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In my Eyes
I had never handled a sick patient before, even though my mother had tried to teach me.
Even when it was only a small cut, I would swiftly exit the room. An arm neatly slit open with pus unfurling from the infection should have triggered a reaction similar to that, but on a maximized level. But I wasn’t in a position to escape the room my mother was treating the patient in, because I was the one handling him.
“I’m not even asking you your name. This isn’t for my benefit. Put the cloth on your forehead—it’s damp with water, not poison. You think this will make me happy? It will. But no more than you. I don’t have the fever. I’m not dying.”
I felt the bundled cloth in my hand losing its cold touch, so I jerked it back into the tub of water. Ice cubes clinked to the sides. My hair didn’t fall to curtain my cheeks as they normally did. They were grimy and stiffed into place by sweat and oil. I couldn’t remember taking a bath this week.
But I couldn’t imagine the boy ever having taken one in his life.
He just sat there with his prison clothes wrapped around his lean structure. He had a slight bent to his back, like he had been forced to crouch his whole life and felt uncomfortable getting out of that position. My eyes fell to his nails. Dark cresents, brimming with grime. Disgustingly similar to mine. We may have been different in religion, him being a Christ-murdering Jew, and me an athiest, but our physical conditions were about the same. Aside from the nasty bruise on his forehead, the one the guard had presented him with on his way in. And the constant beatings from the soldiers who guarded the camp. I couldn’t overlook those.
I was one of the Red Cross members, having boarded south of Germany to aid the people in the concentration camp. Well, ‘aid’ was a bit of an exaggeration. We were helpless about saving them from their punishment for being who they were, but healing the many injuries they got was something we could do.
I wasn’t here just so I could escape my family. My family was comprised of parents who loved each other, and in fact were so loving that they couldn’t see the different sides in my sister. My sister gave them a sweet, innocent presentation, but away from their faces, she sided with the Nazis. My mother was strict about keeping us neutral, and I can’t say my sister couldn’t help herself, because she could. She chose to grin as she watched a Jew being beaten in the street, arms crossed outside our home, leaning on the door.
My mother wasn’t at home at the moment, acknowledging my sister’s nicer, sly side. She was in London, meeting constantly at the Rainbow Corner for Red Cross Club meetings. She was at the top of the members, and encouraged me when I suggested I depart to help elsewhere.
But she didn’t send me away with an empty head.
My mother taught me about the duty ration cards, and how they enabled us to get food after working long hours to treat the injured. Well, not just the injured. The soldiers were hurt too, and their need always overrided the prisoners of the concentration camp.
A duty ration card was pink and worn, brimming with signatures and stamps of approval. It was how I got my food, and was a vast leap from eating whatever my mother set in front of me at a table. I had learned over the months I’d been here to sit on a crate in the corner and silently chew whatever meal I had achieved for the day.
My mother taught me about the Angels of Mercy, the song woven by Irving Berlin. It infused hope in all of us Red Cross members. Not because the song was about a bright future, because it wasn’t, but because it was about our woes and calling to our work. It reminded us that there wasn’t a painfully lonely “I” to all of this misery—it was a “us”.
Carmella, the head of this reigion of the Red Cross, shouldered her way over to me. Some people looked disgruntled when she shoved those in her path. But they kept silent, like the prisoners here. I admired her stocky build and gray hair she knotted at the top of her head, the leathery pulls of flesh on her cheeks. I wasn’t sure why. I just admired her toughness, her boyishness, almost everything about her, even her brusque nature.
“He can’t speak,” she said. She sounded like she was eating something. Then she swallowed and revealed a small loaf of bread as she tore off a chunk and popped it into her mouth. Her fingertips were stained with something that looked like dirt. “I don’t know why. He never does. But I suppose he’s just doing what he’s taught to do.”
She sneaked a glance at him over her shoulder. “I know it pains you to see such a sad being. But you’ll get over it. We all do.” She flicked her chin back to me. I tried to lift mine, but it felt like something was pulling it back down. “What did your mother tell you?”
Sing me, I corrected quietly, even in my head. She sang me the Angels of Mercy.
“‘Angels of Mercy,’” I whispered. Her eyes glimmered. She looked infused with enthusiasm. “‘there’s so much to do, the heavens are gray overhead.’”
“‘Angels of Mercy, they’re calling to you,’” Carmella sang softly. She looked her age suddenly—for the first time. Frail, rusted, worn and tired.
“None of us are happy,” she reminded. “You think we want this war?”
“No.” I kept my voice at a murmur. I could almost shout at the boy, or any of the prisoners, soldiers, or other Red Cross members I was irritated with. But even though Carmella was mentioning what I was so clear with, I couldn’t raise my voice.
There was a bang outside the tent. It sounded worse than thunder—so sharp and quick, like the slice of a knife. I had only one idea of what sounded like that.
“Who shot the gun?” Carmella snapped, becoming a grouchy leader again. She straightened and marched outside. Being a Red Cross member didn’t mean you had the authority to boss around soldiers. I always worried they would shoot her.
I hurried outside and surprise crossed my face. It was the boy, the one I had been trying to treat. He was on the ground, shoved into the mud by the boot of a soldier—the soldier, the lead soldier in this reigion.
How had he gotten there? Wasn’t he back in the tent?
They must have taken him from the back exit. And still, he didn’t make a sound.
I watched the boot move up, and then come down hard on his back. Not a word slipped from his lips, but a groan.
I hadn’t watched Jews being hurt often, but when I did, I just walked away. But I couldn’t right now.
What my eyes concentrated on was the gun in the lead soldier’s hand. It had made the bang, but not at anyone, I realized, seeing the wisp of smoke lingering in the air. Warning shots, in the sky. Threatening who?
I looked back at the boy, who lay wincing on the ground.
“What did he do?” Carmella demanded.
The soldier looked up, and I almost gasped. He was, for such cruel nature, handsome. Dauntingly so. Red lips like a girl’s, fair hair like an angel’s, too lovely a creature to do harm. But he was so much like my sister in his devilish, sly impression. Both of them young and beautiful.
He looked from Carmella to me. We weren’t the only ones standing there—a crowd had gathered, consisting of watchful Red Cross members and other prisoners, and other cheering soldiers—but we were the only ones that had come forward.
“What did he do?” I echoed. I didn’t sound stupid. I sounded desperately curious.
The man actually responded. His scowl shifted to a grin.
“He wasn’t cooperating.”
“He can’t speak,” I blurted again, stepping forward. The action was not mine. It belonged to my body. My movements were not because I wanted to help the boy. I wanted to go back into tent and hide. But my body refused to listen. My mouth had opened and landed me here, and I had to follow my instincts the rest of the way.
The man didn’t seem to mind. “He’s going to have to learn to within the next few minutes or I’m afraid he won’t have the opportunity to again. Ever again,” he added more quietly. He reached down and yanked the boy up by his collar. Some people released breaths when they saw his face wasn’t scarred. Bruised but not bleeding. Welts on one cheek, a small slit on the other.
“Don’t,” I said, already far past my limit. But I took another step forward.
His smile curved wide, rusty red lips flattened all around his cheeks. “This is my camp, honey. I’ll handle issues here the way I like.”
I didn’t turn my head when he brought the gun to the boy’s chest. I watched the point jam into his chest. And I listened for the sound of the bullet.
His eyes weren’t wide with fright. They were kind of empty. I was almost shocked to recognize the emotions swirling there. Relief was an obvious one.
I heard the click of the gun but never the bullet. Maybe because it was shoved so hard against the boy’s body. Or maybe because in my head, I was in another world, one where I had taken my ears with me. In that dreamworld, I heard the boy laughing. But in this one, I never would.
I saw the trace of a smile on his tan face as he slid down to the ground. The head soldier kicked his body out of the way and looked directly at me.
“That’s how we handle Jews, honey.”