In life, we are plagued by the uncertainty of an afterlife, and it is often expected that when we die, everything will suddenly make sense. But when a group of strangers, similar only in their time of death, find themselves in the afterlife, they are faced with more questions than ever before. Are they in Heaven or Hell? If they’re in Heaven, why is there a Nazi wandering around? Why are there no children? If they are in Hell, what universal law did they break? Is there a way to repent and move on to a better eternity? At least one man seems to have some answers. Marcus, a Roman dead for 2,000 years, gains the group’s trust by leading them through the perils of their new reality. But soon it becomes clear that Marcus is only telling them half the story.
L. A. Barnes is public librarian in the southern US. She is a Nerdist podcast listening, South Park loving, Twin Peaks conspiracy theorizing, Stephen King reading and Joss Whedon worshiping geek. The Pit is her first novel. She plans to explore the Watchmaker’s universe through four more novels.
ROLF SENT MORE MEN TO destroy Heinrich. Heinrich swiftly dispatched them to wherever The Dead go on destruction. The next set of two were also Nazis. They were the last of Heinrich’s countrymen Rolf spared to deal with him. The next set was comprised of three men, all Americans in Marine uniforms. Based on their babble coming down the road, they made a habit of Nazi hunting, a habit that attracted Rolf’s attention and admiration. Heinrich had little faith in Rolf up to that point and none after the last Marine was in shards before the waterfall. Interestingly to Heinrich, none of those men ran for the Waterfall when he hurt them. He suspected they had yet to earn the information Heinrich had discovered by chance, that the water would heal their broken or cracked bodies.
The last group that came was comprised of two people in older clothes. The first was a French woman, her absurdly ruffled dress placed her in the revolution era. The second was a small man in blue on blue prison stripes, yet another prisoner bent on Heinrich’s destruction. By their arrival, Heinrich had the counter attack well planned. He always snuck up on Rolf’s people, never giving them the advantage of a surprise attack. Heinrich’s favorite hiding spot was the least interesting area at this end of the worn path. The path that lead to a clearing in front of the pool and its source, the waterfall, also had a small fire. Short stones for sitting ringed the fire, and taller, man-height boulders created a larger ring around the whole area. It was the warmest and coziest spot in Hell. It was also very distracting; once Heinrich entered he felt no reason to leave, assuming that there was no more comfortable location. The fireside area had an entrance, facing the waterfall, and an exit leading to another clearing. That clearing was littered with huge boulders and bordered by Pit Mountain on one side and the rock wall that backed the Waterfall on the other. Heinrich chose to hide behind one of the obliging boulders as it allowed him to hear his opponents coming. Also, the first two groups had stopped to gape at the waterfall. The third settled in at the fire only to have Heinrich surprise them. The man was closer. Heinrich had his head off in an instant. Turning to the woman, he grabbed her by the hair and smashed her head into a tall boulder, intending to behead her as well. Instead, her face cracked severally across her face with her nose caving in. The man started kicking him from behind. As Heinrich turned his attention to the prisoner, the woman made a mad dash for the pool. In a flash, Heinrich had both her and a realization. Rolf had finally sent knowledgeable attackers. These two knew the water would heal them. It ended up taking twice the usual (20 minutes) to destroy these two because they kept escaping and heading for the water. When it was over, Heinrich sat by the fire with shards of his attackers all around him, wondering what to do next.
Solitude for any length of time can make a person’s thoughts wander. Solitude for twenty years can make a person’s thoughts wander to a great many things they might not have thought about otherwise. Prisoners are given great stretches of alone time in the hopes that they will question their crimes and the consequences. In Heinrich’s opinion, he had no crimes to question. However, the next twenty years would leave him very confused. The solitude Heinrich experienced made him more malleable than he’d been since he was a child.
Heinrich’s only task in Hell, as far as he knew, was to sweep up his mess, meaning he needed to sweep away the shards of the people he’d recently destroyed. This took less than an hour after every attack. After that, what was he to do with himself? He often stared into the fire, transfixed. As a child, he’d consoled himself while alone by talking to his brothers who weren’t there. The imagination versions of Gustav, Fritz, Johann, and Leon only said things their earthly equivalents had said in life. As Heinrich played in the garden with his pretend horse (actually an old broom Mama didn’t want any more) he could hear them teasing him for tripping over the same large stone near the back door. He could hear them telling each other dirty jokes he didn’t understand. And at night, he could lie in his bed with the two empty beds near him and hear Johann and Leon whispering in the dark as they’d done every night until they left for the war. In life, their imaginary versions disappeared when he needed them most, when the first telegram arrived telling them Fritz died in a makeshift army hospital of an illness that began as trench foot. The next four telegrams (one for each boy and finally for their papa) put an end to most of Heinrich’s imaginings and playtime. In Hell, he was stunned to find their voices return to him. But after the swell of recognition at hearing them again, the pain of loss swiftly followed. The voices said nothing new. The dirty jokes were the same as when he was a child, even if he could understand them now. He hadn’t realized how silly and immature those jokes were. Everything his brothers said in his imaginings turned out to be immature. After all, they died younger than he had. They didn’t marry or have a baby as he did. They didn’t take care of Mama until her death; that task went to Heinrich. They were frozen forever as boys.
After a year of the seesaw of recognition at something his brothers had said and the pain of their loss, Heinrich deliberately stopped thinking about them. He pushed them out of his thoughts, burying them in a great well of darkness they would not recognize as part of their little brother. As a result, he began remembering other things. These memories came in twos and were unrelated as far as he could tell. One set began with a memory of Mama walking him home from school. Johann and Leon walked ahead with their friends. Mama held Heinrich’s hand as they walked, swinging it back and forth and making him giggle. A little red bug flew onto Mama’s other hand. She brought it down to his eye level for him to see. The bug crawled up the side of her index finger. She turned her hand to keep it upright as it crawled across the back of her hand. A squeamish child, Heinrich reacted to the little creature by making a rude noise. She chided him, raised her hand and gave the little bug a soft blow, encouraging it to fly away.
The opposing memory in this set was of a late night in Berlin. They were sharing an apartment with three other families as fractured as their own. Heinrich and Mama slept in a room that must have been meant for storing coats and shoes as it was shorter than the rapidly growing 14-year-old boy. At night they could hear a couple in the building screaming at each other, the pipe leaking in the wall Heinrich lay his head against and car doors banging outside in the street. Then they heard a small scratch. Mama jumped up, slamming her hand into the floor in frustration at whatever had disturbed her sleep. More scratching came from whatever rodent Heinrich couldn’t see. Mama worked at all hours cleaning the house of anyone who could pay her. She often ate only one meal a day and slept less than six hours at night. This little rodent would not receive any patience from her. Heinrich never saw the act itself. He heard her shuffle for something, later he decided it was a shoe. She whipped the weapon over her head and brought it down hard on the creature, causing a crunch and scream combination noise that sickened Heinrich. Mama had killed the thing and went back to sleep. The next day, Heinrich saw it when they got up. The rat with the crushed skull lay three feet further into the closet (they preferred to lay near the open door as it was warmer). But there was no pool of blood. Even at that young age, Heinrich knew there should have been. He asked Mama about this. She explained that the other rats probably licked it up.
The next set of memories also focused on Mama. Heinrich remembered being in the big house: the one they all shared when Papa was still alive. Because they had so much house and so much land, they were the neighborhood house and often entertained a dozen children, friends of the von Helldorf children. Out in back they even had a pond to swim in during the warmer summer months. Heinrich had a clear memory of standing over that pond the winter after he turned ten. With him was a little girl he didn’t remember knowing. She had a school uniform on under her grey coat with black buttons. He couldn’t remember how they got there or why. But the clear part was the thing he told her to do. He wanted to see what would happen if she tried to walk across the pond. A sheet of ice had covered it for a week, and he thought it would be good for skating. If he walked on it himself, he might fall in and get wet. Mama would be mad if he came back to the house in wet clothes. So the girl doing this for him made total sense. Then Heinrich’s memory jumped. He was pretty sure that the little girl didn’t walk on the ice, but he was positive his mother found out about his suggestion. Sitting at the kitchen table, he received one of the bigger talking- tos he’d had up to that point. This idea of sending someone else on the ice was foolish and dangerous, Mama told him. As she said it, he looked down at his feet floating over the tile floor. If he looked at Mama, he would feel bad. He didn’t want to feel bad. She went on to point out that he could have gotten that girl killed. Death was not unknown to the von Helldorf household even at this early time. True, in a few years it would dominate his and Mama’s lives. But even then, he knew Mama had dead babies before he was born and that that was bad. That made Mama cry. Papa never mentioned it. And if the little girl died, maybe her Mama would cry and her Papa would be quiet. And that would be bad. In the middle of Mama’s speech on foolishness and the dangers of thin ice, Leon came in and asked what the yelling was about. Mama told Leon about Heinrich’s terrible idea. Leon shrugged in response. Why did they care if some neighbor girl got hurt? In a flash, Mama offered the severest punishment she gave the boys: a rap on the head with her wooden spoon. The wooden spoon only came out if the boys had failed to listen multiple times or if they’d crossed a particularly unsavory line. Both Heinrich and Leon were sent to bed with no supper, awaiting their father’s return from work.
Years later, after Heinrich had left the army for the SS, he and Mama shared an apartment in central Berlin. Heinrich helped with what he and his colleagues felt was an evening of necessary retribution against the Jewish population. A young Jewish man had murdered a German diplomat, and after little depth of thought on the matter, Heinrich and his cronies decided to respond with great force. Heinrich came home at dawn, covered in small shards of glass, exhausted and nervously alert at the same time. He assumed as he put his key in the door that Mama would be asleep. Instead, he found her sitting next to the window in the kitchen. She had her robe on with a scarf over her head because sitting all night next to a window in November can be drafty. By the time Heinrich turned on the light, she was almost finished with the piece of bread she was eating. For a moment, he stood there with his hand on the switch. Across the street from their apartment was a shop run by a Jewish couple. Neither he nor Mama had ever spoken to them. Mama didn’t mention knowing them because she didn’t mention them at all. It was like the street held a black hole there that no one could see past. Heinrich’s superiors suggested he destroy that shop personally, as it was near his home and would send a message that the owners were not wanted in his neighborhood anymore. Did Mama watch him throw a stone through the thick glass front of that shop? Did she watch the whole time he ransacked the place? The energy of the expedition and the Group Think suddenly drained out of him. Before he could say anything, she asked if he’d run the shop owners off. Heinrich responded that he was pretty sure they’d run before he got there. Mama shrugged and told him that was good enough. At least they were gone. Even this was offered dispassionately. She’d watched the destruction like she was listening to a radio program that didn’t contain a single performer she connected with or a storyline that engaged her. It was just what was on that night. Her apathy disturbed him for the first time. It had been around for years and would remain until her death. Perhaps the intensity of the night heightened his awareness. Something about Mama’s near non-reaction bothered him. At the time, he brushed it off and didn’t think of it again until he was alone by the fire in Hell.
Thinking about that night led him to think about the camp: the faces of the men he’d guarded swam before him for no reason he could figure out. He didn’t know most of their names; why was he thinking about them at all? They didn’t matter. Why would he even remember them? Perhaps it was a trick of Hell. That had to be it. Something played with his memory, bringing out small moments that didn’t matter. But those faces were so clear. And the memories were worse out of context. Had they all had sunken cheeks? It was true, he didn’t have food to waste on them. If he had anything extra, he gave it to his guards. Even the Red Cross packages for the priests were pointless. They often included wine for communion, a joke of an offering, since it only made the priests and their empty bellies sick. This led him to think about the priest block. They were always praying in there. It was so annoying. He’d told them to stop so many times. He punished them for it. He dragged a couple of them out at roll call for it and shot them in front of their bunkmates. All to no productive end. Their faces swimming before him should have brought out the same annoyance he felt for them on earth. But now, out of context, something felt off. Why had he told them not to pray? He couldn’t actually remember. He knew he didn’t want to listen to it. But that wasn’t the only reason at the time. Was one of the camp commandant’s against it? Maybe that was it. Someone higher up must’ve suggested that it was a problem. Turns out it was a problem Heinrich couldn’t solve in the end. They’d prayed even as he walked out of the camp to commit suicide by enemy soldier.
After twenty long years, Heinrich wondered if he would ever see another person. He almost longed for Rolf to send someone to destroy him again; a fight would enliven his soul. It occurred to him that he could seek out Otto. But was Otto still around? It seemed unlikely. Rolf wanted Heinrich destroyed for no reason that was clear to him. Perhaps that’s where he lead the other Nazis he’d recruited—to some closed location where he could dispatch of them easily. Seeking out Otto was pointless. Better to stay, immobile, staring at the fire.
Heinrich sat by the fireside area when the second greatest shift of his existence occurred. The first was the loss of his father and brothers in World War I. The second was the arrival of the most important woman of Heinrich’s afterlife. She rode the Waterfall down from The Gate in borrowed clothes. Heinrich’s reverie while staring at the fire finally ended when he heard the splash.
Naturally, he rushed over to see what had happened. At the bottom of the pool, a bald woman held herself in the same cannon ball she’d been in when she rode down the waterfall. Through the waves of the water, Heinrich recognized her uniform: blue on blue stripes. Without opening her eyes, she leaned her head back and stretched out of her ball. Reaching out with every limb, she took up the entire floor of the pool. Opening her eyes, she looked curiously up at the man in the SS uniform.
For a moment, Heinrich didn’t know what to do. He’d wanted someone to talk to or even fight with, but he didn’t ask for another prisoner. The prisoners on the 7 o’clock platform had wanted to harm him. From that, Heinrich could assume she must want the same. So he had someone to fight with. But the way she looked at him was all wrong—not confrontational. Her eyes were soft and curious. There was no hint of recognition in them. Indeed, he was positive he’d never met her in life. However, there was also nothing hateful in her expression. And there should be. He knew, back on Earth, that the prisoners hated him. The prisoners hating him when he arrived on the 7 o’clock platform was not a surprise. And he didn’t care that these degenerates hated him because of course they would. The lack of hate with which she looked at him was stunning. What was he meant to do with that?
What he chose to do baffled him for many years to come. In response to the sudden presence of this stranger, Heinrich ran away.
“Oh, how nice,” he heard the woman call out once she’d entered the fireside area. He was hiding a few yards away in a crevice in Pit Mountain. It was deep enough to conceal him and his gun. Perhaps the fireside would distract her. Then Heinrich could…what? Attack her? For some reason he didn’t feel compelled to do so. Attacking the men and woman who’d come after him, clearly sent by Rolf, made total sense. They walked up discussing his demise and the rewards they would receive for it. But this woman had entered the area so strangely, he was put off. Plus, she was alone. Who would come to destroy him by themselves?
He heard her soft footsteps as she left the fireside and entered the clearing beyond. She gave a low whistle.
“Here, Nazi. Here little Nazi. Where did you go?” she called to him in German.
So she was there to kill him. Perhaps she wouldn’t find him. For some reason, he didn’t want to fight her. For one, she was small and slight. The uniform hung off her like adult clothes on a child. For another, her manner was explorative, not hunter-esque. The others who’d come for him held their shoulders back and constantly looked around for any threat. This woman swayed on the balls of her feet and made a pouting, curious expression as she looked for him, her fingers intertwined in front of her.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” she called out, answering his question.
What to do with this approach? Believe her? That seemed foolish.
She wandered into his vision. He tried sinking further back into the darkness. With a dozen feet between them, she probably couldn’t see him.
“Is that you?” She squinted into the darkness. “You don’t have to hide.”
Heinrich grasped his rifle closer to him.
“Ah look you have a gun.” She shrugged. “Bullets don’t hurt me anymore friend. You might as well put that away.”
She sat down in front of him, more than an arm’s length away.
“What do you do here?” she asked.
“Just sitting here feeling sorry for yourself?” she asked.
“No,” cried Heinrich, indignantly.
“No,” she mocked. “You sound like my brother.” She laughed.
She was older, maybe 50. Despite this, she had a nice broad face with dark eyebrows and pretty brown eyes. Her nose threatened to overtake everything else but failed in doing so. Maybe it was the mirth in her eyes that fought back against it. Or maybe Heinrich was overly conscious of noses.
“This is his uniform,” she explained in response to a question he had not asked. “I died in the nude. At Auschwitz.”
Heinrich had no response to this other than his continued questioning of her presence.
“If you die in the nude, you arrive at The Gate in the nude, you know,” she explained. “My mother was shocked. And my brother gave me his uniform, rather than let me run around like that.”
Heinrich finally knew what he wanted to say. He wanted to ask her what The Gate was. But he was still too stunned she was talking to him to find the courage to speak in response.
“Did you have brothers?” she asked, lowering her head to match his slouchy position.
Heinrich held up four fingers.
“Ah, a big German family.” She shrugged. “I’m the oldest of seven.”
It was something Heinrich thought so much about and then tried not to think about that it became something he couldn’t stop himself from talking about.
“My brothers,” he began, “died in the great war.”
In response to his words, she smiled. “My grandfather died in that war. And my father was decorated.”
Heinrich snorted in surprise and disbelief.
“It’s true.” She sat up straighter. “We are very proud of our sacrifices for Germany,” she offered with full irony.
Heinrich thought this woman might be insane. Also, the world had just gone tilty and confusing. How were Jews in the German Army during the Great War? And why? And how did that play out? Were they forced in? But then how would her father be decorated? Maybe she was delusional? Or had her grandfather died in some other embarrassing way and she’d been lied to? Or was she lying?
“I am confused,” Heinrich mumbled.
She laughed. “Imagine how confused I was when they shaved my head.”
That statement unsettled him. The imagery was suddenly disturbing. He couldn’t remember if the imagery of shaving the head of Jews at Auschwitz had bothered him while he was alive. In reality, he’d known that fact and chosen not to think about it.
“What is your name, friend?” she asked with the irony he felt should lay on the last word.
“I am Heinrich,” he answered.
“It is nice to meet you Heinrich. My name is Deborah Molinsky.”