In a French village far to the south of Saint-Malo, a German truck crossing a bridge is blown up. Six German soldiers die. Terrorists are blamed. Night and fog, whisper the women who come by to check on Marie-Laure. For every Kraut lost, they’ll kill ten of us. Police go door-to-door demanding any able-bodied man come out for a day’s work. Dig trenches, unload railway wagons, push barrows of cement bags, construct invasion obstacles in a field or on a beach. Everyone who can must work to strengthen the Atlantic Wall. Etienne stands squinting in the doorway with his doctor’s notes in his hand. Cold air blowing over him and fear billowing backward into the hall.
Madame Ruelle whispers that occupation authorities are blaming the attack on an elaborate network of anti-occupation radio broadcasts. She says that crews are busy locking away the beaches behind a network of concertina wire and huge wooden jacks called chevaux de frise. Already they have restricted access to the walkways atop the ramparts.
She hands over a loaf and Marie-Laure carries it home. When Etienne breaks it open, there is yet another piece of paper inside. Nine more numbers. “I thought they might take a break,” he says.
Marie-Laure is thinking of her father. “Maybe,” she says, “it is even more important now?”
He waits until dark. Marie-Laure sits in the mouth of the wardrobe, the false back open, and listens to her uncle switch on the microphone and transmitter in the attic. His mild voice speaks numbers into the garret. Then music plays, soft and low, full of cellos tonight, and it cuts out midstream.
It takes him a long time to come down the ladder. He takes her hand. He says, “The war that killed your grandfather killed sixteen million others. One and a half million French boys alone, most of them younger than I was. Two million on the German side. March the dead in a single-file line, and for eleven days and eleven nights, they’d walk past our door. This is not rearranging street signs, what we’re doing, Marie. This
is not misplacing a letter at the post office. These numbers, they’re more than numbers. Do you understand?”
“But we are the good guys. Aren’t we, Uncle?” “I hope so. I hope we are.”