The Holocaust Lover
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Matt Nesvisky
Tobsha Pechersky was hiding from the Nazis. He knew it without knowing it. He didn’t know he knew, but deep inside of him, in the part of him where his love for her resided, he absorbed this knowledge. From the moment he saw her footprints in the snow, he intuited with an understanding that surpassed reason. Tobsha was concealing herself from the Wehrmacht. From the SS. From the Einsatzkommando. From the Ordnungspolizei. From the Sonderdienst and the Schutzpolizei and the Gendarmerie. Tobsha was hiding from the partisan-hunters and from the Saurer gassing vans.
He probably even knew it the instant he reached the crest of the road and noted the absence of smoke from the cottage chimney. With the late afternoon temperature at around five degrees, with nearly two feet of fresh snow on the ground, she couldn’t be in the cottage without the fire going. Yet the old automobile was out front, thickly crusted with snow, its windows blinded with icy cataracts; it obviously hadn’t been moved in days. She might have hiked to the farm, but he didn’t think so, not this late in the day, not over drifts that were frequently calf-deep in the pasture. Too easy to step into an ankle-twisting fold of the land and into a covered runnel of icy water. Could she possibly have fallen asleep and let the fire go out? But she never slept in the daytime. Had some accident then befallen her?
It was when he reached the door of the cottage and saw her footprints that he was certain. The tracks, nearly but not quite obliterated by the most recent powder, led around back of the cottage and straight towards the thick woods. That was it. The Parczew Forest. Between the Wieprz River and the Bug. Between Majdanek and Sobibor. She was out there somewhere, he knew. Hiding.
He nevertheless stole a few brisk minutes to search the cottage, to call her name, but softly, softly. In each room he could see his breath. On the sofa lay a battered book, many-tongued with strips of newspaper: Fir Tragediyes fun Shekspir. On the end table were several well-thumbed multi-lingual dictionaries. He turned on the electric heaters and got a good blaze going in the fireplace. At least he could get her back to a warm house.
Within minutes he was in the woods, his feet aching with cold, his cheeks fiery, his breath bellowing out in jets. He was unprepared for such a trek. He wore only a thinly lined raincoat. He had leather gloves and a silk scarf but no hat, street shoes rather than boots. He pushed his way through the trees. Low-slung evergreen boughs showered him with snow, little electrical sparks down his neck, under the cuffs of his gloves. He could see where Tobsha had brushed by branches as well – how long ago? -- for at times little heaps of snow filled in her tracks. There was also just enough wind to blow drifts of powder like so many siftings of flour over the footprints. Once he came to a thicket of shrubbery and lost her trail altogether. He managed to pick it up again soon enough. But the daylight was fading fast. His eyes were tearing. The cold pained him. But the love hurt him more, the love.
Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs,
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes…
After walking a fairly straight line into the woods for a few hundred yards, she had altered course, and more than once. At times she’d gone off at sharp angles, at times she seemed to have circled back on herself. It was as if she’d been looking for something in the snow. Or had she become disoriented? He was starting to feel disoriented himself. He kept searching for distant landmarks and for power lines, estimating where the road and the river might be. He also couldn’t stop trying to calculate when she had left the cottage. When had the snow begun, when had the wet turned to powder? She might have left in the morning. Yet it could have been in the night. Or possibly even the previous afternoon. He prayed she hadn’t set out so long ago. But who could tell when the fear had struck? The Einsatzgruppen. The police battalions. The carbon monoxide trucks.
The Lager. The chimney.
She had tramped more deeply into these woods than they had ever gone together. Once he tripped and fell, soundlessly in the snow, his face pressed into her footprints, or more accurately into the revenant traces of her footprints, which were fading like antique daguerreotypes from the Old Country. For a brief spell he felt like weeping, but he was too angry to weep; he was angry with himself for falling, angry with her for wandering so far. Yet his anger was tempered by the proximity to her that the footprints provided.
After a quarter of a hour more he saw, near the top of a slight rise, the heap of brush. It was some thirty or forty yards up ahead. It was good cover, but not quite natural – it was either that or the fact that the disturbed ground around it hadn’t yet been entirely camouflaged by the snow. Still, he had no doubt. It was now truly too dark to make out her trail, but he homed in on the big thicket. He willed Tobsha to be there in her bunker, and she was.
She was curled up and vulnerable as an embryo, her eyes open but unseeing, her hair stiff as silver wires, her face and hands blue against the snow, blue, blue. He was reminded, shockingly, of an unhatched bird, perhaps a chicken, revealed inside its shell. He had seen such an obscene sight somewhere – or perhaps had seen a picture of such a thing. Half-formed, bluely translucent, an eye open but sightless – and accusing: you must not see me like this, intruder, you have no right. He didn’t want to think what he was thinking. She, too, lay curled and cramped like a thing unliving, with an eye unseeing. But thank God for the tell-tale wisps ribboning from her nostrils. He was tired from his march through the woods, from his anxiety, his anger, his incomprehension. For a moment he flirted with the idea of lying down in the snow next to her and simply drifting off to blackness with her in his arms.
Or hide me nightly in a charnel house
O'ercover'd quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud –
He didn’t lie down. He didn't spare any time for conversation, much less recrimination. He simply tore aside the brush, hauled her out of the little space she'd hollowed in the ground, pulled her to her feet. He wrapped his scarf over her head and ears, knotted it under her juddering jaw, buttoned his coat around her. The trees and undergrowth, even in their winter nakedness, grew too densely to allow him to carry her. Instead, he began firmly half-leading, half-dragging her back along the large-knuckled dinosaur spine of his footprints. She was too glassy-eyed, too blue-lipped, to offer any protest.
Full night had fallen, and now more snowflakes began to spill as well, as he marched her as quickly as he could back through the Parczew Forest, the frozen Nailbocka marsh, disdainful of snipers, oblivious to the threat of search lamps and dogs, skirting the pasture and towards the cottage. Over the last one hundred yards of open ground he finally scooped her up and carried her. She was a full-sized woman, Tobsha Pechersky, but that evening, even bundled in his coat, she seemed to weigh no more than a child. It's amazing how anger and frustration can empower one's arms. Kicking open the door, he carried her right upstairs to the bathroom and got the hot water running in the tub. Then he began to peel her shivering self out of his coat, her wet wool trousers, that ridiculously thin sweater and shirt. She said nothing. She just stood there, jaw trembling, arms angling jerkily, but she obediently stepped out of her clothes as he wrenched them off. He wanted to slap her silly; he wanted to hug her to his chest and warm the life back into her with his own angry heat. Instead, he eased her into the tub. Without thinking, he poured into the water all that was left of her Mr. Bubble.
When he saw her settled comfortably up to her shoulders in the steaming water, he gathered up her clothes and took them downstairs and arrayed them around the electric radiators. Then he rebuilt the fire in the fireplace to a ferocious blaze. When he returned to the bathroom she was luxuriating in the heat, her eyes half-closed, a sleepy smile playing about her lips. She was beautiful all over again. How could he be angry with her? He kissed those lips and she reached over and stroked his cheek, her fingers trailing suds along his temple. He took up a sponge and soaped her body all over, murmuring how much he loved her. He thought about getting out of his damp suit and getting into the bath with her, but he didn't. He no longer felt cold; he felt warmed just by being near her.
When he figured she had been sufficiently restored, he got her out of the tub and dried her off; kept her there wrapped in bath towels until he brought in a pair of flannel pajamas (his, as it happened) and her ratty robe, a pair of thick wool socks and her slippers; got her dressed and downstairs and settled on the sofa under a plaid blanket in front of the fire. He handed her a tumbler of Islay single malt and ordered her to drink it, and she did. He drank his as he made scrambled eggs and toast and coffee. Tobsha didn't resist any of these ministrations, she didn't say anything, but he had to fucking feed her like a baby. At least, thank Christ, she ate.
One last log on the fire and finally he could spoon up behind her on the sofa. He pulled the blanket over himself as well and slipped an incorrigible, proprietary hand down the front of her – his – pajama bottoms. With his fingers nested firmly between her legs, holding on, as it were, for dear life, they drifted off.
“It was an experiment. I just couldn’t resist. The snow, the cold. It just all came together yesterday.”
“Yesterday. What fucking time did you go out there yesterday?”
“Five. Six. Something like that. I hadn’t planned it. It was... an impulse.”
“You hadn’t planned it. But it’s been in the back of your mind ever since – whenever. You’re always in Poland. Russia.”
“Sometimes. In a way.”
“Drink your cocoa. Five, six o'clock. And all night. Nearly twenty-four fucking, freezing hours. Just how long did you plan to stay out there?”
“I didn’t plan anything. Is there scotch in this?”
“You better believe it. So you were just going to freeze out there until the Soviet army arrived, is that it?”
She was silent for a time, maybe humiliated. He hoped not. But he wanted her to be sorry.
“I wanted,” she said finally, “to see. If anyone came along. If I could move on undetected... avoid being seen.”
“Who could come along? Marshal Zhukov? I came along. Only I could come along.”
“Of course I am.”
“Okay. Good. So I came along. But you didn’t see me. You didn’t get away undetected.”
“No. I didn’t.”
“Failed. Failed experiment.”
“I must have been dozing.”
Must have been dozing. Jesus, she didn’t get the point. Wasn’t even trying to get the point.
“No more experiments, Toby,” he barked, exasperated. “Swear to fucking God no more games.”
“It wasn’t a game. I wanted to feel... to understand how –”
“I know, I know. It wasn’t a game. I’m sorry I said that. Now just say you’re sorry you did it and swear to fucking God no more experiments. Just say it.”
“I'm sorry and I swear to fucking God no more experiments. There, I just said it.”
“It’s not funny. What if I hadn’t come along? What if I hadn’t been able to find you?”
“But you did.”
Jesus God. He couldn’t think of anything else to say except to order her to finish her cocoa.
She took a sip, just to please him. “Are you really so angry?”
“What do you think? You think up some crazy – hey, have you ever done anything else like that? You have – God damn it, don’t turn away, I can see it on your face. What other ‘experiments’ have you conducted, Toby? Starved yourself? Scourged yourself? Given yourself typhus? Pulled out a rotten tooth with pliers?”
“I won't have it. You can't do this to me. There is something. I can see it all over you. What did you do? Toby, I love you. Tell me. What? I didn't hear you. Turn toward me.”
“No big deal,” she whispered. “Just... touched the fence.”
“What? Speak up, girl.”
“Touched the cattle fence.”
“The cat – the electric fence? Oh, Christ.”
“Just brushed it. It wasn't bad. Really.”