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Chapter no 104 – One Ordinary Loaf‌

All the Light We Cannot See

They stand in the kitchen with the curtains drawn. She still feels the exhilaration of leaving the bakery with the warm weight of the loaf in her knapsack.

Etienne tears apart the bread. “There.” He sets a tiny paper scroll, no bigger than a cowrie shell, in her palm.

“What does it say?”

“Numbers. Lots of them. The first three might be frequencies, I can’t be sure. The fourth—twenty-three hundred—might be an hour.”

“Will we do it now?” “We’ll wait until it is dark.”

Etienne works wires up through the house, threading them behind walls, connecting one to a bell on the third floor, beneath the telephone table, another to a second bell in the attic, and a third to the front gate. Three times he has Marie-Laure test it: she stands in the street and swings open the outer gate, and from deep inside the house come two faint rings.

Next he builds a false back into the wardrobe, installing it on a sliding track so it can be opened from either side. At dusk they drink tea and chew the mealy, dense bread from the Ruelles’ bakery. When it is fully dark, Marie-Laure follows her great-uncle up the stairs, through the sixth-floor room, and up the ladder into the attic. Etienne raises the heavy telescoping antenna alongside the line of the chimney. He flips switches, and the attic fills with a delicate crackle.

“Ready?” He sounds like her father when he was about to say something silly. In her memory, Marie-Laure hears the two policemen: People have been arrested for less. And Madame Manec: Don’t you want to be alive before you die?

“Yes.”

He clears his throat. He switches on the microphone and says, “567, 32, 3011, 50506, 110, 90, 146, 7751.”

Off go the numbers, winging out across rooftops, across the sea, flying to who knows what destinations. To England, to Paris, to the dead.

He switches to a second frequency and repeats the transmission. A third. Then he shuts the whole thing off. The machine ticks as it cools.

“What do they mean, Uncle?” “I don’t know.”

“Do they translate into words?” “I suppose they must.”

They go down the ladder and clamber out through the wardrobe. No soldiers wait in the hall with guns drawn. Nothing seems different at all. A line comes back to Marie-Laure from Jules Verne: Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.

Etienne laughs as though to himself. “Do you remember what Madame said about the boiling frog?”

“Yes, Uncle.”

“I wonder, who was supposed to be the frog? Her? Or the Germans?”

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