Chapter no 176 – Frederick‌

All the Light We Cannot See

He lives with his mother outside west Berlin. Their apartment is a middle unit in a triplex. Its only windows offer a view of sweet-gum trees, a vast and barely used supermarket parking lot, and an expressway beyond.

Frederick sits on the back patio most days and watches the wind drive discarded plastic bags across the lot. Sometimes they spin high into the air and fly unpredictable loops before catching on the branches or disappearing from view. He makes pencil drawings of spirals, messy, heavy-leaded corkscrews. He’ll cover a sheet of paper with two or three, then flip it over and fill the other side. The apartment is jammed with them: thousands on the counters, in drawers, on the toilet tank. His mother used to throw the sheets away when Frederick wasn’t looking, but lately she has given up.

“Like a factory, that boy,” she used to say to friends, and smiled a desperate smile meant to make her appear brave.

Few friends come over now. Few are left.

One Wednesday—but what are Wednesdays to Frederick?—his mother comes in with the mail. “There’s a letter,” she says, “for you.”

Her instinct in the decades since the war has been to hide. Hide herself, hide what happened to her boy. She was not the only widow made to feel as if she had been complicit in an unspeakable crime. Inside the large envelope is a letter and a smaller envelope. The letter comes from a woman in Essen who traces the course of the smaller envelope from her brother to an American prisoner-of-war camp in France, to a military storage facility in New Jersey, to a veterans’ service organization in West Berlin. Then to a former sergeant, then to the woman writing the letter.

Werner. She can still picture the boy: white hair, shy hands, a melting smile. Frederick’s one friend. Aloud she says, “He was very small.”

Frederick’s mother shows him the unopened envelope—it is wrinkled, sepia-colored, and old, his name written in small cursive letters—but he shows no interest. She leaves it on the counter as dusk falls, and

measures out a cup of rice and sets it to boil, and switches on every lamp and overhead fixture as she always does, not to see, but because she is alone, because the apartments on either side are vacant, and because the lights make her feel as if she is expecting someone.

She purees his vegetables. She puts the spoon in Frederick’s mouth and he hums as he swallows: he is happy. She wipes his chin and sets a sheet of paper in front of him and he takes his pencil and begins to draw.

She fills the sink with soapy water. Then she opens the envelope. Inside is a folded print of two birds in full color. Aquatic Wood

WagtailMale 1. Female 2. Two birds on a stalk of Indian turnip. She peers back into the envelope for a note, an explanation, but finds none.

The day she bought that book for Fredde: the bookseller took so long to wrap it. She did not understand its attraction but knew that her son would love it.

The doctors claim Frederick retains no memories, that his brain maintains only basic functions, but there are moments when she wonders. She flattens out the creases as well as she can and drags the floor lamp closer and places the print before her son. He tilts his head and she tries to convince herself he is studying it. But his eyes are gray and chambered and shallow, and after a moment he returns to his spirals.

When she has finished the dishes, she leads Frederick out onto the elevated patio, as is their routine, where he sits with his bib still around his neck, staring into oblivion. She’ll try him again on the bird print tomorrow.

It’s fall, and starlings fly in great pulsing swarms above the city. Sometimes she thinks he perks up when he sees them, hears all those wings rushing and rushing and rushing.

As she sits, looking out through the line of trees into the great empty parking lot, a dark shape sweeps through the nimbus of a streetlamp. It disappears and then reemerges, and suddenly and silently it lands on the deck railing not six feet away.

It’s an owl. As big as a child. It swivels its neck and blinks its yellow eyes and in her head roars a single thought: You’ve come for me.

Frederick sits up straight.

The owl hears something. It holds there, listening as hard as she has ever seen anything listen. Frederick stares and stares.

Then it goes: three audible wing beats and the darkness swallows it. “You saw it?” she whispers. “Did you see it, Fredde?”

He keeps his gaze turned toward the shadows. But there are only the plastic bags rustling in the branches above them and the dozens of spheres of artificial light glowing in the parking lot beyond.

“Mutti?” says Frederick. “Mutti?” “I’m here, Fredde.”

She puts her hand on his knee. His fingers lock around the arms of the chair. His whole body becomes rigid. Veins stand out in his neck.

“Frederick? What is it?”

He looks at her. His eyes do not blink. “What are we doing, Mutti?” “Oh, Fredde. We’re just sitting. We’re just sitting and looking out at

the night.”

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