Chapter no 94 – Frederick‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Werner spends the last of his money on train fare. The afternoon is bright enough, but Berlin seems not to want to accept the sunlight, as though its buildings have become gloomier and dirtier and more splotchy in the months since he last visited. Though perhaps what has changed are the eyes that see it.

Rather than ring the bell right away, Werner laps the block three times. The apartment windows are uniformly dark; whether unlit or blacked out, he cannot tell. At a certain point on each circuit, he passes a storefront filled with undressed mannequins, and though he knows each time that it is merely a trick of the light, he cannot stop his eyes from seeing them as corpses strung up by wires.

Finally he rings the bell for #2. No one buzzes down, and he notices from the nameplates that they are no longer in #2. Their name is on #5.

He rings. A returning buzz issues from inside. The lift is out of order, so he walks up.

The door opens. Franny. With the downy face and swinging flaps of skin under her arms. She gives him a look that one trapped person gives another; then Frederick’s mother swishes out of a side room wearing tennis clothes. “Why, Werner—”

She loses herself momentarily in troubled reverie, surrounded by sleek furniture, some of it wrapped in thick wool blankets. Does she blame him? Does she think he is partially responsible? Perhaps he is? But then she comes awake and kisses him on both cheeks, and her bottom lip quivers lightly. As if his materialization is preventing her from keeping certain shadows at bay.

“He won’t know you. Don’t try to make him remember. It will only upset him. But you are here. I suppose that’s something. I was about to go, very sorry I cannot stay. Show him in, Franny.”

The maid leads him into a grand drawing room, its ceilings aswirl with plaster flourishes, its walls painted a delicate eggshell blue. No paintings have been hung yet and the shelves wait empty and cardboard boxes stand open on the floor. Frederick sits at a glass-topped table at the

back of the room, both table and boy looking small amid the clutter. His hair has been combed hard to one side, and his loose cotton shirt has bunched up behind his shoulders so that his collar is skewed. His eyes do not rise to meet his visitor’s.

He wears his same old black-framed glasses. Someone has been feeding him, and the spoon rests on the glass table and blobs of porridge cling to Frederick’s whiskers and his place mat, which is a woolen thing featuring happy pink-cheeked children in clogs. Werner cannot look at it. Franny bends and pushes three more spoonfuls into Frederick’s mouth and wipes his chin, folds up his place mat, and walks through a swinging door into what must be a kitchen. Werner stands with his hands crossed

in front of his belt.

One year. More than that. Frederick has to shave now, Werner realizes. Or someone has to shave him.

“Hello, Frederick.”

Frederick rolls his head back and looks toward Werner through his smudged lenses down the line of his nose.

“I’m Werner. Your mother said you might not remember? I’m your friend from school.”

Frederick seems not so much to be looking at Werner as through him. On the table is a stack of paper, on top of which a thick and clumsy spiral has been drawn by a heavy hand.

“Did you make this?” Werner lifts the topmost drawing. Beneath that page is another, then another, thirty or forty spirals, each taking up a whole sheet, all in the same severe lead. Frederick drops his chin to his chest, possibly a nod. Werner glances around: a trunk, a box of linens, the pale blue of the walls and the rich white of the wainscot. Late sunlight glides through tall French windows, and the air tastes of silver polish. This fifth-floor apartment is indeed nicer than the second-floor one—the ceilings high and decorated with punched tin and stucco flourishes: fruits, flowers, banana leaves.

Frederick’s lip is curled and his upper teeth show and a string of drool swings from his chin and touches the paper. Werner, unable to bear it a second longer, calls for the maid. Franny peeks out of the swinging door. “Where,” he asks, “is that book? The one with the birds? In the gold slipcover?”

“I don’t think we ever had a book like that.” “No, you did—”

Franny only shakes her head and laces her fingers across her apron. Werner lifts the flaps of boxes, peering in. “Surely it’s around here.” Frederick has begun to draw a new spiral on a blank sheet.

“Maybe in this?”

Franny stands beside Werner and plucks his wrist off the crate he is about to open. “I do not think,” she repeats, “we ever had a book like that.”

Werner’s whole body has started to itch. Out the huge windows, the lindens toss back and forth. The light fades. An unlit sign atop a building two blocks away reads, Berlin smokes Junos.

Franny has already retreated back into the kitchen.

Werner watches Frederick create another crude spiral, the pencil locked in his fist.

“I’m leaving Schulpforta, Frederick. They’re changing my age and sending me to the front.”

Frederick lifts the pencil, studying, then reapplies it. “Less than a week.”

Frederick works his mouth as if to chew air. “You look pretty,” he says. He does not look directly at Werner, and his words are close to moans. “You look pretty, very pretty, Mama.”

“I’m not your mama,” hisses Werner. “Come on, now.” Frederick’s expression is entirely without artifice. Somewhere in the kitchen, the maid is listening. There is no other sound, not of traffic or airplanes or trains or radios or the specter of Frau Schwartzenberger rattling the cage of the elevator. No chanting no singing no silk banners no bands no trumpets no mother no father no slick-fingered commandant dragging a finger across his back. The city seems utterly still, as though everyone is listening, waiting for someone to slip.

Werner looks at the blue of the walls and thinks of Birds of America, yellow-crowned heron, Kentucky warbler, scarlet tanager, bird after glorious bird, and Frederick’s gaze remains stuck in some terrible middle ground, each eye a stagnant pool into which Werner cannot bear to look.

You'll Also Like