Chapter no 71 – Plage du Môle‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure’s father has been missing without word for twenty-nine days. She wakes to Madame Manec’s blocky pumps climbing to the third floor the fourth the fifth.

Etienne’s voice on the landing outside his study: “Don’t.” “He won’t know.”

“She is my responsibility.”

Some unexpected steel emerges in Madame Manec’s voice. “I cannot stand by one moment longer.”

She climbs the last flight. Marie-Laure’s door creaks open; the old woman crosses the floor and places her heavy-boned hand on Marie-Laure’s forehead. “You’re awake?”

Marie-Laure rolls herself into the corner and speaks through linens. “Yes, Madame.”

“I’m taking you out. Bring your cane.”

Marie-Laure dresses herself; Madame Manec meets her at the bottom of the stairs with a heel of bread. She ties a scarf over Marie-Laure’s head, buttons her coat all the way to the collar, and opens the front door. Morning in late February, and the air smells rainy and calm.

Marie-Laure hesitates, listening. Her heart beats two four six eight. “Hardly anyone is out yet, dear,” whispers Madame Manec. “And we

are doing nothing wrong.” The gate creaks.

“One step down, now straight on, that’s it.” The cobbled street presses up irregularly against Marie-Laure’s shoes; the tip of her cane catches, vibrates, catches again. A light rain falls on rooftops, trickles through runnels, beads up on her scarf. Sound ricochets between the high houses; she feels, as she did in her first hour here, as if she has stepped into a maze.

Far above them, someone shakes a duster out a window. A cat mewls. What terrors gnash their teeth out here? What was Papa so anxious to protect her from? They make one turn, then a second, and then Madame Manec steers her left where Marie-Laure does not expect her to, where

the city walls, furred with moss, have been scrolling along unbroken, and they’re stepping through a gateway.


They pass out of the city.

“Stairs here, mind yourself, one down, two, there you are, easy as cake . . .”

The ocean. The ocean! Right in front of her! So close all this time. It sucks and booms and splashes and rumbles; it shifts and dilates and falls over itself; the labyrinth of Saint-Malo has opened onto a portal of sound larger than anything she has ever experienced. Larger than the Jardin des Plantes, than the Seine, larger than the grandest galleries of the museum. She did not imagine it properly; she did not comprehend the scale.

When she raises her face to the sky, she can feel the thousand tiny spines of raindrops melt onto her cheeks, her forehead. She hears Madame Manec’s raspy breathing, and the deep sounding of the sea among the rocks, and the calls of someone down the beach echoing off the high walls. In her mind she can hear her father polishing locks. Dr. Geffard walking along the rows of his drawers. Why didn’t they tell her it would be like this?

“That’s Monsieur Radom calling to his dog,” says Madame Manec. “Nothing to worry about. Here’s my arm. Sit down and take off your shoes. Roll up your coat sleeves.”

Marie-Laure does as she is told. “Are they watching?”

“The Boches? So what if they are? An old woman and a girl? I’ll tell them we’re digging clams. What can they do?”

“Uncle says they’ve buried bombs in the beaches.” “Don’t you worry about that. He is frightened of an ant.” “He says the moon pulls the ocean back.”

“The moon?”

“Sometimes the sun pulls too. He says that around the islands, the tides make funnels that can swallow boats whole.”

“We aren’t going anywhere near there, dear. We’re just on the beach.” Marie-Laure unwinds her scarf and Madame Manec takes it. Briny,

weedy, pewter-colored air slips down her collar. “Madame?”


“What do I do?” “Just walk.”

She walks. Now there are cold round pebbles beneath her feet. Now crackling weeds. Now something smoother: wet, unwrinkled sand. She bends and spreads her fingers. It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. Tiny slips of wrack. Her fingers dig and reach; the drops of rain touch the back of her neck, the backs of her hands. The sand pulls the heat from her fingertips, from the soles of her feet.

A months-old knot inside Marie-Laure begins to loosen. She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins. She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets. All of it suddenly as small as Papa’s model. But what surrounds the model is not something her father conveyed to her; what’s beyond the model is the most compelling thing.

A flock of gulls squalls overhead. Each of the hundred thousand tiny grains of sand in her fists grinds against its neighbor. She feels her father pick her up and spin her around three times.

No occupation soldier comes to arrest them; no one even speaks to them. In three hours Marie-Laure’s numb fingers discover a stranded jellyfish, an encrusted buoy, and a thousand polished stones. She wades to her knees and soaks the hem of her dress. When Madame Manec finally leads her—damp and dazzled—back to the rue Vauborel, Marie-Laure climbs all five flights and raps on the door of Etienne’s study and stands before him, wet sand stuck all over her face.

“You were gone a long time,” he murmurs. “I worried.”

“Here, Uncle.” From her pockets, she brings up shells. Barnacles, cowries, thirteen lumps of quartz gritty with sand. “I brought you this. And this and this and this.”

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