The nightingale, p.15
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       The Nightingale, p.15
 

           Kristin Hannah

  To the Ocean Crest Retirement Community and Nursing Home.

  To be fair, it doesn’t look like a bad place, a little industrial maybe, with its rigidly upright windows and perfectly maintained patch of grass out front and the American flag flying above the door. It is a long, low building. Built in the seventies, I’d guess, back when just about everything was ugly. There are two wings that reach out from a central courtyard, where I imagine old people sit in wheelchairs with their faces turned to the sun, waiting. Thank God, I am not housed in the east side of the building—the nursing home wing. Not yet anyway. I can still manage my own life, thank you very much, and my own apartment.

  Julien opens the door for me, and I go inside. The first thing I see is a large reception area decorated to look like the hospitality desk of a seaside hotel, complete with a fishing net full of shells hung on the wall. I imagine that at Christmas they hang ornaments from the netting and stockings from the edge of the desk. There are probably sparkly HO-HO-HO signs tacked up to the wall on the day after Thanksgiving.

  “Come on, Mom.”

  Oh, right. Mustn’t dawdle.

  The place smells of what? Tapioca pudding and chicken noodle soup.

  Soft foods.

  Somehow I keep going. If there’s one thing I never do, it’s stop.

  “Here we are,” my son says, opening the door to room 317A.

  It’s nice, honestly. A small, one-bedroom apartment. The kitchen is tucked into the corner by the door and from it one can look out over a Formica counter and see a dining table with four chairs and the living room, where a coffee table and sofa and two chairs are gathered around a gas fireplace.

  The TV in the corner is brand new, with a built-in VCR player. Someone—my son, probably, has stacked a bunch of my favorite movies in the bookcase. Jean de Florette, Breathless, Gone with the Wind.

  I see my things: an afghan I knitted thrown over the sofa’s back; my books in the bookcase. In the bedroom, which is of a fine size, the nightstand on my side of the bed is lined with prescription pill containers, a little jungle of plastic orange cylinders. My side of the bed. It’s funny, but some things don’t change after the death of a spouse, and that’s one of them. The left side of the bed is mine even though I am alone in it. At the foot of the bed is my trunk, just as I have requested.

  “You could still change your mind,” he says quietly. “Come home with me.”

  “We’ve talked about this, Julien. Your life is too busy. You needn’t worry about me 24/7.”

  “Do you think I will worry less when you are here?”

  I look at him, loving this child of mine and knowing my death will devastate him. I don’t want him to watch me die by degrees. I don’t want that for his daughters, either. I know what it is like; some images, once seen, can never be forgotten. I want them to remember me as I am, not as I will be when the cancer has had its way.

  He leads me into the small living room and gets me settled on the couch. While I wait, he pours us some wine and then sits beside me.

  I am thinking of how it will feel when he leaves, and I am sure the same thought occupies his mind. With a sigh, he reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a stack of envelopes. The sigh is in place of words, a breath of transition. In it, I hear that moment where I go from one life to another. In this new, pared-down version of my life, I am to be cared for by my son instead of vice versa. It’s not really comfortable for either of us. “I’ve paid this month’s bills. These are things I don’t know what to do with. Junk, mostly, I think.”

  I take the stack of letters from him and shuffle through them. A “personalized” letter from the Special Olympics committee … a free estimate awning offer … a notice from my dentist that it has been six months since my last appointment.

  A letter from Paris.

  There are red markings on it, as if the post office has shuffled it around from place to place, or delivered it incorrectly.

  “Mom?” Julien says. He is so observant. He misses nothing. “What is that?”

  When he reaches for the envelope, I mean to hold on to it, keep it from him, but my fingers don’t obey my will. My heartbeat is going all which-a-way.

  Julien opens the envelope, extracts an ecru card. An invitation. “It’s in French,” he says. “Something about the Croix de Guerre. So it’s about World War Two? Is this for Dad?”

  Of course. Men always think war is about them.

  “And there’s something handwritten in the corner. What is it?”

  Guerre. The word expands around me, unfolds its black crow wings, becoming so big I cannot look away. Against my will, I take up the invitation. It is to a passeurs’ reunion in Paris.

  They want me to attend.

  How can I possibly go without remembering all of it—the terrible things I have done, the secret I kept, the man I killed … and the one I should have?

  “Mom? What’s a passeur?”

  I can hardly find enough voice to say, “It’s someone who helped people in the war.”

  FIFTEEN

  Asking yourself a question, that’s how resistance begins.

  And then ask that very question to someone else.

  —REMCO CAMPERT

  May 1941

  France

  On the Monday Isabelle left for Paris, Vianne kept busy. She washed clothes and hung them out to dry; she weeded her garden and gathered a few early-ripening vegetables. At the end of a long day, she treated herself to a bath and washed her hair. She was drying it with a towel when she heard a knock at the door. Startled by an unexpected guest, she buttoned her bodice as she went to the door. Water dripped onto her shoulders.

  When she opened the door, she found Captain Beck standing there, dressed in his field uniform, dust peppering his face. “Herr Captain,” she said, pushing the wet hair away from her face.

  “Madame,” he said. “A colleague and I went fishing today. I have brought you what we caught.”

  “Fresh fish? How lovely. I will fry it up for you.”

  “For us, Madame. You and me and Sophie.”

  Vianne couldn’t look away from either Beck or the fish in his hands. She knew without a doubt that Isabelle wouldn’t accept this gift. Just as she knew that her friends and neighbors would claim to turn it down. Food. From the enemy. It was a matter of pride to turn it down. Everyone knew that.

  “I have neither stolen nor demanded it. No Frenchman has more of a right to it than I. There can be no dishonor in your taking it.”

  He was right. This was a fish from local waters. He had not confiscated it. Even as she reached for the fish, she felt the weight of rationalization settle heavily upon her.

  “You rarely do us the honor of eating with us.”

  “It is different now,” he said. “With your sister away.”

  Vianne backed into the house to allow him entry. As always, he removed his hat as soon as he stepped inside, and clomped across the wooden floor to his room. Vianne didn’t notice until she heard the click-shut of his door that she was still standing there, holding a dead fish wrapped in a recent edition of the Pariser Zeitung, the German newspaper printed in Paris.

  She returned to the kitchen. When she laid the paper-wrapped fish out on the butcher block, she saw that he’d already cleaned the fish, even going so far as to shave off the scales. She lit the gas stove and put a cast-iron pan over the heat, adding a precious spoonful of oil to the pan. While cubes of potato browned and onion carmelized, she seasoned the fish with salt and pepper and set it aside. In no time, tantalizing aromas filled the house, and Sophie came running into the kitchen, skidding to a stop in the empty space where the breakfast table used to be.

  “Fish,” she said with reverence.

  Vianne used her spoon to create a well within the vegetables and put the fish in the middle to fry. Tiny bits of grease popped up; the skin sizzled and turned crisp. At the very end, she placed a few preserved lemons in the pan, watching them melt over everything.

  “Go t
ell Captain Beck that supper is ready.”

  “He is eating with us? Tante Isabelle would have something to say about that. Before she left, she told me to never look him in the eye and to try not to be in the same room with him.”

  Vianne sighed. The ghost of her sister lingered. “He brought us the fish, Sophie, and he lives here.”

  “Oui, Maman. I know that. Still, she said—”

  “Go call the captain for supper. Isabelle is gone, and with her, her extreme worries. Now, go.”

  Vianne returned to the stove. Moments later, she carried out a heavy ceramic tray bearing the fried fish surrounded by the pan-roasted vegetables and preserved lemons, all of it enhanced with fresh parsley. The tangy, lemony sauce in the bottom of the pan, swimming with crusty brown bits, could have benefited from butter, but still it smelled heavenly. She carried it into the dining room and found Sophie already seated, with Captain Beck beside her.

  In Antoine’s chair.

  Vianne missed a step.

  Beck rose politely and moved quickly to pull out her chair. She paused only slightly as he took the platter from her.

  “This looks most becoming,” he said in a hearty voice. Once again, his French was not quite right.

  Vianne sat down and scooted in to her place at the table. Before she could think of what to say, Beck was pouring her wine.

  “A lovely ’37 Montrachet,” he said.

  Vianne knew what Isabelle would say to that.

  Beck sat across from her. Sophie sat to her left. She was talking about something that had happened at school today. When she paused, Beck said something about fishing and Sophie laughed, and Vianne felt Isabelle’s absence as keenly as she’d previously felt her presence.

  Stay away from Beck.

  Vianne heard the warning as clearly as if it had been spoken aloud beside her. She knew that in this one thing her sister was right. Vianne couldn’t forget the list, after all, and the firings, or the sight of Beck seated at his desk with crates of food at his feet and a painting of the Führer behind him.

  “… my wife quite despaired of my skill with a net after that…” he was saying, smiling.

  Sophie laughed. “My papa fell into the river one time when we were fishing, remember, Maman? He said the fish was so big it pulled him in, right, Maman?”

  Vianne blinked slowly. It took her a moment to notice that the conversation had circled back to include her.

  It felt … odd to say the least. In all their past meals with Beck at the table, conversation had been rare. Who could speak surrounded by Isabelle’s obvious anger?

  It is different now, with your sister away.

  Vianne understood what he meant. The tension in the house—at this table—was gone now.

  What other changes would her absence bring?

  Stay away from Beck.

  How was Vianne to do that? And when was the last time she’d eaten a meal this good … or heard Sophie laugh?

  * * *

  The Gare de Lyon was full of German soldiers when Isabelle disembarked from the train carriage. She wrestled her bicycle out with her; it wasn’t easy with her valise banging into her thighs the whole time and impatient Parisians shoving at her. She had dreamed of coming back here for months.

  In her dreams, Paris was Paris, untouched by the war.

  But on this Monday afternoon, after a long day’s travel, she saw the truth. The occupation might have left the buildings in place, and there was no evidence outside the Gare de Lyon of bombings, but there was a darkness here, even in the full light of day, a hush of loss and despair as she rode her bicycle down the boulevard.

  Her beloved city was like a once-beautiful courtesan grown old and thin, weary, abandoned by her lovers. In less than a year, this magnificent city had been stripped of its essence by the endless clatter of German jackboots on the streets and disfigured by swastikas that flew from every monument.

  The only cars she saw were black Mercedes-Benzes with miniature swastika flags flapping from prongs on the fenders, and Wehrmacht lorries, and now and then a gray panzer tank. All up and down the boulevard, windows were blacked out and shutters were drawn. At every other corner, it seemed, her way was barricaded. Signs in bold, black lettering offered directions in German, and the clocks had been changed to run two hours ahead—on German time.

  She kept her head down as she pedaled past pods of German soldiers and sidewalk cafés hosting uniformed men. As she rounded onto the boulevard de la Bastille, she saw an old woman on a bicycle trying to bypass a barricade. A Nazi stood in her way, berating her in German—a language she obviously didn’t understand. The woman turned her bicycle and pedaled away.

  It took Isabelle longer to reach the bookshop than it should have, and by the time she coasted to a stop out front, her nerves were taut. She leaned her bicycle against a tree and locked it in place. Clutching her valise in sweaty, gloved hands, she approached the bookshop. In a bistro window, she caught sight of herself: blond hair hacked unevenly along the bottom; face pale with bright red lips (the only cosmetic she still had); she had worn her best ensemble for traveling—a navy and cream plaid jacket with a matching hat and a navy skirt. Her gloves were a bit the worse for wear, but in these times no one noticed a thing like that.

  She wanted to look her best to impress her father. Grown-up.

  How many times in her life had she agonized over her hair and clothing before coming home to the Paris apartment only to discover that Papa was gone and Vianne was “too busy” to return from the country and that some female friend of her father’s would care for Isabelle while she was on holiday? Enough so that by the time she was fourteen she’d stopped coming home on holidays at all; it was better to sit alone in her empty dormitory room than be shuffled among people who didn’t know what to do with her.

  This was different, though. Henri and Didier—and their mysterious friends in the Free French—needed Isabelle to live in Paris. She would not let them down.

  The bookshop’s display windows were blacked out and the grates that protected the glass during the day were drawn down and locked in place. She tried the door and found it locked.

  On a Monday afternoon at four o’clock? She went to the crevice in the store façade that had always been her father’s hiding place and found the rusted skeleton key and let herself in.

  The narrow store seemed to hold its breath in the darkness. Not a sound came at her. Not her father turning the pages of a beloved novel or the sound of his pen scratching on paper as he struggled with the poetry that had been his passion when Maman was alive. She closed the door behind her and flicked on the light switch by the door.

  Nothing.

  She felt her way to the desk and found a candle in an old brass holder. An extended search of the drawers revealed matches, and she lit the candle.

  The light, meager as it was, revealed destruction in every corner of the shop. Half of the shelves were empty, many of them broken and hanging on slants, the books a fallen pyramid on the floor beneath the low end. Posters had been ripped down and defaced. It was as if marauders had gone through on a rampage looking for something hidden and carelessly destroyed everything along the way.

  Papa.

  Isabelle left the bookshop quickly, not even bothering to replace the key. Instead, she dropped it in her jacket pocket and unlocked her bicycle and climbed aboard. She kept to the smaller streets (the few that weren’t barricaded) until she came to rue de Grenelle; there, she turned and pedaled for home.

  The apartment on the Avenue de La Bourdonnais had been in her father’s family for more than a hundred years. The city street was lined on either side by pale, sandstone buildings with black ironwork balconies and slate roofs. Carved stone cherubs decorated the cornices. About six blocks away, the Eiffel Tower rose high into the sky, dominating the view. On the street level were dozens of storefronts with pretty awnings and cafés, with tables set up out front: the high floors were all residential. Usually, Isabelle walked slowly along the
sidewalk, window shopping, appreciating the hustle and bustle around her. Not today. The cafés and bistros were empty. Women in worn clothes and tired expressions stood in queues for food.

  She stared up at the blacked-out windows as she fished the key from her bag. Opening the door, she pushed her way into the shadowy lobby, hauling her bicycle with her. She locked it to a pipe in the lobby. Ignoring the coffin-sized cage elevator, which no doubt didn’t run in these days of limited electricity, she climbed the narrow, steeply pitched stairs that coiled around the elevator shaft and came to the fifth-floor landing, where there were two doors, one on the left side of the building, and theirs, on the right. She unlocked the door and stepped inside. Behind her, she thought she heard the neighbor’s door open. When she turned back to say hello to Madame Leclerc, the door clicked quietly shut. Apparently the nosy old woman was watching the comings and goings in apartment 6B.

  She entered her apartment and closed the door behind her. “Papa?”

  Even though it was midday, the blacked-out windows made it dark inside. “Papa?”

  There was no answer.

  Truthfully, she was relieved. She carried her valise into the salon. The darkness reminded her of another time, long ago. The apartment had been shadowy and musty; there had been breathing then, and footsteps creaking on wooden floors.

  Hush, Isabelle, no talking. Your maman is with the angels now.

  She turned on the light switch in the living room. An ornate blown-glass chandelier flickered to life, its sculpted glass branches glittering as if from another world. In the meager light, she looked around the apartment, noticing that several pieces of art were missing from the walls. The room reflected both her mother’s unerring sense of style and the collection of antiques from other generations. Two paned windows—covered now—should have revealed a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower from the balcony.

  Isabelle turned off the light. There was no reason to waste precious electricity while she waited. She sat down at the round wooden table beneath the chandelier, its rough surface scarred by a thousand suppers over the years. Her hand ran lovingly over the banged-up wood.

  Let me stay, Papa. Please. I’ll be no trouble.

  How old had she been that time? Eleven? Twelve? She wasn’t sure. But she’d been dressed in the blue sailor uniform of the convent school. It all felt a lifetime ago now. And yet here she was, again, ready to beg him to—(love her)—let her stay.

  Later—how much longer? She wasn’t sure how long she’d sat here in the dark, remembering the circumstances of her mother because she had all but forgotten her face in any real way—she heard footsteps and then a key rattling in the lock.

  She heard the door open and rose to her feet. The door clicked shut. She heard him shuffling through the entry, past the small kitchen.

  She needed to be strong now, determined, but the courage that was as much a part of her as the green of her eyes had always faded in her father’s presence and it retreated now. “Papa?” she said into the darkness. She knew he hated surprises.

  She heard him go still.

  Then a light switch clicked and the chandelier came on. “Isabelle,” he said with a sigh. “What are you doing here?”

  She knew better than to reveal uncertainty to this man who cared so little for her feelings. She had a job to do now. “I have come to live with you in Paris. Again,” she added as an afterthought.

  “You left Vianne and Sophie alone with the Nazi?”

  “They are safer with me gone, believe me. Sooner or later, I would have lost my temper.”

  “Lost your temper? What is wrong with you? You will return to Carriveau tomorrow morning.” He walked past her to the wooden sideboard that was tucked against the papered wall. He poured himself a glass of brandy, drank it down in three large gulps, and poured another. When he finished the second drink, he turned to her.

  “No,” she said. The single word galvanized her. Had she ever said it to him before? She said it again for good measure. “No.”

  “Pardon?”

  “I said no, Papa. I will not bend to your will this time. I will not leave. This is my home. My home.” Her voice weakened on that. “Those are the drapes I watched Maman make on her sewing machine. This is the table she inherited from her great-uncle. On the walls of my bedroom you’ll find my initials, drawn in Maman’s lipstick when she wasn’t looking. In my secret room, my fort, I’ll bet my dolls are still lined up along the walls.”

  “Isabelle—”

  “No. You will not turn me away, Papa. You have done that too many times. You are my father. This is my home. We are at war. I’m staying.” She bent down for the valise at her feet and picked it up.

  In the pale glow of the chandelier, she saw defeat deepen the lines in her father’s cheeks. His shoulders slumped. He poured himself another brandy, gulped it greedily. Obviously he could barely stand to look at her without the aid of
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