The electric bell rings at Number 4 rue Vauborel. Etienne Le-Blanc, Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure stop chewing at the same time, each thinking: They have found me out. The transmitter in the attic, the women in the kitchen, the hundred trips to the beach.
Etienne says, “You are expecting someone?”
Madame Manec says, “No one.” The women would come to the kitchen door.
The bell rings again.
All three go to the foyer; Madame Manec opens the door.
French policemen, two of them. They are there, they explain, at the request of the Natural History Museum in Paris. The jarring of their boot heels on the boards of the foyer seems loud enough to shatter the windows. The first one is eating something—an apple, Marie-Laure decides. The second smells of shaving balm. And roasted meat. As if they have been feasting.
All five—Etienne, Marie-Laure, Madame Manec, and the two men— sit in the kitchen around the square table. The men refuse a bowl of stew. The first clears his throat. “Right or wrong,” he says, “he has been convicted of theft and conspiracy.”
“All prisoners, political or otherwise,” says the second, “are forced to do labor, even if they have not been sentenced to it.”
“The museum has written to wardens and prison directors all over Germany.”
“We do not yet know exactly which prison.” “We believe it could be Breitenau.”
“We’re certain they did not hold a proper tribunal.”
Etienne’s voice comes spiraling up from beside Marie-Laure. “Is that a good prison? I mean, one of the better ones?”
“I’m afraid there are no good German prisons.”
A truck passes in the street. The sea folds onto the Plage du Môle fifty yards away. She thinks: They just say words, and what are words but sounds these men shape out of breath, weightless vapors they send into
the air of the kitchen to dissipate and die. She says: “You have come all this way to tell us things we already know.”
Madame Manec takes her hand.
Etienne murmurs, “We did not know about this place called Breitenau.”
The first policeman says, “You told the museum he has managed to smuggle out two letters?”
The second: “May we see them?”
Off goes Etienne, content to believe that someone is on the job. Marie-Laure ought to be happy too, but something makes her suspicious. She remembers something her father said back in Paris, on the first night of the invasion, as they waited for a train. Everyone is looking out for himself.
The first policeman snaps flesh off his apple with his teeth. Are they looking at her? To be so close to them makes her feel faint. Etienne returns with both letters, and she can hear the men passing the pages back and forth.
“Did he speak of anything before he left?”
“Of any particular activities or errands we should be aware of?”
Their French is good, very Parisian, but who knows where their loyalties lie? If your same blood doesn’t run in the arms and legs of the person you’re next to, you can’t trust anything. Everything feels compressed and submarine to Marie-Laure just then, as if the five of them have been submerged into a murky aquarium overfull of fish, and their fins keep bumping as they shift about.
She says, “My father is not a thief.” Madame Manec’s hand squeezes hers.
Etienne says, “He seemed concerned for his job, for his daughter. For France, of course. Who wouldn’t be?”
“Mademoiselle,” says the first man. He is talking directly to Marie-Laure. “Was there no specific thing he mentioned?”
“He had many keys at the museum.” “He turned in his keys before he left.”
“May we look at whatever he brought here with him?” The second man adds, “His bags, perhaps?”
“He took his rucksack with him,” says Marie-Laure, “when the director asked him to return.”
“May we look anyway?”
Marie-Laure can feel the gravity in the room increase. What do they hope to find? She imagines the radio equipment high above her: microphone, transceiver, all those dials and switches and cables.
Etienne says, “You may.”
They go into every room. Third floor fourth fifth. On the sixth, they stand in her grandfather’s old bedroom and open the huge wardrobe with its heavy doors and cross the hall and stand over the model of Saint-Malo in Marie-Laure’s room and whisper to each other and then tromp back downstairs.
They ask a total of one question: about three Free French flags rolled up in a second-floor closet. Why does Etienne have them?
“You put yourself in jeopardy keeping those,” says the second policeman.
“You would not want the authorities to think you are terrorists,” says the first. “People have been arrested for less.” Whether this is offered as favor or threat remains unclear. Marie-Laure thinks: Do they mean Papa?
The policemen finish their search and say good night with perfect politeness and leave.
Madame Manec lights a cigarette. Marie-Laure’s stew is cold.
Etienne fumbles with the fireplace grate. He shoves the flags one after another into the fire. “No more. No more.” He says the second louder than the first. “Not here.”
Madame Manec’s voice: “They found nothing. There is nothing to find.”
The acrid smell of burning cotton fills the kitchen. Her great-uncle says, “You do what you like with your life, Madame. You have always been there for me, and I will try to be there for you. But you may no longer do these things in this house. And you may not do them with my great-niece.”
To My Dear Sister Jutta—
It is very difficult now. Even paper is hard to We had
no heat in the . Frederick
and that my mistake was that I
I hope someday you can understand. Love to you and
used to say there is no such thing as free will and that every person’s path is predetermined for him just like
Frau Elena too. Sieg heil.