Chaim always hated that powder blue. The whole time, even as we sat in our own filth, counting the clouds, all he whined about was that color. “Why couldn’t they have given us green?” He would scoff. “And the stripes. Why stripes?”
“Prisoners,” I once said to him. “We’re prisoners.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Prisoners are kept for a crime. Even prisoners of war. After all, war is a crime.”
Then what were we? I always asked myself that question. What did you call someone who was ripped from their home, torn from the arms of their family, and forced to fester in despair? Perhaps Chaim was right.
We were less than prisoners.
The ability to get more of that ghastly, watery soup from the guards was something I could never do. A coward. Chaim, someone of little inhibition and no fear, consistently took the brunt of it. The absence of self-preservation trumped all else.
Like he wanted to get beat.
“Eat,” I would tell him soon after his quests. “Why don’t you eat something.”
He would shake his head. “You see how strong I am, Leon? Eating from that bowl of piss would only weaken me.”
We’d taken a pair of boys under our supervision. They came from separate mothers, had no fathers, and swiped a loaf of bread from my bunk. As they shoved their respective half of the loaf into their mouths, Chaim laughed. It defused my unwarranted smolder.
“They’ve earned it,” he said. “It’s already puffing their cheeks, so what’s the use, Leon? A pair of geezers like us have been bested.”
It only got worse after that. The erratic anger from the guards came in uproarious outbursts, and someone always ended up dead. Familiar faces—but names I never knew—always fell to a bullet’s fang. The snow had come in a horrendous week of frost, sawing through lives.
But, as always, Chaim snuck in a verbal nudge as we laid those railroad ties. “Everything hurts,” he said. And, at that point I thought he’d finally cracked. “But not my feet, nope. I can’t feel those.”
When we first arrived at the metal jaws of that towering gate, Chaim’s belly hung over his crotch, so much so that it became measured with his waist. But on that day—underneath a baby blue sky—the frame of that man was dwarfed by the hammer he held. The skin wrapped around bone, drooping. And Chaim’s face—which became a visual resort for me over the harsh winter—had, in those last few cold months, appeared hauntingly gaunt. Sunken eyes. Stark cheekbones.
Hunger the man couldn’t hide.
On the morning of April 4th—a date one of my bunkmates got out of a guard—I awoke to a foreign milieu. The boys who usually slept on either side of Chaim were not there. Neither was the man with whom they took consistent refuge.
Outside the bunkhouse—its rankness something my nose had grown used to—a hoarse shout usurped everything in the air. Despite my tender joints and crying tendons, I leapt from that stuffy dormitory and stumbled into the snow.
It was Chaim, inches from a guard’s face.
“Where?” he shouted. “Where are the boys?” In the man’s slender, kinked fingers he held the small, grimy, striped uniforms. He shoved them into the guard’s chest. And each time Chaim’s knuckles greeted sternum, he reeled back.
I stumbled, almost crawled to the man who could barely muster a stance. “Chaim,” I said, “don’t.”
He continued his fit, blinded by the veil of rage. He shouted.
“Where are they?”
And as I reached for Chaim’s pant leg and tugged and tugged, begging the man to stop, the guard’s growl intervened, “You’re breathing them in.”
He turned and looked. Chaim knew. He knew before his gaze met the spectral finger pointing into the sky, the one that left an emanation of black smog.
That guard did not kill Chaim, though he did end his life. He parted from the broken man with crunching boots, allowing Chaim to fall to his knees.
His sobs recoiled as wretched, fervent, and raw. The man collapsed into my lap, holding that color he loathed close to his heart.
When the Russian troops came, the last of the soup had been drained. Every crumb of bread had vanished. And those guards—although long gone—left a trail of death. Bones and skin. Hardly any flesh.
I had put Chaim up in my bunk, piles of those uniforms under his shoulder blades as cushion. The man’s face looked like a skull wrapped in pale rubber. The sutures that zigzagged about his head looked like deep trenches.
And as I arrived from the bustling camp’s entrance, hobbling toward Chaim with a pair of soldiers in tow, they offered the breathing corpse packets of crackers, chunks of bread. But all he did was lift a single finger and point it at me. Give it to him, he mouthed. He’s getting skinny.
With spring came the warmth of the sun.
No filters. No obscurities. And as I watched the people pass on the street from my window, I looked to the sky. I touched the hot glass with my fingertips. I counted the clouds and wondered.
If instead of clouds, all their names floated through that powder blue sky, would anyone stop to read them?