It’s a Saturday morning in early March, and her grandson Michel collects her from her flat and walks her through the Jardin des Plantes. Frost glimmers in the air, and Marie-Laure shuffles along with the ball of her cane out in front and her thin hair blown to one side and the leafless canopies of the trees drifting overhead as she imagines schools of Portuguese men-of-war drift, trailing their long tentacles behind them.
Skim ice has formed atop puddles in the gravel paths. Whenever she finds some with her cane, she stops and bends and tries to lift the thin plate without breaking it. As though raising a lens to her eye. Then she sets it carefully back down.
The boy is patient, taking her elbow only when she seems to need it. They make for the hedge maze in the northwest corner of the gardens.
The path they’re on begins to ascend, twisting steadily to the left. Climb, pause, catch your breath. Climb again. When they reach the old steel gazebo at the very top, he leads her to its narrow bench and they sit.
No one else here: too cold or too early or both. She listens to the wind sift through the filigree of the crown of the gazebo, and the walls of the maze hold steady around them, Paris murmuring below, the drowsy purr of a Saturday morning.
“You’ll be twelve next Saturday, won’t you, Michel?” “Finally.”
“You are in a hurry to be twelve?”
“Mother says I can drive the moped when I am twelve.” “Ah.” Marie-Laure laughs. “The moped.”
Beneath her fingernails, the frost makes billions of tiny diadems and coronas on the slats of the bench, a lattice of dumbfounding complexity.
Michel presses against her side and becomes very quiet. Only his hands are moving. Little clicks rising, buttons being pressed.
“What are you playing?” “Warlords.”
“You play against your computer?” “Against Jacques.”
“Where is Jacques?”
The boy’s attention stays on the game. It does not matter where Jacques is: Jacques is inside the game. She sits and her cane flexes against the gravel and the boy clicks his buttons in spasmodic flurries. After a while he exclaims, “Ah!” and the game makes several resolving chirps.
“You’re all right?”
“He has killed me.” Awareness returns to Michel’s voice; he is looking up again. “Jacques, I mean. I am dead.”
“In the game?”
“Yes. But I can always begin again.”
Below them the wind washes frost from the trees. She concentrates on feeling the sun touch the backs of her hands. On the warmth of her grandson beside her.
“Mamie? Was there something you wanted for your twelfth birthday?”
“There was. A book by Jules Verne.”
“The same one Maman read to me? Did you get it?” “I did. In a way.”
“There were lots of complicated fish names in that book.” She laughs. “And corals and mollusks, too.”
“Especially mollusks. It’s a beautiful morning, Mamie, isn’t it?” “Very beautiful.”
People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived—maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of email, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris,
over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.
Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.
We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.
Michel takes her arm and they wind back down the path, through the gate onto the rue Cuvier. She passes one storm drain two storm drains three four five, and when they reach her building, she says, “You may leave me here, Michel. You can find your way?”
“Until next week, then.”
He kisses her once on each cheek. “Until next week, Mamie.”
She listens until his footsteps fade. Until all she can hear are the sighs of cars and the rumble of trains and the sounds of everyone hurrying through the cold.