Of the collection the short stories I’ve written over the years, this may be my most cherished. This was inspired by the historical fiction novel I am working on, but not part of the storyline. Curls has never been published, although I have posted it on my goodreads page. I hope to include this story either in my first chapbook or configuring it to be the introduction chapter of my historical fiction novel. I hope you all enjoy, and critique is always welcome.
By S. Virgina Gray
They had a good spot, a tolerable spot, the tolerable spot by the window. The breeze forced through the bars, pushing the stench back to the stale and silent center of the boxcar. Here there was a limbo, where the pollen of late spring and smog of the gasping engines joined, and for a moment you could breathe. The thickness of the smell clung to the tongue, choking the man at times; but it was a vibrant, beating, welcome odor for them both, combating the four-day stagnant rot that hung over the rest of them.
The wind tussled her curls, and it was that which kept her and her father by the blessed barred hole. The moving air was good for her, and she was good for everyone. Whether the glow of the moon or the beaming of the sun, the light shown in her golden locks as a beacon. Even now in the dead of the night, as she sat hunched against her father’s drooping shoulder, a lone coil hooked to the splintering wood of the window’s edge, she held the attention of them all. They could not breathe so calmly as she, could not stretch as they needed as she could from her perch. But there was no envy, there was no spite—they looked to her shining face and smiled, for she was all that mattered. Her soft pink dress faded to a smoke-grey, her school stockings in shreds. Her black taps, worn polished and new just for this journey, now scuffed and cracked as if they were hand-me-downs to the fifth generation. But that was not what the rest of them saw. For the grime and dirt stopped just beyond the edge of her white lace collar, as if repelled by the grace of God. She was their precious angelic doll, the simple, eggshell perfection and beauty of her little face framed in radiant gold. If such a piece of heaven on earth could survive unmarred through this trial, then something good must come of it. If this journey could not mark her, nothing would.
Her grandfather left them as she slept, her father holding her up in protective silence. A barber, whom they had only met at the train station, tried to lift the old bookkeeper to this feet, but there was no effort, no motion left to the body. He looked on as his father’s limp, ever-staring face dissipated into the dark, pushed to the opposite corner of the car. To those the body reached in the corner, it was death number 17, but to the girl’s father it was a mentor, a legend, a man. It was the body which had lifted the rafters of his birth-home into place, the body which had been the first to lift the chair at his bar mitzvah, the body which proudly held scars of the Great War. It was the body of the man who he had honorably become himself. The girl’s curls shifted and tumbled over his face as the train curved along through the Black Forest, bringing his gaze away from the engulfing shadow of the corner.
He could not weep. He would not, for fear of waking his beloved daughter. Not for her sake, but for theirs. She would rub her sapphire eyes and look to him. She would say where is food, and he would have no answer. She would say where is drink, and he would have no answer. She would say where is Momma, and he would have no answer. And now she would say where is Grandpa. And he would give no answer. He would kiss her paling cheek and hold her tight, brace her for what she would realize to be true. Like rain flooding the valleys, her tears would fall on the fracturing floor boards, dragging their faith down onto the tracks speeding away underneath them.
He brushed her hair back into place behind her soft ear and settled himself back into a bearable position, making sure not to wake her. After all, if their angel lost hope, how could the rest of them expect to hold onto it?
She awoke on her feet to the sound of dogs. Tugging and shoving engulfed her forward motion, cries and commands bombarded her ears, but all the broke through to her were the dogs.
They were hungry. She pictured beyond the sliding boxcar doors the old shepherd dog of Franc Hilmen, the town butcher whom she had not seen since the last train had left town two weeks ago. Living on the scrap marrow of the day’s meat orders, the shepherd roamed as a predator in the streets. The older boys took it as an act of honor and courage to survive teasing and baiting the old dog. His eyes would glaze as he barked and bit at them like a beast on the end of a chain; savage, vengeful, and determined that to gain his meal he would take it by force. He was hungry; he must eat, he would eat.
She had decided after one baiting which she passed going home from tutoring that she would bring something for the old dog each day. She pitied the poor thing and knew she could sneak in some extra braunschweiger in her sandwiches without punishment. She wanted to help because she could. He was hungry, she was not…
They were hungry. And now she was hungry. Her stomach growled as they did. But perhaps it was just the air of the boxcar. Once outside she would escape the stifling thickness which had held them captive for so many days, find her senses, and with them perhaps a good meal. Yes, a nice big meal, maybe even a picnic was waiting for her beyond the train doors. Her Uncle Swen waiting to wrap her in a bear hug, lift her up and fly her through the orchard trees to the table, where there would be bread and jams and Aunt Mary’s family goulash recipe and maybe even some mince meat pie. And strudel, lots of apple strudel.
The slight whiff of baking apples which she caught from her daydream disappeared as the reality of their destination came into view. The only trees in sight were skeletal silhouettes looming behind the far edge of barbed wire fences. Row upon rows of sagging, splitting hutches filled the space within the wire, emptying and silent. No color seemed to touch the landscape, or the people within it. The soldiers who met them at the gates were hard, chalk-faced, and blank. She wondered if this was where the bad soldiers went to be punished, since the good ones always seemed to be in town playing with her and the other children after tutoring hours. Only the men holding the dogs, whose coats were caked in grime and saliva, had any expression at all. Impatience; none of them would even glance toward her as they forced along the panic of the men and women flooding from the train cars. She felt surprisingly calm among them, taking in this new place as mud splattered up from the puddling ground and the constant moving feet of those around her. The muck hung heavy in her curls, their golden shine forgotten.
After passing a man whom she felt to be a kind of Moses, parting the sea of people through the middle, she realized her father was nowhere to be seen or heard. It surprised her, not that he was gone, but that she did not mind. She was a mess from all the tousling around and was glad he could not see the state of her. She knew how sad it made him when her hair was dirtied.
They began moving toward one of the far buildings, this one made of brick instead of molding wood. As they passed the last of the plank houses, she glimpsed a sunken face through a slit in the door. She wondered why it looked so fearful, why they all seemed so afraid. She had seen the soldiers at the gates and along the group of them, pushing them along. But she knew, even if they were the bad soldiers, they were soldiers all the same—there to protect all the people. Perhaps the adults around her had just forgotten their tutoring. They needed to remember, to be reminded of who those soldiers were, and what they meant to the people of Germany. Just before she lost sight of the pale sky and found herself in the dark of the brick building, she saw in the distance, at the pinnacle of the grey, dank landscape, she saw her ray of hope. She planted her feet as firmly as she might and gave a stern and resolute salute to the red banner which lazily fluttered in an unnoticeable breeze. She stood waiting for those around her to see and understand, to know that it was alright. They were in Germany, they were surrounded by Nazi soldiers. They must be safe here. But no one stopped, and her firm stance gave way to the hustling crowd, drawing her into the black entrance.
She only understood one thing among all the chatter and cries. They were to have a community shower. It was as if the sun had erupted through the roof and onto her beaming face. A shower! She could clean her hair so nicely before she found her father again. They might even have a nice new set of clean clothes for her after they had all finished. Clumps of mud and crusting dirt began to fall to the floor from her smiling, bouncing head as she heard the doors of the shower close. Her smile grew ever wider as she lifted her mass of entangled curls, looking up into the faucet head hanging above her. There were still some around her whispering in fear, but she knew better. They were in the care of the Nazis now. Nothing could happen to them here.