Usually Marie-Laure can solve the wooden puzzle boxes her father creates for her birthdays. Often they are shaped like houses and contain some hidden trinket. Opening them involves a cunning series of steps: find a seam with your fingernails, slide the bottom to the right, detach a side rail, remove a hidden key from inside the rail, unlock the top, and discover a bracelet inside.
For her seventh birthday, a tiny wooden chalet stands in the center of the kitchen table where the sugar bowl ought to be. She slides a hidden drawer out of the base, finds a hidden compartment beneath the drawer, takes out a wooden key, and slots the key inside the chimney. Inside waits a square of Swiss chocolate.
“Four minutes,” says her father, laughing. “I’ll have to work harder next year.”
For a long time, though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.
But her father’s model of the same intersection smells only of dried glue and sawdust. Its streets are empty, its pavements static; to her fingers, it serves as little more than a tiny and insufficient facsimile. He persists in asking Marie-Laure to run her fingers over it, to recognize different houses, the angles of streets. And one cold Tuesday in December, when Marie-Laure has been blind for over a year, her father walks her up rue Cuvier to the edge of the Jardin des Plantes.
“Here, ma chérie, is the path we take every morning. Through the cedars up ahead is the Grand Gallery.”
“I know, Papa.”
He picks her up and spins her around three times. “Now,” he says, “you’re going to take us home.”
Her mouth drops open.
“I want you to think of the model, Marie.” “But I can’t possibly!”
“I’m one step behind you. I won’t let anything happen. You have your cane. You know where you are.”
“I do not!”
Exasperation. She cannot even say if the gardens are ahead or behind. “Calm yourself, Marie. One centimeter at a time.”
“It’s far, Papa. Six blocks, at least.”
“Six blocks is exactly right. Use logic. Which way should we go first?”
The world pivots and rumbles. Crows shout, brakes hiss, someone to her left bangs something metal with what might be a hammer. She shuffles forward until the tip of her cane floats in space. The edge of a curb? A pond, a staircase, a cliff? She turns ninety degrees. Three steps forward. Now her cane finds the base of a wall. “Papa?”
Six paces seven paces eight. A roar of noise—an exterminator just leaving a house, pump bellowing—overtakes them. Twelve paces farther on, the bell tied around the handle of a shop door rings, and two women come out, jostling her as they pass.
Marie-Laure drops her cane; she begins to cry. Her father lifts her, holds her to his narrow chest. “It’s so big,” she whispers.
“You can do this, Marie.” She cannot.