Chapter no 148 – Fort National

All the Light We Cannot See

Etienne begged his jailers, the guardian of the fort, dozens of his fellow prisoners. “My niece, my great-niece, she’s blind, she’s alone . . .” He told them he was sixty-three, not sixty, as they claimed, that his papers had been unfairly confiscated, that he was not a terrorist; he wobbled before the Feldwebel in charge and stumbled through the few German phrases he could stitch together—“Sie müssen mich helfen! ” “Meine Nichte ist herein dort! ”—but the Feldwebel shrugged like everybody else and looked back at the city burning across the water as if to say: what can anyone do in the face of that?

Then the stray American shell struck the fort, and the wounded howled down in the munitions cellar, and the dead were buried under rocks just above the tide line, and Etienne stopped talking.

The tide slips away, then climbs back up. Whatever energy Etienne has left goes into quieting the noise in his head. Sometimes he almost convinces himself that he can see through the smoldering skeletons of the seafront mansions at the northwestern corner of the city to the rooftop of his house. He almost convinces himself it stands. But then it disappears again behind a mantle of smoke.

No pillow, no blanket. The latrine is apocalyptic. Food comes irregularly, carried out from the citadel by the guardian’s wife across the quarter mile of rocks at low tide while shells explode in the city behind her. There’s never enough. Etienne diverts himself with fantasies of escape. Slip over a wall, swim several hundred meters, drag himself through the shorebreak. Scamper across the mined beach with no cover to one of the locked gates. Absurd.

Out here the prisoners see the shells smash into the city before they hear them. During the last war, Etienne knew artillerymen who could peer through field glasses and discern their shells’ damage by the colors thrown skyward. Gray was stone. Brown was soil. Pink was flesh.

He shuts his eyes. He remembers lamplit hours in Monsieur Hébrard’s bookshop listening to the first radio he ever heard. He remembers climbing into the choir of the cathedral to listen to Henri’s voice as it

rose toward the ceiling. He remembers the cramped restaurants with leaded windows and linenfold paneling where his parents took them to dinner; and the corsairs’ villas with scalloped friezes and Doric columns and gold coins mortared inside the walls; the storefronts of gunsmiths and shipmasters and money changers and hostelers; the graffiti Henri used to scratch into the stones of ramparts, I cannot wait to leave, fuck this place. He remembers the LeBlanc house, his house! Tall and narrow with the staircase spiraling up its center like a spire shell stood on end, where the ghost of his brother occasionally slipped between walls, where Madame Manec lived and died, where not so long ago he could sit on a davenport with Marie-Laure and pretend they flew over the volcanoes of Hawaii, over the cloud forests of Peru, where just a week ago she sat cross-legged on the floor and read to him about a pearl fishery off the coast of Ceylon, Captain Nemo and Aronnax in their diving suits, the impulsive Canadian Ned Land about to hurl his harpoon through the side of a shark . . . All of it is burning. Every memory he ever made.

Above Fort National, the dawn becomes deeply, murderously clear. The Milky Way a fading river. He looks across to the fires. He thinks: The universe is full of fuel.

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