“Aren’t you hungry?”
Frau Elena: as close to a mother as he will ever have. Werner eats, though he is not hungry. Then he gives her the seventy-five marks, and she blinks at the amount and gives fifty back.
Upstairs, after he has heard Frau Elena go to the toilet and climb into her own bed and the house has become utterly quiet, Werner counts to one hundred. Then he rises from his cot and takes the little shortwave radio out of the first-aid box—six years old and bristling with his modifications, replacement wires, a new solenoid, Jutta’s notations orbiting the tuning coil—and carries it into the alley behind the house and crushes it with a brick.
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 stand-alone 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?”
“Is it dark?”
“Getting there now.”
“Where will we sleep?”
“Are there beds?”
“No, ma chérie.”
“Where are we going, Papa?”
“The director has given me the address of someone who will help us.”
“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, b
looms 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.
* * *
8 August 1944
Doors soar away from their frames. Bricks transmute into powder. Great distending clouds of chalk and earth and granite spout into the sky. All twelve bombers have already turned and climbed and realigned high above the Channel before roof slates blown into the air finish falling into the streets.
Flames scamper up walls. Parked automobiles catch fire, as do curtains and lampshades and sofas and mattresses and most of the twenty thousand volumes in the public library. The fires pool and strut; they flow up the sides of the ramparts like tides; they splash into alleys, over rooftops, through a carpark. Smoke chases dust; ash chases smoke. A newsstand floats, burning.
From cellars and crypts throughout the city, Malouins send up oaths: Lord God safeguard this town its people don’t overlook us in your name please amen. Old men clutch hurricane lamps; children shriek; dogs yowl. In an instant, four-hundred-year-old beams in row houses are ablaze. One section of the old city, tucked against the western walls, becomes a firestorm in which the spires of flames, at their highest, reach three hundred feet. The appetite for oxygen is such that objects heavier than housecats are dragged into the flames. Shop signs swing toward the heat from their brackets; a potted hedge comes sliding across the rubble and capsizes. Swifts, flushed from chimneys, catch fire and swoop like blown sparks out over the ramparts and extinguish themselves in the sea.
On the rue de la Crosse, the Hotel of Bees becomes almost weightless for a moment, lifted in a spiral of flame, before it begins to rain in pieces back to the earth.
Number 4 rue Vauborel
Marie-Laure curls into a ball beneath her bed with the stone in her left fist and the little house in her right. Nails in the timbers shriek and sigh. Bits of plaster and brick and glass cascade onto the floor, onto the model city on the table, and onto the mattress above her head.
“Papa Papa Papa Papa,” Marie-Laure is saying, but her body seems to have detached itself from her voice, and her words make a faraway, desolate cadence. The notion occurs to her that the ground beneath Saint-Malo has been knitted together all along by the root structure of an immense tree, located at the center of the city, in a square no one ever walked her to, and the massive tree has been uprooted by the hand of God and the granite is coming with it, heaps and clumps and clods of stones pulling away as the trunk comes up, followed by the fat tendrils of roots—the root structure like another tree turned upside down and shoved into the soil, isn’t that how Dr. Geffard might have described it?—the ramparts crumbling, streets leaking away, block-long mansions falling like toys.
Slowly, gratefully, the world settles. From outside comes a light tinkling, fragments of glass, perhaps, falling into the streets. It sounds both beautiful and strange, as though gemstones were raining from the sky.
Wherever her great-uncle is, could he have survived this?
The house creaks, drips, groans. Then comes a sound like wind in tall grass, only hungrier. It pulls at the curtains, at the delicate parts inside her ears.
She smells smoke and knows. Fire. The glass has shattered out of her bedroom window, and what she hears is the sound of something burning beyond the shutters. Something huge. The neighborhood. The entire town.
The wall, floor, and underside of her bed remain cool. The house is not yet in flames. But for how long?
Calm yourself, she thinks. Concentrate on filling your lungs, draining them. Filling them again. She stays under her bed. She says, “Ce n’est pas la réalité.”
Hotel of Bees
What does he remember? He saw the engineer Bernd close the cellar door and sit on the stairs. He saw gigantic Frank Volkheimer, in the golden armchair, pick at something on his trousers. Then the ceiling bulb blinked out and Volkheimer switched on his field light and a roar leaped down upon them, a sound so loud it was like a weapon itself, consuming everything, quaking the very crust of the earth, and for an instant all Werner could see was Volkheimer’s light go skittering away like a frightened beetle.
They were thrown. For an instant or an hour or a day—who could guess how long?—Werner was back in Zollverein, standing above a grave a miner had dug for two mules at the edge of a field, and it was winter and Werner was no older than five, and the skin of the mules had grown nearly translucent, so that their bones were hazily visible inside, and little clods of dirt were stuck to their open eyes, and he was hungry enough to wonder if there was anything left on them worth eating.
He heard the blade of a shovel strike pebbles.
He heard his sister inhale.
Then, as though some retaining cord had reached its limit, something yanked him back into the cellar beneath the Hotel of Bees.
The floor has stopped shaking, but the sound has not diminished. He clamps his palm to his right ear. The roar remains, the buzzing of a thousand bees, very close.
“Is there noise?” he asks, but cannot hear himself ask it. The left side of his face is wet. The headphones he was wearing are gone. Where is the workbench, where is the radio, what are these weights on top of him?
From his shoulders, chest, and hair, he plucks hot pieces of stone and wood. Find the field light, check on the others, check on the radio. Check on the exit. Figure out what has gone wrong with his hearing. These are the rational steps. He tries to sit up, but the ceiling has become lower, and he strikes his head.
Heat. Getting hotter. He thinks: We are locked inside a box, and the box has been pitched into the mouth of a volcano.
Seconds pass. Maybe they are minutes. Werner stays on his knees. Light. Then the others. Then the exit. Then his hearing. Probably the Luftwaffe men upstairs are already scrabbling through wreckage to help. But he cannot find his field light. He cannot even stand up.
In the absolute blackness, his vision is webbed with a thousand traveling wisps of red and blue. Flames? Phantoms? They lick along the floor, then rise to the ceiling, glowing strangely, serenely.
“Are we dead?” he shouts into the dark. “Have we died?”
Down Six Flights
The roar of the bombers has hardly faded when an artillery shell whistles over the house and makes a dull crash as it explodes not far away. Objects patter onto the roof—shell fragments? cinders?—and Marie-Laure says aloud, “You are too high in the house,” and forces herself out from beneath the bed. Already she has lingered too long. She returns the stone inside the model house and restores the wooden panels that make up its roof and twists the chimney back into place and puts the house into the pocket of her dress.
Where are her shoes? She crawls around the floor, but her fingers feel only bits of wood and what might be shards of window glass. She finds her cane and goes in her stocking feet out the door and down the hall. The smell of smoke is stronger out here. The floor still cool, walls still cool. She relieves herself in the sixth-floor toilet and checks her instinct to flush, knowing the toilet will not refill, and double-checks the air to make sure it does not feel warm before continuing.
Six paces to the stairwell. A second shell screeches overhead, and Marie-Laure shrieks, and the chandelier above her head chimes as the shell detonates somewhere deeper in the city.
Rain of bricks, rain of pebbles, slower rain of soot. Eight curving stairs to the bottom; the second and fifth steps creak. Pivot around the newel, eight more stairs. Fourth floor. Third. Here she checks the trip wire her great-uncle built beneath the telephone table on the landing. The bell is suspended and the wire remains taut, running vertically through the hole he has drilled i
n the wall. No one has come or gone.
Eight paces down the hall into the third-floor bathroom. The bathtub is full. Things float in it, flakes of ceiling plaster, maybe, and there’s grit on the floor beneath her knees, but she puts her lips to its surface and drinks her fill. As much as she can.
Back to the stairwell and down to the second floor. Then the first: grapevines carved into the banister. The coatrack has toppled over. Fragments of something sharp are in the hall—crockery, she decides, from the hutch in the dining room—and she steps as lightly as she can.
Down here, some of the windows must have blown out as well: she smells more smoke. Her great-uncle’s wool coat hangs from the hook in the foyer; she puts it on. No sign of her shoes here either—what has she done with them? The kitchen is a welter of fallen shelves and pots. A cookbook lies facedown in her path like a shotgunned bird. In the cupboard, she finds a half-loaf of bread, what’s left from the day before.
Here, in the center of the floor, the cellar door with its metal ring. She slides aside the small dining table and heaves open the hatch.
Home of mice and damp and the stink of stranded shellfish, as if a huge tide swept in decades ago and took its time draining away. Marie-Laure hesitates over the open door, smelling the fires from outside and the clammy, almost opposite smell washing up from the bottom. Smoke: her great-uncle says it is a suspension of particles, billions of drifting carbon molecules. Bits of living rooms, cafés, trees. People.
A third artillery shell screams toward the city from the east. Again Marie-Laure feels for the model house in the pocket of her dress. Then she takes the bread and her cane and starts down the ladder and pulls the trapdoor shut.
A light emerges, a light not kindled, Werner prays, by his own imagination: an amber beam wandering the dust. It shuttles across debris, illuminates a fallen hunk of wall, lights up a twisted piece of shelving. It roves over a pair of metal cabinets that have been warped and mauled as if a giant hand has reached down and torn each in half. It shines on spilled toolboxes and broken pegboards and a dozen unbroken jars full of screws and nails.
Volkheimer. He has his field light and is swinging its beam repeatedly over a welter of compacted wreckage in the far corner—stones and cement and splintered wood. It takes Werner a moment to realize that this is the stairwell.
What is left of the stairwell.
That whole corner of the cellar is gone. The light hovers there another moment, as if allowing Werner to absorb their situation, then veers to the right and wobbles toward something nearby, and in the reflected light, through skeins of dust, Werner can see the huge silhouette of Volkheimer ducking and stumbling as he moves between hanging rebar and pipes. Finally the light settles. With the flashlight in his mouth, in those granular, high-slung shadows, Volkheimer lifts pieces of brick and mortar and plaster, chunk after chunk, shredded boards and slabs of stucco—there is something beneath all of this, Werner sees, buried under
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