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Chapter no 43 – Don’t Tell Lies‌

All the Light We Cannot See

He cannot concentrate on schoolwork or simple conversations or Frau Elena’s chores. Every time he shuts his eyes, some vision of the school at Schulpforta overmasters him: vermilion flags, muscular horses, gleaming laboratories. The best boys in Germany. At certain moments he sees himself as an emblem of possibility to which all eyes have turned. Though at other moments, flickering in front of him, he sees the big kid from the entrance exams: his face gone bloodless atop the platform high above the dance hall. How he fell. How no one moved to help him.

Why can’t Jutta be happy for him? Why, even at the moment of his escape, must some inexplicable warning murmur in a distant region of his mind?

Martin Sachse says, “Tell us again about the hand grenades!” Siegfried Fischer says, “And the falconries!”

Three times he readies his argument and three times Jutta turns on a heel and strides away. Hour after hour she helps Frau Elena with the smaller children or walks to the market or finds some other excuse to be helpful, to be busy, to be out.

“She won’t listen,” Werner tells Frau Elena. “Keep trying.”

Before he knows it, there’s only one day before his departure. He wakes before dawn and finds Jutta asleep in her cot in the girls’ dormitory. Her arms are wrapped around her head and her wool blanket is twisted around her midsection and her pillow is jammed into the crack between mattress and wall—even in sleep, a tableau of friction. Above her bed are papered her fantastical pencil drawings of Frau Elena’s village, of Paris with a thousand white towers beneath whirling flocks of birds.

He says her name.

She twines herself tighter into her blanket. “Will you walk with me?”

To his surprise, she sits up. They step outside before anyone else is awake. He leads her without speaking. They climb one fence, then

another. Jutta’s untied shoelaces trail behind her. Thistles bite their knees. The rising sun makes a pinhole on the horizon.

They stop at the edge of an irrigation canal. In winters past, Werner used to tow her in their wagon to this very spot, and they would watch skaters race along the frozen canal, farmers with blades fixed to their feet and frost caked in their beards, five or six rushing by all at once, tightly packed, in the midst of an eight- or nine-mile race between towns. The look in the skaters’ eyes was of horses who have run a long way, and it was always exciting for Werner to see them, to feel the air disturbed by their speed, to hear their skates clapping along, then fading—a sensation as if his soul might tear free of his body and go sparking off with them. But as soon as they’d continued around the bend and left behind only the white etchings of their skates in the ice, the thrill would fade, and he’d tow Jutta back to Children’s House feeling lonely and forsaken and more trapped in his life than before.

He says, “No skaters came last winter.”

His sister gazes into the ditch. Her eyes are mauve. Her hair is snarled and untamable and perhaps even whiter than his. Schnee.

She says, “None’ll come this year either.”

The mine complex is a smoldering black mountain range behind her. Even now Werner can hear a mechanical drumbeat thudding in the distance, first shift going down in the elevators as the owl shift comes up

—all those boys with tired eyes and soot-stained faces rising in the elevators to meet the sun—and for a moment he apprehends a huge and terrible presence looming just beyond the morning.

“I know you’re angry—”

“You’ll become just like Hans and Herribert.” “I won’t.”

“Spend enough time with boys like that and you will.” “So you want me to stay? Go down in the mines?”

They watch a bicyclist far down the path. Jutta clamps her hands in her armpits. “You know what I used to listen to? On our radio? Before you ruined it?”

“Hush, Jutta. Please.”

“Broadcasts from Paris. They’d say the opposite of everything Deutschlandsender says. They’d say we were devils. That we were committing atrocities. Do you know what atrocities means?”

“Please, Jutta.”

“Is it right,” Jutta says, “to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”

Doubts: slipping in like eels. Werner shoves them back. Jutta is barely twelve years old, still a child.

“I’ll write you letters every week. Twice a week if I can. You don’t have to show them to Frau Elena if you don’t want to.”

Jutta shuts her eyes.

“It’s not forever, Jutta. Two years, maybe. Half the boys who get admitted don’t manage to graduate. But maybe I’ll learn something; maybe they’ll teach me to be a proper engineer. Maybe I can learn to fly an airplane, like little Siegfried says. Don’t shake your head, we’ve always wanted to see the inside of an airplane, haven’t we? I’ll fly us west, you and me, Frau Elena too if she wants. Or we could take a train. We’ll ride through forests and villages de montagnes, all those places Frau Elena talked about when we were small. Maybe we could ride all the way to Paris.”

The burgeoning light. The tender hissing of the grass. Jutta opens her eyes but doesn’t look at him. “Don’t tell lies. Lie to yourself, Werner, but don’t lie to me.”

Ten hours later, he’s on a train.

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