فصل 05کتاب: تمام نورهایی که نمیتوانیم ببینیم / فصل 6
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متن انگلیسی فصل
Five January 1941 January Recess
The commandant makes a speech about virtue and family and the emblematic fire that Schulpforta boys carry everywhere they go, a bowl of pure flame to stoke the nation’s hearths, führer this and führer that, his words crashing into Werner’s ears in a familiar battery, one of the most daring boys muttering afterward, “Oh, I’ve got a hot bowl of something in my core.”
In the bunk room, Frederick leans over the rim of his bed. His face presents a map of purples and yellows. “Why don’t you come to Berlin? Father will be working, but you could meet Mother.”
For two weeks Frederick has limped around bruised and slow-footed and puffy, and not once has he spoken to Werner with anything more than his own gentle brand of distracted kindness. Not once has he accused Werner of betrayal, even though Werner did nothing while Frederick was beaten and has done nothing since: did not hunt down R?del or point a rifle at Bastian or bang indignantly on Dr. Hauptmann’s door, demanding justice. As if Frederick understands already that both have been assigned to their specific courses, that there is no deviating now.
Werner says, “I don’t have—”
“Mother will pay your fare.” Frederick tilts back up and stares at the ceiling. “It’s nothing.”
The train ride is a sleepy six-hour epic, every hour their rickety car shunted onto a siding to let trains full of soldiers, headed for the front, hurry past. Finally Werner and Frederick disembark at a dim charcoal-colored station and climb a long flight of stairs, each step painted with the same exclamation—Berlin smokes Junos!—and rise into the streets of the largest city Werner has ever seen.
Berlin! The very name like two sharp bells of glory. Capital of science, seat of the führer, nursery to Bohr, Einstein, Staudinger, Bayer. Somewhere in these streets, plastic was invented, X-rays were discovered, continental drift was identified. What marvels does science cultivate here now? Superman soldiers, Dr. Hauptmann says, and weather-making machines and missiles that can be steered by men a thousand miles away.
The sky drops silver threads of sleet. Gray houses run in converging lines to the horizon, bunched as if to fend off cold. They pass shops stuffed with hanging meats and a drunk with a broken mandolin on his lap and a trio of streetwalkers huddled beneath an awning who catcall the boys in their uniforms.
Frederick leads them into a five-story town house one block off a pretty avenue called the Knesebeckstrasse. He rings #2 and a returning buzz echoes from inside and the door unlatches. They come into a dim foyer and stand before a pair of matched doors. Frederick presses a button and something high in the building rattles and Werner whispers, “You have an elevator?”
Frederick smiles. The machinery clangs downward and the lift clanks into place and Frederick pushes the wooden doors inward. Werner watches the interior of the building slide past in amazement. When they reach the second floor, he says, “Can we ride it again?”
Frederick laughs. They go down. Back up. Down, up, to the lobby a fourth time, and Werner is peering into the cables and weights above the car, trying to understand its mechanism, when a tiny woman enters the building and shakes out her umbrella. With her other hand, she carries a paper sack, and her eyes rapidly apprehend the boys’ uniforms and the intense whiteness of Werner’s hair and the livid bruises beneath Frederick’s eyes. On the breast of her coat, a mustard-yellow star has been carefully stitched. Perfectly straight, one vertex down, another up. Drops fall like seeds from the tip of her umbrella.
“Good afternoon, Frau Schwartzenberger,” says Frederick. He backs up against the wall of the elevator car and gestures for her to enter.
She squeezes into the lift and Werner steps in behind her. From the top of her sack juts a sheaf of withered greens. Her collar, he can see, is separating from the rest of the coat; threads are giving way. If she were to turn, their eyes would be a hand’s width apart.
Frederick presses 2, then 5. No one speaks. The old woman rubs the trembling tip of an index finger across one eyebrow. The lift clangs up one floor. Frederick snaps open the cage and Werner follows him out. He watches the old woman’s gray shoes rise past his nose. Already the door to #2 is opening, and an aproned woman with baggy arms and a downy face rushes out and embraces Frederick. She kisses him on both cheeks, then touches his bruises with her thumbs.
“It’s all right, Franny, horseplay.”
The apartment is sleek and shiny, full of deep carpets that swallow noise. Big rear windows look out into the hearts of four leafless lindens. Sleet still falling outside.
“Mother isn’t home yet,” Franny says, smoothing down her apron with both palms. Her eyes stay on Frederick. “You’re sure you’re all right?”
Frederick says, “Of course,” and together he and Werner pad into a warm, clean-smelling bedroom and Frederick slides open a drawer, and when he turns around, he’s wearing eyeglasses with black frames. He looks at Werner shyly. “Oh, come on, you didn’t already know?”
With his glasses on, Frederick’s expression seems to ease; his face makes more sense—this, Werner thinks, is who he is. A soft-skinned boy in glasses with taffy-colored hair and the finest trace of a mustache needled across his lip. Bird lover. Rich kid.
“I barely hit anything in marksmanship. You really didn’t know?”
“Maybe,” says Werner. “Maybe I knew. How did you pass the eye exams?”
“Memorized the charts.”
“Don’t they have different ones?”
“I memorized all four. Father got them ahead of time. Mother helped me study.”
“What about your binoculars?”
“They’re prescription. Cost a fortune.”
They sit in a big kitchen at a butcher’s block with a marble cap. The maid named Franny emerges with a dark loaf and a round of cheese, and she smiles at Frederick as she sets it down. They talk about Christmas and how Frederick was sorry to miss it, and the maid passes out through a swinging door and returns with two white plates so delicate that they ring when she sets them down.
Werner’s mind reels: A lift! A Jewess! A maid! Berlin! They retreat into Frederick’s bedroom, which is populated with tin soldiers and model airplanes and wooden crates full of comic books. They lie on their stomachs and page through comics, feeling the pleasure of being outside of school, glancing at each other now and then as if curious to learn whether their friendship will continue to exist in another place.
Franny calls, “I’m going,” and as soon as the door closes, Frederick takes Werner by the arm into the living room and climbs a ladder built along tall hardwood shelves and slides aside a large wicker basket and, from behind it, brings down a huge book: two volumes enfolded in golden slipcovers, each as big as a crib mattress. “Here.” His voice glows; his eyes glow. “This is what I wanted to show you.”
Inside are lush full-color paintings of birds. Two white falcons swoop over each other, beaks open. A bloodred flamingo holds its black-tipped beak over stagnant water. Resplendent geese stand on a headland and peer into a heavy sky. Frederick turns the pages with both hands. Pipiry flycatcher. Buff-breasted merganser. Red-cockaded woodpecker. Many of them larger in the book than in real life.
“Audubon,” Frederick says, “was an American. Walked the swamps and woods for years, back when that whole country was just swamps and woods. He’d spend all day watching one individual bird. Then he’d shoot it and prop it up with wires and sticks and paint it. Probably knew more than any birder before or since. He’d eat most of the birds after he painted them. Can you imagine?” Frederick’s voice trembles with ardency. Gazing up. “Those bright mists and your gun on your shoulder and your eyes set firmly in your head?”
Werner tries to see what Frederick sees: a time before photography, before binoculars. And here was someone willing to tramp out into a wilderness brimming with the unknown and bring back paintings. A book not so much full of birds as full of evanescence, of blue-winged, trumpeting mysteries.
He thinks of the Frenchman’s radio program, of Heinrich Hertz’s Principles of Mechanics— doesn’t he recognize the thrill in Frederick’s voice? He says, “My sister would love this.”
“Father says we’re not supposed to have it. Says we have to keep it hidden up there behind the basket because it’s American and was printed in Scotland. It’s just birds!”
The front door opens and footsteps clack across the foyer. Frederick hurries the volumes back inside their slipcovers; he calls, “Mother?” and a woman wearing a green ski suit with white stripes down the legs enters crying, “Fredde! Fredde!” She embraces her son and holds him back with straight arms while she runs a fingertip over a mostly healed cut along his forehead. Frederick looks off over her shoulder with a trace of panic on his face. Is he afraid that she’ll see he was looking at the forbidden book? Or that she’ll be angry about his bruises? She does not say anything but merely stares at her son, tangled in thoughts Werner cannot guess, then remembers herself.
“And you must be Werner!” The smile sweeps back onto her face. “Frederick has written lots about you! Look at that hair! Oh, we adore guests.” She climbs the ladder and restores the heavy Audubon volumes to their shelf one at a time, as though putting away something irritating. The three of them sit at the vast oak table and Werner thanks her for the train ticket and she tells a story about a man she “ran into just now, unbelievable really,” who apparently is a famous tennis player and every now and then she reaches across and squeezes Frederick’s forearm. “You would have been absolutely amazed,” she says more than once, and Werner studies his friend’s face to gauge whether or not he would have been amazed, and Franny returns to set out wine and more Rauchk?se and for an hour Werner forgets about Schulpforta, about Bastian and the black rubber hose, about the Jewess upstairs—the things these people have! A violin on a stand in the corner and sleek furniture made from chromium steel and a brass telescope and a sterling silver chess set behind glass and this magnificent cheese that tastes like smoke has been stirred into butter.
Wine glows sleepily in Werner’s stomach and sleet ticks down through the lindens when Frederick’s mother announces that they are going out. “Tighten up your ties, won’t you?” She applies powder beneath Frederick’s eyes and they walk to a bistro, the kind of restaurant Werner has never dreamed of entering, and a boy in a white jacket, barely older than they are, brings more wine.
A constant stream of diners come to their table to shake Werner’s and Frederick’s hands and ask Frederick’s mother in low sycophantic voices about her husband’s latest advancement. Werner notices a girl in the corner, radiant, dancing by herself, throwing her face to the ceiling. Eyes closed. The food is rich, and every now and then Frederick’s mother laughs, and Frederick absently touches the makeup on his face while his mother says, “Well, Fredde has all the best there at that school, all the best,” and seemingly every minute some new face comes along and kisses Frederick’s mother on both cheeks and whispers in her ear. When Werner overhears Frederick’s mother say to a woman, “Oh, the Schwartzenberger crone will be gone by year’s end, then we’ll have the top floor, du wirst schon sehen,” he glances at Frederick, whose smudged eyeglasses have gone opaque in the candlelight, whose makeup looks strange and lewd now, as though it has intensified the bruises rather than concealed them, and a feeling of great uneasiness overtakes him. He hears R?del swing the hose, the smack of it across Frederick’s upflung palms. He hears the voices of the boys in his Kameradschaften back in Zollverein sing, Live faithfully, fight bravely, and die laughing. The bistro is overcrowded; everyone’s mouths move too quickly; the woman talking to Frederick’s mother is wearing a nauseating quantity of perfume; and in the watery light it seems suddenly as if the scarf trailing from the dancing girl’s neck is a noose.
Frederick says, “Are you all right?”
“Fine, it’s delicious,” but Werner feels something inside him screw tighter, tighter.
On the way home, Frederick and his mother walk ahead. She loops her slender arm through his and talks to him in a low voice. Fredde this, Fredde that. The street is empty, the windows dead, the electric signs switched off. Innumerable shops, millions sleeping in beds around them, and yet where are they all? As they reach Frederick’s block, a woman in a dress, leaning against a building, bends over and vomits on the sidewalk.
In the town house, Frederick pulls on pajamas made of jelly-green silk and folds his glasses on the nightstand and climbs barefoot into his brass childhood bed. Werner gets into a trundle bed that Frederick’s mother has apologized for three separate times, although its mattress is more comfortable than any he has slept on in his life.
The building falls quiet. Model automobiles glimmer on Frederick’s shelves.
“Do you ever wish,” whispers Werner, “that you didn’t have to go back?”
“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”
“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”
A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.
“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”
When Werner wakes, it’s well past dawn. His head aches and his eyeballs feel heavy. Frederick is already dressed, wearing trousers, an ironed shirt, and a necktie, kneeling against the window with his nose against the glass. “Gray wagtail.” He points. Werner looks past him into the naked lindens.
“Doesn’t look like much, does he?” murmurs Frederick. “Hardly a couple of ounces of feathers and bones. But that bird can fly to Africa and back. Powered by bugs and worms and desire.”
The wagtail hops from twig to twig. Werner rubs his aching eyes. It’s just a bird.
“Ten thousand years ago,” whispers Frederick, “they came through here in the millions. When this place was a garden, one endless garden from end to end.” He Is Not Coming Back
Marie-Laure wakes and thinks she hears the shuffle of Papa’s shoes, the clink of his key ring. Fourth floor fifth floor sixth. His fingers brush the doorknob. His body radiates a faint but palpable heat in the chair beside her. His little tools rasp across wood. He smells of glue and sandpaper and Gauloises bleues.
But it is only the house groaning. The sea throwing foam against rocks. Deceits of the mind.
On the twentieth morning without any word from her father, Marie-Laure does not get out of bed. She no longer cares that her great-uncle put on an ancient necktie and stood by the front door on two separate occasions and whispered weird rhymes to himself—à la pomme de terre, je suis par terre; au haricot, je suis dans l’eau—trying and failing to summon the courage to go out. She no longer begs Madame Manec to take her to the train station, to write another letter, to spend another futile afternoon at the prefecture trying to petition occupation authorities to locate her father. She becomes unreachable, sullen. She does not bathe, does not warm herself by the kitchen fire, ceases to ask if she can go outdoors. She hardly eats. “The museum says they’re searching, child,” whispers Madame Manec, but when she tries to press her lips to Marie-Laure’s forehead, the girl jerks backward as if burned.
The museum replies to Etienne’s appeals; they report that Marie-Laure’s father never arrived.
“Never arrived?” says Etienne aloud.
This becomes the question that drags its teeth through Marie-Laure’s mind. Why didn’t he make it to Paris? If he couldn’t, why didn’t he return to Saint-Malo?
I will never leave you, not in a million years.
She wants only to go home, to stand in their four-room flat and hear the chestnut tree rustle outside her window; hear the cheese seller raise his awning; feel her father’s fingers close around hers.
If only she had begged him to stay.
Now everything in the house scares her: the creaking stairs, shuttered windows, empty rooms. The clutter and silence. Etienne tries performing silly experiments to cheer her: a vinegar volcano, a tornado in a bottle. “Can you hear it, Marie? Spinning in there?” She does not feign interest. Madame Manec brings her omelets, cassoulet, brochettes of fish, fabricating miracles out of ration tickets and the dregs of her cupboards, but Marie-Laure refuses to eat.
“Like a snail,” she overhears Etienne say outside her door. “Curled up so tight in there.”
But she is angry. At Etienne for doing so little, at Madame Manec for doing so much, at her father for not being here to help her understand his absence. At her eyes for failing her. At everything and everyone. Who knew love could kill you? She spends hours kneeling by herself on the sixth floor with the window open and the sea hurling arctic air into the room, her fingers on the model of Saint-Malo slowly going numb. South to the Gate of Dinan. West to the Plage du Môle. Back to the rue Vauborel. Every second Etienne’s house grows colder; every second it feels as if her father slips farther away. Prisoner
One February morning, the cadets are roused from their beds at two A.M. and driven out into the glitter. In the center of the quadrangle, torches burn. Keg-chested Bastian waddles out with his bare legs showing beneath his coat.
Frank Volkheimer emerges from the shadows, dragging a tattered and skeletal man in mismatched shoes. Volkheimer sets him down beside the commandant, where a stake has been driven into the snow. Methodically Volkheimer ties the man’s torso to the stake.
A vault of stars hangs overhead; the collective breath of the cadets mingles slowly, nightmarishly above the courtyard.
Volkheimer retreats; the commandant paces.
“You boys would not believe what a creature this is. What a foul beast, a centaur, an Untermensch.”
Everyone cranes to see. The prisoner’s ankles are cuffed and his arms bound from wrists to forearms. His thin shirt has split at the seams and he gazes into some middle distance with hypothermic slackness. He looks Polish. Russian, maybe. Despite his fetters, he manages to sway lightly back and forth.
Bastian says, “This man escaped from a work camp. Tried to violate a farmhouse and steal a liter of fresh milk. He was stopped before he could do something more nefarious.” He gestures vaguely beyond the walls. “This barbarian would tear out your throats in a second if we let him.”
Since the visit to Berlin, a great dread has been blooming inside Werner’s chest. It came gradually, as slow-moving as the sun’s passage across the sky, but now he finds himself writing letters to Jutta in which he must skirt the truth, must contend that everything is fine when things do not feel fine. He descends into dreams in which Frederick’s mother mutates into a leering, small-mouthed demon and lowers Dr. Hauptmann’s triangles over his head.
A thousand frozen stars preside over the quad. The cold is invasive, mindless.
“This look?” Bastian says, and flourishes his fat hand. “The way he’s got nothing left? A German soldier never reaches this point. There’s a name for this look. It’s called ‘circling the drain.’?”
The boys try not to shiver. The prisoner blinks down at the scene as if from a very high perch. Volkheimer returns carrying a clattering raft of buckets; two other seniors uncoil a water hose across the quadrangle. Bastian explains: First the instructors. Then upperclassmen. Everyone will file past and soak the prisoner with a bucket of water. Every man in the school.
They start. One by one, each instructor takes a full bucket from Volkheimer and flings its contents at the prisoner a few feet away. Cheers rise into the frozen night.
At the first two or three dousings, the prisoner comes awake, rocking back on his heels. Vertical creases appear between his eyes; he looks like someone trying to remember something vital.
Among the instructors in their dark capes, Dr. Hauptmann goes past, his gloved fingers pinching his collar around his throat. Hauptmann accepts his bucket and throws a sheet of water and doesn’t linger to watch it land.
The water keeps coming. The prisoner’s face empties. He slumps over the ropes propping him up, and his torso slides down the stake, and every now and then Volkheimer comes out of the shadows, looming fantastically huge, and the prisoner straightens again.
The upperclassmen vanish inside the castle. The buckets make a muted, frozen clanking as they are refilled. The sixteen-year-olds finish. The fifteen-year-olds finish. The cheers lose their gusto and a pure longing to flee floods Werner. Run. Run.
Three boys until his turn. Two boys. Werner tries to float images in front of his eyes, but the only ones that come are wretched: the hauling machine above Pit Nine; the hunched miners walking as if they dragged the weight of enormous chains. The boy from the entrance exams trembling before he fell. Everyone trapped in their roles: orphans, cadets, Frederick, Volkheimer, the old Jewess who lives upstairs. Even Jutta.
When his turn arrives, Werner throws the water like all the others and the splash hits the prisoner in the chest and a perfunctory cheer rises. He joins the cadets waiting to be released. Wet boots, wet cuffs; his hands have become so numb, they do not seem his own.
Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.
And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.
Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground.
Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”
Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”
The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground. “I will not.” Plage du Môle
Marie-Laure’s father has been missing without word for twenty-nine days. She wakes to Madame Manec’s blocky pumps climbing to the third floor the fourth the fifth.
Etienne’s voice on the landing outside his study: “Don’t.”
“He won’t know.”
“She is my responsibility.”
Some unexpected steel emerges in Madame Manec’s voice. “I cannot stand by one moment longer.”
She climbs the last flight. Marie-Laure’s door creaks open; the old woman crosses the floor and places her heavy-boned hand on Marie-Laure’s forehead. “You’re awake?”
Marie-Laure rolls herself into the corner and speaks through linens. “Yes, Madame.”
“I’m taking you out. Bring your cane.”
Marie-Laure dresses herself; Madame Manec meets her at the bottom of the stairs with a heel of bread. She ties a scarf over Marie-Laure’s head, buttons her coat all the way to the collar, and opens the front door. Morning in late February, and the air smells rainy and calm.
Marie-Laure hesitates, listening. Her heart beats two four six eight.
“Hardly anyone is out yet, dear,” whispers Madame Manec. “And we are doing nothing wrong.”
The gate creaks.
“One step down, now straight on, that’s it.” The cobbled street presses up irregularly against Marie-Laure’s shoes; the tip of her cane catches, vibrates, catches again. A light rain falls on rooftops, trickles through runnels, beads up on her scarf. Sound ricochets between the high houses; she feels, as she did in her first hour here, as if she has stepped into a maze.
Far above them, someone shakes a duster out a window. A cat mewls. What terrors gnash their teeth out here? What was Papa so anxious to protect her from? They make one turn, then a second, and then Madame Manec steers her left where Marie-Laure does not expect her to, where the city walls, furred with moss, have been scrolling along unbroken, and they’re stepping through a gateway.
They pass out of the city.
“Stairs here, mind yourself, one down, two, there you are, easy as cake . . .”
The ocean. The ocean! Right in front of her! So close all this time. It sucks and booms and splashes and rumbles; it shifts and dilates and falls over itself; the labyrinth of Saint-Malo has opened onto a portal of sound larger than anything she has ever experienced. Larger than the Jardin des Plantes, than the Seine, larger than the grandest galleries of the museum. She did not imagine it properly; she did not comprehend the scale.
When she raises her face to the sky, she can feel the thousand tiny spines of raindrops melt onto her cheeks, her forehead. She hears Madame Manec’s raspy breathing, and the deep sounding of the sea among the rocks, and the calls of someone down the beach echoing off the high walls. In her mind she can hear her father polishing locks. Dr. Geffard walking along the rows of his drawers. Why didn’t they tell her it would be like this?
“That’s Monsieur Radom calling to his dog,” says Madame Manec. “Nothing to worry about. Here’s my arm. Sit down and take off your shoes. Roll up your coat sleeves.”
Marie-Laure does as she is told. “Are they watching?”
“The Boches? So what if they are? An old woman and a girl? I’ll tell them we’re digging clams. What can they do?”
“Uncle says they’ve buried bombs in the beaches.”
“Don’t you worry about that. He is frightened of an ant.”
“He says the moon pulls the ocean back.”
“Sometimes the sun pulls too. He says that around the islands, the tides make funnels that can swallow boats whole.”
“We aren’t going anywhere near there, dear. We’re just on the beach.”
Marie-Laure unwinds her scarf and Madame Manec takes it. Briny, weedy, pewter-colored air slips down her collar.
“What do I do?”
She walks. Now there are cold round pebbles beneath her feet. Now crackling weeds. Now something smoother: wet, unwrinkled sand. She bends and spreads her fingers. It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. Tiny slips of wrack. Her fingers dig and reach; the drops of rain touch the back of her neck, the backs of her hands. The sand pulls the heat from her fingertips, from the soles of her feet.
A months-old knot inside Marie-Laure begins to loosen. She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins. She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets. All of it suddenly as small as Papa’s model. But what surrounds the model is not something her father conveyed to her; what’s beyond the model is the most compelling thing.
A flock of gulls squalls overhead. Each of the hundred thousand tiny grains of sand in her fists grinds against its neighbor. She feels her father pick her up and spin her around three times.
No occupation soldier comes to arrest them; no one even speaks to them. In three hours Marie-Laure’s numb fingers discover a stranded jellyfish, an encrusted buoy, and a thousand polished stones. She wades to her knees and soaks the hem of her dress. When Madame Manec finally leads her—damp and dazzled—back to the rue Vauborel, Marie-Laure climbs all five flights and raps on the door of Etienne’s study and stands before him, wet sand stuck all over her face.
“You were gone a long time,” he murmurs. “I worried.”
“Here, Uncle.” From her pockets, she brings up shells. Barnacles, cowries, thirteen lumps of quartz gritty with sand. “I brought you this. And this and this and this.” Lapidary
In three months, Sergeant Major von Rumpel has traveled to Berlin and Stuttgart; he has assessed the value of a hundred confiscated rings, a dozen diamond bracelets, a Latvian cigarette case in which a lozenge of blue topaz twinkled; now, back in Paris, he has slept at the Grand Hôtel for a week and sent forth his queries like birds. Every night the moment returns to him: when he clasped that pear-shaped diamond between his thumb and forefinger, made huge by the lens of his loupe, and believed he held the one-hundred-and-thirty-three-carat Sea of Flames.
He stared into the stone’s ice-blue interior, where miniature mountain ranges seemed to send back fire, crimsons and corals and violets, polygons of color twinkling and coruscating as he rotated it, and he almost convinced himself that the stories were true, that centuries ago a sultan’s son wore a crown that blinded visitors, that the keeper of the diamond could never die, that the fabled stone had caromed down through the pegs of history and dropped into his palm.
There was joy in that moment—triumph. But an unexpected fear mixed with it; the stone looked like something enchanted, not meant for human eyes. An object that, once looked at, could never be forgotten.
But. Eventually reason won out. The joints of the diamond’s facets were not quite as sharp as they should have been. The girdle just slightly waxy. More telling, the stone betrayed no delicate cracks, no pinpoints, not a single inclusion. A real diamond, his father used to say, is never entirely free of inclusions. A real diamond is never perfect.
Had he expected it to be real? To be kept precisely where he wished it would be? To win such a victory in a single day?
Of course not.
One might think von Rumpel would be frustrated, but he is not. On the contrary, he feels quite hopeful. The museum would never have commissioned such a high-quality fake if they did not possess the real thing somewhere. Over the past weeks in Paris, in the hours between other tasks, he has narrowed a list of seven lapidaries to three, then to one: a half-Algerian named Dupont who came of age cutting opal. It appears Dupont was making money before the war by faceting spinels into false diamonds for dowagers and baronesses. Also for museums.
One February midnight, von Rumpel lets himself into Dupont’s fastidious shop not far from Sacré-Coeur. He examines a copy of Streeter’s Precious Stones and Gems; drawings of cleavage panes; trigonometric charts used for faceting. When he finds several painstaking iterations of a mold that match exactly the size and pear-cut shape of the stone in the vault at the museum, he knows he has his man.
At von Rumpel’s request, Dupont is furnished with forged food-ration tickets. Now von Rumpel waits. He prepares his questions: Did you make other replicas? How many? Do you know who has them now?
On the last day of February 1941, a dapper little Gestapo man comes to him with the news that the unwitting Dupont has tried to use the forged tickets. He has been arrested. Kinderleicht: child’s play.
It’s an attractive and drizzly winter’s night, scraps of melting snow shored up against the edges of the Place de la Concorde, the city looking ghostly, its windows jeweled with raindrops. A close-cropped corporal checks von Rumpel’s identification and points him not to a cell but to a high-ceilinged third-story office where a typist sits behind a desk. On the wall behind her, a painted wisteria vine frays into a tangled modernist spray of color that makes von Rumpel uneasy.
Dupont is cuffed to a cheap dining chair in the center of the room. His face has the color and polish of tropical wood. Von Rumpel expected a mélange of fear and indignation and hunger, but Dupont sits upright. One of the lenses of his eyeglasses is already fractured, but otherwise he looks well enough.
The typist twists her cigarette into an ashtray, a bright red smear of lipstick on its butt. The ashtray is full: fifty stubs squashed in there, limbless, somehow gory.
“You can go,” says von Rumpel, nodding at her, and levels his attention on the lapidary.
“He cannot speak German, sir.”
“We will be fine,” he says in French. “Shut the door, please.”
Dupont looks up, some gland within him leaching courage into his blood. Von Rumpel does not have to force the smile; it comes easily enough. He hopes for names, but all he needs is a number. Dearest Marie-Laure—
We are in Germany now and it is fine. I’ve managed to find an angel who will try to get this to you. The winter firs and alders are very beautiful here. And—you are not going to believe this, but you will have to trust me—they serve us wonderful food. First-class: quail and duck and stewed rabbit. Chicken legs and potatoes fried with bacon and apricot tarts. Boiled beef with carrots. Coq au vin on rice. Plum tarts. Fruits and crème glacée. As much as we can eat. I so look forward to the meals!
Be polite to your uncle and Madame too. Thank them for reading this to you. And know that I am always with you, that I am right beside you.
Your Papa Entropy
For a week the dead prisoner remains strapped to the stake in the courtyard, his flesh frozen gray. Boys stop and ask the corpse directions; someone dresses him in a cartridge belt and helmet. After several days, a pair of crows take to standing on his shoulders, chiseling away with their beaks, and eventually the custodian comes out with two third-year boys and they hack the corpse’s feet out of the ice with a maul and tip him into a cart and roll him away.
Three times in nine days, Frederick is chosen as the weakest in field exercises. Bastian walks out farther than ever, and counts more quickly than ever, so that Frederick has to run four or five hundred yards, often through deep snow, and the boys race after him as if their lives depend on it. Each time he is caught; each time he is drubbed while Bastian looks on; each time Werner does nothing to stop it.
Frederick lasts seven blows before falling. Then six. Then three. He never cries out and never asks to leave, and this in particular seems to make the commandant quake with homicidal frustration. Frederick’s dreaminess, his otherness—it’s on him like a scent, and everyone can smell it.
Werner tries to lose himself in his work in Hauptmann’s lab. He has constructed a prototype of their transceiver and tests fuses and valves and handsets and plugs—but even in those late hours, it is as if the sky has dimmed and the school has become a darker, ever more diabolical place. His stomach bothers him. He gets diarrhea. He wakes in distant quarters of the night and sees Frederick in his bedroom in Berlin, wearing his eyeglasses and necktie, freeing trapped birds from the pages of a massive book.
You’re a smart boy. You’ll do well.
One evening when Hauptmann is down the hall in his office, Werner glances over at imperious, sleepy Volkheimer in the corner and says, “That prisoner.”
Volkheimer blinks, stone turning to flesh. “They do that every year.” He takes off his cap and runs one hand over the dense stubble of his hair. “They say he’s a Pole, a Red, a Cossack. He stole liquor or kerosene or money. Every year it’s the same.”
Under the seams of the hour, boys struggle in a dozen different arenas. Four hundred children crawling along the edge of a razor.
“Always the same phrase too,” Volkheimer adds. “?‘Circling the drain.’?”
“But was it decent to leave him out there like that? Even after he was dead?”
“Decency does not matter to them.” Then Hauptmann’s crisp boot heels come clicking into the room, and Volkheimer leans back into the corner, and his eye sockets refill with shadow, and Werner does not have the chance to ask him which them he means.
Boys leave dead mice in Frederick’s boots. They call him a poof, Blowjob, countless other juvenile sobriquets. Twice, a fifth-year takes Frederick’s field glasses and smears the lenses with excrement.
Werner tells himself that he tries. Every night he polishes Frederick’s boots for him until they shine a foot deep—one less reason for a bunk master, or Bastian, or an upperclassman to jump on him. Sunday mornings in the refectory, they sit quietly in a sunbeam and Werner helps him with his schoolwork. Frederick whispers that in the spring, he hopes to find skylark nests in the grasses outside the school walls. Once he lifts his pencil and stares into space and says, “Lesser spotted woodpecker,” and Werner hears a bird’s distant thrumming travel across the grounds and through the wall.
In technical sciences, Dr. Hauptmann introduces the laws of thermodynamics. “Entropy, who can say what that is?”
The boys hunch over their desks. No one raises a hand. Hauptmann stalks the rows. Werner tries not to twitch a single muscle.
“Entropy is the degree of randomness or disorder in a system, Doctor.”
His eyes fix on Werner’s for a heartbeat, a glance both warm and chilling. “Disorder. You hear the commandant say it. You hear your bunk masters say it. There must be order. Life is chaos, gentlemen. And what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of the species. Winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff. This is the great project of the Reich, the greatest project human beings have ever embarked upon.”
Hauptmann writes on the blackboard. The cadets inscribe the words into their composition books. The entropy of a closed system never decreases. Every process must by law decay. The Rounds
Although Etienne continues to offer objections, Madame Manec walks Marie-Laure to the beach every morning. The girl knots her shoes herself, feels her way down the stairwell, and waits in the foyer with her cane in her fist while Madame Manec finishes up in the kitchen.
“I can find my own way,” Marie-Laure says the fifth time they step out. “You don’t have to lead.”
Twenty-two paces to the intersection with the rue d’Estrées. Forty more to the little gate. Nine steps down and she’s on the sand and the twenty thousand sounds of the ocean engulf her.
She collects pinecones dropped by trees who knows how far away. Thick hanks of rope. Slick globules of stranded polyps. Once a drowned sparrow. Her greatest pleasure is to walk to the north end of the beach at low tide and squat below an island that Madame Manec calls Le Grand Bé and let her fingers whisk around in the tidepools. Only then, with her toes and fingers in the cold sea, does her mind seem to fully leave her father; only then does she stop wondering how much of his letter was true, when he’ll write again, why he has been imprisoned. She simply listens, hears, breathes.
Her bedroom fills with pebbles, seaglass, shells: forty scallops along the windowsill, sixty-one whelks along the top of the armoire. She arranges them by species whenever she can, then by size. Smallest on the left, largest on the right. She fills jars, pails, trays; the room assumes the smell of the sea.
Most mornings, after the beach, she makes the rounds with Madame Manec, going to the vegetable market, occasionally to the butcher’s, then delivering food to whichever neighbors Madame Manec decides are most in need. They climb an echoing stairwell, rap on a door; an old woman invites them in, asks for news, insists all three of them drink a thimbleful of sherry. Madame Manec’s energy, Marie-Laure is learning, is extraordinary; she burgeons, shoots off stalks, wakes early, works late, concocts bisques without a drop of cream, loaves with less than a cup of flour. They clomp together through the narrow streets, Marie-Laure’s hand on the back of Madame’s apron, following the odors of her stews and cakes; in such moments Madame seems like a great moving wall of rosebushes, thorny and fragrant and crackling with bees.
Still-warm bread to an ancient widow named Madame Blanchard. Soup to Monsieur Saget. Slowly Marie-Laure’s brain becomes a three-dimensional map in which exist glowing landmarks: a thick plane tree in the Place aux Herbes; nine potted topiaries outside the Hôtel Continental; six stairs up a passageway called the rue du Connétable.
Several days a week, Madame brings food to Crazy Harold Bazin, a veteran of the Great War who sleeps in an alcove behind the library in sun or snow. Who lost his nose, left ear, and eye to shellfire. Who wears an enameled copper mask over half his face.
Harold Bazin loves to talk about the walls and warlocks and pirates of Saint-Malo. Over the centuries, he tells Marie-Laure, the city ramparts have kept out bloodthirsty marauders, Romans, Celts, Norsemen. Some say sea monsters. For thirteen hundred years, he says, the walls kept out bloodthirsty English sailors who would park their ships offshore and launch flaming projectiles at the houses, who would try to burn everything and starve everybody, who would stop at nothing to kill them all.
“The mothers of Saint-Malo,” he says, “used to tell their children: Sit up straight. Mind your manners. Or an Englishman will come in the night to cut your throat.”
“Harold, please,” says Madame Manec. “You’ll frighten her.”
In March, Etienne turns sixty and Madame Manec stews little clams—palourdes—with shallots and serves them alongside mushrooms and quarters of two hard-boiled eggs: the only two eggs, she reports, she could find in the city. Etienne talks in his soft voice about the eruption of Krakatoa, how, in all of his earliest memories, ash from the East Indies turned the sunsets over Saint-Malo bloodred, big veins of crimson glowing above the sea every evening; and to Marie-Laure, her pockets lined with sand, her face aglow from wind, the occupation seems, for a moment, a thousand miles away. She misses Papa, Paris, Dr. Geffard, the gardens, her books, her pinecones—all are holes in her life. But over these past few weeks, her existence has become tolerable. At least, out on the beaches, her privation and fear are rinsed away by wind and color and light.
Most afternoons, after making the morning rounds with Madame, Marie-Laure sits on her bed with the window open and travels her hands over her father’s model of the city. Her fingers pass the shipbuilder’s sheds on the rue de Chartres, pass Madame Ruelle’s bakery on the rue Robert Surcouf. In her imagination she hears the bakers sliding about on the flour-slick floor, moving in the way she imagines ice skaters must move, baking loaves in the same four-hundred-year-old oven that Monsieur Ruelle’s great-great-grandfather used. Her fingers pass the cathedral steps—here an old man clips roses in a garden; here, beside the library, Crazy Harold Bazin murmurs to himself as he peers with his one eye into an empty wine bottle; here is the convent; here’s the restaurant Chez Chuche beside the fish market; here’s Number 4 rue Vauborel, its door slightly recessed, where downstairs Madame Manec kneels beside her bed, shoes off, rosary beads slipping through fingers, a prayer for practically every soul in the city. Here, in a fifth-floor room, Etienne walks beside his empty shelves, trailing his fingers over the places where his radios once stood. And somewhere beyond the borders of the model, beyond the borders of France, in a place her fingers cannot reach, her father sits in a cell, a dozen of his whittled models on a windowsill, a guard coming toward him with what she wants very badly to believe is a feast—quail and duck and stewed rabbit. Chicken legs and potatoes fried with bacon and apricot tarts—a dozen trays, a dozen platters, as much as he can eat. Nadel im Heuhaufen
Midnight. Dr. Hauptmann’s hounds bound through frozen fields beside the school, drops of quicksilver skittering through the white. Behind them comes Hauptmann in his fur cap, walking with short strides as though counting paces over some great distance. In the rear comes Werner, carrying the pair of transceivers he and Hauptmann have been testing for months.
Hauptmann turns, his face bright. “Nice spot here, good sight lines, set it down, Pfennig. I’ve sent our friend Volkheimer ahead. He’s somewhere on the hill.” Werner sees no tracks, only a humped swale of glitter in the moonlight, and the white forest beyond.
“He has the KX transmitter in an ammunition box,” Hauptmann says. “He is to conceal himself and broadcast steadily until we find him or his battery dies. Even I do not know where he is.” He smacks his gloved hands together, and the dogs swirl around him, their breath smoking. “Ten square kilometers. Locate the transmitter, locate our friend.”
Werner looks out at the ten thousand snow-mantled trees. “Out there, sir?”
“Out there.” Hauptmann draws a flask from his pocket and unscrews it without looking at it. “This is the fun part, Pfennig.”
Hauptmann stamps a clearing in the snow, and Werner sets up the first transceiver, uses measuring tape to pace off two hundred meters, and sets up the second. He uncoils the grounding wires, raises the aerials, and switches them on. Already his fingers are numb.
“Try eighty meters, Pfennig. Typically teams won’t know what band to search. But for tonight, our first field test, we’ll cheat a bit.”
Werner puts on the headset and fills his ears with static. He dials up the RF gain, adjusts the filter. Before long, he has tuned in both receivers to Volkheimer’s transmitter pinging along. “I have him, sir.”
Hauptmann starts smiling in earnest. The dogs caper and sneeze with excitement. From his coat he produces a grease pencil. “Just do it on the radio. Teams won’t always have paper, not in the field.”
Werner sketches out the equation on the metal casing of the transceiver and starts plugging in numbers. Hauptmann hands him a slide rule. In two minutes Werner has a vector and a distance: two and a half kilometers.
“And the map?” Hauptmann’s little aristocratic face gleams with pleasure.
Werner uses a protractor and compass to draw the lines.
“Lead on, Pfennig.”
Werner folds the map into his coat pocket, packs up the transceivers, and carries one in each hand like matching suitcases. Tiny snow crystals sift down through the moonlight. Soon the school and its outbuildings look like toys on the white plain below. The moon slips lower, a half-lidded eye, and the dogs stick close to their master, mouths steaming, and Werner sweats.
They drop into a ravine and climb out. One kilometer. Two.
“Sublimity,” Hauptmann says, panting, “you know what that is, Pfennig?” He is tipsy, animated, almost prattling. Never has Werner seen him like this. “It’s the instant when one thing is about to become something else. Day to night, caterpillar to butterfly. Fawn to doe. Experiment to result. Boy to man.”
Far up a third climb, Werner unfolds the map and double-checks his bearings with a compass. Everywhere the silent trees gleam. No tracks save their own. The school lost behind them. “Shall I set out the transceivers again, sir?”
Hauptmann puts his fingers to his lips.
Werner triangulates again and sees how close they are to his original reading—under half a kilometer. He repacks the transceivers and picks up his pace, hunting now, on the scent, all three dogs sensing it too, and Werner thinks: I have found a way in, I am solving it, the numbers are becoming real. And the trees unload siftings of snow and the dogs freeze and twitch their noses, locked on a scent, pointing as if at a pheasant, and Hauptmann holds up a palm, and finally Werner, coming up through a gap between trees, laboring as he carries the big cases, sees the form of a man lying faceup in the snow, transmitter at his feet, antenna rising into the low branches.
The dogs tremble in their stances. Hauptmann keeps his palm up. With his other hand, he unholsters his pistol. “This close, Pfennig, you cannot hesitate.”
Volkheimer’s left side faces them. Werner can see the vapor of his breath rise and disperse. Hauptmann aims his Walther right at Volkheimer, and for a long and startling moment, Werner is certain that his teacher is about to shoot the boy, that they are in grave danger, every single cadet, and he cannot help but hear Jutta as she stood beside the canal: Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it? Something in Werner’s soul shuts its scaly eyes, and the little professor raises his pistol and fires it into the sky.
Volkheimer leaps immediately into a squat, his head coming around as the hounds release toward him, and Werner’s heart feels as if it has been blown to pieces in his chest.
Volkheimer’s arms come up as the dogs charge him, but they know him; they are leaping on him in play, barking and scampering, and Werner watches the huge boy throw off the dogs as if they were housecats. Dr. Hauptmann laughs. His pistol smokes, and he takes a long drink from his flask and passes it to Werner, and Werner puts it to his lips. He has pleased his professor after all; the transceivers work; he is out in the luminous, starlit night feeling the stinging glow of brandy flow into his gut—
“This,” says Hauptmann, “is what we’re doing with the triangles.”
The dogs circle and duck and romp. Hauptmann relieves himself beneath the trees. Volkheimer trudges toward Werner lugging the big KX transmitter; he grows ever larger; he rests a huge mittened hand on Werner’s cap.
“It’s only numbers,” he says, quietly enough that Hauptmann cannot hear.
“Pure math, cadet,” adds Werner, mimicking Hauptmann’s clipped accent. He presses his gloved fingertips together, all five to five. “You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way.”
It is the first time Werner has heard Volkheimer laugh, and his countenance changes; he becomes less menacing and more like a benevolent, humongous child. More like the person he becomes when he listens to music.
All the next day the pleasure of his success lingers in Werner’s blood, the memory of how it seemed almost holy to him to walk beside big Volkheimer back to the castle, down through the frozen trees, past the rooms of sleeping boys ranked like gold bars in strongrooms—Werner felt an almost fatherly protectiveness for the others as he undressed beside his bunk, as lumbering Volkheimer continued on toward the dormitories of the upperclassmen, an ogre among angels, a keeper crossing a field of gravestones at night. Proposal
Marie-Laure sits in her customary spot in the corner of the kitchen, closest to the fireplace, and listens to the friends of Madame Manec complain.
“The price of mackerel!” says Madame Fontineau.” You’d think they had to sail to Japan for it!”
“I cannot remember,” says Madame Hébrard, the postmistress, “what a proper plum tastes like.”
“And these ridiculous shoe ration coupons,” says Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife. “Theo has number 3,501 and they haven’t even called 400!”
“It’s not just the brothels on the rue Thévenard anymore. They’re giving all the summer apartments to the freelancers.”
“Big Claude and his wife are getting extra fat.”
“Damned Boches have their lights on all day!”
“I cannot bear one more night stuck indoors with my husband.”
Nine of them sit around the square table, knees pressed to knees. Ration card restrictions, abysmal puddings, the deteriorating quality of fingernail varnish—these are crimes they feel in their souls. To hear so many of them in a room together confuses and excites Marie-Laure: they are giddy when they should be serious, somber after jokes; Madame Hébrard cries over the nonavailability of Demerara sugar; another woman’s complaint about tobacco disintegrates midsentence into hysterics about the phenomenal size of the perfumer’s backside. They smell of stale bread, of stuffy living rooms crammed with dark titanic Breton furnishings.
Madame Ruelle says, “So the Gautier girl wants to get married. The family has to melt all its jewelry to get the gold for the wedding ring. The gold gets taxed thirty percent by occupation authorities. Then the jeweler’s work is taxed another thirty percent. By the time they’ve paid him, there’s no ring left!”
The exchange rate is a farce, the price of carrots indefensible, duplicity lives everywhere. Eventually Madame Manec deadbolts the kitchen door and clears her throat. The women fall quiet.
“We’re the ones who make their world run,” Madame Manec says. “You, Madame Guiboux, your son repairs their shoes. Madame Hébrard, you and your daughter sort their mail. And you, Madame Ruelle, your bakery makes much of their bread.”
The air stretches tight; Marie-Laure has the sense that they are watching someone slide onto thin ice or hold a palm over a flame.
“What are you saying?”
“That we do something.”
“Put bombs in their shoes?”
“Poop in the bread dough?”
“Nothing so bold as all that. But we could do smaller things. Simpler things.”
“First I need to know if you’re willing.”
A charged silence ensues. Marie-Laure can feel them all poised there. Nine minds swinging slowly around. She thinks of her father—imprisoned for what?—and aches.
Two women leave, claiming obligations involving grandchildren. Others tug at their blouses and rattle their chairs as though the temperature of the kitchen has gone up. Six remain. Marie-Laure sits among them, wondering who will cave, who will tattle, who will be the bravest. Who will lie on her back and let her last breath curl up to the ceiling as a curse upon the invaders. You Have Other Friends
“Look out, Pusswood,” Martin Burkhard yells as Frederick crosses the quad. “I’m coming for you tonight!” He convulses his pelvis maniacally.
Someone defecates on Frederick’s bunk. Werner hears Volkheimer’s voice: Decency does not matter to them.
“Bed-shitter,” spits a boy, “bring me my boots.”
Frederick pretends not to hear.
Night after night Werner retreats into Hauptmann’s laboratory. Three times now they have gone out into the snow to track down Volkheimer’s transmitter, and each time they have found him more directly. During the most recent field test, Werner managed to set up the transceivers, find the transmission, and plot Volkheimer’s location on the map in under five minutes. Hauptmann promises trips to Berlin; he unrolls schematics from an electronics factory in Austria and says, “Several ministries have demonstrated enthusiasm for our project.”
Werner is succeeding. He is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.
One night he and Volkheimer trudge back through the slush, Volkheimer carrying the transmitter, both receivers, and the folded antenna under one arm. Werner walks behind, content to be in his shadow. The trees drip; their branches seem moments away from erupting into bloom. Spring. In two more months Volkheimer will be given his commission and go to war.
They stop a moment so Volkheimer can rest, and Werner bends to examine one of the transceivers, draws a little screwdriver from his pocket, and tightens a loose hinge plate. Volkheimer looks down at him with great tenderness. “What you could be,” he says.
That night Werner climbs into bed and stares up at the underside of Frederick’s mattress. A warm wind blows against the castle, and somewhere a shutter bangs and snowmelt trickles down the long downspouts. As quietly as he can manage, he whispers, “Are you awake?”
Frederick leans over the side of his bunk, and for a moment in the nearly complete darkness Werner believes they will finally say to each other what they have not been able to say.
“You could go home, you know, to Berlin. Leave this place.”
Frederick only blinks.
“Your mother wouldn’t mind. She’d probably like to have you around. Franny too. Just for a month. Even a week. As soon as you leave, the cadets will let up, and by the time you return, they’ll have moved on to someone else. Your father wouldn’t even have to know.”
But Frederick tips back into his bed and Werner can no longer see him. His voice comes reflecting down from the ceiling.
“Maybe it’d be better if we aren’t friends anymore, Werner.” Too loud, dangerously loud. “I know it’s a liability, walking with me, eating with me, always folding my clothes and shining my boots and tutoring me. You have your studies to think of.”
Werner clenches his eyes. A memory of his attic bedroom swamps him: clicking of mouse feet in the walls, sleet tapping the window. The ceiling so sloped he could stand only in the spot closest to the door. And the feeling that somewhere just behind his vision, ranged like spectators in a gallery, his mother and father and the Frenchman from the radio were all watching him through the rattling window to see what he would do.
He sees Jutta’s crestfallen face, bent over the pieces of their broken radio. He has the sensation that something huge and empty is about to devour them all.
“That’s not what I meant,” Werner says into his blanket. But Frederick says nothing more, and both boys lie motionless a long time, watching the blue spokes of moonlight rotate through the room. Old Ladies’ Resistance Club
Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife—a pretty-voiced woman who smells mostly of yeast but also sometimes of face powder or the sweet perfume of sliced apples—straps a stepladder to the roof of her husband’s car and drives the Route de Carentan at dusk with Madame Guiboux and rearranges road signs with a ratchet set. They return drunk and laughing to the kitchen of Number 4 rue Vauborel.
“Dinan is now twenty kilometers to the north,” says Madame Ruelle.
“Right in the middle of the sea!”
Three days later, Madame Fontineau overhears that the German garrison commander is allergic to goldenrod. Madame Carré, the florist, tucks great fistfuls of it into an arrangement headed for the château.
The women funnel a shipment of rayon to the wrong destination. They intentionally misprint a train timetable. Madame Hébrard, the postmistress, slides an important-looking letter from Berlin into her underpants, takes it home, and starts her evening fire with it.
They come spilling into Etienne’s kitchen with gleeful reports that someone has heard the garrison commander sneezing, or that the dog shit placed on a brothel doorstep reached the target of a German’s shoe bottom perfectly. Madame Manec pours sherry or cider or Muscadet; someone sits stationed by the door to serve as sentry. Small and stooped Madame Fontineau boasts that she tied up the switchboard at the château for an hour; dowdy and strapping Madame Guiboux says she helped her grandsons paint a stray dog the colors of the French flag and sent it running through the Place Chateaubriand.
The women cackle, thrilled. “What can I do?” asks the ancient widow Madame Blanchard. “I want to do something.”
Madame Manec asks everyone to give Madame Blanchard their money. “You’ll get it back,” she says, “don’t worry. Now, Madame Blanchard, you’ve had beautiful handwriting all your life. Take this fountain pen of Master Etienne’s. On every five-franc note, I want you to write, Free France Now. No one can afford to destroy money, right? Once everyone has spent their bills, our little message will go out all over Brittany.”
The women clap. Madame Blanchard squeezes Madame Manec’s hand and wheezes and blinks her glossy eyes in pleasure.
Sometimes Etienne comes down grumbling, one shoe on, and the whole kitchen goes quiet while Madame Manec fixes his tea and sets it on a tray and Etienne carries it back upstairs. Then the women start up again, scheming, gabbling. Madame Manec brushes Marie-Laure’s hair in long absentminded strokes. “Seventy-six years old,” she whispers, “and I can still feel like this? Like a little girl with stars in my eyes?” Diagnosis
The military doctor takes Sergeant Major von Rumpel’s temperature. Inflates the blood pressure cuff. Examines his throat with a penlight. This very morning von Rumpel inspected a fifteenth-century davenport and supervised its installment onto a railcar meant for Marshal G?ring’s hunting lodge. The private who brought it to him described plundering the villa they took it from; he called it “shopping.”
The davenport makes von Rumpel think of an eighteenth-century Dutch tobacco box made out of brass and copper and encrusted with tiny diamonds that he examined earlier this week, and the tobacco box sends his thoughts, as inexorably as gravity, back to the Sea of Flames. In his weaker moments, he imagines walking in some future hour between arcades of pillars in the great Führermuseum at Linz, his heels clacking smartly on the marble, twilight cascading through high windows. He sees a thousand crystalline display cases, so clear they seem to float above the floor; inside them wait the world’s mineral treasures, harvested from every hole on the globe: dioptase and topaz and amethyst and California rubellite.
What was the phrase? Like stars flung off the brows of archangels.
And in the very center of the gallery, a spotlight falls through the ceiling onto a pedestal; there, inside a glass cube, glows a small blue stone . . .
The doctor asks von Rumpel to lower his trousers. Though the business of war has not let up for even a day, von Rumpel has been happy for months. His responsibilities are doubling; there are not, it turns out, a lot of Aryan diamond experts in the Reich. Just three weeks ago, outside a tiny sun-streaked station west of Bratislava, he examined an envelope full of perfectly clear, well-faceted stones; behind him rumbled a truck full of paintings wrapped in paper and packed in straw. The guards whispered that a Rembrandt was in there, and pieces of a famous altarpiece from Cracow. All being sent to a salt mine somewhere deep beneath the Austrian village of Altaussee, where a mile-long tunnel drops into a glittering arcade filled with shelving three stories high, upon which the high command is stacking Europe’s finest art. They will assemble everything under one unassailable roof, a temple to the human endeavor. Visitors will marvel at it for a thousand years.
The doctor probes his groin. “No pain?”
It would have been too much to hope for names from the lapidary in Paris. Dupont, after all, would not have known who had been given the replicas of the diamond; he had no insight into the last-second safeguards of the museum. But Dupont was of service nonetheless; von Rumpel needed a number, and he got it.
The doctor says, “You may dress,” and washes his hands at a sink.
In the two months leading up to the invasion of France, Dupont fashioned three replicas for the museum. Did he use the real diamond to make them? He used a casting. He never saw the real diamond. Von Rumpel believed him.
Three replicas. Plus the real stone. Somewhere on this planet among its sextillion grains of sand.
Four stones, one of them in the basement of the museum, locked in a safe. Three more to find. There are moments when von Rumpel feels impatience rising in him like bile, but he forces himself to swallow it back. It will come.
He buckles his belt. The doctor says, “We need to take a biopsy. You will want to telephone your wife.” Weakest (#3)
The scales of cruelty tip. Maybe Bastian exacts some final vendetta; maybe Frederick goes looking for his only way out. All Werner knows for certain is that one April morning he wakes to find three inches of slush on the ground and Frederick not in his bunk.
He does not show at breakfast or poetics or morning field exercises. Each story Werner hears contains its own flaws and contradictions, as though the truth is a machine whose gears are not meshing. First he hears that a group of boys took Frederick out and set up torches in the snow and told him to shoot the torches with his rifle—to prove he had adequate eyesight. Then Werner hears that they brought him charts for eye exams, and when he could not read them, they force-fed the charts to him.
But what does the truth matter in this place? Werner imagines twenty boys closing over Frederick’s body like rats; he sees the fat, gleaming face of the commandant, throat spilling out of his collar, reclined like a king on some high-backed oak throne, while blood slowly fills the floor, rises past his ankles, past his knees . . .
Werner skips lunch and walks in a daze to the school’s infirmary. He’s risking detention or worse; it’s a sunny, bright noon, but his heart is being crushed slowly in a vise, and everything is slow and hypnotic, and he watches his arm work as it pulls open the door as if he’s peering through several feet of blue water.
A single bed with blood in it. Blood on the pillow and on the sheets and even on the enameled metal of the bed frame. Pink rags in a basin. Half-unrolled bandage on the floor. The nurse bustles over and grimaces at Werner. Outside of the kitchens, she is the only woman at the school.
“Why so much blood?” he asks.
She sets four fingers across her lips. Debating perhaps whether to tell him or pretend she does not know. Accusation or resignation or complicity.
“Where is he?”
“Leipzig. For surgery.” She touches a round white button on her uniform with what might be an inconveniently trembling finger. Otherwise her manner is entirely stern.
“Shouldn’t you be at noontime meal?”
Each time he blinks, he sees the men of his childhood, laid-off miners drifting through back alleys, men with hooks for fingers and vacuums for eyes; he sees Bastian standing over a smoking river, snow falling all around him. Führer, folk, fatherland. Steel your body, steel your soul.
“When will he be back?”
“Oh,” she says, a soft enough word. She shakes her head.
A blue soapbox on the table. Above it a portrait of some foregone officer in a crumbling frame. Some previous boy sent through this place to die.
Werner has to sit on the bed. The nurse’s face seems to occupy multiple distances, a mask atop a mask atop a mask. What is Jutta doing at this exact moment? Wiping the nose of some wailing newborn or collecting newspapers or listening to presentations from army nurses or darning another sock? Praying for him? Believing in him?
He thinks: I will never be able to tell her about this. Dearest Marie-Laure—
The others in my cell are mostly kind. Some tell jokes. Here’s one: Have you heard about the Wehrmacht exercise program? Yes, each morning you raise your hands above your head and leave them there!
Ha ha. My angel has promised to deliver this letter for me at great risk. It is very safe and nice to be out of the “Gasthaus” for a bit. We are building a road now and the work is good. My body is getting stronger. Today I saw an oak tree disguised as a chestnut tree. I think it is called a chestnut oak. I would like very much to ask some of the botanists in the gardens about it when we get home.
I hope you and Madame and Etienne will keep sending things. They say we will be allowed to receive one parcel each, so something has to get through eventually. I doubt they would let me keep any tools but it would be wonderful if they would. You absolutely would not believe how pretty it is here, ma chérie, and how far we are from danger. I am incredibly safe, as safe as safe can be.
Your Papa Grotto
It’s summer and Marie-Laure is sitting in the alcove behind the library with Madame Manec and Crazy Harold Bazin. Through his copper mask, through a mouthful of soup, Harold says, “I want to show you something.”
He leads Marie-Laure and Madame Manec down what Marie-Laure thinks is the rue du Boyer, though it could be the rue Vincent de Gournay or the rue des Hautes Salles. They reach the base of the ramparts and turn right, following a lane Marie-Laure has not been on before. They descend two steps, pass through a curtain of hanging ivy, and Madame Manec says, “Harold, please, what is this?” The alley grows narrower and narrower until they must walk single file, the walls close on either side, and then they stop. Marie-Laure can feel stone blocks mounting vertically on both sides to brush their shoulders: they seem to rise forever. If her father has built this alley into his model, her fingers have not discovered it yet.
Harold rummages in his filthy trousers, breathing hard behind his mask. Where the wall of the ramparts should be, on their left, Marie-Laure hears a lock give way. A gate creaks open. “Watch your head,” he says, and helps her through. They clamber down into a cramped, moist space that positively reeks of the sea. “We’re beneath the wall. Twenty meters of granite on top of us.”
Madame says, “Really, Harold, it’s gloomy as a graveyard in here,” but Marie-Laure ventures a bit farther, the soles of her shoes slipping, the floor angling down, and then her shoes touch water.
“Feel this,” says Harold Bazin, and crouches and brings her hand to a curved wall which is completely studded with snails. Hundreds of them. Thousands.
“So many,” she whispers.
“I don’t know why. Maybe because they’re safe from gulls? Here, feel this, I’ll turn it over.” Hundreds of tiny, squirming hydraulic feet beneath a horny, ridged top: a sea star. “Blue mussels here. And here’s a dead stone crab, can you feel his claw? Watch your head now.”
The surf breaks nearby; water purls past her shoes. Marie-Laure wades forward; the floor of the room is sandy, the water barely ankle-deep. From what she can tell, it’s a low grotto, maybe four yards long and half as wide, shaped like a loaf of bread. At the far end is a thick grate through which lustrous, clear sea wind washes. Her fingertips discover barnacles, weeds, a thousand more snails. “What is this place?”
“Remember I told you about the dogs of the watch? A long time ago, city kennel keepers would keep the mastiffs in here, dogs as big as horses. At night a curfew bell would ring, and the dogs would be let loose onto the beaches to eat any sailor who dared come ashore. Somewhere beneath those mussels is a stone with the date 1165 scratched into it.”
“But the water?”
“Even at the highest tides, it doesn’t get more than waist-deep. Back then the tides might have been lower. We used to play in here as boys. Me and your grandfather. Sometimes your great-uncle too.”
The tide flows past their feet. Everywhere mussels click and sigh. She thinks of the wild old seamen who lived in this town, smugglers and pirates, sailing over the dark seas, winding their ships between ten thousand reefs.
“Harold, we should go now,” calls Madame Manec, her voice echoing. “This is no place for a young girl.”
Marie-Laure calls, “It’s fine, Madame.” Hermit crabs. Anemones sending out a tiny jet of seawater when she pokes them. Galaxies of snails. A story of life immanent in each.
Finally Madame Manec coaxes them out of the kennel, and Crazy Harold leads Marie-Laure back through the gate and locks it behind them. Before they reach the Place Broussais, Madame Manec walking out front, he taps Marie-Laure’s shoulder. His whisper comes in her left ear; his breath smells like crushed insects. “Could you find that place again, do you think?”
“I think so.”
He puts something iron in her hand. “Do you know what it is?”
Marie-Laure closes her fist. “It’s a key.” Intoxicated
Every day there is word of another victory, another advance. Russia collapses like an accordion. In October the student body gathers around a big wireless to listen to the führer declare Operation Typhoon. German companies plant flags miles from Moscow; Russia will be theirs.
Werner is fifteen. A new boy sleeps in Frederick’s bed. Sometimes at night, Werner sees Frederick when he is not there. His face appears over the edge of the upper bunk, or his silhouette presses binoculars to the windowpane. Frederick: who did not die but did not recover. Broken jaw, cracked skull, brain trauma. No one was punished, no one questioned. A blue automobile came to the school and Frederick’s mother got out and walked into the commandant’s residence and emerged soon afterward, tilted against the weight of Frederick’s duffel bag, looking very small. She climbed back into the car and it drove away.
Volkheimer is gone; there are stories that he has become a fearsome sergeant in the Wehrmacht. That he led a platoon into the last town on the road to Moscow. Hacked off the fingers of dead Russians and smoked them in a pipe.
The newest crop of cadets grow wild in their urgency to prove themselves. They sprint, shout, hurl themselves over obstacles; in field exercises they play a game where ten boys get red armbands and ten get black. The game ends when one team has all twenty.
It seems to Werner as if all the boys around him are intoxicated. As if, at every meal, the cadets fill their tin cups not with the cold mineralized water of Schulpforta but with a spirit that leaves them glazed and dazzled, as if they ward off a vast and inevitable tidal wave of anguish only by staying forever drunk on rigor and exercise and gleaming boot leather. The eyes of the most bullheaded boys radiate a shining determination: every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness. They study Werner with suspicion when he returns from Hauptmann’s lab. They do not trust that he’s an orphan, that he’s often alone, that his accent carries a whisper of the French he learned as a child.
We are a volley of bullets, sing the newest cadets, we are cannonballs. We are the tip of the sword.
Werner thinks of home all the time. He misses the sound of rain on the zinc roof above his dormer; the feral energy of the orphans; the scratchy singing of Frau Elena as she rocks a baby in the parlor. The smell of the coking plant coming in under the dawn, the first reliable smell of every day. Mostly he misses Jutta: her loyalty, her obstinacy, the way she always seems to recognize what is right.
Though in Werner’s weaker moments, he resents those same qualities in his sister. Perhaps she’s the impurity in him, the static in his signal that the bullies can sense. Perhaps she’s the only thing keeping him from surrendering totally. If you have a sister back home, you’re supposed to think of her as a pretty girl in a propaganda poster: rosy-cheeked, brave, steadfast. She’s whom you fight for. Whom you die for. But Jutta? Jutta sends letters that the school censor blacks out almost completely. She asks questions that should not be asked. Only Werner’s affiliation with Dr. Hauptmann—his privileged status as the favorite of the technical sciences professor—keeps him safe. A company in Berlin is producing their transceiver, and already some of their units are coming back from what Hauptmann calls “the field,” blown apart or burned or drowned in mud or defective, and Werner’s job is to rebuild them while Hauptmann talks into his telephone or writes requisitions for replacement parts or spends whole fortnights away from the school.
Weeks pass without a letter to Jutta. Werner writes four lines, a smattering of platitudes—I am fine; I am so busy—and hands it to the bunk master. Dread swamps him.
“You have minds,” Bastian murmurs one evening in the refectory, each boy hunching almost imperceptibly farther over his food as the commandant’s finger grazes the back of his uniform. “But minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.”
Werner sits in the lab late at night, alone again, and trolls the frequencies on the Grundig tube radio that Volkheimer used to borrow from Hauptmann’s office, searching for music, for echoes, for what, he is not sure. He sees circuits break apart and re-form. He sees Frederick staring into his book of birds; he sees the furor of the mines at Zollverein, the shunting cars, the banging locks, the trundling conveyors, smokestacks silting the sky day and night; he sees Jutta slashing back and forth with a lit torch as darkness encroaches from all sides. Wind presses against the walls of the lab—wind, the commandant loves to remind them, that comes all the way from Russia, a Cossack wind, the wind of candle-eating barbarians with hogs’ heads who will stop at nothing to drink the blood of German girls. Gorillas who must be wiped off the earth.
Are you there?
Finally he shuts off the radio. Into the stillness come the voices of his masters, echoing from one side of his head while memory speaks from the other.
Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever. The Blade and the Whelk
The Hôtel-Dieu dining room is big and somber and full of people talking about U-boats off Gibraltar and the inequities of currency exchange and four-stroke marine diesel engines. Madame Manec orders two bowls of chowder that she and Marie-Laure promptly finish. She says she does not know what to do next—should they keep waiting?—so she orders two more.
At last a man in rustling clothing sits down with them. “You are sure your name is Madame Walter?”
Madame Manec says, “You are sure your name is René?”
“My accomplice. She can tell if someone is lying just by hearing him speak.”
He laughs. They talk about the weather. Sea air exudes from the man’s clothes, as if he has been blown here by a gale. While he talks, he makes ungainly movements and bumps the table so that the spoons clatter in their bowls. Finally he says, “We admire your efforts, Madame.”
The man who calls himself René starts talking extremely softly. Marie-Laure catches only phrases: “Look for special insignia on their license plates. WH for army, WL for air force, WM for navy. And you could note—or find someone who could—every vessel that comes in and out of the harbor. This information is very much in demand.”
Madame Manec is quiet. If more is said that Marie-Laure cannot overhear—if there is a pantomime going on between them, notes passed, stratagems agreed upon—she cannot say. Some level of accord is reached, and soon enough she and Madame Manec are back in the kitchen at Number 4 rue Vauborel. Madame Manec clatters around in the cellar and hauls up canning supplies. This very morning, she announces, she has managed to procure what might be the last two crates of peaches in France. She hums as she helps Marie-Laure with the peeler.
“What is a pseudonym?”
“It is a fake name, an alternate name.”
“If I were to have one, what sort of name could I choose?”
“Well,” says Madame Manec. She pits and quarters another peach. “You can be anything. You can be the Mermaid if you like. Or Daisy? Violet?”
“How about the Whelk? I think I would like to be the Whelk.”
“The Whelk. That is an excellent pseudonym.”
“And you, Madame? What would you like to be?”
“Me?” Madame Manec’s knife pauses. Crickets sing in the cellar. “I think I would like to be the Blade.”
“Yes.” The perfume of the peaches makes a bright ruddy cloud.
“The Blade?” repeats Marie-Laure. Then they both start laughing. Dear Werner,
Why don’t you write? XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX The foundries run day and night and the stacks never stop smoking and it’s been cold here so everyone burns everything to stay warm. Sawdust, hard coal, soft coal, lime, garbage. War widows XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX and every day there are more. I’m working at the laundry with the twins, Hannah and Susanne, and Claudia F?rster, you remember her, we’re mending tunics and trousers mostly. I’m getting better with a needle so at least I’m not pricking myself all the time. Right now I just finished my homework. Do you have homework? There are fabric shortages and people bring in slipcovers, curtains, old coats. Anything that can be used they say must be used. Just like all of us here. Ha. I found this under your old cot. Seems like you could use it.
Inside the homemade envelope waits Werner’s childhood notebook, his handwriting across the cover: Questions. Across its pages swarm boyhood drawings, inventions: an electric bed heater he wanted to build for Frau Elena; a bicycle with chains to drive both wheels. Can magnets affect liquids? Why do boats float? Why do we feel dizzy when we spin?
A dozen empty pages at the back. Juvenile enough, presumably, to make it past the censor.
Around him sounds the din of boots, clatter of rifles. Stocks on the ground, barrels against the wall. Grab cups off hooks, plates off racks. Queue up for boiled beef. Over him breaks a wave of homesickness so acute that he has to clamp his eyes. Alive Before You Die
Madame Manec goes into Etienne’s study on the fifth floor. Marie-Laure listens on the stairs.
“You could help,” Madame says. Someone—likely Madame—opens a window, and the bright air of the sea washes onto the landing, stirring everything: Etienne’s curtains, his papers, his dust, Marie-Laure’s longing for her father.
Etienne says, “Please, Madame. Close the window. They are rounding up blackout offenders.”
The window stays open. Marie-Laure creeps down another stair.
“How do you know whom they round up, Etienne? A woman in Rennes was given nine months in prison for naming one of her hogs Goebbels, did you know that? A palm reader in Cancale was shot for predicting de Gaulle would return in the spring. Shot!”
“Those are only rumors, Madame.”
“Madame Hébrard says that a Dinard man—a grandfather, Etienne—was given two years in prison for wearing the Cross of Lorraine under his collar. I heard they’re going to turn the whole city into a big ammunition dump.”
Her great-uncle laughs softly. “It all sounds like something a sixth-former would make up.”
“Every rumor carries a seed of truth, Etienne.”
All of Etienne’s adult life, Marie-Laure realizes, Madame Manec has tended his fears. Skirted them, mitigated them. She creeps down one more stair.
Madame Manec is saying, “You know things, Etienne. About maps, tides, radios.”
“It’s already too dangerous, all those women in my house. People have eyes, Madame.”
“The perfumer, for one.”
“Claude?” She snorts. “Little Claude is too busy smelling himself.”
“Claude is not so little anymore. Even I can see his family gets more than the others: more meat, more electricity, more butter. I know how such prizes are won.”
“Then help us.”
“I don’t want to make trouble, Madame.”
“Isn’t doing nothing a kind of troublemaking?”
“Doing nothing is doing nothing.”
“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”
The wind gusts. In Marie-Laure’s mind, it shifts and gleams, draws needles and thorns in the air. Silver then green then silver again.
“I know ways,” says Madame Manec.
“What ways? Whom have you put your trust in?”
“You have to trust someone sometime.”
“If your same blood doesn’t run in the arms and legs of the person you’re next to, you can’t trust anything. And even then. It’s not a person you wish to fight, Madame, it’s a system. How do you fight a system?”
“What would you have me do?”
“Dig out that old thing in the attic. You used to know more about radios than anyone in town. Anyone in Brittany, perhaps.”
“They’ve taken all the receivers.”
“Not all. People have hidden things everywhere. You’d only have to read numbers, is how I understand it, numbers on strips of paper. Someone—I don’t know who, maybe Harold Bazin—will bring them to Madame Ruelle, and she’ll collect them and bake the messages right into the bread. Right into it!” She laughs; to Marie-Laure, her voice sounds twenty years younger.
“Harold Bazin. You are trusting Harold Bazin? You are cooking secret codes into bread?”
“What fat Kraut is going to eat those awful loaves? They take all the good flour for themselves. We bring home the bread, you transmit the numbers, then we burn the piece of paper.”
“This is ridiculous. You act like children.”
“It’s better than not acting at all. Think of your nephew. Think of Marie-Laure.”
Curtains flap and papers rustle and the two adults have a standoff in the study. Marie-Laure has crept so close to her great-uncle’s doorway that she can touch the door frame.
Madame Manec says, “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”
“Marie is almost fourteen years old, Madame. Not so young, not during war. Fourteen-year-olds die the same as anybody else. But I want fourteen to be young. I want—”
Marie-Laure scoots back up a step. Have they seen her? She thinks of the stone kennel Crazy Harold Bazin led her to: the snails gathered in their multitudes. She thinks of the many times her father put her on his bicycle: she’d balance on the seat, and he would stand on the pedals, and they’d glide out into the roar of some Parisian boulevard. She’d hold his hips and bend her knees, and they’d fly between cars, down hills, through gauntlets of odor and noise and color.
Etienne says, “I am going back to my book, Madame. Shouldn’t you be preparing dinner?” No Out
In January 1942, Werner goes to Dr. Hauptmann in his glowing, firelit office, twice as warm as the rest of the castle, and asks to be sent home. The little doctor is sitting behind his big desk with an anemic-looking roasted bird on a dish in front of him. Quail or dove or grouse. Rolls of schematics on his right. His hounds splay on the rug before the fire.
Werner stands with his cap in his hands. Hauptmann shuts his eyes and runs a fingertip across one eyebrow. Werner says, “I will work to pay the train fare, sir.”
The blue fretwork of veins in Hauptmann’s forehead pulsates. He opens his eyes. “You?” The dogs look up as one, a three-headed hydra. “You who gets everything? Who comes here and listens to concerts and nibbles chocolates and warms yourself by the fire?”
A shred of roasted bird dances on Hauptmann’s cheek. Perhaps for the first time, Werner sees in his teacher’s thinning blond hair, in his black nostrils, in his small, almost elfin ears, something pitiless and inhuman, something determined only to survive.
“Perhaps you believe you are somebody now? Somebody of importance?”
Werner clenches his cap behind his back to keep his shoulders from quaking. “No, sir.”
Hauptmann folds his napkin. “You are an orphan, Pfennig, with no allies. I can make you whatever I want to make you. A troublemaker, a criminal, an adult. I can send you to the front and make sure you are crouched in a trench in the ice until the Russians cut off your hands and feed them to you.”
“You will be given your orders when the school is ready to give you your orders. No sooner. We serve the Reich, Pfennig. It does not serve us.”
“You will come to the lab tonight. As usual.”
“No more chocolates. No more special treatment.”
In the hall with the door shut behind him, Werner presses his forehead against the wall, and a vision of his father’s last moments comes to him, the crushing press of the tunnels, the ceiling lowering. Jaw pinned against the floor. Skull splintering. I cannot go home, he thinks. And I cannot stay. The Disappearance of ?Harold Bazin
Marie-Laure follows the odor of Madame Manec’s soup through the Place aux Herbes and holds the warm pot outside the alcove behind the library while Madame raps on the door.
Madame says, “Where is Monsieur Bazin?”
“Must have moved on,” says the librarian, though the doubt in his voice is only partially disguised.
“Where could Harold Bazin move to?”
“I’m not sure, Madame Manec. Please. It is cold.”
The door closes. Madame Manec swears. Marie-Laure thinks of Harold Bazin’s stories: lugubrious monsters made of sea foam, mermaids with fishy private parts, the romance of English sieges. “He’ll be back,” says Madame Manec, as much to herself as to Marie-Laure. But the next morning Harold Bazin is not back. Or the next.
Only half the group attends the following meeting.
“Do they think he was helping us?” whispers Madame Hébrard.
“Was he helping us?”
“I thought he was carrying messages.”
“What sort of messages?”
“It is getting too dangerous.”
Madame Manec paces; Marie-Laure can almost feel the heat of her frustration from across the room. “Leave, then.” Her voice smolders. “All of you.”
“Don’t be rash,” says Madame Ruelle. “We’ll take a break, a week or two. Wait for things to settle.”
Harold Bazin with his copper mask and boyish avidity and his breath like crushed insects. Where, Marie-Laure wonders, do they take people? The “Gasthaus” her father was taken to? Where they write letters home about wonderful food and mythical trees? The baker’s wife claims they’re sent to camps in the mountains. The grocer’s wife says they’re sent to nylon factories in Russia. It seems as likely to Marie-Laure that the people just disappear. The soldiers throw a bag over whomever they want to remove, run electricity through him, and then that person is gone, vanished. Expelled to some other world.
The city, thinks Marie-Laure, is slowly being remade into the model upstairs. Streets sucked empty one by one. Each time she steps outside, she becomes aware of all the windows above her. The quiet is fretful, unnatural. It’s what a mouse must feel, she thinks, as it steps from its hole into the open blades of a meadow, never knowing what shadow might come cruising above. Everything Poisoned
New silk banners hang above the refectory tables, ablaze with slogans.
They say, Disgrace is not to fall but to lie.
They say, Be slim and slender, as fast as a greyhound, as tough as leather, as hard as Krupp steel.
Every few weeks another instructor vanishes, sucked up into the engine of the war. New instructors, elderly townsmen of unreliable sobriety and disposition, are brought in. All of them, Werner notices, are in some way broken: they limp, or are blind in one eye, or their faces are lopsided from strokes or the previous war. The cadets show less respect to the new instructors, who in turn have shorter tempers, and soon the school feels to Werner like a grenade with its pin pulled.
Strange things start happening with the electricity. It goes out for fifteen minutes, then surges. Clocks run fast, lightbulbs brighten, flare, and pop, and send a soft rain of glass falling into the corridors. Days of darkness ensue, the switches dead, the grid empty. The bunk rooms and showers become icy; for lighting, the caretaker resorts to torches and candles. All the gasoline is going to the war, and few cars come trundling through the school gates; food is delivered by the same withered mule, its ribs showing as it drags its cart.
More than once Werner slices the sausage on his plate to find pink worms squirming inside. The uniforms of the new cadets are stiffer and cheaper than his own; no longer do they have access to live ammunition for marksmanship. Werner would not be surprised if Bastian started handing out rocks and sticks.
And yet all the news is good. We are at the gates to the Caucasus, proclaims Hauptmann’s radio, we have taken oil fields, we will take Svalbard. We move with astounding speed. Five thousand seven hundred Russians killed, forty-five Germans lost.
Every six or seven days, the same two pallid casualty assistance officers enter the refectory, and four hundred faces go ashen from the effort of not turning to watch. The boys move only their eyes, only their thoughts, tracking in their minds the passage of the two officers as they move between tables, seeking out the next boy whose father has been killed.
The cadet they stop behind often tries to pretend that he doesn’t notice their presence. He puts his fork in his mouth and chews, and usually it is then that the taller officer, a sergeant, sets a hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy looks up at them with a full mouth and an unsteady face, and follows the officers out, and the big oak double doors creak shut, and the lunchroom slowly exhales and edges back to life.
Reinhard W?hlmann’s father falls. Karl Westerholzer’s father falls. Martin Burkhard’s father falls, and Martin tells everybody—on the very same night his shoulder is tapped—that he is happy. “Doesn’t everything,” he says, “die at last and too soon? Who would not be honored to fall? To be a paving stone on the road to final victory?” Werner looks for uneasiness in Martin’s eyes but cannot find it.
For Werner, doubts turn up regularly. Racial purity, political purity—Bastian speaks to a horror of any sort of corruption, and yet, Werner wonders in the dead of night, isn’t life a kind of corruption? A child is born, and the world sets in upon it. Taking things from it, stuffing things into it. Each bite of food, each particle of light entering the eye—the body can never be pure. But this is what the commandant insists upon, why the Reich measures their noses, clocks their hair color.
The entropy of a closed system never decreases.
At night Werner stares up at Frederick’s bunk, the thin slats, the miserable stained mattress. Another new boy sleeps up there, Dieter Ferdinand, a small muscular kid from Frankfurt who does everything he is told with a terrifying ferocity.
Someone coughs; someone else moans. A train sounds its lonesome whistle somewhere out beyond the lakes. To the east, always the trains move to the east, beyond the rims of the hills; they go to the huge trodden borderlands of the front. Even as he sleeps, the trains are moving. The catapults of history rattling past.
Werner laces his boots and sings the songs and marches the marches, acting less out of duty than out of a timeworn desire to be dutiful. Bastian walks the rows of boys at their dinners. “What’s worse than death, boys?”
Some poor cadet is called to attention. “Cowardice!”
“Cowardice,” agrees Bastian, and the boy sits while the commandant slogs forward, nodding to himself, pleased. Lately the commandant speaks more and more intimately of the führer and the latest thing—prayers, petroleum, loyalty—that he requires. The führer requires trustworthiness, electricity, boot leather. Werner is beginning to see, approaching his sixteenth birthday, that what the führer really requires is boys. Great rows of them walking to the conveyor belt to climb on. Give up cream for the führer, sleep for the führer, aluminum for the führer. Give up Reinhard W?hlmann’s father and Karl Westerholzer’s father and Martin Burkhard’s father.
In March 1942, Dr. Hauptmann calls Werner into his office. Half-packed crates litter the floor. The hounds are nowhere to be seen. The little man paces, and it is not until Werner announces himself that Hauptmann stops. He looks as if he is slowly being engulfed by something beyond his control. “I have been called to Berlin. They want me to continue my work there.” Hauptmann lifts an hourglass from a shelf and sets it in a crate, and his pale silver-tipped fingers hang in the air.
“It will be as you dreamed, sir. The best equipment, the best minds.”
“That is all,” says Dr. Hauptmann.
Werner steps into the hall. Out on the snow-dusted quad, thirty first-formers jog in place, their breath showing in short-lived plumes. Chubby, slick-chinned, abominable Bastian yells something. He raises one short arm and the boys turn on their heels, raise their rifles above their heads, and run faster in place, their knees flashing in the moonlight. Visitors
The electric bell rings at Number 4 rue Vauborel. Etienne Le-Blanc, Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure stop chewing at the same time, each thinking: They have found me out. The transmitter in the attic, the women in the kitchen, the hundred trips to the beach.
Etienne says, “You are expecting someone?”
Madame Manec says, “No one.” The women would come to the kitchen door.
The bell rings again.
All three go to the foyer; Madame Manec opens the door.
French policemen, two of them. They are there, they explain, at the request of the Natural History Museum in Paris. The jarring of their boot heels on the boards of the foyer seems loud enough to shatter the windows. The first one is eating something—an apple, Marie-Laure decides. The second smells of shaving balm. And roasted meat. As if they have been feasting.
All five—Etienne, Marie-Laure, Madame Manec, and the two men—sit in the kitchen around the square table. The men refuse a bowl of stew. The first clears his throat. “Right or wrong,” he says, “he has been convicted of theft and conspiracy.”
“All prisoners, political or otherwise,” says the second, “are forced to do labor, even if they have not been sentenced to it.”
“The museum has written to wardens and prison directors all over Germany.”
“We do not yet know exactly which prison.”
“We believe it could be Breitenau.”
“We’re certain they did not hold a proper tribunal.”
Etienne’s voice comes spiraling up from beside Marie-Laure. “Is that a good prison? I mean, one of the better ones?”
“I’m afraid there are no good German prisons.”
A truck passes in the street. The sea folds onto the Plage du Môle fifty yards away. She thinks: They just say words, and what are words but sounds these men shape out of breath, weightless vapors they send into the air of the kitchen to dissipate and die. She says: “You have come all this way to tell us things we already know.”
Madame Manec takes her hand.
Etienne murmurs, “We did not know about this place called Breitenau.”
The first policeman says, “You told the museum he has managed to smuggle out two letters?”
The second: “May we see them?”
Off goes Etienne, content to believe that someone is on the job. Marie-Laure ought to be happy too, but something makes her suspicious. She remembers something her father said back in Paris, on the first night of the invasion, as they waited for a train. Everyone is looking out for himself.
The first policeman snaps flesh off his apple with his teeth. Are they looking at her? To be so close to them makes her feel faint. Etienne returns with both letters, and she can hear the men passing the pages back and forth.
“Did he speak of anything before he left?”
“Of any particular activities or errands we should be aware of?”
Their French is good, very Parisian, but who knows where their loyalties lie? If your same blood doesn’t run in the arms and legs of the person you’re next to, you can’t trust anything. Everything feels compressed and submarine to Marie-Laure just then, as if the five of them have been submerged into a murky aquarium overfull of fish, and their fins keep bumping as they shift about.
She says, “My father is not a thief.”
Madame Manec’s hand squeezes hers.
Etienne says, “He seemed concerned for his job, for his daughter. For France, of course. Who wouldn’t be?”
“Mademoiselle,” says the first man. He is talking directly to Marie-Laure. “Was there no specific thing he mentioned?”
“He had many keys at the museum.”
“He turned in his keys before he left.”
“May we look at whatever he brought here with him?”
The second man adds, “His bags, perhaps?”
“He took his rucksack with him,” says Marie-Laure, “when the director asked him to return.”
“May we look anyway?”
Marie-Laure can feel the gravity in the room increase. What do they hope to find? She imagines the radio equipment high above her: microphone, transceiver, all those dials and switches and cables.
Etienne says, “You may.”
They go into every room. Third floor fourth fifth. On the sixth, they stand in her grandfather’s old bedroom and open the huge wardrobe with its heavy doors and cross the hall and stand over the model of Saint-Malo in Marie-Laure’s room and whisper to each other and then tromp back downstairs.
They ask a total of one question: about three Free French flags rolled up in a second-floor closet. Why does Etienne have them?
“You put yourself in jeopardy keeping those,” says the second policeman.
“You would not want the authorities to think you are terrorists,” says the first. “People have been arrested for less.” Whether this is offered as favor or threat remains unclear. Marie-Laure thinks: Do they mean Papa?
The policemen finish their search and say good night with perfect politeness and leave.
Madame Manec lights a cigarette.
Marie-Laure’s stew is cold.
Etienne fumbles with the fireplace grate. He shoves the flags one after another into the fire. “No more. No more.” He says the second louder than the first. “Not here.”
Madame Manec’s voice: “They found nothing. There is nothing to find.”
The acrid smell of burning cotton fills the kitchen. Her great-uncle says, “You do what you like with your life, Madame. You have always been there for me, and I will try to be there for you. But you may no longer do these things in this house. And you may not do them with my great-niece.” To My Dear Sister Jutta—
It is very difficult now. Even paper is hard to XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX We had XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX no heat in the XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX. Frederick used to say there is no such thing as free will and that every person’s path is predetermined for him just like XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX and that my mistake was that I XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX XXXXCENSOR MARKS HEREXXXX. I hope someday you can understand. Love to you and Frau Elena too. Sieg heil. The Frog Cooks
In the weeks to come, Madame Manec is perfectly cordial; she walks with Marie-Laure to the beach most mornings, takes her to the market. But she seems absent, asking how Marie-Laure and Etienne are doing with perfect courtesy, saying good morning as if they are strangers. Often she disappears for half a day.
Marie-Laure’s afternoons become longer, lonelier. One evening she sits at the kitchen table while her great-uncle reads aloud.
The vitality which the snail’s eggs possess surpasses belief. We have seen certain species frozen in solid blocks of ice, and yet regain their activity when subjected to the influences of warmth.
Etienne pauses. “We should make supper. It doesn’t appear that Madame will be back tonight.” Neither of them moves. He reads another page. They have been kept for years in pill boxes, and yet on subjecting them to moisture, have crawled about appearing as well as ever . . . The shell may be broken, and even portions of it removed, and yet after a certain lapse of time the injured parts will be repaired by a deposition of shelly matter at the fractured parts.
“There’s hope for me yet!” says Etienne, and laughs, and Marie-Laure is reminded that her great-uncle was not always so fearful, that he had a life before this war and before the last one too; that he was once a young man who dwelled in the world and loved it as she does.
Eventually Madame Manec comes through the kitchen door and locks it behind her and Etienne says good evening rather coldly and after a moment Madame Manec says it back. Somewhere in the city, Germans are loading weapons or drinking brandy and history has become some nightmare from which Marie-Laure desperately wishes she could wake.
Madame Manec takes a pot from the hanging rack and fills it with water. Her knife falls through what sounds like potatoes, the blade striking the wooden cutting board beneath.
“Please, Madame,” says Etienne. “Allow me. You are exhausted.”
But he does not get up, and Madame Manec keeps chopping potatoes, and when she is done, Marie-Laure hears her push a load of them into the water with the back of her knife. The tension in the room makes Marie-Laure feel dizzy, as if she can sense the planet rotating.
“Sink any U-boats today?” murmurs Etienne. “Blow up any German tanks?”
Madame Manec snaps open the door of the icebox. Marie-Laure can hear her rummage through a drawer. A match flares; a cigarette lights. Soon enough a bowl of undercooked potatoes appears before Marie-Laure. She feels around the tabletop for a fork but finds none.
“Do you know what happens, Etienne,” says Madame Manec from the other side of the kitchen, “when you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water?”
“You will tell us, I am sure.”
“It jumps out. But do you know what happens when you put the frog in a pot of cool water and then slowly bring it to a boil? You know what happens then?”
Marie-Laure waits. The potatoes steam.
Madame Manec says, “The frog cooks.” Orders
Werner is summoned by an eleven-year-old in full regalia to the commandant’s office. He waits on a wooden bench in a slowly building panic. They must suspect something. Maybe they have discovered some fact about his parentage that even he doesn’t know, something ruinous. He remembers when the lance corporal came through the door of Children’s House to escort him to Herr Siedler’s: the certainty that the instruments of the Reich could see through walls, through skin, into the very soul of each subject.
After several hours the commandant’s assistant calls him in and sets down his ballpoint and looks across his desk as though Werner is one among a vast series of trivial problems he must put right. “It has come to our attention, cadet, that your age has been recorded incorrectly.”
“You are eighteen years old. Not sixteen, as you have claimed.”
Werner puzzles. The absurdity is plain: he remains smaller than most of the fourteen-year-olds.
“Our former technical sciences professor, Dr. Hauptmann, has called our attention to the discrepancy. He has arranged that you will be sent to a special technology division of the Wehrmacht.”
“A division, sir?”
“You have been here under false pretenses.” His voice is oily and pleased; his chin is nonexistent. Out a window the school band practices a triumphal march. Werner watches a Nordic-looking boy stagger beneath the weight of a tuba.
“The commandant urged disciplinary action, but Dr. Hauptmann suggested that you would be eager to offer your skills to the Reich.” From behind his desk, the assistant produces a folded uniform—slate-gray, eagle on the breast, Litzen on the collar. Then a green-black coal-scuttle helmet, obviously too large.
The band blares, then stops. The band instructor screams names.
The commandant’s assistant says, “You are very lucky, cadet. To serve is an honor.”
“You’ll receive instructions within a fortnight. That is all.” Pneumonia
Breton spring, and a great onslaught of damp invades the coast. Fog on the sea, fog in the streets, fog in the mind. Madame Manec gets sick. When Marie-Laure holds her hand over Madame’s chest, heat seems to steam up out of her sternum as though she cooks from the inside. Her breathing devolves into trains of oceanic coughs.
“I watch the sardines,” murmurs Madame, “and the termites, and the crows . . .”
Etienne summons a doctor who prescribes rest, aspirin, and aromatic violet comfits. Marie-Laure sits with Madame through the worst of it, strange hours when the old woman’s hands go very cold and she talks about being in charge of the world. She is in charge of everything, but no one knows. It is a tremendous burden, she says, to be responsible for every little thing, every infant born, every leaf falling from every tree, every wave that breaks onto the beach, every ant on its journey.
Deep in Madame’s voice, Marie-Laure hears water: atolls and archipelagoes and lagoons and fjords.
Etienne proves to be a tender nurse. Washcloths, broth, now and then a page from Pasteur or Rousseau. His manner forgiving her all transgressions past and present. He wraps Madame in quilts, but eventually she shivers so deeply, so profoundly, that he takes the big heavy rag rug off the floor and lays it on top of her. Dearest Marie-Laure—
Your parcels arrived, two of them, dated months apart. Joy is not a strong enough word. They let me keep the toothbrush and comb though not the paper they were wrapped in. Nor the soap. How I wish they would let us have soap! They said our next reposting would be to a chocolate factory but it was cardboard. All day we manufacture cardboard. What do they do with so much?
All my life, Marie-Laure, I have been the one carrying the keys. Now I hear them jangling in the mornings when they come for us, and every time I reach in my own pocket, only to find it empty.
When I dream, I dream I am in the museum.
Remember your birthdays? How there were always two things on the table when you woke? I’m sorry it turned out like this. If you ever wish to understand, look inside Etienne’s house, inside the house. I know you will do the right thing. Though I wish the gift were better.
My angel is leaving, so if I can get this to you, I will. I do not worry about you because I know you are very smart and keeping yourself safe. I am safe too so you should not worry. Thank Etienne for reading this to you. Thank in your heart the brave soul who carries this letter away from me and on its way to you.
Your Papa Treatments
Von Rumpel’s doctor says that fascinating research is being done on mustard gases. That the anti-tumor properties of any number of chemicals are being explored. The prognosis is looking up: in test subjects, lymphoid tumors have been seen to reduce in size. But the injections make von Rumpel dizzy and weak. In the days following, he can hardly manage to comb his hair or convince his fingers to button his coat. His mind plays tricks, too: he walks into a room and forgets why he’s there. He stares at a superior and forgets what the man just said. The sounds of passing cars are like the tines of forks dragged along his nerves.
Tonight he wraps himself in hotel blankets and orders soup and unwraps a bundle from Vienna. The mousy brown librarian has sent copies of the Tavernier and the Streeter and even—most remarkably—stencil duplicates of de Boodt’s 1604 Gemmarum et Lapidum Historia, written entirely in Latin. Everything she could find concerning the Sea of Flames. Nine paragraphs total.
It takes all his concentration to bring the texts into focus. A goddess of the earth who fell in love with a god of the sea. A prince who recovered from catastrophic injuries, who ruled from within a blur of light. Von Rumpel closes his eyes and sees a flame-haired goddess charge through the tunnels of the earth, drops of flame glowing in her wake. He hears a priest with no tongue say, The keeper of the stone will live forever. He hears his father say, See obstacles as opportunities, Reinhold. See obstacles as inspirations. Heaven
For a few weeks, Madame Manec gets better. She promises Etienne she will remember her age, not try to be everything to everyone, not fight the war by herself. One day in early June, almost exactly two years after the invasion of France, she and Marie-Laure walk through a field of Queen Anne’s lace east of Saint-Malo. Madame Manec told Etienne that they were going to see if strawberries were available at the Saint-Servan market, but Marie-Laure is certain that when they stopped to greet a woman on the way here, Madame dropped off one envelope and picked up another.
At Madame’s suggestion, they lie down in the weeds, and Marie-Laure listens to honeybees mine the flowers and tries to imagine their journeys as Etienne described them: each worker following a rivulet of odor, looking for ultraviolet patterns in the flowers, filling baskets on her hind legs with pollen grains, then navigating, drunk and heavy, all the way home.
How do they know what parts to play, those little bees?
Madame Manec takes off her shoes and lights a cigarette and lets out a contented groan. Insects drone: wasps, hoverflies, a passing dragonfly—Etienne has taught Marie-Laure to distinguish each by its sound.
“What’s a roneo machine, Madame?”
“Something to help make pamphlets.”
“What does it have to do with that woman we met?”
“Nothing to trouble yourself over, dear.”
Horses nicker, and the wind comes off the sea gentle and cool and full of smells.
“Madame? What do I look like?”
“You have many thousands of freckles.”
“Papa used to say they were like stars in heaven. Like apples in a tree.”
“They are little brown dots, child. Thousands of little brown dots.”
“That sounds ugly.”
“On you, they are beautiful.”
“Do you think, Madame, that in heaven we will really get to see God face-to-face?”
“What if you’re blind?”
“I’d expect that if God wants us to see something, we’ll see it.”
“Uncle Etienne says heaven is like a blanket babies cling to. He says people have flown airplanes ten kilometers above the earth and found no kingdoms there. No gates, no angels.”
Madame Manec cracks off a ragged chain of coughs that sends tremors of fear through Marie-Laure. “You are thinking of your father,” she finally says. “You have to believe your father will return.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of believing, Madame? Don’t you ever want proof?”
Madame Manec rests a hand on Marie-Laure’s forehead. The thick hand that first reminded her of a gardener’s or a geologist’s. “You must never stop believing. That’s the most important thing.”
The Queen Anne’s lace sways on its taproots, and the bees do their steady work. If only life were like a Jules Verne novel, thinks Marie-Laure, and you could page ahead when you most needed to, and learn what would happen. “Madame?”
“What do you think they eat in heaven?”
“I’m not so sure they need to eat in heaven.”
“Not eat! You would not like that, would you?”
But Madame Manec does not laugh the way Marie-Laure expects her to. She doesn’t say anything at all. Her breath clatters in and out.
“Did I offend you, Madame?”
“Are we in danger?”
“No more than any other day.”
The grasses toss and shimmy. The horses nicker. Madame Manec says, almost whispering, “Now that I think about it, child, I expect heaven is a lot like this.” Frederick
Werner spends the last of his money on train fare. The afternoon is bright enough, but Berlin seems not to want to accept the sunlight, as though its buildings have become gloomier and dirtier and more splotchy in the months since he last visited. Though perhaps what has changed are the eyes that see it.
Rather than ring the bell right away, Werner laps the block three times. The apartment windows are uniformly dark; whether unlit or blacked out, he cannot tell. At a certain point on each circuit, he passes a storefront filled with undressed mannequins, and though he knows each time that it is merely a trick of the light, he cannot stop his eyes from seeing them as corpses strung up by wires.
Finally he rings the bell for #2. No one buzzes down, and he notices from the nameplates that they are no longer in #2. Their name is on #5.
He rings. A returning buzz issues from inside.
The lift is out of order, so he walks up.
The door opens. Franny. With the downy face and swinging flaps of skin under her arms. She gives him a look that one trapped person gives another; then Frederick’s mother swishes out of a side room wearing tennis clothes. “Why, Werner—”
She loses herself momentarily in troubled reverie, surrounded by sleek furniture, some of it wrapped in thick wool blankets. Does she blame him? Does she think he is partially responsible? Perhaps he is? But then she comes awake and kisses him on both cheeks, and her bottom lip quivers lightly. As if his materialization is preventing her from keeping certain shadows at bay.
“He won’t know you. Don’t try to make him remember. It will only upset him. But you are here. I suppose that’s something. I was about to go, very sorry I cannot stay. Show him in, Franny.”
The maid leads him into a grand drawing room, its ceilings aswirl with plaster flourishes, its walls painted a delicate eggshell blue. No paintings have been hung yet and the shelves wait empty and cardboard boxes stand open on the floor. Frederick sits at a glass-topped table at the back of the room, both table and boy looking small amid the clutter. His hair has been combed hard to one side, and his loose cotton shirt has bunched up behind his shoulders so that his collar is skewed. His eyes do not rise to meet his visitor’s.
He wears his same old black-framed glasses. Someone has been feeding him, and the spoon rests on the glass table and blobs of porridge cling to Frederick’s whiskers and his place mat, which is a woolen thing featuring happy pink-cheeked children in clogs. Werner cannot look at it.
Franny bends and pushes three more spoonfuls into Frederick’s mouth and wipes his chin, folds up his place mat, and walks through a swinging door into what must be a kitchen. Werner stands with his hands crossed in front of his belt.
One year. More than that. Frederick has to shave now, Werner realizes. Or someone has to shave him.
Frederick rolls his head back and looks toward Werner through his smudged lenses down the line of his nose.
“I’m Werner. Your mother said you might not remember? I’m your friend from school.”
Frederick seems not so much to be looking at Werner as through him. On the table is a stack of paper, on top of which a thick and clumsy spiral has been drawn by a heavy hand.
“Did you make this?” Werner lifts the topmost drawing. Beneath that page is another, then another, thirty or forty spirals, each taking up a whole sheet, all in the same severe lead. Frederick drops his chin to his chest, possibly a nod. Werner glances around: a trunk, a box of linens, the pale blue of the walls and the rich white of the wainscot. Late sunlight glides through tall French windows, and the air tastes of silver polish. This fifth-floor apartment is indeed nicer than the second-floor one—the ceilings high and decorated with punched tin and stucco flourishes: fruits, flowers, banana leaves.
Frederick’s lip is curled and his upper teeth show and a string of drool swings from his chin and touches the paper. Werner, unable to bear it a second longer, calls for the maid. Franny peeks out of the swinging door. “Where,” he asks, “is that book? The one with the birds? In the gold slipcover?”
“I don’t think we ever had a book like that.”
“No, you did—”
Franny only shakes her head and laces her fingers across her apron.
Werner lifts the flaps of boxes, peering in. “Surely it’s around here.”
Frederick has begun to draw a new spiral on a blank sheet.
“Maybe in this?”
Franny stands beside Werner and plucks his wrist off the crate he is about to open. “I do not think,” she repeats, “we ever had a book like that.”
Werner’s whole body has started to itch. Out the huge windows, the lindens toss back and forth. The light fades. An unlit sign atop a building two blocks away reads, Berlin smokes Junos.
Franny has already retreated back into the kitchen.
Werner watches Frederick create another crude spiral, the pencil locked in his fist.
“I’m leaving Schulpforta, Frederick. They’re changing my age and sending me to the front.”
Frederick lifts the pencil, studying, then reapplies it.
“Less than a week.”
Frederick works his mouth as if to chew air. “You look pretty,” he says. He does not look directly at Werner, and his words are close to moans. “You look pretty, very pretty, Mama.”
“I’m not your mama,” hisses Werner. “Come on, now.” Frederick’s expression is entirely without artifice. Somewhere in the kitchen, the maid is listening. There is no other sound, not of traffic or airplanes or trains or radios or the specter of Frau Schwartzenberger rattling the cage of the elevator. No chanting no singing no silk banners no bands no trumpets no mother no father no slick-fingered commandant dragging a finger across his back. The city seems utterly still, as though everyone is listening, waiting for someone to slip.
Werner looks at the blue of the walls and thinks of Birds of America, yellow-crowned heron, Kentucky warbler, scarlet tanager, bird after glorious bird, and Frederick’s gaze remains stuck in some terrible middle ground, each eye a stagnant pool into which Werner cannot bear to look. Relapse
In late June 1942, for the first time since her fever, Madame Manec is not in the kitchen when Marie-Laure wakes. Could she already be at the market? Marie-Laure taps on her door, waits a hundred heartbeats. She opens the rear door and calls into the alley. Glorious warm June dawn. Pigeons and cats. Screech of laughter from a neighboring window.
Her heart accelerates. She taps again on Madame Manec’s door.
When she lets herself in, she hears the rattle first. As though a weary tide stirs stones in the old woman’s lungs. Sour odors of sweat and urine rise from the bed. Her hands find Madame’s face, and the old woman’s cheek is so hot that Marie-Laure’s fingers recoil as though scalded. She scrambles upstairs, stumbling, shouting, “Uncle! Uncle!” the whole house turning scarlet in her mind, roof turning to smoke, flames chewing through walls.
Etienne crouches on his popping knees beside Madame, then scurries to the telephone and speaks a few words. He returns to Madame Manec’s bedside at a trot. Over the next hour the kitchen fills with women, Madame Ruelle, Madame Fontineau, Madame Hébrard. The first floor becomes too crowded; Marie-Laure paces the staircase, up and down, up and down, as though working her way up and down the spire of an enormous seashell. The doctor comes and goes, the occasional woman closes her bony hand around Marie-Laure’s shoulder, and at exactly two o’clock by the bonging of the cathedral bells, the doctor returns with a man who says nothing beyond good afternoon, who smells of dirt and clover, who lifts Madame Manec and carries her out into the street and sets her on a horse cart as though she is a bag of milled oats and the horse’s shoes clop away and the doctor strips the bedsheets and Marie-Laure finds Etienne in the corner of the kitchen whispering: Madame is dead, Madame is dead.
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