Ashes to ashes was the only promise any of them had.
January 18, 2014
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
Shiman Kreisler leaned over the fireplace and scattered the embers with his ancient metal poker, sending sparks like fireflies across the room. His shoulders were slumped and fragile, his shrinking face glowing red in the firelight. His wire-framed spectacles hung on the edge of his nose, and he had a noticeable sore on his right cheek.
Maybe a cancer.
Maybe a bug bite.
It had bled earlier in the day and was beginning to fester.
Kreisler kept the war outside with the cold, which is where it belonged, and ignored the sounds of lives as they were stolen, traded, and lost as if they were little more second-hand merchandise in the hands of a pawn broker. He heard the armies come and go, and felt the earth tremble beneath his feet when the big guns pounded the broken streets of dalldorf.
The old man had not run with the others.
He knew that someday the Germans would be coming for him.
But for now, he was little more than a cockroach that remained just out of reach of their boots. He was easy to find and would be easy to kill. In the meantime, no one of any consequence bothered himself about the life and times of Shiman Kreisler.
The old man regarded each new day as a gift, and the fear left him the day he realized his had been given more new days than most.
He didn’t mind the final day dawning.
It was the unknown that complicated what was left of his life.
Kreisler had long ago made peace with his plight and spent a few of his days and most of his nights waiting to die and leave behind the agony of a tormented life torn apart by piety, prejudices, and man’s desire to destroy what he had built and burn what he could not civilize.
He had scratched the festering sore, and the blood had dried just below his earlobe. He had not washed his face for a while, and his clothes smelled of sweat and stale smoking tobacco.
A pack of Russian cigarettes lay on a table beneath the lamp.
He reached for one.
“My one pleasure and my final sin,” Kreisler said with an apologetic smile. He lit the cigarette with a burning ember from the fireplace.
He closed his eyes and inhaled long and deep.
“Have you seen the painting?” asked Lincoln.
Kreisler shook his head. “No,” he said, “and, unless my memory has dimmed, I don’t believe Ascher ever saw the Night Side of Dark either. He had listened to Orren Gertner talk about it during their brief time together in the camp at Sachsenhausen, and Orren convinced him of its existence, but he had no idea about where it might be, who had it, or if the painting had already been packed away in some German’s private collection.”
“Do you belief it exists?”
“Ascher thinks I do.”
“And that’s why he sent me to find you.”
“I have always admired Ascher,” Kreisler said, “and, if truth be told, you could say that I love him, but more like a kindred spirit than anything else. I certainly respect him.” The old man shrugged as though life had passed him by before he knew it was leaving. He sat puffing on his cigarette. “But Ascher has been known to lie to me.” Kreisler laughed. “And I have not always told him the truth either.”
“About art. About the war. About the Nazi propaganda..” Kreisler dropped the cigarette butt to the floor and ground the ashes with the heel of his shoe. “Mostly, it was about women,” he said.
Kreisler laughed out loud. He had not done so in a long time.
“Is what they say about the painting true?” Lincoln wanted to know.
“These tales have been around since before my time and will be here after my time has passed,” Kreisler said, “The stories are always a little different and always full of mystique and mystery. Of course, that’s what happens when a legend is passed from generation to generation, from century to century.”
“What is the version you know?” Lincoln asked.
Kreisler reached for another cigarette. “ Rumor has it that the Ebionites took possession of the painting near the end of the first century, then lost it to Simon Bar Kokhba around 133 A. D.,” he said. “It was during a rebellion that tore apart the feuding factions between Judaism and Christianity, and they are feuding still.”
“Possession is power, or so I’ve been told.”
“You have been told correctly. Kokhba was a Jewish leader who tried to pass himself off as the Messiah. Claimed he had the power to restore Israel to power and prominence. He failed.” Kreisler walked across the room, pulled a letter from his top desk drawer, and placed it on the desk. He pressed out the wrinkles.
“Snake oil salesmen always do,” Lincoln said.
“Kokhba wasn’t selling snake oil,” Kreisler said.
“He was selling the snakes.” Kreisler shrugged matter-of-factly. “The Ebionites never bought the power that Kokhba was selling,” he said. “They had their own Messiah, a man who called himself Jesus. The Ebionites believed he rose up to become the Son of God during those holy moments of his baptism, transfiguration, and resurrection.”
“Sounds like Kokhba may have been a little jealous,” Lincoln said, forcing a smile he didn’t feel. It was politics as usual.
“The Christians in those days did not have a lot to hang on to, I guess.”
“Except the painting.”
“Everyone associated with the time of Jesus on earth was long dead,” Kreisler said. “None of the eyewitnesses were still around. Stories handed down from one family to another were fading. Church leaders destroyed all sorts of letters and manuscripts that might condemn them. Christians were always facing certain torture and death by kings and warlords who wanted to be lord.”
“He was one of many.” Kreisler shook his head. “The believers were all out trying to lay their hands on any miracle they could find.”
“Like the painting.”
“Like the Night Side of Dark.”
Lincoln sat quietly and began to sort through the information that had been crammed into his mind. An empty memory bank could soak up a lot of knowledge. It had a lot of holes to fill.
Kreisler waited for him to respond.
Lincoln watched the fire dying in the logs until nothing was left but the ashes.
Ashes to ashes.
It was the last truth only promise that any of them had.
Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on Saturday and Sunday.
Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.