Chapter no 136 – Boulangerie‌

All the Light We Cannot See

full day passes before Werner can find an hour to return. A wooden door, iron gate across that. Blue trim on the windows. The morning fog is so dense that he cannot see the roofline. He entertains pipe dreams: the Frenchman will invite him in. They’ll drink coffee, discuss his long-ago broadcasts. Maybe they’ll investigate some important empirical problem that has been troubling him for years. Maybe he’ll show Werner the transmitter.

Laughable. If Werner rings the bell, the old man will assume he’s being arrested as a terrorist. That he might be shot where he stands. The antenna on the chimney in itself is cause for execution.

Werner could bang on the door, march the old man away. He would be a hero.

The mist begins to suffuse with light. Somewhere, someone opens a door and closes it again. Werner remembers how Jutta would write her letters in a flurry and scribble The Professor, France on the envelope and drop them into the mailbox in the square. Imagining her voice might find his ear as his had found hers. One in ten million.

All night he has practiced the French in his head: Avant la guerre. Je vous ai entendu à la radio. He will keep his rifle over his shoulder, hands at his sides; he will look small, elfin, no threat at all. The old man will be startled, but his fear will be manageable. He’ll listen. But as Werner stands in the slowly dispersing fog at the end of the rue Vauborel, rehearsing what he’ll say, the front door of Number 4 opens, and out steps not an eminent old scientist but a girl. A slender, pretty, auburn-haired girl with a very freckled face, in glasses and a gray dress, carrying a knapsack over one shoulder. She heads to her left, making directly for him, and Werner’s heart twists in his chest.

The street is too narrow; she will have caught him staring. But her head tracks in a curious way, her face tilted off to one side. Werner sees the roving cane and opaque lenses of her glasses and realizes that she is blind.

Her cane clicks along the cobbles. Already she is twenty paces away. No one seems to be watching; all the curtains are drawn. Fifteen paces away. Her stockings have runs in them and her shoes are too large and the woolen panels of her dress are mottled with stains. Ten paces, five. She passes within arm’s reach, her head slightly higher than his own. Without thinking, hardly understanding what he’s doing, Werner follows. The tip of her cane shudders as it knocks against the runnels, finding every storm drain. She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog. She turns right, then left, traverses half a block and steps neatly through the open door of a shop. A rectangular sign above it reads: Boulangerie.

Werner stops. Above him, the mist gives way in shreds, and a deep summer blue reveals itself. A woman waters flowers; an old traveler in gabardine walks a poodle. On a bench sits a goitrous and sallow German sergeant major with shadows carved under his eyes. He lowers his paper, stares directly at Werner, then raises his newspaper again.

Why are Werner’s hands shaking? Why can’t he catch his breath?

The girl emerges from the bakery, steps neatly off the curbstone, and makes straight for him. The poodle squats to relieve itself on the cobbles, and the girl veers neatly to her left to skirt it. She approaches Werner for a second time, her lips working softly, counting to herself—deux trois quatre—coming so close he can count the freckles on her nose, smell the loaf of bread in her knapsack. A million droplets of fog bead up on the fuzz of her wool dress and along the warp of her hair, and the light outlines her in silver.

He stands riveted. Her long pale neck seems to him, as it passes, incredibly vulnerable.

She takes no notice of him; she seems to know nothing but the morning. This, he thinks, is the pure they were always lecturing about at Schulpforta.

He presses his back against a wall. The tip of her cane just misses the toe of his boot. Then she’s past, dress swaying lightly, cane roving back and forth, and he watches her continue up the street until the fog swallows her.

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