Chapter no 137 – Grotto‌

All the Light We Cannot See

German antiair battery shoots an American plane out of the sky. It crashes into the sea off Paramé, and its American pilot wades ashore to be taken prisoner. Etienne sees it as a calamity, but Madame Ruelle radiates glee. “Movie-star handsome,” she whispers as she hands Marie-Laure a loaf. “I bet they’ll all look like him.”

Marie-Laure smiles. Every morning it’s the same: the Americans ever closer, the Germans fraying at the seams. Every afternoon Marie-Laure reads to Etienne from part 2 of Twenty Thousand Leagues, both of them in new territory now. Ten thousand leagues in three and a half months, writes Professor Aronnax. Where were we going now, and what did the future have in store for us?

Marie-Laure puts the loaf in her knapsack, leaves the bakery, and winds toward the ramparts to Harold Bazin’s grotto. She closes the gate, lifts the hem of her dress, and wades into the shallow pool, praying she does not crush any creatures as she steps.

The tide is rising. She finds barnacles, an anemone as soft as silk; she sets her fingers as lightly as she can on a Nassarius. It stops moving immediately, sucking its head and foot inside its shell. Then it resumes, the twin wands of its horns extending, dragging its whorled shell atop the sled of its body.

What do you seek, little snail? Do you live only in this one moment, or do you worry like Professor Aronnax for your future?

When the snail has crossed the pool and started up the far wall, Marie-Laure picks up her cane and climbs out in her dripping oversized loafers. She steps through the gate and is about to lock it behind her when a male voice says, “Good morning, mademoiselle.”

She stumbles, almost trips. Her cane goes clattering. “What’s in your sack there?”

He speaks proper French, but she can tell that he is German. His body obstructs the alley. The hem of her dress drips; her shoes squelch out water; to both sides rise sheer walls. She keeps her right fist clenched around a spar of the open gate.

“What is that back there? A hidey-hole?” His voice sounds terribly close, but it’s hard to know for certain in a place so congested with echoes. She can feel Madame Ruelle’s loaf pulsing on her back like something alive. Lodged inside it—almost certainly—is a coiled-up slip of paper. On which numbers will spell out a death sentence. For her great-uncle, for Madame Ruelle. For them all.

She says, “My cane.”

“It has rolled behind you, dear.”

Behind the man unspools the alley and then the hanging curtain of ivy and then the city. A place where she could scream and be heard.

“May I pass, monsieur?” “Of course.”

But he does not seem to move. The gate creaks lightly.

“What do you want, monsieur?” Impossible to keep her voice from trembling. If he asks again about the knapsack, her heart will burst.

“What do you do in there?”

“We’re not allowed on the beaches.” “So you come here?”

“To collect snails. I must be getting along, monsieur. May I please retrieve my cane?”

“But you have not collected any snails, mademoiselle.” “May I pass?”

“First answer a question about your father.”

“Papa?” Something cold inside her grows colder. “Papa will be here any moment.”

Now the man laughs, and his laugh echoes up between the walls. “Any moment, you say? Your papa who’s in a prison five hundred kilometers away?”

Threads of terror spill through her chest. I should have listened, Papa.

I never should have gone outside.

“Come now, petite cachotière,” says the man, “don’t look so frightened,” and she can hear him reaching for her; she smells rot on his breath, hears oblivion in his voice, and something—a fingertip?—grazes her wrist as she jerks away and clangs the gate shut in his face.

He slips; it takes longer than she expects for him to get to his feet. Marie-Laure turns the key in the lock and pockets it and finds her cane as she retreats into the low space of the kennel. The man’s desolate voice

pursues her, even as his body remains on the other side of the locked gate.

“Mademoiselle, you made me drop my newspaper. I am just a lowly sergeant major here to ask a question. One simple question and then I will leave.”

The tide murmurs; the snails teem. Is the ironwork too narrow for him to squeeze through? Are its hinges strong enough? She prays that they are. The bulk of the rampart holds her in its breadth. Every ten seconds or so, a new sheet of cold seawater comes flowing in. Marie-Laure can hear the man pacing out there, one-pause-two one-pause-two, a lurching hobble. She tries to imagine the watchdogs that Harold Bazin said lived here for centuries: dogs as big as horses. Dogs that ripped the calves off men. She crouches over her knees. She is the Whelk. Armored. Impervious.

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