By on Sep 25, 2020 in Fiction

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There were wolves in the forest because there were wolves on the beer steins.

“No,” his father said. “If Hitler did one good thing it was to kill all the wolves.”

“Hitler didn’t kill the wolves,” his mother said, “and he didn’t do anything good.”

“It’s a joke,” his father said.

“It’s not funny,” his mother said.

His mother had pink cheeks like the Hummel dolls she kept on a shelf. When his father said something she didn’t like, her cheeks became brighter. Her cheeks became brighter when his father said he was going to make her wear lederhosen and no top. He put his hands on her chest and said, “It’s okay, because the straps will cover these.”

George wasn’t allowed to see his mother in the morning. But one time he did, and her cheeks weren’t pink.          

The Black Forest wasn’t black. It was mostly green, except for the clearing where the circus had camped. George wanted to go to the clearing to see the circus.

“It’s not a circus,” his mother said. “It’s a Gypsy camp.”                       

George’s mother warned him to stay away.

“Everybody knows they steal children. Then they never see their parents again.” 

His father scoffed.

“They’d never kidnap the son of a United States Air Force officer. Anyway, the MP’s will make the Polizei run them off.”

Afterwards, George would wonder why the German Polizei had to do what the American Military Police told them what to do. The badge on the chest of the policeman who had blue eyes like his father had said “Franz.” But the MP called him “Fritz.” Franz was bigger than the MP, but Franz looked nervous. Franz was the one sweating.


Decades later, the panic from when everything was black would return sometimes in the middle of the night. But it was fleeting in his house in California. Because of the streetlamps, the night wasn’t truly black.

Here, on top of the mountain in Tanzania, there were no streetlamps. George had shattered his watch during a fall as he and Helen and their interpreter hiked up the mountain. His wrist no longer ached as he lay in the tent beside Helen. But the blackness was absolute, because the face of his watch had stopped giving off light; and Helen had presented their wind-up flashlight to the Barabaig couple, now sleeping in their mud hut a few yards away.

Helen slept, her lifelong dream of Africa fulfilled. George had to put his face next to hers to hear her breathe. He’d been able to put the absoluteness blackness of the night out of his mind as they listened to the Barabaig man and one of his wives laugh at its whine and then laugh again as, miraculously, the light came on. Now he needed distraction from the absoluteness blackness, but nothing came to him. The miracle of the stars was outside if he could bring himself to unzip the tent. But he’d heard that body parts—including faces—exposed by the unsecured flaps of their sleeping owners’ tents could become meals for hyenas.

George decided to unzip the tent, but only a crack. He felt a gratitude he’d never felt before for the stars. He found he could revisit with something approaching objectivity his fifty-year-old memory of absoluteness blackness. Fifty years was an estimate. His parents had never spoken to him of the incident. During some twenty years under their roof—or the roof of one or the other of them—he had perhaps never come to know his parents well. Nevertheless, he’d known them well enough to understand their view that unpleasant memories were likely to vanish if one didn’t mention them. He thought the year had been 1956, because the incident was associated in his mind with memories of his father talking about how he hoped the Dodgers would win the World Series again. His father was from Seattle, but he was a great admirer of Jackie Robinson for breaking the color line. George recalled him saying many times that this would probably be Jackie’s last season, and he deserved to win another one.

At first George thought the Gypsies had buried him alive. He gasped for air. He touched his forehead. He felt the bump. His headache was bad. His hand moved forward into space. Only his feet touched something. He wasn’t in a coffin. He was standing.

He smelled death. The Gypsies had killed others. He reached to the sides and touched nothing. His foot probed the floor. It touched something. He rubbed his shoe on the small corpse. He heard movement behind him. The second rat was alive.

He surged forward. A blow to his chest stopped him. He grabbed what had struck him. His hands moved along it. He was spread-eagled like a crucified man. The Gypsies had locked him in a pen in a slaughterhouse. His hands were on a bar.

He heard footsteps and saw the light from a flashlight. He would fight.


With the children grown up and gone, Helen had said she would need something more in her life, and because she had dreamt of Africa forever and was the kind of person who believed in dreams, she thought she might find it there. George had never dreamt of Africa. But he loved Helen, so he was there with her now. 

George gazed at the miracle of the stars. He thought he would smell the hyenas if he couldn’t hear them. He unzipped the tent the whole way and stepped into the starry night, thinking his heart could beat as fast as it wanted to, but he would stay outside. He reached inside the tent and found his jacket, because he remembered exactly where he’d left it. He put the jacket on and pulled his sleeping bag out and stepped into it and sat on the ground. He zipped the sleeping bag partway so that he could sit up. He wanted to stay awake because of the hyenas. The night was cold but not freezing. His jacket was warm.  


When he thought the Gypsies had stolen him it wasn’t cold, because it was summer. But when he saw the light from the flashlight, he began to shake. Then he heard his father’s voice and other voices that didn’t sound like Gypsies, because he’d heard their language wasn’t human. Strong arms hoisted him out of the holding pen. His father was saying they needed to get him home, because his mother was hysterical.

Later, George would recall jumping into the excavation beneath the ground floor of the house on the edge of the forest near the Gypsy camp. He’d struck his head and gotten a bump. Before he understood this and as his father asked if he was all right, he heard the MP and Franz talking about the Gypsies. Franz said they hadn’t done anything, and the MP said it didn’t matter, because they were the niggers of Europe.

Much later, George would recall that his mother had been too upset to take part in the search when his father began saying that she liked Hummel dolls, because they were as fragile as she was. George would need some time to understand the ways in which his father displeased his mother, because she did not express her objections. At her angriest, she would set her mouth in a thin hard line and speak to no one.


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Don Stoll and his wife have a Tanzanian nonprofit ( whose founding is fictionalized in "Black," one of a number of short stories he's published since September 2018, including "Hanged Man", "The Prescription of Stoning", "Lucid", and "Drag". He has often wished he inherited a love of the Dodgers like the protagonist of "Black," except in 2010, 2012, and 2014. He is by inheritance a Giants fan.