by Caspian Gray
One day there came a body that didn’t burn. Tomek found her, because he was young, and because it was his job only to clean the ovens, not to fill them. The body was covered in ash, streaked with it, but the hair wasn’t even singed. Worse, it was a naked woman. She would have been beautiful if he had found her anywhere else.
The two men nearest him–friends of his father, both of them–came running. No one from the pens ever escaped, but there was always that threat. Even working in the rooms that held the ovens, you couldn’t forget the threat of them.
“I’m sorry,” said Tomek, when the men looked at him. “It’s nothing.”
“Nothing,” Waclaw repeated. “So don’t scream about it.”
Tomek nodded, trying to block their view into the oven with his body. The men paid him no attention. They had work to do of a more difficult, complicated nature than merely cleaning up.
Alone again, Tomek brushed the ash off her face, but not off her freckled breasts or the rest of her body. The steam of his breath in the autumn air obscured her each time he exhaled.
There must have been some trick of the oven, of the way the bodies were situated, some air pocket that the fire didn’t eat. There must have been a reason that she didn’t burn. The right thing to do would have been to finish clearing out the rest of the ash and the bone shards and leave her pressed against the wall, waiting for more bodies to be crammed in next to her.
Instead he leaned close and exhaled a puff of air against her face, dislodging some of the ash in her eyelashes. Her skin wasn’t even hot to the touch.
“Excuse me,” said Tomek, as he would to someone alive. The corpse did not reply.
He realized, aware of his own absurdity, that he wanted to bury it. Any woman who could survive the journey and the sorting and the pens long enough to make the ovens, and then emerge from the flames intact, deserved a kind of burial. He’d never heard of such a thing.
Night would be on them soon. The soldiers would come and tell him to go home; they didn’t like anyone to be outside at night. Tomek had heard that other places didn’t sleep, that the ovens worked day and night, but that was not how things were done here. They were respectable people who went home and slept when the day ended.
So Tomek buried the woman in ash again and then cleaned around her slowly, something he’d never dared to do before. He considered it an act of courage not to work as fast as he could. He did not think about what he would have to do next.
Waclaw told his father about the scream. His father didn’t say anything, but Tomek could tell by the looks his father gave him as they walked home. They took the long way, around the copses of trees that used to be the forest, so that they wouldn’t have to see the pens.
“I’m sorry,” said Tomek.
His father looked down at him. “For what?”
“You should be careful,” said his father. “These are delicate times.”
They did not discuss work at home in front of Tomek’s mother and his sisters, but in many ways things were better now than before the soldiers came. There was always work, even for the village’s youngest men. The soldiers brought the opportunity to buy food and alcohol that was never available before. His sisters said they were a rich family now, that they would have to marry outside the village because they had grown used to such an extravagant life. They laughed when they said such things.
Tomek washed his hands and his face, then changed his clothes.
His sisters filled the room with jokes and conversation. They were beautiful girls. Back when Tomek attended school, some of his friends had always walked him home, just to get glimpses of them. Being with them now made his stomach twist up inside for reasons he did not completely understand. He had already decided that he himself would marry a girl from outside the village, a girl from very far away, and then instead of bringing her home Tomek would go to her and live there. It was not a very manly desire.
The soldiers were not as strict about curfew in the village as they were to the people in the pens. Tomek never broke curfew, but Konstancja, the oldest of his sisters, did. If sweet, pretty, vapid Konstancja could do it, then sneaking out without attracting attention must be easy.
Still, it took longer than he thought it would to find a shovel in the dark.
The soldiers did not patrol the ovens in the daylight very often. No one here had ever tried to shut them down. Even if some of the villagers did have the heart to fight, the ovens would not take priority over the pens, or over the showers, or over the barracks.
Tomek went through the trees instead of taking the road. When he was as close to the ovens as he could get without leaving cover, he squatted in the underbrush and waited. No jeep went by, no foot patrol. He was sure that one had to be on its way, and the longer he waited the more it seemed that if he went out now, one of them would come upon him.
Still, there was nothing. Perhaps there were no patrols at all.
He ducked low and crossed the road, then crept along towards the ovens.
Tomek went to the oven at the end of the row, leaving the door to the crematorium barely ajar. If a patrol came by now, nothing would look amiss.
He swept away ash in the dark, trying to brush his fingers against the soft grit of her freckled skin.
She was a little bit warm now. The ash must have insulated the embers. He took hold of her wrists and dragged her out of the oven and onto the floor. Her body made little swishing, sighing sounds against the thin carpet of ash he could never completely sweep away.
If he were caught in the road now with the body of the woman, there would be no explanation. Whatever he was doing, it was wrong. Even to himself there was no justice in it, only whim. Again he waited, just inside the door of the crematorium, clutching the body close to his chest.
No patrol. Nothing.
He pushed the oven door open with his shoulder and did not try to close it again. He dragged her as quickly as he could, keeping his eyes on the road and away from her nakedness. She was not light.
As soon as they were back beneath the cover of the woods he stopped again, afraid of alerting someone, anyone, by dragging her through the dead leaves. There was no one. Perhaps it wasn’t a whim after all, to get so far without being caught. Perhaps all of them deserved quiet burials, instead of the indignity of the ovens and the mass graves.
He waited for less time at the edge of the woods. A patrol coming by and spotting him did not seem so likely now that he had been out for what felt like hours. Tomek picked her up, though her weight made it difficult–if dignity was the point of burying her, dragging her through the dirt first could not be right. He managed her, like a groom carrying a bride across the threshold, with the shovel handle nestled between her breasts.
When he was out of sight of the road he started digging. The sound was louder than he’d expected. Some of the tree roots were too thick to hack through with the shovel blade. He looked over at her; the moonlight filtered through tree branches shifting in the wind, making her chest seem almost to move.
The grave was embarrassingly shallow, but with every breath of wind and crackle of leaves Tomek panicked.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured to the woman as he dragged her into the grave and then tried to arrange her limbs within it. He prayed for a moment over her, not a proper prayer because he could not summon the words. Then he covered her with dirt again, trying not to look as he buried her face.
He went home exhausted but satisfied, feeling that he had finally done something worthwhile.
There was murmuring at work the next day, because the crematorium door was left open. If the soldiers said anything about it Tomek didn’t hear, but Waclaw mentioned it, in a tone that was tight with irritation.
“Be more careful,” he growled at everyone, and at Tomek in particular, because he was the one cleaning last night, and because he had gone home before the job was finished. Tomek looked down at his grimy, ash-covered shoes and said nothing. Wac?aw glared at him as though this was an admission of guilt, then moved on.
“Waclaw has his reasons,” said Tomek’s father as they ate their soup together in the fields, facing away from the ovens and the pens. Tomek tried not to look at the ash trapped underneath his fingernails as he ate. “He didn’t used to be such a nervous man.”
But Tomek didn’t think of Waclaw as nervous, he thought of him as dour and angry.
“Will this ever be over?” Tomek asked.
“What?” asked his father.
“This,” said Tomek, making his voice as wide and meaningful as possible.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
They finished lunch. Tomek wasn’t hungry afterwards, but he felt empty just the same.
He sneaked out again that night. Tomek wanted to put flowers on the grave, but it was too late in the autumn for such gestures, so he settled for small branches wreathed with bright red and orange leaves. It was frivolous. It was stupid, too, but he felt that somehow he should apologize for the grave, and the dragging, and for the fact that she had ended up in the ovens in the first place.
The grave was empty. The dirt had been shuffled and piled up alongside the hole. Each vein in Tomek’s body beat with fear. He had not hidden her well enough, and the soldiers had come and dug her up.
Someone coughed behind him.
Tomek dropped the bright leaves and spun around. The woman was standing there, still naked, with hair as dark as dirt and skin pale in the moonlight.
“Oh,” said Tomek.
The woman coughed again. She looked sick and insubstantial.
“Are you alright?” Tomek asked. “I thought you were dead. I’m so sorry, I was just trying to help.”
The woman sank slowly to the ground and then sat there, slumped.
“Are you hungry?” asked Tomek. “Are you thirsty? Are you…alive?”
She held up a hand and opened her mouth to speak, but only coughed again. She looked at her mud-streaked hands with wonder.
“I’m still here,” she croaked. “I don’t know.”
Tomek was silent.
Her face crumpled, and he thought she was going to cry.
“Please,” said Tomek. “Should I get you some water?” They always brought the sick and the wounded water. Even from the pens they could occasionally hear voices pleading for something to drink.
“I’m not thirsty,” she whispered. Then she looked at him. Tomek stood very still. Her eyes were like wolf eyes, and his heart sped.
“Did you rescue me?” she asked.
Tomek shook his head. “I mean, I took you out of the ovens, but you’d already…you’d already rescued yourself.”
She tilted her head and waited.
“You didn’t burn,” he explained. “Your body didn’t burn like the others.”
“The others,” she repeated. “Everyone?”
Tomek didn’t know who everyone was.
“I can’t bring you home with me,” he said. “You have to leave.”
She tilted her head up like a dog sniffing the air. “I’m staying here,” she announced. Tomek shook his head.
“You can’t,” he said. “That could get both of us killed. I can get you some clothes, then you have to go.” He didn’t actually know where he could get her clothes.
The woman looked down at herself, at the tiny clumps of dirt that still clung to her flesh, and brushed off a few of them.
“I’m not leaving. I don’t need clothes.”
“You’ll freeze,” said Tomek.
“You can’t stay here.”
She didn’t reply. Tomek’s stomach felt like it was trying to climb up his throat.
“If you’re caught,” he said. “Please don’t tell them that I helped you. Please.”
The woman just tilted her head. “I don’t even know who you are.”
Konstancja was awake when he came home.
“My,” she said. “Tomek, what were you doing out?”
Tomek looked at her and shrugged. Konstancja looked beautiful tonight; her hair was mussed and in the halflight she looked like a silent film star. Tomek was unsettled to realize that she was a woman, not only his sister.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Konstancja pressed, laughing.
“No,” said Tomek.
“But you were seeing a girl, weren’t you?”
Tomek paused. “Yes.”
“Oh, good.” Konstancja laughed. “I was with a man, you know. He says that when his business is finished here he’ll take me with him.” She sighed almost ruefully. “We’re in love.”
“That must be…nice.”
“It isn’t, but it’s better than anything else.”
Tomek shrugged. Konstancja ruffled his hair as if he was a child again.
“You’re a good boy,” she said suddenly. “You’ll grow up to be a good man, won’t you?”
“I’m already a man,” said Tomek.
She kissed his forehead. “Then stay good.”
“Of course I will,” he said, but Tomek thought about the ash he was always scrubbing out of the creases in his flesh.
Tomek worked too slowly the next day. Waclaw yelled at him three times, until Tomek’s father told him it was enough. Fear and unknowing kept Tomek’s attention. Nothing he was asked to do seemed important by comparison. Probably the woman was dead by now, but there was a part of him that doubted it. To survive so much only to die afterwards was ridiculous. The world might be cruel, but Tomek could not bear for it to be ridiculous.
At dinner he took extra food and put it in his pockets, and at night he filled a canteen with water and went out again to her little copse of trees.
The woman wasn’t naked anymore.
“Where did you get that?” he asked, pointing to the man’s shirt that hung down to her thighs.
The woman plucked at the stained cloth. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I brought you some water,” said Tomek. “I brought you some food.”
She shrugged. “I don’t need anything.” She sketched patterns into the dirt instead of looking at him.
“You shouldn’t stay here. The soldiers will kill you if they find you.”
She laughed a little bit. “The soldiers are why I’m staying.” She wiped out her drawings and started new ones. “They won’t kill me. They won’t find me.”
Tomek put the food and the canteen down. “I’ll leave these for you,” he said. “If you change your mind about wanting them.”
She looked up at him with her wolf eyes.
“Before you had the ovens,” she said, “what did you do with the bodies?”
Tomek was quiet. “We buried them,” he said finally.
He pointed to the fields past the ovens. “There. Grass grows over them now, but you’ll be able to tell.”
She nodded and turned her attention back to her drawings. “Why?” Tomek asked. “Why does that matter?”
She sketched a long line like a river, and for a moment Tomek thought she was looking at a map. He took a step closer to her, and she scuffed it out.
“You’re not so bad,” she offered. Tomek reached out his hand, to touch her and perhaps to make her understand, or perhaps only to see if she was real, but she brushed his touch away. Her skin was as cold as the air.
Konstancja would not stop singing. At first her family teased her about it, then they grew annoyed, but her happiness remained, a delicate bird that Tomek was afraid might escape if they left the door to its cage open.
“We’ll leave soon,” she whispered to Tomek. “I will miss you, and I will miss everyone else, but I am so happy to leave.”
Tomek wished that her lightness could carry him away, but the thought of the girl in the woods was too heavy for him to escape.
By the third day, Tomek was back to working as strongly as before. Even Waclaw could find no fault with him. Each day he did not visit the woman in the woods, it eased his heart to imagine that she had fled. But each night he returned, she was there.
One night, she asked his name.
“Tomasz,” he said. After a moment, “Tomek. No one calls me Tomasz.”
She made a purring sound low in her throat.
“It is a good name,” she decided. “Tomek, can I trust you?”
“I haven’t told anyone about you yet.” He didn’t mean to say ‘yet,’ but the word came out of his mouth unbidden. Who was there to tell?
She waved his words away. “I do not mean about such things as that. If I tell you to do something, will you do it?”
Tomek looked down at his feet. “Perhaps.”
“If I told you to come and see me on a certain night, would you?”
“Then when the moon is full,” she said.
So she was a witch. Though Tomek had suspected it, the admission was difficult to hear.
“I would like you to see us rise,” she said. “I would like for you to not be hurt.”
A tiny part of Tomek’s heart died as he realized he would have to betray her.
His father made him tell the story twice over their lunch, constantly looking about them to see that no one was watching.
“You have helped one of them to escape,” his father said at last. “If the soldiers find out.”
“She isn’t one of them,” said Tomek. “She might have been, once. Now she is a witch, or a dead thing.” He did not have the vocabulary to describe her, to explain her cold touch and her contempt for food and the way her body had not burned.
“Of course it would have burned,” said Tomek’s father. “She must have escaped from the pens and hidden in the ash. You were a fool to believe her. You were a fool to carry her out.”
Tomek’s father hadn’t seen. He couldn’t know.
“You will take me there tonight,” said his father. “We will fix this problem.” His face was small and tense, and suddenly Tomek was desperate to apologize. The words would not come. He did not know what else he could have done.
Sneaking out with his father was different. His father was small, like his son, but to Tomek every step his father took was deafening.
His father was also cautious, as cautious as Tomek had been the first night–a caution he had dropped with time, as he had realized that the soldiers were not omniscient.
When they got to the woods, the woman was not there. Nor were the small piles of food, which until now had gone untouched even by the insects. Only the canteen was still there, half-covered in underbrush as though she had kicked it out of her sight. His father did not see the canteen; Tomek did not point it out. He did not want to get in trouble for stealing, too.
“Have you lied to me?” Tomek’s father asked.
Tomek swallowed. “No.”
“Have you lied to me?” His father repeated, his voice clear and even and terrifying.
“No,” said Tomek. They were so loud in the night of the woods.
“Then we will go home,” said his father. “The woman has fled. We will never speak of her again.”
The full moon came and went. Tomek did not go to meet the woman in the woods.
A month passed, terrible in the quiet way that things had been terrible ever since the soldiers came. They were putting more and more people in the pens, and by virtue of their number their noise was impossible to ignore. Tomek felt sick every time he passed them, but less sick working in the ash. He could pretend, very hard, that the two things were not related.
Konstancja came and went at night, and it seemed that Tomek was the only one who knew why, though her joy was obvious to everyone. Spring was still so far away.
Tomek watched the phases of the moon, though he pretended to himself that he did not. When the full moon came again he went back to the woods. Perhaps he could bring the canteen home. It felt good to disobey the soldiers, to prove that their curfews did not have to mean anything to him. Tomek imagined that the euphoria of disobedience was part of what it meant to be a man.
She was there when he returned, half hidden in the underbrush.
“You are late,” she said.
Tomek was not surprised to see her. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, and realized that he was.
She shook her head. “Let me touch your hand.”
He hesitated only a moment before holding it out. She was a witch, or a ghost, or a creature of some kind, yet he did not fear her as he had always imagined he would fear a monster.
Her skin was so cold.
“I need some of your blood,” she said.
Tomek snapped his hand back.
“Please,” she said. “I need the blood of the living, too.” She looked at him. Tomek knew that if he gave her his blood, what happened next would be terrible.
“Why?” he asked.
She did not have her wolf eyes this night. There was something else there, from which he could no more turn away than he could make the moon go dark.
“I am going to make the soldiers go away,” she said.
Tomek held out his hand. She cut him with a penknife. The dull blade did not easily pierce his skin, and when she finished the wound was shallow.
“What are you going to do with it?” he asked, as she held his canteen under his palm to catch the blood.
“Mix it with the blood of the dead,” she said. They stood together, unmoving, as blood dripped from Tomek’s hand.
“Are you going to kill the soldiers?” asked Tomek.
The woman smiled. “To a man.”
Tomek waited three days. He knew it was foolish to expect an explosion, but it was what he wanted: the soldiers’ barracks to go up in a gout of flame, noise louder than thunder, the earth to shake. He wanted the pens swallowed whole, so that everyone could go back to the way things were before.
There was not an explosion, but the earth moved. Tomek was sleeping, and did not know until it was too late. His father woke him with his sisters, yelling things at them that did not make sense. Tomek pulled on his coat.
Something was happening. He had helped to bring it about.
His family went out into the street, where their neighbors ran in different directions. Only when he was outside did Tomek realize that Konstancja, his singing bird of a sister, was not with them. For a moment he hoped she was with her beau, that he could protect her, but it seemed to him that no one could be safe against the woman from the oven.
“What’s going on?” he yelled to his father. His voice was lost in the voices of everyone else; there had never been such an unquiet night.
“What’s going on?” he yelled again. People were running towards the woods, towards the fields–everywhere but towards the barracks and the pens.
Tomek pulled away from his father, out of the hands of his clinging sisters, and ran the way that no one else was running. His father yelled something to him. Amidst the tumult Tomek recognized his voice and could not make out the words.
He did not make it as far as the soldiers’ barracks. The woman stopped him. She was naked again, but Tomek had no mind to spare for the sight of her body, full and firm where before it had been gaunt and grey. She had soldiers of her own behind her. They were naked too, not only of clothes. Many of them were missing layers of flesh, and even layers of muscle, so that in some places bone gleamed in the moonlight. Tomek stopped at the sight of them, but the woman kept walking forward. She touched her cold hand to his face.
“My army,” she said, sweeping a hand back at the silent troops behind her. Many of them were children and women. Scraps of clothing still hung from a few of their putrid bodies.
Tomek let out a breath of despair. “The mass graves,” he whispered.
The woman smiled. “They are empty.”
“And the soldiers?”
“They are dead.”
Tomek closed his eyes for a moment, then gathered his courage and looked her in the eye. “Then you are finished here.”
“We are not.”
She did not say it cruelly, nor with any hint of apology. It was only a fact to her.
Tomek was afraid.
The dead who were her army and entourage closed around her like a fist, and they touched Tomek with their hands of bone and muscle and the dregs of flesh. The woman pressed her thumb against his forehead, leaving a wet smear of the blood of the dead.
“Don’t touch me!” yelled Tomek. “You did this! You did this! Let me go!”
The woman shook her head.
“You helped me,” she said. “When no one else did, you helped me. But you did not save anyone else.” She tilted her chin up. “All those screams from the pens, and did you even try?”
There were tears on Tomek’s face. “My family,” he said. “Please. My family.”
“My family,” the woman replied. “My everyone.” She gestured to her troops with one hand, and they shambled forward at her command, towards Tomek’s village.
“No!” he yelled. “Stop it! STOP IT!”
But the dead, if they could hear him, paid Tomek no mind. Those who had brushed against him took hold of his arms and body, and the rest moved on. Tomek fought them, sickened when their flesh slid off their bodies at his touch, when he snapped dry bones in his struggle to escape, but they were many and he was one.
“Please,” he called after the woman. “Please!”
She did not turn around.
The dead held him for hours, halfway between the burning barracks and his village. Their stench was overpowering, and Tomek took in great gulps of it as he fought them and panted for air.
In time, the village burned. The smoke was thick with smells that were like the ovens, and smells that were nothing like the ovens, and Tomek vomited down the front of his shirt.
He fought with the dead, and cursed them, and pleaded with them, but it did not matter.
Eventually, the sun rose, and beneath its rays the dead fell. They were only the dead again, no longer an army. The village was littered with them, and with the torn corpses of others. He saw Waclaw among them, or parts of Waclaw, and only one of his sisters. Many of the corpses were so ruined that Tomek could not make out their faces. He realized that if he went into the woods and out into the fields where his people had fled, there would be more. Only the pens were free from death. Tomek ventured into them the first time, and he wondered how anyone as emaciated as those people had found the energy to flee. The dead may have let them escape, but the people from the pens would never make it.
Until the sun was at its highest, Tomek searched for anyone alive, anything that moved. There was nothing: only bodies, only death, and already the smell of rot. He could not leave so many corpses bare against the sunlight. Already the air was full of flies.
Tomek looked at the pockets of ash between his fingers. Finally he went and lit the ovens.
About the Author
Caspian Gray is a used car salesman who has previously worked as a funeral director’s apprentice, a pet nutritionist, an English teacher in Japan, a Japanese teacher in America, and a crystal healing “expert” in a head shop. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with a tall man and a small baby.
Caspian Grey has work forthcoming from Nightmare Magazine, and his stories have previously appeared in ChiZine, and Black Static. Make sure to go back and check out Flock over on PodCastle, as well as both In Bloom and Summer Girls in our back catalog. While Caspian has appeared in our company three times before, this is the first original publication with Escape Artists.
About the Narrator
Following his whirlwind world tour for athelete’s foot awareness, Elie Hirschman has returned to his native Zimbabwe to unwind, make his mind one with the cosmos and seek a cure for his lifelong struggle as a pathological liar. Elie is a veteran narrator for all 4 EA Podcasts, and is a regular on the No Sleep Podcast. He’s got other audio in his deep, dark past as well, which can be easily found by those who seek it.