There was the briefest flicker of sleep, as brief as the intervals between the shafts of light passing through the barred windows of the boxcar as it rumbled along the tracks. For a moment, the space was open around me and there was no one else in the boxcar except for an old man squatting down in the far corner, huddling close to himself and glaring up at me with one eye from under the brim of his dirty brown cap. There was a glint of gold as he bared his teeth in the dark. Then I was jolted awake by a sudden bump on the track, and again there was the tight crowd of bodies crammed into the boxcar all around me with barely room to stand, everyone dressed in rags and smelling of oil and diesel and sweat.
The train came to a stop with a screech and a scrape as the guards tore the doors open and everyone began to pour out. We unloaded onto an open muddy field beside the tracks, and the ground rose to the gate of the camp far across the field. The inscription over the gate was wrought in black iron against the grey sky, and my eyes rose to it like a beacon. Work would keep me free. Work would keep me alive. I had to find work in this place. The guards flanking the doors of the boxcar fired their guns into the air as a warning to urge us all to make our way up the hill. People were crying and confused; a few slipped and fell into the mud never to rise again. The guards hollered inarticulate noises at us, but we understood well enough that the next shots wouldn’t be fired into the air.
We gathered together into a loose group and struggled through the mud up towards the gate. A woman next to me was fiercely gripping a handful of the back of her husband’s coat, trying to drag him up the hill with her. He coughed and groaned, trying to keep up. One of the guards fired a bullet squarely into his back. He grunted and dropped to his knees and spit a mouthful of blood into his white beard. The guard yelled at the woman to let go of the coat and keep moving. In shock, she let go of her husband and his body dropped and everyone scurried over him, the soles of their shoes and boots smashing his face into the mud, until he was left in a heap behind us. I kept my eyes on the gate and tried to stay focused.
There was a big open yard inside the gate. I passed a cluster of sick inmates. They were extremely emaciated and they were pale to the point of being white and they had purplish rings around their eyes and bloody gums and lips and teeth. I covered my mouth with my hand and steered clear of them. I wouldn’t be able to work if I got sick. Across the yard there was smoke from something burning, and as I came closer, I saw that it was a pile of burning bodies. There were inmates with handkerchiefs over their faces shoveling up body parts that had fallen loose and tossing them back onto the pile to burn, severed arms and feet still wearing tattered shoes. The smoke hung low over the yard, creating a fog that obscured its edges, and everywhere loose groups of guards and dejected inmates wandered in and out of the vapors.
Only a few feet from the burning pile, there was a long table that had been brought out and set up in the yard. There were a number of young ladies sitting around this table attending to the camp’s paperwork. They all wore dark skirts and grey sweaters and they had short bobbed hair. They looked like they were young students, perhaps. They seemed indifferent, or maybe even unaware, of the burning pile of bodies or any of the general misery surrounding them only a few feet from where they sat, as though they were untouched by it, as though there was a wall between their lives and ours, as though it was all happening to creatures of an entirely different species than their own and they could simply look at it and shrug.
I approached this table with my hat in my hand and I asked about work. A girl at the head of the table was filing index cards into a metal box. She glanced up at me briefly with contempt and she called out to someone and then she went back to filing her cards without looking up again. Another girl came out of a small barracks hut nearby, and she told the girl at the table to show me where the living quarters were at. The girl flung the cards down on the table and yelled, “Come on!” at me as she got up and started away without looking to see if I was following. I fixed my hat back onto my head and shuffled after her.
She led me down a gravel road to a large brick building near the fence line at the back of the camp. It was getting dark now, and the yellow arc lights had turned on. I could see the loops of barbed wire along the top of the fence. The gravel road descended down a sharp slope as we came around the back of the building, and here the girl stopped and flipped her hand at the building and said, “Over there.” I hesitated for a moment, glancing between the girl and the brick wall before me. I wondered if I should say something to her, reach out to her in some way, ask her for help, make some sort of human appeal to her. She waited for a second, I suppose to see if I could manage the rest of the way, and then she grunted and rolled her eyes and turned and trudged back up the road away from me.
I circled around the back of the building and climbed up the hill on the other side. There were two old men in rags sitting at the top. They barely noticed me as I passed them. They just stared at the grass and rocked back and forth clutching their stomachs. There was a dark alleyway along the side of the building and down at the far end I could see the stone steps that led up to the door. As I was crossing down the alley, I heard noises from within the building, things being knocked over and someone screaming and whimpering in pain. I stopped with my hand on the door. I didn’t want to go in there, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I cowered there in the dark alley, not wanting to be seen, and I listened to the beating going on inside. The sound was moving from room to room, and I followed it back down to the other end of the alley. There was a metal vent protruding from the corner of the wall there, and I came close to it to hear. There was a sharp crack and a thump and this horrible wet hacking sound, and a sudden gush of blood and vomit dumped out of the vent and went all over me. The two men from the hill rushed over and started ripping my coat off of me. Once they had it off of me, they each took an end of it, and they started licking and sucking the vomit off of it, eagerly tugging the coat back and forth between them.
I backed away from them and ran back down the alley to the steps and the door to the building, no longer caring what was waiting for me in there. Inside I found myself in a small dim room. There were guards sitting around a table. There was no light in the room aside from the arc lights outside shining through the window beside the door. I froze for a second. They all stared at me. I felt like I might have gone through the wrong door, but there was no question of turning back and leaving. So I told them that I wanted work. They laughed, as though I had made a joke, but they consulted among themselves, and finally one of them told me to follow him up the stairs.
The stairs spiraled around and led to a door at the top. The guard opened the door and put his hand on my back and pushed me roughly ahead of him into the room. Inside there was a dark, low-ceilinged chamber, softly lit by a yellow nightlight plugged in near the floor. There was a man sitting on the edge of the far side of the bed, getting dressed in a uniform. He glanced back over his shoulder at us. The yellow light gleamed at two small points in his eyes. The guard who had pushed me into the room addressed the man as “Commandant”, and he told him that I was there to be his new aide.
The Commandant indicated an armchair near the window and told me to sit and then he paid no more attention to me. He finished buttoning his sleeves and straightening his uniform and then he rushed out of the room with the guard and locked the door behind him. I could hear them descending the spiral stairs. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do now. They hadn’t left me any instructions. It was a nice room, though, comfortable and warm, high above the misery below. There was a canopy around the bed decorated with moons and stars and there was a spiral rug on the floor with a discarded pair of slippers on it. Down in the yard, music suddenly started pouring from the loudspeakers, faintly covering the crack of gunfire and scattered sounds of people screaming. I came away from the window and started poking around the room. The closet was stuffed with different suits and uniforms, and tucked away in the back was an old cigar box filled with discarded medals and other mementos. I sat down cross-legged and laid each piece out on the floor.