Chapter no 153 – Music #2‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Beneath the stars over the city, everything sleeps. Gunners sleep, nuns in a crypt beneath the cathedral sleep, children in old corsairs’ cellars sleep in the laps of sleeping mothers. The doctor in the basement of the Hôtel-Dieu sleeps. Wounded Germans in the tunnels below the fort of La Cité sleep. Behind the walls of Fort National, Etienne sleeps. Everything sleeps save the snails climbing the rocks and the rats scurrying among the piles.

In a hole beneath the ruins of the Hotel of Bees, Werner sleeps too. Only Volkheimer is awake. He sits with the big radio in his lap where Werner has set it and the dying battery between his feet and static whispering in both ears not because he believes he will hear anything but because this is where Werner has left the headphones. Because he does not have the will to push them off. Because he convinced himself hours ago that the plaster heads on the other side of the cellar will kill him if he moves.

Impossibly, the static coalesces into music.

Volkheimer’s eyes open as wide as they can. Straining the blackness for every stray photon. A single piano runs up scales. Then back down. He listens to the notes and the silences between them, and then finds himself leading horses through a forest at dawn, trudging through snow behind his great-grandfather, who walks with a saw draped over his huge shoulders, the snow squeaking beneath boots and hooves, all the trees above them whispering and creaking. They reach the edge of a frozen pond, where a pine grows as tall as a cathedral. His great-grandfather goes to his knees like a penitent, fits the saw into a groove in the bark, and begins to cut.

Volkheimer stands. Finds Werner’s leg in the darkness, puts the headphones on Werner’s ears. “Listen,” he says, “listen, listen . . .”

Werner comes awake. Chords float past in transparent riffles. “Clair de Lune.” Claire: a girl so clear you can see right through her.

Volkheimer says, “Hook the light to the battery.” “Why?”

“Do it.”

Even before the song has stopped playing, Werner disconnects the radio from the battery, unscrews the bezel and bulb from the dead field light, touches it to the leads, and gives them a sphere of light. At the back corner of the cellar, Volkheimer drags blocks of masonry and pieces of timber and shattered sections of wall out of the rubble, stopping now and then only to lean over his knees and catch his breath. He stacks them into a barrier. Then he pulls Werner behind this makeshift bunker, unscrews the base of a grenade and yanks the pull cord to ignite the five-second fuse. Werner sets one hand over his helmet, and Volkheimer throws the grenade at the place where the stairwell used to be.

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