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God’s Accursed Share

God's Accursed Share


Estimated reading time — 9 minutes

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Janowska/Yanivsky was an actual concentration camp in Ukraine during WWII. Its commandant Fritz Gebauer, AKA “the Choker,” and his torture methods were also real. As are the books I mention here. All else is fictional.

Perhaps they [both the Aztecs and the Nazis] were mistaken altogether. Or perhaps their tragedy was they could simply not spill blood enough to prevent the sky from falling upon them.
– Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

SACRIFICE.

It originally meant “to make holy.”

Now it means a desirable thing given up, especially a life, to a higher power.

If a sacrifice is a prize won, it is also a price paid.

In twenty-four hours, I must decide if I’m willing to do either.

I

The bookshop looked ordinary enough.

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A year ago to this day, I visited our town’s old strip mall for a new dye job, fried chicken and a slice of pie. Yet tucked in between Hair by Helene and Cora’s Café lay a new business: Tomes in Time. With a swinging sign and electric candles glowing in the front windows, it appeared more inviting than either place.

Ignoring my growling stomach and the streak of gray bangs that whipped into my eyes, I wrenched the door open against the weather and stepped inside.

A bell tinkled overhead. The door closed with a labored exhalation,”wwwhhh,” and latched itself shut. Common sounds, familiar sounds, but ones I barely heard.

I didn’t feel my mouth fall open either.

Side by side were leather-bound classics and gaudy antiques; slim volumes next to digital readouts; a children’s primer on Salvador Dali paired with a melting wall clock. Not every book had an accompanying timepiece, but each section of the shop had at least two. Their ticking was soft. Synchronized. Almost silent.

In the midst of it all, an information desk and a man behind it.

“May I help you?”

“I’m looking for a book.” Obviously. “Uh, I’m here to browse.”

The man nodded.

My eyes darted from left to right, searching for helpful signs and avoiding those staring clock faces. They reminded me too much of people’s. I wasn’t usually anxious when I shopped, but that was thanks to Amazon. When had I last visited a brick-and-mortar establishment? I couldn’t remember. Stores meant customers and cashiers, which meant trouble. Stuttered words, forgotten items, impatient sighs and the occasional shove. What on earth had possessed me to come in here?

I turned toward the door, knowing I should stick to my schedule rather than waste time and money. Besides, conditions outside would soon shift from rain to ice and snow. Yet what was a miserable winter day without a good book to curl up with?

I headed for the horror section. As a freelancer for three online magazines – WEiRD, Outréverse, and Severed Hearts – research was my favorite activity. Would one of these musty, most-likely-donated relics inspire my next masterpiece? I hoped so.

“Paperbacks from Hell.” “The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories,” volumes one through three. A German/English edition of Goethe’s “Faust.” David Ely’s cult classic “Seconds.”

I’d read most of these, though the Paperbacks had come out when I was a girl. Many a night had I spent buried under my bedcovers with a flashlight, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice. Many a night had I fallen asleep at 3 AM, with three hours to spare before school. Many a night had I dreamed of monsters that became my friends.

I knew I could offer them a 21st-century makeover, but why? Just because they’d scared the crap out of me in the ‘80s didn’t mean they’d grown toothless thirty years later. I needed something my readers wouldn’t expect. Something like. . .was that a pyramid on the information desk? It hadn’t been there before. I crept closer.

Made of brass, it boasted intricate carvings and minuscule steps. At the summit was – I kid you not – a clock face surrounded by red metal mesh. Tiny interwoven chains like the striations of cardiac muscle, and every second – I kid you not – it pulsed.

“I love the Aztecs,” said the man, making me jump. “Didn’t mean to frighten you.”

I flashed a tight-lipped grin. Could he tell my heart was pounding?

“I had this custom-made by a jeweler friend. Clockmaker, too. You like it?”

My mouth was so dry that I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was nod.

“Somehow I knew you would.”

I couldn’t quite place his accent. Russian? Polish? Somewhere in Eastern Europe?

“I was born here in the U.S.,” he said, “but my parents were from Kyiv. Ukraine.”

“Ah.”

“There’s a book to go with this.” He brought out a worn hardcover: “La Part maudite.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know French. Sir.”

He smiled. “That’s all right. I’m Volodymyr. You can call me Vlad.”

“As in Dracul?”

“Yes, but I don’t bite.”

Warmth spread through me as I laughed and sized him up.

On the whole, we like to think our first impressions are right. Our gut tells friend from foe, potential date from potential serial killer. The first word that came to mind when I looked at Vlad was “stranger,” followed by “anachronism.” Out of place, out of time, like his shop. With a square-jawed face, navy blue sweater vest, and metal-rimmed glasses, he even looked like a cross between Gregory Peck and Rock Hudson. (I love old movies as well as old books.) Behind his bifocal lenses, the film of a cataract was beginning to cloud his left eye. An eye which winked at me.

I jumped again. “Sorry, sorry!” This time it was me who apologized.

Vlad smiled. “Are you always so nervous?”

“No.” Yes, when it came to my fellow human beings. “I read lots of scary stories.”

“Which do you like best?”

“Hard to say. Maybe ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ but ‘1922’ is my current fave.”

“By Stephen King.”

“How’d you know?”

Another wink. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”

Over the course of the afternoon and as dusk approached, we discussed ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night. It turned out he was not only fanatically fascinated (fanascinated?) with the lost civilization of Montezuma, but anything to do with the unseen and unmooring unknown. His favorite tale was “The Horse Leech has Two Maws” by Michael Picco.

“Never heard of it,” I said. “Or a horse leech, for that matter.”

“Consider yourself lucky,” replied Vlad, though I didn’t understand why. Now I do.

All the while, that heart beat on, its metal muscles rippling, counting seconds.

II

He learned I was a writer. I learned he was a teacher as well as a bookseller.

We made a bargain. Each month, an autographed manuscript of mine in exchange for a free selection from his shelves, and reminiscences of the old country. He may not have been raised in Ukraine, but his parents had passed down everything they consciously and unconsciously knew: mannerisms, figures of speech, even their nicknames for him – not Vlad, but two others which were more elegant. I took to calling him both. He seemed to enjoy it, though his one filmy eye remained sad.

“Volodia,” I dared to ask him last fall. “Vlodko. Just how old are you?”

“Eighty-two.”

I hate to admit that I burst out laughing. “What?! You look fifty.”

He paused for a long moment that bled into a longer one, then an eternity.

“Clocks,” he finally rasped. “Do you know what they mean to me? What they do?”

“They tell time.”

“They stretch time.” He brought his hand to his breast. “They keep my ticker ticking. I wind them each day, that I may hold on to what life I have left. That I may tell. . .”

Sensing in his gaze that he couldn’t find the words, I waited for them to find him.

“Mother and Father are long gone, but have I ever explained how they died?”

The ziggurat replica came to mind. I shook my head, to answer and to clear it.

III

I was born on 30 September, 1940. One year before Hitler and his horde took Kyiv.

My parents had the foresight and the common sense to know that any offer of peace from the ‘Natsisti’ would come at the cost of our blood. Doubly true for us Jews.

Therefore, they sent me to the States when I was still a squalling babe, to close relatives. Being a furniture salesman and his wife, they had money to save me but not themselves.

Auntie and Uncle raised me well. They made sure that I minded my manners, respected American laws, attended synagogue, and graduated yeshiva at the top of my class.

From earliest youth I longed to become a rabbi. That was before my faith was shorn.

Shaved like hair from my body and the poor heads of my parents, Bohdan and Daryna.

They were sent to the Yanivsky camp, known as Janowska in Polish, on the outskirts of Lviv.

Auntie and Uncle tried to keep this from me so hard, but I found out. I always find out.

Have you heard of the commandant? Was his name in your school history books? No?

Fritz Gebauer. I found that out too. Call him the Choker instead. I do to this very day.

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During a normal conversation like we have each month, he would grab the neck of a prisoner and squeeze. He also demanded that they be cleaner than clean, but would not let them wash. Were Mother and Father – were they treated as pigs, though they ate no pork? Were they eventually thrown into a cauldron of thin soup, then entombed by the lid?

I do not know. I have tried to know.

Time brings knowledge and wisdom. It brings revelation. It does not bring rest.

Once I understood this, I wanted nothing more to do with God.

IV

“I’ve heard it said that we breathe God’s name when we are born. YH in, VH out.”

Silence.

“If so, I want breaths to stop.”

I slapped my trembling palm down on the information desk. Good thing I was seated. My body was gel.

He held tight to my hand.

“Many Gentiles say we deserved our every agony in the Shoah, the Holocaust, for murdering their savior. Others say it is because we never made our pledge to him in the first place. We would not call him Lord. Still others. . .What do you say, my friend?”

I wiped away the tears that streamed down my face and said nothing.

“Shalom. It’s just as well. You have heard me, and that is more than enough.”

Once my sobs dwindled to choked hitches in my throat, Volodia smiled at me.

“Do you know what else I discovered?”

Once more, he brought out “La Part maudite” and the clock I loved and loathed.

“Georges Bataille wrote this work, ‘The Accursed Share,’ in 1949. He was a student of the – economy of politics? Or is it the other way around? Well, he talks about excess and consumption, how we strive again and again to rid ourselves of it, to spend all the energy that is not to our immediate benefit. He talks about the Aztecs too.”

I had no idea how these things related to each other. Volodia saw it on my face.

“Sacrifices.” He closed his eyes and took a ragged breath. “Hearts for the gods.”

Hard goosebumps broke over me. The kind that make the hair on your arms stand straight up.

“Though I tend to my clocks,” the old man said, “they’re winding down for good.”

I laced my fingers in his. They weren’t bony or frail, but they were no longer strong.

“Promise me something, young one.”

“Anything.”

“Anything? Are you certain?” He gave a warm chuckle. “Very well. Take the box I shall give you, sealed with much, much tape and your name. When my hour has come, you will know.” He released my hand. “Soon. Not now, but soon. Prepare. I will hold you to your vow.”

I thought I was prepared, once I felt the pull in my chest to visit the strip mall again.

V

A Penske truck. A stocky mover with a parcel in his arms and the aroma of a Jimmy John’s Spicy East Coast Italian Sub on his breath. Vlodko wouldn’t have eaten that.

“Hey.” The mover let go with one gloved hand and beckoned me over. “You this lady?”

He glanced down at my name in red ink on the box. I told him I certainly was.

“Here. Guy who owned the store wanted you to have this. So I heard.” He handed the package to me, and I gripped it as hard as I could. I’d never given Volodia a hug.

“Did anyone say anything about a memorial service for him?”

“Nuh-uh. Wait. There was one yesterday. Heard about it from Mom. She came here all the time to buy crappy murder mysteries nobody reads anymore. Anyway, I thought she went to the grocery store, and she did, but she was gone so long I thought she must have been stuck in the longest-ass line ever. Turns out, she went to the funeral for that dude. Cried when she got home. Said his chest looked weird.”

“What?”

“She said his chest looked weird. Like it had caved in or something.”

“Caved in?” Oh my god. “Right side or left side?”

“Phfft. How the fuck should I know? Don’t all old people’s chests look like that?”

I clutched the box harder, digging my nails in so deeply that they pierced cardboard.

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“Right side. . .or left side?”

“Right, I guess. Like where your heart is.”

I dead-sprinted to my car, slipping and almost falling in the slushy parking lot.

I didn’t care.

VI

Never had I drawn my old friend to me in an embrace, thinking it to be improper.

Never had I considered that every other timepiece at Tomes in Time was for show.

Never, ever had I thought to touch *that* clock.

I lifted it out of the box as gingerly as if it were made of tissue paper and set it down.

It ticked. It pulsed. The metal mesh around the face felt much larger and warmer.

No blood. No splatter. A healthy, steady beat, humbly keeping time, retaining life.

Also in the box were my twelve manuscripts, duly critiqued, and a wax-sealed letter.

VII

My dearest Tenet,

Your name hails from Latin. It’s the third person singular of “tenere” – he/she/it holds.

You hold my life and my fate in your hands.

I do not want to go to God – YH in, VH out, the inhaler and the exhaled, eternally.

Jehovah is the horse leech with two hungry maws. WE are His excess, His food, God’s accursed share.

Let me stay with you. Let me mark your every day with tidings of great joy.

I am missing a heart, but not a soul. What good is either to my rotting corpse?

I’ve preserved myself through Aztec ritual. Phonetic prayers in Nahuatl follow.

The second page of this letter holds the verses to sustain me for as long as we both shall live.

The third holds the verses to release me, to send me at last to the glorious sun.

Whatever you recite, do so on the hour, every hour, for the course of twenty-four.

Choose wisely.

VIII

SACRIFICE.

It originally meant “to make holy.”

Now it means a desirable thing given up, especially a life, to a higher power.

If a sacrifice is a prize won, it is also a price paid.

I’ve done both.

So has Volodymyr Evanko, late owner of my favorite bookstore.

I’ve scrubbed the clock clean after letting it bleed outside, into the earth, its steam rising to the skies.

The mesh surrounding its face has collapsed.

The hands themselves stopped at midnight, when I wept in rough Nahuatl:

“Shalom, dear Volodia, and know the truth: time. . .brings. . .rest.”

Credit: Tenet

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