Werner is captured a mile south of Saint-Malo by three French resistance fighters in streetclothes roving the streets in a lorry. First they believe they have rescued a little white-haired old man. Then they hear his accent, notice the German tunic beneath the antique shirt, and decide they have a spy, a fabulous catch. Then they realize Werner’s youth. They hand him off to an American clerk in a requisitioned hotel transformed into a disarmament center. At first Werner worries they’re taking him downstairs—please, not another pit—but he is brought to the third floor, where an exhausted interpreter who has been booking German prisoners for a month notes his name and rank, then asks a few rote questions while the clerk rifles through Werner’s canvas duffel and hands it back.
“A girl,” Werner says in French, “did you see—?” but the interpreter only smirks and says something to the clerk in English, as though every German soldier he has interviewed has asked about a girl.
He’s ushered into a courtyard encircled with razor wire, where eight or nine other Germans sit in their high boots holding battered canteens, one dressed in women’s clothes in which he apparently tried to desert. Two NCOs and three privates and no Volkheimer.
At night they serve soup in a cauldron, and he gulps down four helpings from a tin cup. Five minutes later, he is sick in the corner. The soup won’t stay down in the morning either. Shoals of clouds swim through the sky. His left ear admits no sound. He lingers over images of Marie-Laure—her hands, her hair—even as he worries that to concentrate on them too long is to risk wearing them out. A day after his arrest, he is marched east in a group of twenty to join a larger group where they are penned in a warehouse. Through the open doors, he cannot see Saint-Malo, but he hears the airplanes, hundreds of them, and a great pall of smoke hangs over the horizon day and night. Twice medics try giving Werner bowls of gruel, but it will not stay down. He’s been able to keep nothing in his stomach since the peaches.
Maybe his fever is returning; maybe the sludge they drank in the hotel cellar has poisoned him. Maybe his body is giving up. If he does not eat, he understands, he will die. But when he does eat, he feels as if he will die.
From the warehouse, they are marched to Dinan. Most of the prisoners are boys or middle-aged men, the shattered remains of companies. They carry ponchos, duffels, crates; a few tote brightly colored suitcases claimed from who knows where. Among them walk pairs of men who fought side by side, but most are strangers to one another, and all have seen things they wish to forget. Always there is the sense of a tide behind them, rising, gathering mass, carrying with it a slow and vindictive rage.
He walks in the tweed trousers of Marie-Laure’s great-uncle; over his shoulder, he carries his duffel. Eighteen years old. All his life his schoolmasters, his radio, his leaders talked to him about the future. And yet what future remains? The road ahead is blank, and the lines of his thoughts all incline inward: he sees Marie-Laure disappear down the street with her cane like ash blown out of a fire, and a feeling of longing crashes against the underside of his ribs.
On the first of September, Werner cannot get to his feet when he wakes. Two of his fellow prisoners help him to the bathroom and back, then lay him in the grass. A young Canadian in a medic’s helmet shines a penlight into Werner’s eyes and loads him into a truck, and he is driven some distance and set in a tent full of dying men. A nurse puts fluid into his arm. Spoons a solution into his mouth.
For a week he lives in the strange greenish light beneath the canvas of that huge tent, his duffel clutched in one hand and the hard corners of the little wooden house clamped in the other. When he has the strength, he fiddles with it. Twist the chimney, slide off the three panels of the roof, look inside. Built so cleverly.
Every day, on his right and left, another soul escapes toward the sky, and it sounds to him as if he can hear faraway music, as if a door has been shut on a grand old radio and he can listen only by putting his good ear against the material of his cot, although the music is soft, and there are moments when he is not certain it is there at all.
There is something to be angry at, Werner is sure, but he cannot say what it is.
“Won’t eat,” says a nurse in English.
Armband of a medic. “Fever?” “High.”
There are more words. Then numbers. In a dream, he sees a bright crystalline night with the canals all frozen and the lanterns of the miners’ houses burning and the farmers skating between the fields. He sees a submarine asleep in the lightless depths of the Atlantic; Jutta presses her face to a porthole and breathes on the glass. He half expects to see Volkheimer’s huge hand appear, help him up, and clap him into the Opel.
And Marie-Laure? Can she still feel the pressure of his hand against the webbing between her fingers as he can feel hers?
One night he sits up. In cots around him are a few dozen sick or wounded. A warm September wind pours across the countryside and sets the walls of the tent rippling.
Werner’s head swivels lightly on his neck. The wind is strong and gusting stronger, and the corners of the tent strain against their guy ropes, and where the flaps at the two ends come up, he can see trees buck and sway. Everything rustles. Werner zips his old notebook and the little house into his duffel and the man beside him murmurs questions to himself and the rest of the ruined company sleeps. Even Werner’s thirst has faded. He feels only the raw, impassive surge of the moonlight as it strikes the tent above him and scatters. Out there, through the open flaps of the tent, clouds hurtle above treetops. Toward Germany, toward home.
Silver and blue, blue and silver.
Sheets of paper tumble down the rows of cots, and in Werner’s chest comes a quickening. He sees Frau Elena kneel beside the coal stove and bank up the fire. Children in their beds. Baby Jutta sleeps in her cradle. His father lights a lamp, steps into an elevator, and disappears.
The voice of Volkheimer: What you could be.
Werner’s body seems to have gone weightless under his blanket, and beyond the flapping tent doors, the trees dance and the clouds keep up their huge billowing march, and he swings first one leg and then the other off the edge of the bed.
“Ernst,” says the man beside him. “Ernst.” But there is no Ernst; the men in the cots do not reply; the American soldier at the door of the tent sleeps. Werner walks past him into the grass.
The wind moves through his undershirt. He is a kite, a balloon.
Once, he and Jutta built a little sailboat from scraps of wood and carried it to the river. Jutta painted the vessel in ecstatic purples and
greens, and she set it on the water with great formality. But the boat sagged as soon as the current got hold of it. It floated downstream, out of reach, and the flat black water swallowed it. Jutta blinked at Werner with wet eyes, pulling at the battered loops of yarn in her sweater.
“It’s all right,” he told her. “Things hardly ever work on the first try.
We’ll make another, a better one.”
Did they? He hopes they did. He seems to remember a little boat—a more seaworthy one—gliding down a river. It sailed around a bend and left them behind. Didn’t it?
The moonlight shines and billows; the broken clouds scud above the trees. Leaves fly everywhere. But the moonlight stays unmoved by the wind, passing through clouds, through air, in what seems to Werner like impossibly slow, imperturbable rays. They hang across the buckling grass.
Why doesn’t the wind move the light?
Across the field, an American watches a boy leave the sick tent and move against the background of the trees. He sits up. He raises his hand.
“Stop,” he calls. “Halt,” he calls.
But Werner has crossed the edge of the field, where he steps on a trigger land mine set there by his own army three months before, and disappears in a fountain of earth.