There are ashes all around. There are ashes in the air, ashes on the ground, ashes on the hands. They are spread everywhere, all over the earth. When eyes are open,
smoke comes from the chimneys; the dreams, breaths, hopes, fears, families inside are disappearing, melting to the ground, until all that is left is a mound of ashes. I smell it; that bitter, foul smell of flesh burning, day in and day out. The smoke gets in the nostrils, blows up into the brain, until it marks an impression no amount of time will erase. The men in their shiny black boots, ironed uniforms with red armbands, have ashes on them too. They shake it off their hands but it clings to their hair. Those standing stock still for hours and hours in the snow, ignoring the burning in near frostbit fingers, they have the ashes on them too. Whether you have a number on your arm or not, whether you are paid a few coins to ferry papers back and forth or your last name is Mengele, ashes fall upon your head here. There is no escaping. There is nothing but hunger and a constant, subconscious, need for fresh air, to breathe without inhaling the ashes floating around, to know what it is to live away from that smell.
Is there life without ashes?
Is there, really? There are ashes around you, too. The tears you cry are coals from the fire surrounding you. When the tears stop coming, where do they go? When you dry your eyes and rise, you move on, but if I am deep enough, I create a scab you carry around with you for the rest of time. Divorce, loss of a job, death of a dream… no matter how much time goes by, you don’t forget me. If you poke at the scab I form, if you talk about it or something makes you remember it’s there, it’s as though you’ve moved a mound of ashes and found a live ember, one that’s still burning. The ashes cover our lives with a black cloud.
I breathe and move the ashes from town to town, from house to house. Before long, I find my way into Hitler’s home, into the President’s, into the soldier’s, into the widow’s, into the peasant’s, even into the child’s. I’m selfish like that, I want everyone to know who I am. My goal is to teach everyone that fairy tales aren’t real and that hope is nothing but a cleverly disguised fairy tale. Until her brother, five-year-old, mischievous Kaplan, was ripped from her arms moments after stepping onto the train’s platform near the barking dogs and screaming men, Adele hadn’t really believed in me. It wasn’t until she watched her brother walk in one direction, while she was ordered to walk in the other, that she saw me for the first time. When she lay on the wooden planks, crammed between other girls, praying for sleep, I hung around. She cried, wanted to know where Kaplan was.
“He’s nothing but ash now,” one of the women said. “He’s in the chimney.”
There’s an exact moment when a child’s heart breaks for the first time, when her eyes are opened to all the lessons I teach, when she stops wanting to climb trees and instead finds herself scared she will fall. I am always there when this happens. If I could capture every spark as it fell from a child’s eye, I would be brighter than the Sun. And yet, it fascinates me. I still watch as it happens instead of turning my eye away. This moment, this moment in which they learn who I am, should keep them from ever smiling again. I should scare them so much they never play or laugh or love ever again. But it almost never happens. Every once in awhile, someone will decide they can’t handle me. Several people a day run into the electric fence surrounding this place, on purpose, because of me. More jump from windows or slit their wrists in an effort to finally be free of me. The vast majority, though, never give serious credence to the idea death might be better than finding me again. The vast majority continue to work, go to school, talk, eat and drink, thereby deliberately prolonging life. It should bother me, make me jealous, how resilient Hope is. It should make me angry. But I’m not. Instead, it amazes me.