8 AUGUST 1944
THE FORT OF LA CITE
01 Sergeant Major von Rumpel climes a ladder in the dark.
02 He can feel the lymph nodes on either side of his neck compressing his esophagus and trachea.
03 His weight like a rag on the rungs.
01 The two gunners inside the periscope turret watch from beneath the rims of their helmets.
02 Not offering help, not saluting.
03 The turret is crowned with a steel dome and is used primarily to range larger guns positioned farther below.
04 It offers views of the sea to the west; the cliffs below, all strung with entangling wire; and directly across the water, a half mile away, the burning city of Saint-Malo.
01 Artillery has stopped for the moment, and the predawn fires inside the walls take on a steady middle life, an adulthood.
02 The western edge of the city has become a holocaust of crimson and carmine from which rise multiple towers of smoke.
03 The largest has curdled into a pillar like the cloud of tephra and ash and steam below that billows
atop an erupting volcano.
01 From afar, the smoke appears strangely solid, as though carved from luminous wood.
02 All along its perimeter, sparks rise and ash falls and administrative documents flutter: utility plans, purchase orders, tax records.
01 With binoculars, von Rumpel watches what might be bats go flaming and careening out over the ramparts.
02 A geyser of sparks erupts deep within a house ― an electrical transformer or hoarded fuel or maybe a delayed-action bomb ― and it looks to him as if lightning lashes the town from within.
01 One of the gunners makes unimaginative comments about the smoke, a dead horse he can see at the base of the walls, the intensity of certain quadrants of fire.
02 As though they are noblemen in grandstands of viewing fortress warfare in the years of the Crusaders.
03 Von Rumpel tugs his collar against the bulges in his throat, tries to swallow.
01 The moon sets and the eastern sky lightens, the hem of night pulling away, taking stars with it one by one until only two are left.
02 Vega, maybe.
03 Or Venus.
04 He never learned.
01 “Church spire is gone,” says the second gunner.
01 A day ago, above the zigzag rooftops, the cathedral spire pointed straight up, higher than everything else.
02 Not this morning.
03 Soon the sun is above the horizon and the orange of flames gives way to the black of smoke, rising along the western walls and blowing like a caul across the citadel.
01 Finally, for a few seconds, the smoke parts long enough for von Rumpel to peer into the serrated maze of the city and pick out what he’s looking for: the upper section of a tall house with a broad chimney.
02 Two windows visible, the glass out.
03 One shutter hanging, three in place.
01 Number 4 rue Vauborel.
02 Still intact.
03 Seconds pass; smoke veils it again.
01 A single airplane tracks across the deepening blue, incredibly high.
02 Von Rumpel retreats down the long ladder into the tunnels of the fort below.
03 Trying not to limp, not to think of the bulges in his groin.
04 In the underground commissary, men sit against the walls spooning oatmeal from their upturned helmets.
05 The electric lights cast them in alternating pools of glare and shadow.
01 Von Rumpel sits on an ammunition box and eats cheese from a tube.
02 The colonel in charge of defending Saint-Malo has made speeches to these men, speeches about valor, about how any hour the Hermann Gorling Division will break the American line at the Avalanches, how reinforcements will pour in from Italy and possibly Belgium, tanks and Stukas, truckloads of fifty-millimeter mortars, how the people of Berlin believe in them like a nun believes in God,
02 how no one will abandon his post and if he does he’ll be executed as a deserter, but von Rumpel is thinking now of the vine inside of him.
01 A black vine that has grown branches through his legs and arms.
02 Gnawing his abdomen from the inside.
03 Here in this peninsular fortress just outside Saint-Malo cut off from the retreating lines, it seems only a matter of time until Canadians and Brits and the bright American eyes of the Eighty-third Division will be swarming the city, scouring the homes for marauding Huns, doing whatever it is they do when they take prisoners.
01 Only a matter of time until the black vine chokes off his heart.
01 “What?” says a soldier beside him.
01 Von Rumpel sniffs.
02 “I do not think I said anything.”
01 The soldier squints back into the oatmeal in his helmet.
01 Von Rumpel squeezes out the last of the vile, salty cheese and drops the empty tube between his feet.
02 The house is still there.
03 His army still holds the city.
04 For a few hours the fires will burn, and then the Germans will swarm like ants back to their positions and fight for another day.
01 He will wait.
02 Wait and wait and wait, and when the smoke clears, he will go in.
8 AUGUST 1944
ATELIER DE REPARATION
01 Bernt the engineer squirms in pain, grinding his face into the back of the golden armchair.
02 Something wrong with his leg and something worse with his chest.
01 The radio is hopeless.
02 The power cable has been severed and the lead to the aboveground antenna is lost and Werner would not be surprised if the selector panel is broken.
03 In the weakening amber of Volkheimer’s field light, he stares at one crushed plug after another.
01 The bombing seems to have destroyed the hearing in his left ear.
02 His right, as far as he can tell, is gradually coming back.
03 Beyond the ringing, he begins to hear.
01 Ticking of fires as they cool.
01 Groaning of the hotel above.
01 Strange miscellaneous dripping.
01 And Volkheimer as he hacks intermittently, insanely, at the rubble blocking the stairwell.
02 Volkhemer’s technique, apparently, is this: he crouches beneath the buckled ceiling,
00 panting, holding a piece of twisted rebar in one hand.
01 He switches on his flashlight and scans the packed stairwell for anything he might drag out of it.
02 Memorizing positions.
03 Then he switches off the light, to preserve its battery, and goes at his task in the darkness.
04 When the light comes back on, the mess of the stairwell looks the same.
05 An impacted welter of metal and brickwork and timber so thick that it’s hard to believe twenty men could get through.
01 Please, Volkheimer says.
02 Whether he knows he is saying it aloud or not, Werner cannot say.
03 But Werner hears it in his right ear like a distant prayer.
06 As though everything in the war to this point was tolerable to twenty-one-old Frank Volkheimer but not this final injustice.
01 The fires above ought to have sucked the last oxygen out of this hole by now.
02 They all should have asphyxiated.
03 Debts paid, accounts settled.
04 And yet they breathe.
05 The three splintered beams in the ceiling hold up God knows what load: ten tons of carbonized hotel and the corpses of eight anti-aircraft men and untold unexploded ordnance.
06 Maybe Werner for his ten thousand small betrayals and Bernd for his innumerable crimes and Volkheimer for being the instrument, the executor of the orders, the blade of the Reich ― maybe the three of them have some greater price to pay, some final sentence to be handed down.
01 First a corsair’s cellar, built to safeguard gold, weapons, an eccentric’s beekeeping equipment.
02 Then a wine cellar.
03 Then a handyman’s nook.
04 Atelier de reparation, thinks Werner, a chamber in which to make reparations.
05 As appropriate a place as any.
06 Certainly there would be people in the world who believe these three have reparations to make.
8 AUGUST 1944
01 When Marie-Laure wakes, the little model house is pinned beneath her chest, and she is sweating through her great-uncle’s coat.
02 Is it dawn?
03 She climbs the ladder and presses her ear to the trapdoor.
04 No more sirens.
05 Maybe the house burned to the ground while she slept.
06 Or else she slept through the last hours of the war and the city has been liberated.
07 There could be people in the streets: volunteers, gendarmes, fire brigades.
08 Even Americans.
09 She should go up through the trapdoor and walk out the front door onto the rue Vauborel.
01 But if Germany has held the city?
02 What if Germans are right now marching from house to house, shooting whomever they please?
01 She will wait.
02 At any moment Etienne could be making his way toward her, fighting with his last breath to reach her.
03 Or he is crouched somewhere, cradling his head.
04 Seeing demons.
01 Or he is dead.
01 She tells herself to save the bread, but she is famished and the loaf is getting stale, and before she knows it, she has finished it.
01 If only she had brought her novel down with her.
01 Marie-Laure roves the cellar in her stocking feet.
02 Here’s a rolled rug, its hollow filled with what smell like wood shavings: mice.
03 Here’s a crate that contains old papers.
04 Antique lamp.
05 Madame Manec’s canning supplies.
06 And here, at the back of a shelf near the ceiling, two small miracles.
07 Full cans!
08 Hardly any food remains in the entire kitchen ― only cornmeal and a sheaf of lavender and two or three bottles of skunked Beaujolais ― but down here in the cellar, two heavy cans.
03 Corn kernels, maybe.
04 Not oil, she prays; aren’t oil cans smaller?
05 When she shakes them, they offer no clues.
06 Marie-Laure tries to calculate the chances that one might contain Madome Manec’s peaches, the white peaches from Languedoc that she’d buy by the crate and peel and quarter and boil with sugar.
07 The whole kitchen would fill with their smell and color, Marie-Laure’s fingers sticky with them, a kind of rapture.
01 Two cans Etienne missed.
01 But to raise one’s hopes is to risk their falling further.
03 Or beans.
04 These would be more than welcome.
05 She deposits one can in each pocket of her uncle’s coat, and checks again for the little house in the pocket of her dress, and sits on a trunk and clasps her cane in both hands and tries not to think about her bladder.
01 Once, when she was eight or nine, her father took her to the Pantheon in Paris to describe Foucault’s pendulum.
02 Its bob, he said, was a golden sphere shaped like a child’s top.
03 It swung from a wire that was sixty-seven meters long; because its trajectory changed over time, he explained, it proved beyond all doubt that the earth rotated.
04 But what Marie-Laure remembered, standing at the rail as it whistled past, was her father saying that Foucault’s pendulum would never stop.
05 It would keep swinging, she understood, after she and her father left the Pantheon, after she had fallen asleep that night.
06 After she had forgotten about it, and lived her entire life, and died.
01 Now it is as if she can hear the pendulum in the air in front of her: that huge golden bob, as wide across as a barrel, swinging on and on, never stopping.
02 Grooving and regrooving its inhuman truth into the floor.
8 AUGUST 1944
NUMBER 4 RUE VAUBOREL
01 Ashes, ashes: snow in August.
02 The shelling resumed sporadically after breakfast, and now, around six P.M., has ceased.
03 A machine gun fires somewhere, a sound like a chain of beads passing through fingers.
04 Sergeant Major von Rumpel carries a canteen, a half dozen ampules of morphine, and his field pistol.
05 Over the seawall.
06 Over the causeway toward the huge smoldering bulwark of Saint-Malo.
07 Out in the harbor, the jetty has been shattered in multiple places.
08 A half submerged fishing boat drifts stern up.
01 Inside the old city, mountains of stone blocks, sacks, shutters, branches, iron grillwork, and chimney pots fill the rue de Dinan.
02 Smashed flower boxes and charred window flames and shattered glass.
03 Some buildings still smoke, and though von Rumpel keeps a damp handkerchief pressed over his mouth and nose, he has to stop several times to gather his breath.
04 Here a dead horse, starting to bloat.
01 Here a chair upholstered in striped green velvet.
02 Here the torn shreds of a canopy proclaim a brasserie.
03 Curtains swing idly from broken windows in the strange, flickering light; they unnerve him.
04 Swallows fly to and fro, looking for lost nests, and someone very far away might be screaming, or it might be the wind.
05 The blasts have stripped many shop signs off their brackets, and the gibbets hang forsaken.
01 A schnauzer trots after him, whining.
02 No one shouts down from a window to warn him away from mines.
03 Indeed, in four blocks he sees only one soul, a woman outside what was, the day before, the movie-house.
04 Dustpan in one hand, bloom nowhere to be seen.
05 She looks up at him, dazed.
06 Through an open door behind her, rows of seats have crumpled beneath great slabs of ceiling.
07 Beyond them the screen stands unblemished, not even stained by smoke.
01 “Show’s not till eight,” she says in her Breton French, and he nods as he limps past.
02 On the ru Vauborel, vast quantities of slate tiles have slid off roofs and detonated in the streets.
03 Scraps of burned paper float overhead.
04 No gulls.
05 Even if the house has caught fire, he thinks, the diamond will be there.
06 He will pluck it from the ashes like a warm egg.
01 But the tall, slender house reminds nearly unscathed.
02 Eleven windows on the facade, most of the glass out.
03 Blue window flames, old granite of grays and tans.
01 Four of its six flower boxes hang on.
02 The mandated list of occupants clings to its front door.
01 M. Etienne LeBlanc, age 63.
01 Mlle Marie-Laure LeBlanc, age 16.
01 All the dangers he is willing to endure.
02 For the Reich.
03 For himself.
01 No one stops him.
02 No shells come whistling in.
03 Sometimes the eye of a hurricane is the safest place to be.