The last days of May 1944 in Saint-Malo feel to Marie-Laure like the last days of May 1940 in Paris: huge and swollen and redolent. As if every living thing rushes to establish a foothold before some cataclysm arrives. The air on the way to Madame Ruelle’s bakery smells of myrtle and magnolia and verbena; wisteria vines erupt in blossom; everywhere hang arcades and curtains and pendants of flowers.
She counts storm drains: at twenty-one she passes the butcher, the sound of a hose splashing onto tile; at twenty-five she is at the bakery. She places a ration coupon on the counter. “One ordinary loaf, please.”
“And how is your uncle?” The words are the same, but the voice of Madame Ruelle is different. Galvanized.
“My uncle is well, thank you.”
Madame Ruelle does something she has never done: she reaches across the counter and cups Marie-Laure’s face in her floury palms. “You amazing child.”
“Are you crying, Madame? Is everything all right?”
“Everything is wonderful, Marie-Laure.” The hands withdraw; the loaf comes to her: heavy, warm, larger than normal. “Tell your uncle that the hour has come. That the mermaids have bleached hair.”
“The mermaids, Madame?”
“They are coming, dear. Within the week. Put out your hands.” From across the counter comes a wet, cool cabbage, as big as a cannonball. Marie-Laure can hardly fit it into the mouth of her knapsack.
“Thank you, Madame.” “Now get home.”
“Is it clear ahead?”
“As water from the rock. Nothing in your way. Today is a beautiful day. A day to remember.”
The hour has come. Les sirènes ont les cheveux décolorés. Her uncle has been hearing rumors on his radio that across the Channel, in England, a tremendous armada is gathering, ship after ship being requisitioned—fishing vessels and ferries retrofitted, equipped with
weapons: five thousand boats, eleven thousand airplanes, fifty thousand vehicles.
At the intersection with the rue d’Estrées, she turns not left, toward home, but right. Fifty meters to the ramparts, a hundred or so more along the base of the walls; from her pocket she pulls Harold Bazin’s iron key. The beaches have been closed for several months, studded with mines and walled off with razor wire, but here in the old kennel, out of sight of everyone, Marie-Laure can sit among her snails and dream herself into the mind of the great marine biologist Aronnax, both guest of honor and prisoner on Captain Nemo’s great machine of curiosity, free of nations and politics, cruising through the kaleidoscopic wonders of the sea. Oh, to be free! To lie once more in the Jardin des Plantes with Papa. To feel his hands on hers, to hear the petals of the tulips tremble in the wind. He made her the glowing hot center of his life; he made her feel as if every step she took was important.
Are you still there, Papa?
They are coming, dear. Within the week.