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فصل 04

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Four 8 August 1944 The Fort of ?La Cité

Sergeant Major von Rumpel climbs a ladder in the dark. He can feel the lymph nodes on either side of his neck compressing his esophagus and trachea. His weight like a rag on the rungs.

The two gunners inside the periscope turret watch from beneath the rims of their helmets. Not offering help, not saluting. The turret is crowned with a steel dome and is used primarily to range larger guns positioned farther below. It offers views of the sea to the west; the cliffs below, all strung with entangling wire; and directly across the water, a half mile away, the burning city of Saint-Malo.

Artillery has stopped for the moment, and the predawn fires inside the walls take on a steady middle life, an adulthood. The western edge of the city has become a holocaust of crimson and carmine from which rise multiple towers of smoke. The largest has curdled into a pillar like the cloud of tephra and ash and steam that billows atop an erupting volcano. From afar, the smoke appears strangely solid, as though carved from luminous wood. All along its perimeter, sparks rise and ash falls and administrative documents flutter: utility plans, purchase orders, tax records.

With binoculars, von Rumpel watches what might be bats go flaming and careening out over the ramparts. A geyser of sparks erupts deep within a house—an electrical transformer or hoarded fuel or maybe a delayed-action bomb—and it looks to him as if lightning lashes the town from within.

One of the gunners makes unimaginative comments about the smoke, a dead horse he can see at the base of the walls, the intensity of certain quadrants of fire. As though they are noblemen in grandstands viewing fortress warfare in the years of the Crusaders. Von Rumpel tugs his collar against the bulges in his throat, tries to swallow.

The moon sets and the eastern sky lightens, the hem of night pulling away, taking stars with it one by one until only two are left. Vega, maybe. Or Venus. He never learned.

“Church spire is gone,” says the second gunner.

A day ago, above the zigzag rooftops, the cathedral spire pointed straight up, higher than everything else. Not this morning. Soon the sun is above the horizon and the orange of flames gives way to the black of smoke, rising along the western walls and blowing like a caul across the citadel.

Finally, for a few seconds, the smoke parts long enough for von Rumpel to peer into the serrated maze of the city and pick out what he’s looking for: the upper section of a tall house with a broad chimney. Two windows visible, the glass out. One shutter hanging, three in place.

Number 4 rue Vauborel. Still intact. Seconds pass; smoke veils it again.

A single airplane tracks across the deepening blue, incredibly high. Von Rumpel retreats down the long ladder into the tunnels of the fort below. Trying not to limp, not to think of the bulges in his groin. In the underground commissary, men sit against the walls spooning oatmeal from their upturned helmets. The electric lights cast them in alternating pools of glare and shadow.

Von Rumpel sits on an ammunition box and eats cheese from a tube. The colonel in charge of defending Saint-Malo has made speeches to these men, speeches about valor, about how any hour the Hermann G?ring Division will break the American line at Avranches, how reinforcements will pour in from Italy and possibly Belgium, tanks and Stukas, truckloads of fifty-millimeter mortars, how the people of Berlin believe in them like a nun believes in God, how no one will abandon his post and if he does he’ll be executed as a deserter, but von Rumpel is thinking now of the vine inside of him. A black vine that has grown branches through his legs and arms. Gnawing his abdomen from the inside. Here in this peninsular fortress just outside Saint-Malo, cut off from the retreating lines, it seems only a matter of time until Canadians and Brits and the bright American eyes of the Eighty-third Division will be swarming the city, scouring the homes for marauding Huns, doing whatever it is they do when they take prisoners.

Only a matter of time until the black vine chokes off his heart.

“What?” says a soldier beside him.

Von Rumpel sniffs. “I do not think I said anything.”

The soldier squints back into the oatmeal in his helmet.

Von Rumpel squeezes out the last of the vile, salty cheese and drops the empty tube between his feet. The house is still there. His army still holds the city. For a few hours the fires will burn, and then the Germans will swarm like ants back to their positions and fight for another day.

He will wait. Wait and wait and wait, and when the smoke clears, he will go in. Atelier de Réparation

Bernd the engineer squirms in pain, grinding his face into the back of the golden armchair. Something wrong with his leg and something worse with his chest.

The radio is hopeless. The power cable has been severed and the lead to the aboveground antenna is lost and Werner would not be surprised if the selector panel is broken. In the weakening amber of Volkheimer’s field light, he stares at one crushed plug after another.

The bombing seems to have destroyed the hearing in his left ear. His right, as far as he can tell, is gradually coming back. Beyond the ringing, he begins to hear.

Ticking of fires as they cool.

Groaning of the hotel above.

Strange miscellaneous dripping.

And Volkheimer as he hacks intermittently, insanely, at the rubble blocking the stairwell. Volkheimer’s technique, apparently, is this: he crouches beneath the buckled ceiling, panting, holding a piece of twisted rebar in one hand. He switches on his flashlight and scans the packed stairwell for anything he might drag out of it. Memorizing positions. Then he switches off the light, to preserve its battery, and goes at his task in the darkness. When the light comes back on, the mess of the stairwell looks the same. An impacted welter of metal and brickwork and timber so thick that it’s hard to believe twenty men could get through.

Please, Volkheimer says. Whether he knows he is saying it aloud or not, Werner cannot say. But Werner hears it in his right ear like a distant prayer. Please. Please. As though everything in the war to this point was tolerable to twenty-one-year-old Frank Volkheimer but not this final injustice.

The fires above ought to have sucked the last oxygen out of this hole by now. They all should have asphyxiated. Debts paid, accounts settled. And yet they breathe. The three splintered beams in the ceiling hold up God knows what load: ten tons of carbonized hotel and the corpses of eight anti-aircraft men and untold unexploded ordnance. Maybe Werner for his ten thousand small betrayals and Bernd for his innumerable crimes and Volkheimer for being the instrument, the executor of the orders, the blade of the Reich—maybe the three of them have some greater price to pay, some final sentence to be handed down.

First a corsair’s cellar, built to safeguard gold, weapons, an eccentric’s beekeeping equipment. Then a wine cellar. Then a handyman’s nook. Atelier de réparation, thinks Werner, a chamber in which to make reparations. As appropriate a place as any. Certainly there would be people in the world who believe these three have reparations to make. Two Cans

When Marie-Laure wakes, the little model house is pinned beneath her chest, and she is sweating through her great-uncle’s coat.

Is it dawn? She climbs the ladder and presses her ear to the trapdoor. No more sirens. Maybe the house burned to the ground while she slept. Or else she slept through the last hours of the war and the city has been liberated. There could be people in the streets: volunteers, gendarmes, fire brigades. Even Americans. She should go up through the trapdoor and walk out the front door onto the rue Vauborel.

But what if Germany has held the city? What if Germans are right now marching from house to house, shooting whomever they please?

She will wait. At any moment Etienne could be making his way toward her, fighting with his last breath to reach her.

Or he is crouched somewhere, cradling his head. Seeing demons.

Or he is dead.

She tells herself to save the bread, but she is famished and the loaf is getting stale, and before she knows it, she has finished it.

If only she had brought her novel down with her.

Marie-Laure roves the cellar in her stocking feet. Here’s a rolled rug, its hollow filled with what smell like wood shavings: mice. Here’s a crate that contains old papers. Antique lamp. Madame Manec’s canning supplies. And here, at the back of a shelf near the ceiling, two small miracles. Full cans! Hardly any food remains in the entire kitchen—only cornmeal and a sheaf of lavender and two or three bottles of skunked Beaujolais—but down here in the cellar, two heavy cans.

Peas? Beans? Corn kernels, maybe. Not oil, she prays; aren’t oil cans smaller? When she shakes them, they offer no clues. Marie-Laure tries to calculate the chances that one might contain Madame Manec’s peaches, the white peaches from Languedoc that she’d buy by the crate and peel and quarter and boil with sugar. The whole kitchen would fill with their smell and color, Marie-Laure’s fingers sticky with them, a kind of rapture.

Two cans Etienne missed.

But to raise one’s hopes is to risk their falling further. Peas. Or beans. These would be more than welcome. She deposits one can in each pocket of her uncle’s coat, and checks again for the little house in the pocket of her dress, and sits on a trunk and clasps her cane in both hands and tries not to think about her bladder.

Once, when she was eight or nine, her father took her to the Panthéon in Paris to describe Foucault’s pendulum. Its bob, he said, was a golden sphere shaped like a child’s top. It swung from a wire that was sixty-seven meters long; because its trajectory changed over time, he explained, it proved beyond all doubt that the earth rotated. But what Marie-Laure remembered, standing at the rail as it whistled past, was her father saying that Foucault’s pendulum would never stop. It would keep swinging, she understood, after she and her father left the Panthéon, after she had fallen asleep that night. After she had forgotten about it, and lived her entire life, and died.

Now it is as if she can hear the pendulum in the air in front of her: that huge golden bob, as wide across as a barrel, swinging on and on, never stopping. Grooving and regrooving its inhuman truth into the floor. Number 4 rue Vauborel

Ashes, ashes: snow in August. The shelling resumed sporadically after breakfast, and now, around six P.M., has ceased. A machine gun fires somewhere, a sound like a chain of beads passing through fingers. Sergeant Major von Rumpel carries a canteen, a half dozen ampules of morphine, and his field pistol. Over the seawall. Over the causeway toward the huge smoldering bulwark of Saint-Malo. Out in the harbor, the jetty has been shattered in multiple places. A half-submerged fishing boat drifts stern up.

Inside the old city, mountains of stone blocks, sacks, shutters, branches, iron grillework, and chimney pots fill the rue de Dinan. Smashed flower boxes and charred window frames and shattered glass. Some buildings still smoke, and though von Rumpel keeps a damp handkerchief pressed over his mouth and nose, he has to stop several times to gather his breath.

Here a dead horse, starting to bloat. Here a chair upholstered in striped green velvet. Here the torn shreds of a canopy proclaim a brasserie. Curtains swing idly from broken windows in the strange, flickering light; they unnerve him. Swallows fly to and fro, looking for lost nests, and someone very far away might be screaming, or it might be the wind. The blasts have stripped many shop signs off their brackets, and the gibbets hang forsaken.

A schnauzer trots after him, whining. No one shouts down from a window to warn him away from mines. Indeed, in four blocks he sees only one soul, a woman outside what was, the day before, the movie-house. Dustpan in one hand, broom nowhere to be seen. She looks up at him, dazed. Through an open door behind her, rows of seats have crumpled beneath great slabs of ceiling. Beyond them, the screen stands unblemished, not even stained by smoke.

“Show’s not till eight,” she says in her Breton French, and he nods as he limps past. On the rue Vauborel, vast quantities of slate tiles have slid off roofs and detonated in the streets. Scraps of burned paper float overhead. No gulls. Even if the house has caught fire, he thinks, the diamond will be there. He will pluck it from the ashes like a warm egg.

But the tall, slender house remains nearly unscathed. Eleven windows on the facade, most of the glass out. Blue window frames, old granite of grays and tans. Four of its six flower boxes hang on. The mandated list of occupants clings to its front door.

M. Etienne LeBlanc, age 63.

Mlle Marie-Laure LeBlanc, age 16.

All the dangers he is willing to endure. For the Reich. For himself.

No one stops him. No shells come whistling in. Sometimes the eye of a hurricane is the safest place to be. What They Have

When is it day and when night? Time seems better measured by flashes: Volkheimer’s field light flicks off, flicks on.

Werner watches Volkheimer’s ash-dusted face in the reflected glow, his ministrations as he leans over Bernd. Drink, says Volkheimer’s mouth as he holds his canteen to Bernd’s lips, and shadows lunge across the broken ceiling like a circle of wraiths preparing to feast.

Bernd twists his face away, panic in his eyes, and tries to examine his leg.

The flashlight switches off and the darkness rushes back.

In Werner’s duffel, he has his childhood notebook, his blanket, and dry socks. Three rations. This is all the food they have. Volkheimer has none. Bernd has none. They have only two canteens of water, each half-empty. Volkheimer has also discovered a bucket of paintbrushes in a corner with some watery sludge in the bottom, but how desperate will they have to become to drink that?

Two stick grenades: Model 24s, one in each of the side pockets of Volkheimer’s coat. Hollow wood handles on the bottom, high-explosive charges in a steel can on top—handheld bombs the boys at Schulpforta called potato mashers. Twice already Bernd has begged Volkheimer to try one on the impacted mess of the stairwell, to see if they can blast their way out. But to use a grenade down here, in such close quarters, beneath rubble presumably littered with live 88-millimeter shells, would be suicide.

Then there’s the rifle: Volkheimer’s bolt-action Karabiner 98K, loaded with five rounds. Enough, thinks Werner. Plenty. They would need only three, one for each.

Sometimes, in the darkness, Werner thinks the cellar may have its own faint light, perhaps emanating from the rubble, the space going a bit redder as the August day above them progresses toward dusk. After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.

Werner thinks of his childhood, the skeins of coal dust suspended in the air on winter mornings, settling on windowsills, in the children’s ears, in their lungs, except down here in this hole, the white dust is the inverse, as if he is trapped in some deep mine that is the same but also the opposite of the one that killed his father.

Dark again. Light again. Volkheimer’s antic ash-dusted face materializes in front of Werner, his rank insignia partially torn off one shoulder. With the beam of his field light, he shows Werner that he is holding two bent screwdrivers and a box of electrical fuses. “The radio,” he says into Werner’s good ear.

“Have you slept at all?”

Volkheimer turns the light onto his own face. Before we run out of battery, says his mouth.

Werner shakes his head. The radio is hopeless. He wants to close his eyes, forget, give up. Wait for the rifle barrel to touch his temple. But Volkheimer wants to make an argument that life is worth living.

The filaments of the bulb inside his field light glow yellow: weaker already. Volkheimer’s illuminated mouth is red against the blackness. We are running out of time, his lips say. The building groans. Werner sees green grass, crackling flies, sunlight. The gates of a summer estate opening wide. When death comes for Bernd, it might as well come for him also. Save a second trip.

Your sister, says Volkheimer. Think of your sister. Trip Wire

Her bladder will not hold much longer. She scales the cellar steps and holds her breath and hears nothing for thirty heartbeats. Forty. Then she pushes open the trapdoor and climbs into the kitchen.

No one shoots her. She hears no explosions.

Marie-Laure crunches over the fallen kitchen shelves and crosses into Madame Manec’s tiny apartment, the two cans swinging heavily in her great-uncle’s coat. Throat stinging, nostrils stinging. The smoke slightly thinner in here.

She relieves herself in the bedpan at the foot of Madame Manec’s bed. Pulls up her stockings and rebuttons her great-uncle’s coat. Is it afternoon? She wishes for the thousandth time that she could talk to her father. Would it be better to go out into the city, especially if it is still daylight, and try to find someone?

A soldier would help her. Anyone would. Though even as the thought rises, she doubts it.

The unsteady feeling in her legs, she knows, stems from hunger. In the tumult of the kitchen, she cannot find a can opener, but she does find a paring knife in Madame Manec’s knife drawer and the large coarse brick Madame used to prop open the fireplace grate.

She will eat whatever is inside one of the two cans. Then she will wait a bit longer in case her uncle comes home, in case she hears anyone pass by, the town crier, a fireman, an American serviceman with gallantry on his mind. If she hears no one by the time she is hungry again, she will go out into what is left of the street.

First she climbs to the third floor to drink from the bathtub. With her lips against its surface, she takes long inward pulls. Pooling, burbling in her gut. A trick she and Etienne have learned over a hundred insufficient meals: before you eat, drink as much water as you can, and you will feel full more quickly. “At least, Papa,” she says out loud, “I was smart about the water.”

Then she sits on the third-floor landing with her back against the telephone table. She braces one of the cans between her thighs, holds the point of the knife against its lid, and raises the brick to tap down on the knife handle. But before she can bring the brick down, the trip wire behind her jerks, and the bell rings, and someone enters the house.

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