In the back of the Opel, Volkheimer reads aloud to Werner. The paper Jutta has written on seems little more than tissue in his gigantic paws.
. . . Oh and Herr Siedler the mining official sent a note congratulating you on your successes. He says people are noticing. Does that mean you can come home? Hans Pfeffering says to tell you “a bullet fears the brave” though I maintain that’s bad advice. And Frau Elena’s toothache is better now but she can’t smoke which makes her cranky, did I tell you she started smoking . . .
Over Volkheimer’s shoulder, through the cracked rear window of the truck shell, Werner watches a red-haired child in a velvet cape float six feet above the road. She passes through trees and road signs, veers around curves; she is as inescapable as a moon.
Neumann One coaxes the Opel west, and Werner curls beneath the bench in the back and does not move for hours, bundled in a blanket, refusing tea, tinned meat, while the floating child pursues him through the countryside. Dead girl in the sky, dead girl out the window, dead girl three inches away. Two wet eyes and that third eye of the bullet hole never blinking.
They bounce through a string of small green towns where pollarded trees line sleepy canals. A pair of women on bicycles pull off the road and gape at the truck as its passes: some infernal lorry sent to blight their town.
“France,” says Bernd.
The canopies of cherry trees drift overhead, pregnant with blossoms. Werner props open the back door and dangles his feet off the rear bumper, his heels just above the flowing road. A horse rolls on its back in grass; five white clouds decorate the sky.
They unload in a town called Épernay, and the hotelkeeper brings wine and chicken legs and broth that Werner manages to keep down. People at the tables around them speak the language that Frau Elena
whispered to him as a child. Neumann One is sent to find diesel, and Neumann Two engages Bernd in a debate about whether or not cow intestines were used as inflatable cells inside first-war zeppelins, and three boys in berets peer around a doorpost and ogle Volkheimer with huge eyes. Behind them, six flowering marigolds in the dusk form the shape of the dead girl, then become flowers once more.
The hotelkeeper says, “You would like more?”
Werner cannot shake his head. Just now he’s afraid to set down his hands in case they pass right through the table.
They drive all night and stop at dawn at a checkpoint on the northern rim of Brittany. The walled citadel of Saint-Malo blooms out of the distance. The clouds present diffuse bands of tender grays and blues, and below them the ocean does the same.
Volkheimer shows their orders to a sentry. Without asking permission, Werner climbs out of the truck and slips over the low seawall onto the beach. He winds through a series of barricades and makes for the tide line. To his right runs a line of anti-invasion obstacles shaped like a child’s jacks, strung with razor wire, extending at least a mile down the shoreline.
No footprints in the sand. Pebbles and bits of weed are strung in scalloped lines. A trio of outer islands bear low stone forts; a green lantern glows on the tip of a jetty. It feels appropriate somehow, to have reached the edge of the continent, to have only the hammered sea left in front of him. As though this is the end point Werner has been moving toward ever since he left Zollverein.
He dips a hand in the water and puts his fingers in his mouth to taste the salt. Someone is shouting his name, but Werner does not turn; he would like nothing more than to stand here all morning and watch the swells move under the light. They’re screaming now, Bernd, then Neumann One, and finally Werner turns to see them waving, and he picks his way along the sand and back up through the lines of razor wire toward the Opel.
A dozen people watch. Sentries, a handful of townspeople. Many with hands over their mouths.
“Tread carefully, boy!” Bernd is yelling. “There are mines! Didn’t you read the signs?”
Werner climbs into the back of the truck and crosses his arms. “Have you completely lost it?” asks Neumann Two.
The few souls they see inside the old city press their backs up against walls to allow the battered Opel to pass. Neumann One stops outside a four-story house with pale blue shutters. “The Kreiskommandantur,” he announces. Volkheimer goes inside and returns with a colonel in field uniform: the Reichswehr coat and high belt and tall black boots. On his heels come two aides.
“We believe there is a network of them,” one aide says. “The encoded numbers are followed by announcements, births and baptisms and engagements and deaths.”
“Then there is music, almost always music,” says the second. “What it means we cannot say.”
The colonel drags two fingers along his perfect jawline. Volkheimer gazes at him and then his aides as though assuring worried children that some injustice will be righted. “We’ll find them,” he says. “It won’t take long.”