(Copyright 2013 by Ken Altabef and Unsettling Wonder)
This happened in the summer of 1943 in Leodegrace, which the Germans called Klein Buchenwald. At the time I had been interred in the camp for six months. I use that word most carefully for we were all as the dead there, buried alive and consigned unconditionally to Hell. There was no hope in that place. This we knew: there was no chance of escape. Two unbreachable fences of twisted barbed wire bordered the Lager, buzzing with high-tension current and under constant watch by manned gunner towers.
None of us had names there. We were simply Juden, and that was how they wanted it. Juden go over there, Juden dig here. Even Stanislaw Levi, whom I had known for twenty years, was Levi no longer. Juden, that was all. So we never knew the flautist’s name. In time we came to call him Null Neunzehn, which was to say “Zero Nineteen”, the last three digits of the number tattooed on his left forearm.
He was tall and thin, as we were all deathly thin by that summer, walking corpses with shaven heads and empty faces. He had a high number, 164019, which denoted Western European Jewry and the gentle slope of his brow and a certain weakness of the chin suggested that he might be English. He was just like the rest of us, dressed in filthy rags, a striped jacket with his number sewn on the front, and hobbling along on cruel wooden shoes. He dug where they told him to dig; he walked where they told him to walk. But even then, even in that that cemetery where the skeletons walked above the ground, where a tear-stained rag was our only pillow and despair our constant bedfellow – even in that godforsaken place where there was no hope – the flautist had a peculiar spring to his step. A spring that seemed to shout: “All is not lost!”
The flute he had made himself, fashioning it from a long turkey bone. It was a nice job, and had perfect pitch, so they told me. He played it well, they told me.
I never heard his music. I had been stone-deaf for thirty years, ever since a too-near satchel charge blast during the German assault on Brussels. That was World War One. By the time the Nazis dragged me off to Klein Buchenwald, my soldiering days were long behind me. I was a baker, with a specialty in sugar loaf. My wife was dead and I had left my only daughter, whom I thought I would never see again, secreted in a farmhouse in Tournai.
The deafness was not so much a problem for me; I could read lips expertly by then. Always I kept my eyes open. Always I studied the faces and reactions of those around me. I knew when the air raid sirens bellowed, just from their faces, and I knew when a Nazi entered the room, just from their faces. Having lost one of my senses was a blessing in that place anyway. I was spared having to hear the yells of men being beaten, the groaning of starving women in the night. And knowing I could not hear them, the Germans paid little insult to me, except when one spoke with the back of a hand or a quick boot.
He came to us in the evenings, in the solitary hour between the last scrapings of the dinner ration from the bottoms of our steel bowls and the lamps going out. It was the hour when Fritz Kandel, who had been a doctor in his former life, moved silently among the beds tending to wounded feet and lancing our suppurating blisters. In that gray hour before exhaustion claimed us, Null Neunzehn came and played his little bone pipe among the dead men, and their faces changed.
It was a lively little tune he played; I could tell from the way his fingers danced over the holes in his flute, and by the sparkle in his eyes as he played it.
His music was food for the soul, and we were all of us starving. For my part, I thought this was a dangerous thing. We had become hollow men, who dared not dream. Whenever some poor soul would start recounting the details of a marvelous dinner he had once enjoyed, the rest of us would shout for him to shut up, shut up. And some other idiot would begin babbling about a four-pound loaf of fresh-baked bread, still warm from the oven, and again we would cry shut up. It was not good to think too much, it was only torment to remember. We should remember this: the only way to escape the Lager was to embrace the sparking fence, or to throw oneself under one of the shuttle trains.
But Null Neunzehn and his song told us differently. I witnessed its transforming effects as I read their faces, huddled around the flautist while he played. The unconditional resignation that they had adopted to shield them from the horror was cracked for a moment by his note of futile rebellion. He was Hope itself, a small desert flower nudging its way up between the cracks. If we could have music such as this, then there was still life, still blood flowing through our veins. Perhaps our souls were not as shriveled as we might have come to believe.
After his song, the flautist would depart, move on to the next Block and begin again. I had no idea why the night-guard, standing in the doorway next to the pee bucket, would permit this coming and going between the barracks. Perhaps they considered him a witless fool. Sometimes I think they neither saw nor heard him; it was as if he was invisible to them.
After he had gone the others related his song to me as best they could. Soothing and hypnotic, the music evoked visions of another place, a better place, where every day was a spring day, warm and bright, a day of boundless fields of green and gold, caressed by a playful summer breeze. This place had as many names as there were people who told of it: Flaxdown. The Secret Garden. The Wonderland. Free Country.
And the children. So many children. Laughing, healthy children, who spent the days climbing in tree houses, fishing quiet sunset pools, or hopscotching through autumn leaves. A forever land of apple trees and cherry blossoms, and as they talked, as I watched their lips describing these wonders to me, it almost seemed like they were themselves happy children, frolicking in the green, without a care in the world.
But dawn would come, wrenching us back to the bitter reality of the camp. We began hearing rumors from the guards, spoken smugly through sneering lips, rumors of an impending inspection by high officials, perhaps even the Fuhrer himself. The guards grew stiff-backed and more aggressively violent than ever before. They took some of us away, men who had caused any small trouble in the past, those who had previously avoided the selections and the crematorium.
Many feared Null Neunzehn would be lost to us, but each night he came again. One night the piper’s playing became especially intense, almost frenzied. That was the night, of course, when it happened, when everybody disappeared. Everybody but me.
Three thousand in the camp, all gone. Sixty Blocks, all empty. I will never forget that dawn, when the morning light flooded into the deserted camp. How strange to see Hell suddenly gone so very empty. I guess I’d gotten a little used to Hell as it was. At dawn the assembled Reichsdeutsche of the Lager came streaming out of the S.S. counting-post, the Superintendents and Kapos, the swaggering Blockfuhrers, and red-faced Quartermasters. This was their grand inspection day, you see.
An ironic wind rattled across the enormous roll-call square in the center of the Lager, whistling as it careened off the deserted barracks.
And standing there, in answer to the morning reveille, was only me, one poor Jew, standing there, all alone. Only me.
I thought they would kill me on the spot. I raised my eyes to Heaven, trembling not a bit and standing as straight as I was able, ready for the bite of a bullet or the sting of a bayonet. But what use was there in killing a single Juden, standing all alone, with no others to see? So they sent me away to the camp at Bremen to wait out the rest of the war.
Sometimes I think about them running through emerald fields, laughing and singing. But in the end, I was not too upset at having to remain behind. In the end, the piper granted me a final gift. I alone bore witness to the look on Himmler’s face that day.
When he asked me where the prisoners had gone, I told him.
7/5/13 My weird short story "The Artist, Deeply, Brushes" appears in the July edition of Abyss & Apex magazine, and can be read for free at :
SHORT STORIES ONLINE
"Pennies From Heaven" on Daily Science Fiction. Read it here for free.
"Death After MIdnight" is published on Daily Science Fiction. Read here for free.
"Sixteen Hours" on Daily Science Fiction. Read it here for free.
("Pleased to Meet'cha" Copyright 2006 The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Ken Altabef)
It was a ridiculous notion of course, but at the time I was a writer and ridiculous notions were my stock in trade. Worse yet, I was a fantasist. Daydreams and dalliances, wondrous armies of mechanical men, entire civilizations etched onto the head of a pin, mighty dragons and mightier kings - you name it, all rustling about in that crowded little space between my ears. Calcimine castles in the air accessible only by the Pegasus of my imagination, I had but to open the floodgates and let them pour forth. So it was not at all unus(ual for a bit of superstition to make its way into my reality. It was not at all unusual for me to obsess over some petty piece of daily business, until ascribing to it an irrational power of mythic proportions. Case in point: a handshake, and a famous man.
A simple handshake. A ritual performed so often and with so little conscious thought as to be practically an instinctual reflex. Although the exact origin is difficult to pinpoint, there is a widespread belief that in its oldest form the handshake signified the handing of power from a god to an early Egyptian ruler. Centuries later, it was this magical aspect of the handshake that was so magnificently rendered on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In Medieval times, it might mean anything from a friendly greeting to a quick check for concealed weapons. In the 21st Century, the handshake had evolved into an important social custom; a symbol of honor and good faith, it ‘sealed the deal.’ But could it be magic? What exactly was exchanged in that special moment of personal interaction - a little sweat, some exfoliated skin cells, a warm fuzzy feeling. What else?
Magical? I suppose you could say he was more than a little magical. Harold Eldritch was a phenomenon. Sixteen bestsellers in as many years, one or two of them still clinging like drowning sailors to the bottom of the sales chart as the newest blockbuster hit the top. Works as varied in genre as was possible: gothic horror, two-fisted adventure, a sizzling midsummer romance, even a couple of high-tech medical thrillers. His wellspring of ideas was inexhaustible, his imagination boundless, his research always impeccable. To read his works you actually believed he was an arctic explorer, a gigolo, part Mafia hitman, part Caribbean pirate, a sorcerer supreme, a retired brain surgeon, and a WWI flying ace. His characters were always convincing, his plots wildly original and yet always rang true with details as finely honed as real experience. I’m sure you get the picture. As a fledgling novelist, he was my idol. He was everything I wanted to be.
I first saw Eldritch speak on the campus at Hofstra. He was delivering a diatribe on the importance of energy in writing, spouting pointers on maximizing output and creativity, as he dashed back and forth, buzzing around the drama club's makeshift stage like a honeybee at an orchid convention. He was the picture of crackling exuberance. His footsteps set the old wood to creaking, if not with the weight of his stature then with the force of his ideas. He was quite a sight - a diminutive five-footer with a receding shock of unkempt sandy hair that refused to lie in any conventional manner across his scalp, a set of flailing arms and a pair of wild dark eyes. Unrestrained energy seemed to shoot out from him in tiny electric bolts, invigorating the ravenous and adoring crowd as he poured forth humorous anecdotes and evocative tales of his early career. He had the crowd on its knees. An unfailing eruption of enthusiastic laughter punctuated his every punch line. It was hard to picture the legendary Harold Eldritch as a fledgling news reporter struggling to choke out a few lines of prose after-hours on a secondhand Smith Corolla and yet, an accomplished raconteur, he painted the scene with a flair of practiced merriment.
After the speech he opened up the floor to questions from the audience. The sea of faces that gathered tightly about the author wereas varied as his oeuvre, ranging from geriatrics to housewives to the usual collegiate types, with some longshoremen, Hindu mystics, circus freaks, and a few disenfranchised pagan deities thrown in for good measure. Inevitably he was asked the one question that all successful writers dread, and are pestered with at every turn. Just where did he get all those wonderful ideas? He rolled his eyes and laughed, characteristically waving his hands in the air. He was glad to explain. He had made a deal with the Devil; he had stumbled upon Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lost steamer trunk stuffed with manuscripts; he received messages via Ouija board; he depended upon a vast store of remembrances of past lives; HE HAD AN INTENSE RELATIONSHIP WITH A VERY CREATIVE GNOME!! Where did he get his ideas? Next question.
After the lecture, the crowd shuffled its way into the hall for the obligatory book signing. I don’t remember what novel, or two or three, he was hawking at that time; it was ten years ago now and there have been an endless stream of them even to this day. But whatever it was, I had a copy tucked in the crook of my arm, and I braved the seemingly endless line of sycophants waiting to meet the man. During the long wait my excitement steadily grew, as I pondered and obsessed over my insidious, ridiculously superstitious plan. You see I’d gotten this idea into my head - a crazy, childish notion as I’ve already said - but it had burrowed its way into my brain nonetheless. I thought that if I could just shake his hand, the hand that had pumped so much creativity into his typewriter (he didn’t believe in word processors), that maybe a little bit of the magic would rub off on me. I’d written a few stories, won a couple of local awards and one national contest, and I felt I was ready to break out into the big time. I had the talent and I had the ideas; all I was lacking were the years of hard work necessary to refine the style, and hard work never seemed much of a valid contender next to a magical shortcut. So I wanted that handshake. Silly me.
I waited patiently as the line crawled forth. Every so often, leaning out to check my progress, I would spy the great author himself seated at a cheap folding table at the end of the hallway. At last it was my turn. I must confess to a certain inotropic thumping of my heart as I stepped toward the table. I towered over him, but he smiled paternally up at me as I extended my hand. He extended his, and there it was, the long-awaited moment of contact. Our hands grappled firmly for a moment as if undertaking the first grip of an arm-wrestling match, and then it was over. Had I felt a little spark of electricity pass between us in that brief pressing of the flesh? A tingle surely, but was it really magic or simply the shag carpet and my sneakers talking? There was no time to contemplate that now, I was face to face with Harold Eldritch and the silence was growing uncomfortable. What to say? What to say?
“It’s truly a pleasure to meet you, sir,” I managed.
“It’s a pleasure being met,” he quipped, a practiced retort he had probably used countless times before when faced with the same pedantic line.
Then I stared at him for a moment, ridiculous fan-boy that I was, totally unprepared as to what to say next. You see, I hadn’t rehearsed the next line, and I began running all the obligatory responses through my mind in whipsaw fashion. Should I tell him I have read all his books; should I say I’m one of his biggest fans; should I fall over myself complementing everything he’d ever done? The myriad obvious, hackneyed possibilities that presented themselves left me speechless. I wished I had a really insightful question to ask, but I was surprised to find myself awash in a sea of nothing but trite blather.
He smiled impatiently for a moment and then rescued me. “A writer, right?” he asked, still smiling, an index finger poised straight up in the air, punctuating his deduction.
“Yeah.” I said.
“Well, keep at it son!” he advised, slapping me playfully on the shoulder and gently pushing me along with the same deft movement. Next customer. I shuffled off. Just another aspiring writer in a vast sea of aspiring writers. Well, that was the great meeting with the great Harold Eldritch. I made my way to the exit, and I never saw him again, except for a quick glance back from the gymnasium door. There he was still working the crowd, smiling wildly, shaking all those hands.
It’s ten years on now. I’m a modestly successful accountant at a small North Jersey firm. Needless to say, my great writing career did not go as planned. In fact, I don’t write at all any more. I haven’t penned a short story in eight or nine years. Not even a poem, a ditty or an ode. No, I’ll never be another Harold Eldritch. I’ll never have one best seller to my credit let alone a string of a hundred. He’s still pumping them out, magnificently working his old-school typewriter on the ranch in sunny CA, still speaking engagements to the thrill of young writers everywhere. Still shaking hands.
I know how to write, mind you. I’ve still got the knack, can still gild the Lilly, can still turn a phrase. No trouble there, but there’s one tiny little damnably insurmountable problem. I can put the words together, but I can’t come up with a story worth squat. Man, I’ve tried and I’ve scavenged and I’ve searched but there’s not one original idea left in my head. I never saw Harold Eldritch again. I never wanted to see him again, the bastard. Say, Harry, where do you get all those wonderful ideas?