New rumors arrive. They rustle along the paths of the Jardin des Plantes and wind through the museum galleries; they echo in high dusty redoubts where shriveled old botanists study exotic mosses. They say the Germans are coming.
The Germans, a gardener claims, have sixty thousand troop gliders; they can march for days without eating; they impregnate every schoolgirl they meet. A woman behind the ticket counter says the Germans carry fog pills and wear rocket belts; their uniforms, she whispers, are made of a special cloth stronger than steel.
Marie-Laure sits on a bench beside the mollusk display and trains her ears on passing groups. A boy blurts, “They have a bomb called the Secret Signal. It makes a sound, and everyone who hears it goes to the bathroom in their pants!”
“I hear they give out poisoned chocolate.”
“I hear they lock up the cripples and morons everywhere they go.”
Each time Marie-Laure relays another rumor to her father, he repeats “Germany” with a question mark after it, as if saying it for the very first time. He says the takeover of Austria is nothing to worry about. He says everyone remembers the last war, and no one is mad enough to go through that again. The director is not worrying, he says, and neither are the department heads, so neither should young girls who have lessons to learn.
It seems true: nothing changes but the day of the week. Every morning Marie-Laure wakes and dresses and follows her father through Entrance #2 and listens to him greet the night guard and the warder. Bonjour bonjour. Bonjour bonjour. The scientists and librarians still collect their keys in the mornings, still study their ancient elephants’ teeth, their exotic jellyfish, their herbarium sheets. The secretaries still talk about fashion; the director still arrives in a two-tone Delage limousine; and every noon the African vendors still wheel their sandwich
carts quietly down the halls with their whispers of rye and egg, rye and egg.
Marie-Laure reads Jules Verne in the key pound, on the toilet, in the corridors; she reads on the benches of the Grand Gallery and out along the hundred gravel paths of the gardens. She reads the first half of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so many times, she practically memorizes it.
The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the globe . . . The sea is only a receptacle for all the prodigious, supernatural things that exist inside it. It is only movement and love; it is the living infinite.
At night, in her bed, she rides in the belly of Captain Nemo’s
Nautilus, below the gales, while canopies of coral drift overhead.
Dr. Geffard teaches her the names of shells—Lambis lambis, Cypraea moneta, Lophiotoma acuta—and lets her feel the spines and apertures and whorls of each in turn. He explains the branches of marine evolution and the sequences of the geologic periods; on her best days, she glimpses the limitless span of millennia behind her: millions of years, tens of millions.
“Nearly every species that has ever lived has gone extinct, Laurette. No reason to think we humans will be any different!” Dr. Geffard pronounces this almost gleefully and pours wine into his glass, and she imagines his head as a cabinet filled with ten thousand little drawers.
All summer the smells of nettles and daisies and rainwater purl through the gardens. She and her father cook a pear tart and burn it by accident, and her father opens all the windows to let out the smoke, and she hears violin music rise from the street below. And yet by early autumn, once or twice a week, at certain moments of the day, sitting out in the Jardin des Plantes beneath the massive hedges or reading beside her father’s workbench, Marie-Laure looks up from her book and believes she can smell gasoline under the wind. As if a great river of machinery is steaming slowly, irrevocably, toward her.