What choice would you have made? Julia is a new short story from Madeleine Rose Jones. Inspired from a moment in ‘Ordinary Men‘, Christopher Browning’s unflinching depiction of war, ‘Julia‘ is not an easy read. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy this story.
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There she lies, her blood staining the wooden floor. Open eyes staring into nothing. Julia. Why must you die? Outside, gunfire goes on. Bullets fly out of machines, piercing the hearts of the old and the young. Women scream out their husbands’ names as the Germans slaughter them. One by one, the men lie down. Some might pray, some might cry, but all of their last moments are helpless. The Poles look at their executioners or at the dirt, never at each other. Every face is a sign of the upcoming butchering. Thus, the lost men tune out the world. Only when they ignore everything can they discover peace. The SS officer walks behind, firing his pistol into the minds of the men I once knew.
I shut my eyes to forget the bloodshed. Think of happiness, think of joy. All I see is my daughter. Julia. She’s alive and smiling, expressing her plan to marry and have children. Her grin is wide and her cheeks kindle with ebullience. A nearby fire crackles while heating the living room, a reminder of her radiant life.
‘I’m looking forward to spending more time with you, Father,’ she says with her sweet voice.
The bright future ahead of Julia is no more. She lingers as a dream, a memory, a fantasy, an idealisation. Photographs on the wall capture her life, but reality depicts her death.
I open my eyes.
The cloth over Julia’s stomach is red, no longer its gorgeous ivory. A factory manufactures white fabric to clean up dirt. If only I could scrub away all the existing grime. If only Julia didn’t die.
The sounds of tank engines and fired gunpowder become fainter, but they never disappear. Peril always lurks. At night, it takes the form of a drunk SS officer, chucking his bottle through a window, or an off-duty German urinating in the woods. I still fear them at their weakest. We do not only fear vulnerability in ourselves, but also in our enemies.
My watch ticks. Three o’clock. One hour ago, I lost her. As she died, the universe went silent. I recall these events with dread…
My daughter slept until the Germans approached. The noise woke her up. She rushed downstairs, but it was too late to stop the slaughter. An officer entered and clutched his arms around her. To my regret, I froze in shock. No, no, no. Not Julia. We didn’t break any rules; we always behaved well towards the Germans.
Maybe I could talk our way out of this situation, and there’d be a happy ending.
‘Please, let my daughter go,’ I begged.
Julia resisted the German’s grasp. ‘Let me go!’ she said.
Stupid of her. Unforgivable in the eyes of the SS. The officer ignored her demand and wrapped his arm around her neck. The German was tall and imposing against Julia’s small and skinny frame.
‘Tell your daughter to stop moving,’ the SS officer commanded.
‘Julia, please. We shouldn’t hurt him,’ I said, but it was too late. Julia bit the SS officer’s hand and the man snapped. He shoved Julia to the floor, where her face lit up with rage. I saw what would happen next: my daughter’s death. The SS officer saw it, too. He pulled a pistol out of his coat and pointed it at Julia. Then, the officer took two steps back and turned towards me.
I wonder what he saw, how pathetic I must’ve looked. Helplessness is a shameful state, and I was not a caged mouse. I glared at him and witnessed a man not aware of his violence. Maybe I could talk him out of killing Julia, and he’d leave us alone.
A fool’s hope.
Julia broke her cradle-like posture. She pushed her body out of the pistol’s sight and slowly tried to get up. Before she could, the SS officer came over and kicked her down.
‘Stupid bitch,’ the SS officer said.
‘Leave me alone, you Szkop,’ Julia spat out. ‘Get it over with. You’re scum. Kill me, because I’ll never see you in heaven.’
Julia glanced at me with pride, but I did not return her look. She made a grievous mistake. Ever since she was a baby, Julia’s feisty behaviour turned people away. Her mother, however, appreciated it. ‘She’s like me,’ my wife said, on Julia’s third birthday.
Tension curled up inside as Julia’s actions mortified me. She looked to me because she wanted someone, anyone, to be proud of her. Everyone else offering that had perished.
‘My daughter did not mean to say that. She’s sorry…’ I said, but the SS officer did not listen. He pressed his pistol on Julia’s forehead. A blazing anger germinated on his face.
Julia’s fiery resolution morphed into fear. Her rasp panting got quicker, as her death loomed near.
‘Please….’ Julia begged. ‘I don’t want to die.’
The SS officer did not respond to her. Instead, he looked towards the family patriarch. Me.
‘You have a choice,’ the SS officer said. ‘I’ll kill you or your daughter.’
My eyes did not blink, and my nerves felt like land mines.
How does one respond to such a choice? You could take the honourable role and die for a loved one. At the time, I didn’t want to die. Rather, I desired life. I wanted a quiet existence, one without interruption or bloodshed. Fears of death, pain, afterlife torment and judgement lurked as considerations then. But Julia. My only daughter, my only family member left. There’s no way she could live without me; she’s too reckless and dependent. Julia could not stop her loud tears and wails.
‘If you don’t answer, I’m killing both of you,’ the SS officer said.
To my shame, I couldn’t look at Julia. Why can’t we face the reality of our choices?
‘Don’t kill me,’ I said. Julia let out one final, painful scream. All the SS officer had to do was fulfil it.
He fired into Julia’s head and she collapsed. I glared at the SS officer’s speechless face. What shocked him? Was it his actions, or mine? The SS officer marched out with no further comment.
Numb and defeated, I couldn’t hold the anguish any longer. I went over to my daughter and sobbed, distraught at what I had done. I did not fire the pistol, but I gave the command. Me. The father of Julia. I know, with utter certainty, that if my wife were alive today, she’d hate me. And she’d have the justification to do so.
Muffled footsteps erupt outside but no one comes in. Why would they? All they’d see is a broken man holding a broken body.
My watch ticks again, a reminder of what tomorrow will bring.
The SS will come back tomorrow, and they’ll collapse any skull. Later, their dogs will sniff the carcasses while they rob the deceased. If I’m dead, what will they take of me? My handkerchief, my glasses, my flask or my photos? It’s easy to chide a man attached to his possessions, but they’re all I’ve got. A few hours ago, an alive Julia lay in my arms as I promised safety to her youthful ears. I lied, but she heard the music of a comforting father. Every word I muttered to her was lies. I love you. I’ll take care of you. Don’t you know I’ll die for you?
Out the nearby window, it snows. It’s peaceful, but not heavy enough to blind sight. The small flakes dance and whirl in the winter of today. Julia adored Poland’s snowy winters, unless she had to shovel. Afterwards, she’d sit under the casement, with a book nearby, and watch time pass. She’d ask questions about my thoughts on the books she read, or local politics. I’d reply with a few words, expressing my disinterest. Julia would go silent for a few moments, before snapping back into reading.
I gulped. In another life, Julia would have a father who’d die for her and never get bored with her presence. But we don’t live in another life, we only live in this world. We devote seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years thinking about alternate realities. Has such thinking ever changed anything? Or made life any less painful? None of the questions I’ve asked today have satisfying answers.
The shards of a crushed grandfather clock lie on the floor. Once, a family lived in this house, with the soul of a wife and daughter. With fondness, I recall Julia hugging her mother as if tomorrow held no sorrow.
Her optimism turned melancholic in the following two years as news of warfare and death crowded our house. Her mother, my wife. The neighbours. Her childhood crush. All slain, like cattle in a slaughterhouse. Only her faith in her father endured, and she clung on to it.
‘I promise to keep you safe,’ I told Julia the night after the Germans marched into Poland. I did not see what would happen next. All my family dead and gone, while I remain.
My house has knives and rope. No one will ever notice my departure. It wouldn’t hurt, unlike the slaughter of Julia. I did this, and I must pay. Don’t you know I’ll die with you?
I’ll never leave you. I shut my eyes and Julia appears, giving flowers to neighbours. She walks along the garden with a sunshine disposition. It’s a springtime of love and new beginnings. My wife is also there, and she looks at her family with pride. Julia notices and smiles before giving her father a corn poppy.
‘It’s for you,’ Julia says. ‘Today is beautiful, like everyone.’
‘I love you,’ I say. ‘And I’ll never leave you.’
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