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“No, Frau Elena.”
Frau Elena lets out a huge breath, as if she has not exhaled these past two hours. “Dieu merci.” She rubs her temples with both hands. “You can go to bed now, Jutta,” she says.
“I fixed it,” says Werner.
“That’s a good boy, Werner.” Frau Elena takes a long pull of sherry and her eyes close and her head rocks back. “We saved you some supper.” Jutta walks to the stairs, uncertainty in her eyes.
In the kitchen, everything looks coal-stained and cramped. Frau Elena brings a plate; on it sits a single boiled potato cut in two.
“Thank you,” says Werner. The taste of the cake is still in his mouth. The pendulum swings on and on in the old grandfather clock. The cake, the whipped cream, the thick carpet, the pink fingernails and long calves of Frau Siedler—these sensations whirl through Werner’s head as if on a carousel. He remembers towing Jutta to Pit Nine, where their father disappeared, evening after evening, as if their father might come shuffling out of the elevators.
Light, electricity, ether. Space, time, mass. Heinrich Hertz’s Principles of Mechanics. Heissmeyer’s famous schools. Code breaking, rocket propulsion, all the latest.
Open your eyes, the Frenchman on the radio used to say, and see what you can with them before they close forever.
“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.”
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