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We live in exciting times, says the radio. We make no complaints. We will plant our feet firmly in our earth, and no attack will move us.
The older girls like musical competitions, radio gymnastics, a regular spot called Seasonal Tips for Those in Love that makes the younger children squeal. The boys like plays, news bulletins, martial anthems. Jutta likes jazz. Werner likes everything. Violins, horns, drums, speeches—a mouth against a microphone in some faraway yet simultaneous evening—the sorcery of it holds him rapt.
Is it any wonder, asks the radio, that courage, confidence, and optimism in growing measure fill the German people? Is not the flame of a new faith rising from this sacrificial readiness?
Indeed it does seem to Werner, as the weeks go by, that something new is rising. Mine production increases; unemployment drops. Meat appears at Sunday supper. Lamb, pork, wieners—extravagances unheard of a year before. Frau Elena buys a new couch upholstered in orange corduroy, and a range with burners in black rings; three new Bibles arrive from the consistory in Berlin; a laundry boiler is delivered to the back door. Werner gets new trousers; Jutta gets her own pair of shoes. Working telephones ring in the houses of neighbors.
One afternoon, on the walk home from school, Werner stops outside the drugstore and presses his nose to a tall window: five dozen inch-tall storm troopers march there, each toy man with a brown shirt and tiny red armband, some with flutes, some with drums, a few officers astride glossy black stallions. Above them, suspended from a wire, a tinplate clockwork aquaplane with wooden pontoons and a rotating propeller makes an electric, hypnotizing orbit. Werner studies it through the glass for a long time, trying to understand how it works.
Night falls, autumn in 1936, and Werner carries the radio downstairs and sets it on the sideboard, and the other children fidget in anticipation. The receiver hums as it warms. Werner steps back, hands in pockets. From the loudspeaker, a children’s choir sings, We hope only to work, to work and work and work, to go to glorious work for the country. Then a state-sponsored play out of Berlin begins: a story of invaders sneaking into a village at night.
All twelve children sit riveted. In the play, the invaders pose as hook-nosed department-store owners, crooked jewelers, dishonorable bankers; they sell glittering trash; they drive established village businessmen out of work. Soon they plot to murder German children in their beds. Eventually a vigilant and humble neighbor catches on. Police are called: big handsome-sounding policemen with splendid voices. They break down the doors. They drag the invaders away. A patriotic march plays. Everyone is happy again.
Tuesday after Tuesday she fails. She leads her father on six-block detours that leave her angry and frustrated and farther from home than when they started. But in the winter of her eighth year, to Marie-Laure’s surprise, she begins to get it right. She runs her fingers over the model in their kitchen, counting miniature benches, trees, lampposts, doorways. Every day some new detail emerges—each storm drain, park bench, and hydrant in the model has its counterpart in the real world.
Marie-Laure brings her father closer to home before making a mistake. Four blocks three blocks two. And one snowy Tuesday in March, when he walks her to yet another new spot, very close to the banks of the Seine, spins her around three times, and says, “Take us home,” she realizes that, for the first time since they began this exercise, dread has not come trundling up from her gut.
Instead she squats on her heels on the sidewalk.
The faintly metallic smell of the falling snow surrounds her. Calm yourself. Listen.
Cars splash along streets, and snowmelt drums through runnels; she can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees. She can smell the cedars in the Jardin des Plantes a quarter mile away. Here the Metro hurtles beneath the sidewalk: that’s the Quai Saint-Bernard. Here the sky opens up, and she hears the clacking of branches: that’s the narrow stripe of gardens behind the Gallery of Paleontology. This, she realizes, must be the corner of the quay and rue Cuvier.
Six blocks, forty buildings, ten tiny trees in a square. This street intersects this street intersects this street. One centimeter at a time.
Her father stirs the keys in his pockets. Ahead loom the tall, grand houses that flank the gardens, reflecting sound.
She says, “We go left.”
They start up the length of the rue Cuvier. A trio of airborne ducks threads toward them, flapping their wings in synchrony, making for the Seine, and as the birds rush overhead, she imagines she can feel the light settling over their wings, striking each individual feather.
Left on rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Right on rue Daubenton. Three storm drains four storm drains five. Approaching on the left will be the open ironwork fence of the Jardin des Plantes, its thin spars like the bars of a great birdcage.
Across from her now: the bakery, the butcher, the delicatessen.
“Safe to cross, Papa?”
Right. Then straight. They walk up their street now, she is sure of it. One step behind her, her father tilts his head up and gives the sky a huge smile. Marie-Laure knows this even though her back is to him, even though he says nothing, even though she is blind—Papa’s thick hair is wet from the snow and standing in a dozen angles off his head, and his scarf is draped asymmetrically over his shoulders, and he’s beaming up at the falling snow.
They are halfway up the rue des Patriarches. They are outside their building. Marie-Laure finds the trunk of the chestnut tree that grows past her fourth-floor window, its bark beneath her fingers.
In another half second her father’s hands are in her armpits, swinging her up, and Marie-Laure smiles, and he laughs a pure, contagious laugh, one she will try to remember all her life, father and daughter turning in circles on the sidewalk in front of their apartment house, laughing together while snow sifts through the branches above.
Our Flag Flutters Before Us (#ulink_98ca182b-fa70-5264-9b94-4ba8238388b0)
In Zollverein, in the spring of Werner’s tenth year, the two oldest boys at Children’s House—thirteen-year-old Hans Schilzer and fourteen-year-old Herribert Pomsel—shoulder secondhand knapsacks and goose-step into the woods. When they come back, they are members of the Hitler Youth.
They carry slingshots, fashion spears, rehearse ambushes from behind snowbanks. They join a bristling gang of miners’ sons who sit in the market square, sleeves rolled up, shorts hiked to their hips. “Good evening,” they cry at passersby. “Or heil Hitler, if you prefer!”
They give each other matching haircuts and wrestle in the parlor and brag about the rifle training they’re preparing for, the gliders they’ll fly, the tank turrets they’ll operate. Our flag represents the new era, chant Hans and Herribert, our flag leads us to eternity. At meals they chide younger children for admiring anything foreign: a British car advertisement, a French picture book.
Their salutes are comical; their outfits verge on ridiculous. But Frau Elena watches the boys with wary eyes: not so long ago they were feral toddlers skulking in their cots and crying for their mothers. Now they’ve become adolescent thugs with split knuckles and postcards of the führer folded into their shirt pockets.
Frau Elena speaks French less and less frequently whenever Hans and Herribert are present. She finds herself conscious of her accent. The smallest glance from a neighbor can make her wonder.
Werner keeps his head down. Leaping over bonfires, rubbing ash beneath your eyes, picking on little kids? Crumpling Jutta’s drawings? Far better, he decides, to keep one’s presence small, inconspicuous. Werner has been reading the popular science magazines in the drugstore; he’s interested in wave turbulence, tunnels to the center of the earth, the Nigerian method of relaying news over distances with drums. He buys a notebook and draws up plans for cloud chambers, ion detectors, X-ray goggles. What about a little motor attached to the cradles to rock the babies to sleep? How about springs stretched along the axles of his wagon to help him pull it up hills?
An official from the Labor Ministry visits Children’s House to speak about work opportunities at the mines. The children sit at his feet in their cleanest clothes. All boys, without exception, explains the man, will go to work for the mines once they turn fifteen. He speaks of glories and triumphs and how fortunate they’ll be to have fixed employment. When he picks up Werner’s radio and sets it back down without commenting, Werner feels the ceiling slip lower, the walls constrict.
His father down there, a mile beneath the house. Body never recovered. Haunting the tunnels still.
“From your neighborhood,” the official says, “from your soil, comes the might of our nation. Steel, coal, coke. Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich—they do not exist without this place. You supply the foundation of the new order, the bullets in its guns, the armor on its tanks.”
Hans and Herribert examine the man’s leather pistol belt with dazzled eyes. On the sideboard, Werner’s little radio chatters.
It says, Over these three years, our leader has had the courage to face a Europe that was in danger of collapse …
It says, He alone is to be thanked for the fact that, for German children, a German life has once again become worth living.
Around the World in Eighty Days (#ulink_e3b3daf6-1bdb-5975-b606-2c5fd4c4f44d)
Sixteen paces to the water fountain, sixteen back. Forty-two to the stairwell, forty-two back. Marie-Laure draws maps in her head, unreels a hundred yards of imaginary twine, and then turns and reels it back in. Botany smells like glue and blotter paper and pressed flowers. Paleontology smells like rock dust, bone dust. Biology smells like formalin and old fruit; it is loaded with heavy cool jars in which float things she has only had described for her: the pale coiled ropes of rattlesnakes, the severed hands of gorillas. Entomology smells like mothballs and oil: a preservative that, Dr. Geffard explains, is called naphthalene. Offices smell of carbon paper, or cigar smoke, or brandy, or perfume. Or all four.
She follows cables and pipes, railings and ropes, hedges and sidewalks. She startles people. She never knows if the lights are on.
The children she meets brim with questions: Does it hurt? Do you shut your eyes to sleep? How do you know what time it is?
It doesn’t hurt, she explains. And there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture. She walks a circle around the Grand Gallery, navigating between squeaking floorboards; she hears feet tramp up and down museum staircases, a toddler squeal, the groan of a weary grandmother lowering herself onto a bench.
Color—that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.
She has no memories of her mother but imagines her as white, a soundless brilliance. Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green; a smell like oil and metal, the feel of a lock tumbler sliding home, the sound of his key rings chiming as he walks. He is an olive green when he talks to a department head, an escalating series of oranges when he speaks to Mademoiselle Fleury from the greenhouses, a bright red when he tries to cook. He glows sapphire when he sits over his workbench in the evenings, humming almost inaudibly as he works, the tip of his cigarette gleaming a prismatic blue.
She gets lost. Secretaries or botanists, and once the director’s assistant, bring her back to the key pound. She is curious; she wants to know the difference between an alga and a lichen, a Diplodon charruanus and a Diplodon delodontus. Famous men take her by the elbow and escort her through the gardens or guide her up stairwells. “I have a daughter too,” they’ll say. Or “I found her among the hummingbirds.”
“Toutes mes excuses,” her father says. He lights a cigarette; he plucks key after key out of her pockets. “What,” he whispers, “am I going to do with you?”
On her ninth birthday, when she wakes, she finds two gifts. The first is a wooden box with no opening she can detect. She turns it this way and that. It takes her a little while to realize one side is spring-loaded; she presses it and the box flips open. Inside waits a single cube of creamy Camembert that she pops directly into in her mouth.
“Too easy!” her father says, laughing.
The second gift is heavy, wrapped in paper and twine. Inside is a massive spiral-bound book. In Braille.
“They said it’s for boys. Or very adventurous girls.” She can hear him smiling.
She slides her fingertips across the embossed title page. Around. The. World. In. Eighty. Days. “Papa, it’s too expensive.”
“That’s for me to worry about.”
That morning Marie-Laure crawls beneath the counter of the key pound and lies on her stomach and sets all ten fingertips in a line on a page. The French feels old-fashioned, the dots printed much closer together than she is used to. But after a week, it becomes easy. She finds the ribbon she uses as a bookmark, opens the book, and the museum falls away.
Mysterious Mr. Fogg lives his life like a machine. Jean Passepartout becomes his obedient valet. When, after two months, she reaches the novel’s last line, she flips back to the first page and starts again. At night she runs her fingertips over her father’s model: the bell tower, the display windows. She imagines Jules Verne’s characters walking along the streets, chatting in shops; a half-inch-tall baker slides speck-sized loaves in and out of his ovens; three minuscule burglars hatch plans as they drive slowly past the jeweler’s; little grumbling cars throng the rue de Mirbel, wipers sliding back and forth. Behind a fourth-floor window on the rue des Patriarches, a miniature version of her father sits at a miniature workbench in their miniature apartment, just as he does in real life, sanding away at some infinitesimal piece of wood; across the room is a miniature girl, skinny, quick-witted, an open book in her lap; inside her chest pulses something huge, something full of longing, something unafraid.
The Professor (#ulink_0cd885ce-a007-5a9d-bcb1-055c50ece45e)
“You have to swear,” Jutta says. “Do you swear?” Amid rusted drums and shredded inner tubes and wormy creek-bottom muck, she has discovered ten yards of copper wire. Her eyes are bright tunnels.
Werner glances at the trees, the creek, back to his sister. “I swear.”
Together they smuggle the wire home and loop it back and forth through nail holes in the eave outside the attic window. Then they attach it to their radio. Almost immediately, on a shortwave band, they can hear someone talking in a strange language full of z’s and s’s. “Is it Russian?”
Werner thinks it’s Hungarian.
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