Imagine. A return to a mystical land, where there are many burials but no funerals. Twenty thousand here, ten thousand there. Give or take a dozen either way. An attempt to hide an entire people under the soil. What a valiant and audacious plan! Here they go again. Drinking the black milk of noon. The men who had gone there know death to the bone and all before them were from the dust. Everyone knew what they brought.
A fat jovial man with an officer’s attitude waved his pistol to summon the next batch as they idled in the long summer grass, listlessly awaiting extinction. Dogs and rifle butts shuffled them forward. They were made to strip and neatly fold their clothes and put them in the appropriate pile. A trace of a man went amongst the villagers with a wooden box collecting jewelry and what he deemed valuable, such as the shawl he took off a baby. He had slapped the young mother hard across the face when she complained about him appropriating it. Mercifully, the group of women, children, and the elderly were allowed to keep their underwear on, a concession that was to be rarely extended during the crusade.
The squadron assumed their various roles around the open grave. It was the last batch of the day, a small group numbering eighteen, and there were enough riflemen to ensure the mass execution could be delivered in perfect synchronicity. One shot and then a kick to the backside to make sure they slithered into the trench, which was fifteen feet deep, twenty feet long, and ten feet wide. The men who had dug it stripped to the waist in sweltering sun with no food or water for almost two days, the odd one of them shot every now and then to keep them on their toes, lay at the bottom of it. A massacre in the instant of shooting. The soil was already divesting the corpses of skin and hair. A promise of reunion was to be honoured.
The soldiers loaded and checked their rifles. Some drank brandy from their flasks and lit cigarettes. The overzealous or those who performed with too much emotional or ideological relish were removed from active duty and given supplementary roles, normally administrative or logistical, to the execution squad. Why? They did not want to be thought of as barbarians. Anyone who was not efficient and professional was dropped from the front rank, like the guy with the clipboard who had stood there all day, marking a tick sheet every time he heard a shot. He didn’t bother looking anymore.
The villagers were all bowed in supplication now, not believing what was happening even as it was, a few had gone to the toilet over themselves. Weird thing was they still had hope as if something out of the blue would happen to rescue them. They died without raising a stink or even much of a laugh. Unreality had won out; before they realized they needed to do something it had been too late. Death is a bank clerk from Munich. They were soon done for the day. A baby was still crying as they prepared to fill the pit with dirt. One of the soldiers walked to the edge of the trench and fired his rifle a couple of times. A colleague who felt sick from too much brandy and who was suffering a hangover before sunset thanked him for creating a silence. The best part of a town had been shoveled away, to be forgotten, and then it was on to the next one, sowing dragon’s teeth to grow.
What they had been doing was efficient, necessary, good. Each soldier was sincere in this belief. All of them who had died that day had been robbed of their own deaths. Years later when the soldiers denied involvement they were telling the truth or at least expressing a truth that resonated with them, when they said no one actually died there, as there had been no historical acknowledgment, and with these kinds of things it was the footnote references that made it actual. Some handheld and scratchy film stock surfaced in a purgatorial archive to replenish the collective memories of those incriminated but no one served any real prison time. The soldiers were haunted by dreams of children’s faces burning in blue flames saying “mummy daddy, mummy daddy.” So they drank brandy at a reunion and told their stories and it did them good and they never thought of it all again. Old dead, new dead, all so much of a muchness. It was the time; you had to be there to understand the madness, crazy times. You’d have done the same thing.
Imagine. You are crouched before an open grave with your baby girl pinned to your chest. The young boy next to you is uncontrollably shaking and he keeps muttering the same incantation. “Mummy daddy, mummy daddy.” The riflemen are lining up behind them. You cannot look up. Overwhelmed by sheer physical love for your child you wish you could melt into each other and die at the same instant but you know it is most likely the weight of your cadaver that will kill your daughter. If not then either inattention or soil will bring things to a conclusion. Imagine that. This is not real. Last week you were playing as a family. Now your husband lies at the bottom of the pit.
Well, they had to, the women in the village, they would see their sons, husbands, and fathers in a few days, as all the men had been trucked off. You and your family are gone like you were never there really.
She was numb, rendered mute by seeing her toddler son lifted up by the hair and shot through the head for sobbing uncontrollably as he was made to undress. After his body had been thrown in the pit, the soldier who had murdered him lit a cigarette and fumbled for his flask of brandy. Though she didn’t know why she kept thinking of the first occasion her son had spoken her name properly instead of just saying, mama. He said it in a way that was precise yet strangely heartbreaking. She hoped their deaths would linger in the memories of the executioners and be more than an afterthought, but she suspected they were happy before all this and they were happy still.
For some of the guards, everything is fine with the world and it seems for them a jolly place.
Then the bullet comes and she is kicked in the back. She has not been shot properly, the bullet slicing open the side of her neck, and is choking to death on her own blood. Her child has been thrown free and lies just out of reach. She wants to reach out and comfort her wailing child but her body won’t respond, she is only able to reach out her right hand flickeringly. Dying, she is tormented by the thought of her child enduring a slow death by asphyxiation. She is staring at the beautiful creamy face of the little boy, he looks so sweet, how she imagines her little boy to have grown up to look, a handsome little man. Her fingers are nearly touching his hair, over where a patch of his forehead is missing, when a bullet punches her shoulder and makes her arm flop. Another rifle shot and her child is quiet and she is filled with joy. She looks at the blue sky and thinks of the leaves in spring then graciously returns to a state of unbeing.
Picture this, if you will.
You are tipped out of bed in the middle of the night and hit with clubs for no given reason. The military police threaten your younger brother to shock your mother into composing herself. On the way out, you glimpse them both receding into the shadows. You are taken to a concrete bunker where they take your name, personal details, and you are forced in front of a camera. After being photographed you are officially booked in and it is all surprisingly benign, the personnel dealing with him weary and proficient, seemingly possessing no great energy for violence. Then the guards take you and it all starts.
You urinate in your pants when the officer in charge punches you on the back of the head. Then they stuff rocks in your mouth and make you squat up and down repeatedly. You hear the charges against you. Singing pop songs in public and making unguarded comments about a haircut. The accusations have been corroborated by the neighbour who you quarreled with a few weeks ago over a stray chicken. You are allowed to crumple onto all fours and spit out the rocks, which have left your mouth and throat clogged with dirt and blood, in order to bark like a dog. A confession is requested by the officer. You are agonised but you know to confess is death so you resist, knowing that eventually you will capitulate and there is only pain and death ahead of you, whatever you say, whatever you do. A lot of kicks and punches from all over feel like they’ve broken everything and only end when you soil yourself. There is laughter amongst the guards who seem to find the stench an ebullient thing.
You are shoved into a tiny cell in which you can neither stand up nor lie down. The officer tells you through the observation hatch that judgment will be delivered tomorrow. You scream at the officer that you will endorse your guilt, anything to be relieved of the mental and physical anguish caused by the stress position the walls of the cell have molded out of your form. The officer laughs and tells you that none of what was said and done in the interrogation lounge mattered much anyway. You call out for your mother as the hatch shuts.
When the cell door is finally opened after what seems an eternity of pain and darkness you are dragged into the corridor, a conquered twist of flesh, where the dogs are waiting. The barking and white teeth clear your senses and make you empty yourself again, but not much comes out really and the relief of being free of the physical trauma of the cell has given way to terror as you know you are on the way to death. If anything it is a mercy when the officer steps in front of the dog handlers and clubs your face, popping your nose so there is blood dripping at your feet as you are herded down the corridor, as you are too dazed now to totally comprehend your reality. The corridor is long, narrow, and forbidding, an anonymous stretch of grey concrete punctuated by the flicker of faded strip lighting. At the end of the corridor is a green door.
Inside the brightly lit room, there is a table with a claw hammer on it. Next to the table, a brutalized man is tethered to a chair. The officer is pointing a pistol at your head and makes you a proposition. You are to kill the man with the hammer and then your mother and brother will be sent to a labor camp where they would remain till they were starved and worked to death. If you choose not to kill the man they will go to an experiment camp where if they were lucky they would be gassed together after a minimal amount of torture. The man is hyperventilating, totally hysterical, making piggy grunts as he tries to breathe through his squashed face, his shattered arms trying to wriggle out of their rope binding.
Oh to live in interesting times.
The officer assures you that no one in the room will harm you if you fulfill the judgment. Or conversely, your inactivity annoys the officer, and your brains are blown across the room and your remaining family dies twitching and blue in each other’s arms. You think the man looks doomed anyway, sat in just his underwear his body displays a mosaic created by the judicious use of a power drill and an acetylene torch.
The first blow crumples on the side of his head, bloodying him and increasing his mania. You drop the hammer as you attempt a decisive swing and the guards laugh and make disparaging comments. They say you couldn’t knock the dust off a butterfly’s wings. All is well with the guards; they exude the relief of being part of such a swell club.
The officer commands you to quicken your actions. Your next blow is firmer; he looks dazed and the laughter and delirium and madness make you angry and you lose it, raining down three crushing blows and the crack of bone echoes in the cell, and his head has given way, folded in on itself like a punctured leather football. The body is untethered. You are made to drag the corpse into a side room that is unlit, but enough light leaks in so you can see a dozen more bodies with their heads caved in and you will never harbor a sane thought again.
As they tie you to the chair, your resistance dissolving when you are reminded how your actions will affect your mother and brother, you remind the officer of his promise not to harm you. We said we will not kill you, not that you would not be killed. We have kept our side of the bargain. Some kind of stranger will do it. A man is led into the cell and offered the same choice you were. The man apologizes and expresses his hope that your journey to the afterlife is a spiritually peaceful one despite your splintered body. One of the guards clubs him for the kindness.
Thankfully for you, he is more pragmatic and focused than you were. You are fortunate that his first blow is firm but true and you are unconscious and are not aware of the blows that redeliver you to non-existence.
Picture that, if you please.
Your neighbor resumes his custody of the chicken.
The crime was so awful it can barely be described. Hundreds of people watched as the band played. About seven or eight men hung from the gallows, necks grotesquely twisted by piano wire and heads obscenely lolling, their feet strung together and weighed down with stones. They were all smartly dressed as if they were all off to attend a formal gathering. Some had struggled as if they were resisting an affront to their dignity, and their facial expressions were testimony to this. A hat had fallen on the floor and it was gathered up after the guards had thinned out by an onlooker who placed it on his own head and then for whatever reason stuffed it into his overcoat. Their hands tied behind their backs they had been lowered gradually so they would die a slow death. And their tongues were black and blue and their skin a greenish color.
The days that followed were the saddest of my life. I no longer knew if I was in the real world. How could a scene like this happen?
Every day music was playing because people were screaming. They slaughtered people and were happy about it. They even shipped the babies off to be gassed. Nothing upon nothingness.
This way please, into the heat and dust. A woman is addressing the camera, the depth of suffering in her eyes unsettling. Her words are translated in a plummy English accented voice that lends the telling of the story a disconnected feel. It hurts, but it is cushioned. The woman is in black from head to foot, wearing a long dress and a headscarf. She is thin and her gestures have a beguiling elegance, transcending the conspicuous anguish that suffuses her as she recounts how the soldiers would drive into the marketplace and the kids would gather around. The soldiers would hand out candy bars and soda. It was a public relations exercise but the soldiers and kids enjoyed it.
One day a man assimilated himself in the throng of children and detonated a suicide vest, fragmenting nearly fifty small bodies instantly.
Death death death as far as the eye could see.
When the initial horror and unreality faded to raw and ferocious grief, the screaming women ran into the mess of arms and legs looking for their children, grasping at whatever they can. The woman said the lucky ones who had managed to find a memento of their sons and daughters wandered around weeping cradling the body parts closely. It had seemed that nothing remained of her son; he had vanished up into the air as if yanked away by puppet strings, when she was knocked to the floor by army medics anxious to help their maimed colleagues, the children having provided a buffer sufficient to prevent any fatalities amongst the soldiers.
As she lay sprawled on the floor, the woman realized she had been bestowed with Allah’s mercy. The woman had found his head, perfectly intact. She says it was a happy moment and how blessed she felt to see his beautiful face again and run her fingers through his thick black hair. Then there was the relief of having something to bury. She thanked Allah for his grace in returning a precious part of her son back to her. The head was bathed and wrapped in a linen cloth and buried within an hour or so, the simple ritual followed by prayers.
Her story told, the news crew thanked her and left.
Later that night she thinks of her son’s eyes, as she stood that day whipped by blood, smoke, and chaos, and how they were fixed and staring beyond her as if hypnotized by a void. Then she dreams. Walking upstream waist-deep in a river of blood, the skulls and bones of martyrs flowing past her, the woman is bathed in gorgeous orange sunlight and is offering her son’s head to the heavens and praying. Gently, gently, the children are guided home.
You are a Special Education Needs worker, one of eight other SENS at a poky high school in the northwest of England. The school is a maze of poorly lit corridors that seem to stretch in line with every step, tortuously meandering stairways and classrooms that exuded an oppressive mise-en-scene. It is a comparatively small school with below-average class sizes.
You are swept through the building by a flux of teenagers converging from all directions and you are disorientated by all the jostling, all the flesh, and the wall of sound. It is the final week of your two-month assignment and you are thankful it is ending though you are worried about money. You are paired up with individual pupils during the day, five lessons, and four different pupils in the lower sets and of differing ability, to ostensibly manage their behavior and provide learning support.
The kid who draws superheroes and swastikas on his books and watches Islamic State videos on Bestgore you have for two periods, French and Art, throughout which he exhorts you to die of cancer. And here you are, history year nine just before lunchtime, the longest and most anxious hour of the week. Most classes had two or three difficult pupils but here it seems all twenty of them are determined to diminish and humiliate you. It had to be conceded that since you engaged in small talk about the origins of the Brian Peppers meme an element of cordiality had been introduced to their maliciousness. They were surprised you had heard of him and you had not suspected the meme would have still possessed cultural veracity.
Funnily enough, the girl you provide one on one support for during the lesson is probably the least problematic in there. The girl came from a toxic familial backdrop and you had felt compassion and sorrow for her but here at the end you now regard her as a coldly sullen and manipulative little witch who exudes a low magic. Yet she is preferable to her classmates, who are all exhibitionist belligerence and penetrating invective.
Today the lesson is about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. After the Easter break, the person you are covering for is allegedly becoming a revenant from long-term sickness. You speak briefly with the teacher about the lesson. She is continually affable in a practiced and distant way.
“Is this your last week with us?”
“Oh well, thanks for all your help. Hope you get set up with something soon.”
She hands him a lesson plan.
“I enjoyed doing the worksheet for this.”
You are told to try and interact with the girl more, don’t stand back from her. The bell rings and in they come. In the sound and fury, he distributes pens, exercise books, and laminated double-sided worksheets. The one pupil who actually reads the worksheet when you hand it to him, a charmless little ginger pudding, tells you he’s watched something on YouTube and it was about how the Jews made the Holocaust thing up so they could run Hollywood and some country he couldn’t remember the name of.
The teacher is experienced and able and imposes some sort of order on the class. You take your seat next to the girl. She is complaining of having her phone took off her and is hissing across the classroom at two conspicuously scared girls, accusing them of putting abusive comments on her mother’s Facebook page. When you attempt to engage the girl she buries her hands in her long black hair and places her left cheek on the table. Your old, your fat, she breathes. As you attempt to read to her she snaps at you, it is boring, and sweeps the worksheet off the table. You pick it up off the floor. The teacher tells you it would probably be better if you leave her be. It’s been a bad week for her.
You are left to read the worksheet properly and you are shocked by the explicit detail on it. On the front is a potted chronology of the persecution of the Jews from Kristallnacht to the industrialized slaughter of the death camps. The back is comprised of excerpts from survivor accounts of the camps and four black and white photographs which you find troubling, while the accompanying texts are distressing.
One abridged testimony states women would drown their babies in buckets, tiny fingers gripping the rim, to avoid the selection line that led families and the elderly straight to the gas chambers and up the chimney. Lifeless faces would stare up at their mothers out of the water, their last breaths floating to the top as little bubbles.
Underneath this is a picture of Josef Mengele and a brief resume of the medical experiments, he conducted at Auschwitz. A half-empty bottle of energy drink just misses you, ending your morbid absorption. You would like to say the kids treated the subject with callous disdain but really there was nothing but total disassociation, apart from a skinny nervous boy at the back of the classroom being compared to the cadaver slumped on a barbed wire fence in one of the pictures.
When the bell signifies the end of the lesson relief washes through you and you want a cigarette but there’s nowhere around the school you can smoke. The kids monopolize the grey areas. You collect the worksheets and all the other stuff and shove them into a cupboard. Done, all out. The teacher is unpacking her lunch on her desk. You remark on how affecting you found the worksheet.
“You’ve got to get their attention, they only engage with the cruel bits of history,” she says, checking text messages on her phone. It is a BlackBerry which the pupils secretly mock.
“This lot today I give up on, there’s no way of reaching out to them.”
You discuss ways of teaching the holocaust.
“I show bits of Schindler’s List to my year 11s the lads seem to like the clearing of the ghetto bit.”
She is smearing cottage cheese on a cracker. You wish her a happy Easter and thank her for her help and support. You’re welcome. She reiterates her hope that you are not out of employment for too long.
So you had seen it and you wish you could unsee it, a triptych of photographs sent to you as an e-mail attachment, that was forwarded to you by someone who thought they were being helpful. You think of the lives that are being lived elsewhere and you are so filled with disquiet you seek a hug from your young son.
A girl in a party dress and no head lies on a powdery floor. The accompanying text informs you that the girl’s head had been put on display, along with those of five others who had been at the same birthday gathering, on top of the gates that shaded the market square.
In the middle photograph, the father, his jaws ripped apart by hatred and disbelief, his face distorted by nightmarish love, holds his daughter’s body tight to his chest. Peering into the lens over the top of her shoulders, the father’s chin is touching the severed neck bone and creating a disconcerting visual juxtaposition, like a raggedy doll’s torso had been stuck to his throat.
The final photograph is of the man offering his wide-open palms to the camera, unable to believe the imagistic horror as well as heartache he has to endure, his eyes betraying his inner eradication. What did that man do the next day? Next month? Is he still doing things now and how does he do them with all that in his head?
It’s better to leave things unseen, or not to think even, looking or knowing changes nothing it merely hollows you out. You think of yourself. Before you know it you will be dead and your name will longer be called and you will be surreptitiously disremembered. You drink some whisky in the garden and start checking for lumps when everyone has gone to bed.
Let’s be candid, we’ve come this far together. You sometimes wish you lived in a less secular age when God was like a fire in the brain, it would be preferable to the state of contemplative inertia and the attendant sense of futility that are making you a husk. Watching a video of five men in a cage drowned by being lowered into a swimming pool, a crane in shot, you realized minds not far away were still burning.
I know we share one thing, that our lives are mundane and frustrating, an accretion of minor degradations and increasing absences sometimes lightened by meager consolations. Life feels like a sensory deprivation tank. We are like tethered goats gnawing a barren patch. Little money, bad sex if any, no travel.
You still have hope that what has gone can be returned to in a glacial embrace, but that diminishes when your smiles are met by thin and unhappy lips, and you know whatever they had inside them for you has now left them. You are left to grieve for those moments when you used to drip into each other’s eyes before a lack of money and career ennui left you both sour and annihilated.
Anyway, it is all artifice now. It is all an act; there is no need for anger. Sweet really, the way we huddle together on this black rock, melancholically gazing across the wounded galaxies. For the heart wounds with monotonous languor and work will set you free. Decline is tough and you fear you will lose more and more, the light behind you and darkness ahead. And life occasionally entices you with intimations of fragile beauty. Embrace your mediocrity and be grateful. Be thankful you possess no historical agency at all. Every banal day is a miracle.
Now, genocide! Imaginative. Massive. Pluralistic. Kill everyone!
Dedicated to Mary Millington. Love to all animals.
Hot Wheels has left the building.