Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Firewood Collector by A J Humpage - February Femmes Fatales

If you've read AJ Humpage you'll already know how she can take the fiercest of human behaviour - love, lust, hate - and lay it bare. She will scrape your face with it, tear out your soul with it... and break your heart with it.

Ally's ability to describe atrocity with the poetry of senses is unique. Read The Firewood Collector and just tell me it doesn't touch and chill you to the bone...


Green over umber; these colours filled Reuben’s vision, vibrant and deep, reminding him of childhood summers spent in the Rhine valley. Childhood aside, he had lived and worked in Berlin most of his life, until the war began, and now everything had changed - his life and his world had transformed immeasurably.

Sweet smelling moss and pine laced the mist around him as he followed the soldier along the path. The sky had turned grey, as though drenched and degraded by an unwelcome fear. Another soldier followed behind; soft steps, deceptive.

Reuben collected firewood every day for the camp, had done so for three years. It was a hard task, finding enough to stoke the furnaces and power the machinery. He dragged along a large cart which he had to fill with wood. Sometimes he made two or three collections during the day, which left him exhausted at night, although not as exhausted as some of the younger men in the camp.

Exhaustion meant he slept well, cocooned from the nightmares.

They moved further up the hill.

Mist clung to the trees like a cloak and veiled the crows hiding among the branches, but Reuben knew they were there, he could hear them. The air was still, damp and somehow heavy, and each crunch underfoot seemed to carry across the forest.

He looked out from the hillside, saw the camp below. Square shaped huts dotted his vision, the darkened roofs reflecting the rain which must have fallen during the night. A large funnel of grey smoke billowed from the chimney of a nearby building, the smoke stack rising high into the air. The stench from the smoke stack didn’t reach the hillside, and instead it drifted across the forest to the east, drenching the surroundings with a chalky coloured powder, slightly sticky to the touch. Reuben was glad he couldn’t smell it. He knew what they burned to make it so nauseous. Some days it left a greasy residue in the lining of everyone’s noses and throats, and the thought of what laced their tongues made some of the men physically sick.

He looked to his right, saw the railway track leading up to the gates of the camp. The forest was silent today, but tomorrow there would be more people arriving, crammed into the dark wooden carriages. More men and women, more children. More misery.

He had seen the neglected flesh and bones, the sunken faces, the twisted piles of humanity forming a mire of decay. He had seen grown men wet themselves with unimaginable fear, he’d seen the aftermath of soldiers rounding on the women. Tears and semen formed a milky dew on pale, deathly skin, while the unborn stagnated in their mothers’ dead wombs.

Movement brought Reuben to.

The soldier in front stopped, lit a cigarette. He exhaled slowly and grey smoke swirled around his face like a serpent.

Reuben’s brow drooped. Lines in his once fresh face deepened. He pointed. ‘There’s no wood here. We have to go up to the clearing to get the best wood.’

The soldier smoked, shook his head. ‘No, here is fine.’

Reuben rubbed soiled hands down his striped clothes. ‘But...there’s no wood here...’

The soldier smoked, watched Reuben carefully with retentive blue eyes. Reuben’s grey expression slowly turned dark. Afraid. He knew that look; he had seen it so many times. Behind him, he heard the other soldier moving about and it made him turn, the sensation of fear scuttling across his skin.

The other soldier stood near a muddy patch of ground, his foot resting on a large boulder, his rifle slung around his shoulder. He stared at Reuben with dark, almost black, cloudy eyes, as though they had lost sheen and no light could penetrate them.

Reuben shuddered, turned to the soldier in front. The clouds in the distance undulated and churned, it looked like more rain was coming.

‘There’s no need for you to collect firewood anymore, Reuben,’ the soldier said. The soldier lifted his rifle. ‘I’m afraid you’ve outgrown your use.’

Reuben shook his head. ‘But I don’t understand...’

The soldier coughed as though he had grit stuck at the back of his throat. ‘I have my orders.’

Reuben’s insides contracted with fear. ‘No...I’ve been a good worker, I’ve broken no rules.’

‘We know that,’ the other solider said from behind Reuben.

Reuben looked at him. ‘You need me. Who else is going to collect the firewood?’

‘The boys will do it,’ the soldier replied, indifferent.

The little boys, all without mothers, who picked around the camp, clearing up the detritus and the dead. There were always more of them coming in every other day.

‘But I know all the best places for wood,’ Reuben said.

The soldier pointed the gun at Reuben’s head. ‘The boys will find new places.’

‘No, please...I’ll do anything you want...’

‘We don’t need tired old men,’ the other soldier muttered.

Reuben stared at the young soldier; saw the man’s knuckle turn white as he gripped the trigger, poised. Wonderful memories shot through his mind - family dinners and parties, evenings around the piano, going to work alongside his father at the furniture factory on the outskirts of Berlin, getting married, having children...but then the dark memories rose up and smothered him; memories he had fought hard to forget, like losing his wife the day the soldiers came for them, losing his children. All three boys murdered on the blood-sullied streets of Berlin, cut down by a shower of bullets. All these elements, all that he was, all that he knew, had gone.

He blinked at the shale coloured surrounds of the cold austere forest that enveloped Auschwitz.

Memories frittered.

The shot scattered crows skyward; filling the greyness like a black vapour.

Reuben slumped to his knees and fell forward, his shattered face buried in the moss, red over green.

‘Shame,’ the German soldier said, nonchalant. He flicked his cigarette. ‘I liked him. Still, he was a Jew nevertheless.’

_________ The End _________

Bio: A J Humpage has short stories and poetry published in anthologies like 6 Sentences, Pill Hill Press, Static Movement and many e-zines, and has completed her second novel.

She offers writing advice at

Her work can be found at and you can find her on Twitter: AJHumpage
Lily Childs is a writer of horror, esoteric, mystery and chilling fiction.

If you see her dancing outside in a thunder storm - don't try to bring her in. She's safe.