CHAPTER THREE: JUNE 1940
01 Two days after fleeing Paris, Marie-Laure and her father enter the town of Evreux.
02 Restaurants are either boarded up or thronged.
03 Two women in evening gowns hunch hip to hip on the cathedral steps.
04 A man lies facedown between market stalls, unconscious or worse.
01 No mail service.
02 Telegraph lines down.
03 The most recent newspaper is thirty-six hours old.
04 At the prefecture, a queue for gasoline coupons snakes out the door and around the block.
01 The first two hotels are full.
02 The third will not unlock the door.
03 Every so often the locksmith catches himself glancing over his shoulder.
01 “Papa,” Marie-Laure is mumbling.
03 “My feet.”
01 He lights a cigarette: three left.
02 “Not much farther now, Marie.”
01 On the western edge of Evreux, the road empties and the countryside levels out.
02 He checks and rechecks the address the director has given him.
01 Monsieur François Giannot.
02 9 rue St. Nicolas.
03 But Monsieur Giannot’s house, when they reach it, is on fire.
04 In the windless dust, sullen heaps of smoke pump upward through the trees.
05 A car has crashed into a corner of the gatehouse and torn the gate off its hinges.
06 The house ― or what remains of it ― is grand: twenty French windows in the facade, big freshly painted shutters, manicured hedges out front.
07 Un château.
01 “I smell smoke, Papa.”
01 He leads Marie-Laure up the gravel.
02 His rucksack ― or perhaps it is the stone deep inside ― seems to grow heavier with each step.
03 No puddles gleam in the gravel, no fire brigade swarms out front.
04 Twin urns are toppled on the front steps.
05 A burst chandelier sprawls across the entry stairs.
01 “What is burning, Papa?”
01 A boy comes toward them out of the smoky twilight, no older than Marie-Laure, streaked with ash, pushing a wheeled dining cart through the gravel.
02 Silver tongs and spoons hanging from the cart chime and clank, and the wheels clatter and wallow.
03 A little polished cherub grins at each corner.
01 The locksmith says, “Is this the house of François Giannot?”
01 The boy acknowledges neither question nor questioner as he passes.
01 “Do you know what happened to ― ?”
01 The clanging of the cart recedes.
01 Marie-Laure yanks the hem of his coat.
02 “Papa, please.”
01 In her coat against the black trees, her face looks paler and more frightened than he has ever seen it.
02 Has he ever asked so much of her?
01 “A house has burned, Marie.
02 People are stealing things.”
01 “What house?”
01 “The house we have come so far to reach.”
01 Over her head, he can see the smoldering remains of the door frames glow and fade with the passage of the breeze.
02 A hole in the roof frames the darkening sky.
01 Two more boys emerge from the soot carrying a portrait in a gilded frame, twice as tall as they are, the visage of some long-dead great-grandfather glowering at the night.
02 The locksmith holds up his palms to delay them.
01 “Was it airplanes?”
01 One says, “There’s plenty more inside.”
02 The canvas of the painting ripples.
01 “Do you know the whereabouts of Monsieur Giannot?”
01 The other says, “Ran off yesterday.
02 With the rest.
01 “Don’t tell him anything,” says the first.
01 The boys jog down the driveway with their prize and are swallowed by the gloom.
01 “London?” whispers Marie-Laure.
01 “The friend of the director is in London?”
01 Sheets of blackened paper scuttle past their feet.
02 Shadows whisper in the trees.
03 A ruptured melon lolls in the drive like an amputated head.
04 The locksmith is seeing too much.
05 All day, mile after mile, he let himself imagine they would be greeted with food.
06 Little potatoes with hot cores into which he and Marie-Laure would plunge forkfuls of butter.
07 Shallots and mushrooms and hard-boiled eggs and bechamel.
08 Coffee and cigarettes.
09 He would hand Monsieur Giannot the stone, and Giannot would pull brass lorgnettes out of his breast pocket and fit their lenses over his calm eyes and tell him: real or fake.
10 Then Giannot would bury it in the garden or conceal it behind a hidden panel somewhere in his walls, and that would be that.
11 Duty fulfilled.
12 Je ne m’en occupe plus.
13 They would be given a private room, take baths; maybe someone would wash their clothes.
14 Maybe Monsieur Giannot would tell humorous stories about his friend the director, and in the morning the birds would sing and a fresh newspaper would announce the end of the invasion, reasonable concessions.
15 He would go back to the key pound, spend his evenings installing little sash windows in little wooden houses.
16 Bonjour, bonjour.
17 Everything as before.
01 But nothing is as before.
02 The trees seethe and the house smolders and standing in the gravel of the driveway, the daylight nearly finished, the locksmith has an unsettling thought: Someone might be coming for us.
03 Someone might know what I carry.
01 He leads Marie-Laure back to the road at a trot.
01 “Papa, my feet.”
01 He swings the rucksack around to his front and wraps her arms around his neck and carries her on his back.
02 They pass the smashed gatehouse and the crashed car and turn not east toward the center of Evreux but west.
03 Figures bicycle past.
04 Pinched faces streaked with suspicion or fear or both.
05 Perhaps it is the locksmith’s own eyes that have been streaked.
01 “Not so quickly,” begs Marie-Laure.
01 They rest in weeds twenty paces off the road.
02 There is only plunging night and owls calling from the trees and bats straining insects above a roadside ditch.
03 A diamond, the locksmith reminds himself, is only a piece of carbon compressed in the bowels of the earth for eons [ The narrator has skipped “and driven to the surface in a volcanic pipe.” ]
04 Someone facets it, someone polishes it.
05 It can harbor a curse no more than a leaf can or a mirror, or a life.
06 There is only chance in this world, chance and physics.
01 Anyway, what he carries is nothing more than a piece of glass.
02 A diversion.
01 Behind him, over Evreux, a wall of clouds ignites once, twice.
00 On the road ahead, he can make out several acres of uncut hay and the gentle profiles of unlit farm buildings ― a house and barn.
01 No movement.
01 “Marie, I see a hotel.”
01 “You said the hotels were full.”
01 “This one looks friendly.
03 It’s not far.”
01 Again he carries his daughter.
02 One more half mile.
03 The windows at the house stay unlit as they approach.
04 Its barn sits a hundred yards beyond.
05 He tries to listen above the rush of blood in his ears.
06 No dogs, no touches.
07 Probably the farmers too have fled.
08 He sets Marie-Laure in front of the burn doors and knocks softly and waits and knocks again.
01 The padlock is a brand-new single-latch Burguet; with his tools he picks it easily.
02 Inside are oats and water buckets and horseflies flying sleepy loops but no horses.
03 He opens a stall and helps Marie-Laure into the corner and pulls off her shoes.
01 “Voila,” he says.
02 “One of the guests has just brought his horses into the lobby, so it may smell for a moment.
03 But now the porters are hurrying him out.
04 See, there he goes.
05 Goodbye, horse!
06 Go sleep in the stables, please!”
01 Her expression is faraway.
01 A vegetable garden waits behind the house.
02 In the dimness he can make out roses, leeks, lettuces.
03 Strawberries, most still green.
04 Tender white carrots with black earth clotted in their fibers.
01 Nothing stirs: no farmer materializes in a window with a rifle.
02 The locksmith brings back a shirtfull of vegetables and fills a tin bucket at a spigot and eases shut the barn door and feeds his daughter in the dark.
03 Then he folds his coat, lays her head on it, and wipes her face with his shirt.
01 Two cigarettes left.
02 Inhale, exhale.
01 Walk the paths of logic.
02 Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution.
03 Every lock its key.
04 You can go back to Paris or you can stay here or you can go on.
01 From outside comes the soft hooting of owls.
02 Distant grumbling of thunder or ordnance or both.
03 He says, “This hotel is very cheap, ma cherie.
04 The innkeeper behind the desk said our room was forty francs a night but only twenty francs if we made our own bed.”
05 He listens to her breaths.
06 “So I said, ‘Oh, we can make our own bed.’
07 And he said, ‘Right, I’ll get you some nails and wood.’ “
01 Marie-Laure still does not smile.
02 “Now we go find Uncle Etienne?”
01 “Yes, Marie.”
01 “Who is seventy-six percent crazy?”
01 “He was with your grandfather — his brother — when he died.
02 In the war.
03 ‘Got a bit of gas in the head’ is how they used to say it.
04 Afterword he saw things.”
01 “What kind of things?”
01 Creaking rumble of thunder closer now.
02 The barn quakes lightly.
01 “Things that were not there.”
01 Spiders draw their webs between rafters.
02 Moths flap against the windows.
03 It starts to rain.
01 Entrance exams for the National Political Institutes of Education are held in Essen, eighteen miles south of Zollverein, inside a sweltering dance hall where a trio of truck-sized radiators is plugged in to the back wall.
02 One of the radiators clangs and steams all day despite various attempts to shut it down.
03 War ministry flags as big as tanks hang from the rafters.
01 There are one hundred recruits, all boys.
02 A school representative in a black uniform arranges them in ranks four deep.
03 Medals chime on his chest as he paces.
04 “You are,” he declares, “attempting to enter the most elite schools in the world.
05 The exams will last eight days.
06 We will take only the purest, only the strongest.”
07 A second representative distributes uniforms: white shirts, white shorts, white socks.
08 The boys shuck their clothes where they stand.
01 Werner counts twenty-six others in his age group.
02 All but two are taller than he is.
03 All but three are blond.
01 None of them wear eyeglasses.
01 The boys spend that entire first morning in their new white outfits, filling out questionnaires on clipboards.
02 There is no noise save the scribbling of pencils and the pacing of examiners and the clunking of the huge radiator.
01 Where was your grandfather born?
02 What color are your father’s eyes?
03 Has your mother ever worked in an office?
04 Of one hundred and ten questions about his lineage, Werner can accurately answer only sixteen.
05 The rests are guesses.
01 Where is your mother from?
01 There are no options for past tense.
02 He writes: Germany.
01 Where is your father from?
01 What languages does your mother speak?
01 He remembers Frau Elena as she looked early this morning, standing in her nightdress beside the hall lamp, fussing over his bag, all the other children asleep.
02 She seemed lost, dazed, as if she could not absorb how quickly things were changing around her.
03 She said she was proud.
04 She said Werner should do his best.
05 “You’re a smart boy,” she said.
06 “You’ll do well.”
07 She kept adjusting and readjusting his collar.
08 When he said ”It’s only a week,” her eyes filled slowly, as if some internal flood were gradually overwhelming her.
01 In the afternoon, the recruits run.
02 They crawl under obstacles, do push-ups, scale ropes suspended from the ceiling ― one hundred children passing sleek and interchangeable in their white uniforms like livestock before the eyes of the examiners.
03 Werner comes in ninth in the shuttle runs.
04 He comes in second to last on the rope climb.
05 He will never be good enough.
01 In the evening, the boys spill out of the hall, some met by proud-looking parents with automobiles, others vanishing purposefully in twos or threes into the streets: all seem to know where they’re going.
02 Werner makes his way alone to a spartan hostel six blocks away, where he rents a bed for two marks a night and lies among muttering itinerants and listens to the pigeons and bells and shuddering traffic of Essen.
03 It is the first night he has spent outside of Zollverein, and he cannot stop thinking of Jutta, who has not spoken to him since discovering he smashed their radio.
04 Who stared at him with so much accusation in her face that he had to look away.
05 Her eyes said, You are betraying me, but wasn’t he protecting her?
01 On the second morning, there are raciological exams.
02 They require little of Werner except to raise his arms or keep from blinking while an inspector shines a penlight into the tunnels of his pupils.
01 He sweats and shifts.
02 His heart pounds unreasonably.
03 An onion-breathed technician in a lab coat measures the distance between Werner’s temples, the circumference of his head, and the thickness and shape of his lips.
04 Calipers are used to evaluate his feet, the length of his fingers, and the distance between his eyes and his navel.
05 They measure his penis.
06 The angle of his nose is quantified with a wooden protractor.
01 A second technician gauges Werner’s eye color against a chromatic scale on which sixty or so shades of blue are displayed.
02 Werner’s color is himmelblau, sky blue.
03 To assess his hair color, the man snips a lock of hair from Werner’s head and compares it to thirty or so other locks clipped to a board, arrayed darkest to lightest.
04 “Schnee,” the man mutters, and makes a notation.
06 Werner’s hair is lighter than the lightest color on the board.
01 They test his vision, draw his blood, take his fingerprints.
02 By noon he wonders if there is anything left for them to measure.
01 Verbal exams come next.
02 How many Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten are there?
04 Who are our greatest Olympians?
05 He does not know.
06 What is the birthday of the führer?
07 April 20.
08 Who is our greatest writer, what is the Treaty of Versailles, which is the nation’s fastest airplane?
01 Day three involves more running, more climbing, more jumping.
02 Everything is timed.
03 The technicians, school representative, and examiners ― each wearing uniforms in subtly different shades ― scribble on pads and graph paper with a very narrow gauge, and sheet after sheet of this paper gets closed into leather binders with a gold lightning bolt stamped on the front.
01 The recruits speculate in eager whispers.
01 “I hear the schools have sailboats, falconries, rifle ranges.”
01 “I hear they will take only seven from each age group.”
01 “I hear it’s only four.”
01 They speak of the schools with yearning and brayado; they want desperately to be selected.
02 Werner tells himself: So do I. So do I.
01 And yet at other times, despite his ambitions, he is visited by instants of vertigo; he sees Jutta holding the smashed pieces of their radio and feels uncertainty steal into his gut.
01 The recruits scale walls; they run wind sprint after wind sprint.
02 On the fifth day, three quit.
03 On the sixth, four more give up.
04 Each hour the dance hall seem to grow progressively warmer, so by the eighth day, the air, walls, and floor are saturated with the hot, teeming odor of boys.
05 For their final test, each of the fourteen-year-olds is forced to climb a ladder haphazardly nailed to a wall.
01 Once at the top, twenty-five feet above the floor, their heads in the rafters, they are supposed to step onto a tiny platform, close their eyes, and leap off, to be caught in a flag held by a dozen of the other recruits.
01 First to go is a stout farm kid from Herne.
02 He scales the ladder quickly enough, but as soon as he’s on the platform high above everyone else, his face goes white.
03 His knees wobble dangerously.
01 Someone mutters, “Pussy.”
01 The boy beside Werner whispers, “Afraid of heights.”
01 An examiner watches dispassionately.
02 The boy on the platform peeks over the edge as if into a swirling abyss and shuts his eyes.
03 He sways back and forth.
04 Interminable seconds pass.
05 The examiner peers at his stopwatch.
06 Werner clutches the hem of the flag.
01 Soon most everyone in the dance hall has stopped to watch, even recruits in other age groups.
02 The boy sways twice more, until it’s clear he is about to faint.
03 Even then no one moves to help him.
01 When he goes over, he goes sideways.
02 The recruits on the ground manage to swing the flag around in time, but his weight tears the edges out of their hands, and he hits the floor arms first with a sound like a bundle of kindling breaking over a knee.
01 The boy sits up.
02 Both of his forearms are bent at nauseating angles.
00 He blinks at them curiously for a moment, as if scanning his memory for a clue that might explain how he got there.
01 Then he starts to scream.
02 Werner looks away.
03 Four boys are ordered to carry the injured one out.
01 One by one, the remaining fourteen-year-olds climb the ladder and tremble and leap.
02 One sobs the whole way.
03 Another sprains an ankle when he hits.
04 The next waits at least two full minutes before jumping.
05 The fifteenth boy looks out across the dance hall as if staring into a bleak, cold sea, then climbs back down.
01 Werner watches from his place on the flag.
02 When his turn comes, he tells himself, he must not waver.
03 On the undersides of his eyelids he sees the interlaced ironwork of Zollvereine, the fire-breathing mills, men teeming out of elevator shafts like ants, the mouth of Pit Nine, where his father was lost.
04 Jutta in the parlor window, sealed behind the rain, watching him follow the corporal to Herr Siedler’s house.
05 The taste of whipped cream and powdered sugar and the smooth calves of Herr Siedler’s wife.
01 We will take only the purest, only the strongest.
01 The only place your brother is going, little girl, is into the mines.
01 Werner scampers up the ladder.
00 The rungs have been roughly sawed, and his palms take splinters the whole way.
01 From the top, the crimson flag with its white circle and black cross looks unexpectedly small.
02 A pale ring of faces stares up.
03 It’s even hotter up here, torrid, and the smell of perspiration makes him light-headed.
01 Without hesitating, Werner steps to the edge of the platform and shuts his eyes and jumps.
02 He hits the flag in its exact center, and the boys holding its edges give a collective groan.
01 He rolls to his feet, uninjured.
02 The examiner clicks his stopwatch, scribbles on his clipboard, looks up.
03 Their eyes meet for a half second.
04 Maybe less.
05 Then the man goes back to his notations.
06 “Heil Hitler!” yells Werner.
07 The next boy starts up the ladder.
01 In the morning an ancient furniture lorry stops for them.
02 Her father lifts her into its bed, where a dozen people nestle beneath a waxed canvas tarp.
03 The engine roars and pops; the truck rarely accelerates past walking speed.
01 A woman prays in a Norman accent; someone shares pâté; everything smells of rain.
02 No Stukas swoop over them, machine guns blazing.
03 No one in the truck has even seen a German.
04 For half the morning, Marie-Laure tries to convince herself that the previous days have been some elaborate test concocted by her father, that the truck is moving not away from Paris but toward it, that tonight they’ll return home.
05 That model will be on its bench in the corner, and the sugar bowl will be in the center of the kitchen table, its little spoon resting on the rim.
06 Out the open windows, the cheese seller on the rue des Patriarches will lock his door and shutter up those marvelous smells, as he has done nearly every evening she can remember, and the leaves of the chestnut tree will clatter and murmur, and her father will boil coffee and draw her a hot bath, and say, “You did well, Marie-Laure. I’m proud.”
01 The truck bounces from highway to country road to dirt lane.
02 Weeds brush its flanks.
03 Well after midnight, west of Cancale, they run out of fuel.
01 “Not much farther,” her father whispers.
01 Marie-Laure shuffles along half-asleep.
02 The road seems hardly wider than a path.
03 The air smells like wet grain and hedge trimmings; in the lulls between their footfalls, she can hear a deep, nearly subsonic roar.
04 She tugs her father to a stop.
01 “The ocean.”
01 She cocks her head.
01 “It’s the ocean, Marie.
02 I promise.”
01 He carries her on his back.
02 Now the barking of gulls.
03 Smell of wet stones, of bird shit, of salt, though she never knew salt to have a smell.
04 The sea murmuring in a language that travels through stones, air, and sky.
05 What did Captain Nemo say?
06 The sea does not belong to tyrants.
01 “We’re crossing into Saint-Malo now,” says her father, “the part they call the city within the walls.”
02 He narrates what he sees: a portcullis, defensive walls called ramparts, granite mansions, a steeple above rooftops.
00 The echoes of his footfalls ricochet off tall houses and rain back onto them, and he labors beneath her wait, and she is old enough to suspect that what he presences as quaint and welcoming might in truth be harrowing and strange.
01 Birds make strangled cries overhead.
02 Her father turns left, right.
03 It feels to Marie-Laure as if they have wound these past four days toward the center of a bewildering maze, and now they are tiptoeing past the pickets of some final interior cell.
04 Inside which a terrible beast might slumber.
01 “Rue Vauborel,” her father says between pants.
02 “Here, it must be.
03 Or here?”
04 He pivots, retraces their steps, climbs an alley, then turns around.
01 “Is there no one to ask?”
01 “There’s not a single light, Marie.
02 Everyone is asleep or pretending to be.”
01 Finally they reach a gate, and he sets her down on a curbstone and pushes an electric buzzer, and she can hear it ring deep within a house.
03 He presses again.
04 Again nothing.
05 He presses a third time.
01 “This is the house of your uncle?”
01 “It is.”
01 “He doesn’t know us,” she says.
01 “He’s sleeping.
02 As we should be.”
01 They sit with their backs to the gate.
02 Wrought iron and cool.
03 A heavy wooden door just behind it.
04 She leans her head on his shoulder;
05 He pulls off her shoes.
00 The world seems to sway gentry back and forth, as though the town is drifting lightly away.
01 As though back onshore, all of France is left to bite its fingernails and flee and stumble and weep and wake to a numb, gray dawn, unable to believe what is happening.
02 Who do the roads belong to now?
03 And the fields?
04 The trees?
01 Her father takes his final cigarette from his shirt pocket and lights it.
01 From deep inside the house behind them come footfalls.
01 As soon as her father says his name, the breathing on the other side of the door becomes a gasp, a held breath.
02 The gate screeches; a door behind it gives away.
03 “Jesus’s mother,” says a woman’s voice.
04 “You were so small ―”
01 “My daughter, Madame.
02 Marie-Laure, this is Madame Manec.”
01 Marie-Laure attempts a courtesy.
02 The hand that cups her cheek is strong: the hand of a geologist or a gardener.
01 “My God, there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together.
02 But, dear child, your stockings.
03 And your heels!
04 You must be famished.”
01 They step into a narrow entry.
02 Marie-Laure hears the gate clang shut, then the woman latching the door behind them.
03 Two dead bolts, one chain.
04 They are let into a room that smells of herbs and rising dough: a kitchen.
05 Her father unbuttons her coat, helps her sit.
00 “We are very grateful, I understand how late it is,“ he is saying, and the old woman ― Madame Manec ― is brisk, efficient, evidently overcoming her initial amazement; she brushes off their thank-yours; she scoots Marie-Laure’s chair toward a tabletop.
01 A match is struck; water fills a pot; an icebox clicks open and shut.
02 There is the hum of gas and the tick-tick of heating metal.
03 In another moment, a warm towel is on Marie-Laure’s face.
04 A jar of cool, sweet water in front of her.
05 Each sip a blessing.
01 “Oh, the town is absolutely stuffed,” Madame Manec is saying in her fairly-tell drawl as she moves about.
02 She seems short; she wears blocky, heavy shoes.
03 Hers is a low voice, full of pebbles ― a sailer’s voice or a smoker’s.
03 “Some can afford hotels or rentals, but many are in the warehouses, on straw, not enough to eat.
04 I’d take them in, but your uncle, you know, it might upset him.
05 There’s no diesel, no kerosene, British ships long gone.
06 They burned everything they left behind, at first I couldn’t believe any of it, but Etienne, he has the wireless going nonstop ― .”
01 Eggs crack.
02 Butter pops in a hot pan.
03 Her father is telling an abridged story of their flight, train stations, fearful crowds, omitting the stop in Evreux, but soon all of Marie-Laure’s attention is absorbed by the smells blooming around her: egg, spinach, melting cheese.
01 An omelet arrives.
02 She positions her face over its steam.
03 “May I please have a fork?”
01 The old woman laughs: a laugh Marie-Laure warms to immediately.
02 In an instant a fork is fitted into her hand.
01 The eggs taste like clouds.
02 Like spun gold.
02 Madame Manec says, “I think she likes it,” and laughs again.
01 A second omelet soon appears.
02 Now it is her father who eats quickly.
03 “How about peaches, dear?” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl.
04 Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.
01 “Marie,” murmurs her father, “your manners.”
02 “But they’re ―”
01 “We have plenty, you go ahead, child.
02 I make them every year.”
03 When Marie-Laure has eaten two full cans of peaches, Madame Manec cleans Marie-Laure’s feet with a rag and shakes out her coat and clanks dishes into a sink and says, “Cigarette?” and her father groans with gratitude and a match flares and the grown-ups smoke.
01 A door opens, or a window, and Marie-Laure can hear the hypnotic voice of the sea.
01 “And Etienne?” says her father.
01 Madame says, “Shuts himself up like a corpse one day, eats like an albatross the next.”
01 “He still does not ― ?”
01 “Not for twenty years.”
01 Probably the grown-ups are mouthing more to each other.
02 Probably Marie-Laure should be more curious ― about her great-uncle who sees things that are not there, about the fate of everyone and everything she has ever known ― but her stomach is full, her blood has become a warm golden flow through her arteries, and out the open window, beyond the walls, the ocean crashes, only a bit of stacked stone left between her and it, the rim of Brittany, the farthest windowsill of France ― and maybe the Germans are advancing as inexorably as lava, but Marie-Laure is slipping into something like a dream, or perhaps it’s the memory of one: she’s six or seven years old, newly blind, and her father is sitting in the chair beside her bed, whittling away at some tiny piece of wood, smoking a cigarette, and evening is settling over the hundred thousand rooftops and chimneys of Paris, and all the walls around her are dissolving, the ceilings too, the whole city is disintegrating into smoke, and at last sleep falls over her like a shadow.
YOU HAVE BEEN CALLED
01 Everyone wants to hear Werner’s stories.
02 What were the exams like, what did they make you do, tell us everything.
03 The youngest children tug his sleeves; the older ones are deferential.
04 This snowy-haired dreamer plucked out of the soot.
01 “They said they’d accept only two from my age group.
02 Maybe three.”
03 From the far end of the table, he can feel the heat of Jutta’s attention.
04 With the rest of the money from Herr Siedler, he purchased a People’s Receiver for thirty-four marks eighty: a two-valve low-powered radio even cheaper than the state-sponsored Volksemfangers he has repaired in the houses of neighbors.
05 Unmodified, its receiver can haul in only the big long-wave nationwide programs from Deutchlandsender.
06 Nothing else.
07 Nothing foreign.
01 The children shout, delighted, as he presents it.
02 Jutta shows no interest.
01 Martin Sachse asks, “Was there loads of math?”
01 “Was there cheeses?
02 Was there cakes?”
01 “Did they let you shoot rifles?”
01 “Did you ride in tanks?
02 I bet you rode in tanks.”
01 Werner says, ”I didn’t know the answers to half their questions.
02 I’ll never get in.”
01 But he does.
02 Five days after he returns from Essen, the letter is hand-delivered to Children’s House.
03 An eagle and cross on a crisp envelope.
04 No stamp.
05 Like a dispatch from God.
01 Frau Elena is doing laundry.
02 The little boys are clustered around the new radio: a half-hour program called Kid’s Club.
03 Jutta and Claudia Forster have taken three of the younger girls to a puppet show in the market;
04 Jutta has spoken no more than six words to Werner since his return.
01 You have been called, says the letter.
02 Werner is to report to the National Political Institute of Education #6 at Schulpforta.
03 He stands in the parlor of Children’s House, trying to absorb it.
04 Cracked walls, sagging ceilings, twin benches that have borne child after child after child for as long as the mine has made orphans.
05 He has found a way out.
02 Tiny dot on the map, near Naumburg in Saxony.
03 Two hundred miles east.
04 Only in his most intrepid dreams did he allow himself to hope that he might travel so far.
05 He carries the sheet of paper in a daze to the alley where Frau Elena boils sheets amid billows of steam.
01 She rereads it several times.
02 “We can’t pay.”
01 “We don’t need to.”
01 “How far?”
01 “Five hours by train.
02 They’ve already paid the fare.”
01 “Two weeks.”
01 Frau Elena: strands of hair stuck to her cheeks, maroon aprons under her eyes, pink rims around her nostrils.
02 Thin crucifix against her damp throat.
03 Is she proud?
04 She rubs her eyes and nods absently.
05 “They’ll celebrate this.”
06 She hands the letter back and stares down the alley at the dense ranks of the clotheslines and coalbins.
01 “Who, Frau?”
02 The neighbors.”
03 She laughs a sudden and startling laugh.
04 “People like that vice minister.
05 The man who took your book.”
01 “Not Jutta.”
01 “No. Not Jutta.”
01 He rehearses in his head the argument he will present to his sister.
03 It means duty.
05 Every German fulfilling his function.
06 Put on your boots and go to work.
07 Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer.
08 We all have parts to play, little sister.
09 But before the girls arrive, news of his acceptance has reverberated through the block.
10 Neighbors come over one after another and exclaim and wag their chins.
11 Coal wives bring pig knuckles and cheese;
01 they pass around Werner’s acceptance letter; the ones who can read, read it aloud to the ones who cannot, and Jutta comes home to a crowded, exhilarated room.
02 The twins ― Hannah and Susanne Gerlitz ― sprint laps around the sofa, looped up in the excitement, and six-year-old Rolf Hupfauer sings Rise! Rise! All glory to the fatherland! and several of the other children join in, and Werner doesn’t see Frau Elena speak to Jutta in the corner of the parlor, doesn’t see Jutta run up stairs.
01 At the dinner bell, she does not come down.
02 Frau Elena asks Hannah Gerlitz to lead the prayer, and tells Werner she’ll talk to Jutta, that he ought to stay downstairs, all these people are here for him.
03 Every few breaths, the words flare in his mind like sparks:
04 You have been called.
05 Each minute that passes is one fewer in this house.
06 In this life.
01 After the meal, little Siegfried Fischer, no older than five, walks around the table and tugs Werner’s sleeve and hands him a photograph he has torn from a newspaper.
02 In the picture, six fighter-bombers float above a mountain range of the clouds.
03 Spangles of sun are frozen midglide across the airplanes’ fuselages.
04 The scarves of the pilots stretch backward.
01 Siegfried Fischer says, “You’ll show them, won’t you?”
02 His face is fierce with belief;
03 it seems to draw a circle around all the hours Werner has spent at Children’s House, hoping for something more.
01 “I will,” Werner says.
02 The eyes of all the children are on him.
03 “Absolutely I will.”
01 Marie-Laure wakes to church bells: two three four five.
02 Faint smell of mildew.
03 Ancient down pillows with all the loft worn out.
04 Silk wallpaper behind the lumpy bed where she sits.
05 When she stretches out both arms, she can almost touch walls with either side.
01 The reverberations of the bells cease.
02 She has slept most of the day.
03 What is the muffled roar she hears?
05 Or is it still the sea?
01 She sets her feet on the floor.
02 The wounds on the backs of her heels pulse.
03 Where is her cane?
04 She shuffles so she does not bash her shins on something.
05 Behind curtains, a window rises out of her reach.
06 Opposite the window, she finds a dresser whose drawers open only partway before striking the bed.
01 The weather in this place: you can feel it between your fingers.
01 She gropes through a doorway into what?
02 A hall?
03 Out here the roar is fainter, barely a murmur.
02 Then the bustling far blow, the heavy shoes of Madame Manec climbing flights of narrow, curving steps, her smoker’s lungs coming closer, third floor, fourth ― how tall is this house? ― now Madame’s voice is calling, “Mademoiselle,” and she is taken by the hand, led back into the room in which she woke, and seated on the edge of the bed.
03 “Do you need to use the toilet?
04 You must, then a bath, you had an excellent sleep, your father is in town trying the telegraph office, though I assured him that’ll be about as profitable as trying to pick feathers out of morasses.
05 Are you hungry?”
01 Madame Manec plumps pillows, flaps the quilt.
02 Marie-Laure tries to concentrate on something small, something concrete.
03 The model back in Paris.
04 A single seashell in Dr. Geffard’s laboratory.
01 “Does this whole house belong to my great-uncle Etienne?”
01 “Every room.”
01 “How does he pay for it?”
01 Madame Manec laughs.
02 “You get right to it, don’t you?”
03 Your great-uncle inherited the house from his father, who was your great-grandfather.
04 He was a very successful man with plenty of money.
01 “You knew him?”
01 “I have worked here since Master Etienne was a little boy.”
01 “My grandfather too?
02 You knew him?”
01 “I did.”
01 “Will I meet Uncle Etienne now?”
02 Madame Manec hesitates.
03 “Probably not.”
01 “But he is here?”
01 “Yes, child.
02 He is always here.”
01 Madame Manec’s big, thick hands enhold hers.
02 “Let’s see about the bath.
03 Your father will explain when he returns.”
01 “But Papa doesn’t explain anything.
02 He says only that Uncle was in the war with my grandfather.”
01 “That’s right.
02 But your great-uncle, when he came home” ― Madame hunts for the proper phrasing ― “he was not the same as when he left.”
01 “Do you mean he was scared more things?”
01 “I mean lost.
02 A mouse in a trap.
03 He saw dead people passing through the walls.
04 Terrible things in the corner of the streets.
05 Now your great-uncle does not go outdoors.”
01 “Not ever?”
01 “Not for years.
02 But Etienne is a wonder, you’ll see.
03 He knows everything.”
01 Marie-Laure listens to the house timbers creak and the gulls cry and the gentle roar breaking against the window.
02 “Are we high in the air, Madame?”
01 “We are on the sixth floor.
02 It’s a good bed, isn’t it?
03 I thought you and your Papa would be able to rest well here.”
01 “Does the window open?”
01 “It does, dear.
02 But it is probably best to leave it shuttered while ―”
01 Marie-Laure is already standing atop the bed, running her palms along the wall.
02 “Can one see the sea from it?”
01 “We’re supposed to keep shutters and windows closed.
02 But maybe just for a minute.”
01 Madame Manec turns a handle, pulls in the two hinged panes of the window, and nudges open the shutter.
02 Wind: immediate, bright, sweet, briny, luminous.
03 The roar rises and falls.
01 “Are there snails out there, Madame?”
03 In the ocean?”
04 Again that laugh.
05 “As many as rain drops.
06 You’re interested in snails?”
01 “Yes, yes, yes.
02 I have found tree snails and garden snails.
03 But I have never found marine snails.”
01 “Well,” says Madame Manec.
02 You’ve turned up in the right place.”
01 Madame draws a warm bath in a third-floor tub.
02 From the tub, Marie-Laure listens to her shut the door, and the cramped bathroom groan beneath the weight of the water, and the walls creak, as if she were in a cabin inside Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.
03 The pain in her heels fades.
04 She lowers her head below the level of the water.
05 To never go outdoors!
06 To hide for decades inside this strange, narrow house!
00 For dinner she is buttoned into a starchy dress from some bygone decade.
01 They sit at the square kitchen table, her father and Madame Manec at opposite sides, knees pressed to knees, windows jammed shut, shutters drawn.
02 A wireless set mumbles the names of ministers in a harried, staccato voice ― de Gaulle in London, Petain replacing Reynaud.
03 They eat fish stewed with green tomatoes.
04 Her father reports that no letters have been delivered or collected in three days.
05 Telegraph lines are not functioning.
06 The newest newspaper is six days old.
07 On the radio, the announcer reads public service classifieds.
01 Monsieur Cheminoux refugeed in Orange seeks his three children, left with luggage at Ivry-sur-Seine.
01 Francis in Geneve seeks any information about Marie-Jeanne, last seen at Gentilly.
01 Mother sends prayers to Luc and Albert, wherever they are.
01 L. Rabie seeks news of his wife, last seen at Gare d’Orsay.
01 A. Cotteret wants his mother to know he is safe in Laval.
01 Madame Meyzieu seeks whereabouts of six daughters, sent by train to Redon.
01 “Everybody has misplaced someone,” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure’s father switches off the wireless, and tubes click as they cool.
02 Upstairs, faintly, the same voice keeps reading names.
03 Or is it her imagination?
01 She hears Madame Manec stand and collect the bowls and her father exhale cigarette smoke as though it is very heavy in his lungs and he is glad to be rid of it.
01 That night she and her father wind up the twisting staircase and go to bed side by side on the same lumpy bed in the same sixth-floor bedroom with fraying silk wall paper.
02 Her father fusses with his rucksack, with the door latch, with his matches.
03 Soon enough there is the familiar smell of his cigarettes: Gauloises bleues.
04 She hears wood pop and groan as the two halves of the window pull open.
05 The welcome hiss of wind washes in, or maybe it’s the sea and the wind, her ears unable to unbraid the two.
06 With it come the scents of salt and hay and fish markets and distant marshes and absolutely nothing that smells to her of war.
01 “Can we visit the ocean tomorrow, Papa?”
01 “Probably not tomorrow.”
01 “Where is Uncle Etienne?”
01 “I expect he’s in his room on the fifth floor.”
01 “Seeing things that are not there?”
01 “We are lucky to have him, Marie.”
01 “Lucky to have Madame Manec too.
02 She’s a genius with food, isn’t she, Papa?
03 She is maybe just a little bit better at cooking than you are?”
04 “Just a very little bit better.”
01 Marie-Laure is glad to hear a smile enter his voice.
01 But beneath it she can sense his thoughts fluttering like trapped birds.
02 “What does it mean, Papa, they’ll occupy us?”
01 “It means they’ll park their trucks in the squares.”
01 “Will they make us speak their language?”
01 “They might make us advance our clocks by one hour.”
01 The house creaks.
02 Gulls cry.
03 He lights another cigarette.
01 “Is it like occupation, Papa?
02 Like the sort of job of a person does?”
01 “It’s like military control, Marie.
02 That’s enough questions for now.”
02 Twenty heartbeats.
01 “How can one country make another change its clocks?
02 What if everybody refuses?”
01 “Then a lot of people will be early.
02 Or late.”
01 “Remember our apartment, Papa?
02 With my books and our model and all those pinecones on the windowsill?”
01 “Of corse.”
01 “I lined up the pinecones largest to smallest.”
01 “They’re still there.”
01 “Do you think so?”
01 “I know so.”
01 “You do not know so.”
01 “I do not know so.
02 I believe so.”
01 “Are German soldiers climbing into our beds right now, Papa?”
01 Marie-Laure tries to lie very still.
02 She can almost hear the machinery of her father’s mind churning inside his skull.
03 “It will be okay,” she whispers.
04 Her hand finds his forearm.
05 “We will stay here awhile and then we will go back to our apartment and the pinecones will be right where we left them and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea will be on the floor of the key pound where we left it and no one will be in our beds.”
01 The distant anthem of the sea.
02 The clopping of someone’s boot heels on cobbles far below.
03 She wants very badly for her father to say, Yes, that’s it absolutely, ma cherie, but he says nothing.
DON’T TELL LIES
01 He cannot concentrate on schoolwork or simple conversations or Frau Elena’s chores.
02 Every time he shuts his eyes, some vision of the school at Schulpforta overmasters him: vermilion flags, muscular horses, gleaming laboratories.
03 The best boys in Germany.
04 At certain moments he sees himself as an emblem of possibility to which all eyes have turned.
05 Though at other moments, flickering in front of him, he sees the big kid from the entrance exams: his face gone bloodless atop the platform high above the dance hall.
06 How he fell.
07 How no one moved to help him.
01 Why can’t Jutta be happy for him?
02 Why, even at the moment of his escape, must some inexplicable warning murmur in a distant region of his mind?
01 Martin Sachse says, “Tell us again about the hand grenades!”
01 Siegfried Fisher says, “And the falconries!”
01 Three times he readies his argument and three times Jutta turns on a heal and strides away.
01 Hour after hour she helps Frau Elena with the smaller children or walks to the market or finds some other excuse to be helpful, to be busy, to be out.
01 “She won’t listen,” Werner tells Frau Elena.”
01 “Keep trying.”
01 Before he knows it, there’s only one day before his departure.
02 He wakes before dawn and finds Jutta asleep in her cot in the girl’s dormitory.
03 Her arms are wrapped around her head and her wool blanket is twisted around her midsection and her pillow is jammed into the crack between mattress and wall ― even in sleep, a tableau of friction.
04 Above her bed are papered her fantastical pencil drawings of Frau Elena’s village, of Paris with a thousand white towers beneath whirling flocks of birds.
01 He says her name.
01 She twines herself tighter into her blanket.
01 “Will you walk with me?”
01 To his surprise, she sits up.
02 They step outside before anyone else is awake.
03 He leads her without speaking.
04 They climb one fence, then another.
05 Jutta’s untied shoelaces trail behind her.
06 Thistles bite their knees.
07 The rising sun makes a pinhole on the horizon.
01 They stop at the edge of an irrigation canal.
02 In winters past, Werner used to tow her in their wagon to this very spot, and they would watch skaters race along the frozen canal, farmers with blades fixed to their feet and frost caked in their beards, five or six rushing by all at once, tightly packed, in the midst of an eight- or nine-mile race between towns.
03 The look in the skaters’ eyes was of horses who have run a long away, and it was always exciting for Werner to see them, to feel the air disturbed by their speed, to hear their skates clapping along, then fading ― a sensation as if his soul might tear free of his body and go sparking off with them.
04 But as soon as they’d continued around the bend and left behind only the white etchings of their skates in the ice, the thrill would fade, and he’d tow Jutta back to Children’s House feeling lonely and forsaken and more trapped in his life than before.
01 He says, “No skaters came last winter.”
01 His sister gazes into the ditch.
02 Her eyes are mauve.
03 Her hair is snarled, untamable, and perhaps even whiter than his.
01 She says, “None’ll come this year either.”
01 The mine complex is a smoldering black mountain range behind her.
02 Even now Werner can hear a mechanical drumbeat thudding in the distance, first shift going down in the elevators as the owl shift comes up ― all those boys with tired eyes and soot-stained faces rising in the elevators to meet the sun ― and for a moment he apprehends a huge and terrible presence looming just beyond the morning.
01 “I know you’re angry ― ”
01 “You’ll become just like Hans and Herribert.”
01 “I won’t.”
01 “Spend enough time with boys like that and you will.”
01 “So you want me to stay?
02 Go down in the mines?”
01 They watch a bicyclist far down the path.
02 Jutta clamps her hands in her armpits.
03 “You know what I used to listen to?
04 On our radio?
05 Before you ruined it?”
01 “Hush, Jutta.
01 “Broadcasts from Paris.
02 They’d say the opposite of everything Deutschlandsender says.
03 They’d say we were devils.
04 That we were committing atrocities.
05 Do you know what atrocities means?
01 “Please, Jutta.”
01 “Is it right,” Jutta says, “to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”
01 Doubts: slipping in like eels.
02 Werner shoves them back.
03 Jutta is barely twelve years old, still a child.
01 “I’ll write you letters every week.
02 Twice a week if I can.
03 You don’t have to show them to Frau Elena if you don’t want to.”
01 Jutta shuts her eyes.
01 “It’s not forever, Jutta.
02 Two years, maybe.
03 Half the boys who get admitted don’t manage graduate.
04 But maybe I’ll learn something; maybe they’ll teach me to be a proper engineer.
05 Maybe I can learn to fly an airplane, like little Siegfried says.
01 Don’t shake your head, we’ve always wanted to see the inside of an airplane, haven’t we?
02 I’ll fly us west, you and me, Frau Elena too if she wants.
03 Or we could take a train.
04 We’ll ride through forests and villages de montagnes, all those places Frau Elena talked about when we were small.
05 Maybe we could ride all the way to Paris.”
01 The burgeoning light.
02 The tender hissing of the grass.
03 Jutta opens her eyes but doesn’t look at him.
04 “Don’t tell lies.
05 Lie to yourself, Werner, but don’t lie to me.”
06 Ten hours later, he’s on a train.