For a split second, the space around Werner tears in half, as though the last molecules of oxygen have been ripped out of it. Then shards of stone and wood and metal streak past, ringing against his helmet, sizzling into the wall behind them, and Volkheimer’s barricade collapses, and everywhere in the darkness, things scuttle and slide, and he cannot find any air to breathe. But the detonation creates some tectonic shift in the building’s rubble, and there is a snap followed by multiple cascades in the darkness. When Werner stops coughing and pushes the debris off his chest, he finds Volkheimer staring up at a single sheared hole of purple light.
Sky. Night sky.
A shaft of starlight slices through the dust and drops along the edge of a mound of rubble to the floor. For a moment Werner inhales it. Then Volkheimer urges him back and climbs halfway up the ruined staircase and begins whaling away at the edges of the hole with a piece of rebar. The iron clangs and his hands lacerate and his six-day beard glows white with dust, but Werner can see that Volkheimer makes quick progress: the sliver of light becomes a violet wedge, wider across than two of Werner’s hands.
With one more blow, Volkheimer manages to pulverize a big slab of debris, much of it crashing onto his helmet and shoulders, and then it is simply a matter of scrabbling and climbing. He squeezes his upper body through the hole, his shoulders scraping on the edges, his jacket tearing, hips twisting, and then he’s through. He reaches down for Werner, his canvas duffel, and the rifle, and pulls them all up.
They kneel atop what was once an alley. Starlight hangs over everything. No moon Werner can see. Volkheimer turns his bleeding palms up as though to catch the air, to let it seep into his skin like rainwater.
Only two walls of the hotel stand, joined at the corner, bits of plaster attached to the inner wall. Beyond it, houses display their interiors to the night. The rampart behind the hotel remains, though many of its
embrasures along the top have been shattered. The sea presents a barely audible wash on the other side. Everything else is rubble and silence. Starlight rains onto every crenellation. How many men decompose in the piles of stone before them? Nine. Maybe more.
They make for the lee of the ramparts, both of them staggering like drunks. When they reach the wall, Volkheimer blinks down at Werner. Then out at the night. His face so dusted white he looks like a colossus made of powder.
Five blocks to the south, is the girl still playing her recording? Volkheimer says, “Take the rifle. Go.”
Werner rubs his eyes against the glory of the starlight. He feels no hunger, as if he has rid himself forever of the nuisance of eating. “But will we—?”
“Go,” says Volkheimer again. Werner looks at him a last time: his torn jacket and shovel jaw. The tenderness of his big hands. What you could be.
Did he know? All along?
Werner moves from cover to cover. Canvas bag in his left hand, rifle in his right. Five rounds left. In his mind he hears the girl whisper: He is here. He will kill me. West down a canyon of rubble, scrambling over bricks and wires and pieces of roof slates, many of them still hot, the streets apparently abandoned, though what eyes might track him from behind shattered windows, German or French or American or British, he cannot say. Possibly the crosshairs of a sniper center on him this very second.
Here a single platform shoe. Here a fretwork wooden chef on his back, holding a board on which remains chalked today’s soup. Here great tangled coils of barbed wire. Everywhere the reek of corpses.
Crouching in the lee of what was a tourist gift shop—a few souvenir plates in their racks, each with a different name painted on the rim and arranged alphabetically—Werner locates himself in the city. Coiffeur Dames across the street. A bank with no windows. A dead horse, attached to its cart. Here and there an intact building stands without its window glass, the filigreed trails of smoke grown up from its windows like the shadows of ivy that have been ripped away.
What light shines at night! He never knew. Day will blind him.
Werner turns right on what he believes is the rue d’Estrées. Number 4 on the rue Vauborel still stands. Every window on its facade has been broken but the walls are hardly scorched; two of its wooden flower boxes hang on.
He is right below me.
They said what he needed was certainty. Purpose. Clarity. That pigeon-chested commandant Bastian with his grandmother’s walk; he said they would strip the hesitation out of him.
We are a volley of bullets, we are cannonballs. We are the tip of the sword.
Who is the weakest?