In January 1943, Werner finds a second illegal transmission coming from an orchard on which a shell has fallen, cracking most of the trees in half. Two weeks later, he finds a third, then a fourth. Each new find seems only a variation of the last: the triangle closes in, each segment shrinking simultaneously, the vertices growing closer, until they are reduced to a single point, a barn or a cottage or a factory basement or some disgusting encampment in the ice.
“He is broadcasting now?” “Yes.”
“In that shed?”
“Do you see the antenna along the eastern wall?”
Whenever he can, Werner records what the partisans say on magnetic tape. Everybody, he is learning, likes to hear themselves talk. Hubris, like the oldest stories. They raise the antenna too high, broadcast for too many minutes, assume the world offers safety and rationality when of course it does not.
The captain sends word that he is thrilled with their progress; he promises holiday leaves, steaks, brandy. All winter the Opel roves occupied territories, cities that Jutta recorded in their radio log coming to life—Prague, Minsk, Ljubljana.
Sometimes the truck passes a group of prisoners and Volkheimer asks Neumann One to slow. He sits up very straight, looking for any man as large as he is. When he sees one, he raps the dash. Neumann One brakes, and Volkheimer postholes out into the snow, speaks to a guard, and wades in among the prisoners, usually wearing only a shirt against the cold.
“His rifle is in the truck,” Neumann One will say. “Left his fucking rifle right here.”
Sometimes he’s too far away. Other times Werner hears him perfectly. “Ausziehen,” Volkheimer will say, his breath pluming out in front of him, and almost every time, the big Russian will understand. Take it off. A strapping Russian boy with the face of someone for whom no remaining
thing on earth could be surprising. Except perhaps this: another giant wading toward him.
Off come mittens, a wool shirt, a battered coat. Only when he asks for their boots do their faces change: they shake their head, look up or look down, roll their eyes like frightened horses. To lose their boots, Werner understands, means they will die. But Volkheimer stands and waits, big man against big man, and always the prisoner caves. He stands in his wrecked socks in the trampled snow and tries to make eye contact with the other prisoners, but none will look at him. Volkheimer holds up various items, tries them on, hands them back if they do not fit. Then he stamps back to the truck, and Neumann One drops the Opel into gear.
Creaking ice, villages burning in forests, nights where it becomes too cold even to snow—that winter presents a strange and haunted season during which Werner prowls the static like he used to prowl the alleys with Jutta, pulling her in the wagon through the colonies of Zollverein. A voice materializes out of the distortion in his headphones, then fades, and he goes ferreting after it. There, thinks Werner when he finds it again, there: a feeling like shutting your eyes and feeling your way down a mile-long thread until your fingernails find the tiny lump of a knot.
Sometimes days pass after hearing a first transmission before Werner snares the next; they present a problem to solve, something to wrap his mind around: better, surely, than fighting in some stinking, frozen trench, full of lice, the way the old instructors at Schulpforta fought in the first war. This is cleaner, more mechanical, a war waged through the air, invisibly, and the front lines are anywhere. Isn’t there a kind of ravishing delight in the chase of it? The truck bouncing along through the darkness, the first signs of an antenna through the trees?
I hear you.
Needles in the haystack. Thorns in the paw of the lion. He finds them, and Volkheimer plucks them out.
All winter the Germans drive their horses and sledges and tanks and trucks over the same roads, packing down the snow, transforming it into a slick bloodstained ice-cement. And when April finally comes, reeking of sawdust and corpses, the canyon walls of snow give way while the ice on the roads remains stubbornly fixed, a luminous, internecine network of invasion: a record of the crucifixion of Russia.
One night they cross a bridge over the Dnieper with the domes and blooming trees of Kiev looming ahead and ash blowing everywhere and
prostitutes bundled in the alleys. In a café, they sit two tables down from an infantryman not much older than Werner. He stares into a newspaper with twitching eyeballs and sips coffee and looks deeply surprised. Astonished.
Werner cannot stop studying him. Finally Neumann One leans over. “Know why he looks like that?”
Werner shakes his head.
“Frostbite took his eyelids. Poor bastard.”
Mail does not reach them. Months pass and Werner does not write to his sister.