This is a horror story I wrote more than five years ago. The concept behind the tale is most definitely the most horrific I've done thus far, and I'm still unsure of the moral point behind the story; I write here about people who commit acts of great evil for reasons that turn out to possibly be not quite so evil after all. It's a long story, so I'm going to serialize it, one installment each week, over eight weeks. While the story never sold, each of its rejection slips bore the consolation-prize of a hand-scrawled note from an editor saying "Wow, almost good enough." That surprised me greatly, since I could never make up my own mind about this tale. But here it is.
Willem Schliemann extends a shaking hand toward one of his six remaining African violets. This plant hasn’t blossomed in months, and he wonders why. The truth is that he isn’t very good at this. He whispers an expletive as he hears the truck engine outside. He grabs his cane and heads for the door.
“Good morning, Senor,” Miguel says as Willem walks out onto the porch. Miguel goes around back of the pickup truck and begins unloading Willem’s weekly supplies. He puts two crates on the porch and stops to wipe his brow. “Senor, how can you wear long sleeves today?”
“The warmth appeals to me,” Willem Schliemann says with a shrug. “Though I admit that I will never truly be used to sun and heat in December.”
“You’ve been here fifty years.”
“Fifty-four,” Willem says. Fifty-four years since he last saw the Fatherland, though no one calls it that now.
“Perhaps that is why your flowers do not bloom.” Miguel grins and wipes his brow again. “I’ll see you next week, Senor Schliemann. Oh, your mail.” He hands Willem a pack of mail tied with a string, and then he gets back in the dusty old pickup and drives away down the narrow dirt road. Willem breathes in the warm breeze from the Atlantic. He thumbs through his correspondence. A few bills, letters he exchanges with people around the world – none bearing his real name, of course. Argentines don’t question such things. He finds a letter from a particularly engaging correspondent, and he smiles. Then he sees the postcard on the bottom of the stack.
The card shows a place Willem remembers with perfect clarity through fifty-four years, a lifetime, of memories. The front gates of the concentration camp at Hamerstadt. There on the left is the spot where he stood at attention that morning. The grass is green, the paint on the buildings is flaking – but it is the same place. He waits for the chill to run through him, but nothing comes. Has it been too long? He turns the card over and reads where a feminine hand has written in German, “I have finally found you.” There is no signature. One is not needed.
Old Willem Schliemann looks up at the bright morning sky. He knows that she will be here tonight. Willem sighs, puts the mail aside, and goes about putting his supplies away. As he does so he glances at his stubborn violets.
Some blossoms are more delicate than others….
Willem Schliemann stood at attention near the front gate. His new uniform, stiff and scratchy and at least a size too big, hung loosely on his slight frame. His head still itched from being shaved three days before. Thirty other new conscripts stood with him, waiting in the cold April air for….something. Flecks of ash fluttered down from the sky like snowflakes, ash from the great smokestack that towered above the giant foundry building that was not really a foundry. Somewhere behind them Willem could hear a train arriving.
Commandant Gerhard Reger looked over his conscripts with a disgusted expression as a staff car pulled up in front of the phalanx. A man climbed out of the car’s back seat, and the Commandant turned to face him. “Herr Doktor,” Reger said. “A pleasure.”
“I’m sure,” the man said. Willem leaned slightly to one side to get a better look at this man. He was short, shorter than Willem. His black hair was slicked straight back and his thin lips were set in a tight frown. He wore a thick black overcoat with a sable collar, and a swastika-shaped lapel pin. He placed a pince-nez on his nose and looked over the conscripts. “Such a fine crop, Commandant. Our thousand-year Empire is now in the hands of sixteen-year-old boys.” He ignored the look of disgust on Reger’s face as he returned the pince-nez to his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, which he handed to the Commandant. “This is the one I require,” he said. “I trust I have not picked a boy to whom you have formed….an attachment?”
Willem watched as Commandant Reger met the man’s gaze. He was close to the front and could hear what was being said, but even the soldiers in the very back row could not have missed the look of utter loathing in the Commandant’s eye. Reger faced the conscripts again and yelled out the name on the paper.
“WILLEM SCHLIEMANN! STEP FORWARD!”
Swallowing, Willem stepped forward and walked to the front of the line, where he returned to attention as the man, this Doktor, came down and looked him over. He smelled faintly of lavender.
“An honor,” the man said. “Please, come along.” He gestured for Willem to come with him. “You are assigned to me now.”
Willem glanced at the Commandant, who gave a single, curt nod. Willem joined the Doktor and climbed into the warmth of the staff car as a young soldier who was not much older than himself held the door open. When the driver was back behind the wheel the Doktor rapped twice on the forward window with his truncheon. The driver nodded, put the car in gear, and drove. Willem looked out the windows as they passed through the camp. There were many guards presiding over the comings and goings of hundreds of emaciated, prisoners. More than once he saw two soldiers dragging a dead body between them. The Doktor sipped from a flask and shook his head.
“Somehow I suspect our solution is not so final after all,” he said. “In the end, there are still more Jews than Nazis.”
“In the end?” Willem asked, surprising himself by speaking.
The Doktor nodded. “Italy is no longer with us. The Russians failed to oblige us by simply giving up. We have already lost France, and Hirohito hasn’t been able to command the total attention of the Americans. And, of course, the British….well, there it is.”
“There is still hope,” Willem said.
The Doktor eyed Willem suspiciously. “Fill an empty bag with hope, and you have an empty bag.” He capped the flask and returned it to his pocket. “My name is Wolf Muething. I am a physician by trade, although in recent years my work has gone in other directions.” He sighed. “I chose you because of your experience working with your uncle.”
Willem glanced sharply at the Doktor. “How do you know that?”
“He was my friend,” Doktor Muething said. “We were in school together, many years ago. I was very sad to hear of his passing.”
Willem nodded and looked away, mostly to hide the fresh tears welling up. He had been five years old when his father died and he’d gone to live and work with Uncle Gunther. Since then he had spent his days traveling with his uncle to the villages and farms all around the region. Willem had helped deliver babies, set broken bones, and tend to the dying. He had done everything that a country doktor would, and he had always supposed that he would become a physician himself.
Then, just six weeks before today, he had been at Uncle Gunther’s side, treating an elderly woman with rickets. Gunther complained of chest pains, and hours later he was dead. Uncle Gunther had been old, but he had never been sick for more than a day or two. The shock of his passing was compounded two weeks later by his conscription into the Army….and now he was apparently assigned to another physician. Looking at Doktor Muething, with his black hair and severe look that was the complete opposite of Uncle Gunther’s, Willem suspected somehow that he would not be delivering babies or setting broken bones.
Minutes later they arrived at their destination. Willem looked out the window at the small, low building. “Here we are,” Doktor Muething said. “Your new quarters will be over there.” He pointed to the dormitories across the street. These looked somewhat better than the mass quarters he had shared with the several hundred other new conscripts – if any housing in such a setting could ever be described as nice. “Come,” the Doktor said. “I would have a look at what they have built for us.” He waited for the driver to come open the door and then he climbed out, followed by Willem. He led the way up five stairs and inside.
It was a small medical laboratory. Clean, Willem noticed, definitely clean. The place still smelled like fresh paint, plywood and plaster; the stainless steel examination table in the center of the room gleamed in the sunlight that streamed in through the large windows. But as Willem looked closer he could see spots where the paint was too thick or too thin, where the wall panels didn’t fit together quite correctly, where electrical wiring was exposed. Another disposable building.
“Not bad for construction performed at gunpoint,” Doktor Muething said. “It won’t take me long to put things in order.”
Willem looked around at the rest of the laboratory, which wasn’t much bigger than the room where Uncle Gunther had based his practice. He now saw that the examination table was outfitted for surgical procedures as well. A cabinet on the right was stocked with chemicals and specimens preserved in formaldehyde. There was a packed bookcase, and between the bookcase and the cabinet there was a roll-top desk. Willem approached the surgical table. It was not as pristine as it had first appeared. Its surface was dull and scratched, and although it had been meticulously cleaned since its last use no amount of scrubbing could remove all the traces of blood from the collection grooves.
“You probably didn’t use a table like this, working for Gunther,” Doktor Muething observed.
“No,” Willem said.
“It should make you proud, having such an opportunity to help the Fatherland.” He took off his overcoat and hung it on the back of the chair in front of the roll-top desk. He was wearing a double-breasted charcoal-gray suit, and now he wore no swastika pin.
“I am honored to work for the glory of Germany,” Willem said.
The Doktor laughed, and Willem’s cheeks turned a bright crimson. What had he said that was funny?
“Forgive me,” the Doktor said. “I am an old man, and I have seen the Might of Germany plowed under twice in one lifetime.” He settled into the chair, the legs of which squeaked. “What we do here is not for Germany. What we do here, is for the betterment of Man. Out there”—he made a sweeping gesture—“the masses will not approve of what we do. They will hate it, condemn it, and some will try even to deny it. But they will benefit. We must learn what we can. Do you understand?”
Willem drew himself up straight. “You speak treason, Herr Doktor.”
“Hardly. Germany will survive; I merely question the form in which it shall be. Perhaps on that day we will be a wiser people.” He pushed himself up from the chair, walked over to the surgical table, and ran a finger down one of the blood-grooves. “Tell me, young Schliemann – are you a man of science?”
Willem shifted on his feet as he considered the question. Doktor Muething smiled.
“You are thinking,” he said. “Good. We haven’t driven you totally to automatic sentiments and easy platitudes.”
“I don’t understand the question, Herr Doktor.”
“And that, young Schliemann, is the beginning of wisdom.” Doktor Muething smiled. “There was a time, once, when the standard treatment for disease was prayer. It was thought that all maladies were caused by evil spirits, and that only God could restore health to an afflicted body. But centuries of science have taught us otherwise. What God would afflict, we can now put right.” He leaned against the table. “So much of what we have learned has come at the expense of the dead. What does this tell you, young Schliemann? What question should arise now, if you are truly of science?”
Willem thought for a moment. “Is there a limit to what the dead can teach us.”
Doktor Muething nodded. “And if the answer to that question is ‘yes’?”
The answer came as quickly as before, but Willem hesitated before saying it. “Then I would ask what we may learn from the living.”
“Precisely,” the Doktor said, and then he addressed someone behind Willem. “Are they here, Commandant?”
“Yes, Herr Doktor.”
Willem hadn’t heard Commandant Reger enter, but there he stood, waiting patiently in the doorway.
“Good,” Doktor Muething said. “Let us see them.”
Willem and the Doktor followed Commandant Reger outside, where six prisoners stood at attention under the watchful eye of eight rifle-wielding guards. Two guards would be enough, Willem thought, judging by the look of the prisoners. Doktor Muething stepped up and looked over each prisoner. There were four men and two women. Each had that sunken look of hunger, and each wore the yellow Star of David stitched to their ratty prison clothes.
“All Jews?” the Doktor asked. “No Gypsies or other undesirables?”
“All Jews,” the Commandant replied icily. “You were quite specific.”
Doktor Muething bid one of the male prisoners to open his mouth, and then he examined the man’s teeth. “Healthy enough, I suppose.”
He has a strange idea of health, Willem thought as the Doktor moved on to the two women. He very briefly looked over the older of the two, but he lingered on the younger. “Might I see your eyes, child?” the Doktor said as he lifted her chin with a single finger. As her head rose, her gaze flicked ever so briefly to Willem’s. There was no fear in her eyes, only quiet resignation. In health she would have been lovely, Willem thought. Even for a Jew.
The Doktor stepped away from the prisoners. “These will do.”
“You are truly a charitable man, Herr Doktor,” the Commandant said, making no effort to look at Doktor Muething as he addressed him.
Doktor Muething waved a hand. “Charity is hostility with an open hand,” he said. “Young Schliemann, we will begin tomorrow morning at precisely five o’clock. I assume that Gunther taught you punctuality?”
Willem nodded. Uncle Gunther had always carried three watches to ensure that he would never be late for anything. One of those watches was now Willem’s; he had inherited it along with Uncle Gunther’s stethoscope, the last proud artifacts from the life of a poor country doktor.