The nightingale, p.36
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       The Nightingale, p.36
 

           Kristin Hannah

  There had to be ten dead men here—Frenchmen, she could tell. Maquisards by the look of them—the rough guerrilla partisans of the woods. They wore brown pants and black berets and tricolor armbands.

  Vianne went to the old woman, took her by the shoulders. “You should not be here,” she said.

  “My son,” the woman croaked. “He can’t stay here—”

  “Come,” Vianne said, less gently this time. She maneuvered the old woman out of the square. On rue La Grande, the woman pulled free and walked away, mumbling to herself, crying.

  Vianne passed three more dead bodies on her way to the boucherie. Carriveau seemed to be holding its breath. The Allies had bombed the area repeatedly in the last few months, and several of the town’s buildings had been reduced to rubble. Something always seemed to be falling down or crumbling.

  The air smelled of death and the town was silent; danger lurked in every shadow, around every corner.

  In the queue at the butcher shop, Vianne heard women talking, their voices lowered.

  “Retaliation…”

  “Worse in Tulle…”

  “Did you hear about Oradour-sur-Glane?”

  Even with all of that, with all of the arrests and deportations and executions, Vianne couldn’t believe the newest rumors. Yesterday morning the Nazis had marched into the small village of Oradour-sur-Glane—not far from Carriveau—and herded everyone at gunpoint into the town’s church, supposedly to check their papers.

  “Everyone in town,” whispered the woman to whom Vianne had spoken. “Men. Women. Children. The Nazis shot them all, then they slammed the doors shut, locked them all in, and burned the church to the ground.” Her eyes welled with tears. “It’s true.”

  “It can’t be,” Vianne said.

  “My Dedee saw them shoot a pregnant woman in the belly.”

  “She saw this?” Vianne asked.

  The old woman nodded. “Dedee hid out for hours behind a rabbit hutch and saw the town in flames. She said she’ll never forget the screaming. Not everyone was dead when they set the fire.”

  It was supposedly in retaliation for a Sturmbannführer who’d been captured by the Maquis.

  Would the same thing happen here? The next time the war went badly, would the Gestapo or SS round up the villagers of Carriveau and trap them in the town hall and open fire?

  She took the small tin of oil that this week’s ration card had allowed her and walked out of the shop, flipping up her hood to shield her face.

  Someone grabbed her by the arm and pulled her hard to the left. She stumbled sideways, lost her footing, and almost fell.

  He pulled her into a dark alley and revealed himself.

  “Papa!” Vianne said, too stunned by his appearance to say more.

  She saw what the war had done to him, how it had etched lines in his forehead and placed puffy bags of flesh beneath his tired-looking eyes, how it had leached the color from his skin and turned his hair white. He was terribly thin; age spots dotted his sagging cheeks. She was reminded of his return from the Great War, when he’d looked this bad.

  “Is there somewhere quiet we can talk?” he said. “I’d rather not meet your German.”

  “He’s not my German, but oui.”

  She could hardly blame him for not wanting to meet Von Richter. “The house next to mine is vacant. To the east. The Germans thought it too small to bother with. We can meet there.”

  “In twenty minutes,” he said.

  Vianne pulled her hood back up over her scarf-covered hair and stepped out of the alleyway. As she left town and walked along the muddy road toward home, she tried to imagine why her father was here. She knew—or supposed—that Isabelle was living with him in Paris, although even that was conjecture. For all she knew, her sister and her father lived separate lives in the same city. She hadn’t heard from Isabelle since that terrible night in the barn, although Henri had reported that she was well.

  She hurried past the airfield, barely noticing the aeroplanes that were crumpled and still smoking from a recent bombing raid.

  At Rachel’s gate, she paused and glanced up and down the road. No one had followed or seemed to be watching her. She slipped inside the yard and hurried to the abandoned cottage. The front door had been broken long ago and now hung askew. She let herself inside.

  The interior was shadowy and limned in dust. Almost all of the furniture had been requisitioned or stolen by looters, and missing pictures left black squares on the walls; only an old loveseat with dirty cushions and a broken leg remained in the living room. Vianne sat down, perched nervously, her foot tapping on the rush-covered floor.

  She chewed on her thumbnail, unable to be still, and then she heard footsteps. She went to the window, lifting the blackout shade.

  Her father was at the door. Only he wasn’t her father, not this stooped old man.

  She let him into the house. When he looked at her, the lines in his face deepened; the folds of his skin looked like pockets of melting wax. He ran a hand through his thinning hair. The long white strands rearranged themselves into spikes, giving him a strangely electrified look.

  He moved toward her slowly, limping just a little. It brought her whole life back in an instant, that shuffling, awkward way he had of moving. Her maman saying, Forgive him, Vianne, he isn’t himself anymore and he can’t forgive himself … it’s up to us to do it.

  “Vianne.” He said her name softly, his rough voice lingering over it. Again, she was reminded subtly of Before, when he had been himself. It was a long-forgotten thought. In the After years, she had relegated all thoughts of him to the closet; in time, she’d forgotten. Now she remembered. It scared her to feel this way. He had hurt her so many times.

  “Papa.”

  He went to the loveseat and sat down. The cushions sagged tiredly beneath his meager weight. “I was a terrible father to you girls.”

  It was so surprising—and true—that Vianne had no idea what to say.

  He sighed. “It’s too late now to fix all that.”

  She joined him at the loveseat, sat down beside him. “It’s never too late,” she said cautiously. Was it true? Could she forgive him?

  Yes. The answer came instantly, as unexpected as his appearance here.

  He turned to her. “I have so much to say and no time to say it.”

  “Stay here,” she said. “I’ll care for you and—”

  “Isabelle has been arrested and charged with aiding the enemy. She’s imprisoned in Girot.”

  Vianne drew in a sharp breath. The regret she felt was immense, as was the guilt. What had her last words to her sister been? Don’t come back. “What can we do?”

  “We?” he said. “It is a lovely question, but not one to be asked. You must do nothing. You stay here in Carriveau and stay out of trouble, as you have been. Keep my granddaughter safe. Await your husband.”

  It was all Vianne could do not to say, I’m different now, Papa. I am helping to hide Jewish children. She wanted to see herself reflected in his gaze, wanted just once to make him proud of her.

  Do it. Tell him.

  How could she? He looked so old sitting there, old and broken and lost. There was only the barest hint of the man he’d been. He didn’t need to know that Vianne was risking her life, too, couldn’t worry that he would lose both his daughters. Let him think she was as safe as one could be. A coward.

  “Isabelle will need you to come home to when this is over. You will tell her that she did the right thing. She will worry about that one day. She will think she should have stayed with you, protected you. She will remember leaving you with the Nazi, risking your lives, and she will agonize over her choice.”

  Vianne heard the confession that lay beneath. He was telling her his own story in the only way he could, cloaked in Isabelle’s. He was saying that he had worried about his choice to join the army in the Great War, that he had agonized over what his fighting had done to his family. He knew how changed he’d been on his return, and instead
of pain drawing him closer to his children and wife, it had separated them. He regretted pushing them away, leaving them with Madame Dumas all those years ago.

  What a burden such a choice must be. For the first time, she saw her own childhood as an adult, from far away, with the wisdom this war had given her. Battle had broken her father; she had always known that. Her maman had said it repeatedly, but now Vianne understood.

  It had broken him.

  “You girls will be part of the generation that goes on, that remembers,” he said. “The memories of what happened will be … hard to forget. You will need to stay together. Show Isabelle that she is loved. Sadly, this is a thing I never did. Now it is too late.”

  “You sound like you’re saying good-bye.”

  She saw the sad, forlorn look in his eyes, and she understood why he was here, what he’d come to say. He was going to sacrifice himself for Isabelle. She didn’t know how, but she knew it to be true just the same. It was his way of making up for all the times he’d disappointed them. “Papa,” she said. “What are you going to do?”

  He laid a hand to her cheek and it was warm and solid and comforting, that father’s touch. She hadn’t realized—or admitted to herself—how much she’d missed him. And now, just when she glimpsed a different future, a redemption, it dissolved around her. “What would you do to save Sophie?”

  “Anything.”

  Vianne stared at this man who before the war changed him had taught her to love books and writing and to notice a sunset. She hadn’t remembered that man in a long time.

  “I must go,” he said, handing her an envelope. On it was written Isabelle and Vianne in his shaky handwriting. “Read it together.”

  He stood up and turned to leave.

  She wasn’t ready to lose him. She grabbed for him. A piece of his cuff ripped away in her grasp. She stared down at it: a strip of brown-and-white-checked cotton lay in her palm. A strip of fabric like the others tied to her tree branches. Remembrances for lost and missing loved ones.

  “I love you, Papa,” she said quietly, realizing how true it was, how true it had always been. Love had turned into loss and she’d pushed it away, but somehow, impossibly, a bit of that love had remained. A girl’s love for her father. Immutable. Unbearable but unbreakable.

  “How can you?”

  She swallowed hard, saw that he had tears in his eyes. “How can I not?”

  He gave her a last, lingering look—and a kiss to each cheek—and then he drew back. So softly she almost didn’t hear, he said, “I loved you, too,” and then left her.

  Vianne watched him walk away. When at last he disappeared, she returned home. There, she paused beneath the apple tree full of scraps of fabric. In the years that she had been tying scraps to the branches, the tree had died and the fruit had turned bitter. The other apple trees were hale and healthy, but this one, the tree of her remembrances, was as black and twisted as the bombed-out town behind it.

  She tied the brown-checked scrap next to Rachel’s.

  Then she went into the house.

  A fire was lit in the living room; the whole house was warm and smoky. Wasteful. She closed the door behind her, frowning. “Children,” she called out.

  “They are upstairs in my room. I gave them some chocolates and a game to play.”

  Von Richter. What was he doing here in the middle of the day?

  Had he seen her with her father?

  Did he know about Isabelle?

  “Your daughter thanked me for the chocolates. She is such a pretty young thing.”

  Vianne knew better than to show her fear at that. She remained still and silent, trying to calm her racing heart.

  “But your son.” He put the slightest emphasis on the word. “He looks nothing like you.”

  “My h-husband, An—”

  He struck so fast she didn’t even see him move. He grabbed her by the arm, squeezing hard, twisting the soft flesh. She let out a little cry as he shoved her back against the wall. “Are you going to lie to me again?”

  He took both of her hands and wrenched them over her head, pinning them to the wall with one gloved hand. “Please,” she said, “don’t…”

  She knew instantly that it was a mistake to beg.

  “I checked the records. There is only one child born to you and Antoine. A girl, Sophie. You buried others. Who is the boy?”

  Vianne was too frightened to think clearly. All she knew for sure was that she couldn’t tell the truth or Daniel would be deported. And God knew what they’d do to Vianne … to Sophie. “Antoine’s cousin died giving birth to Daniel. We adopted the baby just before the war started. You know how difficult official paperwork is these days, but I have his birth certificate and baptismal papers. He’s our son now.”

  “Your nephew, then. Blood but not blood. Who is to say his father isn’t a communist? Or Jewish?”

  Vianne swallowed convulsively. He didn’t suspect the truth. “We’re Catholic. You know that.”

  “What would you do to keep him here with you?”

  “Anything,” she said.

  He unbuttoned her blouse, slowly, letting each button be teased through its fraying hole. When the bodice gaped open, he slid his hand inside, sliding it over her breast, twisting her nipple hard enough that she cried out in pain. “Anything?” he asked.

  She swallowed dryly.

  “The bedroom, please,” she said. “My children.”

  He stepped back. “After you, Madame.”

  “You will let me keep Daniel here?”

  “Are you negotiating with me?”

  “I am.”

  He grabbed her by the hair and yanked hard, pulling her into the bedroom. He kicked the door shut with his booted foot and then shoved her up against the wall. She made an ooph as she hit. He pinned her in place and shoved her skirt up and ripped her knitted underpants away.

  She turned her head and closed her eyes, hearing his belt unbuckle with a clatter and his buttons release.

  “Look at me,” he said.

  She didn’t move, didn’t so much as breathe. Neither did she open her eyes.

  He hit her again. Still she stayed where she was, her eyes closed tightly.

  “If you look at me, Daniel stays.”

  She turned her head and slowly opened her eyes.

  “That’s better.”

  She gritted her teeth as he yanked down his pants and shoved her legs farther apart and violated both her body and her soul. She did not make a single sound.

  Nor did she look away.

  THIRTY-FOUR

  Isabelle tried to crawl away from … what? Had she just been kicked or burned? Or locked in the refrigerator? She couldn’t remember. She dragged her aching, bloody feet backward across the floor, one pain-filled inch at a time. Everything hurt. Her head, her cheek, her jaw, her wrists and ankles.

  Someone grabbed her by the hair, yanked her head back. Blunt, dirty fingers forced her mouth open; brandy splashed into her open mouth, gagging her. She spit it back up.

  Her hair was thawing. Ice water streamed down her face.

  She opened her eyes slowly.

  A man stood in front of her, smoking a cigarette. The smell made her sick to her stomach.

  How long had she been here?

  Think, Isabelle.

  She had been moved to this dank, airless cell. Two mornings had dawned with her able to see the sun, right?

  Two? Or just one?

  Had she given the network enough time to get people hidden? She couldn’t think.

  The man was talking, asking her questions. His mouth opened, closed, spewed smoke.

  She flinched instinctively, curled into a crouch, squatted back. The man behind her kicked her in her spine, hard, and she stilled.

  So. Two men. One in front of her and one behind. Pay attention to the one who is speaking.

  What was he saying?

  “Sit.”

  She wanted to defy him but didn’t have the strength. She climbed up on
to the chair. The skin around her wrists was torn and bloody, oozing pus. She used her hands to cover her nakedness, but it was useless, she knew. He would pull her legs apart to bind her ankles to the chair legs.

  When she was seated, something soft hit her in the face and fell into her lap. Dully, she looked down.

  A dress. Not hers.

  She clutched it to her bare breasts and looked up.

  “Put it on,” he said.

  Her hands were shaking as she stood and stepped awkwardly into the wrinkled, shapeless blue linen dress that was at least three sizes too large. It took forever to button the sagging bodice.

  “The Nightingale,” he said, taking a long drag on his cigarette. The tip glowed red-orange and Isabelle instinctively shrank into the chair.

  Schmidt. That was his name. “I don’t know anything about birds,” she said.

  “You are Juliette Gervaise,” he said.

  “I have told you that a hundred times.”

  “And you know nothing about the Nightingale.”

  “This is what I’ve told you.”

  He nodded sharply and Isabelle immediately heard footsteps, and then the door behind her creaked open.

  She thought: It doesn’t hurt, it’s just my body. They can’t touch my soul. It had become her mantra.

  “We are done with you.”

  He was smiling at her in a way that made her skin crawl.

  “Bring him in.”

  A man stumbled forward in shackles.

  Papa.

  She saw horror in his eyes and knew how she looked: split lip and blackened eyes and torn cheek … cigarette burns on her forearms, blood matted in her hair. She should stay still, stand where she was, but she couldn’t. She limped forward, gritting her teeth at the pain.

  There were no bruises on his face, no cuts on his lip, no arm held close to his body in pain.

  They hadn’t beaten or tortured him, which meant they hadn’t interrogated him. “I am the Nightingale,” her father said to the man who’d tortured her. “Is that what you need to hear?”

  She shook her head, said no in a voice so soft no one heard.

  “I am the Nightingale,” she said, standing on burned, bloody feet. She turned to the German who had tortured her.

 
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