Stuttgart, 1942 The baker, the butcher, the florist— they all call him my brother. But no common blood runs between our veins. We didn’t grow up together, Ansel and I. We just wish to grow old side by side. Old as bristlecone pines. Old as monoliths. But with war spreading septic through the world and more and more people carted off to the camps, that’s beginning to look like a pipe dream. # Entire generations of Ansel’s family have owned Schwarz & Sohns, the funeral parlor situated under our apartment. Business has never been better, and I guess we have this war to thank, this father that eats his children. Ansel builds the coffins, no longer glossy, silk-lined hardwood caskets, but rough, bare boxes made of planks of wood nailed haphazardly together. It’s better than being tossed into mass graves or left to rot in the street, he says. I let him handle the black-clad mourners, the hollow-eyed orphans thin as stick insects, the wailing, thrashing widows. I’m better with bodies than I am with people. I set their features, embalm, groom, dress them, good as new. I’m better with quiet. Sometimes I think how Ansel’s father prepared my mother’s body, back when Ansel and I were unlucky thirteen. How my boy, his father’s apprentice, built her a final bed to rest. And it’s a good thing my mother is dead because the war, it would have broken her heart. # “Good morning,” I tell Ansel when I enter the parlor’s kitchenette. He hands me a cup of coffee and leans in for a kiss, forgetting the screws and nails peeking out of his mouth like rays from a sun. The dark circles around his eyes are the colors of dusk. “Busy day?” I ask, sipping the precious coffee, tar-black— cream and sugar elusive birds. “Several bodies came in today. A suicide pact, I think. I’ll be in my workshop if you need me.” He returns to his frantic coffin-making, and I to the embalming room where the bodies await, the smell of formalin and decomposition clinging to me, a second skin. I look out the window as I work, a new nervous tic, always waiting to hear the tell-tale stomping of heavy boots on cracked cobblestone, inhale the stink of hate. I search for signs the Gestapo is here to take us away, stuff us into striped uniforms with inverted triangle badges, pink as the insides of the bodies laid out on my embalming carts. # Sometimes, when I can no longer stand to look out the window and brace myself for the worst, I wander through the rows of makeshift coffins in Ansel’s workshop. I see the holes in the coffins, though I turn a blind eye: little pinpricks studded through, only visible to me, who knows Ansel’s handiwork, the workings of his brain. I see the people entering the funeral parlor, how Ansel rushes them all the way back to his workshop, to talk in clandestine whispers for hours on end. He’s putting us in danger, and we’re already under a lot of scrutiny, being two lads and all, two unwed so-called brothers who look nothing alike, living under the same roof. I thank heavens every day we haven’t been conscripted and sent to battle (yet, a little slithery voice inside me hisses), but now a new danger looms, and my heart feels tight as a kite string. “You know you can tell me anything,” I tell Ansel in bed at night. Just when I think he’s asleep, I hear him cry, soft wheezes like the wind through the cracks in the woodwork. I hold him, as I did after my mother’s funeral, back when she was buried in the casket he made for her. Oh, how we cried together in the deserted cemetery afterward, the stone angels our only witnesses. Ansel whispers, “I couldn’t bear it anymore. Doing nothing. Being afraid. I’ve been helping some Jewish and Romani folks escape, hiding them in the coffins long enough to be transferred to a safe house. You can hate me for my secrets, Gilbert, but I tried to keep you safe.” I kiss his tears away, ignore the fear coiled in my gut, and tell him, “I’ve never loved you more than I do now.” # Love is no shield. I don’t know why I keep forgetting that. I’m still in my mortician clothes when Ansel bursts into my domain. “The police,” he says, paler than the cadavers around us, “they know.” “How?” I stammer, breath thick through my respirator. Ansel claws at his scalp. “Someone turned me in. My people don’t know who, exactly.” I think about the baker, the butcher, the florist— all those in the street who did nothing when our neighbors were taken away. I did nothing, too, playing it safe, playing pretend with myself. Not anymore. Ansel keeps talking, frantic words strangling each other. “They only know about me—my coffins. My family business, Gil. I can keep them away from you if I—” “No,” I utter with vehemence. “You’re not sacrificing yourself.” “Then what do you propose?” He leans weary against my silver tool table. Deflated. Defeated. Right now, I’m not thinking about the barbed wire noose wrapped around my heart, or how I’m more comfortable around bodies than people, or even how I might never see my mother’s grave again. My voice is as steady as my hand is with a scalpel when I say, “Bring me in contact with your people. I have a plan.” # The coach lumbers down uneven roads. It rattles, a relic, branches slapping its sides, the horses neighing, agitated. And I—in the back of the windowless wagon, surrounded by coffins—pray to childhood angel statues. I don’t believe we’re in Stuttgart anymore. Ansel’s people thought it best I don’t know where we’re going. Where their safe house is. I have my mortician’s license at hand in case someone stops us, my fingers crossed the way my mother taught me to call luck to our side. My hand drifts toward the closest coffin, rubbing against the gritty wood. I close my eyes and picture Ansel’s fingers on the other side, pressed against mine, flowers turned toward the far-off sun. My breathing turns shallow in response, as if I’m the one trapped inside the cramped space, dark as a womb. Hold on, I think. Just a little while longer. The coach comes to a screeching halt. The driver opens the wagon doors, a halo of light blinding me. His chin juts toward me. “You’re on foot from here on. Your man, he knows the way to the safe house.” I rush to Ansel’s coffin, grabbing the hammer from my pack, bloodying my fingers in my haste to get the coffin open. I pull the lid back and draw Ansel up by the lapel of his coat. I kiss him on the lips as if I’m waking Sleeping Beauty. He kisses me back, taking greedy gulps of air and freedom.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, The Forge Literary, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Argot Magazine, The Arcanist, and other venues. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.