They drive a dusty track surrounded by square miles of dying sunflowers so tall that they seem like trees. The stems have dried and stiffened, and the faces bob like praying heads, and as the Opel bellows past, Werner feels as if they are being watched by ten thousand Cyclopic eyes. Neumann One brakes the truck, and Bernd unslings his rifle and takes the second transceiver and wades alone into the stalks to set it up. Werner raises the big antenna and sits in his usual spot in the box of the Opel with his headset on.
Up in the cab, Neumann Two says, “You never scrambled her eggs, you old virgin.”
“Shut your mouth,” says Neumann One.
“You jerk yourself to sleep at night. Bleed your weasel. Pound your flounder.”
“So does half the army. Germans and Russians alike.”
“Little pubescent Aryan back there is definitely a flounder pounder.”
Over the transceiver, Bernd reads off frequencies. Nothing nothing nothing.
Neumann One says, “The true Aryan is as blond as Hitler, as slim as Göring, and as tall as Goebbels—”
Laughter from Neumann Two. “Fuck if—” Volkheimer says, “Enough.”
It’s late afternoon. All day they have moved through this strange and desolate region and have seen nothing but sunflowers. Werner runs the needle through the frequencies, switches bands, retunes the transceiver again, scouring the static. The air swarms with it day and night, a great, sad, sinister Ukrainian static that seems to have been here long before humans figured out how to hear it.
Volkheimer clambers out of the truck and lowers his trousers and pees into the flowers and Werner decides to trim the aerial, but before he does, he hears—as sharp and clear and menacing as the blade of a knife flashing in the sun—a volley of Russian. Adeen, shest, vosyem. Every fiber of his nervous system leaps awake.
He turns up the volume as far as it will go and presses the headphones against his ears. Again it comes: Ponye-something-feshky, shere-something-doroshoi . . . Volkheimer is looking at him through the open back of the truck shell as though he can sense it, as though he is coming awake for the first time in months, as he did that night out in the snow when Hauptmann fired his pistol, when they realized Werner’s transceivers worked.
Werner turns the fine-tune dial fractionally, and abruptly the voice booms into his ears, Dvee-nat-set, shayst-nat-set, davt-set-adeen, nonsense, terrible nonsense, pipelined directly into his head; it’s like reaching into a sack full of cotton and finding a razor blade inside, everything constant and undeviating and then that one dangerous thing, so sharp you can hardly feel it open your skin.
Volkheimer raps his massive fist on the side of the Opel to quiet the Neumanns, and Werner relays the channel to Bernd on the far transceiver and Bernd finds it and measures the angle and relays it back and now Werner settles in to do the math. The slide rule, the trigonometry, the map. The Russian is still talking when Werner pulls his headset down around his neck. “North northwest.”
Only numbers. Pure math. “One and a half kilometers.” “Are they broadcasting now?”
Werner closes one cup of the headphones over an ear. He nods. Neumann One starts the Opel with a roar and Bernd comes crashing back through the flowers carrying the first transceiver and Werner withdraws the aerial and they grind off the road and directly through the sunflowers, punching them down as they go. The tallest are nearly as tall as the truck, and their big dry heads drum the roof of the cab and the sides of the box.
Neumann One watches the odometer and calls out distances. Volkheimer distributes weapons. Two Karabiner 98Ks. The Walther semiautomatic with the scope. Beside him, Bernd loads cartridges into the magazine of his Mauser. Bong, go the sunflowers. Bong bong bong. The truck yaws like a ship at sea as Neumann One coaxes it over ruts.
“Eleven hundred meters,” calls Neumann One, and Neumann Two scrambles onto the hood of the truck and peers above the field with binoculars. To the south, the flowers give way to a patch of raveled
gherkins. Beyond those, ringed by bare dirt, stands a pretty cottage with a thatched roof and stucco walls.
“The line of yarrow. End of the field.” Volkheimer raises his scope. “Any smoke?” “None.”
“An antenna?” “Hard to say.”
“Shut off the motor. On foot from here.” Everything goes quiet.
Volkheimer, Neumann Two, and Bernd carry their weapons into the flowers and are swallowed. Neumann One stays behind the wheel, Werner in the truck shell. No land mines explode in front of them. All around the Opel, the flowers creak on their stems and nod their heliotropic faces as if in some sad accord.
“Fuckers are going to be surprised,” whispers Neumann One. His right thigh jogs up and down several times a second. Behind him, Werner raises the aerial as high as he dares and clamps on the headphones and switches on the transceiver. The Russian is reading what sounds like letters of the alphabet. Peh zheh kah cheh yu myakee znak. Each utterance seems to rise from the aural cotton for Werner’s ears alone, then melts away. Neumann One’s vibrating leg shakes the truck lightly, and the sun flares through the remnants of insects smeared across the windows, and a cold wind sets the whole field rustling.
Won’t there be sentries? Lookouts? Armed partisans sidling up right now behind the truck? The Russian on the radio is a hornet in each ear, zvou kaz vukalov—who knows what horrors he’s dispensing, troop positions, train schedules; he might be giving artillery gunners the truck’s location right now—and Volkheimer is walking out of the sunflowers, as large a target as a human has ever presented, holding his rifle like a baton; it seems impossible that the cottage could ever accommodate him, as though Volkheimer will engulf the house instead of the other way around.
First the shots come through the air around the headphones. A fraction of a second later, they come through the headphones themselves, so loud that Werner almost tears them off. Then even the static cuts out, and the silence in the headphones feels like something massive moving through space, a ghostly airship slowly descending.
Neumann One opens and closes the bolt of his rifle.
Werner remembers crouching next to his cot with Jutta after the Frenchman would sign off, the windows rattling from some passing coal train, the echo of the broadcast seeming to glimmer in the air for a moment, as though he could reach out and let it float down into his hands.
Volkheimer returns with ink spattered on his face. He raises two huge fingers to his forehead, pushes his helmet back, and Werner can see that it is not ink. “Set the house afire,” he says. “Quickly. Don’t waste diesel.” He looks at Werner. His voice tender, almost melancholy. “Salvage the equipment.”
Werner sets down the headphones, puts on his helmet. Swifts swoop out over the sunflowers. His vision makes slow loops, as though something has gone wrong with his balance. Neumann One hums in front of him as he carries a can of fuel through the stalks. They break through the sunflowers toward the cottage, stepping through Aaron’s rod, wild carrot, all the leaves browned from frost. Beside the front door a dog lies in the dust, chin on its paws, and for a moment Werner thinks it is only sleeping.
The first dead man is on the floor with an arm trapped beneath him and a crimson mess where his head should be. On the table is a second man: slumped as if sleeping on his ear, only the edges of his wound showing, a whorish purple. Blood that has spread across the table thickens like cooling wax. It looks almost black. Strange to think of his voice still flying through the air, already a country away, growing weaker every mile.
Torn pants, grimy jackets, one of the men in suspenders; they do not wear uniforms.
Neumann One tears down a potato-sack curtain and takes it outside and Werner can hear him splash it with diesel. Neumann Two pulls the suspenders off the second dead man and takes some braided shallots from the lintel and bundles them against his chest and leaves.
In the kitchen, a small brick of cheese sits half eaten. A knife beside it with a faded wooden handle. Werner opens a single cupboard. Inside dwells a den of superstition: jars of dark liquids, unlabeled pain remedies, molasses, tablespoons stuck to the wood, something marked, in Latin, belladonna, something else marked with an X.
The transmitter is poor, high-frequency: probably salvaged from a Russian tank. It seems little more than a handful of components shoveled
into a box. The ground-plane antenna installed beside the cottage might have sent the transmissions thirty miles, if that.
Werner goes out, looks back at the house, bone-white in the failing light. He thinks of the kitchen cupboard with its strange potions. The dog that did not do its job. These partisans may have been involved in some dark forest magic, but they should not have been tinkering with the higher magic of radio. He slings his rifle and carries the big battered transmitter—its leads, its inferior microphone—through the flowers to the Opel, its engine running, Neumann Two and Volkheimer already in the cab. He hears Dr. Hauptmann: A scientist’s work is determined by two things: his interests and those of his time. Everything has led to this: the death of his father; all those restless hours with Jutta listening to the crystal radio in the attic; Hans and Herribert wearing their red armbands under their shirts so Frau Elena would not see; four hundred dark, glittering nights at Schulpforta building transceivers for Dr. Hauptmann. The destruction of Frederick. Everything leading to this moment as Werner piles the haphazard Cossack equipment into the shell of the truck and sits with his back against the bench and watches the light from the burning cottage rise above the field. Bernd climbs in beside him, rifle in his lap, and neither bothers to close the back door when the Opel roars into gear.