Chapter no 68 – January Recess‌

All the Light We Cannot See

The commandant makes a speech about virtue and family and the emblematic fire that Schulpforta boys carry everywhere they go, a bowl of pure flame to stoke the nation’s hearths, führer this and führer that, his words crashing into Werner’s ears in a familiar battery, one of the most daring boys muttering afterward, “Oh, I’ve got a hot bowl of something in my core.”

In the bunk room, Frederick leans over the rim of his bed. His face presents a map of purples and yellows. “Why don’t you come to Berlin? Father will be working, but you could meet Mother.”

For two weeks Frederick has limped around bruised and slow-footed and puffy, and not once has he spoken to Werner with anything more than his own gentle brand of distracted kindness. Not once has he accused Werner of betrayal, even though Werner did nothing while Frederick was beaten and has done nothing since: did not hunt down Rödel or point a rifle at Bastian or bang indignantly on Dr. Hauptmann’s door, demanding justice. As if Frederick understands already that both have been assigned to their specific courses, that there is no deviating now.

Werner says, “I don’t have—”

“Mother will pay your fare.” Frederick tilts back up and stares at the ceiling. “It’s nothing.”

The train ride is a sleepy six-hour epic, every hour their rickety car shunted onto a siding to let trains full of soldiers, headed for the front, hurry past. Finally Werner and Frederick disembark at a dim charcoal-colored station and climb a long flight of stairs, each step painted with the same exclamation—Berlin smokes Junos!—and rise into the streets of the largest city Werner has ever seen.

Berlin! The very name like two sharp bells of glory. Capital of science, seat of the führer, nursery to Bohr, Einstein, Staudinger, Bayer. Somewhere in these streets, plastic was invented, X-rays were discovered, continental drift was identified. What marvels does science cultivate here now? Superman soldiers, Dr. Hauptmann says, and

weather-making machines and missiles that can be steered by men a thousand miles away.

The sky drops silver threads of sleet. Gray houses run in converging lines to the horizon, bunched as if to fend off cold. They pass shops stuffed with hanging meats and a drunk with a broken mandolin on his lap and a trio of streetwalkers huddled beneath an awning who catcall the boys in their uniforms.

Frederick leads them into a five-story town house one block off a pretty avenue called the Knesebeckstrasse. He rings #2 and a returning buzz echoes from inside and the door unlatches. They come into a dim foyer and stand before a pair of matched doors. Frederick presses a button and something high in the building rattles and Werner whispers, “You have an elevator?”

Frederick smiles. The machinery clangs downward and the lift clanks into place and Frederick pushes the wooden doors inward. Werner watches the interior of the building slide past in amazement. When they reach the second floor, he says, “Can we ride it again?”

Frederick laughs. They go down. Back up. Down, up, to the lobby a fourth time, and Werner is peering into the cables and weights above the car, trying to understand its mechanism, when a tiny woman enters the building and shakes out her umbrella. With her other hand, she carries a paper sack, and her eyes rapidly apprehend the boys’ uniforms and the intense whiteness of Werner’s hair and the livid bruises beneath Frederick’s eyes. On the breast of her coat, a mustard-yellow star has been carefully stitched. Perfectly straight, one vertex down, another up. Drops fall like seeds from the tip of her umbrella.

“Good afternoon, Frau Schwartzenberger,” says Frederick. He backs up against the wall of the elevator car and gestures for her to enter.

She squeezes into the lift and Werner steps in behind her. From the top of her sack juts a sheaf of withered greens. Her collar, he can see, is separating from the rest of the coat; threads are giving way. If she were to turn, their eyes would be a hand’s width apart.

Frederick presses 2, then 5. No one speaks. The old woman rubs the trembling tip of an index finger across one eyebrow. The lift clangs up one floor. Frederick snaps open the cage and Werner follows him out. He watches the old woman’s gray shoes rise past his nose. Already the door to #2 is opening, and an aproned woman with baggy arms and a downy

face rushes out and embraces Frederick. She kisses him on both cheeks, then touches his bruises with her thumbs.

“It’s all right, Franny, horseplay.”

The apartment is sleek and shiny, full of deep carpets that swallow noise. Big rear windows look out into the hearts of four leafless lindens. Sleet still falling outside.

“Mother isn’t home yet,” Franny says, smoothing down her apron with both palms. Her eyes stay on Frederick. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

Frederick says, “Of course,” and together he and Werner pad into a warm, clean-smelling bedroom and Frederick slides open a drawer, and when he turns around, he’s wearing eyeglasses with black frames. He looks at Werner shyly. “Oh, come on, you didn’t already know?”

With his glasses on, Frederick’s expression seems to ease; his face makes more sense—this, Werner thinks, is who he is. A soft-skinned boy in glasses with taffy-colored hair and the finest trace of a mustache needled across his lip. Bird lover. Rich kid.

“I barely hit anything in marksmanship. You really didn’t know?” “Maybe,” says Werner. “Maybe I knew. How did you pass the eye


“Memorized the charts.”

“Don’t they have different ones?”

“I memorized all four. Father got them ahead of time. Mother helped me study.”

“What about your binoculars?” “They’re prescription. Cost a fortune.”

They sit in a big kitchen at a butcher’s block with a marble cap. The maid named Franny emerges with a dark loaf and a round of cheese, and she smiles at Frederick as she sets it down. They talk about Christmas and how Frederick was sorry to miss it, and the maid passes out through a swinging door and returns with two white plates so delicate that they ring when she sets them down.

Werner’s mind reels: A lift! A Jewess! A maid! Berlin! They retreat into Frederick’s bedroom, which is populated with tin soldiers and model airplanes and wooden crates full of comic books. They lie on their stomachs and page through comics, feeling the pleasure of being outside of school, glancing at each other now and then as if curious to learn whether their friendship will continue to exist in another place.

Franny calls, “I’m going,” and as soon as the door closes, Frederick takes Werner by the arm into the living room and climbs a ladder built along tall hardwood shelves and slides aside a large wicker basket and, from behind it, brings down a huge book: two volumes enfolded in golden slipcovers, each as big as a crib mattress. “Here.” His voice glows; his eyes glow. “This is what I wanted to show you.”

Inside are lush full-color paintings of birds. Two white falcons swoop over each other, beaks open. A bloodred flamingo holds its black-tipped beak over stagnant water. Resplendent geese stand on a headland and peer into a heavy sky. Frederick turns the pages with both hands. Pipiry flycatcher. Buff-breasted merganser. Red-cockaded woodpecker. Many of them larger in the book than in real life.

“Audubon,” Frederick says, “was an American. Walked the swamps and woods for years, back when that whole country was just swamps and woods. He’d spend all day watching one individual bird. Then he’d shoot it and prop it up with wires and sticks and paint it. Probably knew more than any birder before or since. He’d eat most of the birds after he painted them. Can you imagine?” Frederick’s voice trembles with ardency. Gazing up. “Those bright mists and your gun on your shoulder and your eyes set firmly in your head?”

Werner tries to see what Frederick sees: a time before photography, before binoculars. And here was someone willing to tramp out into a wilderness brimming with the unknown and bring back paintings. A book not so much full of birds as full of evanescence, of blue-winged, trumpeting mysteries.

He thinks of the Frenchman’s radio program, of Heinrich Hertz’s Principles of Mechanics— doesn’t he recognize the thrill in Frederick’s voice? He says, “My sister would love this.”

“Father says we’re not supposed to have it. Says we have to keep it hidden up there behind the basket because it’s American and was printed in Scotland. It’s just birds!”

The front door opens and footsteps clack across the foyer. Frederick hurries the volumes back inside their slipcovers; he calls, “Mother?” and a woman wearing a green ski suit with white stripes down the legs enters crying, “Fredde! Fredde!” She embraces her son and holds him back with straight arms while she runs a fingertip over a mostly healed cut along his forehead. Frederick looks off over her shoulder with a trace of panic on his face. Is he afraid that she’ll see he was looking at the

forbidden book? Or that she’ll be angry about his bruises? She does not say anything but merely stares at her son, tangled in thoughts Werner cannot guess, then remembers herself.

“And you must be Werner!” The smile sweeps back onto her face. “Frederick has written lots about you! Look at that hair! Oh, we adore guests.” She climbs the ladder and restores the heavy Audubon volumes to their shelf one at a time, as though putting away something irritating. The three of them sit at the vast oak table and Werner thanks her for the train ticket and she tells a story about a man she “ran into just now, unbelievable really,” who apparently is a famous tennis player and every now and then she reaches across and squeezes Frederick’s forearm. “You would have been absolutely amazed,” she says more than once, and Werner studies his friend’s face to gauge whether or not he would have been amazed, and Franny returns to set out wine and more Rauchkäse and for an hour Werner forgets about Schulpforta, about Bastian and the black rubber hose, about the Jewess upstairs—the things these people have! A violin on a stand in the corner and sleek furniture made from chromium steel and a brass telescope and a sterling silver chess set behind glass and this magnificent cheese that tastes like smoke has been stirred into butter.

Wine glows sleepily in Werner’s stomach and sleet ticks down through the lindens when Frederick’s mother announces that they are going out. “Tighten up your ties, won’t you?” She applies powder beneath Frederick’s eyes and they walk to a bistro, the kind of restaurant Werner has never dreamed of entering, and a boy in a white jacket, barely older than they are, brings more wine.

A constant stream of diners come to their table to shake Werner’s and Frederick’s hands and ask Frederick’s mother in low sycophantic voices about her husband’s latest advancement. Werner notices a girl in the corner, radiant, dancing by herself, throwing her face to the ceiling. Eyes closed. The food is rich, and every now and then Frederick’s mother laughs, and Frederick absently touches the makeup on his face while his mother says, “Well, Fredde has all the best there at that school, all the best,” and seemingly every minute some new face comes along and kisses Frederick’s mother on both cheeks and whispers in her ear. When Werner overhears Frederick’s mother say to a woman, “Oh, the Schwartzenberger crone will be gone by year’s end, then we’ll have the top floor, du wirst schon sehen,” he glances at Frederick, whose

smudged eyeglasses have gone opaque in the candlelight, whose makeup looks strange and lewd now, as though it has intensified the bruises rather than concealed them, and a feeling of great uneasiness overtakes him. He hears Rödel swing the hose, the smack of it across Frederick’s upflung palms. He hears the voices of the boys in his Kameradschaften back in Zollverein sing, Live faithfully, fight bravely, and die laughing. The bistro is overcrowded; everyone’s mouths move too quickly; the woman talking to Frederick’s mother is wearing a nauseating quantity of perfume; and in the watery light it seems suddenly as if the scarf trailing from the dancing girl’s neck is a noose.

Frederick says, “Are you all right?”

“Fine, it’s delicious,” but Werner feels something inside him screw tighter, tighter.

On the way home, Frederick and his mother walk ahead. She loops her slender arm through his and talks to him in a low voice. Fredde this, Fredde that. The street is empty, the windows dead, the electric signs switched off. Innumerable shops, millions sleeping in beds around them, and yet where are they all? As they reach Frederick’s block, a woman in a dress, leaning against a building, bends over and vomits on the sidewalk.

In the town house, Frederick pulls on pajamas made of jelly-green silk and folds his glasses on the nightstand and climbs barefoot into his brass childhood bed. Werner gets into a trundle bed that Frederick’s mother has apologized for three separate times, although its mattress is more comfortable than any he has slept on in his life.

The building falls quiet. Model automobiles glimmer on Frederick’s shelves.

“Do you ever wish,” whispers Werner, “that you didn’t have to go back?”

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”

When Werner wakes, it’s well past dawn. His head aches and his eyeballs feel heavy. Frederick is already dressed, wearing trousers, an ironed shirt, and a necktie, kneeling against the window with his nose against the glass. “Gray wagtail.” He points. Werner looks past him into the naked lindens.

“Doesn’t look like much, does he?” murmurs Frederick. “Hardly a couple of ounces of feathers and bones. But that bird can fly to Africa and back. Powered by bugs and worms and desire.”

The wagtail hops from twig to twig. Werner rubs his aching eyes. It’s just a bird.

“Ten thousand years ago,” whispers Frederick, “they came through here in the millions. When this place was a garden, one endless garden from end to end.”

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