فصل 06کتاب: تمام نورهایی که نمیتوانیم ببینیم / فصل 7
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Six 8 August 1944 Someone in the House
A presence, an inhalation. Marie-Laure trains all of her senses on the entryway three flights below. The outer gate sighs shut, then the front door closes.
In her head, her father reasons: The gate closed before the door, not after. Which means, whoever it is, he closed the gate first, then shut the door. He’s inside.
All the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
Etienne knows he would have triggered the bell, Marie. Etienne would be calling for you already.
Boots in the foyer. Fragments of dishes crunching underfoot.
It is not Etienne.
The distress is so acute, it is almost unbearable. She tries to settle her mind, tries to focus on an image of a candle flame burning at the center of her rib cage, a snail drawn up into the coils of its shell, but her heart bangs in her chest and pulses of fear cycle up her spine, and she is suddenly uncertain whether a sighted person in the foyer can look up the curves of the stairwell and see all the way to the third floor. She remembers her great-uncle said that they would need to watch out for looters, and the air stirs with phantom blurs and rustles, and Marie-Laure imagines charging past the bathroom into the cobwebbed sewing room here on the third floor and hurling herself out the window.
Boots in the hall. The slide of a dish across the floor as it is kicked. A fireman, a neighbor, some German soldier hunting food?
A rescuer would be calling for survivors, ma chérie. You have to move. You have to hide.
The footfalls travel toward Madame Manec’s room. They go slowly; maybe it’s dark. Could it already be night?
Four or five or six or a million heartbeats roll by. She has her cane, Etienne’s coat, the two cans, the knife, the brick. Model house in her dress pocket. The stone inside that. Water in the tub at the end of the hall.
A pot or pan, presumably knocked off its hook in the bombing, wobbles on the kitchen tiles. He exits the kitchen. Returns to the foyer.
Stand, ma chérie. Stand up now.
She stands. With her right hand, she finds the railing. He is at the base of the stairs. She almost cries out. But then she recognizes—just as he sets his foot on the first stair—that his stride is out of rhythm. One-pause-two one-pause-two. It is a walk she has heard before. The limp of a German sergeant major with a dead voice.
Marie-Laure takes each step as deliberately as she can. Grateful now that she does not have her shoes. Her heart knocks so furiously against the cage of her chest that she feels certain the man below will hear it.
Up to the fourth floor. Each step a whisper. The fifth. On the sixth-floor landing, she pauses beneath the chandelier and tries to listen. She hears the German climb three or four more stairs and take a brief asthmatic pause. Then on again. A wooden step complains beneath his weight; it sounds to her like a small animal being crushed.
He stops on what she believes is the third-floor landing. Where she was just sitting. Her warmth still there on the wood floor beside the telephone table. Her dissipated breath.
Where does she have left to run?
To her left waits her grandfather’s old room. To her right waits her little bedroom, the window glass blown out. Straight ahead is the toilet. Still the faint reek of smoke everywhere.
His footfalls cross the landing. One-pause-two one-pause-two. Wheezing. Climbing again.
If he touches me, she thinks, I will tear out his eyes.
She opens the door to her grandfather’s bedroom and stops. Below her, the man pauses again. Has he heard her? Is he climbing more quietly? Out in the world waits a multitude of sanctuaries—gardens full of bright green wind; kingdoms of hedges; deep pools of forest shade through which butterflies float thinking only of nectar. She can get to none of them.
She finds the huge wardrobe at the far end of Henri’s room and opens the two mirrored doors and parts the old shirts hanging inside and slides open the false door Etienne has built into its back. She squeezes into the tiny space where the ladder rises to the garret. Then she reaches back through the wardrobe, finds its doors, and closes them.
Protect me now, stone, if you are a protector.
Silently, says the voice of her father. Make no noise. With one hand, she finds the handle Etienne has rigged onto the false panel on the back of the wardrobe. She glides it shut, one centimeter at a time, until she hears it click into place, then takes a breath and holds it for as long as she can. The Death of ?Walter Bernd
For an hour Bernd murmured gibberish. Then he went silent and Volkheimer said, “God, have mercy on your servant.” But now Bernd sits up and calls for light. They feed him the last of the water in the first canteen. A single thread of it runs down through his whiskers and Werner watches it go.
Bernd sits in the glimmer of the field light and looks from Volkheimer to Werner. “On leave last year,” he says, “I visited my father. He was old; he was old all my life. But now he seemed especially old. It took him forever just to cross his kitchen. He had a package of cookies, little almond cookies. He put them out on a plate, just the package lying crosswise. Neither of us ate any. He said, ‘You don’t have to stay. I’d like you to stay, but you don’t have to. You probably have things to do. You can go off with your friends if you want to.’ He kept saying that.”
Volkheimer switches off the light, and Werner apprehends something excruciating held at bay there in the darkness.
“I left,” says Bernd. “I went down the stairs and into the street. I had nowhere to go. Nobody to see. I didn’t have any friends in that town. I had ridden trains all goddamn day to see him. But I left, just like that.”
Then he’s quiet. Volkheimer repositions him on the floor with Werner’s blanket over him, and not long afterward, Bernd dies.
Werner works on the radio. Maybe he does it for Jutta, as Volkheimer suggested, or maybe he does it so he does not have to think about Volkheimer carrying Bernd into a corner and piling bricks onto his hands, his chest, his face. Werner holds the field light in his mouth and gathers what he can: a small hammer, three jars of screws, eighteen-gauge line cord from a shattered desk lamp. Inside a warped cabinet drawer, miraculously, he discovers a zinc-carbon eleven-volt battery with a black cat printed on the side. An American battery, its slogan offering nine lives. Werner spotlights it in the flickering orange glow, amazed. He checks its terminals. Still plenty of charge. When the field light battery dies, he thinks, we’ll have this.
He rights the capsized table. Sets the crushed transceiver on top. Werner does not yet believe there is much promise in it, but maybe it’s enough to give the mind something to do, a problem to solve. He adjusts Volkheimer’s light in his teeth. Tries not to think about hunger or thirst, the stoppered void in his left ear, Bernd in the corner, the Austrians upstairs, Frederick, Frau Elena, Jutta, any of it.
Antenna. Tuner. Capacitor. His mind, while he works, is almost quiet, almost calm. This is an act of memory. Sixth-floor Bedroom
Von Rumpel limps through the rooms with their faded white moldings and ancient kerosene lamps and embroidered curtains and belle époque mirrors and ships in glass bottles and push-button electrical switches, all dead. Faint twilight angles through smoke and shutter slats in hazy red stripes.
Temple to the Second Empire, this house. A bathtub three-quarters full of cold water on the third floor. Deeply cluttered rooms on the fourth. No dollhouses yet. He climbs to the fifth floor, sweating. Worrying he got everything wrong. The weight in his gut swings pendulously. Here’s a large ornate room crammed with trinkets and crates and books and mechanical parts. A desk, a bed, a divan, three windows on each side. No model.
To the sixth floor. On the left, a tidy bedroom with a single window and long curtains. A boy’s cap hangs on the wall; at the back looms a massive wardrobe, mothballed shirts hung inside.
Back to the landing. Here’s a little water closet, the toilet full of urine. Beyond it, a final bedroom. Seashells are lined along every available surface, shells on the sills and on the dresser and jars full of pebbles lined up on the floor, all arranged by some indiscernible system, and here, here! Here on the floor at the foot of the bed sits what he has been searching for, a wooden model of the city, nestled like a gift. As big as a dining table. Brimming with tiny houses. Except for flakes of plaster in its streets, the little city is entirely undamaged. The simulacrum now more whole than the original. A work of clear magnificence.
In the daughter’s room. For her. Of course.
Von Rumpel feels as if he has come triumphantly to the end of a long journey, and as he sits on the edge of the bed, twin flares of pain riding up from his groin, he has the curious sensation of having been here before, of having lived in a room like this, slept in a lumpy bed like this, collected polished stones and arrayed them like this. As though somehow this whole set has been waiting for his return.
He thinks of his own daughters, how much they would love to see a city on a table. His youngest would want him to kneel beside her. Let’s imagine all the people having their supper, she’d say. Let’s imagine us, Papa.
Outside the broken window, outside the latched shutters, Saint-Malo is so quiet that von Rumpel can hear the rustle of his own heartbeat shifting hairs in his inner ear. Smoke blowing over the roof. Ash falling lightly. Any moment the guns will start again. Gently now. It will be in here somewhere. It is just like the locksmith to repeat himself. The model—it will be inside the model. Making the Radio
One end of wire Werner crimps around a shorn pipe standing diagonally up from the floor. With spit, he wipes clean the length of the wire and coils it a hundred times around the base of the pipe, making a new tuning coil. The other end he slings through a bent strut wedged into the congestion of timber, stone, and plaster that has become their ceiling.
Volkheimer watches from the shadows. A mortar shell explodes somewhere in the city, and a flurry of dust sifts down.
The diode goes between free ends of the two wires and meets the leads of the battery to complete the circuit. Werner runs the beam of Volkheimer’s light over the entire operation. Ground, antenna, battery. Finally he braces the flashlight between his teeth and raises the twin leads of the earphone in front of his eyes and strips them against the threads of a screw and touches the naked ends to the diode. Invisibly, electrons bumble down the wires.
The hotel above them—what is left of it—makes a series of unearthly groans. Timber splinters, as though the rubble teeters on some final fulcrum. As though a single dragonfly could alight on it and trigger an avalanche that will bury them for good.
Werner presses the bud of the earphone into his right ear.
It does not work.
He turns over the dented radio case, peers into it. Raps Volkheimer’s fading light back to life. Settle the mind. Envision the distribution of current. He rechecks the fuses, valves, plug pins; he toggles the receive/send switch, blows dust off the meter selector. Replaces the leads to the battery. Tries the earphone again.
And there it is, as if he is eight years old again, crouched beside his sister on the floor of Children’s House: static. Rich and steady. In his memory, Jutta says his name, and on its tail comes a second, less expected image: twin ropes strung from the front of Herr Siedler’s house, the great smooth crimson banner hanging from them, unsoiled, deeply red.
Werner scans frequencies by feel. No squelch, no snap of Morse code, no voices. Static static static static static. In his functioning ear, in the radio, in the air. Volkheimer’s eyes stay on him. Dust floats through the feeble beam of the flashlight: ten thousand particles, turning softly, twinkling. In the Attic
The German shuts the wardrobe doors and hobbles away, and Marie-Laure stays on the bottom rung of the ladder for a count of forty. Sixty. One hundred. The heart scrambling to deliver oxygenated blood, the mind scrambling to unravel the situation. A sentence Etienne once read aloud returns: Even the heart, which in higher animals, when agitated, pulsates with increased energy, in the snail under similar excitement, throbs with a slower motion.
Slow the heart. Flex your feet. Make no sound. She presses her ear to the false panel on the back of the wardrobe. What does she hear? Moths gnawing away at her grandfather’s ancient smocks? Nothing.
Slowly, impossibly, Marie-Laure finds herself growing sleepy.
She feels for the cans in her pockets. How to open one now? Without making noise?
Only thing to do is climb. Seven rungs up into the long triangular tunnel of the garret. The raw-timbered ceiling rises on both sides toward the peak, just higher than the top of her head.
Heat has lodged itself up here. No window, no exit. Nowhere else to run. No way out except the way she has come.
Her outstretched fingers find an old shaving bowl, an umbrella stand, and a crate full of who knows what. The attic floorboards beneath her feet are as wide across as her hands. She knows from experience how much noise a person walking on them makes.
Don’t knock anything over.
If the German opens the wardrobe again and yanks aside the hanging clothes and squeezes through the door and climbs up into the attic, what will she do? Knock him on the head with the umbrella stand? Jab him with the paring knife?
She crawls along the center beam, from which the narrow planks of flooring emanate, toward the stone bulk of the chimney at the far end. The center beam is thickest and will be quieter. She hopes she has not become disoriented. She hopes he is not behind her, leveling a pistol at her back.
Bats cry almost inaudibly out the attic vent and somewhere far away, on a naval ship perhaps, or way out past Paramé, a heavy gun fires.
Crack. Pause. Crack. Pause. Then the long scream as the shell comes flying in, the fhump as it explodes on an outer island.
A ghastly creeping terror rises from a place beyond thoughts. Some innermost trapdoor she must leap upon immediately and lean against with all her weight and padlock shut. She takes off the coat and spreads it across the floor. She dares not pull herself up for fear of the noise her knees will make on the boards. Time passes. Nothing from downstairs. Could he have gone? So quickly?
Of course he is not gone. She knows, after all, why he is here.
To her left, several electrical cords wind along the floor. Just ahead is Etienne’s box of old records. His wind-up Victrola. His old recording machine. The lever he uses to hoist the aerial alongside the chimney.
She hugs her knees to her chest and tries to breathe through her skin. Soundlessly, like a snail. She has the two cans. The brick. The knife.
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