Chapter no 25 – Mark of the Beast

All the Light We Cannot See

November 1939. A cold wind sends the big dry leaves of plane trees rolling down the gravel lanes of the Jardin des Plantes. Marie-Laure is rereading Twenty Thousand Leagues—I could make out long ribbons of sea wrack, some globular and others tubular, laurenciae, cladostephae with their slender foliage—not far from the rue Cuvier gate when a group of children comes tramping through the leaves.

A boy’s voice says something; several other boys laugh. Marie-Laure lifts her fingers from her novel. The laughter spins, turns. The first voice is suddenly right beside her ear. “They’re mad for blind girls, you know.”

His breath is quick. She extends her arm into the space beside her but contacts nothing.

She cannot say how many others are with him. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book against her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground.

Someone else says, “They’ll probably take the blind girls before they take the gimps.”

The first boy moans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself.

The second boy says, “Make them do things.” “Nasty things.”

An adult’s voice in the distance calls out, “Louis, Peter?” “Who are you?” hisses Marie-Laure.

“Bye-bye, blind girl.”

Then: quiet. Marie-Laure listens to the trees rustle; her blood swarms. For a long and panicked minute, she crawls among the leaves at the foot of the bench until her fingers find her cane.

Stores sell gas masks. Neighbors tape cardboard to their windows.

Each week fewer visitors come to the museum.

“Papa?” Marie-Laure asks. “If there’s a war, what will happen to us?” “There won’t be a war.”

“But what if there is?”

His hand on her shoulder, the familiar clanking of keys on his belt. “Then we will be fine, ma chérie. The director has already filed a dispensation to keep me out of the reserves. I’m not going anywhere.”

But she hears the way he turns newspaper pages, snapping them with urgency. He lights cigarette after cigarette; he hardly stops working. Weeks pass and the trees go bare and her father doesn’t ask her to walk in the gardens once. If only they had an impregnable submarine like the Nautilus.

The smoky voices of office girls swirl past the open window of the key pound. “They creep into apartments at night. They booby-trap kitchen cupboards, toilet bowls, brassieres. Go to open your panty drawer, and you get your fingers blown off.”

She has nightmares. Silent Germans row up the Seine in synchrony; their skiffs glide as if through oil. They fly noiselessly beneath the bridge trestles; they have beasts with them on chains; their beasts leap out of the boats and sprint past the massifs of flowers, down the rows of hedges. They sniff the air on the steps to the Grand Gallery. Slavering. Ravenous. They surge into the museum, scatter into the departments. The windows go black with blood.

Dear Professor I dont know if youre getting these letters or if the radio station will forward this or is there even a radio station? We havent heard you in two months at least. Did you stop broadcasting or maybe is the problem ours? Theres a new radio transmitter in Brandenburg called the Deutschlandsender 3 my brother says it is three hundred thirty-something meters tall the second-tallest man-made construction in the world. It pushes basically everything else off the dial. Old Frau Stresemann, shes one of our neighbors, she says she can hear Deutschlandsender broadcasts in her tooth fillings. My brother said its possible if you have an antenna and a rectifier and something to serve as a speaker. He said you can use a section of wire fence to pick up radio signals, so maybe the silver in a tooth can too. I like to think about that. Dont you Professor? Songs in your teeth? Frau Elena says we have to come straight home from school now. She says were not Jews but were poor and thats almost as dangerous. Its a criminal offense now to tune into a foreign broadcast. You can get hard labor for it, things like breaking rocks fifteen hours a day. Or making nylon stockings or going down in the pits. No one will help me mail this letter not even my brother so I will do it myself.

You'll Also Like