The Beast of Skowronka

Submitted into Contest #101 in response to: Write a story in which the same line recurs three times.... view prompt


Historical Fiction Fantasy Drama

"They say that a monster lives here," Pawel said between heavy breaths as we loaded the last bale of hay onto the back of his father's wagon, "Did you know that?"

"I've heard the story," I said, peering at him quizzically and wiping the sweat from my face. The sun beat down hard on us that day and both of our shoulders were glowing red, "What about it?" 

"Do you think it's true?" He hopped up onto the back of the wagon and I joined him. My feet ached. I looked down at the battered boots on my feet, the soles coming apart, and made a mental note to visit the cobbler next time I went into town, if I ever got the chance again.

"I don't know," I replied, looking at him and shielding my eyes from the sun with one hand. The wagon began to bounce up the dirt path. "And if it is? What then?"

"I don't know," He said, peering off in the general direction of the woods with a small shrug, "If there is a beast, maybe it's been protecting us, you know?"

"Protecting us? What do you mean, Pawel?"

"I mean," he paused for a second as if processing what he would say, "Have you seen any Nazis around here?"

"Plenty of them in to-" I started to say but Pawel cut me off with a hand up.

"Not in town, Jakub," He said, "Here. They say that a monster lives here, in Skowronka. Maybe the Nazis are scared, eh?"

"I doubt it," I mumbled. The village was just a collection of farms with a small market at its center. The SS was not interested in us. They had bigger fish to fry, so to speak. 

Pawel and I did not talk about the beast the rest of the ride, focusing instead on our various aches and pains, and how his father, who's farm we both worked on was a drunk and an asshole. We parted ways after unloading the hay in the barn and feeding the horses. 

As I began my walk home from Pawel's farm, I noticed my big toe poking out through the top of my shoe and decided to take a trip into town the next day. I felt confident enough in my German and had a fake story all lined up in case a patrol stopped me. I would be Herman Franz, the German, instead of Jakub Wilkowitz, the Jew. I would be a loyal German man, just on my way to buy some new shoes, nothing more.

The road into town from Skowronka was little more than a narrow dirt track, just wide enough for two horses and a cart. No one in the village owned an automobile. I woke up early that morning, had a hard, dry piece of bread with water for breakfast, and started my trek. 

I had walked nearly ten kilometers before I saw them. Two men in long, gray coats and wearing bright red arm bands emblazoned with swastikas stood leaning against a shiny black car smoking cigarettes. They laughed and spoke loudly in German to one another. As I approached I made out some of their conversation. 

"Filthy Jew," this, and "Less than dogs," that. I bit back my anger and gave them as wide of a berth as I dared, without looking suspicious. I went past with my eyes fixed on my tattered boots. I could feel their eyes burrowing into me.

"HALT!" One of the Gestapo officers shouted just as I passed and my back was to them. I heard the click of a gun cocking. I stopped dead in my tracks and swallowed the fear that had bunched itself up in my throat like a dry rag. "TURN AROUND!"

"What can I do for you gentlemen?" I answered in my cleanest German as I turned and put my hands up in surrender, "Is there something wrong?"

"What is your name?" Inquired one of the men. He was a perfect Nazi. Tall and lean, his clean-shaven jaw chiseled and his eyes as blue as the sky. The other, a shorter man with black hair and equally black eyes carried a luger casually in his right hand.

"Franz," I said with as much confidence as I could muster, "Herman Franz, sir," I kept my eyes down. The man's shoes were black leather and shined to a pristine mirror finish.

"Ah! Good!" The Nazi officer smiled, "a fellow German. Tell me, Mr. Franz, what brings you to a backwater shithole like this, hm?" The shorter man laughed.

Rage bubbled up in my gut again but I pushed in back down, hoping that I did not look flushed, "Just trying to spread the glory of the fatherland, sir. We common folk must do our part as well," 

There was a long, tense silence as the officer mulled over what I had said. Finally he took a step toward me and took my stubbled, dirty chin in his immaculate gloved hand. He lifted my face to his and narrowed his perfect blue eyes as they met my common brown ones. 

"I can tell a liar by the fear in his eyes," he hissed quietly, "And I can smell a Jew from here to Berlin. You wouldn't… lie to me, would you, Mr. Franz?"

"O-of course not, sir," I stammered, "Never,"

The German squinted and stared for a long moment before letting go of my chin and stepping back. 

"Good," He grinned a satisfied, toothy grin, "Tell me one more thing then, would you?"

"Of course," I eyed the other man, still holding the loaded luger a few steps away, "Anything to aid Deutschland, sir,"

"They say that a monster lives here," the Gestapo officer said, catching me completely off guard. He gestured with both hands to the woods surrounding the wheat fields around us. "Tell me, is it true? Is there some great and terrible beast in these woods that my men should fear?"

"N-no, sir," I managed to say trying to puzzle out whether he had heard Pawel and me talking the day before somehow, "Just silly local legends," His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. His lip curled into a slight frown. A tense silence hung in the air around us. Finally, after an eternity, his chuckle broke it.

"Of course not!" He laughed, "Only a stupid Jew whoreson would believe such nonsense! Be on your way Mr. Franz, and keep your eyes open for goblins and fairies, hm?" He laughed again and turned to the other man as he waved me away. Both walked back to their vehicle laughing. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as soon as I felt they were out of earshot and hurried on my way to town.

The cobbler was closed when I arrived on the outskirts of town. So was the baker, the tailor, the printer and the barrel maker. The entire town was closed, in fact, and I could see German soldiers marching through the streets even from a distance. People were huddled in the plaza, some holding their families close, others, lined up on their knees. There was no fighting, no rebellion or revolt, only quiet defeat and submission. The fighting was in Warsaw, where some still clung to hope that the Red Army would save them, or that the Royal Air Force would destroy the German occupation forces. They would no doubt be on their knees soon as well though. 

It was already afternoon when I arrived on the hill overlooking the little town,  with the sun beginning to set, but I turned and ran before anyone saw me approach. I ran back to my village as fast as I could, cutting through woods and wheat fields rather than using the road. 

When I got there, it was already dark, but the light of the fires illuminated the little market at the center of the village of Skowronka. There, in the light of the flames, I saw my friends, my neighbor, Ewa, the butcher Igor and his young son, my best friend Pawel next to his drunken father. They were all on their knees as their homes burned around them, a line of men in gray clutching machine guns at their backs and the same perfect Aryan Gestapo officer pacing in front of them. I just stood there and gaped as tears filled the corners of my eyes.

"No…" I whispered, "Please. No…"

Before I knew what was happening, there was a gun at my back and I was being shoved into the lineup of villagers. Tears streamed down my face as I was pushed to my knees next to Pawel. His face was bruised and one of his eyes swollen shut.

The Gestapo officer was shouting over the flames but I did not hear him. He yelled and gestured and delivered his glorious message as though he were Adolf Hitler himself. But I did not hear it. Instead, my mind went to my mother's voice, recorded in some deep dark recess of my memory. They say that a monster lives here, she had said, placing a gentle hand over my heart, a terrible beast that only you can control. Only you can let it loose. Only you can set it free.

And so, I did. I dug down into my self and grabbed a hold of the monster within as I had remembered doing only a few times before in some distant past. I felt the skin fall away from my flesh, replaced with coarse black fur. I felt my limbs grow and elongate. My teeth became fangs. My hands, claws. I could hear further, see clearer, and smell… everything; the sweat and fear of the villagers, the acrid smoke, the shit and piss in the German soldiers' pants. 

I heard the gunshots, felt the bullets biting into my flesh only to be spat back out and the tiny wounds sealed almost instantly. I felt flesh tear between my claws. I smelled the stench of terror as they ran from me. I felt the Gestapo officer's perfect Aryan neck snap like a twig as I tore his throat out with my own teeth. I smelled the blood. Tasted their blood. 

No Nazi patrol ever visited the tiny village of Skowronka in the Polish countryside ever again. They say that that place is haunted. They say that it is cursed. They say, that a monster lives there...

July 10, 2021 03:27

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