Chapter no 106 – Fall‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Storms rinse the sky, the beaches, the streets, and a red sun dips into the sea, setting all the west-facing granite in Saint-Malo on fire, and three limousines with wrapped mufflers glide down the rue de la Crosse like wraiths, and a dozen or so German officers, accompanied by men carrying stage lights and movie cameras, climb the steps to the Bastion de la Hollande and stroll the ramparts in the cold.

From his fifth-floor window, Etienne watches them through a brass telescope, nearly twenty in all: captains and majors and even a lieutenant colonel holding his coat at the collar and gesturing at forts on the outer islands, one of the enlisted men trying to light a cigarette in the wind, the others laughing as his hat goes flying over the battlements.

Across the street, from the front door of Claude Levitte’s house, three women spill out laughing. Lights burn in Claude’s windows, though the rest of the block has no electricity. Someone opens a third-story window and throws out a shot glass, and off it goes spinning, over and over, down toward the rue Vauborel, and out of sight.

Etienne lights a candle and climbs to the sixth floor. Marie-Laure has fallen asleep. From his pocket, he takes a coil of paper and unrolls it. He has already given up trying to crack the code: he has written out the numbers, gridded them, added, multiplied; nothing has come of it. And yet it has. Because Etienne has stopped feeling nauseated in the afternoons; his vision has stayed clear, his heart untroubled. Indeed, it has been over a month since he has had to curl up against the wall in his study and pray that he does not see ghosts shambling through the walls. When Marie-Laure comes through the front door with the bread, when he’s opening the tiny scroll in his fingers, lowering his mouth to the microphone, he feels unshakable; he feels alive.

56778. 21. 4567. 1094. 467813.

Then the time and frequency for the next broadcast.

They have been at it for several months, new slips of paper arriving inside a loaf of bread every few days, and lately Etienne plays music. Always at night and never more than a shard of song: sixty or ninety

seconds at the most. Debussy or Ravel or Massenet or Charpentier. He sets the microphone in the bell of his electrophone, as he did years before, and lets the record spin.

Who listens? Etienne imagines shortwave receivers disguised as oatmeal boxes or tucked under floorboards, receivers buried beneath flagstones or concealed inside bassinets. He imagines two or three dozen listeners up and down the coast—maybe more tuning in out at sea, captain’s sets on free ships hauling tomatoes or refugees or guns— Englishmen who expect the numbers but not the music, who must wonder: Why?

Tonight he plays Vivaldi. “L’Autunno—Allegro.” A record his brother bought at a shop on the rue Sainte-Marguerite four decades ago for fifty-five centimes.

The harpsichord plucks along, the violins make big baroque flourishes

—the low, angled space of the attic brims with sound. Beyond the slates, a block away and thirty yards below, twelve German officers smile for cameras.

Listen to this, thinks Etienne. Hear this.

Someone touches his shoulder. He has to brace himself against the sloping wall to avoid falling over. Marie-Laure stands behind him in her nightdress.

The violins spiral down, then back up. Etienne takes Marie-Laure’s hand and together, beneath the low, sloping roof—the record spinning, the transmitter sending it over the ramparts, right through the bodies of the Germans and out to sea—they dance. He spins her; her fingers flicker through the air. In the candlelight, she looks of another world, her face all freckles, and in the center of the freckles those two eyes hang unmoving like the egg cases of spiders. They do not track him, but they do not unnerve him, either; they seem almost to see into a separate, deeper place, a world that consists only of music.

Graceful. Lean. Coordinated as she whirls, though how she knows what dancing is, he could never guess.

The song plays on. He lets it go too long. The antenna is still up, probably dimly visible against the sky; the whole attic might as well shine like a beacon. But in the candlelight, in the sweet rush of the concerto, Marie-Laure bites her lower lip, and her face gives off a secondary glow, reminding him of the marshes beyond the town walls, in those winter dusks when the sun has set but isn’t fully swallowed, and

big patches of reeds catch red pools of light and burn—places he used to go with his brother, in what seems like lifetimes ago.

This, he thinks, is what the numbers mean.

The concerto ends. A wasp goes tap tap tap along the ceiling. The transmitter remains on, the microphone tucked into the bell of the electrophone as the needle traces the outermost groove. Marie-Laure breathes heavily, smiling.

After she has gone back to sleep, after Etienne has blown out his candle, he kneels for a long time beside his bed. The bony figure of Death rides the streets below, stopping his mount now and then to peer into windows. Horns of fire on his head and smoke leaking from his nostrils and, in his skeletal hand, a list newly charged with addresses. Gazing first at the crew of officers unloading from their limousines into the château.

Then at the glowing rooms of the perfumer Claude Levitte. Then at the dark tall house of Etienne LeBlanc.

Pass us by, Horseman. Pass this house by.

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