Chapter no 114 – Fever‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Maybe it comes from the stew in some nameless Ukrainian kitchen; maybe partisans have poisoned the water; maybe Werner simply sits too long in too many damp places with the headset over his ears. Regardless, the fever comes, and with it terrible diarrhea, and as Werner crouches in the mud behind the Opel, he feels as if he is shitting out the last of his civilization. Whole hours pass during which he can do no more than press his cheek against the wall of the truck shell seeking something cold. Then the shivers take over, hard and fast, and he cannot warm his body; he wants to leap into a fire.

Volkheimer offers coffee; Neumann Two offers the tablets that Werner knows by now are not for backaches. He declines both, and 1943 becomes 1944. Werner has not written Jutta in almost a year. The last letter he has from her is six months old and begins: Why don’t you write? Still he manages to find illegal transmissions, one every two weeks or so. He salvages the inferior Soviet equipment, milled from marginal steel, clumsily soldered; it’s all so unsystematic. How can they fight a war with such lousy equipment? The resistance is pitched to Werner as supremely organized; they are dangerous, disciplined insurgents; they follow the words of ferocious, lethal leaders. But he sees firsthand how they can be so loosely allied as to be basically ineffectual—they are wretched and filthy; they live in holes. They are ragtag desperadoes with

nothing to lose.

And it seems he can never make headway into understanding which theory is closer to the truth. Because really, Werner thinks, they are all insurgents, all partisans, every single person they see. Anyone who is not a German wants the Germans dead, even the most sycophantic of them. They shy away from the truck as it rattles into town; they hide their faces, their families; their shops brim with shoes plucked off the dead.

Look at them.

What he feels on the worst days of that relentless winter—while rust colonizes the truck and rifles and radios, while German divisions retreat all around them—is a deep scorn for all the humans they pass. The

smoking, ruined villages, the broken pieces of brick in the street, the frozen corpses, the shattered walls, the upturned cars, the barking dogs, the scurrying rats and lice: how can they live like that? Out here in the forests, in the mountains, in the villages, they are supposed to be pulling up disorder by the root. The total entropy of any system, said Dr. Hauptmann, will decrease only if the entropy of another system will increase. Nature demands symmetry. Ordnung muss sein.

And yet what order are they making out here? The suitcases, the queues, the wailing babies, the soldiers pouring back into the cities with eternity in their eyes—in what system is order increasing? Surely not in Kiev, or Lvov, or Warsaw. It’s all Hades. There are just so many humans, as if huge Russian factories cast new men every minute. Kill a thousand and we’ll make ten thousand more.

February finds them in mountains. Werner shivers in the back of the truck while Neumann One grinds down switchbacks. Trenches snake below them in an endless net, German positions on one side, Russian positions beyond. Thick ribbons of smoke stripe the valley; occasional flares of ordnance fly like shuttlecocks.

Volkheimer unfolds a blanket and wraps it around Werner’s shoulders. His blood sloshes back and forth inside him like mercury, and out the windows, in a gap in the mist, the network of trenches and artillery below shows itself very clearly for a moment, and Werner feels he is gazing down into the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than an electron has. Then they’re around a bend and he feels only the presence of Volkheimer next to him, a cold dusk out the windows, bridge after bridge, hill after hill, all the time descending. Metallic, tattered moonlight shatters across the road, and a white horse stands chewing in a field, and a searchlight rakes the sky, and in the lit window of a mountain cabin, for a split second as they rumble past, Werner sees Jutta seated at a table, the bright faces of other children around her, Frau Elena’s needlepoint over the sink, the corpses of a dozen infants heaped in a bin beside the stove.

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