Chapter no 83 – The Blade and the Whelk‌

All the Light We Cannot See

The Hôtel-Dieu dining room is big and somber and full of people talking about U-boats off Gibraltar and the inequities of currency exchange and four-stroke marine diesel engines. Madame Manec orders two bowls of chowder that she and Marie-Laure promptly finish. She says she does not know what to do next—should they keep waiting?—so she orders two more.

At last a man in rustling clothing sits down with them. “You are sure your name is Madame Walter?”

Madame Manec says, “You are sure your name is René?” A pause.

“And her?”

“My accomplice. She can tell if someone is lying just by hearing him speak.”

He laughs. They talk about the weather. Sea air exudes from the man’s clothes, as if he has been blown here by a gale. While he talks, he makes ungainly movements and bumps the table so that the spoons clatter in their bowls. Finally he says, “We admire your efforts, Madame.”

The man who calls himself René starts talking extremely softly. Marie-Laure catches only phrases: “Look for special insignia on their license plates. WH for army, WL for air force, WM for navy. And you could note—or find someone who could—every vessel that comes in and out of the harbor. This information is very much in demand.”

Madame Manec is quiet. If more is said that Marie-Laure cannot overhear—if there is a pantomime going on between them, notes passed, stratagems agreed upon—she cannot say. Some level of accord is reached, and soon enough she and Madame Manec are back in the kitchen at Number 4 rue Vauborel. Madame Manec clatters around in the cellar and hauls up canning supplies. This very morning, she announces, she has managed to procure what might be the last two crates of peaches in France. She hums as she helps Marie-Laure with the peeler.


“Yes, Marie.”

“What is a pseudonym?”

“It is a fake name, an alternate name.”

“If I were to have one, what sort of name could I choose?”

“Well,” says Madame Manec. She pits and quarters another peach. “You can be anything. You can be the Mermaid if you like. Or Daisy? Violet?”

“How about the Whelk? I think I would like to be the Whelk.” “The Whelk. That is an excellent pseudonym.”

“And you, Madame? What would you like to be?”

“Me?” Madame Manec’s knife pauses. Crickets sing in the cellar. “I think I would like to be the Blade.”

“The Blade?”

“Yes.” The perfume of the peaches makes a bright ruddy cloud. “The Blade?” repeats Marie-Laure. Then they both start laughing.

Dear Werner,


Why don’t you write?

The foundries run day and


night and the stacks never stop smoking and it’s been cold here so everyone burns everything to stay warm. Sawdust, hard coal, soft coal, lime, garbage. War widows


and every day there are more. I’m working at the laundry with the twins, Hannah and Susanne, and Claudia Förster, you remember her, we’re mending tunics and trousers mostly. I’m getting better with a needle so at least I’m not pricking myself all the time. Right now I just finished my homework. Do you have homework? There are fabric shortages and people bring in slipcovers, curtains, old coats. Anything that can be used they say must be used. Just like all of us here. Ha. I found this under your old cot. Seems like you could use it.



Inside the homemade envelope waits Werner’s childhood notebook, handwriting across the cover: Questions. Across its pages swarm

boyhood drawings, inventions: an electric bed heater he wanted to build for Frau Elena; a bicycle with chains to drive both wheels. Can magnets affect liquids? Why do boats float? Why do we feel dizzy when we spin?

A dozen empty pages at the back. Juvenile enough, presumably, to make it past the censor.

Around him sounds the din of boots, clatter of rifles. Stocks on the ground, barrels against the wall. Grab cups off hooks, plates off racks. Queue up for boiled beef. Over him breaks a wave of homesickness so acute that he has to clamp his eyes.

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