Chapter no 117 – Rue des Patriarches‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Von Rumpel enters an apartment house in the 5th arrondissement. The simpering landlady on the first floor takes the sheaf of ration tickets he offers and buries them in her housecoat. Cats swarm her ankles. Behind her, an overdecorated flat reeks of dead apple blossoms, confusion, old age.

“When did they leave, Madame?”

“Summer of 1940.” She looks as if she might hiss. “Who pays the rent?”

“I don’t know, Monsieur.”

“Do the checks come from the Natural History Museum?” “I can’t say.”

“When was the last time someone came?” “No one comes. The checks are mailed.” “From where?”

“I don’t know.”

“And no one leaves or enters the flat?”

“Not since that summer,” she says, and retreats with her vulture face and vulture fingernails into the redolent dark.

Up he goes. A single dead bolt on the fourth floor marks the locksmith’s flat. Inside, the windows are boarded over with wood veneer, and an airless, pearly light seeps through the knotholes. As though he has climbed into a dark box hung inside a column of pure light. Cabinets hang open, sofa cushions sit slightly cockeyed, a kitchen chair is toppled on its side. Everything speaks of a hasty departure or a rigorous search or both. A black rim of algae rings the toilet bowl where the water has slipped away. He inspects the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, some fiendish and immitigable hope flaring within him: What if—?

Along the top of a workbench stand tiny benches, tiny lampposts, tiny trapezoids of polished wood. Little vise, little box of nails, little bottles of glue long since hardened. Beside the bench, beneath a dropcloth, a surprise: a complicated model of the 5th arrondissement. The buildings

are unpainted but otherwise beautifully detailed. Shutters, doors, windows, storm drains. No people. A toy?

In the closet hang a few moth-eaten girl’s dresses and a sweater on which embroidered goats chew flowers. Dusty pinecones line the windowsill, arranged large to small. On the floor of the kitchen, friction strips have been nailed into the wood. A place of quiet discipline. Calm. Order. A single line of twine runs between the table and the bathroom. A clock stands dead without glass on its face. It’s not until he finds three huge spiral-bound folios of Jules Verne in Braille that he solves it.

A safe maker. Brilliant with locks. Lives within walking distance of the museum. Employed there all his adult life. Humble, no visible aspirations for wealth. A blind daughter. Plenty of reasons to be loyal.

“Where are you hiding?” he says aloud to the room. The dust swirls in the strange light.

Inside a bag or a box. Tucked behind a baseboard or stashed in a compartment beneath the floorboards or plastered up inside a wall. He opens the kitchen drawers and checks behind them. But the previous searchers would have checked all of this.

Slowly his attention returns to the scale model of the neighborhood. Hundreds of tiny houses with mansard roofs and balconies. It is this exact neighborhood, he realizes, colorless and depopulated and miniaturized. A tiny spectral version of it. One building in particular appears smoothed and worn by the insistence of fingers: the building he’s in. Home.

He puts his eye to street level, becomes a god looming over the Latin Quarter. With two fingers, he could pinch out anyone he chooses, nudge half a city into shadow. Flip it upside down. He sets his fingers atop the roof of the apartment house in which he kneels. Wiggles it back and forth. It lifts free of the model easily, as though designed to do so. He rotates it in front of his eyes: eighteen little windows, six balconies, a tiny entrance door. Down here—behind this window—lurks the little landlady with her cats. And here, on the fourth floor, himself.

On its bottom he finds a tiny hole, not at all unlike the keyhole in the jewel safe in the museum he saw three years before. The house is, he realizes, a container. A receptacle. He plays with it awhile, trying to solve it. Turns it over, tries the bottom, the side.

His heart rate soars. Something wet and feverish rises onto his tongue. Do you have something inside of you?

Von Rumpel sets the little house on the floor, raises his foot, and crushes it.

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