Werner weaves the antenna through the rubbled ceiling and touches it to a twisted pipe. Nothing. On his hands and knees, he drags the aerial around the circumference of the cellar, as though roping Volkheimer into the golden armchair. Nothing. He switches off the dying flashlight and mashes the headset against his good ear and shuts his eyes against the darkness and turns on the repaired transceiver and runs the needle up and down the tuning coil, condensing all his senses into one.
Static static static static static.
Maybe they are buried too deeply. Maybe the rubble of the hotel creates an electromagnetic shadow. Maybe something fundamental is broken in the radio that Werner has not identified. Or maybe the führer’s super-scientists have engineered a weapon to end all weapons and this whole corner of Europe is a shattered waste and Werner and Volkheimer are the only ones left.
He takes off the headphones and breaks the connection. The rations are long gone, the canteens are empty, and the sludge in the bottom of the bucket full of paintbrushes is undrinkable. Both he and Volkheimer have gagged down several mouthfuls, and Werner is not sure he can stomach any more.
The battery inside the radio is nearly dead. Once it’s gone, they’ll have the big American eleven-volt with the black cat printed on the side. And then?
How much oxygen does a person’s respiratory system exchange for carbon dioxide every hour? There was a time when Werner would have loved to solve that puzzle. Now he sits with Volkheimer’s two stick grenades in his lap, feeling the last bright things inside him fizzle out. Turning the shaft of one and then the other. He’d ignite their fuses just to light this place up, just to see again.
Volkheimer has taken to switching on his field light and focusing its frail beam into the far corner, where eight or nine white plaster heads stand on two shelves, several toppled onto their sides. They look like the heads of mannequins, only more skillfully fashioned, three with
mustaches, two bald, one wearing the cap of a soldier. Even with the light off, the heads assume strange power in the dark: pure white, not quite visible but not entirely invisible, embedded into Werner’s retinas, almost glowing in the blackness.
Silent and watchful and unblinking. Tricks of the mind.
Faces, look away.
In the blackness, he crawls toward Volkheimer: a comfort to find his friend’s huge knee in the darkness. The rifle beside him. Bernd’s corpse somewhere beyond.
Werner says, “Did you ever hear the stories they told about you?” “Who?”
“The boys at Schulpforta.” “A few I heard.”
“Did you like it? Being the Giant? Having everyone afraid of you?” “It is not so fun being asked how tall you are all the time.”
A shell detonates somewhere aboveground. Somewhere out there the city burns, the sea breaks, barnacles beat their feathery arms.
“How tall are you?”
Volkheimer snorts once, a bark of a laugh.
“Do you think Bernd was right about the grenades?”
“No,” says Volkheimer, his voice coming alert. “They would kill us.” “Even if we built some kind of barrier?”
“We’d be crushed.”
Werner tries to make out the heads across the cellar in the blackness. If not the grenades, then what? Does Volkheimer really believe someone is going to come and save them? That they deserve saving?
“So we’re just going to wait?” Volkheimer doesn’t answer. “For how long?”
When the radio batteries die, the American eleven-volt should run the transceiver for one more day. Or he could wire the bulb from Volkheimer’s field light to it. The battery will give them one more day of static. Or one more day of light. But they will not need light to use the rifle.