Marie-Laure LeBlanc stands alone in her bedroom smelling a leaflet she cannot read. Sirens wail. She closes the shutters and relatches the window. Every second the airplanes draw closer; every second is a second lost. She should be rushing downstairs. She should be making for the corner of the kitchen where a little trapdoor opens into a cellar full of dust and mouse-chewed rugs and ancient trunks long unopened.
Instead she returns to the table at the foot of the bed and kneels beside the model of the city.
Again her fingers find the outer ramparts, the Bastion de la Hollande, the little staircase leading down. In this window, right here, in the real city, a woman beats her rugs every Sunday. From this window here, a boy once yelled, Watch where you’re going, are you blind?
The windowpanes rattle in their housings. The anti-air guns unleash another volley. The earth rotates just a bit farther.
Beneath her fingertips, the miniature rue d’Estrées intersects the miniature rue Vauborel. Her fingers turn right; they skim doorways. One two three. Four. How many times has she done this?
Number 4: the tall, derelict bird’s nest of a house owned by her great-uncle Etienne. Where she has lived for four years. Where she kneels on the sixth floor alone, as a dozen American bombers roar toward her.
She presses inward on the tiny front door, and a hidden catch releases, and the little house lifts up and out of the model. In her hands, it’s about the size of one of her father’s cigarette boxes.
Now the bombers are so close that the floor starts to throb under her knees. Out in the hall, the crystal pendants of the chandelier suspended above the stairwell chime. Marie-Laure twists the chimney of the miniature house ninety degrees. Then she slides off three wooden panels that make up its roof, and turns it over.
A stone drops into her palm.
It’s cold. The size of a pigeon’s egg. The shape of a teardrop.
Marie-Laure clutches the tiny house in one hand and the stone in the other. The room feels flimsy, tenuous. Giant fingertips seem about to
punch through its walls. “Papa?” she whispers.