20 June, 2018
Opa’s Totenkopf, by G.R. Wilson
Hello. I’m leaving this Sunday for Advanced Camp. I’ve been harmfully unpresent the past few days, thinking about camp and my career and life, and not taking enough action.
Anyway, I won’t bore you with that. I wrote this story, based on an idea I had months ago, and finally got down a paper a few weeks ago, and then revised recently. It will also be published in an anthology this late summer/early fall.
Here it is:
I will never forget the night my grandfather died. I think– no, I know, that it will remain among the most disturbing experiences of my entire life. The physical and spiritual chill of that awful night will haunt me forever. I refuse to sleep now in total darkness, always requiring a small “night light” or at least the small illumination from the crack under my bedroom door, or from the streetlights outside.
And I don’t keep a mirror in my bedroom. I’m amazed I can stand to keep one in the house at all.
I think that I am safe from the same grisly fate. But as my story will reveal, I can’t know for certain. And the Not Knowing is almost worse than a definite demise. If I do get a warning of the same sort of impending doom…it hurts my soul to say this, but I will end myself with a .38 calibre round in the brain before I allow such a fate.
My grandfather was a strange man. Strangeness wouldn’t justify the way he left this world. Maybe his deeds did. But he was decidedly odd.
This oddness didn’t as a consequence of old age, either. (Though old age did amplify it.)
Even when I was a young child, and he was a middle-aged man with a lot of spirit and vigor left in him, he grew unusually restless at night. Often, on family holidays at his and my grandmother’s home in Wisconsin, I would hear or see my grandfather pace the halls restlessly once night fell. It was hard to tell whether he was sleepwalking or not: sometimes, his eyes would be closed, and his face hung heavily like a sleeping person’s, but, then his eyes would pop open lucidly and he’d murmur something in the tongue of his mother country. He was never overtly threatening, but he always seemed disturbed during these times. He’d knock on doors and go as far as kicking shoes and other small things.
The only one who could bring him under control was my grandmother, who would sometimes have to beg him to return to bed, in desperate, pleading tones.
He covered every mirror in their house. With sheets, with blankets, with towels. Or he’d turn them around so they faced the wall. When my parents, my sister, and myself visited, the mirrors would all start uncovered, visible, at first. This wouldn’t last long, as my grandpa, either on his midnight walk-abouts or when he thought no one was looking, would obscure their reflective surfaces again. I learned from overhearing half-muffled arguments from where I slept beside my sister in the guest room, that this uncovering of the mirrors only happened when we were visiting, and only at the insistence of my grandmother. She did it to save herself from embarrassment, at our judgment of unexplainable superstitions.
There was fear in her eyes about the mirrors too, which I did not understand. Why be scared of the mirrors? Why keep any in the house at all?
I realize now she was in denial. She was trying to mentally save herself.
My grandfather also frequently said words in at least a couple foreign languages. Usually it was German, and this was understandable: Opa fled from Germany, back during World War II, and had been very lucky to make it to America, where he, and later my Bubbe, could be safe. My family was Jewish, (though neither of my parents were especially observant,) and I had a deep emotional sense of the Holocaust from an early age. As a little girl, I wept with emotion on first reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and Number the Stars in school, realizing that Opa and Bube had narrowly avoided a horrible fate in the death camps.
Yes, that was the narrative in my mind for all of my youth, and into my young adulthood.
Anyway, the foreign words (usually German, once in a while Yiddish, sometimes a third, unknown language,) my grandfather said were usually exclamations: when he’d be bursting out laughing and slapping his knees, or cursing when he stubbed his toe or when the garbage disposal was acting up again. But as he got older, especially after Bubbe died, he’d increasingly often seem to forget the English word for random things like the clock, or the automobile, or the word “to eat,” and he’d say the German instead, then shake his head and switch back to English and correct himself.
Like I mention, there was a third language in there, which departed from Germanic sounds, and reminded me more of a strange mix of the Middle-East, Latin, Slavic, and something like Hindi. He spoke it only when “fixing” one of the mirrors, when sleepwalking/”sleepwalking,” or when performing his pre-sleep religious ritual, which I will explain soon. The only time I asked about this mystery language, he furrowed his brow and drew back, reserved-yet-threatening, and refused to elaborate or even acknowledge that he’d spoken it.
Continuing with the other odd traits, Opa, despite being a clearly depressed man, did not drink alcohol at all. (Until, that last night …)
Opa never talked about his past before he came to America. Not even about when he was a child. He got highly anxious, then irritated, whenever my sister and I tried to bring up his past and ask for stories. Bubbe always sounded self-censoring when she told hers, and stayed away from anything historically impactful, such as the rise of the Nazis, or the Berlin Olympics, or anything like that.
But Opa’s pre-American past remained shrouded in darkness.
Opa had a creative side. When he retired from his accounting job, he relied on this activity more than ever. He carved things, out of wood. Planets, the moon, fish, funny little people with big ears. They were expressive, impressive, and finely-crafted.
I asked him to carve me an animal once, and he hesitated for a moment, then gave a rare, warm smile, and got on one knee. In a flash, he had a fresh wood block and his knife in hand, began making a few initial whittles.
“What kind of animal, Lucky Lustina?”
Lustina is my name, named for my great-grandmother. “Lucky” was just alliterative. (I don’t know that anyone ever told me why I was especially lucky.)
I paused at this question; getting a custom animal carving from Opa was a big deal. And there were too many options to pick! Then I remembered, I’d been to a petting zoo recently with my schoolmates. I’d delighted in feeding the animals, with their long, eager tongues, and their excited, big brown eyes. Their hot, smelly breath, and their furry heads were so cute and amazing to me!
“A goat!” I said, jumping up and down.
Instantly, Opa’s brow furrowed, and his beady blue eyes narrowed. His face held an intensity which startled and frightened me. It was so unexpected! I thought at once I had done something wrong, and was terrified what he would explode into shouting at any moment.
“Eine verdmammt Ziege …” he hissed. “Eine fiken, verdmammt Ziege?!”
The knife shook in his hand. His eyes seemed to not be looking at me, but at something behind and above me.
I was too scared to move, and remember my bare feet trembling on the woolly carpet.
Then, Opa hurled the wood block behind me, and something shattered. He swore in German again, then ran past me, nearing knocking me over.
I whirled around to see him scooping up the mirror he’d broken and knocked off the wall. He fumbled to fold up the knife, and cut his forearm in the process. Drops of blood and small shards of glass tumbled from his hands. He took the mess and wrapped it up in the folded gray sheet on the nearby table. He stomped off into his study, and looked back at me before slamming the door shut again.
His blue, shiny eyes, looking so young encased in a worn and weathered face, did not glare at me that time.
They just looked scared.
I learned from that childhood episode to not bring up the topic of goats around Opa. I didn’t ask my parents about it, either, thinking it too weird. My mother didn’t like talking about Opa’s strange habits, either. It took me over a year to fully grasp that the episode with the thrown block and the broken mirror must have been triggered by a phobia or been a reaction to a bad childhood experience, and not an episode triggered by my own actions.
But the night Opa died, I learned the real truth.
I was in my late 20s by this time. I lived the closest to Opa. My family was still in California, where I grew up, while I lived in Minneapolis-St. Paul, working as a graphic designer. So, I arrived first at the home when it was announced that his state was quickly deteriorating, and that he wouldn’t live for more than another two weeks. My mom, dad, and sister joined me two days later. The end was coming for him faster than any of us (including the doctors) had anticipated.
My parents and sister were absent, held up by a car crash on their way back with pizza, on what proved to be the final night. I was alone with Opa.
Now, Opa was materially wealthy and believed in insurance, and so was well-prepared to have an at-home care team help him. He was truly decrepit by this point: years of smoking, old injuries, two previous bouts with cancer of the lungs and stomach, and a heart attack, and a black veil of depression all having taken their toll. He struggled to walk at all, he ran a high risk of falling down stairs, had shaky hands, and his linguistic memory problems worsened, though the doctors said he showed no signs of Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia. It had been arranged that he would die at home, with periodic visits from the hospice care team, combined with the work of my family.
The final night was a Friday. Grandfather’s health had in fact seemed slightly on the upswing, not so much for another year on this Earth, but perhaps for another five days, or a week! He’d asked for the pizza. There was a snowstorm, with the wind howling and the flakes swirling, and my family got stuck behind a crash in the middle of rush hour.
The care staff member had gone home for the day, but was on-call if we needed her for a greater emergency than we could handle. Not that she’d be able to get there quickly, if at all, due to the blizzard.
So, yes, I was alone with him when my grandfather met his end.
To further set the scene before I continue: the house he and my grandmother had shared for 50 years sat in a forested valley, with the nearest neighbor a half mile away. A creek ran behind the house, often flooding in the spring but now frozen solid in the cold Minnesota winter. The house was 1910’s era, built by Swedish immigrants who apparently underestimated American winters, and was a notoriously drafty, creaky (though well-adorned) dwelling, with many small rooms, steep stairs, and long, narrow halls.
The thermostat that final night was cranked all the way up, making me sweat, but keeping Opa comfortable in his final days. Outside, there was no moon, and we might as well have been floating in outer space or resting on the bottom of the Marianas Trench for how dark it was, besides the flurries of star-like snowflakes. The frost-gnashing wind smacked, and rammed, and clawed at the house, shaking the windows and making the old beams shudder and groan.
I was bringing Opa a hot cup of team. I stopped outside his bedroom door, and knocked.
“In here, Lucky Lustina!” he said, and coughed. His voice came from the study, across the hall.
Mildly surprised, I kept the tea tray balanced and turned in that direction.
He coughed again. The cancer was killing him fast, I knew. “And, bring some of that bourbon while you’re at it!”
He pronounced “bourbon” funny, like “bore-bun.” I was perplexed by this request: he didn’t drink alcohol. But, who was I do deny a dying man’s request? What harm could it possibly do at this point?
“Uh, yes Opa–”
“Bring a glass, for yourself, too!”
He and my grandmother had kept booze around for guests, and Bubbe occasionally had a drink or two. I came back with the dusty bottle of bourbon from the downstairs liquor cabinet, along with two high ball glasses, all set up on the tray beside the steaming tea cup.
I knocked at the study, and he beckoned me enter.
Opa was performing his pre-bed ritual, which I had only glimpsed or overhead muffled phrasings of as a child. Though my grandfather didn’t display much devoutness in any other aspect of his home or life, (apart from keeping the Sabbath holy,) he did have this one peculiar ceremony he seemed to conduct every night before going to bed. I admired his dedication to doing it even when it must have been an enormous struggle for him to make his way from the bed to the study.
Opa knelt behind his desk, though the pose looked to put a tremendous strain on his knees and back. On his head, he wore a black yarmulke, with red fringe. He was in his striped gray pajamas, which looked baggy on his frail body. Around his neck, my grandfather wore a pendant, which was a black sun with intricate carvings, including Hebrew letters. On the desk were seven candles, (not yet lit,) a scroll of many Hebrew and other ancient letters, (some more similar to Egyptian Hieroglyphics,) and a small, circular mirror.
His face looked pale and small, and even weaker than it had when I’d arrived morning. He looked at me and gave a small smile.
“Thank you, Lucky Lustina,” he said, and motioned for me to set the tray on the desk.
I awkwardly began to move a couple of the candles, but he waved a dismissive hand.
“Bah, no matter, no matter anymore,” he said, and knocked the remaining candles aside, then cast off his yarmulke. His small cracked, and his eyes welled with tears. “I’m…I’m sorry …” he stammered, on the verge of bawling, suddenly.
The tray clattered onto the desk, and I put an arm on his shoulder, and spoke to him with sympathy and concern.
“I can’t remember,” he said, truly crying now, “I cannot remember, the, the words, the FUCKING words,” he hissed, and gripped his head. His temples were throbbing, which looked even more alarming on his emaciated, bald head. He laughed manically, and rocked back and forth so hard I was frightened he’d smack his head on the desk or the floor. “Ha, I’m this close to a, a natural death and now I forget the god damned words tonight …” He reached a shaky, bony hand for the tea, and before I could stop him he grabbed the cup and predictably spilled it on his scroll and on his lap. “Shit!!” he hurled the teacup across the room with surprising force, where it broke and spilled against the wall, leaving a long, dark stain.
Again I touched his arm, and plead with him to calm down. I felt like my grandmother. I even looked the way she had at my age, I knew from the old black-and-white photos from the 1940s and 1950s.
“Opa, it’s alright, it’s alright, here, have a proper seat.” He relented, and gripped my arm to allow himself to be lifted shakily, then drop onto his ancient study chair.
Again, he took on his resigned, doomed, tone. “Tea is weak. Pour me a glass,” he said, gesturing at the bourbon.
I did, and poured some for myself. I didn’t like bourbon, but it felt proper to share the drink with Opa now.
He sipped, and grimaced. “Ah…we still have some hours,” he said, and smiled, “A few hours more, till the end of it all. It would have only been a few more days otherwise. Until…heaven.” But in his eyes there lingered still a horrible fear, founded on deep, ancient, and dark experience. He glanced furtively at the small mirror on the desk, and I didn’t dare touch it.
“What do you mean, Opa?” I asked.
He waved a hand. “Go, go get a chair, sit.”
In the hall, on my way to my guest room for a chair, I noticed that the tall mirror on the wall was uncovered. It was taller than me, and my own reflection in it, with my pale face and messy hair, startled me. I stared into the mirror…wondering what my grandpa saw that was so awful in it…
Time seemed to slow, and entranced, I saw something materializing surreally, silently, and wraith-like in the reflection. It lurked behind me, down the hall to the stairs that led down to the first floor landing. It vaguely fit the shape of animal life, but stood tall, like a human hunched over. It was dark, darker than the night sky, or the deepest ocean. First, it was outside the window at the end of the hall, seemingly suspended in the air, visible in the same away a shadow is, as I could see the thing by where the snowflakes did not drift or blow through. The silhouette was so vague: a man wearing a hat? A half-animal freak? An woman wearing a hood?
It was none of those. And oh god, and it had no eyes but it was looking at me. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck.
The black shadow seemed to fade through the glass of the window, and at one I began to see the shadow fade through the glass of the mirror, seemingly inches from my face. Its vague shape began to come into hideous, alien clarity.
I yelped in fright, and fumbled and found and grabbed the sheet stuffed in the nearby linen closet where one of the caretakers or perhaps my mother had well-intentionally left it, and pulled it over the glass.
Better. Better. Nothing watching me now. I took a deep breath, and looked back at the window at the opposite end of the hall.
Nothing there but snow, and the night.
Nothing at all.
I set down the chair and sat perpendicular to my grandfather in his study. The floor lamp and the remaining candles, now lit, cast uneven and insufficient light, (though, at least some came in from the hall,) so my grandfather’s face flickered with patches of shadow.
His eyes flashed. He was already getting a bit drunk off the bourbon. “You will be my final witness,” he said abruptly, “The last and only one alive to know the truth of my life and my end. Well, unless you tell others.” He shrugged. “You may, you may tell them. No matter.” He laughed again, bitterly.
Again: “What do you mean, Opa? Did you forget the words to your prayer? I can help you.”
“My prayer,” he sneered, “Perish, that, perish, that rubbish. But, yes, in my years, and with the cancer, and all the drugs, I, I can’t remember all that foreign barbaric gobbledygook…I forgot it last night, too…and the night before, and the night before for nearly a week,” he gulped, “So, the end should come tonight.”
This raised many questions for me. “What do you mean, Opa? I know we’ve never talked about it, but, that’s all a Jewish prayer, isn’t it? Weren’t your parents, um, Orthodox, or–”
He scoffed and spat on the floor. This was most unlike him. He glared at me hatefully and wrinkled his nose. “I declare! No, no, my dear, sweet grandchild, that no, your great-grandparents from the Old Continent, were not Orthodox, superstitious, scheming devils!”
I leaned back, startled. “But they were from Germany too, weren’t they? Jews, who–”
He pounded an wrinkled fist on the table so hard that the teacup tinkled on the tray. “Nein! Nein! Here, now you will know all the truth, child. Your grandfather is no Jew, your grandmother was no Jew, your mother is no god-damned Jew!”
I was stunned. Surely this was delirium, dementia?! We’d always been Jewish, never especially observant, but, my dad’s side of the family especially held the Jewish traditions, and I’d visited Israel in college on a Birthright trip to see the land of my ancestors. “Opa,” I said, slowly, “I know, you must be under a lot of stress right now, with all the doctor’s visits and such–”
“Not Jews,” he said, and spat again. “But Jah, we came from the Deutschse Reich, from the restored Fatherland we all thought would stand for a thousand years of glory.”
I felt a chill greater than for what I’d felt from that imagined glance of something predatory in the mirror. I tried to tell myself that this was just some old-age hysteria and memory confusion, the same as him forgetting the words of his before-bed religious ritual.
“Opa. Please, don’t say things like that.”
He sneered. “Hm? You don’t believe it. Gott, Lucky Lustina, I wanted to tell you for so long. You’ll pass it on for your sister, the truth, won’t you? That you are both truly Aryan, and not Jew?” He saw the doubt in my eyes. “You want proof? Here,” he fumbled open a little drawer on the desk, and fished out a silver key. “There is a trunk, under my bed. Open it. You will have your proof. I will drink more bourbon, and wait.”
The key was cold. His hand was barely warmer. He truly was going to die soon, one way or another. I hurried from the study, dreading what I would find. The mirror in my grandfather’s bedroom was uncovered, too. Before I flipped on the light switch, I was sure I saw a blurry, shadowy, bestial face in it.. I yelped, and with the light, the image returned to normal. There was just my shaken self. I was so pale. Nothing else stirred in the mirror. It was all just nerves, and I didn’t want to feed my delusions anymore.
I fished under the bed until I found a small, black trunk. It was heavy. I dragged it out, and set it on the bed.
The key clicked neatly in the lock. The top creaked open. I wasn’t prepared for what I found. How could I be? Inside, I saw a splash of red, then the hateful, black, harsh lines of the swastika. It was an armband, and it looked old, with slight fraying on one edge, and a small stain on the white circle which surrounded the hooked cross. But there was no denying the hooked cross.
My hands shook as I rummaged through the other items, which were neatly lain:
Photographs, of my younger grandfather, with a square jaw and slick, sharp hair. He was dressed in the black uniform of the Nazi SS. Some were photos just of him, some were of him with what looked like his buddies, clapping each other on the back and making goofy faces. They were all SS. In other photos, he was riding in a truck, or posing with a rifle, and wearing a helmet. There were places and names on the backs of the old photos: “Danzig, 1936; Berlin, 1940; Kiev, 1941 …” The most disturbing picture was one of my grandfather standing proud before a formation of fellow Nazis, beneath an enormous swastika banner, and having a medal pinned to his chest by who looked like Heinrich Himmler himself.
There were photos of my grandfather in civilian clothes, standing happily with my grandmother, who looked so much like me.
There was an old dog-eared copy of Mein Kampf, with a handsome, black leather cover.
There was a golden ring decorated with a skull. The distinctive Totenkopf : “death’s head.”
There were medals, including multiple Iron Crosses, and what I assumed were rank pins. There was even an ornate, black-sheathed, SS dagger in the bottom of the chest!! I didn’t take it from the sheath.
I wanted to deny what I saw. It disturbed me even more than the shadow I’d “imagined” in the mirror. My heart was pounding, and my eyes were brimming with tears. This world-shattering secret had been hiding beneath my grandparents’ bed my entire life. Had my mother known?! Had she suspected?! What did this mean for me, what was I supposed to think?! I wanted to continue to deny what stared me in the face, but my heart knew the truth, even as insane as that truth was
I rose, and turned around, then yelped again in surprise:
My grandfather stood there, leaning on the door-frame, frail and dying but smirking. “Now, do you see? You understand?”
“W-why,” I stammered, “You had to join them, right, y-you were drafted, right?!”
He shook his head. “They did not draft men into the type of unit I served with. I joined the Party and the schutzstaffel for the same reason as any good, patriotic man of the Fatherland and the race.” He was swaying as he spoke, and I could see he was definitely drunk.
I felt disgusted. My stomach twisted. I really thought I might vomit. I tried to restore order: “Opa, you should lay down,” I offered, and went to help him.
“No, no,” he said, “Back to the chairs, I want to sit a while longer. You must know my tale.”
He held onto my arm, and we returned to the study. On the way, I felt like something was watching me from the bedroom mirror…the same something that had been watching in the hall. I wished now I had covered that one too.
We were sitting at the desk again, him drinking yet more bourbon, and me having no desire to stop him.
“So why all this, then?” I gestured to the Jewish things on the desk.
“That is a long, long story,” he began …
Candle wax was pooled and spilled over the table. The wind continued to howl. The Nazi items sat undeniable and damning on the bed. The Death’s Head was laughing in my mind.
My grandfather told his story. “We were operating in the mountains,” he said, and his eyes seemed to look back on a far away place, in space and time. “Deep in Bolshevik country. Our comrades were bleeding in Stalingrad to cover us as we made our moves. Supplies were scarce, we were hungry, the vehicles often broke down, the horses died, but we moved fast to honor our comrades. And to honor the Fuhrer. I knew it was the Fatherland’s last chance for a total victory in the East, and I was part of it.” He nodded with pride. “Me and my men were behind our front line, resting after a hard three days of fighting. Most of the men, and sometimes women, who we fought against were not Russian, in that area. They were a sort of Asians, more like Turks, or Mongols, with a few Russians and Jews as officers among them, forcing them on…anyway,”
The wind seemed to pick up outside, shaking the window behind my grandfather so loudly that it startled me. I got a text from my sister, saying they couldn’t make it back to the house. I gave a quick reply then turned off notifications, wanting to focus on my grandfather’s disturbing, but lucid and enthralling, story.
He continued: “We were on a patrol, when a shot rang out, hitting one of my best men in the neck. The medic tended to him, and we rushed in the direction of the shot, from one of the nameless, barren hillsides. We fired back, including with the machine guns, but the enemies were well-hidden behind the rocks. We didn’t catch them. But we could avenge our comrade, who they had killed.” He shook his head. Talking of his youth, even the violent parts, seemed to give him new vigor, even with his words slurring here and there.
“I took my whole platoon over the hill, combing the ground, but again, we found nothing but a couple bullet casings. But, a couple kilometers on, we knew there was a hamlet: so small, it wasn’t on the map, but we’d driven briefly through there before on our way to the most recent fighting. So we returned to that hamlet: it was typical Slavic and Eurasian junk houses with the roof’s caving in, long-bearded men in strange hats, the dome of a mosque, filthy people, and even a synagogue in the same set of dusty streets. Strange, I’d thought, Moslem and Jew living together? The building that at least looked like a synagogue, had a great black tower protruding from it. That was how we found the hamlet from a distance. That strange, black obelisk sticking up from the hills…I’d never seen anything like it in Europe, but figured Jews in this part of the world had different customs, perhaps.
“But it was no time for anthropology. We had work to do.” He coughed, and glanced down uneasily at the small mirror on the desk, but continued:
“We pulled together all the people of the town, we cleared every house. It was a small place, it didn’t take long. There were still more of them than of us, of course, but we had guns, and most of them did not. We knew that even those who had not fired the shot that killed my man, had supported, and hid, the ones who did fire the weapon. We had heard reports, of course, from all over Greater Russia of these partisan rats skulking about and taking shots at us. We were glad to have revenge.
His eyes narrowed, thinking back to the time and place, as if he were truly there again in spirit.
“I was speaking to them,” he scoffed, “We got them all into a rough sort of, a military formation, with lines and all that…they were no good at it, haha, so many women and children in the mix, all these terrified brown and Asiatic faces. We dragged up one of their most learned-looking elders, with a big beard and big spectacles, to translate to them all as I spoke.
“But I did not fire the first shot. One of them did. We all saw where it came from: the strange black tower on the synagogue, which stood out so tall and strong. The muzzle flash came from a window there, once, twice, and two of my men fell. I did not need to give the order, my men knew what to do.”
I shuddered. The candles seemed to weaken their brightness, and the shadows in my grandfather’s face lengthened. I saw ever-more the shadow of the young, Nazi warrior he had once been.
“We had automatics with us, sub-machine guns, light machine guns. The untermenschen were all so tightly packed, it was quick work. We did not need the whole platoon to finish them.” He smirked, nodding to himself. “They lived like rats, and died like rats, piled up atop each other, some still alive and trying to hide behind the corpses of their kin. But yes, that was all easy, so I took a squad and we stormed the black tower. The synagogue doors, covered in strange runes, were barricaded, and another of my men died from a shot fired out the window before we broke it down.
“Inside, we killed a couple of partisans, barely older than boys, armed with rifles decades older than themselves. We busted another door, and up the tower we went. We were all in a rage, but so skilled. Our training served us well, bayoneting and shooting point-blank the Bolshevik shit stains. Finally, all up and down the tower, they were all dead, and the firing outside was just the occasional pop! pop! pop!”
He laughed and pounded the table. “Ha, Bolsheviks! We really thought every Jew, Turkmen, and Slav who fired at us in that region was a die-hard follower of Lenin! But I soon learned the truth, about this particular hamlet.” He clenched his wrinkled, grizzled hand so tight it shook. “There was a noise. Downstairs, as we were searching. We re-checked the synagogue’s first floor, and through a book case in the library, we found a hidden room.
His bemusement and old-soldierly intensity turned again to the same sort of dread he’d expressed earlier. “In the room there was a woman. She was very old, perhaps the oldest person I had ever seen, and even older than she looked. I, and Clausen beside me, knew at once what she was: a witch. She dressed head-to-toe in wrappings of dark fabric, with a hood over her thin white hair. She sat on the floor, surrounded by these bizarre little statues of monsters, and angels, and people, all so childish yet so oddly frightening. The room was lit by torch. There were scrolls. And the statue of…of…a great black goat, looming over her so lifelike I nearly shot it.
He gulped and loosened his fist, letting the hand rest trembling on the table.
“But it was no ordinary goat,” he said, tears in his eyes, “It was no mammal of four legs, or two, it was no animal from this earth. Too many legs, too many eyes…and, and, the clusters of the stars…oh, mein Gott, why did the true bodies of heaven shine so, so rotten into my head.” He gripped his temples, and my shock and disgust faded to the background as I gripped his arm in sympathy, and concern that he might collapse. I don’t like to admit it even to myself now, but I craved hearing the rest of the story. It was like the temptation to peek at the aftermath of a horrific train crash: irresistible, disgusting, human nature.
“It was no true goat,” he repeated, head shaking, “The clusters, the growths, the legs, the eyes of dying stars– Gott, it was not even really a statue, Lustina!” He cried. “The carving, it was all more precise than any human hand or machine could ever be, I don’t even know what the material would be to make the beast glimmer like that!!”
He glanced in the mirror on the desk again, and his eyes went wide, and he screamed.
I couldn’t help looking down at the glass, too. I did not scream, though my heart nearly burst out of my chest in one massive palpitation. Though I was never able to see a photograph of the thing my grandfather had seen in that synagogue for comparison…I know, as surely as I know how to breathe, that what I saw gazing back through that mirror was the same Black Goat. Now I took the mirror, and without thinking smashed it against the floor as hard as I could. The looming bigger mirror in the study was still covered with a gray sheet. I took special note of it, and couldn’t stop my eyes from creeping over to it periodically. The cloth sat there, wrinkled and unmoving in the still air. I wished the fabric was as opaque to sound as it was to sight …
“Opa. What happened then?” I found myself whispering.
He spoke low, too: “Let me move to my bed, please,” he said, “Please grant your old grandfather that on his last night on earth.”
I again helped him, with him being weaker than ever, back to his bedroom. I winced when I opened the door: but there was nothing in the mirror there, not yet. I sat grandpa on the bed, then rushed to cover the bedroom glass. Next I repacked and stuffed the chest of Nazi artifacts beneath the bed, willing it away. Soon, my grandfather lay down and got himself comfortable, head propped up on a couple pillows, covers pulled up around himself. There was an oxygen tank there, but he didn’t use it, nor did I ask him too. If he did need it, he could ask. I closed the door, then sat beside him.
He coughed, cleared his throat, and continued his tale. “We hesitated, of course, on seeing this witch and her goat. Then, the witch spoke to us. We were amazed to hear her speak perfect German. I believe now she speaks every language on earth. Her voice was stronger and younger than her apparent years. She called us trespassers, and demanded to know why we’d come so far to intrude. We had no answer that made sense in that moment, when confronted by her and that goat. She grew more venomous as she spoke, and I swear her eyes reflected green and snake-like in the torch light, beneath that dark hood. She stood and threatened us. She said some words in a foreign tongue, the torch fire flared bigger. She cursed us, then, saying that the souls of all the people we had killed would stalk us down like tigers and shred our own souls to ribbons, to be fed to…to the Thousand Young of the Black Goat.”
He gulped and looked past me. I dared not look behind myself, and felt my neck grow cold.
“That door is locked, yes?” he hissed.
I nodded, not able to shake the feeling of something big and predatory watching me, and listening behind the mirror’s veil.
“I won’t matter,” he said, “It won’t matter, not anymore. You will be safe, child you at least will be safe…oh! I should have told you all this so many years ago!! But…but, yes, the witch…she spoke the name, over and over again …” His eyes were wide as plates. “Shub Niggurtah. Shub Niggurath. Shub Niggurath. She called the thing a ‘she’ and called it their ancient protector. She told us not that day, not tomorrow, but that some day, no matter where we roamed, the vengeance of those five-hundred souls would catch up to us. We didn’t want to hear this. We killed her, of course. One shot, in the forehead. The torches abruptly went out, and we saw more movement and opened fire with our nearly-forgotten weapons, riddling the witch’s body with bullets
“But she died. Like any other mortal. But, behind her, that damned black goat statue was gone.”
The wind again swept down the valley and rattled the house. I heard in it the long, warbling baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa of a colossal creature. Or maybe that was all in my imagination.
“Opa,” I said, “You’re scaring me. R-really, none of what she said could be true, right?”
It was more distinct, closer that time.
“We were superstitious men in the schutzstaffel,” he said, “And after what we saw, we believed it, the four of us who saw that hidden room. We retrieved some of the scrolls from the room, a couple of the little statues. We burned the rest. In one of the houses, we found, almost miraculously, another elder we had missed. We interrogated him, and it didn’t take much beating to loosen his lips: of how to lift the curse. But there was no way to lift it,”
He laughed, and kept laughing as he spoke.
Closer, closer, coming from above —
“We could only delay the curse, he said, and the magic to do that came from two sources. Half from the Jews, and half from this forgotten cult of that witch and her partisans,”
The roof shook. — DOOM DOOM DOOM DUH-DOOM — the stomping of hooves the stomping of cloven hooves —
“He taught us the way before he died of his wounds. He laughed as he died, saying our crimes would catch up with us. But we memorized the words and the ways, in that little shack of his, the last one in the hamlet to burn, as the sun set behind the western mountains…aahaha, the other men of my unit are all dead, all dead, or worse, Lustina, I’m the last and I repeated that disgusting fucking rite each night for over seven decades! Each time I neglected it I heard them and her get closer, saw them in my mirrors, as they crawled and leaped closer from that mass grave where we dumped them for the coyotes and bears to feast on!!”
The house shuddered as if in an earthquake, the mirror on the wall shook and I dreaded the sheet falling away and exposing the cursed glass. The lights in the room flickered, and lost their life. Light leaked in under the door from the hallway. Until, something big out there stood in the doorway, and blocked nearly all that illumination. The floorboards creaked there. I dared not breathe. But I could hear the inhuman breathing of something there, waiting. The electric lights flickered, and went out.
My grandfather whispered, and his voice trembled: “And now I forgot it, I forgot how to keep them all away.” He kept his gaze behind me, I dared not turn around. “I am sorry, so sorry, my granddaughter. Please, please forgive me…oh god, it’s in every star–” he convulsed suddenly, and his eyes rolled back. He babbled in German, and my grasp on the language wasn’t enough to comprehend it. His expression was of absolute horror.
The house was shaking even harder.
I clenched my eyes closed and covered my ears and screamed. There was that horrible half-animal, half-unearthly braying and groaning, mixed now with the hissing voices of hundreds of foreign tongues. I heard the mirror thud off the wall, crack against the dresser and thud to the floor. Panicking, I threw myself down from the chair, and hid under the bed, with the Nazi awards and pictures and dagger. With Death’s Head. The door creeeeeeaked, then SLAMMED open, as if caught by the wind.
Struggling not to hyperventilate from fear, I opened my eyes:
Along the bottom of the bed’s skirt, in the darkness, I could see a blacker darkness, half-cloud and half-flesh, drift rather than walk in my direction, then float around the bed. The floor still creaked when it moved, as if this thing still projected weight. My grandfather wasn’t talking anymore, just wheezing, and making incoherent syllables.
That monstrous sound roared again, loud enough to burst my eardrums: except that it felt like it came from inside my own head, rather than across the air in sound-waves!
There was a wet puncturing and slurping sound. My grandfather’s breath above me grew faster and wheezier, and the spasms of attempted language stopped. I could hear something wet, mooshy, gushing and sucking, for several seconds.
Something was withdrawn from flesh.
I peeked open my eyes.
The darker darkness floated quietly to the mirror on the ground. It seemed to start sinking into the object. I held my breath. I closed my eyes again.
When I opened them, the lights were back on. The cracked, but not shattered, mirror looked normal. I blinked. It was a full five minutes before I came out from under the bed.
First, however, I fumbled with my phone, and resumed notifications: I had a text from my sister: she and my parents were ten minutes away. But that had been from about ten minutes ago, and so I heard the welcome and familiar sounds of my family’s voice downstairs as they came inside from the blizzard.
Then, I had to get out from under the bed. And see, as far as physical evidence could portray, what had happened to my grandfather.
I was never under suspicion for my grandfather’s death.
His cause of death was listed deceivingly as “Stroke,” the same as his departed wife.
But there is no way myself, or a blood clot, could have done to him what was done.
The coroner had no way of explaining the missing brain matter, other than that it had exited to…somewhere, through the violently expanded nasal passages: but where had the matter gone? Not even brain cancer could simply delete this matter. And besides, there was zero residue, other than a surprisingly small amount of blood. Just specks.
And why had the pupils expanded so large, to make his horrified and staring face have black eyes? No doubt, the same “stroke,” had done this, modern science would say.
The hands were locked in a desperate, protective pose, like clawing at something in front of his face.
It was only in the autopsy that they discovered the missing heart: not ripped out, simply gone, without an exit or entry wound, with the ends of the connecting arteries and veins neatly clipped and sealed.
Like I said, my grandparents lived in an isolated area, near a tiny town, and the coroner kept it all hush hush, as much as for his own sanity as to avoid further unanswerable questions.
We had the grotesque corpse cremated, of course.
My family learned the day after of the shocking, awful truth of Grandfather’s old affiliation, which only added to the whole trauma. Strangely, the totenkopf ring was missing from the chest, and I never found it …
I myself, am wary of mirrors now. Over the past few months, I’ve used them less and less often. I’ve taken down the one in my bedroom, and stuffed it in the closet, buried in blankets. The one in the bathroom gives me more and more discomfort. And I no longer think goats are cute. And I wonder if the curse on my grandfather was hereditary. I stowed away his scrolls and such. Not that it’ll do much good, unless I can find answers fast.
He never taught me how to repel the curse. No one did. I can’t even forget what I’ve never learned in the first place.
And I don’t know how long I have.
When I dream now, I hear the whispers of shub-niggurath, like sand blowing across a distant plain …