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Authors: Jack Dann

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The Economy of Light


Copyright © 2008, 2012 by Jack Dann

Published by Wildside Press LLC


For Lucius Shepard


We wander in darkness now, but one with another we all have the conviction that we are advancing to the light.

—Albert Schweitzer

The physiognomy, or vertical structure, of the rain forest, is best understood in terms of the universal quest for light.

—Alex Shoumatoff

“Look there! See how the sun’s shafts do not drive through to the left of that one lower down, and how he walks as if he were alive!”




I stood by the side of the grave, along with the other reporters, photographers, doctors, police officials, and bystanders, and watched three gravediggers working with pick and shovel to exhume Josef Mengele’s remains. We were in the Embu Cemetery, about twenty-five miles outside of São Paulo. The workers, dark
of black and Indian blood, had been digging for almost an hour. The sweat ran from their arms and faces, and the heat seemed to radiate from them in clouds. I was reminded of cars overheating in the humid mid-afternoon air.

I had arrived late, having taken the wrong exit on the eight-lane highway that leads out of São Paulo, and I felt nauseated. My stomach ached, a dull pain that had started when I had finally gotten out of my rented Saab. Before I left my hotel in São Paulo to drive here, I had wolfed down a poorly prepared
; the beef and sausages had seemed a bit too sour. I could only hope that it wasn’t too badly tainted. But it was more than the food or the weather. I was uncomfortable here because of the cold-sweat memories of childhood that intruded on this circus-like gathering.

As I looked down into the grave at the white-shirted
mugging for the television cameras as they chopped and dug and burrowed about four feet into the damp-smelling earth, I could almost smell the sickeningly sweet stink of Auschwitz; and I remembered being pushed out of the train and separated from my mother and brother by soldiers with snarling, snapping guard dogs. I was screaming for my mother and David, my brother, but they had both been swallowed into the frightened crowd that the soldiers were dividing into two groups. I was too short to see over the milling adults. I tried to move, but screaming people were pushing against me from all directions, as if everyone needed to stay as close together as possible, as if that was the only way to survive.

I remember looking up toward the sky and seeing a huge red brick chimney that narrowed toward the top. Thick black smoke billowed out of it, and flames rose between its lightning rods, as if conjured up from sorcerer’s wands. Although I didn’t recognize the smell that permeated the air, it was burning flesh and hair. I put my hands over my mouth and pinched my nose to block out the smells of death and fear and looked down intently at the dry, parched ground, which was like the surface of the moon. I repeated the
Shema Yisroel
, over and over and over. I thought that if I could narrow my focus of attention and pray with my entire being, I might be able to make the terrible noise and smell of that place disappear.... I might be able to make the camp disappear.

I was only ten years old, but I had been in a slaughterhouse before. I knew what this place was.

And that’s when I saw Mengele.

I saw his boots first. They were black and polished, although covered with dust. He held my chin and raised my face upward, and he looked as large as the chimney I had seen an instant ago. He was handsome in his well-tailored SS uniform; he had an angular face, shaved clean. I noticed that there was a gap between his front teeth and he had a mole on his left cheek. He wore white gloves and, unlike everyone else, he didn’t seem to be sweating. His breath smelled of cigarettes as he said, “
?” Was I a twin? he had asked, but I was so frightened that I could only look at him and blink. I seemed to see with a sort of tunnel vision. I noticed that there was a dull spot and a long scratch on the polished cane he held in his left hand.

“Yes,” someone else said, “he’s a twin. His mother and brother are in the other line.”

That had saved my life. They took my brother and me to a hospital for experimentation and gassed my mother. May she rest in peace.

Then there was a shout, for the gravediggers had located the coffin, and I was jolted back to the present. I found myself whispering the
, as if from old habit, although I am not a religious Jew. The
dug the dirt away from the plain pine coffin, but couldn’t get the top open. The police chief of São Paulo, a heavy-set man with a greased mustache, ordered them to break it open. I’d had a nodding acquaintance with this man when I worked for Mossad, the Israeli secret service. He had built up his political base of fear and power through the Brazilian intelligence bureau and was responsible for capturing Gustav Wagner, the deputy commandant of the Sobibor camp who had gassed two hundred and fifty thousand people with carbon monoxide fumes from a captured Russian tank.

One of the gravediggers smashed through the lid with his pick, and they pried it off. Inside the coffin I could see rotting shreds of clothes and a skeleton with its arms placed at its sides instead of over the chest, which was the customary manner of Brazilian burial. But The SS always buried their dead with arms at the sides, as if one should spend eternity at attention.

Several men climbed down into the grave. One of them, the São Paulo assistant coroner, a man of about sixty with short-cropped white hair, lifted up the skull and held it high for the reporters, who were feverishly snapping pictures. He turned around slowly, holding it in his outstretched hand, and when he held it toward me, I felt a wave of nausea wash over me, and the pain in my stomach became excruciating. The eye sockets and nose cavity seemed dark as tar, even in the blazing sunlight. Everything seemed to waver around me as I looked into that vertiginous darkness, and I saw the barracks when I’d lived in Camp B2f in Auschwitz. They called it the Zoo, and we called Mengele ‘Uncle Pepi.’ He would bring us chocolate and clothes one day and experiment on us the next. As I looked into those eye sockets, I remembered the experiments on my brother and myself—the transfusions of blood, mine to his, and vice versa; the injections every day that made us sick and feverish; and the electrical experiments, which put David into a coma. He had taken David away to the laboratory where he injected chloroform into his heart to kill him. I was to be next...for comparison. But the allies disrupted his plans by liberating us.

I could feel myself falling backward, as if the darkness was time itself and Mengele was still God, taking and giving life. His breath was the crematorium, his touch was the needle and the knife, and his voice was the last lullaby we heard. He used to sing while he worked on us. He loved Verdi and Strauss, the sonovabitch.

He had taken my family.

And I cursed him every moment for choosing my brother first.

* * * *

When I regained consciousness, I found an old acquaintance, Filip Hausner, bending over me. We had worked together years ago in Paraguay and had almost caught Mengele in 1962 right here in São Paulo, but Ben-Gurion had been pressured to call off the operation because of a religious kidnapping that had threatened Israel with a civil war. Hausner and I were called back to Israel. Filip was in his sixties, a camp internee who had left Poland to settle in Israel. He made an unlikely ghoul, for he had been a rabbi, and a brilliant one, from what I had heard. But hatred had changed the course of his life, too. He was bald and jowly, his face spotted with age marks. His eyes were clear and blue, and he still had no need for glasses.

I tried to get up. My back was against a gravestone; the smell of the well-tended grass seemed to revive me.

“Just relax, you still look pale,” Filip said. “You created quite a noise there, trying to grandstand the coroner.” He smiled. “What happened to you?”

“Something I ate, I think. The heat. Old age.”

“I’ve got ten years on you.” He turned to look back at the grave site. The party was over; most everyone had left. “They took the bones to a laboratory,” Filip said. “It looks like this is it.”

“You think that was really Mengele?” I asked.

“It depends on what the forensic doctors have to say, but for my part, I think it’s him. Once the Germans got hold of Mengele’s letters, it was all over. Did you see the couple standing beside the police chief? Wolf and Liselotte Bossert. They took care of Mengele; he was at their beach house when he died. The police found his letters and personal objects at their home in the city, along with a book he’d written.”

I knew most of this. “The Germans really gave you a screwing, didn’t they?”

“Both us and the Americans; this was supposed to be a joint venture. But the Germans conveniently forgot to notify any of us. They just dispatched some of their LKA people down here and flushed it all out. We heard about it when you did, probably; after it was leaked, so the Germans would get the right publicity. But what can you expect from Germans?” Although he was joking, there was a harshness in his voice. He meant it. “Are you feeling better now?”

I stood up, testing. “I feel fine,” I said, although my stomach still hurt. We walked back to the exhumed grave. They had taken everything, every bit of wood from the casket. The gravediggers were standing about, as if admiring the hole they had dug, and then, reluctantly, they began to shovel back the dirt.

“I understand you’re living in America,” Filip said.

I nodded.

“And teaching at university. Why did you leave Israel?”

“I guess I became tired of it all,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“I wanted to leave the war behind, I wanted to forget.”

“But you’re here.”

I sighed and looked out over the cemetery at the hundreds of odd angled and weathered headstones, which were like concrete sentences punctuated with the marble and stone crypts and mausoleums of the wealthy. The grass was cut so short it might be used as turf for a golf course, and the sun bleached the gravestones white as bones in a desert. But Mengele’s bones...they were brown, as brown as the water of the Amazon, as brown as the cafuzos who had dug them up. Mengele wouldn’t like that, for surely his bones should be Aryan white. Or so it would seem.

“You said that Mengele had written a book. Have you seen it?” I asked.

“No,” Filip said. “But I understand it was an autobiography. He called it
Fiat Lux
Let There Be Light



The pain in my stomach was not from bad food, but from bowel cancer. I checked myself into a hospital in São Paulo, where they gave me a private room overlooking a low, flat roof that seemed to exist solely to provide a surface for the television antennae that grew out of the tar like steel plants. In the distance were gray buildings, brick chimneys, and the miasma of pollution that seemed to soften everything in this city...a city I had always hated. I had a small ranch near the gigantic King Ranch, which is in Amazon country just outside of Belém, and I wanted nothing more than to return there and let Onca, a heavy Indian woman of Yąnomamö extraction whom I had hired to take care of the place, look after me. But afraid as I was—and I was terrified—I couldn’t bring myself to return to the States. It was as if I’d never had a life there, as if only the ranch felt like home; and I wanted to forget the university and my whole life in upstate New York. The ranch was the only place I’d ever felt completely comfortable, perhaps because it was so isolated, for even now, forty years later, I associated the steel and concrete of civilization with the camps. I could live and work and teach in cities, but the little boy that still lived inside me could only sleep in the red-tiled stucco house outside of Belém.

I endured the batteries of tests, the stool samples and barium enemas, the GI series and colonoscopies. As if to further complicate matters, I developed an ugly blister on my right cheek, just below where my glasses touch. Then another appeared on my mouth and scalp, and on my chest. The lesions wept a clear liquid; the one in my mouth left a constant bitter taste. My doctor, a no-nonsense woman who wore her long, beautiful black hair in a bun, explained that I had also developed a form of pemphigus, called
wild fire
, which was found only in certain areas of Brazil. Pemphigus was also a disease that middle-aged Jews were susceptible to. It was a virulent condition, and the usual cure was corticosteroids and antibiotic therapy. But the corticosteroids might increase the growth of the spreading cancer. She would try 75 mg of a drug called Methotrexate.

Still, the wild fire was minor in comparison with the cancer. If I would take chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the cancer, she could give me six months to a year longer to live.

But I would probably need a bowel operation.

And I would have to wear a colostomy bag around on my stomach.

No, I thought. I wasn’t going to live in hospital to gain a few months of pain. I wasn’t going to die to the smell of antisepsis and live in the white rooms near the laboratories. Laboratories.... I could see Mengele’s laboratory in my mind as if I had just left it.

Even as the doctor talked to me, I distanced myself from her and her words. I was numb, in shock, I supposed, and it was like being inside a cool, wet cloud high above the ground. I knew that I would be making a long fall any second now, yet it was as if fear and death and all the other emotions had become mere intellectual states. I considered my own death as if it was someone else’s. Perhaps because I
bring myself to believe any of it.

I suddenly began to tremble.

I stared out the window at the wild sculpture of rooftop antennae below and could think only of Mengele—Uncle Pepi, who had said that my twin brother and I wouldn’t be in hospital for long. I grimaced, for the sonovabitch had been telling the truth. He had intended on killing both of us. But I had had one up on him. He hadn’t gotten me. He had tried, but he had failed. Or had he...?

Irrational as it was, I found myself blaming Mengele for the cancer and the lesions. I couldn’t help but feel that they were a parting gift from him. As I had looked into the hollows of his skull—I, who was alive and he, who was dead—
had somehow magically transformed my lunch of tainted food into cancer; and like Job’s wife, who had taken that one last look back at Sodom, the place of her youth, I had looked into the dark shadows that had once been Mengele’s blue eyes, and he opened up my skin and made it bubble, as if his death’s-head’s stare was invisible fire scorching my flesh.

I knew then that I was going Belém, back to the ranch. I would die properly. In my own home.

And I would still have one up on Mengele.

* * * *

was small, barely four hundred hectares, while the other neighboring ranches were paced out at several hundreds of thousands of hectares. My manager Genaro, who had been a
, a drifter, drove me home from Belém in my ‘pickoppy’. He was in his sixties, of white and Indian extraction. I knew very little about him, except that he was born near Manaus on the Rio Negro; he was quiet and looked sullen, perhaps because his lower jaw jutted out, but his pale blue eyes revealed an intelligence that seemed to be belied by his habit of reclining wherever and whenever possible. He was tall, thin and wiry, extremely well-muscled for a man his age. He had high cheekbones and black hair greased back away from his high forehead. His left cheek was distended from a roll of tobacco; his front teeth were missing. Yet for all that he was a formidable-looking man. He reminded me of a condor, or some other great, ungainly bird.

We drove down the Belém-Brasilia highway, which was like driving through hell, for much of the land to either side was on fire, and in some places the flames reached toward the cracked red ground along the highway. The sky was dark with smoke. The acrid smell was overwhelming, and the heat came in waves that seemed to suck away every bit of moisture. What wasn’t burning was as scorched and dry as a desert; the burned stumps of trees reached out like props in a Grade B horror movie. All the jungle hereabouts would soon be converted into grassland, which the soil could support for five years at best. Most jungle soil is less than three inches deep. Burn down the trees and the microorganisms that feed minerals back into the soil die. Then the rain erodes the soil. The soil becomes sand. And what’s left is red hardpan: laterite. Then more jungle has to be burned to produce more farm and pasture land.

But the worst of the conflagration was over; the land had been burning for some time. I had seen firestorms in this part of the country where clouds would form over the trees and rain would fall in sheets. Lightning would snake into the trees and as one looked into the isolate darkness, it seemed as if the last days promised in the bible had finally come. I felt a pang of guilt, for my little ranch had also been burned out of the jungle, but I had used the land wisely, had not extended myself, and was determined not to cut into any more of the jungle. The jungle was like a womb for me. I could afford to sell the cattle and just live on the

It was a moot point. I would be long gone before the soil lost its nutrients and died.

We stopped in the town of Paragominas for gas. A small, dusty town square, dirty pastel buildings, sand demons boiling into life with every gust of wind, a few bars with pickups parked in front, the sounds of loud
music and laughter, a young man wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson hat leading a donkey loaded with leather bags down the main street. I had taken a pill for the pain in my stomach, and although I knew the ache was still there, I felt removed from it. The nausea remained, however. I could not yet believe it was real, that I was going to die. For as much death as I had seen during my life, now, when it was once again upon me, I refused it. I was more mature, more willing to accept life’s grim realities, when I was ten years old and part of Mengele’s zoo. I ground my teeth, a habit that my ex-wife had always complained about, and once again I began to tremble. It was already dark and rather than stay in what looked more like a ghost-town in the American northwest than a village in the jungle, I insisted that we drive on. Genaro would have probably liked to stay at least long enough to play some pool in the bars and drink a few fingers of
—Brazilian white rum.

Even in the darkness, I could feel when we were once again deep into jungle. The air was stifling, wet as a warm bath; my eyes stung and sweat rolled under my shirt, down my armpits, chilly in evaporation. A Culex mosquito flew into the cab of the pickup and its high-pitched whine almost drove me crazy until I finally managed to swat it.

“We are almost home, Meester,” Genaro said at dawn, as the shadows that were hundred feet tall trees on either side of the road turned glaucous green and then finally came to life as a universe of viridescence, all the possibilities of green—celdadon, bice, emerald, beryl, aquamarine, olive green, evergreen, blue green, leek green, yew green, serpentine green, variscite green, turquoise green, mignonette, milori, chromium, terra verde, reseda—towering walls of trees and vines and air plants and ferns. I took another pill, which I had difficulty swallowing without water, and nodded. We had not talked for the entire trip; it was unusual that he would say anything at all without prompting.

“Is everything okay at the
?” I asked, feeling the need for company in the wet grayness of morning. I felt lost, swallowed.

But Genaro didn’t answer, which meant that indeed everything was okay or he would have told me what was wrong. Finally, after what seemed like a long time of concentration for him, Genaro said in a slow, tight voice, as if it was very difficult for him to speak, “I know you are dying.”

“What?” I asked, shocked.

But Genaro didn’t answer.

“You must speak now,” I said, sitting forward, leaning toward him, as if he were going to whisper to me how he had found out.

His face tightened. “I knew you were dying before you left. Onca told me this. She also told me to tell you not to be afraid.”

Onca, who took care of the house for me, was his wife. Once when I had asked her why someone who was so happy and talkative and full of life would choose someone as serious and quiet as Genaro for a husband, she laughed and said, “I’m a
, you know what that is? Surely you have heard of
. Yes?” I had; they were indigenous religions that worshiped and, if one believed, used spirits. They used good spirits to protect themselves from bad spirits and were not above calling on foreign spirits for help, spirits such as Yara, which was supposed to be an American Indian, or white spirits such as Maria Lunga or Pai Jacobi, which could sometimes be used to harm people or accomplish evil ends. “Well,” she continued, “I can see things. And Genaro helps me to do that. Sometimes I think
a spirit.” She laughed, as if she thought I would believe that bruxas were just part of the natural weave of things. And in some way I suppose I did, for I still couldn’t separate the nightmare of my time in the camps from the reality. As I remembered Mengele, seeing him that first time, I could believe he was a spirit, a demon brought into the world; and even now, I remembered him as the man who was father, god, and tormentor. I remembered the feel of his clean-shaven face as he lifted me up once when he was in a good mood; and yet he had somehow merged with his death, and that fleshy monster had become skeletal in my mind; his face became that hollow-socketed skull the coroner had held high in Embu. And in my mind he was alive and dead, a grisly memory of the reality of sweet Onca’s spirit world.

Genaro wouldn’t talk at all for the rest of the trip. He kept his eyes straight ahead, and we finally came to the open gate of the Fazenda, then down my road to the driveway. The red tile roof of the arcaded porches glowed wetly in the sun and I felt better just seeing the gardens and the white stucco walls stained with rust and dirt. I felt suddenly sleepy.

The next thing I remembered was waking up in my room.

* * * *

The sun poured through my bedroom window and I could hear the familiar screams of the pia, a small gray bird that the Indians called
, which meant ‘worse to come.’ The bird would softly whistle and then would break out in staccato-like shrieks. I couldn’t stand the screeing, but like the terrible and unearthly screams of the howler monkeys, it was comforting if only because it was familiar.

“Well, Meester finally wakes up,” Onca said, bringing me breakfast of milk, juice, a starchy gruel, and ice cream. Not her usual breakfast fare, nor mine. I discovered another lesion on my neck, which I would not allow myself to touch, lest it spread. I had to take my medication, I told myself, aware of the irony that here I was dying and yet I was concerned with a skin disease. But the taste of the sore in my mouth, and the constant awareness that there were others all over my body repulsed me, as if the pemphigus was an external sign of what was happening inside of me. But Onca only laughed and said, “You look like a young boy who hasn’t yet found a woman.”

“What?” I asked.

“You know, you’re getting pimples. They’ll go away once you start using your thing again like a man.” She giggled and her wide face that in repose could appear as sullen as Genaro’s seemed to partake completely of her smile. She tilted her head back as she looked at me, a habit of hers. Her mouth curled downward, which gave her an expression that was almost French. Her dark complexion was flawless, smooth as pond water, but her face seemed flattened. She wore a very faded dress that was cut much to short for her; it revealed her heavy legs and thighs and the outlines of her large breasts, which had nurtured seven children. Four of them died, she had said; the others grew up.

“Do you talk to Genaro like that?” I asked.

“Much worse, Meester. Much worse.” She put the tray on my lap and said, “Eat, you’ll feel better.”

“What the hell is it?” I asked. The last thing I wanted was food; the very thought of eating made me queasy.

“Do you want me to feed you?” she asked.

“Don’t talk to me that way,” I snapped. “I can’t eat...but you can tell me what it is.”

“It’s made from the manioc, which I mashed up and add some things.”

“What other things?”

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