Chapter no 66 – What They Have‌

All the Light We Cannot See

When is it day and when night? Time seems better measured by flashes: Volkheimer’s field light flicks off, flicks on.

Werner watches Volkheimer’s ash-dusted face in the reflected glow, his ministrations as he leans over Bernd. Drink, says Volkheimer’s mouth as he holds his canteen to Bernd’s lips, and shadows lunge across the broken ceiling like a circle of wraiths preparing to feast.

Bernd twists his face away, panic in his eyes, and tries to examine his leg.

The flashlight switches off and the darkness rushes back.

In Werner’s duffel, he has his childhood notebook, his blanket, and dry socks. Three rations. This is all the food they have. Volkheimer has none. Bernd has none. They have only two canteens of water, each half-empty. Volkheimer has also discovered a bucket of paintbrushes in a corner with some watery sludge in the bottom, but how desperate will they have to become to drink that?

Two stick grenades: Model 24s, one in each of the side pockets of Volkheimer’s coat. Hollow wood handles on the bottom, high-explosive charges in a steel can on top—handheld bombs the boys at Schulpforta called potato mashers. Twice already Bernd has begged Volkheimer to try one on the impacted mess of the stairwell, to see if they can blast their way out. But to use a grenade down here, in such close quarters, beneath rubble presumably littered with live 88-millimeter shells, would be suicide.

Then there’s the rifle: Volkheimer’s bolt-action Karabiner 98K, loaded with five rounds. Enough, thinks Werner. Plenty. They would need only three, one for each.

Sometimes, in the darkness, Werner thinks the cellar may have its own faint light, perhaps emanating from the rubble, the space going a bit redder as the August day above them progresses toward dusk. After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.

Werner thinks of his childhood, the skeins of coal dust suspended in the air on winter mornings, settling on windowsills, in the children’s ears, in their lungs, except down here in this hole, the white dust is the inverse, as if he is trapped in some deep mine that is the same but also the opposite of the one that killed his father.

Dark again. Light again. Volkheimer’s antic ash-dusted face materializes in front of Werner, his rank insignia partially torn off one shoulder. With the beam of his field light, he shows Werner that he is holding two bent screwdrivers and a box of electrical fuses. “The radio,” he says into Werner’s good ear.

“Have you slept at all?”

Volkheimer turns the light onto his own face. Before we run out of battery, says his mouth.

Werner shakes his head. The radio is hopeless. He wants to close his eyes, forget, give up. Wait for the rifle barrel to touch his temple. But Volkheimer wants to make an argument that life is worth living.

The filaments of the bulb inside his field light glow yellow: weaker already. Volkheimer’s illuminated mouth is red against the blackness. We are running out of time, his lips say. The building groans. Werner sees green grass, crackling flies, sunlight. The gates of a summer estate opening wide. When death comes for Bernd, it might as well come for him also. Save a second trip.

Your sister, says Volkheimer. Think of your sister.

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