Chapter no 126 – The Beams

All the Light We Cannot See

Shells are careening overhead, quaking the cellar like passing freight trains. Werner imagines the American artillerymen: spotters with scopes balanced on rocks or tank treads or hotel railings; firing officers computing wind speed, barrel elevation, air temperature; radiomen with telephone receivers pressed to their ears, calling in targets.

Right three degrees, repeat range. Calm, weary voices directing fire. The same sort of voice God uses, perhaps, when He calls souls to Him. This way, please.

Only numbers. Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way. It’s the same on their side too.

“My great-grandfather,” Volkheimer says all of a sudden, “was a sawyer in the years before steamships, when everything went by sail.”

Werner can’t be sure in the blackness, but he thinks Volkheimer is standing, running his fingertips along one of the three splintered beams that hold up the ceiling. His knees bent to accommodate his height. Like Atlas about to slip into the traces.

“Back then,” Volkheimer says, “all of Europe needed masts for their navies. But most of the countries had cut down their big trees. England, Great-Grandfather said, didn’t have a tree worth its wood on the whole island. So the masts for the British and Spanish navies, the Portuguese too, would come from Prussia, from the woods where I grew up. Great-Grandfather knew where all the giants were. Some of those trees would take a crew of five men three days to bring down. First the wedges would go in, like needles, he said, in the hide of an elephant. The biggest trunks could swallow a hundred wedges before they’d creak.”

The artillery screams; the cellar shudders.

“Great-Grandfather said he loved to imagine the big trees sledding behind teams of horses across Europe, across rivers, across the sea to Britain, where they’d be stripped and treated and raised up again as masts, where they’d see decades of battle, given a second life, sailing atop the great oceans, until eventually they’d fall and die their second death.”

Another shell goes overhead and Werner imagines he hears the wood in the huge beams above him splinter. That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million. Can you imagine one hundred million years?

Werner says, “Where I’m from, they dug up trees. Prehistoric ones.” Volkheimer says, “I was desperate to leave.”

“I was too.” “And now?”

Bernd molders in the corner. Jutta moves through the world somewhere, watching shadows disentangle themselves from night, watching miners limp past in the dawn. It was enough when Werner was a boy, wasn’t it? A world of wildflowers blooming up through the shapes of rusty cast-off parts. A world of berries and carrot peels and Frau Elena’s fairy tales. Of the sharp smell of tar, and trains passing, and bees humming in the window boxes. String and spit and wire and a voice on the radio offering a loom on which to spin his dreams.

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