Chapter no 63 – Atelier de Réparation‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Bernd the engineer squirms in pain, grinding his face into the back of the golden armchair. Something wrong with his leg and something worse with his chest.

The radio is hopeless. The power cable has been severed and the lead to the aboveground antenna is lost and Werner would not be surprised if the selector panel is broken. In the weakening amber of Volkheimer’s field light, he stares at one crushed plug after another.

The bombing seems to have destroyed the hearing in his left ear. His right, as far as he can tell, is gradually coming back. Beyond the ringing, he begins to hear.

Ticking of fires as they cool. Groaning of the hotel above. Strange miscellaneous dripping.

And Volkheimer as he hacks intermittently, insanely, at the rubble blocking the stairwell. Volkheimer’s technique, apparently, is this: he crouches beneath the buckled ceiling, panting, holding a piece of twisted rebar in one hand. He switches on his flashlight and scans the packed stairwell for anything he might drag out of it. Memorizing positions. Then he switches off the light, to preserve its battery, and goes at his task in the darkness. When the light comes back on, the mess of the stairwell looks the same. An impacted welter of metal and brickwork and timber so thick that it’s hard to believe twenty men could get through.

Please, Volkheimer says. Whether he knows he is saying it aloud or not, Werner cannot say. But Werner hears it in his right ear like a distant prayer. Please. Please. As though everything in the war to this point was tolerable to twenty-one-year-old Frank Volkheimer but not this final injustice.

The fires above ought to have sucked the last oxygen out of this hole by now. They all should have asphyxiated. Debts paid, accounts settled. And yet they breathe. The three splintered beams in the ceiling hold up God knows what load: ten tons of carbonized hotel and the corpses of eight anti-aircraft men and untold unexploded ordnance. Maybe Werner

for his ten thousand small betrayals and Bernd for his innumerable crimes and Volkheimer for being the instrument, the executor of the orders, the blade of the Reich—maybe the three of them have some greater price to pay, some final sentence to be handed down.

First a corsair’s cellar, built to safeguard gold, weapons, an eccentric’s beekeeping equipment. Then a wine cellar. Then a handyman’s nook. Atelier de réparation, thinks Werner, a chamber in which to make reparations. As appropriate a place as any. Certainly there would be people in the world who believe these three have reparations to make.

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