Chapter no 111 – The Messages‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Occupation authorities decree that every house must have a list of its occupants fixed to its door: M. Etienne LeBlanc, age 62Mlle Marie-Laure LeBlanc, age 15. Marie-Laure tortures herself with daydreams of feasts laid out on long tables: platters of sliced pork loin, roasted apples, banana flambé, pineapples with whipped cream.

One morning in the summer of 1943, she walks to the bakery in a slow-falling rain. The queue stretches out the door. When Marie-Laure finally reaches the head of the line, Madame Ruelle takes her hands and speaks very softly. “Ask if he can also read this.” Beneath the loaf comes a folded piece of paper. Marie-Laure puts the loaf into her knapsack and bunches the paper in her fist. She passes over a ration ticket, finds her way directly home, and dead-bolts the door behind her.

Etienne shuffles downstairs. “What does it say, Uncle?”

“It says, Monsieur Droguet wants his daughter in Saint-Coulomb to know that he is recovering well.

“She said it’s important.” “What does it mean?”

Marie-Laure removes her knapsack and reaches inside and tears off a hunk of bread. She says, “I think it means that Monsieur Droguet wants his daughter to know that he is all right.”

Over the next weeks, more notes come. A birth in Saint-Vincent. A dying grandmother in La Mare. Madame Gardinier in La Rabinais wants her son to know that she forgives him. If secret messages lurk inside these missives—if Monsieur Fayou had a heart attack and passed gently away means Blow up the switching yard at Rennes—Etienne cannot say. What matters is that people must be listening, that ordinary citizens must have radios, that they seem to need to hear from each other. He never leaves his house, sees no one save Marie-Laure, and yet somehow he has found himself at the nexus of a web of information.

He keys the microphone and reads the numbers, then the messages. He broadcasts them on five different bands, gives instructions for the

next transmission, and plays a bit of an old record. At most the whole exercise takes six minutes.

Too long. Almost certainly too long.

Yet no one comes. The two bells do not ring. No German patrols come banging up the stairs to put bullets in their heads.

Although she has them memorized, most nights Marie-Laure asks Etienne to read her the letters from her father. Tonight he sits on the edge of her bed.

Today I saw an oak tree disguised as a chestnut tree. I know you will do the right thing.

If you ever wish to understand, look inside Etienne’s house, inside the house.

“What do you think he means by writing inside the house twice?” “We’ve been over it so many times, Marie.”

“What do you think he is doing right now?” “Sleeping, child. I am sure of it.”

She rolls onto her side, and he hauls the hem of her quilts past her shoulders and blows out the candle and stares into the miniature rooftops and chimneys of the model at the foot of her bed. A memory rises: Etienne was in a field east of the city with his brother. It was the summer when fireflies showed up in Saint-Malo, and their father was very excited, building long-handled nets for his boys and giving them jars with wire to fasten over the tops, and Etienne and Henri raced through the tall grass as the fireflies floated away from them, illuming on and off, always seeming to rise just beyond their reach, as if the earth were smoldering and these were sparks that their footfalls had prodded free.

Henri had said he wanted to put so many beetles in his window that ships could see his bedroom from miles away.

If there are fireflies this summer, they do not come down the rue Vauborel. Now it seems there are only shadows and silence. Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. Madame Guiboux, mother of the shoemaker, has left town. As has old Madame Blanchard. So many windows are dark. It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished.

But there is the machine in the attic at work again. A spark in the night.

A faint clattering rises from the alley, and Etienne peers through the shutters of Marie-Laure’s bedroom, down six stories, and sees the ghost of Madame Manec standing there in the moonlight. She holds out a hand, and sparrows land one by one on her arms, and she tucks each one into her coat.

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