Chapter no 170 – Saint-Malo‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Jutta’s grades are in, and Max is off school, and besides, he’d just go to the pool every day, pester his father with riddles, fold three hundred of those airplanes the giant taught him, and wouldn’t it be good for him to visit another country, learn some French, see the ocean? She poses these questions to Albert, but both of them know that she is the one who must grant permission. To go herself, to take their son.

On the twenty-sixth of June, an hour before dawn, Albert makes six ham sandwiches and wraps them in foil. Then he drives Jutta and Max to the station in the Prinz 4 and kisses her on the lips, and she boards the train with Werner’s notebook and the model house in her purse.

The journey takes all day. By Rennes, the sun has dropped low over the horizon, and the smell of warm manure comes through the open windows, and lines of pollarded trees whisk past. Gulls and crows in equal numbers follow a tractor through its wake of dust. Max eats a second ham sandwich and rereads a comic book, and sheets of yellow flowers glow in the fields, and Jutta wonders if any of them grow over the bones of her brother.

Before dark, a well-dressed man with a prosthetic leg boards the train. He sits beside her and lights a cigarette. Jutta clutches her bag between her knees; she is certain that he was wounded in the war, that he will try to start a conversation, that her deficient French will betray her. Or that Max will say something. Or that the man can already tell. Maybe she smells German.

He’ll say, You did this to me.

Please. Not in front of my son.

But the train jolts into motion, and the man finishes his cigarette and gives her a preoccupied smile and promptly falls asleep.

She turns the little house over in her fingers. They come into Saint-Malo around midnight, and the cabdriver leaves them at a hotel on the Place Chateaubriand. The clerk accepts the money Albert exchanged for her, and Max leans against her hip, half-asleep, and she is so afraid to try her French that she goes to bed hungry.

In the morning Max pulls her through a gap in the old walls and out onto a beach. He runs across the sand at full tilt, then stops and stares up at the ramparts rearing above him as though imagining pennants and cannons and medieval archers ranged along the parapets.

Jutta cannot tear her eyes away from the ocean. It is emerald green and incomprehensibly large. A single white sail veers out of the harbor. A pair of trawlers on the horizon appear and disappear between waves.

Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.

They pay a coin to climb the tower of the château. “Come on,” Max says, and charges up the winding narrow stairs, and Jutta huffs along behind, each quarter turn presenting a narrow window of blue sky, Max practically hauling her up the steps.

From the top, they watch the small figures of tourists stroll past shopwindows. She has read about the siege; she has studied photos of the old town before the war. But now, looking across at the huge dignified houses, the hundreds of rooftops, she can see no traces of bombings or craters or crushed buildings. The town appears to have been entirely replaced.

They order galettes for lunch. She expects stares, but no one takes any notice. The waiter seems to neither know nor care that she is German. In the afternoon, she leads Max out through a high arch on the far side of the city called the Porte de Dinan. They cross the quay and climb to a matching headland across the mouth of a river from the old city. Inside the park wait the ruins of a fort overgrown with weeds. Max pauses at all the steep edges along the trail and throws pebbles down into the sea.

Every hundred paces along the path, they come across a big steel cap beneath which a soldier would direct cannon fire at whomever was trying to take the hill. Some of these pillboxes are so scarred by assault that she can hardly imagine the fire and speed and terror of the projectiles showering onto them. A foot of steel looks as if it has been transformed into warm butter and gouged by the fingers of a child.

What it must have sounded like, to stand in there.

Now they are filled with crisps bags, cigarette filters, paper wrappers. American and French flags fly from a hilltop at the center of the park. Here, signs say, Germans holed up in underground tunnels to fight to the last man.

Three teenagers pass laughing and Max watches them with great intensity. On a pocked and lichen-splotched cement wall is bolted a small stone plaque. Ici a été tué Buy Gaston Marcel agé de 18 ans, mort pour la France le août 1944. Jutta sits on the ground. The sea is heavy and slate-gray. There are no plaques for the Germans who died here.



Why has she come? What answers did she hope to find? On their second morning, they sit in the Place Chateaubriand across from the historical museum, where sturdy benches face flower beds ringed by shin-high metal half loops. Beneath awnings, tourists browse over blue-and-white-striped sweaters and framed watercolors of corsair ships; a father sings as he puts his arm around a daughter.

Max looks up from his book and says, “Mutti, what goes around the world but stays in a corner?”

“I don’t know, Max.” “A postage stamp.” He smiles at her.

She says, “I’ll be right back.”

The man behind the museum counter is bearded, maybe fifty. Old enough to remember. She opens her purse and unwraps the partially crushed wooden house and says in her best French, “My brother had this. I believe he found it here. During the war.”

The man shakes his head, and she returns the house to her purse. Then he asks to see it again. He holds the model under the lamp and turns it so that its recessed front door faces him.

Oui,” he says finally. He gestures for her to wait outside, and a moment later, he locks the door behind him and leads her and Max down streets narrow and sloping. After a dozen rights and lefts, they stand in front of the house. A real-life counterpart to the little one that Max is right now rotating in his hands.

“Number four rue Vauborel,” says the man. “The LeBlanc house.

Been subdivided into holiday flats for years.”

Lichens splotch the stone; leached minerals have left filigrees of stains. Flower boxes adorn the windows, foaming over with geraniums. Could Werner have made the model? Bought it?

She says, “And was there a girl? Do you know about a girl?”

“Yes, there was a blind girl who lived in this house during the war. My mother told stories about her. As soon as the war ended, she moved away.”

Green dots strobe across Jutta’s vision; she feels as if she has been staring at the sun.

Max pulls her wrist. “Mutti, Mutti.”

“Why,” she says, lurching through the French, “would my brother have a miniature reproduction of this house?”

“Maybe the girl who lived here would know? I can find her address for you.”

“Mutti, Mutti, look,” Max says, and yanks her hard enough to win her attention. She glances down. “I think this little house opens. I think there’s a way to open it.”

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