Months after the death of Madame Manec, Marie-Laure still waits to hear the old woman come up the stairs, her labored breathing, her sailor’s drawl. Jesus’s mother, child, it’s freezing! She never comes.
Shoes at the foot of the bed, beneath the model. Cane in the corner. Down to the first floor, where her knapsack hangs on its peg. Out. Twenty-two paces down the rue Vauborel. Then right for sixteen storm drains. Turn left on the rue Robert Surcouf. Nine more drains to the bakery.
One ordinary loaf, please. And how is your uncle?
My uncle is well, thank you.
Sometimes the loaf has a white scroll inside and sometimes it does not. Sometimes Madame Ruelle has managed to procure a few groceries for Marie-Laure: cabbage, red peppers, soap. Back to the intersection with the rue d’Estrées. Instead of turning left onto the rue Vauborel, Marie-Laure continues straight. Fifty steps to the ramparts, a hundred or so more along the base of the walls to the mouth of the alley that grows ever narrower.
With her fingers, she finds the lock; from her coat she pulls the iron key Harold Bazin gave her a year before. The water is icy and shin-deep; her toes go numb in an instant. But the grotto itself comprises its own slick universe, and inside this universe spin countless galaxies: here, in the upturned half of a single mussel shell, lives a barnacle and a tiny spindle shell occupied by a still smaller hermit crab. And on the shell of the crab? A yet smaller barnacle. And on that barnacle?
In the damp box of the old kennel, the sound of the sea washes away all other sounds; she tends to the snails as though to plants in a garden. Tide to tide, moment to moment: she comes to listen to the creatures suck and shift and squeak, to think of her father in his cell, of Madame Manec in her field of Queen Anne’s lace, of her uncle confined for two decades inside his own house.
Then she feels her way back to the gate and locks it behind her.
That winter the electricity is out more than it is on; Etienne links a pair of marine batteries to the transmitter so that he can broadcast when the power is off. They burn crates and papers and even antique furniture to keep warm. Marie-Laure drags the heavy rag rug from the floor of Madame Manec’s apartment all the way to the sixth floor and drapes it over her quilt. Some midnights, her room grows so cold that she half believes she can hear frost settling onto the floor.
Any footfall in the street could be a policeman. Any rumble of an engine could be a detachment sent to haul them away.
Upstairs Etienne broadcasts again and she thinks: I should station myself by the front door in case they come. I could buy him a few minutes. But it is too cold. Far better to stay in bed beneath the weight of the rug and dream herself back into the museum, trail her fingers along remembered walls, make her way across the echoing Grand Gallery toward the key pound. All she has to do is cross the tiled floor and turn left and there Papa will be behind the counter, standing at his key cutter.
He’ll say, What took you so long, bluebird?
He’ll say, I will never leave you, not in a million years.