SHORT STORY: THE WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY
by Ella Bianco
I feared I would go insane if I stayed in this wretched place, but the contract was already signed. There was nothing to be done.
The wind howled in my ears, mocking the screams I had to hear every day. I grit my teeth as the bone-chilling cold swept through the Bastille, filling the air with an even deeper feeling of despondency. Misery had inhabited this place and made it a home, for it was everywhere I looked. I could not run from it. I knew I was the root of this pain, and because I am an absolute cur, I am powerless to stop it. How can one conquer a fear in a place enveloped by it?
The terror was visible in their eyes, too. I glanced over, and the prisoners cowered, and backed against the tall, brick walls behind them, anticipating their end. A gaunt woman draped in battered rags with an infant in the crook of her arm let out a yelp as our eyes met, and her baby began to wail. She quickly looked forward again and stumbled on in a hurry. Another family, this time a mother, father, and son, huddled in a corner and spoke in hushed tones. The boy took a glimpse over his shoulder and quickly swiveled his head back, pulling on his his father’s muddy coat. I focused my attention back on the woman with the infant. The woman was much further in line now, and was sobbing, begging a guard “Please sir, don’t take her! She’s only a few weeks old! She can’t survive on her own!” She began to run after them. (After the guards? Did they take the baby?) The guards did not look back, although two new officers emerged from the crowd to restrain her.
“Stay in line.”
The woman was hysterical. “My baby!” She screamed before collapsing. I felt sick to my stomach. I watched as the woman was dragged into a brick building by the guards. The rest of the prisoners would never kno what befell her or her child. I didn’t believe they wanted to know, either.
You could have done something about that woman and her child. I deliberated with myself, staring at the wall behind the prisoners. You could have saved them. But you are a coward. And so you will just sit here and wait in inaction until you are consumed by your guilt. Unless you do something, you will be your own downfall. But still, I dismissed these thoughts. If I did take action, a humiliating end by firing squad would await me, or worse, my family.
“Stabsscharführer Liskowitz, Sieg Heil!” A voice came from behind me, breaking me out of my coma-like train of thought. I was greeted with an outstretched arm, meant to show others they meant no harm, but to so many was a symbol of the despair and the cruelty humans are capable of. A short guard stubby stood behind me and peered at me expectantly.
“Sieg heil,” I spat. The words left a bitter taste in my mouth. “Blockführer Mlynarz, is there anything to report?”
“Yes sir,” He began to walk away, waving his arm for me to follow. He passed dozens of distressed faces, not turning to look, not even batting an eyelash at the horror that surrounded him. A woman in a corner cradled a boy, weeping, who looked maybe three or four, whose ribs were visible through his taut, thin skin, and his dark hair caked with mud and dirt. His bony hands grasped at his mother’s hair, and he raised his head and met my eyes. They were shocking blue. His body suddenly went limp and he collapsed like a sandbag. His hands no longer pulled at the woman’s hair. She sobbed softly over her boy.
Still, we moved past them, ignoring the agony. A pit of dread formed in my stomach again. Something vile forebode me. I could sense it. But I could not turn and run. My feet felt like they were in cement. Run! Run! My intuition shrieked at me. I glanced around at the hideous sights that fenced me in. Ghastly visages surrounded me, cowering, as the wind wailed and chilled my body. Walking for what seemed like an eon. Through an iron gate and into a clearing.
A lump formed in my throat like a tumor. I could not breathe. My lungs refused to draw breath. The most macabre prospect stood before me. Mlynarz stood beside me watching the spectacle with amusement. The trench in my stomach deepened. The gravel below my feet seemed to fade away. Oh God! Please! Spare me from this sight! I don’t think I’ll be the same if I witness this!
In front of me was women, children, the elderly, striking the dirt with their spades. I had heard about this barbaric method of execution. They were under the universe of discourse that they were excavating holes for rubbish. The world around me spun. These people were digging their own graves.
You can help them. You can save them. They don’t have to die. Do you want more blood on your hands? Do you? I couldn’t think clearly. The prisoners around me seemed to morph into vultures, waiting for their prey to lose their will to live. So… what will it be? Their sunken eyes peered into my soul, considering the extent of my sins. Will you save us? Will you? Our blood will on your conscience. You are a coward, Jakob Liskowitz, you–
“Kind of funny, isn’t it, Liskowitz?” Mlynarz chuckled, and snapped me out of my drunken nightmarish state. “They have no clue of what awaits them.”
I laughed nervously. “Blockführer Mlynarz,” still keeping my vision fixated on the prisoners, I uttered my query cautiously, scared of the response he would give me. “Do you think these people deserve this fate?”
I peered down at him. He looked up at me with a smirk, and tittered again. “What, are you having a midlife moral crisis, Liskowitz?” He looked at me with a grin that showed his rotting, blacked incisor. “Yes, of course they do, I have no doubt in my mind.”
“Ah…” I muttered, not any more satisfied than before. I turned back to look at the inmates, and a little girl caught my eye. She was in a dress that at one time might have been white, but now was torn to dirty shreds. She could only have been about five. No parents in sight…. Her strawberry blonde hair had fallen in her face, and she was plastered with sweat and mud. I could tell she was exhausted. And after a little bit, she took her shovel and laid it on the ground, wiping the sweat from her brow. A guard came from behind her and tugged on her hair, to which she started to scream, “No! No! No!” She must have caught my pitiful glances, and her alarmed emerald eyes pierced my soul, spurring the voices to commence their horrid conversations again. Save her! Save her! Do you care for nobody but yourself? You selfish scum!
The girl shrieked in pain, contorting her body to try to escape her captor. I was frozen in place, my captor, the fear. The fear that inhabited this place. The fear that called it home. I was both the jailer and prisoner, trapped in my own stockade of misery.