With finals right around the corner, I’ve got another piece of fiction for today. I hope you guys are liking the change of pace–let me know what you think! This piece was inspired by Cynthia Ozick’s short story, “The Shawl” which you can read here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/13179675/The-Shawl-Cynthia-Ozick
The story opens in the barracks of a concentration camp during World War Two…
Stella did not mean to do it. “A thin girl of fourteen,” she did not mean to do it.
Stella jolted awake, uncomfortably snug between the cold wall and her bony mother; a cold sweat wet her brow and goose bumps raced down her taut skin. It had been another nightmare. Moments passed, and Stella evened her breath like the many nights before and her immediate panic subsided. Despite feeling cramped and clammy, she slowly closed her eyes once more, straining to think of her life back home.
She could feel chalk, cool to the touch, in her hand as she imagined solving math equations at school. Her best friend, Aliza, echoed in her ears as she thought of the last time they saw each other: sitting on their favorite park bench giggling about Klaus, the cutest boy in their class. The foul odor of human excrement and sweat was replaced by the alluring fragrance of Mama’s apple cake she had baked the night they were taken.
Suddenly, the memory burned bright in Stella’s mind: Ripped from bed by men in black suits, she, her mother, and concealed under a shawl unknown to the soldiers, her little sister, Magda, were hustled through the cold, damp streets of Germany by moonlight and thrown into a box car where bodies pressed so tightly against one another, they could feel chests rise and fall with each shallow breath. An ache grew within Stella’s chest as these new realities fought their way to the forefront of her mind, erasing all memories of home and happiness:
Floating to the ground were her long curly brown locks. Closed into tight circles on the hard floor, the girls in her barracks spoke in hushed and hurried tones about their hunger, their pain, their fear. Standing out in the roll-call arena, Stella recited silent prayers for names that went uncalled. Aliza’s voice, sweet as honey, had been replaced by the bark of officers interrupted by the firing of gunshots. Frail figures crumpled to the ground, falling out of line from their march along the edge of the humming electric fence. The moist soil penetrated between in her toes, hardening into permanent filth.
As her mind transported her through time and space, baby Magda’s face suddenly appeared, peeking out from under the shawl pressed against Mama’s chest. A vicious rage released within Stella’s chest like a white-hot flame radiating throughout her body. Still within the confines of her bunk, a seething jealousy erupted, uncontrollable like a wild animal and thoughts of Magda flooded into Stella’s mind.
Hidden beneath the shawl, no officer knew Magda had even entered these gates of hell. Under the shawl, she remained safe. Free from standing in the roll-call arena for hours; free from marching for what felt like infinite periods of time; free from getting yelled orders; free to keep her eyes open against the ashen wind; free from watching others die. All because the shawl shielded her.
Stella’s eyes opened savagely and landed on the tiny lump beside her that was Magda. Noticing the shawl entangled around her unusually plump waist, Stella could no longer contain her jealousy. It burned hot down her arm and to her fingertips causing her to reach out and rip the shawl from Magda. Luckily, Magda simply rolled over with a low grunt. Stella wrapped the shawl tight against her body, ignoring the feeling of her own bones trying to poke through her skin.
Almost instantly, her body relaxed and curled into the shawl’s comfort and protection. Her heart softened as she imagined being small once again, warm against her mother’s bosom, sheltered under the shawl from the soldiers, the Camp, and the agonizing world she had been submerged into. In this simple fantasy, Stella quickly drifted to sleep, completely unaware that Magda had awoken and begun staggering toward the opening of the barracks.
After what seemed like only mere seconds, Stella was harshly awoken as the shawl was torn from her body. Like a forest fire, panic spread throughout Stella. Her breathing, suddenly shallow and uneven, left her heart beating unsteadily; her body began to tremble uncontrollably as she caught sight of her mother disappearing into the roll-call arena. Immediately, she scrambled within her bunk, trying to control the shaking of her limbs and stumbled after her.
As the sun rose, it cast a yellow glow on the barren land sprinkled with barracks that housed others like Stella and her family–all branded, all brittle, and all close to death. Stella fell into her mother’s shadow, and followed her gaze straight ahead. Stella’s eyes landed on the only moving thing in sight: a man’s black silhouette jogging towards the electric fence with a small dot on his shoulder that could only be one thing: Magda.
Guilt poured down on Stella as she realized what she had done. Without the shawl, Magda had been unprotected. Because Stella had selfishly stolen it in a fit of envy, Magda was now going to meet her fate.
It was as if Stella could hear the electric fence sizzle as she helplessly witnessed the tiny dot being thrown against it. Tears sprung from her eyes, silently dripping like the leaky faucet back home. Mama slowly loosened her grip on the shawl, stuffing the corner into her mouth to silence her screams. Stella fell to her knees and watched her mother return to the barracks without even a sideward glance at her eldest daughter.
Stifling her own cries, Stella gathered her shaking bones and followed her mother inside the barracks. Squeezing herself between the wall and her mother’s thin body once again, Stella forcibly said the only thought that arose from the paralyzing pain that was now taking control of her entire body.
“I was cold,” Stella lied.
“A thin girl of fourteen,” Stella did not mean to do it.
Taken from “The Shawl”.