One February morning, the cadets are roused from their beds at two A.M. and driven out into the glitter. In the center of the quadrangle, torches burn. Keg-chested Bastian waddles out with his bare legs showing beneath his coat.
Frank Volkheimer emerges from the shadows, dragging a tattered and skeletal man in mismatched shoes. Volkheimer sets him down beside the commandant, where a stake has been driven into the snow. Methodically Volkheimer ties the man’s torso to the stake.
A vault of stars hangs overhead; the collective breath of the cadets mingles slowly, nightmarishly above the courtyard.
Volkheimer retreats; the commandant paces.
“You boys would not believe what a creature this is. What a foul beast, a centaur, an Untermensch.”
Everyone cranes to see. The prisoner’s ankles are cuffed and his arms bound from wrists to forearms. His thin shirt has split at the seams and he gazes into some middle distance with hypothermic slackness. He looks Polish. Russian, maybe. Despite his fetters, he manages to sway lightly back and forth.
Bastian says, “This man escaped from a work camp. Tried to violate a farmhouse and steal a liter of fresh milk. He was stopped before he could do something more nefarious.” He gestures vaguely beyond the walls. “This barbarian would tear out your throats in a second if we let him.”
Since the visit to Berlin, a great dread has been blooming inside Werner’s chest. It came gradually, as slow-moving as the sun’s passage across the sky, but now he finds himself writing letters to Jutta in which he must skirt the truth, must contend that everything is fine when things do not feel fine. He descends into dreams in which Frederick’s mother mutates into a leering, small-mouthed demon and lowers Dr. Hauptmann’s triangles over his head.
A thousand frozen stars preside over the quad. The cold is invasive, mindless.
“This look?” Bastian says, and flourishes his fat hand. “The way he’s got nothing left? A German soldier never reaches this point. There’s a name for this look. It’s called ‘circling the drain.’”
The boys try not to shiver. The prisoner blinks down at the scene as if from a very high perch. Volkheimer returns carrying a clattering raft of buckets; two other seniors uncoil a water hose across the quadrangle. Bastian explains: First the instructors. Then upperclassmen. Everyone will file past and soak the prisoner with a bucket of water. Every man in the school.
They start. One by one, each instructor takes a full bucket from Volkheimer and flings its contents at the prisoner a few feet away. Cheers rise into the frozen night.
At the first two or three dousings, the prisoner comes awake, rocking back on his heels. Vertical creases appear between his eyes; he looks like someone trying to remember something vital.
Among the instructors in their dark capes, Dr. Hauptmann goes past, his gloved fingers pinching his collar around his throat. Hauptmann accepts his bucket and throws a sheet of water and doesn’t linger to watch it land.
The water keeps coming. The prisoner’s face empties. He slumps over the ropes propping him up, and his torso slides down the stake, and every now and then Volkheimer comes out of the shadows, looming fantastically huge, and the prisoner straightens again.
The upperclassmen vanish inside the castle. The buckets make a muted, frozen clanking as they are refilled. The sixteen-year-olds finish. The fifteen-year-olds finish. The cheers lose their gusto and a pure longing to flee floods Werner. Run. Run.
Three boys until his turn. Two boys. Werner tries to float images in front of his eyes, but the only ones that come are wretched: the hauling machine above Pit Nine; the hunched miners walking as if they dragged the weight of enormous chains. The boy from the entrance exams trembling before he fell. Everyone trapped in their roles: orphans, cadets, Frederick, Volkheimer, the old Jewess who lives upstairs. Even Jutta.
When his turn arrives, Werner throws the water like all the others and the splash hits the prisoner in the chest and a perfunctory cheer rises. He joins the cadets waiting to be released. Wet boots, wet cuffs; his hands have become so numb, they do not seem his own.
Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.
And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.
Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground.
Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”
Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”
The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground. “I will not.”