Chapter no 60 – Weakest (#2)

All the Light We Cannot See

December sucks the light from the castle. The sun hardly clears the horizon before sinking away. Snow falls once, twice, then stays locked over the lawns. Has Werner ever seen snow this white, snow that was not fouled immediately with ash and coal dust? The only emissaries from the outside world are the occasional songbird who lands in the lindens beyond the quadrangle, blown astray by distant storm or battle or both, and two callow-faced corporals who come into the refectory every week or so—always after the prayer, always just as the boys have placed the first morsel of dinner in their mouths—to pass beneath the blazonry and stop behind a cadet and whisper in his ear that his father has been killed in action.

Other nights a prefect yells Achtung! and the boys stand at their benches and Bastian the commandant waddles in. The boys look down at their food in silence while Bastian walks the rows, trailing a single index finger across their backs. “Homesick? We mustn’t trouble ourselves over our homes. In the end we all come home to the führer. What other home matters?”

“No other!” shout the boys.

Every afternoon, no matter the weather, the commandant blows his whistle and the fourteen-year-olds trot outside and he looms over them with his coat stretched across his belly and his medals chiming and the rubber hose twirling. “There are two kinds of death,” he says, the clouds of his breath plunging out into the cold. “You can fight like a lion. Or you can go as easy as lifting a hair from a cup of milk. The nothings, the nobodies—they die easy.” He sweeps his eyes along the ranks and swings his hose and widens his eyes dramatically. “How will you boys die?”

One windy afternoon he pulls Helmut Rödel out of line. Helmut is a small, unpromising child from the south who keeps his hands balled in fists nearly all his waking hours.

“And who is it, Rödel? In. Your. Opinion. Who is the weakest member of the corps?” The commandant twirls the hose. Helmut Rödel

takes no time. “Him, sir.”

Werner feels something heavy fall through him. Rödel is pointing directly at Frederick.

Bastian calls Frederick forward. If fear darkens his friend’s face, Werner cannot see it. Frederick looks distracted. Almost philosophical. Bastian drapes his hose around his neck and trudges across the field, snow to his shins, taking his time, until he is little more than a dark lump at the far edge. Werner tries to make eye contact with Frederick, but his eyes are a mile away.

The commandant raises his right arm and yells, “Ten!” and the wind frays the word across the long expanse. Frederick blinks several times, as he often does when addressed in class, waiting for his internal life to catch up with his external one.


“Run,” hisses Werner.

Frederick is a decent runner, faster than Werner, but the commandant seems to count quickly this afternoon, and Frederick’s head start has been abbreviated, and the snow hampers him, and he cannot be over twenty yards away when Bastian raises his left arm.

The boys explode into movement. Werner runs with the others, trying to stay in the back of the pack, their rifles beating in syncopation against their backs. Already the fastest of the boys seem to be running faster than usual, as though tired of being outrun.

Frederick runs hard. But the fastest boys are greyhounds, harvested from all over the nation for their speed and eagerness to obey, and they seem to Werner to be running more fervently, more conclusively, than they have before. They are impatient to find out what will happen if someone is caught.

Frederick is fifteen strides from Bastian when they haul him down.

The group coalesces around the front-runners as Frederick and his pursuers get to their feet, all of them pasted with snow. Bastian strides up. The cadets encircle their instructor, chests heaving, many with their hands on their knees. The breath of the boys pulses out before them in a collective fleeting cloud that is stripped away quickly by the wind. Frederick stands in the middle, panting and blinking his long eyelashes.

“It usually does not take so long,” says Bastian mildly, almost as if to himself. “For the first to be caught.”

Frederick squints at the sky.

Bastian says, “Cadet, are you the weakest?” “I don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know?” A pause. Into Bastian’s face flows an undercurrent of antagonism. “Look at me when you speak.”

“Some people are weak in some ways, sir. Others in other ways.”

The commadant’s lips thin and his eyes narrow and an expression of slow and intense malice rises in his face. As though a cloud has drifted away and for a moment Bastian’s true, deformed character has come glaring through. He pulls the hose from around his neck and hands it to Rödel.

Rödel blinks up at his bulk. “Go on, then,” prods Bastian. In some other context, he might be encouraging a reluctant boy to step into cold water. “Do him some good.”

Rödel looks down at the hose: black, three feet long, stiff in the cold. What might be several seconds pass, though they feel to Werner like hours, and the wind tears through the frosted grass, sending zephyrs and wisps of snow sirening off across the white, and a sudden nostalgia for Zollverein rolls through him in a wave: boyhood afternoons wandering the soot-stained warrens, towing his little sister in the wagon. Muck in the alleys, the hoarse shouts of work crews, the boys in their dormitory sleeping head to toe while their coats and trousers hang from hooks along the walls. Frau Elena’s midnight passage among the beds like an angel, murmuring, I know it’s cold. But I’m right beside you, see?

Jutta, close your eyes.

Rödel steps forward and swings the hose and smacks Frederick with it across the shoulder. Frederick takes a step backward. The wind slashes across the field. Bastian says, “Again.”

Everything becomes soaked in a hideous and wondrous slowness. Rödel rears back and strikes. This time he catches Frederick on the jaw. Werner forces his mind to keep sending up images of home: the laundry; Frau Elena’s overworked pink fingers; dogs in the alleys; steam blowing from stacks—every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong?

But here it is right.

It takes such a long time. Frederick withstands a third blow. “Again,” commands Bastian. On the fourth, Frederick throws up his arms and the hose smacks against his forearms and he stumbles. Rödel swings again, and Bastian says, “In your shining example, Christ, lead the way, ever and always,” and the whole afternoon turns sideways, torn open; Werner

watches the scene recede as though observing it from the far end of a tunnel: a small white field, a group of boys, bare trees, a toy castle, none of it any more real than Frau Elena’s stories about her Alsatian childhood or Jutta’s drawings of Paris. Six more times he hears Rödel swing and the hose whistle and the strangely dead smack of the rubber striking Frederick’s hands, shoulders, and face.

Frederick can walk for hours in the woods, can identify warblers fifty yards away simply by hearing their song. Frederick hardly ever thinks of himself. Frederick is stronger than he is in every imaginable way. Werner opens his mouth but closes it again; he drowns; he shuts his eyes, his mind.

At some point the beating stops. Frederick is facedown in the snow. “Sir?” says Rödel, panting. Bastian takes back the length of hose from

Rödel and drapes it around his neck and reaches underneath his belly to hitch up his belt. Werner kneels beside Frederick and turns him onto his side. Blood is running from his nose or eye or ear, maybe all three. One of his eyes is already swollen shut; the other remains open. His attention, Werner realizes, is on the sky. Tracing something up there.

Werner risks a glance upward: a single hawk, riding the wind. Bastian says, “Up.”

Werner stands. Frederick does not move.

Bastian says, “Up,” more quietly this time, and Frederick gets to a knee. He stands, wobbling. His cheek is gashed and leaks tendrils of blood. Splotches of moisture show on his back from where the snow has melted into his shirt. Werner gives Frederick his arm.

“Cadet, are you the weakest?”

Frederick does not look at the commandant. “No, sir.”

Hawk still gyring up there. The portly commandant chews on a thought for a moment. Then his clear voice rings out, flying above the company, urging them into a run. Fifty-seven cadets cross the grounds and jog up the snowy path into the forest. Frederick runs in his place beside Werner, his left eye swelling, twin networks of blood peeling back across his cheeks, his collar wet and brown.

The branches seethe and clatter. All fifty-seven boys sing in unison.

We shall march onwards,

Even if everything crashes down in pieces; For today the nation hears us,

And tomorrow the whole world!

Winter in the forests of old Saxony. Werner does not risk another glance toward his friend. He quick-steps through the cold, an unloaded five-round rifle over his shoulder. He is almost fifteen years old.

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