Chapter no 168 – Jutta‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Jutta Wette teaches sixth-form algebra in Essen: integers, probability, parabolas. Every day she wears the same outfit: black slacks with a nylon blouse—alternately beige, charcoal, or pale blue. Occasionally the canary-yellow one, if she’s feeling unrestrained. Her skin is milky and her hair remains white as paper.

Jutta’s husband, Albert, is a kind, slow-moving, and balding accountant whose great passion is running model trains in the basement. For a long time Jutta believed she could not get pregnant, and then, one day, when she was thirty-seven years old, she did. Their son, Max, is six, fond of mud, dogs, and questions no one can answer. More than anything lately, Max likes to fold complicated designs of paper airplanes. He comes home from school, kneels on the kitchen floor, and forms airplane after airplane with unswerving, almost frightening devotion, evaluating different wingtips, tails, noses, mostly seeming to love the praxis of it, the transformation of something flat into something that can fly.

It’s a Thursday afternoon in early June, the school year nearly over, and they are at the public swimming pool. Slate-colored clouds veil the sky, and children shout in the shallow end, and parents talk or read magazines or doze in their chairs, and everything is normal. Albert stands at the snack counter in his swim trunks, with his little towel draped over his wide back, and contemplates his selection of ice cream.

Max swims awkwardly, windmilling one arm forward and then the other, periodically looking up to make sure his mother is watching. When he’s done, he wraps himself in a towel and climbs into the chair beside her. Max is compact and small and his ears stick out. Water droplets shine in his eyelashes. Dusk seeps down through the overcast and a slight chill drops into the air and one by one families leave to walk or bike or ride the bus home. Max plucks crackers out of a cardboard box and crunches them loudly. “I love Leibniz Zoo crackers, Mutti,” he says.

“I know, Max.”

Albert drives them home in their little NSU Prinz 4, the clutch rattling, and Jutta takes a stack of end-of-term exams from her school

bag and grades them at the kitchen table. Albert puts on water for noodles and fries onions. Max takes a clean sheet of paper from the drawing table and starts to fold.

On the front door come knocks, three.

For reasons Jutta does not fully understand, her heartbeat begins to thud in her ears. The point of her pencil hovers over the page. It’s only someone at the door—a neighbor or a friend or the little girl, Anna, from down the street, who sits upstairs with Max sometimes and gives him directions for how to best construct elaborate towns out of plastic blocks. But the knock does not sound anything like Anna’s.

Max bounds to the door, airplane in hand. “Who is it, dear?”

Max does not reply, which means it is someone he does not know. She crosses into the hall, and there in her door frame stands a giant.

Max crosses his arms, intrigued and impressed. His airplane on the ground at his feet. The giant takes off his cap. His massive head shines. “Frau Wette?” He wears a tent-sized silver sweatsuit with maroon splashes along the sides, zipper pulled to the base of his throat. Gingerly, he presents a faded canvas duffel bag.

The bullies in the square. Hans and Herribert. His very size invokes them all. This man has come, she thinks, to other doors and not bothered to knock.


“Your maiden name was Pfennig?”

Even before she nods, before he says, “I have something for you,” before she invites him through the screen door, she knows this will be about Werner.

The giant’s nylon pants swish as he follows her down the hall. When Albert looks up from the stove, he startles but only says, “Hello,” and “Watch your head,” and waves his cooking spoon as the giant dodges the light fixture.

When he offers dinner, the giant says yes. Albert pulls the table away from the wall and sets a fourth place. In his wooden chair, Volkheimer reminds Jutta of an image from one of Max’s picture books: an elephant squeezed into an airplane seat. The duffel bag he has brought waits on the hall table.

The conversation begins slowly.

He has come several hours on the train.

He walked here from the station. He does not need sherry, thank you.

Max eats fast, Albert slowly. Jutta tucks her hands beneath her thighs to hide their shaking.

“Once they had the address,” Volkheimer says, “I asked if I might deliver it myself. They included a letter, see?” He takes a folded sheet of paper from his pocket.

Outside, cars pass, wrens trill.

A part of Jutta does not want to take the letter. Does not want to hear what this huge man has traveled a long way to say. Weeks go by when Jutta does not allow herself to think of the war, of Frau Elena, of the awful last months in Berlin. Now she can buy pork seven days a week. Now, if the house feels cold she twists a dial in the kitchen, and voilà. She does not want to be one of those middle-aged women who thinks of nothing but her own painful history. Sometimes she looks at the eyes of her older colleagues and wonders what they did when the electricity was out, when there were no candles, when the rain came through the ceiling. What they saw. Only rarely does she loosen the seals enough to allow herself to think of Werner. In many ways, her memories of her brother have become things to lock away. A math teacher at Helmoltz-Gymnasium in 1974 does not bring up a brother who attended the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta.

Albert says, “In the east, then?”

Volkheimer says, “I was with him at school, then out in the field. We were in Russia. Also Poland, Ukraine, Austria. Then France.”

Max crunches a sliced apple. He says, “How tall are you?” “Max,” says Jutta.

Volkheimer smiles.

Albert says, “He was very bright, wasn’t he? Jutta’s brother?” Volkheimer says, “Very.”

Albert offers a second helping, offers salt, offers sherry again. Albert is younger than Jutta, and during the war, he ran as a courier in Hamburg between bomb shelters. Nine years old in 1945, still a child.

“The last place I saw him,” says Volkheimer, “was in a town on the northern coast of France called Saint-Malo.”

From the loam of Jutta’s memory rises a sentence: What I want to write about today is the sea.

“We spent a month there. I think he might have fallen in love.”

Jutta sits straighter in her chair. It’s embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is. A town on the northern coast of France? Love? Nothing will be healed in this kitchen. Some griefs can never be put right.

Volkheimer pushes back from the table. “It was not my intention to upset you.” He hovers, dwarfing them.

“It’s all right,” says Albert. “Max, can you please take our guest to the patio? I’ll put out some cake.”

Max slides open the glass door for Volkheimer, and he ducks through. Jutta sets the plates in the sink. She is suddenly very tired. She only wants the big man to leave and to take the bag with him. She only wants a tide of normality to wash in and cover everything again.

Albert touches her elbow. “Are you all right?”

Jutta does not nod or shake her head, but slowly drags a hand over both eyebrows.

“I love you, Jutta.”

When she looks out the window, Volkheimer is kneeling on the cement beside Max. Max lays down two sheets of paper, and although she cannot hear them, she can see the huge man talking Max through a set of steps. Max watches intently, turning over the sheet when Volkheimer turns it over, matching his folds, wetting one finger, and running it along a crease.

Soon enough, they each have a wide-winged plane with a long forked tail. Volkheimer’s sails neatly out across the yard, flying straight and true, and smacks into the fence nose-first. Max claps.

Max kneels on the patio in the dusk, going over his airplane, checking the angle of its wings. Volkheimer kneels beside him, nodding, patient.

Jutta says, “I love you too.”

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