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Stories in the Darkness
It always seems to be night in the camps--or at least it always seems to be dark.
Somewhere the sun must come up every morning. Somewhere there is more than only dust and clouds and ashes. There must be some place, there must be some place that is warm and bright and green.
But not here. Not in this death camp. Not here.
Here is always cold. Here is always fear and pain. Here is always hunger. Here is always waiting for ... for what?
But there is one moment every day in one of the barracks when the dark and the cold seem to pull away and be forgotten. It is in Mara's barracks, which is a barracks just like any other except that this one holds Mara. At night, hungry and trying not to look at the empty places where friends slept just a night or two before, the women come back and gather their children around them. They hold them and share their food. They smile to hide their soul terror.
And then they come to Mara's bunk.
Mara is waiting for them all. No matter what new wound bleeds through her shirt, she is waiting. No matter what new bruise is swelling, she is waiting. She is waiting with the light and the warmth of stories. Everyone gathers around, and from her lips to their ears the stories go, and for a little while the camp disappears, and for a little while they are all free.
Each evening it is the same. Mara reaches out and takes a child onto her lap--a different little one each night. "When my father the Rabbi would sit us around him and tell a story," she begins, "he would ask God to listen as well. 'God,' he would say, 'make me a teller of stories, because all stories are Yours. And if You would lend me one now, I will tell it and then give it back to You.'" She lifts her hands to heaven when she speaks.
And everyone in the barracks is still, so still. And the story comes to Mara as though God Himself were giving it. Mara smiles. She nods. And then she tells it.
Many of the stories are of long ago, in the days of the great rabbis whose lives were lives of light. But in this barracks there is no long ago. There is only now. It seems as if there has always only been now. And so the tales even of long ago and far away become tales of now and here, as if they had just happened. As if they are happening even now.
Sometimes Mara's stories are sad, and the dark lines below her eyes darken, and the hollows of her cheeks fall even farther in. Sometimes the stories are too terrible to speak, and she tells them very softly, in a voice that is hardly a whisper, slivers of sound. Sometimes the stories are lonesome, and as she tells them, her eyes fill for those whom she misses, whom they all miss. And sometimes, sometimes the stories are funny, and Mara laughs out loud, and her cheeks hint at a long-lost glow.
Night after night, night after night the stories push back the darkness and the cold. Those who listen carry them through the next day, and often the thought of the next night's story is all that keeps thewomen from stepping across the dead-lines that rim the camp.
And the children?
The children listen. The children listen and understand.
The Violinist and the Master
In a camp in Poland, there was once a young violinist named Salek. He had been in the camp for two years, and in all that time he had never ceased practicing his music. He had no violin and he had no bow, but he practiced nonetheless. In the long hours of pain and boredom, he dangled his legs over the edge of the platform, held his chin just so and his hands out, and fingered through Schumann, and Brahms, and Mozart.
And he heard the music in the air. Even though no one else around him could hear it, he did.
Then one night, half of those in his barracks were marched away. Awakened from sleep, they were marched away and could take nothing with them.
That night, Salek played silently into the darkness, trying to fill it with music.
In the morning, a new group of souls was marched into the barracks, and rifle butts forced them four, five, six abreast onto the wooden slats that would be their bunks. And across from Salek on the upper platform, unbelievably, was the Master Violinist he had heard in Prague. It couldn't be, but it was. The Master.
With the shouting and the calling and the crying, Salek could not speak to him. Perhaps the Master would not have answered anyway. He looked as though he were at the rim of the Sheol.
Salek stared across at him. How often had he listened to this man's music! How often had his soul breathed on every tone that shimmered, or danced, or thundered, or struck from his strings! Salek knew that in his best moments, in his very best moments, he could never make the music that this Master made. But the knowledge had not brought despair to him, only wonder at the gifts of God. That God had touched this man so that he could makemusic--no, not make--breathe music like the living breath of God! Salek shook his head at the thought.
The next night, Salek sat on the edge of his platform and called across. "Master!" He had to whisper so that the kapos outside would not hear him. But the Master did not stir. "Master," Salek called again. "Master!"
Salek dared not risk any more calls.
The next night, he tried again, but the head of the Master was drooped even lower than it had been the first night. "Master!" Salek called. The Master did not answer.
The third night, Salek did not call. He dangled his legs over the edge of the platform, held his chin just so and his hands out. And he began to play. With his bow of air he drew through a long and trembling adagio from Schumann, then spurted to a quick rondo from Brahms. His eyes closed with the beauty of the music. And when he opened them again, finishing with a short, quick presto from Mozart, the Master was looking at him.
He had heard. He had heard the music.
The next night, the Master and Salek sat across from each other. They dangled their legs over the edge of the platform, held their chins just so and their hands out, and played a Corelli duet. The Master tapped the air with his foot for the rhythm, and Salek took the second line. The music from the two of them interlaced like two rosy vines until they reached a perfect bloom of a note that they held and held--a little longer than Corelli might have wished, but neither Salek nor the Master wanted the duet to end.
And those around them heard. They heard the music too.
After that night, and for many, many nights afterward, the Master and Salek played the Corelli duet, their bows waving in thin air, just thin air. But the music that came from that air! All those in the barracks held their breath with the astonishment of it. They all closed their eyes to the wonder of it. Their hearts forgot to beat with the joy of it.
And always Salek heard the Master's line louder and sweeter, the line of a musician touched by God.
One night, the guards burst into the barracks, bristling with flashlights and bayoneted rifles. The glare their lights threw down on the prisoners was like the glare of hell. One by one the guards called the numbers, and the prisoners looked at their tattooed arms to see if theirs was the one called. The barracks filled with silent weeping, as the dreadful march of numbers drummed on and on.
And when the last number was called, Salek looked across at the Master and saw that it was his. It was his.
With a sigh, the Master looked to heaven and then began to climb down from his platform. But Salek was quicker. He slid down first and stood beneath the Master, looking at the hands that had held themselves just so to make such music.
"Stay," he whispered. "Stay for the music. Stay for its joy."
The Master's eyes widened, but he shook his head.
"Hold him," said Salek, and though the Master struggled, hands grabbed him and pinned him to his bunk. Salek walked out of the barracks and into the cold night, his soul rising to heaven--if not higher.
Someday, the camp will be liberated. And the Master will survive.
He will live for many years afterward, and give many concerts. His music will breathe joy. His music will speak of hope and love and spring and summer, of children and home and peace--of all the good and joyful things in this old and tired world.
And in all his concerts, he will end by playing a single line from the Corelli duet, a single lonely line that nevertheless will thrill with the sounds of happiness. And he will always weep, my children. He will always weep.
From joy, his audiences will think. From joy.
MARA'S STORIES. Copyright © 2001 by Gary Schmidt. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address