The nightingale, p.34
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       The Nightingale, p.34
 

           Kristin Hannah

  “Oh.” Slurp. Slurp. “So why are you going to Paris? Don’t you need, like, chemo?”

  I start to answer her (no, no treatments for me, I’m done with all that) when her question settles in. Why are you going to Paris? And I fall silent.

  “I get it. You’re dying.” She shakes her big cup so that the slushy ice rattles inside. “Done with trying. Lost hope and all that.”

  “What the hell?”

  I am so deep in thought—in the unexpected starkness of her statement (you’re dying) that it takes me a moment to realize that it is Julien who has just spoken. I look up at my son. He is wearing the navy blue silk sport coat I gave him for Christmas this year and trendy, dark-washed jeans. His hair is tousled and he is holding a black leather weekender bag slung over one shoulder. He does not look happy. “Paris, Mom?”

  “Air France flight 605 will begin boarding in five minutes.”

  “That’s us,” Felicia says.

  I know what my son is thinking. As a boy, he begged me to take him to Paris. He wanted to see the places I mentioned in bedtime stories—he wanted to know how it felt to walk along the Seine at night or to shop for art in the Place Des Vosges, or to sit in the Tuilleries Garden, eating a butterfly macaron from Ladurée. I said no to every request, saying simply, I am an American now, my place is here.

  “We’d like to begin boarding anyone traveling with children under two years of age or anyone who needs a little extra time and our first-class passengers…”

  I stand, lifting the extendable handle on my rolling bag. “That’s me.”

  Julien stands directly in front of me as if to block my access to the gate. “You’re going to Paris, all of a sudden, by yourself?”

  “It was a last-minute decision. What the hell, and all that.” I give him the best smile I can muster under the circumstances. I have hurt his feelings, which was never my intent.

  “It’s that invitation,” he says. “And the truth you never told me.”

  Why had I said that on the phone? “You make it sound so dramatic,” I say, waving my gnarled hand. “It’s not. And now, I must board. I’ll call you—”

  “No need. I’m coming with you.”

  I see the surgeon in him suddenly, the man who is used to staring past blood and bone to find what is broken.

  Felicia hefts her camo backpack over one shoulder and tosses her empty cup in the wastebasket, where it bounces against the opening and thunks inside. “So much for running away, dude.”

  I don’t know which I feel more—relief or disappointment. “Are you sitting by me?”

  “On such short notice? No.”

  I clutch the handle of my rolling suitcase and walk toward the nice-looking young woman in the blue-and-white uniform. She takes my boarding pass, tells me to have a nice flight, and I nod absently and keep moving.

  The jetway draws me forward. I feel a little claustrophobic suddenly. I can hardly catch my breath, I can’t yank my suitcase’s black wheels into the plane, over the metallic hump.

  “I’m here, Mom,” Julien says quietly, taking my suitcase, lifting it easily over the obstruction. The sound of his voice reminds me that I am a mother and mothers don’t have the luxury of falling apart in front of their children, even when they are afraid, even when their children are adults.

  A stewardess takes one look at me and makes that here’s an old one who needs help face. Living where I do now, in that shoebox filled with the Q-tips that old people become, I’ve come to recognize it. Usually it irks me, makes me straighten my back and push aside the youngster who is sure that I cannot cope in the world on my own, but just now I’m tired and scared and a little help doesn’t seem like a bad thing. I let her help me to my window seat in the second row of the plane. I have splurged on a first-class ticket. Why not? I don’t see much reason to save my money anymore.

  “Thank you,” I say to the stewardess as I sit down. My son is the next one onto the plane. When he smiles at the stewardess, I hear a little sigh, and I think of course. Women have swooned over Julien since before his voice changed.

  “Are you two traveling together?” she says, and I know she is giving him points for being a good son.

  Julien gives her one of his ice-melting smiles. “Yes, but we couldn’t get seats together. I’m three rows behind her.” He offers her his boarding pass.

  “Oh, I’m sure I can solve this for you,” she says as Julien stows my suitcase and his weekender in the bin above my seat.

  I stare out the window, expecting to see the tarmac busy with men and women in orange vests waving their arms and unloading suitcases, but what I see is water squiggling down the Plexiglas surface, and woven within the silvered lines is my reflection; my own eyes stare back at me.

  “Thank you so much,” I hear Julien say, and then he is sitting down beside me, clamping his seat belt shut, pulling the strap taut across his waist.

  “So,” he says after a long enough pause that people have shuffled past us in a steady stream and the pretty stewardess (who has combed her hair and freshened her makeup) has offered us champagne. “The invitation.”

  I sigh. “The invitation.” Yes. That’s the start of it. Or the end, depending on your point of view. “It’s a reunion. In Paris.”

  “I don’t understand,” he says.

  “You were never meant to.”

  He reaches for my hand. It is so sure and comforting, that healer’s touch of his.

  In his face, I see the whole of my life. I see a baby who came to me long after I’d given up … and a hint of the beauty I once had. I see … my life in his eyes.

  “I know there’s something you want to tell me and whatever it is, it’s hard for you. Just start at the beginning.”

  I can’t help smiling at that. He is such an American, this son of mine. He thinks one’s life can be distilled to a narrative that has a beginning and an end. He knows nothing about the kind of sacrifice that, once made, can never be either fully forgotten or fully borne. And how could he? I have protected him from all of that.

  Still. I am here, on a plane heading home, and I have an opportunity to make a different choice than the one I made when my pain was fresh and a future predicated on the past seemed impossible.

  “Later,” I say, and I mean it this time. I will tell him the story of my war, and my sister’s. Not all of it, of course, not the worst parts, but some. Enough that he will know a truer version of me. “Not here, though. I’m exhausted.” I lean back into the big first-class chair and close my eyes.

  How can I start at the beginning, when all I can think about is the end?

  THIRTY-TWO

  If you’re going through hell, keep going.

  —WINSTON CHURCHILL

  May 1944

  France

  In the eighteen months since the Nazis had occupied all of France, life had become even more dangerous, if that were possible. French political prisoners had been interned in Drancy and imprisoned in Fresnes—and hundreds of thousands of French Jews had been deported to concentration camps in Germany. The orphanages of Neuilly-sur-Seine and Montreuil had been emptied and their children sent to the camps, and the children who’d been held at the Vel d’Hiv—more than four thousand of them—had been separated from their parents and sent to concentration camps alone. Allied forces were bombing day and night. Arrests were made constantly; people were hauled out of their homes and their shops for the slightest infraction, for a rumor of resistance, and imprisoned or deported. Innocent hostages were shot in retaliation for things they knew nothing about and every man between eighteen and fifty was supposed to go to forced-labor camps in Germany. No one felt secure. There were no yellow stars on clothing anymore. No one made eye contact or spoke to strangers. Electricity had been shut off.

  Isabelle stood on a busy Paris street corner, ready to cross, but before her ratty, wooden-soled shoe hit the cobblestones, a whistle shrieked. She backed into the shade of a flowering chestnut tree.

  These days, Pari
s was a woman screaming. Noise, noise, noise. Whistles blaring, shotguns firing, lorries rumbling, soldiers shouting. The tide of the war had shifted. The Allies had landed in Italy, and the Nazis had failed to drive them back. Losses had spurred the Nazis to greater and greater aggression. In March they had massacred more than three hundred Italians in Rome as retaliation for partisan bombing that killed twenty-eight Germans. At last, Charles de Gaulle had taken control of all Free France forces, and something big was being planned for this week.

  A column of German soldiers marched up the boulevard Saint-Germain on their way to the Champs Élysées; they were led by an officer astride a white stallion.

  As soon as they passed, Isabelle crossed the street and merged into the crowd of German soldiers gathered on the other sidewalk. She kept her gaze downward and her gloved hands coiled around her handbag. Her clothing was as worn and ragged as that of most Parisians, and the clatter of wooden soles rang out. No one had leather anymore. She bypassed long queues of housewives and hollow-faced children standing outside of boulangeries and boucheries. Rations had been cut again and again and again in the past two years; people in Paris were surviving on eight hundred calories a day. There was not a dog or cat or rat to be seen on the streets. This week, one could buy tapioca and string beans. Nothing else. At the boulevard de la Gare, there were piles of furniture and art and jewelry—everything of value taken from the people who’d been deported. Their belongings were sorted and crated and sent to Germany.

  She ducked into Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain and took a seat in the back; on the red moleskin bench, she waited impatiently, watched over by the statues of Chinese mandarins. A woman who might be Simone de Beauvoir sat at a table near the front of the café. She was bent over a piece of paper, writing furiously. Isabelle sank into the comfortable seat; she was bone weary. In the past month alone, she’d crossed the Pyrenees three times and visited each of the safe houses, paying her passeurs. Every step was dangerous now that there was no Free Zone.

  “Juliette.”

  She looked up and saw her father. He had aged in the last few years—they all had. Deprivation and hunger and despair and fear had left their marks on him—in skin that was the color and texture of beach sand and deeply lined.

  He was so thin that his head now seemed too big for his body.

  He slid into the booth across from her, put his wrinkled hands on the pitted mahogany table.

  She reached forward, clasped her hands around his wrists. When she drew her hands back, she had palmed the pencil-sized coil of false identity papers he’d had up his sleeve. She tucked them expertly in her girdle and smiled at the waiter who had just appeared.

  “Coffee,” Papa said in a tired voice.

  Isabelle shook her head.

  The waiter returned, deposited a cup of barley coffee, and disappeared again.

  “They had a meeting today,” her father said. “High-ranking Nazis. The SS was there. I heard the word ‘Nightingale.’”

  “We’re careful,” she said quietly. “And you are taking more risk than I am, stealing the blank identity papers.”

  “I am an old man. They don’t even see me. You should take a break, maybe. Let someone else do your mountain trips.”

  She gave him a pointed look. Did people say things like this to men? Women were integral to the Resistance. Why couldn’t men see that?

  He sighed, seeing the answer in her affronted look. “Do you need a place to stay?”

  Isabelle appreciated the offer. It reminded her of how far they’d come. They still weren’t close, but they were working together, and that was something. He no longer pushed her away, and now—here, an invitation. It gave her hope that someday, when the war was over, they could actually talk. “I can’t. It would put you at risk.” She hadn’t been to the apartment in more than eighteen months. Neither had she been to Carriveau or seen Vianne in all that time. Rarely had Isabelle spent three nights in the same place. Her life was a series of hidden rooms and dusty mattresses and suspicious strangers.

  “Have you heard anything about your sister?”

  “I have friends looking out for her. I hear she is taking no chances, keeping her head down and her daughter safe. She will be fine,” she said, hearing how hope softened that last sentence.

  “You miss her,” he said.

  Isabelle found herself thinking of the past suddenly, wishing she could just let it go. Yes, she missed her sister, but she had missed Vianne for years, for all of her life.

  “Well.” He stood up abruptly.

  She noticed his hands. “Your hands are shaking.”

  “I quit drinking. It seemed like a bad time to be a drunk.”

  “I don’t know about that,” she said, smiling up at him. “Drunk seems like a good idea these days.”

  “Be careful, Juliette.”

  Her smile faded. Every time she saw anyone these days, it was hard to say good-bye. You never knew if you’d see them again. “You, too.”

  * * *

  Midnight.

  Isabelle crouched in the darkness behind a crumbling stone wall. She was deep in the woods and dressed in peasant clothes—denim overalls that had seen better days, wooden-soled boots, and a lightweight blouse made from an old shower curtain. Downwind, she could smell the smoke of nearby bonfires but she couldn’t see even a glimmer of firelight.

  Behind her, a twig snapped.

  She crouched lower, barely breathed.

  A whistle sounded. It was the lilting song of the nightingale. Or close to it. She whistled back.

  She heard footsteps; breathing. And then, “Iz?”

  She rose and turned around. A thin beam of light swept past her and then snapped off. She stepped over a fallen log and into Gaëtan’s arms.

  “I missed you,” he said after a kiss, drawing back with a reluctance she could feel. They had not seen each other for more than eight months. Every time she heard of a train derailing or a German-occupied hotel being blown up or a skirmish with partisans, she worried.

  He took her hand and led her through a forest so dark she couldn’t see the man beside her or the trail beneath their feet. Gaëtan never turned on his torchlight. He knew these woods intimately, having lived here for well over a year.

  At the end of the woods, they came to a huge, grassy field where people stood in rows. They held torchlights, which they swept forward and back like beacons, illuminating the flat area between the trees.

  She heard an aeroplane engine overhead, felt the whoosh of air on her cheeks, and smelled exhaust. It swooped in above them, flying low enough to make the trees shudder. She heard a loud mechanical scree and the banging of metal on metal and then a parachute appeared, falling, a huge box swinging beneath it.

  “Weapons drop,” Gaëtan said. Tugging her hand, he led her into the trees again and up a hill, to the encampment deep in the forest. In its center, a bonfire glowed bright orange, its light hidden by the thick fringe of trees. Several men stood around the fire, smoking cigarettes and talking. Most had come here to avoid the STO—compulsory deportation to forced-labor camps in Germany. Once here, they had taken up arms and become partisans who fought a guerrilla war with Germany; in secret, under cover of night. The Maquis. They bombed trains and blew up munitions dumps and flooded canals and did whatever else they could to disrupt the flow of goods and men from France to Germany. They got their supplies—and their information—from the Allies. Their lives were always at risk; when found by the enemy, reprisals were swift and often brutal. Burning, cattle prods, blinding. Each Maquis fighter carried a cyanide pill in his pocket.

  The men looked unwashed, starving, haggard. Most wore brown corduroy pants and black berets, all of which were frayed and patched and faded.

  For all that Isabelle believed in their cause, she wouldn’t want to be alone up here.

  “Come,” Gaëtan said. He led her past the bonfire to a small, dirty-looking tent with a canvas flap that was open to reveal a single sleeping bag and a pile
of clothes and a pair of muddy boots. As usual, it smelled of dirty socks and sweat.

  Isabelle ducked her head and crouched low as she made her way inside.

  Gaëtan sat down beside her and closed the flap. He didn’t light a lamp (the men would see their silhouettes within and start catcalling). “Isabelle,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

  She leaned forward, let herself be taken in his arms and kissed. When it ended—too soon—she took a deep breath. “I have a message for your group from London. Paul received it at five P.M. tonight. ‘Long sobs of autumn violins.’”

  She heard him draw in a breath. Obviously the words, which they’d received over the radio from the BBC, were a code.

  “Is it important?” she asked.

  His hands moved to her face, held her gently, and drew her in for another kiss. This one was full of sadness. Another good-bye.

  “Important enough that I have to leave right now.”

  All she could do was nod. “There’s never any time,” she whispered. Every moment they’d ever had together had been stolen somehow, or wrested. They met, they ducked into shadowy corners or dirty tents or back rooms, and they made love in the dark, but they didn’t get to lie together afterward like lovers and talk. He was always leaving her, or she was leaving him. Each time he held her, she thought—this will be it, the last time I see him. And she waited for him to say he loved her.

  She told herself that it was war. That he did love her, but he was afraid of that love, afraid he would lose her, and it would hurt more somehow if he’d declared himself. On good days, she even believed it.

  “How dangerous is it, this thing you’re going off to do?”

  Again, the silence.

  “I’ll find you,” he said quietly. “Maybe I’ll come to Paris for a night and we’ll sneak into the cinema and boo at the newsreels and walk through the Rodin Gardens.”

  “Like lovers,” she said, trying to smile. It was what they always said to each other, this dream shared of a life that seemed impossible to remember and unlikely to reoccur.

  He touched her face with a gentleness that brought tears to her eyes. “Like lovers.”

  * * *

  In the past eighteen months, as the war had escalated and Nazi aggression mounted, Vianne had found and hidden thirteen children at the orphanage. At first she had canvassed the nearby countryside, following leads given to her by the OSE. In time, Mother had connected with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—an umbrella group for Jewish charities in the United States that funded the struggle to save Jewish children—and they had brought Vianne into contact with more children in need. Mothers sometimes showed up on her doorstep, crying, desperate, begging her for help. Vianne never turned anyone away, but she was always terrified.

  Now, on a warm June day in 1944, a week after the Allies had landed more than one hundred and fifty thousand troops in Normandy, Vianne stood in her classroom at the orphanage, staring out at the children who sat slumped and tired at their desks. Of course they were tired.

  In the past year, the bombing had rarely stopped. Air raids were so constant that Vianne no longer bothered to take her children into the cellar pantry when the alarm sounded at night. She just lay in bed with them, holding them tightly until either all clear sounded or the bombing stopped.

  It never stopped for long.

  Vianne clapped her hands together and called for attention. Perhaps a game would lift their spirits.

  “Is it another air raid, Madame?” asked Emile. He was six years old now and never mentioned his maman anymore. When asked, he said that she “died because she got sick,” and that was all there was to it. He had no memory at all of being Jean Georges Ruelle.

  Just as Daniel had no memory of who he used to be.

  “No. No air raid,” she said. “Actually, I was thinking that it’s awfully hot in here.” She tugged at her loose collar.

  “That’s because of the blackout windows, Madame,” said Claudine (formerly Bernadette). “Mother says she feels like a smoked ham in her woolen habit.”

  The children laughed at that.

  “It’s better than the winter cold,” Sophie said, and to this there was a round of nodding agreement.

  “I was thinking,” Vianne said, “that today would be a good day to—”

  Before she could finish her thought, she heard the clatter of a motorcycle outside; moments later, footsteps—jackboots—thundered down the stone corridor.

  Everyone went still.

  The door to her classroom opened.

  Von Richter walked into the room. As he approached Vianne, he removed his hat and tucked it beneath his armpit. “Madame,” he said. “Will you step into the corridor with me?”

  Vianne nodded. “One moment, children,” she said. “Read quietly while I am
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