The road before them, framed by towering mountains and emerald valleys, stretched long and empty in the early-morning sunlight. Under the dome of a pale blue sky, the air was fresh with the promise of freedom in it. Her blue overalls dusty and wrinkled after yet another night spent in a forest, Mala chewed contentedly on the blade of sweet grass, unbothered in the slightest by the rumbling of her stomach. Next to her, Edek was whistling a joyful tune, his arm draped around her shoulders, his SS tunic unbuttoned and smelling faintly of moss and smoke.
“Hungry, Mally?” His whistling stopped abruptly at the particularly loud noise her belly had produced.
Brave and in love, she tossed her head, gazing at his unshaven, tanned face with infinite affection.
“We can go off the road and try to find some more mushrooms,” he suggested, searching her face.
Long before they had escaped Auschwitz, he’d promised to take care of her, to guard her life with his own, to do his utmost to make her forget the horrors of the death camp, but instead, he made her troop along the endless ribbons of half-trodden roads and survive on mushrooms and berries and sleep under the open sky, with only his embrace protecting against the elements.
Little did he know, that was all Mala needed: his arms around her and the air that didn’t carry the stench of crematoriums with it. Hunger was the least of her concerns—Auschwitz had trained her well for surviving on a crust of bread.
“No, I don’t want to stop just yet,” Mala said. “Let’s keep going. The sooner we reach the village, the better. We’ll buy some food, together with civilian clothes for you.” She gave her lover a mischievous once-over. “Else, the partisans will shoot you on sight if you appear before them in such an attire.”
Feeling the molten dental gold rolling under his fingers in his pocket—a ghastly present from the Sonderkommando, the inmates manning the furnaces, to aid their escape—Edek nodded and hastened his step, as though spurred forward by their inaudible, powerful voices: get yourselves to safety, tell the partisans your story, lead them, along with the victorious Red Army, toward this blasted place and avenge all the innocent souls we’ve been forced to burn by those SS beasts.
The SS beasts, whose uniform he was presently wearing.
Passing his hand over the stiff gray-green wool, Edek thought of the moment he’d finally tear the hateful thing off of himself and burn it until nothing was left of it but ash.
Mala stopped to re-tie her boot. Just a few steps ahead of her, Edek gazed at the mountains longingly.
Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t catch the deathly undertone to Mala’s voice when she called his name.
It came from behind, a doomed half-a-gasp cracking with horror.
He turned, smiling—What it is, my love?—and felt his smile faltering, slipping at the sight of her ashen face, her eyes staring ahead. It seemed that all the pain in the world was reflected in their golden irises that had suddenly lost all of their shine.
Standing perfectly still, Edek slowly followed her gaze and felt himself sinking into a black abyss at the sight of two uniformed figures walking purposely and deliberately toward them.
They must have appeared from behind the bend of the road, heavens only knew why. The Germans hardly ever patrolled this area; Edek and Mala had been assured of this much by the Soviet prisoner of war inmates who had conducted several successful escapes themselves and the sympathetic Polish civilians who worked in the camp and were only too glad to stick it to the Nazis by helping another couple of inmates escape.
A dreadful, sickening shiver rising the heckles on his neck, Edek looked with infinite longing at the forest looming to their right, then shifted his gaze back to the approaching German border patrol. The muzzles of their submachine guns shone brightly in the golden rays of July sun. He stared at the weapons with bitter disappointment, angry tears already pricking his eyes. He’d seen far too many comrades mowed down by those guns to nurse a hope that the woods were within reach, that the border patrol men would somehow miss from such close distance, that at least Mala would escape the hail of the German bullets…
As though reading his mind, she picked up his hand and pressed it tightly, shaking her head with a small smile.
He had always been a dreamer. She had always been the voice of reality and, now, that reality stared into his soul with those black muzzles and there was suddenly no escape from it.
“Forgive me, please, Mala… I love you.”
They were the very last words he uttered before the Germans leveled with them, saluted crisply and politely demanded, “Your papers, please, Herr Unterscharführer.”