The nightingale, p.26
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       The Nightingale, p.26
 

           Kristin Hannah

  She started to reach for Rachel, but her friend backed away. “If I hug you I’ll cry and I can’t cry.”

  Vianne’s arms dropped heavily to her side.

  Rachel reached down for the wheelbarrow. She and her children left the protection of the trees and joined the queue of people at the checkpoint. A man on a bicycle pedaled through and kept going, and then an old woman pushing a flower cart was waved on. Rachel was almost to the front of the queue when a whistle shrieked and someone yelled in German. The guard turned his machine gun on the crowd and opened fire.

  Tiny red bursts peppered the dark.

  Ra-ta-ta-tat.

  A woman screamed as the man beside her crumpled to the ground. The queue instantly dispersed; people ran in all directions.

  It happened so fast Vianne couldn’t react. She saw Rachel and Sarah running toward her, back to the trees; Sarah in front, Rachel in back with the wheelbarrow.

  “Here!” Vianne cried out, her voice lost in the splatter of gunfire.

  Sarah dropped to her knees in the grass.

  “Sarah!” Rachel cried.

  Vianne swooped forward and pulled Sarah into her arms. She carried her into the woods and laid her on the ground, unbuttoning her coat.

  The girl’s chest was riddled with bullet holes. Blood bubbled up, spilled over, oozing.

  Vianne wrenched off her shawl and pressed it to the wounds.

  “How is she?” Rachel asked, coming to a breathless stop beside her. “Is that blood?” Rachel crumpled to the grass beside her daughter. In the wheelbarrow, Ari started to scream.

  Lights flashed at the checkpoint, soldiers gathered together. Dogs started barking.

  “We have to go, Rachel,” Vianne said. “Now.” She clambered to her feet in the blood-slick grass and took Ari out of the wheelbarrow, shoving him at Rachel, who seemed not to understand. Vianne threw everything out of the wheelbarrow and, as carefully as she could, placed Sarah in the rusted metal, with Ari’s blanket behind her head. Clutching the handles in her bloody hands, she lifted the back wheels and began pushing. “Come on,” she said to Rachel. “We can save her.”

  Rachel nodded numbly.

  Vianne shoved the wheelbarrow forward, over the ropey roots and dirt. Her heart was pounding and fear was a sour taste in her mouth, but she didn’t stop or look back. She knew that Rachel was behind her—Ari was screaming—and if anyone else was following them, she didn’t want to know.

  As they neared Le Jardin, Vianne struggled to push the heavy wheelbarrow through the gully alongside the road and up the hill to the barn. When she finally stopped, the wheelbarrow thumped down to the ground and Sarah moaned in pain.

  Rachel put Ari down. Then she lifted Sarah out of the wheelbarrow and gently placed her on the grass. Ari wailed and held his arms out to be held.

  Rachel knelt beside Sarah and saw the terrible devastation of Sarah’s chest. She looked up at Vianne, gave her a look of such pain and loss that Vianne couldn’t breathe. Then Rachel looked down again, and placed a hand on her daughter’s pale cheek.

  Sarah lifted her head. “Did we make it across the frontier?” Blood bubbled up from her colorless lips, slid down her chin.

  “We did,” Rachel said. “We did. We are all safe now.”

  “I was brave,” Sarah said, “wasn’t I?”

  “Oui,” Rachel said brokenly. “So brave.”

  “I’m cold,” Sarah murmured. She shivered.

  Sarah drew in a shuddering breath, exhaled slowly.

  “We are going to go have some candy now. And a macaron. I love you, Sarah. And Papa loves you. You are our star.” Rachel’s voice broke. She was crying now. “Our heart. You know that?”

  “Tell Sophie I…” Sarah’s eyelids fluttered shut. She drew a last, shuddering breath and went still. Her lips parted, but no breath slipped past them.

  Vianne knelt down beside Sarah. She felt for a pulse and found none. The silence turned sour, thick; all Vianne could think about was the sound of this child’s laughter and how empty the world would be without it. She knew about death, about the grief that ripped you apart and left you broken forever. She couldn’t imagine how Rachel was still breathing. If this was any other time, Vianne would sit down beside Rachel, take her hand, and let her cry. Or hold her. Or talk. Or say nothing. Whatever Rachel needed, Vianne would have moved Heaven and Earth to provide; but she couldn’t do that now. It was another terrible blow in all of this: They couldn’t even take time to grieve.

  Vianne needed to be strong for Rachel. “We need to bury her,” Vianne said as gently as she could.

  “She hates the dark.”

  “My maman will be with her,” Vianne said. “And yours. You and Ari need to go into the cellar. Hide. I’ll take care of Sarah.”

  “How?”

  Vianne knew Rachel wasn’t asking how to hide in the barn; she was asking how to live after a loss like this, how to pick up one child and let the other go, how to keep breathing after you whisper “good-bye.” “I can’t leave her.”

  “You have to. For Ari.” Vianne got slowly to her feet, waiting.

  Rachel drew in a breath as clattery as broken glass and leaned forward to kiss Sarah’s cheek. “I will always love you,” she whispered.

  At last, Rachel rose. She reached down for Ari, took him in her arms, held him so tightly he started to cry again.

  Vianne reached for Rachel’s hand and led her friend into the barn and to the cellar. “I will come get you as soon as it’s safe.”

  “Safe,” Rachel said dully, staring back through the open barn door.

  Vianne moved the car and opened the trapdoor. “There’s a lantern down there. And food.”

  Holding Ari, Rachel climbed down the ladder and disappeared into the darkness. Vianne shut the door on them and replaced the car and then went to the lilac bush her mother had planted thirty years ago. It had spread tall and wide along the wall. Beneath it, almost lost amid the summer greenery, were three small white crosses. Two for the miscarriages she’d suffered and one for the son who’d lived less than a week.

  Rachel had stood here beside her as each of her boys was buried. Now Vianne was here to bury her best friend’s daughter. Her daughter’s best friend. What kind of benevolent God would allow such a thing?

  TWENTY-THREE

  In the last few moments before dawn, Vianne sat near the mound of fresh-turned earth. She wanted to pray, but her faith felt far away, the remnant of another woman’s life.

  Slowly, she got to her feet.

  As the sky turned lavender and pink—ironically beautiful—she went to her backyard, where the chickens clucked and flapped their wings at her unexpected arrival. She stripped off her bloody clothes, left them in a heap on the ground, and washed up at the pump. Then she took a linen nightdress from the clothesline, put it on, and went inside.

  She was bone tired and soul weary, but there was no way she could rest. She lit an oil lamp and sat on the divan. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine Antoine beside her. What would she say to him now? I don’t know the right thing to do anymore. I want to protect Sophie and keep her safe, but what good is safety if she has to grow up in a world where people disappear without a trace because they pray to a different God? If I am arrested …

  The door to the guest room opened. She heard Beck coming toward her. He was dressed in his uniform and freshly shaved, and she knew instinctively that he’d been waiting for her to return. Worrying about her.

  “You’re returned,” he said.

  She was sure he saw some spatter of blood or dirt somewhere on her, at her temple or on the back of her hand. There was an almost imperceptible pause; she knew he was waiting for her to look at him, to communicate what had happened, but she just sat there. If she opened her mouth she might start screaming. Or if she looked at him she might cry, might demand to know how it was that children could be shot in the dark for nothing.

  “Maman?” Sophie said, coming into the room. “You were not in bed when
I woke up,” she said. “I got scared.”

  She clasped her hands in her lap. “I am sorry, Sophie.”

  “Well,” Beck said. “I must leave. Good-bye.”

  As soon as the door closed behind him, Sophie came closer. She looked a little bleary-eyed. Tired. “You’re scaring me, Maman. Is something wrong?”

  Vianne closed her eyes. She would have to give her daughter this terrible news, and then what? She would hold her daughter and stroke her head and let her cry and she would have to be strong. She was so tired of being strong. “Come, Sophie,” she said, rising. “Let’s sleep a little longer if we can.”

  * * *

  That afternoon, in town, Vianne expected to see soldiers gathering, rifles drawn, police wagons parked in the town square, dogs straining on leashes, black-clad SS officers; something to indicate trouble.

  But there was nothing out of the ordinary.

  She and Sophie remained in Carriveau all day, standing in queues Vianne knew were a waste of time, walking down one street after another. At first, Sophie talked incessantly. Vianne barely noticed. How could she concentrate on normal conversation with Rachel and Ari hiding in her cellar and Sarah gone?

  “Can we leave now, Maman?” Sophie said at nearly three o’clock. “There’s nothing more to be had. We’re wasting our time.”

  Beck must have made a mistake. Or perhaps he was simply being overly cautious.

  Certainly they would not round up and arrest Jewish people at this hour. Everyone knew that arrests were never made during mealtimes. The Nazis were much too punctual and organized for that—and they loved their French food and wine.

  “Oui, Sophie. We can go home.”

  They headed out of town. Vianne remained on alert, but if anything, the road was less crowded than usual. The airfield was quiet.

  “Can Sarah come over?” Sophie asked as Vianne eased the broken gate open.

  Sarah.

  Vianne glanced down at Sophie.

  “You look sad,” her daughter said.

  “I am sad,” Vianne said quietly.

  “Are you thinking of Papa?”

  Vianne drew in a deep breath and released it. Then she said gently, “Come with me,” and led Sophie to a spot beneath the apple tree, where they sat together.

  “You are scaring me, Maman.”

  Vianne knew she was handling it badly already, but she had no idea how to do this. Sophie was too old for lies and too young for the truth. Vianne couldn’t tell her that Sarah had been shot trying to cross the border. Her daughter might say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

  “Maman?”

  Vianne cupped Sophie’s thin face in her hands. “Sarah died last night,” she said gently.

  “Died? She wasn’t sick.”

  Vianne steeled herself. “It happens that way sometimes. God takes you unexpectedly. She’s gone to Heaven. To be with her grandmère, and yours.”

  Sophie pulled away, got to her feet, backed away. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

  “Wh-what do you mean?”

  “She’s Jewish.”

  Vianne hated what she saw in her daughter’s eyes right now. There was nothing young in her gaze—no innocence, no naïveté, no hope. Not even grief. Just anger.

  A better mother would shape that anger into loss and then, at last, into the kind of memory of love one can sustain, but Vianne was too empty to be a good mother right now. She could think of no words that weren’t a lie or useless.

  She ripped away the lacy trim at the end of her sleeve. “You see that bit of red yarn in the tree branch over our heads?”

  Sophie looked up. The yarn had lost a bit of color, faded, but still it showed up against the brown branches and green leaves and unripened apples. She nodded.

  “I put that there to remember your papa. Why don’t you tie one for Sarah and we’ll think of her every time we are outside.”

  “But Papa is not dead!” Sophie said. “Are you lying to—”

  “No. No. We remember the missing as much as the lost, don’t we?”

  Sophie took the thready coil of lace in her hand. Looking a little unsteady on her feet, she tied the strand onto the same branch.

  Vianne ached for Sophie to come back, turn to her, reach out for a hug, but her daughter just stood there, staring at the scrap of lace, her eyes bright with tears. “It won’t always be like this” was all Vianne could think of to say.

  “I don’t believe you.”

  Sophie looked at her at last. “I’m taking a nap.”

  Vianne could only nod. Ordinarily she would have been undone by this tension with her daughter, overwhelmed by a sense of having failed. Now, she just sighed and got to her feet. She wiped the grass from her skirt and headed up to the barn. Inside, she rolled the Renault forward and opened the cellar door. “Rach? It’s me.”

  “Thank God” came a whispery voice from the darkness. Rachel climbed up the creaking ladder and emerged into the dusty light, holding Ari.

  “What happened?” Rachel asked tiredly.

  “Nothing.”

  “Nothing?”

  “I went to town. Everything seems normal. Maybe Beck was being overly cautious, but I think you should spend one more night down there.”

  Rachel’s face was drawn, tired-looking. “I’ll need diapers. And a quick bath. Ari and I both smell.” The toddler started to cry. She pushed the damp curls away from her sweat-dampened forehead and murmured to him in a soft, lilting voice.

  They left the barn and headed for Rachel’s house next door.

  They were nearly to the front door when a French police car pulled up out front. Paul got out of the car and strode into the yard, carrying his rifle. “Are you Rachel de Champlain?” he asked.

  Rachel frowned. “You know I am.”

  “You are being deported. Come with me.”

  Rachel tightened her hold on Ari. “Don’t take my son—”

  “He is not on the list,” Paul said.

  Vianne grabbed the man’s sleeve. “You can’t do this, Paul. She is French!”

  “She’s a Jew.” He pointed his rifle at Rachel. “Move.”

  Rachel started to say something, but Paul silenced her; he grabbed her by the arm, yanked her out to the road, and forced her into the backseat of his automobile.

  Vianne meant to stay where she was—safe—intended to, but the next thing she knew she was running alongside the automobile, banging on the bonnet, begging to be let inside. Paul slammed on the brakes, let her climb into the backseat, and then he stomped on the gas.

  “Go,” Rachel said as they passed Le Jardin. “This is no place for you.”

  “This is no place for anyone,” Vianne said.

  Even a week ago, she might have let Rachel go alone. She might have turned away—with regret, probably, and guilt, certainly—but she would have thought that protecting Sophie was more important than anything else.

  Last night had changed her. She still felt fragile and frightened, maybe more so, but she was angry now, too.

  In town, there were barricades on a dozen streets. Police wagons were everywhere, disgorging people with yellow stars on their chests, herding them toward the train station, where cattle cars waited. There were hundreds of people; they must have come from all the communes in the area.

  Paul parked and opened the car doors. Vianne and Rachel and Ari stepped into the crowd of Jewish women and children and old men making their way to the platform.

  A train waited, puffing black smoke into the already hot air. Two German soldiers were standing on the platform. One of them was Beck. He was holding a whip. A whip.

  But it was French police who were in charge of the roundup; they were forcing people into lines and shoving them onto the cattle cars. Men went into one cattle car; women and children in the other.

  Up ahead, a woman holding a baby tried to run. A gendarme shot her in the back. She pitched to the ground, dead; the baby rolled to the boots of the gendarme holding a smoking gun.

&nb
sp; Rachel stopped, turned to Vianne. “Take my son,” she whispered.

  The crowd jostled them.

  “Take him. Save him,” Rachel pleaded.

  Vianne didn’t hesitate. She knew now that no one could be neutral—not anymore—and as afraid as she was of risking Sophie’s life, she was suddenly more afraid of letting her daughter grow up in a world where good people did nothing to stop evil, where a good woman could turn her back on a friend in need. She reached for the toddler, took him in her arms.

  “You!” A gendarme stabbed Rachel in the shoulder with the butt of his rifle so hard she stumbled. “Move!”

  She looked at Vianne, and the universe of their friendship was in her eyes—the secrets they’d shared, the promises they’d made and kept, the dreams for their children that bound them as neatly as sisters.

  “Get out of here,” Rachel cried hoarsely. “Go.”

  Vianne backed away. Before she knew it, she had turned and begun shoving her way through the crowd, away from the platform and the soldiers and the dogs, away from the smell of fear and the crack of whips and the sound of women wailing and babies crying. She didn’t allow herself to slow until she reached the end of the platform. There, holding Ari closely, she turned around.

  Rachel stood in the black, yawning entrance of a cattle car, her face and hands still smeared with her daughter’s blood. She scanned the crowd, saw Vianne, and raised her bloody hand in the air, and then she was gone, shoved back by the women stumbling in around her. The door to the cattle car clanged shut.

  * * *

  Vianne collapsed onto the divan. Ari was crying uncontrollably and his diaper was wet and he smelled of urine. She should get up, take care of him, do something, but she couldn’t move. She felt weighed down by loss, suffocated by it.

  Sophie came into the living room. “Why do you have Ari?” she said in a quiet, frightened voice. “Where’s Madame de Champlain?”

  “She is gone,” Vianne said. She hadn’t the strength to fabricate a lie, and what was the good of one anyway?

  There was no way to protect her daughter from all of the evil around them.

  No way.

  Sophie would grow up knowing too much. Knowing fear and loss and probably hatred.

  “Rachel was born in Romania,” Vianne said tightly. “That—along with being Jewish—was her crime. The Vichy government doesn’t care that she has lived in France for twenty-five years and married a Frenchman and that he fought for France. So they deported her.”

  “Where will they take her?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Will she come back after the war?”

  Yes. No. I hope so. What answer would a good mother give?

  “I hope so.”

  “And Ari?” Sophie asked.

  “He will stay with us. He wasn’t on the list. I guess our government believes children can raise themselves.”

  “But Maman, what do we—”

  “Do? What do we do? I have no idea.” She sighed. “For now, you watch the baby. I’ll go next door and get his crib and clothes.”

  Vianne was almost to the door when Sophie said, “What about Captain Beck?”

 
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