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Beyond the Barbed Wire
We are dead.
The mournful earth is heaped with us, the burning dead. We weep trails of acrid smoke, thick with the stench of death and fear.
We are dead.
The steel grey sky stretches out above me, endless and uniform. The wind slices through my ragged shirt, biting with cold. I should be working.
Instead, I am looking at freedom. I am looking beyond the barbed wire, those spiked chains wound about my wrists.
Freedom looks ugly. Freedom is beyond the barbed wire, but to me it looks grey and cold and empty.
It stretches past the distant horizon, all of it grey and cold and empty.
I am tired of looking at freedom, of wishing for grey to escape this nightmare of blackness.
I turn and walk back across the frozen ground, my frostbitten feet dragging behind me.
I shuffle past the concrete, uniform buildings, towards my fellows who toil in the Holes.
The Holes are our graves. The graves we dig while they watch with soulless eyes, for why should they dig graves for us, when we can do it ourselves? We move with sluggish speed, for when our job is finished, we will die. When the Holes are deep enough, they will kill us. But they don’t allow us the leisure of delay, and they beat us.
My mind wanders to the land beyond the barbed wire. Even if death meets me there, hell cannot compare to this horror.
I have reached the Holes.
My fellows toil in the pits, digging wearily into the earth. Our slavers see us as animals, to be used until expended.
I am weary with oppression and misery. I have seen my fellows taken away to be murdered, my brothers dragged through the dirt, bodies broken and dead.
Death is my constant companion, a perpetual, looming figure, waiting just beyond the shadows. It will come for me, in the end. My life will be snuffed, and I will die as have the countless others before me. Whether by starvation or violence, cold or sickness, death shall come for me in this forsaken place, grey and solemn.
I am condemned.
Does a condemned man fear death? When the mystery of the where and the when and the how is unveiled, and all that remains is the journey itself, does one still fear death?
Yes, I fear death.
I fear that dark chasm, that inevitable end to this my only life. I fear that final journey, into the pressing black. I fear death as a child does darkness; I fear that indistinct unknown, that uncertain abyss, for anything could await us there, beyond the grey.
I yearn for the land beyond the barbed wire, for freedom lies down that path. I hope for rescue, for salvation, but I do not rely on the futility of faith, for it is of no use here.
I do not believe that anyone is coming. I do not believe I will ever escape this madness.
I am alone, under the blackening sky, and all about me, innocence is burned.
I lie on my pallet, the agony of pain and hunger pounding through me. Hunger is my constant companion, always present, always…there, pain’s grim associate.
I do not suffer for my family or principles. I suffer because they hate me for being.
My only crime is living life others do not understand. And they hate me for it. A shiver racks my body. They leave us in the desolate darkness, alone and cold. I clutch my rags closer to myself as I shudder.
A question is lodged in my mind, incessantly prodding and pressing.
Do I remain a man?
What is a man, but a vessel for a soul? Yet what is a soul?
Compassion, consciousness, morality. Are these things not a man’s soul, are they not what separates us from beasts? The question remains, burning with urgency.
At what point does humanity cease to exist? We are led like cattle, stored like animals, treated like dogs. What use have we for empathy and individual thought? What use have we for morals?
Are we men?
What point is there to my soul, now? When a man has been so viciously crushed and oppressed, does the possession of a soul have meaning? Is it not better to be a shell, vacant and cold, drifting through this mockery of life, empty of emotion, than to be conscious through every moment of unrelenting pain and torture, horrendously, acutely aware of the systematic destruction and hopeless despair?
Why then do I still cling to my humanity?
The body pressed against me is my bunkmate, a wise old man named Benjamin.
Benjamin arrived here with a short walking cane, a shaven face, and a happy smile.
They broke his cane on the first day. It snapped in half when they whipped him across the face with it.
His smiles are rare, now, bitter and sad.
His white beard reaches down past his neck, and his eyes hold no joy.
I whisper to him, to the blackness.
“Yes, my boy. I am here.”
I ask another question that is always present, always there.
“Why does freedom look so grey?”
Ben laughs. His eyes, alive with spirit, turn to meet mine. I see his yellow teeth in the moonlight as he chuckles.
“That is not freedom,” he says. “That grey, cold expanse, that is not freedom. Freedom is not a place. Freedom is an idea, one that no one can ever take from us, no matter the pain. Freedom is bright, wondrous, and powerful. Freedom is liberation, the ability to make your own choices, to guide yourself in this our only life, to make mistakes and learn from them. Freedom is love, laughter, and happiness. Freedom is holy.”
Ben grips my shoulder. His eyes are alight with life, excited with passion. “That is why we must do everything we can to survive, to live to see freedom. Because if we do not, then we are slaves. Life is lived when one has freedom, when a man can feel the joy of life, when he can be noble and proud, when he can live free of oppression and live life as he sees fit. Life is embraced through truth and honor and freedom. Life is beyond the barbed wire. This”--he gestures--“this is not life. Much better to freeze in freedom than to rot in chains.”
“But surely there is no hope?”
Ben only smiles. “There is always hope.”
Benjamin begins to sing a slow, haunting melody in a deep, calming voice.
Benjamin is dead. They killed him this morning. They killed him because they thought him old and weak. I know better. Benjamin was strong and noble, dignified and kind. But they do not care.
Benjamin is dead.
Today is bleak. I toil in the Holes, I am beaten, I cry out with the unrelenting pain of hunger and cold, just like yesterday.
Unlike yesterday, I no longer hope. What have I to hope for amidst such brutality? Benjamin was my hope, and he is dead. Death, waiting just beyond the grey, finally came for him.
Ben never got beyond the barbed wire. He never again felt the sweet taste of freedom.
Benjamin Moshe Alper, prisoner 149765, would never again laugh with the joy of life. I thought of the daughter he sometimes spoke of, and the light in his eyes when he did. I thought of his perseverance, his determination to survive, and I could not imagine such an immutable man failing, leaving. Dying.
I am angry. I am so full of hate, directed at these inhuman demons, these beasts, corrupted by twisted ideals and warped fallacies, uttered out of the mouths of fools. I hate them. They deserve death for their destruction. For their genocide of all that is good.
I am angry.
Our work is over. The Holes are deep and wide. They, our captors, lead us on this our final march.
The march towards death. We are led past the barbed wire gate. Ben’s words echo in my head.
Better to die free than live in a cage.
I feel my heart pounding, my legs moving, sprinting across the courtyard towards freedom. I cry out with the joy of action without restraint. I run for freedom, for the land beyond the barbed wire.
A cacophonous explosion of sound fills the air, and abrupt pain rips through my chest. I falter, falling to my knees. The sharp smell of gunpowder permeates the air. I shut my eyes tight before the end, my breath coming in labored pulls.
I cast off the weight of oppression, and my mind slips free of my chains. There is no pain, no hunger, no suffering. All that is gone, now. My spirit soars, unbound and unrestrained, far beyond the barbed wire, beyond the amber horizon, majestic and noble. I am liberated.
I am free.