“The Wound Dresser” by Lavie Tidhar

I ‘know’ Lavie Tidhar from way back. He was on the review team at Whispers of Wickedness, and his fiction appeared both on the website and in the magazine, and there was a chapbook the name of which escapes me just now and I’m too lazy to dig it out. I even met him at a Whisper Con in Swindon back in the day, or at least I think I did (it all gets blurry). Last I heard he was heading off to a desert island somewhere, but from reading the blog he appears to be back now and doing rather well for himself in SF circles, which is eminently cool.

Lavie’s had three stories appear in Interzone, and another one is slated for the next issue, but “The Wound Dresser” from #19 is the only time he’s appeared in Black Static.

The story is told from the perspective of Joel, an angel summoned into being through the yearning of a suffering humankind, his role to die for those who call him. As I understand it, in the context of the story this means that he will suffer their pain and experience something of their memories at the moment of extinction.

But Joel ignores the young woman – ‘there was blood on her face, and between her legs’ – who has called for him, and walks away, even though he knows that by doing so ‘I had turned my back on the purpose of my being’.

It is 1940 and the setting is Nazi Germany, with death in the air that the people breathe, but rather than helping those who need him most Joel goes to those who can pay, helps to ease the passing of the wealthy and the corrupt.

But even Joel cannot escape his destiny. Death draws him, and eventually he finds himself arrived at a concentration camp and performing the task for which he was called into being – ‘And died for her, as I will die again and again and again, will die again and again, until I fade into a nothingness.’

While Hebrew mythology (or belief, if you prefer) is central to this story, for me it brought to mind the Norse Valkyrie, who visits the battlefield and carries off the souls of heroes. Only these angels are not sent to warriors on a battlefield, but to ease the suffering of the victims in a slaughterhouse, a country set on reinventing itself as an abbatoir.

The story is beautifully written, Tidhar’s prose creating an almost elegaic feel and bringing to life on the page the very mundanity of this ‘business as usual’ version of hell on earth. The victims of the Holocaust seem as if they are dead already, their identities expunged except for this ritual of death in which they are compelled to partake, almost sleepwalking to their doom.

But what of the angels in this scenario? Joel is summoned by the suffering of a young woman and his purpose is to in some way ease the pain of death. And yet he himself admits that it’s a role without purpose – ‘We are the wound dressers… …useless drug doses administered, too little, too late, to the suffering innocents of this world.’

What is the reader to make of this extraordinary statement that closes the story?

One possible subtext is that religion, as personified by the angels, is a panacea, something we invent for ourselves as a source of comfort, instead of tackling the problems that confront us as a species, or rather those problems, such as death, that we can’t possibly cope with. It allows both the victims and their persecuters a form of ‘spiritual’ validation for what they do and what is done to them.

This quotation from Jon Jay Muth‘s The Mythology of an Abandoned City seems apposite – ‘It doesn’t matter how ridiculous a lie is if the lie is your only hope of escape. It doesn’t matter how obvious the truth is if the truth is that you’ll never escape.’

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