Sheep in the Wolf’s Lair
Four pajama-clad European boys sat around a lantern in a tent, their beige and brown uniforms folded neatly inside their packs. The smallest, and at ten years old the youngest of the group, wore blue pajamas that his mother had bought specially for his first camping trip. He’d inherited his mother’s eyes, which matched his pajamas, and his mother’s hair: light, soft curls that surrounded his face like lamb’s wool.
Next to him, in green pajamas, sat a boy of about the same age. He had close-cropped hair, ears that stuck out, and a very slight frame.
“So,” said Green Pajamas, “are we really gonna go to sleep? ‘Cause my brother says that’s not what we’re supposed to do.”
“That is what we’re supposed to do,” replied a large, grinning boy in polka-dot pajamas, “but not what we’re gonna do.”
“Why not?” asked Blue Pajamas. “They said we’re supposed to follow the rules here—“
“We’re supposed to form bonds with our brethren,” snapped Polka-Dot, turning his thick neck to face Blue. Blue trembled as he realized how much bigger Polka-Dot was: Blue’s thin, weak hands could easily be crushed by Polka-Dot’s thick, stubby paws, and Polka-Dot’s bare feet were easily twice the size of Blue’s dainty, sock-enclosed ones.
“B—but,” Blue sputtered, “my brother—”
“How old are you?” asked Polka-Dot.
“Ten and a half,” said Blue.
“Well I’m almost twelve,” replied Polka-Dot. “So forget your brother. I’m in charge.”
“Because,” he said, pointing at himself with a flourish, “I’m the oldest.”
“Only by four months,” said Checkered Pajamas, smacking down Polka-Dot’s meaty finger. Checkered was thinner than Polka-Dot and had finer features, but his long limbs made him the tallest boy in the tent. “It’s just more fun to stay up and talk,” he said, turning to Blue. “Don’t you wanna do more than drill and sing all day?”
“Uh, well, I— I—“ Blue looked around, frightened, from one expectant face to the next, fervently wishing he’d never spoken up. Finally he looked down, focusing on the wrinkled white cloth that served as the floor of the tent.
“I mean, I— I really like the singing,” he told the cloth. “Don’t you?”
“Well yeah,” replied Checkered, “but there’s more to it than that.”
“That’s what my brother told me,” Green said, absently scratching a stuck-out ear. “He told me we’re a troop during the day, but comrades at night.”
Blue began fiddling with the cloth, trying to smooth out the bigger wrinkles with his scrawny fingers. Finally he mumbled, “My brother told me to obey the troop leader.”
“Of course he did,” said Polka-Dot, “he wants to be troop leader, doesn’t he? Always right on time to everything, always sucking up to—”
“But I bet he didn’t say you couldn’t have fun,” said Checkered.
“No,” Blue whimpered, pinching a wrinkle in the cloth, “but still…”
Polka-Dot rolled his eyes.
“I wanna be a troop leader too,” Green piped up. “Then I’m gonna be a soldier, just like my dad, and I’m gonna fight for the F—”
“Look,” Checkered interrupted, still focused on Blue, “your brother’s here, isn’t he? Why don’t you go over to his tent and ask if it’s okay for you to talk?” Blue’s heart quickened at the idea of going out into the dark woods. But Brother’s tent was only three yards away, and Blue needed a pair of comforting arms.
Blue gave the cloth the slightest of nods and stood up uneasily; he tried to tiptoe over the other boys, but when he reached the tent flap he tripped over Polka-Dot’s leg. Crying out, Blue landed halfway out the tent flaps.
“You all right?” he heard Checkered call.
“I’m fine,” said Polka-Dot.
“Not you,” said Checkered.
Blue bit his lip and untangled himself from the flaps. As soon as he broke free Blue scurried all the way down to his brother’s tent, the one that housed some of the oldest boys in the troop. One of them spoke, and Blue recognized the voice of Green’s older brother, Brother’s best friend. “Okay, I’ve got one: me and Anne Adler.”
“No way,” said a second voice. “You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Oh yeah?” asked Green’s brother. “Why not? I can tote a gun better than any of you, my uniform’s better kept—“
“And you haven’t kissed a girl since primary school.” Blue recognized Brother’s voice. “How about…you and Rachel Cohen?” Blue jumped at the loud, deep-voiced laughter that erupted from the tent.
Blue longed to join the fun, but a gust of wind blew right through him; he shivered miserably. The men on the radio were always talking about the war—Blue wondered how he could fight other people when he couldn’t even handle a bit of wind.
When the laughter finally calmed down, Blue called out for his brother, who immediately appeared from behind one of the tent flaps. His dark blue pajamas blended into the darkness, but his blonde hair shone in the moonlight.
“It’s me,” said Blue.
“Hey Little Man,” said Brother, squinting in the darkness. “Everything all right?”
“Uh, c- could I stay with you tonight?” Brother closed the tent behind him and bent down to Blue’s eye level.
“Why? Don’t you want to have fun with the boys in your tent?”
Blue looked down at his hands and mumbled, “It’s not really fun in there.” Brother took Blue into his arms, and Blue began to cry. Between sobs, he heard Green and Polka-Dot laughing in their tent.
“See?” whispered Brother. “They’re having plenty of fun. I’m sure they’d love for you to join them.”
Blue could feel Brother’s heartbeat behind the dark-blue pajamas; this made Blue think of the heartbeat he’d felt behind his father’s military uniform, so he cried harder. “I don’t like it here. I w- wanna go h- home.”
“Come on,” said Brother, straightening up and taking Blue’s hand. Blue tried to ignore the sinister shapes the tall, looming trees made against the night sky. They walked down a dirt path until they reached a stump overlooking a lake; the stump felt hard and damp as they sat down.
“You were so excited for this,” said Brother, putting an arm around Blue. “You said you couldn’t wait to come with me.”
“With you,” said Blue. “Not with the others.” Blue told Brother what happened in the tent.
Brother sighed and said, “Yes, I did tell you to obey the troop leader, and you’re a very good boy for listening. But I didn’t say you couldn’t talkto your friends.”
“They’re not my friends,” muttered Blue.
“What makes you say that?”
“Just the way they were looking at me…and there was this one boy, he was being really mean…” Blue faltered, staring at the moonlight shimmering on the lake’s surface. It spread itself across the water like a blanket, like the nice, warm blanket his mother had knitted for him. Mother made Blue leave that blanket at home, afraid that it might get dirty.
“Isn’t Peter’s younger brother in your tent?” Brother asked. “The one with the ears?”
“Was he being mean?”
“He wasn’t really saying anything. Just kept talking about what Peter told him.”
“Well I’ve met him at Peter’s house—he’s a good kid.” Blue only whimpered in response. “I really think you should give him another chance. Or if not him, then one of your other classmates.”
“I don’t really talk to them,” said Blue. “Mother says it’s because I’m shy.”
“Mother may be right,” said Brother, “but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Do you think she’d want you to feel so sad on your first trip?”
Blue thought back to that morning. His mother had held him close, as she had done so often since his father died, and told him she couldn’t wait to hear all the great camping stories he’d bring home. Blue had felt bad, leaving her all alone in that big apartment, but his mother had assured him with a shaking voice that she’d be fine.
“And what about Father,” Brother said, snapping Blue back to the present, “do you think he’d want you to just give up on the others?”
“What do you think he’d want you to do?”
Blue closed his eyes, trying to bring the blurred picture of his father into focus: a face like Brother’s—clean-shaven, stern, but with a wide, easy smile. “I think he’d want me to be happy.”
“Yes, he would,” replied Brother. “And he’d want you to make friends with your brethren, right?”
“I guess. But maybe…” Blue looked back down at his tiny hands. “Maybe I’m just not good enough for all this.” Brother grabbed Blue’s chin and forced it upward.
“Don’t you ever think that,” said Brother authoritatively. “We were born ‘good enough.’ It’s our people’s destiny—it’s what Father died for! Do you understand?”
“Yes,” piped Blue, his eyes wide. Brother’s expression softened as he let go of Blue’s chin and pulled him into a full embrace.
“I’m sorry,” said Brother. “But you know it’s true.”
“Mm-hm.” A full minute of silence followed.
“Wanna hear a secret?” asked Brother.
“I was just like you on my first trip.”
Blue looked up at Brother, his eyes wide at this confession of weakness. “But Peter said you made lots of friends right away.”
“I did—but all through the first day, I was afraid the other boys wouldn’t like me. I didn’t tell anyone, but I just wanted to run home.”
“Really. But then I learned that first impressions aren’t everything. I realized all the other boys were just like me: smart, maybe a little shy, but fully aware of our superiority. Now doesn’t that sound like you? Smart, maybe a little shy?”
“So if I could find a way to get along with everyone,” Brother continued, “don’t you think you could try to do the same?”
Blue hesitated, but nodded again.
“Good,” said Brother, ruffling Blue’s curls.
Blue took Brother’s hand as they stood up and started back down the dirt path. The trees didn’t seem nearly as scary as they did before. Encouraged by this, Blue said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Who’s Rachel Cohen?”
Brother stumbled slightly, though Blue didn’t see any branches or tree roots in his path. “Where did you hear that name?”
“Just now,” Blue replied, “when I came over to your tent. You said her name, then everyone laughed.”
“She’s a girl,” said Brother, looking straight ahead. Then, with a sudden vehemence, “No, she’s less than that. I didn’t know this the first time I met her, but she’s one of them.”
“I figured that,” said Blue. “Her name’s ‘Cohen,’ lots of ‘em are named ‘Cohen.’ I was just wondering how you knew someone like her.”
“Another time,” Brother mumbled. They reached Blue’s tent a few moments later, pausing for one last embrace.
“Are you going to be all right?” asked Brother.
“I think so,” whispered Blue. “Thanks, Hans.”
“You’re welcome,” said Brother, straightening up. “And remember—first impressions aren’t everything. Now go have fun.”
Blue scurried inside his tent to find the other boys staring at him.
“Well,” said Green, “what’d he say?”
“That I could talk.”
“Good,” said Green, smiling. “I’m glad.”
“Sure,” replied Green. “Our brothers are really good friends, why shouldn’t we be?”
“I guess you’re right,” said Blue, smiling back.
“I just realized—I don’t think I know your name.”
“Oh,” replied Blue. “It’s Klaus.”
“Klaus,” said Green, thinking it over. “I like it! My name’s Günther.”
“That’s a good name too,” said Blue. “What about you guys?”
“Siegfried,” said Polka-Dot.
“And I’m Otto,” replied Checkered. “So you said you like the singing, Klaus? What’s your favorite song?”
Blue smiled even wider and answered, “Our anthem, I love the part about marching for Hitler.”
* * *
The Allies were coming, that’s what Peter told him. They were coming to free the concentration camps. The gun Brother held was meant for the prisoners being herded to the lake—those were the orders, no prisoners left alive.
Brother’s hand shook too much; he almost dropped the gun as he brought it against his head. It was only a pistol, but as Brother held the cold barrel against his shining blonde hair he felt surprised at its heaviness.
He wanted to put it down, but the Allies were coming, and they were going to capture him and make him confess, make him live up to all the bodies tortured, burned, slaughtered in the name of purity. He’d been proud to be assigned to work in the camps—proud to be helping the cause he’d learned in Hitler Youth, the cause he’d passed on to his little brother!
But then he’d seen Rachel Cohen, bald, emaciated, half-dead Rachel Cohen with those soft brown eyes that stared relentlessly, accusing him, making him naked. Rachel’s screams from inside the gas chamber had haunted Brother’s nightmares for years now.
Yet it wasn’t the threat of capture or even Rachel’s piercing gaze that Brother thought of as he pulled the trigger. It was Mother’s letter, now covered in Brother’s brains: Blue was dead.
He’d been conscripted along with Green, Checkered, and Polka-Dot into the Volkssturm, or People’s Army, but was killed from a bullet through the head during the Battle of Berlin. Two Red Army soldiers found his tiny corpse curled up against the ruins of a building.
“Wonder where his friends are,” said one of the soldiers.
“Dead,” said the other soldier. “What does it matter?”
The first soldier bent down and brushed some curls out of Blue’s face; bits of hair mixed with blood came off, falling near the soldiers’ boots. “He died alone.”
“Good,” said the other soldier, “no other monsters left to shoot at us.”
“He wasn’t a monster,” said the first soldier, picking up Blue’s hands. “Look at these, just like my youngest son’s. Too small for anything bigger than a mouse.”
“That gun he’s holding looks pretty big to me,” said the second soldier. “And he was a monster. You ever hear about the garbage they brainwash these kids with? Hitler Youth, Aryan camaraderie—atrocity with friendly faces plastered over.”
“Look,” said the first soldier. He put the hands down and took the photograph sticking out of Blue’s pocket. “She looks just like him. Must be his mother.”
“Put it away,” said the second soldier. The first soldier sighed and slipped the picture back in the pocket. “Stop this—he was shooting at us, you had no choice. Now get up. We have to keep going.”
The soldiers moved on, barely noticing the hair left on the ground: light, soft curls, red and sticky with blood. The curls bunched together as the soldiers stepped on them. They looked like bleeding lambs.
Adam Brunner is an undergraduate junior-with-senior-academic-status at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is an English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing, and aspires to become both a professor of creative writing and a successful author.