Midday, standing on the gray, vinyl floor of his small kitchen in Chicago’s West Side, Ozzie took a can of sardines from the cabinet and pried open the top. His flannel robe hung loose, exposing gnarled blue veins running down his legs. He stood motionless as he stared into the tin. His breathing became deep and labored. He was transfixed by the small fish, lying adjacent to one another, head to tail, and neatly stacked layer upon layer.
There was no one to bear witness but the heavy trees surrounding them. “Please, my gold fillings … take them as a gift,” Ozzie begged. The Russian soldier offered a slight nod as he pointed his Mosin’s bolt-action rifle in Ozzie’s direction.
“Quickly.” He smirked. “The Nazi’s are coming.”
The forest bellowed as Ozzie pried each rooted cradle, a fortune from its socket. His bloodied knife fell to the earth. He lowered his head and cupped his mouth in silence.
“Still think you’re the chosen people?” the soldier asked.
Before getting an answer, he struck Ozzie’s head with the butt of his rifle and shoved him into the river.
The currents engulfed Ozzie, forced water into his lungs as he tumbled toward his fate. In a place where the sun and stars slid by, where the riverbank’s roots reached in and out of existence, the torrents pulled Ozzie past jagged rocks and swirling whirlpools. Once the river became a stream and the stream fell behind him, he took a deep breath and found himself ornamented with drowning lilies, leaves and fallen branches. He awoke to specks of light surrounded by snow capped mountains. He was floating in a body of water named Neutrality.
“A Jew! a Jew!” yelled three peasant boys just a few years older than Ozzie.
Ozzie ran past a Russian soldier whose left hand clutched a young blond girl’s neck. The soldier’s moans, like coffin hinges creaking closed, put all hope to rest. The boys threw rocks and one hit Ozzie’s back as he turned into an area of low buildings used as warehouses. For a moment, as he turned another corner into an alley, he was unseen. “Hurry,” one boy shouted. “That vermin will disappear into the sewers!”
Ozzie slipped through a space where a door had been pulled from its jamb. An earthy mushroom odor ruptured his senses. Fallen wooden beams forced Ozzie to scurry on his hands and knees toward the darkness. A cold, heavy smell of rotten meat and feces began to overwhelm Ozzie’s eyes and nostrils. For a heartbeat, as his vision adjusted to the darkness, he forgot about his pursuers.
Sunken cataract eyes stared up at him. Bloated pale blue bodies were stacked in neat rows like sardines. It was a refuge where he rested for moments that seemed eternal.
Brian Katz grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives outside of Dallas with his wife, two kids, and two doodles. His work as a financial services executive also took him to Boston, New York, and San Francisco. All the while, he has been a writer. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. He won an honorable mention in the Atlantic Monthly’s Annual Fiction Contest, and is published in a few literary journals such as The Ledge.