Chapter no 162 – Cease-fire‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Gritty summer light spills through the open trapdoor into the cellar. It might already be afternoon. No guns firing. For a few heartbeats, Werner watches her sleep.

Then they hurry. He cannot find the shoes she asks for, but he finds a pair of men’s loafers in a closet and helps her put them on. Over his uniform he pulls on some of Etienne’s tweed trousers, along with a shirt whose sleeves are too long. If they run into Germans, he will speak only French, say he is helping her leave the city. If they run into Americans, he will say he is deserting.

“There will be a collection point,” he says, “somewhere they’re gathering refugees,” though he’s not sure he says it correctly. He finds a white pillowcase in an upturned cabinet and folds it into her coat pocket. “When it comes time, hold this as high as you can.”

“I will try. And my cane?” “Here.”

In the foyer, they hesitate. Neither sure what waits on the other side of the door. He remembers the overheated dance hall from the entrance exams four years before: ladder bolted to the wall, crimson flag with its white circle and black cross below. You step forward; you jump.

Outside, mountains of rubble hunker everywhere. Chimneys stand with their bricks raw to the light. Smoke troweled across the sky. He knows that the shells have been coming from the east, that six days ago the Americans were almost to Paramé, so he moves Marie-Laure in that direction.

Any moment they will be seen, by either Americans or his own army, and made to do something. Work, join, confess, die. From somewhere comes the sound of fire: the sound of dried roses being crumbled in a fist. No other sounds; no motors, no airplanes, no distant pop of gunfire or howling of wounded men or yapping of dogs. He takes her hand to help her over the piles. No shells fall and no rifles crack and the light is soft and shot through with ash.

Jutta, he thinks, I finally listened.

For two blocks they see nobody. Maybe Volkheimer is eating—this is what Werner would like to imagine, gigantic Volkheimer eating by himself at a little table with a view of the sea.

“It’s so quiet.”

Her voice like a bright, clear window of sky. Her face a field of freckles. He thinks: I don’t want to let you go.

“Are they watching us?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

A block ahead, he sees movement: three women carrying bundles.

Marie-Laure pulls at his sleeve. “What is this cross street?” “The rue des Lauriers.”

“Come,” she says, and walks with her cane tapping back and forth in her right hand. They turn right and left, past a walnut tree like a giant charred toothpick jammed into the ground, past two crows picking at something unidentifiable, until they reach the base of the ramparts. Airborne creepers of ivy hang from an archway over a narrow alley. Far to his right, Werner can see a woman in blue taffeta drag a great overstuffed suitcase over a curbstone. A boy in pants meant for a younger child follows, beret thrown back on his head, some kind of shiny jacket on.

“There are civilians leaving, mademoiselle. Shall I call to them?”

“I need only a moment.” She leads him deeper down the alley. Sweet, unfettered ocean air pours through a gap in the wall he cannot see: the air throbs with it.

At the end of the alley they reach a narrow gate. She reaches inside her coat and produces a key. “Is the tide high?”

He can just see through the gate into a low space, bounded by a grate on the far side. “There is water down there. We have to hurry.”

But she is already passing through the gate and descending into the grotto in her big shoes, moving with confidence, running her fingers along the walls as though they are old friends she thought she might never meet again. The tide pushes a low riffle through the pool, and it washes over her shins and dampens the hem of her dress. From her coat, she takes some small wooden thing and sets it in the water. She speaks lightly, her voice echoing: “You need to tell me, is it in the ocean? It must be in the ocean.”

“It is in. We must go, mademoiselle.” “Are you certain it’s in the water?”


She climbs out, breathless. Pushes him back through the gate and locks it behind them. He hands her the cane. Then they head back down the alley, her shoes squelching as she goes. Out through the hanging ivy. Turn left. Straight ahead a ragged stream of people crosses an intersection: a woman, a child, two men carrying a third on a stretcher, all three with cigarettes in their mouths.

The darkness returns to Werner’s eyes, and he feels faint. Soon his legs will give out. A cat sits in the road licking a paw and smoothing it over its ears and watching him. He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.

“Now,” he says in the clearest French he can muster, “here’s the pillowcase. You run your hand along that wall. Can you feel it? You’ll reach an intersection, keep going straight. The street looks mostly clear. Keep the pillowcase high. Right out in front like this, do you understand?”

She turns to him and chews her bottom lip. “They will shoot.”

“Not with that white flag. Not a girl. There are others ahead. Follow this wall.” He sets her hand against it a second time. “Hurry. Remember the pillowcase.”

“And you?”

“I will go in the other direction.”

She turns her face toward his, and though she cannot see him, he feels he cannot bear her gaze. “Won’t you come with me?”

“It will be better for you if no one sees you with me.” “But how will I find you again?”

“I don’t know.”

She reaches for his hand, sets something in his palm, and squeezes his hand into a fist. “Goodbye, Werner.”

“Goodbye, Marie-Laure.”

Then she goes. Every few paces, the tip of her cane strikes a broken stone in the street, and it takes a while to pick her way around it. Step step pause. Step step again. Her cane testing, the wet hem of her dress

swinging, the white pillowcase held aloft. He does not look away until she is through the intersection, down the next block, and out of sight.

He waits to hear voices. Guns. They will help her. They must.

When he opens his hand, there is a little iron key in his palm.

You'll Also Like