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All the Light We Cannot See

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год
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Jutta is all eyes in the dimness and heat. “How far away is Hungary?”

“A thousand kilometers?”

She gapes.

Voices, it turns out, streak into Zollverein from all over the continent, through the clouds, the coal dust, the roof. The air swarms with them. Jutta makes a log to match a scale that Werner draws on the tuning coil, carefully spelling the name of each city they manage to receive. Verona 65, Dresden 88, London 100. Rome. Paris. Lyon. Late-night shortwave: province of ramblers and dreamers, madmen and ranters.

After prayers, after lights-out, Jutta sneaks up to her brother’s dormer; instead of drawing together, they lie hip to hip listening till midnight, till one, till two. They hear British news reports they cannot understand; they hear a Berlin woman pontificating about the proper makeup for a cocktail party.

One night Werner and Jutta tune in to a scratchy broadcast in which a young man is talking in feathery, accented French about light.

The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

The broadcast hisses and pops.

“What is this?” whispers Jutta.

Werner does not answer. The Frenchman’s voice is velvet. His accent is very different from Frau Elena’s, and yet his voice is so ardent, so hypnotizing, that Werner finds he can understand every word. The Frenchman talks about optical illusions, electromagnetism; there’s a pause and a peal of static, as though a record is being flipped, and then he enthuses about coal.

Consider a single piece glowing in your family’s stove. See it, children? That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million. Can you imagine one hundred million years? Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into bark, twigs, stems. Because plants eat light, in much the way we eat food. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years—eons in which something like a month or a decade or even your whole life was just a puff of air, a snap of two fingers. And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight—sunlight one hundred million years old—is heating your home tonight …

Time slows. The attic disappears. Jutta disappears. Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?

Open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.

Sea of Flames (#ulink_f602fc95-5699-50bc-a3cb-f88ca54a5c5f)

Rumors circulate through the Paris museum, moving fast, as quick and brightly colored as scarves. The museum is considering displaying a certain gemstone, a jewel more valuable than anything else in all the collections.

“Word has it,” Marie-Laure overhears one taxidermist telling another, “the stone is from Japan, it’s very ancient, it belonged to a shogun in the eleventh century.”

“I hear,” the other says, “it came out of our own vaults. That it’s been here all along, but for some legal reason we weren’t allowed to show it.” One day it’s a cluster of rare magnesium hydroxy carbonate; the next it’s a star sapphire that will set a man’s hand on fire if he touches it. Then it becomes a diamond, definitely a diamond. Some people call it the Shepherd’s Stone, others call it the Khon-Ma, but soon enough everyone is calling it the Sea of Flames.

Marie-Laure thinks: Four years have passed.

“Evil,” says a warder in the guard station. “Brings sorrow on anyone who carries it. I heard all nine previous owners have committed suicide.”

A second voice says, “I heard that anyone who holds it in his ungloved hand dies within a week.”

“No, no, if you hold it, you cannot die, but the people around you die within a month. Or maybe it’s a year.”

“I better get my hands on that!” says a third, laughing.

Marie-Laure’s heart races. Ten years old, and onto the black screen of her imagination she can project anything: a sailing yacht, a sword battle, a Colosseum seething with color. She has read Around the World in Eighty Days until the Braille is soft and fraying; for this year’s birthday, her father has bought her an even fatter book: Dumas’s The Three Musketeers.

Marie-Laure hears that the diamond is pale green and as big as a coat button. Then she hears it’s as big as a matchbook. A day later it’s blue and as big as a baby’s fist. She envisions an angry goddess stalking the halls, sending curses through the galleries like poison clouds. Her father says to tamp down her imagination. Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck. Some things are simply more rare than others, and that’s why there are locks.

“But, Papa, do you believe it’s real?”

“The diamond or the curse?”

“Both. Either.”

“They’re just stories, Marie.”

And yet whenever anything goes wrong, the staff whispers that the diamond has caused it. The electricity fails for an hour: it’s the diamond. A leaky pipe destroys an entire rack of pressed botanical samples: it’s the diamond. When the director’s wife slips on ice in the Place des Vosges and breaks her wrist in two places, the museum’s gossip machine explodes.

Around this time, Marie-Laure’s father is summoned upstairs to the director’s office. He’s there for two hours. When else in her memory has her father been called to the director’s office for a two-hour meeting? Not once.

Almost immediately afterward, her father begins working deep within the Gallery of Mineralogy. For weeks he wheels carts loaded with various pieces of equipment in and out of the key pound, working long after the museum has closed, and every night he returns to the key pound smelling of brazing alloy and sawdust. Each time she asks to accompany him, he demurs. It would be best, he says, if she stayed in the key pound with her Braille workbooks, or upstairs in the mollusk laboratory.

She pesters him at breakfast. “You’re building a special case to display that diamond. Some kind of transparent safe.”

Her father lights a cigarette. “Please get your book, Marie. Time to go.”

Dr. Geffard’s answers are hardly better. “You know how diamonds—how all crystals—grow, Laurette? By adding microscopic layers, a few thousand atoms every month, each atop the next. Millennia after millennia. That’s how stories accumulate too. All the old stones accumulate stories. That little rock you’re so curious about may have seen Alaric sack Rome; it may have glittered in the eyes of Pharaohs. Scythian queens might have danced all night wearing it. Wars might have been fought over it.”

“Papa says curses are only stories cooked up to deter thieves. He says there are sixty-five million specimens in this place, and if you have the right teacher, each can be as interesting as the last.”

“Still,” he says, “certain things compel people. Pearls, for example, and sinistral shells, shells with a left-handed opening. Even the best scientists feel the urge now and then to put something in a pocket. That something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much. Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.”

They are quiet a moment.

Marie-Laure says, “I heard that the diamond is like a piece of light from the original world. Before it fell. A piece of light rained to earth from God.”

“You want to know what it looks like. That’s why you’re so curious.”

She rolls a murex in her hands. Holds it to her ear. Ten thousand drawers, ten thousand whispers inside ten thousand shells.

“No,” she says. “I want to believe that Papa hasn’t been anywhere near it.”

Open Your Eyes (#ulink_794010a4-e322-54f9-8c0e-371156b141ec)

Werner and Jutta find the Frenchman’s broadcasts again and again. Always around bedtime, always midway through some increasingly familiar script.

Today let’s consider the whirling machinery, children, that must engage inside your head for you to scratch your eyebrow … They hear a program about sea creatures, another about the North Pole. Jutta likes one on magnets. Werner’s favorite is one about light: eclipses and sundials, auroras and wavelengths. What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.

Werner likes to crouch in his dormer and imagine radio waves like mile-long harp strings, bending and vibrating over Zollverein, flying through forests, through cities, through walls. At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.

He and his sister mimic the Frenchman’s experiments; they make speedboats out of matchsticks and magnets out of sewing needles.

“Why doesn’t he say where he is, Werner?”

“Maybe because he doesn’t want us to know?”

“He sounds rich. And lonely. I bet he does these broadcasts from a huge mansion, big as this whole colony, a house with a thousand rooms and a thousand servants.”

Werner smiles. “Could be.”

The voice, the piano again. Perhaps it’s Werner’s imagination, but each time he hears one of the programs, the quality seems to degrade a bit more, the sound growing fainter: as though the Frenchman broadcasts from a ship that is slowly traveling farther away.

As the weeks pass, with Jutta asleep beside him, Werner looks out into the night sky, and restlessness surges through him. Life: it’s happening beyond the mills, beyond the gates. Out there people chase questions of great importance. He imagines himself as a tall white-coated engineer striding into a laboratory: cauldrons steam, machinery rumbles, complex charts paper the walls. He carries a lantern up a winding staircase to a starlit observatory and looks through the eyepiece of a great telescope, its mouth pointed into the black.

Fade (#ulink_deba6539-fce2-50eb-b434-c3ce38f509fd)

Maybe the old tour guide was off his rocker. Maybe the Sea of Flames never existed at all, maybe curses aren’t real, maybe her father is right: Earth is all magma and continental crust and ocean. Gravity and time. Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.

Her father returns to the key pound earlier in the evenings. Soon he is taking Marie-Laure along on various errands again, teasing her about the mountains of sugar she spoons into her coffee or bantering with warders about the superiority of his brand of cigarettes. No dazzling new gemstone goes on exhibit. No plagues rain down upon museum employees; Marie-Laure does not succumb to snakebite or tumble into a sewer and break her back.

On the morning of her eleventh birthday, she wakes to find two new packages where the sugar bowl should be. The first is a lacquered wooden cube constructed entirely from sliding panels. It takes thirteen steps to open, and she discovers the sequence in under five minutes.

“Good Christ,” says her father, “you’re a safecracker!”

Inside the cube: two Barnier bonbons. She unwraps both and puts them in her mouth at the same time.

Inside the second package: a fat stack of pages with Braille on the cover. Twenty. Thousand. Leagues. Under. The. Sea.

“The bookseller said it’s in two parts, and this is the first. I thought that next year, if we keep saving, we can get the second—”
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