It looked like a large stove, one of those round stoves which have been superseded by central heating, though those with a sentiment for the past might buy one for old times’ sake. This one was considerably larger, and stood at the far end of the courtyard, rusting in the weather. It looked out of place in an otherwise new setting of brick and concrete. Only when smoke came out of it did it seem not so much misplaced as ominous.
It was surprising how many people could be packed inside; though the men in charge knew the exact number, there always seemed room for one or two more before the capsules were dropped in. Its frame was old and rusty but nobody scratched anything on a surface that virtually invited graffiti. It had an unusual wire formation over it, too, as if some over-zealous security officer had decided to ensure that nobody would escape through the chimney. A Polish priest who died in it said the wire formation reminded him of the crown of Christ on a modern sculpture, but sentimental comparisons of that kind were out of place and few made them.
The stove was worked matter-of-factly. Those who were to go into it were driven across the courtyard if it was a cold day. On a warm day, an orchestra played some tuneful melody with a marching beat and they were allowed to walk across. The prospective occupants crossed the courtyard naked. It would have been a waste to allow them to take their clothes, only to become more ash and smoke. They ran quickly on cold days, and on hot days it wasn’t necessary to wear clothes. Sometimes, if there was still space, the door was left open while one or two others were called for.
On a very cold day, escorted by guards and guard dogs, but unaccompanied by music, amongst those crossing the courtyard was a Mrs Leah Halprin. Her husband had been despatched into the stove some days earlier and she had lost her baby somewhere in the camp. Such things happen even in the best organised places, and since there were no facilities for reuniting separated families, she had no idea whether her baby had been placed in the stove to make up any little spare room inside, or was still alive and being looked after.
The momentum of the others running across the courtyard carried her too. The naked bodies were packed tight into the stove. It was established that there was no room for any more. The door was shut and bolted, and the capsules were released.
Those who die inside such a stove vomit, excrete and scream; some die sooner than others. The first were beginning to die. Mrs Leah Halprin vomited, excreted and screamed. At this moment time stopped and everything froze into the stillness of a painting of hell. Screams hovered over their lips. Poisoned air stopped their lungs like a heavy stone. Fate had arrived.
You may not be familiar with the lottery conducted by Fate. The winner of the lottery is granted eternal life on earth, not in the world beyond. There is a custom, sanctified to the point of law, that the winner must give Fate some item, no matter how small, to acknowledge acceptance of the great prize. Fate supervises the drawing of the lottery, and Fate’s chaplain and personal confessor, that great prince of the one true church, Cardinal Alexander Graziano, a worldly and knowledgeable primate, stands by to give advice on delicate matters in connection with the prize-winner.
The moment the result was announced, namely that Mrs Leah Halprin had won, Fate and the Cardinal sprang into action. She was already in the first throes of death.
Once before it had been done. Joshua, commander of the forces of Israel, needed a little more time to complete his devastation of the enemy. The request was granted. The sun stood still upon Gibeon and the moon in the valley of Ajalon. It was recorded in the book of Jasher that the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and stayed there a whole day. A contemporary Aztec account demonstrates that it actually happened. The Aztecs were selected to confirm the event to show there was no possibility of collusion.
Fate asked for a few minutes only, while the winner of the lottery was informed – a few minutes for time to stand still. Approval was given, though while time stood still, everyone in the stove was to feel, see, hear everything.
As Fate set out, Cardinal Graziano whispered: ‘In the unfortunate woman’s condition, you’ll have to waive the customary requirement of an object to be given to you.’
‘Ah, yes, of course,’ said Fate. ‘Thank you for reminding me. By the way, how do I dress?’
‘Something very grand,’ said the Cardinal, ‘in case the guards see you.’
In front of Fate, leaning against innumerable bodies in pain and torture, emaciated and drawn was Mrs Halprin. Her hair was permanently grey, but shone here and there in its original colour as if to show that the grey was recent and not a slow natural process. Only her eyes were dark and live, though slightly closed, the globes directed upwards.
‘How true to racial type,’ thought Fate, but inwardly.
Her body was shrunk and her teats hung long.
I’ve come to take you out of here,’ said Fate. ‘Come quickly, we have only a minute or two.’
‘Who are you?’ she said. ‘They say one dreams of escape before one dies.’
‘I am not a dream,’ said Fate urgently, and explained the circumstances of the lottery. All round her people suffered but did not die.
‘Have you stopped time for me? Are these people to suffer pain, to live longer in their vomit and excrement, to give me a chance to collect a lottery prize!’
‘Yes, yes, quick!’
‘Then let time roll again. I don’t want them to suffer for my sake.’
‘Quick, quick,’ said Fate. ‘Don’t talk so much!’
‘I’m not coming! Tell them to get on with it. Please.’
‘Quick, Mrs Halprin. There’s no time to waste.’
‘Who wants to live on this earth?’
‘Your baby is alive.’
A tear appeared and crystallised in the corner of the dark almond eyes.
She nodded her head sadly.
‘Quick,’ she whispered, ‘the gas is burning our lungs. I don’t mind, but why should everyone else ...’
At this moment the Cardinal materialised. He looked splendid in his scarlet robe and red hat.
‘Mrs Halprin, your religion and mine forbid suicide and what you are doing is tantamount to suicide.’
Her eyes flashed angrily. Her timidity began to desert her.
‘When this is over they will say we all committed suicide,’ she said quickly and sarcastically.
‘She is being very Jewish,’ thought Fate.
‘I must defend Fate,’ said the Cardinal, ‘for the custom by which you must give some token object of your acceptance has been specially waived in view of the circumstances.’
People were shouting at her to go, and so end their torture. She flung back her head: ‘May that mercy be remembered to you for a curse!’ she screamed.
Fate seized her by the hand. Her fingers were so thin and emaciated, they felt like seaweed slipping out of his grasp.
‘Come on, come on. We can argue later. His Eminence means no harm.’
‘You want me to bear the guilt,’ she shuddered. ‘If I were to live because of a lottery and they are to die, I could not, bear the burden!’
‘Our Lord was sent to take upon Himself ...’ began the Cardinal.
She looked at him. ‘When this is over, God forgive me, when this is over, you will need all the forgiveness there is to spare, and all the assumption of guilt.’
At this moment Grough the gryphon appeared.
In ancient times gryphons, part lion, part eagle, had been watchful guardians over young women. Times had changed. Grough was now employed to deliver messages and strong directives, his terse and abrupt manner making no repetition necessary.
‘Time’s up,’ he growled. ‘Put an end to it. Orders are orders.’
Some ancestral memory stirred in Grough, of what he had been when the world was younger. He tucked his head under Mrs Halprin’s palm. She was too weak to pat him, and he wriggled his head under her thin fingers.
‘I hope my baby has a dog like you,’ she whispered, and was seized by a paroxysm of coughing. This time the gas stayed in her lungs and she died.
That was the last time anyone won the lottery.
Some say that on arrival Mrs Halprin asked for an audience and said: ‘I’ve got nothing against Fate and the Cardinal. They were just doing their job. But I think the lottery is wrong in principle.’
Others say there was disquiet lest it be considered that the lottery represented the official view, which, clearly, it did not.
No reason was ever given, but immediately after the decision was made Grough was sent to deliver a message to Fate.
‘That lottery of yours,’ growled Grough. ‘End it!’