Chapter no 74 – The Rounds‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Although Etienne continues to offer objections, Madame Manec walks Marie-Laure to the beach every morning. The girl knots her shoes herself, feels her way down the stairwell, and waits in the foyer with her cane in her fist while Madame Manec finishes up in the kitchen.

“I can find my own way,” Marie-Laure says the fifth time they step out. “You don’t have to lead.”

Twenty-two paces to the intersection with the rue d’Estrées. Forty more to the little gate. Nine steps down and she’s on the sand and the twenty thousand sounds of the ocean engulf her.

She collects pinecones dropped by trees who knows how far away. Thick hanks of rope. Slick globules of stranded polyps. Once a drowned sparrow. Her greatest pleasure is to walk to the north end of the beach at low tide and squat below an island that Madame Manec calls Le Grand Bé and let her fingers whisk around in the tidepools. Only then, with her toes and fingers in the cold sea, does her mind seem to fully leave her father; only then does she stop wondering how much of his letter was true, when he’ll write again, why he has been imprisoned. She simply listens, hears, breathes.

Her bedroom fills with pebbles, seaglass, shells: forty scallops along the windowsill, sixty-one whelks along the top of the armoire. She arranges them by species whenever she can, then by size. Smallest on the left, largest on the right. She fills jars, pails, trays; the room assumes the smell of the sea.

Most mornings, after the beach, she makes the rounds with Madame Manec, going to the vegetable market, occasionally to the butcher’s, then delivering food to whichever neighbors Madame Manec decides are most in need. They climb an echoing stairwell, rap on a door; an old woman invites them in, asks for news, insists all three of them drink a thimbleful of sherry. Madame Manec’s energy, Marie-Laure is learning, is extraordinary; she burgeons, shoots off stalks, wakes early, works late, concocts bisques without a drop of cream, loaves with less than a cup of flour. They clomp together through the narrow streets, Marie-Laure’s

hand on the back of Madame’s apron, following the odors of her stews and cakes; in such moments Madame seems like a great moving wall of rosebushes, thorny and fragrant and crackling with bees.

Still-warm bread to an ancient widow named Madame Blanchard. Soup to Monsieur Saget. Slowly Marie-Laure’s brain becomes a three-dimensional map in which exist glowing landmarks: a thick plane tree in the Place aux Herbes; nine potted topiaries outside the Hôtel Continental; six stairs up a passageway called the rue du Connétable.

Several days a week, Madame brings food to Crazy Harold Bazin, a veteran of the Great War who sleeps in an alcove behind the library in sun or snow. Who lost his nose, left ear, and eye to shellfire. Who wears an enameled copper mask over half his face.

Harold Bazin loves to talk about the walls and warlocks and pirates of Saint-Malo. Over the centuries, he tells Marie-Laure, the city ramparts have kept out bloodthirsty marauders, Romans, Celts, Norsemen. Some say sea monsters. For thirteen hundred years, he says, the walls kept out bloodthirsty English sailors who would park their ships offshore and launch flaming projectiles at the houses, who would try to burn everything and starve everybody, who would stop at nothing to kill them all.

“The mothers of Saint-Malo,” he says, “used to tell their children: Sit up straight. Mind your manners. Or an Englishman will come in the night to cut your throat.”

“Harold, please,” says Madame Manec. “You’ll frighten her.”

In March, Etienne turns sixty and Madame Manec stews little clams

palourdes—with shallots and serves them alongside mushrooms and quarters of two hard-boiled eggs: the only two eggs, she reports, she could find in the city. Etienne talks in his soft voice about the eruption of Krakatoa, how, in all of his earliest memories, ash from the East Indies turned the sunsets over Saint-Malo bloodred, big veins of crimson glowing above the sea every evening; and to Marie-Laure, her pockets lined with sand, her face aglow from wind, the occupation seems, for a moment, a thousand miles away. She misses Papa, Paris, Dr. Geffard, the gardens, her books, her pinecones—all are holes in her life. But over these past few weeks, her existence has become tolerable. At least, out on the beaches, her privation and fear are rinsed away by wind and color and light.

Most afternoons, after making the morning rounds with Madame, Marie-Laure sits on her bed with the window open and travels her hands over her father’s model of the city. Her fingers pass the shipbuilder’s sheds on the rue de Chartres, pass Madame Ruelle’s bakery on the rue Robert Surcouf. In her imagination she hears the bakers sliding about on the flour-slick floor, moving in the way she imagines ice skaters must move, baking loaves in the same four-hundred-year-old oven that Monsieur Ruelle’s great-great-grandfather used. Her fingers pass the cathedral steps—here an old man clips roses in a garden; here, beside the library, Crazy Harold Bazin murmurs to himself as he peers with his one eye into an empty wine bottle; here is the convent; here’s the restaurant Chez Chuche beside the fish market; here’s Number 4 rue Vauborel, its door slightly recessed, where downstairs Madame Manec kneels beside her bed, shoes off, rosary beads slipping through fingers, a prayer for practically every soul in the city. Here, in a fifth-floor room, Etienne walks beside his empty shelves, trailing his fingers over the places where his radios once stood. And somewhere beyond the borders of the model, beyond the borders of France, in a place her fingers cannot reach, her father sits in a cell, a dozen of his whittled models on a windowsill, a guard coming toward him with what she wants very badly to believe is a feast—quail and duck and stewed rabbit. Chicken legs and potatoes fried with bacon and apricot tarts—a dozen trays, a dozen platters, as much as he can eat.

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