Chapter no 42 – Occuper

All the Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure wakes to church bells: two three four five. Faint smell of mildew. Ancient down pillows with all the loft worn out. Silk wallpaper behind the lumpy bed where she sits. When she stretches out both arms, she can almost touch walls on either side.

The reverberations of the bells cease. She has slept most of the day.

What is the muffled roar she hears? Crowds? Or is it still the sea?

She sets her feet on the floor. The wounds on the backs of her heels pulse. Where is her cane? She shuffles so she does not bash her shins on something. Behind curtains, a window rises out of her reach. Opposite the window, she finds a dresser whose drawers open only partway before striking the bed.

The weather in this place: you can feel it between your fingers.

She gropes through a doorway into what? A hall? Out here the roar is fainter, barely a murmur.


Quiet. Then a bustling far below, the heavy shoes of Madame Manec climbing flights of narrow, curving steps, her smoker’s lungs coming closer, third floor, fourth—how tall is this house?—now Madame’s voice is calling, “Mademoiselle,” and she is taken by the hand, led back into the room in which she woke, and seated on the edge of the bed. “Do you need to use the toilet? You must, then a bath, you had an excellent sleep, your father is in town trying the telegraph office, though I assured him that’ll be about as profitable as trying to pick feathers out of molasses. Are you hungry?”

Madame Manec plumps pillows, flaps the quilt. Marie-Laure tries to concentrate on something small, something concrete. The model back in Paris. A single seashell in Dr. Geffard’s laboratory.

“Does this whole house belong to my great-uncle Etienne?” “Every room.”

“How does he pay for it?”

Madame Manec laughs. “You get right to it, don’t you? Your great-uncle inherited the house from his father, who was your great-

grandfather. He was a very successful man with plenty of money.” “You knew him?”

“I have worked here since Master Etienne was a little boy.” “My grandfather too? You knew him?”

“I did.”

“Will I meet Uncle Etienne now?” Madame Manec hesitates. “Probably not.” “But he is here?”

“Yes, child. He is always here.” “Always?”

Madame Manec’s big, thick hands enfold hers. “Let’s see about the bath. Your father will explain when he returns.”

“But Papa doesn’t explain anything. He says only that Uncle was in the war with my grandfather.”

“That’s right. But your great-uncle, when he came home”—Madame hunts for the proper phrasing—“he was not the same as when he left.”

“You mean he was more scared of things?”

“I mean lost. A mouse in a trap. He saw dead people passing through the walls. Terrible things in the corners of the streets. Now your great-uncle does not go outdoors.”

“Not ever?”

“Not for years. But Etienne is a wonder, you’ll see. He knows everything.”

Marie-Laure listens to the house timbers creak and the gulls cry and the gentle roar breaking against the window. “Are we high in the air, Madame?”

“We are on the sixth floor. It’s a good bed, isn’t it? I thought you and your papa would be able to rest well here.”

“Does the window open?”

“It does, dear. But it is probably best to leave it shuttered while—”

Marie-Laure is already standing atop the bed, running her palms along the wall. “Can one see the sea from it?”

“We’re supposed to keep shutters and windows closed. But maybe just for a minute.” Madame Manec turns a handle, pulls in the two hinged panes of the window, and nudges open the shutter. Wind: immediate, bright, sweet, briny, luminous. The roar rises and falls.

“Are there snails out there, Madame?”

“Snails? In the ocean?” Again that laugh. “As many as raindrops.

You’re interested in snails?”

“Yes yes yes. I have found tree snails and garden snails. But I have never found marine snails.”

“Well,” says Madame Manec. “You’ve turned up in the right place.” Madame draws a warm bath in a third-floor tub. From the tub, Marie-

Laure listens to her shut the door, and the cramped bathroom groan beneath the weight of the water, and the walls creak, as if she were in a cabin inside Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. The pain in her heels fades. She lowers her head below the level of the water. To never go outdoors! To hide for decades inside this strange, narrow house!

For dinner she is buttoned into a starchy dress from some bygone decade. They sit at the square kitchen table, her father and Madame Manec at opposite sides, knees pressed to knees, windows jammed shut, shutters drawn. A wireless set mumbles the names of ministers in a harried, staccato voice—de Gaulle in London, Pétain replacing Reynaud. They eat fish stewed with green tomatoes. Her father reports that no letters have been delivered or collected in three days. Telegraph lines are not functioning. The newest newspaper is six days old. On the radio, the announcer reads public service classifieds.

Monsieur Cheminoux refugeed in Orange seeks his three children, left with luggage at Ivry-sur-Seine.

Francis in Genève seeks any information about Marie-Jeanne, last seen at Gentilly.

Mother sends prayers to Luc and Albert, wherever they are.

L. Rabier seeks news of his wife, last seen at Gare d’Orsay.

A. Cotteret wants his mother to know he is safe in Laval.

Madame Meyzieu seeks whereabouts of six daughters, sent by train to Redon.

“Everybody has misplaced someone,” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure’s father switches off the wireless, and the tubes click as they cool. Upstairs, faintly, the same voice keeps reading names. Or is it her imagination? She hears Madame Manec stand and collect the bowls and her father exhale cigarette smoke as though it is very heavy in his lungs and he is glad to be rid of it.

That night she and her father wind up the twisting staircase and go to bed side by side on the same lumpy bed in the same sixth-floor bedroom with the fraying silk wallpaper. Her father fusses with his rucksack, with

the door latch, with his matches. Soon enough there is the familiar smell of his cigarettes: Gauloises bleues. She hears wood pop and groan as the two halves of the window pull open. The welcome hiss of wind washes in, or maybe it’s the sea and the wind, her ears unable to unbraid the two. With it come the scents of salt and hay and fish markets and distant marshes and absolutely nothing that smells to her of war.

“Can we visit the ocean tomorrow, Papa?” “Probably not tomorrow.”

“Where is Uncle Etienne?”

“I expect he’s in his room on the fifth floor.” “Seeing things that are not there?”

“We are lucky to have him, Marie.”

“Lucky to have Madame Manec too. She’s a genius with food, isn’t she, Papa? She is maybe just a little bit better at cooking than you are?”

“Just a very little bit better.”

Marie-Laure is glad to hear a smile enter his voice. But beneath it she can sense his thoughts fluttering like trapped birds. “What does it mean, Papa, they’ll occupy us?”

“It means they’ll park their trucks in the squares.” “Will they make us speak their language?”

“They might make us advance our clocks by one hour.” The house creaks. Gulls cry. He lights another cigarette.

“Is it like occupation, Papa? Like the sort of job a person does?” “It’s like military control, Marie. That’s enough questions for now.” Quiet. Twenty heartbeats. Thirty.

“How can one country make another change its clocks? What if everybody refuses?”

“Then a lot of people will be early. Or late.”

“Remember our apartment, Papa? With my books and our model and all those pinecones on the windowsill?”

“Of course.”

“I lined up the pinecones largest to smallest.” “They’re still there.”

“Do you think so?” “I know so.”

“You do not know so.”

“I do not know so. I believe so.”

“Are German soldiers climbing into our beds right now, Papa?”


Marie-Laure tries to lie very still. She can almost hear the machinery of her father’s mind churning inside his skull. “It will be okay,” she whispers. Her hand finds his forearm. “We will stay here awhile and then we will go back to our apartment and the pinecones will be right where we left them and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea will be on the floor of the key pound where we left it and no one will be in our beds.”

The distant anthem of the sea. The clopping of someone’s boot heels on cobbles far below. She wants very badly for her father to say, Yes, that’s it absolutely, ma chérie, but he says nothing.

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