The nightingale, p.33
everything about him? Now there was no time left and they both knew it. They walked in a heavy silence.
In the haze of early evening, Gaëtan got his first glimpse of the Pyrenees.
The jagged, snow-dusted mountains rose into the leaden sky, their snow-tipped peaks ringed in clouds. “Merde. You crossed those mountains how many times?”
“You’re a wonder,” he said.
“I am,” she said with a smile.
They continued up, through the dark, empty streets of Urrugne, climbing with every step, moving past the closed-up shops and bistros full of old men. Beyond town lay the dirt path that led into the foothills. At last they came to the cottage tucked into the dark foothills, its chimney puffing smoke.
“Are you okay?” he asked, noticing that she had slowed her step.
“I will miss you,” she said quietly. “How long can you stay?”
“I have to leave in the morning.”
She wanted to release the hold on his hand, but it was difficult. She had this terrible, irrational fear that if she let go of him she would never touch him again and the thought of that was paralyzing. Still, she had a job to do. She let go of him and knocked three times sharply in rapid succession.
Madame opened the door. Dressed in man’s clothing, smoking a Gauloises, she said, “Juliette! Come, come.” She stepped back, welcoming Isabelle and Gaëtan into the main room, where four airmen stood around the dining table. A fire burned in the hearth, and above the flames a black cast-iron pot bubbled and hissed and popped. Isabelle could smell the stew’s ingredients—goat meat; wine; bacon; thick, rich stock; mushrooms and sage. The aroma was heavenly and reminded her that she hadn’t eaten all day.
Madame gathered the men together and introduced them—there were three RAF pilots and an American flier. The three Brits had been there for days, waiting for the American, who had arrived yesterday. Eduardo would be leading them over the mountains in the morning.
“It’s good to meet you,” one of them said, shaking Isabelle’s hand as if she were a water pump. “You’re just as beautiful as we’ve been told.”
The men started talking all at once. Gaëtan moved easily into their midst, as if he belonged with them. Isabelle stood beside Madame Babineau and handed her the envelope of money that should have been delivered almost two weeks earlier. “I’m sorry about the delay.”
“You had a good excuse. How are you feeling?”
Isabelle moved her shoulder, testing it. “Better. In another week, I’ll be ready to make the crossing again.”
Madame handed Isabelle the Gauloises. Isabelle took a long drag and exhaled, studying the men who were now in her charge. “How are they?”
“See the tall, thin one—nose like a Roman emperor?”
Isabelle couldn’t help smiling. “I see him.”
“He claims to be a lord or duke or something. Sarah in Pau said he was trouble. Wouldn’t follow a girl’s orders.”
Isabelle made a note of that. It wasn’t a rarity, of course, fliers who didn’t want to take orders from women—or girls or dames or broads—but it was always a trial.
She handed Isabelle a crumpled, dirt-stained letter. “One of them gave me this to give to you.”
She opened it quickly, scanned the contents. She recognized Henri’s sloppy handwriting:
J—your friend survived her German holiday, but she has guests.
Do not stop by. Will watch out for her.
Vianne was fine—she had been released after questioning—but another soldier, or soldiers, was billeted there. She crumpled the paper and tossed it in the fire. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or more worried. Instinctively, her gaze sought out Gaëtan, who was watching her as he spoke to an airman.
“I see the way you’re watching him, you know.”
“Lord big nose?”
Madame Babineau barked out a laugh. “I am old but not blind. The young handsome one with the hungry eyes. He keeps looking at you, too.”
“He’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.”
Isabelle turned to the woman who had become her friend in the past two years. “I’m afraid to let him go, which is crazy with all the dangerous things I do.”
The look in Madame’s dark eyes was both knowing and compassionate. “I would tell you to be careful if these were ordinary times. I would point out that he is young and engaged in a dangerous business and young men in danger can be fickle.” She sighed. “But we are cautious about too much these days, and why add love to the list?”
“Love,” Isabelle said quietly.
“I will add this, though, since I am a mother and we can’t help ourselves: A broken heart hurts as badly in wartime as in peace. Say good-bye to your young man well.”
* * *
Isabelle waited for the house to go quiet—or as quiet as a room could be with men sleeping on the floor, snoring, rolling over. Moving cautiously, she eased out of her blankets and picked her way through the main room and went outside.
Stars flickered overhead, the sky immense in this dark landscape. Moonlight illuminated the goats, turned them into silver-white dots on the hillside.
She stood at the wooden fence, staring out. She didn’t have long to wait.
Gaëtan came up behind her, put his arms around her. She leaned back into him. “I feel safe in your arms,” she said.
When he didn’t respond, she knew something was wrong. Her heart sank. She turned slowly, looked up at him. “What is it?”
“Isabelle.” The way he said it frightened her. She thought, No, don’t tell me. Whatever it is, don’t tell me. In the silence, noises became noticeable—the bleating of goats, the beating of her heart, the tumbling of a rock down a distant hillside.
“That meeting. The one we were going to in Carriveau when you found the airman?”
“Oui?” she said. She had studied him so carefully in the past few days, watched every nuance of emotion cross his face, and she knew whatever he was going to say, it wouldn’t be good.
“I’m leaving Paul’s group. Fighting … a different way.”
“With guns,” he said quietly. “And bombs. Anything we can find. I’m joining a group of guerrilla partisans who live in the woods. My job is explosives.” He smiled. “And stealing bomb parts.”
“Your past should help you there.” Her teasing fell flat.
His smile faded. “I can’t just deliver papers anymore, Iz. I need to do more. And … I won’t see you for a while, I think.”
She nodded, but even as she moved her head in agreement, she thought: How? How will I walk away and leave him now? and she understood what he had been afraid of from the start.
The look he gave her was as intimate as a kiss. In it, she saw her own fear reflected. They might never see each other again. “Make love to me, Gaëtan,” she said.
Like it’s the last time.
* * *
Vianne stood outside the Hôtel Bellevue in the pouring rain. The windows of the hotel were fogged; through the haze she could see a crowd of gray-green field uniforms.
Come on, Vianne, you’re in it now.
She squared her shoulders and opened the door. A bell tinkled gaily overhead, and the men in the room stopped what they were doing and turned to look at her. Wehrmacht, SS, Gestapo. She felt like a lamb going to slaughter.
At the desk, Henri looked up. Seeing her, he came out from behind the front desk and moved swiftly through the crowd toward her.
He took her by the arm, hissing, “Smile.” She tried to comply. She wasn’t sure whether she succeeded.
He led her to the front desk, where he let go of her arm. He was saying something—laughing as if at some joke—as he took his place by the heavy black phone and cash register. “Your father, correct?” he said loudly. “A room for two nights?”
She nodded numbly.
“Here, let me show you the room we have av
She followed him out of the lobby and into the narrow hallway. They went past a small table set with fresh fruit (only the Germans could afford such an extravagance) and a water closet that was empty. At the end of the corridor, he led her up a narrow set of stairs and into a room so small there was only a single bed and a blacked-out window.
He closed the door behind them. “You shouldn’t be here. I sent you word that Isabelle was fine.”
“Oui, merci.” She took a deep breath. “I need identity papers. You were the only person I could think of who might be able to help me.”
He frowned. “That’s a dangerous request, Madame. For whom?”
“A Jewish child in hiding.”
“I don’t think you want to know that, do you?”
“No. No. Is it a safe place?”
She shrugged, her answer obvious in the silence. Who knew what was safe anymore?
“I hear Sturmbannführer Von Richter is billeted with you. He was here first. He’s a dangerous man. Vindictive and cruel. If he caught you—”
“What can we do, Henri, just stand by and watch?”
“You remind me of your sister,” he said.
“Believe me, I am not a brave woman.”
Henri was quiet for a long while. Then he said, “I’ll work on getting you the blank papers. You’ll have to learn to forge them yourself. I am too busy to add to my duties. Practice by studying your own.”
“Thank you.” She paused, looking at him, remembering the note he had delivered to her all those months ago—and the assumptions Vianne had made about her sister at the time. She knew now that Isabelle had been doing dangerous work from the beginning. Important work. Isabelle had shielded Vianne from this knowledge to protect her, even though it meant looking like a fool. She had traded on the fact that Vianne would easily believe the worst of her.
Vianne was ashamed of herself for believing the lie so easily. “Don’t tell Isabelle I am doing this. I want to protect her.”
“Au revoir,” Vianne said.
On her way out, she heard him say, “Your sister would be proud of you.” Vianne neither slowed nor responded. Ignoring the German soldiers’ catcalling, she made her way out of the hotel and headed for home.
* * *
Now all of France was occupied by the Germans, but it made little difference in Vianne’s daily life. She still spent all day in one queue or another. Her biggest problem was Daniel. It still seemed smart to hide him from the villagers, even though her lie about an adoption seemed unquestioned when she’d told it (and she’d told it to everyone she could find, but people were too busy surviving to care, or maybe they guessed the truth and applauded it, who knew).
She left the children at home now, hidden away behind locked doors. It meant that she was always jittery in town, nervous. Today, when she had gotten all that there was to be had for her rations, she rewrapped the woolen scarf around her throat and left the butcher’s shop.
As she braved the cold on rue Victor Hugo, she was so miserable and distracted by worry, it took her a moment to realize that Henri was walking beside her.
He glanced around the street, up and down, but in the wind and cold, no one was about. Shutters clattered and awnings shook. The bistro tables were empty.
He handed her a baguette. “The filling is unusual. My maman’s recipe.”
She understood. There were papers inside. She nodded.
“Bread with special filling is difficult to obtain these days. Eat it wisely.”
“And what if I need more … bread?”
“So many hungry children.”
He stopped, turned to her, gave her a perfunctory kiss on each cheek. “Come see me again, Madame.”
She whispered in his ear. “Tell my sister I asked about her. We parted badly.”
He smiled. “I am constantly arguing with my brother, even in war. In the end, we’re brothers.”
Vianne nodded, hoping it was true. She placed the baguette in her basket, covering it with the scrap of linen, tucking it alongside the blancmange powder and oatmeal that had been available today. As she watched him walk away, the basket seemed to grow heavier. Tightening her grip, she headed down the street.
She was almost out of the town square when she heard it.
“Madame Mauriac. What a surprise.”
His voice was like oil pooling at her feet, slippery and clinging. She wet her lips and held her shoulders back, trying to look both confident and unconcerned. He had returned last evening, triumphant, crowing about how easy it had been to take over all of France. She had fed dinner to him and his men, pouring them endless glasses of wine—at the end of the meal, he had tossed the leftovers to the chickens. Vianne and the children had gone to bed hungry.
He was in his uniform, heavily decorated with swastikas and iron crosses, smoking a cigarette, blowing the smoke slightly to the left of her face. “You are done with your shopping for the day?”
“Such as it is, Herr Sturmbannführer. There was very little to be had today, even with our ration cards.”
“Perhaps if your men hadn’t been such cowards, you women wouldn’t be so hungry.”
She gritted her teeth in what she hoped passed for a smile.
He studied her face, which she knew was chalky pale. “Are you all right, Madame?”
“Fine, Herr Sturmbannführer.”
“Allow me to carry your basket. I will escort you home.”
She gripped the basket. “No, really, it’s not necessary—”
He reached a black-gloved hand toward her. She had no choice but to place the twisted willow handle in his hand.
He took the basket from her and began walking. She fell into step beside him, feeling conspicuous walking with an SS officer through the streets of Carriveau.
As they walked, Von Richter made conversation. He talked about the Allies’ certain defeat in North Africa, he talked about the cowardice of the French and the greediness of the Jews, he talked about the Final Solution as if it were a recipe to be exchanged among friends.
She could hardly make out his words over the roar in her head. When she dared to glance at the basket, she saw the baguette peeking out from beneath the red-and-white linen that covered it.
“You are breathing like a racehorse, Madame. Are you unwell?”
Yes. That was it.
She forced a cough, clamped a hand over her mouth. “I am sorry, Herr Sturmbannführer. I was hoping not to bother you with it, but sadly, I fear I caught the flu from that boy the other day.”
He stopped. “Have I not asked you to keep your germs away from me?” He shoved the basket at her so hard it hit her in the chest. She grabbed hold of it desperately, afraid it would fall and the baguette would break open and spill false papers at his feet.
“I-I am so sorry. It was thoughtless of me.”
“I will not be home for supper,” he said, turning on his heel.
Vianne stood there a few moments—just long enough to be polite, in case he turned around—and then she hurried for home.
* * *
Well past midnight that night, when Von Richter had been abed for hours, Vianne crept from her bedroom and went to the empty kitchen. She carried a chair back to her bedroom, quietly shutting the door behind her. She brought the chair to the nightstand, tucked it in close, and sat down. By the light of a single candle, she withdrew the blank identity papers from her girdle.
She took out her own identity papers and studied them in minute detail. Then she took out the family Bible and opened it. On every blank space she could find, she practiced forging signatures. At first she was so nervous that her penmanship was unsteady, but the more she practiced, the calmer she felt. When her hands and breathing had steadied, she forged a new birth certificate for Jean Georges, naming him Emile Duvall.
But new papers weren’t enough. What would happen when the w
She would need to create a fiche, a file card that had all of the information she had on him—who he really was, who his parents were, any known relatives. Everything she could think of.
She ripped out three pages from the Bible and made a list on each page.
On the first, in dark ink over the prayers, she wrote:
Ari de Champlain 1
Jean Georges Ruelle 2
On the second sheet, she wrote:
1. Daniel Mauriac
2. Emile Duvall
And on the third, she wrote:
1. Carriveau. Mauriac
2. Abbaye de la Trinité
She carefully rolled each page into a small cylinder. Tomorrow she would hide them in three different places. One in a dirty jar in the shed, which she would fill with nails; one in an old paint can in the barn; and one she would bury in a box in the chicken coop. The fiche cards she would leave with Mother at the Abbey.
The cards and lists, when put together, would identify the children after the war and make it possible to get them back to their families. It was dangerous, of course, writing down any of this, but if she didn’t keep a record—and the worst happened to her—how would the hidden children ever be reunited with their parents?
For a long time, Vianne stared down at her work, so long that the children sleeping in her bed began to move around and mumble and the candle flame began to sputter. She leaned over and laid a hand on Daniel’s warm back to comfort him. Then she climbed into bed with her children. It was a long time before she fell asleep.
May 6, 1995
“I am running away from home,” I say to the young woman sitting next to me. She has hair the color of cotton candy and more tattoos than a Hell’s Angel biker, but she is alone like me, in this airport full of busy people. Her name, I have learned, is Felicia. In the past two hours—since the announcement that our flight is delayed—we have become traveling companions. It was a natural thing, our coming together. She saw me picking at the horrible French fries Americans love, and I saw her watching me. She was hungry, that was obvious. Naturally, I called her over and offered to buy her a meal. Once a mother, always a mother.
“Or maybe I’m finally going home after years of running away. It’s hard to know the truth sometimes.”
“I’m running away,” she says, slurping on the shoebox-sized soft drink I bought her. “If Paris isn’t far enough, my next stop is Antarctica.”
I see past the hardware on her face and the defiance in her tattoos, and I feel a strange connection to her, a compatriotism. We are runaways together. “I’m sick,” I say, surprising myself with the admission.
“Sick, like the shingles? My aunt had that. It was gross.”
“No, sick like cancer.”
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on85 votes