Butterflies and Cigarettes

It all started a long time ago…

It was before Hitler, before Nazi Germany, before everything I knew became a stranger to me overnight. Goodness, that was such a long time ago, but no one was expecting the end to come so quickly...My blisters are bleeding worse than usual today; it is just so cold. Nevertheless, I have to get this letter to him. He needs to know that I am here and that I don't hate him for what he has become. Greed and fear of the unknown make people do terrible things. I hope he hasn't gotten to that point.

I sneak out of the bunkhouse and manage somehow to get to his quarters, ignoring the open sores on my feet that are bleeding in the snow. The faint smell of alcohol teases my nose, but I refuse to believe he has taken part in what the others have been doing. The mailbox is open and my fingers tremble as I put the letter inside. I run away quickly, not bothering to look back…

I do too much of that already.

Inside our bunkhouse, I wipe my feet of pools of blood and fight back the wave of hopelessness that threatens to smother me. I wonder to myself if he will still remember the code that we used to write letters in when we were kids. However, I have to remember that we have not been kids for many years now. Lying back on the bed, bloody rag in my hand, I close my eyes and think back to a simpler time…

He was seven and I was six when we met. Youth never thinks about color or race; all we knew was we loved to collect butterflies and so we did it together. With our collections combined, we were the best in town, maybe even the country. Kids all over the neighborhood hated us, but we didn't care. I think the evidence of what was going to happen later was starting to pop up. People whispered about us walking down the road as we ate ice cream, but we were only focused on each other.

"What's German and Jewish mean?" I finally asked him one day while we were running around town with our parents, looking for any more butterflies that would be useful in the collection. He shrugged.

"I don't know." His blue eyes shone with something I didn't understand; could it have been anger? "But don't worry about that." My attention strayed for a second to a butterfly perched on a flower. Without warning, he grabbed my wrist roughly.

"Ow!" I say as I attempt to wrestle with his hand.

"No matter what anyone says, we're best friends, is that clear?" he said, his voice high pitched and loud in the clear German breeze. People stopped to look at us, but the gaze that he and I held was stronger than their questioning glances.

"Yes." I said, taking my wrist back. He suddenly looked sorry and reached out to ruffle my hair.

"Come on. I see a butterfly over there." I followed him into the park…

I jump awake, quickly wiping the tears away with the rag in my hand. The guard has come in to tell us to get to work and so I drag myself up, numb with memories that I wish I could go back to…

I saw a glimpse of him today.

He was walking around, examining the work of the people from another section of the ghetto. The shovel dropped out of my hand as I tried to get his attention by waving at him. Someone from my bunkhouse slapped me upside the head and told me to get back to work before they came over and shot us all. So I went back to shoveling, but as I lay here in this dirty hard bed, I cling to that encounter and it seems to give me some warmth.

I stole a cigarette butt from his room today.

It was just laying there amongst a pile of trash, a useless piece of garbage. To me, it is a tie to him. As I clutch it in my blistered hand, it takes me back…

We were both sixteen. He was talking about going into the Army, but I was against it. I couldn't stand to lose my best friend to senseless violence. We were alone in the field where we caught the first butterfly as a team. We sat and talked, rattling off different stories as we watched all different kinds of butterflies fly around us, landing on our noses, heads and limbs. They tickled us, and we swatted them away.

That's when it happened.

He kissed me softly, almost like an experiment, but he grew bolder as did I and right there, amongst the butterflies, we made love like two people that were meant for one another. It was perfect and satisfying in every single way and even on the walk home, we held hands. I guess that meant we were a couple…

Nevertheless, he finally went off to the Army without a word to anyone and Hitler came into power shortly after that…

The guards come in and tell us to get dressed and line up outside. I clutch the cigarette butt in my hand and walk outside with the rest of the bunkhouse. We line up like dogs and look down at the ground, refusing to meet our enemies' eyes as they prowl before us, randomly taking shots at the line. Men, woman and children fall dead all around me. The sounds of their bodies thumping to the ground echo inside my head, despite my best efforts to block it out. The snow slowly turns from gray to dark red before the shooting stops.

I make the mistake of looking up and there he is.

But it isn't him.

His blue eyes scan my body, a look of disgust crossing his features. He knows. He knows who I am. The gun vibrates silently by his side and people all around me hold their breath. I now understand he is debating about whether to shoot me or not. At one time, I would have begged for my life, but there is not fear this time. A strange degree of bravery motivates me to defy the rules.

"Kurt," I say, my voice cracking from months -perhaps years- of under use. People around me start to move away, now convinced that I am a dead woman walking. But they don't know him. He stands in slight shock, rigid as stone. The other guards surround me with guns, but don't shoot. Some look to Kurt, as if looking for an order. He's still silent, but steps forward suddenly, forcing all of the other guards aside. He puts the gun right to the middle of my forehead, taking slow deep breaths.

"What's in your hand?" he barks suddenly, disturbing the tense tranquility of the air around the ghetto. I slowly open my palm to show him the cigarette butt. He knocks it out of my hand and pushes the gun even harder against my forehead. A woman starts to cry from a distance and a gunshot follows her sobs, silencing her for the last time.

Kurt and I study each other, much to the chagrin of the other guards. But I see nothing in his face that closely resembles the boy I feel in love with all those years ago. The war…Hitler…the Nazis have harden his heart to the reality of what's he about to do. He turns his wrist slightly, as if to show me something there.

I feel Death's hand touch my shoulder as the gun at my forehead goes off, and I fall back to the ground, taking a last gulp of breath. As people sob around me and Kurt walks off, I am somewhat comforted by the knowledge of the last thing I saw.

It was a butterfly tattooed on the inside of his wrist.