Black Harness

Courtney Sender

2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up

There are so many boys.

There are so many boys that Dinah can barely remember all of them. She writes their names on a list. Sometimes, forgetting even one seems like defiling something sacred, but other times she knows that what she does with these boys isn’t sacred. Times like those, she pictures each boy in the world, a tiny piece of bad-luck broken glass. She has an empty-vacuum heart. She feels oppressed by the sheer number of boys: not Gus, not Gus, not Gus, not Gus.

Gus and not. The only two people she knows.

Ten years ago, Gus and Dinah had delighted in their mutual blond-haired, blue-eyedness. They were twenty-two. Whenever strangers asked if they were siblings, they laughed, telling Hitler down in hell, “You hear that?”

The week in Berlin was their first giddy trip together. They slept, clothed, in a shared twin bed beneath an unadorned potted plant-hook. Come morning, they opened the balcony to find broken glass shattered on the sidewalks. Dinah wrenched her flip-flopped foot back inside the hostel. She stared at the sparkling shards between the black cobblestones, heard the guttural sounds of Berliners wishing one another guten Morgen.

“Beer bottles,” Gus said finally, shading his eyes with the flat of his hand. “Only beer bottles.”

In Berlin, they learned by the light of the splintered Pilsener, everything was double. History breathed on these sidewalks, holding up a broken mirror.

Dinah registered them for their hostel’s tour of Sachsenhausen. History lite: the camp had held political prisoners, not Jews. Gus’s ancestors hadn’t guarded there. Dinah’s hadn’t died there.

Their tour guide was one of two on the train, new and nervous, wearing a blue shirt. As the un-air-conditioned cabin sighed through the countryside, Dinah laid her head on Gus’s sweat-sticky shoulder.

“There would have been fields,” Gus said, gazing out the window. “I never realized.”

And Dinah nodded and loved him, because she had been harboring the same thought. There would have been fields beyond the wooden tracks that carried her grandparents’ brothers away. There would have been sunshine. The pastures then would have sprawled as widely as these now, the fences would have been as wooden, the flowers as brightly yellow.

“It wasn’t black-and-white,” Gus said.

“Sometimes it looked like this,” Dinah agreed. She kissed him on the cheek, to say she didn’t blame him. “Sometimes it looked beautiful.”

But as they approached the camp, the landscape changed. Maybe their mindsight grew stronger than their eyesight. Maybe history held up a stronger lens. The fields browned. Square houses appeared, rusting cars in their driveways. The bones in Gus’s shoulder jabbed Dinah’s temple.

When the train stopped, Dinah disembarked with relief and turned left, following the green-shirted tour group. “Blue shirts, Miss,” her rightful guide called. “To the right.”

Dinah glanced at Gus. His face looked pained, but hers must have looked panicked, because he said, “Let’s go home.”

In later years, writing her long list of names, she would wish she had.

Backyards with swing sets abutted the camp. As Dinah watched, a shirtless blond child lifted her baby brother into a black harness. Their tour guide counted his disembarking passengers, index finger pointing at each human person stepping to the dirt, eins, zwei, drei.

He consulted his list of names. Counted again. “Is Tony Armstrong present?” he called, experimentally, consonants brusque.

“Right here.”

“And Megan Armstrong?”

“Got her,” said Tony. “Maybe you could keep her.”

Gus tittered. Megan elbowed Tony in the ribs.

“It’s all right, love,” said Gus, squeezing Dinah’s shoulder.

“Augustus Braun?”

Gus said, “Here.”

The guide looked a lot like Dinah and Gus: blond, with nimble fingers and blue eyes under glasses. But, Dinah decided, the guide looked a lot more like Gus than like her. He was tall, with angular cheekbones and a flat nose. His blond hair was straight as a nightstick.

“Gus,” Dinah said. She took a nervous half-step forward, then back again. “Don’t let him call my name.”

She felt light-headed. She felt the plastic walls of the twenty-first century melting all around her. Here were the barracks; here were the bunks. Here was the man, calling names.

“Dinah,” Gus said.

“That’s not funny.”

“Dinah.”

“Stop it.”

“You’ve got something on your . . . ”

Gus tapped her on the tailbone.

Certain parts of each other’s bodies Gus and Dinah knew, deeply and intimately: the mouth; the eyes; the scalp, nose, neck, hands, knees, ankles, feet. The rest they had agreed to leave for later, once they married. Dinah didn’t mind: she’d never had much sex drive, before Gus, so the one she had was shaped like him.

She didn’t think Gus had ever touched her below the hip.

“You’ve got . . .” Gus whispered. He drew two loud breaths. “Blood.”

Once Dinah was thinking about it, she could discern a warm, soaking feeling between her thighs. With the flight and the time change, she must have miscalculated when her period was due.

Dinah shivered, despite the heat. Her grandparents had had four brothers between them, all lost by war’s end. None had been here, in this camp. Their blood had spilled elsewhere, distant places, Poland and Croatia.

But now here she stood. She hated Germany, for needing her this way. How much of her blood would this land have to drink before it was sated?

“You’re right, Gus, let’s go home.”

She meant America.

“Jess Sanders?” said their guide.

To Dinah’s surprise, Gus shook his head. “Clean up first,” he said. “Then we can go.”

Gus had always been ashamed of his grandparents. He had kept his voice soft, because theirs had been hard. But his instructions to Dinah sounded firm, and also embarrassed. He was unpracticed in alluding to her body’s mechanics.

“Final call,” said the guide, and Gus removed a windbreaker from his saddlebag. He knotted its sleeves around Dinah’s waist. He didn’t clap his hands over the guide’s lips. “Dinah Wasserman?”

Dinah said nothing. She felt the sad beginnings of a shift, some empty-vacuum space left over where love has shrunk to pity. Gus didn’t see: bloodletting was in her genes, as surely as her blond hair. Those four lost uncles—there were so many boys, their names on the wrong lists, their bodies spattered open as a consequence—had understood blood. Who could say whether they’d wanted to understand. They had become it.

“Dinah Wasserman?” The guide’s voice contained relief: he had identified his missing person; he was a fine leader, worthy of this first responsibility.

“Say you’re here,” said Gus.

Dinah felt the need to repudiate Gus. Maybe later she would regret it, but for now: if he wanted to cover her up, then she would mark her place in blood. If he wanted to wait, she’d sleep with every person willing. If he wanted to be counted—

Dinah untied the sleeves at her hips and swatted Gus’s jacket to the ground.

The sun reflected yellow on the refurbished barbed wire atop the camp’s fence. Outside its bounds, the little boy slipped sideways from his black seat on the swing, and his sister covered her ears when he started to wail.

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