Chapter no 40 – Madame Manec

All the Light We Cannot See

As soon as her father says his name, the breathing on the other side of the door becomes a gasp, a held breath. The gate screeches; a door behind it gives way. “Jesus’s mother,” says a woman’s voice. “You were so small—”

“My daughter, Madame. Marie-Laure, this is Madame Manec.”

Marie-Laure attempts a curtsy. The hand that cups her cheek is strong: the hand of a geologist or a gardener.

“My God, there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together. But, dear child, your stockings. And your heels! You must be famished.”

They step into a narrow entry. Marie-Laure hears the gate clang shut, then the woman latching the door behind them. Two dead bolts, one chain. They are led into a room that smells of herbs and rising dough: a kitchen. Her father unbuttons her coat, helps her sit. “We are very grateful, I understand how late it is,” he is saying, and the old woman— Madame Manec—is brisk, efficient, evidently overcoming her initial amazement; she brushes off their thank-yous; she scoots Marie-Laure’s chair toward a tabletop. A match is struck; water fills a pot; an icebox clicks open and shut. There is the hum of gas and the tick-tick of heating metal. In another moment, a warm towel is on Marie-Laure’s face. A jar of cool, sweet water in front of her. Each sip a blessing.

“Oh, the town is absolutely stuffed,” Madame Manec is saying in her fairy-tale drawl as she moves about. She seems short; she wears blocky, heavy shoes. Hers is a low voice, full of pebbles—a sailor’s voice or a smoker’s. “Some can afford hotels or rentals, but many are in the warehouses, on straw, not enough to eat. I’d take them in, but your uncle, you know, it might upset him. There’s no diesel, no kerosene, British ships long gone. They burned everything they left behind, at first I couldn’t believe any of it, but Etienne, he has the wireless going nonstop


Eggs crack. Butter pops in a hot pan. Her father is telling an abridged story of their flight, train stations, fearful crowds, omitting the stop in

Evreux, but soon all of Marie-Laure’s attention is absorbed by the smells blooming around her: egg, spinach, melting cheese.

An omelet arrives. She positions her face over its steam. “May I please have a fork?”

The old woman laughs: a laugh Marie-Laure warms to immediately.

In an instant a fork is fitted into her hand.

The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold. Madame Manec says, “I think she likes it,” and laughs again.

A second omelet soon appears. Now it is her father who eats quickly. “How about peaches, dear?” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.

“Marie,” murmurs her father, “your manners.” “But they’re—”

“We have plenty, you go ahead, child. I make them every year.” When Marie-Laure has eaten two full cans of peaches, Madame Manec cleans Marie-Laure’s feet with a rag and shakes out her coat and clanks dishes into a sink and says, “Cigarette?” and her father groans with gratitude and a match flares and the grown-ups smoke.

A door opens, or a window, and Marie-Laure can hear the hypnotic voice of the sea.

“And Etienne?” says her father.

Madame says, “Shuts himself up like a corpse one day, eats like an albatross the next.”

“He still does not—?” “Not for twenty years.”

Probably the grown-ups are mouthing more to each other. Probably Marie-Laure should be more curious—about her great-uncle who sees things that are not there, about the fate of everyone and everything she has ever known—but her stomach is full, her blood has become a warm golden flow through her arteries, and out the open window, beyond the walls, the ocean crashes, only a bit of stacked stone left between her and it, the rim of Brittany, the farthest windowsill of France—and maybe the Germans are advancing as inexorably as lava, but Marie-Laure is slipping into something like a dream, or perhaps it’s the memory of one: she’s six or seven years old, newly blind, and her father is sitting in the chair beside her bed, whittling away at some tiny piece of wood, smoking a cigarette, and evening is settling over the hundred thousand

rooftops and chimneys of Paris, and all the walls around her are dissolving, the ceilings too, the whole city is disintegrating into smoke, and at last sleep falls over her like a shadow.

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