The nightingale, p.25
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       The Nightingale, p.25
 

           Kristin Hannah

  She almost reached out for him, almost stroked the gray hair that obscured his face, a small, oval-shaped bald spot revealed by repose. She wanted to be able to touch him that way, in comfort, in love, in companionship.

  Instead, she went into the kitchen, where she made a pot of bitter, dark, made-from-acorns coffee and found a small loaf of the tasteless gray bread that was all the Parisians could get anymore. She broke off a piece (what would Madame Dufour say about that? Eating while walking), and chewed it slowly.

  “That coffee smells like shit,” her father said, bleary-eyed, lifting his head as she came into the room.

  She handed him her cup. “It tastes worse.”

  Isabelle poured another cup of coffee for herself and sat down beside him. The lamplight accentuated the road-map look of his face, deepening the pits and wrinkles, making the flesh beneath his eyes look wax-like and swollen.

  She waited for him to say something, but he just stared at her. Beneath his pointed gaze, she finished her coffee (she needed it to swallow the dry, terrible bread) and pushed the empty cup away. Isabelle stayed there until he fell asleep again and then she went into her own room. But there was no way she could sleep. She lay there for hours, wondering and worrying. Finally, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She got out of bed and went into the salon.

  “I’m going out to see,” she announced.

  “Don’t,” he said, still seated at the table.

  “I won’t do anything stupid.”

  She returned to her bedroom and changed into a summer-weight blue skirt and short-sleeved white blouse. She put a faded blue silk scarf around her messy hair, tied it beneath her chin, and left the apartment.

  On the third floor, she saw that the door to the Vizniak apartment was open. She peered inside.

  The room had been looted. Only the biggest pieces of furniture remained and the drawers of the black bombé chest were open. Clothes and inexpensive knickknacks were scattered across the floor. Rectangular black marks on the wall revealed missing artwork.

  She closed the door behind her. In the lobby, she paused just long enough to compose herself and then opened the door.

  Buses rolled down the street, one after another. Through the dirty bus windows, she saw dozens of children’s faces, with their noses pressed to the glass, and their mothers seated beside them. The sidewalks were curiously empty.

  Isabelle saw a French policeman standing at the corner and she went to him. “Where are they going?”

  “Vélodrome d’Hiver.”

  “The sporting stadium? Why?”

  “You don’t belong here. Go or I’ll put you on a bus and you’ll end up with them.”

  “Maybe I’ll do that. Maybe—”

  The policeman leaned close, whispered, “Go.” He grabbed her arm and dragged her to the side of the road. “Our orders are to shoot anyone who tries to escape. You hear me?”

  “You’d shoot them? Women and children?”

  The young policeman looked miserable. “Go.”

  Isabelle knew she should stay. That was the smart thing to do. But she could walk to the Vél d’Hiv almost as quickly as these buses could drive there. It was only a few blocks away. Maybe then she would know what was happening.

  For the first time in months, the barricades on the side streets of Paris were unmanned. She ducked around one and ran down the street, toward the river, past closed-up shops and empty cafés. Only a few blocks away, she came to a breathless stop across the street from the stadium. An endless stream of buses jammed with people drew up alongside the huge building and disgorged passengers. Then the doors wheezed shut and the buses drove off again; others drove up to take their place. She saw a sea of yellow stars.

  There were thousands of men, women, and children, looking confused and despairing, being herded into the stadium. Most were wearing layers of clothing—too much for the July heat. Police patrolled the perimeter like American cowboys herding cattle, blowing whistles, shouting orders, forcing the Jewish people forward, into the stadium or onto other buses.

  Families.

  She saw a policeman shove a woman with his baton so hard she stumbled to her knees. She staggered upright, reaching blindly to the little boy beside her, protecting him with her body as she limped toward the stadium entrance.

  She saw a young French policeman and fought through the crowd to get to him.

  “What’s happening?” she asked.

  “That’s not your concern, M’mselle. Go.”

  Isabelle looked back at the large cycling stadium. All she saw were people, bodies crammed together, families trying to hold on to each other in the melee. The police shouted at them, shoved them forward toward the stadium, yanked children and mothers to their feet when they fell. She could hear children crying. A pregnant woman was on her knees, rocking back and forth, clutching her distended belly.

  “But … there are too many of them in there…” Isabelle said.

  “They’ll be deported soon.”

  “Where?”

  He shrugged. “I know nothing about it.”

  “You must know something.”

  “Work camps,” he mumbled. “In Germany. That’s all I know.”

  “But … they’re women and children.”

  He shrugged again.

  Isabelle couldn’t comprehend it. How could the French gendarmes be doing this to Parisians? To women and children? “Children can hardly work, M’sieur. You must have thousands of children in there, and pregnant women. How—”

  “Do I look like the mastermind of this? I just do what I’m told. They tell me to arrest the foreign-born Jews in Paris, so I do it. They want the crowd separated—single men to Drancy, families to the Vél d’Hiv. Voilà! It’s done. Point rifles at them and be prepared to shoot. The government wants all of France’s foreign Jews sent east to work camps, and we’re starting here.”

  All of France? Isabelle felt the air rush out of her lungs. Operation Spring Wind. “You mean this isn’t just happening in Paris?”

  “No. This is just the start.”

  * * *

  Vianne had stood in queues all day, in the oppressive summer heat, and for what—a half a pound of dry cheese and a loaf of terrible bread?

  “Can we have some strawberry jam today, Maman? It hides the taste of the bread.”

  As they left the shop, Vianne kept Sophie close to her, tucked against her hip as if she were a much younger child. “Maybe just a little, but we can’t go overboard. Remember how terrible the winter was? Another will be coming.”

  Vianne saw a group of soldiers coming their way, rifles glinting in the sunshine. They marched past, and tanks followed them, grumbling over the cobblestoned street.

  “There is a lot going on out here today,” Sophie said.

  Vianne had been thinking the same thing. The road was full of French police; gendarmes were coming into town in droves.

  It was a relief to step into Rachel’s quiet, well-tended yard. She looked forward to her visits with Rachel so much. It was really the only time she felt like herself anymore.

  At Vianne’s knock, Rachel peered out suspiciously, saw who was at the door, and smiled, opening the door wide, letting sunshine stream into the bare house. “Vianne! Sophie! Come in, come in.”

  “Sophie!” Sarah yelled.

  The two girls hugged each other as if they’d been apart for weeks instead of days. It had taken a toll on both of them to be separated while Sophie was sick. Sarah took Sophie by the hand and led her out into the front yard, where they sat beneath an apple tree.

  Rachel left the door open so that they could hear them. Vianne uncoiled the floral scarf from around her head and stuffed it into the pocket of her skirt. “I brought you something.”

  “No, Vianne. We have talked about this,” Rachel said. She was wearing a pair of overalls that she’d made from an old shower curtain. Her summer cardigan—once white and now grayed from too many washings and too much wear—hung from the chair back. From here,
Vianne could see two points of the yellow star sewn onto the sweater.

  Vianne went to the counter in the kitchen and opened the silverware drawer. There was almost nothing left in it—in the two years of the occupation, they had all lost count of the times the Germans had gone door to door “requisitioning” what they needed. How often had Germans broken into the homes at night, taking whatever they wanted? All of it ended up on trains headed east.

  Now most of the drawers and closets and trunks in town were empty. All Rachel had left were a few forks and spoons, and a single bread knife. Vianne took the knife over to the table. Withdrawing the bread and cheese from her basket, she carefully cut both in half and returned her portion to the basket. When she looked up again, Rachel had tears in her eyes. “I want to tell you not to give us that. You need it.”

  “You need it, too.”

  “I should just rip the damned star off. Then at least I would be allowed to queue up for food when there was still some to be had.” There were constantly new restrictions in place for Jewish people: they could no longer own bicycles and were banned from all public places except between three and four P.M., when they were allowed to shop. By then, there was nothing left.

  Before Vianne could answer, she heard a motorcycle out on the road. She recognized the sound of it and went to stand in the open doorway.

  Rachel squeezed in beside her. “What is he doing here?”

  “I’ll see,” Vianne said.

  “I’m coming with you.”

  Vianne walked through the orchard, past a hummingbird hovering at the roses, to the gate. Opening it, she stepped through, onto the roadside, let Rachel in behind her. Behind them, the gate made a little click, like the snapping of a bone.

  “Mesdames,” Beck said, doffing his military cap, wedging it under his armpit. “I am sorry to disturb your ladies’ time, but I have come to tell you something, Madame Mauriac.” He put the slightest emphasis on you. It made it sound as if they shared secrets.

  “Oh? And what is it, Herr Captain?” Vianne asked.

  He glanced left to right and then leaned slightly toward Vianne. “Madame de Champlain should not be at home tomorrow morning,” he said quietly.

  Vianne thought perhaps he’d translated his intention poorly. “Pardon?”

  “Madame de Champlain should not be at home tomorrow,” he repeated.

  “My husband and I own this house,” Rachel said. “Why should I leave?”

  “It will not matter, this ownership of the house. Not tomorrow.”

  “My children—” Rachel started.

  Beck finally looked at Rachel. “Your children are of no concern to us. They were born in France. They are not on the list.”

  List.

  A word that was feared now. Vianne said quietly, “What are you telling us?”

  “I am telling you that if she is here tomorrow, she will not be here the day after.”

  “But—”

  “If she were my friend, I would find a way to hide her for a day.”

  “Only for a day?” Vianne asked, studying him closely.

  “That is all I came to say, Mesdames, and I should not have done it. I would be … punished if word got out. Please, if you are questioned about this later, do not mention my visit.” He clicked his heels together, pivoted, and walked away.

  Rachel looked at Vianne. They had heard rumors of roundups in Paris—women and children being deported—but no one believed it. How could they? The claims were crazy, impossible—tens of thousands of people taken from their homes in the middle of the night by the French police. And all at once? It couldn’t be true. “Do you trust him?”

  Vianne considered the question. She surprised herself by saying, “Yes.”

  “So what do I do?”

  “Take the children to the Free Zone. Tonight.” Vianne couldn’t believe she was thinking it, let alone saying it.

  “Last week Madame Durant tried to cross the frontier and she was shot and her children deported.”

  Vianne would say the same thing in Rachel’s place. It was one thing for a woman to run by herself; it was another thing to risk your children’s lives. But what if they were risking their lives by staying here?

  “You’re right. It’s too dangerous. But I think you should do as Beck advises. Hide. It is only for a day. Then perhaps we’ll know more.”

  “Where?”

  “Isabelle prepared for this and I thought she was a fool.” She sighed. “There’s a cellar in the barn.”

  “You know that if you are caught hiding me—”

  “Oui,” Vianne said sharply. She didn’t want to hear it said aloud. Punishable by death. “I know.”

  * * *

  Vianne slipped a sleeping draught into Sophie’s lemonade and put the child to bed early. (Not the sort of thing that made one feel like a good mother, but neither was it all right to take Sophie with them tonight or let her waken alone. Bad choices. That was all there were anymore.) While waiting for her daughter to fall asleep, Vianne paced. She heard every clatter of wind against the shutters, every creaky settling of the timbers of the old house. At just past six o’clock, she dressed in her old gardening overalls and went downstairs.

  She found Beck sitting on her divan, an oil lamp lit beside him. He was holding a small, framed portrait of his family. His wife—Hilda, Vianne knew—and his children, Gisela and Wilhelm.

  At her arrival, he looked up but didn’t stand.

  Vianne didn’t know quite what to do. She wanted him to be invisible right now, tucked behind the closed door of his room, someone she could completely discount. And yet he had risked his career to help Rachel. How could she ignore that?

  “Bad things are happening, Madame. Impossible things. I trained to be a soldier, to fight for my country and make my family proud. It was an honorable choice. What will be thought of us upon our return? What will be thought of me?”

  She sat down beside him. “I worry about what Antoine will think of me, too. I should not have given you that list of names. I should have been more frugal with my money. I should have worked harder to keep my job. Perhaps I should have listened to Isabelle more.”

  “You should not blame yourself. I’m sure your husband would agree. We men are perhaps too quick to reach for our guns.”

  He turned slightly, his gaze taking in her attire.

  She was dressed in her overalls and a black sweater. A black scarf covered her hair. She looked like a housewife version of a spy.

  “It is dangerous for her to run,” he said.

  “And to stay, apparently.”

  “And there it is,” he said. “A terrible dilemma.”

  “Which is more dangerous, I wonder?” Vianne asked.

  She expected no answer and was surprised when he said, “Staying, I think.”

  Vianne nodded.

  “You should not go,” he said.

  “I can’t let her go alone.”

  Beck considered that. Finally he nodded. “You know the land of Monsieur Frette, where the cows are raised?”

  “Oui. But—”

  “There is a cattle trail behind the barn. It leads to the least manned of the checkpoints. It is a long walk, but one should make the checkpoint before curfew. If someone were wondering about that. Not that I know anyone who is.”

  “My father, Julien Rossignol, lives in Paris at 57 Avenue de La Bourdonnais. If I … didn’t come home one day…”

  “I would see that your daughter made it to Paris.”

  He rose, taking the picture with him. “I am to bed, Madame.”

  She stood beside him. “I am afraid to trust you.”

  “I would be more afraid not to.”

  They were closer now, ringed together by the meager light.

  “Are you a good man, Herr Captain?”

  “I used to think so, Madame.”

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “Do not thank me yet, Madame.”

  He left her alone with the light and return
ed to his room, closing the door firmly behind him.

  Vianne sat back down, waiting. At seven thirty, she retrieved the heavy black shawl that hung from a hook by the kitchen door.

  Be brave, she thought. Just this once.

  She covered her head and shoulders with the shawl and went outside.

  Rachel and her children were waiting for her behind the barn. A wheelbarrow was beside them; in it Ari lay wrapped in blankets, asleep. Tucked around him were a few possessions Rachel had chosen to take with her. “You have false papers?” Vianne asked.

  Rachel nodded. “I don’t know how good they are, and they cost me my wedding ring.” She looked at Vianne. They communicated everything without speaking aloud.

  Are you sure you want to come with us?

  I’m sure.

  “Why do we have to leave?” Sarah said, looking frightened.

  Rachel put a hand on Sarah’s head and gazed down at her. “I need you to be strong for me, Sarah. Remember our talk?”

  Sarah nodded slowly. “For Ari and Papa.”

  They crossed the dirt road and pushed their way through the field of hay toward the copse of trees in the distance. Once in the spindly forest, Vianne felt safer, protected somewhat. By the time they arrived at the Frette property, night had fallen. They found the cattle trail that led into a deeper wood, where thick, ropey roots veined the dry ground, causing Rachel to have to push the wheelbarrow hard to keep it moving. Time and again, it thumped up over some root and clattered back down. Ari whimpered in his sleep and greedily sucked his thumb. Vianne could feel the sweat running down her back.

  “I have been in need of exercise,” Rachel said, breathing heavily.

  “And I love a good walk through the woods,” Vianne answered. “What about you, M’mselle Sarah, what do you find lovely about our adventure?”

  “I’m not wearing that stupid star,” Sarah said. “How come Sophie isn’t with us? She loves the woods. Remember the scavenger hunts we used to have? She found everything first.”

  Through a break in the trees up ahead, Vianne saw a flashing light, and then the black-and-white markings of the border crossing.

  The gate was illuminated by lights so bright only the enemy would dare use them—or be able to afford to. A German guard stood by, his rifle glinting silver in the unnatural light. There was a small line of people waiting to pass through. Approval would only be granted if the paperwork was in order. If Rachel’s false papers didn’t work, she and the children would be arrested.

  It was real suddenly. Vianne came to a stop. She would have to watch it all from here.

  “I’ll write if I can,” Rachel said.

  Vianne’s throat tightened. Even if the best happened, she might not hear from her friend for years. Or ever. In this new world, there was no certain way to keep in touch with those you loved.

  “Don’t give me that look,” Rachel said. “We will be together again in no time, drinking champagne and dancing to that jazz music you love.”

  Vianne wiped the tears from her eyes. “You know I won’t be seen with you in public when you start dancing.”

  Sarah tugged at her sleeve. “T-tell Sophie I said good-bye.”

  Vianne knelt down and hugged Sarah. She could have held on forever; instead she let go.

 
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