Chapter no 54 – Weakest

All the Light We Cannot See

The warrant officer in charge of field exercises is the commandant, an overzealous schoolmaster named Bastian with an expansive walk and a round belly and a coat quivering with war medals. His face is scarred from smallpox, and his shoulders look as though they’ve been hewn from soft clay. He wears hobnailed jackboots every second of every day, and the cadets joke that he kicked his way out of the womb with them.

Bastian demands that they memorize maps, study the angle of the sun, cut their own belts from cowhide. Every afternoon, whatever the weather, he stands in a field bawling state-sown dicta: “Prosperity depends on ferocity. The only things that keep your precious grandmothers in their tea and cookies are the fists at the end of your arms.”

An antique pistol dangles from his belt; the most eager cadets look up at him with shining eyes. To Werner, he looks capable of severe and chronic violence.

“The corps is a body,” he explains, twirling a length of rubber hose so that its tip whirs inches from a boy’s nose. “No different from a man’s body. Just as we ask you to each drive the weakness from your own bodies, so you must also learn to drive the weaknesses from the corps.”

One October afternoon, Bastian plucks a pigeon-toed boy from the line. “You’ll be first. Who are you?”

“Bäcker, sir.”

“Bäcker. Tell us, Bäcker. Who is the weakest member of this group?”

Werner quails. He is smaller than every cadet in his year. He tries to expand his chest, stand as tall as he can. Bäcker’s gaze rakes across the rows. “Him, sir?”

Werner exhales; Bäcker has chosen a boy far to Werner’s right, one of the few boys with black hair. Ernst Somebody. A safe enough choice: Ernst is in fact a slow runner. A boy who has yet to grow into his horsey legs.

Bastian calls Ernst forward. The boy’s bottom lip trembles as he turns to face the group.

“Getting all weepy won’t help,” says Bastian, and gestures vaguely to the far end of the field, where a line of trees cuts across the weeds. “You’ll have a ten-second head start. Make it to me before they make it to you. Got it?”

Ernst neither nods nor shakes his head. Bastian feigns frustration. “When I raise my left hand, you run. When I raise my right hand, the rest of you fools run.” Off Bastian waddles, rubber hose around his neck, pistol swinging at his side.

Sixty boys wait, breathing. Werner thinks of Jutta with her opalescent hair and quick eyes and blunt manners: she would never be mistaken for the weakest. Ernst Somebody is shaking everywhere now, all the way down to his wrists and ankles. When Bastian is maybe two hundred yards away, he turns and raises his left hand.

Ernst runs with his arms nearly straight and his legs wide and unhinged. Bastian counts down from ten. “Three,” yells his faraway voice. “Two. One.” At zero, his right arm goes up and the group unleashes. The dark-haired boy is at least fifty yards in front of them, but immediately the pack begins to gain.

Hurrying, scampering, running hard, fifty-nine fourteen-year-olds chase one. Werner keeps to the center of the group as it strings out, his heart beating in dark confusion, wondering where Frederick is, why they’re chasing this boy, and what they’re supposed to do if they catch him.

Except in some atavistic part of his brain, he knows exactly what they’ll do.

A few outrunners are exceptionally fast; they gain on the lone figure. Ernst’s limbs pump furiously, but he clearly is not accustomed to sprinting, and he loses steam. The grass waves, the trees are transected by sunlight, the pack draws closer, and Werner feels annoyed: Why couldn’t Ernst be faster? Why hasn’t he practiced? How did he make it through the entrance exams?

The fastest cadet is lunging for the back of the boy’s shirt. He almost has him. Black-haired Ernst is going to be caught, and Werner wonders if some part of him wants it to happen. But the boy makes it to the commandant a split second before the others come pounding past.

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