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THERE WAS once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life:

He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else.

He would make himself a small, strange mustache.

He would one day rule the world.

The young man wandered around for quite some time, thinking, planning, and figuring out exactly how to make the world his. Then one day, out of nowhere, it struck himthe perfect plan. Hed seen a mother walking with her child. At one point, she admonished the small boy, until finally, he began to cry. Within a few minutes, she spoke very softly to him, after which he was soothed and even smiled.

The young man rushed to the woman and embraced her. Words! He grinned.


But there was no reply. He was already gone.

Yes, the Fhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. I will never fire a gun, he devised. I will not have to. Still, he was not rash. Lets allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany.... It was a nation of farmed thoughts.

WHILE THE words were growing, our young Fhrer also planted seeds to create symbols, and these, too, were well on their way to full bloom. Now the time had come. The Fhrer was ready.

He invited his people toward his own glorious heart, beckoning them with his finest, ugliest words, handpicked from his forests. And the people came.

They were all placed on a conveyor belt and run through a rampant machine that gave them a lifetime in ten minutes. Words were fed into them. Time disappeared and they now Knew everything they needed to Know. They were hypnotized.

Next, they were fitted with their symbols, and everyone was happy.

Soon, the demand for the lovely ugly words and symbols increased to such a point that as the forests grew, many people were needed to maintain them. Some were employed to climb the trees and throw the words down to those below. They were then fed directly into the remainder of the Fhrers people, not to mention those who came back for more.

The people who climbed the trees were called word shakers.

THE BEST word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her region because she Knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words.

Thats why she could climb higher than anyone else. She had desire. She was hungry for them.




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. Hed 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 havent got it yet, have you?


And youre 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 didnt take Rudy long to understand. He made his way inside and returned not long after. In the words of Viktor Chemmel, he said, Its 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. STEINERSCHNEIDERMEISTER. 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 didnt think hed mind if they trespassed in his beloved shop. The circumstances demanded it.

The door opened fluently and they made their way inside. Rudys 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 wheres this present youve 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 Rudys 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.


the last human stranger


the next temptationa cardplayer the snows of stalingradan ageless brotheran accidentthe bitter taste of questionsa toolbox, a bleeder, a beara broken plane

and a homecoming


This time, there were cookies.

But they were stale.

They were Kipferl left over from Christmas, and theyd 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 didnt take Liesel long to realize that Ilsa Hermann had been at it again, and she certainly wasnt 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 whispers name was Rudy.

Theyd 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 didnt need much convincing to take it.

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

Anything else? Any milk?


Milk, he repeated, a little louder this time. If hed recognized the offended tone in Liesels voice, he certainly wasnt showing it.

The book thiefs face appeared above him again. Are you stupid? Can I just steal the book?

Of course. All Im 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 FremdeThe 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 mayors 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 Hermanns breast and raised her arm. Heil Hitler.

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

The cookies.

Theyd 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. Orand as soon as Liesel felt this thought, it filled her with a strange optimismperhaps it wasnt the mayors library at all; it was hers. Ilsa Hermanns.

She didnt 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, isnt it?

The mayors wife tightened. I used to read in here, with my son. But then . . .

Liesels 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 . . .

Theyre mostly mine. Some are my husbands, some were my sons, as you know.

There was embarrassment now on Liesels behalf. Her cheeks were set alight. I always thought this was the mayors room.

Why? The woman seemed amused.

Liesel noticed that there were also swastikas on the toes of her slippers. Hes the mayor. I thought hed read a lot.

The mayors wife placed her hands in her side pockets. Lately, its 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 mayors wife who took the initiative.

She saw Rudys face in the window, or more to the point, his candlelit hair. I think youd better go, she said. Hes waiting for you.

On the way home, they ate.

Are you sure there wasnt anything else? Rudy asked. There must have been.

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

Rudy was indignant. Hey, youre the thief here, not me.

Dont 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 didnt eat any, I promise.

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

When theyd finished eating, there was only one afterthought, and Rudy spoke it.

What the hell do we do with the plate?