Von Rumpel’s daughters were fat, roiling little babies, weren’t they? Both of them always dropping their rattles or rubber pacifiers and tangling themselves in blankets, why so tortured, little angels? But they grew! Despite all his absences. And they could sing, especially Veronika. Maybe they weren’t going to be famous, but they could sing well enough to please a father. They’d wear their big felt boots and those awful shapeless dresses their mother made for them, primroses and daisies embroidered along the collars, and fold their hands behind their backs, and belt out lyrics they were too young to understand.
Men cluster to me
like moths around a flame, and if their wings burn,
I know I’m not to blame.
In what might be a memory or a dream, von Rumpel watches Veronika, the early riser, kneel on the floor of Marie-Laure’s room in the predawn darkness and march a doll in a white gown alongside another in a gray suit down the streets of the model city. They turn left, then right, until they reach the steps of the cathedral, where a third doll waits, dressed in black, one arm raised. Wedding or sacrifice, he cannot say. Then Veronika sings so softly that he cannot hear the words, only the melody, less like the sounds made by a human voice and more like the notes made by a piano, and the dolls dance, swaying from foot to foot.
The music stops, and Veronika vanishes. He sits up. The model at the foot of the bed bleeds away and is a long time restoring itself. Somewhere above him, the voice of a young man starts speaking in French about coal.