She had been in this room for eight days. Or had it been ten? In the darkness of her cell it was hard to keep track. The bitter cold of the wet stone walls sent a shiver down her spine, and she wrapped her arms around her knees trying to keep warm. Hunger crept in. Same as it had days before, though it came and went in spurts – like her sleep.
Last thing Abira remembered, she was being held captive against her will. Something about a labor camp and the rounding up of the Jews came to mind, but she didn’t understand. She felt she’d done nothing wrong, committed no crimes, so why was she being treated this way? What was so wrong about being Jewish?
I’m a human-being too, she thought, and I have needs just the same as this, Hitler.
Her belly growled, and the noise echoed off the small confines of the cell. Were they starving her? It had been days since she’d last been fed, if you could call what they’d given her food. She considered eating the roaches crawling around her cell, and would if there were but enough light to catch one. At least she had water. On her third night here it rained, water dripping down from holes in the rafters. Now all that was left of that, though, was the dampness on the walls. Regardless, she was determined to hang on to hope. The guard wearing the symbol of the Nazis did say he would bring more food, but that was ages ago now.
Abira thought he seemed nice enough. Well, nicer than the other guards. Something about him told her he would return with more food. He might actually care … but that wasn’t possible.
He is one of them, she told herself, and part of the reason I’m in this predicament.
Abruptly, the lock on the door banged with a click and swung open. Light filled the entryway, and a single figure stood silhouetted against the burning brightness. Abira held her hand out to block the stinging light from her eyes, and saw the man held something in his hands. He did not move, seeming to allow his eyes to adjust to the quiet darkness. After a few seconds, he stepped forward.
“I have brought you food, as promised,” the guard said, his accent strange. He held out the object in his hands – a small wooden bowl, unadorned, and filled with grayish liquid.
Uncertain of the guard’s actions, Abira did not motion for the bowl.
“Do not worry,” he said. “I will not harm you.”
Still, Abira did not take the food. The guard kneeled beside her, and slowly reached out for her quivering hand. As his hand clasped hers the warmth of his touch sent a shiver through her body. She jerked her hand back, and spat in his face. The guard lifted a hand as if to strike. Abira recoiled and braced for the stinging pain of a clenched fist, but the pain did not come. Confused, she glanced over her shoulder to see the guard wiping spittle from his face.
“I’m sorry. I did not mean to alarm you,” he apologized. “I have brought you food. Please. Eat. I know you’re hungry.”
Not understanding the man’s actions, Abira sat in still silence.
“Here,” he said, “I will place the bowl on the floor in front of you, and back away. This way you will see I am no threat.” The guard did as he’d said.
She watched him slowly back away, studying his movements and intentions. Is he trying to trick me, she thought, or can I trust this man? What if the food is poisonous?
The guard shifted his weight, but stood patient, allowing her to make her decision.
I’m too hungry not to trust him, she decided. She launched for the bowl like a starving dog, scooped a handful of the slimy, wet food into a hand, and ate. She gagged. The food was soured and rotten. Vomit curdled in the back of her throat. She fought back the vile taste, thought of food from better days, and forced herself to eat. Slowly, the hunger cramps subsided, and she remembered the guard was still watching her. She glanced up at him, feeling embarrassed, but decided to push the feeling aside.
I’ve got to get some answers, she thought. “Where … where …” her voice felt strange rolling off her tongue. “Where am I?”
The guard cleared his throat. “You are in Auschwitz, Poland.” He shoved hands into his pant pockets. “A concentration camp.”
“What?” She heard rumors of the Nazi camps, of how men labored for the Germans. But mostly of how the Jews, her own people, the Gypsies, the Poles, and countless others were being … were being … executed. Fear overtook her.
“You were brought here because you are …” he cleared his throat again. “Jewish. This is an extermination camp. You are to be killed.”
Blood drained from Abira’s face, showing the paleness of a full moon. “A death camp,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he confirmed, “a death camp.”
Silence filled the cell once again. Moments passed as her thoughts and emotions screamed to be released.
I don’t understand, she thought. Why me? Oh, God, my children! What have we done to deserve this? They took them. They killed them. She didn’t know how, but she felt it deep within her soul. And now I’m going to die … in this place … this … death camp?
Abira looked up. This time staring into the guard’s eyes – an endless, deep blue gaze, almost like the sea – searching for answers to her questions. “Then why have you brought me food?”
“Because I … I want to help you. There is a strange connection between us I cannot explain. A connection that can see you home.”
“You lie,” Abira growled.
“No, I don’t,” he said, pulling his hands from his pockets and waving them before himself. “I’m risking everything by bringing you this food.” He glanced back toward the cell’s door, then back to her. His voice became a whisper. “If it were discovered that I have done this, twice now no less, my life would be forfeit.”
“Is that so,” she said loudly. “Then I hope you are caught, and killed.” She spat at his feet. “You are an evil man to be a part of a place such as this!”
“Yes, that is so.” His voice sounded sad. “This is an evil place, but I am no evil man. I do not wish to be here, but I am … for you. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Nor do I desire to,” she said.
“Listen …” he stepped forward and knelt to take the bowl. “I will return with more food as soon as I can. It’s the best I can do for now.” He stood, walked to the cell’s only exit, stopped, and then turned. “I’m going to find a way, I promise.”
Abira didn’t understand. “A way? A way to what?”
“A way for you to escape.” The guard glanced over his shoulder and down the hall. He looked back to her. “I’ve been able to pull some weight to keep you here, in this cell,” he whispered, “away from the other prisoners. But that cannot last. Please, just know, I will save you.”
Could she cling to such hope, from such a man – a Nazi persecuting her own people? He turned to leave. “Wait,” she called after him. He stopped. “What … what is your name?”
The guard smiled. “Viktor. Viktor von Muller.” The door shut, clicked, and darkness reached out and hugged her once more.
* * * * *
Viktor did not return the next day, or the day after. Time pressed on, the hunger cramps growing greater by the hour. Abira feared she’d never see him again, so she decided to find her own way out.
There must be a way, she thought. She felt along the walls, scraping her hands against the rough brick and mortar. Solid. Nowhere to go. She stood, and walked along its edges, all the while feeling for any crevices or holes. Nothing. Just a small square room.
Sighing, she sat. The walk made her her knees wobble. “Why are they doing this to me?” she cried.
Footsteps pounded outside her cell.
On instinct, Abira scooted into a corner and hugged herself, rocking back and forth. But the footsteps continued down the hall, fading from earshot.
Why, she asked herself. Why are they doing this to me? She began fingering a brick, feeling the mortar. A piece chipped away, about the size of her nail. Frantic, she scraped at it some more, mortar turning to gravel and falling away. But then the mortar stopped crumbling from the wall. No. She dug fingers in deep, trying to wedge it out. Please, break away! As she pulled back to unlodge the mortar, her grip slipped and fingernail tore off.
She cried out in pain. The finger stung and throbbed, blood seeping from the wound. Abira put her finger in her mouth to try and ease the pain. And wept, until the cries became sobs, and those turned to sleep.
* * * * *
She awoke with a start, the door banging open and light burning through.
“There isn’t much time,” a deep voice said, and Abira saw a shaded figure coming closer. He knelt beside her. “They’re executing people daily, sending more and more into the Little Red House to never return. The Americans and their allies are on the move. Rudolf Hoss fears this camp may be jeopardized. I must see you home.”
Viktor? Abira sat up, the pain from the light pouring in the open cell door almost unbearable.
“Can you stand?”
She tried, but her knees were weak, her head spinning, and she stumbled.
Viktor caught her and sat her back down. “This will not do.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the cell entrance. “You’re not ready, but you are close. I’ll return when the time has come to take you home. Until then, keep this.” He took her hand and sqeezed something the size of a coin into her palm. It felt cool, round, and smooth. “Abira … do you believe I can save you?”
She didn’t understand. “Why …” her voice croaked, rough and painful coming from her dry mouth and cracked lips. Licking the wet walls provided only so much substance. “Why would you … care?”
“Because you are mine.”
I’m not yours, she almost said, but instead she nodded.
“Good,” he said. “I’ll see you home, Abira, I promise.” Viktor walked toward the cell door, gave her a parting glance, then closed the door and locked it.
She looked down at the object in her palm. In the blackness of her cell, she couldn’t see it, but she knew what it was by touch – her lost locket. She opened it and felt the small ridges along its border, carressed the flat surface where the portraits of her children rested.
Alai and James, she thought.
Suddenly, she was crying. But then puzzlement filled her thoughts. How did he? Where did he? She looked toward the cell door. “Who are you, Viktor Von Muller?”
* * * * *
That evening – or morning, she didn’t know – Abira felt strange.
Images of people huddled in her cell blurred across her vision, and the air was rank with the stench of feces and urine. When she scanned the room, she saw she wasn’t alone. People crouched and slept, cried and wailed, but then they’d disappear when she turned away.
And she felt cold, so cold.
I’m just seeing things, she told herself. But the colder she grew, the stronger the images became. She thought, once or twice, someone was speaking to her. Calling her name and shaking her, but that wasn’t possible. She was alone in this cell.
* * * * *
Abira couldn’t stop trembling. She no longer had the strength to stand, let alone lick the wet walls to parch her cracked and bleeding lips.
Lying on her side, Abira curled into a ball and closed her eyes. She wanted to sleep, to forget this place and lose herself in her dreams. But those were nightmares, too. Her children screaming, pleading for help, as the soldiers tortured and killed them. In her dreams, all she could do was watch. Looking into Alai and James’ eyes as they experienced unimaginable pain, staring back and mouthing soundless words that said: Why won’t you help me?
No, I don’t want sleep, she decided.
She opened her eyes, and saw a mass of bodies packed together in a red, brick room. Confused, she forced herself to sit up. People were wailing and begging, others banging on a door, trying to get out. Women prayed, men fought, children wept. And coming closer through the throng of bodies was a man, wearing the symbol of the Nazis.
“Viktor?” Abira said, though nobody heard her, and nobody else saw him. She rubbed her eyes to wipe away the illusion, but when she opened them again, all remained the same.
Viktor knelt beside her, just as a strange, yellow gas was being pumped into the chamber. “It is time,” he said, and then he vanished.
* * * * *
Abira felt warmth. Warmth like none ever experienced. A brilliant light shone down on her, and she began ascending toward it. Glancing down, she saw herself – along with a hundred others – choking on gasses, gasping for breath.
When she glanced up, she saw the silhouette of a cross looming at the center of the light. She thought, for a moment, she had a choice. To ascend above, or to stay below. But then the gasses filled her lungs and there was nowhere to go but up.
With no options left, she flew toward the light. Wind rushed against her cheeks and hair, and the cross came closer and grew bigger. The higher she flew, though, the more Abira realized it wasn’t a cross … but a man. A man with arms spread out like a father expecting a daughter’s hug.
Viktor, she thought.
He embraced her, welcoming her. When he let go, Abira saw he was smiling.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Ask your questions, child.”
“I was never alone in a cell, was I?”
Viktor shook his head. “No.”
“You weren’t real?”
“I am very real.”
“Then how? Why?”
“You were dying, Abira. I came to offer you comfort in your last days, to make you feel at peace, to save you … to bring you home.”
“To bring me home,” she repeated.
“Yes.” Viktor stepped aside, and gestured behind. “You have people expecting you.”
She walked with him, sharing stories and discussing the last few days. Abira couldn’t believe her eyes. A thousand thousand flowers bloomed around them; moon and stars and sun filled the sky; animals were everywhere; people began emerging, dancing and laughing, singing and praising. And Viktor knew each by name.
“Ah, here we are,” Viktor said.
An enormous white castle appeared before them, its towers stretching to immense heights. When the gates were opened, brilliant light reflected off gold bricks lining a winding road. Viktor led her inside the castle, which was filled with millions of rooms. “I’ve prepared one especially for you,” he told her.
Abira glanced at him, not understanding, but then he gestured toward a room with an open door. She followed his gaze, and saw two children playing beneath its foyer. They looked up at Abira. “Is that?” she said, taking a step forward.
“Mommy!” they yelled, and they rushed toward her.
Abira fell to her knees, weeping, as they threw themselves into her arms. “My Alai. My James.” She kissed them, she hugged them, she would never let go. After a moment, she glanced up to Viktor, her savior.
He smiled. “Welcome home.”