فصل 01کتاب: تمام نورهایی که نمیتوانیم ببینیم / فصل 2
- زمان مطالعه 147 دقیقه
- سطح خیلی سخت
دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»
این فصل را میتوانید به بهترین شکل و با امکانات عالی در اپلیکیشن «زیبوک» بخوانید
متن انگلیسی فصل
One 1934 Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a tall and freckled six-year-old in Paris with rapidly deteriorating eyesight when her father sends her on a children’s tour of the museum where he works. The guide is a hunchbacked old warder hardly taller than a child himself. He raps the tip of his cane against the floor for attention, then leads his dozen charges across the gardens to the galleries.
The children watch engineers use pulleys to lift a fossilized dinosaur femur. They see a stuffed giraffe in a closet, patches of hide wearing off its back. They peer into taxidermists’ drawers full of feathers and talons and glass eyeballs; they flip through two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs.
Eventually they climb sixteen steps into the Gallery of Mineralogy. The guide shows them agate from Brazil and violet amethysts and a meteorite on a pedestal that he claims is as ancient as the solar system itself. Then he leads them single file down two twisting staircases and along several corridors and stops outside an iron door with a single keyhole. “End of tour,” he says.
A girl says, “But what’s through there?”
“Behind this door is another locked door, slightly smaller.”
“And what’s behind that?”
“A third locked door, smaller yet.”
“What’s behind that?”
“A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe.”
The children lean forward. “And then?”
“Behind the thirteenth door”—the guide flourishes one of his impossibly wrinkled hands—“is the Sea of Flames.”
“Come now. You’ve never heard of the Sea of Flames?”
The children shake their heads. Marie-Laure squints up at the naked bulbs strung in three-yard intervals along the ceiling; each sets a rainbow-colored halo rotating in her vision.
The guide hangs his cane on his wrist and rubs his hands together. “It’s a long story. Do you want to hear a long story?”
He clears his throat. “Centuries ago, in the place we now call Borneo, a prince plucked a blue stone from a dry riverbed because he thought it was pretty. But on the way back to his palace, the prince was attacked by men on horseback and stabbed in the heart.”
“Stabbed in the heart?”
“Is this true?”
A boy says, “Hush.”
“The thieves stole his rings, his horse, everything. But because the little blue stone was clenched in his fist, they did not discover it. And the dying prince managed to crawl home. Then he fell unconscious for ten days. On the tenth day, to the amazement of his nurses, he sat up, opened his hand, and there was the stone.
“The sultan’s doctors said it was a miracle, that the prince never should have survived such a violent wound. The nurses said the stone must have healing powers. The sultan’s jewelers said something else: they said the stone was the largest raw diamond anyone had ever seen. Their most gifted stonecutter spent eighty days faceting it, and when he was done, it was a brilliant blue, the blue of tropical seas, but it had a touch of red at its center, like flames inside a drop of water. The sultan had the diamond fitted into a crown for the prince, and it was said that when the young prince sat on his throne and the sun hit him just so, he became so dazzling that visitors could not distinguish his figure from light itself.”
“Are you sure this is true?” asks a girl.
“Hush,” says the boy.
“The stone came to be known as the Sea of Flames. Some believed the prince was a deity, that as long as he kept the stone, he could not be killed. But something strange began to happen: the longer the prince wore his crown, the worse his luck became. In a month, he lost a brother to drowning and a second brother to snakebite. Within six months, his father died of disease. To make matters even worse, the sultan’s scouts announced that a great army was gathering in the east.
“The prince called together his father’s advisers. All said he should prepare for war, all but one, a priest, who said he’d had a dream. In the dream the Goddess of the Earth told him she’d made the Sea of Flames as a gift for her lover, the God of the Sea, and was sending the jewel to him through the river. But when the river dried up, and the prince plucked it out, the goddess became enraged. She cursed the stone and whoever kept it.”
Every child leans forward, Marie-Laure along with them.
“The curse was this: the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain.”
“But if the keeper threw the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient, the goddess would lift the curse. So the prince, now sultan, thought for three days and three nights and finally decided to keep the stone. It had saved his life; he believed it made him indestructible. He had the tongue cut out of the priest’s mouth.”
“Ouch,” says the youngest boy.
“Big mistake,” says the tallest girl.
“The invaders came,” says the warder, “and destroyed the palace, and killed everyone they found, and the prince was never seen again, and for two hundred years no one heard any more about the Sea of Flames. Some said the stone was recut into many smaller stones; others said the prince still carried the stone, that he was in Japan or Persia, that he was a humble farmer, that he never seemed to grow old.
“And so the stone fell out of history. Until one day, when a French diamond trader, during a trip to the Golconda Mines in India, was shown a massive pear-cut diamond. One hundred and thirty-three carats. Near-perfect clarity. As big as a pigeon’s egg, he wrote, and as blue as the sea, but with a flare of red at its core. He made a casting of the stone and sent it to a gem-crazy duke in Lorraine, warning him of the rumors of a curse. But the duke wanted the diamond very badly. So the trader brought it to Europe, and the duke fitted it into the end of a walking stick and carried it everywhere.”
“Within a month, the duchess contracted a throat disease. Two of their favorite servants fell off the roof and broke their necks. Then the duke’s only son died in a riding accident. Though everyone said the duke himself had never looked better, he became afraid to go out, afraid to accept visitors. Eventually he was so convinced that his stone was the accursed Sea of Flames that he asked the king to shut it up in his museum on the conditions that it be locked deep inside a specially built vault and the vault not be opened for two hundred years.”
“And one hundred and ninety-six years have passed.”
All the children remain quiet a moment. Several do math on their fingers. Then they raise their hands as one. “Can we see it?”
“Not even open the first door?”
“Have you seen it?”
“I have not.”
“So how do you know it’s really there?”
“You have to believe the story.”
“How much is it worth, Monsieur? Could it buy the Eiffel Tower?”
“A diamond that large and rare could in all likelihood buy five Eiffel Towers.”
“Are all those doors to keep thieves from getting in?”
“Maybe,” the guide says, and winks, “they’re there to keep the curse from getting out.”
The children fall quiet. Two or three take a step back.
Marie-Laure takes off her eyeglasses, and the world goes shapeless. “Why not,” she asks, “just take the diamond and throw it into the sea?”
The warder looks at her. The other children look at her. “When is the last time,” one of the older boys says, “you saw someone throw five Eiffel Towers into the sea?”
There is laughter. Marie-Laure frowns. It is just an iron door with a brass keyhole.
The tour ends and the children disperse and Marie-Laure is reinstalled in the Grand Gallery with her father. He straightens her glasses on her nose and plucks a leaf from her hair. “Did you have fun, ma chérie?”
A little brown house sparrow swoops out of the rafters and lands on the tiles in front of her. Marie-Laure holds out an open palm. The sparrow tilts his head, considering. Then it flaps away.
One month later she is blind. Zollverein
Werner Pfennig grows up three hundred miles northeast of Paris in a place called Zollverein: a four-thousand-acre coalmining complex outside Essen, Germany. It’s steel country, anthracite country, a place full of holes. Smokestacks fume and locomotives trundle back and forth on elevated conduits and leafless trees stand atop slag heaps like skeleton hands shoved up from the underworld.
Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are raised at Children’s House, a clinker-brick two-story orphanage on Viktoriastrasse whose rooms are populated with the coughs of sick children and the crying of newborns and battered trunks inside which drowse the last possessions of deceased parents: patchwork dresses, tarnished wedding cutlery, faded ambrotypes of fathers swallowed by the mines.
Werner’s earliest years are the leanest. Men brawl over jobs outside the Zollverein gates, and chicken eggs sell for two million reichsmarks apiece, and rheumatic fever stalks Children’s House like a wolf. There is no butter or meat. Fruit is a memory. Some evenings, during the worst months, all the house directress has to feed her dozen wards are cakes made from mustard powder and water.
But seven-year-old Werner seems to float. He is undersized and his ears stick out and he speaks with a high, sweet voice; the whiteness of his hair stops people in their tracks. Snowy, milky, chalky. A color that is the absence of color. Every morning he ties his shoes, packs newspaper inside his coat as insulation against the cold, and begins interrogating the world. He captures snowflakes, tadpoles, hibernating frogs; he coaxes bread from bakers with none to sell; he regularly appears in the kitchen with fresh milk for the babies. He makes things too: paper boxes, crude biplanes, toy boats with working rudders.
Every couple of days he’ll startle the directress with some unanswerable query: “Why do we get hiccups, Frau Elena?”
Or: “If the moon is so big, Frau Elena, how come it looks so little?”
Or: “Frau Elena, does a bee know it’s going to die if it stings somebody?”
Frau Elena is a Protestant nun from Alsace who is more fond of children than of supervision. She sings French folk songs in a screechy falsetto, harbors a weakness for sherry, and regularly falls asleep standing up. Some nights she lets the children stay up late while she tells them stories in French about her girlhood cozied up against mountains, snow six feet deep on rooftops, town criers and creeks smoking in the cold and frost-dusted vineyards: a Christmas-carol world.
“Can deaf people hear their heartbeat, Frau Elena?”
“Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle, Frau Elena?”
She’ll laugh. She’ll tousle Werner’s hair; she’ll whisper, “They’ll say you’re too little, Werner, that you’re from nowhere, that you shouldn’t dream big. But I believe in you. I think you’ll do something great.” Then she’ll send him up to the little cot he has claimed for himself in the attic, pressed up beneath the window of a dormer.
Sometimes he and Jutta draw. His sister sneaks up to Werner’s cot, and together they lie on their stomachs and pass a single pencil back and forth. Jutta, though she is two years younger, is the gifted one. She loves most of all to draw Paris, a city she has seen in exactly one photograph, on the back cover of one of Frau Elena’s romance novels: mansard roofs, hazy apartment blocks, the iron lattice of a distant tower. She draws twisting white skyscrapers, complicated bridges, flocks of figures beside a river.
Other days, in the hours after lessons, Werner tows his little sister through the mine complex in a wagon he has assembled from cast-off parts. They rattle down the long gravel lanes, past pit cottages and trash barrel fires, past laid-off miners squatting all day on upturned crates, motionless as statues. One wheel regularly clunks off and Werner crouches patiently beside it, threading back the bolts. All around them, the figures of second-shift workers shuffle into warehouses while first-shift workers shuffle home, hunched, hungry, blue-nosed, their faces like black skulls beneath their helmets. “Hello,” Werner will chirp, “good afternoon,” but the miners usually hobble past without replying, perhaps without even seeing him, their eyes on the muck, the economic collapse of Germany looming over them like the severe geometry of the mills.
Werner and Jutta sift through glistening piles of black dust; they clamber up mountains of rusting machines. They tear berries out of brambles and dandelions out of fields. Sometimes they manage to find potato peels or carrot greens in trash bins; other afternoons they collect paper to draw on, or old toothpaste tubes from which the last dregs can be squeezed out and dried into chalk. Once in a while Werner tows Jutta as far as the entrance to Pit Nine, the largest of the mines, wrapped in noise, lit like the pilot at the center of a gas furnace, a five-story coal elevator crouched over it, cables swinging, hammers banging, men shouting, an entire mapful of pleated and corrugated industry stretching into the distance on all sides, and they watch the coal cars trundling up from the earth and the miners spilling out of warehouses with their lunch pails toward the mouth of the elevator like insects toward a lighted trap.
“Down there,” Werner whispers to his sister. “That’s where Father died.”
And as night falls, Werner pulls little Jutta wordlessly back through the close-set neighborhoods of Zollverein, two snowy-haired children in a bottomland of soot, bearing their paltry treasures to Viktoriastrasse 3, where Frau Elena stares into the coal stove, singing a French lullaby in a tired voice, one toddler yanking her apron strings while another howls in her arms. Key Pound
Congenital cataracts. Bilateral. Irreparable. “Can you see this?” ask the doctors. “Can you see this?” Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life. Spaces she once knew as familiar—the four-room flat she shares with her father, the little tree-lined square at the end of their street—have become labyrinths bristling with hazards. Drawers are never where they should be. The toilet is an abyss. A glass of water is too near, too far; her fingers too big, always too big.
What is blindness? Where there should be a wall, her hands find nothing. Where there should be nothing, a table leg gouges her shin. Cars growl in the streets; leaves whisper in the sky; blood rustles through her inner ears. In the stairwell, in the kitchen, even beside her bed, grown-up voices speak of despair.
“Poor Monsieur LeBlanc.”
“Hasn’t had an easy road, you know. His father dead in the war, his wife dead in childbirth. And now this?”
“Like they’re cursed.”
“Look at her. Look at him.”
“Ought to send her away.”
Those are months of bruises and wretchedness: rooms pitching like sailboats, half-open doors striking Marie-Laure’s face. Her only sanctuary is in bed, the hem of her quilt at her chin, while her father smokes another cigarette in the chair beside her, whittling away at one of his tiny models, his little hammer going tap tap tap, his little square of sandpaper making a rhythmic, soothing rasp.
The despair doesn’t last. Marie-Laure is too young and her father is too patient. There are, he assures her, no such things as curses. There is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.
Six mornings a week he wakes her before dawn, and she holds her arms in the air while he dresses her. Stockings, dress, sweater. If there’s time, he makes her try to knot her shoes herself. Then they drink a cup of coffee together in the kitchen: hot, strong, as much sugar as she wants.
At six forty she collects her white cane from the corner, loops a finger through the back of her father’s belt, and follows him down three flights and up six blocks to the museum.
He unlocks Entrance #2 at seven sharp. Inside are the familiar smells: typewriter ribbons, waxed floors, rock dust. There are the familiar echoes of their footfalls crossing the Grand Gallery. He greets a night guard, then a warder, always the same two words repeated back: Bonjour, bonjour.
Two lefts, one right. Her father’s key ring jingles. A lock gives way; a gate swings open.
Inside the key pound, inside six glass-fronted cabinets, thousands of iron keys hang from pegs. There are blanks and skeletons, barrel-stem keys and saturn-bow keys, elevator keys and cabinet keys. Keys as long as Marie-Laure’s forearm and keys shorter than her thumb.
Marie-Laure’s father is principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History. Between the laboratories, warehouses, four separate public museums, the menagerie, the greenhouses, the acres of medicinal and decorative gardens in the Jardin des Plantes, and a dozen gates and pavilions, her father estimates there are twelve thousand locks in the entire museum complex. No one else knows enough to disagree.
All morning he stands at the front of the key pound and distributes keys to employees: zookeepers coming first, office staff arriving in a rush around eight, technicians and librarians and scientific assistants trooping in next, scientists trickling in last. Everything is numbered and color-coded. Every employee from custodians to the director must carry his or her keys at all times. No one is allowed to leave his respective building with keys, and no one is allowed to leave keys on a desk. The museum possesses priceless jade from the thirteenth century, after all, and cavansite from India and rhodochrosite from Colorado; behind a lock her father has designed sits a Florentine dispensary bowl carved from lapis lazuli that specialists travel a thousand miles every year to examine.
Her father quizzes her. Vault key or padlock key, Marie? Cupboard key or dead bolt key? He tests her on the locations of displays, on the contents of cabinets. He is continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather.
For an hour each morning—even Sundays—he makes her sit over a Braille workbook. A is one dot in the upper corner. B is two dots in a vertical line. Jean. Goes. To. The. Baker. Jean. Goes. To. The. Cheese. Maker.
In the afternoons he takes her on his rounds. He oils latches, repairs cabinets, polishes escutcheons. He leads her down hallway after hallway into gallery after gallery. Narrow corridors open into immense libraries; glass doors give way to hothouses overflowing with the smells of humus, wet newspaper, and lobelia. There are carpenters’ shops, taxidermists’ studios, acres of shelves and specimen drawers, whole museums within the museum.
Some afternoons he leaves Marie-Laure in the laboratory of Dr. Geffard, an aging mollusk expert whose beard smells permanently of damp wool. Dr. Geffard will stop whatever he is doing and open a bottle of Malbec and tell Marie-Laure in his whispery voice about reefs he visited as a young man: the Seychelles, Belize, Zanzibar. He calls her Laurette; he eats a roasted duck every day at 3 P.M.; his mind accommodates a seemingly inexhaustible catalog of Latin binomial names.
On the back wall of Dr. Geffard’s lab are cabinets that contain more drawers than she can count, and he lets her open them one after another and hold seashells in her hands—whelks, olives, imperial volutes from Thailand, spider conchs from Polynesia—the museum possesses more than ten thousand specimens, over half the known species in the world, and Marie-Laure gets to handle most of them.
“Now that shell, Laurette, belonged to a violet sea snail, a blind snail that lives its whole life on the surface of the sea. As soon as it is released into the ocean, it agitates the water to make bubbles, and binds those bubbles with mucus, and builds a raft. Then it blows around, feeding on whatever floating aquatic invertebrates it encounters. But if it ever loses its raft, it will sink and die . . .”
A Carinaria shell is simultaneously light and heavy, hard and soft, smooth and rough. The murex Dr. Geffard keeps on his desk can entertain her for a half hour, the hollow spines, the ridged whorls, the deep entrance; it’s a forest of spikes and caves and textures; it’s a kingdom.
Her hands move ceaselessly, gathering, probing, testing. The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle. The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil. To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.
At home, in the evenings, her father stows their shoes in the same cubby, hangs their coats on the same hooks. Marie-Laure crosses six evenly spaced friction strips on the kitchen tiles to reach the table; she follows a strand of twine he has threaded from the table to the toilet. He serves dinner on a round plate and describes the locations of different foods by the hands of a clock. Potatoes at six o’clock, ma chérie. Mushrooms at three. Then he lights a cigarette and goes to work on his miniatures at a workbench in the corner of the kitchen. He is building a scale model of their entire neighborhood, the tall-windowed houses, the rain gutters, the laverie and boulangerie and the little place at the end of the street with its four benches and ten trees. On warm nights Marie-Laure opens her bedroom window and listens to the evening as it settles over the balconies and gables and chimneys, languid and peaceful, until the real neighborhood and the miniature one get mixed up in her mind.
Tuesdays the museum is closed. Marie-Laure and her father sleep in; they drink coffee thick with sugar. They walk to the Panthéon, or to a flower market, or along the Seine. Every so often they visit the bookshop. He hands her a dictionary, a journal, a magazine full of photographs. “How many pages, Marie-Laure?”
She runs a nail along the edge.
“Fifty-two?” “Seven hundred and five?” “One hundred thirty-nine?”
He sweeps her hair back from her ears; he swings her above his head. He says she is his émerveillement. He says he will never leave her, not in a million years. Radio
Werner is eight years old and ferreting about in the refuse behind a storage shed when he discovers what looks like a large spool of thread. It consists of a wire-wrapped cylinder sandwiched between two discs of pinewood. Three frayed electrical leads sprout from the top. One has a small earphone dangling from its end.
Jutta, six years old, with a round face and a mashed cumulus of white hair, crouches beside her brother. “What is that?”
“I think,” Werner says, feeling as though some cupboard in the sky has just opened, “we just found a radio.”
Until now he has seen radios only in glimpses: a big cabinet wireless through the lace curtains of an official’s house; a portable unit in a miners’ dormitory; another in the church refectory. He has never touched one.
He and Jutta smuggle the device back to Viktoriastrasse 3 and appraise it beneath an electric lamp. They wipe it clean, untangle the snarl of wires, wash mud out of the earphone.
It does not work. Other children come and stand over them and marvel, then gradually lose interest and conclude it is hopeless. But Werner carries the receiver up to his attic dormer and studies it for hours. He disconnects everything that will disconnect; he lays its parts out on the floor and holds them one by one to the light.
Three weeks after finding the device, on a sun-gilded afternoon when perhaps every other child in Zollverein is outdoors, he notices that its longest wire, a slender filament coiled hundreds of times around the central cylinder, has several small breaks in it. Slowly, meticulously, he unwraps the coil, carries the entire looped mess downstairs, and calls Jutta inside to hold the pieces for him while he splices the breaks. Then he rewraps it.
“Now let’s try,” he whispers, and presses the earphone against his ear and runs what he has decided must be the tuning pin back and forth along the coil.
He hears a fizz of static. Then, from somewhere deep inside the earpiece, a stream of consonants issues forth. Werner’s heart pauses; the voice seems to echo in the architecture of his head.
The sound fades as quickly as it came. He shifts the pin a quarter inch. More static. Another quarter inch. Nothing.
In the kitchen, Frau Elena kneads bread. Boys shout in the alley. Werner guides the tuning pin back and forth.
He is about to hand the earphone to Jutta when—clear and unblemished, about halfway down the coil—he hears the quick, drastic strikes of a bow dashing across the strings of a violin. He tries to hold the pin perfectly still. A second violin joins the first. Jutta drags herself closer; she watches her brother with outsize eyes.
A piano chases the violins. Then woodwinds. The strings sprint, woodwinds fluttering behind. More instruments join in. Flutes? Harps? The song races, seems to loop back over itself.
“Werner?” Jutta whispers.
He blinks; he has to swallow back tears. The parlor looks the same as it always has: two cribs beneath two Latin crosses, dust floating in the open mouth of the stove, a dozen layers of paint peeling off the baseboards. A needlepoint of Frau Elena’s snowy Alsatian village above the sink. Yet now there is music. As if, inside Werner’s head, an infinitesimal orchestra has stirred to life.
The room seems to fall into a slow spin. His sister says his name more urgently, and he presses the earphone to her ear.
“Music,” she says.
He holds the pin as stock-still as he can. The signal is weak enough that, though the earphone is six inches away, he can’t hear any trace of the song. But he watches his sister’s face, motionless except for her eyelids, and in the kitchen Frau Elena holds her flour-whitened hands in the air and cocks her head, studying Werner, and two older boys rush in and stop, sensing some change in the air, and the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle. Take Us Home
Usually Marie-Laure can solve the wooden puzzle boxes her father creates for her birthdays. Often they are shaped like houses and contain some hidden trinket. Opening them involves a cunning series of steps: find a seam with your fingernails, slide the bottom to the right, detach a side rail, remove a hidden key from inside the rail, unlock the top, and discover a bracelet inside.
For her seventh birthday, a tiny wooden chalet stands in the center of the kitchen table where the sugar bowl ought to be. She slides a hidden drawer out of the base, finds a hidden compartment beneath the drawer, takes out a wooden key, and slots the key inside the chimney. Inside waits a square of Swiss chocolate.
“Four minutes,” says her father, laughing. “I’ll have to work harder next year.”
For a long time, though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.
But her father’s model of the same intersection smells only of dried glue and sawdust. Its streets are empty, its pavements static; to her fingers, it serves as little more than a tiny and insufficient facsimile. He persists in asking Marie-Laure to run her fingers over it, to recognize different houses, the angles of streets. And one cold Tuesday in December, when Marie-Laure has been blind for over a year, her father walks her up rue Cuvier to the edge of the Jardin des Plantes.
“Here, ma chérie, is the path we take every morning. Through the cedars up ahead is the Grand Gallery.”
“I know, Papa.”
He picks her up and spins her around three times. “Now,” he says, “you’re going to take us home.”
Her mouth drops open.
“I want you to think of the model, Marie.”
“But I can’t possibly!”
“I’m one step behind you. I won’t let anything happen. You have your cane. You know where you are.”
“I do not!”
Exasperation. She cannot even say if the gardens are ahead or behind.
“Calm yourself, Marie. One centimeter at a time.”
“It’s far, Papa. Six blocks, at least.”
“Six blocks is exactly right. Use logic. Which way should we go first?”
The world pivots and rumbles. Crows shout, brakes hiss, someone to her left bangs something metal with what might be a hammer. She shuffles forward until the tip of her cane floats in space. The edge of a curb? A pond, a staircase, a cliff? She turns ninety degrees. Three steps forward. Now her cane finds the base of a wall. “Papa?”
Six paces seven paces eight. A roar of noise—an exterminator just leaving a house, pump bellowing—overtakes them. Twelve paces farther on, the bell tied around the handle of a shop door rings, and two women come out, jostling her as they pass.
Marie-Laure drops her cane; she begins to cry.
Her father lifts her, holds her to his narrow chest.
“It’s so big,” she whispers.
“You can do this, Marie.”
She cannot. Something Rising
While the other children play hopscotch in the alley or swim in the canal, Werner sits alone in his upstairs dormer, experimenting with the radio receiver. In a week he can dismantle and rebuild it with his eyes closed. Capacitor, inductor, tuning coil, earpiece. One wire goes to ground, the other to sky. Nothing he’s encountered before has made so much sense.
He harvests parts from supply sheds: snips of copper wire, screws, a bent screwdriver. He charms the druggist’s wife into giving him a broken earphone; he salvages a solenoid from a discarded doorbell, solders it to a resistor, and makes a loudspeaker. Within a month he manages to redesign the receiver entirely, adding new parts here and there and connecting it to a power source.
Every evening he carries his radio downstairs, and Frau Elena lets her wards listen for an hour. They tune in to newscasts, concerts, operas, national choirs, folk shows, a dozen children in a semicircle on the furniture, Frau Elena among them, hardly more substantial than a child herself.
We live in exciting times, says the radio. We make no complaints. We will plant our feet firmly in our earth, and no attack will move us.
The older girls like musical competitions, radio gymnastics, a regular spot called Seasonal Tips for Those in Love that makes the younger children squeal. The boys like plays, news bulletins, martial anthems. Jutta likes jazz. Werner likes everything. Violins, horns, drums, speeches—a mouth against a microphone in some faraway yet simultaneous evening—the sorcery of it holds him rapt.
Is it any wonder, asks the radio, that courage, confidence, and optimism in growing measure fill the German people? Is not the flame of a new faith rising from this sacrificial readiness?
Indeed it does seem to Werner, as the weeks go by, that something new is rising. Mine production increases; unemployment drops. Meat appears at Sunday supper. Lamb, pork, wieners—extravagances unheard of a year before. Frau Elena buys a new couch upholstered in orange corduroy, and a range with burners in black rings; three new Bibles arrive from the consistory in Berlin; a laundry boiler is delivered to the back door. Werner gets new trousers; Jutta gets her own pair of shoes. Working telephones ring in the houses of neighbors.
One afternoon, on the walk home from school, Werner stops outside the drugstore and presses his nose to a tall window: five dozen inch-tall storm troopers march there, each toy man with a brown shirt and tiny red armband, some with flutes, some with drums, a few officers astride glossy black stallions. Above them, suspended from a wire, a tinplate clockwork aquaplane with wooden pontoons and a rotating propeller makes an electric, hypnotizing orbit. Werner studies it through the glass for a long time, trying to understand how it works.
Night falls, autumn in 1936, and Werner carries the radio downstairs and sets it on the sideboard, and the other children fidget in anticipation. The receiver hums as it warms. Werner steps back, hands in pockets. From the loudspeaker, a children’s choir sings, We hope only to work, to work and work and work, to go to glorious work for the country. Then a state-sponsored play out of Berlin begins: a story of invaders sneaking into a village at night.
All twelve children sit riveted. In the play, the invaders pose as hook-nosed department-store owners, crooked jewelers, dishonorable bankers; they sell glittering trash; they drive established village businessmen out of work. Soon they plot to murder German children in their beds. Eventually a vigilant and humble neighbor catches on. Police are called: big handsome-sounding policemen with splendid voices. They break down the doors. They drag the invaders away. A patriotic march plays. Everyone is happy again. Light
Tuesday after Tuesday she fails. She leads her father on six-block detours that leave her angry and frustrated and farther from home than when they started. But in the winter of her eighth year, to Marie-Laure’s surprise, she begins to get it right. She runs her fingers over the model in their kitchen, counting miniature benches, trees, lampposts, doorways. Every day some new detail emerges—each storm drain, park bench, and hydrant in the model has its counterpart in the real world.
Marie-Laure brings her father closer to home before making a mistake. Four blocks three blocks two. And one snowy Tuesday in March, when he walks her to yet another new spot, very close to the banks of the Seine, spins her around three times, and says, “Take us home,” she realizes that, for the first time since they began this exercise, dread has not come trundling up from her gut.
Instead she squats on her heels on the sidewalk.
The faintly metallic smell of the falling snow surrounds her. Calm yourself. Listen.
Cars splash along streets, and snowmelt drums through runnels; she can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees. She can smell the cedars in the Jardin des Plantes a quarter mile away. Here the Metro hurtles beneath the sidewalk: that’s the Quai Saint-Bernard. Here the sky opens up, and she hears the clacking of branches: that’s the narrow stripe of gardens behind the Gallery of Paleontology. This, she realizes, must be the corner of the quay and rue Cuvier.
Six blocks, forty buildings, ten tiny trees in a square. This street intersects this street intersects this street. One centimeter at a time.
Her father stirs the keys in his pockets. Ahead loom the tall, grand houses that flank the gardens, reflecting sound.
She says, “We go left.”
They start up the length of the rue Cuvier. A trio of airborne ducks threads toward them, flapping their wings in synchrony, making for the Seine, and as the birds rush overhead, she imagines she can feel the light settling over their wings, striking each individual feather.
Left on rue Linné. Right on rue Daubenton. Three storm drains four storm drains five. Approaching on the left will be the open ironwork fence of the Jardin des Plantes, its thin spars like the bars of a great birdcage.
Across from her now: the bakery, the butcher, the delicatessen.
“Safe to cross, Papa?”
Right. Then straight. They walk up their street now, she is sure of it. One step behind her, her father tilts his head up and gives the sky a huge smile. Marie-Laure knows this even though her back is to him, even though he says nothing, even though she is blind—Papa’s thick hair is wet from the snow and standing in a dozen angles off his head, and his scarf is draped asymmetrically over his shoulders, and he’s beaming up at the falling snow.
They are halfway up the rue des Patriarches. They are outside their building. Marie-Laure finds the trunk of the chestnut tree that grows past her third-floor window, its bark beneath her fingers.
In another half second her father’s hands are in her armpits, swinging her up, and Marie-Laure smiles, and he laughs a pure, contagious laugh, one she will try to remember all her life, father and daughter turning in circles on the sidewalk in front of their apartment house, laughing together while snow sifts through the branches above. Our Flag Flutters Before Us
In Zollverein, in the spring of Werner’s tenth year, the two oldest boys at Children’s House—thirteen-year-old Hans Schilzer and fourteen-year-old Herribert Pomsel—shoulder secondhand knapsacks and goose-step into the woods. When they come back, they are members of the Hitler Youth.
They carry slingshots, fashion spears, rehearse ambushes from behind snowbanks. They join a bristling gang of miners’ sons who sit in the market square, sleeves rolled up, shorts hiked to their hips. “Good evening,” they cry at passersby. “Or heil Hitler, if you prefer!”
They give each other matching haircuts and wrestle in the parlor and brag about the rifle training they’re preparing for, the gliders they’ll fly, the tank turrets they’ll operate. Our flag represents the new era, chant Hans and Herribert, our flag leads us to eternity. At meals they chide younger children for admiring anything foreign: a British car advertisement, a French picture book.
Their salutes are comical; their outfits verge on ridiculous. But Frau Elena watches the boys with wary eyes: not so long ago they were feral toddlers skulking in their cots and crying for their mothers. Now they’ve become adolescent thugs with split knuckles and postcards of the führer folded into their shirt pockets.
Frau Elena speaks French less and less frequently whenever Hans and Herribert are present. She finds herself conscious of her accent. The smallest glance from a neighbor can make her wonder.
Werner keeps his head down. Leaping over bonfires, rubbing ash beneath your eyes, picking on little kids? Crumpling Jutta’s drawings? Far better, he decides, to keep one’s presence small, inconspicuous. Werner has been reading the popular science magazines in the drugstore; he’s interested in wave turbulence, tunnels to the center of the earth, the Nigerian method of relaying news over distances with drums. He buys a notebook and draws up plans for cloud chambers, ion detectors, X-ray goggles. What about a little motor attached to the cradles to rock the babies to sleep? How about springs stretched along the axles of his wagon to help him pull it up hills?
An official from the Labor Ministry visits Children’s House to speak about work opportunities at the mines. The children sit at his feet in their cleanest clothes. All boys, without exception, explains the man, will go to work for the mines once they turn fifteen. He speaks of glories and triumphs and how fortunate they’ll be to have fixed employment. When he picks up Werner’s radio and sets it back down without commenting, Werner feels the ceiling slip lower, the walls constrict.
His father down there, a mile beneath the house. Body never recovered. Haunting the tunnels still.
“From your neighborhood,” the official says, “from your soil, comes the might of our nation. Steel, coal, coke. Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich—they do not exist without this place. You supply the foundation of the new order, the bullets in its guns, the armor on its tanks.”
Hans and Herribert examine the man’s leather pistol belt with dazzled eyes. On the sideboard, Werner’s little radio chatters.
It says, Over these three years, our leader has had the courage to face a Europe that was in danger of collapse . . .
It says, He alone is to be thanked for the fact that, for German children, a German life has once again become worth living. Around the World in Eighty Days
Sixteen paces to the water fountain, sixteen back. Forty-two to the stairwell, forty-two back. Marie-Laure draws maps in her head, unreels a hundred yards of imaginary twine, and then turns and reels it back in. Botany smells like glue and blotter paper and pressed flowers. Paleontology smells like rock dust, bone dust. Biology smells like formalin and old fruit; it is loaded with heavy cool jars in which float things she has only had described for her: the pale coiled ropes of rattlesnakes, the severed hands of gorillas. Entomology smells like mothballs and oil: a preservative that, Dr. Geffard explains, is called naphthalene. Offices smell of carbon paper, or cigar smoke, or brandy, or perfume. Or all four.
She follows cables and pipes, railings and ropes, hedges and sidewalks. She startles people. She never knows if the lights are on.
The children she meets brim with questions: Does it hurt? Do you shut your eyes to sleep? How do you know what time it is?
It doesn’t hurt, she explains. And there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture. She walks a circle around the Grand Gallery, navigating between squeaking floorboards; she hears feet tramp up and down museum staircases, a toddler squeal, the groan of a weary grandmother lowering herself onto a bench.
Color—that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.
She has no memories of her mother but imagines her as white, a soundless brilliance. Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green; a smell like oil and metal, the feel of a lock tumbler sliding home, the sound of his key rings chiming as he walks. He is an olive green when he talks to a department head, an escalating series of oranges when he speaks to Mademoiselle Fleury from the greenhouses, a bright red when he tries to cook. He glows sapphire when he sits over his workbench in the evenings, humming almost inaudibly as he works, the tip of his cigarette gleaming a prismatic blue.
She gets lost. Secretaries or botanists, and once the director’s assistant, bring her back to the key pound. She is curious; she wants to know the difference between an alga and a lichen, a Diplodon charruanus and a Diplodon delodontus. Famous men take her by the elbow and escort her through the gardens or guide her up stairwells. “I have a daughter too,” they’ll say. Or “I found her among the hummingbirds.”
“Toutes mes excuses,” her father says. He lights a cigarette; he plucks key after key out of her pockets. “What,” he whispers, “am I going to do with you?”
On her ninth birthday, when she wakes, she finds two gifts. The first is a wooden box with no opening she can detect. She turns it this way and that. It takes her a little while to realize one side is spring-loaded; she presses it and the box flips open. Inside waits a single cube of creamy Camembert that she pops directly into in her mouth.
“Too easy!” her father says, laughing.
The second gift is heavy, wrapped in paper and twine. Inside is a massive spiral-bound book. In Braille.
“They said it’s for boys. Or very adventurous girls.” She can hear him smiling.
She slides her fingertips across the embossed title page. Around. The. World. In. Eighty. Days. “Papa, it’s too expensive.”
“That’s for me to worry about.”
That morning Marie-Laure crawls beneath the counter of the key pound and lies on her stomach and sets all ten fingertips in a line on a page. The French feels old-fashioned, the dots printed much closer together than she is used to. But after a week, it becomes easy. She finds the ribbon she uses as a bookmark, opens the book, and the museum falls away.
Mysterious Mr. Fogg lives his life like a machine. Jean Passepartout becomes his obedient valet. When, after two months, she reaches the novel’s last line, she flips back to the first page and starts again. At night she runs her fingertips over her father’s model: the bell tower, the display windows. She imagines Jules Verne’s characters walking along the streets, chatting in shops; a half-inch-tall baker slides speck-sized loaves in and out of his ovens; three minuscule burglars hatch plans as they drive slowly past the jeweler’s; little grumbling cars throng the rue de Mirbel, wipers sliding back and forth. Behind a fourth-floor window on the rue des Patriarches, a miniature version of her father sits at a miniature workbench in their miniature apartment, just as he does in real life, sanding away at some infinitesimal piece of wood; across the room is a miniature girl, skinny, quick-witted, an open book in her lap; inside her chest pulses something huge, something full of longing, something unafraid. The Professor
“You have to swear,” Jutta says. “Do you swear?” Amid rusted drums and shredded inner tubes and wormy creek-bottom muck, she has discovered ten yards of copper wire. Her eyes are bright tunnels.
Werner glances at the trees, the creek, back to his sister. “I swear.”
Together they smuggle the wire home and loop it back and forth through nail holes in the eave outside the attic window. Then they attach it to their radio. Almost immediately, on a shortwave band, they can hear someone talking in a strange language full of z’s and s’s. “Is it Russian?”
Werner thinks it’s Hungarian.
Jutta is all eyes in the dimness and heat. “How far away is Hungary?”
“A thousand kilometers?”
Voices, it turns out, streak into Zollverein from all over the continent, through the clouds, the coal dust, the roof. The air swarms with them. Jutta makes a log to match a scale that Werner draws on the tuning coil, carefully spelling the name of each city they manage to receive. Verona 65, Dresden 88, London 100. Rome. Paris. Lyon. Late-night shortwave: province of ramblers and dreamers, madmen and ranters.
After prayers, after lights-out, Jutta sneaks up to her brother’s dormer; instead of drawing together, they lie hip to hip listening till midnight, till one, till two. They hear British news reports they cannot understand; they hear a Berlin woman pontificating about the proper makeup for a cocktail party.
One night Werner and Jutta tune in to a scratchy broadcast in which a young man is talking in feathery, accented French about light.
The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
The broadcast hisses and pops.
“What is this?” whispers Jutta.
Werner does not answer. The Frenchman’s voice is velvet. His accent is very different from Frau Elena’s, and yet his voice is so ardent, so hypnotizing, that Werner finds he can understand every word. The Frenchman talks about optical illusions, electromagnetism; there’s a pause and a peal of static, as though a record is being flipped, and then he enthuses about coal.
Consider a single piece glowing in your family’s stove. See it, children? That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million. Can you imagine one hundred million years? Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into bark, twigs, stems. Because plants eat light, in much the way we eat food. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years—eons in which something like a month or a decade or even your whole life was just a puff of air, a snap of two fingers. And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight—sunlight one hundred million years old—is heating your home tonight . . .
Time slows. The attic disappears. Jutta disappears. Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?
Open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility. Sea of Flames
Rumors circulate through the Paris museum, moving fast, as quick and brightly colored as scarves. The museum is considering displaying a certain gemstone, a jewel more valuable than anything else in all the collections.
“Word has it,” Marie-Laure overhears one taxidermist telling another, “the stone is from Japan, it’s very ancient, it belonged to a shogun in the eleventh century.”
“I hear,” the other says, “it came out of our own vaults. That it’s been here all along, but for some legal reason we weren’t allowed to show it.” One day it’s a cluster of rare magnesium hydroxy carbonate; the next it’s a star sapphire that will set a man’s hand on fire if he touches it. Then it becomes a diamond, definitely a diamond. Some people call it the Shepherd’s Stone, others call it the Khon-Ma, but soon enough everyone is calling it the Sea of Flames.
Marie-Laure thinks: Four years have passed.
“Evil,” says a warder in the guard station. “Brings sorrow on anyone who carries it. I heard all nine previous owners have committed suicide.”
A second voice says, “I heard that anyone who holds it in his ungloved hand dies within a week.”
“No, no, if you hold it, you cannot die, but the people around you die within a month. Or maybe it’s a year.”
“I better get my hands on that!” says a third, laughing.
Marie-Laure’s heart races. Ten years old, and onto the black screen of her imagination she can project anything: a sailing yacht, a sword battle, a Colosseum seething with color. She has read Around the World in Eighty Days until the Braille is soft and fraying; for this year’s birthday, her father has bought her an even fatter book: Dumas’s The Three Musketeers.
Marie-Laure hears that the diamond is pale green and as big as a coat button. Then she hears it’s as big as a matchbook. A day later it’s blue and as big as a baby’s fist. She envisions an angry goddess stalking the halls, sending curses through the galleries like poison clouds. Her father says to tamp down her imagination. Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck. Some things are simply more rare than others, and that’s why there are locks.
“But, Papa, do you believe it’s real?”
“The diamond or the curse?”
“They’re just stories, Marie.”
And yet whenever anything goes wrong, the staff whispers that the diamond has caused it. The electricity fails for an hour: it’s the diamond. A leaky pipe destroys an entire rack of pressed botanical samples: it’s the diamond. When the director’s wife slips on ice in the Place des Vosges and breaks her wrist in two places, the museum’s gossip machine explodes.
Around this time, Marie-Laure’s father is summoned upstairs to the director’s office. He’s there for two hours. When else in her memory has her father been called to the director’s office for a two-hour meeting? Not once.
Almost immediately afterward, her father begins working deep within the Gallery of Mineralogy. For weeks he wheels carts loaded with various pieces of equipment in and out of the key pound, working long after the museum has closed, and every night he returns to the key pound smelling of brazing alloy and sawdust. Each time she asks to accompany him, he demurs. It would be best, he says, if she stayed in the key pound with her Braille workbooks, or upstairs in the mollusk laboratory.
She pesters him at breakfast. “You’re building a special case to display that diamond. Some kind of transparent safe.”
Her father lights a cigarette. “Please get your book, Marie. Time to go.”
Dr. Geffard’s answers are hardly better. “You know how diamonds—how all crystals—grow, Laurette? By adding microscopic layers, a few thousand atoms every month, each atop the next. Millennia after millennia. That’s how stories accumulate too. All the old stones accumulate stories. That little rock you’re so curious about may have seen Alaric sack Rome; it may have glittered in the eyes of Pharaohs. Scythian queens might have danced all night wearing it. Wars might have been fought over it.”
“Papa says curses are only stories cooked up to deter thieves. He says there are sixty-five million specimens in this place, and if you have the right teacher, each can be as interesting as the last.”
“Still,” he says, “certain things compel people. Pearls, for example, and sinistral shells, shells with a left-handed opening. Even the best scientists feel the urge now and then to put something in a pocket. That something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much. Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.”
They are quiet a moment.
Marie-Laure says, “I heard that the diamond is like a piece of light from the original world. Before it fell. A piece of light rained to earth from God.”
“You want to know what it looks like. That’s why you’re so curious.”
She rolls a murex in her hands. Holds it to her ear. Ten thousand drawers, ten thousand whispers inside ten thousand shells.
“No,” she says. “I want to believe that Papa hasn’t been anywhere near it.” Open Your Eyes
Werner and Jutta find the Frenchman’s broadcasts again and again. Always around bedtime, always midway through some increasingly familiar script.
Today let’s consider the whirling machinery, children, that must engage inside your head for you to scratch your eyebrow . . . They hear a program about sea creatures, another about the North Pole. Jutta likes one on magnets. Werner’s favorite is one about light: eclipses and sundials, auroras and wavelengths. What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.
Werner likes to crouch in his dormer and imagine radio waves like mile-long harp strings, bending and vibrating over Zollverein, flying through forests, through cities, through walls. At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.
He and his sister mimic the Frenchman’s experiments; they make speedboats out of matchsticks and magnets out of sewing needles.
“Why doesn’t he say where he is, Werner?”
“Maybe because he doesn’t want us to know?”
“He sounds rich. And lonely. I bet he does these broadcasts from a huge mansion, big as this whole colony, a house with a thousand rooms and a thousand servants.”
Werner smiles. “Could be.”
The voice, the piano again. Perhaps it’s Werner’s imagination, but each time he hears one of the programs, the quality seems to degrade a bit more, the sound growing fainter: as though the Frenchman broadcasts from a ship that is slowly traveling farther away.
As the weeks pass, with Jutta asleep beside him, Werner looks out into the night sky, and restlessness surges through him. Life: it’s happening beyond the mills, beyond the gates. Out there people chase questions of great importance. He imagines himself as a tall white-coated engineer striding into a laboratory: cauldrons steam, machinery rumbles, complex charts paper the walls. He carries a lantern up a winding staircase to a starlit observatory and looks through the eyepiece of a great telescope, its mouth pointed into the black. Fade
Maybe the old tour guide was off his rocker. Maybe the Sea of Flames never existed at all, maybe curses aren’t real, maybe her father is right: Earth is all magma and continental crust and ocean. Gravity and time. Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.
Her father returns to the key pound earlier in the evenings. Soon he is taking Marie-Laure along on various errands again, teasing her about the mountains of sugar she spoons into her coffee or bantering with warders about the superiority of his brand of cigarettes. No dazzling new gemstone goes on exhibit. No plagues rain down upon museum employees; Marie-Laure does not succumb to snakebite or tumble into a sewer and break her back.
On the morning of her eleventh birthday, she wakes to find two new packages where the sugar bowl should be. The first is a lacquered wooden cube constructed entirely from sliding panels. It takes thirteen steps to open, and she discovers the sequence in under five minutes.
“Good Christ,” says her father, “you’re a safecracker!”
Inside the cube: two Barnier bonbons. She unwraps both and puts them in her mouth at the same time.
Inside the second package: a fat stack of pages with Braille on the cover. Twenty. Thousand. Leagues. Under. The. Sea.
“The bookseller said it’s in two parts, and this is the first. I thought that next year, if we keep saving, we can get the second—”
She begins that instant. The narrator, a famed marine biologist named Pierre Aronnax, works at the same museum as her father! Around the world, he learns, ships are being rammed one after another. After a scientific expedition to America, Aronnax ruminates over the true nature of the incidents. Are they caused by a moving reef? A gigantic horned narwhal? A mythical kraken?
But I am letting myself be carried away by reveries which I must now put aside, writes Aronnax. Enough of these phantasies.
All day Marie-Laure lies on her stomach and reads. Logic, reason, pure science: these, Aronnax insists, are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales. Her fingers walk the tightropes of sentences; in her imagination, she walks the decks of the speedy two-funneled frigate called the Abraham Lincoln. She watches New York City recede; the forts of New Jersey salute her departure with cannons; channel markers bob in the swells. A lightship with twin beacons glides past as America recedes; ahead wait the great glittering prairies of the Atlantic. The Principles of Mechanics
A 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 F?rster 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. Rumors
New rumors arrive. They rustle along the paths of the Jardin des Plantes and wind through the museum galleries; they echo in high dusty redoubts where shriveled old botanists study exotic mosses. They say the Germans are coming.
The Germans, a gardener claims, have sixty thousand troop gliders; they can march for days without eating; they impregnate every schoolgirl they meet. A woman behind the ticket counter says the Germans carry fog pills and wear rocket belts; their uniforms, she whispers, are made of a special cloth stronger than steel.
Marie-Laure sits on a bench beside the mollusk display and trains her ears on passing groups. A boy blurts, “They have a bomb called the Secret Signal. It makes a sound, and everyone who hears it goes to the bathroom in their pants!”
“I hear they give out poisoned chocolate.”
“I hear they lock up the cripples and morons everywhere they go.”
Each time Marie-Laure relays another rumor to her father, he repeats “Germany” with a question mark after it, as if saying it for the very first time. He says the takeover of Austria is nothing to worry about. He says everyone remembers the last war, and no one is mad enough to go through that again. The director is not worrying, he says, and neither are the department heads, so neither should young girls who have lessons to learn.
It seems true: nothing changes but the day of the week. Every morning Marie-Laure wakes and dresses and follows her father through Entrance #2 and listens to him greet the night guard and the warder. Bonjour bonjour. Bonjour bonjour. The scientists and librarians still collect their keys in the mornings, still study their ancient elephants’ teeth, their exotic jellyfish, their herbarium sheets. The secretaries still talk about fashion; the director still arrives in a two-tone Delage limousine; and every noon the African vendors still wheel their sandwich carts quietly down the halls with their whispers of rye and egg, rye and egg.
Marie-Laure reads Jules Verne in the key pound, on the toilet, in the corridors; she reads on the benches of the Grand Gallery and out along the hundred gravel paths of the gardens. She reads the first half of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so many times, she practically memorizes it.
The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the globe . . . The sea is only a receptacle for all the prodigious, supernatural things that exist inside it. It is only movement and love; it is the living infinite.
At night, in her bed, she rides in the belly of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, below the gales, while canopies of coral drift overhead.
Dr. Geffard teaches her the names of shells—Lambis lambis, Cypraea moneta, Lophiotoma acuta—and lets her feel the spines and apertures and whorls of each in turn. He explains the branches of marine evolution and the sequences of the geologic periods; on her best days, she glimpses the limitless span of millennia behind her: millions of years, tens of millions.
“Nearly every species that has ever lived has gone extinct, Laurette. No reason to think we humans will be any different!” Dr. Geffard pronounces this almost gleefully and pours wine into his glass, and she imagines his head as a cabinet filled with ten thousand little drawers.
All summer the smells of nettles and daisies and rainwater purl through the gardens. She and her father cook a pear tart and burn it by accident, and her father opens all the windows to let out the smoke, and she hears violin music rise from the street below. And yet by early autumn, once or twice a week, at certain moments of the day, sitting out in the Jardin des Plantes beneath the massive hedges or reading beside her father’s workbench, Marie-Laure looks up from her book and believes she can smell gasoline under the wind. As if a great river of machinery is steaming slowly, irrevocably, toward her. Bigger Faster Brighter
Membership in the State Youth becomes mandatory. The boys in Werner’s Kameradschaften are taught parade maneuvers and quizzed on fitness standards and required to run sixty meters in twelve seconds. Everything is glory and country and competition and sacrifice.
Live faithfully, the boys sing as they troop past the edges of the colony. Fight bravely and die laughing.
Schoolwork, chores, exercise. Werner stays up late listening to his radio or driving himself through the complicated math he copied out of The Principles of Mechanics before it was confiscated. He yawns at meals, is short-tempered with the younger children. “Are you feeling okay?” asks Frau Elena, peering into his face, and Werner looks away, saying, “Fine.”
Hertz’s theories are interesting but what he loves most is building things, working with his hands, connecting his fingers to the engine of his mind. Werner repairs a neighbor’s sewing machine, the Children’s House grandfather clock. He builds a pulley system to wind laundry from the sunshine back indoors, and a simple alarm made from a battery, a bell, and wire so that Frau Elena will know if a toddler has wandered outside. He invents a machine to slice carrots: lift a lever, nineteen blades drop, and the carrot falls apart into twenty neat cylinders.
One day a neighbor’s wireless goes out, and Frau Elena suggests Werner have a look. He unscrews the back plate, waggles the tubes back and forth. One is not seated properly, and he fits it back into its groove. The radio comes back to life, and the neighbor shrieks with delight. Before long, people are stopping by Children’s House every week to ask for the radio repairman. When they see thirteen-year-old Werner come down from the attic, rubbing his eyes, shocks of white hair sticking up off his head, homemade toolbox hanging from his fist, they stare at him with the same skeptical smirk.
The older sets are the easiest to fix: simpler circuitry, uniform tubes. Maybe it’s wax dripping from the condenser or charcoal built up on a resistor. Even in the newest sets, Werner can usually puzzle out a solution. He dismantles the machine, stares into its circuits, lets his fingers trace the journeys of electrons. Power source, triode, resistor, coil. Loudspeaker. His mind shapes itself around the problem, disorder becomes order, the obstacle reveals itself, and before long the radio is fixed.
Sometimes they pay him a few marks. Sometimes a coal mother cooks him sausages or wraps biscuits in a napkin to take home to his sister. Before long Werner can draw a map in his head of the locations of nearly every radio in their district: a homemade crystal set in the kitchen of a druggist; a handsome ten-valve radiogram in the home of a department head that was giving his fingers a shock every time he tried to change the channel. Even the poorest pit houses usually possess a state-sponsored Volksemf?nger VE301, a mass-produced radio stamped with an eagle and a swastika, incapable of shortwave, marked only for German frequencies.
Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.
Seven days a week the miners drag coal into the light and the coal is pulverized and fed into coke ovens and the coke is cooled in huge quenching towers and carted to the blast furnaces to melt iron ore and the iron is refined into steel and cast into billets and loaded onto barges and floated off into the great hungry mouth of the country. Only through the hottest fires, whispers the radio, can purification be achieved. Only through the harshest tests can God’s chosen rise.
Jutta whispers, “A girl got kicked out of the swimming hole today. Inge Hachmann. They said they wouldn’t let us swim with a half-breed. Unsanitary. A half-breed, Werner. Aren’t we half-breeds too? Aren’t we half our mother, half our father?”
“They mean half-Jew. Keep your voice down. We’re not half-Jews.”
“We must be half something.”
“We’re whole German. We’re not half anything.”
Herribert Pomsel is fifteen years old now, off in a miners’ dormitory, working the second shift as a firedamper, and Hans Schilzer has become the oldest boy in the house. Hans does push-ups by the hundreds; he plans to attend a rally in Essen. There are fistfights in the alleys, rumors that Hans has set a car on fire. One night Werner hears him downstairs, shouting at Frau Elena. The front door slams; the children toss in their beds; Frau Elena paces the parlor, her slippers whispering left, whispering right. Coal cars grind past in the wet dark. Machinery hums in the distance: pistons throbbing, belts turning. Smoothly. Madly. Mark of the Beast
November 1939. A cold wind sends the big dry leaves of plane trees rolling down the gravel lanes of the Jardin des Plantes. Marie-Laure is rereading Twenty Thousand Leagues—I could make out long ribbons of sea wrack, some globular and others tubular, laurenciae, cladostephae with their slender foliage—not far from the rue Cuvier gate when a group of children comes tramping through the leaves.
A boy’s voice says something; several other boys laugh. Marie-Laure lifts her fingers from her novel. The laughter spins, turns. The first voice is suddenly right beside her ear. “They’re mad for blind girls, you know.”
His breath is quick. She extends her arm into the space beside her but contacts nothing.
She cannot say how many others are with him. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book against her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground.
Someone else says, “They’ll probably take the blind girls before they take the gimps.”
The first boy moans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself.
The second boy says, “Make them do things.”
An adult’s voice in the distance calls out, “Louis, Peter?”
“Who are you?” hisses Marie-Laure.
“Bye-bye, blind girl.”
Then: quiet. Marie-Laure listens to the trees rustle; her blood swarms. For a long and panicked minute, she crawls among the leaves at the foot of the bench until her fingers find her cane.
Stores sell gas masks. Neighbors tape cardboard to their windows. Each week fewer visitors come to the museum.
“Papa?” Marie-Laure asks. “If there’s a war, what will happen to us?”
“There won’t be a war.”
“But what if there is?”
His hand on her shoulder, the familiar clanking of keys on his belt. “Then we will be fine, ma chérie. The director has already filed a dispensation to keep me out of the reserves. I’m not going anywhere.”
But she hears the way he turns newspaper pages, snapping them with urgency. He lights cigarette after cigarette; he hardly stops working. Weeks pass and the trees go bare and her father doesn’t ask her to walk in the gardens once. If only they had an impregnable submarine like the Nautilus.
The smoky voices of office girls swirl past the open window of the key pound. “They creep into apartments at night. They booby-trap kitchen cupboards, toilet bowls, brassieres. Go to open your panty drawer, and you get your fingers blown off.”
She has nightmares. Silent Germans row up the Seine in synchrony; their skiffs glide as if through oil. They fly noiselessly beneath the bridge trestles; they have beasts with them on chains; their beasts leap out of the boats and sprint past the massifs of flowers, down the rows of hedges. They sniff the air on the steps to the Grand Gallery. Slavering. Ravenous. They surge into the museum, scatter into the departments. The windows go black with blood. Dear Professor I dont know if youre getting these letters or if the radio station will forward this or is there even a radio station? We havent heard you in two months at least. Did you stop broadcasting or maybe is the problem ours? Theres a new radio transmitter in Brandenburg called the Deutschlandsender 3 my brother says it is three hundred thirty-something meters tall the second-tallest man-made construction in the world. It pushes basically everything else off the dial. Old Frau Stresemann, shes one of our neighbors, she says she can hear Deutschlandsender broadcasts in her tooth fillings. My brother said its possible if you have an antenna and a rectifier and something to serve as a speaker. He said you can use a section of wire fence to pick up radio signals, so maybe the silver in a tooth can too. I like to think about that. Dont you Professor? Songs in your teeth? Frau Elena says we have to come straight home from school now. She says were not Jews but were poor and thats almost as dangerous. Its a criminal offense now to tune into a foreign broadcast. You can get hard labor for it, things like breaking rocks fifteen hours a day. Or making nylon stockings or going down in the pits. No one will help me mail this letter not even my brother so I will do it myself. Good Evening. Or Heil Hitler if ?You Prefer.
His fourteenth birthday arrives in May. It’s 1940 and no one laughs at the Hitler Youth now. Frau Elena prepares a pudding and Jutta wraps a piece of quartz in newspaper and the twins, Hannah and Susanne Gerlitz, march around the room impersonating soldiers. A five-year-old—Rolf Hupfauer—sits in the corner of the sofa, eyelids slipping heavily over his eyes. A new arrival—a baby girl—sits in Jutta’s lap and gums her fingers. Out the window, beyond the curtains, the flame atop the waste stack, high in the distance, flaps and shivers.
The children sing and devour the pudding, Frau Elena says, “Time’s up,” and Werner switches off his receiver. Everyone prays. His whole body feels heavy as he carries the radio up to the dormer. In the alleys, fifteen-year-old boys are making their way toward mine elevators, queuing up with their helmets and lamps outside the gates. He tries to imagine their descent, sporadic and muted lights passing and receding, cables rattling, everyone quiet, sinking down to that permanent darkness where men claw at the earth with a half mile of rock hunched on top of them.
One more year. Then they’ll give him a helmet and lamp and stuff him into a cage with the others.
It has been months since he last heard the Frenchman on the shortwave. A year since he held that water-stained copy of The Principles of Mechanics. Not so long ago he let himself dream of Berlin and its great scientists: Fritz Haber, inventor of fertilizer; Hermann Staudinger, inventor of plastics. Hertz, who made the invisible visible. All the great men doing things out there. I believe in you, Frau Elena used to say. I think you’ll do something great. Now, in his nightmares, he walks the tunnels of the mines. The ceiling is smooth and black; slabs of it descend over him as he treads. The walls splinter; he stoops, crawls. Soon he cannot raise his head, move his arms. The ceiling weighs ten trillion tons; it gives off a permeating cold; it drives his nose into the floor. Just before he wakes, he feels a splintering at the back of his skull.
Rainwater purls from cloud to roof to eave. Werner presses his forehead to the window of the dormer and peers through the drops, the roof below just one among a cluster of wet rooftops, hemmed in by the vast walls of the cokery and smelter and gasworks, the winding tower silhouetted against the sky, mine and mill running on and on, acre after acre, beyond his range of sight, to the villages, the cities, the ever-quickening, ever-expanding machine that is Germany. And a million men ready to set down their lives for it.
Good evening, he thinks. Or heil Hitler. Everyone is choosing the latter. Bye-bye, Blind Girl
The war drops its question mark. Memos are distributed. The collections must be protected. A small cadre of couriers has begun moving things to country estates. Locks and keys are in greater demand than ever. Marie-Laure’s father works until midnight, until one. Every crate must be padlocked, every transport manifest kept in a secure place. Armored trucks rumble at the loading docks. There are fossils to be safeguarded, ancient manuscripts; there is jade from the thirteenth century and cavansite from India and rhodochrosite from Colorado; there are pearls, gold nuggets, a sapphire as big as a mouse. There might be, thinks Marie-Laure, the Sea of Flames.
From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.
Bees work the blooming aisles of the Jardin des Plantes. The plane trees drop their seeds and huge drifts of fluff gather on the walkways.
If they attack, why would they attack, they would be crazy to attack.
To retreat is to save lives.
Deliveries stop. Sandbags appear around the museum gates. A pair of soldiers on the roof of the Gallery of Paleontology peer over the gardens with binoculars. But the huge bowl of the sky remains untracked: no zeppelins, no bombers, no superhuman paratroopers, just the last songbirds returning from their winter homes, and the quicksilver winds of spring transmuting into the heavier, greener breezes of summer.
Rumor, light, air. That May seems more beautiful than any Marie-Laure can remember. On the morning of her twelfth birthday, there is no puzzle box in place of the sugar bowl when she wakes; her father is too busy. But there is a book: the second Braille volume of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as thick as a sofa cushion.
A thrill rides all the way into the nails of her fingers. “How—?”
“You’re welcome, Marie.”
The walls of their flat tremble with the dragging of furniture, the packing of trunks, the nailing shut of windows. They walk to the museum, and her father remarks distractedly to the warder who meets them at the door, “They say we are holding the river.”
Marie-Laure sits on the floor of the key pound and opens her book. When part one left off, Professor Aronnax had traveled only six thousand leagues. So many left to go. But something strange happens: the words do not connect. She reads, During the entire day, a formidable school of sharks followed the ship, but the logic that is supposed to link each word to the next fails her.
Someone says, “Has the director left?”
Someone else says, “Before the end of the week.”
Her father’s clothes smell of straw; his fingers reek of oil. Work, more work, then a few hours of exhausted sleep before returning to the museum at dawn. Trucks carry off skeletons and meteorites and octopi in jars and herbarium sheets and Egyptian gold and South African ivory and Permian fossils.
On the first of June, airplanes fly over the city, extremely high, crawling through the stratus clouds. When the wind is down and nobody is running an engine nearby, Marie-Laure can stand outside the Gallery of Zoology and hear them: a mile-high purr. The following day, the radio stations begin disappearing. The warders in the guards’ station whack the side of their wireless and tilt it this way and that, but only static comes out of its speaker. As if each relay antenna were a candle flame and a pair of fingers came along and pinched it out.
Those last nights in Paris, walking home with her father at midnight, the huge book clasped against her chest, Marie-Laure thinks she can sense a shiver beneath the air, in the pauses between the chirring of the insects, like the spider cracks of ice when too much weight is set upon it. As if all this time the city has been no more than a scale model built by her father and the shadow of a great hand has fallen over it.
Didn’t she presume she would live with her father in Paris for the rest of her life? That she would always sit with Dr. Geffard in the afternoons? That every year, on her birthday, her father would present her with another puzzle and another novel, and she would read all of Jules Verne and all of Dumas and maybe even Balzac and Proust? That her father would always hum as he fashioned little buildings in the evenings, and she would always know how many paces from the front door to the bakery (forty) and how many more to the brasserie (thirty-two), and there would always be sugar to spoon into her coffee when she woke?
Potatoes at six o’clock, Marie. Mushrooms at three.
Now? What will happen now? Making Socks
Werner wakes past midnight to find eleven-year-old Jutta kneeling on the floor beside his cot. The shortwave is in her lap and a sheet of drawing paper is on the floor beside her, a many-windowed city of her imagination half-articulated on the page.
Jutta removes the earpiece and squints. In the twilight, her wild volutions of hair look more radiant than ever: a struck match.
“In Young Girls League,” she whispers, “they have us making socks. Why so many socks?”
“The Reich must need socks.”
“For feet, Jutta. For the soldiers. Let me sleep.” As though on cue, a young boy—Siegfried Fischer—cries out downstairs once, then twice more, and Werner and Jutta wait to hear Frau Elena’s feet on the stairs and her gentle ministrations and the house fall quiet once more.
“All you want to do are mathematics problems,” Jutta whispers. “Play with radios. Don’t you want to understand what’s happening?”
“What are you listening to?”
She crosses her arms and puts the earphone back and does not answer.
“Are you listening to something you’re not supposed to be listening to?”
“What do you care?”
“It’s dangerous, is why I care.”
She puts her finger in her other ear.
“The other girls don’t seem to mind,” he whispers. “Making socks. Collecting newspapers and all that.”
“We’re dropping bombs on Paris,” she says. Her voice is loud, and he resists an urge to clap his hand over her mouth.
Jutta stares up, defiant. She looks as if she is being raked by some invisible arctic wind. “That’s what I’m listening to, Werner. Our airplanes are bombing Paris.” Flight
All across Paris, people pack china into cellars, sew pearls into hems, conceal gold rings inside book bindings. The museum workspaces are stripped of typewriters. The halls become packing yards, their floors strewn with straw and sawdust and twine.
At noon the locksmith is summoned to the director’s office. Marie-Laure sits cross-legged on the floor of the key pound and tries to read her novel. Captain Nemo is about to take Professor Aronnax and his companions on an underwater stroll through oyster beds to hunt for pearls, but Aronnax is afraid of the prospect of sharks, and though she longs to know what will happen, the sentences disintegrate across the page. Words devolve into letters, letters into unintelligible bumps. She feels as if big mitts have been drawn over each hand.
Down the hall, at the guards’ station, a warder twists the knobs of the wireless back and forth but finds only hiss and crackle. When he shuts it off, quiet closes over the museum.
Please let this be a puzzle, an elaborate game Papa has constructed, a riddle she must solve. The first door, a combination lock. The second, a dead bolt. The third will open if she whispers a magic word through its keyhole. Crawl through thirteen doors, and everything will return to normal.
Out in the city, church bells strike one. One thirty. Still her father does not return. At some point, several distinct thumps travel into the museum from the gardens or the streets beyond, as if someone is dropping sacks of cement mix out of the clouds. With each impact, the thousands of keys in their cabinets quiver on their pegs.
Nobody moves up or down the corridor. A second series of concussions arrives—closer, larger. The keys chime and the floor creaks and she thinks she can smell threads of dust cascading from the ceiling.
Nothing. No warders, no janitors, no carpenters, no clop-clop-clop of a secretary’s heels crossing the hall.
They can march for days without eating. They impregnate every schoolgirl they meet.
“Hello?” How quickly her voice is swallowed, how empty the halls sound. It terrifies her.
A moment later, there are clanking keys and footfalls and her father’s voice calls her name. Everything happens quickly. He drags open big, low drawers; he jangles dozens of key rings.
“Papa, I heard—”
“Better to leave it. It’s too heavy.”
“Leave my book?”
He pulls her out the door and locks the key pound. Outside, waves of panic seem to be traveling the rows of trees like tremors from an earthquake.
Her father says, “Where is the watchman?”
Voices near the curb: soldiers.
Marie-Laure’s senses feel scrambled. Is that the rumble of airplanes? Is that the smell of smoke? Is someone speaking German?
She can hear her father exchange a few words with a stranger and hand over some keys. Then they are moving past the gate onto the rue Cuvier, brushing through what might be sandbags or silent police officers or something else newly planted in the middle of the sidewalk.
Six blocks, thirty-eight storm drains. She counts them all. Because of the sheets of wood veneer her father has tacked over its windows, their apartment is stuffy and hot. “This will just take a moment, Marie-Laure. Then I’ll explain.” Her father shoves things into what might be his canvas rucksack. Food, she thinks, trying to identify everything by its sound. Coffee. Cigarettes. Bread?
Something thumps again and the windowpanes tremble. Their dishes rattle in the cupboards. Automobile horns bleat. Marie-Laure goes to the model neighborhood and runs her fingers over the houses. Still there. Still there. Still there.
“Go to the toilet, Marie.”
“I don’t have to.”
“It may be a while until you can go again.”
He buttons her into her winter overcoat, though it is the middle of June, and they bustle downstairs. On the rue des Patriarches, she hears a distant stamping, as though thousands of people are on the move. She walks beside her father with her cane telescoped in one fist, her other hand on his rucksack, everything disconnected from logic, as in nightmares.
Right, left. Between turns run long stretches of paving stones. Soon they are walking streets, she is sure, that she has never been on, streets beyond the boundaries of her father’s model. Marie-Laure has long since lost count of her strides when they reach a crowd dense enough that she can feel heat spilling off of it.
“It will be cooler on the train, Marie. The director has arranged tickets for us.”
“Can we go in?”
“The gates are locked.”
The crowd gives off a nauseating tension.
“I’m scared, Papa.”
“Keep hold of me.”
He leads her in a new direction. They cross a seething thoroughfare, then go up an alley that smells like a muddy ditch. Always there is the muted rattling of her father’s tools inside his rucksack and the distant and incessant honking of automobile horns.
In a minute they find themselves amid another throng. Voices echo off a high wall; the smell of wet garments crowds her. Somewhere someone shouts names through a bullhorn.
“Where are we, Papa?”
A baby cries. She smells urine.
“Are there Germans, Papa?”
“No, ma chérie.”
“So they say.”
“What will we do when they get here?”
“We will be on a train by then.”
In the space to her right, a child screeches. A man with panic in his voice demands the crowd make way. A woman nearby moans, “Sebastien? Sebastien?” over and over.
“Is it night yet?”
“It’s only now getting dark. Let’s rest a moment. Save our breath.”
Someone says, “The Second Army mauled, the Ninth cut off. France’s best fleets wasted.”
Someone says, “We will be overrun.”
Trunks slide across tiles and a little dog yaps and a conductor’s whistle blows and some kind of big machinery coughs to a start and then dies. Marie-Laure tries to calm her stomach.
“But we have tickets, for God’s sake!” shouts someone behind her.
There is a scuffle. Hysteria ripples through the crowd.
“What does it look like, Papa?”
“The station. The night.”
She hears the sparking of his lighter, the suck and flare of tobacco as his cigarette ignites.
“Let’s see. The whole city is dark. No streetlights, no lights in windows. There are projector lights moving through the sky now and then. Looking for airplanes. There’s a woman in a gown. And another carrying a stack of dishes.”
“And the armies?”
“There are no armies, Marie.”
His hand finds hers. Her fear settles slightly. Rain trickles through a downspout.
“What are we doing now, Papa?”
“Hoping for a train.”
“What is everybody else doing?”
“They’re hoping too.” Herr Siedler
A knock after curfew. Werner and Jutta are doing schoolwork with a half-dozen other children at the long wooden table. Frau Elena pins her party insignia through her lapel before opening the door.
A lance corporal with a pistol on his belt and a swastika band on his left arm steps in from the rain. Beneath the low ceiling of the room, the man looks absurdly tall. Werner thinks of the shortwave radio tucked into the old wooden first-aid cabinet beneath his cot. He thinks: They know.
The lance corporal looks around the room—the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children—with equal measures of condescension and hostility. His handgun is black; it seems to draw all the light in the room toward it.
Werner risks a single glance at his sister. Her attention stays fixed on the visitor. The corporal picks up a book from the parlor table—a children’s book about a talking train—and turns every one of its pages before dropping it. Then he says something that Werner can’t hear.
Frau Elena folds her hands over her apron, and Werner can see she has done so to keep them from shaking. “Werner,” she calls in a slow, dreamlike voice, without taking her eyes from the corporal. “This man says he has a wireless in need of—”
“Bring your tools,” the man says.
On the way out, Werner looks back only once: Jutta’s forehead and palms are pressed against the glass of the living room window. She is backlit and too far away and he cannot read her expression. Then the rain obscures her.
Werner is half the corporal’s height and has to take two strides for every one of the man’s. He follows past company houses and the sentry at the bottom of the hill to where the mining officials reside. Rain falls slant through the lights. The few people they pass give the corporal a wide berth.
Werner risks no questions. With every heartbeat comes a sharp longing to run.
They approach the gate of the largest house in the colony, a house he has seen a thousand times but never so close. A large crimson flag, heavy with rainwater, hangs from the sill of an upstairs window.
The corporal raps on a rear door. A maid in a high-waisted dress takes their coats, expertly flips off the water, and hangs them on a brass-footed rack. The kitchen smells of cake.
The corporal steers Werner into a dining room where a narrow-faced woman with three fresh daisies stuck through her hair sits in a chair turning the pages of a magazine. “Two wet ducks,” she says, and looks back at her magazine. She does not ask them to sit.
A thick red carpet sucks at the soles of Werner’s brogues; electric bulbs burn in a chandelier above the table; roses twine across the wallpaper. A fire smolders in the fireplace. On all four walls hang framed tintypes of glowering ancestors. Is this where they arrest boys whose sisters listen to foreign radio stations? The woman turns pages of her magazine, one after another. Her fingernails are bright pink.
A man comes down the stairs wearing an extremely white shirt. “Christ, he is little, isn’t he?” he says to the lance corporal. “You’re the famous radio repairman?” The man’s thick black hair looks lacquered to his skull. “Rudolf Siedler,” he says. He dismisses the corporal with a slight wag of his chin.
Werner tries to exhale. Herr Siedler buttons his cuffs and examines himself in a smoky mirror. His eyes are profoundly blue. “Well. Not a long-winded boy, are you? There’s the offending device.” He points to a massive American Philco in the adjacent room. “Two fellows have looked at it already. Then we heard about you. Worth a try, right? She”—he nods at the woman—“is desperate to hear her program. News bulletins too, of course.”
He says this in such a way that Werner understands the woman does not really wish to listen to news bulletins. She does not look up. Herr Siedler smiles as if to say: You and I, son, we know history takes a longer course, don’t we? His teeth are very small. “Take your time with it.”
Werner squats in front of the set and tries to calm his nerves. He switches it on, waits for the tubes to warm, then runs the dial carefully down the band, right to left. He runs the knob back toward the right. Nothing.
It is the finest radio he has ever laid hands on: an inclined control panel, magnetic tuning, big as an icebox. Ten-tube, all-wave, superheterodyne, with fancy gadrooned moldings and a two-tone walnut cabinet. It has shortwave, wide frequencies, a big attenuator—this radio costs more than everything at Children’s House put together. Herr Siedler could probably hear Africa if he wanted to.
Green and red spines of books line the walls. The lance corporal is gone. In the next room, Herr Siedler stands in a pool of lamplight, talking into a black telephone.
They are not arresting him. They merely want him to fix this radio.
Werner unscrews the backing and peers inside. The tubes are all intact, and nothing looks amiss. “All right,” he mumbles to himself. “Think.” He sits cross-legged; he examines the circuitry. The man and the woman and the books and the rain recede until there is only the radio and its tangle of wires. He tries to envision the bouncing pathways of electrons, the signal chain like a path through a crowded city, RF signal coming in here, passing through a grid of amplifiers, then to variable condensers, then to transformer coils . . .
He sees it. There are two breaks in one of the resistance wires. Werner peers over the top of the set: to his left, the woman reads her magazine; to his right, Herr Siedler speaks into the telephone. Every so often Herr Siedler runs his thumb and finger along the crease in his pin-striped trousers, sharpening it.
Could two men have missed something so simple? It feels like a gift. So easy! Werner rewinds the resistance track and splices the wires and plugs in the radio. When he turns it on, he half expects fire to leap out of the machine. Instead: the smoky murmur of a saxophone.
At the table the woman puts down her magazine and sets all ten fingers on her cheeks. Werner climbs out from behind the radio. For a moment his mind is clear of all feeling save triumph.
“He fixed it just by thinking!” the woman exclaims. Herr Siedler covers the mouthpiece of the telephone receiver and looks over. “He sat there like a little mouse and thought, and in half a minute it was fixed!” She flourishes her brilliant fingernails and breaks into childlike laughter.
Herr Siedler hangs up the phone. The woman crosses into the sitting room and kneels in front of the radio—she is barefoot, and her smooth white calves show beneath the hem of her skirt. She rotates the knob. There is a sputter, then a torrent of bright music. The radio produces a vivid, full sound: Werner has never heard another like it.
“Oh!” Again she laughs.
Werner gathers his tools. Herr Siedler stands in front of the radio and seems about to pat him on the head. “Outstanding,” he says. He ushers Werner to the dining table and calls for the maid to bring cake. Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. “Cream is forbidden. I know. But”—he puts a forefinger to his lips—“there are ways around such things. Go on.”
Werner takes a piece. Powdered sugar cascades down his chin. In the other room the woman twists the dial, and voices sermonize from the speaker. She listens awhile, then applauds, kneeling there in her bare feet. The stern faces in the tintypes stare down.
Werner eats one piece of cake, then another, then takes a third. Herr Siedler watches with his head slightly cocked, amused, considering something. “You do have a look, don’t you? And that hair. Like you’ve had a terrible shock. Who is your father?”
Werner shakes his head.
“Right. Children’s House. Silly me. Have another. Get some more cream on it, now.”
The woman claps again. Werner’s stomach gives a creaking sound. He can feel the man’s eyes on him.
“People say it must not be a great posting, here at the mines,” says Herr Siedler. “They say: ‘Wouldn’t you rather be in Berlin? Or France? Wouldn’t you rather be a captain at the front, watching the lines advance, away from all this’?”—he waves his hand at the window—“?‘soot?’ But I tell them I live at the center of it all. I tell them this is where the fuel is coming from, the steel too. This is the furnace of the country.”
Werner clears his throat. “We act in the interest of peace.” It is, verbatim, a sentence he and Jutta heard on Deutschlandsender radio three days before. “In the interest of the world.”
Herr Siedler laughs. Again Werner is impressed with how numerous and tiny his teeth are.
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”
A single slice of cake remains. The radio purrs and the woman laughs and Herr Siedler looks almost nothing, Werner decides, like his neighbors, their guarded, anxious faces—faces of people accustomed to watching loved ones disappear every morning into pits. His face is clean and committed; he is a man supremely confident in his privileges. And five yards away kneels this woman with varnished fingernails and hairless calves—a woman so entirely removed from Werner’s previous experience that it is as if she is from a different planet. As if she has stepped out of the big Philco itself.
“Good with tools,” Herr Siedler is saying. “Smart beyond your years. There are places for a boy like you. General Heissmeyer’s schools. Best of the best. Teach the mechanical sciences too. Code breaking, rocket propulsion, all the latest.”
Werner does not know where to set his gaze. “We do not have money.”
“That’s the genius of these institutions. They want the working classes, laborers. Boys who aren’t stamped by”—Herr Siedler frowns—“middle-class garbage. The cinemas and so forth. They want industrious boys. Exceptional boys.”
“Exceptional,” he repeats, nodding, talking as if only to himself. He gives a whistle and the lance corporal returns, helmet in hand. The soldier’s eyes flit to the remaining piece of cake and then away. “There’s a recruiting board in Essen,” Herr Siedler is saying. “I’ll write you a letter. And take this.” He hands Werner seventy-five marks, and Werner tucks the bills into his pocket as quickly as he can.
The corporal laughs. “Looks like it burned his fingers!”
Herr Siedler’s attention is somewhere else. “I will send Heissmeyer a letter,” he repeats. “Good for us, good for you. We act in the interest of the world, eh?” He winks. Then the corporal gives Werner a curfew pass and shows him out.
Werner walks home oblivious to the rain, trying to absorb the immensity of what has happened. Nine herons stand like flowers in the canal beside the coking plant. A barge sounds its outcast horn and coal cars trundle to and fro and the regular thudding of the hauling machine reverberates through the gloom.
At Children’s House, everyone has been put to bed. Frau Elena sits just inside the entryway with a mountain of laundered stockings in her lap and the bottle of kitchen sherry between her feet. Behind her, at the table, Jutta watches Werner with electric intensity.
Frau Elena says, “What did he want?”
“He only wanted me to fix a radio.”
“Did they have questions? About you? Or the children?”
“No, Frau Elena.”
Frau Elena lets out a huge breath, as if she has not exhaled these past two hours. “Dieu merci.” She rubs her temples with both hands. “You can go to bed now, Jutta,” she says.
“I fixed it,” says Werner.
“That’s a good boy, Werner.” Frau Elena takes a long pull of sherry and her eyes close and her head rocks back. “We saved you some supper.” Jutta walks to the stairs, uncertainty in her eyes.
In the kitchen, everything looks coal-stained and cramped. Frau Elena brings a plate; on it sits a single boiled potato cut in two.
“Thank you,” says Werner. The taste of the cake is still in his mouth. The pendulum swings on and on in the old grandfather clock. The cake, the whipped cream, the thick carpet, the pink fingernails and long calves of Fr?ulein Siedler—these sensations whirl through Werner’s head as if on a carousel. He remembers towing Jutta to Pit Nine, where their father disappeared, evening after evening, as if their father might come shuffling out of the elevators.
Light, electricity, ether. Space, time, mass. Heinrich Hertz’s Principles of Mechanics. Heissmeyer’s famous schools. Code breaking, rocket propulsion, all the latest.
Open your eyes, the Frenchman on the radio used to say, and see what you can with them before they close forever.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Frau Elena: as close to a mother as he will ever have. Werner eats, though he is not hungry. Then he gives her the seventy-five marks, and she blinks at the amount and gives fifty back.
Upstairs, after he has heard Frau Elena go to the toilet and climb into her own bed and the house has become utterly quiet, Werner counts to one hundred. Then he rises from his cot and takes the little shortwave radio out of the first-aid box—six years old and bristling with his modifications, replacement wires, a new solenoid, Jutta’s notations orbiting the tuning coil—and carries it into the alley behind the house and crushes it with a brick. Exodus
Parisians continue to press through the gates. By 1 A.M., the gendarmes have lost control, and no trains have arrived or departed in over four hours. Marie-Laure sleeps on her father’s shoulder. The locksmith hears no whistles, no rattling couplings: no trains. At dawn he decides it will be better to go on foot.
They walk all morning. Paris thins steadily into low houses and stand-alone shops broken by long strands of trees. Noon finds them picking their way through deadlocked traffic on a new motorway near Vaucresson, a full ten miles west of their apartment, as far from home as Marie-Laure has ever been.
At the crest of a low hill, her father looks over his shoulder: vehicles are backed up as far as he can see, carryalls and vans, a sleek new cloth-top wraparound V-12 wedged between two mule carts, some cars with wooden axles, some run out of gasoline, some with households of furniture strapped to the roof, a few with entire bristling farmyards crammed onto trailers, chickens and pigs in cages, cows clomping alongside, dogs panting against windshields.
The entire procession slogs past at little more than walking speed. Both lanes are clogged—everyone staggers west, away. A woman bicycles wearing dozens of costume necklaces. A man tows a leather armchair on a handcart, a black kitten cleaning itself on the center cushion. Women push baby carriages crammed with china, birdcages, crystalware. A man in a tuxedo walks along calling, “For the love of God, let me through,” though no one steps aside, and he moves no more quickly than anyone else.
Marie-Laure stays at her father’s hip with her cane in her fist. With each step, another disembodied question spins around her: How far to Saint-Germain? Is there food, Auntie? Who has fuel? She hears husbands yelling at wives; she hears that a child has been run over by a truck on the road ahead. In the afternoon a trio of airplanes race past, loud and fast and low, and people crouch where they walk and some scream and others clamber into the ditch and put their faces in the weeds.
By dusk they are west of Versailles. Marie-Laure’s heels are bleeding and her stockings are torn and every hundred steps she stumbles. When she declares that she can walk no farther, her father carries her off the road, traveling uphill through mustard flowers until they reach a field a few hundred yards from a small farmhouse. The field has been mowed only halfway, the cut hay left unraked and unbaled. As though the farmer has fled in the middle of his work.
From his rucksack the locksmith produces a loaf of bread and some links of white sausage and they eat these quietly and then he lifts her feet into his lap. In the gloaming to the east, he can make out a gray line of traffic herded between the edges of the road. The thin and stupefied bleating of automobile horns. Someone calls as if to a missing child and the wind carries the sound away.
“Is something on fire, Papa?”
“Nothing is on fire.”
“I smell smoke.”
He pulls off her stockings to inspect her heels. In his hands, her feet are as light as birds.
“What is that noise?”
“Is it dark?”
“Getting there now.”
“Where will we sleep?”
“Are there beds?”
“No, ma chérie.”
“Where are we going, Papa?”
“The director has given me the address of someone who will help us.”
“A town called Evreux. We are going to see a man named Monsieur Giannot. He is a friend of the museum’s.”
“How far is Evreux?”
“It will take us two years of walking to get there.”
She seizes his forearm.
“I am teasing, Marie. Evreux is not so far. If we find transportation, we will be there tomorrow. You will see.”
She manages to stay quiet for a dozen heartbeats. Then she says, “But for now?”
“For now we will sleep.”
“With no beds?”
“With the grass as our beds. You might like it.”
“In Evreux we will have beds, Papa?”
“I expect so.”
“What if he does not want us to stay there?”
“He will want us.”
“What if he does not?”
“Then we will go visit my uncle. Your great-uncle. In Saint-Malo.”
“Uncle Etienne? You said he was crazy.”
“He is partially crazy, yes. He is maybe seventy-six percent crazy.”
She does not laugh. “How far is Saint-Malo?”
“Enough questions, Marie. Monsieur Giannot will want us to stay in Evreux. In big soft beds.”
“How much food do we have, Papa?”
“Some. Are you still hungry?”
“I’m not hungry. I want to save the food.”
“Okay. Let’s save the food. Let’s be quiet now and rest.”
She lies back. He lights another cigarette. Six to go. Bats dive and swoop through clouds of gnats, and the insects scatter and re-form once more. We are mice, he thinks, and the sky swirls with hawks.
“You are very brave, Marie-Laure.”
The girl has already fallen asleep. The night darkens. When his cigarette is gone, he eases Marie-Laure’s feet to the ground and covers her with her coat and opens the rucksack. By touch, he finds his case filled with woodworking tools. Tiny saws, tacks, gouges, carving chisels, fine-gritted sandpapers. Many of these tools were his grandfather’s. From beneath the lining of the case, he withdraws a small bag made of heavy linen and cinched with a drawstring. All day he has restrained himself from checking on it. Now he opens the bag and upends its contents onto his palm.
In his hand, the stone is about the size of a chestnut. Even at this late hour, in the quarter-light, it glows a majestic blue. Strangely cold.
The director said there would be three decoys. Added to the real diamond, that makes four. One would stay behind at the museum. Three others would be sent in three different directions. One south with a young geologist. Another north with the chief of security. And one is here, in a field west of Versailles, inside the tool case of Daniel LeBlanc, principal locksmith for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.
Three fakes. One real. It is best, the director said, that no man knows whether he carries the real diamond or a reproduction. And everyone, he said, giving them each a grave look, should behave as if he carries the real thing.
The locksmith tells himself that the diamond he carries is not real. There is no way the director would knowingly give a tradesman a one-hundred-and-thirty-three-carat diamond and let him walk out of Paris with it. And yet as he stares at it, he cannot keep his thoughts from the question: Could it be?
He scans the field. Trees, sky, hay. Darkness falling like velvet. Already a few pale stars. Marie-Laure breathes the measured breath of sleep. Everyone should behave as if he carries the real thing. The locksmith reties the stone inside the bag and slips it back into his rucksack. He can feel its tiny weight there, as though he has slipped it inside his own mind: a knot.
Hours later, he wakes to see the silhouette of an airplane blot stars as it hurtles east. It makes a soft tearing sound as it passes overhead. Then it disappears. The ground concusses a moment later.
A corner of the night sky, beyond a wall of trees, blooms red. In the lurid, flickering light, he sees that the airplane was not alone, that the sky teems with them, a dozen swooping back and forth, racing in all directions, and in a moment of disorientation, he feels that he’s looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and the airplanes are hungry fish, harrying their prey in the dark.
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