For all of Marie-Laure’s four years in Saint-Malo, the bells at St. Vincent’s have marked the hours. But now the bells have ceased. She does not know how long she has been trapped in the attic or even if it is day or night. Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.
Her thirst becomes so acute, she considers biting into her own arm to drink the liquid that courses there. She takes the cans of food from her great-uncle’s coat and sets her lips on their rims. Both taste of tin. Their contents just a millimeter away.
Don’t risk it, says the voice of her father. Don’t risk the noise.
Just one, Papa. I will save the other. The German is gone. Almost certainly he is gone by now.
Why hasn’t the trip wire sprung?
Because he cut the wire. Or I slept through the bell. Any of a half dozen other reasons.
Why would he leave when what he seeks is here?
Who knows what he seeks?
You know what he seeks.
I am so hungry, Papa.
Try to think about something else. Roaring falls of clear, cool water. You will survive, ma chérie.
How can you know?
Because of the diamond in your coat pocket. Because I left it here to protect you.
All it has done is put me in more danger.
Then why hasn’t the house been hit? Why hasn’t it caught fire?
It’s a rock, Papa. A pebble. There is only luck, bad or good. Chance and physics. Remember?
You are alive.
I am only alive because I have not yet died.
Do not open the can. He will hear you. He will not hesitate to kill you.
How can he kill me if I cannot die?
Round and round the questions run; Marie-Laure’s mind threatens to boil over. Just now she has pulled herself up onto the piano bench at the end of the attic and is running her hands over Etienne’s transmitter, trying to apprehend its switches and coils—here the phonograph, here the microphone, here one of four leads connected to the pair of batteries
—when she hears something below her.
Very carefully, she lowers herself off the bench and presses her ear to the floor.
He is directly below her. Urinating into the sixth-floor toilet. Dribbling out a sad intermittent trickle and groaning as though the process causes him torment. Between groans, he calls, “Das Häuschen fehlt, wo bist du Häuschen?”
Something is wrong with him.
“Das Häuschen fehlt, wo bist du Häuschen?”
No replies. Whom is he talking to?
From somewhere beyond the house come the thump of distant mortars and the screech of shells hurtling overhead. She listens to the German move from the toilet toward her bedroom. Limping that same limp. Muttering. Unhinged. Häuschen: what does it mean?
The springs of her mattress creak; she would know that sound anywhere. Has he been sleeping in her bed all this time? Six deep reports sound one after the other, deeper than antiaircraft guns, farther away. Naval guns. Then come drums, cymbals, the gongs of explosions, drawing a crimson lattice over the roof. The lull is ending.
Abyss in her gut, desert in her throat—Marie-Laure takes one of the cans of food from her coat. The brick and the knife within reach.
If I keep listening to you, Papa, I will die of starvation with food in my hands.
Her bedroom below remains quiet. The shells come patiently, each round whizzing over at a predictable interval, scratching a long scarlet parabola over the roof. She uses their noise to open the can. EEEEEEEEEE goes the shell, ding goes the brick onto the knife, the knife onto the can. Dull terrible detonation somewhere. Shell splinters zinging into the walls of a dozen houses.
EEEEEEEE ding. EEEEEEEE ding. With each blow a prayer. Do not let him hear.
Five bashes and it’s leaking liquid. With the sixth, she manages to saw open a quadrant and bend up the lid with the blade of the knife.
She raises it and drinks. Cool, salty: it is beans. Canned cooked green beans. The water they have been boiled in is supremely tasty; her whole body seems to reach up to absorb it. She empties the can. Inside her head, her father has gone quiet.