Golgotha (Short fiction)

No life found on Titan after all. Bummer.

Anyway, this is a story that I wrote for my grad school applications three years ago. I haven’t touched it since, so it’s probably full of technical errors.

I tried to write it in a style that made it seem as though it were translated from another language. I thought it was nice back then, but I probably wouldn’t do it again if I were to re-write it today.

I’ve considered re-writing it, trying to touch it up, but I’m not even sure if it’s who I am anymore. Ah well, read and enjoy.

Also, so you don’t get terribly bored, I’ve decorated this with fine art. Hooray!

Adam sat on the hard, grimy bench. It was slick from the sweat running down his back. He hadn’t showered, hadn’t eaten, and hadn’t even used the bathroom unsupervised in weeks. He felt ill. Even if he did eat anything, it would probably come right back up, half-digested, rejected by his own belly. Not smart enough to save itself, he thought. His own body would probably rather him die than continue to suffer in this place. He stared outside, into the yard, where others broke rocks and their captors broke them. No smiles, no glee. It was gray, a Friday, possibly, but Adam couldn’t remember. He had tried to keep up with the days when he arrived, hoping to observe the Sabbath when it came, at least in his mind. Then, he gave up on that when it looked less and less likely that he would be getting out. Now, he had even begun to give up on God.

Adam had not been meant to be here, he knew. He was supposed to have arrived a week earlier and gone back to London before the Germans invaded. How a loving God could have intervened, sent him to this miserable place, separated him from his family, he did not know. What could God’s plan be but to make him suffer?

Adam had once argued with a fatalist over God’s plan. The fatalist argued that God decided who was going to heaven and hell the moment they were conceived. “God,” he said, stroking his thick salt-and-pepper beard, “has a plan for us all, and we are not meant to interpret it, just to live it out.” A smug Gentile if Adam had ever seen one. “What kind of God,” Adam countered, “would judge someone before their decisions had been made? Would that not mean that God would force a man to make choices that would forever damn him? This does not sound like the father of Abraham.” The fatalist had gotten flustered at this. “You do not gather my meaning,” the fatalist said. “You must understand, God knows men’s hearts.” Adam felt he understood perfectly. “God knows a man’s heart before he has set himself?” The fatalist sighed and explained, as if to a child: “God has already seen what path the man’s heart will take. Man has free will. God cannot change it, but he can know it. God is omniscient. He can see the twists and turns of our lives before we experience them. He has set it all out. It is unchanging.” Adam had grown angry, frustrated at this. He hated arguing with these old fools. They didn’t seem to understand when they were being foolish, either, which irritated him further. “To what end? Salvation? Why try to save what is already lost?” The fatalist looked at him as though he were the fool. “None can know His ultimate plan.”

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Adam felt his temper flare even at this memory. He flung a bowl that had been empty short of mouse droppings for four days. It clattered against the caged wall. He hated remembering his losses, his disappointments. They reminded him of his lack of perfection. Ever since he heard his father tell the story of the Messiah, Adam had wondered if he could be Him. But Adam was not meant to be Him. He was too angry, too short tempered. He was full of pride, greed, the occasional lust. He knew these things about himself, but could do nothing to change them. He was weak, far too weak, to do anything to fix the damage that had been done. And now, now that he was here, living this horror, his faith was beginning to waver. He didn’t respect his family enough, either. He respected them enough to have ventured back to his homeland to see his father put in the ground, though.

Part of him despised the old man. Part of him respected his father’s ability to always turn to God, and to no one else. The turning to no one else was what he despised. His father had been convinced that God could solve any problem, no matter what it was. The faucet could be leaky and God would fix it. What was most damnably frustrating about it was that the old bastard was always right. Instead of opening his purse to pay for it to be fixed, he’d wait and pray. And then, as if by a miracle, a plumber would just happen to knock on the door asking if they had an extra room. A carpenter would smell his mother’s cooking and ask for a meal in return for fixing a wobbly table leg. God provided for Adam’s father, but not for Adam.

His father’s scrimping and saving and praying paid off, though, and when the time came, he was able to send Adam to England to study theology. Something he himself had never been able to accomplish. His father, ever the amateur debater. He would speak to rabbis for hours, debating the nature of God, delving into the meaning of the tetragrammaton, trying to pin down the exact locations and time frames of biblical events. His father enjoyed these things. Adam did not know what he enjoyed. He had tried singing, dancing, playing an instrument, painting, law, medicine, and all forms and flavors of science.

His father inspired him to finally try his hand at theology, albeit indirectly. For years, he’d listened to the old man praying and genuflecting to God. When Adam begged for God’s love he received nothing. He had grown jealous of his father. He had grown angry and disgusted with his father and his father’s God. Finally, it had occurred to him to take up theology. He could argue with his father, debate against him, and finally prove the old man for the lucky fool he was.

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Now Adam wouldn’t get that chance, though. His father was dead and soon he would probably be dead himself. He didn’t even know if his mother or sister were still alive. They had been torn apart at the train yard, Adam placed on one train, Elzbieta and his mother on a different one.

He had felt ill most of the way to the facility. There had been no bathrooms, and several men, Adam included, had been forced to move their bowels in the corner, like livestock. He had felt shame at this, but had no choice. He had met the eyes of an old man with only a few teeth left in his head. The old man stared him down as Adam squatted in the corner, grimacing. He grinned a toothless grin at Adam and made a swirling downward gesture with his finger to resemble the waste exiting Adam’s body. Adam had been horrified, greatly disgusted by this man. He had nearly choked. Such bold crassness Adam could not fathom. He stood on the opposite side of the train car the rest of the way to the facility.

But the old man had reminded Adam of the homeless man who had lived outside of their apartment complex when he was a child. Once, Elzbieta had given him the last bit of money she had. Adam decided to follow the man out of cynicism. He had believed that the hobo intended to buy liquor, but he was wrong. He wanted to prove a point to Elzbieta, that homeless people squandered the money given to them. In actuality, he had gone to the corner market and ordered two sandwiches. One he ate there, the other he had wrapped to go. Elzbieta had actually provided livelihood for the man, while Adam looked like a pessimistic fool. This made him hot with anger and he did not speak to Elzbieta for a week afterward. Adam disliked being wrong.

Elzbieta had barely spoken to him at their father’s funeral. She was angry at him for having gone to London while she remained in Krakow, taking care of their mother. She had married a dour banker named Jakub, but he was infertile and could produce her no children to dote on. Thus, she was left only with mother, in declining health, and her husband, a distrusting, moping sort of man. Her life was dull as a rainy day and she blamed only Adam for it. Elzbieta also, was physically afflicted from birth, being shorter than the average woman, just a little less than five feet tall, making her a prime target for jokes and insults. By contrast, Adam, slightly tall, had seemed to be given a gift she could not ever hope to gain.

Elzbieta was bitter toward Adam for his height and opportunities, and never once attempted to hide this truth from him.

“Where is mama?”

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“I do not know. Do you think I am her keeper? Do not answer that, you son of a bitch, or I will stomp on both your feet,” she said. She knew very well that their mother’s keeper was exactly what she was. “Is she with Jakub?” “Probably so, I told you I do not know. Look, there’s father’s old friend Justyn.” She had wandered off to greet him and exchange stories of their father in life. Adam continued to search for mother. He had finally found her, in her bedroom, staring out the window. “Mother,” Adam said. “Why are you not outside speaking with the mourners?” She wheeled around and looked at him. “I do not mourn your father,” she said. “He is in a better place, with God. I envy him, Adam. You should, too.” Adam stared at her quizzically. “You do not mourn him at all,” he half-asked and half-stated. “No,” she replied. “Not at all. I hope to be with him soon.”

His father was lucky and his mother was prescient of what was to come, it seemed. Adam had meant to have arrived a week before his father’s funeral and leave the day after. He had been delayed, however, by a summit on the nature of evil. The meeting was uninteresting and said little that Adam cared to hear, except a few brief discussions on what happened to those who did become damned. One particular fellow, a Jesuit, put forth the opinion of eternal purgatory. Man is required to repent constantly, for ages if necessary, until he was freed to go into heaven. Hell was reserved only for those who refused to repent in the face of God. The prideful. Those who could not accept what was before their eyes.

He had wanted to avoid going, but he had been too timid to ask his instructor. Instead, he came the day before his father’s funeral and vowed to stay the week after. A scant few days later, though, and the Germans arrived. Adam knew his chance was lost. He would have taken it earlier, had he known what was to come. He would have left Poland before the Germans ever thought to arrive. Let mother and Elzbieta deal with them. He could not take this, though.

When they had heard on the radio what was happening, he and Elzbieta had immediately begun arguing over what to do with mother. Adam had wanted to take her away, to try to flee. Elzbieta told him that was impossible, though, and he knew it was. Mother could not make it far, even with both of them helping. Instead, mother and Elzbieta tried to cram themselves under mother and father’s bed. Jakub had still been at work, and as far as Adam knew, Elzbieta did not see him again before they were taken. Adam thought, briefly, that he had seen him in the yard of the facility one day, but later became convinced that this was just an illusion and paid it no mind.

On the day the Germans came, though, Adam did not want to hide under any bed. He didn’t even live in Poland any more. He wasn’t even sure he considered himself a Jew. Surely they’ll understand, he thought. Any reasonable man would, of course. He stepped out the door of the apartment as Elzbieta hissed at him to stay. He went down the stairs of the building, out to the nearly deserted street. There, he saw two soldiers with their backs to a wall, sharing a cigarette. As soon as he approached, they turned their guns on him and shouted. Adam did not understand German and they did not understand Polish, so he tried English, the only other language he knew with any sort of adeptness. “English,” Adam said. One of the soldiers nodded. “Jew?” He pointed at Adam. “Yes, my father was,” Adam said. He nodded and said something to his cohort in German. “I’m not from here, not anymore. I live in England now. I’d like to get out of the country and get back to my studies,” Adam said. The German nodded. “Family?” Adam nodded eagerly. “Yes, if they can leave with me that would be fine.” The German nudged his fellow soldier and they followed Adam back to his mother’s apartment. Once there, he called their names and his sister scrambled out from under the bed. She saw the Germans and her face dropped. She slapped him, hard, and tried to run past the soldiers. The larger of the two caught her while the smaller one dragged his mother out from under her bed. She screamed and cried and wet herself. The small German then turned and sharply cracked Adam with the butt of his rifle, sending Adam sprawling to the floor, where he soon lost consciousness.

Adam felt shame at betraying his family and trusting the Germans. He claimed ignorance to himself for a few days, telling himself that he had not known, but eventually that faded too. He had gotten anxious to leave, to escape before the situation got bad, and it had cost him. He knew what his father would have done. His father would have made the bald spots on the rug larger by hitting his knees the instant that the radio announcement came on. His father would certainly not have doomed his entire family with his brashness.

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No, truly, Adam was not meant to be here. If God intended him to be here, it made no sense to Adam. What was he to learn? Pain and suffering before death? For the last two days, he had been alone. They had taken him out of the field and placed him in a solitary cell. He could feel his ribs through his ripped shirt. His hunger pangs had subsided days ago, and now he felt like hunger was beyond him. He had transcended the need for sustenance. He felt like a sort of monk. His head shaved, tattered clothes, without food. Left only with his thoughts and visions.

Adam had had many visions over those two days. Mostly of his father, talking as he did with the rabbis when Adam was a child. He also saw his mother, kneeling down, nude, while someone else brought a shovel down onto the back of her neck. Adam somehow doubted that this was fantasy. It felt real, whereas his father seemed like a mirage or a memory. Perhaps seeing his mother killed was the mirage, though. Or perhaps he had seen it and pushed it out of his mind. It seemed like half his life had been spent in this facility but he knew it couldn’t have been more than a month, if even that. Memories of this place were fuzzy, though, compared to his memories of life before.

He had known, however, that fate had something in store for him. As though seeing his dead father, seeing his mother murdered, and seeing what looked like a nearly skeletal man who may have been his brother-in-law weren’t enough, he had been in this cell. Left for days. He wasn’t going to the gas chamber, it seemed. He was getting special treatment. Maybe they knew he spoke English and needed him for something. It could be that they had him confused with someone else. He was not sure. One of the guards had spoken to him, though, in German. “Sie werden morgen sterben,” he had said with a wink. The wink made it morbid. Adam knew exactly what he was saying, even if he didn’t know the language. “You will die tomorrow.”

So he sat, sullen, feeling sorry for himself. He waited for the cage to clang open, signifying that the end was on its way. He put his head in his hands and, closing his eyes, saw his father once again. There, on the backs of his eyelids, stood his father on a pillar above a pit of flame. “Adam, my son.” Adam could not tell if his father was speaking English or Polish anymore. It had to have been Polish. The only other language his father knew was Hebrew. “Adam. You must know. Hell is real. Hölle ist echt.” You are not my father, Adam thought at the vision. My father does not know German. You are not my father. You are the vision of this place, nothing more. He opened his eyes enough to dispel the vision and allow tears to seep through. He sobbed soundlessly and placed his head on the end of the cot. It was the first time his father’s image had spoken directly to him.

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It blended into his head. His father. His father’s father. His God. His Father. God, the Father. The God of Abraham and Isaac. What was this? A test of faith? Was God trying to shake his will before his final judgment? Adam shook his head violently and tears streaked to either side of his face. He wiped at them and erased the trails they had made through the dirt on his face, now coated over once more with the dirt from his hands. Adam was shaken, disturbed, but for once, he wasn’t angry. He was saddened. Saddened by how he had disappointed himself and his family. He was no Messiah. If ever there was to be a Messiah on this earth, it would not be him. The Messiah would not die like a feral dog in a labor camp.

Suddenly, another vision filled Adam’s mind. Himself, being led down the hallway outside his cell. Hearing the moans of others in the solitary cells. Led into a room with a small wooden table. A large, loud German bellowing questions at him. Adam not understanding. The German shaking his head. Adam being grabbed by the back of his neck and having his face thrust down into a sink. The tap turned on, pouring onto the back of his head. The closest to a shower he’s had since arrival. Then, a shot. Seeing his own blood fill the sink.

But perhaps this was not the vision, but the reality. Perhaps the vision was him in the cell, holding himself close, weeping at the feet of the ghost of his father. Adam could no longer tell what was fantasy, myth, and what was fact. His father had been a fact, but now was myth. The vision of his mother, was that a myth? What of his brother-in-law? What of his own execution? Were these just the dying dreams of a man whose thoughts are leaking out of him and down the drain in a soupy mush? Myth, legend, fable.

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