Chapter no 169 – Duffel‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Volkheimer is gone. The duffel waits on the hall table. She can hardly look at it.

Jutta helps Max into his pajamas and kisses him good night. She brushes her teeth, avoiding herself in the mirror, and goes back downstairs and stands looking out through the window in their front door. In the basement, Albert is running his trains through his meticulously painted world, beneath the underpass, over his electric drawbridge; it’s a small sound up here, but relentless, a sound that penetrates the timbers of the house.

Jutta brings the duffel up to the desk in her bedroom and sets it down on the floor and grades another of her students’ exams. Then another. She can hear the trains stop, then resume their monotonous drone.

She tries to grade a third exam but cannot concentrate; the numbers drift across the pages and collect at the bottom in unintelligible piles. She sets the bag in her lap.

When they were first married and Albert went away on trips for work, Jutta would wake in the predawn hours and remember those first nights after Werner left for Schulpforta and feel all over again the searing pain of his absence.

For something so old, the zipper on the duffel opens smoothly. Inside is a thick envelope and a package covered in newspaper. When she unwraps the newspaper, she finds a model house, tall and narrow, no bigger than her fist.

The envelope contains the notebook she sent him forty years before. His book of questions. That crimped, tiny cursive, each letter sloping slightly farther uphill. Drawings, schematics, pages of lists.

Something that looks like a blender powered by bicycle pedals. A motor for a model airplane.

Why do some fish have whiskers?

Is it true that all cats are gray when the candles are out? When lightning strikes the sea, why don’t all the fish die?

After three pages, she has to close the notebook. Memories cartwheel out of her head and tumble across the floor. Werner’s cot in the attic, the wall above it papered over with her drawings of imaginary cities. The first-aid box and the radio and the wire threaded out the window and through the eave. Downstairs, the trains run through Albert’s three-level layout, and in the next room her son wages battles in his sleep, lips murmuring, eyelids flexing, and Jutta wills the numbers to climb back up and find their places on her students’ exams.

She reopens the notebook.

Why does a knot hold?

If five cats catch five rats in five minutes, how many cats will it require to catch 100 rats in 100 minutes?

Why does a flag flutter in the wind rather than stand straight out?

Tucked between the last two pages, she finds an old sealed envelope. He has written For Frederick across the front. Frederick: the bunkmate Werner used to write about, the boy who loved birds.

He sees what other people don’t.

What the war did to dreamers.

When Albert finally comes up, she keeps her head down and pretends to be grading exams. He peels himself out of his clothes and groans lightly as he gets into bed, and switches off his lamp, and says good night, and still she sits.

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