Chapter no 73 – Entropy‌

All the Light We Cannot See

For a week the dead prisoner remains strapped to the stake in the courtyard, his flesh frozen gray. Boys stop and ask the corpse directions; someone dresses him in a cartridge belt and helmet. After several days, a pair of crows take to standing on his shoulders, chiseling away with their beaks, and eventually the custodian comes out with two third-year boys and they hack the corpse’s feet out of the ice with a maul and tip him into a cart and roll him away.

Three times in nine days, Frederick is chosen as the weakest in field exercises. Bastian walks out farther than ever, and counts more quickly than ever, so that Frederick has to run four or five hundred yards, often through deep snow, and the boys race after him as if their lives depend on it. Each time he is caught; each time he is drubbed while Bastian looks on; each time Werner does nothing to stop it.

Frederick lasts seven blows before falling. Then six. Then three. He never cries out and never asks to leave, and this in particular seems to make the commandant quake with homicidal frustration. Frederick’s dreaminess, his otherness—it’s on him like a scent, and everyone can smell it.

Werner tries to lose himself in his work in Hauptmann’s lab. He has constructed a prototype of their transceiver and tests fuses and valves and handsets and plugs—but even in those late hours, it is as if the sky has dimmed and the school has become a darker, ever more diabolical place. His stomach bothers him. He gets diarrhea. He wakes in distant quarters of the night and sees Frederick in his bedroom in Berlin, wearing his eyeglasses and necktie, freeing trapped birds from the pages of a massive book.

You’re a smart boy. You’ll do well.

One evening when Hauptmann is down the hall in his office, Werner glances over at imperious, sleepy Volkheimer in the corner and says, “That prisoner.”

Volkheimer blinks, stone turning to flesh. “They do that every year.” He takes off his cap and runs one hand over the dense stubble of his hair.

“They say he’s a Pole, a Red, a Cossack. He stole liquor or kerosene or money. Every year it’s the same.”

Under the seams of the hour, boys struggle in a dozen different arenas. Four hundred children crawling along the edge of a razor.

“Always the same phrase too,” Volkheimer adds. “‘Circling the drain.’”

“But was it decent to leave him out there like that? Even after he was dead?”

“Decency does not matter to them.” Then Hauptmann’s crisp boot heels come clicking into the room, and Volkheimer leans back into the corner, and his eye sockets refill with shadow, and Werner does not have the chance to ask him which them he means.

Boys leave dead mice in Frederick’s boots. They call him a poof, Blowjob, countless other juvenile sobriquets. Twice, a fifth-year takes Frederick’s field glasses and smears the lenses with excrement.

Werner tells himself that he tries. Every night he polishes Frederick’s boots for him until they shine a foot deep—one less reason for a bunk master, or Bastian, or an upperclassman to jump on him. Sunday mornings in the refectory, they sit quietly in a sunbeam and Werner helps him with his schoolwork. Frederick whispers that in the spring, he hopes to find skylark nests in the grasses outside the school walls. Once he lifts his pencil and stares into space and says, “Lesser spotted woodpecker,” and Werner hears a bird’s distant thrumming travel across the grounds and through the wall.

In technical sciences, Dr. Hauptmann introduces the laws of thermodynamics. “Entropy, who can say what that is?”

The boys hunch over their desks. No one raises a hand. Hauptmann stalks the rows. Werner tries not to twitch a single muscle.


“Entropy is the degree of randomness or disorder in a system, Doctor.”

His eyes fix on Werner’s for a heartbeat, a glance both warm and chilling. “Disorder. You hear the commandant say it. You hear your bunk masters say it. There must be order. Life is chaos, gentlemen. And what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of the species. Winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff. This is the great project of the Reich, the greatest project human beings have ever embarked upon.”

Hauptmann writes on the blackboard. The cadets inscribe the words into their composition books. The entropy of a closed system never decreases. Every process must by law decay.

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