Chapter no 102 – The Wardrobe‌

All the Light We Cannot See

In the days following the death of Madame Manec, Etienne does not come out of his study. Marie-Laure imagines him hunched on the davenport, mumbling children’s rhymes and watching ghosts shuttle through the walls. Behind the door, his silence is so complete that she worries he has managed to depart the world altogether.

“Uncle? Etienne?”

Madame Blanchard walks Marie-Laure to St. Vincent’s for Madame Manec’s memorial. Madame Fontineau cooks enough potato soup to last a week. Madame Guiboux brings jam. Madame Ruelle, somehow, has baked a crumb cake.

Hours wear out and fall away. Marie-Laure sets a full plate outside Etienne’s door at night and collects an empty plate in the morning. She stands alone in Madame Manec’s room and smells peppermint, candle wax, six decades of loyalty. Housemaid, nurse, mother, confederate, counselor, chef—what ten thousand things was Madame Manec to Etienne? To them all? German sailors sing a drunken song in the street, and a house spider over the stove spins a new web every night, and to Marie-Laure this is a double cruelty: that everything else keeps living, that the spinning earth does not pause for even an instant in its trip around the sun.

Poor child.

Poor Monsieur LeBlanc. Like they’re cursed.

If only her father would come through the kitchen door. Smile at the ladies, set his palms on Marie-Laure’s cheeks. Five minutes with him. One minute.

After four days, Etienne comes out of his room. The stairs creak as he descends, and the women in the kitchen fall silent. In a grave voice, he asks everyone to please leave. “I needed time to say goodbye, and now I must look after myself and my niece. Thank you.”

As soon as the kitchen door has closed, he turns the dead bolts and takes Marie-Laure’s hands. “All the lights are off now. Very good.

Please, stand over here.”

Chairs slide away. The kitchen table slides away. She can hear him fumbling at the ring in the center of the floor: the trapdoor comes up. He goes down into the cellar.

“Uncle? What do you need?” “This,” he calls.

“What is it?”

“An electric saw.”

She can feel something bright kindle in her abdomen. Etienne starts up the stairs, Marie-Laure trailing behind. Second floor, third, fourth fifth sixth, left turn into her grandfather’s room. He opens the doors of the gigantic wardrobe, lifts out his brother’s old clothes, and places them on the bed. He runs an extension cord out onto the landing and plugs it in. He says, “It will be loud.”

She says, “Good.”

Etienne climbs into the back of the wardrobe, and the saw yowls to life. The sound permeates the walls, the floor, Marie-Laure’s chest. She wonders how many neighbors hear it, if somewhere a German at his breakfast has cocked his head to listen.

Etienne removes a rectangle from the back of the wardrobe, then cuts through the attic door behind it. He shuts down the saw and wriggles through the raw hole, up the ladder behind it, and into the garret. She follows. All morning Etienne crawls along the attic floor with cables and pliers and tools her fingers do not understand, weaving himself into the center of what she imagines as an intricate electronic net. He murmurs to himself; he fetches thick booklets or electrical components from various rooms on the lower stories. The attic creaks; houseflies draw electric-blue loops in the air. Late in the evening, Marie-Laure descends the ladder and falls asleep in her grandfather’s bed to the sound of her great-uncle working above her.

When she wakes, barn swallows are chirring beneath the eaves and music is raining down through the ceiling.

“Clair de Lune,” a song that makes her think of leaves fluttering, and of the hard ribbons of sand beneath her feet at low tide. The music slinks and rises and settles back to earth, and then the young voice of her long-dead grandfather speaks: There are ninety-six thousand kilometers of blood vessels in the human body, children! Almost enough to wind around the earth two and a half times . . .

Etienne comes down the seven ladder rungs and squeezes through the back of the wardrobe and takes her hands in his. Before he speaks, she knows what he will say. “Your father asked me to keep you safe.”

“I know.”

“This will be dangerous. It is not a game.” “I want to do it. Madame would want—” “Tell it to me. Tell me the whole routine.”

“Twenty-two paces down the rue Vauborel to the rue d’Estrées. Then right for sixteen storm drains. Left on the rue Robert Surcouf. Nine more storm drains to the bakery. I go to the counter and say, ‘One ordinary loaf, please.’”

“How will she reply?”

“She will be surprised. But I am supposed to say, ‘One ordinary loaf,’ and she is supposed to say, ‘And how is your uncle?’”

“She will ask about me?”

“She is supposed to. That’s how she will know that you are willing to help. It’s what Madame suggested. Part of the protocol.”

“And you will say?”

“I will say, ‘My uncle is well, thank you.’ And I will take the loaf and put it in my knapsack and come home.”

“This will happen even now? Without Madame?” “Why wouldn’t it?”

“How will you pay?” “A ration ticket.”

“Do we have any of those?”

“In the drawer downstairs. And you have money, don’t you?” “Yes. We have some money. How will you come back home?” “Straight back.”

“By which route?”

“Nine storm drains down the rue Robert Surcouf. Right on the rue d’Estrées. Sixteen drains back to the rue Vauborel. I know it all, Uncle, I have it memorized. I’ve been to the bakery three hundred times.”

“You mustn’t go anywhere else. You mustn’t go to the beaches.” “I’ll come directly back.”

“You promise?” “I promise.”

“Then go, Marie-Laure. Go like the wind.”

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