The Mark of the Beast


by Jenean McBrearty


Herman held up his stein, and nodded in the direction of another Parisian making a toast to the Free French. “They all seem to forget Petain,” he said to Mark before swallowing the last of his beer. “Someday the historians will hoist them on their own petards.”

“And us too. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“No, I want to stay. If I get drunk enough, I’ll forget we’ll probably be sent home.” Mark obligingly emptied the pitcher into his glass. “Well, I’m not going home,” Herman said. “The Americans believe they can de-Nazify Germany with propaganda and kindness. Kill a few officers and party officials at their show trials, and the basic decency of the German people will blossom along with democracy. It’s a crock of shit.” He leaned over to give Mark kiss and belched in his ear.

Mark shied away. “As if you have a choice. That pink star will follow you to the grave.”

“Better free dirt than a Russian bullet.” Herman gave him a kiss full of fear and desperation. “Let me make love to you.”

“Oh, all right.” Mark threw a few francs on the table and followed Herman upstairs to the mist-clouded street where their bicycles were chained.

“Christ. It got cold,” Mark said.

“I’ll warm you up when we get home.”

They rode down the alleys, avoiding the crowds that still gathered to celebrate Germany’s surrender—crowds they knew could easily transform into mobs. They weren’t the enemy, but they weren’t heroes either, just two escapees who managed to elude Gestapo roundups of Jews for two years.

They brought their bicycles up the two flights of stairs and into their one-bedroom flat – stolen bicycles that had provided them employment as delivery boys.

“We’re brothers,” Herman had explained to Mademoiselle Georges when they’d saved enough money to move from the bakery’s basement.

“As you wish,” she’d said, and Mark knew she didn’t believe it. Herman looked like what he was, a Czech Jew, dark and bony, while he was a Pole who could pass for The Hangman’s twin, tall and blonde. Herman wasn’t his type, too political and godless, but he worked hard and believed in love.

“We could go to America, Mark. Ask for asylum. If we go back to Germany, they’ll kill us. The Stalinists are no better than the Nazis, believe me,” Herman said.

“Come to bed. We don’t have to make decisions tonight.”

Herman gargled with salt water to take away the smell of beer. “I should wash,” he said, grabbed a towel and headed down the hall to the bathroom. Mark sighed and rolled out of bed. He smelled of smoke and cheap cologne too. But when he got to the door, someone grabbed him from behind, spun him around, and he fell back on the bed. He fumbled, turned and saw the silver of a pistol barrel staring at him. In the dim light, he could make out the shadow of the face beneath a black cap. A familiar pair of eyes met his gaze.

“You lied to me, Mark.”

It was Jules. The Danzig-born German who’d helped him survive on a promise they’d always be together. “What could I do? Herman begged me to take him with me. He didn’t want to die either. Can you blame him?”

Jules squatted down in front of him, running the tip of his pistol over his lips as he spoke. “Still as beautiful as ever. How sweet to those lying lips tasted to me.” Mark prayed for Herman’s return. Maybe Jules would kill him instead.

“He’s nothing to me. Just a stand-in ‘til I could find you after the war. He wants to go to America. I want to go home. To you. “

Tears were streaking down Jules’ cheeks. “There is no more home. Have you seen what they did to Berlin? People are starving in the streets, bleeding in the streets, abandoned….”

“I wept when I saw the newsreels. But you made it out alive. Thank God for small miracles—the big ones are all gone.” He managed to force a few tears from his own eyes. His hand found Jules’ thigh and traveled to a stiff piece of flesh beneath tight uniform trousers. “You don’t want to kill me, not now.”

They could hear a voice humming Heimat growing louder as it neared the room. “Tell Herman to shut the fuck up. Does he want everyone in Paris to know you’re here?”

Mark scrambled to his feet and opened the door. “Quiet, you fool!” Herman gasped as he swallowed his words. He glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone was in the hallway and tiptoed toward the door, his towel wrapped around his body, his clothes wadded up under his arm. Mark grabbed his arm and dragged him inside.

“What’s the matter?” Herman said when he saw the terror on Mark’s face. “We’re the only tenants Georges has on this floor.” Mark jerked his head in the direction of the bed. Herman peeked around his shoulder. “What?”

Mark swung around ready to offer Herman to Jules, but Jules wasn’t there. “You act as though we can just ignore the last six years. Don’t you realize people will always hate us?” He went to the closet and opened the door. “Jules was here. He had a gun.”

“All right. All right. He’s gone now.” Herman pulled Mark close to him. “Here, lay down on the bed, and I’ll give you a sponge….” He helped Mark off with his clothes and began wiping him down with the damp towel. “He’s long gone. That Jules, such a bastard.”

“He loved blonde boys. Loved to hear them scream. The things he made me do!”

“He can’t hurt you anymore. I won’t let him. I won’t let anybody hurt you.” After gentle wipes, Herman kissed his knees, his ankles, his toes. “Let me soothe you. Jules will never find you in America. Ghosts can’t swim, you know.”

“It was an accident, Herman.”

“It doesn’t matter. It was war. You killed him and we got free.”

“He trusted me. Would do anything to please me.” Mark turned toward the wall.

Herman turned off the light and slid into bed next to him. The beer and a bath made him doze off easily, but for Mark there was only the wall and the dancing shadows of the young men Jules kept in his private cell block, the terrified young men who didn’t know which monster was touching them, exciting them and then ramming into them until their bowels bled, beating and biting them, and bellowing like an animal. And in the morning, Jules would clean up the mangled mess and make love to him as gently as Herman had done a hundred times. Stupid, ignorant Jules. Keep a Cirrusian like dog, let him have rich, red meat, indulge his every whim, act out his depravity, and eventually, he’ll turn on you. He’ll play the victim and tell everyone it was an accident.

 

Outside Mark could hear the revelers slurring their song-words, blood laced with alcohol pumping slowly through their veins, hanging on to strangers, unwary. No adrenaline to make the sera bitter. “So you were studying medicine when they came for you, eh?” Jules had said. Mark had nodded, but returned his gaze with a boring stare of his own. Jules had plump neck veins, a result of a well-fed stomach. “How many years?”

“I was a third-year student. I assisted in surgeries but not allowed to cut.”

“You sound angry,” Jules said. “You knew more than your teachers?”

“I’m a butcher’s son. We had a shop in Warsaw. I slaughtered my first calf when I was eight.”

Jules examined his hands. “A cow is not a human. How many Christian babies did you dissect?” Mark pulled them away, and Jules moved his fingers to the pink star.

“If you believe the propaganda, you’re stupider than a man like you ought to be,” Mark said.

“A man like me? What do you think I’m like?”

“A man who hides in the shadows.”

“Prove to me you know how to kill a cow,” Jules said. “I may let you live.”

It was an empty dare. “You’re not going to give me a knife. You’d be afraid I’d use it to cut your throat.”

“True enough….”

“But I don’t need a knife.”

The boy was twenty or so. Frightened. But bitter was better than thirst. He’d be weak from youth and hunger, weaker still from rape. An appetizer. And his screams and twists and tears and begging only made Mark hungrier.

“The jugular vein is not as nourishing as the carotid artery,” Mark said, wiping the blood from his lips. “Less oxygen.” He breathed in the stench of death and turned to Jules who was half-seated on his desk, pleasuring himself in approval.

 

Mark kept his blades in a needle-pointed valise: a scalpel, a carpet cutter, a stiletto, and a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew for dislodging stubborn eyes and organs. The cleavers and hack saws his father used were too unwieldy, his grandfather’s saber too imprecise, his mother’s steak knives too dull for swift thrusts. Years of observation and trial and error taught him to prefer stealth and deftness to maniacal frontal attack. Delicate refinement had been his preference—until the war. Then, the desire for freedom temporarily overcame the desire for blood. Jules was a gift. He gave Mark gifts. Anemic, but they required no energy to subdue. Yes, he loved Jules. But all affairs with Earthlings had to end and always ended badly.

Jules was at the window. “Mark!” he said hoarsely, and Mark saw gauze wrapped around his throat. “Let me take you to dinner.”

“Hush, or you’ll wake Herman,” Mark said, feeling sweat beads roll down his face. “Go away.” It wasn’t like Jules to come around when Herman was there. “Leave me alone.”

“We’ll feast together. Just like old times. Come on. There’s a heard of humans in the streets.”

Mark peeled out of bed. Herman didn’t move. He’d dress in dark slacks and a black sweater, and borrow Herman’s black boots. Earthlings are not like us, his father taught him. They are either alive or dead, and no charm or relic can make them one of us. Yet, Jules wasn’t dead though his limbs were severed and his heart shredded into red ribbons. Perhaps some Nazi invention had brought him back. Mark opened the closet and removed his valise. He’d find Jules. Perhaps walking in the shadows. He’d kill again the thing he loved. He turned to make sure Herman was still asleep but now wore Jules’ face—had Jules had replaced him on the mattress? He opened the valise and removed his straight razor. Hungry. Hungry.


 

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