Chapter no 29 – Flight

All the Light We Cannot See

All across Paris, people pack china into cellars, sew pearls into hems, conceal gold rings inside book bindings. The museum workspaces are stripped of typewriters. The halls become packing yards, their floors strewn with straw and sawdust and twine.

At noon the locksmith is summoned to the director’s office. Marie-Laure sits cross-legged on the floor of the key pound and tries to read her novel. Captain Nemo is about to take Professor Aronnax and his companions on an underwater stroll through oyster beds to hunt for pearls, but Aronnax is afraid of the prospect of sharks, and though she longs to know what will happen, the sentences disintegrate across the page. Words devolve into letters, letters into unintelligible bumps. She feels as if big mitts have been drawn over each hand.

Down the hall, at the guards’ station, a warder twists the knobs of the wireless back and forth but finds only hiss and crackle. When he shuts it off, quiet closes over the museum.

Please let this be a puzzle, an elaborate game Papa has constructed, a riddle she must solve. The first door, a combination lock. The second, a dead bolt. The third will open if she whispers a magic word through its keyhole. Crawl through thirteen doors, and everything will return to normal.

Out in the city, church bells strike one. One thirty. Still her father does not return. At some point, several distinct thumps travel into the museum from the gardens or the streets beyond, as if someone is dropping sacks of cement mix out of the clouds. With each impact, the thousands of keys in their cabinets quiver on their pegs.

Nobody moves up or down the corridor. A second series of concussions arrives—closer, larger. The keys chime and the floor creaks and she thinks she can smell threads of dust cascading from the ceiling.


Nothing. No warders, no janitors, no carpenters, no clop-clop-clop of a secretary’s heels crossing the hall.

They can march for days without eating. They impregnate every schoolgirl they meet.

“Hello?” How quickly her voice is swallowed, how empty the halls sound. It terrifies her.

A moment later, there are clanking keys and footfalls and her father’s voice calls her name. Everything happens quickly. He drags open big, low drawers; he jangles dozens of key rings.

“Papa, I heard—” “Hurry.”

“My book—”

“Better to leave it. It’s too heavy.” “Leave my book?”

He pulls her out the door and locks the key pound. Outside, waves of panic seem to be traveling the rows of trees like tremors from an earthquake.

Her father says, “Where is the watchman?” Voices near the curb: soldiers.

Marie-Laure’s senses feel scrambled. Is that the rumble of airplanes?

Is that the smell of smoke? Is someone speaking German?

She can hear her father exchange a few words with a stranger and hand over some keys. Then they are moving past the gate onto the rue Cuvier, brushing through what might be sandbags or silent police officers or something else newly planted in the middle of the sidewalk.

Six blocks, thirty-eight storm drains. She counts them all. Because of the sheets of wood veneer her father has tacked over its windows, their apartment is stuffy and hot. “This will just take a moment, Marie-Laure. Then I’ll explain.” Her father shoves things into what might be his canvas rucksack. Food, she thinks, trying to identify everything by its sound. Coffee. Cigarettes. Bread?

Something thumps again and the windowpanes tremble. Their dishes rattle in the cupboards. Automobile horns bleat. Marie-Laure goes to the model neighborhood and runs her fingers over the houses. Still there. Still there. Still there.

“Go to the toilet, Marie.” “I don’t have to.”

“It may be a while until you can go again.”

He buttons her into her winter overcoat, though it is the middle of June, and they bustle downstairs. On the rue des Patriarches, she hears a

distant stamping, as though thousands of people are on the move. She walks beside her father with her cane telescoped in one fist, her other hand on his rucksack, everything disconnected from logic, as in nightmares.

Right, left. Between turns run long stretches of paving stones. Soon they are walking streets, she is sure, that she has never been on, streets beyond the boundaries of her father’s model. Marie-Laure has long since lost count of her strides when they reach a crowd dense enough that she can feel heat spilling off of it.

“It will be cooler on the train, Marie. The director has arranged tickets for us.”

“Can we go in?”

“The gates are locked.”

The crowd gives off a nauseating tension. “I’m scared, Papa.”

“Keep hold of me.”

He leads her in a new direction. They cross a seething thoroughfare, then go up an alley that smells like a muddy ditch. Always there is the muted rattling of her father’s tools inside his rucksack and the distant and incessant honking of automobile horns.

In a minute they find themselves amid another throng. Voices echo off a high wall; the smell of wet garments crowds her. Somewhere someone shouts names through a bullhorn.

“Where are we, Papa?” “Gare Saint-Lazare.”

A baby cries. She smells urine. “Are there Germans, Papa?” “No, ma chérie.”

“But soon?” “So they say.”

“What will we do when they get here?” “We will be on a train by then.”

In the space to her right, a child screeches. A man with panic in his voice demands the crowd make way. A woman nearby moans, “Sebastien? Sebastien?” over and over.

“Is it night yet?”

“It’s only now getting dark. Let’s rest a moment. Save our breath.”

Someone says, “The Second Army mauled, the Ninth cut off. France’s best fleets wasted.”

Someone says, “We will be overrun.”

Trunks slide across tiles and a little dog yaps and a conductor’s whistle blows and some kind of big machinery coughs to a start and then dies. Marie-Laure tries to calm her stomach.

“But we have tickets, for God’s sake!” shouts someone behind her. There is a scuffle. Hysteria ripples through the crowd.

“What does it look like, Papa?” “What, Marie?”

“The station. The night.”

She hears the sparking of his lighter, the suck and flare of tobacco as his cigarette ignites.

“Let’s see. The whole city is dark. No streetlights, no lights in windows. There are projector lights moving through the sky now and then. Looking for airplanes. There’s a woman in a gown. And another carrying a stack of dishes.”

“And the armies?”

“There are no armies, Marie.”

His hand finds hers. Her fear settles slightly. Rain trickles through a downspout.

“What are we doing now, Papa?” “Hoping for a train.”

“What is everybody else doing?” “They’re hoping too.”

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