Chapter no 84 – Alive Before You Die

All the Light We Cannot See

Madame Manec goes into Etienne’s study on the fifth floor. Marie-Laure listens on the stairs.

“You could help,” Madame says. Someone—likely Madame—opens a window, and the bright air of the sea washes onto the landing, stirring everything: Etienne’s curtains, his papers, his dust, Marie-Laure’s longing for her father.

Etienne says, “Please, Madame. Close the window. They are rounding up blackout offenders.”

The window stays open. Marie-Laure creeps down another stair. “How do you know whom they round up, Etienne? A woman in

Rennes was given nine months in prison for naming one of her hogs Goebbels, did you know that? A palm reader in Cancale was shot for predicting de Gaulle would return in the spring. Shot!”

“Those are only rumors, Madame.”

“Madame Hébrard says that a Dinard man—a grandfather, Etienne— was given two years in prison for wearing the Cross of Lorraine under his collar. I heard they’re going to turn the whole city into a big ammunition dump.”

Her great-uncle laughs softly. “It all sounds like something a sixth-former would make up.”

“Every rumor carries a seed of truth, Etienne.”

All of Etienne’s adult life, Marie-Laure realizes, Madame Manec has tended his fears. Skirted them, mitigated them. She creeps down one more stair.

Madame Manec is saying, “You know things, Etienne. About maps, tides, radios.”

“It’s already too dangerous, all those women in my house. People have eyes, Madame.”


“The perfumer, for one.”

“Claude?” She snorts. “Little Claude is too busy smelling himself.”

“Claude is not so little anymore. Even I can see his family gets more than the others: more meat, more electricity, more butter. I know how such prizes are won.”

“Then help us.”

“I don’t want to make trouble, Madame.” “Isn’t doing nothing a kind of troublemaking?” “Doing nothing is doing nothing.”

“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”

The wind gusts. In Marie-Laure’s mind, it shifts and gleams, draws needles and thorns in the air. Silver then green then silver again.

“I know ways,” says Madame Manec.

“What ways? Whom have you put your trust in?” “You have to trust someone sometime.”

“If your same blood doesn’t run in the arms and legs of the person you’re next to, you can’t trust anything. And even then. It’s not a person you wish to fight, Madame, it’s a system. How do you fight a system?”

“You try.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Dig out that old thing in the attic. You used to know more about radios than anyone in town. Anyone in Brittany, perhaps.”

“They’ve taken all the receivers.”

“Not all. People have hidden things everywhere. You’d only have to read numbers, is how I understand it, numbers on strips of paper. Someone—I don’t know who, maybe Harold Bazin—will bring them to Madame Ruelle, and she’ll collect them and bake the messages right into the bread. Right into it!” She laughs; to Marie-Laure, her voice sounds twenty years younger.

“Harold Bazin. You are trusting Harold Bazin? You are cooking secret codes into bread?”

“What fat Kraut is going to eat those awful loaves? They take all the good flour for themselves. We bring home the bread, you transmit the numbers, then we burn the piece of paper.”

“This is ridiculous. You act like children.”

“It’s better than not acting at all. Think of your nephew. Think of Marie-Laure.”

Curtains flap and papers rustle and the two adults have a standoff in the study. Marie-Laure has crept so close to her great-uncle’s doorway that she can touch the door frame.

Madame Manec says, “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” “Marie is almost fourteen years old, Madame. Not so young, not

during war. Fourteen-year-olds die the same as anybody else. But I want fourteen to be young. I want—”

Marie-Laure scoots back up a step. Have they seen her? She thinks of the stone kennel Crazy Harold Bazin led her to: the snails gathered in their multitudes. She thinks of the many times her father put her on his bicycle: she’d balance on the seat, and he would stand on the pedals, and they’d glide out into the roar of some Parisian boulevard. She’d hold his hips and bend her knees, and they’d fly between cars, down hills, through gauntlets of odor and noise and color.

Etienne says, “I am going back to my book, Madame. Shouldn’t you be preparing dinner?”

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