Chapter no 49 – Flying Couch‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Posters go up in the market, on tree trunks in the Place Chateaubriand. Voluntary surrender of firearms. Anyone who does not cooperate will be shot. At noon the following day, various Bretons troop in to drop off weapons, farmers on mule carts from miles away, plodding old sailors with antique pistols, a few hunters with outrage in their eyes gazing at the floor as they turn in their rifles.

In the end it’s a pathetic pile, maybe three hundred weapons in all, half of them rusted. Two young gendarmes pile them into the back of a truck and drive up the narrow street and across the causeway and are gone. No speeches, no explanations.

“Please, Papa, can’t I go out?”

“Soon, little dove.” But he is distracted; he smokes so much it is as if he is turning himself into ash. Lately he stays up working frenetically on a model of Saint-Malo that he claims is for her, adding new houses every day, framing ramparts, mapping streets, so that she can learn the town the way she learned their neighborhood in Paris. Wood, glue, nails, sandpaper: rather than comforting her, the noises and smells of his manic diligence make her more anxious. Why will she have to learn the streets of Saint-Malo? How long will they be here?

In the fifth-floor study, Marie-Laure listens to her great-uncle read another page of The Voyage of the Beagle.” Darwin has hunted rheas in Patagonia, studied owls outside Buenos Aires, and scaled a waterfall in Tahiti. He pays attention to slaves, rocks, lightning, finches, and the ceremony of pressing noses in New Zealand. She loves especially to hear about the dark coasts of South America with their impenetrable walls of trees and offshore breezes full of the stink of rotting kelp and the cries of whelping seals. She loves to imagine Darwin at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.

Bonsoir,” she says to Etienne, standing on the davenport in his study. “I may be only a girl of twelve, but I am a brave French explorer who has come to help you with your adventures.”

Etienne adopts a British accent. “Good evening, mademoiselle, why don’t you come to the jungle with me and eat these butterflies, they are as big as dinner plates and may not be poisonous, who knows?”

“I would love to eat your butterflies, Monsieur Darwin, but first I will eat these cookies.”

Other evenings they play Flying Couch. They climb onto the davenport and sit side by side, and Etienne says, “Where to tonight, mademoiselle?”

“The jungle!” Or: “Tahiti!” Or: “Mozambique!”

“Oh, it’s a long journey this time,” Etienne will say in an entirely new voice, smooth, velvety, a conductor’s drawl. “That’s the Atlantic Ocean far below, it’s shining under the moonlight, can you smell it? Feel how cold it is up here? Feel the wind in your hair?”

“Where are we now, Uncle?”

“We’re in Borneo, can’t you tell? We’re skimming the treetops now, big leaves are glimmering below us, and there are coffee bushes over there, smell them?” and Marie-Laure will indeed smell something, whether because her uncle is passing coffee grounds beneath her nose, or because they really are flying over the coffee trees of Borneo, she does not want to decide.

They visit Scotland, New York City, Santiago. More than once they put on winter coats and visit the moon. “Can’t you feel how lightweight we are, Marie? You can move by hardly twitching a muscle!” He sets her in his wheeled desk chair and pants as he whirls her in circles until she cannot laugh anymore for the pain of it.

“Here, try some nice fresh moon flesh,” he says, and into her mouth goes something that tastes a lot like cheese. Always at the end they sit side by side again and pound the cushions, and slowly the room rematerializes around them. “Ah,” he says, more quietly, his accent fading, the faintest touch of dread returning to his voice, “here we are. Home.”

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