Jessica Karbowiak is a native New Yorker who studied creative writing at The University of Texas at Austin and The Pennsylvania State University. Her work has appeared in The Chaffey Review, Blood Orange Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, The Monarch Review and Side B Magazine. Her first collection of essays and stories, These Things I Know, was published by Pink Fish Press in June 2012. She currently teaches at Alma College in Michigan.
The Bitch of Buchenwald
During World War II, Ilse Koch headed the Buchenwald concentration camp with her husband Karl Otto Koch, until the Ally forces invaded. Dubbed the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” Ilse was known for her sadistic behavior toward prisoners. It is said she was particularly fond of riding her horse through camp and whipping the backs of prisoners. Upon the Allied invasion, it was reported that numerous artifacts made of human skin were found in the Buchenwald camp, including lampshades, gloves, and book covers.
When she is a child, dark and brooding, she perches eager on her work-weary father’s lap. She evokes charm early, glimpses his worship-face gazing down at her, feels power there. The already old man in some ways mirrors her future husband, the one she will wed and follow into camps as a flaxen-haired demon.
An early villainess in the camps, flouting power and rage at the stripped and skeletal prisoners, her light eyes stare out and call forth nightmare. She walks—grace and beauty—down dirt-lined paths, shifts and squints eyes at the once-people working there, the body shells with death-mask faces. She is the reminder of alive and fear. “The Bitch of Buchenwald,” they call her, behind shaking hands. The Beast-woman and Die Hexe in some places. Her appetite holds many names.
A lone man clothed in rags. He collects shoes of former living, piles them in room-corner as told by barking voice of the Bitch, creates a majestic and tragic mound of soft-soled death. His uneven gait falters through doorways, down the camp hill to continually collect and sort the new, his eyes half-closed and downcast to avoid her stoic gaze.
He thinks of family, though not often, as memory fills sad space and then replaces it. His fingers crack and tremble, too much for him to hold. His duties get done in zombie-like freedom; it’s the only peace he knows. He shuffles pale feet down dirt-laden rows, and his eyes catch light through the tall green there, the ever-living of trees. The bark of a dog, a danger-sound once beloved, and the incessant bird chirp above make a dark growth inside him. The living of this place is too much to bear.
Sometimes he wishes death, then silences the thought and feel of it, lets the emptiness swell in stomach, a dark hole growing. It emerges, quiet at first, but this shuffle-walking man knows it will soon overtake him, grow outward and fierce from his middle. This liberty relieves him, the knowledge of it, and he can almost recall days when he knew God’s face. Yes, he will soon be nothing, a no-man, a black gaping hole walking and then disappearing from view. This thought refreshes him. The pain and quiet of it.
The Bitch is death-camp beauty atop blackest mare. She rides up and down the same dirt path, a galloping fiend kicking up dust and mud in her wake. She rides bareback, the pounce and agility of her thin female form ever-moving. The drizzled and mud-soaked lane coupled with the steady clip-clop of horse hooves brings chills to the lone man. He keeps eyes down as she progresses past him, dark eyes trained on the slick wet of the wheelbarrow’s handles, the quiver of his own fingers there.
She carries sure-fire whip this day. Entwined and pretty, the thick black of the rope is tight. She rides and snaps out her right arm, the flash and force of the twine lashing at bare arms and feet. The splayed whip-ends gratify her, the sound of contact keeps her sated.
The hole grows wider within him, ever-wider as he shuffles his walk and does his duty. The feel of expansion soothes away panic, the chaos of knowing what it is he knows. The rain continues and the odor of once-living feet pushes out of the wheelbarrow’s hold to climb his shaking fingers and rest inside his nose. There’s living in the smell of it, the run and swagger of women, children, men. It adds to the darkness of him, the growth, as the slick and stained pseudo-road leads him past the Bitch whose eyes follow his slow and steady progress.
There is a smirk and swagger to her. She points a delicate finger at the ragged of him as he moves with nearly-held breath.
You. I want you.
He stops his shuffle, abandons the weight of the wheelbarrow to turn briefly and gaze upward. He feels the dark continue to grow as he stands still and muted, the hole beginning to press outward with frenzy, and he wills this, begs his body hurry up, hurry up please.
Her descent from the beast makes her look almost-human, not half animal but a woman only. This thought, he knows, is deceptive. He stares resignedly at the cold and pretty of her, glimpses evil there.
A man with a vicious and thin line of mouth stalks over. He touches his left hand to the right shoulder of the Bitch. They both laugh, hers high and shrill with the boom of his overpowering. The vicious-mouth man calls out to him.
Follow me, he says, and no more.
The hole-growing fills the silent space as the lone man begins his weary death-march down the hill. The vicious-mouth man coughs out cold air, and the brute of him keeps a hurried pace the lone man cannot. In this way, the lone man is given time to let the hole expand. He sees pairs of eyes peek out of skeleton-faces through wooden slats of cabin and follow his advance.
The Bitch follows on his heels, pushes at the weak of him to move past the cabins and into the officer area. Doctor, white coated and furious, stands at the door and vicious-mouth strips the lone man naked, so for a moment he is afraid they will see the nothing of him, the growing no-space, but they do not.
Lie down, one says.
The lone man hesitates, resists without sound.
I said lie down, the voice continues. Now.
Gloved and pointing finger at cold metal table. The surface glints light, and there’s metallic reflection from sharp objects on the nearby counter. The lone man shuffles, hesitant, but the vicious-mouth man pushes out impatience with his whole hand, coughs and laughs as the lone man falters.
Enough, the voice says. Enough of this. Lie down.
Experiment-eyes meet his starving, soulful ones as the body that cages him climbs coldness to lie there. The freeze of metal sears his skin, pierces his fingers as he shifts weight to stare upward at the blank ceiling and the blanker faces of the two men, one clad in white and the other standing in the corner to watch. The Bitch stands closer and the flowery smell of her coupled with the antiseptic feel of the room is the final catalyst, so by the time his body stills, he is almost all-hole now, the growth the size of a window, or a door.
He shuts his eyes to the real, takes in the stab and sear of the doctor’s cut, the short laugh in room-corner. There is a boxing cut as his chest is bared, the color and whimsy of the fairy inked there visible to them; now she smiles upward as the knife comes down and the lone man goes, becomes gone, a nothing space as the body he slips from bears the incision, the evil of a four-sided cut to remove the tattooed sprite and preserve.
There is a flatness to this preservation. A grotesque beauty in the way the fairy and her flirty smile are book-ended by the pale and plaintive look of the lone man’s nipples, now erect and lifeless. The skin-square shows her wings expanding past the cut so they seem to flutter outward into perpetuity. The Bitch adds this to the collection, the oddities she craves, so when the soldiers come to render the camp obsolete, she is not surprised at the shout of them, the vomit and faint she sees as one lifts the lone man’s square of chest from table, holds it out for his fellows to see. The Bitch smiles to herself, knows they will dream the terror and beauty of pixie dreams ever-after.