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Twelve 1974 Volkheimer

Frank Volkheimer’s third-floor walk-up in the suburbs of Pforzheim, Germany, possesses three windows. A single billboard, mounted on the cornice of the building across the alley, dominates the view; its surface gleams three yards beyond the glass. Printed on it are processed meats, cold cuts as tall as he is, reds and pinks, gray at the edges, garnished with parsley sprigs the size of shrubs. At night the billboard’s four cheerless electric spotlights bathe his apartment in a strange reflected glare.

He is fifty-one years old.

April rain falls slantwise through the billboard’s spotlights and Volkheimer’s television flickers blue and he ducks habitually as he passes through the doorway between his kitchen and the main room. No children, no pets, no houseplants, few books on the shelves. Just a card table, a mattress, and a single armchair in front of the television where he now sits, a tin of butter cookies in his lap. He eats them one after another, all the floral discs, then the ones shaped like pretzels, and finally the clovers.

On the television, a black horse helps free a man trapped beneath a fallen tree.

Volkheimer installs and repairs rooftop TV antennas. He puts on a blue jumpsuit every morning, faded where it strains over his huge shoulders, too short around the ankles, and walks to work in big black boots. Because he is strong enough to move the big extension ladders by himself, and perhaps also because he rarely speaks, Volkheimer responds to most calls alone. People telephone the branch office to request an installation, or to complain about ghost signals, interference, starlings on the wires, and out goes Volkheimer. He splices a broken line, or pokes a bird’s nest off a boom, or elevates an antenna on struts.

Only on the windiest, coldest days does Pforzheim feel like home. Volkheimer likes feeling the air slip under the collar of his jumpsuit, likes seeing the light blown clean by the wind, the far-off hills powdered with snow, the town’s trees (all planted in the years after the war, all the same age) glittering with ice. On winter afternoons he moves among the antennas like a sailor through rigging. In the late blue light, he can watch the people in the streets below, hurrying home, and sometimes gulls soar past, white against the dark. The small, secure weight of tools along his belt, the smell of intermittent rain, and the crystalline brilliance of the clouds at dusk: these are the only times when Volkheimer feels marginally whole.

But on most days, especially the warm ones, life exhausts him; the worsening traffic and graffiti and company politics, everyone grousing about bonuses, benefits, overtime. Sometimes, in the slow heat of summer, long before dawn, Volkheimer paces in the harsh dazzle of the billboard lights and feels his loneliness on him like a disease. He sees tall ranks of firs swaying in a storm, hears their heartwood groan. He sees the earthen floor of his childhood home, and the spiderwebbed light of dawn coming through conifers. Other times the eyes of men who are about to die haunt him, and he kills them all over again. Dead man in Lodz. Dead man in Lublin. Dead man in Radom. Dead man in Cracow.

Rain on the windows, rain on the roof. Before he goes to bed, Volkheimer descends three flights of stairs to the atrium to check his mail. He has not checked his mail in over a week, and among two flyers and a paycheck and a single utility bill is a small package from a veterans’ service organization located in West Berlin. He carries the mail upstairs and opens the package.

Three different objects have been photographed against the same white background, carefully numbered notecards taped beside each.

14-6962. A canvas soldier’s bag, mouse gray, with two padded straps.

14-6963. A little model house, made from wood, partially crushed.

14-6964. A soft-covered rectangular notebook with a single word across the front: Fragen.

The house he does not recognize, and the bag could have been any soldier’s, but he knows the notebook instantly. W.P. inked on the bottom corner. Volkheimer sets two fingers on the photograph as though he could pluck out the notebook and sift through its pages.

He was a just a boy. They all were. Even the largest of them.

The letter explains that the organization is trying to deliver items to next of kin of dead soldiers whose names have been lost. It says they believe that he, Staff Sergeant Frank Volkheimer, served as ranking officer of a unit that included the owner of this bag, a bag that was collected by a United States Army prisoner-of-war processing camp in Bernay, France, in the year 1944.

Does he know to whom these items belonged?

He sets the photographs on the table and stands with his big hands at his sides. He hears jouncing axles, grumbling tailpipes, rain on canvas. Clouds of gnats buzzing. The march of jackboots and the full-throated shouts of boys.

Static, then the guns.

But was it decent to leave him out there like that? Even after he was dead?

What you could be.

He was small. He had white hair and ears that stuck out. He buttoned the collar of his jacket up around his throat when he was cold and drew his hands up inside the sleeves. Volkheimer knows whom those items belonged to. Jutta

Jutta Wette teaches sixth-form algebra in Essen: integers, probability, parabolas. Every day she wears the same outfit: black slacks with a nylon blouse—alternately beige, charcoal, or pale blue. Occasionally the canary-yellow one, if she’s feeling unrestrained. Her skin is milky and her hair remains white as paper.

Jutta’s husband, Albert, is a kind, slow-moving, and balding accountant whose great passion is running model trains in the basement. For a long time Jutta believed she could not get pregnant, and then, one day, when she was thirty-seven years old, she did. Their son, Max, is six, fond of mud, dogs, and questions no one can answer. More than anything lately, Max likes to fold complicated designs of paper airplanes. He comes home from school, kneels on the kitchen floor, and forms airplane after airplane with unswerving, almost frightening devotion, evaluating different wingtips, tails, noses, mostly seeming to love the praxis of it, the transformation of something flat into something that can fly.

It’s a Thursday afternoon in early June, the school year nearly over, and they are at the public swimming pool. Slate-colored clouds veil the sky, and children shout in the shallow end, and parents talk or read magazines or doze in their chairs, and everything is normal. Albert stands at the snack counter in his swim trunks, with his little towel draped over his wide back, and contemplates his selection of ice cream.

Max swims awkwardly, windmilling one arm forward and then the other, periodically looking up to make sure his mother is watching. When he’s done, he wraps himself in a towel and climbs into the chair beside her. Max is compact and small and his ears stick out. Water droplets shine in his eyelashes. Dusk seeps down through the overcast and a slight chill drops into the air and one by one families leave to walk or bike or ride the bus home. Max plucks crackers out of a cardboard box and crunches them loudly. “I love Leibniz Zoo crackers, Mutti,” he says.

“I know, Max.”

Albert drives them home in their little NSU Prinz 4, the clutch rattling, and Jutta takes a stack of end-of-term exams from her school bag and grades them at the kitchen table. Albert puts on water for noodles and fries onions. Max takes a clean sheet of paper from the drawing table and starts to fold.

On the front door come knocks, three.

For reasons Jutta does not fully understand, her heartbeat begins to thud in her ears. The point of her pencil hovers over the page. It’s only someone at the door—a neighbor or a friend or the little girl, Anna, from down the street, who sits upstairs with Max sometimes and gives him directions for how to best construct elaborate towns out of plastic blocks. But the knock does not sound anything like Anna’s.

Max bounds to the door, airplane in hand.

“Who is it, dear?”

Max does not reply, which means it is someone he does not know. She crosses into the hall, and there in her door frame stands a giant.

Max crosses his arms, intrigued and impressed. His airplane on the ground at his feet. The giant takes off his cap. His massive head shines. “Frau Wette?” He wears a tent-sized silver sweatsuit with maroon splashes along the sides, zipper pulled to the base of his throat. Gingerly, he presents a faded canvas duffel bag.

The bullies in the square. Hans and Herribert. His very size invokes them all. This man has come, she thinks, to other doors and not bothered to knock.

“Yes?”

“Your maiden name was Pfennig?”

Even before she nods, before he says, “I have something for you,” before she invites him through the screen door, she knows this will be about Werner.

The giant’s nylon pants swish as he follows her down the hall. When Albert looks up from the stove, he startles but only says, “Hello,” and “Watch your head,” and waves his cooking spoon as the giant dodges the light fixture.

When he offers dinner, the giant says yes. Albert pulls the table away from the wall and sets a fourth place. In his wooden chair, Volkheimer reminds Jutta of an image from one of Max’s picture books: an elephant squeezed into an airplane seat. The duffel bag he has brought waits on the hall table.

The conversation begins slowly.

He has come several hours on the train.

He walked here from the station.

He does not need sherry, thank you.

Max eats fast, Albert slowly. Jutta tucks her hands beneath her thighs to hide their shaking.

“Once they had the address,” Volkheimer says, “I asked if I might deliver it myself. They included a letter, see?” He takes a folded sheet of paper from his pocket.

Outside, cars pass, wrens trill.

A part of Jutta does not want to take the letter. Does not want to hear what this huge man has traveled a long way to say. Weeks go by when Jutta does not allow herself to think of the war, of Frau Elena, of the awful last months in Berlin. Now she can buy pork seven days a week. Now, if the house feels cold she twists a dial in the kitchen, and voilà. She does not want to be one of those middle-aged women who thinks of nothing but her own painful history. Sometimes she looks at the eyes of her older colleagues and wonders what they did when the electricity was out, when there were no candles, when the rain came through the ceiling. What they saw. Only rarely does she loosen the seals enough to allow herself to think of Werner. In many ways, her memories of her brother have become things to lock away. A math teacher at Helmoltz-Gymnasium in 1974 does not bring up a brother who attended the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta.

Albert says, “In the east, then?”

Volkheimer says, “I was with him at school, then out in the field. We were in Russia. Also Poland, Ukraine, Austria. Then France.”

Max crunches a sliced apple. He says, “How tall are you?”

“Max,” says Jutta.

Volkheimer smiles.

Albert says, “He was very bright, wasn’t he? Jutta’s brother?”

Volkheimer says, “Very.”

Albert offers a second helping, offers salt, offers sherry again. Albert is younger than Jutta, and during the war, he ran as a courier in Hamburg between bomb shelters. Nine years old in 1945, still a child.

“The last place I saw him,” says Volkheimer, “was in a town on the northern coast of France called Saint-Malo.”

From the loam of Jutta’s memory rises a sentence: What I want to write about today is the sea.

“We spent a month there. I think he might have fallen in love.”

Jutta sits straighter in her chair. It’s embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is. A town on the northern coast of France? Love? Nothing will be healed in this kitchen. Some griefs can never be put right.

Volkheimer pushes back from the table. “It was not my intention to upset you.” He hovers, dwarfing them.

“It’s all right,” says Albert. “Max, can you please take our guest to the patio? I’ll put out some cake.”

Max slides open the glass door for Volkheimer, and he ducks through. Jutta sets the plates in the sink. She is suddenly very tired. She only wants the big man to leave and to take the bag with him. She only wants a tide of normality to wash in and cover everything again.

Albert touches her elbow. “Are you all right?”

Jutta does not nod or shake her head, but slowly drags a hand over both eyebrows.

“I love you, Jutta.”

When she looks out the window, Volkheimer is kneeling on the cement beside Max. Max lays down two sheets of paper, and although she cannot hear them, she can see the huge man talking Max through a set of steps. Max watches intently, turning over the sheet when Volkheimer turns it over, matching his folds, wetting one finger, and running it along a crease.

Soon enough, they each have a wide-winged plane with a long forked tail. Volkheimer’s sails neatly out across the yard, flying straight and true, and smacks into the fence nose-first. Max claps.

Max kneels on the patio in the dusk, going over his airplane, checking the angle of its wings. Volkheimer kneels beside him, nodding, patient.

Jutta says, “I love you too.” Duffel

Volkheimer is gone. The duffel waits on the hall table. She can hardly look at it.

Jutta helps Max into his pajamas and kisses him good night. She brushes her teeth, avoiding herself in the mirror, and goes back downstairs and stands looking out through the window in their front door. In the basement, Albert is running his trains through his meticulously painted world, beneath the underpass, over his electric drawbridge; it’s a small sound up here, but relentless, a sound that penetrates the timbers of the house.

Jutta brings the duffel up to the desk in her bedroom and sets it down on the floor and grades another of her students’ exams. Then another. She can hear the trains stop, then resume their monotonous drone.

She tries to grade a third exam but cannot concentrate; the numbers drift across the pages and collect at the bottom in unintelligible piles. She sets the bag in her lap.

When they were first married and Albert went away on trips for work, Jutta would wake in the predawn hours and remember those first nights after Werner left for Schulpforta and feel all over again the searing pain of his absence.

For something so old, the zipper on the duffel opens smoothly. Inside is a thick envelope and a package covered in newspaper. When she unwraps the newspaper, she finds a model house, tall and narrow, no bigger than her fist.

The envelope contains the notebook she sent him forty years before. His book of questions. That crimped, tiny cursive, each letter sloping slightly farther uphill. Drawings, schematics, pages of lists.

Something that looks like a blender powered by bicycle pedals.

A motor for a model airplane.

Why do some fish have whiskers?

Is it true that all cats are gray when the candles are out?

When lightning strikes the sea, why don’t all the fish die?

After three pages, she has to close the notebook. Memories cartwheel out of her head and tumble across the floor. Werner’s cot in the attic, the wall above it papered over with her drawings of imaginary cities. The first-aid box and the radio and the wire threaded out the window and through the eave. Downstairs, the trains run through Albert’s three-level layout, and in the next room her son wages battles in his sleep, lips murmuring, eyelids flexing, and Jutta wills the numbers to climb back up and find their places on her students’ exams.

She reopens the notebook.

Why does a knot hold?

If five cats catch five rats in five minutes, how many cats will it require to catch 100 rats in 100 minutes?

Why does a flag flutter in the wind rather than stand straight out?

Tucked between the last two pages, she finds an old sealed envelope. He has written For Frederick across the front. Frederick: the bunkmate Werner used to write about, the boy who loved birds.

He sees what other people don’t.

What the war did to dreamers.

When Albert finally comes up, she keeps her head down and pretends to be grading exams. He peels himself out of his clothes and groans lightly as he gets into bed, and switches off his lamp, and says good night, and still she sits. Saint-Malo

Jutta’s grades are in, and Max is off school, and besides, he’d just go to the pool every day, pester his father with riddles, fold three hundred of those airplanes the giant taught him, and wouldn’t it be good for him to visit another country, learn some French, see the ocean? She poses these questions to Albert, but both of them know that she is the one who must grant permission. To go herself, to take their son.

On the twenty-sixth of June, an hour before dawn, Albert makes six ham sandwiches and wraps them in foil. Then he drives Jutta and Max to the station in the Prinz 4 and kisses her on the lips, and she boards the train with Werner’s notebook and the model house in her purse.

The journey takes all day. By Rennes, the sun has dropped low over the horizon, and the smell of warm manure comes through the open windows, and lines of pollarded trees whisk past. Gulls and crows in equal numbers follow a tractor through its wake of dust. Max eats a second ham sandwich and rereads a comic book, and sheets of yellow flowers glow in the fields, and Jutta wonders if any of them grow over the bones of her brother.

Before dark, a well-dressed man with a prosthetic leg boards the train. He sits beside her and lights a cigarette. Jutta clutches her bag between her knees; she is certain that he was wounded in the war, that he will try to start a conversation, that her deficient French will betray her. Or that Max will say something. Or that the man can already tell. Maybe she smells German.

He’ll say, You did this to me.

Please. Not in front of my son.

But the train jolts into motion, and the man finishes his cigarette and gives her a preoccupied smile and promptly falls asleep.

She turns the little house over in her fingers. They come into Saint-Malo around midnight, and the cabdriver leaves them at a hotel on the Place Chateaubriand. The clerk accepts the money Albert exchanged for her, and Max leans against her hip, half-asleep, and she is so afraid to try her French that she goes to bed hungry.

In the morning Max pulls her through a gap in the old walls and out onto a beach. He runs across the sand at full tilt, then stops and stares up at the ramparts rearing above him as though imagining pennants and cannons and medieval archers ranged along the parapets.

Jutta cannot tear her eyes away from the ocean. It is emerald green and incomprehensibly large. A single white sail veers out of the harbor. A pair of trawlers on the horizon appear and disappear between waves.

Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.

They pay a coin to climb the tower of the château. “Come on,” Max says, and charges up the winding narrow stairs, and Jutta huffs along behind, each quarter turn presenting a narrow window of blue sky, Max practically hauling her up the steps.

From the top, they watch the small figures of tourists stroll past shopwindows. She has read about the siege; she has studied photos of the old town before the war. But now, looking across at the huge dignified houses, the hundreds of rooftops, she can see no traces of bombings or craters or crushed buildings. The town appears to have been entirely replaced.

They order galettes for lunch. She expects stares, but no one takes any notice. The waiter seems to neither know nor care that she is German. In the afternoon, she leads Max out through a high arch on the far side of the city called the Porte de Dinan. They cross the quay and climb to a matching headland across the mouth of a river from the old city. Inside the park wait the ruins of a fort overgrown with weeds. Max pauses at all the steep edges along the trail and throws pebbles down into the sea.

Every hundred paces along the path, they come across a big steel cap beneath which a soldier would direct cannon fire at whomever was trying to take the hill. Some of these pillboxes are so scarred by assault that she can hardly imagine the fire and speed and terror of the projectiles showering onto them. A foot of steel looks as if it has been transformed into warm butter and gouged by the fingers of a child.

What it must have sounded like, to stand in there.

Now they are filled with crisps bags, cigarette filters, paper wrappers. American and French flags fly from a hilltop at the center of the park. Here, signs say, Germans holed up in underground tunnels to fight to the last man.

Three teenagers pass laughing and Max watches them with great intensity. On a pocked and lichen-splotched cement wall is bolted a small stone plaque. Ici a été tué Buy Gaston Marcel agé de 18 ans, mort pour la France le 11 août 1944. Jutta sits on the ground. The sea is heavy and slate-gray. There are no plaques for the Germans who died here.

Why has she come? What answers did she hope to find? On their second morning, they sit in the Place Chateaubriand across from the historical museum, where sturdy benches face flower beds ringed by shin-high metal half loops. Beneath awnings, tourists browse over blue-and-white-striped sweaters and framed watercolors of corsair ships; a father sings as he puts his arm around a daughter.

Max looks up from his book and says, “Mutti, what goes around the world but stays in a corner?”

“I don’t know, Max.”

“A postage stamp.”

He smiles at her.

She says, “I’ll be right back.”

The man behind the museum counter is bearded, maybe fifty. Old enough to remember. She opens her purse and unwraps the partially crushed wooden house and says in her best French, “My brother had this. I believe he found it here. During the war.”

The man shakes his head, and she returns the house to her purse. Then he asks to see it again. He holds the model under the lamp and turns it so that its recessed front door faces him.

“Oui,” he says finally. He gestures for her to wait outside, and a moment later, he locks the door behind him and leads her and Max down streets narrow and sloping. After a dozen rights and lefts, they stand in front of the house. A real-life counterpart to the little one that Max is right now rotating in his hands.

“Number four rue Vauborel,” says the man. “The LeBlanc house. Been subdivided into holiday flats for years.”

Lichens splotch the stone; leached minerals have left filigrees of stains. Flower boxes adorn the windows, foaming over with geraniums. Could Werner have made the model? Bought it?

She says, “And was there a girl? Do you know about a girl?”

“Yes, there was a blind girl who lived in this house during the war. My mother told stories about her. As soon as the war ended, she moved away.”

Green dots strobe across Jutta’s vision; she feels as if she has been staring at the sun.

Max pulls her wrist. “Mutti, Mutti.”

“Why,” she says, lurching through the French, “would my brother have a miniature reproduction of this house?”

“Maybe the girl who lived here would know? I can find her address for you.”

“Mutti, Mutti, look,” Max says, and yanks her hard enough to win her attention. She glances down. “I think this little house opens. I think there’s a way to open it.” Laboratory

Marie-Laure LeBlanc manages a small laboratory at the Museum of Natural History in Paris and has contributed in significant ways to the study and literature of mollusks: a monograph on the evolutionary rationale for the folds in West African cancellate nutmeg shells; an often-cited paper on the sexual dimorphism of Caribbean volutes. She has named two new subspecies of chitons. As a doctoral student, she traveled to Bora Bora and Bimini; she waded onto reefs in a sun hat with a collecting bucket and harvested snails on three continents.

Marie-Laure is not a collector in the way that Dr. Geffard was, an amasser, always looking to scurry down the scales of order, family, genus, species, and subspecies. She loves to be among the living creatures, whether on the reefs or in her aquaria. To find the snails crawling along the rocks, these tiny wet beings straining calcium from the water and spinning it into polished dreams on their backs—it is enough. More than enough.

She and Etienne traveled while he could. They went to Sardinia and Scotland and rode on the upper deck of a London airport bus as it skimmed below trees. He bought himself two nice transistor radios, died gently in the bathtub at age eighty-two, and left her plenty of money.

Despite hiring an investigator, spending thousands of francs, and poring through reams of German documentation, Marie-Laure and Etienne were never able to determine what exactly happened to her father. They confirmed he had been a prisoner at a labor camp called Breitenau in 1942. And there was a record made by a camp doctor at a subcamp in Kassel, Germany, that a Daniel LeBlanc contracted influenza in the first part of 1943. That’s all they have.

Marie-Laure still lives in the flat where she grew up, still walks to the museum. She has had two lovers. The first was a visiting scientist who never returned, and the second was a Canadian named John who scattered things—ties, coins, socks, breath mints—around any room he entered. They met in graduate school; he flitted from lab to lab with a prodigious curiosity but little perseverance. He loved ocean currents and architecture and Charles Dickens, and his variousness made her feel limited, overspecialized. When Marie-Laure got pregnant, they separated peaceably, with no flamboyance.

Hélène, their daughter, is nineteen now. Short-haired, petite, an aspiring violinist. Self-possessed, the way children of a blind parent tend to be. Hélène lives with her mother, but the three of them—John, Marie-Laure, and Hélène—eat lunch together every Friday.

It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled. Marie-Laure still cannot wear shoes that are too large, or smell a boiled turnip, without experiencing revulsion. Neither can she listen to lists of names. Soccer team rosters, citations at the end of journals, introductions at faculty meetings—always they seem to her some vestige of the prison lists that never contained her father’s name.

She still counts storm drains: thirty-eight on the walk home from her laboratory. Flowers grow on her tiny wrought-iron balcony, and in summer she can estimate what time of day it is by feeling how wide the petals of the evening primroses have opened. When Hélène is out with her friends and the apartment seems too quiet, Marie-Laure walks to the same brasserie: Le Village Monge, just outside the Jardin des Plantes, and orders roasted duck in honor of Dr. Geffard.

Is she happy? For portions of every day, she is happy. When she’s standing beneath a tree, for instance, listening to the leaves vibrating in the wind, or when she opens a package from a collector and that old ocean odor of shells comes washing out. When she remembers reading Jules Verne to Hélène, and Hélène falling asleep beside her, the hot, hard weight of the girl’s head against her ribs.

There are hours, though, when Hélène is late, and anxiety rides up through Marie-Laure’s spine, and she leans over a lab table and becomes aware of all the other rooms in the museum around her, the closets full of preserved frogs and eels and worms, the cabinets full of pinned bugs and pressed ferns, the cellars full of bones, and she feels all of a sudden that she works in a mausoleum, that the departments are systematic graveyards, that all these people—the scientists and warders and guards and visitors—occupy galleries of the dead.

But such moments are few and far between. In her laboratory, six saltwater aquariums gurgle reassuringly; on the back wall stand three cabinets with four hundred drawers in each, salvaged years ago from the office of Dr. Geffard. Every fall, she teaches a class to undergraduates, and her students come and go, smelling of salted beef, or cologne, or the gasoline of their motor scooters, and she loves to ask them about their lives, to wonder what adventures they’ve had, what lusts, what secret follies they carry in their hearts.

One Wednesday evening in July, her assistant knocks quietly on the open door to the laboratory. Tanks bubble and filters hum and aquarium heaters click on or off. He says there is a woman to see her. Marie-Laure keeps both hands on the keys of her Braille typewriter. “A collector?”

“I don’t think so, Doctor. She says that she got your address from a museum in Brittany.”

First notes of vertigo.

“She has a boy with her. They’re waiting at the end of the hall. Shall I tell her to try tomorrow?”

“What does she look like?”

“White hair.” He leans closer. “Badly dressed. Skin like poultry. She says she would like to see you about a model house?”

Somewhere behind her Marie-Laure hears the tinkling sound of ten thousand keys quivering on ten thousand hooks.

“Dr. LeBlanc?”

The room has tilted. In a moment she will slide off the edge. Visitor

“You learned French as a child,” Marie-Laure says, though how she manages to speak, she is not sure.

“Yes. This is my son, Max.”

“Guten Tag,” murmurs Max. His hand is warm and small.

“He has not learned French as a child,” says Marie-Laure, and both women laugh a moment before falling quiet.

The woman says, “I brought something—” Even through its newspaper wrapping, Marie-Laure knows it is the model house; it feels as if this woman has dropped a molten kernel of memory into her hands.

She can barely stand. “Francis,” she says to her assistant, “could you show Max something in the museum for a moment? Perhaps the beetles?”

“Of course, Madame.”

The woman says something to her son in German.

Francis says, “Shall I close the door?”

“Please.”

The latch clicks. Marie-Laure can hear the aquaria bubble and the woman inhale and the rubber stoppers on the stool legs beneath her squeak as she shifts. With her finger, she finds the nicks on the house’s sides, the slope of its roof. How often she held it.

“My father made this,” she says.

“Do you know how my brother got it?”

Everything whirling through space, taking a lap around the room, then climbing back into Marie-Laure’s mind. The boy. The model. Has it never been opened? She sets the house down suddenly, as if it is very hot.

The woman, Jutta, must be watching her very closely. She says, as though apologizing, “Did he take it from you?”

Over time, thinks Marie-Laure, events that seem jumbled either become more confusing or gradually settle into place. The boy saved her life three times over. Once by not exposing Etienne when he should have. Twice by taking that sergeant major out of the way. Three times by helping her out of the city.

“No,” she says.

“It was not,” says Jutta, reaching the limits of her French, “very easy to be good then.”

“I spent a day with him. Less than a day.”

Jutta says, “How old were you?”

“Sixteen during the siege. And you?”

“Fifteen. At the end.”

“We all grew up before we were grown up. Did he—?”

Jutta says, “He died.”

Of course. In the stories after the war, all the resistance heroes were dashing, sinewy types who could construct machine guns from paper clips. And the Germans either raised their godlike blond heads through open tank hatches to watch broken cities scroll past, or else were psychopathic, sex-crazed torturers of beautiful Jewesses. Where did the boy fit? He made such a faint presence. It was like being in the room with a feather. But his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness, didn’t it?

We used to pick berries by the Ruhr. My sister and me.

She says, “His hands were smaller than mine.”

The woman clears her throat. “He was little for his age, always. But he looked out for me. It was hard for him not to do what was expected of him. Have I said this correctly?”

“Perfectly.”

The aquaria bubble. The snails eat. What agonies this woman endured, Marie-Laure cannot guess. And the model house? Did Werner let himself back into the grotto to retrieve it? Did he leave the stone inside? She says, “He said that you and he used to listen to my great-uncle’s broadcasts. That you could hear them all the way in Germany.”

“Your great-uncle—?”

Now Marie-Laure wonders what memories crawl over the woman across from her. She is about to say more when footfalls in the hall stop outside the laboratory door. Max stumbles through something unintelligible in French. Francis laughs and says, “No, no, behind as in the back of us, not behind as in derrière.”

Jutta says, “I’m sorry.”

Marie-Laure laughs. “It is the obliviousness of our children that saves us.”

The door opens and Francis says, “You are all right, madame?”

“Yes, Francis. You may go.”

“We’ll go too,” says Jutta, and she pushes her stool back beneath the lab table. “I wanted you to have the little house. Better with you than with me.”

Marie-Laure keeps her hands flat on the lab table. She imagines mother and son as they move toward the door, small hand folded in big hand, and her throat wells. “Wait,” she says. “When my great-uncle sold the house, after the war, he traveled back to Saint-Malo, and he salvaged the one remaining recording of my grandfather. It was about the moon.”

“I remember. And light? On the other side?”

The creaking floor, the roiling tanks. Snails sliding along glass. Little house on the table between her hands.

“Leave your address with Francis. The record is very old, but I’ll mail it to you. Max might like it.” Paper Airplane

“And Francis said there are forty-two thousand drawers of dried plants, and he showed me the beak of a giant squid and a plesiosaur . . .” The gravel crunches beneath their shoes and Jutta has to lean against a tree.

“Mutti?”

Lights veer toward her, then away. “I’m tired, Max. That’s all.”

She unfolds the tourist map and tries to understand the way back to their hotel. Few cars are out, and most every window they pass is lit blue from a television. It’s the absence of all the bodies, she thinks, that allows us to forget. It’s that the sod seals them over.

In the elevator, Max pushes 6 and up they go. The carpeted runner to their room is a river of maroon crossed with gold trapezoids. She hands Max the key, and he fumbles with the lock, then opens the door.

“Did you show the lady how the house opened, Mutti?”

“I think she already knew.”

Jutta turns on the television and takes off her shoes. Max opens the balcony doors and folds an airplane with hotel stationery. The half block of Paris that she can see reminds her of the cities she drew as a girl: a hundred houses, a thousand windows, a wheeling flock of birds. On the television, players in blue rush along a field two thousand miles away. The score is three to two. But a goalkeeper has fallen, and a wing has toed the ball just enough that it rolls slowly toward the goal line. No one is there to kick it away. Jutta picks up the phone beside the bed and dials nine numbers and Max launches an airplane over the street. It sails a few dozen feet and hangs for an instant, and then the voice of her husband says hello. The Key

She sits in her lab touching the Dosinia shells one after another in their tray. Memories strobe past: the feel of her father’s trouser leg as she’d cling to it. Sand fleas skittering around her knees. Captain Nemo’s submarine vibrating with his woeful dirge as it floated through the black.

She shakes the little house, though she knows it will not give itself away.

He went back for it. Carried it out. Died with it. What sort of a boy was he? She remembers how he sat and paged through that book of Etienne’s.

Birds, he said. Bird after bird after bird.

She sees herself walk out of the smoking city, trailing a white pillowcase. Once she is out of his sight, he turns and lets himself back through Harold Bazin’s gate. The rampart a huge crumbling bulwark above him. The sea settling on the far side of the grate. She sees him solve the puzzle of the little house. Maybe he drops the diamond into the pool among the thousands of snails. Then he closes the puzzle box and locks the gate and trots away.

Or he puts the stone back into the house.

Or slips it into his pocket.

From her memory, Dr. Geffard whispers: That something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much. Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.

She twists the chimney ninety degrees. It turns as smoothly as if her father just built it. When she tries to slide off the first of the three wooden roof panels, she finds it stuck. But with the end of a pen, she manages to lever off the panels one two three.

Something drops into her palm.

An iron key. Sea of ?Flames

From the molten basements of the world, two hundred miles down, it comes. One crystal in a seam of others. Pure carbon, each atom linked to four equidistant neighbors, perfectly knit, octahedral, unsurpassed in hardness. Already it is old: unfathomably so. Incalculable eons tumble past. The earth shifts, shrugs, stretches. One year, one day, one hour, a great upflow of magma gathers a seam of crystals and drives it toward the surface, mile after burning mile; it cools inside a huge, smoking xenolith of kimberlite, and there it waits. Century after century. Rain, wind, cubic miles of ice. Bedrock becomes boulders, boulders become stones; the ice retreats, a lake forms, and galaxies of freshwater clams flap their million shells at the sun and close and die and the lake seeps away. Stands of prehistoric trees rise and fall and rise again in succession. Until another year, another day, another hour, when a storm claws one particular stone out of a canyon and sends it into a clattering flow of alluvium, where eventually it finds, one evening, the attention of a prince who knows what he is looking for.

It is cut, polished; for a breath, it passes between the hands of men.

Another hour, another day, another year. Lump of carbon no larger than a chestnut. Mantled with algae, bedecked with barnacles. Crawled over by snails. It stirs among the pebbles. Frederick

He lives with his mother outside west Berlin. Their apartment is a middle unit in a triplex. Its only windows offer a view of sweet-gum trees, a vast and barely used supermarket parking lot, and an expressway beyond.

Frederick sits on the back patio most days and watches the wind drive discarded plastic bags across the lot. Sometimes they spin high into the air and fly unpredictable loops before catching on the branches or disappearing from view. He makes pencil drawings of spirals, messy, heavy-leaded corkscrews. He’ll cover a sheet of paper with two or three, then flip it over and fill the other side. The apartment is jammed with them: thousands on the counters, in drawers, on the toilet tank. His mother used to throw the sheets away when Frederick wasn’t looking, but lately she has given up.

“Like a factory, that boy,” she used to say to friends, and smiled a desperate smile meant to make her appear brave.

Few friends come over now. Few are left.

One Wednesday—but what are Wednesdays to Frederick?—his mother comes in with the mail. “There’s a letter,” she says, “for you.”

Her instinct in the decades since the war has been to hide. Hide herself, hide what happened to her boy. She was not the only widow made to feel as if she had been complicit in an unspeakable crime. Inside the large envelope is a letter and a smaller envelope. The letter comes from a woman in Essen who traces the course of the smaller envelope from her brother to an American prisoner-of-war camp in France, to a military storage facility in New Jersey, to a veterans’ service organization in West Berlin. Then to a former sergeant, then to the woman writing the letter.

Werner. She can still picture the boy: white hair, shy hands, a melting smile. Frederick’s one friend. Aloud she says, “He was very small.”

Frederick’s mother shows him the unopened envelope—it is wrinkled, sepia-colored, and old, his name written in small cursive letters—but he shows no interest. She leaves it on the counter as dusk falls, and measures out a cup of rice and sets it to boil, and switches on every lamp and overhead fixture as she always does, not to see, but because she is alone, because the apartments on either side are vacant, and because the lights make her feel as if she is expecting someone.

She purees his vegetables. She puts the spoon in Frederick’s mouth and he hums as he swallows: he is happy. She wipes his chin and sets a sheet of paper in front of him and he takes his pencil and begins to draw.

She fills the sink with soapy water. Then she opens the envelope.

Inside is a folded print of two birds in full color. Aquatic Wood Wagtail. Male 1. Female 2. Two birds on a stalk of Indian turnip. She peers back into the envelope for a note, an explanation, but finds none.

The day she bought that book for Fredde: the bookseller took so long to wrap it. She did not understand its attraction but knew that her son would love it.

The doctors claim Frederick retains no memories, that his brain maintains only basic functions, but there are moments when she wonders. She flattens out the creases as well as she can and drags the floor lamp closer and places the print before her son. He tilts his head and she tries to convince herself he is studying it. But his eyes are gray and chambered and shallow, and after a moment he returns to his spirals.

When she has finished the dishes, she leads Frederick out onto the elevated patio, as is their routine, where he sits with his bib still around his neck, staring into oblivion. She’ll try him again on the bird print tomorrow.

It’s fall, and starlings fly in great pulsing swarms above the city. Sometimes she thinks he perks up when he sees them, hears all those wings rushing and rushing and rushing.

As she sits, looking out through the line of trees into the great empty parking lot, a dark shape sweeps through the nimbus of a streetlamp. It disappears and then reemerges, and suddenly and silently it lands on the deck railing not six feet away.

It’s an owl. As big as a child. It swivels its neck and blinks its yellow eyes and in her head roars a single thought: You’ve come for me.

Frederick sits up straight.

The owl hears something. It holds there, listening as hard as she has ever seen anything listen. Frederick stares and stares.

Then it goes: three audible wing beats and the darkness swallows it.

“You saw it?” she whispers. “Did you see it, Fredde?”

He keeps his gaze turned toward the shadows. But there are only the plastic bags rustling in the branches above them and the dozens of spheres of artificial light glowing in the parking lot beyond.

“Mutti?” says Frederick. “Mutti?”

“I’m here, Fredde.”

She puts her hand on his knee. His fingers lock around the arms of the chair. His whole body becomes rigid. Veins stand out in his neck.

“Frederick? What is it?”

He looks at her. His eyes do not blink. “What are we doing, Mutti?”

“Oh, Fredde. We’re just sitting. We’re just sitting and looking out at the night.”

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