The dead stood in the night, swaying on the drifts of snow, today more real than ever, a lone space gaping in their ranks. Eli smirked at the omen: soon, too soon he’ll be one of them.
Shivering in his turned-off Cutlass, he cursed his theatrical attire—a threadbare robe with a Star of David on the chest, too short for his Brobdingnagian arms and legs. His disfigured left arm rested on the knob of an oxygen tank, the port-wine stain around the amputated finger glistening with slick warts.
A dog’s howl carried through the streets. Only yesterday aglow with garlands and Santa trains, today they lay lifeless and dark, paralyzed by the power outage in the wake of the afternoon snowstorm. The tower of the University’s Medical Center glowed dimly beyond the treetops, lit to half-strength by backup generators.
A car pulled up in front of the house across the street from his stakeout. A rambler squatting among outsized maples, it seemed an orphan next to the mansions of the University’s department heads and chaired professors.
A woman in a coat and a cloche hat stepped out and looked around, hand over her head.
Eli put his hand on the handle of the gun that was tucked under his belt, but then let go of it. The dead were there again, peering through the window glass, shaking their heads, denying him his shot. He felt the outline of an oblong object in his trouser pocket.
As the front door creaked behind the woman, he clambered out of his seat, rolled out the tank and slushed noisily down the front yard path. Leaning on the door—he knew she never locked it—he pushed himself through, shedding lumps of wet snow.
He froze for a moment, startled by his own reflection in the hallway mirror, cursed, turned and then saw her.
She stood leaning against the wall: a black turtleneck, gypsy skirt, a shawl drawn over bony shoulders. She was holding a bowl of noodles; her hand did not shake, not a drop of liquid sloshed over the rim.
Meeting her eyes, he saw that she understood it all—the striped robe, the gun, even the oxygen tank.
He leveled the gun at her thigh.
“You know what this is about.”
A smile touched her lips. She started from the wall and sidled past him, her shoulder grazing his arm.
He stood paralyzed, his heart booming loudly, then did what he had resolved to avoid at all costs: he lifted the gun, settling her back into its sights and squeezed the trigger.
His hand was thrust violently aside; his legs folded under him as he plunged on a pile of books that were strewn on the floor.
When he opened his eyes, he felt that he’d woken into the wrong time. The ball of a dead lamp loomed blackly in the ceiling. He knew he’d seen it before.
Just a month ago, he sat knee to knee with Rabbi Minkoff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the pew of an empty synagogue. A globe-shaped chandelier swung before his eyes like a hypnotist’s pendulum.
“Embryonal teratocarcinoma,” Eli leaned towards the Rabbi as if to convey some Kabbalistic formula. “The tumor’s a baby, all jumbled up—teeth and hair and guts.”
“I thought you had a bad mole.”
“A birthmark. A death mark,” Eli smirked. “Docs were baffled too. Said they’ve never seen anything like it; froze bits of tissue for a teaching collection.”
He brought the palm of his left hand into the light.
“Thought they caught it when they took off the finger. Forty years ago.” The nub twitched. “Now it’s back. Went straight for the lungs.”
“One chance in five to live past Tu Bishvat.”
“A month,” Rabbi blinked. “The last great Nazi hunter—an epoch, a history.”
“An end,” Eli sighed. “I’ve died long ago.”
Rabbi nodded. “I read about your debut at the Carnegie. Second Menuhin, they called you.”
“Couldn’t quite get the pizzicato without the index finger,” Eli chuckled.
They did not speak for some time. The swinging of the chandelier ball was mesmerizing.
“There was always restlessness in me,” Eli said, “a mark of my parents whom I never knew, surely some great musicians or persons of learning. All I wanted was to repay the gift.”
He studied the highlights on the ball’s surface.
“That night, as I stood on the stage, all I could see were hands—thousands of hands clapping.”
He tilted his head.
“Then came the cancer, surgeries and chemo. Played Locatelli on four fingers in the bars, met Wiesenthal, took to Nazi-hunting with the same zeal as playing the violin. Then the cancer returned, and now I am dead, only fifty-four and with nothing to show for my years. If I could only hear those people clap for me one last time….”
The Rabbi brushed the front of his robe with his pudgy fingers.
“You know why I called,” Eli said.
“We don’t do this,” Rabbi mumbled. “We aid the Israelis, hand them the files, that’s all.”
“There is no file. She’d covered her tracks.”
“Magda Frank. Lived in plain sight for years—professor at Raritan University.”
“I’ve heard the name. Didn’t she work for the Ustashi?”
“Chief medical officer at Jacenovac. Easily war’s worst mass murderer, more prolific than Mengele himself. Nobody knows for sure how many she killed: hundreds of thousands, maybe a million.”
“Ah, your parents’ camp,” Rabbi winced. “That’s where this is coming from.”
Eli glanced at the window.
“You know I won’t sanction this. It’s your personal vendetta, not our cause. You obsess with your parents’ death, with the facts of your birth.”
“Personal…” Eli smirked. “My adoptive father, a US private, pulled me from a pile of charred baby corpses.”
“There are legal ways.”
Eli shook his head.
“I’ve tracked her for years. Never got close. Americans buried the evidence in exchange for her laboratory journals. But now that I am dying, I don’t care about the law. Arrest me, throw in jail—either way, I’ll be dead in a month. I can take her out, reap that one last round of applause.”
“She experimented on prisoners.”
“There’s nothing on her? At all?”
“Born in Vienna, in a family of concert pianists. Doctoral thesis in the Freiburg University archive. Advisor—a Russian name, Vavilov, I think. Marriage certificate, same name; a newspaper clipping: Kremlin executes a double spy, same name. Then, an SS membership form and her trail dries up.”
Eli splayed the fingers of his left hand.
“I know she crippled me with her science. Taunting me all this while, drawing me to herself like Ahab’s whale.”
Rabbi sighed and rose to his feet.
“It’s not like that,” Eli grabbed his arm. “I’ll flash a gun, rattle her, get something on record.”
“If you go ahead,” Rabbi said, starting towards the door, “we will deny ever knowing you.”
He paused halfway, turned, and added: “But your people will surely know their hero.”
What will they know now? A chorus of voices buzzed in Eli’s head. Why did you pull that trigger? How will you make her pay if she’s dead? It was her pride that his hand reacted to before his mind could intervene, her disregard to his threat, his very person.
He heaved himself up, groped about for the tank handle and shuffled toward the living room. Some of the books that were piled on the floor had flipped open. He caught a glimpse of the illustrations: pale fetuses on black fields skewered by strings of text.
He found her in the kitchen. She stood leaning on the table, lit by a candle that was leveled on a stack of magazines. “Experimental Embryology, December 1998,” he gleaned the label of the top one. Wire racks with soup cans mingled with books lined the walls; a medicine cabinet hung over the sink.
Cradling her stomach with her left hand, she dug with a free hand in a worn handbag.
Thank God you are not dead, Eli thought.
He pulled up a chair and sat, his giant figure towering over hers even when folded in half. He took time to stand the tank, then felt about in his pocket until he heard a click.
“Now, that I have your attention…”
“I do not have time for this,” she said staring at his chest.
She shook out of the bag a pen and a stack of printed sheets and flapped it to an earmarked page. She took her left hand, wrapped in a rag, off the wound and studied it.
“Don’t have long, do you?” Eli laid the gun on the table.
She held a thumb to her wrist, counting, then tapped her stomach.
“Abdominal distension, narrow pulse pressure. Perforation of small bowel. Exsanguination in one hour, latest two.”
She pulled up a breakfast stool, climbed it and began tracing the lines on the printed sheets.
Treating me like I am a bug, Eli thought as fresh anger steeped in his lungs.
“Not concerned you are going to die?”
“I am ninety-one,” she smiled. “Now let me proof my last paper and jot a note to have it sent out.”
A new bout of rage fell upon Eli like a dead bird out of the sky. Without saying a word, he leaped across the table and plunged his fist into Magda’s jaw. As his hand hurled through the air, he saw her eyes narrow, locked on the mountain of warts inching towards her face as her hand jerked oddly across the table. Then the skin of her cheek imploded, and she flew into the corner of the floor.
Before she could gasp, Eli descended upon her, lodging his knee into the meat of her wound and collaring her neck with his left hand.
“My parents—what did you do to them?” He hissed. “I saw how you looked at me, at my hand. Recognizing. Something in your eyes—you knew who I was.”
”A chimera,” she wheezed.
Eli slapped her across her face.
“Don’t expect me to treat you like a human.”
“Mixed genetic background,” she exhaled. “Let me breathe.”
“Start making sense,” Eli tightened his grip.
“I needed a trait. Easy to spot. Skin or eye color.”
“Embryo cell transfer. Donor and recipient.”
“That’s what you did?” Eli lowered his face to hers. “In Jacenovac?”
She nodded, gulping.
“Serbs—pale skinned, Gypsies—swarthy, dark.”
“Had this idea, Nikolen’ka and I.” She swallowed. “Stem cell, he called it, Stamzelle—the body’s founding cell. Scoop it from the embryo—frog, newt; grow in a dish. Brave new medicine.” She smirked. “But cells kept dying.”
He clawed deeper into her neck. “The camp. The camp.”
“Best ideas—they come at the worst time,” she looked beyond him, into some void discernible only to her. “A telegram—four words: ‘Shot. Enemy Soviet people.’ A student, ten weeks pregnant, now a widow. A small choice to make.”
She turned her face to the wall.
“Strapped to a chair, mind fogged with ether. A waxy creature, no larger than a potato, dangling before my eyes. Then, an idea. Invertebrates don’t have stem cells. The source must be human. Tossed the thing in a rag, out through the door. Dissected it the same night under the microscope. Cells lived for a whole week. I knew what to do.”
“Torture, kill because your child, your husband died?”
“Means to an end.” She coughed. “I’d impregnate a cohort, harvest the blasts.”
“Preimplantation embryos. Blastocysts.”
Her eyes turned milky. “Was it worth it?”
“You are asking me?”
She lay silent, staring at a point behind Eli’s back. Does she see her own dead? He thought. Instinctively, he turned around. His were right there, behind the window, making faces, pointing at something. When he turned back, he understood what.
He was staring into the barrel of his own gun. Magda was holding it with both hands, pressing the muzzle into the socket of his eye.
How stupid, he thought. Did she plan it all along? Made him mad, distracted him while she grabbed the gun? What’s the difference? She’ll never make it alive.
“Or what? You’ll shoot?”
“And foil your plan. How would you make me pay if you are dead? Shot by a ninety-year old, a Nazi.”
Eli groped at the gun not caring whether or not it would fire. His hand swung through empty air. The muzzle slid down, halted at the navel, then inched up, settling into the dimple under his left shoulder. Defying her warning, Eli flailed at the pistol again.
As the fire from the shot hatched and died, the pain of a dozen Jacenovacs entered his body. He pivoted through his right shoulder, and the room in his eyes tipped to its side.
When he opened his eyes, he saw Magda’s face close by as she sat astraddle on his chest.
“Why wouldn’t you kill me?”
“You need to hear what I say.”
Not using the gun to free herself, he thought. Just sitting around, making small talk.
“Ahead of time, of everyone. By half a century, at least. Seven human lines. Growing by the spring of nineteen forty-four.”
Eli wheezed, his lungs sore without oxygen.
“Then—the bombings, the Allies. Subjects razed by guards; cell stocks burned; notebooks locked away. Where’s the proof? Immunity in exchange for the science. Buried in some archive.”
“I’d scrape the cells off the dish, put them back. Gypsy cells into a Serbian blast. True stem cell will know to make every organ. Skin—easiest to see: dark patches on a pale fetus. A chimera. Make sure you get that.”
She reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a metallic Sony, its reels spinning behind the window of clear plastic.
Eli shook his head. How could she know? Heard the click when he started the tape?
“If not for the guards, they’d all be still alive.”
“Swapped embryos? Healthy?”
“There’s risk—cancer: stem cells are kin to the germline—eggs and sperm.”
Magda tilted her head, gripped by some thought.
“Tenacious pugs. Trickling down generations; can’t be stamped out, don’t quit. Love it about them: resilience in every molecule—stemness, Nikolen’ka called it.”
“Cancer. You said, cancer,” Eli gripped her wrist.
“Cells cropping up at times in the grafts. Wouldn’t make skin. Sleep for years, then—a tumor—embryonal teratocarcinoma.”
Dull pain bit Eli on the heart.
“Took too long to track, though. I didn’t have the time.”
“Why would you? It wasn’t you who was experimented on.”
She slipped off his chest and huddled next to him, clasping her knees.
“Ustashi killing off girls faster than I could grab them. I’d use any source—a hag, a minor, myself: I am Austrian, not Serbian. Still lighter skinned than a Gypsy.”
“A true scientist,” Eli smirked, “Testing her potion on herself.”
“Didn’t work, though.”
“Eggs were not good?”
“Too good. Choked the grafts. It’s known in mice: mix two strains and one takes over. Low chimerism: dark skin patches too few, too small: nothing more than a birthmark. On a finger or a toe.”
Eli’s mind welled with chaos.
“Pianist gene… Should have guessed,” he mumbled, not quite in command of his tongue.
“I am not your mother.”
“Mother…” His tongue slipped. “Ma-da. Ma—gulp—da.”
“And you are not my son.”
Her voice grew warm.
“But, in a way, more than a son.”
“A proof. One I’ve long lost.”
She squinted into darkness of the hallway.
“My greatest find: snatched from my hands. Evidence—buried. Sold my soul for nothing. Then you show up with your cancer and once more there is hope, even if I die.”
Eli smirked bitterly.
“What do you say? I am a lab rat, a crutch to prop your claim to scientific priority?”
He held his fists to his face.
“What’s worse than a mass murderer? You!”
He heaved himself up on a bookcase shelf. His left shoulder was numb, the whole hand steamed with blood. He picked up the handle of the tank and shambled towards the door. Who cares if she shoots.
“The tape,” he heard behind his back. “Without physical evidence, it’s hearsay.”
“When will you see?” She sounded irritated.
“I am not asking you to forgive me, even to understand. Just do what you came for.”
Eli blinked stupidly.
“Proof that will clinch the conviction. Can’t you see that you are it?”
“Biopsy your tumor, run it against your DNA. Then take mine.” She pulled a strand out of her hair. “It’ll match your DNA, but not your cancer’s.”
Eli’s mind was blank.
“Proving that you were my subject at Jacenovac, the only one alive. That human experimentation I am accused of was real. Justice for the victims.”
“And the world will hear about your priority.”
“We split the prize, see?”
Eli shook his head. Even if he wins, she can’t lose. Impossible. Unbearable. True.
He felt as weak as she, as if her dying was contagious. His left leg was quickening with lead, his jaw throbbed, his teeth were rattling. He shambled drunkenly towards the hallway.
“You’ll go when I say.” He could feel the gun pointed at him.
The hallway window loomed in front of him. In it he saw again the angry faces of the dead.
“Shoot me. I will walk right through that door.”
There was silence.
“You’ll have my DNA, your proof, whether I live or not.”
He turned. The gun was shaking in Magda’s hands.
“Shoot me!” He yelled, clenching his fist.
The gun clanked on the floor.
Eli erupted in laughter.
“You can’t. Can’t touch your precious proof.”
He spat and pronounced the ugliest insult in Yiddish he could remember.
He stood in the doorway immersed in deep thought. What should he do? Rush to Rabbi Minkoff, secure evidence for the trial and let a criminal clinch her glory? Or do nothing, wait and die and bury with him the vital proof—out of spite, a personal vendetta? Give me a sign, he pleaded, rising his eyes to the ceiling.
The tank handle slipped from his hand. Eli slumped to one knee, pressing his right hand to his heart, then plunged face down to the floor.
Magda turned pale. A trained medic, she recognized the grim sign.
She rose to her feet. Stumbling and swaying, she ambled towards the hallway.
“What do you feel?” She leaned over him.
A lock of her hair swept across his brow.
“And my left leg is numb. And I can’t breathe.”
“What’s happening to me?”
“You are having a heart attack.”
Eli stared blankly into her close by eyes.
“I have stage four cancer, a month to live. How can I be dying of a heart attack?”
Against the widening pain, she heaved herself up and limped towards the kitchen. She dragged a bottle of aspirin from the medicine cabinet, picked up a glass from the sink, filled it from the tap and shuffled back to the hallway.
She let the aspirins drop on his tongue, then brought the glass to his lips. He grasped the glass, along with her palm wrapped around it, with his giant hand and gulped.
“Magda,” he wheezed, his head hanging over her arm.
“Ma-da.” His tongue wouldn’t roll.
“Ma-da.” Two syllables that could mean anything.
“I am not…” she began. “I’ll get. Help.”
She knew her words made no sense but anger was stirring in her cold scientist’s heart: scooped out of her great find once, she wouldn’t lose it again. Was this all she cared about, she asked herself, or was she in fact driven by something she would never admit to—a feeling, an embryo of humanity?
She tried to get to her feet, but this time she knew the pain would prevail. She crawled on all four, like a dog, towards the front door.
Magda was so light that her knees did not sink in the snow. She crept towards the line of azaleas that marked the border of her neighbor’s yard. The lot of Professor Yamomoto, the Chair of the Biochemistry Department at Raritan University, loomed ahead, his mansion towering amid the glistening snow.
She squeezed through a breach where one shrub had died last year: the professor’s golden retriever Ulysses used to sneak here into her yard to chase possums.
She didn’t advance much further before her body gave up. She rolled on her back and prepared to die. She wanted her last thoughts to be about the Stamzelle, but the figure of today’s intruder dominated her dimming mind.
A dog howled. Was it the same dog that taunted Eli? Another dog answered, a third joined in; she heard a growl coming from the Yamomoto house.
Light flickered in the top floor window; a chink ran along the door. Next minute, Ulysses’ muzzle was tapping on her cheek, then poked at the wound. A surge of pain knocked her out of her senses.
When she woke up, she saw the Yamomotos leaning over her. The professor was rubbing his round glasses. His wife, a lab chief at Raritan, shook her head. Next to them slouched their adolescent daughter.
“Doctor Frank? Magda? What is this?”
Magda took a deep breath.
“There is a man in my house. He had a heart attack. He needs help.”
The Yamomotos stared at each other.
“Professor,” she tried again, “I need you to drive to the Medical Center. It has power generators. It’s only two miles away. I implore you: every minute counts.”
“A man? In your house?” Professor looked at Magda, then at his wife. Only then he saw the blood. He rolled her on her back.
“You have been shot!”
Magda squeezed his hand.
“You have to save him. You have to call the ambulance.”
“You are in shock, Doctor Frank,” Professor said. “You have been shot. By an intruder, I presume.”
She wanted to protest, but could not.
Professor turned to his wife.
“I’ll drive Doctor Frank to the hospital. Sumiko, take the second car. Call the police from your office.”
He tugged on Magda’s shoulders.
His daughter grabbed Magda’s feet, and the two hauled her to the curb. Marie swiped the windshield of the snow-capped Land Rover. They sat Magda in the back seat, the professor jumped behind the wheel, and the car took off.
Eli lay on his back, wondering why his body still clung to life. He was also curious, quite genially, whether Magda had cheated death one more time, evaded it like a war tribunal, the ever-enduring Stamzelle.
The sound of the car engine jolted him out of his stupor. All of a sudden, the certainty of death was suspended. It will take the cops what fifteen minutes? Twenty? Against all odds, he may yet live. He saw now clearly the answer to his dilemma: he had to stay alive, hand his body over to Rabbi Minkoff. He had no right to deny Magda Frank’s victims their justice.
Then he remembered her face, maddeningly close, as she fed him the aspirins. And he lay helpless in her arms, swallowing her pills, calling her mother. Is this conduct worthy of applause? He stabbed himself with reproach. No, Magda Frank will not, cannot have her proof.
He glanced at the window. The dead glared at him with indignation: they would rather remain unatoned than let a criminal claim her glory. The punishment was not a tribunal, he saw, but a lack of one, the denial of recognition to her science.
Gripped by shame, he feared neither death nor pain. He looked about for the gun. Its muzzle jutted from the table, where Magda had left it. He nudged it over the edge. The candle flame stumbled and wavered. DNA, he remembered staring at the pages of Magda’s manuscript strewn across the floor. You are not getting a strand of it.
He tossed the gun aside, crumbled a fistful of pages and angled the corner of one into the candle flame. The fire swallowed it whole. Eli eyed the bookcase crammed with journals and monographs. Burn her science. All of it, along with his body, its most grotesque artefact.
He crept up to the wall and tugged on a shelf. The bookcase crashed into the table, sending the fire scurrying into the air.
He sat cross-legged in the floor tearing the pages out of the books and feeding them to the flame. Pale fetuses on black fields, blistering and popping in the mouth of fire.
Damp, thick pages wouldn’t burn. The tank, he remembered. The cylinder lay trapped under the bookcase wreckage next to the tape recorder. The reels inside the plastic box were still turning, miraculously untouched by fire. He slid the Sony into his pants pocket and pulled on the tank’s tubing. He unscrewed the regulator and aimed the muzzle at the stuttering fire. The flame snarled and swelled into a ball.
The police sirens carried from a distance. Maybe five minutes, Eli thought, not more.
One last thing. See to it that not a shred of his body is recovered. His left hand dangling from the mauled shoulder, he grasped the whole width of the tank with his right hand and shoved the cylinder into the middle of the bonfire.
The robe’s fabric sprouted with flames. He crawled into the hallway wrapped head to toe in the fur of fire and rolled on his back.
He wanted to die reveling in his victory, revenge. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not stir in his heart his past hatred to Magda. Wretched old woman. Squandered her humanity for nothing.
The glass in the window shattered. The dead stood in the opening, closer than ever, a breach gaping in their ranks. Their eyes glared at him accusingly as if they could read his softening heart.
What more do you want? He accused the ghosts. Haven’t I done all you asked? Yet you are not pleased, can never be pleased.
He pulled out the Sony and flung it at the invisible crowd. The box flew into the night, its reels spinning, and disappeared behind the frame.
The stern faces of the dead lightened, some of them were smiling. He heard a clap, and then he heard it again. Laughter broke out, at first friendly, but then it took a mocking tone; the crowd erupted in a sarcastic applause. They faded into the night clapping and taunting him.
Through the whirring tornadoes of smoke, Eli saw how the muzzle of the oxygen cylinder burst and the tank, glowing white, bolted across the room like a great albino fish. It bit into the beams and pillars of the house as if they were the ribbing of a doomed ship, striking everywhere volleys of sparks and finally erupted in a stunning flower of fire.
It’s Christmas time again. Not a snowflake on the ground. The air is warm as summer. Magda’s car rolls through the street lit by electric Santas and reindeers. Neon digits “2000” slide over her windshield like flaming ghosts.
She parks in front of her rambler, clambers out of the car and limps down the weedy path: the old wound bothers her every time the weather changes.
She lingers at the front door and lifts her face, hand over hat, looking around, as if waiting on someone.
She leans on the door, and it gives off a squeal, revealing behind it a few shrubs huddling among the foundation’s walls and shreds of yellow tape. Magda’s eyes turn milky. She stands still for a minute, then glances at her watch and starts toward her car. Since her house burned down, she rents a flat from the University dorm; they lock the gates early on holidays.
Across the street, she notices a dark car. Could it be? A coincidence, today of all days?
As she approaches, the car’s doors creak open. Three figures step out into the street. One, a bearded man in a wide-brimmed hat, makes a gesture brushing the front of his robe with his fingers. The other two, in Mets jerseys, too tight for their muscular shoulders, rub their arms, shivering.
“Magda Frank? You’ll come with us,” one of the Mets men says with a thick accent and flashes at her a card on which she catches a glimpse of a hexagram and a string of Hebrew letters.
“At last…” She gasps.
The men stare at each other.
“Curious how we tracked you?” The bearded men asks after some time.
Magda’s chin begins to twitch.
One of the Mets men hands her a Xerox of a newsletter article: “Tape recovered during investigation of a suspicious house fire reveals bizarre German science and points to what could be the worst war criminal of World War Two.”
“University’s Cancer Center has kept archival biopsies. There is a protocol to recover DNA from the burnt bone. And now we have a court order for yours.”
“Yes, yes.” Magda clasps the bearded man’s hand.
The three men exchange puzzled glances.
As they help her into the car, she catches one last glimpse of her burnt-down house. The weeds peering through the half-open door, the only structure that stands erect amidst the ruin, seem to her like a gathering of men. She sees them clearly: stern faces, glaring eyes. A figure of great height stands out among them. She knows at once who it is. The man’s features are peaceful amid the crowd’s angry frowns; his lips move, repeating one word. Two syllables. Again and again.