Every day there is word of another victory, another advance. Russia collapses like an accordion. In October the student body gathers around a big wireless to listen to the führer declare Operation Typhoon. German companies plant flags miles from Moscow; Russia will be theirs.
Werner is fifteen. A new boy sleeps in Frederick’s bed. Sometimes at night, Werner sees Frederick when he is not there. His face appears over the edge of the upper bunk, or his silhouette presses binoculars to the windowpane. Frederick: who did not die but did not recover. Broken jaw, cracked skull, brain trauma. No one was punished, no one questioned. A blue automobile came to the school and Frederick’s mother got out and walked into the commandant’s residence and emerged soon afterward, tilted against the weight of Frederick’s duffel bag, looking very small. She climbed back into the car and it drove away.
Volkheimer is gone; there are stories that he has become a fearsome sergeant in the Wehrmacht. That he led a platoon into the last town on the road to Moscow. Hacked off the fingers of dead Russians and smoked them in a pipe.
The newest crop of cadets grow wild in their urgency to prove themselves. They sprint, shout, hurl themselves over obstacles; in field exercises they play a game where ten boys get red armbands and ten get black. The game ends when one team has all twenty.
It seems to Werner as if all the boys around him are intoxicated. As if, at every meal, the cadets fill their tin cups not with the cold mineralized water of Schulpforta but with a spirit that leaves them glazed and dazzled, as if they ward off a vast and inevitable tidal wave of anguish only by staying forever drunk on rigor and exercise and gleaming boot leather. The eyes of the most bullheaded boys radiate a shining determination: every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness. They study Werner with suspicion when he returns from Hauptmann’s lab. They do not trust that he’s an orphan, that he’s often alone, that his accent carries a whisper of the French he learned as a child.
We are a volley of bullets, sing the newest cadets, we are cannonballs.
We are the tip of the sword.
Werner thinks of home all the time. He misses the sound of rain on the zinc roof above his dormer; the feral energy of the orphans; the scratchy singing of Frau Elena as she rocks a baby in the parlor. The smell of the coking plant coming in under the dawn, the first reliable smell of every day. Mostly he misses Jutta: her loyalty, her obstinacy, the way she always seems to recognize what is right.
Though in Werner’s weaker moments, he resents those same qualities in his sister. Perhaps she’s the impurity in him, the static in his signal that the bullies can sense. Perhaps she’s the only thing keeping him from surrendering totally. If you have a sister back home, you’re supposed to think of her as a pretty girl in a propaganda poster: rosy-cheeked, brave, steadfast. She’s whom you fight for. Whom you die for. But Jutta? Jutta sends letters that the school censor blacks out almost completely. She asks questions that should not be asked. Only Werner’s affiliation with Dr. Hauptmann—his privileged status as the favorite of the technical sciences professor—keeps him safe. A company in Berlin is producing their transceiver, and already some of their units are coming back from what Hauptmann calls “the field,” blown apart or burned or drowned in mud or defective, and Werner’s job is to rebuild them while Hauptmann talks into his telephone or writes requisitions for replacement parts or spends whole fortnights away from the school.
Weeks pass without a letter to Jutta. Werner writes four lines, a smattering of platitudes—I am fine; I am so busy—and hands it to the bunk master. Dread swamps him.
“You have minds,” Bastian murmurs one evening in the refectory, each boy hunching almost imperceptibly farther over his food as the commandant’s finger grazes the back of his uniform. “But minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.”
Werner sits in the lab late at night, alone again, and trolls the frequencies on the Grundig tube radio that Volkheimer used to borrow from Hauptmann’s office, searching for music, for echoes, for what, he is not sure. He sees circuits break apart and re-form. He sees Frederick staring into his book of birds; he sees the furor of the mines at Zollverein, the shunting cars, the banging locks, the trundling conveyors,
smokestacks silting the sky day and night; he sees Jutta slashing back and forth with a lit torch as darkness encroaches from all sides. Wind presses against the walls of the lab—wind, the commandant loves to remind them, that comes all the way from Russia, a Cossack wind, the wind of candle-eating barbarians with hogs’ heads who will stop at nothing to drink the blood of German girls. Gorillas who must be wiped off the earth.
Are you there?
Finally he shuts off the radio. Into the stillness come the voices of his masters, echoing from one side of his head while memory speaks from the other.
Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.