Chapter no 141 – Little House

All the Light We Cannot See

Etienne says he never should have let her take on so much. Never should have put her in such danger. He says she can no longer go outside. In truth, Marie-Laure is relieved. The German haunts her: in nightmares, he’s a spider crab three meters high; he clacks his claws and whispers One simple question into her ear.

“What about the loaves, Uncle?”

“I will go. I should have been going all along.”

On the mornings of the fourth and fifth of August, Etienne stands at the front door mumbling to himself, then pushes open the gate and goes out. Soon afterward, the bell under the third-floor table rings and he comes back in and throws both dead bolts and stands in the foyer breathing as though he has passed through a gauntlet of a thousand dangers.

Aside from the bread, they have almost nothing to eat. Dried peas. Barley. Powdered milk. A last few tins of Madame Manec’s vegetables. Marie-Laure’s thoughts gallop like bloodhounds over the same questions. First those policemen two years ago: Mademoiselle, was there no specific thing he mentioned? Then this limping sergeant major with a dead voice. Just tell me if your father left anything with you or spoke about carrying something for the museum.

Papa leaves. Madame Manec leaves. She remembers the voices of their neighbors in Paris when she lost her eyesight: Like they’re cursed.

She tries to forget the fear, the hunger, the questions. She must live like the snails, moment to moment, centimeter to centimeter. But on the afternoon of the sixth of August, she reads the following lines to Etienne on the davenport in his study: Was it true that Captain Nemo never left the Nautilus? Often I had not seen him for weeks on end. What was he doing during that time? Wasn’t it possible that he was carrying out some secret mission completely unknown to me?

She snaps shut the book. Etienne says, “Don’t you want to find out if they’re going to escape this time?” But Marie-Laure is reciting in her head the strange third letter from her father, the last one she received.

Remember your birthdays? How there were always two things on the table when you woke? I’m sorry it turned out like this. If you ever wish to understand, look inside Etienne’s house, inside the house. I know you will do the right thing. Though I wish the gift were better.

Mademoiselle, was there no specific thing he mentioned? May we look at whatever he brought here with him?

He had many keys at the museum.

It’s not the transmitter. Etienne is wrong. It was not the radio the German was interested in. It was something else, something he thought only she might know about. And he heard what he wanted to hear. She answered his one question after all.

Just a dumb model of this town. Which is why he walked away. Look inside Etienne’s house. “What’s wrong?” asks Etienne. Inside the house.

“I need to rest,” she announces, and scrambles up the stairs two at a time, shuts her bedroom door, and thrusts her fingers into the miniature city. Eight hundred and sixty-five buildings. Here, near a corner, waits the tall narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel. Her fingers crawl down the facade, find the recess in the front door. She presses inward, and the house slides up and out. When she shakes it, she hears nothing. But the houses never made any noise when she shook them, did they?

Even with her fingers trembling, it doesn’t take Marie-Laure long to solve it. Twist the chimney ninety degrees, slide off the roof panels one two three.

A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe.

So, asked the children, how do you know it’s really there? You have to believe the story.

She turns the little house over. A pear-shaped stone drops into her palm.

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