"Can you read?" Schmitt's head tipped to the side. Erik knew every detail, though he'd only know the man for five days.
"Of course," said Erik. Saying 'of course' instead of 'yes' was the boldest thing he'd said to Herr Schmitt. It was the boldest thing he'd said in weeks, actually.
"Of course," echoed Schmitt. He selected a book, opened it, and handed it to Erik.
Erik caught a glimpse of the cover. He knew twelve-year-olds weren't normally expected to read Faust. He had been a good student when he had attended school, but that was long ago. Then his parents had been forced to keep him home. They had tried to teach him themselves, though they hadn't been able to afford much of the way of books or supplies, thanks to the Reich's fines and restrictions on employing Jews. Then they were in the ghetto or fleeing and his parents still tried to teach him but it was hard to learn when he spent so much time hungry, when all of his energies were spent trying to keep himself and his family safe. In truth, Erik could read, but he could not read well.
"Read from the top of the page."
Erik rehearsed the first line in his mind, certain that pausing to sound out words would displease Herr Doktor. Then he spoke, "Mich plagen keine Skrupel noch Zweifel." No doubts plague me, nor scruples as well. It described Herr Doktorrather well, he thought.
He lingered over the second line, pronouncing each word in his head before he began to speak. "Fürchte mich weder vor Hölle noch Teufel," he said. I'm not afraid of hell or the devil. He stumbled over the word Teufel, not because it was a difficult word to read, but because of what it meant. He had neither believed in nor feared the devil before he had come to this place.
"You pause too much. It is a play. It is meant to be spoken."
"D...da...dafür ist mir auch alle Freud' entri...trissen," To offset that, all joy is rent from me. Without precious seconds to rehearse each line, he stumbled over each word he didn't automatically recognize. "Bilde mir nicht ein was re...rechts zu wissen," he concluded. I do not imagine I know aught that's right.
Schmitt held out his hand to take the book back. "What do you think it means, Erik?"
"It's..." he thought back to anything he had heard about the story previously. "It's about a man who makes a deal with-" he stumbled again on the word Teufel, "a deal with evil," he said instead.
"No," said Schmitt, "it is about a man who makes a deal with himself."
And with that, Erik was sent away, back to his strange cell. It was a pit, really. Not a basement, but a hole in the ground, lined with stones. It was just wide enough that he could lie flat, but he never did. It was cold, so he always curled up tightly, knees tucked to his chest, to conserve heat. This was his school. These were the things he learned. To lick the moisture from the rocks when he was thirsty, to trick his stomach into quieting itself, to step on rats before they bite him.
It would be wrong to say that Erik was grieving his mother's death. It would be wrong to say that he felt fear or misery. It would be wrong even to say that he felt hungry or weak. He felt none of these things. He felt nothing at all. He had no tears for his mother. He had no trembling, no ache. The world seemed to him a facsimile of itself and he was little more than a spectator behind his own eyes. It was not like a dream, because everything made a certain terrible sense. It was a play, like Faust, and Erik was one of the characters. The other characters, they were strange. Some were weak and some were strong, but none were real. The dead were masks, husks, costumes. The killers were sparring, were pantomime.
And as an empty boy, Erik could sleep. He lay on the stones and closed his eyes.
Then he heard men chanting in the distance, "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad." Hear, O Israel, the LORD is God, the LORD is one.
Erik sat up.
Everything was real.
Erik made a deal with himself.