Chapter no 58 – Blackbirds‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Roll call. Breakfast. Phrenology, rifle training, drills. Black-haired Ernst leaves the school five days after he is chosen as the weakest in Bastian’s exercise. Two others leave the following week. Sixty becomes fifty-seven. Every evening Werner works in Dr. Hauptmann’s lab, alternately plugging numbers into triangulation formulas or engineering: Hauptmann wants him to improve the efficiency and power of a directional radio transceiver he is designing. It needs to be quickly retuned to transmit on multiple frequencies, the little doctor says, and it needs to be able to measure the angle of the transmissions it receives. Can Werner manage this?

He reconfigures nearly everything in the design. Some nights Hauptmann grows talkative, explaining the role of a solenoid or resistor in great detail, even classifying a spider hanging from a rafter, or enthusing about gatherings of scientists in Berlin, where practically every conversation, he says, seems to unveil some new possibility. Relativity, quantum mechanics—on such nights he seems happy enough talking about whatever Werner asks.

Yet the very next night, Hauptmann’s manner will be frighteningly closed; he invites no questions and supervises Werner’s work in silence. That Dr. Hauptmann might have ties so far up—that the telephone on his desk connects him with men a hundred miles away who could probably wag a finger and send a dozen Messerschmitts streaming up from an airfield to strafe some city—intoxicates Werner.

We live in exceptional times.

He wonders if Jutta has forgiven him. Her letters consist mostly of banalities—we are busy; Frau Elena says hello—or else arrive in his bunkroom so full of censor marks that their meaning has disintegrated. Does she grieve over his absence? Or has she calcified her feelings, protected herself, as he is learning to do?

Volkheimer, like Hauptmann, seems full of contradictions. To the other boys, the Giant is a brute, an instrument of pure strength, and yet sometimes, when Hauptmann is away in Berlin, Volkheimer will

disappear into the doctor’s office and return with a Grundig tube radio and hook up the shortwave antenna and fill the lab with classical music. Mozart, Bach, even the Italian Vivaldi. The more sentimental, the better. The huge boy will lean back in a chair, so that it makes squeaking protestations beneath his bulk, and let his eyelids slip to half-mast.

Why always triangles? What is the purpose of the transceiver they are building? What two points does Hauptmann know, and why does he need to know the third?

“It’s only numbers, cadet,” Hauptmann says, a favorite maxim. “Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way.”

Werner tries out various theories on Frederick, but Frederick, he’s learning, moves about as if in the grip of a dream, his trousers too big around the waist, the hems already falling out. His eyes are both intense and vague; he hardly seems to realize when he misses targets in marksmanship. Most nights Frederick murmurs to himself before falling asleep: bits of poems, the habits of geese, bats he’s heard swooping past the windows.

Birds, always birds.

“. . . now, arctic terns, Werner, they fly from the south pole to the north pole, true navigators of the globe, probably the most migratory creatures ever to live, seventy thousand kilometers a year . . .”

A metallic wintery light settles over the stables and vineyard and rifle range, and songbirds streak over the hills, great scattershot nets of passerines on their way south, a migratory throughway running right over the spires of the school. Once in a while a flock descends into one of the huge lindens on the grounds and seethes beneath its leaves.

Some of the senior boys, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, cadets who are allowed freer access to ammunition, develop a fondness for firing volleys into the trees to see how many birds they can hit. The tree looks uninhabited and calm; then someone fires, and its crown shatters in all directions, a hundred birds exploding into flight in a half second, shrieking as though the whole tree has flown apart.

In the dormitory window one night, Frederick rests his forehead against the glass. “I hate them. I hate them for that.”

The dinner bell rings, and everyone trots off, Frederick coming in last with his taffy-colored hair and wounded eyes, bootlaces trailing. Werner washes Frederick’s mess tin for him; he shares homework answers, shoe polish, sweets from Dr. Hauptmann; they run next to each other during

field exercises. A brass pin weighs lightly on each of their lapels; one hundred and fourteen hobnailed boots spark against pebbles on the trail. The castle with its towers and battlements looms below them like some misty vision of foregone glory. Werner’s blood gallops through his ventricles, his thoughts on Hauptmann’s transceiver, on solder, fuses, batteries, antennas; his boot and Frederick’s touch the ground at the exact same moment.





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