The Bones Beneath

Highly Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

The boy with the fluffy hair came back to stand at my side. He knew I liked him, and I knew he liked me. Though the blue scarf he wore covered his nose and his hat was pulled low, I could see his grey eyes. He stared ahead. When I looked up at him, he knew my question before I spoke it. “What were you and Mr Allen pointing at when you slipped away from the group?” He pulled the scarf to reveal his mouth and leant down. I could feel the heat of his body against the lobe of my ear, peeking out from under my bobble hat. Carried on the cold air, his breath said, “Bones”.

The group moved along the track and I looked down, imagining bones beneath the ice. Ice. My knees hit the ground with a thwack that made everyone jump, and my hands braced against the wet ground. I looked at them. Yesterday, my multicoloured gloves were catching snowflakes for me to marvel at. Ice-carved confetti, falling from the sky. Each of us girls oohed and aahed as they adorned our clothes, hair, eyelashes. The boys stood open-mouthed, laughing throatily as cool fleckles of ice nipped at their tongues. 

Now my hands burned as icy water seeped through the wool. Someone must have seen my ruined mittens, for no sooner had I removed them were a pair of skiing gloves passed from teenager to teenager. Without words, each red face looked down at them. They were remembering the night before, when grey and arthritic hands presented us with a sample of blue and white striped cotton. 

“In the winter, we wore an extra vest of the same cloth.”

The boy with the grey eyes gallantly gave me his gloves, then helped me work the ski pair over them. We trudged across the snow.

“The block where we washed was on the other side of the camp. They woke us early. Early, before the sun. The officers made us run to the washroom. The water wasn’t heated and, when we were finished, they made us run back to our block, naked.”

That February, Krakow reached -5oC. Even in the city you could feel winter’s threats. Wind was buffeted off buildings and tore a path down roads and alleys. If you were in its way, tough luck. Turned pink from its impact, it felt as though the wind could rip our fleshy, teenage cheeks wide open. The wind at Auschwitz-Birkenau rushes through the wire fences and skirrs snow from the ground, yet you hear not a whisper. The few trees that sit beyond the camp shiver silently, and no birds fly from their branches. On this day in February, the sky into which they would have taken flight was low and oppressive, blanketing us with cloud. 

Most would be surprised by a group of thirty silent teenagers. Not there. Waiting for our bus outside the hotel, I had dissolved into giggles as I, and the girls I roomed with, tried to apply chapstick with gloved hands. Mittens hinder dexterity, and we painted ourselves clownish. When the bus dropped us off at the Birkenau gate, and the train tracks that led to the gas chambers beyond, I knew I’d never find anything funny again. The boys, who’d spent the past days braying with laughter while trying to impress the girls, stood shoulder to shoulder, one trying to swallow his sobs. It started in the rooms full of hair, glasses and pairs of shoes. It reached its climax as we left the gas chambers. “We got to leave,” he said. Few of us ate the hotel borscht that night. Mr Allen stayed by the bar, nursing his drink. 

Walking down the corridor of rooms that occupied our school, I heard crying and hushed whispers. Outside my door was the boy with the grey eyes. Thigh to thigh, we sat together in the empty corridor, and when we spoke our voices were hoarse. 

“I can’t stop thinking about space,” he told me. “It seems so far away, and so vast, and so silent and so impossible to believe in, but I know it’s real.” He trailed off.

“Or like listening to a seashell and imagining the bottom of the ocean.” I added. “At first it seems quiet but the silence just grows louder.”

I couldn’t tell you how long we sat there. Eventually, he pulled me to my feet. We stood at our adjoining doors and looked at each other, sussing out whether we were ok, before entering our rooms to join the other teens, wide-eyed and sleepless.