Chapter no 118 – White City‌

All the Light We Cannot See

In April 1944 the Opel rattles into a white city full of empty windows. “Vienna,” says Volkheimer, and Neumann Two fulminates about Hapsburg palaces and Wiener schnitzel and girls whose vulvas taste like apple strudel. They sleep in a once stately Old World suite with the furniture shored up against the walls and chicken feathers clogging the marble sinks and newspapers tacked clumsily across the windows. Down below, a switching yard presents a wilderness of train tracks. Werner thinks of Dr. Hauptmann with his curls and fur-lined gloves, whose Viennese youth Werner imagined spent in vibrant cafés where scientists-to-be discussed Bohr and Schopenhauer, where marble statues stared down from ledges like kindly godparents.

Hauptmann, who, presumably, is still in Berlin. Or at the front, like everyone else.

The city commander has no time for them. A subordinate tells Volkheimer there are reports of resistance broadcasts washing out of the Leopoldstadt. Round and round the district they drive. Cold fog hangs in the budding trees, and Werner sits in the back of the truck and shivers. The place smells to him of carnage.

For five days he hears nothing on his transceiver but anthems and recorded propaganda and broadcasts from beleaguered colonels requesting supplies, gasoline, men. It is all unraveling, Werner can feel it; the fabric of the war tearing apart.

“That’s the Staatsoper,” says Neumann Two one night. The facade of a grand building rises gracefully, pilastered and crenelated. Stately wings soar on either side, somehow both heavy and light. It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them? When Russian prisoners are chained by threes and fours to fences while German privates tuck live grenades in their pockets and run?

Opera houses! Cities on the moon! Ridiculous. They would all do better to put their faces on the curbs and wait for the boys who come through the city dragging sledges stacked with corpses.

At midmorning Volkheimer orders them to park in the Augarten. The sun burns away the fog and reveals the first blooms on the trees. Werner can feel the fever flickering inside him, a stove with its door latched. Neumann One, who, if he were not scheduled to die ten weeks from now in the Allied invasion of Normandy, might have become a barber later in life, who would have smelled of talc and whiskey and put his index finger into men’s ears to position their heads, whose pants and shirts always would have been covered with clipped hairs, who, in his shop, would have taped postcards of the Alps around the circumference of a big cheap wavery mirror, who would have been faithful to his stout wife for the rest of his life—Neumann One says, “Time for haircuts.”

He sets a stool on the sidewalk and throws a mostly clean towel over Bernd’s shoulders and snips away. Werner finds a state-sponsored station playing waltzes and sets the speaker in the open back door of the Opel so all can hear. Neumann One cuts Bernd’s hair, then Werner’s, then pouchy, wrecked Neumann Two’s. Werner watches Volkheimer climb onto the stool and close his eyes when a particularly plangent waltz comes on, Volkheimer who has killed a hundred men by now at least, probably more, walking into pathetic radio-transmitting shacks in his huge expropriated boots, sneaking up behind some emaciated Ukrainian with headphones on his ears and a microphone at his lips and shooting him in the back of the head, then going to the truck to tell Werner to collect the transmitter, making the order calmly, sleepily, even with the pieces of the man on the transmitter like that.

Volkheimer who always makes sure there is food for Werner. Who brings him eggs, who shares his broth, whose fondness for Werner remains, it seems, unshakable.

The Augarten proves a thorny place to search, full of narrow streets and tall apartment houses. Transmissions both pass through the buildings and reflect off them. That afternoon, long after the stool has been put away and the waltzes have stopped, while Werner sits with his transceiver listening to nothing, a little redheaded girl in a maroon cape emerges from a doorway, maybe six or seven years old, small for her age, with big clear eyes that remind him of Jutta’s. She runs across the street to the park and plays there alone, beneath the budding trees, while

her mother stands on the corner and bites the tips of her fingers. The girl climbs into the swing and pendulums back and forth, pumping her legs, and watching her opens some valve in Werner’s soul. This is life, he thinks, this is why we live, to play like this on a day when winter is finally releasing its grip. He waits for Neumann Two to come around the truck and say something crass, to spoil it, but he doesn’t, and neither does Bernd, maybe they don’t see her at all, maybe this one pure thing will escape their defilement, and the girl sings as she swings, a high song that Werner recognizes, a counting song that girls jumping rope in the alley behind Children’s House used to sing, Eins, zwei, Polizei, drei, vier, Offizier, and how he would like to join her, push her higher and higher, sing fünf, sechs, alte Hex, sieben, acht, gute Nacht! Then her mother calls something Werner cannot hear and takes the girl’s hand. They pass around a corner, little velvet cape trailing behind, and are gone.

Not an hour later, he snares something winging in out of the static: a simple broadcast in Swiss German. Hit nine, transmitting at 1600, this is KX46, do you receive? He does not understand all of it. Then it goes. Werner crosses the square and tunes the second transceiver himself. When they speak again, he triangulates and plugs the numbers into the equation, then looks up and sees with his naked eyes what looks very much like a wire antenna trailing down the side of an apartment house flanking the square.

So easy.

Already Volkheimer’s eyes have come alive, a lion who has caught the scent. As though he and Werner hardly need to speak to communicate.

“See the wire trailing down there?” Werner asks.

Voklheimer glasses the building with binoculars. “That window?” “Yes.”

“It’s not too dense in here? All these flats?” “That’s the window,” says Werner.

They go in. He does not hear any shots. Five minutes later, they call him up into a fifth-floor flat wallpapered with a dizzying floral print. He expects to be asked to look over the equipment, as usual, but there is none: no corpses, no transmitter, not even a simple listening set. Just ornate lamps and an embroidered sofa and the swarming rococo wallpaper.

“Pry up the floorboards,” orders Volkheimer, but after Neumann Two pries up several and peers down, it’s clear that the only thing under the boards is decades-old horsehair for insulation.

“Another flat, maybe? Another floor?”

Werner crosses into a bedroom and slides open the window and peers over an iron balcony. What he thought was an antenna is nothing more than a painted rod run up the side of a pilaster, probably meant to anchor a clothesline. Not an antenna at all. But he heard a transmission. Didn’t he?

An ache reaches up through the base of his skull. He laces his hands behind his head and sits on the edge of an unmade bed and looks at the clothes here—a slip folded over the back of a chair, a pewter-backed hairbrush on the bureau, rows of tiny frosted bottles and pots on a vanity, all of it inarticulably feminine to him, mysterious and confusing, in the way Herr Siedler’s wife confused him four years before as she hitched up her skirt and knelt in front of her big radio.

A woman’s room. Wrinkled sheets, a smell like skin lotion in the air, and a photograph of a young man—nephew? lover? brother?—on a dressing table. Maybe his math was wrong. Maybe the signal scattered off the buildings. Maybe the fever has scrambled his wits. On the wallpaper in front of him, roses appear to drift, rotate, swap places.

“Nothing?” calls Volkheimer from the other room, and Bernd calls back, “Nothing.”

In some alternate universe, Werner considers, this woman and Frau Elena could have been friends. A reality more pleasant than this one. Then he sees, hung on the doorknob, a maroon square of velvet, hood attached, a child’s cape, and at exactly that moment in the other bedroom, Neumann Two makes a cry like a high, surprised gargle and there is a single shot, then a woman’s scream, then more shots, and Volkheimer strides past, hurrying, and the rest follow, and they find Neumann Two standing in front of a closet with both hands on his rifle and the smell of gunpowder all around. On the floor is a woman, one arm swept backward as if she has been refused a dance, and inside the closet is not a radio but a child sitting on her bottom with a bullet through her head. Her moon eyes are open and moist and her mouth is stretched back in an oval of surprise and it is the girl from the swings and she cannot be over seven years old.

Werner waits for the child to blink. Blink, he thinks, blink blink blink. Already Volkheimer is closing the closet door, though it won’t close all the way because the girl’s foot is sticking out of it, and Bernd is covering the woman on the bed with a blanket, and how could Neumann Two not have known, but of course he didn’t, because that is how things are with Neumann Two, with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind. Name me someone who does not.

Neumann One shoulders out, something rancid in his eyes. Neumann Two stands there with his new haircut, his fingers playing senseless trills on the stock of his rifle. “Why did they hide?” he says.

Volkheimer tucks the child’s foot gently back inside the closet. “There’s no radio here,” he says, and shuts the door. Threads of nausea reach up around Werner’s windpipe.

Outside, the streetlamps shudder in a late wind. Clouds ride west over the city.

Werner climbs into the Opel, feeling as if the buildings are rearing around him, growing taller and warping. He sits with his forehead against the listening decks and is sick between his shoes.

So really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.

Bernd climbs in and pulls the door shut and the Opel comes to life, tilting as it rounds a corner, and Werner can feel the streets rising around them, whorling slowly into an engulfing spiral, into the center of which the truck will arc downward, tracing deeper and deeper all the time.

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