فصل 09کتاب: تمام نورهایی که نمیتوانیم ببینیم / فصل 10
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Nine May 1944 Edge of the World
In the back of the Opel, Volkheimer reads aloud to Werner. The paper Jutta has written on seems little more than tissue in his gigantic paws.
. . . Oh and Herr Siedler the mining official sent a note congratulating you on your successes. He says people are noticing. Does that mean you can come home? Hans Pfeffering says to tell you “a bullet fears the brave” though I maintain that’s bad advice. And Frau Elena’s toothache is better now but she can’t smoke which makes her cranky, did I tell you she started smoking . . .
Over Volkheimer’s shoulder, through the cracked rear window of the truck shell, Werner watches a red-haired child in a velvet cape float six feet above the road. She passes through trees and road signs, veers around curves; she is as inescapable as a moon.
Neumann One coaxes the Opel west, and Werner curls beneath the bench in the back and does not move for hours, bundled in a blanket, refusing tea, tinned meat, while the floating child pursues him through the countryside. Dead girl in the sky, dead girl out the window, dead girl three inches away. Two wet eyes and that third eye of the bullet hole never blinking.
They bounce through a string of small green towns where pollarded trees line sleepy canals. A pair of women on bicycles pull off the road and gape at the truck as its passes: some infernal lorry sent to blight their town.
“France,” says Bernd.
The canopies of cherry trees drift overhead, pregnant with blossoms. Werner props open the back door and dangles his feet off the rear bumper, his heels just above the flowing road. A horse rolls on its back in grass; five white clouds decorate the sky.
They unload in a town called Epernay, and the hotelkeeper brings wine and chicken legs and broth that Werner manages to keep down. People at the tables around them speak the language that Frau Elena whispered to him as a child. Neumann One is sent to find diesel, and Neumann Two engages Bernd in a debate about whether or not cow intestines were used as inflatable cells inside first-war zeppelins, and three boys in berets peer around a doorpost and ogle Volkheimer with huge eyes. Behind them, six flowering marigolds in the dusk form the shape of the dead girl, then become flowers once more.
The hotelkeeper says, “You would like more?”
Werner cannot shake his head. Just now he’s afraid to set down his hands in case they pass right through the table.
They drive all night and stop at dawn at a checkpoint on the northern rim of Brittany. The walled citadel of Saint-Malo blooms out of the distance. The clouds present diffuse bands of tender grays and blues, and below them the ocean does the same.
Volkheimer shows their orders to a sentry. Without asking permission, Werner climbs out of the truck and slips over the low seawall onto the beach. He winds through a series of barricades and makes for the tide line. To his right runs a line of anti-invasion obstacles shaped like a child’s jacks, strung with razor wire, extending at least a mile down the shoreline.
No footprints in the sand. Pebbles and bits of weed are strung in scalloped lines. A trio of outer islands bear low stone forts; a green lantern glows on the tip of a jetty. It feels appropriate somehow, to have reached the edge of the continent, to have only the hammered sea left in front of him. As though this is the end point Werner has been moving toward ever since he left Zollverein.
He dips a hand in the water and puts his fingers in his mouth to taste the salt. Someone is shouting his name, but Werner does not turn; he would like nothing more than to stand here all morning and watch the swells move under the light. They’re screaming now, Bernd, then Neumann One, and finally Werner turns to see them waving, and he picks his way along the sand and back up through the lines of razor wire toward the Opel.
A dozen people watch. Sentries, a handful of townspeople. Many with hands over their mouths.
“Tread carefully, boy!” Bernd is yelling. “There are mines! Didn’t you read the signs?”
Werner climbs into the back of the truck and crosses his arms.
“Have you completely lost it?” asks Neumann Two.
The few souls they see inside the old city press their backs up against walls to allow the battered Opel to pass. Neumann One stops outside a four-story house with pale blue shutters. “The Kreiskommandantur,” he announces. Volkheimer goes inside and returns with a colonel in field uniform: the Reichswehr coat and high belt and tall black boots. On his heels come two aides.
“We believe there is a network of them,” one aide says. “The encoded numbers are followed by announcements, births and baptisms and engagements and deaths.”
“Then there is music, almost always music,” says the second. “What it means we cannot say.”
The colonel drags two fingers along his perfect jawline. Volkheimer gazes at him and then his aides as though assuring worried children that some injustice will be righted. “We’ll find them,” he says. “It won’t take long.” Numbers
Reinhold von Rumpel visits a doctor in Nuremberg. The tumor in the sergeant major’s throat, reports the doctor, has grown to four centimeters in diameter. The tumor in the small intestine is harder to measure.
“Three months,” says the doctor. “Maybe four.”
An hour later, von Rumpel has installed himself at a dinner party. Four months. One hundred and twenty sunrises, one hundred and twenty more times he has to drag his corrupted body out of a bed and button it into a uniform. The officers at the table talk with indignation about other numbers: the Eighth and Fifth German Armies retreat north through Italy, the Tenth Army might be encircled. Rome could be lost.
How many men?
A hundred thousand.
How many vehicles?
Liver is served. Cubes of it with salt and pepper, showered in a rain of purple gravy. When the plates are taken away, von Rumpel hasn’t touched his. Thirty-four hundred marks: all he has left. And three tiny diamonds that he keeps in an envelope inside his billfold. Each perhaps a carat.
A woman at the table enthuses about greyhound racing, the speed, the charge she feels watching it. Von Rumpel reaches for the looped handle of his coffee cup, tries to hide the shaking. A waiter touches his arm. “Call for you, sir. From France.”
Von Rumpel walks on wobbly legs through a swinging door. The waiter sets a telephone on a table and retreats.
“Sergeant Major? This is Jean Brignon.” The name conjures nothing in von Rumpel’s memory.
“I have information about the locksmith. Whom you asked about last year?”
“Yes, Daniel LeBlanc. But my cousin, sir. Do you remember? You offered to help? You said that if I found information, you could help him?”
Three couriers, two found, one last puzzle to solve. Von Rumpel dreams of the goddess almost every night: hair made of flames, fingers made of roots. Madness. Even as he stands at the telephone, ivy twines around his neck, climbs into his ears.
“Yes, your cousin. What have you discovered?”
“LeBlanc was accused of conspiracy, something to do with a château in Brittany. Arrested in January 1941 on a tip from a local. They found drawings, skeleton keys. He was also photographed taking measurements in Saint-Malo.”
“I have not been able to find out. The system is rather elaborate.”
“What about the informer?”
“A Malouin named Levitte. First name Claude.”
Von Rumpel thinks. The blind daughter, the flat on rue des Patriarches. Vacant since June 1940 while the Natural History Museum pays the rent. Where would you run, if you had to run somewhere? If you had something valuable to carry? With a blind daughter in tow? Why Saint-Malo unless someone you trusted lived there?
“My cousin,” Jean Brignon is saying. “You’ll help?”
“Thank you very much,” says von Rumpel, and sets the receiver back in its cradle. May
The last days of May 1944 in Saint-Malo feel to Marie-Laure like the last days of May 1940 in Paris: huge and swollen and redolent. As if every living thing rushes to establish a foothold before some cataclysm arrives. The air on the way to Madame Ruelle’s bakery smells of myrtle and magnolia and verbena; wisteria vines erupt in blossom; everywhere hang arcades and curtains and pendants of flowers.
She counts storm drains: at twenty-one she passes the butcher, the sound of a hose splashing onto tile; at twenty-five she is at the bakery. She places a ration coupon on the counter. “One ordinary loaf, please.”
“And how is your uncle?” The words are the same, but the voice of Madame Ruelle is different. Galvanized.
“My uncle is well, thank you.”
Madame Ruelle does something she has never done: she reaches across the counter and cups Marie-Laure’s face in her floury palms. “You amazing child.”
“Are you crying, Madame? Is everything all right?”
“Everything is wonderful, Marie-Laure.” The hands withdraw; the loaf comes to her: heavy, warm, larger than normal. “Tell your uncle that the hour has come. That the mermaids have bleached hair.”
“The mermaids, Madame?”
“They are coming, dear. Within the week. Put out your hands.” From across the counter comes a wet, cool cabbage, as big as a cannonball. Marie-Laure can hardly fit it into the mouth of her knapsack.
“Thank you, Madame.”
“Now get home.”
“Is it clear ahead?”
“As water from the rock. Nothing in your way. Today is a beautiful day. A day to remember.”
The hour has come. Les sirènes ont les cheveux décolorés. Her uncle has been hearing rumors on his radio that across the Channel, in England, a tremendous armada is gathering, ship after ship being requisitioned—fishing vessels and ferries retrofitted, equipped with weapons: five thousand boats, eleven thousand airplanes, fifty thousand vehicles.
At the intersection with the rue d’Estrées, she turns not left, toward home, but right. Fifty meters to the ramparts, a hundred or so more along the base of the walls; from her pocket she pulls Harold Bazin’s iron key. The beaches have been closed for several months, studded with mines and walled off with razor wire, but here in the old kennel, out of sight of everyone, Marie-Laure can sit among her snails and dream herself into the mind of the great marine biologist Aronnax, both guest of honor and prisoner on Captain Nemo’s great machine of curiosity, free of nations and politics, cruising through the kaleidoscopic wonders of the sea. Oh, to be free! To lie once more in the Jardin des Plantes with Papa. To feel his hands on hers, to hear the petals of the tulips tremble in the wind. He made her the glowing hot center of his life; he made her feel as if every step she took was important.
Are you still there, Papa?
They are coming, dear. Within the week. Hunting (Again)
They search day and night. Saint-Malo, Dinard, Saint-Servan, Saint-Vincent. Neumann One coaxes the battered Opel down streets so narrow that the sides of the truck shell scrape against walls. They pass little gray crêperies with their windows smashed and shuttered boulangeries and empty bistros and hillsides full of conscripted Russians pouring cement and heavy-boned prostitutes carrying water from wells and they find no broadcasts of the sort the colonel’s aides described. Werner can receive the BBC from the north and propaganda stations from the south; sometimes he manages to snare random flits of Morse code. But he hears no birth or wedding or death announcements, no numbers, no music.
The room Werner and Bernd are given, on the top floor of a requisitioned hotel in the city within the walls, is like a place that time wants no part of: three-hundred-year-old stucco quatrefoils and palmate capitals and spiraling horns of fruit festoon the ceiling. At night the dead girl from Vienna strides the halls. She does not look at Werner as she passes his open door, but he knows it is he she is hunting.
The hotelkeeper wrings his hands while Volkheimer paces the lobby. Airplanes crawl across the sky, it seems to Werner, incredibly slowly. As if at any moment one will stall and drop into the sea.
“Ours?” asks Neumann One. “Or theirs?”
“Too high to tell.”
Werner walks the upstairs corridors. On the top floor, in what is perhaps the hotel’s nicest room, he stands in a hexagonal bathtub and wipes grime off a window with the heel of his palm. A few airborne seeds swirl in the wind, then drop into the chasm of shadow between houses. Above him, in the dimness, a nine-foot-long queen bee, with multiple eyes and golden fuzz on her abdomen, curls across the ceiling. Dear Jutta,
Sorry I have not written these past months. The fever is mostly gone now and you should not worry. I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads.
It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.
Say hello to Frau Elena and the children who are left. “Clair de Lune”
Tonight they work a section of the old city tucked against the southern ramparts. Rain falls so lightly that it seems indistinguishable from fog. Werner sits in the back of the Opel; Volkheimer drowses on the bench behind him. Bernd is up on the parapet with the first transceiver under a poncho. He has not keyed his handset in hours, which means he is asleep. The only light comes from the amber filament inside Werner’s signal meter.
The spectrum is all static and then it is not.
Madame Labas sends word that her daughter is pregnant. Monsieur Ferey sends love to his cousins at Saint-Vincent.
A great gust of static shears past. The voice is like something from a long-ago dream. A half dozen more words flutter through Werner in that Breton accent: Next broadcast Thursday 2300. Fifty-six seventy-two something . . . memory coming at Werner like a six-car train out of the darkness, the quality of the transmission and the tenor of the voice matching in every respect the broadcasts of the Frenchman he used to hear, and then a piano plays three single notes, followed by a pair, the chords rising peacefully, each a candle leading deeper into a forest . . . The recognition is immediate. It is as if he has been drowning for as long as he can remember and somebody has fetched him up for air.
Just behind Werner, Volkheimer’s eyelids remain closed. Through the separator between the shell and cab, he can see the motionless shoulders of the Neumanns. Werner covers the meter with his hand. The song unspools, grows louder, and he waits for Bernd to key his microphone, to say he has heard.
But nothing comes. Everyone is asleep. And yet hasn’t the little shell in which he and Volkheimer sit gone electric?
Now the piano makes a long, familiar run, the pianist playing different scales with each hand—what sounds like three hands, four—the harmonies like steadily thickening pearls on a strand, and Werner sees six-year-old Jutta lean toward him, Frau Elena kneading bread in the background, a crystal radio in his lap, the cords of his soul not yet severed.
The piano rills through its finishing measures, and then the static wallops back.
Did they hear? Can they hear his heart hammering right now against his ribs? There’s the rain, falling lightly past the high houses. There’s Volkheimer, his chin resting on the acreage of his chest. Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feet—I will not— Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down. Werner who watched Volkheimer wade into house after house, the same ravening nightmare recurring over and over and over.
He removes the headset and eases past Volkheimer to open the back door. Volkheimer opens one eye, huge, golden, lionlike. He says, “Nichts??”
Werner looks up at the stone houses arrayed wall to wall, tall and aloof, their faces damp, their windows dark. No lamplight anywhere. No antennas. The rain falls so softly, almost soundlessly, but to Werner it roars.
He turns. “Nichts,” he says. Nothing. Antenna
An Austrian antiair lieutenant installs a detachment of eight at the Hotel of Bees. Their cook heats oatmeal and bacon in the hotel kitchen while the other seven take apart walls on the fourth floor with sledgehammers. Volkheimer chews slowly, glancing up every now and then to study Werner.
Next broadcast Thursday 2300.
Werner heard the voice everyone was listening for, and what did he do? Lied. Committed treason. How many men might be in danger because of this? And yet when Werner remembers hearing that voice, when he remembers that song flooding his head, he trembles with joy.
Half of northern France is in flames. The beaches are devouring men—Americans, Canadians, Brits, Germans, Russians—and all through Normandy, heavy bombers pulverize country towns. But out here in Saint-Malo, the dune grass grows long and blue; German sailors still run drills in the harbor; gunners still stockpile ammunition in the tunnels beneath the fort at La Cité.
The Austrians at the Hotel of Bees use a crane to lower an 88-millimeter cannon onto a bastion in the ramparts. They bolt the gun to a cruciform mount and cover it with camouflage tarps. Volkheimer’s crew works two nights in a row, and Werner’s memory plays tricks on him.
Madame Labas sends word that her daughter is pregnant.
So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
If the Frenchman employs the same transmitter that used to reach all the way to Zollverein, the antenna will be big. Or else there will be hundreds of yards of wire. Either way: something high, something sure to be visible.
On the third night after hearing the broadcast—Thursday—Werner stands in the hexagonal bathtub beneath the queen bee. With the shutters pushed open, he can look to his left over a jumble of slate rooftops. Shearwaters skim the ramparts; sleeves of vapor enshroud the steeple.
Whenever Werner contemplates the old city, it is the chimneys that strike him. They are huge, stacked in rows of twenty and thirty along each block. Not even Berlin had chimneys like that.
Of course. The Frenchman must be using a chimney.
He hurries down through the lobby and paces the rue des Forgeurs, then the rue de Dinan. Staring up at shutters, gutter lines, looking for cables bracketed to bricks, anything that might give the transmitter away. He walks up and down until his neck aches. He has been gone too long. He will be upbraided. Volkheimer already senses something amiss. But then, right at 2300 hours, Werner sees it, hardly one block from where they parked the Opel: an antenna sliding up alongside a chimney. Not much wider than a broomstick.
It rises perhaps twelve meters and then unfolds as if by magic into a simple T.
A high house on the edge of the sea. A spectacularly good location from which to broadcast. From street level, the antenna is all but invisible. He hears Jutta’s voice: I bet he does these broadcasts from a huge mansion, big as this whole colony, a place with a thousand rooms and a thousand servants. The house is tall and narrow, eleven windows in its facade. Splotched with orange lichen, its foundation furred with moss. Number 4 on the rue Vauborel.
Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.
He walks fast to the hotel, head down, hands in his pockets. Big Claude
Levitte the perfumer is flabby and plump, basted in his own self-importance. While he talks, von Rumpel struggles to keep his balance; the intermingling of so many odors in this shop overwhelms. In the course of the past week, he has had to make a show of trips to a dozen different garden estates up and down the Breton coast, forcing his way into summer homes to hunt down paintings and sculptures that either do not exist or do not interest him. All of it to justify his presence here.
Yes, yes, the perfumer is saying, his gaze flitting over von Rumpel’s insignia, a few years ago he helped authorities apprehend an out-of-towner who was taking measurements of buildings. He only did what he knew was right.
“Where was he living during those months, this Monsieur LeBlanc?”
The perfumer squints, calculating. His blue-ringed eyes trumpet one message: I want. Give me. All these aching creatures, thinks von Rumpel, toiling under different pressures. But von Rumpel is the predator here. He needs only to be patient. Indefatigable. Remove the obstacles one by one.
When he turns to go, the perfumer’s complacency splinters. “Wait, wait, wait.”
Von Rumpel keeps one hand on the door. “Where did Monsieur LeBlanc live?”
“With his uncle. Useless man. Off his nut, as they say.”
“Right there,.” He points. “Number four.” Boulangerie
A full day passes before Werner can find an hour to return. A wooden door, iron gate across that. Blue trim on the windows. The morning fog is so dense that he cannot see the roofline. He entertains pipe dreams: the Frenchman will invite him in. They’ll drink coffee, discuss his long-ago broadcasts. Maybe they’ll investigate some important empirical problem that has been troubling him for years. Maybe he’ll show Werner the transmitter.
Laughable. If Werner rings the bell, the old man will assume he’s being arrested as a terrorist. That he might be shot where he stands. The antenna on the chimney in itself is cause for execution.
Werner could bang on the door, march the old man away. He would be a hero.
The mist begins to suffuse with light. Somewhere, someone opens a door and closes it again. Werner remembers how Jutta would write her letters in a flurry and scribble The Professor, France on the envelope and drop them into the mailbox in the square. Imagining her voice might find his ear as his had found hers. One in ten million.
All night he has practiced the French in his head: Avant la guerre. Je vous ai entendu à la radio. He will keep his rifle over his shoulder, hands at his sides; he will look small, elfin, no threat at all. The old man will be startled, but his fear will be manageable. He’ll listen. But as Werner stands in the slowly dispersing fog at the end of the rue Vauborel, rehearsing what he’ll say, the front door of Number 4 opens, and out steps not an eminent old scientist but a girl. A slender, pretty, auburn-haired girl with a very freckled face, in glasses and a gray dress, carrying a knapsack over one shoulder. She heads to her left, making directly for him, and Werner’s heart twists in his chest.
The street is too narrow; she will have caught him staring. But her head tracks in a curious way, her face tilted off to one side. Werner sees the roving cane and opaque lenses of her glasses and realizes that she is blind.
Her cane clicks along the cobbles. Already she is twenty paces away. No one seems to be watching; all the curtains are drawn. Fifteen paces away. Her stockings have runs in them and her shoes are too large and the woolen panels of her dress are mottled with stains. Ten paces, five. She passes within arm’s reach, her head slightly higher than his own. Without thinking, hardly understanding what he’s doing, Werner follows. The tip of her cane shudders as it knocks against the runnels, finding every storm drain. She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog. She turns right, then left, traverses half a block and steps neatly through the open door of a shop. A rectangular sign above it reads: Boulangerie.
Werner stops. Above him, the mist gives way in shreds, and a deep summer blue reveals itself. A woman waters flowers; an old traveler in gabardine walks a poodle. On a bench sits a goitrous and sallow German sergeant major with shadows carved under his eyes. He lowers his paper, stares directly at Werner, then raises his newspaper again.
Why are Werner’s hands shaking? Why can’t he catch his breath?
The girl emerges from the bakery, steps neatly off the curbstone, and makes straight for him. The poodle squats to relieve itself on the cobbles, and the girl veers neatly to her left to skirt it. She approaches Werner for a second time, her lips working softly, counting to herself—deux trois quatre—coming so close he can count the freckles on her nose, smell the loaf of bread in her knapsack. A million droplets of fog bead up on the fuzz of her wool dress and along the warp of her hair, and the light outlines her in silver.
He stands riveted. Her long pale neck seems to him, as it passes, incredibly vulnerable.
She takes no notice of him; she seems to know nothing but the morning. This, he thinks, is the pure they were always lecturing about at Schulpforta.
He presses his back against a wall. The tip of her cane just misses the toe of his boot. Then she’s past, dress swaying lightly, cane roving back and forth, and he watches her continue up the street until the fog swallows her. Grotto
A German antiair battery shoots an American plane out of the sky. It crashes into the sea off Paramé, and its American pilot wades ashore to be taken prisoner. Etienne sees it as a calamity, but Madame Ruelle radiates glee. “Movie-star handsome,” she whispers as she hands Marie-Laure a loaf. “I bet they’ll all look like him.”
Marie-Laure smiles. Every morning it’s the same: the Americans ever closer, the Germans fraying at the seams. Every afternoon Marie-Laure reads to Etienne from part 2 of Twenty Thousand Leagues, both of them in new territory now. Ten thousand leagues in three and a half months, writes Professor Aronnax. Where were we going now, and what did the future have in store for us?
Marie-Laure puts the loaf in her knapsack, leaves the bakery, and winds toward the ramparts to Harold Bazin’s grotto. She closes the gate, lifts the hem of her dress, and wades into the shallow pool, praying she does not crush any creatures as she steps.
The tide is rising. She finds barnacles, an anemone as soft as silk; she sets her fingers as lightly as she can on a Nassarius. It stops moving immediately, sucking its head and foot inside its shell. Then it resumes, the twin wands of its horns extending, dragging its whorled shell atop the sled of its body.
What do you seek, little snail? Do you live only in this one moment, or do you worry like Professor Aronnax for your future?
When the snail has crossed the pool and started up the far wall, Marie-Laure picks up her cane and climbs out in her dripping oversized loafers. She steps through the gate and is about to lock it behind her when a male voice says, “Good morning, mademoiselle.”
She stumbles, almost trips. Her cane goes clattering.
“What’s in your sack there?”
He speaks proper French, but she can tell that he is German. His body obstructs the alley. The hem of her dress drips; her shoes squelch out water; to both sides rise sheer walls. She keeps her right fist clenched around a spar of the open gate.
“What is that back there? A hidey-hole?” His voice sounds terribly close, but it’s hard to know for certain in a place so congested with echoes. She can feel Madame Ruelle’s loaf pulsing on her back like something alive. Lodged inside it—almost certainly—is a coiled-up slip of paper. On which numbers will spell out a death sentence. For her great-uncle, for Madame Ruelle. For them all.
She says, “My cane.”
“It has rolled behind you, dear.”
Behind the man unspools the alley and then the hanging curtain of ivy and then the city. A place where she could scream and be heard.
“May I pass, monsieur?”
But he does not seem to move. The gate creaks lightly.
“What do you want, monsieur?” Impossible to keep her voice from trembling. If he asks again about the knapsack, her heart will burst.
“What do you do in there?”
“We’re not allowed on the beaches.”
“So you come here?”
“To collect snails. I must be getting along, monsieur. May I please retrieve my cane?”
“But you have not collected any snails, mademoiselle.”
“May I pass?”
“First answer a question about your father.”
“Papa?” Something cold inside her grows colder. “Papa will be here any moment.”
Now the man laughs, and his laugh echoes up between the walls. “Any moment, you say? Your papa who’s in a prison five hundred kilometers away?”
Threads of terror spill through her chest. I should have listened, Papa. I never should have gone outside.
“Come now, petite cachotière,” says the man, “don’t look so frightened,” and she can hear him reaching for her; she smells rot on his breath, hears oblivion in his voice, and something—a fingertip?—grazes her wrist as she jerks away and clangs the gate shut in his face.
He slips; it takes longer than she expects for him to get to his feet. Marie-Laure turns the key in the lock and pockets it and finds her cane as she retreats into the low space of the kennel. The man’s desolate voice pursues her, even as his body remains on the other side of the locked gate.
“Mademoiselle, you made me drop my newspaper. I am just a lowly sergeant major here to ask a question. One simple question and then I will leave.”
The tide murmurs; the snails teem. Is the ironwork too narrow for him to squeeze through? Are its hinges strong enough? She prays that they are. The bulk of the rampart holds her in its breadth. Every ten seconds or so, a new sheet of cold seawater comes flowing in. Marie-Laure can hear the man pacing out there, one-pause-two one-pause-two, a lurching hobble. She tries to imagine the watchdogs that Harold Bazin said lived here for centuries: dogs as big as horses. Dogs that ripped the calves off men. She crouches over her knees. She is the Whelk. Armored. Impervious. Agoraphobia
Thirty minutes. It should take Marie-Laure twenty-one; Etienne has counted many times. Once twenty-three. Often shorter. Never longer.
It is a four-minute walk to the bakery. Four there and four back, and somewhere along the way, those other thirteen or fourteen minutes disappear. He knows she usually goes to the sea—she comes back smelling of seaweed, shoes wet, sleeves decorated with algae or sea fennel or the weed Madame Manec called pioka. He does not know where she goes exactly, but he has always assured himself that she keeps herself safe. That her curiosity sustains her. That she is more capable in a thousand ways than he is.
Thirty-two minutes. Out his fifth-floor windows, he can see no one. She could be lost, scraping her fingers along walls at the edge of town, drifting farther away every second. She could have stepped in front of a truck, drowned in a puddle, been seized by a mercenary with foulness on his mind. Someone could have found out about the bread, the numbers, the transmitter.
Bakery in flames.
He hurries downstairs and peers out the kitchen door into the alley. Cat sleeping. Trapezoid of sunlight on the east-facing wall. This is all his fault.
Now Etienne hyperventilates. At thirty-four minutes by his wristwatch, he puts on his shoes and a hat that belonged to his father. Stands in the foyer summoning all his resolve. When he last went out, almost twenty-four years ago, he tried to make eye contact, to present what might be considered a normal appearance. But the attacks were sly, unpredictable, devastating; they sneaked up on him like bandits. First a terrible ominousness would fill the air. Then any light, even through closed eyelids, became excruciatingly bright. He could not walk for the thundering of his own feet. Little eyeballs blinked at him from the cobblestones. Corpses stirred in the shadows. When Madame Manec would help him home, he’d crawl into the darkest corner of his bed and belt pillows around his ears. All his energy would go into ignoring the pounding of his own pulse.
His heart beats icily in a faraway cage. Headache coming, he thinks. Terrible terrible terrible headache.
Twenty heartbeats. Thirty-five minutes. He twists the latch, opens the gate. Steps outside. Nothing
Marie-Laure tries to remember everything she knows about the lock and latch on the gate, everything she has felt with her fingers, everything her father would have told her. Iron rod threaded through three rusted loops, old mortise lock with a rusty cam. Would a gunshot break it? The man calls out now and then as he runs the edge of his newspaper over the bars of the gate. “Arrived in June, not arrested until January. What was he doing all that time? Why was he measuring buildings?”
She crouches against the wall of the grotto, knapsack in her lap. The water surges to her knees: cold, even in July. Can he see her? Carefully Marie-Laure opens her knapsack, breaks open the loaf hidden inside, and fishes with her fingers for the coil of paper. There. She counts to three and slips the piece of paper into her mouth.
“Just tell me,” the German calls, “if your father left anything with you or spoke about carrying something for the museum where he used to work. Then I will walk away. I won’t tell anyone about this place. God’s truth.”
The paper disintegrates into mush between her teeth. At her feet, the snails go about their work: chewing, scavenging, sleeping. Their mouths, Etienne has taught her, contain something like thirty teeth per row, eighty rows of teeth, two and a half thousand teeth per snail, grazing, scratching, rasping. High above the ramparts, gulls course through an open sky. God’s truth? How long do these intolerable moments last for God? A trillionth of a second? The very life of any creature is a quick-fading spark in fathomless darkness. That’s God’s truth.
“They have me doing all this busywork,” says the German. “A Jean Jouvenet in Saint-Brieuc, six Monets in the area, a Fabergé egg in a manor house near Rennes. I get so tired. Don’t you know how long I’ve searched?”
Why couldn’t Papa have stayed? Wasn’t she the most important thing? She swallows the pulped shreds of the paper. Then she rocks forward on her heels. “He left me nothing.” She is surprised to hear how angry she is. “Nothing! Just a dumb model of this town and a broken promise. Just Madame, who is dead. Just my great-uncle, who is frightened of an ant.”
Outside the gate, the German falls quiet. Considering her reply, perhaps. Something in her exasperation convincing him.
“Now,” she calls, “you keep your word and go away.” Forty Minutes
Fog gives way to sunshine. It assaults the cobblestones, the houses, the windows. Etienne makes it to the bakery in an icy sweat and cuts to the front of the queue. Madame Ruelle’s face looms, moon-white.
Vermilion spots open and close in his vision.
“She is not—?”
Before he can shake his head, Madame Ruelle is lifting the hinged counter and ushering him out; she has him under the arm. The women in the queue are muttering, intrigued or scandalized or both. Madame Ruelle helps him onto the rue Robert Surcouf. The face of Etienne’s watch appears to distend. Forty-one minutes? He can hardly do the math. Her hands grip his shoulder.
“Where could she have gone?”
Tongue so dry, thoughts so sluggish. “Sometimes . . . she visits . . . the sea. Before coming home.”
“But the beaches are closed. The ramparts too.” She looks off over his head. “It must be something else.”
They huddle in the middle of the street. Somewhere a hammer rings. War, Etienne thinks distantly, is a bazaar where lives are traded like any other commodity: chocolate or bullets or parachute silk. Has he traded all those numbers for Marie-Laure’s life?
“No,” he whispers, “she goes to the sea.”
“If they find the bread,” Madame Ruelle whispers, “we will all die.”
He glances again at his watch, but it’s a sun burning his retinas. A single side of salted bacon twists in the butcher’s otherwise empty window, and three schoolboys stand on a bench watching him, waiting for him to fall, and just as he is certain the morning is about to shatter, Etienne sees in his memory the rusted gate leading to the crumbling kennel beneath the ramparts. A place where he used to play with his brother, Henri, and Harold Bazin. A small dripping cavern where a boy could shout and dream.
Stick-thin, alabaster-pale Etienne LeBlanc runs down the rue de Dinan with Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife, on his heels: the least-robust rescue ever assembled. The cathedral bells chime one two three four, all the way to eight; Etienne turns down the rue du Boyer and reaches the slightly angled base of the ramparts, traveling the paths of his youth, navigating by instinct; he turns right, passes through the curtain of swinging ivy, and ahead, behind the same locked gate, in the grotto, shivering, wet to her thighs, wholly intact, crouches Marie-Laure with the ruins of a loaf of bread in her lap. “You came,” she says when she lets them in, when he takes her face in his hands. “You came . . .” The Girl
Werner thinks of her, whether he wishes to or not. Girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist. That air of otherworldliness in the snarls of her hair and the fearlessness of her step. She takes up residence inside him, a living doppelg?nger to face down the dead Viennese girl who haunts him every night.
Who is she? Daughter of the broadcasting Frenchman? Granddaughter? Why would he endanger her so?
Volkheimer keeps them out in the field, roving villages along the Rance River. It seems certain that the broadcasts will be blamed for something, and Werner will be found out. He thinks of the colonel with his perfect jawline and flared pants; he thinks of the sallow sergeant major eyeing him over the top of the newspaper. Do they already know? Does Volkheimer? What can save him now? There were nights when he’d stare with Jutta out the attic window of Children’s House and pray for the ice to grow out from the canals, to reach across the fields and envelop the tiny pit houses, crush the machinery, pave over everything, so they’d wake in the morning to find everything they knew was gone. This is the sort of miracle he needs now.
On the first of August, a lieutenant comes to Volkheimer. The demand for men on the lines, he says, is overwhelming. Anyone not essential to the defense of Saint-Malo must go. He needs at least two. Volkheimer looks them over, each in turn. Bernd too old. Werner the only one who can repair the equipment.
Neumann One. Neumann Two.
An hour later, both are seated in the back of a troop carrier with their rifles between their knees. A great change has occurred in the countenance of Neumann Two, as though he looks not at his former companions but into his last hours on earth. As though he is about to ride in some black chariot at a forty-five-degree angle down into the abyss.
Neumann One raises a single steady hand. His mouth is expressionless, but in the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, Werner can see despair.
“In the end,” murmurs Volkheimer as the truck heaves away, “none of us will avoid it.”
That night Volkheimer drives the Opel east along a coastal road toward Cancale, and Bernd takes the first transceiver out to a knoll in a field, and Werner operates the second from the back of the truck, and Volkheimer stays folded into the driver’s seat, his huge knees jammed against the wheel. Fires—perhaps on ships—burn far out to sea, and the stars shudder in their constellations. At two twelve A.M., Werner knows, the Frenchman will broadcast again, and Werner will have to switch off the transceiver or else pretend that he hears only static.
He will cover the signal meter with his palm. He will keep his face completely motionless. Little House
Etienne says he never should have let her take on so much. Never should have put her in such danger. He says she can no longer go outside. In truth, Marie-Laure is relieved. The German haunts her: in nightmares, he’s a spider crab three meters high; he clacks his claws and whispers One simple question into her ear.
“What about the loaves, Uncle?”
“I will go. I should have been going all along.”
On the mornings of the fourth and fifth of August, Etienne stands at the front door mumbling to himself, then pushes open the gate and goes out. Soon afterward, the bell under the third-floor table rings and he comes back in and throws both dead bolts and stands in the foyer breathing as though he has passed through a gauntlet of a thousand dangers.
Aside from the bread, they have almost nothing to eat. Dried peas. Barley. Powdered milk. A last few tins of Madame Manec’s vegetables. Marie-Laure’s thoughts gallop like bloodhounds over the same questions. First those policemen two years ago: Mademoiselle, was there no specific thing he mentioned? Then this limping sergeant major with a dead voice. Just tell me if your father left anything with you or spoke about carrying something for the museum.
Papa leaves. Madame Manec leaves. She remembers the voices of their neighbors in Paris when she lost her eyesight: Like they’re cursed.
She tries to forget the fear, the hunger, the questions. She must live like the snails, moment to moment, centimeter to centimeter. But on the afternoon of the sixth of August, she reads the following lines to Etienne on the davenport in his study: Was it true that Captain Nemo never left the Nautilus? Often I had not seen him for weeks on end. What was he doing during that time? Wasn’t it possible that he was carrying out some secret mission completely unknown to me?
She snaps shut the book. Etienne says, “Don’t you want to find out if they’re going to escape this time?” But Marie-Laure is reciting in her head the strange third letter from her father, the last one she received.
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.
Mademoiselle, was there no specific thing he mentioned?
May we look at whatever he brought here with him?
He had many keys at the museum.
It’s not the transmitter. Etienne is wrong. It was not the radio the German was interested in. It was something else, something he thought only she might know about. And he heard what he wanted to hear. She answered his one question after all.
Just a dumb model of this town.
Which is why he walked away.
Look inside Etienne’s house.
“What’s wrong?” asks Etienne.
Inside the house.
“I need to rest,” she announces, and scrambles up the stairs two at a time, shuts her bedroom door, and thrusts her fingers into the miniature city. Eight hundred and sixty-five buildings. Here, near a corner, waits the tall narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel. Her fingers crawl down the facade, find the recess in the front door. She presses inward, and the house slides up and out. When she shakes it, she hears nothing. But the houses never made any noise when she shook them, did they?
Even with her fingers trembling, it doesn’t take Marie-Laure long to solve it. Twist the chimney ninety degrees, slide off the roof panels one two three.
A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe.
So, asked the children, how do you know it’s really there?
You have to believe the story.
She turns the little house over. A pear-shaped stone drops into her palm. Numbers
Allied bombs demolish the rail station. The Germans disable the harbor installations. Airplanes slip in and out of clouds. Etienne hears that wounded Germans are pouring into Saint-Servan, that Americans have captured Mont Saint-Michel, only twenty-five miles away, that liberation is a matter of days. He makes it to the bakery just as Madame Ruelle unlocks the door. She ushers him inside. “They want locations of flak batteries. Coordinates. Can you manage it?”
Etienne groans. “I have Marie-Laure. Why not you, Madame?”
“I don’t understand maps, Etienne. Minutes, seconds, declination adjustments? You know these things. All you have to do is find them, plot them, and broadcast the coordinates.”
“I’ll have to walk around with a compass and a notepad. There’s no other way to do it. They’ll shoot me.”
“It’s vital that they receive precise locations for the guns. Think how many lives it might save. And you’ll have to do it tonight. There’s talk that tomorrow they will intern all the men in the city between eighteen and sixty. That they’re going to check everyone’s papers, and every man of fighting age, anyone who could be taking part in the resistance, will be imprisoned at Fort National.”
The bakery reels; he is being caught in spiderwebs; they twist around his wrists and thighs, crackle like burning paper when he moves. Every second he becomes more entangled. The bell tied to the bakery door jingles, and someone enters. Madame Ruelle’s face seals over like the visor of a knight clanging down.
“Good,” she says, and tucks the loaf under his arm. Sea of ?Flames
It is surfaced by hundreds of facets. Over and over she picks it up only to set it immediately down, as though it burns her fingers. Her father’s arrest, the disappearance of Harold Bazin, the death of Madame Manec—could this one rock be the cause of so much sorrow? She hears the wheezy, wine-scented voice of old Dr. Geffard: Queens might have danced all night wearing it. Wars might have been fought over it.
The keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain.
Things are just things. Stories are just stories.
Surely this pebble is what the German seeks. She ought to fling open the shutters and cast it down onto the street. Give it to someone else, anyone else. Slip out of the house and hurl it into the sea.
Etienne climbs the ladder to the attic. She can hear him cross the floorboards above her and turn on the transmitter. She puts the stone in her pocket and picks up the model house and crosses the hall. But before she makes it to the wardrobe, she stops. Her father must have believed it was real. Why else construct the elaborate puzzle box? Why else leave it behind in Saint-Malo, if not in fear that it could be confiscated during his journey back? Why else leave her behind?
It must at least look like a blue diamond worth twenty million francs. Real enough to convince Papa. And if it looks real, what will her uncle do when she shows it to him? If she tells him that they ought to throw it into the ocean?
She can hear the boy’s voice in the museum: When is the last time you saw someone throw five Eiffel Towers into the sea?
Who would willingly part with it? And the curse? If the curse is real? And she gives it to him?
But curses are not real. Earth is all magma and continental crust and ocean. Gravity and time. Isn’t it? She closes her fist, walks into her room, and replaces the stone inside the model house. Slides the three roof panels back into place. Twists the chimney ninety degrees. Slips the house inside her pocket.
Well after midnight, a magnificent high tide arrives, the largest waves smashing against the bases of the ramparts, the sea green and aerated and networked with seething rafts of moonlit foam. Marie-Laure comes out of dreams to hear Etienne tapping on her bedroom door.
“I’m going out.”
“What time is it?”
“Almost dawn. I’ll only be an hour.”
“Why do you have to go?”
“It’s better if you don’t know.”
“What about curfew?”
“I’ll be quick.” Her great-uncle. Who has not been quick in the four years she has known him.
“What if the bombing starts?”
“It’s almost dawn, Marie. I should go while it’s still dark.”
“Will they hit any houses, Uncle? When they come?”
“They won’t hit any houses.”
“Will it be over quickly?”
“Quick as a swallow. You rest, Marie-Laure, and when you wake, I’ll be back. You’ll see.”
“I could read to you a bit? Now that I’m awake? We’re so close to the end.”
“When I’m back, we’ll read. We’ll finish it together.”
She tries to rest her mind, slow her breathing. Tries not to think about the little house now under her pillow and the terrible burden inside.
“Etienne,” Marie-Laure whispers, “are you ever sorry that we came here? That I got dropped in your lap and you and Madame Manec had to look after me? Did you ever feel like I brought a curse into your life?”
“Marie-Laure,” he says without hesitation. He squeezes her hand with both of his. “You are the best thing that has ever come into my life.”
Something seems to be banking up in the silence, a tide, a breaker rearing. But Etienne only says a second time, “You rest, and when you wake, I’ll be back,” and she counts his steps down the stairs. The Arrest of ?Etienne LeBlanc
Etienne feels strangely good as he steps outside; he feels strong. He is glad Madame Ruelle has assigned him this final task. He has already transmitted the location of one air-defense battery: a cannon on a shelf of rampart beside the Hotel of Bees. He needs only to take the bearings of two more. Find two known points—he’ll choose the cathedral spire and the outer island of Le Petit Bé—then calculate the location of the third and unknown point. Simple triangle. Something other than ghosts on which his mind can fix.
He turns onto the rue d’Estrées, skirts behind the college, makes for the alley behind the Hôtel-Dieu. His legs feel young, his feet light. No one is about. Somewhere the sun eases up behind the fog. The city in the predawn is warm and fragrant and sleepy, and the houses on either side seem almost immaterial. For a moment he has a vision that he’s walking the aisle of a vast train carriage, all the other passengers asleep, the train gliding through darkness toward a city teeming with light: glowing archways, gleaming towers, fireworks rising.
As he approaches the dark bulwark of the ramparts, a man in uniform limps toward him out of the blackness. 7 August 1944
Marie-Laure wakes to the concussions of big guns firing. She crosses the landing and opens the wardrobe and, with the tip of her cane, reaches through the hanging shirts and raps three times on the false back wall. Nothing. Then she descends to the fifth floor and knocks on Etienne’s door. His bed is empty and cool.
He is not on the second floor, nor in the kitchen. The penny nail beside the door where Madame Manec used to hang the key ring is empty. His shoes are gone.
I’ll only be an hour.
She reins in her panic. Important not to assume the worst. In the foyer, she checks the trip wire: intact. Then she tears an end off yesterday’s loaf from Madame Ruelle and stands in the kitchen chewing. The water—miraculously—has been turned back on, so she fills the two galvanized buckets and carries them upstairs and sets them in the corner of her bedroom and thinks a moment and walks to the third floor and fills the bathtub to the rim.
Then she opens her novel. Captain Nemo has planted his flag on the South Pole, but if he doesn’t move the submarine north soon, they will become trapped in ice. The spring equinox has just passed; they face six months of unrelenting night.
Marie-Laure counts the chapters that remain. Nine. She is tempted to read on, but they are voyaging on the Nautilus together, she and Etienne, and as soon as he returns, they will resume. Any moment now.
She rechecks the little house under her pillow and fights the temptation to take out the stone and instead reinstalls the house inside the model city at the foot of her bed. Out the window, a truck roars to life. Gulls pass, braying like donkeys, and in the distance the guns thud again, and the rattling of the truck fades, and Marie-Laure tries to concentrate on rereading a chapter earlier in the novel: make the raised dots form letters, the letters words, the words a world.
In the afternoon, the trip wire quivers, and the bell hidden beneath the third-floor table gives a single ring. In the attic high above her, a muted ring matches it. Marie-Laure lifts her fingers from the page, thinking, At last, but when she winds down the stairs and sets her hand on the dead bolt and calls, “Who is there?” she hears not the quiet voice of Etienne but the oily one of the perfumer Claude Levitte.
“Let me in, please.”
Even through the door she can smell him, peppermint, musk, aldehyde. Beneath that: Sweat. Fear.
She undoes both dead bolts and opens the door halfway.
He speaks through the half-open gate. “You need to come with me.”
“I am waiting for my great-uncle.”
“I have talked to your great-uncle.”
“You talked to him? Where?”
Marie-Laure can hear Monsieur Levitte cracking his knuckles one after the next. His lungs toiling inside his chest. “If you could see, mademoiselle, you’d have seen the evacuation orders. They’ve locked the city gates.”
She does not reply.
“They’re detaining every man between sixteen and sixty. They’ve been told to assemble at the tower of the château. Then they will be marched to Fort National at low tide. God be with them.”
Out on the rue Vauborel, everything sounds calm. Swallows swoop past the houses, and two doves bicker on a high gutter. A bicyclist goes rattling past. Then quiet. Have they really locked the city gates? Has this man really spoken to Etienne?
“Will you go with them, Monsieur Levitte?”
“I plan not to. You must get to a shelter immediately.” Monsieur Levitte sniffs. “Or to the crypts below Notre-Dame at Rocabey. Which is where I sent Madame. It’s what your uncle asked me to do. Leave absolutely everything behind, and come with me now.”
“Your uncle knows why. Everybody knows why. It’s not safe here. Come along.”
“But you said the gates to the city are locked.”
“Yes, I did, girl, and that’s enough questions for now.” He sighs. “You are not safe, and I am here to help.”
“Uncle says our cellar is safe. He says if it has lasted for five hundred years, it will last a few more nights.”
The perfumer clears his throat. She imagines him extending his thick neck to look into the house, the coat on the rack, the crumbs of bread on the kitchen table. Everyone checking to see what everyone else has. Her uncle could not have asked the perfumer to escort her to a shelter—when is the last time Etienne has spoken to Claude Levitte? Again she thinks of the model upstairs, the stone inside. She hears Dr. Geffard’s voice: That something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much.
“Houses are burning at Paramé, mademoiselle. They’re scuttling ships at the port, they’re shelling the cathedral, and there’s no water at the hospital. The doctors are washing their hands in wine. Wine!” The edges of Monsieur Levitte’s voice flutter. She remembers Madame Manec saying once that every time a theft was reported in town, Monsieur Levitte would go to bed with his billfold stuffed between his buttocks.
Marie-Laure says, “I will stay.”
“Christ, girl, must I force you?”
She remembers the German pacing outside Harold Bazin’s gate, the edge of his newspaper rattling the bars, and closes the door a fraction. Someone has put the perfumer up to this. “Surely,” she says, “my great-uncle and I are not the only people sleeping beneath our own roof tonight.”
She tries her best to look impassive. Monsieur Levitte’s smell is overpowering.
“Mademoiselle.” Pleading now. “Be reasonable. Come with me and leave everything behind.”
“You may talk to my great-uncle when he returns.” And she bolts the door.
She can hear him standing out there. Working out some cost-benefit analysis. Then he turns and recedes down the street, dragging his fear like a cart behind him. Marie-Laure bends beside the hall table and finds the thread and resets the trip wire. What could he have seen? A coat, half of a loaf of bread? Etienne will be pleased. Out past the kitchen window, swifts swoop for insects, and the filaments of a spiderweb catch the light and shine for an instant and are gone.
And yet: what if the perfumer was telling the truth?
The daylight dulls to gold. A few crickets down in the cellar begin their song: a rhythmic kree-kree, evening in August, and Marie-Laure hikes her tattered stockings and goes into the kitchen and tears another hunk from Madame Ruelle’s loaf. Leaflets
Before dark, the Austrians serve pork kidneys with whole tomatoes on hotel china, a single silver bee etched on the rim of every plate. Everyone sits on sandbags or ammunition boxes, and Bernd falls asleep over his bowl, and Volkheimer talks in the corner with the lieutenant about the radio in the cellar, and around the perimeter of the room the Austrians chew steadily beneath their steel helmets. Brisk, experienced men. Men who do not doubt their purpose.
When Werner is done with his food, he lets himself into the topfloor suite and stands in the hexagonal bathtub. He nudges the shutter, and it opens a few centimeters. The evening air is a benediction. Below the window, on one of the bastioned traces on the seaward side of the hotel, waits the big 88. Beyond the gun, beyond the embrasures, ramparts plunge forty feet to the green and white plumes of surf. To his left waits the city, gray and dense. Far in the east, a red glow rises from some battle just out of sight. The Americans have them pinned against the sea.
It seems to Werner that in the space between whatever has happened already and whatever is to come hovers an invisible borderland, the known on one side and the unknown on the other. He thinks of the girl who may or may not be in the city behind him. He envisions her running her cane along the runnels. Facing the world with her barren eyes, her wild hair, her bright face.
At least he protected the secrets of her house. At least he kept her safe.
New orders, signed by the garrison commander himself, have been posted on doors and market stalls and lampposts. No person must attempt to leave the old city. No one must walk in the streets without special authority.
Just before Werner closes the shutter, a single airplane comes through the dusk. From its belly issues a flock of white growing slowly larger.
The flock is sundering, scattering: it is paper. Thousands of sheets. They gust down the slope of the roof, skitter across the parapets, stick flat in tidal eddies down on the beach.
Werner descends to the lobby, where an Austrian holds one to the light. “It’s in French,” he says.
Werner takes it. The ink so fresh it smudges beneath his fingers. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, it says. Depart immediately to open country.
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