This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Thursday, 11 October 2012

My Neighbour Johanna

My neighbour Johanna coughs deeply and turns, muttering. She has high fever, and I have tried to cool her by soaking strips of cloth in water and putting them over her forehead. But that was earlier, in the evening, and the cloth is long since dry and there is no water left.

I lean over to look at Johanna. There is almost no light, just that of a candle stub, and I hold it as close to her face as I dare. She looks terrible, her cheeks fallen in, and her skin is waxy yellow except for the bright flush of the fever over each cheekbone. She coughs again, and her breath is hot and foetid enough for me to be able to smell it over the other foul smells. I try to tuck the blanket around her. The blanket is thin and ragged, and she is wearing her overcoat underneath, as we all are. Despite it, when I touch her, I can feel her shivering.

Johanna is a doctor. I know that much about her. It’s bitter irony indeed that she should be so ill and unable to help herself. I must get help, I think. I must get her to the doctor.

I must have uttered part of this aloud because suddenly Johanna’s eyes are open and her hand is gripping my wrist. Such a fragile hand, with the blue veins sticking out and clear to see, and yet so strong. Her eyes are open, too, and bright – too bright.

“No,” she whispers, “you mustn’t. Let me be.”

“But you are very ill,” I say stupidly.

“Ill?” She laughs, and flecks of blood appear on her lips. “No, I’m dying, you little fool.” She rubs at the blood with her hand and looks at her fingers. “At least this way I can die in peace.”

Two days ago, only two days, that I had first met Johanna, when I’d arrived here. And she had made me welcome at once, this thin woman with her lank black hair and square unattractive jaw. She had made me feel that I would have one friend here, at the least. In two days I’d fallen hopelessly in love with her, in my own way.

And now – in hours – she will be gone.

“There must be something we could do,” I say, stirring restlessly. “You must hold on. They say it’s going to be over soon.”

“Of course it will be over someday,” she says, “only not soon enough for us. Stay with me until I die, that’s all I ask.”

She speaks only once more. “After this,” she says, “death can only be sweet.”

And in the morning we trudge out to the roll call, those of us who are left. We report for duty and form our lines, and prepare ourselves for another day of hard labour or medical experiments; we women, grey and dying slowly all of us, the inmates of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2010

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