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Beautifully written book. When you start read this book you just drawn into it. I love how author describe things here. This is the story of young blind french girl Marie-laure and German boy Werner Pfennig. How this two different people from two different country lived during WWII is poetically describe. It's worth read.
24 August 2020 (09:30)
World War II: The lives of blind girl , Marie-Laure and Werner Pfening intersects in a way, that none of them expects.
In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo, along with her father, a master locksmith, she has escaped to the town of Saint Malo hoping to live with her uncle Etienne.
Werner Pfenning had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions.
The writing becomes the most strong suit of the novel throughout. A deeply insightful novel into the occupation of France and the cruelties of Hitler. A novel, which surely deserves all the praise it gets.
The questions a rising in the novel becomes a punch to the gut. Even though the cruelties of the antagonists remain, the kindness of the main characters outshine everything.
A beautiful proclamation of the kindness of humanity and its endurance.
In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo, along with her father, a master locksmith, she has escaped to the town of Saint Malo hoping to live with her uncle Etienne.
Werner Pfenning had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions.
The writing becomes the most strong suit of the novel throughout. A deeply insightful novel into the occupation of France and the cruelties of Hitler. A novel, which surely deserves all the praise it gets.
The questions a rising in the novel becomes a punch to the gut. Even though the cruelties of the antagonists remain, the kindness of the main characters outshine everything.
A beautiful proclamation of the kindness of humanity and its endurance.
31 January 2021 (10:23)
I, and I cannot express this enough, love this book. So eloquent, so tragic and so beautiful. Definitely one of my favourites of all time.
14 April 2021 (19:17)
i read this book every year becasue it is such a part of me the story and the meaning i love this book so much
12 May 2021 (19:32)
04 July 2021 (09:10)
It was the first book I ever cry on. Such a great story. Love the style.
13 October 2021 (15:08)
This book is the jewel that glistens in the back of my mind whenever someone wants my opinion on a book that is very good written
12 December 2021 (09:08)
i will try to be the light.
01 March 2022 (08:12)
Thank you for downloading this Scribner eBook. * * * Join our mailing list and get updates on new releases, deals, bonus content and other great books from Scribner and Simon & Schuster. CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP or visit us online to sign up at eBookNews.SimonandSchuster.com For Wendy Weil 1940–2012 In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France, was almost totally destroyed by fire. . . . Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree. —Philip Beck It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio. —Joseph Goebbels Zero * * * 7 August 1944 Leaflets At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country. The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars. Bombers They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon. France. Intercoms crackle. Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of red light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. On an outermost island, panicked sheep run zigzagging between rocks. Inside each airplane, a bomba; rdier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away. The Girl In a corner of the city, inside a tall, narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel, on the sixth and highest floor, a sightless sixteen-year-old named Marie-Laure LeBlanc kneels over a low table covered entirely with a model. The model is a miniature of the city she kneels within, and contains scale replicas of the hundreds of houses and shops and hotels within its walls. There’s the cathedral with its perforated spire, and the bulky old Château de Saint-Malo, and row after row of seaside mansions studded with chimneys. A slender wooden jetty arcs out from a beach called the Plage du Môle; a delicate, reticulated atrium vaults over the seafood market; minute benches, the smallest no larger than apple seeds, dot the tiny public squares. Marie-Laure runs her fingertips along the centimeter-wide parapet crowning the ramparts, drawing an uneven star shape around the entire model. She finds the opening atop the walls where four ceremonial cannons point to sea. “Bastion de la Hollande,” she whispers, and her fingers walk down a little staircase. “Rue des Cordiers. Rue Jacques Cartier.” In a corner of the room stand two galvanized buckets filled to the rim with water. Fill them up, her great-uncle has taught her, whenever you can. The bathtub on the third floor too. Who knows when the water will go out again. Her fingers travel back to the cathedral spire. South to the Gate of Dinan. All evening she has been marching her fingers around the model, waiting for her great-uncle Etienne, who owns this house, who went out the previous night while she slept, and who has not returned. And now it is night again, another revolution of the clock, and the whole block is quiet, and she cannot sleep. She can hear the bombers when they are three miles away. A mounting static. The hum inside a seashell. When she opens the bedroom window, the noise of the airplanes becomes louder. Otherwise, the night is dreadfully silent: no engines, no voices, no clatter. No sirens. No footfalls on the cobbles. Not even gulls. Just a high tide, one block away and six stories below, lapping at the base of the city walls. And something else. Something rattling softly, very close. She eases open the left-hand shutter and runs her fingers up the slats of the right. A sheet of paper has lodged there. She holds it to her nose. It smells of fresh ink. Gasoline, maybe. The paper is crisp; it has not been outside long. Marie-Laure hesitates at the window in her stocking feet, her bedroom behind her, seashells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the baseboards. Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits facedown on the bed. The drone of the airplanes grows. The Boy Five streets to the north, a white-haired eighteen-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes to a faint staccato hum. Little more than a purr. Flies tapping at a far-off windowpane. Where is he? The sweet, slightly chemical scent of gun oil; the raw wood of newly constructed shell crates; the mothballed odor of old bedspreads—he’s in the hotel. Of course. L’hôtel des Abeilles, the Hotel of Bees. Still night. Still early. From the direction of the sea come whistles and booms; flak is going up. An anti-air corporal hurries down the corridor, heading for the stairwell. “Get to the cellar,” he calls over his shoulder, and Werner switches on his field light, rolls his blanket into his duffel, and starts down the hall. Not so long ago, the Hotel of Bees was a cheerful address, with bright blue shutters on its facade and oysters on ice in its café and Breton waiters in bow ties polishing glasses behind its bar. It offered twenty-one guest rooms, commanding sea views, and a lobby fireplace as big as a truck. Parisians on weekend holidays would drink aperitifs here, and before them the occasional emissary from the republic—ministers and vice ministers and abbots and admirals—and in the centuries before them, windburned corsairs: killers, plunderers, raiders, seamen. Before that, before it was ever a hotel at all, five full centuries ago, it was the home of a wealthy privateer who gave up raiding ships to study bees in the pastures outside Saint-Malo, scribbling in notebooks and eating honey straight from combs. The crests above the door lintels still have bumblebees carved into the oak; the ivy-covered fountain in the courtyard is shaped like a hive. Werner’s favorites are five faded frescoes on the ceilings of the grandest upper rooms, where bees as big as children float against blue backdrops, big lazy drones and workers with diaphanous wings—where, above a hexagonal bathtub, a single nine-foot-long queen, with multiple eyes and a golden-furred abdomen, curls across the ceiling. Over the past four weeks, the hotel has become something else: a fortress. A detachment of Austrian anti-airmen has boarded up every window, overturned every bed. They’ve reinforced the entrance, packed the stairwells with crates of artillery shells. The hotel’s fourth floor, where garden rooms with French balconies open directly onto the ramparts, has become home to an aging high-velocity anti-air gun called an 88 that can fire twenty-one-and-a-half-pound shells nine miles. Her Majesty, the Austrians call their cannon, and for the past week these men have tended to it the way worker bees might tend to a queen. They’ve fed her oils, repainted her barrels, lubricated her wheels; they’ve arranged sandbags at her feet like offerings. The royal acht acht, a deathly monarch meant to protect them all. Werner is in the stairwell, halfway to the ground floor, when the 88 fires twice in quick succession. It’s the first time he’s heard the gun at such close range, and it sounds as if the top half of the hotel has torn off. He stumbles and throws his arms over his ears. The walls reverberate all the way down into the foundation, then back up. Werner can hear the Austrians two floors up scrambling, reloading, and the receding screams of both shells as they hurtle above the ocean, already two or three miles away. One of the soldiers, he realizes, is singing. Or maybe it is more than one. Maybe they are all singing. Eight Luftwaffe men, none of whom will survive the hour, singing a love song to their queen. Werner chases the beam of his field light through the lobby. The big gun detonates a third time, and glass shatters somewhere close by, and torrents of soot rattle down the chimney, and the walls of the hotel toll like a struck bell. Werner worries that the sound will knock the teeth from his gums. He drags open the cellar door and pauses a moment, vision swimming. “This is it?” he asks. “They’re really coming?” But who is there to answer? Saint-Malo Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind. Some hurry to bomb shelters. Some tell themselves it is merely a drill. Some linger to grab a blanket or a prayer book or a deck of playing cards. D-day was two months ago. Cherbourg has been liberated, Caen liberated, Rennes too. Half of western France is free. In the east, the Soviets have retaken Minsk; the Polish Home Army is revolting in Warsaw; a few newspapers have become bold enough to suggest that the tide has turned. But not here. Not this last citadel at the edge of the continent, this final German strongpoint on the Breton coast. Here, people whisper, the Germans have renovated two kilometers of subterranean corridors under the medieval walls; they have built new defenses, new conduits, new escape routes, underground complexes of bewildering intricacy. Beneath the peninsular fort of La Cité, across the river from the old city, there are rooms of bandages, rooms of ammunition, even an underground hospital, or so it is believed. There is air-conditioning, a two-hundred-thousand-liter water tank, a direct line to Berlin. There are flame-throwing booby traps, a net of pillboxes with periscopic sights; they have stockpiled enough ordnance to spray shells into the sea all day, every day, for a year. Here, they whisper, are a thousand Germans ready to die. Or five thousand. Maybe more. Saint-Malo: Water surrounds the city on four sides. Its link to the rest of France is tenuous: a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand. We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo. Bretons next. French if there’s anything left over. In stormy light, its granite glows blue. At the highest tides, the sea creeps into basements at the very center of town. At the lowest tides, the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea. For three thousand years, this little promontory has known sieges. But never like this. A grandmother lifts a fussy toddler to her chest. A drunk, urinating in an alley outside Saint-Servan, a mile away, plucks a sheet of paper from a hedge. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, it says. Depart immediately to open country. Anti-air batteries flash on the outer islands, and the big German guns inside the old city send another round of shells howling over the sea, and three hundred and eighty Frenchmen imprisoned on an island fortress called National, a quarter mile off the beach, huddle in a moonlit courtyard peering up. Four years of occupation, and the roar of oncoming bombers is the roar of what? Deliverance? Extirpation? The clack-clack of small-arms fire. The gravelly snare drums of flak. A dozen pigeons roosting on the cathedral spire cataract down its length and wheel out over the sea. Number 4 rue Vauborel 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. Cellar Beneath the lobby of the Hotel of Bees, a corsair’s cellar has been hacked out of the bedrock. Behind crates and cabinets and pegboards of tools, the walls are bare granite. Three massive hand-hewn beams, hauled here from some ancient Breton forest and craned into place centuries ago by teams of horses, hold up the ceiling. A single lightbulb casts everything in a wavering shadow. Werner Pfennig sits on a folding chair in front of a workbench, checks his battery level, and puts on headphones. The radio is a steel-cased two-way transceiver with a 1.6-meter band antenna. It enables him to communicate with a matching transceiver upstairs, with two other anti-air batteries inside the walls of the city, and with the underground garrison command across the river mouth. The transceiver hums as it warms. A spotter reads coordinates into the headpiece, and an artilleryman repeats them back. Werner rubs his eyes. Behind him, confiscated treasures are crammed to the ceiling: rolled tapestries, grandfather clocks, armoires, and giant landscape paintings crazed with cracks. On a shelf opposite Werner sit eight or nine plaster heads, the purpose of which he cannot guess. The massive staff sergeant Frank Volkheimer comes down the narrow wooden stairs and ducks his head beneath the beams. He smiles gently at Werner and sits in a tall-backed armchair upholstered in golden silk with his rifle across his huge thighs, where it looks like little more than a baton. Werner says, “It’s starting?” Volkheimer nods. He switches off his field light and blinks his strangely delicate eyelashes in the dimness. “How long will it last?” “Not long. We’ll be safe down here.” The engineer, Bernd, comes last. He is a little man with mousy hair and misaligned pupils. He closes the cellar door behind him and bars it and sits halfway down the wooden staircase with a damp look on his face, fear or grit, it’s hard to say. With the door shut, the sound of the sirens softens. Above them, the ceiling bulb flickers. Water, thinks Werner. I forgot water. A second anti-air battery fires from a distant corner of the city, and then the 88 upstairs goes again, stentorian, deadly, and Werner listens to the shell scream into the sky. Cascades of dust hiss out of the ceiling. Through his headphones, Werner can hear the Austrians upstairs still singing. . . . auf d’Wulda, auf d’Wulda, da scheint d’Sunn a so gulda . . . Volkheimer picks sleepily at a stain on his trousers. Bernd blows into his cupped hands. The transceiver crackles with wind speeds, air pressure, trajectories. Werner thinks of home: Frau Elena bent over his little shoes, double-knotting each lace. Stars wheeling past a dormer window. His little sister, Jutta, with a quilt around her shoulders and a radio earpiece trailing from her left ear. Four stories up, the Austrians clap another shell into the smoking breech of the 88 and double-check the traverse and clamp their ears as the gun discharges, but down here Werner hears only the radio voices of his childhood. The Goddess of History looked down to earth. Only through the hottest fires can purification be achieved. He sees a forest of dying sunflowers. He sees a flock of blackbirds explode out of a tree. Bombs Away Seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty. Now the sea races beneath the aiming windows. Now rooftops. Two smaller aircraft line the corridor with smoke, and the lead bomber salvos its payload, and eleven others follow suit. The bombs fall diagonally; the bombers rise and scramble. The underside of the sky goes black with flecks. Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, locked with several hundred others inside the gates of Fort National, a quarter mile offshore, squints up and thinks, Locusts, and an Old Testament proverb comes back to him from some cobwebbed hour of parish school: The locusts have no king, yet all of them go out in ranks. A demonic horde. Upended sacks of beans. A hundred broken rosaries. There are a thousand metaphors and all of them are inadequate: forty bombs per aircraft, four hundred and eighty altogether, seventy-two thousand pounds of explosives. An avalanche descends onto the city. A hurricane. Teacups drift off shelves. Paintings slip off nails. In another quarter second, the sirens are inaudible. Everything is inaudible. The roar becomes loud enough to separate membranes in the middle ear. The anti-air guns let fly their final shells. Twelve bombers fold back unharmed into the blue night. On the sixth floor of Number 4 rue Vauborel, Marie-Laure crawls beneath her bed and clamps the stone and little model house to her chest. In the cellar beneath the Hotel of Bees, the single bulb in the ceiling winks out. One * * * 1934 Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a tall and freckled six-year-old in Paris with rapidly deteriorating eyesight when her father sends her on a children’s tour of the museum where he works. The guide is a hunchbacked old warder hardly taller than a child himself. He raps the tip of his cane against the floor for attention, then leads his dozen charges across the gardens to the galleries. The children watch engineers use pulleys to lift a fossilized dinosaur femur. They see a stuffed giraffe in a closet, patches of hide wearing off its back. They peer into taxidermists’ drawers full of feathers and talons and glass eyeballs; they flip through two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs. Eventually they climb sixteen steps into the Gallery of Mineralogy. The guide shows them agate from Brazil and violet amethysts and a meteorite on a pedestal that he claims is as ancient as the solar system itself. Then he leads them single file down two twisting staircases and along several corridors and stops outside an iron door with a single keyhole. “End of tour,” he says. A girl says, “But what’s through there?” “Behind this door is another locked door, slightly smaller.” “And what’s behind that?” “A third locked door, smaller yet.” “What’s behind that?” “A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe.” The children lean forward. “And then?” “Behind the thirteenth door”—the guide flourishes one of his impossibly wrinkled hands—“is the Sea of Flames.” Puzzlement. Fidgeting. “Come now. You’ve never heard of the Sea of Flames?” The children shake their heads. Marie-Laure squints up at the naked bulbs strung in three-yard intervals along the ceiling; each sets a rainbow-colored halo rotating in her vision. The guide hangs his cane on his wrist and rubs his hands together. “It’s a long story. Do you want to hear a long story?” They nod. He clears his throat. “Centuries ago, in the place we now call Borneo, a prince plucked a blue stone from a dry riverbed because he thought it was pretty. But on the way back to his palace, the prince was attacked by men on horseback and stabbed in the heart.” “Stabbed in the heart?” “Is this true?” A boy says, “Hush.” “The thieves stole his rings, his horse, everything. But because the little blue stone was clenched in his fist, they did not discover it. And the dying prince managed to crawl home. Then he fell unconscious for ten days. On the tenth day, to the amazement of his nurses, he sat up, opened his hand, and there was the stone. “The sultan’s doctors said it was a miracle, that the prince never should have survived such a violent wound. The nurses said the stone must have healing powers. The sultan’s jewelers said something else: they said the stone was the largest raw diamond anyone had ever seen. Their most gifted stonecutter spent eighty days faceting it, and when he was done, it was a brilliant blue, the blue of tropical seas, but it had a touch of red at its center, like flames inside a drop of water. The sultan had the diamond fitted into a crown for the prince, and it was said that when the young prince sat on his throne and the sun hit him just so, he became so dazzling that visitors could not distinguish his figure from light itself.” “Are you sure this is true?” asks a girl. “Hush,” says the boy. “The stone came to be known as the Sea of Flames. Some believed the prince was a deity, that as long as he kept the stone, he could not be killed. But something strange began to happen: the longer the prince wore his crown, the worse his luck became. In a month, he lost a brother to drowning and a second brother to snakebite. Within six months, his father died of disease. To make matters even worse, the sultan’s scouts announced that a great army was gathering in the east. “The prince called together his father’s advisers. All said he should prepare for war, all but one, a priest, who said he’d had a dream. In the dream the Goddess of the Earth told him she’d made the Sea of Flames as a gift for her lover, the God of the Sea, and was sending the jewel to him through the river. But when the river dried up, and the prince plucked it out, the goddess became enraged. She cursed the stone and whoever kept it.” Every child leans forward, Marie-Laure along with them. “The curse was this: the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain.” “Live forever?” “But if the keeper threw the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient, the goddess would lift the curse. So the prince, now sultan, thought for three days and three nights and finally decided to keep the stone. It had saved his life; he believed it made him indestructible. He had the tongue cut out of the priest’s mouth.” “Ouch,” says the youngest boy. “Big mistake,” says the tallest girl. “The invaders came,” says the warder, “and destroyed the palace, and killed everyone they found, and the prince was never seen again, and for two hundred years no one heard any more about the Sea of Flames. Some said the stone was recut into many smaller stones; others said the prince still carried the stone, that he was in Japan or Persia, that he was a humble farmer, that he never seemed to grow old. “And so the stone fell out of history. Until one day, when a French diamond trader, during a trip to the Golconda Mines in India, was shown a massive pear-cut diamond. One hundred and thirty-three carats. Near-perfect clarity. As big as a pigeon’s egg, he wrote, and as blue as the sea, but with a flare of red at its core. He made a casting of the stone and sent it to a gem-crazy duke in Lorraine, warning him of the rumors of a curse. But the duke wanted the diamond very badly. So the trader brought it to Europe, and the duke fitted it into the end of a walking stick and carried it everywhere.” “Uh-oh.” “Within a month, the duchess contracted a throat disease. Two of their favorite servants fell off the roof and broke their necks. Then the duke’s only son died in a riding accident. Though everyone said the duke himself had never looked better, he became afraid to go out, afraid to accept visitors. Eventually he was so convinced that his stone was the accursed Sea of Flames that he asked the king to shut it up in his museum on the conditions that it be locked deep inside a specially built vault and the vault not be opened for two hundred years.” “And?” “And one hundred and ninety-six years have passed.” All the children remain quiet a moment. Several do math on their fingers. Then they raise their hands as one. “Can we see it?” “No.” “Not even open the first door?” “No.” “Have you seen it?” “I have not.” “So how do you know it’s really there?” “You have to believe the story.” “How much is it worth, Monsieur? Could it buy the Eiffel Tower?” “A diamond that large and rare could in all likelihood buy five Eiffel Towers.” Gasps. “Are all those doors to keep thieves from getting in?” “Maybe,” the guide says, and winks, “they’re there to keep the curse from getting out.” The children fall quiet. Two or three take a step back. Marie-Laure takes off her eyeglasses, and the world goes shapeless. “Why not,” she asks, “just take the diamond and throw it into the sea?” The warder looks at her. The other children look at her. “When is the last time,” one of the older boys says, “you saw someone throw five Eiffel Towers into the sea?” There is laughter. Marie-Laure frowns. It is just an iron door with a brass keyhole. The tour ends and the children disperse and Marie-Laure is reinstalled in the Grand Gallery with her father. He straightens her glasses on her nose and plucks a leaf from her hair. “Did you have fun, ma chérie?” A little brown house sparrow swoops out of the rafters and lands on the tiles in front of her. Marie-Laure holds out an open palm. The sparrow tilts his head, considering. Then it flaps away. One month later she is blind. Zollverein Werner Pfennig grows up three hundred miles northeast of Paris in a place called Zollverein: a four-thousand-acre coalmining complex outside Essen, Germany. It’s steel country, anthracite country, a place full of holes. Smokestacks fume and locomotives trundle back and forth on elevated conduits and leafless trees stand atop slag heaps like skeleton hands shoved up from the underworld. Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are raised at Children’s House, a clinker-brick two-story orphanage on Viktoriastrasse whose rooms are populated with the coughs of sick children and the crying of newborns and battered trunks inside which drowse the last possessions of deceased parents: patchwork dresses, tarnished wedding cutlery, faded ambrotypes of fathers swallowed by the mines. Werner’s earliest years are the leanest. Men brawl over jobs outside the Zollverein gates, and chicken eggs sell for two million reichsmarks apiece, and rheumatic fever stalks Children’s House like a wolf. There is no butter or meat. Fruit is a memory. Some evenings, during the worst months, all the house directress has to feed her dozen wards are cakes made from mustard powder and water. But seven-year-old Werner seems to float. He is undersized and his ears stick out and he speaks with a high, sweet voice; the whiteness of his hair stops people in their tracks. Snowy, milky, chalky. A color that is the absence of color. Every morning he ties his shoes, packs newspaper inside his coat as insulation against the cold, and begins interrogating the world. He captures snowflakes, tadpoles, hibernating frogs; he coaxes bread from bakers with none to sell; he regularly appears in the kitchen with fresh milk for the babies. He makes things too: paper boxes, crude biplanes, toy boats with working rudders. Every couple of days he’ll startle the directress with some unanswerable query: “Why do we get hiccups, Frau Elena?” Or: “If the moon is so big, Frau Elena, how come it looks so little?” Or: “Frau Elena, does a bee know it’s going to die if it stings somebody?” Frau Elena is a Protestant nun from Alsace who is more fond of children than of supervision. She sings French folk songs in a screechy falsetto, harbors a weakness for sherry, and regularly falls asleep standing up. Some nights she lets the children stay up late while she tells them stories in French about her girlhood cozied up against mountains, snow six feet deep on rooftops, town criers and creeks smoking in the cold and frost-dusted vineyards: a Christmas-carol world. “Can deaf people hear their heartbeat, Frau Elena?” “Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle, Frau Elena?” She’ll laugh. She’ll tousle Werner’s hair; she’ll whisper, “They’ll say you’re too little, Werner, that you’re from nowhere, that you shouldn’t dream big. But I believe in you. I think you’ll do something great.” Then she’ll send him up to the little cot he has claimed for himself in the attic, pressed up beneath the window of a dormer. Sometimes he and Jutta draw. His sister sneaks up to Werner’s cot, and together they lie on their stomachs and pass a single pencil back and forth. Jutta, though she is two years younger, is the gifted one. She loves most of all to draw Paris, a city she has seen in exactly one photograph, on the back cover of one of Frau Elena’s romance novels: mansard roofs, hazy apartment blocks, the iron lattice of a distant tower. She draws twisting white skyscrapers, complicated bridges, flocks of figures beside a river. Other days, in the hours after lessons, Werner tows his little sister through the mine complex in a wagon he has assembled from cast-off parts. They rattle down the long gravel lanes, past pit cottages and trash barrel fires, past laid-off miners squatting all day on upturned crates, motionless as statues. One wheel regularly clunks off and Werner crouches patiently beside it, threading back the bolts. All around them, the figures of second-shift workers shuffle into warehouses while first-shift workers shuffle home, hunched, hungry, blue-nosed, their faces like black skulls beneath their helmets. “Hello,” Werner will chirp, “good afternoon,” but the miners usually hobble past without replying, perhaps without even seeing him, their eyes on the muck, the economic collapse of Germany looming over them like the severe geometry of the mills. Werner and Jutta sift through glistening piles of black dust; they clamber up mountains of rusting machines. They tear berries out of brambles and dandelions out of fields. Sometimes they manage to find potato peels or carrot greens in trash bins; other afternoons they collect paper to draw on, or old toothpaste tubes from which the last dregs can be squeezed out and dried into chalk. Once in a while Werner tows Jutta as far as the entrance to Pit Nine, the largest of the mines, wrapped in noise, lit like the pilot at the center of a gas furnace, a five-story coal elevator crouched over it, cables swinging, hammers banging, men shouting, an entire mapful of pleated and corrugated industry stretching into the distance on all sides, and they watch the coal cars trundling up from the earth and the miners spilling out of warehouses with their lunch pails toward the mouth of the elevator like insects toward a lighted trap. “Down there,” Werner whispers to his sister. “That’s where Father died.” And as night falls, Werner pulls little Jutta wordlessly back through the close-set neighborhoods of Zollverein, two snowy-haired children in a bottomland of soot, bearing their paltry treasures to Viktoriastrasse 3, where Frau Elena stares into the coal stove, singing a French lullaby in a tired voice, one toddler yanking her apron strings while another howls in her arms. Key Pound Congenital cataracts. Bilateral. Irreparable. “Can you see this?” ask the doctors. “Can you see this?” Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life. Spaces she once knew as familiar—the four-room flat she shares with her father, the little tree-lined square at the end of their street—have become labyrinths bristling with hazards. Drawers are never where they should be. The toilet is an abyss. A glass of water is too near, too far; her fingers too big, always too big. What is blindness? Where there should be a wall, her hands find nothing. Where there should be nothing, a table leg gouges her shin. Cars growl in the streets; leaves whisper in the sky; blood rustles through her inner ears. In the stairwell, in the kitchen, even beside her bed, grown-up voices speak of despair. “Poor child.” “Poor Monsieur LeBlanc.” “Hasn’t had an easy road, you know. His father dead in the war, his wife dead in childbirth. And now this?” “Like they’re cursed.” “Look at her. Look at him.” “Ought to send her away.” Those are months of bruises and wretchedness: rooms pitching like sailboats, half-open doors striking Marie-Laure’s face. Her only sanctuary is in bed, the hem of her quilt at her chin, while her father smokes another cigarette in the chair beside her, whittling away at one of his tiny models, his little hammer going tap tap tap, his little square of sandpaper making a rhythmic, soothing rasp. The despair doesn’t last. Marie-Laure is too young and her father is too patient. There are, he assures her, no such things as curses. There is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses. Six mornings a week he wakes her before dawn, and she holds her arms in the air while he dresses her. Stockings, dress, sweater. If there’s time, he makes her try to knot her shoes herself. Then they drink a cup of coffee together in the kitchen: hot, strong, as much sugar as she wants. At six forty she collects her white cane from the corner, loops a finger through the back of her father’s belt, and follows him down three flights and up six blocks to the museum. He unlocks Entrance #2 at seven sharp. Inside are the familiar smells: typewriter ribbons, waxed floors, rock dust. There are the familiar echoes of their footfalls crossing the Grand Gallery. He greets a night guard, then a warder, always the same two words repeated back: Bonjour, bonjour. Two lefts, one right. Her father’s key ring jingles. A lock gives way; a gate swings open. Inside the key pound, inside six glass-fronted cabinets, thousands of iron keys hang from pegs. There are blanks and skeletons, barrel-stem keys and saturn-bow keys, elevator keys and cabinet keys. Keys as long as Marie-Laure’s forearm and keys shorter than her thumb. Marie-Laure’s father is principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History. Between the laboratories, warehouses, four separate public museums, the menagerie, the greenhouses, the acres of medicinal and decorative gardens in the Jardin des Plantes, and a dozen gates and pavilions, her father estimates there are twelve thousand locks in the entire museum complex. No one else knows enough to disagree. All morning he stands at the front of the key pound and distributes keys to employees: zookeepers coming first, office staff arriving in a rush around eight, technicians and librarians and scientific assistants trooping in next, scientists trickling in last. Everything is numbered and color-coded. Every employee from custodians to the director must carry his or her keys at all times. No one is allowed to leave his respective building with keys, and no one is allowed to leave keys on a desk. The museum possesses priceless jade from the thirteenth century, after all, and cavansite from India and rhodochrosite from Colorado; behind a lock her father has designed sits a Florentine dispensary bowl carved from lapis lazuli that specialists travel a thousand miles every year to examine. Her father quizzes her. Vault key or padlock key, Marie? Cupboard key or dead bolt key? He tests her on the locations of displays, on the contents of cabinets. He is continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather. For an hour each morning—even Sundays—he makes her sit over a Braille workbook. A is one dot in the upper corner. B is two dots in a vertical line. Jean. Goes. To. The. Baker. Jean. Goes. To. The. Cheese. Maker. In the afternoons he takes her on his rounds. He oils latches, repairs cabinets, polishes escutcheons. He leads her down hallway after hallway into gallery after gallery. Narrow corridors open into immense libraries; glass doors give way to hothouses overflowing with the smells of humus, wet newspaper, and lobelia. There are carpenters’ shops, taxidermists’ studios, acres of shelves and specimen drawers, whole museums within the museum. Some afternoons he leaves Marie-Laure in the laboratory of Dr. Geffard, an aging mollusk expert whose beard smells permanently of damp wool. Dr. Geffard will stop whatever he is doing and open a bottle of Malbec and tell Marie-Laure in his whispery voice about reefs he visited as a young man: the Seychelles, Belize, Zanzibar. He calls her Laurette; he eats a roasted duck every day at 3 P.M.; his mind accommodates a seemingly inexhaustible catalog of Latin binomial names. On the back wall of Dr. Geffard’s lab are cabinets that contain more drawers than she can count, and he lets her open them one after another and hold seashells in her hands—whelks, olives, imperial volutes from Thailand, spider conchs from Polynesia—the museum possesses more than ten thousand specimens, over half the known species in the world, and Marie-Laure gets to handle most of them. “Now that shell, Laurette, belonged to a violet sea snail, a blind snail that lives its whole life on the surface of the sea. As soon as it is released into the ocean, it agitates the water to make bubbles, and binds those bubbles with mucus, and builds a raft. Then it blows around, feeding on whatever floating aquatic invertebrates it encounters. But if it ever loses its raft, it will sink and die . . .” A Carinaria shell is simultaneously light and heavy, hard and soft, smooth and rough. The murex Dr. Geffard keeps on his desk can entertain her for a half hour, the hollow spines, the ridged whorls, the deep entrance; it’s a forest of spikes and caves and textures; it’s a kingdom. Her hands move ceaselessly, gathering, probing, testing. The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle. The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil. To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it. At home, in the evenings, her father stows their shoes in the same cubby, hangs their coats on the same hooks. Marie-Laure crosses six evenly spaced friction strips on the kitchen tiles to reach the table; she follows a strand of twine he has threaded from the table to the toilet. He serves dinner on a round plate and describes the locations of different foods by the hands of a clock. Potatoes at six o’clock, ma chérie. Mushrooms at three. Then he lights a cigarette and goes to work on his miniatures at a workbench in the corner of the kitchen. He is building a scale model of their entire neighborhood, the tall-windowed houses, the rain gutters, the laverie and boulangerie and the little place at the end of the street with its four benches and ten trees. On warm nights Marie-Laure opens her bedroom window and listens to the evening as it settles over the balconies and gables and chimneys, languid and peaceful, until the real neighborhood and the miniature one get mixed up in her mind. Tuesdays the museum is closed. Marie-Laure and her father sleep in; they drink coffee thick with sugar. They walk to the Panthéon, or to a flower market, or along the Seine. Every so often they visit the bookshop. He hands her a dictionary, a journal, a magazine full of photographs. “How many pages, Marie-Laure?” She runs a nail along the edge. “Fifty-two?” “Seven hundred and five?” “One hundred thirty-nine?” He sweeps her hair back from her ears; he swings her above his head. He says she is his émerveillement. He says he will never leave her, not in a million years. Radio Werner is eight years old and ferreting about in the refuse behind a storage shed when he discovers what looks like a large spool of thread. It consists of a wire-wrapped cylinder sandwiched between two discs of pinewood. Three frayed electrical leads sprout from the top. One has a small earphone dangling from its end. Jutta, six years old, with a round face and a mashed cumulus of white hair, crouches beside her brother. “What is that?” “I think,” Werner says, feeling as though some cupboard in the sky has just opened, “we just found a radio.” Until now he has seen radios only in glimpses: a big cabinet wireless through the lace curtains of an official’s house; a portable unit in a miners’ dormitory; another in the church refectory. He has never touched one. He and Jutta smuggle the device back to Viktoriastrasse 3 and appraise it beneath an electric lamp. They wipe it clean, untangle the snarl of wires, wash mud out of the earphone. It does not work. Other children come and stand over them and marvel, then gradually lose interest and conclude it is hopeless. But Werner carries the receiver up to his attic dormer and studies it for hours. He disconnects everything that will disconnect; he lays its parts out on the floor and holds them one by one to the light. Three weeks after finding the device, on a sun-gilded afternoon when perhaps every other child in Zollverein is outdoors, he notices that its longest wire, a slender filament coiled hundreds of times around the central cylinder, has several small breaks in it. Slowly, meticulously, he unwraps the coil, carries the entire looped mess downstairs, and calls Jutta inside to hold the pieces for him while he splices the breaks. Then he rewraps it. “Now let’s try,” he whispers, and presses the earphone against his ear and runs what he has decided must be the tuning pin back and forth along the coil. He hears a fizz of static. Then, from somewhere deep inside the earpiece, a stream of consonants issues forth. Werner’s heart pauses; the voice seems to echo in the architecture of his head. The sound fades as quickly as it came. He shifts the pin a quarter inch. More static. Another quarter inch. Nothing. In the kitchen, Frau Elena kneads bread. Boys shout in the alley. Werner guides the tuning pin back and forth. Static, static. He is about to hand the earphone to Jutta when—clear and unblemished, about halfway down the coil—he hears the quick, drastic strikes of a bow dashing across the strings of a violin. He tries to hold the pin perfectly still. A second violin joins the first. Jutta drags herself closer; she watches her brother with outsize eyes. A piano chases the violins. Then woodwinds. The strings sprint, woodwinds fluttering behind. More instruments join in. Flutes? Harps? The song races, seems to loop back over itself. “Werner?” Jutta whispers. He blinks; he has to swallow back tears. The parlor looks the same as it always has: two cribs beneath two Latin crosses, dust floating in the open mouth of the stove, a dozen layers of paint peeling off the baseboards. A needlepoint of Frau Elena’s snowy Alsatian village above the sink. Yet now there is music. As if, inside Werner’s head, an infinitesimal orchestra has stirred to life. The room seems to fall into a slow spin. His sister says his name more urgently, and he presses the earphone to her ear. “Music,” she says. He holds the pin as stock-still as he can. The signal is weak enough that, though the earphone is six inches away, he can’t hear any trace of the song. But he watches his sister’s face, motionless except for her eyelids, and in the kitchen Frau Elena holds her flour-whitened hands in the air and cocks her head, studying Werner, and two older boys rush in and stop, sensing some change in the air, and the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle. Take Us Home Usually Marie-Laure can solve the wooden puzzle boxes her father creates for her birthdays. Often they are shaped like houses and contain some hidden trinket. Opening them involves a cunning series of steps: find a seam with your fingernails, slide the bottom to the right, detach a side rail, remove a hidden key from inside the rail, unlock the top, and discover a bracelet inside. For her seventh birthday, a tiny wooden chalet stands in the center of the kitchen table where the sugar bowl ought to be. She slides a hidden drawer out of the base, finds a hidden compartment beneath the drawer, takes out a wooden key, and slots the key inside the chimney. Inside waits a square of Swiss chocolate. “Four minutes,” says her father, laughing. “I’ll have to work harder next year.” For a long time, though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs. But her father’s model of the same intersection smells only of dried glue and sawdust. Its streets are empty, its pavements static; to her fingers, it serves as little more than a tiny and insufficient facsimile. He persists in asking Marie-Laure to run her fingers over it, to recognize different houses, the angles of streets. And one cold Tuesday in December, when Marie-Laure has been blind for over a year, her father walks her up rue Cuvier to the edge of the Jardin des Plantes. “Here, ma chérie, is the path we take every morning. Through the cedars up ahead is the Grand Gallery.” “I know, Papa.” He picks her up and spins her around three times. “Now,” he says, “you’re going to take us home.” Her mouth drops open. “I want you to think of the model, Marie.” “But I can’t possibly!” “I’m one step behind you. I won’t let anything happen. You have your cane. You know where you are.” “I do not!” “You do.” Exasperation. She cannot even say if the gardens are ahead or behind. “Calm yourself, Marie. One centimeter at a time.” “It’s far, Papa. Six blocks, at least.” “Six blocks is exactly right. Use logic. Which way should we go first?” The world pivots and rumbles. Crows shout, brakes hiss, someone to her left bangs something metal with what might be a hammer. She shuffles forward until the tip of her cane floats in space. The edge of a curb? A pond, a staircase, a cliff? She turns ninety degrees. Three steps forward. Now her cane finds the base of a wall. “Papa?” “I’m here.” Six paces seven paces eight. A roar of noise—an exterminator just leaving a house, pump bellowing—overtakes them. Twelve paces farther on, the bell tied around the handle of a shop door rings, and two women come out, jostling her as they pass. Marie-Laure drops her cane; she begins to cry. Her father lifts her, holds her to his narrow chest. “It’s so big,” she whispers. “You can do this, Marie.” She cannot. Something Rising While the other children play hopscotch in the alley or swim in the canal, Werner sits alone in his upstairs dormer, experimenting with the radio receiver. In a week he can dismantle and rebuild it with his eyes closed. Capacitor, inductor, tuning coil, earpiece. One wire goes to ground, the other to sky. Nothing he’s encountered before has made so much sense. He harvests parts from supply sheds: snips of copper wire, screws, a bent screwdriver. He charms the druggist’s wife into giving him a broken earphone; he salvages a solenoid from a discarded doorbell, solders it to a resistor, and makes a loudspeaker. Within a month he manages to redesign the receiver entirely, adding new parts here and there and connecting it to a power source. Every evening he carries his radio downstairs, and Frau Elena lets her wards listen for an hour. They tune in to newscasts, concerts, operas, national choirs, folk shows, a dozen children in a semicircle on the furniture, Frau Elena among them, hardly more substantial than a child herself. 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. Light 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 Linné. 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?” “It is.” 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 third-floor window, its bark beneath her fingers. Old friend. 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 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 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 “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. 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 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 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 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—” She begins that instant. The narrator, a famed marine biologist named Pierre Aronnax, works at the same museum as her father! Around the world, he learns, ships are being rammed one after another. After a scientific expedition to America, Aronnax ruminates over the true nature of the incidents. Are they caused by a moving reef? A gigantic horned narwhal? A mythical kraken? But I am letting myself be carried away by reveries which I must now put aside, writes Aronnax. Enough of these phantasies. All day Marie-Laure lies on her stomach and reads. Logic, reason, pure science: these, Aronnax insists, are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales. Her fingers walk the tightropes of sentences; in her imagination, she walks the decks of the speedy two-funneled frigate called the Abraham Lincoln. She watches New York City recede; the forts of New Jersey salute her departure with cannons; channel markers bob in the swells. A lightship with twin beacons glides past as America recedes; ahead wait the great glittering prairies of the Atlantic. The Principles of Mechanics A vice minister and his wife visit Children’s House. Frau Elena says they are touring orphanages. Everyone washes; everyone behaves. Maybe, the children whisper, they are considering adopting. The oldest girls serve pumpernickel and goose liver on the house’s last unchipped plates while the portly vice minister and his severe-looking wife inspect the parlor like lords come to tour some distasteful gnomish cottage. When supper is ready, Werner sits at the boys’ end of the table with a book in his lap. Jutta sits with the girls at the opposite end, her hair frizzed and snarled and bright white, so she looks as if she has been electrified. Bless us O Lord and these Thy gifts. Frau Elena adds a second prayer for the vice minister’s benefit. Everyone falls to eating. The children are nervous; even Hans Schilzer and Herribert Pomsel sit quietly in their brown shirts. The vice minister’s wife sits so upright that it seems as if her spine is hewn from oak. Her husband says, “And each of the children contributes?” “Certainly. Claudia, for instance, made the bread basket. And the twins prepared the livers.” Big Claudia Förster blushes. The twins bat their eyelashes. Werner’s mind drifts; he is thinking about the book in his lap, The Principles of Mechanics by Heinrich Hertz. He discovered it in the church basement, water-stained and forgotten, decades old, and the rector let him bring it home, and Frau Elena let him keep it, and for several weeks Werner has been fighting through the thorny mathematics. Electricity, Werner is learning, can be static by itself. But couple it with magnetism, and suddenly you have movement—waves. Fields and circuits, conduction and induction. Space, time, mass. The air swarms with so much that is invisible! How he wishes he had eyes to see the ultraviolet, eyes to see the infrared, eyes to see radio waves crowding the darkening sky, flashing through the walls of the house. When he looks up, everyone is staring at him. Frau Elena’s eyes are alarmed. “It’s a book, sir,” announces Hans Schilzer. He tugs it out of Werner’s lap. The volume is heavy enough that he needs both hands to hold it up. Several creases sharpen in the forehead of the vice minister’s wife. Werner can feel his cheeks flush. The vice minister extends a pudgy hand. “Give it here.” “Is it a Jew book?” says Herribert Pomsel. “It’s a Jew book, isn’t it?” Frau Elena looks as if she’s about to speak, then thinks better of it. “Hertz was born in Hamburg,” says Werner. Jutta announces out of nowhere, “My brother is so quick at mathematics. He’s quicker than every one of the schoolmasters. Someday he’ll probably win a big prize. He says we’ll go to Berlin and study under the great scientists.” The younger children gape; the oldest children snicker. Werner stares hard into his plate. The vice minister frowns as he turns pages. Hans Schilzer kicks Werner in the shin and coughs. Frau Elena says, “Jutta, that’s enough.” The vice minister’s wife takes a forkful of liver and chews and swallows and touches her napkin to each corner of her mouth. The vice minister sets down The Principles of Mechanics and pushes it away, then glances at his palms as though it has made them dirty. He says, “The only place your brother is going, little girl, is into the mines. As soon as he turns fifteen. Same as every other boy in this house.” Jutta scowls, and Werner stares at the congealed liver on his plate with his eyes burning and something inside his chest compressing tighter and tighter, and for the rest of supper the only sound is of the children cutting and chewing and swallowing. Rumors New rumors arrive. They rustle along the paths of the Jardin des Plantes and wind through the museum galleries; they echo in high dusty redoubts where shriveled old botanists study exotic mosses. They say the Germans are coming. The Germans, a gardener claims, have sixty thousand troop gliders; they can march for days without eating; they impregnate every schoolgirl they meet. A woman behind the ticket counter says the Germans carry fog pills and wear rocket belts; their uniforms, she whispers, are made of a special cloth stronger than steel. Marie-Laure sits on a bench beside the mollusk display and trains her ears on passing groups. A boy blurts, “They have a bomb called the Secret Signal. It makes a sound, and everyone who hears it goes to the bathroom in their pants!” Laughter. “I hear they give out poisoned chocolate.” “I hear they lock up the cripples and morons everywhere they go.” Each time Marie-Laure relays another rumor to her father, he repeats “Germany” with a question mark after it, as if saying it for the very first time. He says the takeover of Austria is nothing to worry about. He says everyone remembers the last war, and no one is mad enough to go through that again. The director is not worrying, he says, and neither are the department heads, so neither should young girls who have lessons to learn. It seems true: nothing changes but the day of the week. Every morning Marie-Laure wakes and dresses and follows her father through Entrance #2 and listens to him greet the night guard and the warder. Bonjour bonjour. Bonjour bonjour. The scientists and librarians still collect their keys in the mornings, still study their ancient elephants’ teeth, their exotic jellyfish, their herbarium sheets. The secretaries still talk about fashion; the director still arrives in a two-tone Delage limousine; and every noon the African vendors still wheel their sandwich carts quietly down the halls with their whispers of rye and egg, rye and egg. Marie-Laure reads Jules Verne in the key pound, on the toilet, in the corridors; she reads on the benches of the Grand Gallery and out along the hundred gravel paths of the gardens. She reads the first half of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so many times, she practically memorizes it. The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the globe . . . The sea is only a receptacle for all the prodigious, supernatural things that exist inside it. It is only movement and love; it is the living infinite. At night, in her bed, she rides in the belly of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, below the gales, while canopies of coral drift overhead. Dr. Geffard teaches her the names of shells—Lambis lambis, Cypraea moneta, Lophiotoma acuta—and lets her feel the spines and apertures and whorls of each in turn. He explains the branches of marine evolution and the sequences of the geologic periods; on her best days, she glimpses the limitless span of millennia behind her: millions of years, tens of millions. “Nearly every species that has ever lived has gone extinct, Laurette. No reason to think we humans will be any different!” Dr. Geffard pronounces this almost gleefully and pours wine into his glass, and she imagines his head as a cabinet filled with ten thousand little drawers. All summer the smells of nettles and daisies and rainwater purl through the gardens. She and her father cook a pear tart and burn it by accident, and her father opens all the windows to let out the smoke, and she hears violin music rise from the street below. And yet by early autumn, once or twice a week, at certain moments of the day, sitting out in the Jardin des Plantes beneath the massive hedges or reading beside her father’s workbench, Marie-Laure looks up from her book and believes she can smell gasoline under the wind. As if a great river of machinery is steaming slowly, irrevocably, toward her. Bigger Faster Brighter Membership in the State Youth becomes mandatory. The boys in Werner’s Kameradschaften are taught parade maneuvers and quizzed on fitness standards and required to run sixty meters in twelve seconds. Everything is glory and country and competition and sacrifice. Live faithfully, the boys sing as they troop past the edges of the colony. Fight bravely and die laughing. Schoolwork, chores, exercise. Werner stays up late listening to his radio or driving himself through the complicated math he copied out of The Principles of Mechanics before it was confiscated. He yawns at meals, is short-tempered with the younger children. “Are you feeling okay?” asks Frau Elena, peering into his face, and Werner looks away, saying, “Fine.” Hertz’s theories are interesting but what he loves most is building things, working with his hands, connecting his fingers to the engine of his mind. Werner repairs a neighbor’s sewing machine, the Children’s House grandfather clock. He builds a pulley system to wind laundry from the sunshine back indoors, and a simple alarm made from a battery, a bell, and wire so that Frau Elena will know if a toddler has wandered outside. He invents a machine to slice carrots: lift a lever, nineteen blades drop, and the carrot falls apart into twenty neat cylinders. One day a neighbor’s wireless goes out, and Frau Elena suggests Werner have a look. He unscrews the back plate, waggles the tubes back and forth. One is not seated properly, and he fits it back into its groove. The radio comes back to life, and the neighbor shrieks with delight. Before long, people are stopping by Children’s House every week to ask for the radio repairman. When they see thirteen-year-old Werner come down from the attic, rubbing his eyes, shocks of white hair sticking up off his head, homemade toolbox hanging from his fist, they stare at him with the same skeptical smirk. The older sets are the easiest to fix: simpler circuitry, uniform tubes. Maybe it’s wax dripping from the condenser or charcoal built up on a resistor. Even in the newest sets, Werner can usually puzzle out a solution. He dismantles the machine, stares into its circuits, lets his fingers trace the journeys of electrons. Power source, triode, resistor, coil. Loudspeaker. His mind shapes itself around the problem, disorder becomes order, the obstacle reveals itself, and before long the radio is fixed. Sometimes they pay him a few marks. Sometimes a coal mother cooks him sausages or wraps biscuits in a napkin to take home to his sister. Before long Werner can draw a map in his head of the locations of nearly every radio in their district: a homemade crystal set in the kitchen of a druggist; a handsome ten-valve radiogram in the home of a department head that was giving his fingers a shock every time he tried to change the channel. Even the poorest pit houses usually possess a state-sponsored Volksemfänger VE301, a mass-produced radio stamped with an eagle and a swastika, incapable of shortwave, marked only for German frequencies. Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right. Seven days a week the miners drag coal into the light and the coal is pulverized and fed into coke ovens and the coke is cooled in huge quenching towers and carted to the blast furnaces to melt iron ore and the iron is refined into steel and cast into billets and loaded onto barges and floated off into the great hungry mouth of the country. Only through the hottest fires, whispers the radio, can purification be achieved. Only through the harshest tests can God’s chosen rise. Jutta whispers, “A girl got kicked out of the swimming hole today. Inge Hachmann. They said they wouldn’t let us swim with a half-breed. Unsanitary. A half-breed, Werner. Aren’t we half-breeds too? Aren’t we half our mother, half our father?” “They mean half-Jew. Keep your voice down. We’re not half-Jews.” “We must be half something.” “We’re whole German. We’re not half anything.” Herribert Pomsel is fifteen years old now, off in a miners’ dormitory, working the second shift as a firedamper, and Hans Schilzer has become the oldest boy in the house. Hans does push-ups by the hundreds; he plans to attend a rally in Essen. There are fistfights in the alleys, rumors that Hans has set a car on fire. One night Werner hears him downstairs, shouting at Frau Elena. The front door slams; the children toss in their beds; Frau Elena paces the parlor, her slippers whispering left, whispering right. Coal cars grind past in the wet dark. Machinery hums in the distance: pistons throbbing, belts turning. Smoothly. Madly. Mark of the Beast November 1939. A cold wind sends the big dry leaves of plane trees rolling down the gravel lanes of the Jardin des Plantes. Marie-Laure is rereading Twenty Thousand Leagues—I could make out long ribbons of sea wrack, some globular and others tubular, laurenciae, cladostephae with their slender foliage—not far from the rue Cuvier gate when a group of children comes tramping through the leaves. A boy’s voice says something; several other boys laugh. Marie-Laure lifts her fingers from her novel. The laughter spins, turns. The first voice is suddenly right beside her ear. “They’re mad for blind girls, you know.” His breath is quick. She extends her arm into the space beside her but contacts nothing. She cannot say how many others are with him. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book against her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground. Someone else says, “They’ll probably take the blind girls before they take the gimps.” The first boy moans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself. The second boy says, “Make them do things.” “Nasty things.” An adult’s voice in the distance calls out, “Louis, Peter?” “Who are you?” hisses Marie-Laure. “Bye-bye, blind girl.” Then: quiet. Marie-Laure listens to the trees rustle; her blood swarms. For a long and panicked minute, she crawls among the leaves at the foot of the bench until her fingers find her cane. Stores sell gas masks. Neighbors tape cardboard to their windows. Each week fewer visitors come to the museum. “Papa?” Marie-Laure asks. “If there’s a war, what will happen to us?” “There won’t be a war.” “But what if there is?” His hand on her shoulder, the familiar clanking of keys on his belt. “Then we will be fine, ma chérie. The director has already filed a dispensation to keep me out of the reserves. I’m not going anywhere.” But she hears the way he turns newspaper pages, snapping them with urgency. He lights cigarette after cigarette; he hardly stops working. Weeks pass and the trees go bare and her father doesn’t ask her to walk in the gardens once. If only they had an impregnable submarine like the Nautilus. The smoky voices of office girls swirl past the open window of the key pound. “They creep into apartments at night. They booby-trap kitchen cupboards, toilet bowls, brassieres. Go to open your panty drawer, and you get your fingers blown off.” She has nightmares. Silent Germans row up the Seine in synchrony; their skiffs glide as if through oil. They fly noiselessly beneath the bridge trestles; they have beasts with them on chains; their beasts leap out of the boats and sprint past the massifs of flowers, down the rows of hedges. They sniff the air on the steps to the Grand Gallery. Slavering. Ravenous. They surge into the museum, scatter into the departments. The windows go black with blood. Dear Professor I dont know if youre getting these letters or if the radio station will forward this or is there even a radio station? We havent heard you in two months at least. Did you stop broadcasting or maybe is the problem ours? Theres a new radio transmitter in Brandenburg called the Deutschlandsender 3 my brother says it is three hundred thirty-something meters tall the second-tallest man-made construction in the world. It pushes basically everything else off the dial. Old Frau Stresemann, shes one of our neighbors, she says she can hear Deutschlandsender broadcasts in her tooth fillings. My brother said its possible if you have an antenna and a rectifier and something to serve as a speaker. He said you can use a section of wire fence to pick up radio signals, so maybe the silver in a tooth can too. I like to think about that. Dont you Professor? Songs in your teeth? Frau Elena says we have to come straight home from school now. She says were not Jews but were poor and thats almost as dangerous. Its a criminal offense now to tune into a foreign broadcast. You can get hard labor for it, things like breaking rocks fifteen hours a day. Or making nylon stockings or going down in the pits. No one will help me mail this letter not even my brother so I will do it myself. Good Evening. Or Heil Hitler if You Prefer. His fourteenth birthday arrives in May. It’s 1940 and no one laughs at the Hitler Youth now. Frau Elena prepares a pudding and Jutta wraps a piece of quartz in newspaper and the twins, Hannah and Susanne Gerlitz, march around the room impersonating soldiers. A five-year-old—Rolf Hupfauer—sits in the corner of the sofa, eyelids slipping heavily over his eyes. A new arrival—a baby girl—sits in Jutta’s lap and gums her fingers. Out the window, beyond the curtains, the flame atop the waste stack, high in the distance, flaps and shivers. The children sing and devour the pudding, Frau Elena says, “Time’s up,” and Werner switches off his receiver. Everyone prays. His whole body feels heavy as he carries the radio up to the dormer. In the alleys, fifteen-year-old boys are making their way toward mine elevators, queuing up with their helmets and lamps outside the gates. He tries to imagine their descent, sporadic and muted lights passing and receding, cables rattling, everyone quiet, sinking down to that permanent darkness where men claw at the earth with a half mile of rock hunched on top of them. One more year. Then they’ll give him a helmet and lamp and stuff him into a cage with the others. It has been months since he last heard the Frenchman on the shortwave. A year since he held that water-stained copy of The Principles of Mechanics. Not so long ago he let himself dream of Berlin and its great scientists: Fritz Haber, inventor of fertilizer; Hermann Staudinger, inventor of plastics. Hertz, who made the invisible visible. All the great men doing things out there. I believe in you, Frau Elena used to say. I think you’ll do something great. Now, in his nightmares, he walks the tunnels of the mines. The ceiling is smooth and black; slabs of it descend over him as he treads. The walls splinter; he stoops, crawls. Soon he cannot raise his head, move his arms. The ceiling weighs ten trillion tons; it gives off a permeating cold; it drives his nose into the floor. Just before he wakes, he feels a splintering at the back of his skull. Rainwater purls from cloud to roof to eave. Werner presses his forehead to the window of the dormer and peers through the drops, the roof below just one among a cluster of wet rooftops, hemmed in by the vast walls of the cokery and smelter and gasworks, the winding tower silhouetted against the sky, mine and mill running on and on, acre after acre, beyond his range of sight, to the villages, the cities, the ever-quickening, ever-expanding machine that is Germany. And a million men ready to set down their lives for it. Good evening, he thinks. Or heil Hitler. Everyone is choosing the latter. Bye-bye, Blind Girl The war drops its question mark. Memos are distributed. The collections must be protected. A small cadre of couriers has begun moving things to country estates. Locks and keys are in greater demand than ever. Marie-Laure’s father works until midnight, until one. Every crate must be padlocked, every transport manifest kept in a secure place. Armored trucks rumble at the loading docks. There are fossils to be safeguarded, ancient manuscripts; there is jade from the thirteenth century and cavansite from India and rhodochrosite from Colorado; there are pearls, gold nuggets, a sapphire as big as a mouse. There might be, thinks Marie-Laure, the Sea of Flames. From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point. Bees work the blooming aisles of the Jardin des Plantes. The plane trees drop their seeds and huge drifts of fluff gather on the walkways. If they attack, why would they attack, they would be crazy to attack. To retreat is to save lives. Deliveries stop. Sandbags appear around the museum gates. A pair of soldiers on the roof of the Gallery of Paleontology peer over the gardens with binoculars. But the huge bowl of the sky remains untracked: no zeppelins, no bombers, no superhuman paratroopers, just the last songbirds returning from their winter homes, and the quicksilver winds of spring transmuting into the heavier, greener breezes of summer. Rumor, light, air. That May seems more beautiful than any Marie-Laure can remember. On the morning of her twelfth birthday, there is no puzzle box in place of the sugar bowl when she wakes; her father is too busy. But there is a book: the second Braille volume of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as thick as a sofa cushion. A thrill rides all the way into the nails of her fingers. “How—?” “You’re welcome, Marie.” The walls of their flat tremble with the dragging of furniture, the packing of trunks, the nailing shut of windows. They walk to the museum, and her father remarks distractedly to the warder who meets them at the door, “They say we are holding the river.” Marie-Laure sits on the floor of the key pound and opens her book. When part one left off, Professor Aronnax had traveled only six thousand leagues. So many left to go. But something strange happens: the words do not connect. She reads, During the entire day, a formidable school of sharks followed the ship, but the logic that is supposed to link each word to the next fails her. Someone says, “Has the director left?” Someone else says, “Before the end of the week.” Her father’s clothes smell of straw; his fingers reek of oil. Work, more work, then a few hours of exhausted sleep before returning to the museum at dawn. Trucks carry off skeletons and meteorites and octopi in jars and herbarium sheets and Egyptian gold and South African ivory and Permian fossils. On the first of June, airplanes fly over the city, extremely high, crawling through the stratus clouds. When the wind is down and nobody is running an engine nearby, Marie-Laure can stand outside the Gallery of Zoology and hear them: a mile-high purr. The following day, the radio stations begin disappearing. The warders in the guards’ station whack the side of their wireless and tilt it this way and that, but only static comes out of its speaker. As if each relay antenna were a candle flame and a pair of fingers came along and pinched it out. Those last nights in Paris, walking home with her father at midnight, the huge book clasped against her chest, Marie-Laure thinks she can sense a shiver beneath the air, in the pauses between the chirring of the insects, like the spider cracks of ice when too much weight is set upon it. As if all this time the city has been no more than a scale model built by her father and the shadow of a great hand has fallen over it. Didn’t she presume she would live with her father in Paris for the rest of her life? That she would always sit with Dr. Geffard in the afternoons? That every year, on her birthday, her father would present her with another puzzle and another novel, and she would read all of Jules Verne and all of Dumas and maybe even Balzac and Proust? That her father would