Chapter no 145 – 7 August 1944‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure wakes to the concussions of big guns firing. She crosses the landing and opens the wardrobe and, with the tip of her cane, reaches through the hanging shirts and raps three times on the false back wall. Nothing. Then she descends to the fifth floor and knocks on Etienne’s door. His bed is empty and cool.

He is not on the second floor, nor in the kitchen. The penny nail beside the door where Madame Manec used to hang the key ring is empty. His shoes are gone.

I’ll only be an hour.

She reins in her panic. Important not to assume the worst. In the foyer, she checks the trip wire: intact. Then she tears an end off yesterday’s loaf from Madame Ruelle and stands in the kitchen chewing. The water— miraculously—has been turned back on, so she fills the two galvanized buckets and carries them upstairs and sets them in the corner of her bedroom and thinks a moment and walks to the third floor and fills the bathtub to the rim.

Then she opens her novel. Captain Nemo has planted his flag on the South Pole, but if he doesn’t move the submarine north soon, they will become trapped in ice. The spring equinox has just passed; they face six months of unrelenting night.

Marie-Laure counts the chapters that remain. Nine. She is tempted to read on, but they are voyaging on the Nautilus together, she and Etienne, and as soon as he returns, they will resume. Any moment now.

She rechecks the little house under her pillow and fights the temptation to take out the stone and instead reinstalls the house inside the model city at the foot of her bed. Out the window, a truck roars to life. Gulls pass, braying like donkeys, and in the distance the guns thud again, and the rattling of the truck fades, and Marie-Laure tries to concentrate on rereading a chapter earlier in the novel: make the raised dots form letters, the letters words, the words a world.

In the afternoon, the trip wire quivers, and the bell hidden beneath the third-floor table gives a single ring. In the attic high above her, a muted

ring matches it. Marie-Laure lifts her fingers from the page, thinking, At last, but when she winds down the stairs and sets her hand on the dead bolt and calls, “Who is there?” she hears not the quiet voice of Etienne but the oily one of the perfumer Claude Levitte.

“Let me in, please.”

Even through the door she can smell him, peppermint, musk, aldehyde. Beneath that: Sweat. Fear.

She undoes both dead bolts and opens the door halfway.

He speaks through the half-open gate. “You need to come with me.” “I am waiting for my great-uncle.”

“I have talked to your great-uncle.” “You talked to him? Where?”

Marie-Laure can hear Monsieur Levitte cracking his knuckles one after the next. His lungs toiling inside his chest. “If you could see, mademoiselle, you’d have seen the evacuation orders. They’ve locked the city gates.”

She does not reply.

“They’re detaining every man between sixteen and sixty. They’ve been told to assemble at the tower of the château. Then they will be marched to Fort National at low tide. God be with them.”

Out on the rue Vauborel, everything sounds calm. Swallows swoop past the houses, and two doves bicker on a high gutter. A bicyclist goes rattling past. Then quiet. Have they really locked the city gates? Has this man really spoken to Etienne?

“Will you go with them, Monsieur Levitte?”

“I plan not to. You must get to a shelter immediately.” Monsieur Levitte sniffs. “Or to the crypts below Notre-Dame at Rocabey. Which is where I sent Madame. It’s what your uncle asked me to do. Leave absolutely everything behind, and come with me now.”


“Your uncle knows why. Everybody knows why. It’s not safe here.

Come along.”

“But you said the gates to the city are locked.”

“Yes, I did, girl, and that’s enough questions for now.” He sighs. “You are not safe, and I am here to help.”

“Uncle says our cellar is safe. He says if it has lasted for five hundred years, it will last a few more nights.”

The perfumer clears his throat. She imagines him extending his thick neck to look into the house, the coat on the rack, the crumbs of bread on the kitchen table. Everyone checking to see what everyone else has. Her uncle could not have asked the perfumer to escort her to a shelter—when is the last time Etienne has spoken to Claude Levitte? Again she thinks of the model upstairs, the stone inside. She hears Dr. Geffard’s voice: That something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much.

“Houses are burning at Paramé, mademoiselle. They’re scuttling ships at the port, they’re shelling the cathedral, and there’s no water at the hospital. The doctors are washing their hands in wine. Wine!” The edges of Monsieur Levitte’s voice flutter. She remembers Madame Manec saying once that every time a theft was reported in town, Monsieur Levitte would go to bed with his billfold stuffed between his buttocks.

Marie-Laure says, “I will stay.” “Christ, girl, must I force you?”

She remembers the German pacing outside Harold Bazin’s gate, the edge of his newspaper rattling the bars, and closes the door a fraction. Someone has put the perfumer up to this. “Surely,” she says, “my great-uncle and I are not the only people sleeping beneath our own roof tonight.”

She tries her best to look impassive. Monsieur Levitte’s smell is overpowering.

“Mademoiselle.” Pleading now. “Be reasonable. Come with me and leave everything behind.”

“You may talk to my great-uncle when he returns.” And she bolts the door.

She can hear him standing out there. Working out some cost-benefit analysis. Then he turns and recedes down the street, dragging his fear like a cart behind him. Marie-Laure bends beside the hall table and finds the thread and resets the trip wire. What could he have seen? A coat, half of a loaf of bread? Etienne will be pleased. Out past the kitchen window, swifts swoop for insects, and the filaments of a spiderweb catch the light and shine for an instant and are gone.

And yet: what if the perfumer was telling the truth?

The daylight dulls to gold. A few crickets down in the cellar begin their song: a rhythmic kree-kree, evening in August, and Marie-Laure hikes her tattered stockings and goes into the kitchen and tears another hunk from Madame Ruelle’s loaf.

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