The following is my long-form submission for Hevria’s latest project. It was edited with help from David Karpel, Jodi Kilov, and Nick Whelan, whom I thank. Do not complain about the ending; it’s only a prologue.
The sun shone on Auschwitz, and the wind strained it clean on that clear April morning. A crowd of teens surrounded a tour guide, their faces somber. One boy’s knuckles were white where he clutched the folds of the Israeli flag at his neck.
The grass and sky peacefully watched over the road and the gate and the weeping. Man and woman alike were moved by memories of the horror, dull, scabbed over, but soaking through every pebble. The sun, even in the Beginning, lost its voice for earthly concerns, and the wind carried only the voices of others, but the hot tears trumpet, alive, on their faces.
The tears are one reason why the slim man with the smile-wrinkled face stayed far away from the visitors even as he broke from the shadow of the tree line and strode, confident but quick, beneath the mid-morning glare.
He grasped in his right hand a tiny stone trinket, an ankh that had not been easy to acquire. As long as it laid across the roots of all five of his fingers he was surrounded by a strange haze, barely perceptible to onlookers (had there been any in that deserted corner of the camp) except as a flicker in the corner of the eye.
The ankh was one of several necessary components for the day’s plans, and the one acquired with the most travel and the least violence. The man held it more tightly, and reflected that if, in fact, he was suddenly attacked by authorities worldly or otherwise at that moment and failed to break his attackers like kindling, the contents of his jeans pockets, particularly the vials of blood, might lead them to think he is a serial killer or the like.
He was, in fact, something much more than a serial killer. Something worse.
Though to most eyes the man would have appeared alone, the protective aura of the ankh was crowded with his servants, both willing and coerced. When they collectively arrived at the correct place (he could feel it through the soles of his sneakers despite everything) he glanced around and whispered in the Lost Tongue, “Go, Siarra.” There was suddenly more room around him.
I don’t mean “room” in the same sense as simple men, as if there were suddenly more space to divide among several occupants. I mean “room” in the sense of a logical gap opening in what moments before had been a flawless argument.
There was more room because the creature Siarra detached herself from their presence with eagerness and immediately began to shriek as the sun’s light, no longer attenuated by the ankh, began to corrode her spirit. The man barred her return to its protective embrace by force of will and compelled her high into the air, the effort causing him to break out in a sweat.
Through her pain, she remembered her mission, and began to speak her own words in the air aflame with oppressive sunlight. She called to herself all that falls, and runs, and quenches, and even the tourists on the other side of the death camp felt their mouths go dry. An unnatural rag of cloud began to wriggle into being, just large enough at its height to cast shadow over a single man. And just in time, for the man had noticed a tiny fracture beginning to work its way through his trinket, its immense power unable to withstand the morning except for a short time, just as he expected. Siarra’s cloud would prolong the inevitable, but his time was running out.
Henryk Dąbrowski held his fears privately through his years as a bar bouncer and martial arts instructor, until, at the age of fifty, he apologized to his wife and asked if he could work for the Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Kaja has just looked him in the eye, saw he was scared, and said, “Of course.”
Henryk thanked G-d for her every morning, sometimes twice. With time, she had come to understand the story. He had read too much and thought too deeply about his own family, and the terrible past, and he’d decided (and the priest had agreed) that some debt to repay might exist.
And so, he brought his expertise and muscle to the Museum’s security force, and Kaja found office work with the same Warsaw firm, and he stood each day and bowed his head before the brightly-dressed young people who had never felt the boot of guilt upon them and were irreverently alive.
It was not a wealthy life, but Henryk felt it was the right one and was soon promoted to chief of security. The museum asked him if he would like to also be a tour guide, and this he had gracefully declined. It was too obscene to bear, that he of all people should speak of the place’s past as if he were not caught up in the web of it. No, he looked forward to simply keeping watch over the death camp in his grandfather’s town for many more years.
Nothing is more important, he thought that April morning as he walked into the security post, than ensuring nothing evil ever comes of this place again.
The ankh ceased its slow disintegration once under the cover of cloud, and the man set his remaining thralls to their tasks as he began pulling components out of the pockets of his faded jeans and scruffy jacket. He crouched down in the small patch of Siarra’s shadow, checking again that no curious passerby or meddling authority had seen him. When he detected no threat, his eyes narrowed. Something should have tried to stop him by now, and he knew from long experience that good fortune is a fickle friend.
But he did not have time for suspicion. Siarra’s power already began to fade as the sun drove her from the world. The man uncorked the ten vials and upended them one-by-one on the hallowed ground, careful never to let the liquids inside any touch his skin, which would melt away at the slightest contact. They ran red on the green grass before slowly sinking into the soil. Beneath the ground, he felt the slightest of tremors, just as Siarra finally died up above after clinging to life for nearly two millennia. A worthy sacrifice, he thought, but a second crack had now opened in the ankh, and he had mere moments to work if he did not wish to join her.
He held the ankh as steady as possible and didn’t dare wipe off the sweat beading on his forehead. He realized he was not breathing. All of his plans had come to this, and yet, when it came to crafting his own destiny, he had to temporarily rely on those he had dominated. They don’t wish to do this, he reminded himself. They are servants of the enemy, and though they are now enthralled, they might try, at the critical moment, to escape coercion.
He could sense them, forced beneath the ground, sniffing and feeling with their tongues for the slightest gaps, the spidery fractures in reality, chiseled by the lifeblood he offered on holy ground in the sunlight. There!
He drew a shuddering breath as his servants assumed the four points of the compass around the gap in reality deep beneath his feet. Cramps shot up his shoulders to grasp at the base of his skull as his slaves began to writhe against his control, trying desperately to resist what they now clearly saw his plan to be. The ankh had started to crumble to dust from its edges, residue drifting across his clenched palm, and the sun, ever-freer from its interference grew ever-warmer above his head.
He did not panic.
He clenched his teeth and willed himself to utter the names of power, which burst from him with such force he felt his teeth might shatter. Each name was said at a higher pitch than the last, and he felt his servants’ resistance crumble beneath them in turn, though the effort hardly felt worth it. Sweat poured down his face, and froth began to gather at the corners of his mouth and dribble into his beard.
Far beneath the earth, unable to escape their fate, four spirits found bones consecrated and blackened by flames, bones that were meant to lie quiet and dry until the end of all stories. They found a door pried open before them that had always been closed before. They slipped between the cracks of nature and found purchase where it should not have been possible, and fully passed through a gate that should have remained closed.
Four servants helped four spirits pass into the world of the living beneath the light of the sun. Thus was the first impossible act completed.
The man felt a shock run through his legs as nature herself resisted what should not have been. It was mildly like being electrocuted, and then the hallucinations began. The man found himself floating on a sea of integers and spiraling along the convex surface of the forbidden fruit, ripe with violence and African mammals. He shifted on his feet, nearly fell, but did not yet release the ankh, suddenly unsure whether it was safe, whether the ritual truly was complete.
High above his head, the unnatural cloud was teased apart by the breeze and the cruel, relentless light.
In the palm of his hand, the ankh continued to disintegrate.
But deep beneath his feet, things shifted.
Even before his mind fully regained its footing in reality, in his new reality, he began to smile.
Only a coincidence could stop him now.
Henryk would never have seen anything amiss if he hadn’t forgotten the sugar in his coffee. It was unbearable, the cheapest sort, with all the consistency and flavor of hot mud. He sat at his desk, took one sip, and resisted the urge to spit the bitter liquid back into his mug.
He headed back to the small office kitchen and the CCTV screens caught his peripheral vision. He glanced at it, and saw the man, in an area far from the parts of the museum open to visitors.
He could not know, of course, as he pointed at the screen, that which areas of Auschwitz were forbidden to visitors were not arbitrary, but a matter of interest to several outside parties, parties willing to bribe, threaten, and cajole until, shortly after the war, it was determined to their satisfaction that it was not feasible for anyone to meddle there with things best left alone.
He could not know, as he double-checked the man’s location with another guard, that those parties were negligent and lazy, performing their duty more by rote than devotion.
He could not know, as he pulled on his jacket, that they only considered what was feasible, and therefore what was possible, and not what was impossible.
He could not know, as he ordered three men to follow him and strode out from the security stations, that their negligence would cost him dearly.
He should be thankful, where he is now, that he couldn’t possibly know he’d be the first of many.
The man had undone death in broad daylight; he had tapped into forbidden secrets of creation; beneath his feet, the seeds of a terrible future began to lurch. Yet he still feared coincidence, and this made him wise.
Mankind, generally, underestimates the power of happenstance. It is not their fault. They are made for thinking, systematizing, recognizing and creating patterns. Their job is not to test the boundaries of what might be, to appreciate the power of the uncaused, unrelated parallel occurrences springing together from some source and falling out just so.
But if a man travels across time and space to find a trinket that lets darkness pass undiminished before the light, or harvests the blood of holy men, he cannot afford to be as ignorant as other men. He cannot expect only the hallucinations, the mental and physical exhaustion, the painful tremors running like shockwaves up his rooted legs. Those would only be simple, small rebellions of nature against his manipulations, and nature is, by nature, predictable.
No, such a man must expect surprises, strange synchronicity, things thrown into this world to delay him or overturn his scheming. This was the closest the enemy would probably be willing to go to forming his own impossibilities.
He would not be taken by surprise. He found his fear and subdued it. Coincidence is powerful, but he was no longer a man with an unspoken hope, and just as the books predicted, the numbing in his legs was already fading, to be replaced with a warm, taut energy – the feeling of wild power, begging to be unleashed.
Henryk told the others to wait as he squinted through binoculars at the strange fellow in the middle of one of the old parade grounds. The man was balding, with scraps of red hair at his temples and behind his ears and an unruly, bushy beard of the same color. His skin was pale, and Henryk thought he looked rather like an Orthodox priest, except for the clothes of a poor tourist, perhaps from Russia or the Ukraine, with an old denim jacket, stained twill trousers, a red T-shirt stretched over his slight paunch, and once-white sneakers now thoroughly browned.
Stanislaw, his number two, asked, “Is he armed?” Henryk noted that the man’s left hand was balled into a white-knuckle fist, but there were no signs of weapons.
“I don’t think so,” he muttered, considering. “He looks…ill.” The man was very pale, and sweaty, and seemed to be swaying slightly, as if in shock. “Perhaps the sun was too much for him and he wandered away from his group in a daze.” There was little shade in the outdoor section of the museum and such things, though rare, had happened before.
“Wander off?” Stan said. “How do you wander off through two layers of fences with locked gates?”
“A fair point,” said Henryk peaceably. “Let’s approach with caution, then. Take out your batons. But,” he cautioned, as a smile creased Stan’s meaty face, “don’t use them until I give the order.”
The man watched as they crossed the well-groomed field, batons in hand, and took a moment to glance heavenward. “Is this it?” he thought, with blossoming glee.
He saw them begin to hesitate, frowns crossing their faces. They were close enough to feel what he had wrought, perhaps not physically, as that required great sensitivity, but at least in spirit, as a certain trepidation, a withdrawal of the soul, a sense of foul irritation scratching at the inside of their eyes. They were weak and predictable, and they would want to ask him questions. And a whisper only he could hear came from beneath the ground and told him what he must do.
Henryk felt strange, and then he felt bad. His clothes clung to him uncomfortably, his forehead felt crowded, his back itched. The closer he got to the strange man, the worse he felt. He had trouble even remembering what he was there to do…
Yes! They were here to help the man who had wandered, probably sick in the morning sun. This recollection of his mission made him feel slightly better and his head began to clear. His pace quickened and he raised his head to find the man staring at him.
The bearded wanderer remained just as pale, but he seemed somehow less pitiable than before and his eyes glowed with an alien passion. Cold fear sparked in Henryk’s gut as he felt a strange pain deep inside him. Doubled over, stomach cramping, he knew only relief at breaking eye contact with the stranger.
Stan, who had followed at his side, caught the man’s eyes next and promptly bent over and emptied his breakfast upon the grass, and, still heaving, grunted, “What is happening to us?”
Henryk shook his head, trying to clear it. His eyes were throbbing and he could no longer see the man for the glare of the sun, relentless, infuriating, draining the perspiration out of him in hot waves. He had never felt anything like it, a pain not of the body but a burning of the spirit, goading him into a blind rage, encouraging him to stand up and swing his baton at the man’s face, crush his nose, see the blood fl—
“Stop!” he cried.
For a moment, it all did. The sun seemed to cower, returning them to the natural warmth of the morning, and the pain and nausea were dulled as if by medicine, and the man seemed momentarily puzzled.
Henryk could not have known that it was simply the man’s will conducting their torture, warping nature already made malleable by his dark rite.
He must be forgiven for his ignorance of his own power, as a recognized authority of the camp museum, to return the sun and the air and the earth to their normal, law-abiding states.
We must forgive him this; he did not even know that the forces under the man’s control were themselves unwilling, and sought freedom from him, and could even possibly rebel.
Henryk Dąbrowski was only a man, and cannot be blamed for what happened next. He retracted his command. He did not need a verbal declaration to do so. He simply felt sympathy for the man and confusion for what he probably assumed was some sort of psychosis or a sudden outbreak of disease among his men. And when Henryk’s “stop” faded into silence and the will behind it faltered, the man’s face suddenly crumpled in disgust and outrage.
“How dare you?” he demanded in flawless Polish. “How dare you attempt to bind me with a human tongue?” Henryk cringed, instinctively expecting the pain to return, but it did not. Instead, he simply found himself unable to move, even to speak. He felt as if he was bound by the tightest ropes, that his muscles simply would not pull at each other, like his body’s gears were disengaged from their motor. To his horror, he soon found he could no longer even remember how to move, as the man bent down and picked something up from the ground and placed it in his hand, from which a puff of dust escaped. The man muttered something to himself about the trinket having done its job and stalked out of Henryk’s field of vision.
He could see the corner of Stan’s shoulder to his right, utterly still, caught up in the same predicament, as Henryk struggled to remember how to lift his feet, how to speak, even how to compress his diaphragm and scream. For the first time that morning he realized that something deeply evil was afoot, and he thought of his wife.
“When I say stop, you listen,” he heard from somewhere to his left. The man spoke calmly now, as if he was finally in complete control for the first time since he stepped into the light. Moments later, Henryk heard a strange sigh, followed by the man’s feet on the grass, somewhere behind him and to his left.
“That is because I speak the old tongue,” the man said reasonably. “It is the language of power, and you cannot lie with it.” Another strange, protracted sigh.
The man was close behind him, to his right, near Stan, when he next spoke. “Therefore, if you say ‘stop’ in the old tongue, that is exactly what happens. It is how Joshua delayed the sun; perhaps you have heard that story?” There came another sigh, and Stan’s shoulder pulled away from view, as if Stan were free and walked away. But why, then, did he not call for help?
The man came back into view before Henryk’s eyes and bent down to the ground once more to pick something up. He cupped it in his hand and smiled up at Henryk. “I was taught this word is called ‘The Snake’s Vise.’ I found this dramatic, though it does seem to be quickening your pulse at present, so perhaps it’s appropriate.” Henryk was so stuck he could not even swivel his eyes anymore.
“You wonder who I am, don’t you?” He walked close enough that Henryk could smell his cologne on the small amount of air he was still able to breathe. “It doesn’t matter. All that matters now is that I go on.” He smiled a strange smile. “And you do not.”
Henryk watched as the man took his cupped hand a pressed it gently below his line of vision, against his chest. With a tremendous squeezing pressure, and then a sudden break, he heard himself exhale with a rattling sigh, was carried out on his own breath, floating upward, toward a light far brighter than any he had ever known.
The man leaned back from Henryk’s body and released it from The Snake’s Vise. Henryk’s eyes looked around at the sunlit field, at the three other security guards, at the bearded man, and saw the new order of things, who was the slave and who was the master. Henryk’s head nodded at the man, and behind Henryk’s eyes burned a terrible intelligence.
“Welcome, again, to the world of the living,” said the man in their shared language, old as earth. “Much has changed. Come, I will tell you about it.” He began to walk from the field, and four pairs of feet fell in behind him. Beneath the ground, something rumbled.
“Coincidence,” he scoffed to himself. “Perhaps luck is on my side at last.”
But even though the man was learned and powerful, he underestimated how far coincidence would go. For when he forced open the gates and brought the souls through to serve him, he did not notice an extraneous presence, a spirit who had strained against those gates forever, waiting for some fool to come along and open them.
That man, wise as he was, could not have predicted me, and that would, in the end, be his undoing.