The Book Thief



  An audience followed him, and when he arrived, clouds had covered the highest regions of the branches. The word shaker could hear the people calling out that a new axman had come to put an end to her vigil.

  “She will not come down,” the people said, “for anyone.”

  They did not know who the axman was, and they did not know that he was undeterred.

  He opened his bag and pulled out something much smaller than an ax.

  The people laughed. They said, “You can’t chop a tree down with an old hammer!”

  The young man did not listen to them. He only looked through his bag for some nails. He placed three of them in his mouth and attempted to hammer a fourth one into the tree. The first branches were now extremely high and he estimated that he needed four nails to use as footholds to reach them.

  “Look at this idiot,” roared one of the watching men. “NO one else could chop it down with an ax, and this fool thinks he can do it with—”

  The man fell silent.

  THE FIRST nail entered the tree and was held steady after five blows. Then the second went in, and the young man started to climb.

  By the fourth nail, he was up in the arms and continued on his way. He was tempted to call out as he did so, but he decided against it.

  The climb seemed to last for miles. It took many hours for him to reach the final branches, and when he did, he found the word shaker asleep in her blankets and the clouds.

  He watched her for many minutes.

  The warmth of the sun heated the cloudy rooftop.

  He reached down, touching her arm, and the word shaker woke up.

  She rubbed her eyes, and after a long study of his face, she spoke.

  “Is it really you?”

  Is it from your cheek, she thought, that I took the seed? The man nodded.

  His heart wobbled and he held tighter to the branches. “It is.”

  TOGETHER, THEY stayed in the summit of the tree. They waited for the clouds to disappear, and when they did, they could see the rest of the forest.

  “It wouldn’t stop growing,” she explained.

  “But neither would this.” The young man looked at the branch that held his hand. He had a point.

  When they had looked and talked enough, they made their way back down. They left the blankets and remaining food behind.

  The people could not believe what they were seeing, and the moment the word shaker and the young man set foot in the world, the tree finally began to show the ax marks. Bruises appeared. Slits were made in the trunk and the earth began to shiver.

  “It’s going to fall!” a young woman screamed. “The tree is going to fall!” She was right. The word shaker’s tree, in all its miles and miles of height, slowly began to tip. It moaned as it was sucked to the ground. The world shook, and when everything finally settled, the tree was laid out among the rest of the forest. It could never destroy all of it, but if nothing else, a different-colored path was carved through it.

  The word shaker and the young man climbed up to the horizontal trunk. They navigated the branches and began to walk. When they looked back, they noticed that the majority of onlookers had started to return to their own places. In there. Out there. In the forest.

  But as they walked on, they stopped several times, to listen. They thought they could hear voices and words behind them, on the word shaker’s tree.

  For a long time, Liesel sat at the kitchen table and wondered where Max Vandenburg was, in all that forest out there. The light lay down around her. She fell asleep. Mama made her go to bed, and she did so, with Max’s sketchbook against her chest.

  It was hours later, when she woke up, that the answer to her question came. “Of course,” she whispered. “Of course I know where he is,” and she went back to sleep.

  She dreamed of the tree.

  THE ANARCHIST’S SUIT COLLECTION

  35 HIMMEL STREET,

  DECEMBER 24

  With the absence of two fathers,

  the Steiners have invited Rosa

  and Trudy Hubermann, and Liesel.

  When they arrive, Rudy is still in

  the process of explaining his

  clothes. He looks at Liesel and his

  mouth widens, but only slightly.

  The days leading up to Christmas 1942 fell thick and heavy with snow. Liesel went through The Word Shaker many times, from the story itself to the many sketches and commentaries on either side of it. On Christmas Eve, she made a decision about Rudy. To hell with being out too late.

  She walked next door just before dark and told him she had a present for him, for Christmas.

  Rudy looked at her hands and either side of her feet. “Well, where the hell is it?”

  “Forget it, then.”

  But Rudy knew. He’d seen her like this before. Risky eyes and sticky fingers. The breath of stealing was all around her and he could smell it. “This gift,” he estimated. “You haven’t got it yet, have you?”

  “No.”

  “And you’re not buying it, either.”

  “Of course not. Do you think I have any money?” Snow was still falling. At the edge of the grass, there was ice like broken glass. “Do you have the key?” she asked.

  “The key to what?” But it didn’t take Rudy long to understand. He made his way inside and returned not long after. In the words of Viktor Chemmel, he said, “It’s time to go shopping.”

  The light was disappearing fast, and except for the church, all of Munich Street had closed up for Christmas. Liesel walked hurriedly to remain in step with the lankier stride of her neighbor. They arrived at the designated shop window. STEINER—SCHNEIDERMEISTER. The glass wore a thin sheet of mud and grime that had blown onto it in the passing weeks. On the opposite side, the mannequins stood like witnesses. They were serious and ludicrously stylish. It was hard to shake the feeling that they were watching everything.

  Rudy reached into his pocket.

  It was Christmas Eve.

  His father was near Vienna.

  He didn’t think he’d mind if they trespassed in his beloved shop. The circumstances demanded it.

  The door opened fluently and they made their way inside. Rudy’s first instinct was to hit the light switch, but the electricity had already been cut off.

  “Any candles?”

  Rudy was dismayed. “I brought the key. And besides, this was your idea.”

  In the middle of the exchange, Liesel tripped on a bump in the floor. A mannequin followed her down. It groped her arm and dismantled in its clothes on top of her. “Get this thing off me!” It was in four pieces. The torso and head, the legs, and two separate arms. When she was rid of it, Liesel stood and wheezed. “Jesus, Mary.”

  Rudy found one of the arms and tapped her on the shoulder with its hand. When she turned in fright, he extended it in friendship. “Nice to meet you.”

  For a few minutes, they moved slowly through the tight pathways of the shop. Rudy started toward the counter. When he fell over an empty box, he yelped and swore, then found his way back to the entrance. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Wait here a minute.” Liesel sat, mannequin arm in hand, till he returned with a lit lantern from the church.

  A ring of light circled his face.

  “So where’s this present you’ve been bragging about? It better not be one of these weird mannequins.”

  “Bring the light over.”

  When he made it to the far left section of the shop, Liesel took the lantern with one hand and swept through the hanging suits with the other. She pulled one out but quickly replaced it with another. “No, still too big.” After two more attempts, she held a navy blue suit in front of Rudy Steiner. “Does this look about your size?”

  While Liesel sat in the dark, Rudy tried on the suit behind one of the curtains. There was a small circle of light and the shadow dressing itself.

  When he returned, he held out the lantern for Liesel to see. Free of the curtain, the light was like a pillar, shining onto
the refined suit. It also lit up the dirty shirt beneath and Rudy’s battered shoes.

  “Well?” he asked.

  Liesel continued the examination. She moved around him and shrugged. “Not bad.”

  “Not bad! I look better than just not bad.”

  “The shoes let you down. And your face.”

  Rudy placed the lantern on the counter and came toward her in mock-anger, and Liesel had to admit that a nervousness started gripping her. It was with both relief and disappointment that she watched him trip and fall on the disgraced mannequin.

  On the floor, Rudy laughed.

  Then he closed his eyes, clenching them hard.

  Liesel rushed over.

  She crouched above him.

  Kiss him, Liesel, kiss him.

  “Are you all right, Rudy? Rudy?”

  “I miss him,” said the boy, sideways, across the floor.

  “Frohe Weihnachten,” Liesel replied. She helped him up, straightening the suit. “Merry Christmas.”

  PART NINE

  the last human stranger

  featuring:

  the next temptation—a cardplayer—

  the snows of stalingrad—an ageless

  brother—an accident—the bitter taste

  of questions—a toolbox, a bleeder,

  a bear—a broken plane—

  and a homecoming

  THE NEXT TEMPTATION

  This time, there were cookies.

  But they were stale.

  They were Kipferl left over from Christmas, and they’d been sitting on the desk for at least two weeks. Like miniature horseshoes with a layer of icing sugar, the ones on the bottom were bolted to the plate. The rest were piled on top, forming a chewy mound. She could already smell them when her fingers tightened on the window ledge. The room tasted like sugar and dough, and thousands of pages.

  There was no note, but it didn’t take Liesel long to realize that Ilsa Hermann had been at it again, and she certainly wasn’t taking the chance that the cookies might not be for her. She made her way back to the window and passed a whisper through the gap. The whisper’s name was Rudy.

  They’d gone on foot that day because the road was too slippery for bikes. The boy was beneath the window, standing watch. When she called out, his face appeared, and she presented him with the plate. He didn’t need much convincing to take it.

  His eyes feasted on the cookies and he asked a few questions.

  “Anything else? Any milk?”

  “What?”

  “Milk,” he repeated, a little louder this time. If he’d recognized the offended tone in Liesel’s voice, he certainly wasn’t showing it.

  The book thief’s face appeared above him again. “Are you stupid? Can I just steal the book?”

  “Of course. All I’m saying is …”

  Liesel moved toward the far shelf, behind the desk. She found some paper and a pen in the top drawer and wrote Thank you, leaving the note on top.

  To her right, a book protruded like a bone. Its paleness was almost scarred by the dark lettering of the title. Die Letzte Menschliche Fremde—The Last Human Stranger. It whispered softly as she removed it from the shelf. Some dust showered down.

  At the window, just as she was about to make her way out, the library door creaked apart.

  Her knee was up and her book-stealing hand was poised against the window frame. When she faced the noise, she found the mayor’s wife in a brand-new bathrobe and slippers. On the breast pocket of the robe sat an embroidered swastika. Propaganda even reached the bathroom.

  They watched each other.

  Liesel looked at Ilsa Hermann’s breast and raised her arm. “Heil Hitler.”

  She was just about to leave when a realization struck her.

  The cookies.

  They’d been there for weeks.

  That meant that if the mayor himself used the library, he must have seen them. He must have asked why they were there. Or—and as soon as Liesel felt this thought, it filled her with a strange optimism—perhaps it wasn’t the mayor’s library at all; it was hers. Ilsa Hermann’s.

  She didn’t know why it was so important, but she enjoyed the fact that the roomful of books belonged to the woman. It was she who introduced her to the library in the first place and gave her the initial, even literal, window of opportunity. This way was better. It all seemed to fit.

  Just as she began to move again, she propped everything and asked, “This is your room, isn’t it?”

  The mayor’s wife tightened. “I used to read in here, with my son. But then …”

  Liesel’s hand touched the air behind her. She saw a mother reading on the floor with a young boy pointing at the pictures and the words. Then she saw a war at the window. “I know.”

  An exclamation entered from outside.

  “What did you say?!”

  Liesel spoke in a harsh whisper, behind her. “Keep quiet, Saukerl, and watch the street.” To Ilsa Hermann, she handed the words slowly across. “So all these books …”

  “They’re mostly mine. Some are my husband’s, some were my son’s, as you know.”

  There was embarrassment now on Liesel’s behalf. Her cheeks were set alight. “I always thought this was the mayor’s room.”

  “Why?” The woman seemed amused.

  Liesel noticed that there were also swastikas on the toes of her slippers. “He’s the mayor. I thought he’d read a lot.”

  The mayor’s wife placed her hands in her side pockets. “Lately, it’s you who gets the most use out of this room.”

  “Have you read this one?” Liesel held up The Last Human Stranger.

  Ilsa looked more closely at the title. “I have, yes.”

  “Any good?”

  “Not bad.”

  There was an itch to leave then, but also a peculiar obligation to stay. She moved to speak, but the available words were too many and too fast. There were several attempts to snatch at them, but it was the mayor’s wife who took the initiative.

  She saw Rudy’s face in the window, or more to the point, his candlelit hair. “I think you’d better go,” she said. “He’s waiting for you.”

  On the way home, they ate.

  “Are you sure there wasn’t anything else?” Rudy asked. “There must have been.”

  “We were lucky to get the cookies.” Liesel examined the gift in Rudy’s arms. “Now tell the truth. Did you eat any before I came back out?”

  Rudy was indignant. “Hey, you’re the thief here, not me.”

  “Don’t kid me, Saukerl, I could see some sugar at the side of your mouth.”

  Paranoid, Rudy took the plate in just the one hand and wiped with the other. “I didn’t eat any, I promise.”

  Half the cookies were gone before they hit the bridge, and they shared the rest with Tommy Müller on Himmel Street.

  When they’d finished eating, there was only one afterthought, and Rudy spoke it.

  “What the hell do we do with the plate?”

  THE CARDPLAYER

  Around the time Liesel and Rudy were eating the cookies, the resting men of the LSE were playing cards in a town not far from Essen. They’d just completed the long trip from Stuttgart and were gambling for cigarettes. Reinhold Zucker was not a happy man.

  “He’s cheating, I swear it,” he muttered. They were in a shed that served as their barracks and Hans Hubermann had just won his third consecutive hand. Zucker threw his cards down in disgust and combed his greasy hair with a threesome of dirty fingernails.

  SOME FACTS ABOUT

  REINHOLD ZUCKER

  He was twenty-four. When he won a round

  of cards, he gloated—he would hold the

  thin cylinders of tobacco to his nose and

  breathe them in. “The smell of victory,”

  he would say. Oh, and one more thing.

  He would die with his mouth open.

  • • •

  Unlike the young man to his left, Hans Hubermann didn’t gloat when he wo
n. He was even generous enough to give each colleague one of his cigarettes back and light it for him. All but Reinhold Zucker took up the invitation. He snatched at the offering and flung it back to the middle of the turned-over box. “I don’t need your charity, old man.” He stood up and left.

  “What’s wrong with him?” the sergeant inquired, but no one cared enough to answer. Reinhold Zucker was just a twenty-four-year-old boy who could not play cards to save his life.

  Had he not lost his cigarettes to Hans Hubermann, he wouldn’t have despised him. If he hadn’t despised him, he might not have taken his place a few weeks later on a fairly innocuous road.

  One seat, two men, a short argument, and me.

  It kills me sometimes, how people die.

  THE SNOWS OF STALINGRAD

  In the middle of January 1943, the corridor of Himmel Street was its dark, miserable self. Liesel shut the gate and made her way to Frau Holtzapfel’s door and knocked. She was surprised by the answerer.

  Her first thought was that the man must have been one of her sons, but he did not look like either of the brothers in the framed photos by the door. He seemed far too old, although it was difficult to tell. His face was dotted with whiskers and his eyes looked painful and loud. A bandaged hand fell out of his coat sleeve and cherries of blood were seeping through the wrapping.

  “Perhaps you should come back later.”

  Liesel tried to look past him. She was close to calling out to Frau Holtzapfel, but the man blocked her.

  “Child,” he said. “Come back later. I’ll get you. Where are you from?”

  More than three hours later, a knock arrived at 33 Himmel Street and the man stood before her. The cherries of blood had grown into plums.

  “She’s ready for you now.”

  • • •

  Outside, in the fuzzy gray light, Liesel couldn’t help asking the man what had happened to his hand. He blew some air from his nostrils—a single syllable—before his reply. “Stalingrad.”