One final burst of frenetic gluing and sanding, and Marie-Laure’s father has completed the model of Saint-Malo. It is unpainted, imperfect, striped with a half-dozen different types of wood, and missing details. But it’s complete enough for his daughter to use if she must: the irregular polygon of the island framed by ramparts, each of its eight hundred and sixty-five buildings in place.
He feels ragged. For weeks logic has been failing him. The stone the museum has asked him to protect is not real. If it were, the museum would have sent men already to collect it. Why then, when he puts a magnifying glass to it, do its depths reveal tiny daggers of flames? Why does he hear footfalls behind him when there are none? And why does he find himself entertaining the brainless notion that the stone he carries in the linen sachet in his pocket has brought him misfortune, has put Marie-Laure in danger, may indeed have precipitated the whole invasion of France?
He has tried every test he can think of without involving another soul. Tried folding it between pieces of felt and striking it with a hammer—
it did not shatter.
Tried scratching it with a halved pebble of quartz—it did not scratch.
Tried holding it to candle flame, drowning it, boiling it. He has hidden the jewel under the mattress, in his tool case, in his shoe. For several hours one night, he tucked it into Madame Manec’s geraniums in a window flower box, then convinced himself the geraniums were wilting and dug the stone out.
This afternoon a familiar face looms in the train station, maybe four or five back in the queue. He has seen this man before, pudgy, sweating, multi-chinned. They lock eyes; the man’s gaze slides away.
Etienne’s neighbor. The perfumer.
Weeks ago, while taking measurements for the model, the locksmith saw this same man atop the ramparts pointing a camera out to sea. Not a
man to trust, Madame Manec said. But he is just a man waiting in line to buy a ticket.
Logic. The principles of validity. Every lock has its key.
For more than two weeks, the director’s telegram has echoed in his head. Such a maddeningly ambiguous choice for that final directive— Travel securely. Does it mean to bring the stone or leave it behind? Bring Marie-Laure or leave her behind? Travel by train? Or by some other, theoretically more secure means?
And what if, the locksmith considers, the telegram was not sent from the director at all?
Round and round the questions run. When it is his turn at the window, he buys a ticket for a single passenger on the morning train to Rennes and then on to Paris and walks the narrow, sunless streets back to the rue Vauborel. He will go do this and then it will be over. Back to work, staff the key pound, lock things away. In a week, he will ride unburdened back to Brittany and collect Marie-Laure.
For supper Madame Manec serves stew and baguettes. Afterward he leads Marie-Laure up the rickety flights of stairs to the third-floor bath. He fills the big iron tub and turns his back as she undresses. “Use as much soap as you’d like,” he says. “I bought extra.” The train ticket remains folded in his pocket like a betrayal.
She lets him wash her hair. Over and over Marie-Laure trawls her fingers through the suds, as though trying to gauge their weight. There has always been a sliver of panic in him, deeply buried, when it comes to his daughter: a fear that he is no good as a father, that he is doing everything wrong. That he never quite understood the rules. All those Parisian mothers pushing buggies through the Jardin des Plantes or holding up cardigans in department stores—it seemed to him that those women nodded to each other as they passed, as though each possessed some secret knowledge that he did not. How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?
There is pride, too, though—pride that he has done it alone. That his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful, as if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That’s how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair: as though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.
The drain moans; the cluttered house crowds in close. Marie turns up her wet face. “You’re leaving. Aren’t you?”
He is glad, just now, that she cannot see him. “Madame told me about the telegram.”
“I won’t be long, Marie. A week. Ten days at most.” “When?”
“Tomorrow. Before you wake.”
She leans over her knees. Her back is long and white and split by the knobs of her vertebrae. She used to fall asleep holding his index finger in her fist. She used to sprawl with her books beneath the key pound bench and move her hands like spiders across the pages.
“Am I to stay here?”
“With Madame. And Etienne.”
He hands her a towel and helps her climb onto the tile and waits outside while she puts on her nightgown. Then he walks her up to the sixth floor and into their little room, though he knows she does not need to be guided, and he sits on the edge of the bed and she kneels beside the model and sets three fingers on the steeple of the cathedral.
He finds the hairbrush, does not bother turning on the lamp. “Ten days, Papa?”
“At most.” The walls creak; the window between the curtains is black; the town prepares to sleep. Somewhere out there, German U-boats glide above underwater canyons, and thirty-foot squid ferry their huge eyes through the cold dark.
“Have we ever spent a night apart?”
“No.” His gaze flits through the unlit room. The stone in his pocket seems almost to pulse. If he manages to sleep tonight, what will he dream?
“Can I go out while you are gone, Papa?” “Once I get back. I promise.”
As tenderly as he can, he draws the brush through the damp strands of his daughter’s hair. Between strokes, they can hear the sea wind rattle the window.
Marie-Laure’s hands whisper across the houses as she recites the names of the streets. “Rue des Cordiers, rue Jacques Cartier, rue Vauborel.”
He says, “You’ll know them all in a week.”
Marie-Laure’s fingers rove to the outer ramparts. The sea beyond. “Ten days,” she says.