March 24, 2008
By Julia Merlin, Alpharetta, GA

Dust fluttered to the ground gently, light as rain and dark as night. The sky filled with the smoky substance and blocked out the moon’s attempts to nourish the tarnished land. Mother Earth bowed to the sickening power invested in the dust by the ever-reigning soldiers of the night, her brown surface too soiled with blood and too withered with hunger to resist the dust’s supremacy. The green earth was cloaked in a shield of lifeless grey, stretching on from horizon to horizon, devouring every flower and blade of grass inhibiting its destructive goal.

A small child crouched in the barren field, her legs as thin as twigs and her face sunken with fatigue and malnutrition. Clear blue eyes peered up at the sudden downpour, and she shielded her gaze with a slender hand as she once again bent down to search the ground for hidden crevices drenched with liquid. If the dust got in her eyes again she would not be able to find her way back under the fence and into the barracks before the guards began their morning rounds. Besides, there was something macabre and nauseating about the flaky particles dirtying her skin and coating her stubby blonde tufts of hair. Mother, father, sister, brother. Mother, father, sister, brother. Mother, father, sister, brother.

The little girl shook with fear and disgust, her paper thin skin breaking out in emotional goose bumps at each flakes’ gentle touch. The grey flecks seemed to sear her skin, and she abandoned her search for water in favor of a quick scrubbing down back in the barracks, perhaps finally making use of the pumice stone she had found beside the Northern wall. She could handle the gnawing pain wrecking havoc upon her empty stomach, churning bile eagerly searching for even a forlorn crumb of sustenance at great detriment to her drooping spirits, but this, this sepulchral rain, was too much for right now. Her tired feet carried her forward at a reduced pace, the sores on her bare soles slowing her progress. The moon’s illuminating glow cast a shadow on her nearly bald skull and unclothed limbs, a silvery glow highlighting all she had lost and all she had yet to lose.
Quick as a cat, she dropped to the floor and slid on her stomach through the muck and grunge, coating her bare skin with a protective layer of wet and clingy mud. Her reduced frame easily passed under the barbed wire, and she scurried off toward the female barracks as the first rays of suns began to fight through the sticky fog. Mother, father, sister, brother. Mother, father, sister, brother. Mother, father, sister, brother.

The little girl knocked twice on the wooden door, careful to avoid the rotten patches and the bright red symbol that still emblazed a festering sore inside her soul at each and every glance. Ten seconds later, an elderly face peered out from the doorframe. With pursed lips and an ever wary gaze, the woman opened the door just wide enough for the little girl to squeeze through the crack before she fearfully closed it again. She checked the frame twice, running her finger up and down the seam to make sure it was sufficiently sealed. No one could get in here, not now. Not now.

“What were you doing out there?” The older woman whispered, her voice harsh with age and fright, her eyes fearfully flicking from corner to corner as if searching for an invisible enemy. The stink of THEM inhabited every blanket, every piece of wood, every etched number, every cell in their bodies. They would never be free, not in this world, but they could pretend as if they were, pretend as if they had control, by protecting themselves any way they knew how. And being paranoid, looking for THEM in every creaking floorboard and every scrape of a fallen leaf against the rough wood, was the only way they knew to shelter their remaining shreds of sanity.

“Looking for water.”

“There is nothing out there. There won’t be until the next train comes. You may as well stay inside with us.”

“I found something, Frau Friedman.” The small child held up the handful of mud she had managed to salvage from her ruined clothing, the brown mixture seeping through her fingers and dripping onto the soil-littered floor. Four women immediately crowded around the child, taking pinches of mud as gingerly as if it were gold, and raising it to their lips to suck the water like sweet nectar. Drops of soiled liquid coated their cracking tongues, and small sounds of satisfaction squeezed out of blistering lips. One woman dropped to the ground to lick the droppings off sticks and leaves.

“Did you see it?” A teenage girl asked from the corner. She was curled up in a fetal position on the hard wooden bed, her eyelids failing her as she burned alive from the inside out.

“Yeah.” The girl said softly, scratching at the places on her body where the grey dust had imprinted her soul and marred her skin.

“Has it—”

“An hour ago.” The girl interrupted. Somehow the words only made it worse. Life was better without words. THEY spoke in words, biting and angry words. Here inside the barracks, there were days where silence filled every corner and every sound echoed off the walls endlessly. Speaking did no one any good; the quieter they were, the more they could avoid the apocalypse looming on the horizon. Without words, they could think in images. Pictures of wide open spaces and seesaws and penny cent candy could overwhelm their imaginations, banishing the detrimental images that had entered their lives and their memories one year ago today.

“Did you see it?”

The girl shook her head and cast her eyes downward.

“Did you see anything?”

“Grey.” She said timidly, her voice shaking for one second before she straightened her back and repaired her tone. “Everywhere grey.”

“So it has started.”

“Yes.” She nodded her head once, climbing on top of wilted bodies to reach the crawl space between the last bunk and the ceiling. “It’s started.”

Two hours later, as they lined up for morning roll call, the little girl developed a lung-rattling cough. A day later, her forehead was scorching hot and beads of sweat trembled at her temples, her body too depleted of liquid to spare anymore. By the end of the second night, she was tossing and turning with fever, her eyes wide and glassy, her lips permanently open in a cry of pain. The women gathered around the little form and whispered to themselves.

“It’s the pox. I don’t know of anything else with that many dots.”

“What do we do?”

“We pray until THEY come to take her away. We pray and we remember to stay inside tomorrow.”

At evening line up, the girl was unable to join her fellow women. Ten minutes later, the women were dismissed to dinner and four men stalked toward the female barracks. One solid boot kicked down the door and it clattered to the floor with a resounding thud. Merciless arms yanked the tattered form upward by struggling roots of hair and carted the body outside with no thought toward her wellbeing or comfort.
THEY had come for her, just like she knew THEY would, and a surprising sense of satisfaction filled her ever shrinking spirit. She could see them again, those taken from her, and even the zealous flames were worth that unattainable joy. A soft smile spread across her face, faint as was everything else about her listless frame, but a smile nonetheless. The first smile in 12 months, two days, and ten hours.
As they neared the Southern building, the little girl’s feverish eyes were able to spot a giant looming dragon, its head stretched high toward the sky, its graceful neck extending ever upward as it supported the dragon’s search for high ground and endless blue skies. A small puff of grey spewed out of the dragon’s head before the animal quieted down and smoked no more.
THEY took her inside the Southern building, through the hallway lined with tiny worn shoes and half-torn undershirts, past the shower room and its tantalizing dripping faucets, and into the belly of the building itself. THEY exchanged a few words of camaraderie with the two men reading a magazine inside the room, and chattered for a few moments on the latest silent film. Suddenly, as if remembering THEIR original obligation, the first two men dropped the little body onto the cement floor, ignoring her outcry and stepping over her shaking form.
“I hear they have chowder today.” One man said to the other as they worked their way out of the building. “Think we can get an extra bowl if we get there early enough? It’s been a long day and I am starving.”
Five minutes later, thunder roared from inside the beast, and a few flickers of light shot out of the expansive neck. There was another low growling sound, another lick of flame, and the dragon erupted once again, ejecting a thin coating of grey dust into the air. Dust fluttered to the ground gently, light as rain and dark as night, quivering in the wind and swirling upward into the sky, over the barbed wire fence, and farther, farther still, up above the far distant treetops.
Mother, father, sister, brother, daughter. Mother, father, sister, brother, daughter.
Mother, father, sister, brother, daughter.

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