Ernst Meyer, 89 year old pensioner and sole occupant of room 26, Twilights Retirement Home, was awake.
He had woken suddenly, drenched in sweat and breathing fast. A slight pain beat time in his chest, but it was not the pain that had awakened him. At least, not that pain.
His eyes adjusted slowly to the half-dark of the room and the shadows and shapes slowly resolved themselves from some vague echo of the dreamscape into real, everyday things - wardrobe, bedside-table, armchair. He took a deep sharp breath - something silvery like a phantom danced before him near the ceiling. Then he almost smiled. Tinsel. Of course, it was only the tinsel hung up by the staff at the home for Christmas. But Christmas had no power over the nightly tortures. In fact..... he shuddered.
"Bad dream?" asked the voice who shared his single room.
Ernst did not answer but nodded. It was too soon to talk.
He'd been having the dreams now for almost seventy years. Not every night. Most nights. Yet they still had this power over him - seventy years on they could still tear him apart. He wondered if it would ever change.
"Tell me" said the voice soothingly, "in your own time".
Ernst lay back onto the bed and closed his eyes but opened them almost immediately. Too much was still there waiting to be seen by closed eyes. Horrors that only holidayed in the shadows lived in the sight of closed eyes. He looked over to the visitor's chair and regarded the man who now sat there. He wavered, in the chair, like something out of a dream - but then so did the chair. Everything wavered when a dream tears you from very sleep itself.
"Yes" he said at length. "Another bad dream". Then he corrected himself. "The same bad dream".
"I thought that it might be so" said the man gently. He paused for a moment and then asked, as he had for so many years, "Do you want to tell me about it?"
Ernst Meyer, dreamer of bad dreams, always said no, thank you but no. There was a risk - a terror - that talking about the dream might in some way bring it into the world as some objectively existing fact - and he couldn't face that. So he always said no. Some things were best imprisoned - at least as much as he could imprison them.
Tonight, however, he did not say no. Perhaps it was the pain in his chest which had been worsening of late; perhaps it was the fact that it was Christmas; perhaps it was simply that he was tired of running.
"I'd" he began and hesitated. He took a breath and continued "I'd like to tell you about it".
The man showed no sign of interest - nor disinterest. He simply regarded Ernst thoughtfully for a moment and then said "You want to tell me about your dream? Of course, I'll be glad to hear you - but only if you're ready" said the man.
Ernst Meyer, swallowed hard and then, despite the dark, nodded. "Yes" he said. "Yes, I think I am". For whatever reason, the time had come. It was time to unlock the cage.
"Go on" said the man, "but in your own time. For you," he added, "I have as much time as you need"
In fact, not much time was needed - the dream itself was very short, its real power lay in its intensity.
"I'm holding my child - my son" began Ernst. "Not in my arms but with my hand clasped upon his and he is dangling about a foot above the ground from that hand. He's crying and screaming but" and Ernst felt the sickness and horror of the dream as he gave it life in words and he almost stopped. Almost. It took a few moments to continue but his friend calmly waited in silence. After a moment or two, Ernst continued. "He stops screaming and looks up at me and " then almost spitting the words out he continued "and I shoot him dead. I shoot him dead". Tears began to run down the face of Ernst Meyer and he buried his head in his hands.
There was a deep silence in which neither spoke for a good minute. Finally, his friend said to him "But you didn't kill your son did you". It was not a question - it was a statement.
Ernst Meyer, old man and father, lifted his head from his tear sodden hands and looked at the man in the chair. "No" he said. "My son is alive - he comes here every week to visit me". Ernst held out his hands, palm upwards, towards his friend as if to show off the lack of bloodstains. "I didn't kill my son. Only in the dream". And he repeated the words again, as much to himself as any other "Only in the dream".
There was another silence in which Ernst thought much but said little until suddenly as if the words exploded from his very mouth he cried "I need to tell you what I didn't dream."
It was 1943 and by accounts a good year. Certainly he was doing OK and the war - if you could believe the propaganda machine - was going pretty well too. He was due for leave, starting Christmas Day, and expected to be home with his wife and son by the afternoon - just in time for their Christmas meal. Not withstanding the war, everything was perfect.
Ernst Meyer, father and good soldier, had drawn duty in one of the camps. It was not up to a soldier to pick and choose their posting, but had he picked he would certainly not have chosen that. Jews! He could see why they were so unpopular. Dirty, smelly, lousy and they looked like animals. 'The Zoo' he called it when he went home on leave. And he was a zoo keeper. They used to laugh at that, him and his wife.
But there, on duty, he found little to amuse him. Laughter in the camp was born not of humour but of hate.
It was not that the 'things' that he guarded drew any real compassion from him - they were after all just the final remnants of an evolutionary mistake. In fact they were more like hideous caricatures of people than people themselves. Never-the-less, sometimes - when his thinking was unguarded - he might almost has thought them human. But such thoughts were dangerous.
"Dogs are dogs and rats are rats" the camp Commandant would tell him. "and jews are jews. But what you have to remember Meyer, is that dogs don't pretend to be anything else. It's the same with the rats. Rats don't pretend to be horses do they!" and the Commandant would laugh his big hearty laugh. It was the hearty laugh of someone who might easily shoot you dead if you gave them the slightest reason - or even if you didn't. It escaped neither Ernst nor anyone else that laughing and shooting you dead could come only seconds apart with the Commandant.
"And that's the problem with the jew" he continued, "they pretend to be human" and there was no sign of mirth now - neither feigned nor genuine. "That's what makes them worse than dogs, worse than rats."
It was Christmas eve and Ernst Meyer, Camp Guard, was on duty. Snowflakes tumbled from the sky, turning the whole camp white. Ernst tried to forget that it was not proper snow but the hard dry snow that knew nothing of ice nor water nor melting. He thought of his wife and son readying the home for Christmas Day - she would be cooking already and he no doubt helping her as only a two year old child could. Feelings of warmth and celebration began to burn in him and his heart beat a fraction faster in anticipation of his coming leave.
A tug on his trousers also had the effect of tugging him back into reality. He looked down to see a young child at his feet. It was a dirty, half-starved, jewish boy. So engrossed had he been in his own thoughts that he had almost trodden on it. An older female, presumably the mother, stood some way off screaming hysterically - presumably enticing it to return. The child, however, stayed where it was and continued tugging at his uniform trousers - taking no notice of the mother.
The Commandant had taken notice however and immediately marched over to Ernst, drawing his pistol as he came.
"Zerstören das Ungeziefer" he barked. "Zerstören das Ungeziefer!" Destroy the vermin. There was no good-natured laughter now. The fat, ovoid face of the Commandant was red and full of anger.
Ernst Meyer, Camp Guard and good soldier, had looked at the Commandant blankly at first, frankly unable to comprehend what the fuss was all about. The Commandant shouted again, this time in rage. "Zerstören das Ungeziefer!" Ernst's rifle was pulled from him and the Commandant's pistol thrust into his hand.
It was a moment that Ernst Meyer, father, had all but obliterated from his memory. Most of his time at that camp had been exterminated with the same ruthlessness as the jews themselves. Now, as he recounted the story, it came flooding back into vivid detail.
He had reached down with his innocent arm and grasped the child by the hand, lifting it up into the air by it's arm. The mother's cries had died down somewhat as terrible fear gave way to the inexpressible horror of knowing. She half kneeled, half lay, restrained by the joint efforts of starvation and despair. The child, held aloft by one arm, dangled and wriggled and cried - though less from pain than from fear. It squirmed desperately but could not escape the vice-like lock of his hand.
"Sie hat sich eine Kugel in ihr oder ich eine Kugel in euch geben!" screamed the Commandant. Put a bullet in it or I'll put one in you.
The child stopped its wriggling and looked up at Ernst Meyer, holder of children in the air by one arm.
And Ernst Meyer, Camp Guard and father, put a bullet into it.
Ernst Meyer, murderer, monster and human being, stopped talking. The heart that had died with that bullet finally caught up with its own death. The dream released from the cage died in its awakening.
And the man with whom Ernst Meyer, pensioner, shared his single room, shook his head. It had taken nearly seventy years, but finally he had faced it. And the young child with a hole in his head, formerly the man with whom Ernst Meyer had shared his single room, faded into the oblivion of the past.
Outside, it started snowing. Real snow.