The Last Man

The Last Man

A Story by Sara

done for the PEN's 'objects, people, places' contest, using a clock (or in this case, a watch), the grandfather at a desk, and a secret passage

The Last Man

June, 1946, Berlin.

The numbers on his arm won't ever go away. Left arm. 213423. Impossible to forget, of course. Ink driven into skin and memory. Into self.

He sits on the park bench thinking these thoughts. It's a beautiful day -- blue sky, children laughing, vendors selling Apfelstrudel and Neujahrsbretzel lakeside. The numbers are hidden underneath the sleeve of his suit jacket. He is a harmless old man enjoying the sun. Maybe somebody's grandfather.

He should be praising Gott. He survived three years at Auschwitz. A world war. The country is in ruins, Berlin bombed to smithereens, but there is talk of recovery. Politicians speak of hope, embracing new allies. 

Already he is tired of such talk. He doesn't trust them like he used to. 

He gets up, feeling restless. He's unnaturally thin, muscle mass decimated by three years of brute starvation. He knows his body will never be what it was. But he gets up, propelled forward. He has to move on. He cannot linger, consumed by the past, as horrible as it is.

He walks, feet leading him down old familiar roads. Familiar and yet not. Everything's grayer now. Weary. Like him. He stops in front of his old house, an unassuming little place with boarded-up windows. Now, he lives in a small, half-burnt apartment in Friedrichstadt with a one-eyed cat named Horst. But this place -- it'd been home once. 

His wife had been a wonderful homemaker -- a wonderful cook, a wonderful gardener, a wonderful lover, a wonderful woman, a wonderful everything. Now, just a skinny corpse rotting in the ground. With a mound of other dead and he can't -- won't -- think about that -- no not now --

The curtains. Remember those lace curtains she'd hung? They'd gone so well with the Vergissmeinnicht in the front. Beautiful.

The front door is locked, but he breaks the glass, sticks a hand inside, and unlocks it easily. The boys had done the same that night, only to the back door. (Avoid those nosy neighbors...) The old man doesn't care who sees him, it's still his house, German government be damned.

He walks through the rooms quickly. It hurts to be here and he doesn't plan to stay for very long. He heads down to the basement. The lightbulb's out -- or maybe the electricity's been cut, who knows -- so he fumbles around in the dark and gets a candle lit. The glow is anemic.    

In the basement there is a bookcase and behind the bookcase is a passageway. A secret passage to a secret annex. 

Four rooms. 

They'd spent three years in four rooms, Gott helfe ihm, and his wife was still dead.

The air in the annex is musty. Spiderwebs have colonized the corners. The couch is decimated, stuffing co-opted for rodent nests. 

He moves swiftly through the rooms like a spirit. The bedroom. He has to get to their bedroom. 

Surprisingly, the bed is still unmade, sheets rumpled. 

That night, he and his wife had been wakened by sniggering and slurred words. Discovered by three boys. Drunk. Hitler Youth. Trespassing on property they thought long-abandoned, Jews fled to Switzerland perhaps. Maybe even den Vereinigten Staaten.

A little exploration -- and a hidden treasure found! Jews not gone, but here, hiding. What a prize! Fate or luck or Gott Himself had accompanied those boys that night, and forfeited him and his wife. 

The man sat down at his old desk. Where had he put it? Oh, yes. Second drawer down, on the right. His wife's watch. It had stopped that night, an obvious omen if there ever was one. He'd promised her he'd take a look at it in the morning, fix it if he could. 

He'd never gotten around to that, of course. The Gestapo had made sure of it.

He took the watch out of the drawer and slipped it into the breast pocket of his jacket. A memento. Paltry, really. Twenty-two years of marriage reduced to a single broken timepiece. But her jewelry was gone, sold in those early years as they struggled to stay afloat. Her wedding ring had probably been melted down years ago. Nazi gold.

So this was it. Goodbye. Auf Wiedersehen. 

A wistful smirk.

He got up and set the candle flame against the desk. The wood was dry, starved for polish, and it caught easily. He moved to the bed and set the duvet alight. It'd been a wedding present from her mother. Alas. The rug too. 

He moved back to the den. The couch. The mice squeaked as they burned alive, but death no longer moved him. The chairs. The coffee table. The wooden dumbwaiter. The books. The pictures on the walls. 

Let it burn. Let it all burn. 


© 2011 Sara

Author's Note

i saw 'x-men: first class' yesterday and was very taken by the character of erik lehnsherr (aka magneto). while writing this, i tried to channel some of erik's rage into my character. erik was probably why i set my story in postwar germany and why my character was a concentration camp survivor.

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This story was really insightful. I felt the bitterness of this old man, the hopeless disillusionment the must have been overwhelming for the few survivors of those hellish camps. Really well written. There are just two things. The first is the word smithereens in the third paragraph. It seems a little childlike, or rather not severe enough, when one considers the desolation that was post-war Berlin. Perhaps it is just me? The second is a question; why would his wife's watch not have been looted by the Nazi's who found them? Perhaps if it was hidden, but would they not have looted the home once the couple had been dragged into the night by the Gestapo? But these are minor points, the writing and story is remarkable.

Posted 10 Years Ago

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The story has that harshness of life in it, somehow, in the way the old man thinks and acts, the way he remembers.

I'm impressed by how you presented this story.

Posted 10 Years Ago

What a good story, I enjoyed much

Posted 10 Years Ago

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4 Reviews
Shelved in 1 Library
Added on June 26, 2011
Last Updated on June 26, 2011
Tags: story, the last man



Dallas, TX

Hi! I'm just a simple college student from Texas who enjoys storytelling in all its forms. I'm quite shy, so I find writing much easier than talking since I don't have to put up with my usual stutteri.. more..

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