Chapter no 87 – Everything Poisoned‌

All the Light We Cannot See

New silk banners hang above the refectory tables, ablaze with slogans.

They say, Disgrace is not to fall but to lie.

They say, Be slim and slender, as fast as a greyhound, as tough as leather, as hard as Krupp steel.

Every few weeks another instructor vanishes, sucked up into the engine of the war. New instructors, elderly townsmen of unreliable sobriety and disposition, are brought in. All of them, Werner notices, are in some way broken: they limp, or are blind in one eye, or their faces are lopsided from strokes or the previous war. The cadets show less respect to the new instructors, who in turn have shorter tempers, and soon the school feels to Werner like a grenade with its pin pulled.

Strange things start happening with the electricity. It goes out for fifteen minutes, then surges. Clocks run fast, lightbulbs brighten, flare, and pop, and send a soft rain of glass falling into the corridors. Days of darkness ensue, the switches dead, the grid empty. The bunk rooms and showers become icy; for lighting, the caretaker resorts to torches and candles. All the gasoline is going to the war, and few cars come trundling through the school gates; food is delivered by the same withered mule, its ribs showing as it drags its cart.

More than once Werner slices the sausage on his plate to find pink worms squirming inside. The uniforms of the new cadets are stiffer and cheaper than his own; no longer do they have access to live ammunition for marksmanship. Werner would not be surprised if Bastian started handing out rocks and sticks.

And yet all the news is good. We are at the gates to the Caucasus, proclaims Hauptmann’s radio, we have taken oil fields, we will take Svalbard. We move with astounding speed. Five thousand seven hundred Russians killed, forty-five Germans lost.

Every six or seven days, the same two pallid casualty assistance officers enter the refectory, and four hundred faces go ashen from the effort of not turning to watch. The boys move only their eyes, only their thoughts, tracking in their minds the passage of the two officers as they

move between tables, seeking out the next boy whose father has been killed.

The cadet they stop behind often tries to pretend that he doesn’t notice their presence. He puts his fork in his mouth and chews, and usually it is then that the taller officer, a sergeant, sets a hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy looks up at them with a full mouth and an unsteady face, and follows the officers out, and the big oak double doors creak shut, and the lunchroom slowly exhales and edges back to life.

Reinhard Wöhlmann’s father falls. Karl Westerholzer’s father falls. Martin Burkhard’s father falls, and Martin tells everybody—on the very same night his shoulder is tapped—that he is happy. “Doesn’t everything,” he says, “die at last and too soon? Who would not be honored to fall? To be a paving stone on the road to final victory?” Werner looks for uneasiness in Martin’s eyes but cannot find it.

For Werner, doubts turn up regularly. Racial purity, political purity— Bastian speaks to a horror of any sort of corruption, and yet, Werner wonders in the dead of night, isn’t life a kind of corruption? A child is born, and the world sets in upon it. Taking things from it, stuffing things into it. Each bite of food, each particle of light entering the eye—the body can never be pure. But this is what the commandant insists upon, why the Reich measures their noses, clocks their hair color.

The entropy of a closed system never decreases.

At night Werner stares up at Frederick’s bunk, the thin slats, the miserable stained mattress. Another new boy sleeps up there, Dieter Ferdinand, a small muscular kid from Frankfurt who does everything he is told with a terrifying ferocity.

Someone coughs; someone else moans. A train sounds its lonesome whistle somewhere out beyond the lakes. To the east, always the trains move to the east, beyond the rims of the hills; they go to the huge trodden borderlands of the front. Even as he sleeps, the trains are moving. The catapults of history rattling past.

Werner laces his boots and sings the songs and marches the marches, acting less out of duty than out of a timeworn desire to be dutiful. Bastian walks the rows of boys at their dinners. “What’s worse than death, boys?”

Some poor cadet is called to attention. “Cowardice!”

“Cowardice,” agrees Bastian, and the boy sits while the commandant slogs forward, nodding to himself, pleased. Lately the commandant

speaks more and more intimately of the führer and the latest thing— prayers, petroleum, loyalty—that he requires. The führer requires trustworthiness, electricity, boot leather. Werner is beginning to see, approaching his sixteenth birthday, that what the führer really requires is boys. Great rows of them walking to the conveyor belt to climb on. Give up cream for the führer, sleep for the führer, aluminum for the führer. Give up Reinhard Wöhlmann’s father and Karl Westerholzer’s father and Martin Burkhard’s father.

In March 1942, Dr. Hauptmann calls Werner into his office. Half-packed crates litter the floor. The hounds are nowhere to be seen. The little man paces, and it is not until Werner announces himself that Hauptmann stops. He looks as if he is slowly being engulfed by something beyond his control. “I have been called to Berlin. They want me to continue my work there.” Hauptmann lifts an hourglass from a shelf and sets it in a crate, and his pale silver-tipped fingers hang in the air.

“It will be as you dreamed, sir. The best equipment, the best minds.” “That is all,” says Dr. Hauptmann.

Werner steps into the hall. Out on the snow-dusted quad, thirty first-formers jog in place, their breath showing in short-lived plumes. Chubby, slick-chinned, abominable Bastian yells something. He raises one short arm and the boys turn on their heels, raise their rifles above their heads, and run faster in place, their knees flashing in the moonlight.

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