Chapter no 80 – Weakest (#3)‌

All the Light We Cannot See

The scales of cruelty tip. Maybe Bastian exacts some final vendetta; maybe Frederick goes looking for his only way out. All Werner knows for certain is that one April morning he wakes to find three inches of slush on the ground and Frederick not in his bunk.

He does not show at breakfast or poetics or morning field exercises. Each story Werner hears contains its own flaws and contradictions, as though the truth is a machine whose gears are not meshing. First he hears that a group of boys took Frederick out and set up torches in the snow and told him to shoot the torches with his rifle—to prove he had adequate eyesight. Then Werner hears that they brought him charts for eye exams, and when he could not read them, they force-fed the charts to him.

But what does the truth matter in this place? Werner imagines twenty boys closing over Frederick’s body like rats; he sees the fat, gleaming face of the commandant, throat spilling out of his collar, reclined like a king on some high-backed oak throne, while blood slowly fills the floor, rises past his ankles, past his knees . . .

Werner skips lunch and walks in a daze to the school’s infirmary. He’s risking detention or worse; it’s a sunny, bright noon, but his heart is being crushed slowly in a vise, and everything is slow and hypnotic, and he watches his arm work as it pulls open the door as if he’s peering through several feet of blue water.

A single bed with blood in it. Blood on the pillow and on the sheets and even on the enameled metal of the bed frame. Pink rags in a basin. Half-unrolled bandage on the floor. The nurse bustles over and grimaces at Werner. Outside of the kitchens, she is the only woman at the school.

“Why so much blood?” he asks.

She sets four fingers across her lips. Debating perhaps whether to tell him or pretend she does not know. Accusation or resignation or complicity.

“Where is he?”

“Leipzig. For surgery.” She touches a round white button on her uniform with what might be an inconveniently trembling finger. Otherwise her manner is entirely stern.

“What happened?”

“Shouldn’t you be at noontime meal?”

Each time he blinks, he sees the men of his childhood, laid-off miners drifting through back alleys, men with hooks for fingers and vacuums for eyes; he sees Bastian standing over a smoking river, snow falling all around him. Führer, folk, fatherland. Steel your body, steel your soul.

“When will he be back?”

“Oh,” she says, a soft enough word. She shakes her head.

A blue soapbox on the table. Above it a portrait of some foregone officer in a crumbling frame. Some previous boy sent through this place to die.


Werner has to sit on the bed. The nurse’s face seems to occupy multiple distances, a mask atop a mask atop a mask. What is Jutta doing at this exact moment? Wiping the nose of some wailing newborn or collecting newspapers or listening to presentations from army nurses or darning another sock? Praying for him? Believing in him?

He thinks: I will never be able to tell her about this.

Dearest Marie-Laure—

The others in my cell are mostly kind. Some tell jokes. Here’s one: Have you heard about the Wehrmacht exercise program? Yes, each morning you raise your hands above your head and leave them there!

Ha ha. My angel has promised to deliver this letter for me at great risk. It is very safe and nice to be out of the “Gasthaus” for a bit. We are building a road now and the work is good. My body is getting stronger. Today I saw an oak tree disguised as a chestnut tree. I think it is called a chestnut oak. I would like very much to ask some of the botanists in the gardens about it when we get home.

I hope you and Madame and Etienne will keep sending things.

They say we will be allowed to receive one parcel each, so something has to get through eventually. I doubt they would let me keep any tools but it would be wonderful if they would. You absolutely would not believe how pretty it is here, ma chérie, and how far we are from danger. I am incredibly safe, as safe as safe can be.

Your Papa

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