop on my plate and wipe their hands on my hair, their refusal to let me be party to their whiskey and this repeated patting on my cheeks.
"Herr Pohl, was I right?"
Herr Pohl's smile kept shrinking ever so slowly that I wondered whether he ever laughed a minute ago. He looked at me from behind his table and said, "That is what most people are made to believe because the animal truth is not to our palate."
"Herr Pohl, please tell me."
He simply shook his head and said, "The blood that paints one hand burns less than when it is the red skin of ten men."
"Herr Pohl, but why does the wolf teach her cubs to hunt if blood burns?"
He waved away my doubt and looked bored.
"So what does Herr Schmidt send us today?"
"I didn't see, Herr Pohl. Should I read it for you?"
He beckoned to hand over the file to him. I could read, and I wondered why I was never allowed to read the file that Herr Pohl received every fortnight or the messages he sent to Herr Schmidt.
"Why are your shorts dirty?" he asked while carefully reading through the file.
I hesitated before I replied, "Slipped on the turn of the shunpike."
He looked at me without raising his head and said, "Then I am sure the scooter is also damaged, eh?"
I simply swallowed and looked down at my toes.
"What happened, son?" There are times when Herr Pohl emerges from Herr Pohl but not quite as that. A softer voice, a slight smile, a gentle word for you to be honest but not for you to cling onto and expect that Herr Pohl to stay.
"Please don't be angry, Herr Pohl. I did nothing you didn't ask me to. I didn't disobey Herr Schmidt either. I was only parking the scooter and walked... there, when one of the Jews threw a brick at me."
"What! How dare he?"
"No, no, nothing happened. This other prisoner pushed me away and that is why I got dirty. Just a little", I assured him and looked down at my feet not wanting him to see me cry at having disappointed him. I wasn't sure about what wrong I had exactly done, but I could feel it.
"Who was the dog who threw the brick at you? What was his number?" he demanded.
"I don't know, Herr Pohl. They... they shot him", and I started sobbing.
"Once?"
I looked at him and through the veil of tears and saw his skin flowing down with my tear, his face smudging and melting into monstrous designs. I quickly wiped my eyes and Herr Pohl asked me again, "Only once?"
"A few of the soldiers shot him. I don't remember - it was too fast."
He breathed in deeply and let it out with a gruff snort.He returned to his file while I stood there. I could still see the old Jew push me down to sods. His eyes shut tight while that other prisoner was repeatedly scorched with bullets well after he was dead. He opens it only to the silent fatality of death. I had seen him before, reading books and writing something occasionally. When he finally looks down at me all he has to say is: Copreus. What did that mean?
"Herr Pohl?"
"Hmmm"
That which catches wolves, doesn't pardon the child"What does Copreus mean?"
"Copreus is not a what but a who. Where did you read that, schüler?" he smiled.
"I didn't read it, Herr Pohl. The old prisoner who saved me called me that."
Herr Pohl slammed the file shut and threw it against the wall.
"What was his number?" he asked, pausing on each word and tearing them out through his teeth.
"I don't know. I didn't see it, Herr Pohl, I swear. I think it was 143 something."
Herr Pohl quickly extracted his message pad and started furiously scribbling into it. I pulled myself on my toes to see whether it was a complaint to my father, but all I could see was "14300 to 14399" and then the usual cryptic message that I have carried a hundred times: Shoes: so-many and Lampshades: so-many. I wonder what that meant. What would Herr Pohl do with - how many was it today? - 56 shoes and 82 lampshades? Why did the Jews hate me for occasionally delivering a note about leather shoes and fancy leather lampshades? I sank back on my heels. Herr Pohl was a trembling shade of pink.
"Take this to Herr Schmidt, immediately."
"But, Herr Pohl", I whined, "I just got back and..."
"Go!" he growled and flung the note at my face. I instinctively looked at the wolf. As I bent down to pick up the note, the only face that came to my mind was the old man spitting the word "Copreus" to my face. In that word and this note, I smelt the Devil snaking from the fallen prisoner's skull and an unpardoning God pushing me down outside Auschwitz.

2 comments:

  1. Parvati7:14 PM

    One should learn from you as to how to make a short story gripping, with vivid images, rushing in front of us, or moving slowly - I can actually see and feel the whole Aushwitz scene, the uncertainty of the young boy in his ignorance, the maturity, strength, the cruelty and inexplicable anger of the older man, one aspect of his personality so beautifully described in the words "There are times when Herr Pohl emerges from Herr Pohl but not quite as that. A softer voice, a slight smile, a gentle word for you to be honest but not for you to cling onto and expect that Herr Pohl to stay."

    # Feels very real even after more than half a century between this event and now, and we have only you, the writer to thank for.

    Very well written, the story is there as the substance lofty and important and incredible, and very beautifully written too in choice words and expressions, making the way it is said equally captivating and enrapturing.

    Very good. Like a teacher does, I suppose I could give this story a beautiful, 9 on 10, and the one less is to prod you on to greater beauty and glory as a writer!

    :-)

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  2. Dear P,
    Boy! You sure are generous with compliments! :-) Glad you liked the piece. I owe a lot of this to a dear friend. The lines you quote are part of the portrait drawn of Herr Pohl.

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