Tonight they work a section of the old city tucked against the southern ramparts. Rain falls so lightly that it seems indistinguishable from fog. Werner sits in the back of the Opel; Volkheimer drowses on the bench behind him. Bernd is up on the parapet with the first transceiver under a poncho. He has not keyed his handset in hours, which means he is asleep. The only light comes from the amber filament inside Werner’s signal meter.
The spectrum is all static and then it is not.
Madame Labas sends word that her daughter is pregnant. Monsieur Ferey sends love to his cousins at Saint-Vincent.
A great gust of static shears past. The voice is like something from a long-ago dream. A half dozen more words flutter through Werner in that Breton accent: Next broadcast Thursday 2300. Fifty-six seventy-two something . . . memory coming at Werner like a six-car train out of the darkness, the quality of the transmission and the tenor of the voice matching in every respect the broadcasts of the Frenchman he used to hear, and then a piano plays three single notes, followed by a pair, the chords rising peacefully, each a candle leading deeper into a forest . . . The recognition is immediate. It is as if he has been drowning for as long as he can remember and somebody has fetched him up for air.
Just behind Werner, Volkheimer’s eyelids remain closed. Through the separator between the shell and cab, he can see the motionless shoulders of the Neumanns. Werner covers the meter with his hand. The song unspools, grows louder, and he waits for Bernd to key his microphone, to say he has heard.
But nothing comes. Everyone is asleep. And yet hasn’t the little shell in which he and Volkheimer sit gone electric?
Now the piano makes a long, familiar run, the pianist playing different scales with each hand—what sounds like three hands, four—the harmonies like steadily thickening pearls on a strand, and Werner sees six-year-old Jutta lean toward him, Frau Elena kneading bread in the
background, a crystal radio in his lap, the cords of his soul not yet severed.
The piano rills through its finishing measures, and then the static wallops back.
Did they hear? Can they hear his heart hammering right now against his ribs? There’s the rain, falling lightly past the high houses. There’s Volkheimer, his chin resting on the acreage of his chest. Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feet—I will not— Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down. Werner who watched Volkheimer wade into house after house, the same ravening nightmare recurring over and over and over.
He removes the headset and eases past Volkheimer to open the back door. Volkheimer opens one eye, huge, golden, lionlike. He says, “Nichts?”
Werner looks up at the stone houses arrayed wall to wall, tall and aloof, their faces damp, their windows dark. No lamplight anywhere. No antennas. The rain falls so softly, almost soundlessly, but to Werner it roars.
He turns. “Nichts,” he says. Nothing.