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Eight 9 August 1944 Fort National

On the third afternoon of the siege of Saint-Malo, the shelling lulls, as though all the artillerymen abruptly fell asleep at their guns. Trees burn, cars burn, houses burn. German soldiers drink wine in blockhouses. A priest in the college cellar scatters holy water on the walls. Two horses, gone mad with fear, kick through the door of the garage in which they’ve been shut and gallop between the smoldering houses on the Grand Rue.

Around four o’clock, an American field howitzer, two miles away, lets fly a single improperly ranged shell. It sails over the city walls and bursts against the northern parapet of Fort National, where three hundred and eighty Frenchmen are being held against their will with minimal cover. Nine are killed instantly. One of them still clutching the hand of bridge he was playing when the shell struck. In the Attic

For all of Marie-Laure’s four years in Saint-Malo, the bells at St. Vincent’s have marked the hours. But now the bells have ceased. She does not know how long she has been trapped in the attic or even if it is day or night. Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.

Her thirst becomes so acute, she considers biting into her own arm to drink the liquid that courses there. She takes the cans of food from her great-uncle’s coat and sets her lips on their rims. Both taste of tin. Their contents just a millimeter away.

Don’t risk it, says the voice of her father. Don’t risk the noise.

Just one, Papa. I will save the other. The German is gone. Almost certainly he is gone by now.

Why hasn’t the trip wire sprung?

Because he cut the wire. Or I slept through the bell. Any of a half dozen other reasons.

Why would he leave when what he seeks is here?

Who knows what he seeks?

You know what he seeks.

I am so hungry, Papa.

Try to think about something else.

Roaring falls of clear, cool water.

You will survive, ma chérie.

How can you know?

Because of the diamond in your coat pocket. Because I left it here to protect you.

All it has done is put me in more danger.

Then why hasn’t the house been hit? Why hasn’t it caught fire?

It’s a rock, Papa. A pebble. There is only luck, bad or good. Chance and physics. Remember?

You are alive.

I am only alive because I have not yet died.

Do not open the can. He will hear you. He will not hesitate to kill you.

How can he kill me if I cannot die?

Round and round the questions run; Marie-Laure’s mind threatens to boil over. Just now she has pulled herself up onto the piano bench at the end of the attic and is running her hands over Etienne’s transmitter, trying to apprehend its switches and coils—here the phonograph, here the microphone, here one of four leads connected to the pair of batteries—when she hears something below her.

A voice.

Very carefully, she lowers herself off the bench and presses her ear to the floor.

He is directly below her. Urinating into the sixth-floor toilet. Dribbling out a sad intermittent trickle and groaning as though the process causes him torment. Between groans, he calls, “Das H?uschen fehlt, wo bist du H?uschen?”

Something is wrong with him.

“Das H?uschen fehlt, wo bist du H?uschen?”

No replies. Whom is he talking to?

From somewhere beyond the house come the thump of distant mortars and the screech of shells hurtling overhead. She listens to the German move from the toilet toward her bedroom. Limping that same limp. Muttering. Unhinged. H?uschen: what does it mean?

The springs of her mattress creak; she would know that sound anywhere. Has he been sleeping in her bed all this time? Six deep reports sound one after the other, deeper than antiaircraft guns, farther away. Naval guns. Then come drums, cymbals, the gongs of explosions, drawing a crimson lattice over the roof. The lull is ending.

Abyss in her gut, desert in her throat—Marie-Laure takes one of the cans of food from her coat. The brick and the knife within reach.

Don’t.

If I keep listening to you, Papa, I will die of starvation with food in my hands.

Her bedroom below remains quiet. The shells come patiently, each round whizzing over at a predictable interval, scratching a long scarlet parabola over the roof. She uses their noise to open the can. EEEEEEEEEE goes the shell, ding goes the brick onto the knife, the knife onto the can. Dull terrible detonation somewhere. Shell splinters zinging into the walls of a dozen houses.

EEEEEEEE ding. EEEEEEEE ding. With each blow a prayer. Do not let him hear.

Five bashes and it’s leaking liquid. With the sixth, she manages to saw open a quadrant and bend up the lid with the blade of the knife.

She raises it and drinks. Cool, salty: it is beans. Canned cooked green beans. The water they have been boiled in is supremely tasty; her whole body seems to reach up to absorb it. She empties the can. Inside her head, her father has gone quiet. The Heads

Werner weaves the antenna through the rubbled ceiling and touches it to a twisted pipe. Nothing. On his hands and knees, he drags the aerial around the circumference of the cellar, as though roping Volkheimer into the golden armchair. Nothing. He switches off the dying flashlight and mashes the headset against his good ear and shuts his eyes against the darkness and turns on the repaired transceiver and runs the needle up and down the tuning coil, condensing all his senses into one.

Static static static static static.

Maybe they are buried too deeply. Maybe the rubble of the hotel creates an electromagnetic shadow. Maybe something fundamental is broken in the radio that Werner has not identified. Or maybe the führer’s super-scientists have engineered a weapon to end all weapons and this whole corner of Europe is a shattered waste and Werner and Volkheimer are the only ones left.

He takes off the headphones and breaks the connection. The rations are long gone, the canteens are empty, and the sludge in the bottom of the bucket full of paintbrushes is undrinkable. Both he and Volkheimer have gagged down several mouthfuls, and Werner is not sure he can stomach any more.

The battery inside the radio is nearly dead. Once it’s gone, they’ll have the big American eleven-volt with the black cat printed on the side. And then?

How much oxygen does a person’s respiratory system exchange for carbon dioxide every hour? There was a time when Werner would have loved to solve that puzzle. Now he sits with Volkheimer’s two stick grenades in his lap, feeling the last bright things inside him fizzle out. Turning the shaft of one and then the other. He’d ignite their fuses just to light this place up, just to see again.

Volkheimer has taken to switching on his field light and focusing its frail beam into the far corner, where eight or nine white plaster heads stand on two shelves, several toppled onto their sides. They look like the heads of mannequins, only more skillfully fashioned, three with mustaches, two bald, one wearing the cap of a soldier. Even with the light off, the heads assume strange power in the dark: pure white, not quite visible but not entirely invisible, embedded into Werner’s retinas, almost glowing in the blackness.

Silent and watchful and unblinking.

Tricks of the mind.

Faces, look away.

In the blackness, he crawls toward Volkheimer: a comfort to find his friend’s huge knee in the darkness. The rifle beside him. Bernd’s corpse somewhere beyond.

Werner says, “Did you ever hear the stories they told about you?”

“Who?”

“The boys at Schulpforta.”

“A few I heard.”

“Did you like it? Being the Giant? Having everyone afraid of you?”

“It is not so fun being asked how tall you are all the time.”

A shell detonates somewhere aboveground. Somewhere out there the city burns, the sea breaks, barnacles beat their feathery arms.

“How tall are you?”

Volkheimer snorts once, a bark of a laugh.

“Do you think Bernd was right about the grenades?”

“No,” says Volkheimer, his voice coming alert. “They would kill us.”

“Even if we built some kind of barrier?”

“We’d be crushed.”

Werner tries to make out the heads across the cellar in the blackness. If not the grenades, then what? Does Volkheimer really believe someone is going to come and save them? That they deserve saving?

“So we’re just going to wait?”

Volkheimer doesn’t answer.

“For how long?”

When the radio batteries die, the American eleven-volt should run the transceiver for one more day. Or he could wire the bulb from Volkheimer’s field light to it. The battery will give them one more day of static. Or one more day of light. But they will not need light to use the rifle. Delirium

A purple fringe flutters around von Rumpel’s vision. Something must have gone wrong with the morphine: he may have taken too much. Or else the disease has advanced far enough to alter his sight.

Ash drifts through the window like snow. Is it dawn? The glow in the sky could be the light from fires. Sheets soaked in sweat, his uniform as wet as if he has been swimming in his sleep. Taste of blood in his mouth.

He crawls to the end of the bed and looks at the model. He has studied every square inch of it. Bashed a corner to pieces with the butt of a wine bottle. The structures in it are mostly hollow—the château, the cathedral, the market—but why bother to smash them all when one is missing, the very house he needs?

Out in the forsaken city, every other structure, it seems, is burning or collapsing, but here in front of him is the inverse in miniature: the city remains, but the house he occupies is gone.

Could the girl have carried it out with her when she fled? Possible. The uncle didn’t have it when they sent him to Fort National. He was well searched; he carried nothing but his papers—von Rumpel made sure of it.

Somewhere a wall goes to pieces, a thousand kilograms of masonry crashing down.

That the house stands while so many others have been destroyed is evidence enough. The stone must be inside. He simply needs to find it while there is time. Clamp it to his heart and wait for the goddess to thrust her fiery hand through its planes and burn away his afflictions. Burn his way out of this citadel, out of this siege, out of this disease. He will be saved. He simply has to drag himself up from this bed and keep looking. Do it more methodically. As many hours as it takes. Tear the place apart. Begin in the kitchen. One more time. Water

Marie-Laure hears the springs of her bed groan. Hears the German limp out of her room and go down the stairs. Is he leaving? Giving up?

It starts to rain. Thousands of tiny drops thrum onto the roof. Marie-Laure stands on her tiptoes and presses her ear to the roofing beneath the slates. Listens to the drops trickle down. What was the prayer? The one Madame Manec muttered to herself on Bastille Day as the fireworks went up?

Lord Our God Your Grace is a purifying fire.

She has to marshal her mind. Use perception and logic. As her father would, as Jules Verne’s great marine biologist Professor Pierre Aronnax would. The German does not know about the attic. She has the stone in her pocket; she has one can of food. These are advantages.

The rain is good too: it will stifle the fires. Could she capture some of it to drink? Punch a hole in the slates? Use it in some other way? Maybe to cover her noise?

She knows exactly where the two galvanized buckets are: just inside the door of her room. She can get to them, maybe even carry one back up.

No, carrying it up would be impossible. Too heavy, too noisy, all that water sloshing everywhere. But she could go to one and lower her face into it. She could fill the empty can of beans.

The very thought of her lips against water—the tip of her nose touching its surface—summons up a biological craving beyond anything she has experienced. In her mind she falls into a lake; water fills her ears and mouth; her throat opens. One sip and she could think more clearly. She waits for her father’s voice in her head to raise an objection, but none comes.

The distance through the front of the wardrobe, across Henri’s room, across the landing, and to her doorway runs twenty-one paces, give or take. She takes the knife and the empty can from the floor and tucks them in her pocket. She creeps down the seven ladder rungs and stays fixed for a long time against the back of the wardrobe. Listening listening listening. The little wooden house is a bump against her ribs as she crouches. Inside its tiny attic, does some tiny likeness of Marie-Laure wait, listening? Does that tiny version of her feel this same thirst?

The only sound is the patter of the rain turning Saint-Malo into mud.

It could be a trick. Maybe he heard her open the can of beans, went noisily downstairs, and climbed quietly back up; maybe he stands outside the big wardrobe with his pistol drawn.

Lord Our God Your Grace is a purifying fire.

She flattens her hands against the back of the wardrobe and slides open the panel. The shirts drag across her face as she crawls through. She sets her hands against the inside of the wardrobe doors and nudges one open.

No gunshot. Nothing. Out the now glassless window, the sound of rain falling on the burning houses is the sound of pebbles being stirred by waves. Marie-Laure steps onto the floor of her grandfather’s old bedroom and summons him: a curious boy with lustrous hair who smells of the sea. He’s playful, quick-witted, charged with energy; he takes one of her hands, while Etienne finds the other; the house becomes as it was fifty years ago: the boys’ well-dressed parents laugh downstairs; a cook shucks oysters in the kitchen; Madame Manec, a young maid, fresh from the countryside, sings on a stepladder as she dusts the chandelier . . .

Papa, you had the keys to everything.

The boys lead her into the hall. She passes the bathroom.

Traces of the German’s smell hang in her bedroom: an odor like vanilla. Beneath it something putrid. She cannot hear anything beyond the rain outside and her own pulse discharging in her temples. She kneels as soundlessly as she can and runs her hands along the grooves of the floor. The sound of her fingertips striking the bucket’s side seems louder than the gong of a cathedral bell.

Rain hums against the roof and walls. Drips past the glassless window. All around her wait her pebbles and seashells. Her father’s model. Her quilt. Somewhere in here must be her shoes.

She lowers her face and touches her lips to the water’s surface. Each swallow seems as loud as a shell burst. One three five; she gulps breathes gulps breathes. Her entire head inside the bucket.

Breathing. Dying. Dreaming.

Does he stir? Is he downstairs? Is he coming back up?

Nine eleven thirteen, she is full. Her whole gut stretches, sloshes; she has had too much. She slips the can into the bucket and lets it fill. Now to retreat without making a sound. Without bumping a wall, the door. Without tripping, without spilling. She turns and begins to crawl, the full can of water in her left hand.

Marie-Laure makes the doorway of her room before she hears him. He is three or four stories below, ransacking one of the rooms; she hears what sounds like a crate of ball bearings get dumped onto the floor. They bounce, clatter, and roll.

She reaches out her right hand, and here, just inside of the doorway, she discovers something big and rectangular and hard, covered with cloth. Her book! The novel! Sitting right here as though her father has placed it for her. The German must have tossed it off her bed. She lifts it as quietly as she can and holds it against the front of her uncle’s coat.

Can she make it downstairs?

Can she slip past him and into the street?

But already the water is filling her capillaries, improving the flow of her blood; already she thinks more keenly. She does not want to die; already she has risked too much. Even if she could miraculously slip past the German, there is no promise that the streets will be safer than the house.

She makes it to the landing. Makes it to the threshold of her grandfather’s bedroom. Feels her way to the wardrobe, climbs through the open doors, closes them gently behind her. The Beams

Shells are careening overhead, quaking the cellar like passing freight trains. Werner imagines the American artillerymen: spotters with scopes balanced on rocks or tank treads or hotel railings; firing officers computing wind speed, barrel elevation, air temperature; radiomen with telephone receivers pressed to their ears, calling in targets.

Right three degrees, repeat range. Calm, weary voices directing fire. The same sort of voice God uses, perhaps, when He calls souls to Him. This way, please.

Only numbers. Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way. It’s the same on their side too.

“My great-grandfather,” Volkheimer says all of a sudden, “was a sawyer in the years before steamships, when everything went by sail.”

Werner can’t be sure in the blackness, but he thinks Volkheimer is standing, running his fingertips along one of the three splintered beams that hold up the ceiling. His knees bent to accommodate his height. Like Atlas about to slip into the traces.

“Back then,” Volkheimer says, “all of Europe needed masts for their navies. But most of the countries had cut down their big trees. England, Great-Grandfather said, didn’t have a tree worth its wood on the whole island. So the masts for the British and Spanish navies, the Portuguese too, would come from Prussia, from the woods where I grew up. Great-Grandfather knew where all the giants were. Some of those trees would take a crew of five men three days to bring down. First the wedges would go in, like needles, he said, in the hide of an elephant. The biggest trunks could swallow a hundred wedges before they’d creak.”

The artillery screams; the cellar shudders.

“Great-Grandfather said he loved to imagine the big trees sledding behind teams of horses across Europe, across rivers, across the sea to Britain, where they’d be stripped and treated and raised up again as masts, where they’d see decades of battle, given a second life, sailing atop the great oceans, until eventually they’d fall and die their second death.”

Another shell goes overhead and Werner imagines he hears the wood in the huge beams above him splinter. That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million. Can you imagine one hundred million years?

Werner says, “Where I’m from, they dug up trees. Prehistoric ones.”

Volkheimer says, “I was desperate to leave.”

“I was too.”

“And now?”

Bernd molders in the corner. Jutta moves through the world somewhere, watching shadows disentangle themselves from night, watching miners limp past in the dawn. It was enough when Werner was a boy, wasn’t it? A world of wildflowers blooming up through the shapes of rusty cast-off parts. A world of berries and carrot peels and Frau Elena’s fairy tales. Of the sharp smell of tar, and trains passing, and bees humming in the window boxes. String and spit and wire and a voice on the radio offering a loom on which to spin his dreams. The Transmitter

It waits on the table tucked against the chimney. The twin marine batteries below it. A strange machine, built years before, to talk to a ghost. As carefully as she can, Marie-Laure crawls to the piano bench and eases herself up. Someone must have a radio—the fire brigade, if one remains, or the resistance, or the Americans hurling missiles at the city. The Germans in their underground forts. Maybe Etienne himself. She tries to imagine him hunched somewhere, his fingers twisting the dials of a phantom radio. Maybe he assumes she is dead. Maybe he needs only to hear a flicker of hope.

She runs her fingers along the stones of the chimney until she finds the lever her uncle installed there. She presses her whole weight on it, and the antenna makes a faint grating noise above the roof as it telescopes upward.

Too loud.

She waits. Counts to one hundred. No sound from downstairs.

Beneath the table, her fingers find switches: one for the microphone, the other for the transmitter, she cannot remember which is which. Switch on one, then the other. Inside the big transmitter, vacuum tubes thrum.

Is it too loud, Papa?

No louder than the breeze. The undertone of the fires.

She traces the lines of the cables until she is sure she has the microphone in her hand.

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.

Rather than my reading it to you, maybe you could read it to me?

With her free hand, she opens the novel in her lap. Finds the lines with her fingers. Brings the microphone to her lips. Voice

On the morning of his fourth day trapped beneath whatever is left of the Hotel of Bees, Werner is listening to the repaired transceiver, feathering the tuning knob back and forth, when a girl’s voice says directly into his good ear: At three in the morning I was awakened by a violent blow. He thinks: It’s hunger, the fever, I’m imagining things, my mind is forcing the static to coalesce . . .

She says, I sat up in bed and tried to hear what was going on, but suddenly I was hurled out into the middle of the room.

She speaks quiet, perfectly enunciated French; her accent is crisper than Frau Elena’s. He grinds the headphones into his ear . . . Obviously, she says, the Nautilus had collided with something and then heeled over at a sharp angle . . .

She rolls her R?’s, draws out her S?’s. With each syllable, the voice seems to burrow a bit deeper into his brain. Young, high, hardly more than a whisper. If it is a hallucination, let it be.

One of these icebergs turned and struck the Nautilus as it was cruising underwater. The iceberg then slipped under its hull and lifted it with an irresistible force into shallower water . . .

He can hear her wet the top of her mouth with her tongue. But who was to say that at that moment we wouldn’t collide against the underside of the barrier, and thus be horribly squashed between two surfaces of ice? The static emerges again, threatening to wash her out, and he tries desperately to fight it off; he is a child in his attic dormer, clinging to a dream he does not want to leave, but Jutta has laid a hand on his shoulder and is whispering him awake.

We were suspended in the water, but ten meters on each side of the Nautilus rose a shining wall of ice. Above and below there was the same wall.

She stops reading abruptly and the static roars. When she speaks again, her voice has become an urgent hiss: He is here. He is right below me.

Then the broadcast cuts out. He feathers the tuner, switches bands: nothing. He takes off the headset and moves in the total blackness toward where Volkheimer sits and grabs what he thinks is his arm. “I heard something. Please . . .”

Volkheimer does not move; he seems made of wood. Werner yanks with all his strength, but he is too little, too weak; the strength deserts him almost as soon as it came.

“Enough,” comes Volkheimer’s voice from the blackness. “It won’t do any good.” Werner sits on the floor. Somewhere in the ruins above them, cats are howling. Starving. As is he. As is Volkheimer.

A boy at Schulpforta once described for Werner a rally at Nuremberg: an ocean of banners and flags, he said, masses of boys teeming in the lights, and the führer himself on an altar a half mile away, spotlights illuminating pillars behind him, the atmosphere oversaturated with meaning and anger and righteousness, Hans Schilzer crazy for it, Herribert Pomsel crazy for it, every boy at Schulpforta crazy for it, and the only person in Werner’s life who could see through all that stagecraft was his younger sister. How? How did Jutta understand so much more about how the world worked? While he knew so little?

But who was to say that at that moment we wouldn’t collide against the underside of the barrier, and thus be horribly squashed between two surfaces of ice?

He is here. He is right below me.

Do something. Save her.

But God is only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, as the city is gradually pounded to dust.

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