Dull light fell into the children’s room. The boy was lying in his bed reading a book when his father came in.
“So, little one, it’s time to study,” he said, sitting down at the boy’s desk.
The son jumped up from his bed and stood next to his father.
“How many pencils, Dad?” he asked, looking at the pencils stored in a tin can.
The boy took one pencil after another from the can and counted quietly. When he reached the desired number, he divided the pencils on the table into two equal amounts, leaving a handsbreadth of space between them.
“Good, then let’s begin. Have you been practicing hard?”
The boy nodded and took eight pencils in his left hand and eight in his right. Then he went to the center of the room and placed the pencils neatly side by side on the floor. Again he left a hand’s width of space between the rows of pencils. He turned his back to his father and stood up straight.
“Let’s get started,” the man said.
The boy took off his pants, folded them, put them on the bed, and knelt on the two levels of pencils. His kneecaps gave way under the pressure of the wood. After a few seconds, he no longer felt the pain—only gentle pressure. The father opened the book. Stapled inside were dozens of notes peeking out from the pages.
“The source, my boy?”
„Goethe, Faust, Part I, Dad.”
“Reclam, Stuttgart, 1950.”
“Then we can begin. Page fourteen, line fourteen, position two?”
The son nodded. He said the number combination slowly to himself. Fourteen, fourteen, two. Fourteen, fourteen, two. Fourteen, fourteen, two. Then he was silent for a moment and turned his head slightly to the left.
“Fine, but please look ahead.”
The boy turned his gaze forward again and did not make a face. The father opened another page and looked into the book.
“Eighty-five, thirteen, twenty-one?” he asked.
The boy recited the combination of numbers to himself again. Eighty-five, thirteen, twenty-one. Eighty-five, thirteen, twenty-one. Then he paused and took one of the pencils out from under each of his knees. He left the two pencils to the left and right of his knees.
“Page eighty-five, line thirteen, position twenty-one?” the father repeated.
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“Eight-five, thirteen, twenty-one. It’s just as easy as any other combination. You just have to study hard. Of course, that’s an N.”
The boy nodded. The father opened another page in the book.
“Two hundred, ten, five?”
The boy did not have to think long.
“That’s a D, Dad.”
“Fine, then one, one, five and one hundred fifty-three, nineteen, twenty-four?”
Again, the boy did not think twice.
“That’s a blank, Dad.”
“Fine, then what?”
“A W, Dad.”
The boy felt the pencil pads digging into his knees. He could not yet deduce what the complete sentence was. He had to recall each combination of numbers from his memory and visualize the matching letter until he knew. He concentrated on his task and pushed the pain aside.
“Two, two, fourteen?” said the father.
The boy knew and immediately answered.
“Good. One hundred thirteen, twelve, thirteen?”
The boy was sure what the answer was.
When he said it, he realized it wasn’t right.
“No, it’s an R.”
“You know what you have to do, son.”
The boy nodded. He slowly pulled a pencil from under his left knee and one from under his right knee and left them there.
“One, one, five and one, twenty-five, one?”
“Space and a Z, Dad.”
“Good. One hundred fifty-three, nineteen, twenty-four?”
The boy repeated the number combination quietly to himself. One hundred fifty-three, nineteen, twenty-four. One hundred fifty-three, nineteen, twenty-four. One hundred fifty-three, nineteen, twenty-four. One hundred fifty-three, nineteen, twenty-four. The father counted down from three. That was the clue for the boy that he had already deciphered that letter once that day. Two. He felt hot. One.
The boy pulled two pencils out from under each of his knees. One more pencil and the row would be so narrow that it would cut right into the boneless part of the body between the kneecap and the shinbone.
“So one more time. One hundred fifty-three, nineteen, twenty-four?”
The boy smiled. He remembered.
The father turned to another page in the book.
“All right, two, two, fourteen and fourteen, fourteen, two?”
“I and …”
The boy thought about it. His knees felt numb. The first beads of sweat formed on his forehead. His father counted down from three again. Three … two …
“I and N, Dad.”
This time, the boy did not let his joy and pain show on his face. He looked straight ahead with a serious face.
“Five, fifteen, twenty-eight?” the father asked.
The boy thought about it. Five, fifteen, twenty-eight. He didn’t know. The father counted down.
“That’s a V, Dad.”
“Did you guess, son?”
The boy swallowed. He pulled a pencil from under each knee and placed them beside himself. Firm wood bit into soft skin. Fluid gathered in his eyes. He clenched his baby teeth.
“Five, fifteen, twenty-eight?”
“That’s a P, Dad.”
“Did you guess?”
“The first time, I let you get away with it. The class enemy will know no mercy. You know that. So two pencils.”
The boy pulled two pencils out from under his left knee. He barely dared to put weight on that knee to pull two pencils out from under his other knee. He took a deep breath. The father counted down again. Three. Two. The boy shifted his weight to his left knee, now also pulling two pencils out from under his right knee. A sharp pain shot through him, starting from his left knee, and jerked like lightning through his slender body. He put weight on both knees at the same time and was relieved for a moment. But immediately, the thin pencils stabbed his knees simultaneously. Tears welled up in his eyes. On his forehead, cold sweat was building up. Hot shivers ran through him from his back to behind his ears. A drop of the tear fluid slapped the floor. The boy raised his head in the air so that the next drop would land on his shirt and not on the floor.
“What’s the phrase, son?” the father asked.
The boy tried to push the pain out of his head. He moaned softly. “Und wir …,” meaning and we, he said, breaking off the answer in pain. He started to speak again.
“Und wir zwing …” And we force …
“Good, do you understand that sentence, son?”
“And why don’t you understand that sentence?”
“Because it’s not complete, Dad.”
“And what is it in full?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“Yes, you do, son.”
The boy noticed how the pain took complete possession of him. Blood came out from under his knees. Tears flowed in rivulets down his cheeks and landed on his shirt. He kept repeating the sentence softly to himself. And we force … And we force … And we force … And we force … And we force …
“Son!” said the father.
The boy changed the rhythm of the sentence.
“And. We. Force. And we. Force. And. We force.”
He knew the phrase.
“And we force it together, Daddy,” he said, then clenched his teeth. A tremor came over him.
“Good. And now from the beginning,” said the father.
The boy took a deep breath and pressed the words through his rows of teeth.
“And we force them united.”
“No. Everything. All of it from the beginning. The whole verse.”
The boy sobbed and lost his posture.
He straightened up again, drawing the oxygen-deprived air of the room into his lungs.
“Risen from the ruins
and facing the future,
let us serve you for the good,
Germany, united fatherland.
It is necessary to force old adversity,
and we force it together,
because we must succeed in getting
the sun to shine over
Germany like never before.”
The man got up and left his son’s room. The boy toppled to the side and curled up on the cold floor, crying. That day he had deciphered and recited the first verse of the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic. The next day, another lesson would be waiting for him.