Chapter no 41 – You Have Been Called

All the Light We Cannot See

Everyone wants to hear Werner’s stories. What were the exams like, what did they make you do, tell us everything. The youngest children tug his sleeves; the older ones are deferential. This snowy-haired dreamer plucked out of the soot.

“They said they’d accept only two from my age group. Maybe three.” From the far end of the table, he can feel the heat of Jutta’s attention. With the rest of the money from Herr Siedler, he purchased a People’s Receiver for thirty-four marks eighty: a two-valve low-powered radio even cheaper than the state-sponsored Volksemfängers he has repaired in the houses of neighbors. Unmodified, its receiver can haul in only the big long-wave nationwide programs from Deutchlandsender. Nothing else. Nothing foreign.

The children shout, delighted, as he presents it. Jutta shows no interest.

Martin Sachse asks, “Was there loads of math?” “Was there cheeses? Was there cakes?”

“Did they let you shoot rifles?”

“Did you ride in tanks? I bet you rode in tanks.”

Werner says, “I didn’t know the answers to half their questions. I’ll never get in.”

But he does. Five days after he returns from Essen, the letter is hand-delivered to Children’s House. An eagle and cross on a crisp envelope. No stamp. Like a dispatch from God.

Frau Elena is doing laundry. The little boys are clustered around the new radio: a half-hour program called Kids’ Club. Jutta and Claudia Förster have taken three of the younger girls to a puppet show in the market; Jutta has spoken no more than six words to Werner since his return.

You have been called, says the letter. Werner is to report to the National Political Institute of Education #6 at Schulpforta. He stands in the parlor of Children’s House, trying to absorb it. Cracked walls,

sagging ceiling, twin benches that have borne child after child after child for as long as the mine has made orphans. He has found a way out.

Schulpforta. Tiny dot on the map, near Naumburg, in Saxony. Two hundred miles east. Only in his most intrepid dreams did he allow himself to hope that he might travel so far. He carries the sheet of paper in a daze to the alley where Frau Elena boils sheets amid billows of steam.

She rereads it several times. “We can’t pay.” “We don’t need to.”

“How far?”

“Five hours by train. They’ve already paid the fare.” “When?”

“Two weeks.”

Frau Elena: strands of hair stuck to her cheeks, maroon aprons under her eyes, pink rims around her nostrils. Thin crucifix against her damp throat. Is she proud? She rubs her eyes and nods absently. “They’ll celebrate this.” She hands the letter back and stares down the alley at the dense ranks of clotheslines and coalbins.

“Who, Frau?”

“Everyone. The neighbors.” She laughs a sudden and startling laugh. “People like that vice minister. The man who took your book.”

“Not Jutta.” “No. Not Jutta.”

He rehearses in his head the argument he will present to his sister. Pflicht. It means duty. Obligation. Every German fulfilling his function. Put on your boots and go to work. Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer. We all have parts to play, little sister. But before the girls arrive, news of his acceptance has reverberated through the block. Neighbors come over one after another and exclaim and wag their chins. Coal wives bring pig knuckles and cheese; they pass around Werner’s acceptance letter; the ones who can read, read it aloud to the ones who cannot, and Jutta comes home to a crowded, exhilarated room. The twins—Hannah and Susanne Gerlitz—sprint laps around the sofa, looped up in the excitement, and six-year-old Rolf Hupfauer sings Rise! Rise! All glory to the fatherland! and several of the other children join in, and Werner doesn’t see Frau Elena speak to Jutta in the corner of the parlor, doesn’t see Jutta run upstairs.

At the dinner bell, she does not come down. Frau Elena asks Hannah Gerlitz to lead the prayer, and tells Werner she’ll talk to Jutta, that he ought to stay downstairs, all these people are here for him. Every few breaths, the words flare in his mind like sparks: You have been called. Each minute that passes is one fewer in this house. In this life.

After the meal, little Siegfried Fischer, no older than five, walks around the table and tugs Werner’s sleeve and hands him a photograph he has torn from a newspaper. In the picture, six fighter-bombers float above a mountain range of clouds. Spangles of sun are frozen midglide across the airplanes’ fuselages. The scarves of the pilots stretch backward.

Siegfried Fischer says, “You’ll show them, won’t you?” His face is fierce with belief; it seems to draw a circle around all the hours Werner has spent at Children’s House, hoping for something more.

“I will,” Werner says. The eyes of all the children are on him. “Absolutely I will.”

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