Okay, so here's the last chapter, but there may yet be more to this story. I'm writing something else at the moment, but I do have a sequel in mind. It's been a real labour of love, but quite difficult to write in places. Thank you so much for taking time to read and review, and coming along for the ride.
Z is for Zyklon B
O, Earth, cover not thou my blood,
And let my cry have no resting place.
Part Eight - Epilogue
The first thing he noticed was the blue Persian rug. Or rather, the conspicuous lack of it. Next to the new oak coffee table, there was an exotic gold and turquoise kilim. It didn't really come as that much of a shock, he'd pretty much bled out all over it. He remembered thinking it right at the time; those damned blood stains were never coming out. He stood there and pondered for a moment; it was weird, because he'd gotten kind of fond of that rug. In a way, it had become a talisman. Something for him to focus on, while the world crashed and burned around his ears.
Don took a careful breath, and paused for a second, as a slew of memories assaulted him. He hadn't thought returning would be so hard.
He'd believed he was tougher than this.
Erika had followed him into the room, and tracked the direction of his gaze. She linked her open arm through his, and quickly steered him across to the sofa. It too, had been recovered in a brand new fabric, a dramatic, Liberty-style, chintz.
"Sit," she commanded him, softly. "Here, let me give you some more cushions – we need to take extra care of you - to pay special attention to those ribs. Perhaps it was too soon for you to come here? You know, Joel could have driven me to Pasadena."
"No, it's good. I'm good," Don amended. "It's nice to feel like a normal person again. Besides, I haven't seen you in quite a while – not since I was still in the hospital."
"Your poor family, we were so afraid for you," Erika touched his cheek briefly, and there was a glimmer of tears in her eyes. "It was a hard time then, you were so desperately ill, when they fixed you up to that machine. Gvald geshrign, all the beatings, what those men, those monsters did to you. There were so many cuts and bruises, we could barely see your handsome face."
"It's over. They've pretty much faded now. I'm just happy to be back here again."
And I did say I still owed you some cholent," she smiled. "I hope your appetite has returned?"
"Yeah," Don gestured out through the open French windows to where Alan and Charlie could be seen talking to Joel. "I told dad how delicious it is, and he's really been looking forward to it. You know, he fancies himself as a bit of a chef - I think he's planning on taking notes."
Why the hell were they making small-talk?
Don looked at her, and dropped the pretence. She was hurting, he could tell she was. He only needed to glance around him. The proof was staring him right in the face. The made-over lounge and the bright new kilim – they were just ways of erasing the evidence. It was a valiant attempt at bravado, but it didn't help him feel any less guilty.
He reached for her hand and enclosed it in his. Both of them were trembing just a little. It was the first time they'd been alone in this room since the night when the storm had broken.
"How are you doing, sweetie?"
"Truly?" She hesitated, and her voice cracked a little. "Much better, since we knew you would recover. But here we are, thanks to the grace of God, and I'm very thankful to be alive. Oh, you know," she gave a shaky laugh, "still a little frayed around the edges, but when I think of what could have happened, there's so much to be grateful for. "
Don was filled with a deep regret. He didn't have the strength to meet her eyes. He looked down at the hand he was holding in his, and even now, he could see the blood on it. He still found it hard to come to terms with. It was his fault, he had let her down. For all her abhorrence of violent behaviour, she had been forced to kill a man because of him.
"Don't be sorry, you have nothing to be sorry for," Erika spoke quite sharply. "Don, please, I want you to listen to me, like I said to you that day, there was no choice. You're my dear friend, and you saved my life. I couldn't let him hurt you anymore."
"I just wish things had worked out differently." Looking back, he would do anything to change it. "I hate what you had to do. I hate that I couldn't stop them from saying those things, from violating and abusing you."
She was silent for a minute - they both were - drawing comfort from the other's close proximity. In the end, regardless of all the support and sympathy, they were the only ones who truly understood. Don looked across to the patio doors and watched his family through the large glass windows. Both Charlie and dad had been terrific with him - they'd really done their level best to help him out. They hadn't pressed him too hard or tried to get him to talk, and for that mercy, he'd been very grateful.
He needed time to come to terms with had happened, and to their credit, they'd shown remarkable patience. Not easy for either one of them, but they must have sensed he required the space. He'd spoken about it to both of them. Let it out, in bite-sized snatches. In carefully planned portions, just a piece at a time, like the talk he'd had with Charlie that day.
He wasn't being insensitive, or deliberately obtuse, it was the only way he managed to cope.
The reason why?
Hell, he wasn't Larry. He wasn't a sociologist or a philosopher.
It wasn't his job to dream up the rules, he was only here to enforce them.
He'd gone over it so many times in his head, round and round, like a dog chasing his tail. There were so many proffered explanations, some of them less palatable than others. He couldn't comprehend all the hatred. He didn't really think he'd ever understand it. Such a distorted way of looking at your fellow man - there was no way he could ever truly see.
Well, he knew life was fragile, but in a way he'd never realised before. Scratch the surface, lift up the lid of the box, and you might release the evil locked inside.
And the moth called Hope?
He prayed it was there.
It was there, or what the hell was the point?
As for Erika, she was naturally gracious. Don found it hard to believe what she was saying. Her justification was both generous and plausible, but nonetheless, he was filled with sorrow. He gave a heavy sigh, and then flinched in discomfort, as his still-tender ribs hitched and hurt. You'd think, that by now, he would remember. The stupid things always caught him unawares. It would take a while for the physical effects to wear off; the doctors had warned him to be cautious. He had some way to go before they'd sign him back on. Along time before he went back to work.
"Be careful," Erika regarded him with some concern, then she swallowed, and began to speak in a low voice. It was as though she'd been thinking intensely, working out, weighing up what to say. "Don, I want you to listen to me, to listen hard, and to stop feeling guilty."
"Erika - " If only he could. It was easier said, than done.
"No, I said listen," she shook her head, as though he was a naughty child, and refused to let him continue. "What happened – all those years ago, I couldn't save my family from the Nazi's. They were taken away, right in front of my eyes, and there was nothing, not a damned thing I could do. But when those thugs came here, to my house, this time, I was faced with an option. I had a clear decision, a choice to make. I had a chance to save a dear friend from a Nazi. I couldn't let them take you from me, Don. I chose not to let my friend die."
Don felt his heart give a sudden flip. For a moment, the room blurred around him. He felt reassured and enormously humbled, her words moved him more than he could say. They didn't take away the guilt entirely, but he had to admit, they eased the pain. Yet again, it occurred to him, that this was one, special lady. He lifted her hand gently up to his lips and planted a kiss on the back of it. There was no doubt, if it wasn't for Erika, he most definitely would not be alive.
It seemed too brief, so inadequate, but there was a treasure trove's worth of hidden meaning. Whatever happened, however his life panned out, there would always be a unique bond between them.
A special link which could never be broken.
"Hush, now, we'll hear no more about it. I just thank God we're both alive."
He watched her reach for a handkerchief, as a single tear rolled down her cheek. She gave a watery sniff, and dabbed at her eyes. They strayed across to the fake Pissarro.
"Do you remember what I said the first time we met?" She sounded sad, and slightly pensive. "I used to wonder why God chose to spare me. Why I alone, walked away from that charnel house, when the rest of my poor family died. Was there was some meaning, some grand design, that I was too blind, too stupid to realise? And, all the time, I was getting older. Any chance I might have had to do some real good, it was going to waste, as the years slipped by."
"No," Don hastened to reassure her. "God, no, you should never think that. It's survivor guilt, and I've seen it before. It's pretty common in my line of work."
"Thank you, Don, I know that now." she gave him the glimmer of a smile. "It's taken too many years to understand why – too many tears, to comprehend there is no reason. And you know, it all started changing, the day you walked into my life. It's strange, but getting the painting back has brought me a sense of closure. Like a terrible wound that's festered slowly for years, but at long last, I think it's started to heal. And, perversely, what happened here that night, in a way, it only helped make me stronger."
He understood, sort of. Or, he thought he did. No one would ever really know what she'd been through. Sometimes, you had to hit rock bottom, before kicking up towards the sunlight again.
"Even so, it can't have been easy. It must have brought back some painful memories."
"Not easy, no," she shook her head. "But you know what? I felt so angry. How dared they step one foot inside my house? How dared they bully and hurt us? In-spite of the fear, they seemed so small. Such an evil, ignorant prejudice."
He'd been feeling a little angry himself, so he could sympathise entirely with her viewpoint. The attack had been a salutary lesson, both a physical and an emotional assault.
Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
Whoever had written that old homily, they sure got it wrong – big time.
Erika was staring at the picture again. "I was so happy when you returned the Pissarro. It meant more than you can ever realise. So bittersweet – both joyful and sad. After all that grief, and so many lost years, at long last, I had some form of justice."
"I was just glad to be a part of it," Don understood. "To play a small role in its return."
"It gave me a double blessing," she affirmed, "it brought you into my life. Without your strength and protection, I would not have survived that night. I was lucky - perhaps we both were. Life is so precious, we must make the most of it. I still have some time left, God willing, I have my family and some very dear friends. That's why I know I'm right about this, I've decided to sell the Pissarro. Instead of a legacy of evil, the money will help create something good."
"Sell the painting?" Don blinked, and looked up in surprise. He really hadn't expected this, but on the other hand, maybe he should have. "Erika, you love that picture so much. Your family, all your childhood memories - "
"Yes, I do love the painting, but," and she tapped her forehead. "Those memories, they've been in here, all the time. I was too desolate, too angry to see them. It was safer to hide, to bury them deep. That way, I would not get hurt." She sighed; "in the end, it was justice I sought, to get past my own sense of hatred. That, plus a little honesty, to acknowledge the way I really felt. I needed a key to unlock the door, and you returned it to me."
"Ja, it was the Pissarro. It forced me to face the truth. To see it again, after all these years, was like stepping through a gateway to the past. The good memories are worth their weight in gold. Nothing - not even my own bitterness, will ever steal them from me again. As long as I have my copy of the painting, it will always be enough to evoke them."
"Are you sure?" Don looked at her, doubtfully. "I know the insurance restrictions are stringent, but you fought so long and hard to get it back. To sell now, after all this time. Somehow, it just doesn't seem fair."
"Yes, I'm sure." Erika gave a decisive nod, "and, in away, it's almost a relief. What's the point of owning something so beautiful and rare, if it's hidden out of sight, in a dusty bank vault? Both the painting and its story should be out on display, somewhere safe, for the whole world to see."
"And the money, if you don't mind me asking? I mean, it's none of my business . . . "
"Of course it's your business," she was indignant. "If not yours, then whose could it be? Considering you saved both me and the painting, you have every right to know. I plan to finance a paediatric MRI unit – to salvage something good out of the ashes. They're going to call it the Hellman Centre, in honour and remembrance of my family. Something with the potential to save children's lives?" Her eyes shone with unshed tears. "I can't think of a more fitting testimonial, or a way of paying tribute to their memory."
"Well, it's wonderful, I think it's pretty wonderful."
Don swallowed hard, and the room spun away from him. He was drowning, sinking down through his dreams. He felt light-headed, and something shifted. He had an image of all those lost faces. So many - too many had been children. A breath of hope - never seen again. But this, a paediatric unit. A phoenix rising out of the ashes. It gave him a strange feeling of solace, and in a way, helped to heal some of his pain.
"There's something else," she linked her arm through his, being careful not to jolt against his ribcage. Her eyes sparkled, and he caught a haunting glimpse of the lovely girl she'd once been. "Joel's taking me to Paris. He's booked us some first class tickets, and we're flying out in the spring. I want to stroll along romantic boulevards, just like the one's in the painting. See the foaming chestnuts in blossom, and drink good wine at a street café. I plan to do all those touristy, clichéd things, my father once promised me."
"I remember," Don's voice was soft. "Just like the scene in the painting. He never got the chance to take you there. You thought you would never see it."
"I should have done it a very long time ago. All these years, one thing stopped me from going. In a way, my own grief and bitterness, the sense of burning injustice. But, you saved me, Don - you and the painting, and that's why I can never repay you. Ever since you returned the Pissarro to me, the corrosive anger has gone."
"I'm so glad."
He was feeling pretty choked up himself. For once, he didn't blame it on the demerol. It was a wonderful and terrible story, a painful mixture of both happy and sad. He felt like a piece of puzzle, a humble part of some gigantic cosmic jigsaw. In a small way, he'd helped to complete it; had contributed to the whole.
Just knowing Erika filled him with pride.
This woman, his friend, was a survivor.
And, in a small way, he supposed, he was too.
There'd been times – quite a few of them lately – when he'd queried his ability to make it. Not just dodging the bullets, both real and metaphorical, but preserving his sanity, as well.
There'd been those times – but there were also these times.
Times, he realised, that the whole thing was worth it.
When it all came together, and the kinks ironed out. Both the good and the bad.
Times, he could stand up, and do what was right - when he knew he made some sort of difference. To give thanks for his friends and loved ones, and still see some hope left in the world. Ever since this whole incident had started, he'd been feeling a little shaky. It might have been a damned sight easier just to leave the entire thing alone. It had changed him, no doubt about it, and raised a monster glut of tricky questions. But never once, did he regret ripping open the lid, and peering down into the can.
If only, he could get past the worms.
By now, dad had come in from the garden, and followed Erika out to the kitchen. They were arguing about the ratio of spices – he could hear them laughing over it from here. Don smiled a little, and shook his head. He knew exactly what the old man was up to. Sometimes, dad was just like a bloodhound, single-minded in pursuit of his prey. He was on the trail of Erika's secret recipe, but right now, Don was betting against him.
After all, when it cut straight down to the chase, he knew how tough Erika could be,
He was just debating whether or not to join them, when his cell began to buzz against his hip. And talking of times, this was strangely apt. An example of his earlier reasoning. He pulled the cell phone out of it's holder, and gave it a derisive glare.
How many times had he needed it, even prayed for it to work, that fateful night?
Yet, today, when he wanted to be left in peace, bet your life, there was an excellent signal. He shook his head at the many vagaries of fate, and opened up the in-coming text message.
Charlie walked in through the French windows, and raised an inquiring eyebrow. He waited, and hovered on the threshold, when he saw the strange expression on Don's face.
"It's from that friend of mine I told you about, the guy I know out in Israel. Apparently, he's coming over here next week, on some sort of government assignment. He wants to meet up with me urgently. He says he has some news about our family."
Zachor – (Remember, and tell others - )
Lisa Paris – 2008
Dedicated to my grandmother's family.