The nightingale, p.31
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       The Nightingale, p.31

           Kristin Hannah

  “The bastard shot me,” she said, surprised to realize that such a thing could be forgotten. She remembered hiding the airman and getting caught by Vianne … She remembered being in the cellar with the dead flier …

  “And you shot him.”

  She remembered Beck flinging the hatch door open and pointing his pistol at her. She remembered two gunshots … and climbing out of the cellar, staggering, feeling dizzy. Had she known she’d been shot?

  Vianne holding a shovel covered in gore. Beside her, Beck in a pool of blood.

  Vianne pale as chalk, trembling. I killed him.

  After that her memories were jumbled except for Vianne’s anger. You are not welcome here. If you return, I’ll turn you in myself.

  Isabelle lay back down slowly. The pain of that memory was worse than her injury. For once, Vianne had been right to cast Isabelle out. What had she been thinking to hide the airman on her sister’s property, with a German Wehrmacht captain billeted there? No wonder people didn’t trust her. “How long have I been here?”

  “Four days. Your wound is much improved. Your sister stitched it up nicely. Your fever broke yesterday.”

  “And … Vianne? She is not fine, of course. So how is she?”

  “We protected her as best we could. She refused to go into hiding. So Henri and Didier buried both bodies and cleaned the barn and tore the motorcycle down to parts.”

  “She’ll be questioned,” Isabelle said. “And killing that man will haunt her. Hating doesn’t come easy for her.”

  “It will before this war is over.”

  Isabelle felt her stomach tighten in shame and regret. “I love her, you know. Or I want to. How come I forget that the minute we disagree about something?”

  “She said something very similar at the frontier.”

  Isabelle started to roll over and gasped at the pain in her shoulder. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself and eased slowly onto her side. She’d misjudged how close he was to her, how small the bed. They were lying like lovers; she on her side looking up at him; he on his back staring at the ceiling. “Vianne went to the border?”

  “You were in a coffin in the back of the wagon. She wanted to make sure we crossed safely.” She heard a smile in his voice, or imagined she did. “She threatened to kill me if I didn’t take good care of you.”

  “My sister said that?” she said, not quite believing it. But she hardly believed that Gaëtan was the kind of man who would lie to reunite sisters. In profile, his features were razor sharp, even by lamplight. He refused to look at her, and he was as close to the edge of the bed as he could be.

  “She was afraid you’d die. We both were.”

  He said it so softly she barely could hear. “It feels like old times,” she said cautiously, afraid to say the wrong thing. More afraid to say nothing at all. Who knew how many chances there would be in such uncertain times? “You and me alone in the dark. Remember?”

  “I remember.”

  “Tours already feels like a lifetime ago,” she went on. “I was just a girl.”

  He said nothing.

  “Look at me, Gaëtan.”

  “Go to sleep, Isabelle.”

  “You know I will keep asking until you can’t stand it.”

  He sighed and rolled onto his side.

  “I think about you,” she said.

  “Don’t.” His voice was rough.

  “You kissed me,” she said. “It wasn’t a dream.”

  “You can’t remember that.”

  Isabelle felt something strange at his words, a breathless little flutter in her chest. “You want me as much as I want you,” she said.

  He shook his head in denial, but it was the silence she heard; the acceleration of his breathing.

  “You think I’m too young and too innocent and too impetuous. Too everything. I get it. People have always said that about me. I’m immature.”

  “That’s not it.”

  “But you’re wrong. Maybe you weren’t wrong two years ago. I did say I love you, which must have sounded insane.” She drew in a breath. “But it’s not insane now, Gaëtan. Maybe it’s the only sane thing in all of this. Love, I mean. We’ve seen buildings blown up in front of us and our friends are getting arrested and deported. God knows if we’ll ever see them again. I could die, Gaëtan,” she said quietly. “I’m not saying that in some schoolgirl-try-to-get-the-boy-to-kiss-me kind of way. It’s true and you know it. Either one of us could die tomorrow. And you know what I would regret?”



  “There can’t be an us, Iz. Not now. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you from the beginning.”

  “If I promise to let it go, will you answer one question truthfully?”

  “Just one?”

  “One. And then I’ll go to sleep. I promise.”

  He nodded.

  “If we weren’t here—hiding in a safe house—if the world weren’t ripping itself apart, if this was just an ordinary day in an ordinary world, would you want there to be an us, Gaëtan?”

  She saw how his face crumpled, how pain exposed his love.

  “It doesn’t matter, don’t you see that?”

  “It’s the only thing that matters, Gaëtan.” She saw love in his eyes. What did words matter after that?

  She was wiser than she’d been before. Now she knew how fragile life and love were. Maybe she would love him for only this day, or maybe for only the next week, or maybe until she was an old, old woman. Maybe he would be the love of her life … or her love for the duration of this war … or maybe he would only be her first love. All she really knew was that in this terrible, frightening world, she had stumbled into something unexpected.

  And she would not let it go again.

  “I knew it,” she said to herself, smiling. His breath skimmed against her lips, as intimate as any kiss. She leaned over him, her gaze on him, steady, honest, and turned off the lamp.

  In the dark, she snuggled against him, burrowed deeper under the blankets. At first he lay stiffly against her, as if he were afraid even to touch her, but gradually, he relaxed. He rolled onto his back and started to snore. Sometime—she didn’t know when—she closed her eyes and reached out, placing a hand in the hollow of his stomach, feeling it rise and fall with his breathing. It was like resting her hand on the ocean in summer, when the tide was coming in.

  Touching him, she fell asleep.

  * * *

  The nightmares wouldn’t let her go. In some distant part of her brain she heard her own whimpering, heard Sophie say, “Maman, you’re taking all the blankets,” but none of it wakened her. In her nightmare, she was in a chair, being interrogated. The boy, Daniel. He’s a Jew. Give him to me, Von Richter said, shoving his gun in her face … then his face changed, melted a little, and he turned into Beck, who was holding the photograph of his wife and shaking his head, but the side of his face was missing … and then Isabelle lying on the floor, bleeding, saying, I’m sorry Vianne, and Vianne was yelling. You’re not welcome here …

  Vianne woke with a start, breathing hard. The same nightmares had plagued her for six days; she consistently woke feeling exhausted and worried. It was November now, and there had been no word about Isabelle at all. She eased out from beneath the blankets. The floor was cold, but not as cold as it would be in a few weeks. She reached for the shawl she’d left on the foot of the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders.

  Von Richter had claimed the upstairs bedroom. Vianne had abandoned the floor to him, choosing to move with her children into the smaller downstairs bedroom, where they slept together on the double bed.

  Beck’s room. No wonder she dreamed of him in here. The air held on to his scent, reminded her that the man she’d known no longer lived, that she had killed him. She longed to do penance for this sin, but what could she do? She had killed a man—a decent man, in spite of it all. It didn’t matter to her that he was the enemy or even that she’d done it to save her sister. Sh
e knew she had made the right choice. It wasn’t right or wrong that haunted her. It was the act itself. Murder.

  She left the bedroom and closed the door behind her, shutting it with a quiet click.

  Von Richter sat on the divan, reading a novel, drinking a cup of real coffee. The aroma made her almost sick with longing. The Nazi had billeted here for several days already, and each of those mornings had smelled of rich, bitter roasted coffee—and Von Richter made sure she smelled it, and wanted it. But she couldn’t have so much as a sip; he made sure of that, too. Yesterday morning he had dumped an entire pot into the sink, smiling at her as he did so.

  He was a man who had stumbled into a little bit of power and seized it with both hands. She’d known that within the first few hours of his arrival, when he’d chosen the best room and gathered up the warmest blankets for his bed, when he’d taken all of the pillows left in the house and all of the candles, leaving Vianne a single oil lamp for her use.

  “Herr Sturmbannführer,” she said, smoothing her shapeless dress and worn cardigan.

  He didn’t look up from the German newspaper that held his attention. “More coffee.”

  She took his empty cup and went to the kitchen, returning quickly with another cup.

  “The Allies are wasting their time in North Africa,” he said, taking the cup from her, putting it on the table beside him.

  “Oui, Herr Sturmbannführer.”

  His hand snaked out and coiled around her wrist tight enough to leave a bruise. “I am having men over for supper tonight. You will cook. And keep that boy away from me. His crying sounds like a dying pig.”

  He let go.

  “Oui, Herr Sturmbannführer.”

  She got out of his way quickly, hurrying into the bedroom and closing the door behind her. She bent and wakened Daniel, feeling his soft breathing against the crook of her neck.

  “Maman,” he mumbled around his thumb, which he was furiously sucking. “Sophie is snoring too loud.”

  Vianne smiled and reached over to tousle Sophie’s hair. Amazingly, even though it was wartime and they were terrified and starving, somehow a girl her age could still manage to sleep through anything. “You sound like a water buffalo, Sophie,” Vianne teased.

  “Very funny,” Sophie muttered, sitting up. She glanced at the closed door. “Is Herr Doryphore still here?”

  “Sophie!” Vianne admonished, glancing worriedly at the closed door.

  “He can’t hear us,” Sophie said.

  “Still,” Vianne said quietly, “I cannot imagine why you would compare our guest to a bug that eats potatoes.” She tried not to smile.

  Daniel hugged Vianne and gave her a sloppy kiss.

  As she patted his back and held him close, nuzzling the downy softness of his cheek, she heard a car engine start up.

  Thank God.

  “He is leaving,” she murmured to the boy, nuzzling his cheek. “Come along, Sophie.” She carried Daniel into the living room, which still smelled of freshly brewed coffee and men’s cologne, and began her day.

  * * *

  People had called Isabelle impetuous for as long as she could remember. And then rash and, most lately, reckless. In the past year, she had grown up enough to see the truth of it. From earliest memory, she had acted first and thought about consequences later. Perhaps it was because she’d felt alone for so long. No one had ever been her sounding board, her best friend. She hadn’t had someone with whom to strategize or work through her problems.

  Beyond that, she had never had great impulse control. Maybe because she’d never had anything to lose.

  Now, she knew what it meant to be afraid, to want something—or someone—so much it made your heart ache.

  The old Isabelle would simply have told Gaëtan she loved him and let the cards fall as they would.

  The new Isabelle wanted to walk away without even trying. She didn’t know if she had the strength to be rejected again.

  And yet.

  They were at war. Time was the one luxury no one had anymore. Tomorrow felt as ephemeral as a kiss in the dark.

  She stood in the small, pitched-roof cupboard they used as a water closet in the safe house. Gaëtan had carried up buckets of hot water for her bath, and she had luxuriated in the copper tub until the water cooled. The mirror on the wall was cracked and hung askew. It made her reflection appear disjointed, with one side of her face slightly lower than the other.

  “How can you be afraid?” she said to her reflection. She had hiked the Pyrenees in the falling snow and swum the rushing cold waters of the Bidassoa River beneath the glare of a Spanish searchlight; she’d once asked a Gestapo agent to carry a suitcase full of false identity papers across a German checkpoint “because he looked so strong and she was so very tired from traveling,” but she had never been as nervous as she was right now. She knew suddenly that a woman could change her whole life and uproot her existence with one choice.

  Taking a deep breath, she wrapped herself in a tattered towel and returned to the safe house’s main room. She paused at the door just long enough to calm her racing heart (a failed attempt) and then she opened the door.

  Gaëtan stood by the blacked-out window in his torn and tattered clothes, still stained with her blood. She smiled nervously and reached for the end of the towel she’d tucked in at her chest.

  He went so still it seemed he’d stopped breathing, even as her breathing sped up. “Don’t do it, Iz.” His eyes narrowed—before, she would have said it was anger, but now she knew better.

  She unwrapped the towel, let it fall to the floor. The bandage on her gunshot wound was all she wore now.

  “What do you want from me?” he said.

  “You know.”

  “You’re an innocent. It’s war. I’m a criminal. How many reasons do you need to stay away from me?”

  They were arguments for another world. “If times were different, I’d make you chase me,” she said, taking a step forward. “I would have made you jump through hoops to get me naked. But we don’t have time, do we?”

  At the quiet admission, she felt a wave of sadness. This had been the truth between them from the beginning; they had no time. They couldn’t court and fall in love and get married and have babies. They might not even have tomorrow. She hated that her first time would be bathed in sorrow, steeped in a sense of having already lost what they’d just found, but that was the world now.

  One thing she knew for sure: She wanted him to be the first man in her bed. She wanted to remember him for as long as forever was. “The nuns always said I would come to a bad end. I think they meant you.”

  He came toward her, cupped her face in his hands. “You terrify me, Isabelle.”

  “Kiss me” was all she could say.

  At the first touch of his lips, everything changed, or Isabelle changed. A shudder of desire moved through her, stopped her breath. She felt lost within his arms and found, broken apart, and remade. The words “I love you” burned in her, desperate to be given voice. But even more, she wanted to hear the words, to be told, just once, that she was loved.

  “You’re going to be sorry you did this,” he said.

  How could he say that? “Never. Will you be sorry?”

  “I already am,” he said quietly. Then he kissed her again.


  The next week was one of almost unbearable bliss for Isabelle. There were long conversations by candlelight, and holding hands, and stroking skin; nights of awaking into an aching desire and making love and falling into sleep again.

  On this day, as on each of the others, Isabelle woke still tired, and slightly in pain. The wound in her shoulder had begun healing enough that it itched and ached. She felt Gaëtan beside her, his body warm and solid. She knew he was awake; maybe it was his breathing, or the way his foot rubbed absently against hers, or the quiet. She just knew. In the past days, she’d become a student of him. Nothing he did was too small or insignificant for her to notice. She’d repeatedly though
t remember this over the smallest of details.

  She had read countless romantic novels in her life and she had dreamed of love forever; even so, she’d never known that a plain old double mattress could become a world unto itself, an oasis. She turned onto her side and reached past Gaëtan to light the lamp. In the pale glow of it, she settled close to him, an arm draped across his chest. A tiny silver scar cut through his messy hairline. She reached out to touch it, traced it with her fingertip.

  “My brother threw a rock at me. I was too slow to duck,” he said. “Georges,” he said fondly; the tenor of his voice reminded Isabelle that Gaëtan’s brother was a prisoner of war.

  He had a whole life she knew almost nothing about. A mother who was a seamstress and a father who raised pigs … he lived in the woods somewhere, in a house with no running water and only a single room for all of them. He answered her questions about all of it, but volunteered almost nothing. He said he preferred to hear her stories about the adventures that had gotten her kicked out of so many schools. It’s better than stories of poor people just trying to get by, he said.

  But beneath all their words, the stories traded back and forth, she felt their time eroding. They couldn’t stay here long. Already, they’d overstayed. She was fit enough to travel. Not to cross the Pyrenees, perhaps, but certainly she didn’t need to lie abed.

  How could she leave him? They might never see each other again.

  That was the crux of her fear.

  “I get it, you know,” Gaëtan said.

  She didn’t know what he meant, but she heard the hollowness in his voice and knew it wasn’t good. The sadness that came with being in his bed—matched equally with joy—expanded.

  “Get what?” she asked, but she didn’t want to hear.

  “That every time we kiss, it’s good-bye.”

  She closed her eyes.

  “The war is out there, Iz. I need to get back to it.”

  She knew and agreed, though it caused a constriction in her chest. “I know” was all she could say, afraid that any deeper exploration would hurt more than she could bear.

  “There is a group gathering at Urrugne,” she said. “I should be there by nightfall on Wednesday, if we’re lucky.”

  “We are not lucky,” he said. “You must know that by now.”

  “You are wrong, Gaëtan. Now that you’ve met me, you’ll never be able to forget me. That’s something.” She leaned over for a kiss.

  He said something softly, quietly, against her lips; maybe it was “it’s not enough.” She didn’t care. She didn’t want to hear.

  * * *

  In November, the people of Carriveau began to hunker down into winter survival mode again. They knew now what they hadn’t known last winter: Life could get worse. War was being waged all over the world; in Africa, in the Soviet Union, in Japan, on an island somewhere called Guadalcanal. With the Germans fighting on so many fronts, food had become even more scarce, as had wood and gas and electricity and everyday supplies.

  This Friday morning was particularly cold and gray. Not a good day for venturing out, but Vianne had decided that today was The Day. It had taken some time to work up the courage to leave the house with Daniel, but she knew that it had to be done. His hair was cut so short he was almost bald and she’d dressed him in oversized clothes to make him look smaller. Anything to disguise him.

  She forced herself to show good posture as she walked through town, with a child on each side of her—Sophie and Daniel.


  At the boulangerie, she took her place at the back of the queue. She waited breathlessly for someone to ask about the boy beside her, but the women in line were too tired and hungry and downtrodden even to look up. When it was finally Vianne’s turn at the counter, Yvette looked up. She had been a beautiful woman only two years ago, with flowing copper-colored hair and eyes as black as coal. Now, three years into the war, she looked aged and tired. “Vianne Mauriac. I have not seen you with your daughter for a while. Bonjour, Sophie, you have grown so