January is the month where the world hangs precariously, like an icicle. We were all on a precipice, waiting for the crevasse to open and the present to lose itself beneath the fragile crust. The solitary woman standing below the tombstone-shaped memorials was just closer to the drop than the rest of us. Gazing ahead at the small, black plaque, her eyes unfocused, she seemed unaware that she was about to be flushed away by the ice melt of the tears of a lost generation.
She had a sharpness about her, as if she was made of edges. Something in her bearing forced your eyes to glide away from her. She was fractured to the core. An ice sculpture living in a hollow world where the tread of small feet chipped at her, shaving splinters of ice as adeptly as a craftsman’s chisel. Small feet leave empty footprints, deceptively deep. It was a land of echoes that threatened to drown her. She sat down and pulled a thin cigarette from the silver holder she carried near her heart. With a deftness born of habit, she grasped the white stick and placed it between her thin lips, her red lipstick marking it like blood on a truce flag. Reaching into the pocket of her grey overcoat, she removed a cheap, plastic lighter, at odds with the expensive fabric that had sheltered it from the cold air. Flicking it to life, she raised her hand to guard the flame, exposing the scar of an absent ring, recently removed. As if aware that she had given something away to the stones that watched her, she quickly replaced the lighter and pulled on a pair of black leather gloves. She inhaled the smoke, the cigarette burning bright like a beacon, and held it deep in her lungs before expelling it mixed with the white breath of a winter not yet ready to forgo its hold on our world. She stood, maintaining the tenuous connection with the obsidian plaque, a stillness enveloping her. But for the repetitive passage of the cigarette, she appeared as frozen as the landscape. Smoking down to the filter, she motioned to flick the dead butt to the side. Catching herself at the last moment with the memory of her surroundings, she muttered aloud, “Old habits die hard”. In her head she responded, hearing the same clipped vowels that the stones had heard.
“Young children die harder.”
For a moment, she seemed less ice-bound and her eyes showed a pain that threatened to shatter the sculptor’s work. The winter cold won out though, sealing the breach with icy efficiency.
With sudden purpose, she stepped towards the bleak grey wall bearing the plaque, her gait awkward as her patent heels jousted with the frigid stones beneath. The primitive bricks had been worn smooth by the caress of tiny, broken shoes, tied round with handmade laces, too big for the soft feet that had inhabited them. They had offered little comfort for bones not yet fully formed and hardened against the insults of the world. She paused by the words on the wall, removing her gloves and tucking them in her pocket absently. Her movements were less defined, as if she had resigned her right to control the choreography. The bitter air fashioned an intricate etching on the silica case she had crafted for herself, marking her with a primitive tattoo, a network of fracture lines painting frost-fire on the glass. In her head, the tiny footsteps echoed an answering rhythm, the silenced heartbeats of the forgotten children marking time with metronomic precision. Reaching her bare hand out to acknowledge her separation, she felt ice-burn as her palm fused with the stone letters. In that instant, she understood cold could burn more viciously than fire.
It was then that the stones woke up.
The woman took a step back and regarded her hand as if it were a foreign body, a slightly quizzical expression resting on her angular features. Dropping it to her side, she turned abruptly away from the wall and was about to step towards the ancient railway engine that stood watch on the fossilised platform. The stark, empty trucks that had once sweated with the desperation of bodies hanging from the walls like a butcher’s window, now rattled expectantly in the cold wind. The city was holding its breath. With an exclamation of surprise, the woman stepped aside, narrowly missing the small boy that stood close behind her. Wondering at his stealthy approach, she was about to walk away when she was snared by the gentle expression in his eyes as he looked up at her.
“Hello,” she ventured. “I nearly trod on you. You should be careful.”
Rich dark blue eyes stared up at her, bridging the gap in years. The boy shrugged, more resigned than nonchalant. The woman appraised her companion. The eyes sank into a pale, grubby face, shadows beneath his bottom lids lending a gauntness to his expression, which had a surprisingly sharp line to it. He was wearing old clothes, shabby-edged and out of place here; thick woollen trousers, the colour of moss, encrusted his too-thin legs. It struck her as strange that they were fixed with a frayed rope rather than a belt. She had been away too long. The city was poor now. She assumed this child had leached from the stones like some kind of snow melt, pieces of the old town rubbing off on him as he dripped into her periphery. At odds with the fragility of his face and clothes, a vibrant, black shock of hair rose from his head giving the impression of a spirit not yet squashed by poverty. Suddenly, the boy’s face spread into a wide grin and it was as welcome as the crisp sun of a mid-winter morning, creeping unexpectedly into corners that had been shadow-bound for months. Without realising, the woman’s mouth answered with a gentle smile, one that had been reserved for another child once but that had lain dormant, redundant, in the months before she came to this place. She found her voice and with it came the first signs of the spring thaw, though she was too close to see it for herself.
‘Aren’t you rather young to be here alone? Are your parents in the buildings?’
Again the boy shrugged his bony shoulders. Still the smile remained.
‘They’re in the train already.’ His voice was still young enough to sound melodic. ‘Been there forever.’
‘Forever is a long time.’
‘Been there a long time then’
The logic of the young. She had missed its simplicity.
The boy sat down on the bench she had recently vacated, his legs swinging with pendulum-like precision. He looked up at the woman and said, “Wanna wait with me?’.
Casting a glance over her shoulder in the direction of the train, half-expecting to hear a voice calling the boy back, the woman sat again in the place where she had held vigil earlier. The stones shifted slightly, the memory of flesh recalling her to them. She considered lighting another cigarette, out of habit rather than compulsion, but she had never smoked around her own boy so she could not be so cavalier with someone else’s. Instead, she took out the lighter and twisted it absentmindedly between her cold fingers. Glancing down, in the dim light of an afternoon fast fading to dusk, for a moment she seemed less solid. Blinking, she realised it was a trick of the light. Nonetheless, she made a fist as if she needed to check that she was tangible. Her cold fingers snapped closed. She felt brittle.
‘It’s getting dark,’ she whispered, almost to herself. She turned to the child and spoke in a stronger voice, the voice of a parent, a tone she hadn’t heard for many months.
‘Shouldn’t you be getting back to your parents? It’s getting late.’
The boy stared at her, a half-smile playing across his pale lips.
‘Won’t leave without me. Never do. Stones won’t let ‘em.’
The woman raised a query with her eyes expecting the child to explain, but he remained silent, the only sound on the memorial plaza the gentle wash of his legs against the stone bench. Again, the woman peered at the railway trucks. In the fast-darkening evening, shadows played around the doorways and for a moment she thought she could see eyes shining out of the darkness. She raised her hand to draw attention to their position but, despite the sense that she was being observed, no-one appeared from the deep shadows of the wooden boxes.
‘I knew a boy just like you once. He must have been your age.’
The words had sprung from her before she realised they were free, another ice splinter flaking from her. She felt that she was somehow fragmenting but lacked the means to replace the shavings as they fell. In that moment, she was elsewhere. The child of her memory sat beside her, blond haired and smiling. He was a summer child, filled with warmth and brightness, out of place here in the cold of the East. Following the memory roads was instant but there was a steep toll to pay. No sooner had she felt the summer heat warm her cheeks, than a vicious gust of winter wind had cut it from her as is whipped along the empty stones at her feet. She felt a momentary grief overwhelm her, an echo of an earlier pain. The cold reminded her of the winter child that sat beside her. She thought it strange that no-one had claimed him from her.
‘It’s dark now. I think we should find your parents. They may be looking for you.’
Even as she uttered the suggestion, she felt the wrongness in it. Deep inside her bones, she felt the emptiness of the deserted railway track, the city receding in the darkness with no street lamps to light a pathway home. She watched her breath, the frosty cloud stained the darkness, disturbing the resentful winter air. The boy sat calmly beside her, the odd half-smile still marking him as different.
‘’Ent going nowhere. Stones won’t let ‘em.’
He spoke with such certainty that she felt they could steal a few moments more. She knew the boy wasn’t hers to keep but it seemed his family could spare him for a while and she was reluctant to resign her position so soon. If she had been less distracted, she may have thought it odd that there were no lights visible in the small museum building, but she was absorbed with a different reality.
‘Do you live nearby?’
The child considered the question.
‘Not so far. Inside the walls.’
She had been divorced from her city for so long that she couldn’t place the boundary he described. She had thought that this visit would be a homecoming, but his casual reference only served to remind her that she was no more than a visitor. She had no purpose in either of her lives. She stood up with positivity and turned to her young companion.
‘I’ll walk you to your parents. It’s too dark for you to go alone and I think it’s time for me to leave.’
As she spoke, she felt a tremor beneath her feet; a deep grumbling chatter that seemed to rise from the grey blocks beneath her. She stumbled and held out a hand to steady herself, resting it on the wall to her side. An unnatural silence had blanketed the station, even the wind had ceased to buffet the boundary. A pervasive pressure encroached and encircled her head and she felt that she was steadily becoming entombed in the darkness. The small boy stood by her side and held out his hand. As if mesmerised, she took it in her own, surprised by the deep cold of his fingers. His smile had been replaced by a look of apprehension and his tone became urgent.
‘’Ent no time. They’re coming now.’
She had no moment to consider his words. At once, the suffocating pressure of the air lifted and the station was filled with a cacophony of voices rising to a crescendo of shouts and tears. Underneath, the harsh bark of German syllables. Slowly emerging from the dark, a press of people rushed through the station, forced onwards by the relentless retort of the guards’ words, fired across the stones as indiscriminately as a machine gun. Dressed in rags and tatters, women clung to their children until the guards tore them from their broken palms to a rising ululation, silenced periodically by the crack of a pistol. As they passed her, the tormented women broke, shattering into a myriad of crystal fragments, carried like ice particles on the wind. She clung to the boy and watched as the children were pushed into a darkened wagon, the barbed wire that crossed the windows a jagged reminder of the history she had studied for so long. He looked up at her and spoke with a sadness beyond the years he had lived.
‘’Ave to go now, Mama. It’s dark. Don’t like the shadows. Stay ‘til I sleep. Just ‘til I sleep. Sing me the winter song again.’
She froze. Her summer boy slept to the music of winter. Even at the end, with the chemicals and drips feeding ice into his veins, he would sleep to the music of winter. She couldn’t bring herself to look down at the fey child by her side, not because she feared his strangeness, but rather that she feared that it was still winter she held. As his small hand shifted in hers, she became aware of a warmth radiating from the tiny fingers. Slowly, not wanting to scare away her hope, she dropped her eyes to his and met the blue of a summer sky unmarred by the clouds that intruded so often in her memories. The shock of black hair had been replaced by a halo of crisp straw, reflecting the sunlight of so few summers. She crumpled, holding her chest, fighting for the breath that the summer child had stolen, her eyes filled with meltwater flowing from her core. Reaching out to touch his cheek, she buried her face in his hair, breathing in a scent that she thought was lost to her forever. Raising herself, she grasped his hand again and spoke in a voice that she no longer recognised, recalled along the memory roads.
‘I will never leave you again.’
‘Will you sing me the winter song, Mama?’
‘Little one, I will sing you to sleep when you are ready to rest your head.’
The boy accepted this and took his mother’s hand in his. He turned and stepped with her into the ice floe, following the now translucent bodies into the darkness of the carriage. As she entered, the woman felt that she was dissolving and becoming a part of the white water. A door slammed. A dog barked. In the darkness of the station platform, calm descended and the sounds of the city returned with the glimmer of light from the single street lamp as the city lost itself to slumber once again.
It was just after dawn when the two men arrived for their morning duties. They were armed with an array of brushes and pans to scrub away the previous day’s footfall from the ghetto memorial before another assault began. They traded jovial insults, discussing the football match shown on TV the night before. The younger of the two stopped mid sentence and gestured to a bundle of clothes lying under the bench by the memorial wall. As they approached, the older man dropped his brush and bent to the floor.
‘It’s a woman.’
The younger man frowned.
‘Dead,’ replied his partner as he felt inside her coat for a pulse. ‘Frozen blue.’
He shook his head and cast about for a bag or some kind of identification but he could see none close at hand. Frowning, he seemed confused as he fingered the expensive fabric of her thick grey coat.
‘Not your usual tramp or whore.’
The young man crossed himself.
‘Better call the police. It’s their job to clean this up. I just deal with cigarette butts and paper.’
The men rose and started to walk towards the museum building. The older man shrugged.
‘January is dangerous if you underestimate the cold of the night.’
He paused by the wagons, holding a hand out to silence a response from his workmate. He appeared to be listening for something. The younger man tossed his head in query.
‘It’s nothing,’ the old man replied. ‘Hearing playing tricks. I could have sworn I heard someone singing. Must have been the wind.’
The stones were sleeping once again.