For almost two decades, I have refused to talk about the incident with anyone unless compelled to do so and the number of people who could so compel me were very few. The police, of course. My analyst (yes, I must tell her everything). And now you. Well, you may say you are not compelling me, but who could ignore an abandoned daughter’s pain, particularly one whose long search for her birth mother has led to such grief? What I fear is that I will do nothing to assuage your grief, Miss Arden; I may simply bring it to full bloom. The truth will set you free, you say? Jesus told that to the Jews, didn’t he? It has always struck me odd how similar the phrase is to another piece of advice given the Jews: arbeit macht frei. You don’t understand German? Your mother spoke German perfectly. Something I was not aware of until… Are you sure you want me to continue? Very well. That German phrase means ‘work sets you free’ and Jesus, as a Jew, would surely have seen it had he been born in the right place at the wrong time, Miss Arden.
Yes, I will call you Ann, if you like; please call me Dr. Weiss. It will help me preserve my professional distance. That distance, always necessary to me in my psychiatric practice, has become absolutely vital to the preservation of my sanity since the incident almost twenty years ago, though, of course, I practice no more.
Mrs. Smith—I shall refer to her so, as I never once called her by her given name—was eighty when she came to me and despite her distress was plainly a formidable and robust woman. She was referred to me by her pastor, an old acquaintance of mine from our days at Princeton. He told me she had turned to him for help, but refused to confide in him the nature of her problem, except that it concerned her dreams. She seemed to believe he could somehow pray the problem away. It was plain to him that she was very afraid and in desperate need. Given that my work in dream therapy was considered authoritative in the field, he was eager to place her in my once capable hands. My gloves? Sorry, I know they must be distracting, but far less so than their absence would be, I assure you. Shall we continue?
In all I had just six sessions with your mother over a period of a month. The first four were fairly typical of a resistant client, that is, one who struggles to conceal what she so desperately needs to reveal. She talked about dreams and asked me general questions, to which I gave general answers, never pressing her about her dreams, as that would have only increased her resistance. There were many silences in those first sessions, but I knew they were productive ones, like a cough that brings up what needs to be expelled. Then tears, begrudged on her part, as if they were wrenched out of her reddened eyes. And finally, in the fourth session, a breakthrough in the form of a breakdown. She was at her wit’s end, a place to which I had patiently steered her. It is at that excruciating destination that the unvarnished truth can bursts through the most strongly constructed defenses. Or so I believed at the time.
Mrs. Smith informed me that for the last several months she had been sleeping less and less, not because she could not sleep, but because she would not permit it. She proclaimed her self-imposed insomnia an act of the will, one that was necessary for her very survival. She would not allow sleep to drag her back repeatedly to a nightmare which she had, she thought, long ago escaped and entombed so deeply in the past that it could never rise up again to torment her. Sensing the moment was right, I asked her what she dreamed. She rolled up the sleeve of her blouse and on her left wrist in ashen blue was tattooed A16642. She whispered the name Auschwitz. She stood up abruptly and fled, even though we had used less than half the time for that session.
In contrast to her former sessions, the fifth was marked by her extreme, nearly panicked recounting of her dreams, varying in details, but always with the same impending conclusion. She was in the camp trying to hide, wandering among the other inmates, who rather than helping her, seemed intent on her betrayal. Whenever she felt she had found a secure hiding place, she would be found, and the angry inmates—men, women, and even children—would seize her and carry her aloft, passing her from one set of grasping hands to the next, all the way to the crematorium, where they delivered her to the black maw of the oven. And this, she declared bitterly, without the benefit of gassing. She had always, through a supreme act of the will, awakened herself at the last possible moment before the conflagration could commence. But her will, she said, was weakening and she was terrified of the consequences.
Shall I stop, Ann? If not for your sake for my own. Since the incident I too have recurring dreams, not frequent, but insistent. I fear you shall have dreams of your own if I continue. Very well then. You will live with your choice, as must we all.
This was not the first such case I’d encountered in my practice. I had treated others who were convinced their dreams would prove fatal, which, I persuaded them, was not possible. Dreams, no matter how distressing, are the safest places in our lives. Even if we do die in our dreams, we always wake to live on. I proposed to Mrs. Smith that I treat her with one of my tried and true methods. I would induce a state of sleep in her by hypnosis, a sleep over which I would have absolute control, and accompany her within her dream state. Together we would confront the phantoms that tormented her and lead her to the oven’s door, where, with my help, she would slam it shut and having thus exerted her control over the situation, nullify its power over her. She was extremely hesitant to allow such a procedure, but using my considerable powers of persuasion, and my assurance that it would very likely end her torments, she consented.
On the appointed day—it was our sixth session—she arrived burning with dread and hope to my office. I had her lie on the couch, which was more or less a prop I rarely used, and after some difficulty, induced her into a state of hypnotic sleep. I sat in a chair by the couch and informed her that she was back in Auschwitz but that I was standing at her side. She immediately displayed the most terrified look I have ever seen on anyone and I found myself uncharacteristically shaken. I reassured her that she had no reason to fear, that she controlled everything that could possibly happen, and that I was there to protect her. I could see her straining to wake herself, but I commanded that she remain asleep and work her will within the dream, that indeed she was master of the situation. Instead of lessening, her fear crescendoed. Her face was contorted by the most hideous grimaces, her eyes opened, and she stared into mine filling me with a dread I had never known before. She spewed a venom of words in German, so hysterical and full of invective that I could barely understand them. She sprang up on the couch and was immediately pulled back down as if by invisible grasping hands. I commanded her to wake up—but she did not. I commanded again. I seized her hands and felt as if my very soul was yanked from my body.
I found myself standing in a terrible room of brick and mortar, dark and smoky, stench-filled and suffocating, amid a howling mob of skeletal forms, animate corpses. And there beside me was Mrs. Smith, but not in the rags of an inmate, no, in the green-gray uniform of a guard, flailing at the encroaching mob with a bloody black baton. I stood and watched in horror as they pushed her forward toward the gapping oven door, lifted her as she screamed, and forced her headfirst into its black sooty heart. They slammed the door shut and its thunderous clank woke me, delivering me back to my office, where I sat dazed and sweat-drenched in my chair. I stood and looked down at Mrs. Smith. Her eyes were grotesquely wide opened, her mouth frozen in a soundless scream. I felt a rush of heat. She burst into flames, yes, actual searing flames, the flames soaring upward, roiling over her in waves and leaping to the ceiling, until only her outstretched hands were visible. I grabbed those hands and tried to pull her out of the inferno, pulled and pulled, until the hands came away with me, my flesh melded into them, my dripping hands charred to the bone. I mercifully lost consciousness, gladly falling into an abyss of death-like calm and release…
When I came to I was sitting in the chair. There was no sign of fire or damage of any sort, but the air was thick with the smell of burnt flesh. On the couch was the charred corpse of something which had once been a woman, blackened and twisted in a fantastic shape, with dreadful open eyes. I could not take my eyes off them, my vision growing more and more dim, until finally I had no vision at all.
I was a suspect, of course, but a thorough investigation revealed nothing to incriminate me. The coroner found that her body had been consumed by a conflagration from within, a spark inside her that had raced outward like a fiery tide. A case, he said, of spontaneous combustion, if ever there was one. Why it consumed only her and nothing around her, he could not explain.
Yes, she once had made her escape, and assumed the guise of a victim, even tattooing the telltale number on her wrist. But no one escapes from themselves forever. Not even the devil.
I do not have to see you, Ann, to know you are weeping. Weep. I only wish I could weep with you. But my eyes are stone and have vision only in my dreams, where they see one thing alone: a pair of horror-filled eyes, still smoking in a steaming skull.
Paul Negri is the editor of several literary anthologies from Dover Publications, Inc. His stories have appeared in Reflex Fiction, Into the Void, The Penn Review, Jellyfish Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and more than 40 other publications. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey, USA.
Image via Pixabay