Chapter no 47 – The Boches

All the Light We Cannot See

Her father says their weapons gleam as if they have never been fired. He says their boots are clean and their uniforms spotless. He says they look as if they have just stepped out of air-conditioned train cars.

The townswomen who stop by Madame Manec’s kitchen door in ones and twos say the Germans (they refer to them as the Boches) buy every postcard on every pharmacy rack; they say the Boches buy straw dolls and candied apricots and stale cakes from the window of the confectionery. The Boches buy shirts from Monsieur Verdier and lingerie from Monsieur Morvan; the Boches require absurd quantities of butter and cheese; the Boches have guzzled down every bottle of champagne the caviste would sell them.

Hitler, the women whisper, is touring Parisian monuments.

Curfews are installed. Music that can be heard outdoors is banned. Public dances are banned. The country is in mourning and we must behave respectfully, announces the mayor. Though what authority he retains is not clear.

Every time she comes within earshot, Marie-Laure hears the fsst of her father lighting another match. His hands flutter between his pockets. Mornings he alternates between Madame Manec’s kitchen, the tobacco shop, and the post office, where he waits in interminable queues to use the telephone. Afternoons he repairs things around Etienne’s house—a loose cabinet door, a squeaking stair board. He asks Madame Manec about the reliability of the neighbors. He flips the locking clasp on his tool case over and over until Marie-Laure begs him to stop.

One day Etienne sits with Marie-Laure and reads to her in his feathery voice; the next he suffers from what he calls a headache and sequesters himself inside his study behind a locked door. Madame Manec sneaks Marie-Laure chocolate bars, slices of cake; this morning they squeeze lemons into glasses full of water and sugar, and she lets Marie-Laure drink as much as she likes.

“How long will he stay in there, Madame?”

“Sometimes just a day or two,” Madame Manec says. “Sometimes longer.”

One week in Saint-Malo becomes two. Marie begins to feel that her life, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, has been interrupted halfway through. There was volume 1, when Marie-Laure and her father lived in Paris and went to work, and now there is volume 2, when Germans ride motorcycles through these strange, narrow streets and her uncle vanishes inside his own house.

“Papa, when will we leave?” “As soon as I hear from Paris.”

“Why do we have to sleep in this little bedroom?”

“I’m sure we could clean out a downstairs room if you’d like.” “What about the room across the hall from us?”

“Etienne and I agreed we would not use it.” “Why not?”

“It belonged to your grandfather.” “When can I go to the sea?”

“Not today, Marie.”

“Can’t we go for a walk around the block?” “It’s too dangerous.”

She wants to shriek. What dangers await? When she opens her bedroom window, she hears no screams, no explosions, only the calls of birds that her great-uncle calls gannets, and the sea, and the occasional throb of an airplane as it passes far overhead.

She spends her hours learning the house. The first floor belongs to Madame Manec: clean, navigable, full of visitors who come through the kitchen door to trade in small-town scandal. There’s the dining room, the foyer, a hutch full of antique dishes in the hall that tremble whenever anyone walks past, and a door off the kitchen that leads to Madame’s room: a bed, a sink, a chamber pot.

Eleven winding steps lead to the second floor, which is full of the smells of faded grandeur: an old sewing room, a former maid’s room. Right here on the landing, Madame Manec tells her, pallbearers dropped the coffin carrying Etienne’s great-aunt. “The coffin flipped over, and she slid down the whole flight. They were all horrified, but she looked entirely unaffected!”

More clutter on the third floor: boxes of jars, metal disks, and rusty jigsaws; buckets of what might be electrical components; engineering

manuals in piles around a toilet. By the fourth floor, things are piled everywhere, in the rooms and corridors and along the staircase: baskets of what must be machine parts, shoe boxes loaded with screws, antique dollhouses built by her great-grandfather. Etienne’s huge study colonizes the entire fifth floor, alternately deeply quiet or else full of voices or music or static.

Then there’s the sixth floor: her grandfather’s tidy bedroom on the left, toilet straight ahead, the little room where she sleeps with her father on the right. When the wind is blowing, which it almost always is, with the walls groaning and the shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through its center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.

In the kitchen, Madame Manec’s friends fuss over Marie-Laure’s hair and freckles. In Paris, the women say, people are waiting in line five hours for a loaf of bread. People are eating pets, crushing pigeons with bricks for soup. There is no pork, no rabbit, no cauliflower. The headlights of cars are all painted blue, they say, and at night the city is as quiet as a graveyard: no buses, no trains, hardly any gasoline. Marie-Laure sits at the square table, a plate of cookies in front of her, and imagines the old women with veiny hands and milky eyes and oversize ears. From the kitchen window comes the wit wit wit of a barn swallow, footfalls on ramparts, halyards clinking against masts, hinges and chains creaking in the harbor. Ghosts. Germans. Snails.

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