Chapter no 76 – Proposal‌

All the Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure sits in her customary spot in the corner of the kitchen, closest to the fireplace, and listens to the friends of Madame Manec complain.

“The price of mackerel!” says Madame Fontineau.” You’d think they had to sail to Japan for it!”

“I cannot remember,” says Madame Hébrard, the postmistress, “what a proper plum tastes like.”

“And these ridiculous shoe ration coupons,” says Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife. “Theo has number 3,501 and they haven’t even called 400!”

“It’s not just the brothels on the rue Thévenard anymore. They’re giving all the summer apartments to the freelancers.”

“Big Claude and his wife are getting extra fat.” “Damned Boches have their lights on all day!”

“I cannot bear one more night stuck indoors with my husband.”

Nine of them sit around the square table, knees pressed to knees. Ration card restrictions, abysmal puddings, the deteriorating quality of fingernail varnish—these are crimes they feel in their souls. To hear so many of them in a room together confuses and excites Marie-Laure: they are giddy when they should be serious, somber after jokes; Madame Hébrard cries over the nonavailability of Demerara sugar; another woman’s complaint about tobacco disintegrates midsentence into hysterics about the phenomenal size of the perfumer’s backside. They smell of stale bread, of stuffy living rooms crammed with dark titanic Breton furnishings.

Madame Ruelle says, “So the Gautier girl wants to get married. The family has to melt all its jewelry to get the gold for the wedding ring. The gold gets taxed thirty percent by occupation authorities. Then the jeweler’s work is taxed another thirty percent. By the time they’ve paid him, there’s no ring left!”

The exchange rate is a farce, the price of carrots indefensible, duplicity lives everywhere. Eventually Madame Manec deadbolts the

kitchen door and clears her throat. The women fall quiet.

“We’re the ones who make their world run,” Madame Manec says. “You, Madame Guiboux, your son repairs their shoes. Madame Hébrard, you and your daughter sort their mail. And you, Madame Ruelle, your bakery makes much of their bread.”

The air stretches tight; Marie-Laure has the sense that they are watching someone slide onto thin ice or hold a palm over a flame.

“What are you saying?” “That we do something.” “Put bombs in their shoes?” “Poop in the bread dough?” Brittle laughter.

“Nothing so bold as all that. But we could do smaller things. Simpler things.”

“Like what?”

“First I need to know if you’re willing.”

A charged silence ensues. Marie-Laure can feel them all poised there. Nine minds swinging slowly around. She thinks of her father— imprisoned for what?—and aches.

Two women leave, claiming obligations involving grandchildren. Others tug at their blouses and rattle their chairs as though the temperature of the kitchen has gone up. Six remain. Marie-Laure sits among them, wondering who will cave, who will tattle, who will be the bravest. Who will lie on her back and let her last breath curl up to the ceiling as a curse upon the invaders.

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