A cold day in late January. A good writer could start with that. But I'm not a good writer, I'm only a bad father. And one look into Sophie's eyes tells me that I should never have taken her to this place.
We are scratching a thin layer of snow that has no texture and no smell. It’s so quiet in here, a black glove on a white mouth. 'Tragic tourism' is the perfect term for what we are doing, and my daughter is only fourteen. I know fourteen is the age when girls start having sex these days, and a boyfriend is on his way (please, God, let it not be Mark), and she was the one who insisted on the trip, but I still feel this is wrong.
'The cat', says Sophie, 'it's the cat again. Why would it not go away?'
I have read Primo Levi and I have seen Night and Fog, but nothing could prepare me for what I was to see. Fifteen minutes ago, there was a young woman bursting into tears while watching an American documentary. And then there were pictures, millions of black and white pictures, that you wanted to burn to pieces before any of these German schoolchildren could even enter the museum.
There was a point early in the day when Sophie put something down in her notebook, something to be used in her school paper on Nazism that this trip was all about. But now she is just walking around blindly, looking for the cat like the only vestige of something normal, and thinking about roll calls and perhaps even imagining herself as one of those naked girls running to the fence to be shot dead from the watchtower. She hasn't opened her notebook in four hours, and we are soon to leave. An old Polish couple whom we first met before the American documentary is telling us about how peaceful it all seems, and yet I know that the four of us are wondering if it really is.
We are looking at the holes in the ceiling, and I know the story. I just wish that Sophie could think of those holes as of showers. Like they did once, thousands of years ago. And then suddenly there is something smooth and warm touching my legs, circling me, purring silently, and I recognise that purring from the moment we entered the infamous gate when something small and as yet unrecognizable sneaked past us like a ghost.
The rooms make no sense, it’s as simple as that, and I feel like a couple of times Sophie wants to say something but chooses not to. I know someone (surely not this Mark guy?) brought her a copy of Son Of Saul three weeks ago, and she wouldn't stop talking about the film over dinner. But the wooden floor is different. The beds are different. The pictures on the walls are different, and I just wish they didn't put it quite so bluntly on the myriads of posters devoted to the most perverted medical experiments.
Outside, we are like small fishes gaping for water. Except fresh air is good for us. It's been five hours, and by the small Russian church we again see the cat, perhaps for the last time, clawing at the bird that had no time to fly away. We are just looking at the scene, transfixed and completely bewildered.
'Is the cat wicked?' Sophie asks me.
She asks this question like she is a little girl, not like a fourteen-year old teenager who is about to have her first boyfriend (and that's as long as me and her mother know anything). There's a part of me that wants to tell my daughter that it isn't, that it's just the way it is. Call of nature: being hungry, running around, killing birds. But in the end, I say something else. I tell her, in a voice that is perhaps too quiet even for a place like this, and also because I might never have a second chance:
'It is wicked, Sophie. The cat is wicked'.
I look around. The snow makes it all look so horribly, so ridiculously quiet. And white. So deceptively white.