Chapter no 81 – Grotto‌

All the Light We Cannot See

It’s summer and Marie-Laure is sitting in the alcove behind the library with Madame Manec and Crazy Harold Bazin. Through his copper mask, through a mouthful of soup, Harold says, “I want to show you something.”

He leads Marie-Laure and Madame Manec down what Marie-Laure thinks is the rue du Boyer, though it could be the rue Vincent de Gournay or the rue des Hautes Salles. They reach the base of the ramparts and turn right, following a lane Marie-Laure has not been on before. They descend two steps, pass through a curtain of hanging ivy, and Madame Manec says, “Harold, please, what is this?” The alley grows narrower and narrower until they must walk single file, the walls close on either side, and then they stop. Marie-Laure can feel stone blocks mounting vertically on both sides to brush their shoulders: they seem to rise forever. If her father has built this alley into his model, her fingers have not discovered it yet.

Harold rummages in his filthy trousers, breathing hard behind his mask. Where the wall of the ramparts should be, on their left, Marie-Laure hears a lock give way. A gate creaks open. “Watch your head,” he says, and helps her through. They clamber down into a cramped, moist space that positively reeks of the sea. “We’re beneath the wall. Twenty meters of granite on top of us.”

Madame says, “Really, Harold, it’s gloomy as a graveyard in here,” but Marie-Laure ventures a bit farther, the soles of her shoes slipping, the floor angling down, and then her shoes touch water.

“Feel this,” says Harold Bazin, and crouches and brings her hand to a curved wall which is completely studded with snails. Hundreds of them. Thousands.

“So many,” she whispers.

“I don’t know why. Maybe because they’re safe from gulls? Here, feel this, I’ll turn it over.” Hundreds of tiny, squirming hydraulic feet beneath a horny, ridged top: a sea star. “Blue mussels here. And here’s a dead stone crab, can you feel his claw? Watch your head now.”

The surf breaks nearby; water purls past her shoes. Marie-Laure wades forward; the floor of the room is sandy, the water barely ankle-deep. From what she can tell, it’s a low grotto, maybe four yards long and half as wide, shaped like a loaf of bread. At the far end is a thick grate through which lustrous, clear sea wind washes. Her fingertips discover barnacles, weeds, a thousand more snails. “What is this place?”

“Remember I told you about the dogs of the watch? A long time ago, city kennel keepers would keep the mastiffs in here, dogs as big as horses. At night a curfew bell would ring, and the dogs would be let loose onto the beaches to eat any sailor who dared come ashore. Somewhere beneath those mussels is a stone with the date 1165 scratched into it.”

“But the water?”

“Even at the highest tides, it doesn’t get more than waist-deep. Back then the tides might have been lower. We used to play in here as boys. Me and your grandfather. Sometimes your great-uncle too.”

The tide flows past their feet. Everywhere mussels click and sigh. She thinks of the wild old seamen who lived in this town, smugglers and pirates, sailing over the dark seas, winding their ships between ten thousand reefs.

“Harold, we should go now,” calls Madame Manec, her voice echoing. “This is no place for a young girl.”

Marie-Laure calls, “It’s fine, Madame.” Hermit crabs. Anemones sending out a tiny jet of seawater when she pokes them. Galaxies of snails. A story of life immanent in each.

Finally Madame Manec coaxes them out of the kennel, and Crazy Harold leads Marie-Laure back through the gate and locks it behind them. Before they reach the Place Broussais, Madame Manec walking out front, he taps Marie-Laure’s shoulder. His whisper comes in her left ear; his breath smells like crushed insects. “Could you find that place again, do you think?”

“I think so.”

He puts something iron in her hand. “Do you know what it is?” Marie-Laure closes her fist. “It’s a key.”

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