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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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BOOK: Cabin Fever
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When the concentration camps were forced open in 1945, the Allied soldiers saw simple skeletons that fell as they turned to their liberators. The soldiers, weeping, gave new soap to the inmates. The women crouched jealously over the bars, washing themselves among the remains of the children that floated near them in the water. The soldiers gave half-loaves to the men, who still ate worms as they clutched the bread because they had had to eat worms to live and now could not tell the difference.

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Adam Heber,
DSO
, had given his men orders to marshall the German prisoners of war so that they could begin the clean-up. He saw that the real work needed was the digging of mass graves, and the Germans were the only ones strong enough to wield spades. The soldiers were still there because they were unsure of where to go. Who among the civilians would take them in? Their officers had fled, leaving orders to destroy everything. The abandoned ones stoked up the ovens like gingerbread witches. They burned whatever they found, and they burned it as fast as they could.

Heber ordered the supplanted German soldiers to dig more graves, more and more, an impossible number of holes in the ground. Their spades tore through the hard-packed soil like rents in the clothing of mourners. The gentile mayors and councilmen of the surrounding towns – and a few daring citizens – were shepherded, twittering, through the gates to the camp. The civilians were there as gatekeepers, as witnesses: initially a few flashbulbs popped, louder than guns in the camp where it was true that no birds sang. Under the sky the cameras fell silent, and a woman in her smart, pre-war fashion fainted away, her red mouth slack with shock, strain unlacing her manners.

What did I do then, thought Heber, when I was faced with the horror of the massed dead? I did what we all did: I defended myself with ink and pen, mightier than the swords that disintegrated into ashes. Thousands of soldiers – men and women – did. They wrote and wrote in the evenings after they were given permission to take off the boots that had tramped through the remains of people. They kept walking during the day, and in the night they kept writing the cosmos back, squeezing it between the lines, saying that the past was the past, that this would be just one part of their long and varied lives.

Heber himself had given his orders and then he had crept away out of the sight of his men and the Germans and the prying, fainting townsfolk. He had found pen and paper – which were also materials of war – and then he had written until his hand cramped. He had tried to continue with the other one, but his writing was staggering and slow. He was forced to stop, though his amazement and astonishment of heart continued to reel on the clean ceilings of far-removed rooms down the years.

Afterwards, Heber began to think that record-keeping was less than angelic. It had begun as the opposite of the Holocaust, that arson and scattering which was intended to wipe out love and instead lit the true flame in the altar lamp of memory. But then in old age his journal had been suddenly published, to personal discomfort and public acclaim. In America especially, the intersection of curiosity and collectability made Heber famous. His publishers papered his old army photo on tube station walls; he looked out at himself wherever he was. Heber occupied podiums at launches, wordless when it came to the moment of testimony. His tweed jacket scratched; he was caught between the guilt of describing extinction and repaying the debt of survival.

The remains are still there, thought Thomas the Twin, where he sat safely on the train as it jogged interminably towards Kotna Hora. The bones had been laid under the earth, the loss and jumble of them, femur and funny bone, new families knitted together in the underworld. He had seen it done. Now, with every place he revisited, the knowledge grew. There were no answers. He was afraid that if he dug the bones up, the eye sockets would be empty. The dead did not speak except to say, We were here, but now we are not. You who are living, remember us.

Heber had kept one thing back, subtracted it from the version in print, though it muttered between the covers of the original account. He could not share it with an audience – not even his sister – and he never read it again.

After the war, when the aid bales began to come in with the arrival of the British Red Cross, one in particular seemed to be misdirected. Instead of the new dresses and shoes and the thousand coats of Joseph that would set the new world dreaming, it was stuffed with cosmetics – a consignment of red lipstick. Red as the ripe Czech cherries that made kirsch all through the war; red as the bloodline of the one guilty grandparent that flagged internees for the camps; red as the dead women against the walls inside.

They fell on it, those hungry Jews, though they knew it was not for eating. The internees smeared their faces scarlet to set themselves apart from the identical skulls of their fellows: they believed that the Angel of Death had passed over. The ones who died after liberation – so long, and no longer – went to their mass graves with circus faces. One woman still clutched a tube as she lay in the makeshift mortuary. They could not pry the lipstick from her fingers, and it went with her into a coloured afterlife.

Thomas the Twin wondered who would apply Miryam’s make-up while he was away.

When he took his hands away from his wet face the train had stopped, as if the town had appeared expressly at his wish. The sky was Russian blue. Against it the moons and stars of the saints’ haloes chimed, familiar and unfamiliar. They led him on like the Star of Bethlehem. In the late afternoon the autumn had spread itself flat against the roofs of the town; it was pierced by the spires of the ossuary. Gilt weathervanes were the visible centre of the tiny settlement. They stretched out like the branches of a menorah, blinding when the sun caught them and set them aflame. Thomas the Twin stood, dazzled, with his feet planted on the dusty other side of the world. He saw himself: a stooped man left on a platform which was no real resting place but only a way station, built for endless rickety contemplation.

The walk to the ossuary was short. Where else was there to go? Still Heber lost his way and had to ask for directions, pointing at the guidebook, gesturing death. When he came to it he was surprised to find it surrounded by a modern graveyard. Entire families walked among the mounds, come to tidy and weep and make sure that the dead had remained fast, pinned down by the tombstones over their chests.

The graves were well-tended, white-marbled and red-flowered, like underwater gardens. The headstones bore the particular smiling faces of the citizens of Kotna Hora – not as they were at the moment of death, but as they were in decent middle age. How was it possible that a life could end up a dry memorial with a bunch of flowers drawn in tightly at the neck? Thomas the Twin’s head hummed with comprehension. And with his own fate, his sister’s. He thought of Josef Mengele, who called himself a doctor, who did his experiments without anaesthetic on sets of Jewish twins. The last living members of the Heber family would not be separated.

Inside the dim ossuary it was so cold he could see his breath. Heber paid his pathetic entrance fee and descended the marble stairs like a debutante. He braced himself for the sting of pickling and rot, but the million bones were quiet, scrubbed baldly nondescript. At his feet the floor tiles locked firmly in place; bone chandeliers clinked above his head. The bone coats of arms were picked at by bone birds, and the bone cupids winked down over his shoulders.

Thomas pivoted slowly, imagining the monk who had made it all, the man who had been driven mad by the knowledge of the skeleton inside him. He had survived the plague that took everyone else. Why were some spared, and others taken? On this point his God was silent, unhelpful. He had looked at the carnage, worse than waste, and held fast to the universe in his head.

His work was slow at first. He boiled down the bones in the monastery kitchens until they lost their smell of humanity. In his hands they became instruments, cutlery, tools. When they were stripped of flesh he laid them out in the peevish European sun. Then he coated them with whitewash. They dried again. He fashioned the bones into pyramids and crown jewels and chains; his determination linked the wonders of the world back together. As he worked the ready bones knocked, hollow, on the tiles of the monastery workshop, applauding him.

Their faint humming buzzed in Thomas the Twin’s old ears. The sound was everywhere, but no one else in the ossuary heard it. He swivelled his head around, up to the guardian angels sweeping across the ceiling. They say that the travelling temple, the Ark of the Covenant, was heralded by angels, the traces of women lost in the Old Testament, the ones who remember and protect; the shamash
,
the ancient Semitic god that through the ages meant attendant, caretaker, custodian – and then, finally, synagogue janitor. Here I am, said Thomas the Twin. I have tried to be all these things. I am listening.

He craned his neck further towards the angels; the short sinews whined at the base of his skull. The cupids hovered and hummed. He saw their wings shivering with the cold. The bony circles of their heads multiplied, were fleshed out, and among them he recognised another face. It shimmered down at him with its hair of silver and cheeks of gold.

‘Miryam?’ murmured Thomas the Twin. The few other tourists glanced at him but he did not notice them. He was smiling up into the features of his sister. He saw the light surging around her head. It blazed out into seven pillars of flame.

Thomas the Twin’s last thought was a generous one. Remember us, he thought, those of us who are sunk in the past or rocketing into the future. Remember us in the here and now.

The other visitors saw him fall heavily on the tiles. Fed by the pages of the book he clutched, the fire consumed him in minutes. It was utterly peaceful, there in the hot white light of the bone palace in Kotna Hora, the wishes from the old lives laid aside in the ashes, and the fears given over to burning.

In the hospital bed Miryam Heber’s face relaxed on the pillow. Her fingers unclenched. A handful of cindery confetti sifted down on the sheet, where the next morning it would puzzle the nurses.

Shark-spotters

T
HERE WERE HUNDREDS OF THEM GATHERED AT THE WATER
; a couple of thousand, maybe. Imraan stood with his hand in a pocket of his corduroys, fingering the new Moleskin notebook. He had ventured down to the sand at the pavilion almost against his will. He kept looking between the men on jet skis in the calm place beyond the waves, and then back towards the mountain where the shark-spotters on Boyes Drive scanned the sea. The cars were backed up for kilometres: the Sunday traffic was at a standstill. Imraan was grimly pleased. There were some rewards, at least, attached to the leaky, windowless cottage they were renting in Kalk Bay. He had intended to come down for an afternoon stroll along the walkway by the sea but had instead stepped sideways out of time. Only the sun moved.

He was annoyed; it was a good walk spoiled. The story was already boiling up in his head – just as the online writing course had promised – and he wanted time by himself to do the nothing that would make the characters walk and talk. It would be a story about real men, he thought, one in which the real man didn’t endure the real woman’s stretched jerseys and her fat fertility statues and her probing, constant questions about
when the baby came
. But now that he was here, he might as well look for material. A real man would, while walking moodily by the sea, save a drowning swimmer’s life and say modestly to the papers that it was nothing, that he was only doing his duty as a citizen. Imraan had never learned to swim.

Above his head the paper kites trailed like jellyfish, and the clouds clumped together over Hangklip. On the beach a man with a megaphone was shouting into the crowd, but his voice was whipped away in the wind. Still, people were smiling at one other, making eye contact. Imraan squinted at the banner strung up on the pavilion:
GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS SURF ATTEMPT
!!! it shrieked. Imraan disapproved of exclamation marks; he disapproved, in general, of exclamations. He preferred the sober warnings of the notice board that provided information about when to swim and when not to swim. He was warmed by the neat, posturing icons.

He gazed at the surfers lined up on Muizenberg beach. Morons.
They
had all spawned carelessly, scattering children with biblical names and knotty hair that coarsened and bleached in the sun – more people just like them. Not that the surfers cared: they were collected around their boards in pockets, kicking at the hot sand and pushing each other as they waited for something to happen. Their kids ran around, dodging the surfboards that angled up from the sand, jagged as sharks’ teeth. Why would anyone have them? Imraan wondered. There were enough people in the world.

He peered at the semi-nude surfer girls, whose eyes only slid unseeing over his head. Their wetsuits were peeled back from their breasts and their smooth arms; they wore circlets of flowers on their heads like mermaids. He wondered if they had read the notice board, with its warning that menstruating women shouldn’t swim here: sharks patrolled these waters. Imraan stared at one woman next to her surfboard. She was moving gently to the music that was blasting out of the speakers all along the esplanade, and her hair rippled with her, like seaweed. It was so long that she could have been naked beneath it. It was still dry and lying loose, and it reminded him of Anya’s – hair that he had at first longed to lose himself in, and then later had wanted to chop off with the kitchen scissors when it shed and blocked the shower drain. The woman jiggled on, missing every fourth beat because she was concentrating on the water, waiting for the sign. Imraan thought it might be a Chili Peppers song, the one that was on the radio all the time now when he was trying to find
FMR
, the signal lost in the valley between him and the weak transmitter in the bowels of the Artscape theatre.

The men on the jet skis were looping endlessly back and forth behind the waves, their machines buzzing like insects, audible in bursts when the wind dropped. They were holding bright pink flags like wings. The man with the megaphone suddenly came to him clearly.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
2.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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