1  In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of the Brittany, France, was almost totally destroyed by fire --- Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.  

…Philip Beck

2  It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.

…Joseph Goebbels



ZERO ……7 AUGUST 1944






1  At dusk they pour from the sky.

2  They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses.

3  Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles.

4  Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say.

5  Depart immediately to open country.


1  The tide climbs.

2  The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous.

3  On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.






1  They cross the Channel at midnight.

2  There are twelve and they are named of songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama.

3  The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps.

4  Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of island ranged along the horizon, 

5  France.


1  Intercoms crackle.

2  Deliberately, almost lazily, the bomber shed altitude.

3  Threads of red light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast.

4  Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns.

5  On an outermost island, panicked sheep run zigzagging between rocks.


1  Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty.

2  Four five six seven.

3  To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.






1 In a corner of the city, inside a tall, narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel, on the sixth and highest floor, a sightless sixteen-year-old named Marie-Laure LeBlanc kneels over a low table covered entirely with the model.

2 The model is a miniature of the city she kneels within, and contains scale replicas of the hundreds of houses and shops and hotels within its walls.

3 There’s the cathedral with its perforated spire, and the bulky old Château de Saint-Malo, and row after row of seaside mansions studded with chimneys.

4 A slender wooden jetty arcs out from a beach called the Plage du Mole; a delicate, reticulated atrium vaults over the seafood market; minute benches, the smallest no larger than apple seeds, dot the tiny public squares. 


1  Marie-Laure runs her fingertips along the centimeter-wide parapet crowning the ramparts, drawing an uneven star shape around the entire model.

2  She finds the opening atop the walls where four ceremonial cannons point to see.



1  “Bastion de la Hollande,” she whispers, and her fingers walk down a little staircase.

2  “Rue des Cordiers. Rue Jacques Cartier.” 


1  In a corner of the room stand two galvanized buckets filled to the rim with water.

2  Fill them up, her great-uncle has taught her, whenever you can.

3  The bathtub on the third floor too.

4  Who knows when the water will go out again.


1  Her fingers travel back to the cathedral spire.

2  South to the Gate of Dinan.

3  All evening she has been marching her fingers around the model, waiting for her great-uncle Etienne, who owns this house, who went out the previous night while she slept, and who has not returned.

4  And now it is night again, another revolution of the clock, and the whole block is quiet, and she cannot sleep.


1  She can hear the bombers when they are three miles away.

2  A mounting static.

3  The hum inside a seashell.


1  When she opens the bedroom window, the noise of the airplanes becomes louder.

2  Otherwise, the night is dreadfully silent: no engines, no voices, no clatter.

3  No sirens.

4  No footfalls on the cobbles.

5  Not even gulls.

6  Just a high tide, one block away and six stories below, lapping at the base of the city walls.


1  And something else.

2  Something rattling softly, very close.

3  She eases open the left-hand shutter and runs her fingers up the slats of the right.



1  A sheet of paper has lodged there.

2  She holds it to her nose.

3  It smells of fresh ink.

4  Gasoline maybe.

5  The paper is crisp; it has not been outside long.


1  Marie-Laure hesitates at the window in her stocking feet, her bedroom behind her, seashells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the baseboards.

2  Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits facedown on the bed.

4  The drone of the airplanes grows.






1  Five streets to the north, a white-haired eighteen-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes to a faint staccato hum.

2  Little more than a purr.

3  Fries tapping at a far-off windowpane.


1  Where is he?

2  The sweet, slightly chemical scent of gun oil; the raw wood of newly constructed shell crates; the mothballed odor of bedspreads ― he’s in the hotel.

3  Of course.

4  L’hotel des Abeilles, the Hotel of Bees.


1  Still night.

2  Still early.

3  From the direction of the sea come whistles and booms; flak is going up.


1  An anti-air corporal hurries down the corridor, heading for the stairwell.

2  “Get to the cellar,” he calls over his shoulder, and Werner switches on his field light, rolls his blanket into his duffle, and starts down the hall.


1  Not so long ago, the Hotel of Bees was a cheerful address, with blight blue shutters on its facade and oysters on ice in its cafe and Breton waiters in bow ties polishing glasses behind its bar.



1  It offered twenty-one guest rooms, commanding sea views, and a lobby fireplace as big as a truck.

2  Parisians on weekend holidays would drink aperitifs here, and before them the occasional emissary from the republic — ministers and vice ministers and abbots and admirals — and in the centuries before them, windburned corsairs: killers, plunderers, raiders, seamen.


1  Before that, before it was ever a hotel at all, five full centuries ago, it was the home of a wealthy privateer who gave up raiding ships to study bees in the pastures outside Saint-Malo, scribbling in notebooks and eating honey straight from combs.

2  The crests above the door lintels still have bumblebees carved into the oak; the ivy-covered fountain in the courtyard is shaped like a hive.

3  Werner’s favorites are five faded frescos on the ceilings of the grandest upper rooms, where bees as big as children float against blue backdrops, big lazy drones and workers with diaphanous wings — where, above a hexagonal bathtub, a single nine-foot-long queen, with multiple eyes and a golden-furred abdomen, curls across the ceiling. 


1  Over the past four weeks, the hotel has become something else: a fortress.

2  A detachment of Austrian anti-airmen has boarded up every window, overturned every bed.

3  They’ve reinforced the entrance, packed the stairwells with crates of artillery shells.



1  The hotel’s fourth floor, where garden rooms with French balconies open directly onto the ramparts, has become home to an aging high-velocity anti-air gun called an 88 that can fire twenty-one-and-a-half-pound shells nine miles.


1  Her majesty, the Austrians call their cannon, and for the past week, these men have tended to it the way worker bees might tend to a queen.

2  They’ve fed her oils, repainted her barrels, lubricated her wheels; they’ve arranged sandbags at her feet like offerings.

3  The royal acht, acht, a deathly monarch meant to protect them all.


1  Werner is in the stairwell, halfway to the ground floor, when the 88 fires twice in quick succession.

2  It’s the first time he’s heard the gun at such close range, and it sound as if the top half of the hotel has torn off.

3  He stumbles and throws his arms over his ears.

4  The walls reverberate all the way down into the foundation, then back up.


1  Werner can hear the Austrians two floors up scrambling, reloading, and the receding screams of both shells as they hurtle above the ocean, already two or three miles away.

2  One of the soldiers, he realizes, is singing.

3  Or maybe it is more than one.

4  Maybe they are all singing.

5  Eight Luftwaffe men, none of whom will survive the hour, singing a love song to their queen.



1  Werner chases the beam of his field light through the lobby.

2  The big gun detonates a third time, and glass shatters somewhere close by, and torrents of soot rattle down the chimney, and the walls of the hotel toll like a struck bell.

3  Werner worries that the sound will knock the teeth from his gums.


1  He drags open the cellar door and pauses a moment, vision swimming.

2  “This is it?” he asks.

3  “They’re really coming?”

4  But who is there to answer?






1  Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh.

2  Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty.

3  Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks.

4  Nuns of every order.

5  The poor.

6  The stubborn.

7  The blind.


1  Some hurry to bomb shelters.

2  Some tell themselves it is merely a drill.

3  Some linger to grab a blanket or a prayer book or a deck of playing cards.


1  D-day was two months ago.

2  Cherbourg has been liberated, Caen liberated, Rennes too.

3  Harf of western France is free.

4  In the east, the Soviets have retaken Minsk; the Polish Home Army is revolting in Warsaw;  a few newspapers have become bold enough to suggest that the tide has turned.


1  But not here.

2  Not this last citadel at the edge of the continent, this final German strongpoint on the Breton coast.



0  Here, people whisper, the Germans have renovated two kilometers of subterranean corridors under the medieval walls; they have built new defenses, new conduits, new escape routes, underground complexes of bewildering intricacy.

1  Beneath the peninsular fort of La Cite, across the river from the old city, there are rooms of bandages, rooms of ammunition, even an underground hospital, or so it is believed.

2  There is air-conditioning, a two-hundred-thousand-liter water tank, a direct line to Berlin.

3  There are flame-throwing booby traps, a net of pillboxes with periscopic sights; they have stockpiled enough ordnance to spray shells into the sea all day, every day, for a year.


1  Here, they whisper, are a thousand Germans ready to die.

2  Or five thousand.

3  Maybe more.


1  Saint-Malo: Water surrounds the city on four sides.

2  Its link to the rest of France is tenuous; a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand.

3  We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo.

4  Bretons next.

5  French if there’s anything left over.


1  In stormy light, its granite grows blue.

2  At the highest tides, the sea creeps into basements at the very center of town.

3  At the lowest tides, the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea.  


1  For three thousand years, this little promontory has known sieges.

2  But never like this.



0  A grandmother lifts a fussy toddler to her chest.

1  A drunk, urinating in an alley outside Saint-Servan, a mile away, plucks a sheet of paper from a hedge.

2  Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, it says.

3  Depart immediately to open country.


1  Anti-air batteries flash on the outer islands, and the big German guns inside the old city send another round of shells howling over the sea, and three hundred and eighty Frenchmen imprisoned on an island fortress called National, a quarter mile off the beach, huddle in a moonlit courtyard peering up.


1  Four years of occupation, and the roar of oncoming bombers is the roar of what? 

2  Deliverance?

3  Extirpation?


1  The clack-clack of small-arms fire.

2  The gravelly snare drums of flak.

3  A dozen pigeons roosting on the cathedral spire cataract down its length and wheel out over the sea.






1  Marie-Laure LeBlanc stands alone in her bedroom smelling a leaflet she cannot read.

2  Sirens wail.

3  She closes the shutters and relatches the window.

4  Every second the airplanes draw closer; every second is a second lost.

5  She should be rushing downstairs.

6  She should be making for the corner of the kitchen where a little trapdoor opens into a cellar full of dust and mouse-chewed rugs and ancient trunks long unopened.


1  Instead she returns to the table at the foot of the bed and kneels beside the model of the city.


1  Again her fingers find the outer ramparts, the Bastion de la Hollande, the little staircase leading down.

2  In this window, right here, in the real city, a woman beats her rugs every Sunday.

3  From this window here, a boy once yelled, Watch where you’re going, are you blind?”  


1  The windowpanes rattle in their housings.

2  The anti-air guns unleash another volley.

3  The earth rotates just a bit farther.



1  Beneath her fingertips, the miniature rue d’Estrees intersects the miniature rue Vauborel.

2  Her fingers turn right; they skim doorways.

3  One two three.

4  Four.

5  How many times has she done this?


1  Number 4: the tall, derelict bird’s nest of a house owned by her great-uncle Etienne.

2  Where she has lived for four years.

3  Where she kneels on the sixth floor alone, as a dozen American bombers roar toward her.


1  She presses inward on the tiny front door, and a hidden catch releases, and the little house lifts up and out of the model.

2  In her hands, it’s about the size of one of her father’s cigarette boxes.


1  Now the bombers are so close that the floor starts to throb under her knees.

2  Out in the hall, the crystal pendents of the chandelier suspended above the stairwell chime.

3  Marie-Laure twists the chimney of the miniature house ninety degrees.

4  Then she slides off three wooden panels that make up its roof, and turns it over.


1  A stone drops into her palm.


1  It’s cold.

2  The size of a pigeon’s egg.

3  The shape of a teardrop.


1  Marie-Laure clutches the tiny house in one hand and the stone in the other.

2  The room feels flimsy, tenuous.

3  Giant fingertips seem about to punch through its walls.


1  “Papa?” she whispers.






1  Beneath the lobby of the Hotel of Bees, a corsair’s cellar has been hacked out of the bedrock.

2  Behind crates and cabinets and pegboards of tools, the walls are bare granite.

3  Three massive hand-hewn beams, hauled here from some ancient Breton forest and craned into place centuries ago by teams of horses, hold up the ceilings.


1  A single lightbulb casts everything in a wavering shadow.


1  Werner Pfennig sits on a folding chair in front of a workbench, checks his battery level, and puts on headphones.

2  The radio is a steelcased two-way transceiver with 1.6-meter band antenna.

3  It enables him to communicate with a matching transceiver upstairs, with two other anti-air batteries inside the walls of the city, and with the underground garrison command across the river mouth.


1  The transceiver hums as it warms.

2  A spotter reads coordinates into the headpiece, and an artilleryman repeats them back.

3  Werner rubs his eyes.



1  Behind him, confiscated treasures are crammed to the ceiling: rolled tapestries, grandfather clocks, armoires, and giant landscape paintings crazed with cracks.

2  On a shelf opposite Werner sit eight or nine plaster heads, the purpose of which he cannot guess.


1  The massive staff sergeant Frank Volkheimer comes down the narrow wooden stairs and ducks his head beneath the beams.

2  He smiles gently at Werner and sits in a tall-backed armchair upholstered in golden silk with his rifle across his huge thighs, where it looks like little more than a baton.


1  Werner says, “It’s starting?”


1  Volkheimer nods.

2  He switches off his field light and blinks his strangely delicate eyelashes in the dimness.


1  “How long will it last?”

1  “Not long. We’ll be safe down here.”


1  The engineer, Bernd, comes last.

2  He is a little man with mousy hair and misaligned pupils.

3  He closes the cellar door behind him and bars it and sits halfway down the wooden staircase with a damp look on his face, fear or grit, it’s hard to say.


1  With the door shut, the sound of the sirens softens.

2  Above them, the ceiling bulb flickers.


1  Water, thinks Werner. 

2  I forgot water.


1  A second anti-air battery fires from a distant corner of the city, and then the 88 upstairs goes again, stentorian, deadly, and Werner listens to the shell scream into the sky.




1  Cascades of dust hiss out of the ceiling.

2  Through his headphones, Werner can hear the Austrians upstairs still singing, 


1  ...auf d’Wulda, auf d’Wulda, da scheint d’Sunn a so gulda...


1  Volkheimer picks sleepily at a stain on his trousers. 

2  Bernd blows into his cupped hands.

3  The transceiver crackles with wind speeds, air pressure, trajectories.

4  Werner thinks of home: Frau Elena bent over his little shoes, double-knotting each lace.

5  Stars wheeling past a dormer window.

6  His little sister, Jutta, with a quilt around her shoulders and a radio earpiece trailing from her left ear.


1  Four stories up, the Austrians clap another shell into the smoking breech of the 88 and double-check the traverse and cramp their ears as the gun discharges, but down here Werner hears only the radio voices of his childhood.

2  The Goddess of History looked down to earth.

3  Only through the hottest fires can purification be achieved.

4  He sees a forest of dying sunflowers.

5  He sees a flock of blackbirds explode out of a tree.






1  Seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty.

2  Now the sea races beneath the aiming windows.

3  Now rooftops.

4  Two smaller aircraft line the corridor with smoke, and the lead bomber salvoes its payload, and eleven others follow suit.

5  The bombs fall diagonally; the bombers rise and scramble.


1  The underside of the sky goes black with flecks.

2  Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, locked with several hundred others inside the gates of Fort National, a quarter mile offshore, squints up and thinks, Locusts, and an Old Testament proverb comes back to him from some cobwebbed hour of parish school:  The locusts have no king, yet all of them go out in ranks.


1  A demonic horde.

2  Upended sacks of beans.

3  A hundred broken rosaries.

4  There are a thousand metaphors and all of them are inadequate: forty bombs per aircraft, four hundred and eighty altogether, seventy-two thousand pounds of explosives.



1  An avalanche descends onto the city.

2  A hurricane.

3  Teacups drift off shelves.

4  Paintings slip off nails.

5  In another quarter second, the sirens are inaudible.

6  Everything is inaudible. 

7  The roar becomes loud enough to separate membranes in the middle ear.


1  The anti-air guns let fly their final shells.

2  Twelve bombers fold back unharmed into the blue night.


1  On the sixth floor of Number 4 rue Vauborel, Marie-Laure crawls beneath her bed and clamps the stone and little model house to her chest.


1  In the cellar beneath the Hotel of Bees, the single bulb in the ceiling winks out.



↑↑↑ ZERO … 7 AUGUST 1944 ↑↑↑






↓↓↓ ONE …1934 ↓↓↓ 






1  Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a tall and freckled six-year-old in Paris with rapidly deteriorating eyesight when her father sends her on a children’s tour of the museum where he works.

2  The guide is a hunchbacked old warder hardly taller than a child himself.

3  He raps the tip of his cane against the floor for attention, then leads his dozen charges across the gardens to the galleries.


1  The children watch engineers use pulleys to lift a fossilized dinosaur femur.

2  They see a stuffed giraffe in a closet, patches of hide wearing off its back.

3  They peer into the taxidermists’ drawers full of feathers and talonds and glass eyeballs; they flip through two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets, bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs.


1  Eventually they climb sixteen steps into the Gallery of Mineralogy.

2  The guide shows them agate from Brazil and violet amethysts and a meteorite on a pedestal that he claims is as ancient as the solar system itself.



1  Then he leads them single file down two twisting staircases and along several corridors and stops outside an iron door with a single keyhole.

2  “End of tour,” he says.

3  A girl says, “But what’s through there?”

4  “Behind this door is another locked door, slightly smaller.”

5  “And what’s behind that?”

6  “A third locked door, smaller yet.”

7  “What’s behind that?”

8  “A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe.”


1  The children lean forward.

2  “And then?”


1  “Behind the thirteenth door” ― the guide flourishes one of his impossibly wrinkled hands ― “is the Sea of Flames.”

2  Puzzlement.

3  Fidgeting.

4  “Come now.

5  You’ve never heard of the Sea of Flames?”


1  The children shake their heads.

2  Marie-Laure squints up at the naked bulbs strung in three-yard intervals along the ceiling; each sets a rainbow-colored halo rotating in her vision.


1  The guide hangs his cane on his wrist and rubs his hands together.

2  “It’s a long story.

3  Do you want to hear a long story?”


1  They nod.


1  He clears his throat.

2  “Centuries ago, in the place we now call Borneo, a prince plucked a blue stone from a dry riverbed because he thought it was pretty.




1  But on the way back to his palace, the prince was attached by men on the horseback and stabbed in the heart.

2  “Stabbed in the heart?”

3  “Is this true?” 

4  A boy says, “Hush.”


1  “The thieves stole his rings, his horse, everything.

2  But because the little blue stone was clenched in his fist, they did not discover it.

3  And the dying prince managed to crawl home.

4  Then he fell unconscious for ten days.

5  On the tenth day, to the amazement of his nurses, he sat up, opened his hand, and there was the stone.


1 The sultan’s doctors said it was miracle, that the prince never should have survived such a violent wound.

2  The nurses said the stone must have healing powers.

3  The sultan’s jewelers said something else: they said the stone was the largest raw diamond anyone had ever seen.

4  Their most gifted stonecutter spent eighty days faceting it, and when he was done, it was a brilliant blue, the blue of tropical seas, but it had a touch of red at its center, like flames inside a drop of the water.

5  The sultan had the diamond fitted into a crown for the prince, and it was said that when the young prince sat on his throne and the sun hit him just so, he became so dazzling that visitors could not distinguish his figure from light itself.


1  “Are you sure this is true?” asks a girl.




1  “Hush,” says the boy.


1  “The stone came to be known as the Sea of Flames.

2  Some believed the prince was a deity, that as long as he kept the stone, he could not be killed.

3  But something strange began to happen: the longer the prince wore his crown, the worse his luck became.

4  In a month, he lost a brother to drowning and a second brother to snakebite. 

5  Within six months, his father died of disease.

6  To make matters even worse, the sultan’s scouts announced that a great army was gathering to the east.


1  “The prince called togather his father’s advisers.

2  All said he should prepare for a war, all but one, a priest, who said he’d had a dream.

3  In the dream, the Goddess of the Earth told him she’d made the Sea of Flames as a gift for her lover, the God of the Sea, and was sending the jewel to him through the river.

4  But when the river dried up, and the prince plucked it out, the goddess became enraged.

5  She cursed the stone and whoever kept it.”


1  Every child leans forward, Marie-Laure along with them.

2  “The curse was this: 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.


4  “Live forever?”




0  “But if the keeper threw the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient, the goddess would lift the curse.

1  So the prince, now sultan, thought for three days and three nights and finally decided to keep the stone.

2  It had saved his life; he believed it made him indestructible.

3  He had the tongue cut out of the priest’s mouth.”


1  “Ouch,” says the youngest boy.

2  “Big mistake,” says the tallest girl.


1  “The invaders came,“ says the warder, “and destroyed the palace, and killed everyone they found, and the prince was never seen again, and for two hundred years no one heard any more about the Sea of Flames.

2  Some said the stone was recut into many smaller stones; others said the prince still carried the stone, that he was in Japan or Persia, that he was a humble farmer, that never seemed to grow old.


1  “And so the stone fell out of history.

2  Until one day, when a French diamond trader, during a trip to the Golconda Mines in India, was shown a massive pear-cut diamond.

3  One hundred and thirty-three carats.

4  Near-perfect clarity.

5  As big as a pigeon’s egg, he wrote, and as blue as the sea, but with a flare of red at its core.

6  He made a casting of the stone and sent it to a gem-crazy duke in Lorraine, warning him of the rumors of a curse.

7  But the duke wanted the diamond very badly.

8  So the trader brought it to Europe, and the duke fitted it into the end of a walking stick and carried it everywhere.”




1  “Uh-oh.”


1  Within a month, the duchess contracted a throat disease.

2  Two of their favorite servants fell off the roof and broke their necks.

3  Then the duke’s only son died in a riding accident.

4  Though everyone said the duke himself had never looked better, he became afraid to go out, afraid to accept visitors.

5  Eventually he was so convinced that his stone was the accursed Sea of Flames that he asked the king to shut it up in his museum on the conditions that it be locked deep inside a specially built vault and the vault not be opened for two hundred years.


1  “And?”

2  “And one hundred and ninety-six years have passed.”

3  All the children remain quiet a moment.

4  Several do math on their fingers.

5  Then they raise their hands as one.

6  “Can we see it?”

7  “No.”

8  “Not even open the first door?”

9  “No.”

10 “Have you seen it?”

11 “I have not.”

12 “So how do you know it’s really there?”

13 “You have to believe the story.”


1  “How much is it worth, Monsieur?

2   Could it buy the Eiffel Tower?”

3  “A diamond that large and rare could in all likelihood buy five Eiffel Towers.”




1  Gasps.

2  “Are all those doors to keep thieves from getting in?”

3  “Maybe,” the guide says, and winks, “they’re there to keep the curse from getting out.”

4  The children fall quiet.

5  Two or three take a step back.

6  Marie-Laure takes off her eyeglasses, and the world goes shapeless.

7  “Why not,” she asks, “just take the diamond and throw it into the sea?”


1  The warder looks at her.

2  The other children look at her.

3  “When is the last time,” one of the older boys says, “you saw someone throw five Eiffel Towers into the sea?”

4  There is laughter.

5  Marie-Laure frowns.

6  It is just an iron door with a brass keyhole.”


1  The tour ends and the children disperse and Marie-Laure is reinstalled in the Grand Gallery with her father.

2  He straightens her glasses on her nose and plucks a leaf from her hair. 

3  “Did you have fun, ma cherie?”


1  A little brown house sparrow swoops out of the rafters and lands on the tiles in front of her.

2  Marie-Laure holds out an open palm.

3  The sparrow tilts his head, considering.

4  Then it flaps away.


1  One month later she is blind. 







01  Werner Pfennig grows up three hundred miles northeast of Paris in a place called Zollverein: a four- thousand-acre coal-mining complex outside Essen, Germany.

02  It’s steel country, anthracite country, a place full of holes.

03  Smokestacks fume and locomotives trundle back and forth on elevated conduits and leafless trees stand atop slag heaps like skeleton hands shoved up from the underworld.


01  Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are raised at Children’s House, a clinker-brick two-story orphanage on Viktoriastrasse whose rooms are populated with the coughs of sick children and the crying of newborns and battered trunks inside which drowse the last possessions of deceased parents: patchwork dresses, tarnished wedding cutlery, faded ambrotypes of fathers swallowed by the mines.


01  Werner’s earliest years are the leanest.

02  Men brawl over jobs outside the Zollverein gates, and chicken eggs sell for two million reichsmarks apiece, and rheumatic fever stalks Children’s House like a wolf.




01  There is no butter or meet.

02  Fruit is a memory.

03  Some evenings, during the worst months, all the house directress has to feed her dozen wards are cakes made from musterd powder and water.


01  But seven-year-old Werner seems to float.

02  He is undersized and his ears stick out and he speaks with a high, sweet voice; the whiteness of his hair stops people in their tracks.

03 Snowy, milky, chalky.

04  A color that is the absence of color.

05  Every morning he ties his shoes, packs newspaper inside his coat as insolation against the cold, and begins interrogating the world.

06 He captures snowflakes, tadpoles, hibernating frogs; he coaxes bread from bakers with none to sell; he regularly appears in the kitchen with fresh milk for the babies.

07  He makes things too: paper boxes, crude biplanes, toy boats with working rudders.


01  Every couple of days he’ll startle the directress with some unanswerable query: “Why do we get hiccups, Frau Elena?”


01  Or: “If the moon is so big, Frau Elena, how come it looks so little?


01  Or: “Frau Elena, does a bee know it’s going to die if it stings somebody?


01  Frau Elena is a Protestant nun from Alsace who is more fond of children than of supervision.

02  She sings French folk songs in a screechy falsetto, harbors a weakness for sherry, and regularly falls asleep standing up.




01  Some nights she lets the children stay up late while she tells them stories in French about her girlhood cozied up against mountains, snow six feet deep on rooftops, town criers and creeks smoking in the cold and frostdusted vineyards: a Christmas-carol world.


01  “Can deaf people hear their heartbeat, Frau Elena?”

01  “Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle, Frau Elena?”


01  She’ll laugh.

02  She’ll tousle Werner’s hair; she’ll whisper, “They’ll say you’re too little, Werner, that you’re from nowhere, that you shouldn’t dream big.

03  But I believe in you.

04  I think you’ll do something great.”

05  Then she’ll send him up to the little cot he has claimed for himself in the attic, pressed up beneath the window of a dormer.


01  Sometimes he and Jutta draw.

02  His sister sneaks up to Werner’s cot, and together they lie on their stomachs and pass a single pencil back and forth.

03  Jutta, though she is two years younger, is the gifted one.

04  She loves most of all to draw Paris, a city she has seen in exactly one photograph, on the back cover of one of Frau Elena’s romance novels: mansard roofs, hazy apartment blocks, the iron lattice of a distant tower.

05  She draws twisting white skyscrapers, complicated bridges, flocks of figures beside a river.




00  Other days, in the hours after lessons, Werner tows his little sister through the mine complex in a wagon he has assembled from cast-off parts.

01  They rattle down the long gravel lanes, past pit cottages and trash barrel fires, past laid-off miners squatting all day on upturned crates, motionless as statures.

02  One wheel regularly clunks off and Werner crouches patiently beside it, threading back the bolts.

03  All around them, the figures of second-shift workers shuffle into warehouses while the first-shift workers shuffle home, hunched, hungry, blue-nosed, their faces like black skulls beneath their helmets.

04  “Hello,” Werner will chirp, ”good afternoon,” but the miners usually hobble past without replying, perhaps without even seeing him, their eyes on the muck, the economic collapse of Germany looming over them like the severe geometry of the mills.


01  Werner and Jutta sift through glistening piles of black dust; they clamber up mountains of rusting machines.

02  They tear berries out of brambles and dandelions out of fields.

03  Sometimes they manage to find potato peels or carrot greens in trash bins; other afternoons they collect paper to draw on, or old toothpaste tubes from which the last dregs can be squeezed out and dried into chalk. 

04  Once in a while Werner tows Jutta as far as the entrance to Pit Nine, the largest of the mines, wrapped in noise, lit like the pilot at the center of a gas furnace, 



00  a five-story coal elevator crouched over it, cables swinging, hammers banging, men shouting, an entire mapfull of pleated and corrugated industry stretching into the distance on all sides, and they watch the coal cars trundling up from the earth and the miners spilling out of the warehouses with their lunch pails toward the mouth of the elevator like insects toward a lighted trap.


01  “Down there,” Werner whispers to his sister.

02  “That’s where Father died.”


01  And as night falls, Werner pulls little Jutta wordlessly back through the close-set neighborhoods of Zollverein, two snowy-haired children in a bottomland of soot, bearing their paltry treasures to Viktoriastrasse 3, where Frau Elena stares into the coal stove, singing a French lullaby in a tired voice, one toddler yanking her apron strings while another howls in her arms.







01  Congenital cataracts.

02  Bilateral.

03  Irreparable.

04  “Can you see this?” ask the doctors.

05  “Can you see this?”

06  Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life.

07  Spaces she once knew as familiar ― the four-room flat she shares with her father, the little tree-lined square at the end of their street ― have become labyrinths bristling with hazards.

08  Drawers are never where they should be.

09  The toilet is an abyss.

10  A glass of water is too near, too far; her fingers too big, always too big.


01  What is blindness?

02  Where there should be a wall, her hands find nothing.

03  Where there should be nothing, a table leg gouges her shin.

04  Cars growl in the streets; leaves whisper in the sky; blood rustles through her inner ears.

05  In the stairwell, in the kitchen, even beside her bed, grown-up voices speak of despair. 


01  “Poor child.”

02  “Poor Monsieur LeBlanc.”

03  “Hasn’t had an easy road, you know.




00  His father dead in the war, his wife dead in childbirth.

01  And now this?”

02  “Like they’re cursed.”

03  “Look at her.  Look at him.”

04  “Ought to send her away.”


01  Those are months of bruises and wretchedness: rooms pitching like sailboats, half-open doors striking Marie-Laure’s face.

02  Her only sanctuary is in bed, the hem of her quilt at her chin, while her father smokes another cigarette in the chair beside her, whittling away at one of his tiny models, his little hammer going tap tap tap, his little square of sandpaper making a rhythmic, soothing rasp.


01  The despair doesn’t last.

02  Marie-Laure is too young and her father is too patient.

03  There are, he assures her, no such things as curses.

04  There is luck, maybe, bad or good.

05  A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure.

06  But no curses.


01  Six mornings a week he wakes her before dawn, and she holds her arms in the air while he dresses her.

02  Stockings, dress, sweater.

03  If there’s time, he makes her try to knot her shoes herself.

04  Then they drink a cup of coffee together in the kitchen: hot, strong, as much sugar as she wants.


01  At six forty she collects her white cane from the corner, loops a finger through the back of her father’s belt, and follows him down three flights and up six blocks to the museum. 




01  He unlocks Entrance #2 at seven sharp.

02  Inside are the familiar smells: typewriter ribbons, waxed floors, rock dust.

03  There are the familiar echoes of their footfalls crossing the Grand Gallery.

04  He greets a night guard, then a warder, always the same two words repeated back: Bonjour, bonjour.”


01  Two lefts, one right.

02  Her father’s key ring jingles.

03  A lock gives way; a gate swings open.


01  Inside the key pound, inside six glassfronted cabinets, thousands of iron keys hang from pegs.

02  There are blanks and skeletons, barrel-stem keys and saturn-bow keys, elevator keys and cabinet keys.

03  keys as long as Marie-Laure’s forearm and keys shorter than her thumb.


01  Marie-Laure’s father is principal locksmith for the Nation Museum of Natural History.

02  Between the laboratories, warehouses, four separate public museums, the menagerie, the greenhouses, the acres of medicinal and decorative gardens in the Jardin des Plantes, and a dozen gates and pavilions, her father estimates there are twelve thousand locks in the entire museum complex.

03  No one else knows enough to disagree.


01  All morning he stands at the front of the key pound and distributes keys to employees: zookeepers coming first, office staff arriving in a rush around eight, technicians and librarians and scientific assistants trooping in next, scientists trickling in last.




01  Everything is numbered and color-corded.

02  Every employee from custodians to the director must carry his or her keys at all times.  

03  No one is allowed to leave his respective building with keys, and no one is allowed to leave keys on a desk.

04 The museum possesses priceless jade from the thirteenth century, after all, and cavansite from India and rhodochrosite from Colorado; behind a lock her father has designed sits a Florentine dispensary bowl carved from lapis lazuli that specialists travel a thousand miles every year to examine.


01  Her father quizzes her.

02  Vault key or padlock key, Marie?

03  Cupboard key or dead bolt key?

04  He tests her on the locations of displays, on the contents of cabinets.

05  He is continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather.


01  For an hour each morning — even Sundays — he makes her sit over a Braille workbook.

02  A is one dot in the upper corner.

03  B is two dots in a vertical line.

04  Jean. Goes. To. The. Baker. Jean. Goes. To. The. Cheese. Maker.


01  In the afternoons he takes her on his rounds.

02  He oils latches, repairs cabinets, polishes escutcheons.

03  He leads her down hallway after hallway into gallery after gallery.

04  Narrow corridors open into immense libraries; glass doors give way to hothouses overflowing with the smells of humus, wet newspaper, and lobelia.




00  There are carpenters’ shops, taxidermists’ studios, acres of shelves and specimen drawers, whole museums within the museum.


01  Some afternoons he leaves Marie-Laure in the laboratory of Dr. Geffard, an aging mollusk expert whose beard smells permanently of damp wool. 

02  Dr. Geffard will stop whatever he is doing and open a bottle of Malbec and tell Marie-Laure in his whispery voice about reefs he visited as a young man: the Seychelles, Belize, Zanzibar.

03  He calls her Laurette; he eats a roasted duck every day at 3 p.m. ; his mind accommodates a seemingly inexhaustible catalog of Latin binomial names.


01  On the back wall of Dr. Geffard’s lab are cabinets that contain more drawers than she can count, and he lets her open them one after another and hold seashells in her hands ― whelks, olives, imperial volutes from Thailand, spider conchs from Polynesia ― the museum possesses more than ten thousand specimens, over half the known species in the world, and Marie-Laure gets to handle most of them.


01  “Now that shell, Laurette, belonged to a violet sea snail, a blind snail that lives its whole life on the surface of the sea.

02  As soon as it is released into the ocean, it agitates the water to make bubbles, and binds those bubbles with mucus, and builds the raft.

03  Then it blows around, feeding on whatever floating aquatic invertebrates it encounters.



01  But if it ever loses its raft, it will sink and die . . .”


01  A Carinaria shell is simultaneously light and heavy, hard and soft, smooth and rough.

02  The murex Dr. Geffard keeps on his desk can entertain her for a half hour, the hollow spines, the ridged whorls, the deep entrance; it’s a forest of spikes and caves and textures; it’s a kingdom.


01  Her hands move ceaselessly, gathering, probing, testing.

02  The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle.

03  The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil. 

04  To really touch something, she is learning ― the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop ― is to love it.


01  At home, in the evenings, her father stows their shoes in the same cubby, hangs their coats on the same hooks.

02  Marie-Laure crosses six evenly spaced friction strips on the kitchen tiles to reach the table; she follows a strand of twine he has threaded from the table to the toilet. 

03  He serves dinner on a round plate and describes the locations of different foods by the hands of a clock.

04  Potatoes at six o’clock, ma cherie.

05  Mushrooms at three.



00  Then he lights a cigarette and goes to work on his miniatures at a workbench in the corner of the kitchen.

01  He is building a scale model of their entire neighborhood, the tall-windowed houses, the rain gutters, the laverie and boulangerie and the little place at the end of the street with its four benches and ten trees.

02  On warm nights Marie-Laure opens her bedroom window and listens to the evening as it settles over the balconies and gables and chimneys, languid and peaceful, until the real neighborhood and the miniature one get mixed up in her mind.


01  Thursdays the museum is closed.

02  Marie-Laure and her father sleep in; they drink coffee thick with sugar.

03  They walk to the Pantheon, or to a flower market, or along the Seine.

04  Every so often they visit the bookshop.

05  He hands her a dictionary, a journal, a magazine full of photographs.

06  “How many pages, Marie-Laure?”


01  She runs a nail along the edge.

02  “Fifty-two?”  “Seven hundred and five?”  “One hundred thirty-nine?”


01  He sweeps her hair back from her ears; he swings her above his head.

02  He says she is his emerveillement.

03  He says he will never leave her, not in a million years.