The nightingale, p.11
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       The Nightingale, p.11
 

           Kristin Hannah

  papers for a meeting tonight.” He turned back for the steps and began climbing them.

  Isabelle followed the captain up the narrow stairs. When she emerged into the kitchen, Vianne was standing there with her arms crossed, frowning.

  “Where are the potatoes and a turnip?” Vianne asked.

  “I forgot.”

  Vianne sighed. “Go,” she said. “Get them.”

  Isabelle turned and went back into the cellar. After she’d gathered up the potatoes and turnip, she went to the basket, lifted the candle to expose the basket to light. There it was: the tiny white triangle of paper, peeking out. She quickly withdrew the papers from the basket and shoved them into her panty girdle. Feeling the papers against her skin, she went upstairs, smiling.

  * * *

  At supper, Isabelle sat with her sister and niece, eating watery soup and day-old bread, trying to think of something to say, but nothing came to her. Sophie, who seemed not to notice, rambled on, telling one story after another. Isabelle tapped her foot nervously, listening for the sound of a motorcycle approaching the house, for the clatter of German jackboots on the walkway out front, for a sharp, impersonal knock on the door. Her gaze kept cutting to the kitchen and the cellar door.

  “You are acting strangely tonight,” Vianne said.

  Isabelle ignored her sister’s observation. When the meal was finally over, Isabelle popped out of her seat and said, “I’ll do the dishes, V. Why don’t you and Sophie finish your game of checkers?”

  “You’ll do dishes?” Vianne said, giving Isabelle a suspicious look.

  “Come on, I’ve offered before,” Isabelle said.

  “Not in my memory.”

  Isabelle gathered the empty soup bowls and utensils. She had offered only to keep busy, to do something with her hands.

  Afterward, Isabelle could find nothing to do. The night dragged on. Vianne and Sophie and Isabelle played Belote, but Isabelle couldn’t concentrate, she was so nervous and excited. She made some lame excuse and quit the game early, pretending to be tired. In her upstairs bedroom, she lay atop the blankets, fully dressed. Waiting.

  It was past midnight when she heard Beck return. She heard him enter the yard; then she smelled the smoke from his cigarette drift up. Later, he came into the house—clomping around in his boots—but by one o’clock everything was quiet again. Still she waited. At four A.M., she got out of bed and dressed in a heavy worsted knit black sweater and plaid tweed skirt. She ripped a seam open in her summer-weight coat and slid the papers inside, then she put the coat on, tying the belt at her waist. She slipped the ration cards in her front pocket.

  On the way downstairs, she winced at every creak of sound. It seemed to take forever to get to the front door, more than forever, but finally she was there, opening it quietly, closing it behind her.

  The early morning was cold and black. Somewhere a bird called out, his slumber probably disturbed by the opening of the door. She breathed in the scent of roses and was overcome by how ordinary it seemed in this moment.

  From here there would be no turning back.

  She walked to the still-broken gate, glancing back often at the blacked-out house, expecting Beck to be there, arms crossed, booted feet in a warrior’s stance, watching her.

  But she was alone.

  Her first stop was Rachel’s house. There were almost no mail deliveries these days, but women like Rachel, whose men were gone, checked their letter boxes each day, hoping against hope that the mail would bring them news.

  Isabelle reached inside her coat, felt for the slit in the silk lining, and pulled out a single piece of paper. In one movement, she opened the letterbox and slid the paper inside and quietly shut the lid.

  Out on the road again, she looked around and saw no one.

  She had done it!

  Her second stop was old man Rivet’s farm. He was a communist through and through, a man of the revolution, and he’d lost a son at the front.

  By the time she gave away her last tract, she felt invincible. It was just past dawn; pale sunlight gilded the limestone buildings in town.

  She was the first woman to queue up outside the shop this morning, and because of that, she got her full ration of butter. One hundred fifty grams for the month. Two-thirds of a cup.

  A treasure.

  ELEVEN

  Every day that long, hot summer, Vianne woke to a list of chores. She (along with Sophie and Isabelle) replanted and expanded the garden and converted a pair of old bookcases into rabbit hutches. She used chicken wire to enclose the pergola. Now the most romantic place on the property stank of manure—manure they collected for their garden. She took in wash from the farmer down the road—old man Rivet—in exchange for feed. The only time she really relaxed, and felt like herself, was on Sunday mornings, when she took Sophie to church (Isabelle refused to attend Mass) and then had coffee with Rachel, sitting in the shade of her backyard, just two best friends talking, laughing, joking. Sometimes Isabelle joined them, but she was more likely to play with the children than talk with the women—which was fine with Vianne.

  Her chores were necessary, of course—a new way of preparing for a winter that seemed far away but would arrive like an unwanted guest on the worst possible day. More important, it kept Vianne’s mind occupied. When she was working in her garden or boiling strawberries for preserves or pickling cucumbers, she wasn’t thinking of Antoine and how long it had been since she’d heard from him. It was the uncertainty that gnawed at her: Was he a prisoner of war? Was he wounded somewhere? Dead? Or would she look up one day and see him walking up this road, smiling?

  Missing him. Longing for him. Worrying about him. Those were her nighttime journeys.

  In a world now laden with bad news and silence, the one bit of good news was that Captain Beck had spent much of the summer away on one campaign or another. In his absence, the household settled into a routine of sorts. Isabelle did all that was asked of her without complaint.

  It was October now, and chilly. Vianne found herself distracted as she walked home from school with Sophie. She could feel that one of her heels was coming loose; it made her slightly unsteady. Her black kidskin oxfords weren’t made for the kind of everyday use to which they’d been put in the past few months. The sole was beginning to pull away at the toe, which often caused her to trip. The worry about replacing things like shoes was never far away. A ration card did not mean there were shoes—or food—to be bought.

  Vianne kept one hand on Sophie’s shoulder, both to steady her gait and to keep her daughter close. There were Nazi soldiers everywhere; riding in lorries and on motorcycles with machine-gun-mounted sidecars. They marched in the square, their voices raised in triumphant song.

  A military lorry honked at them and they moved farther onto the sidewalk as a convoy rumbled past. More Nazis.

  “Is that Tante Isabelle?” Sophie asked.

  Vianne glanced in the direction of Sophie’s finger. Sure enough, Isabelle was coming out of an alley, clutching her basket. She looked … “furtive” was the only word that came to mind.

  Furtive. At that, a dozen little pieces clicked into place. Tiny incongruities became a pattern. Isabelle had often left Le Jardin in the wee hours of the morning, much earlier than necessary. She had dozens of long-winded excuses for absences that Vianne had barely cared about. Heels that broke, hats that flew off in the wind and had to be chased down, a dog that frightened her and blocked her way.

  Was she sneaking out to be with a boy?

  “Tante Isabelle!” Sophie cried out.

  Without waiting for a reply—or permission—Sophie darted into the street. She dodged a trio of German soldiers who were tossing a ball back and forth.

  “Merde,” Vianne muttered. “Pardon,” she said, ducking around the soldiers and striding across the cobblestoned street.

  “What did you get today?” she heard Sophie ask Isabelle as her daughter reached into the willow basket.

  Isabelle slapped Sophie’s
hand. Hard.

  Sophie yelped and drew her hand back.

  “Isabelle!” Vianne said harshly. “What’s wrong with you?”

  Isabelle had the good grace to blush. “I am sorry. It’s just that I’m tired. I have been in queues all day. And for what? A veal jelly bone with barely any meat on it and a tin of milk. It’s disheartening. Still, I shouldn’t be rude. I’m sorry, Soph.”

  “Perhaps if you didn’t sneak out so early in the morning you wouldn’t be tired,” Vianne said.

  “I’m not sneaking out,” Isabelle said. “I’m going to the shops for food. I thought you wanted that of me. And by the way, we need a bicycle. These walks to town on bad shoes are killing me.”

  Vianne wished she knew her sister well enough to read the look in her eyes. Was it guilt? Or worry or defiance? If she didn’t know better, she’d say it was pride.

  Sophie linked arms with Isabelle as the three of them set off for home.

  Vianne studiously ignored the changes to Carriveau—the Nazis taking up so much space, the posters on the limestone walls (the new anti-Jewish tracts were sickening), and the red and black swastika flags hanging above doorways and from balconies. People had begun to leave Carriveau, abandoning their homes to the Germans. The rumor was that they were going to the Free Zone, but no one knew for sure. Shops closed and didn’t reopen.

  She heard footsteps coming up behind her and said evenly, “Let’s walk faster.”

  “Madame Mauriac, if I may interrupt.”

  “Good Lord, is he following you?” Isabelle muttered.

  Vianne slowly turned around. “Herr Captain,” she said. People in the street watched Vianne closely, eyes narrowed in disapproval.

  “I wanted to say that I will be late tonight and will, sorrowfully, not be there for supper,” Beck said.

  “How terrible,” Isabelle said in a voice as sweet and bitter as burned caramel.

  Vianne tried to smile, but really, she didn’t know why he’d stopped her. “I will save you something—”

  “Nein. Nein. You are most kind.” He fell silent.

  Vianne did the same.

  Finally Isabelle sighed heavily. “We are on our way home, Herr Captain.”

  “Is there something I can do for you, Herr Captain?” said Vianne.

  Beck moved closer. “I know how worried you have been about your husband, so I did some checking.”

  “Oh.”

  “It is not fine news, I am sorrowful to report. Your husband, Antoine Mauriac, has been captured along with many of your town’s men. He is in a prisoner of war camp.” He handed her a list of names and a stack of official postcards. “He will not be coming home.”

  * * *

  Vianne barely remembered leaving town. She knew Isabelle was beside her, holding her upright, urging her to put one foot in front of the other, and that Sophie was beside her, chirping out questions as sharp as fish hooks. What is a prisoner of war? What did Herr Captain mean that Papa would not be coming home? Never?

  Vianne knew when they’d arrived home because the scents of her garden greeted her, welcomed her. She blinked, feeling a little like someone who had just wakened from a coma to find the world impossibly changed.

  “Sophie,” Isabelle said firmly. “Go make your mother a cup of coffee. Open a tin of milk.”

  “But—”

  “Go,” Isabelle said.

  When Sophie was gone, Isabelle turned to Vianne, cupped her face with cold hands. “He’ll be all right.”

  Vianne felt as if she were breaking apart bit by bit, losing blood and bone as she stood here, contemplating something she had studiously avoided thinking about: a life without him. She started to shiver; her teeth chattered.

  “Come inside for coffee,” Isabelle said.

  Into the house? Their house? His ghost would be everywhere in there—a dent in the divan where he sat to read, the hook that held his coat. And the bed.

  She shook her head, wishing she could cry, but there were no tears in her. This news had emptied her. She couldn’t even breathe.

  Suddenly all she could think about was the sweater of his that she was wearing. She started to strip out of her clothes, tearing off the coat and the vest—ignoring Isabelle’s shouted NO!—as she yanked the sweater over her head and buried her face in the soft wool, trying to smell him in the yarn—his favorite soap, him.

  But there was nothing but her own smell. She lowered the bunched-up sweater from her face and stared down at it, trying to remember the last time he’d worn it. She picked at a loose thread and it unraveled in her hand, became a squiggly coil of wine-colored yarn. She bit it off and tied a knot to save the rest of the sleeve. Yarn was precious these days.

  These days.

  When the world was at war and everything was scarce and your husband was gone. “I don’t know how to be on my own.”

  “What do you mean? We were on our own for years. From the moment Maman died.”

  Vianne blinked. Her sister’s words sounded a little jumbled, as if they were running on the wrong speed. “You were alone,” she said. “I never was. I met Antoine when I was fourteen and got pregnant at sixteen and married him when I was barely seventeen. Papa gave me this house to get rid of me. So, you see, I’ve never been on my own. That’s why you’re so strong and I’m not.”

  “You will have to be,” Isabelle said. “For Sophie.”

  Vianne drew in a breath. And there it was. The reason she couldn’t eat a bowl of arsenic or throw herself in front of a train. She took the short coil of crooked yarn and tied it to an apple tree branch. The burgundy color stood out against the green and brown. Now, each day in her garden and when she walked to her gate and when she picked apples, she would pass this branch and see this bit of yarn and think of Antoine. Each time she would pray—to him and to God—Come home.

  “Come,” Isabelle said, putting an arm around Vianne, pulling her close.

  Inside, the house echoed the voice of a man who wasn’t there.

  * * *

  Vianne stood outside Rachel’s stone cottage; overhead the sky was the color of smoke on this cold, late afternoon. The leaves of the trees, marigold and tangerine and scarlet, were just beginning to darken around the edges. Soon they would drop to the ground.

  Vianne stared at the door, wishing she didn’t need to be here, but she had read the names Beck had given her. Marc de Champlain was also listed.

  When she finally found the courage to knock, Rachel answered almost instantly, wearing an old housedress and sagging woolen stockings. A cardigan sweater hung askew, buttoned incorrectly. It gave her an odd, tilted look.

  “Vianne! Come in. Sarah and I were just making a rice pudding—it’s mostly water and gelatin, of course, but I used a bit of milk.”

  Vianne managed a smile. She let her friend sweep her into the kitchen and pour her a cup of the bitter, ersatz coffee that was all they could get. Vianne was remarking on the rice pudding—what she even said she didn’t know—when Rachel turned and asked, “What’s wrong?”

  Vianne stared at her friend. She wanted to be the strong one—for once—but she couldn’t stop the tears that filled her eyes.

  “Stay in the kitchen,” Rachel said to Sarah. “If you hear your brother wake up, get him. You,” she said to Vianne, “come with me.” She took Vianne by the arm and guided her through the small salon and into Rachel’s bedroom.

  Vianne sat on the bed and looked up at her friend. Silently, she held out the list of names she’d gotten from Beck. “They’re prisoners of war, Rachel. Antoine and Marc and all the others. They won’t be coming home.”

  * * *

  Three days later, on a frosty Saturday morning, Vianne stood in her classroom and stared out at the group of women seated in desks that were too small for them. They looked tired and a little wary. No one felt comfortable gathering these days. It was never clear exactly how far verboten extended into conversations about the war, and besides that, the women of Carriveau were exhausted. They spent t
heir days standing in line for insufficient quantities of foods, and when they weren’t in line, they were foraging the countryside or trying to sell their dancing shoes or a silk scarf for enough money to buy a loaf of good bread. In the back of the room, tucked into the corner, Sophie and Sarah were leaning against each other, knees drawn up, reading books.

  Rachel moved her sleeping son from one shoulder to the other and closed the door of the classroom. “Thank you all for coming. I know how difficult it is these days to do anything more than the absolutely necessary.” There was a murmuring of agreement among the women.

  “Why are we here?” Madame Fournier asked tiredly.

  Vianne stepped forward. She had never felt completely comfortable around some of the women, many of whom had disliked Vianne when she moved here at fourteen. When Vianne had “caught” Antoine—the best-looking young man in town—they’d liked her even less. Those days were long past, of course, and now Vianne was friendly with these women and taught their children and frequented their shops, but even so, the pains of adolescence left a residue of discomfort. “I have received a list of French prisoners of war from Carriveau. I am sorry—terribly sorry—to tell you that your husbands—and mine, and Rachel’s—are on the list. I am told they will not be coming home.”

  She paused, allowing the women to react. Grief and loss transformed the faces around her. Vianne knew the pain mirrored her own. Even so, it was difficult to watch, and she found her eyes misting again. Rachel stepped close, took her hand.

  “I got us postcards,” Vianne said. “Official ones. So we can write to our men.”

  “How did you get so many postcards?” Madame Fournier asked, wiping her eyes.

  “She asked her German for a favor,” said Hélène Ruelle, the baker’s wife.

  “I did not! And he’s not my German,” Vianne said. “He is a soldier who has requisitioned my home. Should I just let the Germans have Le Jardin? Just walk away and have nothing? Every house or hotel in town with a spare room has been taken by them. I am not special in this.”

  More tsking and murmurs. Some women nodded; others shook their heads.

  “I would have killed myself before I let one of them move into my house,” Hélène said.

  “Would you, Hélène? Would you really?” Vianne said. “And would you kill your children first or throw them out into the street to survive on their own?”

  Hélène looked away.

  “They have taken over my hotel,” a woman said. “And they are gentlemen, for the most part. A bit crude, perhaps. Wasteful.”

  “Gentlemen.” Hélène spat the word. “We are pigs to slaughter. You will see. Pigs who put up no fight at all.”

  “I haven’t seen you at my butcher shop recently,” Madame Fournier said to Vianne in a judgmental voice.

  “My sister goes for me,” Vianne said. She knew this was the point of their disapproval; they were afraid that Vianne would get—and take—special privileges that they would be denied. “I would not take food—or anything—from the enemy.” She felt suddenly as if she were back in school, being bullied by the popular girls.

  “Vianne is trying to help,” Rachel said sternly enough to shut them up. She took the postcards from Vianne and began handing them out.

  Vianne took a seat and stared down at her own blank postcard.

  She heard the chicken-scratching of other pencils on other postcards and slowly, she began to write.

  My beloved Antoine,

  We are well. Sophie is thriving, and even with

  so many chores, we found some time

  this summer to spend by the river. We—I—think

  of you with every breath and pray

  you are well. Do not worry about us,

  and come home.

  Je t’aime, Antoine.

  Her lettering was so small she wondered if he would even be able to read it.

  Or if he would get it.

  Or if he was alive.

  For God’s sake, she was crying.

  Rachel moved in beside her, laid a hand on her shoulder. “We all feel it,” she said quietly.

  Moments later, the women rose one by one. Wordlessly, they shuffled forward
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