2011 will see a short story of mine called The Firewood Collector published in Carillon Magazine. The story started out as a 150 word flash fiction piece used for a competition, but I decided to expand the story because I knew that there was more to say for the character of Reuben, the man in the striped clothes. This happens often; a flash fiction piece or short story just simply demands your attention and more often than not you come up with something amazing.
The Firewood Collector
Green over umber; these colours filled Reuben’s vision, vibrant and deep, reminding him of childhood summers spent in the Rhine valley. Childhood aside, he’d lived and worked in Berlin most of his life, until the war began, and now everything had changed, his life and his world had changed immeasurably.
Sweet smelling moss and pine laced the mist around him as he followed the soldiers along the path. The sky had turned grey, as though sullied by an unwelcome fear.
Reuben collected firewood every day for the camp, had done so for five years. It was a hard task, finding enough to stoke the furnaces and power the machinery. He dragged along a large cart which he had to fill with wood. Sometimes he made two or three collections during the day, which left him exhausted at night, although not as exhausted as some of the younger men in the camp.
They moved further up the hill. Mist clung to the trees like a cloak and veiled the crows hiding along branches, but Reuben knew they were there, he could hear them. The air was still, damp and somehow heavy, and each crunch underfoot seemed to carry across the forest.
He looked out from the hillside, saw the camp below. Square shaped huts dotted his vision, the darkened roofs reflecting the rain which must have fallen in the night. A large funnel of grey smoke billowed from the chimney of a nearby building, the smoke stack rising high into the air. The stench from the smoke stack didn’t reach the hillside, and instead drifting across the forest to the east, drenching the surroundings with a chalky coloured powder, slightly sticky to the touch. Reuben was glad he couldn’t smell it. It knew what they burned to make it so nauseous.
He looked to his right, saw the railway track leading up to the gates of the camp. The forest was silent today, but tomorrow there would be more people arriving, crammed into the wooden carriages. More men and women, more children.
The soldier in front stopped, lit a cigarette. The smoke coiled around his face, reluctant to leave. He exhaled slowly.
Reuben’s brow drooped. Lines in his once fresh face deepened. He pointed. ‘There’s no wood here. We have to go up to the clearing to get the best wood.’
The soldier smoked, shook his head. ‘No, here is fine.’
Reuben rubbed soiled hands down his striped clothes. ‘But...there’s no wood here...’
The soldier watched Reuben carefully with retentive blue eyes as he smoked.
Reuben’s grey eyes slowly turned dark. Afraid. He knew that look; he had seen it so many times. Behind him, he heard the other soldier moving about and it made him turn, the sensation of fear scuttling across his skin.
The other soldier stood near a muddy patch of ground, foot on a large boulder, his rifle slung around his shoulder. He stared at Reuben with dark, almost black cloudy eyes, as though they had lost sheen and no light could penetrate them.
Reuben shuddered, turned to the soldier in front. The clouds in the distance undulated and churned, it looked like more rain was coming.
‘There’s no need for you to collect firewood anymore, Reuben,’ the soldier said. The soldier lifted his rifle. ‘I’m afraid you’ve outgrown your use.’
Reuben shook his head. ‘But I don’t understand...’
‘I got my orders.’ The soldier coughed as though he had grit stuck at the back of his throat.
‘No...please!’ Reuben cried, his insides contracting with fear. ‘I’ve been a good worker, I’ve broken no rules.’
‘We know that,’ the other solider said from behind Reuben.
Reuben looked at him. ‘You need me. Who else is going to collect the firewood?’
‘The boys can do it,’ the soldier replied, indifferent.
The little boys, all without mothers, who picked around the camp, clearing up the detritus and the dead. There were always more of them coming in every other day.
‘But I know all the best places for wood,’ Reuben said.
‘The boys will find new places,’ the soldier said, pointing the gun at Reuben’s head.
Reuben stared at him, saw white knuckles on the trigger, poised. Wonderful memories shot through his mind; family dinners and parties, evenings around the piano, going to work alongside his father at the furniture factory on the outskirts of Berlin, getting married. Then the dark memories rose up and smothered him; losing his wife the day the soldiers came for them, losing his children. All three boys murdered on the sullied streets of Berlin. All these elements, all that he was, had gone.
The shot scattered crows skyward. Reuben fell, his shattered face buried in the moss, red over green.
‘Shame,’ the German soldier said, nonchalant. He flicked his cigarette. ‘I liked him. Still, he was a Jew nevertheless.’