Chapter no 31 – Exodus

All the Light We Cannot See

Parisians continue to press through the gates. By 1 A.M., the gendarmes have lost control, and no trains have arrived or departed in over four hours. Marie-Laure sleeps on her father’s shoulder. The locksmith hears no whistles, no rattling couplings: no trains. At dawn he decides it will be better to go on foot.

They walk all morning. Paris thins steadily into low houses and standalone shops broken by long strands of trees. Noon finds them picking their way through deadlocked traffic on a new motorway near Vaucresson, a full ten miles west of their apartment, as far from home as Marie-Laure has ever been.

At the crest of a low hill, her father looks over his shoulder: vehicles are backed up as far as he can see, carryalls and vans, a sleek new cloth-top wraparound V-12 wedged between two mule carts, some cars with wooden axles, some run out of gasoline, some with households of furniture strapped to the roof, a few with entire bristling farmyards crammed onto trailers, chickens and pigs in cages, cows clomping alongside, dogs panting against windshields.

The entire procession slogs past at little more than walking speed. Both lanes are clogged—everyone staggers west, away. A woman bicycles wearing dozens of costume necklaces. A man tows a leather armchair on a handcart, a black kitten cleaning itself on the center cushion. Women push baby carriages crammed with china, birdcages, crystalware. A man in a tuxedo walks along calling, “For the love of God, let me through,” though no one steps aside, and he moves no more quickly than anyone else.

Marie-Laure stays at her father’s hip with her cane in her fist. With each step, another disembodied question spins around her: How far to Saint-Germain? Is there food, Auntie? Who has fuel? She hears husbands yelling at wives; she hears that a child has been run over by a truck on the road ahead. In the afternoon a trio of airplanes race past, loud and fast and low, and people crouch where they walk and some scream and others clamber into the ditch and put their faces in the weeds.

By dusk they are west of Versailles. Marie-Laure’s heels are bleeding and her stockings are torn and every hundred steps she stumbles. When she declares that she can walk no farther, her father carries her off the road, traveling uphill through mustard flowers until they reach a field a few hundred yards from a small farmhouse. The field has been mowed only halfway, the cut hay left unraked and unbaled. As though the farmer has fled in the middle of his work.

From his rucksack the locksmith produces a loaf of bread and some links of white sausage and they eat these quietly and then he lifts her feet into his lap. In the gloaming to the east, he can make out a gray line of traffic herded between the edges of the road. The thin and stupefied bleating of automobile horns. Someone calls as if to a missing child and the wind carries the sound away.

“Is something on fire, Papa?” “Nothing is on fire.”

“I smell smoke.”

He pulls off her stockings to inspect her heels. In his hands, her feet are as light as birds.

“What is that noise?” “Grasshoppers.”

“Is it dark?” “Getting there now.”

“Where will we sleep?” “Here.”

“Are there beds?” “No, ma chérie.”

“Where are we going, Papa?”

“The director has given me the address of someone who will help us.” “Where?”

“A town called Evreux. We are going to see a man named Monsieur Giannot. He is a friend of the museum’s.”

“How far is Evreux?”

“It will take us two years of walking to get there.” She seizes his forearm.

“I am teasing, Marie. Evreux is not so far. If we find transportation, we will be there tomorrow. You will see.”

She manages to stay quiet for a dozen heartbeats. Then she says, “But for now?”

“For now we will sleep.” “With no beds?”

“With the grass as our beds. You might like it.” “In Evreux we will have beds, Papa?”

“I expect so.”

“What if he does not want us to stay there?” “He will want us.”

“What if he does not?”

“Then we will go visit my uncle. Your great-uncle. In Saint-Malo.” “Uncle Etienne? You said he was crazy.”

“He is partially crazy, yes. He is maybe seventy-six percent crazy.” She does not laugh. “How far is Saint-Malo?”

“Enough questions, Marie. Monsieur Giannot will want us to stay in Evreux. In big soft beds.”

“How much food do we have, Papa?” “Some. Are you still hungry?”

“I’m not hungry. I want to save the food.”

“Okay. Let’s save the food. Let’s be quiet now and rest.”

She lies back. He lights another cigarette. Six to go. Bats dive and swoop through clouds of gnats, and the insects scatter and re-form once more. We are mice, he thinks, and the sky swirls with hawks.

“You are very brave, Marie-Laure.”

The girl has already fallen asleep. The night darkens. When his cigarette is gone, he eases Marie-Laure’s feet to the ground and covers her with her coat and opens the rucksack. By touch, he finds his case filled with woodworking tools. Tiny saws, tacks, gouges, carving chisels, fine-gritted sandpapers. Many of these tools were his grandfather’s. From beneath the lining of the case, he withdraws a small bag made of heavy linen and cinched with a drawstring. All day he has restrained himself from checking on it. Now he opens the bag and upends its contents onto his palm.

In his hand, the stone is about the size of a chestnut. Even at this late hour, in the quarter-light, it glows a majestic blue. Strangely cold.

The director said there would be three decoys. Added to the real diamond, that makes four. One would stay behind at the museum. Three others would be sent in three different directions. One south with a young geologist. Another north with the chief of security. And one is

here, in a field west of Versailles, inside the tool case of Daniel LeBlanc, principal locksmith for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.

Three fakes. One real. It is best, the director said, that no man knows whether he carries the real diamond or a reproduction. And everyone, he said, giving them each a grave look, should behave as if he carries the real thing.

The locksmith tells himself that the diamond he carries is not real. There is no way the director would knowingly give a tradesman a one-hundred-and-thirty-three-carat diamond and let him walk out of Paris with it. And yet as he stares at it, he cannot keep his thoughts from the question: Could it be?

He scans the field. Trees, sky, hay. Darkness falling like velvet. Already a few pale stars. Marie-Laure breathes the measured breath of sleep. Everyone should behave as if he carries the real thing. The locksmith reties the stone inside the bag and slips it back into his rucksack. He can feel its tiny weight there, as though he has slipped it inside his own mind: a knot.



Hours later, he wakes to see the silhouette of an airplane blot stars as it hurtles east. It makes a soft tearing sound as it passes overhead. Then it disappears. The ground concusses a moment later.

A corner of the night sky, beyond a wall of trees, blooms red. In the lurid, flickering light, he sees that the airplane was not alone, that the sky teems with them, a dozen swooping back and forth, racing in all directions, and in a moment of disorientation, he feels that he’s looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and the airplanes are hungry fish, harrying their prey in the dark.

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