Chapter no 157 – Comrades‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Shattered crockery litters the foyer—impossible to be noiseless as he enters. A kitchen full of debris waits down a corridor. Hallway deep with drifts of ash. Chair overturned. Staircase ahead. Unless she has moved in the past few minutes, she will be high in the house, close to the transmitter.

Rifle in both hands, bag over his shoulder, Werner starts up. At each landing a rushing blackness throws off his vision. Spots open and close at his feet. Books have been thrown down the stairwell, along with papers, cords, bottles, and what might be pieces of antique dollhouses. Second floor third fourth fifth: all in the same state. He has no sense of how much noise he makes or whether it matters.

On the sixth floor, the stairs appear to end. Three half-open doors frame the landing: one to the left, one ahead, one to the right. He goes to his right, rifle up; he expects the flash of gun barrels, the jaws of a demon swinging open. Instead, a broken window illuminates a swaybacked bed. A girl’s dress hangs in an armoire. Hundreds of tiny things—pebbles?—line the baseboards. Two buckets stand in a corner, half full of what might be water.

Is he too late? He props Volkheimer’s rifle against the bed and raises a bucket and drinks once, twice. Out the window, far beyond the neighboring block, beyond the ramparts, the single light of a boat appears and disappears as it rises and falls on distant swells.

A voice behind him says, “Ah.”

Werner turns. In front of him totters a German officer in field dress. The five bars and three diamonds of a sergeant major. Pale and bruised, lean to the point of infirmity, he shambles toward the bed. The right side of his throat spills weirdly above the tightness of his collar. “I do not recommend,” he says, “mixing morphine with Beaujolais.” A vein on the side of the man’s forehead throbs lightly.

“I saw you,” says Werner. “In front of the bakery. With a newspaper.” “And you, little Private. I saw you.” In his smile Werner recognizes

an assumption that they are kindred, comrades. Accomplices. That each

has come to this house seeking the same thing.

Behind the sergeant major, across the hall, impossibly: flames. A curtain in the room directly across the landing has caught fire. Already flames are licking the ceiling. The sergeant major loops one finger under his collar and pulls against its tightness. His face gaunt and his teeth maniacal. He sits on the bed. Starlight winks off the barrel of his pistol.

At the foot of the bed, Werner can just make out a low table upon which scaled-down wooden houses crowd together to form a city. Is it Saint-Malo? His eyes flash from the model to the flames across the hall to Volkheimer’s rifle leaning against the bed. The officer bends forward and looms over the miniature city like some tormented gargoyle.

Tendrils of black smoke have begun to snake into the hall. “The curtain, sir. It’s on fire.”

“The cease-fire is scheduled for noon, or so they say,” von Rumpel says in an empty voice. “No need to rush. Plenty of time.” He jogs the fingers of one hand down a miniature street. “We want the same thing, you and I, Private. But only one of us can have it. And only I know where it is. Which presents a problem for you. Is it here or here or here or here?” He rubs his hands together, then lies back on the bed. He points his pistol at the ceiling. “Is it up there?”

In the room beyond the landing, the burning curtain sloughs off its rod. Maybe it will go out, thinks Werner. Maybe it will go out on its own.

Werner thinks about the men in the sunflowers and a hundred others: each lay dead in his hut or truck or bunker, wearing the look of someone who had caught the tune of a familiar song. A crease between the eyes, a slackness to the mouth. A look that said: So soon? But doesn’t it play for everybody too soon?

Firelight plays across the hall. Still on his back, the sergeant major takes the pistol in both hands and opens and closes the breech. “Drink some more,” he says, and gestures toward the bucket in Werner’s hands. “I can see how thirsty you are. I didn’t pee in it, I promise.”

Werner sets down the bucket. The sergeant major sits up and tilts his head back and forth as though working out kinks in his neck. Then he aims his gun at Werner’s chest. From down the hall, in the direction of the burning curtain, comes a muted clattering, something bouncing down a ladder and striking the floor, and the sergeant major’s attention swings toward the noise, and the barrel of his pistol dips.

Werner lunges for Volkheimer’s rifle. All your life you wait, and then it finally comes, and are you ready?

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