By Bethany Fehr
Green. Not eaten. Not trampled into the dust. Food, or maybe poison. It didn’t matter which.
Prisoner 13358 hadn’t been actively searching for either. If he had, he would have passed over the spot. An inconspicuous clay lump shielded the leaves that cowered between the stack of lumber and the barracks wall.
Instead of awakening desire, the discovery sharpened 13358’s sense of emptiness. Desire would have meant hope of satisfaction, and he had lost track of the last time he’d experienced such an emotion.
Without raising his head, he assessed the drifting mass of bodies for any sign that he was being watched. He moved slowly, out of habit to avoid attention, and slid into a crouch against the wall. Hunching over his prize, he loosened the lump of earth, exposing the plant’s slender stem.
“Don’t kill,” rasped the voice in halting German. “Let it grow.”
13358 jerked his head around. Behind him, a man leaned against the barracks. The red triangle with the yellow overlay on his uniform identified him as both a political prisoner and a fellow Jew. Most importantly, he wore no kapo’s armband, no brand of authority. His face bore the image of starvation common to the camp’s inhabitants, and he would have been unremarkable except for his intent, bright-eyed gaze.
Not an aggressor. A competitor. 13358 afforded him only a moment’s regard before turning back to his treasure.
“Please.” A bony hand settled on his shoulder. “Töte nicht.” Don’t kill.
The clash of the bell announcing curfew shattered the stillness. A guard approached, and the stranger lifted his hand. Scrambling to his feet, 13358 joined the flow of bodies jostling their way into the barracks.
Without even the slightest twinge in his countenance, he stepped over the corpses of those who had collapsed during the evening roll call. He had stopped asking himself why a long time ago. Cruelty had no answer. It no longer surprised him.
Yet the whisper at the edge of his consciousness sounded strangely like why.
“You’ve had your share! I’ll teach you not to be greedy!”
The kapo distributing the bread shoved Prisoner 13358, and he staggered away empty-handed.
Though the accusation was false, resisting would be pointless. As he blended into the crowd, he considered going through the line a second time. But tomorrow’s rations might be worthless to him if he received a beating for his trouble.
He wandered through the area outside the kitchen, scanning the ground for any scraps that might have fallen. Upon finding none, he remembered the plant hidden behind the last barracks.
He doubted it had lived until the next morning. His bright-eyed competitor had probably claimed it for himself.
Still, he could have a look.
As he walked along the rows of barracks, he tripped over the leg of a prostrate figure. He didn’t recognize the victim, whose battered appearance attested to a recent flogging. What attracted his interest was the hand tucked inside the half-open shirt. Gingerly, he peeled back the filthy material.
His hunch had been correct. The hand clutched a piece of bread—a whole day’s ration. Unable to believe his luck, he reached out to confiscate it.
A hand grabbed his wrist.
The man was not dead yet. Though too weak to raise himself from the ground, he clung to the morsel with all the strength left in him. But he could only fight for so long. With a final tug, 13358 succeeded, and the man crumpled with a croaking sob.
He would soon breathe his last. The food would have been wasted on him.
13358 wolfed down half the bread, reserving the rest for morning. He climbed to his feet and lingered for a few seconds, feeling he had forgotten something.
A sprig of green flashed into his mind’s vision. He headed in the opposite direction, straight for his own barracks.
Prisoner 13358 lurched out of his bunk and onto the floor, dodging the swinging baton of the block elder. He merged with the bodies pressing toward the barracks door and exited into the predawn glare of the watchtower searchlights. Taking his place in line for the latrine, he nibbled on the half crust of bread he had safeguarded through the night.
As the line shuffled forward, he caught a glimpse of a face that seemed familiar. He stopped chewing to study the man’s profile. Was he an acquaintance from before the war? Or could he be the bright-eyed stranger from the other night? 13358 kept staring, but he was too distant to be able to confirm his suspicion. The man handed something to the smaller prisoner beside him, who lifted it to his mouth. He had given away bread.
When 13358 had finished in the latrine and arrived at the line where the camp’s weak excuse for tea was being distributed, the man and the boy were there. A pair of clear eyes fixed on 13358 with an expression of recognition.
13358’s meager breakfast burned in his stomach, and he averted his eyes.
In the evening, Prisoner 13358’s wandering led him back to the barracks across from the latrine. The stack of lumber hadn’t been touched. But what might lay behind it called to him.
He bent, peering into the gap between the wood and the wall.
The prick of disappointment surprised him. Sure enough, the soil had been disturbed. A small mound of earth had replaced the clay lump that concealed the leaves. Someone had uprooted the plant.
Or maybe not. One of the sun’s farewell rays shone through a crevice in the pile of boards, revealing a glimmer of green.
The hollow in 13358’s stomach gaped wider. He squatted and clawed away the dirt.
As his fingers met the cool leaves, a pang stabbed through his spirit. He recoiled. As the shock ebbed, hunger again unleashed a wild cry. What was this animalistic instinct, this void that clamored for something to devour?
13358 grazed his fingers over the protective barrier he’d flattened, one more mark of another’s ownership in a world that had stolen everything from him. The plant wasn’t his, but he could change that.
But then it would belong to no one.
Once more, 13358 reached into the gap. He carefully reshaped the soil into a miniature barricade.
That evening began a near-daily pilgrimage. Sometimes 13358 would take a detour on his way to and from the latrine; other times he’d sneak off before curfew. Often he would simply walk by to satisfy his curiosity over whether the plant still existed. On occasion, he’d count the glossy leaves, each smaller than his thumbnail.
Learning whether the plant had survived the day became a moment to look forward to. The pulse of bewilderment upon finding it intact never diminished. Nothing else inside the camp was constant. The question was not whether the plant would disappear but when.
One evening when rain transformed the dusty streets into a quagmire, 13358 had to rescue the plant from drowning. Kneeling in the mud, he scooped out a channel, diverting the water along the side of the building. When he glanced up, Bright Eyes stood behind him, watching, and offered a nod of approval.
Bright Eyes belonged to a different labor detail, but scarcely a day passed that 13358 did not see him in the barracks, in the lines, or during roll call. The boy was usually with him. The sharp contours of each of their faces carried a resemblance, though the boy’s eyes were as clouded with pain as the man’s were clear. If they weren’t father and son, they might as well have been.
For months, the only faces that had made an impression on 13358’s memory were those that signified a threat: the kapos and the block elders, who maintained their precarious positions of power through brutality that sometimes rivaled that of their SS masters. All other faces melted together as they drifted in and out. Why remember a bunkmate who could be reduced to ashes the next day? 13358 had no reason to form attachments. Until Bright Eyes.
13358 realized he was only allowing the Nazis another chance to hurt him. One day he would rove through the camp and Bright Eyes would be gone. But he didn’t stop seeking out the silent exchanges between them.
The plant was growing beyond its boundaries. In addition to short branches that stretched skyward, it had shot out runners along the ground. Soon it would escape the shelter of the lumber pile, despite the accumulating collection of soil that concealed it. Pruning had become necessary. Prisoner 13358 gently removed two of the longest runners, then grasped a stem that was shorter than his hand yet close to exposing itself. But before he could sever it, his fingers brushed a tiny knot at the base of a leaf.
Anticipation crept over him. He knew something no one else did, and he didn’t want to keep it to himself. Bright Eyes and the boy were waiting in line for the latrine, and their presence intensified the impulse to share his news.
Bright Eyes met 13358’s gaze as he neared, his brows raised in question. When the line moved, he stepped forward with a pronounced limp. The boy reached out to steady his father, his face pinched with concern.
Guilt sank in 13358’s gut. For an instant, he had forgotten the suffering. How could he have derived pleasure from something so trivial? Or ask someone else to do the same?
Bright Eyes still searched 13358’s face expectantly. Finally, he spoke himself. “You saw it too? A few days and we might have a bloom.”
The creases around his clear eyes softened in a smile. And it didn’t feel wrong.
13358 tried to shake the cold from his bones as the morning roll call was dismissed. His sluggishness had already relegated him to the back of the columns. He hurried to fall in with his labor detail before a kapo descended on him.
Ahead, Bright Eyes’ limp had worsened, and the boy struggled to support him. As 13358 passed, Bright Eyes urged his son to go on without him. The boy protested, his voice cracking under the strain of fear.
13358’s detail began to form up. Behind him, the kapos shouted as they clubbed the weakest stragglers.
13358 shuddered, this time at his own foolishness. Sliding one arm around Bright Eyes’ back, he waved the boy on. “I’ve got him.”
After a prolonged look of dread, the boy released his father and loped away.
13358 all but dragged Bright Eyes along, managing to stay ahead of the kapos and their batons. They reached the company just in time to watch it march out without them.
A blow cracked across 13358’s shoulders. The batons herded the two into the ranks of another kommando that was not yet full. The kapo in charge wore a green badge: a criminal, likely a murderer. For some, the position was merely a job, a chance for slightly improved conditions. But the cold gleam in this kapo’s eyes indicated that he relished inflicting pain.
Bright Eyes stumbled as the detail moved out. The kapo was on him immediately, striking him across the shoulders. Throughout the march, the vicious kapo singled him out every time he faltered.
Ordinarily 13358 would have been relieved not to be the object of the abuse. Today, he barely suppressed a cringe whenever the baton collided with Bright Eyes’ torso or limbs.
The march ended at the edge of an unfinished drainage ditch. Some of the prisoners were supplied with shovels, others with rakes. All were expected to excavate the same amount of dirt. The sky darkened, and rain pelted the prisoners. The bottom of the trench became a slimy morass, sucking at the men’s feet, slicking the tool handles, and slipping through the teeth of the rakes.
13358 was fortunate enough to have a shovel. He kept his head down and his body in motion. If he functioned like a machine, they would leave him alone. It was the weak ones, the humans, who got tortured. But even in his resolve, he checked on Bright Eyes every so often. The injured man had managed to maintain a steady pace, though each clump of mud he heaved aside deepened the agony on his face. If they could just hold out until the day’s end. 13358 refused to think any further ahead.
“You there! Look at me when I speak to you!”
13358 went rigid. Were they addressing him? Should he turn? Would it make a difference if he did?
In his peripheral vision, a kapo lunged forward. But 13358 wasn’t the target, and his heart lurched as he recognized who was.
The kapo swung his fist, and Bright Eyes slammed into the muck. Ribs cracked in tandem with the sickening thuds of the baton and the kapo’s boots against flesh and bone. His friend released gurgling, mud-choked gasps.
An SS guard spectated, his expression somewhere between boredom and mild amusement. The other prisoners labored on, their eyes on the ground. Bright Eyes’ gasps hushed, and his body stilled. The onslaught continued.
Then a thick, heavy silence coated the air.
A wave of rage surged within 13358. He envisioned his shovel cleaving the kapo’s skull.
They would shoot him. He didn’t care. They had already murdered the man he had once been. Nothing was left of him to destroy.
He slogged forward several steps and raised his shovel’s dripping blade.
His focus landed on a blur of green. The triangular badge on the kapo’s uniform.
13358 could almost feel the hand on his shoulder, hear the voice admonishing him from the dead. Töte nicht. Don’t kill.
His shovel splashed into the ditch.
A clout from behind sent him reeling, and he lost his balance. A kick drove the breath from his lungs. As a stream of vile language cascaded from above, he struggled to regain his footing in the sludge.
He had to get up, to live. Someone else needed him to return to the camp.
He grappled for the handle of the shovel beneath him. Another kick. Moaning, he hauled himself upright, jabbing the shovel into the mud. The baton lashed at his back. He didn’t waver and hurled one shovelful of mud, then another. The blows subsided.
The hours melded into the familiar numbing ache of body, soul, and stomach. Three more prisoners dropped, two mauled by the vicious kapo, another consumed by exhaustion. The pile of corpses hovered at the fringe of 13358’s vision. He didn’t let himself look or think. He couldn’t. Not yet.
When a halt was called, the survivors gathered up the dead. 13358 bent to retrieve the body of the man whose memory had sustained him. The rain had washed the mud and blood from his face. His eyes were open, their brightness extinguished. Gray-blue. He had never noted the color.
The company trudged back to the camp in silence. 13358 panted under his burden, the corpse so wasted that his fingers completely encircled the ankles. His mind chanted out a promise to the rhythm of his footsteps. I’ll find him. He won’t be alone.
When 13358 laid the body down to be tallied with the rest of the day’s dead, he had no time for a final goodbye. Perhaps it was a mercy that these souls wouldn’t have to endure another roll call.
As 13358 took his place in the column, he scanned the sea of faces, chafing under the urge to crane his neck to look in more directions. But never had avoiding the batons been so important. Somewhere in the crowd, the boy strained to hear his father’s number.
The minutes stretched out. The delay meant someone was missing. The boy? Had he thrown himself at the fence in grief? He hadn’t. He couldn’t have. It had to be someone else. Hours elapsed, and the light faded. More prisoners collapsed.
Not him. It’s not him. I’ll find him. I promise.
When roll call finally ended, 13358 beelined for the kitchen. After receiving his portion of bread, he scrutinized the row of prisoners from a distance. Did that withered frame belong to the boy? What about those empty eyes? He loitered until the last stragglers hobbled into the queue, but the boy never appeared.
13358 headed for the barracks. Perhaps someone there knew the boy, or his father, and could tell of his whereabouts.
At the side of the building, a small figure stood. 13358 hastened closer, unable to trust his eyes in the dimness.
It was the boy. A prayer of thanks jerked unbidden from 13358’s lips.
The boy gave no sign of recognition but continued to stare into the dark, slack-jawed and hollow-eyed.
13358’s vow weighed heavily on him. What did he have to offer the boy? He couldn’t lie, couldn’t pretend that the senseless violence had meaning. Words were useless. Yet what else could he say?
Air rushed from the boy’s lungs, and his chest folded in on itself like a punctured tire. His face remained stoic.
With that breath, all traces of Bright Eyes’ existence seemed to scatter like ash. Horror overcame 13358. In a short time, all evidence of the boy’s father would be obliterated. His only burial place would be the memory of those who had interacted with him. For many, the grave would be unmarked. 13358 had never even learned his name.
13358 resolved that Bright Eyes would not be forgotten, and his son needed the reassurance. “What was your father’s name?” he asked.
The boy didn’t answer, or even move. 13358 had begun to wonder if he would ever show signs of life again when a soft voice eked out, “Meisl. Pavel Meisl.”
The boy shifted, for the first time lifting his vacant gaze to 13358’s face. “Your name?”
A pang of remembrance resonated through 13358’s chest. A feminine voice echoed in his mind, lovingly murmuring his almost foreign name.
He clung to his wife’s sweet tone for a moment, letting it ring before releasing the name from his lips.
“I am Jakub.”
The boy’s empty hands hung limp at his sides. Whatever had happened to his bread ration, he had no remnants for breakfast. Perhaps he had never received it, or he had eaten it without regard for the next day. What reason would he have to care for himself, with no one left to care for?
Andreas uncurled his fingers and gripped his own crust with both hands, intending to tear it in two. Instead, he tucked the entire piece into Jakub’s palm.
For several moments, Jakub gaped at the bread as if he might be imagining it. Then he stirred, and with careful precision, he divided the fragment into two equal halves. He extended one to Andreas.
Though Jakub did not meet Andreas’s eyes, the gentleness of his gesture and the steadiness of his outstretched hand reflected his father’s clear gaze.
Andreas accepted the bread and squeezed Jakub’s forearm in an expression of gratitude. The bell rang, ushering the last of the prisoners into the barracks.
Nightfall brought respite. Where the man and the boy huddled in the overcrowded barracks, hunger and sorrow succumbed to dreamless sleep. Outside, the shelter of darkness granted the plant a reprieve from the threat of hungry eyes and tramping feet.
Dawn stripped away the cover of night and filled the streets with misery and marching footsteps. For some, the march led to death; for others, only a step nearer to it. For one detail of prisoners, the stack of lumber across from the latrine was their destination. As they dismantled it board by board, the plant trembled. Carelessly, unnoticed, a fatal footstep crushed the leaves into the mire, tearing the stem from its roots.
In the shadows of twilight, the man and the boy returned. A pair of quivering hands cradled the plant’s broken remains and tried to wipe away the mud.
The man paused. Tenderly, he pushed aside a layer of sodden foliage. The seed of a smile spread across his weary face, softening the harsh lines and kindling a spark of wonder in his eyes.
In the midst of the leaves glowed a single blue blossom.
Bethany Fehr has been a student of story since she learned to read. She writes historical fiction, often infused with a gentle touch of fantasy. Storytelling is her space to explore difficult questions and discover the character of God, and she hopes her stories will encourage others to think deeply about their faith. Classic authors George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and Harold Bell Wright are a few of her favorite sources of inspiration. Bethany lives in Alberta, Canada, where she sings with her family’s bluegrass/gospel band, teaches English to adult learners, and trains for a future career as a developmental editor.