by Clover Autrey
“Forgotten Promise” placed fourth in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2019 Fall Fiction Contest.
A grandfather should not outlive his grandchild. Hans squeezed the tiny stuffed lamb, no larger than his age-spotted hand, and brought it to his lips. Nadine’s scent of strawberry shampoo lingered in the plush material. Hans swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the lump expanding in his throat. Life was a cruel trickster, allowing an illness to take the jewel and pride of his existence. He placed the soft toy on his desk, then thought better of it and carried it across his study and took the mahogany box from the bookshelf. When he lifted the lid, memories buried within floated up like dust mites to taunt him.
He nestled Nadine’s lamb carefully among the trinkets. The side of his hand rubbed across worn material and his heart stumbled. Sins of his forebears rose, pungent of age and sorrow as he pulled the second stuffed animal from the box. A little bear, what was left of its discolored fur so worn that the yellowed stuffing showed through. Unshed tears pooled in his eyes, blurring the contents of the box into watery images from the past.
He ran across the hard-packed roadway, the exuberance of youth granting him wings to fly toward the parade of new arrivals, his mother calling after him to not get too close. Even as the son of the commandant, Hans wasn’t allowed into the camp. The most he could do was watch from the other side of the wired fence as the latest enemies of the state were ushered through the gates. All belongings were being taken and thrown into bins before they ushered them through.
“Nein, nein,” a child cried.
Hans’s gaze snapped toward one of his father’s guards who was wrenching some sort of stuffed bear from a little girl. At least he thought it was a bear. It was barely as large as a mouse and nearly swallowed entirely in the guard’s glove. But the girl was hanging on fiercely.
“Else, let him take it,” a boy warned, his glassy eyes blown wide in fright, and startling blue, uncommon among the dirty Jews Hans had seen. Hans tilted his head, wondering how dangerous a toy could be, even among the cunning and treacherous conspirators.
Gulping great sobs, the girl released the bear and the guard tossed it in the bin. The boy turned the girl by her shoulder and hurried her away into the staggering line of adults.
Seeing the new arrivals had always been exciting, knowing dangerous criminals were being put away where they couldn’t do any more harm against the Führer, but watching the wretched pair move away, a different feeling settled into the lining of Hans’s belly, something he didn’t quite understand. Grabbing up the toy from the bin, he ran along the side of the fence, catching up to the children.
Two sets of light blue eyes turned to him. The girl gasped, her gaze targeted on the bear. The boy pulled her farther into the line of people, seeming more frightened than before. Frightened of him. And suddenly everything that Hans thought he knew shifted out from under him like a layer of ice cracking under his weight.
How could these children, near his age, have committed crimes against the state? He glanced up at the adults shuffling along really looked at them—and saw raw misery and fear sketched deeply into their faces. Some gave him wary glances, others held their heads high, mouths tight, staring straight ahead. Others wept, hunched over, stumbling into the person in front of them. They were just ordinary people. Hans searched for the evil, the cunning, that his father said they all shared.
Hans shifted back away from the fence, his shoes sliding in the dirt.
The bear fell from his grasp. Brown button eyes stared up at him from the ground. Hans looked up at the throng of Jews. Walking away, the girl looked back over her shoulder.
Without thought, he picked up the bear and ran along the fence line after them. He smashed the toy up against the chain links. “Here, take it.”
The girl pulled away from the line, reaching for it, but the boy quickly drew her back. “Nein, it will cause trouble. Nein, Else.” His gaze bore into Hans, pleading for him to leave them alone.
“Hans, Hör auf damit!” One of the SS guards waved him off. “Get away from there!”
Hans stared through the wire at the desolate faces and whispered, wanting desperately to let them know they didn’t need to be afraid of him. “I’ll keep it safe for you. I promise.”
The girl’s smile was brief and unsure. The boy nodded curtly and nudged the girl along. Hans watched them until they disappeared among the long line of people being ushered inside the walls he was not allowed to enter.
Those light eyes haunted him for decades, startling him whenever he glimpsed strangers with that shade of cloudy blue. In his study, he balanced both small toys in his arthritic hands, a clean plush little lamb and a worn teddy bear. He’d been too innocent before to fully understand what had happened in the camps. Until after that day when he started paying better attention, started looking for any glimpse of those kids to reappear out in the muddy yard. A familiar shame burned inside his chest, a weight pressing on him for more than half a century.
The time was far past to keep his promise.
Moving with a slowness he felt deep in his soul, Hans shrugged on his coat, settling the stuffed animals together in his pocket.
The drive was long, riddled with grooves and ruts as jagged as the ignominy of an entire nation. Buildings remained erect, dormant and gray, disturbing markers of a travesty. He was not allowed inside as a child. He would not enter as an old man. The air was damp. A low fog crawled along the uneven ground, making each step precarious. The buildings farther back were shrouded in vapor, their spectral outlines faded into the past. People milled about the site, quiet, their paces slow and careful. Tourists come to either accuse, or show reverence for those who entered, but never left.
Portions of the old fence remained. The links he had once peered through were covered with ribbons, tattered notes, dead flowers, and old photographs. Pulling the stuffed lamb and bear from his pocket, Hans untied the ribbon from Nadine’s lamb and used it to carefully attach the bear to the fence. “I kept my promise,” he whispered to the still air, puffs of breath swirling like a delayed apology.
A gasp from behind startled him.
Every hair on Hans’s body stood on end. He turned around and his pulse wrenched, finding a pair of rheumy blue eyes staring at the bear. A breeze picked up, lifting the hanging fog around them. The man pressed his hand knuckle-white on his heart as though he could keep anything inside from spilling out. He lifted his other arm in hesitant increments, fingers stretching to barely touch the worn fur. A grief too large to contain engulfed his features, settling into every line and wrinkle, becoming a permanent squatter. His gaze curved to Hans. They stared at each other, no longer boys separated by chain links and wire, but old men connected by a singular moment.
No words passed between them.
The man nodded once and slowly unfastened the bear. Holding it close to his heart, he shuffled away across the frozen ground, head bowed, shoulders shaking, and made his way into the yard. Like before, Hans watched him go until he disappeared inside, and then reverently, Hans tied the ribbon back around the lamb’s neck and hung it on the fence.
Category: Competition, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student