Chapter no 22 – The Principles of Mechanics

All the Light We Cannot See

vice minister and his wife visit Children’s House. Frau Elena says they are touring orphanages.

Everyone washes; everyone behaves. Maybe, the children whisper, they are considering adopting. The oldest girls serve pumpernickel and goose liver on the house’s last unchipped plates while the portly vice minister and his severe-looking wife inspect the parlor like lords come to tour some distasteful gnomish cottage. When supper is ready, Werner sits at the boys’ end of the table with a book in his lap. Jutta sits with the girls at the opposite end, her hair frizzed and snarled and bright white, so she looks as if she has been electrified.

Bless us O Lord and these Thy gifts. Frau Elena adds a second prayer for the vice minister’s benefit. Everyone falls to eating.

The children are nervous; even Hans Schilzer and Herribert Pomsel sit quietly in their brown shirts. The vice minister’s wife sits so upright that it seems as if her spine is hewn from oak.

Her husband says, “And each of the children contributes?”

“Certainly. Claudia, for instance, made the bread basket. And the twins prepared the livers.”

Big Claudia Förster blushes. The twins bat their eyelashes.

Werner’s mind drifts; he is thinking about the book in his lap, The Principles of Mechanics by Heinrich Hertz. He discovered it in the church basement, water-stained and forgotten, decades old, and the rector let him bring it home, and Frau Elena let him keep it, and for several weeks Werner has been fighting through the thorny mathematics. Electricity, Werner is learning, can be static by itself. But couple it with magnetism, and suddenly you have movement—waves. Fields and circuits, conduction and induction. Space, time, mass. The air swarms with so much that is invisible! How he wishes he had eyes to see the ultraviolet, eyes to see the infrared, eyes to see radio waves crowding the darkening sky, flashing through the walls of the house.

When he looks up, everyone is staring at him. Frau Elena’s eyes are alarmed.

“It’s a book, sir,” announces Hans Schilzer. He tugs it out of Werner’s lap. The volume is heavy enough that he needs both hands to hold it up.

Several creases sharpen in the forehead of the vice minister’s wife.

Werner can feel his cheeks flush.

The vice minister extends a pudgy hand. “Give it here.”

“Is it a Jew book?” says Herribert Pomsel. “It’s a Jew book, isn’t it?” Frau Elena looks as if she’s about to speak, then thinks better of it. “Hertz was born in Hamburg,” says Werner.

Jutta announces out of nowhere, “My brother is so quick at mathematics. He’s quicker than every one of the schoolmasters. Someday he’ll probably win a big prize. He says we’ll go to Berlin and study under the great scientists.”

The younger children gape; the oldest children snicker. Werner stares hard into his plate. The vice minister frowns as he turns pages. Hans Schilzer kicks Werner in the shin and coughs.

Frau Elena says, “Jutta, that’s enough.”

The vice minister’s wife takes a forkful of liver and chews and swallows and touches her napkin to each corner of her mouth. The vice minister sets down The Principles of Mechanics and pushes it away, then glances at his palms as though it has made them dirty. He says, “The only place your brother is going, little girl, is into the mines. As soon as he turns fifteen. Same as every other boy in this house.”

Jutta scowls, and Werner stares at the congealed liver on his plate with his eyes burning and something inside his chest compressing tighter and tighter, and for the rest of supper the only sound is of the children cutting and chewing and swallowing.

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