The Stones of Years Ch. 02byAdrian Leverkuhn©
(note: Part I of the story appeared under the title "Woman in Chains")
The Stones of Years
©2008 by Adrian Leverkuhn
"Most prisons are built of concrete and steel, you see," Misha Podgolskiv said, "but what of that prison we toil over all of our life, that prison of the mind we build within ourselves year after year, that prison which serves only to tear apart our very dreams. You know," he said, looking at them, "those walls invariably come down at the least opportune moment – destroying that which we love most. Everything buried under the weight of years of treachery and deceit. And you know, doctor, what amazes me most is the dedication we apply to constructing our own little prisons. We build them, you know, stone after goddamn stone, relentlessly, pathetically, as if we are impelled to construct our dark little castles out of sight, out of mind. It is as if we think no one will see the ill labour that has consumed us."
Todd Wakeman looked at Podgolshiv and shuddered inwardly. "Why do you think you smiled?" he asked after the old man finished telling them of the Soloff woman's murder. "I mean, did you know she was dead?"
"Of course I knew. Dead, yes, dead; no mistake. Just like my father was – dead. The symmetry of place was perfect, you know. I'll never know if that was what the old monster intended, but, oh, I wouldn't have put it past the old bastard."
"You mean he killed your father in the schoolyard, too?" Judy Somerfield asked.
Podgolskiv nodded. He was looking down at his hands; they were crossed on the table in front of him, candlelight danced in his eyeglasses and his pale skin looked leathery, almost like a new parchment.
"I thought the Gulags had been shut down by the sixties," Somerfield said, almost accusingly.
The old man looked up at her, pain and anger in his eyes, then he simply shook his head. "The work-camps, you mean? From Stalin's time? There were hundreds of them, you know. Not the dozen or so that the Germans built – oh no. I don't know how many people were killed in Stalin's camps; maybe four, five times as many as Hitler killed. Odd, but history has been relatively kind to the old wolf…
"But no, Ms Somerfield, they were not all closed down by the sixties. Some remained open for business right up until the day Gorbachev was chased from the Kremlin, but, well, they were no longer called Gulags. Settlement camps, I think, is a name I heard once. No longer work camps. Shit, work camps! Concentration camps, forced labour, people worked to death, starved to death, all in the name of the State. God forbid you might criticize the State, or speak your mind about the State, or criticize the glorious leaders of the State…
"But you must remember, my dear, that my parent's were brought to this camp in 1954 and, well, from the beginning ours was a very "special" camp. Ours was the first, how should I say this, "composed" of musicians and their families. Sorry, but I could not resist…
"So you're saying," Somerfield interrupted, "your parents went from a German concentration camp to a Russian camp?"
"My mother, yes; it was almost so. Not so my father, at least not in the same way. He was more useful to the Reich, so he fared better. He was an engineer of sorts. He dreamed of building rockets, you see. He wanted to go to the stars. Apparently he was very good at what he did. He studied in Germany, before the war – well, he was still there when German tanks rolled into Poland. He spent much of the war on the Baltic, near Peenemunde, until the rockets he designed were sent to kill innocents in London. Then he stopped."
"He stopped?" Wakeman said.
"Yes. Just so. He refused to cooperate any longer, demanded he be sent home, to Lithuania."
"Well, you see, he was a scientist. I doubt he knew there was a war going on. I know how absurd that must sound, but he was, well, he was just that way… so focused, so absent-minded it was almost comical. I understand the authorities were unamused, so instead they sent him to a camp, near Weimar, and there he met my mother…"
"Wait… so, wait, your mother was the musician?"
"Just so. Truly gifted, a prodigy. Violin. Some charming fellow in the Gestapo had her picked up, in Berlin I think, about the time Hitler turned on Russia. She spent the war performing in a string quartet in the camps, entertaining officers I suppose. She never talked about it, you see, not even to father. I can only imagine what else they made her do…"
"Where? Where did your parents meet?"
"Buchenwald. 'Jedem das Seine', or words to that effect."
"Ah. 'To each his own', or, in the instant case, 'you reap what you sow'."
"Was your mother from Lithuania?" Somerfield asked.
"No, oddly enough, she was from France, I think – but I do not know much about her side of the family. Still, she was a teenager when the Germans took Paris, but she was, however, already something of a sensation. The Germans were not philistines – well, I have been led to believe that some of them were not - and she continued to perform, mainly in Paris, but sometimes in Germany too, I might add, until someone figured out that her mother was a Jewess. So, Jedem das Seine'."
"I don't get it,"Wakeman said. "What did she do to deserve…"
"Ah, perhaps I mistated my translation. 'One gets what one deserves' might be more accurate – idiomatically. Like 'work sets you free' in Auschwitz. You must admit, Dr Wakeman, that the German tends to have a rather unique sense of humor."
"Misha, how about another drink?"
"Perhaps a mineral water. But, let me get it…" The old man stood and walked off to the bar.
"Holy Mother of God," Somerfield said breathlessly. "I felt like I was going to lose it there for a minute."
"What do you make of him? Think he's on the up and up?"
"What do you mean? You think he's making this stuff up?"
Wakeman turned and looked at the old man standing at the bar. "No, I suppose not, but PTSD does some pretty weird shit to perception and memory. I'm not so sure I'm ready to buy into the idea that he saw two girls from a concentration camp floating around in Tomlinson's eyes. I mean, come on!"
"What about the chains?"
"Sounds pretty far-fetched to me. Coincidence maybe."
"Coincidence? Are you serious?"
"Hell yes… oops, here he comes."
Podgolskiv sat down, poured the water into a chilled glass, then slid a wedge of lime in and watched as images formed in the water. As the lime settled to the bottom of his glass he thought of chains and ice and falling, always falling in the darkness. He watched, his mind thousands of miles and decades away from New York City, but the pain was with him always, and he smiled at it like it was an old friend.
"Prisons are like that," he said softly as images resolved before his eyes.
Wakeman looked at Somerfield and gently shook his head, but the old man saw their doubt take form in the air and he turned his smile at them.
"Shall I continue?" he asked …
Lev Podgolskiv walked along the razor's edge of the lake, from time to time his boots sinking into the sandy mud at the limit of the water's reach, his eyes focused on the slippery trail just ahead. The sun, high overhead and fiercely hot, beat down on his naked back, beat down on the huge stone he carried awkwardly in his bleeding hands, beat down on his ability to keep his grit-filled eyes on the shimmering mud just ahead.
Lev was in a line of boys hauling stones around the lake for the masons to use in the construction of Mr Kushirenko's new dacha; they had been hauling stones for weeks now. He pushed through the pain in his legs and arms, pushed through the hatred that filled his every waking moment, tried not to worry about Misha and what they might be doing to him today. There was a new rumor that the people from the Army were testing new vaccines for diptheria and typhus on "volunteers", but no one really knew what they were doing in the clinic – anymore than anyone knew why they were hauling rocks around the lake when the ones on this side of the lake were no different from those they hauled. This was an insane world – and Lev had learned long ago that all questions of the insane were better left unformed… far better to leave them hanging in the roiled air than to tempt an answer.
He heard trucks in the woods across the lake, and trucks inevitably meant one of two things: supplies would soon need to be offloaded or new "settlers" would need to be shown to their "quarters". Of course, Kushnirenko might show up and need to provide one or two of the unruly ones with a little demonstration of his authority, or he might take an interest in a particularly charming young lady and express a rather pressing need to show her around his quarters.
Lev felt grit settling on his teeth and he rolled his tongue around the inside of his dry mouth and spit out what he could; he looked at monstrously huge black flies swarming around the boy just ahead and wondered why none swarmed around his head, but he was grateful whatever the reason. He heard the line of trucks grinding up the last long grade before reaching the plateau the camp was built on, then the first one crawled into view across the lake and bounced along the rutted dirt track, but for a time, it seemed, the sound of boys groaning under their loads almost drowned out the gathering noise. Lev listened but remained focused on the muscles in his shoulders and gut, how hot and hard they felt, almost like steel cables pulled tight under his skin, yet as much as they hurt he had to admit they burned in a good way.
Kushnirenko's dacha came into view and the group staggered up a short, steep rise and placed the stones on ordered piles the masons had shown them how to start, then their foreman shouted at them, herded them down to the village for soup. They trundled down the hill and sat on the stumps of felled trees, wolfed down watered soup and grainy bread, and as focused as they were on their food they hardly looked up when the trucks rolled to a stop by the administration building.
Kushnirenko was, however, waiting for them. He had his riding crop out, was beating his hands regularly like a metronome. The camp goons were gathering around now, just beside his group.
Lev groaned inwardly. No one dared say a word when the goons were so near.
Tailgates were thrown open, canvas pulled back, guards barked orders at bleary-eyed men and women who slid to the ground and looked around at their new home. Some turned and helped children down to the ground, and more than one body was passed downas well. The living were pushed into a line, their backs to Lev and the other boys, but he could hear Kushnirenko growling and snarling at them. The monster was laying out the ground rules, explaining conequences for infractions, when one of the arrivees sneezed. Kushnirenko hurried to the man and hammered his face with the riding crop, then kicked him in the face after he fell to the ground.
It was in that tortured moment that Lev first saw the two girls.
They were quite tall and very thin, almost willowy, their brown hair in braids, their rail thin legs showing under knee-length skirts.
'Twins!' he said to himself. 'Identical twins!'
The girls and – apparently, their mother – knelt beside the stricken man and helped him stand while Kushnirenko looked on contemptuously, almost mockingly.
"Don't think I don't know who the fuck you are!" Lev heard Kushnirenko yell at the stricken man. "And don't think I don't know what kind of scum you are! That's over now, do you hear! Now! Over!" He raised the whip in his hand as if to strike another blow, but the man did not flinch or draw away. "Do you hear me!" Kushnirenko thundered. "You belong to me now!" He turned to face all of the assembled arrivees. "You all belong to me now. Whether you live or die today or tomorrow, whether you eat today or starve to death chained to a tree in the forest – understand this. I choose! I choose whether you live or die! Work hard, obey my rules, cause me no trouble – and you will find your life hear tolerable enough. You will have the opportunity to play your goddamned music, to learn and teach music as befits your talent, but your destiny is in my hands. Do not forget this!"
Kushnirenko turned and walked away, but someone in the group muttered "Fuck off."
Kushnirenko turned and looked at a guard, who pointed at a prosperous looking man in the middle of the group. He walked up to the man and put his pistol to the man's face. People flinched in that moment, some stepped back moaning; one fell before Kushnirenko's knees and began begging him to spare her husband.
"Do not do this, please!" the woman wailed, and Kushnirenko regarded her dispassionately for a moment, then shrugged and put his pistol away.
"Does anyone else have another pithy comment they would like to share with me?"
He looked around.
He stood back and looked slowly down the line.
The woman on the ground moaned now, reached up to her husband – but he seemed to step back from her and he remained absolutely quiet. Kushnirenko walked up and down the line again, looking at each "settler" in the eye, then he turned and walked back to his office. The guards cursed the new arrivees and barked orders at them, began herding them off toward new cabins at the far end of the compound. They walked by Lev and the other boys while they finished their soup, the arrivees eyes cast to the ground as if embarrassed by what had just happened. Even the boys eating soup looked away.
All except Lev Podgolskiv.
He looked at Kushnirenko's retreating form, at the pale skin and pale hair of the monster, and their was pure hate in his eyes.
At least that's what one of the girls remembered, one of the twins, whilst they settled into their new home. She told her sister about the boy she had seen earlier that afternoon, about how he alone had looked at them, and at the commandant; she told her sister that she did not quite know why, but she felt one of them would fall in love with this boy.
"Why do you think that? Why do you always dwell on such foolishness?"
"I don't know, Sara," laughed the first girl, "but for some reason I feel as if I have seen him before. When I saw him it felt as though I had, I don't know, been with him - maybe in a dream. I can't explain it, but when I saw him everything inside me felt turned upside down."
"Do you know what I think?" Sara Lenova said.
"No, tell me," her sister Valentina said.
"I think the heat went to your head."
They wanted to laugh but each looked around their room again.
"But this is no dream, Sara."
"No, no it's not. It's a nightmare."
Lev and the rest of the boys bathed in the lake; the icy water nearly always took his breath away, but today, after the blistering heat the prickly cold water actually felt very good. He dove under the water and swam along just above the rocks on the bottom of the lake, wondered what it must feel like to be a fish, then turned over and looked up through the clear water toward the sun still high overhead. He continued to swim, holding his breath until his chest felt hollow and full of fire, and when he could stand it no longer he rushed for the surface and burst back into the air.
"You! Podgolskiv! What are you up to!"
He turned around and looked back toward the shore, now almost fifty meters away. One of the guards was looking at him menacingly, a rifle in his hands. Lev swam back to the shore, dove under the water a couple of times as he did and he skimmed over the rocks again, marveled at how it must be to glide through water all the time, and how warm the water grew the closer he got to the rocky beach. He so desperately wanted to be a fish for just one day…
The boys gathered their clothes and, still naked, ran back to the compound and into their cabins; Lev cleaned mud from between his toes before he dressed, then made his way through the cabins to the clinic. He brushed his hair with his fingers and walked inside.
"Can I see my brother today?" he asked the nurse who finally came out to the reception desk. The woman regarded him silently while she put papers away in a filing cabinet; Lev felt she was ignoring him on purpose, like she was trying to provoke him or anger him. Perhaps he would have been surprised to know what she was really thinking as she watched him.
"No, not today, and probably not tomorrow either. He has a high fever still, and he may yet be contagious."
"What is wrong with him?" Lev asked, unable to hold back the growing alarm he'd felt the past few days. "He was fine when you people brought him here! What's happened? How did he get sick?"
"How old are you?" she asked.
"Are you deaf? How old are you?"
"What have you done to my brother!"
"I will not ask you again," she said. There was a new tone in the woman's voice, a very unpleasant menace in her eyes. Lev recognized it instantly.
"But your brother is fifteen! How… are you twins?"
"Yes… but, why…" – yet before he could finish his sentence the nurse had scuttled back onto the ward, looking back at him anxiously as she left. Now Lev looked around the room as he realized he was now in a very dangerous place; he backed out the door and ran into the bowels of the camp. He was suddenly very afraid, thought it best not to return to his own cabin for the time being and wandered carefully toward the library, hoping to look as inconspicuous as possible. He went into the little building and looked around – it was empty – so he drifted in, disappeared into a dark corner and sat on the floor; he reached out and took a book from the closest shelf and looked at the title:
The name sounded so familiar… but why? Where had he heard that name before?
He opened the book, looked at the type on the pages – the text was in French, which was not a problem as his mother had taught him to read and write in her native tongue – but still the feeling of familiarity persisted. As he flipped through the pages the Clair de lune crept into his thoughts and he looked up for a moment, closed his eyes and played the music in his mind. He saw the notes hovering there, just out of reach – and he was there again – the warm light, a familiar room, her soothing questions…
He had not played that music in five years – he would not, could not even imagine those notes without thinking of Madam Soloff dying in his arms – but now, here they were, images of the dead and the dying forcing their way back into his consciousness. He wandered through the pages but stopped when one called out to him:
Melancholia — VI. Mon Rêve Familier
Verlaine – Debussy – Madam Soloff! They had been talking about Debussy and Verlaine the night before she was murdered! The Clair de lune!
He fought back the tears that called out through the mist, closed his eyes as the memory of her being burned back into the light of consciousness. He struggled to open his eyes, to look at the words on the page, yet they drifted on wounded airs through limpid waves of pain that gripped his eyes, and suddenly he was swimming in the lake, gliding just over cold, green rocks, swimming endlessly against vast oceanic currents of tortured humanity.