Chapter no 62 – The Fort of La Cité

All the Light We Cannot See

Sergeant Major von Rumpel climbs a ladder in the dark. He can feel the lymph nodes on either side of his neck compressing his esophagus and trachea. His weight like a rag on the rungs.

The two gunners inside the periscope turret watch from beneath the rims of their helmets. Not offering help, not saluting. The turret is crowned with a steel dome and is used primarily to range larger guns positioned farther below. It offers views of the sea to the west; the cliffs below, all strung with entangling wire; and directly across the water, a half mile away, the burning city of Saint-Malo.

Artillery has stopped for the moment, and the predawn fires inside the walls take on a steady middle life, an adulthood. The western edge of the city has become a holocaust of crimson and carmine from which rise multiple towers of smoke. The largest has curdled into a pillar like the cloud of tephra and ash and steam that billows atop an erupting volcano. From afar, the smoke appears strangely solid, as though carved from luminous wood. All along its perimeter, sparks rise and ash falls and administrative documents flutter: utility plans, purchase orders, tax records.

With binoculars, von Rumpel watches what might be bats go flaming and careening out over the ramparts. A geyser of sparks erupts deep within a house—an electrical transformer or hoarded fuel or maybe a delayed-action bomb—and it looks to him as if lightning lashes the town from within.

One of the gunners makes unimaginative comments about the smoke, a dead horse he can see at the base of the walls, the intensity of certain quadrants of fire. As though they are noblemen in grandstands viewing fortress warfare in the years of the Crusaders. Von Rumpel tugs his collar against the bulges in his throat, tries to swallow.

The moon sets and the eastern sky lightens, the hem of night pulling away, taking stars with it one by one until only two are left. Vega, maybe. Or Venus. He never learned.

“Church spire is gone,” says the second gunner.

A day ago, above the zigzag rooftops, the cathedral spire pointed straight up, higher than everything else. Not this morning. Soon the sun is above the horizon and the orange of flames gives way to the black of smoke, rising along the western walls and blowing like a caul across the citadel.

Finally, for a few seconds, the smoke parts long enough for von Rumpel to peer into the serrated maze of the city and pick out what he’s looking for: the upper section of a tall house with a broad chimney. Two windows visible, the glass out. One shutter hanging, three in place.

Number 4 rue Vauborel. Still intact. Seconds pass; smoke veils it again.

A single airplane tracks across the deepening blue, incredibly high. Von Rumpel retreats down the long ladder into the tunnels of the fort below. Trying not to limp, not to think of the bulges in his groin. In the underground commissary, men sit against the walls spooning oatmeal from their upturned helmets. The electric lights cast them in alternating pools of glare and shadow.

Von Rumpel sits on an ammunition box and eats cheese from a tube. The colonel in charge of defending Saint-Malo has made speeches to these men, speeches about valor, about how any hour the Hermann Göring Division will break the American line at Avranches, how reinforcements will pour in from Italy and possibly Belgium, tanks and Stukas, truckloads of fifty-millimeter mortars, how the people of Berlin believe in them like a nun believes in God, how no one will abandon his post and if he does he’ll be executed as a deserter, but von Rumpel is thinking now of the vine inside of him. A black vine that has grown branches through his legs and arms. Gnawing his abdomen from the inside. Here in this peninsular fortress just outside Saint-Malo, cut off from the retreating lines, it seems only a matter of time until Canadians and Brits and the bright American eyes of the Eighty-third Division will be swarming the city, scouring the homes for marauding Huns, doing whatever it is they do when they take prisoners.

Only a matter of time until the black vine chokes off his heart. “What?” says a soldier beside him.

Von Rumpel sniffs. “I do not think I said anything.” The soldier squints back into the oatmeal in his helmet.

Von Rumpel squeezes out the last of the vile, salty cheese and drops the empty tube between his feet. The house is still there. His army still

holds the city. For a few hours the fires will burn, and then the Germans will swarm like ants back to their positions and fight for another day.

He will wait. Wait and wait and wait, and when the smoke clears, he will go in.

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