Thick plumes of dust billow behind the car. The brothers sit in silence. The larger one, driving, tightens and loosens his grip on the steering wheel, his knuckles white then pink, white then pink. The smaller one drums his fingers on his knee, his nails bitten to the quick, fresh scabs where he’s gnawed on the skin.
The driver’s eyes flick to the rear view mirror every few seconds, as if waiting for something to emerge from the dust. They pass a district road, and a sign indicates 22km to Driefontein.
“How much further?” The passenger unfolds a creased map.
“A few more kilometres. That was the last road before we turn off.”
The driver nods. They turn a corner and come out of the shadow of a hill, and he lowers the visor as the sun lances through the windscreen. Dust motes spin and shift; sunlight glints off the bright chrome of the side mirrors. Ahead, a mountain range zigzags against the hard blue of the sky, the road brown and snaking to a point he can’t make out. Irrigated fields pulse an unnatural emerald. It occurs to the driver that, despite his nerves, this is the first time in months that he’s found something beautiful.
“Are you scared?” The passenger folds the map against his knee as he asks the question, running an index finger along the crease.
“A little. You?”
“I don’t know. I’m more nervous than scared, I suppose.”
“Nerves are good. They’ll keep us in the present.” The driver slows for a crow picking at a small carcass. It flaps away with something hanging from its beak.
The passenger leans forward and narrows his eyes. “Coming up on the right.”
A faded sign hangs from a low stone wall. It reads Shalom Farm/Boerdery, Oskar Cohen. The driver glowers. “That name is the final insult.”
The passenger says nothing as they turn onto the farm road. It hasn’t been graded in some time and the driver slows to a crawl, following the ruts made by other tyres. A farm worker turns her head to watch them as they pass. The passenger waves a hand but she looks through him and turns back to loading hay bales onto a cart. He looks around at the emptiness. “He must have thought he’d found the end of the world here.”
The driver frowns. “Well, it’s an end of sorts.”
The passenger turns to him. “Have you given any more thought to coming back to Poznań?”
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” says the driver. “But I like this country; there’s space to think. I can see why he came here.”
“Other than to hide in nothingness, you mean?”
“Other than that, yes. What does Poznań hold for me now?”
“I’ll be there. And Wojciech.”
The driver smiles. “Yes. But there are too many memories. They outnumber you.”
“Wait until I have fifteen children.”
“You’ll have to find a wife first.”
“If you’re going to stay in South Africa, you’re going to need to improve your English. Or learn one of those other languages.”
The driver nods. “I’ll get by. This country is full of immigrants.”
They crest a rise and his brother points ahead. “There it is.”
The driver turns and sees a small farmhouse, another kilometre or so away. Oak trees line the last few hundred metres, twilight pooling beneath them. The driver thinks of the selfless sower who wouldn’t have lived long enough to even see them reach his shoulder. Would he have bothered if he knew the kind of man who would come to own and enjoy them?
“Can you believe it’s nearly over? Nineteen years of searching and it comes down to one moment.” The passenger sucks his teeth as he considers this, a habit that has always annoyed his brother. But for once it makes the driver glance at him with affection.
As they reach the trees, the dust gives way to gravel and the passenger winds down his window; the air is cool, and the faintly nutty smell of the surrounding grassland fills the car.
As they drive up towards the house, they see a new Toyota Stout parked underneath a carport. Next to it is another car.
The passenger swears. “Whose car is that?”
“We’ll find out.” The driver parks behind the Toyota and, with one eye on the front door, gets out of the car slowly. The holster under his left arm is slightly too tight, but it’s too late to adjust it now. The passenger gets out and shoulders his satchel.
The driver gestures towards the front door. “I’m going to knock on the door. Just follow my lead.”
They approach the door of the house cautiously, listening for any sound from within. The door is one of those stable types, the top half open, the bottom secured only by a latch.
Sweat drips into the driver’s eyes. He knocks on the door with his left hand, his right hovering in midair, ready to reach for the gun under his jacket. He waits a few seconds and knocks again, louder this time.
“Hello?” He winces as he calls, worrying about the strength of his accent.
He knocks a third time before deep in the house he hears someone walking. His brother stiffens and moves to the side of the door. He draws a gun of his own and holds it behind his back.
“Ja ja ja, ek’s hier.” The driver is surprised to hear a female voice. He gives his brother a slight shake of the head and tries to assume a relaxed pose. The passenger puts his gun back in his bag and moves next to the driver.
A matronly woman in an apron walks up to the door, trailed by a tired old mutt. She says something friendly in a language the brothers can’t understand.
The driver shakes his head. “English?”
She puts a hand to her mouth. “Sorry. Around here Afrikaans is all we speak.” She wipes her hands on a handkerchief. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. How can I help you?”
The driver removes his hat. “We are here to see Mr Cohen.”
“Mr Cohen hasn’t had a visitor in… I don’t know if he’s ever had a visitor actually! And you are?”
“I am Tomasz. This is my brother, Józef. Our… our parents knew Mr Cohen.”
His brother nods at the lady and smiles.
“He will be so happy! Come in, come in.” She opens the door and the dog wags its tail as they cross the threshold. Tomasz scratches it behind its ears.
“Brummer will be after you all afternoon if you’re not careful. Mr Cohen is just having a nap. I’ll put on some tea and wake him if you don’t mind waiting in the lounge?”
Józef raises his eyebrows and Tomasz shrugs as they follow her inside. She guides them to a floral settee in a small lounge. A stuffed animal head—some kind of antelope—gazes at them from the wall, its marble eyes incurious. They sit down a little awkwardly.
Tomasz shakes his head. “No. Thank you. Forgive me, are you Mr Cohen’s wife?”
The woman looks at him for a moment and then bursts out laughing.
“Goodness me, no. No, I’m his caregiver.”
Tomasz looks at Józef, who answers in Polish. “She’s his nurse.”
Tomasz looks back to the woman. “Is he unwell?”
“Hadn’t you heard? He had a stroke a few months back. He can’t walk and I’m afraid he hasn’t been able to speak since it happened. I come in during the day to dress him and make him meals and… well you get the idea. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you. Were your parents close with him?”
Tomasz shakes his head, as if trying to dislodge a thought that’s bothering him.
“They were…” he scrambles for the right words, but can’t find them. The dog comes up to him and rests its muzzle on his knee. “We have travelled a long way to see Mr Cohen. We have a—message and a gift. From our parents.”
“Well, let me pop the kettle on if you don’t mind waiting here. He’s always better after a cup of tea. More like himself.”
She walks down a passage and Józef waits for her to start clattering about before hissing, “What do we do?”
Tomasz raises a hand to silence him. “I’m thinking.”
“This changes everything.”
“It changes nothing. He’s alive. That’s what matters.”
“That’s not what I meant. What do we do about her?”
“Her?” He looks towards the passage. Over the boiling of a kettle on a stove, she sings tunelessly. “Nothing.”
Tomasz scratches the dog under its chin. One of its hind legs hammers the floor reflexively.
The woman comes holding a cup of tea on a tray. “This way if you please.”
They follow her past a few rooms cluttered with old furniture and bric-a-brac. The dog trots into one of them and makes itself at home on a tattered armchair.
The woman pauses at a closed door. “Let me just take him his tea and get him sitting up first.” She knocks on the door. “Meneer Cohen? Ek het jou tee vir jou gebring.”
She opens the door and the brothers crane to look past her as she walks in, but all they can see is the foot of a bed, and beyond that an open window. A faded curtain shifts in the breeze. The paint on the window frame is bubbled and peeling.
“Meneer Cohen? Meneer Cohen.” They hear a grunt in reply. “Hier is jou tee, Meneer Cohen.” The teacup clinks as the woman places the tray on a table. “Kom ons help jou om op te sit.” He grunts, irritated. “Daarsy, wat van n slukkie tee? Daarsy, en nog een? Nee? Meneer Cohen, daar is n paar manne hier, wie met jou wil kom kuier, dis lekker, nê? Hulle sê jy het hulle ouers geken.” Another grunt; a questioning tone this time.
The woman appears again. “Right, he’s up. I can’t say he’s in the best of moods, but perhaps you can lift his spirits.” She takes Tomasz’s elbow. “Would you mind if I popped out quickly while you meet with him? I need to pick up a few things from the next farm over. I won’t be long.”
Tomasz nods. “That will be fine. We can take care of him.”
“Splendid. Please do pull up some chairs. You needn’t stand over him, especially if you’ll be here a while.”
She resumes the tune she was singing while making tea as she walks back towards the lounge. Józef allows himself a small smile and utters a prayer of thanks in Polish. They wait until they hear her car start before entering the room.
Tomasz enters first. He’s barely through the door before he stops and his stomach drops.
Józef squeezes past him. “What’s wrong, Tomasz?”
Tomasz opens his mouth to speak, but it’s suddenly too dry.
In the bed is the old man. Although he’s sitting up against cushions, Tomasz can see the curve of his back, how shrunken he must appear when standing. His head is flopped slightly to the side, his eyes closed, his mouth open. He exhales each breath with a rattle; a small gob of phlegm hangs from his top lip, quivering. His cheeks hang from his face as if gravity applies differently to them.
And yet… Tomasz cocks his head, and sees again those same lips, pink and thin, curled into a smile. That haughty nose with the slight upturn at the tip looking down at Tomasz’s cowering mother.
“Is it him?”
Tomasz nods, and gestures his brother forward. Tomasz walks to the old man’s right-hand side, Józef to his left.
“Hello Heinrich. Heinrich Koppe.” The old man coughs and opens his eyes. They’re a watery blue. They flit between the two men. He makes a sound like he’s clearing his throat.
Tomasz switches to German. “Sshhhh, Heinrich. It’s okay. We can do the talking.”
The old man lifts one of his hands. It shakes uncontrollably. Tomasz gently presses it back down onto the bed.
“My name is Tomasz Srebnik. This is my brother Józef. You are probably wondering how we know your name.” The old man makes another coughing noise. “It has been a long time since you heard it, I’m sure. Perhaps long enough that you forgot what you really are. We are here to remind you. You are no Oskar Cohen. You insult that name.”
While Tomasz speaks, Józef unhitches his satchel and places it on a chair, drawing out a small glass jar.
“I last saw you 23 years ago. Józef here would have seen you too, but I made sure he turned away in time. I have seen your face every day since then.”
Tomasz gestures to Józef, who holds out the jar. Tomasz takes it, tenderly.
“Ashes should weigh more. A whole person, distilled to dust. The draught through that window could just scatter them away. Like that person never existed.” The old man’s breathing gets faster. “You know a little about ashes, do you not?” His blotched hands scrunch up the blankets as he tries and fails to pull himself up further.
“I told your caregiver that our parents knew you. I did not lie to her. They did know you, if only for a few minutes.” He leans closer. “When we arrived on the platform I could taste the fear. It was sour on my tongue. When a soldier tried to separate our mother from us, my father punched him. The soldier knocked him down with the butt of his rifle. And then up you strolled. The perfect gentleman. I remember how your boots shone. At that time, I did not speak your language, so I do not know what you said. But I do not need to. When you shot my father, you laughed. And you laughed again as you pushed my mother to the floor next to him and shot her too. I’m sure you would have done the same to us if the other prisoners hadn’t pulled us back to be swallowed into anonymity.”
A slow, dark wetness spreads across the old man’s crotch.
“These ashes are from Treblinka. I do not know how many people they belong to. I doubt there is a micron of either of my parents in here. But this jar holds other fathers and mothers. Children. Grandparents. Perhaps the very people who shielded us from you. We have carried this jar for a very long time.”
The old man turns his face from Tomasz and squints shut his eyes. Józef tuts and forces his face back towards Tomasz. “You must listen to my brother.”
“This will all be over soon, Heinrich. Józef will agree with me that we would have liked to find you sooner. A full accounting of your sins would have been more satisfying if you could speak.” Tomasz moves his face right in front of the old man’s. “We want to ensure that you never forget the people I hold in this jar.”
Tomasz nods to his brother, who leans over the old man and holds his arms against the bed. He struggles feebly, his breath rasping. Tomasz reaches into his jacket pocket and removes a silver teaspoon. It gleams in the afternoon light as he unscrews the lid of the jar and takes out a spoonful of ashes.
“You consumed people at Treblinka, but you did not taste.” Tomasz open the old man’s mouth with two fingers and forces in the spoon. The old man coughs and splutters, trying to writhe away, but the brothers hold him tight. The ashes cake his mouth as grey-streaked spit dribbles from his lips. Sobs wrack his chest. Tomasz puts another spoonful into his mouth, and holds the teacup to his lips. The old man makes a high-pitched whine and gurgles tea onto his chest. Tomasz waits for him to catch his breath again and continues. He spoons in the ashes and makes the old man wash them down methodically. With each spoonful, the old man fights a little less. Snot bubbles out of his nose.
“There, there. We’re nearly done.” Tomasz empties the last of the ashes from the jar into the old man’s mouth and gives him a final sip of tea.
He leans back. “Your caregiver will clean you up. She will rinse your mouth. But that taste will always be there. You are a crypt now, Heinrich. These people”—Tomasz holds up the empty jar—“could not ask for a more fitting tomb.”
Józef lets go of his arms, and the old man’s hands flail for his mouth. He paws at his lips and tongue, his breath wheezing, his eyes flitting back and forth between the brothers.
Tomasz puts the lid back on the jar and places it next to the teacup. He nods at his brother and they move to the foot of the bed.
They stare at the old man scrabbling away at his face, and for a brief moment Tomasz feels something like pity. “Farewell, Oskar Cohen.”
Józef turns to leave, and his voice catches in his throat. “I pray you have many years of life ahead of you.”
Tomasz puts his hand on his brother’s shoulder and they walk out together. Their footsteps echo down the passage. The front door shuts with a click. A rat scritches across the ceiling. Brummer snores gently in his armchair. A fly clatters buzzing against a window, relentless and unlearning. In the oak trees, a cicada continues its unceasing sawing scream. A car engine throbs to life and in moments grows fainter, fading to an aural pinprick. And then—nothing.
Will Edgcumbe (@willedgcumbe) stumbled into writing after narrowly avoiding studying a BCom. By day he’s a partner at a tech firm, and by night he hunches over a keyboard write for various travel magazines. When not writing or at work, he spends as much of my time as possible with his wife and child somewhere in the bush, keeping his eyes and ears peeled for birds.