فصل 03کتاب: تمام نورهایی که نمیتوانیم ببینیم / فصل 4
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Three June 1940 Château
Two days after fleeing Paris, Marie-Laure and her father enter the town of Evreux. Restaurants are either boarded up or thronged. Two women in evening gowns hunch hip to hip on the cathedral steps. A man lies facedown between market stalls, unconscious or worse.
No mail service. Telegraph lines down. The most recent newspaper is thirty-six hours old. At the prefecture, a queue for gasoline coupons snakes out the door and around the block.
The first two hotels are full. The third will not unlock the door. Every so often the locksmith catches himself glancing over his shoulder.
“Papa,” Marie-Laure is mumbling. Bewildered. “My feet.”
He lights a cigarette: three left. “Not much farther now, Marie.”
On the western edge of Evreux, the road empties and the countryside levels out. He checks and rechecks the address the director has given him. Monsieur François Giannot. 9 rue St. Nicolas. But Monsieur Giannot’s house, when they reach it, is on fire. In the windless dusk, sullen heaps of smoke pump upward through the trees. A car has crashed into a corner of the gatehouse and torn the gate off its hinges. The house—or what remains of it—is grand: twenty French windows in the facade, big freshly painted shutters, manicured hedges out front. Un château.
“I smell smoke, Papa.”
He leads Marie-Laure up the gravel. His rucksack—or perhaps it is the stone deep inside—seems to grow heavier with each step. No puddles gleam in the gravel, no fire brigade swarms out front. Twin urns are toppled on the front steps. A burst chandelier sprawls across the entry stairs.
“What is burning, Papa?”
A boy comes toward them out of the smoky twilight, no older than Marie-Laure, streaked with ash, pushing a wheeled dining cart through the gravel. Silver tongs and spoons hanging from the cart chime and clank, and the wheels clatter and wallow. A little polished cherub grins at each corner.
The locksmith says, “Is this the house of François Giannot?”
The boy acknowledges neither question nor questioner as he passes.
“Do you know what happened to—?”
The clanging of the cart recedes.
Marie-Laure yanks the hem of his coat. “Papa, please.”
In her coat against the black trees, her face looks paler and more frightened than he has ever seen it. Has he ever asked so much of her?
“A house has burned, Marie. People are stealing things.”
“The house we have come so far to reach.”
Over her head, he can see the smoldering remains of door frames glow and fade with the passage of the breeze. A hole in the roof frames the darkening sky.
Two more boys emerge from the soot carrying a portrait in a gilded frame, twice as tall as they are, the visage of some long-dead great-grandfather glowering at the night. The locksmith holds up his palms to delay them. “Was it airplanes?”
One says, “There’s plenty more inside.” The canvas of the painting ripples.
“Do you know the whereabouts of Monsieur Giannot?”
The other says, “Ran off yesterday. With the rest. London.”
“Don’t tell him anything,” says the first.
The boys jog down the driveway with their prize and are swallowed by the gloom.
“London?” whispers Marie-Laure. “The friend of the director is in London?”
Sheets of blackened paper scuttle past their feet. Shadows whisper in the trees. A ruptured melon lolls in the drive like an amputated head. The locksmith is seeing too much. All day, mile after mile, he let himself imagine they would be greeted with food. Little potatoes with hot cores into which he and Marie-Laure would plunge forkfuls of butter. Shallots and mushrooms and hard-boiled eggs and béchamel. Coffee and cigarettes. He would hand Monsieur Giannot the stone, and Giannot would pull brass lorgnettes out of his breast pocket and fit their lenses over his calm eyes and tell him: real or fake. Then Giannot would bury it in the garden or conceal it behind a hidden panel somewhere in his walls, and that would be that. Duty fulfilled. Je ne m’en occupe plus. They would be given a private room, take baths; maybe someone would wash their clothes. Maybe Monsieur Giannot would tell humorous stories about his friend the director, and in the morning the birds would sing and a fresh newspaper would announce the end of the invasion, reasonable concessions. He would go back to the key pound, spend his evenings installing little sash windows in little wooden houses. Bonjour, bonjour. Everything as before.
But nothing is as before. The trees seethe and the house smolders, and standing in the gravel of the driveway, the daylight nearly finished, the locksmith has an unsettling thought: Someone might be coming for us. Someone might know what I carry.
He leads Marie-Laure back to the road at a trot.
“Papa, my feet.”
He swings the rucksack around to his front and wraps her arms around his neck and carries her on his back. They pass the smashed gatehouse and the crashed car and turn not east toward the center of Evreux but west. Figures bicycle past. Pinched faces streaked with suspicion or fear or both. Perhaps it is the locksmith’s own eyes that have been streaked.
“Not so quickly,” begs Marie-Laure.
They rest in weeds twenty paces off the road. There is only plunging night and owls calling from the trees and bats straining insects above a roadside ditch. A diamond, the locksmith reminds himself, is only a piece of carbon compressed in the bowels of the earth for eons and driven to the surface in a volcanic pipe. Someone facets it, someone polishes it. It can harbor a curse no more than a leaf can, or a mirror, or a life. There is only chance in this world, chance and physics.
Anyway, what he carries is nothing more than a piece of glass. A diversion.
Behind him, over Evreux, a wall of clouds ignites once, twice. Lightning? On the road ahead, he can make out several acres of uncut hay and the gentle profiles of unlit farm buildings—a house and barn. No movement.
“Marie, I see a hotel.”
“You said the hotels were full.”
“This one looks friendly. Come. It’s not far.”
Again he carries his daughter. One more half mile. The windows of the house stay unlit as they approach. Its barn sits a hundred yards beyond. He tries to listen above the rush of blood in his ears. No dogs, no torches. Probably the farmers too have fled. He sets Marie-Laure in front of the barn doors and knocks softly and waits and knocks again.
The padlock is a brand-new single-latch Burguet; with his tools he picks it easily. Inside are oats and water buckets and horseflies flying sleepy loops but no horses. He opens a stall and helps Marie-Laure into the corner and pulls off her shoes.
“Voilà,” he says. “One of the guests has just brought his horses into the lobby, so it may smell for a moment. But now the porters are hurrying him out. See, there he goes. Goodbye, horse! Go sleep in the stables, please!”
Her expression is faraway. Lost.
A vegetable garden waits behind the house. In the dimness he can make out roses, leeks, lettuces. Strawberries, most still green. Tender white carrots with black earth clotted in their fibers. Nothing stirs: no farmer materializes in a window with a rifle. The locksmith brings back a shirtful of vegetables and fills a tin bucket at a spigot and eases shut the barn door and feeds his daughter in the dark. Then he folds his coat, lays her head on it, and wipes her face with his shirt.
Two cigarettes left. Inhale, exhale.
Walk the paths of logic. Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution. Every lock its key. You can go back to Paris or you can stay here or you can go on.
From outside comes the soft hooting of owls. Distant grumbling of thunder or ordnance or both. He says, “This hotel is very cheap, ma chérie. The innkeeper behind the desk said our room was forty francs a night but only twenty francs if we made our own bed.” He listens to her breathe. “So I said, ‘Oh, we can make our own bed.’ And he said, ‘Right, I’ll get you some nails and wood.’?”
Marie-Laure still does not smile. “Now we go find Uncle Etienne?”
“Who is seventy-six percent crazy?”
“He was with your grandfather—his brother—when he died. In the war. ‘Got a bit of gas in the head’ is how they used to say it. Afterward he saw things.”
“What kind of things?”
Creaking rumble of thunder closer now. The barn quakes lightly.
“Things that were not there.”
Spiders draw their webs between rafters. Moths flap against the windows. It starts to rain. Entrance Exam
Entrance exams for the National Political Institutes of Education are held in Essen, eighteen miles south of Zollverein, inside a sweltering dance hall where a trio of truck-sized radiators is plugged in to the back wall. One of the radiators clangs and steams all day despite various attempts to shut it down. War ministry flags as big as tanks hang from the rafters.
There are one hundred recruits, all boys. A school representative in a black uniform arranges them in ranks four deep. Medals chime on his chest as he paces. “You are,” he declares, “attempting to enter the most elite schools in the world. The exams will last eight days. We will take only the purest, only the strongest.” A second representative distributes uniforms: white shirts, white shorts, white socks. The boys shuck their clothes where they stand.
Werner counts twenty-six others in his age group. All but two are taller than he is. All but three are blond. None of them wear eyeglasses.
The boys spend that entire first morning in their new white outfits, filling out questionnaires on clipboards. There is no noise save the scribbling of pencils and the pacing of examiners and the clunking of the huge radiator.
Where was your grandfather born? What color are your father’s eyes? Has your mother ever worked in an office? Of one hundred and ten questions about his lineage, Werner can accurately answer only sixteen. The rest are guesses.
Where is your mother from?
There are no options for past tense. He writes: Germany.
Where is your father from?
What languages does your mother speak?
He remembers Frau Elena as she looked early this morning, standing in her nightdress beside the hall lamp, fussing over his bag, all the other children asleep. She seemed lost, dazed, as if she could not absorb how quickly things were changing around her. She said she was proud. She said Werner should do his best. “You’re a smart boy,” she said. “You’ll do well.” She kept adjusting and readjusting his collar. When he said, “It’s only a week,” her eyes filled slowly, as if some internal flood were gradually overwhelming her.
In the afternoon, the recruits run. They crawl under obstacles, do push-ups, scale ropes suspended from the ceiling—one hundred children passing sleek and interchangeable in their white uniforms like livestock before the eyes of the examiners. Werner comes in ninth in the shuttle runs. He comes in second to last on the rope climb. He will never be good enough.
In the evening, the boys spill out of the hall, some met by proud-looking parents with automobiles, others vanishing purposefully in twos and threes into the streets: all seem to know where they’re going. Werner makes his way alone to a spartan hostel six blocks away, where he rents a bed for two marks a night and lies among muttering itinerants and listens to the pigeons and bells and shuddering traffic of Essen. It is the first night he has spent outside of Zollverein, and he cannot stop thinking of Jutta, who has not spoken to him since discovering he smashed their radio. Who stared at him with so much accusation in her face that he had to look away. Her eyes said, You are betraying me, but wasn’t he protecting her?
On the second morning, there are raciological exams. They require little of Werner except to raise his arms or keep from blinking while an inspector shines a penlight into the tunnels of his pupils. He sweats and shifts. His heart pounds unreasonably. An onion-breathed technician in a lab coat measures the distance between Werner’s temples, the circumference of his head, and the thickness and shape of his lips. Calipers are used to evaluate his feet, the length of his fingers, and the distance between his eyes and his navel. They measure his penis. The angle of his nose is quantified with a wooden protractor.
A second technician gauges Werner’s eye color against a chromatic scale on which sixty or so shades of blue are displayed. Werner’s color is himmelblau, sky blue. To assess his hair color, the man snips a lock of hair from Werner’s head and compares it to thirty or so other locks clipped to a board, arrayed darkest to lightest.
“Schnee,” the man mutters, and makes a notation. Snow. Werner’s hair is lighter than the lightest color on the board.
They test his vision, draw his blood, take his fingerprints. By noon he wonders if there is anything left for them to measure.
Verbal exams come next. How many Nationalpolitische Erzie-hungsanstalten are there? Twenty. Who are our greatest Olympians? He does not know. What is the birthday of the führer? April 20. Who is our greatest writer, what is the Treaty of Versailles, which is the nation’s fastest airplane?
Day three involves more running, more climbing, more jumping. Everything is timed. The technicians, school representatives, and examiners—each wearing uniforms in subtly different shades—scribble on pads of graph paper with a very narrow gauge, and sheet after sheet of this paper gets closed into leather binders with a gold lightning bolt stamped on the front.
The recruits speculate in eager whispers.
“I hear the schools have sailboats, falconries, rifle ranges.”
“I hear they will take only seven from each age group.”
“I hear it’s only four.”
They speak of the schools with yearning and bravado; they want desperately to be selected. Werner tells himself: So do I. So do I.
And yet at other times, despite his ambitions, he is visited by instants of vertigo; he sees Jutta holding the smashed pieces of their radio and feels uncertainty steal into his gut.
The recruits scale walls; they run wind sprint after wind sprint. On the fifth day, three quit. On the sixth, four more give up. Each hour the dance hall seems to grow progressively warmer, so by the eighth day, the air, walls, and floor are saturated with the hot, teeming odor of boys. For their final test, each of the fourteen-year-olds is forced to climb a ladder haphazardly nailed to a wall. Once at the top, twenty-five feet above the floor, their heads in the rafters, they are supposed to step onto a tiny platform, close their eyes, and leap off, to be caught in a flag held by a dozen of the other recruits.
First to go is a stout farm kid from Herne. He scales the ladder quickly enough, but as soon as he’s on the platform high above everyone else, his face goes white. His knees wobble dangerously.
Someone mutters, “Pussy.”
The boy beside Werner whispers, “Afraid of heights.”
An examiner watches dispassionately. The boy on the platform peeks over the edge as if into a swirling abyss and shuts his eyes. He sways back and forth. Interminable seconds pass. The examiner peers at his stopwatch. Werner clutches the hem of the flag.
Soon most everyone in the dance hall has stopped to watch, even recruits in other age groups. The boy sways twice more, until it’s clear he’s about to faint. Even then no one moves to help him.
When he goes over, he goes sideways. The recruits on the ground manage to swing the flag around in time, but his weight tears the edges out of their hands, and he hits the floor arms first with a sound like a bundle of kindling breaking over a knee.
The boy sits up. Both of his forearms are bent at nauseating angles. He blinks at them curiously for a moment, as if scanning his memory for a clue that might explain how he got there.
Then he starts to scream. Werner looks away. Four boys are ordered to carry the injured one out.
One by one, the remaining fourteen-year-olds climb the ladder and tremble and leap. One sobs the whole way. Another sprains an ankle when he hits. The next waits at least two full minutes before jumping. The fifteenth boy looks out across the dance hall as if staring into a bleak, cold sea, then climbs back down.
Werner watches from his place on the flag. When his turn comes, he tells himself, he must not waver. On the undersides of his eyelids he sees the interlaced ironwork of Zollverein, the fire-breathing mills, men teeming out of elevator shafts like ants, the mouth of Pit Nine, where his father was lost. Jutta in the parlor window, sealed behind the rain, watching him follow the corporal to Herr Siedler’s house. The taste of whipped cream and powdered sugar and the smooth calves of Herr Siedler’s wife.
We will take only the purest, only the strongest.
The only place your brother is going, little girl, is into the mines.
Werner scampers up the ladder. The rungs have been roughly sawed, and his palms take splinters the whole way. From the top, the crimson flag with its white circle and black cross looks unexpectedly small. A pale ring of faces stares up. It’s even hotter up here, torrid, and the smell of perspiration makes him light-headed.
Without hesitating, Werner steps to the edge of the platform and shuts his eyes and jumps. He hits the flag in its exact center, and the boys holding its edges give a collective groan.
He rolls to his feet, uninjured. The examiner clicks his stopwatch, scribbles on his clipboard, looks up. Their eyes meet for a half second. Maybe less. Then the man goes back to his notations.
“Heil Hitler!” yells Werner.
The next boy starts up the ladder. Brittany
In the morning an ancient furniture lorry stops for them. Her father lifts her into its bed, where a dozen people nestle beneath a waxed canvas tarp. The engine roars and pops; the truck rarely accelerates past walking speed.
A woman prays in a Norman accent; someone shares pâté; everything smells of rain. No Stukas swoop over them, machine guns blazing. No one in the truck has even seen a German. For half the morning, Marie-Laure tries to convince herself that the previous days have been some elaborate test concocted by her father, that the truck is moving not away from Paris but toward it, that tonight they’ll return home. The model will be on its bench in the corner, and the sugar bowl will be in the center of the kitchen table, its little spoon resting on the rim. Out the open windows, the cheese seller on the rue des Patriarches will lock his door and shutter up those marvelous smells, as he has done nearly every evening she can remember, and the leaves of the chestnut tree will clatter and murmur, and her father will boil coffee and draw her a hot bath, and say, “You did well, Marie-Laure. I’m proud.”
The truck bounces from highway to country road to dirt lane. Weeds brush its flanks. Well after midnight, west of Cancale, they run out of fuel.
“Not much farther,” her father whispers.
Marie-Laure shuffles along half-asleep. The road seems hardly wider than a path. The air smells like wet grain and hedge trimmings; in the lulls between their footfalls, she can hear a deep, nearly subsonic roar. She tugs her father to a stop. “Armies.”
She cocks her head.
“It’s the ocean, Marie. I promise.”
He carries her on his back. Now the barking of gulls. Smell of wet stones, of bird shit, of salt, though she never knew salt to have a smell. The sea murmuring in a language that travels through stones, air, and sky. What did Captain Nemo say? The sea does not belong to tyrants.
“We’re crossing into Saint-Malo now,” says her father, “the part they call the city within the walls.” He narrates what he sees: a portcullis, defensive walls called ramparts, granite mansions, a steeple above rooftops. The echoes of his footfalls ricochet off tall houses and rain back onto them, and he labors beneath her weight, and she is old enough to suspect that what he presents as quaint and welcoming might in truth be harrowing and strange.
Birds make strangled cries overhead. Her father turns left, right. It feels to Marie-Laure as if they have wound these past four days toward the center of a bewildering maze, and now they are tiptoeing past the pickets of some final interior cell. Inside which a terrible beast might slumber.
“Rue Vauborel,” her father says between pants. “Here, it must be. Or here?” He pivots, retraces their steps, climbs an alley, then turns around.
“Is there no one to ask?”
“There’s not a single light, Marie. Everyone is asleep or pretending to be.”
Finally they reach a gate, and he sets her down on a curbstone and pushes an electric buzzer, and she can hear it ring deep within a house. Nothing. He presses again. Again nothing. He presses a third time.
“This is the house of your uncle?”
“He doesn’t know us,” she says.
“He’s sleeping. As we should be.”
They sit with their backs to the gate. Wrought iron and cool. A heavy wooden door just behind it. She leans her head on his shoulder; he pulls off her shoes. The world seems to sway gently back and forth, as though the town is drifting lightly away. As though back onshore, all of France is left to bite its fingernails and flee and stumble and weep and wake to a numb, gray dawn, unable to believe what is happening. Who do the roads belong to now? And the fields? The trees?
Her father takes his final cigarette from his shirt pocket and lights it.
From deep inside the house behind them come footfalls. Madame Manec
As soon as her father says his name, the breathing on the other side of the door becomes a gasp, a held breath. The gate screeches; a door behind it gives way. “Jesus’s mother,” says a woman’s voice. “You were so small—”
“My daughter, Madame. Marie-Laure, this is Madame Manec.”
Marie-Laure attempts a curtsy. The hand that cups her cheek is strong: the hand of a geologist or a gardener.
“My God, there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together. But, dear child, your stockings. And your heels! You must be famished.”
They step into a narrow entry. Marie-Laure hears the gate clang shut, then the woman latching the door behind them. Two dead bolts, one chain. They are led into a room that smells of herbs and rising dough: a kitchen. Her father unbuttons her coat, helps her sit. “We are very grateful, I understand how late it is,” he is saying, and the old woman—Madame Manec—is brisk, efficient, evidently overcoming her initial amazement; she brushes off their thank-yous; she scoots Marie-Laure’s chair toward a tabletop. A match is struck; water fills a pot; an icebox clicks open and shut. There is the hum of gas and the tick-tick of heating metal. In another moment, a warm towel is on Marie-Laure’s face. A jar of cool, sweet water in front of her. Each sip a blessing.
“Oh, the town is absolutely stuffed,” Madame Manec is saying in her fairy-tale drawl as she moves about. She seems short; she wears blocky, heavy shoes. Hers is a low voice, full of pebbles—a sailor’s voice or a smoker’s. “Some can afford hotels or rentals, but many are in the warehouses, on straw, not enough to eat. I’d take them in, but your uncle, you know, it might upset him. There’s no diesel, no kerosene, British ships long gone. They burned everything they left behind, at first I couldn’t believe any of it, but Etienne, he has the wireless going nonstop—”
Eggs crack. Butter pops in a hot pan. Her father is telling an abridged story of their flight, train stations, fearful crowds, omitting the stop in Evreux, but soon all of Marie-Laure’s attention is absorbed by the smells blooming around her: egg, spinach, melting cheese.
An omelet arrives. She positions her face over its steam. “May I please have a fork?”
The old woman laughs: a laugh Marie-Laure warms to immediately. In an instant a fork is fitted into her hand.
The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold. Madame Manec says, “I think she likes it,” and laughs again.
A second omelet soon appears. Now it is her father who eats quickly. “How about peaches, dear?” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.
“Marie,” murmurs her father, “your manners.”
“We have plenty, you go ahead, child. I make them every year.” When Marie-Laure has eaten two full cans of peaches, Madame Manec cleans Marie-Laure’s feet with a rag and shakes out her coat and clanks dishes into a sink and says, “Cigarette?” and her father groans with gratitude and a match flares and the grown-ups smoke.
A door opens, or a window, and Marie-Laure can hear the hypnotic voice of the sea.
“And Etienne?” says her father.
Madame says, “Shuts himself up like a corpse one day, eats like an albatross the next.”
“He still does not—?”
“Not for twenty years.”
Probably the grown-ups are mouthing more to each other. Probably Marie-Laure should be more curious—about her great-uncle who sees things that are not there, about the fate of everyone and everything she has ever known—but her stomach is full, her blood has become a warm golden flow through her arteries, and out the open window, beyond the walls, the ocean crashes, only a bit of stacked stone left between her and it, the rim of Brittany, the farthest windowsill of France—and maybe the Germans are advancing as inexorably as lava, but Marie-Laure is slipping into something like a dream, or perhaps it’s the memory of one: she’s six or seven years old, newly blind, and her father is sitting in the chair beside her bed, whittling away at some tiny piece of wood, smoking a cigarette, and evening is settling over the hundred thousand rooftops and chimneys of Paris, and all the walls around her are dissolving, the ceilings too, the whole city is disintegrating into smoke, and at last sleep falls over her like a shadow. You Have Been Called
Everyone wants to hear Werner’s stories. What were the exams like, what did they make you do, tell us everything. The youngest children tug his sleeves; the older ones are deferential. This snowy-haired dreamer plucked out of the soot.
“They said they’d accept only two from my age group. Maybe three.” From the far end of the table, he can feel the heat of Jutta’s attention. With the rest of the money from Herr Siedler, he purchased a People’s Receiver for thirty-four marks eighty: a two-valve low-powered radio even cheaper than the state-sponsored Volksemf?ngers he has repaired in the houses of neighbors. Unmodified, its receiver can haul in only the big long-wave nationwide programs from Deutchlandsender. Nothing else. Nothing foreign.
The children shout, delighted, as he presents it. Jutta shows no interest.
Martin Sachse asks, “Was there loads of math?”
“Was there cheeses? Was there cakes?”
“Did they let you shoot rifles?”
“Did you ride in tanks? I bet you rode in tanks.”
Werner says, “I didn’t know the answers to half their questions. I’ll never get in.”
But he does. Five days after he returns from Essen, the letter is hand-delivered to Children’s House. An eagle and cross on a crisp envelope. No stamp. Like a dispatch from God.
Frau Elena is doing laundry. The little boys are clustered around the new radio: a half-hour program called Kids’ Club. Jutta and Claudia F?rster have taken three of the younger girls to a puppet show in the market; Jutta has spoken no more than six words to Werner since his return.
You have been called, says the letter. Werner is to report to the National Political Institute of Education #6 at Schulpforta. He stands in the parlor of Children’s House, trying to absorb it. Cracked walls, sagging ceiling, twin benches that have borne child after child after child for as long as the mine has made orphans. He has found a way out.
Schulpforta. Tiny dot on the map, near Naumburg, in Saxony. Two hundred miles east. Only in his most intrepid dreams did he allow himself to hope that he might travel so far. He carries the sheet of paper in a daze to the alley where Frau Elena boils sheets amid billows of steam.
She rereads it several times. “We can’t pay.”
“We don’t need to.”
“Five hours by train. They’ve already paid the fare.”
Frau Elena: strands of hair stuck to her cheeks, maroon aprons under her eyes, pink rims around her nostrils. Thin crucifix against her damp throat. Is she proud? She rubs her eyes and nods absently. “They’ll celebrate this.” She hands the letter back and stares down the alley at the dense ranks of clotheslines and coalbins.
“Everyone. The neighbors.” She laughs a sudden and startling laugh. “People like that vice minister. The man who took your book.”
“No. Not Jutta.”
He rehearses in his head the argument he will present to his sister. Pflicht. It means duty. Obligation. Every German fulfilling his function. Put on your boots and go to work. Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer. We all have parts to play, little sister. But before the girls arrive, news of his acceptance has reverberated through the block. Neighbors come over one after another and exclaim and wag their chins. Coal wives bring pig knuckles and cheese; they pass around Werner’s acceptance letter; the ones who can read, read it aloud to the ones who cannot, and Jutta comes home to a crowded, exhilarated room. The twins—Hannah and Susanne Gerlitz—sprint laps around the sofa, looped up in the excitement, and six-year-old Rolf Hupfauer sings Rise! Rise! All glory to the fatherland! and several of the other children join in, and Werner doesn’t see Frau Elena speak to Jutta in the corner of the parlor, doesn’t see Jutta run upstairs.
At the dinner bell, she does not come down. Frau Elena asks Hannah Gerlitz to lead the prayer, and tells Werner she’ll talk to Jutta, that he ought to stay downstairs, all these people are here for him. Every few breaths, the words flare in his mind like sparks: You have been called. Each minute that passes is one fewer in this house. In this life.
After the meal, little Siegfried Fischer, no older than five, walks around the table and tugs Werner’s sleeve and hands him a photograph he has torn from a newspaper. In the picture, six fighter-bombers float above a mountain range of clouds. Spangles of sun are frozen midglide across the airplanes’ fuselages. The scarves of the pilots stretch backward.
Siegfried Fischer says, “You’ll show them, won’t you?” His face is fierce with belief; it seems to draw a circle around all the hours Werner has spent at Children’s House, hoping for something more.
“I will,” Werner says. The eyes of all the children are on him. “Absolutely I will.” Occuper
Marie-Laure wakes to church bells: two three four five. Faint smell of mildew. Ancient down pillows with all the loft worn out. Silk wallpaper behind the lumpy bed where she sits. When she stretches out both arms, she can almost touch walls on either side.
The reverberations of the bells cease. She has slept most of the day. What is the muffled roar she hears? Crowds? Or is it still the sea?
She sets her feet on the floor. The wounds on the backs of her heels pulse. Where is her cane? She shuffles so she does not bash her shins on something. Behind curtains, a window rises out of her reach. Opposite the window, she finds a dresser whose drawers open only partway before striking the bed.
The weather in this place: you can feel it between your fingers.
She gropes through a doorway into what? A hall? Out here the roar is fainter, barely a murmur.
Quiet. Then a bustling far below, the heavy shoes of Madame Manec climbing flights of narrow, curving steps, her smoker’s lungs coming closer, third floor, fourth—how tall is this house?—now Madame’s voice is calling, “Mademoiselle,” and she is taken by the hand, led back into the room in which she woke, and seated on the edge of the bed. “Do you need to use the toilet? You must, then a bath, you had an excellent sleep, your father is in town trying the telegraph office, though I assured him that’ll be about as profitable as trying to pick feathers out of molasses. Are you hungry?”
Madame Manec plumps pillows, flaps the quilt. Marie-Laure tries to concentrate on something small, something concrete. The model back in Paris. A single seashell in Dr. Geffard’s laboratory.
“Does this whole house belong to my great-uncle Etienne?”
“How does he pay for it?”
Madame Manec laughs. “You get right to it, don’t you? Your great-uncle inherited the house from his father, who was your great-grandfather. He was a very successful man with plenty of money.”
“You knew him?”
“I have worked here since Master Etienne was a little boy.”
“My grandfather too? You knew him?”
“Will I meet Uncle Etienne now?”
Madame Manec hesitates. “Probably not.”
“But he is here?”
“Yes, child. He is always here.”
Madame Manec’s big, thick hands enfold hers. “Let’s see about the bath. Your father will explain when he returns.”
“But Papa doesn’t explain anything. He says only that Uncle was in the war with my grandfather.”
“That’s right. But your great-uncle, when he came home”—Madame hunts for the proper phrasing—“he was not the same as when he left.”
“You mean he was more scared of things?”
“I mean lost. A mouse in a trap. He saw dead people passing through the walls. Terrible things in the corners of the streets. Now your great-uncle does not go outdoors.”
“Not for years. But Etienne is a wonder, you’ll see. He knows everything.”
Marie-Laure listens to the house timbers creak and the gulls cry and the gentle roar breaking against the window. “Are we high in the air, Madame?”
“We are on the sixth floor. It’s a good bed, isn’t it? I thought you and your papa would be able to rest well here.”
“Does the window open?”
“It does, dear. But it is probably best to leave it shuttered while—”
Marie-Laure is already standing atop the bed, running her palms along the wall. “Can one see the sea from it?”
“We’re supposed to keep shutters and windows closed. But maybe just for a minute.” Madame Manec turns a handle, pulls in the two hinged panes of the window, and nudges open the shutter. Wind: immediate, bright, sweet, briny, luminous. The roar rises and falls.
“Are there snails out there, Madame?”
“Snails? In the ocean?” Again that laugh. “As many as raindrops. You’re interested in snails?”
“Yes yes yes. I have found tree snails and garden snails. But I have never found marine snails.”
“Well,” says Madame Manec. “You’ve turned up in the right place.”
Madame draws a warm bath in a third-floor tub. From the tub, Marie-Laure listens to her shut the door, and the cramped bathroom groan beneath the weight of the water, and the walls creak, as if she were in a cabin inside Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. The pain in her heels fades. She lowers her head below the level of the water. To never go outdoors! To hide for decades inside this strange, narrow house!
For dinner she is buttoned into a starchy dress from some bygone decade. They sit at the square kitchen table, her father and Madame Manec at opposite sides, knees pressed to knees, windows jammed shut, shutters drawn. A wireless set mumbles the names of ministers in a harried, staccato voice—de Gaulle in London, Pétain replacing Reynaud. They eat fish stewed with green tomatoes. Her father reports that no letters have been delivered or collected in three days. Telegraph lines are not functioning. The newest newspaper is six days old. On the radio, the announcer reads public service classifieds.
Monsieur Cheminoux refugeed in Orange seeks his three children, left with luggage at Ivry-sur-Seine.
Francis in Genève seeks any information about Marie-Jeanne, last seen at Gentilly.
Mother sends prayers to Luc and Albert, wherever they are.
L. Rabier seeks news of his wife, last seen at Gare d’Orsay.
A. Cotteret wants his mother to know he is safe in Laval.
Madame Meyzieu seeks whereabouts of six daughters, sent by train to Redon.
“Everybody has misplaced someone,” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure’s father switches off the wireless, and the tubes click as they cool. Upstairs, faintly, the same voice keeps reading names. Or is it her imagination? She hears Madame Manec stand and collect the bowls and her father exhale cigarette smoke as though it is very heavy in his lungs and he is glad to be rid of it.
That night she and her father wind up the twisting staircase and go to bed side by side on the same lumpy bed in the same sixth-floor bedroom with the fraying silk wallpaper. Her father fusses with his rucksack, with the door latch, with his matches. Soon enough there is the familiar smell of his cigarettes: Gauloises bleues. She hears wood pop and groan as the two halves of the window pull open. The welcome hiss of wind washes in, or maybe it’s the sea and the wind, her ears unable to unbraid the two. With it come the scents of salt and hay and fish markets and distant marshes and absolutely nothing that smells to her of war.
“Can we visit the ocean tomorrow, Papa?”
“Probably not tomorrow.”
“Where is Uncle Etienne?”
“I expect he’s in his room on the fifth floor.”
“Seeing things that are not there?”
“We are lucky to have him, Marie.”
“Lucky to have Madame Manec too. She’s a genius with food, isn’t she, Papa? She is maybe just a little bit better at cooking than you are?”
“Just a very little bit better.”
Marie-Laure is glad to hear a smile enter his voice. But beneath it she can sense his thoughts fluttering like trapped birds. “What does it mean, Papa, they’ll occupy us?”
“It means they’ll park their trucks in the squares.”
“Will they make us speak their language?”
“They might make us advance our clocks by one hour.”
The house creaks. Gulls cry. He lights another cigarette.
“Is it like occupation, Papa? Like the sort of job a person does?”
“It’s like military control, Marie. That’s enough questions for now.”
Quiet. Twenty heartbeats. Thirty.
“How can one country make another change its clocks? What if everybody refuses?”
“Then a lot of people will be early. Or late.”
“Remember our apartment, Papa? With my books and our model and all those pinecones on the windowsill?”
“I lined up the pinecones largest to smallest.”
“They’re still there.”
“Do you think so?”
“I know so.”
“You do not know so.”
“I do not know so. I believe so.”
“Are German soldiers climbing into our beds right now, Papa?”
Marie-Laure tries to lie very still. She can almost hear the machinery of her father’s mind churning inside his skull. “It will be okay,” she whispers. Her hand finds his forearm. “We will stay here awhile and then we will go back to our apartment and the pinecones will be right where we left them and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea will be on the floor of the key pound where we left it and no one will be in our beds.”
The distant anthem of the sea. The clopping of someone’s boot heels on cobbles far below. She wants very badly for her father to say, Yes, that’s it absolutely, ma chérie, but he says nothing. Don’t Tell Lies
He cannot concentrate on schoolwork or simple conversations or Frau Elena’s chores. Every time he shuts his eyes, some vision of the school at Schulpforta overmasters him: vermilion flags, muscular horses, gleaming laboratories. The best boys in Germany. At certain moments he sees himself as an emblem of possibility to which all eyes have turned. Though at other moments, flickering in front of him, he sees the big kid from the entrance exams: his face gone bloodless atop the platform high above the dance hall. How he fell. How no one moved to help him.
Why can’t Jutta be happy for him? Why, even at the moment of his escape, must some inexplicable warning murmur in a distant region of his mind?
Martin Sachse says, “Tell us again about the hand grenades!”
Siegfried Fischer says, “And the falconries!”
Three times he readies his argument and three times Jutta turns on a heel and strides away. Hour after hour she helps Frau Elena with the smaller children or walks to the market or finds some other excuse to be helpful, to be busy, to be out.
“She won’t listen,” Werner tells Frau Elena.
Before he knows it, there’s only one day before his departure. He wakes before dawn and finds Jutta asleep in her cot in the girls’ dormitory. Her arms are wrapped around her head and her wool blanket is twisted around her midsection and her pillow is jammed into the crack between mattress and wall—even in sleep, a tableau of friction. Above her bed are papered her fantastical pencil drawings of Frau Elena’s village, of Paris with a thousand white towers beneath whirling flocks of birds.
He says her name.
She twines herself tighter into her blanket.
“Will you walk with me?”
To his surprise, she sits up. They step outside before anyone else is awake. He leads her without speaking. They climb one fence, then another. Jutta’s untied shoelaces trail behind her. Thistles bite their knees. The rising sun makes a pinhole on the horizon.
They stop at the edge of an irrigation canal. In winters past, Werner used to tow her in their wagon to this very spot, and they would watch skaters race along the frozen canal, farmers with blades fixed to their feet and frost caked in their beards, five or six rushing by all at once, tightly packed, in the midst of an eight- or nine-mile race between towns. The look in the skaters’ eyes was of horses who have run a long way, and it was always exciting for Werner to see them, to feel the air disturbed by their speed, to hear their skates clapping along, then fading—a sensation as if his soul might tear free of his body and go sparking off with them. But as soon as they’d continued around the bend and left behind only the white etchings of their skates in the ice, the thrill would fade, and he’d tow Jutta back to Children’s House feeling lonely and forsaken and more trapped in his life than before.
He says, “No skaters came last winter.”
His sister gazes into the ditch. Her eyes are mauve. Her hair is snarled and untamable and perhaps even whiter than his. Schnee.
She says, “None’ll come this year either.”
The mine complex is a smoldering black mountain range behind her. Even now Werner can hear a mechanical drumbeat thudding in the distance, first shift going down in the elevators as the owl shift comes up—all those boys with tired eyes and soot-stained faces rising in the elevators to meet the sun—and for a moment he apprehends a huge and terrible presence looming just beyond the morning.
“I know you’re angry—”
“You’ll become just like Hans and Herribert.”
“Spend enough time with boys like that and you will.”
“So you want me to stay? Go down in the mines?”
They watch a bicyclist far down the path. Jutta clamps her hands in her armpits. “You know what I used to listen to? On our radio? Before you ruined it?”
“Hush, Jutta. Please.”
“Broadcasts from Paris. They’d say the opposite of everything Deutschlandsender says. They’d say we were devils. That we were committing atrocities. Do you know what atrocities means?”
“Is it right,” Jutta says, “to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”
Doubts: slipping in like eels. Werner shoves them back. Jutta is barely twelve years old, still a child.
“I’ll write you letters every week. Twice a week if I can. You don’t have to show them to Frau Elena if you don’t want to.”
Jutta shuts her eyes.
“It’s not forever, Jutta. Two years, maybe. Half the boys who get admitted don’t manage to graduate. But maybe I’ll learn something; maybe they’ll teach me to be a proper engineer. Maybe I can learn to fly an airplane, like little Siegfried says. Don’t shake your head, we’ve always wanted to see the inside of an airplane, haven’t we? I’ll fly us west, you and me, Frau Elena too if she wants. Or we could take a train. We’ll ride through forests and villages de montagnes, all those places Frau Elena talked about when we were small. Maybe we could ride all the way to Paris.”
The burgeoning light. The tender hissing of the grass. Jutta opens her eyes but doesn’t look at him. “Don’t tell lies. Lie to yourself, Werner, but don’t lie to me.”
Ten hours later, he’s on a train. Etienne
For three days she does not meet her great-uncle. Then, feeling her way to the toilet on the fourth morning after their arrival, she steps on something small and hard. She crouches and locates it with her fingers.
Whorled and smooth. A sculpture of vertical folds incised by a tapering spiral. The aperture broad and oval. She whispers, “A whelk.”
One stride in front of the first shell, she finds another. Then a third and a fourth. The trail of seashells arcs past the toilet and down a flight to the closed fifth-floor door she knows by now is his. Beyond which issues the concerted whispers of pianos playing. A voice says, “Come in.”
She expects fustiness, an elderly funk, but the room smells mildly of soap and books and dried seaweed. Not unlike Dr. Geffard’s laboratory.
“Marie-Laure.” His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers. She reaches into space, and a cool bird-boned hand takes hers. He is feeling better, he says. “I am sorry I have not been able to meet you sooner.”
The pianos plink along softly; it sounds as if a dozen are playing all at once, as if the sound comes from every point of the compass.
“How many radios do you have, Uncle?”
“Let me show you.” He brings her hands to a shelf. “This one is stereo. Heterodyne. I assembled it myself.” She imagines a diminutive pianist, dressed in a tuxedo, playing inside the machine. Next he places her hands on a big cabinet radio, then on a third no bigger than a toaster. Eleven sets in all, he says, boyish pride slipping into his voice. “I can hear ships at sea. Madrid. Brazil. London. I heard Pakistan once. Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.”
He lets her dig through a box of fuses, another of switches. He leads her to bookshelves next: the spines of hundreds of books; a birdcage; beetles in matchboxes; an electric mousetrap; a glass paperweight inside which, he says, a scorpion has been entombed; jars of miscellaneous fuses; a hundred more things she cannot identify.
He has the entire fifth floor—one big room, except for the landing—to himself. Three windows open onto the rue Vauborel in the front, three more onto the alley in the back. There is a small and ancient bed, his coverlet smooth and tight. A tidy desk, a davenport.
“That’s the tour,” he says, almost whispering. Her great-uncle seems kind, curious, and entirely sane. Stillness: this is what he radiates more than anything else. The stillness of a tree. Of a mouse blinking in the dark.
Madame Manec brings sandwiches. Etienne doesn’t have any Jules Verne, but he does have Darwin, he says, and reads to her from The Voyage of the “Beagle,” translating English to French as he goes—the variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite . . . Music spirals out of the radios, and it is splendid to drowse on the davenport, to be warm and fed, to feel the sentences hoist her up and carry her somewhere else.
Six blocks away at the telegraph office, Marie-Laure’s father presses his face to the window to watch two German motorcycles with sidecars roar through the Porte Saint-Vincent. The shutters of the town are drawn, but between slats, over sills, a thousand eyes peer out. Behind the motorcycles roll two trucks. In the rear glides a single black Mercedes. Sunlight flashes from the hood ornaments and chrome fittings as the little procession grinds to a stop on the ringed gravel drive in front of the soaring lichen-streaked walls of the Château de Saint-Malo. An elderly, preternaturally tanned man—the mayor, somebody explains—waits with a white handkerchief in his big sailor’s hands, a barely perceptible shake showing in his wrists.
The Germans climb out of their vehicles, more than a dozen of them. Their boots gleam and their uniforms are tidy. Two carry carnations; one urges along a beagle on a rope. Several gaze openmouthed up at the facade of the château.
A short man in a field captain’s uniform emerges from the backseat of the Mercedes and brushes something invisible from the sleeve of his coat. He exchanges a few words with a thin aide-de-camp, who translates to the mayor. The mayor nods. Then the short man disappears through the huge doors. Minutes later, the aide-de-camp flings open the shutters of an upstairs window and gazes a moment across the rooftops before unfurling a crimson flag over the brick and securing its eyelets to the sill. Jungm?nner
It’s a castle out of a storybook: eight or nine stone buildings sheltered below hills, rust-colored roofs, narrow windows, spires and turrets, weeds sprouting from between roof tiles. A pretty little river winds through athletics fields. Not in the clearest hour of Zollverein’s clearest day has Werner breathed air so unadulterated by dust.
A one-armed bunk master sets forth rules in a belligerent torrent. “This is your parade uniform, this is your field uniform, this is your gym uniform. Suspenders crossed in the back, parallel in the front. Sleeves rolled to the elbow. Each boy is to carry a knife in a scabbard on the right side of the belt. Raise your right arm when you wish to be called upon. Always align in rows of ten. No books, no cigarettes, no food, no personal possessions, nothing in your locker but uniforms, boots, knife, polish. No talking after lights-out. Letters home will be posted on Wednesdays. You will strip away your weakness, your cowardice, your hesitation. You will become like a waterfall, a volley of bullets—you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause. You will forgo comforts; you will live by duty alone. You will eat country and breathe nation.”
Do they understand?
The boys shout that they do. There are four hundred of them, plus thirty instructors and fifty more on the staff, NCOs and cooks, groomsmen and groundskeepers. Some cadets are as young as nine. The oldest are seventeen. Gothic faces, sharp noses, pointed chins. Blue eyes, all of them.
Werner sleeps in a tiny dormitory with seven other fourteen-year-olds. The bunk above belongs to Frederick: a reedy boy, thin as a blade of grass, skin as pale as cream. Frederick is new too. He’s from Berlin. His father is assistant to an ambassador. When Frederick speaks, his attention floats up, as though he’s scanning the sky for something.
He and Werner eat their first meal in their starchy new uniforms at a long wooden table in the refectory. Some boys talk in whispers, some sit alone, some gulp food as if they have not eaten in days. Through three arched windows, dawn sends a sheaf of hallowed golden rays.
Frederick flutters his fingers and asks, “Do you like birds?”
“Do you know about hooded crows?”
Werner shakes his head.
“Hooded crows are smarter than most mammals. Even monkeys. I’ve seen them put nuts they can’t crack in the road and wait for cars to run over them to get at the kernel. Werner, you and I are going to be great friends, I’m sure of it.”
A portrait of the führer glowers over every classroom. Learning happens on backless benches, at wooden tables grooved by the boredom of countless boys before them—squires, monks, conscripts, cadets. On Werner’s first day, he walks past the half-open door of the technical sciences laboratory and glimpses a room as big as Zollverein’s drugstore lined with brand-new sinks and glass-fronted cabinets inside which wait sparkling beakers and graduated cylinders and balances and burners. Frederick has to urge him along.
On their second day, a withered phrenologist gives a presentation to the entire student body. The lights in the refectory dim, a projector whirs, and a chart full of circles appears on the far wall. The old man stands beneath the projection screen and whisks the tip of a billiards cue through the grids. “White circles represent pure German blood. Circles with black indicate the proportion of foreign blood. Notice group two, number five.” He raps the screen with his cue and it ripples. “Marriage between a pure German and one-quarter Jew is still permissible, you see?”
A half hour later, Werner and Frederick are reading Goethe in poetics. Then they’re magnetizing needles in field exercises. The bunk master announces schedules of byzantine complication: Mondays are for mechanics, state history, racial sciences. Tuesdays are for horsemanship, orienteering, military history. Everyone, even the nine-year-olds, will be taught to clean, break down, and fire a Mauser rifle.
Afternoons, they lash themselves into a snarl of cartridge belts and run. Run to the troughs; run to the flag; run up the hill. Run carrying each other on your backs, run carrying your rifle above your head. Run, crawl, swim. Then more running.
The star-flooded nights, the dew-soaked dawns, the hushed ambulatories, the enforced asceticism—never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded. Never has he felt such a hunger to belong. In the rows of dormitories are cadets who talk of alpine skiing, of duels, of jazz clubs and governesses and boar hunting; boys who employ curse words with virtuosic skill and boys who talk about cigarettes named for cinema stars; boys who speak of “telephoning the colonel” and boys who have baronesses for mothers. There are boys who have been admitted not because they are good at anything in particular but because their fathers work for ministries. And the way they talk: “One mustn’t expect figs from thistles!” “I’d pollinate her in a blink, you shit!” “Bear up and funk it, boys!” There are cadets who do everything right—perfect posture, expert marksmanship, boots polished so perfectly that they reflect clouds. There are cadets who have skin like butter and irises like sapphires and ultra-fine networks of blue veins laced across the backs of their hands. For now, though, beneath the whip of the administration, they are all the same, all Jungm?nner. They hustle through the gates together, gulp fried eggs in the refectory together, march across the quadrangle, perform roll call, salute the colors, shoot rifles, run, bathe, and suffer together. They are each a mound of clay, and the potter that is the portly, shiny-faced commandant is throwing four hundred identical pots.
We are young, they sing, we are steadfast, we have never compromised, we have so many castles yet to storm.
Werner sways between exhaustion, confusion, and exhilaration. That his life has been so wholly redirected astounds him. He keeps any doubts at bay by memorizing lyrics or the routes to classrooms, by holding before his eyes a vision of the technical sciences laboratory: nine tables, thirty stools; coils, variable capacitors, amplifiers, batteries, soldering irons locked away in those gleaming cabinets.
Above him, kneeling on his bunk, Frederick peers out the open window through a pair of antique field glasses and makes a record on the bed rail of birds he has sighted. One notch under red-necked grebe. Six notches under thrush nightingale. Out on the grounds, a group of ten-year-olds is carrying torches and swastika flags toward the river. The procession pauses, and a gust of wind tears at the torch flames. Then they march on, their song swirling up through the window like a bright, pulsing cloud.
O take me, take me up into the ranks
so that I do not die a common death!
I do not want to die in vain, what
I want is to fall on the sacrificial mound. Vienna
Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is forty-one years old, not so old that he cannot be promoted. He has moist red lips; pale, almost translucent cheeks like fillets of raw sole; and an instinct for correctness that rarely fails him. He has a wife who suffers his absences without complaint, and who arranges porcelain kittens by color, lightest to darkest, on two different shelves in their drawing room in Stuttgart. He also has two daughters whom he has not seen in nine months. The eldest, Veronika, is deeply earnest. Her letters to him include phrases like sacred resolve, proud accomplishments, and unparalleled in history.
Von Rumpel’s particular gift is for diamonds: he can facet and polish stones as well as any Aryan jeweler in Europe, and he often spots fakes at a glance. He studied crystallography in Munich, apprenticed as a polisher in Antwerp, has even been—one glorious afternoon—to Charterhouse Street in London, to an unmarked diamond house, where he was asked to turn out his pockets and ushered up three staircases and through three locked doors and seated at a table where a man with a mustache waxed to knifepoints let him examine a ninety-two-carat raw diamond from South Africa.
Before the war, the life of Reinhold von Rumpel was pleasant enough: he was a gemologist who ran an appraisal business out of a second-story shop behind Stuttgart’s old chancellery. Clients would bring in stones and he’d tell them what they were worth. Sometimes he’d recut diamonds or consult on high-level faceting projects. If occasionally he cheated a customer, he told himself that was part of the game.
Because of the war, his job has expanded. Now Sergeant Major von Rumpel has the chance to do what no one has done in centuries—not since the Mogul Dynasty, not since the Khans. Perhaps not in history. The capitulation of France is only weeks past, and already he has seen things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes. A seventeenth-century globe as big around as a small car, with rubies to mark volcanoes, sapphires clustered at the poles, and diamonds for world capitals. He has held—held!—a dagger handle at least four hundred years old, made of white jade and inlaid with emeralds. Just yesterday, on the road to Vienna, he took possession of a five-hundred-and-seventy-piece china set with a single marquise-cut diamond set into the rim of every single dish. Where the police confiscated these treasures and from whom, he does not ask. Already he has personally packed them into a crate and belted it shut and numbered it with white paint and seen it loaded inside a train car where it sits under twenty-four-hour guard.
Waiting to be sent to high command. Waiting for more.
This particular summer afternoon, in a dusty geological library in Vienna, Sergeant Major von Rumpel follows an underweight secretary wearing brown shoes, brown stockings, a brown skirt, and a brown blouse through stacks of periodicals. The secretary sets down a stepstool, climbs, reaches.
Tavernier’s 1676 Travels in India.
P. S. Pallas’s 1793 Travels Through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire.
Streeter’s 1898 Precious Stones and Gems.
Rumor is that the führer is compiling a wish list of precious objects from all around Europe and Russia. They say he intends to remake the Austrian town of Linz into an empyrean city, the cultural capital of the world. A vast promenade, mausoleum, acropolis, planetarium, library, opera house—everything marble and granite, everything profoundly clean. At its core, he plans a kilometer-long museum: a trove of the greatest achievements in human culture.
The document is real, von Rumpel has heard. Four hundred pages.
He sits at a table in the stacks. He tries to cross his legs but a slight swelling troubles his groin today: odd, though not painful. The mousy librarian brings books. He pages slowly through the Tavernier, the Streeter, Murray’s Sketches of Persia. He reads entries on the three-hundred-carat Orloff diamond from Moscow, the Nur-al-Ain, the forty-eight-and-a-half-carat Dresden Green. Toward evening, he finds it. The story of a prince who could not be killed, a priest who warned of a goddess’s wrath, a French prelate who believed he’d bought the same stone centuries later.
Sea of Flames. Grayish blue with a red hue at its center. Recorded at one hundred and thirty-three carats. Either lost or willed to the king of France in 1738 on the condition that it be locked away for two hundred years.
He looks up. Suspended lamps, rows of spines fading off into dusty gold. All of Europe, and he aims to find one pebble tucked inside its folds. The Boches
Her father says their weapons gleam as if they have never been fired. He says their boots are clean and their uniforms spotless. He says they look as if they have just stepped out of air-conditioned train cars.
The townswomen who stop by Madame Manec’s kitchen door in ones and twos say the Germans (they refer to them as the Boches) buy every postcard on every pharmacy rack; they say the Boches buy straw dolls and candied apricots and stale cakes from the window of the confectionery. The Boches buy shirts from Monsieur Verdier and lingerie from Monsieur Morvan; the Boches require absurd quantities of butter and cheese; the Boches have guzzled down every bottle of champagne the caviste would sell them.
Hitler, the women whisper, is touring Parisian monuments.
Curfews are installed. Music that can be heard outdoors is banned. Public dances are banned. The country is in mourning and we must behave respectfully, announces the mayor. Though what authority he retains is not clear.
Every time she comes within earshot, Marie-Laure hears the fsst of her father lighting another match. His hands flutter between his pockets. Mornings he alternates between Madame Manec’s kitchen, the tobacco shop, and the post office, where he waits in interminable queues to use the telephone. Afternoons he repairs things around Etienne’s house—a loose cabinet door, a squeaking stair board. He asks Madame Manec about the reliability of the neighbors. He flips the locking clasp on his tool case over and over until Marie-Laure begs him to stop.
One day Etienne sits with Marie-Laure and reads to her in his feathery voice; the next he suffers from what he calls a headache and sequesters himself inside his study behind a locked door. Madame Manec sneaks Marie-Laure chocolate bars, slices of cake; this morning they squeeze lemons into glasses full of water and sugar, and she lets Marie-Laure drink as much as she likes.
“How long will he stay in there, Madame?”
“Sometimes just a day or two,” Madame Manec says. “Sometimes longer.”
One week in Saint-Malo becomes two. Marie begins to feel that her life, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, has been interrupted halfway through. There was volume 1, when Marie-Laure and her father lived in Paris and went to work, and now there is volume 2, when Germans ride motorcycles through these strange, narrow streets and her uncle vanishes inside his own house.
“Papa, when will we leave?”
“As soon as I hear from Paris.”
“Why do we have to sleep in this little bedroom?”
“I’m sure we could clean out a downstairs room if you’d like.”
“What about the room across the hall from us?”
“Etienne and I agreed we would not use it.”
“It belonged to your grandfather.”
“When can I go to the sea?”
“Not today, Marie.”
“Can’t we go for a walk around the block?”
“It’s too dangerous.”
She wants to shriek. What dangers await? When she opens her bedroom window, she hears no screams, no explosions, only the calls of birds that her great-uncle calls gannets, and the sea, and the occasional throb of an airplane as it passes far overhead.
She spends her hours learning the house. The first floor belongs to Madame Manec: clean, navigable, full of visitors who come through the kitchen door to trade in small-town scandal. There’s the dining room, the foyer, a hutch full of antique dishes in the hall that tremble whenever anyone walks past, and a door off the kitchen that leads to Madame’s room: a bed, a sink, a chamber pot.
Eleven winding steps lead to the second floor, which is full of the smells of faded grandeur: an old sewing room, a former maid’s room. Right here on the landing, Madame Manec tells her, pallbearers dropped the coffin carrying Etienne’s great-aunt. “The coffin flipped over, and she slid down the whole flight. They were all horrified, but she looked entirely unaffected!”
More clutter on the third floor: boxes of jars, metal disks, and rusty jigsaws; buckets of what might be electrical components; engineering manuals in piles around a toilet. By the fourth floor, things are piled everywhere, in the rooms and corridors and along the staircase: baskets of what must be machine parts, shoe boxes loaded with screws, antique dollhouses built by her great-grandfather. Etienne’s huge study colonizes the entire fifth floor, alternately deeply quiet or else full of voices or music or static.
Then there’s the sixth floor: her grandfather’s tidy bedroom on the left, toilet straight ahead, the little room where she sleeps with her father on the right. When the wind is blowing, which it almost always is, with the walls groaning and the shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through its center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.
In the kitchen, Madame Manec’s friends fuss over Marie-Laure’s hair and freckles. In Paris, the women say, people are waiting in line five hours for a loaf of bread. People are eating pets, crushing pigeons with bricks for soup. There is no pork, no rabbit, no cauliflower. The headlights of cars are all painted blue, they say, and at night the city is as quiet as a graveyard: no buses, no trains, hardly any gasoline. Marie-Laure sits at the square table, a plate of cookies in front of her, and imagines the old women with veiny hands and milky eyes and oversize ears. From the kitchen window comes the wit wit wit of a barn swallow, footfalls on ramparts, halyards clinking against masts, hinges and chains creaking in the harbor. Ghosts. Germans. Snails. Hauptmann
A rosy-cheeked and diminutive instructor of technical sciences named Dr. Hauptmann peels off his brass-buttoned coat and hangs it over the back of a chair. He orders the cadets in Werner’s class to collect hinged metal boxes from a locked cabinet at the back of the laboratory.
Inside each are gears, lenses, fuses, springs, shackles, and resistors. There’s a fat coil of copper wire, a tiny instrument hammer, and a two-terminal battery as big as a shoe—finer equipment than Werner has had access to in his life. The little professor stands at the chalkboard drawing a wiring schematic for a simple Morse-code practice circuit. He sets down his chalk, presses his slender fingertips together, five to five, and asks the boys to assemble the circuit with the parts in their kits. “You have one hour.”
Most of the boys blanch. They dump everything out on the tables and poke gingerly at the parts as if at trinkets imported from some future age. Frederick plucks random pieces out of his box and holds them to the light.
For a moment Werner is back inside his attic room at Children’s House, his head a swarm of questions. What is lightning? How high could you jump if you lived on Mars? What is the difference between twice twenty-five and twice five and twenty? Then he takes the battery, two rectangles of sheet metal, some penny nails, and the instrument hammer from his box. In under a minute, he has built an oscillator to match the schematic.
The little professor frowns. He tests Werner’s circuit, which works.
“Right,” he says, and stands in front of Werner’s table and laces his hands behind his back. “Next take from your kit the disk-shaped magnet, a wire, a screw, and your battery.” Though his instructions seem meant for the class, he looks at Werner alone. “That is all you may use. Who can build a simple motor?”
Some boys stir the parts in their kits halfheartedly. Most simply watch.
Werner feels Dr. Hauptmann’s attention on him like a floodlight. He sticks the magnet to the screw’s head and holds the screw’s point to the positive terminal on the battery. When he runs the wire from the negative side of the battery to the head of the screw, both the screw and the magnet start to spin. The operation takes him no more than fifteen seconds.
Dr. Hauptmann’s mouth is partially open. His face is flushed, adrenalized. “What is your name, cadet?”
“What else can you make?”
Werner studies the parts on his table. “A doorbell, sir? Or a Morse beacon? An ohmmeter?”
The other boys crane their necks. Dr. Hauptmann’s lips are pink and his eyelids are improbably thin. As though he is watching Werner even when he blinks. He says, “Make them all.” Flying Couch
Posters go up in the market, on tree trunks in the Place Chateaubriand. Voluntary surrender of firearms. Anyone who does not cooperate will be shot. At noon the following day, various Bretons troop in to drop off weapons, farmers on mule carts from miles away, plodding old sailors with antique pistols, a few hunters with outrage in their eyes gazing at the floor as they turn in their rifles.
In the end it’s a pathetic pile, maybe three hundred weapons in all, half of them rusted. Two young gendarmes pile them into the back of a truck and drive up the narrow street and across the causeway and are gone. No speeches, no explanations.
“Please, Papa, can’t I go out?”
“Soon, little dove.” But he is distracted; he smokes so much it is as if he is turning himself into ash. Lately he stays up working frenetically on a model of Saint-Malo that he claims is for her, adding new houses every day, framing ramparts, mapping streets, so that she can learn the town the way she learned their neighborhood in Paris. Wood, glue, nails, sandpaper: rather than comforting her, the noises and smells of his manic diligence make her more anxious. Why will she have to learn the streets of Saint-Malo? How long will they be here?
In the fifth-floor study, Marie-Laure listens to her great-uncle read another page of The Voyage of the “Beagle.” Darwin has hunted rheas in Patagonia, studied owls outside Buenos Aires, and scaled a waterfall in Tahiti. He pays attention to slaves, rocks, lightning, finches, and the ceremony of pressing noses in New Zealand. She loves especially to hear about the dark coasts of South America with their impenetrable walls of trees and offshore breezes full of the stink of rotting kelp and the cries of whelping seals. She loves to imagine Darwin at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.
“Bonsoir,” she says to Etienne, standing on the davenport in his study. “I may be only a girl of twelve, but I am a brave French explorer who has come to help you with your adventures.”
Etienne adopts a British accent. “Good evening, mademoiselle, why don’t you come to the jungle with me and eat these butterflies, they are as big as dinner plates and may not be poisonous, who knows?”
“I would love to eat your butterflies, Monsieur Darwin, but first I will eat these cookies.”
Other evenings they play Flying Couch. They climb onto the davenport and sit side by side, and Etienne says, “Where to tonight, mademoiselle?”
“The jungle!” Or: “Tahiti!” Or: “Mozambique!”
“Oh, it’s a long journey this time,” Etienne will say in an entirely new voice, smooth, velvety, a conductor’s drawl. “That’s the Atlantic Ocean far below, it’s shining under the moonlight, can you smell it? Feel how cold it is up here? Feel the wind in your hair?”
“Where are we now, Uncle?”
“We’re in Borneo, can’t you tell? We’re skimming the treetops now, big leaves are glimmering below us, and there are coffee bushes over there, smell them?” and Marie-Laure will indeed smell something, whether because her uncle is passing coffee grounds beneath her nose, or because they really are flying over the coffee trees of Borneo, she does not want to decide.
They visit Scotland, New York City, Santiago. More than once they put on winter coats and visit the moon. “Can’t you feel how lightweight we are, Marie? You can move by hardly twitching a muscle!” He sets her in his wheeled desk chair and pants as he whirls her in circles until she cannot laugh anymore for the pain of it.
“Here, try some nice fresh moon flesh,” he says, and into her mouth goes something that tastes a lot like cheese. Always at the end they sit side by side again and pound the cushions, and slowly the room rematerializes around them. “Ah,” he says, more quietly, his accent fading, the faintest touch of dread returning to his voice, “here we are. Home.” The Sum of Angles
Werner is summoned to the office of the technical sciences professor. A trio of sleek long-legged hounds swirl around him as he enters. The room is lit by a pair of green-shaded banker’s lamps, and in the shadows Werner can see shelves crowded with encyclopedias, models of windmills, miniature telescopes, prisms. Dr. Hauptmann stands behind his big desk wearing his brass-buttoned coat, as though he too has just arrived. Tight curls frame his ivory forehead; he tugs off his leather gloves one finger at a time. “Drop a log on the fire, please.”
Werner tacks across the room and stirs the coals to life. In the corner, he realizes, sits a third person, a massive figure camped sleepily in an armchair intended for a much smaller man. He is Frank Volkheimer, an upperclassman, seventeen years old, a colossal boy from some boreal village, a legend among the younger cadets. Supposedly Volkheimer has carried three first-years across the river by holding them above his head; supposedly he has lifted the tail end of the commandant’s automobile high enough to slip a jack under the axle. There is a rumor that he crushed a communist’s windpipe with his hands. Another that he grabbed the muzzle of a stray dog and cut out its eyes just to inure himself to the suffering of other beings.
They call him the Giant. Even in the low, flickering light, Werner sees that veins climb Volkheimer’s forearms like vines.
“A student has never built the motor,” says Hauptmann, his back partially to Volkheimer. “Not without help.”
Werner does not know how to reply, so he does not. He pokes the fire one last time, and sparks rise up the chimney.
“Can you do trigonometry, cadet?”
“Only what I have been able to teach myself, sir.”
Hauptmann takes a sheet of paper from a drawer and writes on it. “Do you know what this is?”
“A formula, sir.”
“Do you comprehend its uses?”
“I believe it is a way to use two known points to find the location of a third and unknown point.”
Hauptmann’s blue eyes glitter; he looks like someone who has discovered something very valuable lying right in front of him on the ground. “If I give you the known points and a distance between them, cadet, can you solve it? Can you draw the triangle?”
“I believe so.”
“Sit at my desk, Pfennig. Take my chair. Here is a pencil.”
When he sits in the desk chair, the toes of Werner’s boots do not reach the ground. The fire pumps heat into the room. Block out giant Frank Volkheimer with his mammoth boots and cinder-block jaw. Block out the little aristocratic professor pacing in front of the hearth and the late hour and the dogs and the shelves brimming with interesting things. There is only this.
tan ? = sin ? / cos ?
and sin(? + ?) = sin ? cos ? + cos ? sin ?
Now d can be moved to the front of the equation.
Werner plugs Hauptmann’s numbers into the equation. He imagines two observers in a field pacing out the distance between them, then leveling their eyes on a far-off landmark: a sailing ship or a smokestack. When Werner asks for a slide rule, the professor slips one onto the desk immediately, having expected the request. Werner takes it without looking and begins to calculate the sines.
Volkheimer watches. The little doctor paces, hands behind his back. The fire pops. The only sounds are the breathing of the dogs and clicking of the slide rule’s cursor.
Eventually Werner says, “Sixteen point four three, Herr Doktor.” He draws the triangle and labels the distances of each segment and passes the paper back. Hauptmann checks something in a leather book. Volkheimer shifts slightly in his chair; his gaze is both interested and indolent. The professor presses one of his palms flat to the desk while reading, frowning absently, as though waiting for a thought to pass. Werner is seized with a sudden and foreboding dread, but then Hauptmann looks back at him, and the feeling subsides.
“It says in your application papers that when you leave here, you wish to study electrical mechanics in Berlin. And you are an orphan, is that correct?”
Another glance at Volkheimer. Werner nods. “My sister—”
“A scientist’s work, cadet, is determined by two things. His interests and the interests of his time. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“We live in exceptional times, cadet.”
A thrill enters Werner’s chest. Firelit rooms lined with books—these are the places in which important things happen.
“You will work in the laboratory after dinner. Every night. Even Sundays.”
“Volkheimer here will keep an eye out for you. Take these biscuits.” The professor produces a tin with a bow on it. “And breathe, Pfennig. You cannot hold your breath every time you’re in my laboratory.”
Cold air whistles through the halls, so pure it makes Werner dizzy. A trio of moths swim against the ceiling of his bunkroom. He unlaces his boots and folds his trousers in the dark and sets the tin of biscuits on top. Frederick peers over the edge of his bunk. “Where did you go?”
“I got cookies,” whispers Werner.
“I heard an eagle owl tonight.”
“Hush,” hisses a boy two bunks down.
Werner passes up a biscuit. Frederick whispers: “Do you know about them? They’re really rare. Big as gliders. This one was probably a young male looking for new territory. He was in one of the poplar trees beside the parade ground.”
“Oh,” says Werner. Greek letters move across the undersides of his eyelids: isosceles triangles, betas, sine curves. He sees himself in a white coat, striding past machines.
Someday he’ll probably win a big prize.
Code breaking, rocket propulsion, all the latest.
We live in exceptional times.
From the hall come the clicking boot heels of the bunk master. Frederick tips back onto his bunk. “I couldn’t see him,” he whispers, “but I heard him perfectly.”
“Shut your face!” says a second boy. “You’ll get us thrashed.”
Frederick says nothing more. Werner stops chewing. The bunk master’s boots go quiet: either he is gone or he has paused outside the door. Out on the grounds, someone is splitting wood, and Werner listens to the ringing of the sledgehammer against the wedge and the quick, frightened breaths of the boys all around him. The Professor
Etienne is reading Darwin to Marie-Laure when he stops midsyllable.
He breathes nervously, out of pursed lips, as if blowing on a spoonful of hot soup. He whispers, “Someone’s here.”
Marie-Laure can hear nothing. No footfalls, no knocks. Madame Manec whisks a broom across the landing one floor up. Etienne hands her the book. She can hear him unplug a radio, then tangle himself in its cords. “Uncle?” she says again, but he is leaving his study, floundering downstairs—are they in danger?—and she follows him to the kitchen, where she can hear him laboring to slide the kitchen table out of the way.
He pulls up a ring in the center of the floor. Beneath a hatch waits a square hole out of which washes a damp, frightening smell. “One step down, hurry now.”
Is this a cellar? What has her uncle seen? She has set one foot on the top rung of a ladder when the blocky shoes of Madame Manec come clomping into the kitchen. “Really, Master Etienne, please!”
Etienne’s voice from below: “I heard something. Someone.”
“You are frightening her. It is nothing, Marie-Laure. Come now.”
Marie-Laure backs out. Below her, her great-uncle whispers nursery rhymes to himself.
“I can sit with him for a bit, Madame. Maybe we could read some more of our book, Uncle?”
The cellar, she gathers, is merely a dank hole in the ground. They sit awhile on a rolled carpet with the trapdoor open and listen to Madame Manec hum as she makes tea in the kitchen above them. Etienne trembles lightly beside her.
“Did you know,” says Marie-Laure, “that the chance of being hit by lightning is one in one million? Dr. Geffard taught me that.”
“In one year or in one lifetime?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You should have asked.”
Again those quick, pursed exhalations. As though his whole body urges him to flee.
“What happens if you go outside, Uncle?”
“I get uneasy.” His voice is almost inaudible.
“But what makes you uneasy?”
“Not all spaces are big. Your street is not that big, is it?”
“Not as big as the streets you are used to.”
“You like eggs and figs. And tomatoes. They were in our lunch. They grow outside.”
He laughs softly. “Of course they do.”
“Don’t you miss the world?”
He is quiet; so is she. Both ride spirals of memory.
“I have the whole world here,” he says, and taps the cover of Darwin. “And in my radios. Right at my fingertips.”
Her uncle seems almost a child, monastic in the modesty of his needs and wholly independent of any sort of temporal obligations. And yet she can tell he is visited by fears so immense, so multiple, that she can almost feel the terror pulsing inside him. As though some beast breathes all the time at the windowpanes of his mind.
“Could you read some more, please?” she asks, and Etienne opens the book and whispers, “Delight itself is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself into a Brazilian forest . . .”
After a few paragraphs, Marie-Laure says without preamble, “Tell me about that bedroom upstairs. Across from the one I sleep in.”
He stops. Again his quick, nervous breaths.
“There’s a little door at the back of it,” she says, “but it’s locked. What’s through there?”
He is silent for long enough that she worries she has upset him. But then he stands, and his knees crack like twigs.
“Are you getting one of your headaches, Uncle?”
“Come with me.”
They wind all the way up the stairs. On the sixth-floor landing, they turn left, and he pushes open the door to what was once her grandfather’s room. She has already run her hands over its contents many times: a wooden oar nailed to a wall, a window dressed with long curtains. Single bed. Model ship on a shelf. At the back stands a wardrobe so large, she cannot reach its top nor stretch her arms wide enough to touch both sides at once.
“These are his things?”
Etienne unlatches the little door beside the wardrobe. “Go on.”
She gropes through. Dry, confined heat. Mice scuttle. Her fingers find a ladder.
“It leads to the garret. It’s not high.”
Seven rungs. At the top, she stands; she has the sense of a long slope-walled space pressed beneath the gable of the roof. The peak of the ceiling is just taller than she is.
Etienne climbs up behind her and takes her hand. Her feet find cables on the floor. They snake between dusty boxes, overwhelm a sawhorse; he leads her through a thicket of them to what feels like an upholstered piano bench at the far end, and helps her sit.
“This is the attic. That’s the chimney in front of us. Put your hands on the table; there you are.” Metal boxes cover the tabletop: tubes, coils, switches, meters, at least one gramophone. This whole part of the attic, she realizes, is some sort of machine. The sun bakes the slates above their heads. Etienne secures a headset over Marie-Laure’s ears. Through the headphones, she can hear him turn a crank, switch on something, and then, as if positioned directly in the center of her head, a piano plays a sweet, simple song.
The song fades, and a staticky voice says, 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 . . .
After a little while, the voice gives way to the piano again. Her uncle pulls off the headset. “As a boy,” he says, “my brother was good at everything, but his voice was what people commented on most. The nuns at St. Vincent’s wanted to build choirs around it. We had a dream together, Henri and I, to make recordings and sell them. He had the voice and I had the brains and back then everyone wanted gramophones. And hardly anyone was making programs for children. So we contacted a recording company in Paris, and they expressed interest, and I wrote ten different scripts about science, and Henri rehearsed them, and finally we started recording. Your father was just a boy, but he would come around to listen. It was one of the happiest times of my life.”
“Then there was the war.”
“We became signalmen. Our job, mine and your grandfather’s, was to knit telegraph wires from command positions at the rear to field officers at the front. Most nights the enemy would shoot pistol flares called ‘very lights’ over the trenches, short-lived stars suspended in the air from parachutes, meant to illuminate possible targets for snipers. Every soldier within reach of the glare would freeze while it lasted. Some hours, eighty or ninety of these flares would go off, one after another, and the night would turn stark and strange in that magnesium glow. It would be so quiet, the only sound the fizzling of the flares, and then you’d hear the whistle of a sniper’s bullet streak out of the darkness and bury itself in the mud. We would stay as close together as we could. But I’d become paralyzed sometimes; I could not move any part of my body, not even my fingers. Not even my eyelids. Henri would stay right beside me and whisper those scripts, the ones we recorded. Sometimes all night. Over and over. As though weaving some kind of protective screen around us. Until morning came.”
“But he died.”
“And I did not.”
This, she realizes, is the basis of his fear, all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark.
“Who built all of this, Uncle? This machine?”
“I did. After the war. Took me years.”
“How does it work?”
“It’s a radio transmitter. This switch here”—he guides her hand to it—“powers up the microphone, and this one runs the phonograph. Here’s the premodulation amplifier, and these are the vacuum tubes, and these are the coils. The antenna telescopes up along the chimney. Twelve meters. Can you feel the lever? Think of energy as a wave and the transmitter as sending out smooth cycles of those waves. Your voice creates a disruption in those cycles . . .”
She stops listening. It’s dusty and confusing and mesmerizing all at once. How old must all this be? Ten years? Twenty? “What did you transmit?”
“The recordings of my brother. The gramophone company in Paris wasn’t interested anymore, but every night I played the ten recordings we’d made, until most of them were worn out. And his song.”
“Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune.’?” He touches a metal cylinder with a sphere stuck on top. “I’d just tuck the microphone into the bell of the gramophone, and voilà.”
She leans over the microphone, says, “Hello out there.” He laughs his feathery laugh. “Did it ever reach any children?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
“How far can it transmit, Uncle?”
“Yes. But I wasn’t trying to reach England. Or Paris. I thought that if I made the broadcast powerful enough, my brother would hear me. That I could bring him some peace, protect him as he had always protected me.”
“You’d play your brother’s own voice to him? After he died?”
“Did he ever talk back?”
The attic ticks. What ghosts sidle along the walls right now, trying to overhear? She can almost taste her great-uncle’s fright in the air.
“No,” he says. “He never did.” To My Dear Sister Jutta—
Some of the boys whisper that Dr. Hauptmann is connected to very powerful ministers. He won’t answer XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX. But he wants me to assist him all the time! I go to his workshop in the evenings and he sets me to work on circuits for a radio he is testing. Trigonometry too. He says to be as creative as I can; he says creativity fuels the Reich. He has this big upperclassman, they call him the Giant, stand over me with a stopwatch to test how fast I can calculate. Triangles triangles triangles. I probably do fifty calculations a night. They don’t tell me why. You would not believe the copper wire here; they have XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX. Everyone gets out of the way when the Giant comes through.
Dr. Hauptmann says we can do anything, build anything. He says the führer has collected scientists to help him control the weather. He says the führer will develop a rocket that can reach Japan. He says the führer will build a city on the moon.
To My Dear Sister Jutta—
Today in field exercises the commandant told us about Reiner Schicker. He was a young corporal and his captain needed someone to go behind enemy lines to map their defenses. The captain asked for volunteers and Reiner Schicker was the only one who stood up. But the next day Reiner Schicker got caught. The very next day! The Poles captured him and tortured him with electricity. They gave him so much electricity that his brain liquefied, said the commandant, but before they did, Reiner Schicker said something amazing. He said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Everyone says there is a great test coming. A test harder than all the other tests.
Frederick says that story about Reiner Schicker is XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX Just being around the Giant—his name is Frank Volkheimer—means the other boys treat me with respect. I come up only to his waist practically. He seems a man, not a boy. He possesses the loyalty of Reiner Schicker. In his hands and heart and bones. Please tell Frau Elena I am eating lots here but that no one makes flour cakes like hers or at all really. Tell little Siegfried to look lively. I think of you every day. Sieg heil.
To My Dear Sister Jutta—
Yesterday was Sunday and for field exercises we went into the forest. Most hunters are at the front so the woods are full of marten and deer. The other boys sat in the blinds and talked about magnificent victories and how soon we will cross the Channel and destroy the XXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX and Dr. Hauptmann’s dogs came back with three rabbits one for each but Frederick, he came back with about a thousand berries in his shirt and his sleeves were ripped from the brambles and his binocular bag was torn open and I said, You’re going to catch hell and he looked down at his clothes like he’d never seen them before! Frederick knows all the birds just by hearing them. Above the lake we heard skylarks and lapwings and plovers and a harrier hen and probably ten others I’ve forgotten. You would like Frederick I think. He sees what other people don’t. Hope your cough is better and Frau Elena’s too. Sieg heil. Perfumer
His name is Claude Levitte but everyone calls him Big Claude. For a decade he has run a parfumerie on the rue Vauborel: a straggling business that prospers only when the cod are being salted and the stones of the town itself begin to stink.
But new opportunities have arrived, and Big Claude is not one to miss an opportunity. He is paying farmers near Cancale to butcher lambs and rabbits; Claude buckles the meat into his wife’s matching vinyl suitcases and carries them himself by train to Paris. It is easy: some weeks he can make as much as five hundred francs. Supply and demand. There is always paperwork, of course; some official up the chain catches a whiff and wants a percentage. It takes a mind like Claude’s to navigate the complexities of the business.
Today he is overheating; sweat trickles down his back and sides. Saint-Malo roasts. October is here, and bright cold winds ought to pour off the ocean; leaves ought to tumble down the alleys. But the wind has come and gone. As if deciding it did not like the changes here.
All afternoon Claude hunkers inside his shop above the hundreds of little bottles of florals and orientals and fougères in his vitrine, pinks and carmines and baby blues, and no one enters, and an oscillating electric fan blows across his face to the left, then to the right, and he does not read or move at all except to periodically reach a hand beneath his stool and grab a handful of biscuits from a round tin and stuff them into his mouth.
Around four P.M., a small company of German soldiers strolls up the rue Vauborel. They are lean, salmon-faced, and earnest; they have serious eyes; they carry their weapons barrel-down, slinging them over their shoulders like clarinets. They laugh to one another and seem touched underneath their helmets with a beneficent gold.
Claude understands that he ought to resent them, but he admires their competence and manners, the clean efficiency with which they move. They always seem to be going somewhere and never doubt that it is the right place to be going. Something his own country has lacked.
The soldiers turn down the rue St. Philippe and are gone. Claude’s fingers trace ovals across the top of his vitrine. Upstairs his wife runs a vacuum cleaner; he can hear it coursing round and round. He is nearly asleep when he sees the Parisian who has been living three doors down exit the house of Etienne LeBlanc. A thin beak-nosed man who skulks outside the telegraph office, whittling little wooden boxes.
The Parisian walks in the same direction as the German soldiers, placing the heel of one foot against the toe of the other. He reaches the end of the street, scribbles something on a pad, turns one hundred and eighty degrees, and walks back. When he reaches the end of the block, he stares up at the Sajers’ house and makes several more notes. Glancing up, glancing down. Measuring. Biting the eraser of his pencil as though uneasy.
Big Claude goes to the window. This too could be an opportunity. Occupation authorities will want to know that a stranger is pacing off distances and making drawings of houses. They will want to know what he looks like, who is sponsoring this activity. Who has sanctioned it.
This is good. This is excellent. Time of the Ostriches
Still they do not return to Paris. Still she does not go outside. Marie-Laure counts every day she has been shut up in Etienne’s house. One hundred and twenty. One hundred and twenty-one. She thinks of the transmitter in the attic, how it sent her grand-father’s voice flying over the sea—Consider a single piece glowing in your family’s stove—sailing like Darwin from Plymouth Sound to Cape Verde to Patagonia to the Falkland Islands, over waves, across borders.
“Once you’re done with the model,” she asks her father, “does that mean I can go out?”
His sandpaper does not stop.
The stories Madame Manec’s visitors bring into the kitchen are terrifying and difficult to believe. Parisian cousins nobody has heard from in decades now write letters begging for capons, hams, hens. The dentist is selling wine through the mail. The perfumer is slaughtering lambs and carrying them in suitcases on the train to Paris, where he sells the meat for an enormous profit.
In Saint-Malo, people are fined for locking their doors, for keeping doves, for hoarding meat. Truffles disappear. Sparkling wine disappears. No eye contact. No chatter in doorways. No sunbathing, no singing, no lovers strolling the ramparts in the evenings—such rules are not written down, but they may as well be. Icy winds whirl in from the Atlantic and Etienne barricades himself inside his brother’s old room and Marie-Laure endures the slow rain of hours by running her fingers over his seashells down in his study, ordering them by size, by species, by morphology, checking and rechecking their order, trying to make sure she has not missorted a single one.
Surely she could go out for a half hour? On the arm of her father? And yet each time her father refuses, a voice echoes up from a chamber of her memory: They’ll probably take the blind girls before they take the gimps.
Make them do things.
Outside the city walls, a few military boats cruise to and fro, and the flax is bundled and shipped and woven into rope or cables or parachute cord, and airborne gulls drop oysters or mussels or clams, and the sudden clatter on the roof makes Marie-Laure bolt upright in bed. The mayor announces a new tax, and some of Madame Manec’s friends mutter that he has sold them out, that they need un homme à poigne, but others ask what the mayor is supposed to do. It becomes known as the time of the ostriches.
“Do we have our heads in the sand, Madame? Or do they?”
“Maybe everybody does,” she murmurs.
Madame Manec has taken to falling asleep at the table beside Marie-Laure. It takes her a long time to carry meals the five flights to Etienne’s room, wheezing the whole way. Most mornings, Madame is baking before anyone is awake; at midmorning she goes out into the city, cigarette in her mouth, to bring cakes or pots of stew to the sick or the stranded, and upstairs Marie-Laure’s father works on the model, sanding, nailing, cutting, measuring, each day working more frenetically than the last, as if against some deadline known only to him. Weakest
The warrant officer in charge of field exercises is the commandant, an overzealous schoolmaster named Bastian with an expansive walk and a round belly and a coat quivering with war medals. His face is scarred from smallpox, and his shoulders look as though they’ve been hewn from soft clay. He wears hobnailed jackboots every second of every day, and the cadets joke that he kicked his way out of the womb with them.
Bastian demands that they memorize maps, study the angle of the sun, cut their own belts from cowhide. Every afternoon, whatever the weather, he stands in a field bawling state-sown dicta: “Prosperity depends on ferocity. The only things that keep your precious grandmothers in their tea and cookies are the fists at the end of your arms.”
An antique pistol dangles from his belt; the most eager cadets look up at him with shining eyes. To Werner, he looks capable of severe and chronic violence.
“The corps is a body,” he explains, twirling a length of rubber hose so that its tip whirs inches from a boy’s nose. “No different from a man’s body. Just as we ask you to each drive the weakness from your own bodies, so you must also learn to drive the weaknesses from the corps.”
One October afternoon, Bastian plucks a pigeon-toed boy from the line. “You’ll be first. Who are you?”
“B?cker. Tell us, B?cker. Who is the weakest member of this group?”
Werner quails. He is smaller than every cadet in his year. He tries to expand his chest, stand as tall as he can. B?cker’s gaze rakes across the rows. “Him, sir?”
Werner exhales; B?cker has chosen a boy far to Werner’s right, one of the few boys with black hair. Ernst Somebody. A safe enough choice: Ernst is in fact a slow runner. A boy who has yet to grow into his horsey legs.
Bastian calls Ernst forward. The boy’s bottom lip trembles as he turns to face the group.
“Getting all weepy won’t help,” says Bastian, and gestures vaguely to the far end of the field, where a line of trees cuts across the weeds. “You’ll have a ten-second head start. Make it to me before they make it to you. Got it?”
Ernst neither nods nor shakes his head. Bastian feigns frustration. “When I raise my left hand, you run. When I raise my right hand, the rest of you fools run.” Off Bastian waddles, rubber hose around his neck, pistol swinging at his side.
Sixty boys wait, breathing. Werner thinks of Jutta with her opalescent hair and quick eyes and blunt manners: she would never be mistaken for the weakest. Ernst Somebody is shaking everywhere now, all the way down to his wrists and ankles. When Bastian is maybe two hundred yards away, he turns and raises his left hand.
Ernst runs with his arms nearly straight and his legs wide and unhinged. Bastian counts down from ten. “Three,” yells his faraway voice. “Two. One.” At zero, his right arm goes up and the group unleashes. The dark-haired boy is at least fifty yards in front of them, but immediately the pack begins to gain.
Hurrying, scampering, running hard, fifty-nine fourteen-year-olds chase one. Werner keeps to the center of the group as it strings out, his heart beating in dark confusion, wondering where Frederick is, why they’re chasing this boy, and what they’re supposed to do if they catch him.
Except in some atavistic part of his brain, he knows exactly what they’ll do.
A few outrunners are exceptionally fast; they gain on the lone figure. Ernst’s limbs pump furiously, but he clearly is not accustomed to sprinting, and he loses steam. The grass waves, the trees are transected by sunlight, the pack draws closer, and Werner feels annoyed: Why couldn’t Ernst be faster? Why hasn’t he practiced? How did he make it through the entrance exams?
The fastest cadet is lunging for the back of the boy’s shirt. He almost has him. Black-haired Ernst is going to be caught, and Werner wonders if some part of him wants it to happen. But the boy makes it to the commandant a split second before the others come pounding past. Mandatory Surrender
Marie-Laure has to badger her father three times before he’ll read the notice aloud: Members of the population must relinquish all radio receivers now in their possession. Radio sets are to be delivered to 27 rue de Chartres before tomorrow noon. Anyone failing to carry out this order will be arrested as a saboteur.
No one says anything for a moment, and inside Marie-Laure, an old anxiety lumbers to its feet. “Is he—?”
“In your grandfather’s old room,” says Madame Manec.
Tomorrow noon. Half the house, thinks Marie-Laure, is taken up by wireless receivers and the parts that go into them.
Madame Manec raps on the door to Henri’s room and receives no reply. In the afternoon they box up the equipment in Etienne’s study, Madame and Papa unplugging radios and lowering them into crates, Marie-Laure sitting on the davenport listening to the sets go off one by one: the old Radiola Five; a G.M.R. Titan; a G.M.R. Orphée. A Delco thirty-two-volt farm radio that Etienne had shipped all the way from the United States in 1922.
Her father wraps the largest in cardboard and uses an ancient wheeled dolly to thump it down the stairs. Marie-Laure sits with her fingers going numb in her lap and thinks of the machine in the attic, its cables and switches. A transmitter built to talk to ghosts. Does it qualify as a radio receiver? Should she mention it? Do Papa and Madame Manec know? They seem not to. In the evening, fog moves into the city, trailing a cold, fishy smell, and they eat potatoes and carrots in the kitchen and Madame Manec leaves a dish outside Henri’s door and taps but the door does not open and the food remains untouched.
“What,” asks Marie-Laure, “will they do with the radios?”
“Send them to Germany,” says Papa.
“Or pitch them in the sea,” says Madame Manec. “Come, child, drink your tea. It’s not the end of the world. I’ll put an extra blanket on your bed tonight.”
In the morning Etienne remains shut inside his brother’s room. If he knows what is happening in his house, Marie-Laure cannot tell. At ten A.M. her father starts wheeling loads to the rue de Chartres, one trip, two trips, three, and when he comes back and loads the dolly with the last radio, Etienne still has not appeared. Marie-Laure holds Madame Manec’s hand as she listens to the gate clang shut, to the cart’s axle bounce as her father pushes it down the rue Vauborel, and to the silence that reinstalls itself after he’s gone. Museum
Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel wakes early. He upholsters himself in his uniform, pockets his loupe and tweezers, rolls up his white gloves. By six A.M. he’s in the hotel lobby in full dress, polish on his shoes, pistol case snapped shut. The hotelkeeper brings him bread and cheese in a basket made from dark wicker, covered nicely with a cotton napkin: everything shipshape.
There is great pleasure in being out in the city before the sun is up, streetlights glowing, the hum of a Parisian day commencing. As he walks up the rue Cuvier and turns into the Jardin des Plantes, the trees look misty and significant: parasols held up just for him.
He likes being early.
At the entrance to the Grand Gallery, two night warders stiffen. They glance at the stripes on his collar patch and sleeves; the cords in their throats tighten. A small man in black flannel comes down the staircase apologizing in German; he says he is the assistant director. He did not expect the sergeant major for another hour.
“We can speak French,” says von Rumpel.
Behind him scurries a second man with eggshell skin and an evident terror of eye contact.
“We would be honored to show you the collections, Sergeant Major,” breathes the assistant director. “This is the mineralogist, Professor Hublin.” Hublin blinks twice, gives the impression of a penned animal. The pair of warders watch from the end of the corridor.
“May I take your basket?”
“It’s no trouble.”
The Gallery of Mineralogy is so long, von Rumpel can hardly see the end of it. In sections, display case after display case sits vacant, little shapes on their felted shelves marking the silhouettes of whatever has been removed. Von Rumpel strolls with his basket on his arm, forgetting to do anything but look. What treasures they left behind! A gorgeous set of yellow topaz crystals on a gray matrix. A great pink hunk of beryl like a crystallized brain. A violet column of tourmaline from Madagascar that looks so rich he cannot resist the urge to stroke it. Bournonite; apatite on muscovite; natural zircon in a spray of colors; dozens more minerals he cannot name. These men, he thinks, probably handle more gemstones in a week than he has seen in his lifetime.
Each piece is registered in huge organizational folios that have taken centuries to amass. The pallid Hublin shows him pages. “Louis XIII began the collection as a Cabinet of Medicines, jade for kidneys, clay for the stomach, and so on. There were already two hundred thousand entries in the catalog by 1850, a priceless mineral heritage . . .”
Every now and then von Rumpel pulls his notebook from his pocket and makes a notation. He takes his time. When they reach the end, the assistant director laces his fingers across his belt. “We hope you are impressed, Sergeant Major? You enjoyed your tour?”
“Very much.” The electric lights in the ceiling are far apart, and the silence in the huge space is oppressive. “But,” he says, enunciating very slowly, “what about the collections that are not on public display?”
The assistant director and the mineralogist exchange a glance. “You have seen everything we can show you, Sergeant Major.”
Von Rumpel keeps his voice polite. Civilized. Paris is not Poland, after all. Waves must be made carefully. Things cannot simply be seized. What did his father used to say? See obstacles as opportunities, Reinhold. See obstacles as inspirations. “Is there somewhere,” he says, “we can talk?”
The assistant director’s office occupies a dusty third-floor corner that overlooks the gardens: walnut-paneled, underheated, decorated with pinned butterflies and beetles in alternating frames. On the wall behind his half-ton desk hangs the only image: a charcoal portrait of the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
The assistant director sits behind the desk, and von Rumpel sits in front with his basket between his feet. The mineralogist stands. A long-necked secretary brings tea.
Hublin says, “We are always acquiring, yes? All across the world, industrialization endangers mineral deposits. We collect as many types of minerals as exist. To a curator, none is superior to any other.”
Von Rumpel laughs. He appreciates that they are trying to play the game. But don’t they understand that the winner has already been determined? He sets down his cup of tea and says, “I would like to see your most protected specimens. I am most specifically interested in a specimen I believe you have only recently brought out from your vaults.”
The assistant director sweeps his left hand through his hair and releases a blizzard of dandruff. “Sergeant Major, the minerals you’ve seen have aided discoveries in electrochemistry, in the fundamental laws of mathematical crystallography. The role of a national museum is to operate above the whims and fashions of collectors, to safeguard for future generations the—”
Von Rumpel smiles. “I will wait.”
“You misunderstand us, monsieur. You have seen everything we can show you.”
“I will wait to see what you cannot show me.”
The assistant director peers into his tea. The mineralogist shifts from foot to foot; he appears to be wrestling with an interior fury. “I am quite gifted at waiting,” von Rumpel says in French. “It is my one great skill. I was never much good at athletics or mathematics, but even as a boy, I possessed unnatural patience. I would wait with my mother while she got her hair styled. I would sit in the chair and wait for hours, no magazine, no toys, not even swinging my legs back and forth. All the mothers were very impressed.”
Both Frenchmen fidget. Beyond the door of the office, what ears listen? “Please sit if you’d like,” von Rumpel says to Hublin, and pats the chair next to him. But Hublin does not sit. Time passes. Von Rumpel swallows the last of his tea and sets the cup very carefully on the edge of the assistant director’s desk. Somewhere an electric fan whirs to life, runs awhile, and shuts down.
Hublin says, “It’s not clear what we’re waiting for, Sergeant Major.”
“I’m waiting for you to be truthful.”
“If I might—”
“Stay,” says von Rumpel. “Sit. I’m sure if one of you were to call out instructions, the mademoiselle who looks like a giraffe will hear, will she not?”
The assistant director crosses and recrosses his legs. By now it is past noon. “Perhaps you would like to see the skeletons?” tries the assistant director. “The Hall of Man is quite spectacular. And our zoological collection is beyond—”
“I would like to see the minerals you do not reveal to the public. One in particular.”
Hublin’s throat splotches pink and white. He does not take a seat. The assistant director seems resigned to an impasse and pulls a thick perfect-bound stack of paper from a drawer and begins to read. Hublin shifts as if to leave, but von Rumpel merely says, “Please, stay until we have resolved this.”
Waiting, thinks von Rumpel, is a kind of war. You simply tell yourself that you must not lose. The assistant director’s telephone rings, and he reaches to pick it up, but von Rumpel holds up a hand, and the phone rings ten or eleven times and then falls quiet. What might be a full half hour passes, Hublin staring at his shoelaces, the assistant director making occasional notes in his manuscript with a silver pen, von Rumpel remaining completely motionless, and then there is a distant tapping on the door.
“Gentlemen?” comes the voice.
Von Rumpel calls, “We are fine, thank you.”
The assistant director says, “I have other matters to attend to, Sergeant Major.”
Von Rumpel does not raise his voice. “You will wait here. Both of you. You will wait here with me until I see what I have come to see. And then we will all go back to our important jobs.”
The mineralogist’s chin trembles. The fan starts again, then dies. A five-minute timer, guesses von Rumpel. He waits for it to start and die one more time. Then he lifts his basket into his lap. He points to the chair. His voice is gentle. “Sit, Professor. You will be more comfortable.”
Hublin does not sit. Two o’clock out in the city, and bells toll in a hundred churches. Walkers down on the paths. The last of autumn’s leaves spiraling to earth.
Von Rumpel unrolls the napkin across his lap, lifts out the cheese. He breaks the bread slowly, sending a rich cascade of crust onto his napkin. As he chews, he can almost hear their guts rumbling. He offers them nothing. When he finishes, he wipes the corners of his mouth. “You read me wrong, messieurs. I am not an animal. I am not here to raze your collections. They belong to all of Europe, to all of humanity, do they not? I am here only for something small. Something smaller than the bone of your kneecaps.” He looks at the mineralogist as he says it. Who looks away, crimson.
The assistant director says, “This is absurd, Sergeant Major.”
Von Rumpel folds his napkin and places it back in the basket and sets the basket on the ground. He licks the tip of his finger and picks the crumbs off his tunic one by one. Then he looks directly at the assistant director. “The Lycée Charlemagne, is that right? On the rue Charlemagne?”
The skin around the assistant director’s eyes stretches.
“Where your daughter goes to school?” Von Rumpel turns in his chair. “And the College Stanislas, isn’t it, Dr. Hublin? Where your twin sons attend? On the rue Notre-Dame des Champs? Wouldn’t those handsome boys be preparing to walk home right now?”
Hublin sets his hands on the back of the empty chair beside him, and his knuckles become very white.
“One with a violin and the other a viola, am I correct? Crossing all those busy streets. That is a long walk for ten-year-old boys.”
The assistant director is sitting very upright. Von Rumpel says, “I know it is not here, messieurs. Not even the lowest janitor would be so stupid as to leave the diamond here. But I would like to see where you have kept it. I would like to know what sort of place you believe is safe enough.”
Neither of the Frenchmen says anything. The assistant director resumes looking at his manuscript, though it is clear to von Rumpel that he is no longer reading. At four o’clock the secretary raps on the door and again von Rumpel sends her away. He practices concentrating only on blinking. Pulse in his neck. Tock tock tock tock. Others, he thinks, would do this with less finesse. Others would use scanners, explosives, pistol barrels, muscle. Von Rumpel uses the cheapest of materials, only minutes, only hours.
Five bells. The light leaches out of the gardens.
“Sergeant Major, please,” says the assistant director. His hands flat on his desk. Looking up now. “It is very late. I must relieve myself.”
“Feel free.” Von Rumpel gestures with one hand at a metal trash can beside the desk.
The mineralogist wrinkles his face. Again the phone rings. Hublin chews his cuticles. Pain shows in the assistant director’s face. The fan whirs. Out in the gardens, the daylight unwinds from the trees and still von Rumpel waits.
“Your colleague,” he says to the mineralogist, “he’s a logical man, isn’t he? He doubts the legends. But you, you seem more fiery. You don’t want to believe, you tell yourself not to believe. But you do believe.” He shakes his head. “You’ve held the diamond. You’ve felt its power.”
“This is ridiculous,” says Hublin. His eyes roll like a frightened colt’s. “This is not civilized behavior. Are our children safe, Sergeant Major? I demand that you let us determine if our children are safe.”
“A man of science, and yet you believe the myths. You believe in the might of reason, but you also believe in fairy tales. Goddesses and curses.”
The assistant director inhales sharply. “Enough,” he says. “Enough.”
Von Rumpel’s pulse soars: has it already happened? So easily? He could wait two more days, three, while ranks of men broke against him like waves.
“Are our children safe, Sergeant Major?”
“If you wish them to be.”
“May I use the telephone?”
Von Rumpel nods. The assistant director reaches for the handset, says “Sylvie” into it, listens awhile, then sets it down. The woman enters with a ring of keys. From a drawer inside the assistant director’s desk, she produces another key on a chain. Simple, elegant, long-shafted.
A small locked door at the back of the main-floor gallery. It takes two keys to open it, and the assistant director seems inexperienced with the lock. They lead von Rumpel down a corkscrewing stone staircase; at the bottom, the assistant director unlocks a second gate. They wind through warrens of hallways, past a warder who drops his newspaper and sits ramrod straight as they pass. In an unassuming storeroom filled with dropcloths and pallets and crates, behind a sheet of plywood, the mineralogist reveals a simple combination safe that the assistant director opens rather easily.
No alarms. Only the one guard.
Inside the safe is a second, far more interesting box. It is heavy enough that it requires both the assistant director and the mineralogist to lift it out.
Elegant, its joinery invisible. No brand name, no combination dial. It is presumably hollow but with no discernible hinges, no nails, no attachment points; it looks like a solid block of highly polished wood. Custom work.
The mineralogist fits a key into a tiny, almost invisible hole on the bottom; when it turns, two more tiny keyholes open on the opposite side. The assistant director inserts matching keys into those holes; they unlock what looks like five different shafts.
Three overlapping cylinder locks, each dependent on the next.
“Ingenious,” whispers von Rumpel.
The entire box falls gently open.
Inside sits a small felt bag.
He says, “Open it.”
The mineralogist looks at the assistant director. The assistant director picks up the bag and unties its throat and upends a wrapped bundle into his palm. With a single finger, he nudges apart the folds. Inside lies a blue stone as big as a pigeon’s egg. The Wardrobe
Townspeople who violate blackout are fined or rounded up for questioning, though Madame Manec reports that at the Hôtel-Dieu, lamps burn all night long, and German officers go stumbling in and out at every hour, tucking in shirts and adjusting trousers. Marie-Laure keeps herself awake, waiting to hear her uncle stir. Finally she hears the door across the hall tick open and feet brush the boards. She imagines a storybook mouse creeping out from its hole.
She climbs out of bed, trying not to wake her father, and crosses into the hall. “Uncle,” she whispers. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Marie-Laure?” His very smell like that of coming winter, a tomb, the heavy inertia of time.
“Are you well?”
They stand on the landing. “There was a notice,” says Marie-Laure. “Madame has left it on your desk.”
He descends to the fifth floor. She can hear him sputtering. Fingers traveling across his newly empty shelves. Old friends gone. She prepares for shouts of anger but catches half-hyperventilated nursery rhymes instead: . . . à la salade je suis malade au céleri je suis guéri . . .
She takes his elbow, helps him to the davenport. He is still murmuring, trying to talk himself off some innermost ledge, and she can feel fear pumping off him, virulent, toxic; it reminds her of fumes billowing off the vats of formalin in the Department of Zoology.
Rain taps at the windowpanes. Etienne’s voice comes from a long way off. “All of them?”
“Not the radio in the attic. I did not mention it. Does Madame Manec know about it?”
“We have never spoken of it.”
“Is it hidden, Uncle? Could someone see it if the house were searched?”
“Who would search the house?”
A silence follows.
He says, “We could still turn it in. Say we overlooked it?”
“The deadline was yesterday at noon.”
“They might understand.”
“Uncle, do you really believe they will understand that you have overlooked a transmitter that can reach England?”
More agitated breaths. The wheeling of the night on its silent trunnions. “Help me,” he says. He finds an automobile jack in a third-floor room, and together they go up to the sixth floor and shut the door of her grandfather’s room and kneel beside the massive wardrobe without risking the light of a single candle. He slides the jack under the wardrobe and cranks up the left side. Under its feet he slips folded rags; then he jacks up the other side and does the same. “Now, Marie-Laure, put your hands here. And push.” With a thrill, she understands: they are going to park the wardrobe in front of the little door leading to the attic.
“All your might, ready? One two three.”
The huge wardrobe slides an inch. The heavy mirrored doors knock lightly as it glides. She feels as if they are pushing a house across ice.
“My father,” says Etienne, panting, “used to say Christ Himself could not have carried this wardrobe up here. That they must have built the house around it. Another now, ready?”
They push, rest, push, rest. Eventually the wardrobe settles in front of the little door, and the entrance to the attic is walled off. Etienne jacks up each foot again, pulls out the rags, and sinks to the floor, breathing hard, and Marie-Laure sits beside him. Before dawn rolls across the city, they are asleep. Blackbirds
Roll call. Breakfast. Phrenology, rifle training, drills. Black-haired Ernst leaves the school five days after he is chosen as the weakest in Bastian’s exercise. Two others leave the following week. Sixty becomes fifty-seven. Every evening Werner works in Dr. Hauptmann’s lab, alternately plugging numbers into triangulation formulas or engineering: Hauptmann wants him to improve the efficiency and power of a directional radio transceiver he is designing. It needs to be quickly retuned to transmit on multiple frequencies, the little doctor says, and it needs to be able to measure the angle of the transmissions it receives. Can Werner manage this?
He reconfigures nearly everything in the design. Some nights Hauptmann grows talkative, explaining the role of a solenoid or resistor in great detail, even classifying a spider hanging from a rafter, or enthusing about gatherings of scientists in Berlin, where practically every conversation, he says, seems to unveil some new possibility. Relativity, quantum mechanics—on such nights he seems happy enough talking about whatever Werner asks.
Yet the very next night, Hauptmann’s manner will be frighteningly closed; he invites no questions and supervises Werner’s work in silence. That Dr. Hauptmann might have ties so far up—that the telephone on his desk connects him with men a hundred miles away who could probably wag a finger and send a dozen Messerschmitts streaming up from an airfield to strafe some city—intoxicates Werner.
We live in exceptional times.
He wonders if Jutta has forgiven him. Her letters consist mostly of banalities—we are busy; Frau Elena says hello—or else arrive in his bunkroom so full of censor marks that their meaning has disintegrated. Does she grieve over his absence? Or has she calcified her feelings, protected herself, as he is learning to do?
Volkheimer, like Hauptmann, seems full of contradictions. To the other boys, the Giant is a brute, an instrument of pure strength, and yet sometimes, when Hauptmann is away in Berlin, Volkheimer will disappear into the doctor’s office and return with a Grundig tube radio and hook up the shortwave antenna and fill the lab with classical music. Mozart, Bach, even the Italian Vivaldi. The more sentimental, the better. The huge boy will lean back in a chair, so that it makes squeaking protestations beneath his bulk, and let his eyelids slip to half-mast.
Why always triangles? What is the purpose of the transceiver they are building? What two points does Hauptmann know, and why does he need to know the third?
“It’s only numbers, cadet,” Hauptmann says, a favorite maxim. “Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way.”
Werner tries out various theories on Frederick, but Frederick, he’s learning, moves about as if in the grip of a dream, his trousers too big around the waist, the hems already falling out. His eyes are both intense and vague; he hardly seems to realize when he misses targets in marksmanship. Most nights Frederick murmurs to himself before falling asleep: bits of poems, the habits of geese, bats he’s heard swooping past the windows.
Birds, always birds.
“. . . now, arctic terns, Werner, they fly from the south pole to the north pole, true navigators of the globe, probably the most migratory creatures ever to live, seventy thousand kilometers a year . . .”
A metallic wintery light settles over the stables and vineyard and rifle range, and songbirds streak over the hills, great scattershot nets of passerines on their way south, a migratory throughway running right over the spires of the school. Once in a while a flock descends into one of the huge lindens on the grounds and seethes beneath its leaves.
Some of the senior boys, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, cadets who are allowed freer access to ammunition, develop a fondness for firing volleys into the trees to see how many birds they can hit. The tree looks uninhabited and calm; then someone fires, and its crown shatters in all directions, a hundred birds exploding into flight in a half second, shrieking as though the whole tree has flown apart.
In the dormitory window one night, Frederick rests his forehead against the glass. “I hate them. I hate them for that.”
The dinner bell rings, and everyone trots off, Frederick coming in last with his taffy-colored hair and wounded eyes, bootlaces trailing. Werner washes Frederick’s mess tin for him; he shares homework answers, shoe polish, sweets from Dr. Hauptmann; they run next to each other during field exercises. A brass pin weighs lightly on each of their lapels; one hundred and fourteen hobnailed boots spark against pebbles on the trail. The castle with its towers and battlements looms below them like some misty vision of foregone glory. Werner’s blood gallops through his ventricles, his thoughts on Hauptmann’s transceiver, on solder, fuses, batteries, antennas; his boot and Frederick’s touch the ground at the exact same moment. SSG35 A NA513 NL WUX
DUPLICATE OF TELEPHONED TELEGRAM
10 DECEMBER 1940
M. DANIEL LEBLANC
= RETURN TO PARIS END OF MONTH = TRAVEL SECURELY = Bath
One final burst of frenetic gluing and sanding, and Marie-Laure’s father has completed the model of Saint-Malo. It is unpainted, imperfect, striped with a half-dozen different types of wood, and missing details. But it’s complete enough for his daughter to use if she must: the irregular polygon of the island framed by ramparts, each of its eight hundred and sixty-five buildings in place.
He feels ragged. For weeks logic has been failing him. The stone the museum has asked him to protect is not real. If it were, the museum would have sent men already to collect it. Why then, when he puts a magnifying glass to it, do its depths reveal tiny daggers of flames? Why does he hear footfalls behind him when there are none? And why does he find himself entertaining the brainless notion that the stone he carries in the linen sachet in his pocket has brought him misfortune, has put Marie-Laure in danger, may indeed have precipitated the whole invasion of France?
He has tried every test he can think of without involving another soul.
Tried folding it between pieces of felt and striking it with a hammer—it did not shatter.
Tried scratching it with a halved pebble of quartz—it did not scratch.
Tried holding it to candle flame, drowning it, boiling it. He has hidden the jewel under the mattress, in his tool case, in his shoe. For several hours one night, he tucked it into Madame Manec’s geraniums in a window flower box, then convinced himself the geraniums were wilting and dug the stone out.
This afternoon a familiar face looms in the train station, maybe four or five back in the queue. He has seen this man before, pudgy, sweating, multi-chinned. They lock eyes; the man’s gaze slides away.
Etienne’s neighbor. The perfumer.
Weeks ago, while taking measurements for the model, the locksmith saw this same man atop the ramparts pointing a camera out to sea. Not a man to trust, Madame Manec said. But he is just a man waiting in line to buy a ticket.
Logic. The principles of validity. Every lock has its key.
For more than two weeks, the director’s telegram has echoed in his head. Such a maddeningly ambiguous choice for that final directive—Travel securely. Does it mean to bring the stone or leave it behind? Bring Marie-Laure or leave her behind? Travel by train? Or by some other, theoretically more secure means?
And what if, the locksmith considers, the telegram was not sent from the director at all?
Round and round the questions run. When it is his turn at the window, he buys a ticket for a single passenger on the morning train to Rennes and then on to Paris and walks the narrow, sunless streets back to the rue Vauborel. He will go do this and then it will be over. Back to work, staff the key pound, lock things away. In a week, he will ride unburdened back to Brittany and collect Marie-Laure.
For supper Madame Manec serves stew and baguettes. Afterward he leads Marie-Laure up the rickety flights of stairs to the third-floor bath. He fills the big iron tub and turns his back as she undresses. “Use as much soap as you’d like,” he says. “I bought extra.” The train ticket remains folded in his pocket like a betrayal.
She lets him wash her hair. Over and over Marie-Laure trawls her fingers through the suds, as though trying to gauge their weight. There has always been a sliver of panic in him, deeply buried, when it comes to his daughter: a fear that he is no good as a father, that he is doing everything wrong. That he never quite understood the rules. All those Parisian mothers pushing buggies through the Jardin des Plantes or holding up cardigans in department stores—it seemed to him that those women nodded to each other as they passed, as though each possessed some secret knowledge that he did not. How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?
There is pride, too, though—pride that he has done it alone. That his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful, as if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That’s how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair: as though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.
The drain moans; the cluttered house crowds in close. Marie turns up her wet face. “You’re leaving. Aren’t you?”
He is glad, just now, that she cannot see him.
“Madame told me about the telegram.”
“I won’t be long, Marie. A week. Ten days at most.”
“Tomorrow. Before you wake.”
She leans over her knees. Her back is long and white and split by the knobs of her vertebrae. She used to fall asleep holding his index finger in her fist. She used to sprawl with her books beneath the key pound bench and move her hands like spiders across the pages.
“Am I to stay here?”
“With Madame. And Etienne.”
He hands her a towel and helps her climb onto the tile and waits outside while she puts on her nightgown. Then he walks her up to the sixth floor and into their little room, though he knows she does not need to be guided, and he sits on the edge of the bed and she kneels beside the model and sets three fingers on the steeple of the cathedral.
He finds the hairbrush, does not bother turning on the lamp.
“Ten days, Papa?”
“At most.” The walls creak; the window between the curtains is black; the town prepares to sleep. Somewhere out there, German U-boats glide above underwater canyons, and thirty-foot squid ferry their huge eyes through the cold dark.
“Have we ever spent a night apart?”
“No.” His gaze flits through the unlit room. The stone in his pocket seems almost to pulse. If he manages to sleep tonight, what will he dream?
“Can I go out while you are gone, Papa?”
“Once I get back. I promise.”
As tenderly as he can, he draws the brush through the damp strands of his daughter’s hair. Between strokes, they can hear the sea wind rattle the window.
Marie-Laure’s hands whisper across the houses as she recites the names of the streets. “Rue des Cordiers, rue Jacques Cartier, rue Vauborel.”
He says, “You’ll know them all in a week.”
Marie-Laure’s fingers rove to the outer ramparts. The sea beyond. “Ten days,” she says.
“At most.” Weakest (#2)
December sucks the light from the castle. The sun hardly clears the horizon before sinking away. Snow falls once, twice, then stays locked over the lawns. Has Werner ever seen snow this white, snow that was not fouled immediately with ash and coal dust? The only emissaries from the outside world are the occasional songbird who lands in the lindens beyond the quadrangle, blown astray by distant storm or battle or both, and two callow-faced corporals who come into the refectory every week or so—always after the prayer, always just as the boys have placed the first morsel of dinner in their mouths—to pass beneath the blazonry and stop behind a cadet and whisper in his ear that his father has been killed in action.
Other nights a prefect yells Achtung! and the boys stand at their benches and Bastian the commandant waddles in. The boys look down at their food in silence while Bastian walks the rows, trailing a single index finger across their backs. “Homesick? We mustn’t trouble ourselves over our homes. In the end we all come home to the führer. What other home matters?”
“No other!” shout the boys.
Every afternoon, no matter the weather, the commandant blows his whistle and the fourteen-year-olds trot outside and he looms over them with his coat stretched across his belly and his medals chiming and the rubber hose twirling. “There are two kinds of death,” he says, the clouds of his breath plunging out into the cold. “You can fight like a lion. Or you can go as easy as lifting a hair from a cup of milk. The nothings, the nobodies—they die easy.” He sweeps his eyes along the ranks and swings his hose and widens his eyes dramatically. “How will you boys die?”
One windy afternoon he pulls Helmut R?del out of line. Helmut is a small, unpromising child from the south who keeps his hands balled in fists nearly all his waking hours.
“And who is it, R?del? In. Your. Opinion. Who is the weakest member of the corps?” The commandant twirls the hose. Helmut R?del takes no time. “Him, sir.”
Werner feels something heavy fall through him. R?del is pointing directly at Frederick.
Bastian calls Frederick forward. If fear darkens his friend’s face, Werner cannot see it. Frederick looks distracted. Almost philosophical. Bastian drapes his hose around his neck and trudges across the field, snow to his shins, taking his time, until he is little more than a dark lump at the far edge. Werner tries to make eye contact with Frederick, but his eyes are a mile away.
The commandant raises his right arm and yells, “Ten!” and the wind frays the word across the long expanse. Frederick blinks several times, as he often does when addressed in class, waiting for his internal life to catch up with his external one.
“Run,” hisses Werner.
Frederick is a decent runner, faster than Werner, but the commandant seems to count quickly this afternoon, and Frederick’s head start has been abbreviated, and the snow hampers him, and he cannot be over twenty yards away when Bastian raises his left arm.
The boys explode into movement. Werner runs with the others, trying to stay in the back of the pack, their rifles beating in syncopation against their backs. Already the fastest of the boys seem to be running faster than usual, as though tired of being outrun.
Frederick runs hard. But the fastest boys are greyhounds, harvested from all over the nation for their speed and eagerness to obey, and they seem to Werner to be running more fervently, more conclusively, than they have before. They are impatient to find out what will happen if someone is caught.
Frederick is fifteen strides from Bastian when they haul him down.
The group coalesces around the front-runners as Frederick and his pursuers get to their feet, all of them pasted with snow. Bastian strides up. The cadets encircle their instructor, chests heaving, many with their hands on their knees. The breath of the boys pulses out before them in a collective fleeting cloud that is stripped away quickly by the wind. Frederick stands in the middle, panting and blinking his long eyelashes.
“It usually does not take so long,” says Bastian mildly, almost as if to himself. “For the first to be caught.”
Frederick squints at the sky.
Bastian says, “Cadet, are you the weakest?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“You don’t know?” A pause. Into Bastian’s face flows an undercurrent of antagonism. “Look at me when you speak.”
“Some people are weak in some ways, sir. Others in other ways.”
The commadant’s lips thin and his eyes narrow and an expression of slow and intense malice rises in his face. As though a cloud has drifted away and for a moment Bastian’s true, deformed character has come glaring through. He pulls the hose from around his neck and hands it to R?del.
R?del blinks up at his bulk. “Go on, then,” prods Bastian. In some other context, he might be encouraging a reluctant boy to step into cold water. “Do him some good.”
R?del looks down at the hose: black, three feet long, stiff in the cold. What might be several seconds pass, though they feel to Werner like hours, and the wind tears through the frosted grass, sending zephyrs and wisps of snow sirening off across the white, and a sudden nostalgia for Zollverein rolls through him in a wave: boyhood afternoons wandering the soot-stained warrens, towing his little sister in the wagon. Muck in the alleys, the hoarse shouts of work crews, the boys in their dormitory sleeping head to toe while their coats and trousers hang from hooks along the walls. Frau Elena’s midnight passage among the beds like an angel, murmuring, I know it’s cold. But I’m right beside you, see?
Jutta, close your eyes.
R?del steps forward and swings the hose and smacks Frederick with it across the shoulder. Frederick takes a step backward. The wind slashes across the field. Bastian says, “Again.”
Everything becomes soaked in a hideous and wondrous slowness. R?del rears back and strikes. This time he catches Frederick on the jaw. Werner forces his mind to keep sending up images of home: the laundry; Frau Elena’s overworked pink fingers; dogs in the alleys; steam blowing from stacks—every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong?
But here it is right.
It takes such a long time. Frederick withstands a third blow. “Again,” commands Bastian. On the fourth, Frederick throws up his arms and the hose smacks against his forearms and he stumbles. R?del swings again, and Bastian says, “In your shining example, Christ, lead the way, ever and always,” and the whole afternoon turns sideways, torn open; Werner watches the scene recede as though observing it from the far end of a tunnel: a small white field, a group of boys, bare trees, a toy castle, none of it any more real than Frau Elena’s stories about her Alsatian childhood or Jutta’s drawings of Paris. Six more times he hears R?del swing and the hose whistle and the strangely dead smack of the rubber striking Frederick’s hands, shoulders, and face.
Frederick can walk for hours in the woods, can identify warblers fifty yards away simply by hearing their song. Frederick hardly ever thinks of himself. Frederick is stronger than he is in every imaginable way. Werner opens his mouth but closes it again; he drowns; he shuts his eyes, his mind.
At some point the beating stops. Frederick is facedown in the snow.
“Sir?” says R?del, panting. Bastian takes back the length of hose from R?del and drapes it around his neck and reaches underneath his belly to hitch up his belt. Werner kneels beside Frederick and turns him onto his side. Blood is running from his nose or eye or ear, maybe all three. One of his eyes is already swollen shut; the other remains open. His attention, Werner realizes, is on the sky. Tracing something up there.
Werner risks a glance upward: a single hawk, riding the wind.
Bastian says, “Up.”
Werner stands. Frederick does not move.
Bastian says, “Up,” more quietly this time, and Frederick gets to a knee. He stands, wobbling. His cheek is gashed and leaks tendrils of blood. Splotches of moisture show on his back from where the snow has melted into his shirt. Werner gives Frederick his arm.
“Cadet, are you the weakest?”
Frederick does not look at the commandant. “No, sir.”
Hawk still gyring up there. The portly commandant chews on a thought for a moment. Then his clear voice rings out, flying above the company, urging them into a run. Fifty-seven cadets cross the grounds and jog up the snowy path into the forest. Frederick runs in his place beside Werner, his left eye swelling, twin networks of blood peeling back across his cheeks, his collar wet and brown.
The branches seethe and clatter. All fifty-seven boys sing in unison.
We shall march onwards,
Even if everything crashes down in pieces;
For today the nation hears us,
And tomorrow the whole world!
Winter in the forests of old Saxony. Werner does not risk another glance toward his friend. He quick-steps through the cold, an unloaded five-round rifle over his shoulder. He is almost fifteen years old. The Arrest of the Locksmith
They seize him outside of Vitré, hours from Paris. Two policemen in plain clothes bundle him off a train while a dozen passengers stare. He is questioned in a van and again in an ice-cold mezzanine office decorated with poorly executed watercolors of oceangoing steamers. The first interrogators are French; an hour later they become German. They brandish his notebook and tool case. They hold up his key ring and count seven different skeleton keys. What do these unlock, they want to know, and how do you employ these tiny files and saws? What about this notebook full of architectural measurements?
A model for my daughter.
Keys for the museum where I work.
They frog-march him to a cell. The door’s lock and hinges are so big and antiquarian, they must be Louis XIV. Maybe Napoleon. Any hour now the director or his people will show up and explain everything. Certainly this will happen.
In the morning the Germans run him through a second, more laconic spell of questioning while a typist clatters away in the corner. They seem to be accusing him of plotting to destroy the Château de Saint-Malo, though why they might believe this is not clear. Their French is barely adequate and they seem more interested in their questions than his answers. They deny access to paper, to linens, to a telephone. They have photographs of him.
He yearns for cigarettes. He lies faceup on the floor and imagines himself kissing Marie-Laure once on each eye while she sleeps. Two days after his arrest, he is driven to a holding pen a few miles outside Strasbourg. Through fence slats, he watches a column of uniformed schoolgirls walk double-file in the winter sunshine.
Guards bring prepackaged sandwiches, hard cheese, sufficient water. In the pen, maybe thirty others sleep on straw laid atop frozen mud. Mostly French but some Belgians, four Flemings, two Walloons. All have been accused of crimes they speak of only with reticence, anxious about what traps might lurk within any question he puts to them. At night they trade rumors in whispers. “We will only be in Germany for a few months,” someone says, and the word goes twisting down the line.
“Merely to help with spring planting while their men are at war.”
“Then they’ll send us home.”
Each man thinks this is impossible and then: It might be true. Just a few months. Then home.
No officially appointed lawyer. No military tribunal. Marie-Laure’s father spends three days shivering in the holding pen. No rescue arrives from the museum, no limousine from the director grinds up the lane. They will not let him write letters. When he demands to use a telephone, the guards don’t bother to laugh. “Do you know the last time we used a telephone?” Every hour is a prayer for Marie-Laure. Every breath.
On the fourth day, all the prisoners are piled onto a cattle truck and driven east. “We are close to Germany,” the men whisper. They can glimpse it on the far side of the river. Low clumps of naked trees bracketed by snow-dusted fields. Black rows of vineyards. Four disconnected strands of gray smoke melt into a white sky.
The locksmith squints. Germany? It looks no different from this side of the river.
It may as well be the edge of a cliff.
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