Chapter no 161 – Birds of America

All the Light We Cannot See

What wonders in this house! She shows him the transmitter in the attic: its double battery, its old-fashioned electrophone, the hand-machined antenna that can be raised and lowered along the chimney by an ingenious system of levers. Even a phonograph record that she says contains her grandfather’s voice, lessons in science for children. And the books! The lower floors are blanketed with them—Becquerel, Lavoisier, Fischer—a lifetime of reading. What it would be like to spend ten years in this tall narrow house, shuttered from the world, studying its secrets and reading its volumes and looking at this girl.

“Do you think,” he asks, “that Captain Nemo survived the whirlpool?”

Marie-Laure sits on the fifth-floor landing in her oversize coat as though waiting for a train. “No,” she says. “Yes. I don’t know. I suppose that is the point, no? To make us wonder?” She cocks her head. “He was a madman. And yet I didn’t want him to die.”

In the corner of her great-uncle’s study, amid a tumult of books, he finds a copy of Birds of America. A reprint, not nearly as large as the one he saw in Frederick’s living room, but dazzling nonetheless: four hundred and thirty-five engravings. He carries it out to the landing. “Has your uncle shown you this?”

“What is it?”

“Birds. Bird after bird after bird.”

Outside, shells fly back and forth. “We must get lower in the house,” she says. But for a moment they do not move.

California Partridge. Common Gannet.

Frigate Pelican.

Werner can still see Frederick kneeling at his window, nose to the glass. Little gray bird hopping about in the boughs. Doesn’t look like much, does it?

“Could I keep a page from this?”

“Why not. We will leave soon, no? When it is safe?”

“At noon.”

“How will we know it is time?” “When they stop shooting.”

Airplanes come. Dozens and dozens of them. Werner shivers uncontrollably. Marie-Laure leads him to the first floor, where ash and soot lie a half inch deep over everything, and he pushes capsized furniture out of the way and hauls open the cellar door and they climb down. Somewhere above, thirty bombers let fly their payloads and Werner and Marie-Laure feel the bedrock shake, hear the detonations across the river.

Could he, by some miracle, keep this going? Could they hide here until the war ends? Until the armies finish marching back and forth above their heads, until all they have to do is push open the door and shift some stones aside and the house has become a ruin beside the sea? Until he can hold her fingers in his palms and lead her out into the sunshine? He would walk anywhere to make it happen, bear anything; in a year or three years or ten, France and Germany would not mean what they meant now; they could leave the house and walk to a tourists’ restaurant and order a simple meal together and eat it in silence, the comfortable kind of silence lovers are supposed to share.

“Do you know,” Marie-Laure asks in a gentle voice, “why he was here? That man upstairs?”

“Because of the radio?” Even as he says it, he wonders. “Maybe,” she says. “Maybe that’s why.”

In another minute they’re asleep.

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