Sojourn

            “There aren’t going to be many other opportunities to go.” Sara rubbed my hand with her thumb. It really showed just how much younger she was.

            “Why not?” I asked, wryly. “Just because I look like an old, leather shoe doesn’t mean I am one.”

            Sara leaned back, grinning with a similar demeanor. “You don’t even look like one,” she said. “Leather is darker.”

            I reacted with a guttural laugh, using enough force to cough. Wheeze.

            “I told you that you’ve got to quit smoking.” She looked out the window, tracking a leaf that twirled through the autumn breeze. “And that doesn’t mean you should go cold turkey. Do it at your own pace, at a decrescendo.”

            “You know, using music terminology isn’t going to sway me one way or the other, kiddo.” I folded my hands on my gut as it rose and fell. “Also, you’re bargaining for too many things. Pick one.”

            “Alright, alright,” she said, averting her gaze from the panel of grey light. “You can smoke all you’d like, but—”

            “I’d better be able to at eighty-eight.”

            She chuckled at my dismay. “I’ll take care of everything, Grandpa. The tickets, the food, hotel, all the travel in-between.”

            “You’ve got the money for that?”

            She shrugged her shoulders, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “I’ve been saving up.”

            “When I was finally let out of that place, Sara, the first thing I said to myself was—”

            “That you’d one day, be able to have me around.”

            “So, why would I want to return?” I snapped. Or, at least I tried to snap. It felt like I was begging with my mother if she were still alive. “I understand I’m going backwards; I’ll be in diapers soon for goodness sake. But that place,” I murmured, shaking my head, “is worse than prison.”

            The radiator, which clung to the wall just under the window—beside my violin case—hissed and sputtered. It filled the void only momentarily.

            Sara sat a little more formally. Crossed one leg over the other as if she were about to tell a sick patient they were going to die. She reached out again, placing her hand on mine. “I’m not going to say I know what it was like. Seriously, I won’t. But from what I’ve read, many survivors have gotten closure by visiting. It is a different place now.”

            I looked into my granddaughter’s eyes. Past the dark iris. Past the youth and inherent naivety. I saw nothing but purity. Tenderness.

            “And I’ll be there with you.”

***

            Those metal jaws were gone. The wire had lost its shine. Smog didn’t lace the sky in a never-abating, dark cloud. Grass replaced the once upheaved piles of dirt, shimmering in the new sun that epitomized the sky.

            Even though swathes of people meandered about, reading the various plaques, the air was mostly silent. Only the crunching of gravel sounded in a messy rhythm.

            It was just as sullen as it was then, only now a mirror was held to that sullenness.

            Sara accompanied me at the arm, the crook of her elbow locked with mine.

            That consistent, physical pain that I felt—at my age, you know how it is—lifted. It is the only span of time that I ever felt a release in pain. In anguish. Like I stood over the corpse of my enemy, which had crumbled to a sad semblance of a skeleton with ribs that could be crushed with pinching fingers. But through the shards of bone flowers sprouted. Like the skull had been called home by a squirrel.

            Like that yellow, warm sun encouraged it all to take place.

            And I kept my composure, sure. Even as I walked through the empty halls, vast barrack rooms, and cavernous gas chambers. Every inch, I reminded myself, is someone’s grave.

            But what broke me—what shattered me like a chef’s thumb to an eggshell—was when I traversed the corner and saw the courtyard. When the images flooded my skull and hit my soul. I fell to my knees.

            “Grandpa!” Sara cried.

            I tapped her forearm with my kinked fingers, just to let her know I was alright.

            She knelt beside me, glancing up to the scenery, where I too gazed. “That’s where you played for them,” she whispered. “Isn’t it?”

            I nodded. That memory, projected before me through a dusty but crystal-clear lens, caused me to wretch with tears. That empty courtyard was a shrewd reminder of the time my tender passion collided with ultimate darkness.