Chapter no 166 – Paris‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Etienne rents the same flat on the rue des Patriarches where Marie-Laure grew up. He buys the newspapers every day to scan the lists of released prisoners, and listens incessantly to one of three radios. De Gaulle this, North Africa that. Hitler, Roosevelt, Danzig, Bratislava, all these names, none of them her father’s.

Every morning they walk to the Gare d’Austerlitz to wait. A big station clock rattles off a relentless advance of seconds, and Marie-Laure sits beside her great-uncle and listens to the wasted and wretched shamble off the trains.

Etienne sees soldiers with hollows in their cheeks like inverted cups. Thirty-year-olds who look eighty. Men in threadbare suits putting hands to the tops of their heads to take off hats that are no longer there. Marie-Laure deduces what she can from the sounds of their shoes: those are small, those weigh a ton, those hardly exist at all.

In the evenings she reads while Etienne makes phone calls, petitions repatriation authorities, and writes letters. She finds she can sleep only two or three hours at a time. Phantom shells wake her.

“It is merely the autobus,” says Etienne, who takes to sleeping on the floor beside her.

Or: “It’s just the birds.” Or: “It’s nothing, Marie.”

Most days, the creaky old malacologist Dr. Geffard waits with them at the Gare d’Austerlitz, sitting upright with his beard and bow tie, smelling of rosemary, of mint, of wine. He calls her Laurette; he talks about how he missed her, how he thought of her every day, how to see her is to believe once more that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts.

She sits with her shoulder pressed against Etienne’s or Dr. Geffard’s. Papa might be anywhere. He might be that voice just now drawing nearer. Those footfalls to her right. He might be in a cell, in a ditch, a thousand miles away. He might be long dead.

She goes into the museum on Etienne’s arm to talk with various officials, many of whom remember her. The director himself explains

that they are searching as hard as they can for her father, that they will continue to help with her housing, her education. There is no mention of the Sea of Flames.

Spring unfurls; communiqués flood the airwaves. Berlin surrenders; Göring surrenders; the great mysterious vault of Nazism falls open. Parades materialize spontaneously. The others who wait at the Gare d’Austerlitz whisper that one out of every hundred will come back. That you can loop your thumb and forefinger around their necks. That when they take off their shirts, you can see their lungs moving inside their chests.

Every bite of food she takes is a betrayal.

Even those who have returned, she can tell, have returned different, older than they should be, as though they have been on another planet where years pass more quickly.

“There is a chance,” Etienne says, “that we will never find out what happened. We have to be prepared for that.” Marie-Laure hears Madame Manec: You must never stop believing.

All through the summer they wait, Etienne always on one side, Dr. Geffard often on the other. And then, one noon in August, Marie-Laure leads her great-uncle and Dr. Geffard up the long stairs and out into the sunlight and asks if it is safe to cross. They say it is, so she leads them along the quay, through the gates of the Jardin des Plantes.

Along the gravel paths boys shout. Someone not far away plays a saxophone. She stops beside an arbor alive with the sound of bees. The sky seems high and far away. Somewhere, someone is figuring out how to push back the hood of grief, but Marie-Laure cannot. Not yet. The truth is that she is a disabled girl with no home and no parents.

“What now?” asks Etienne. “Lunch?”

“School,” she says. “I would like to go to school.”

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