Freedom

Barbed wire at a disused military base. iStockphoto.com i i
iStockphoto.com
Barbed wire at a disused military base. iStockphoto.com
iStockphoto.com

For Round 6 of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction where one of the characters tells a joke and one of the characters cries.

Work will set you free, Yakov read as we walked, together, under the iron sign into the compound. Harsh, guttural German commands shepherded each of us into different groups, and I ended up in the same group as Yakov. He had noticed me first on the train and then again when we were trudging through the mud. It was raining that day, a cold day in February, 1943.

He leaned toward me and scrabbled in his pockets for something. He pulled out a crust of hard black bread, frozen with cold, dry in the country air. He broke it in half and handed me a piece. It was hard as a rock, but Yakov showed me how to soften it in the rain falling down by rubbing it along his arm, soaking up the rainwater from the stiff pelt of hair that covered his skin. I had no such hair, but I did the same and, after a while, the bread softened. I was 9 years old.

"If work will make us free, tovarich, then you and I will be first out of here, eh?" He dug his elbow into my ribs, laughing, his dark eyes alight with humor and I nodded, chewing my bread. It wasn't bad.

An old woman had leaned against me on the train, her head banging on my shoulder with every uneven clack of the rail wheels beneath the floorboards of the fast-moving train. I'd fallen asleep and, when I had awakened by the stopping of the train, she was dead. The soldiers who had opened the massive train car doors shouted at one another and threw her in the mud, where she lay, face-down, as we filed past and under the iron sign. I felt bad for her, but she hadn't been frowning anymore. She looked peaceful.

We worked hard, Yakov and I, in our striped pajama uniforms, and I struggled to keep up with him. He told me that he had been a doctor and had decided to enlist in the Russian army because of the food. It wasn't good, he laughed, but it was plentiful.

He'd been captured when the Germans had overrun his position so quickly that they'd left him behind. He'd shrugged, dropped his weapon, raised his hands and surrendered to a dozen different Germans before finding one who would take him in. The others had hurried past, grim-faced, to join their fellows at the front.

His arms, over the weeks, lost their muscular vigor and turned hard as iron on the meager rations they fed us. I saw him waste away, day by day, but he always managed to add to my portion, taking from his own. I tried to refuse, but I was hungry and, being 9, I was selfish.

One day they lined us up and marched us past the German doctors. I was strong, and big for my age. Yakov ended up in a different line. His arms looked like sticks. When he realized what was happening, he raised his voice.

"Work hard, tovarich!" he called to me. "Remember me!" Tears streamed down his face, running into the gaunt lines alongside his mouth. The Germans pushed him towards the gravel pits, where the Russians always went.

I never saw him again.

I would like to think that, like the old woman who died on the train, Yakov found his peace and freedom when he became the black smoke that rose into the cold winter air, belching out of the smokestack of the crematory. That he is, to this day, still laughing.

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