The nightingale, p.37
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       The Nightingale, p.37
 

           Kristin Hannah

  Schmidt laughed. “You, a girl? The infamous Nightingale?”

  Her father said something in English to the German, who clearly didn’t understand.

  Isabelle understood: They could speak in English.

  Isabelle was close enough to her father to touch him, but she didn’t. “Don’t do this,” she begged.

  “It’s done,” he said. The smile he gave her was slow in forming, and when it came, she felt pain constrict her chest. Memories came at her in waves, surging over the breakwater she’d built in the isolated years. Him sweeping her into his arms, twirling her around; picking her up from a fall, dusting her off, whispering, Not so loud, my little terror, you’ll wake your maman …

  She drew in short, shallow breaths and wiped her eyes. He was trying to make it up to her, asking for forgiveness and seeking redemption all at once, sacrificing himself for her. It was a glimpse of who he’d once been, the poet her maman had fallen in love with. That man, the one before the war, might have known another way, might have found the perfect words to heal their fractured past. But he wasn’t that man anymore. He had lost too much, and in his loss, he’d thrown more away. This was the only way he knew to tell her he loved her. “Not this way,” she whispered.

  “There is no other. Forgive me,” he said softly.

  The Gestapo stepped between them. He grabbed her father by the arm and pulled him toward the door.

  Isabelle limped after them. “I am the Nightingale!” she called out.

  The door slammed in her face. She hobbled to the cell’s window, clutching the rough, rusty bars. “I am the Nightingale!” she screamed.

  Outside, beneath a yellow morning sun, her father was dragged into the square, where a firing squad stood at the ready, rifles raised.

  Her father stumbled forward, lurched across the cobblestoned square, past a fountain. Morning sunlight gave everything a golden, beautiful glow.

  “We were supposed to have time,” she whispered, feeling tears start. How often had she imagined a new beginning for her and Papa, for all of them? They would come together after the war, Isabelle and Vianne and Papa, learn to laugh and talk and be a family again.

  Now it would never happen; she would never get to know her father, never feel the warmth of his hand in hers, never fall asleep on the divan beside him, never be able to say all that needed to be said between them. Those words were lost, turned into ghosts that would drift away, unsaid. They would never be the family maman had promised. “Papa,” she said; it was such a big word suddenly, a dream in its entirety.

  He turned and faced the firing squad. She watched him stand taller and square his shoulders. He pushed the white strands of hair from his dry eyes. Across the square, their gazes met. She clutched the bars harder, clinging to them for support.

  “I love you,” he mouthed.

  Shots rang out.

  * * *

  Vianne hurt all over.

  She lay in bed, bracketed by her sleeping children, trying not to remember last night’s rape in excruciating detail.

  Moving slowly, she went to the pump and washed up in cold water, wincing every time she touched an area that was bruised.

  She dressed in what was easy—a wrinkled linen button-up dress with a fitted bodice and flared skirt.

  All night, she’d lain awake in bed, holding her children close, alternately weeping for what he’d done to her—what he’d taken from her—and fuming that she couldn’t stop it.

  She wanted to kill him.

  She wanted to kill herself.

  What would Antoine think of her now?

  Truthfully, the biggest part of her wanted to curl up in a ball in some dark corner and never show her face again.

  But even that—shame—was a luxury these days. How could she worry about herself when Isabelle was in prison and their father was going to try to save her?

  “Sophie,” she said when they’d finished their breakfast of dry toast and a poached egg. “I have an errand to run today. You will stay home with Daniel. Lock the door.”

  “Von Richter—”

  “Is gone until tomorrow.” She felt her face grow hot. This was the kind of intimacy she shouldn’t know. “He told me so last … night.” Her voice broke on the last word.

  Sophie rose. “Maman?”

  Vianne dashed tears away. “I’m fine. But I must go. Be good.” She kissed both of them good-bye and rushed out before she could start thinking of reasons to stay.

  Like Sophie and Daniel.

  And Von Richter. He said he was leaving for the night, but who knew? He could always have her followed. But if she worried too much about “what ifs” she would never get anything done. In the time she’d been hiding Jewish children, she had learned to go on despite her fear.

  She had to help Isabelle—

  (Don’t come back.)

  (I’ll turn you in myself.)

  —and Papa if she could.

  She boarded the train and sat on a wooden bench in the third-class carriage. Several of the other passengers—mostly women—sat with their heads down, hands clasped in their laps. A tall Hauptsturmführer stood guard by the door, his gun at the ready. A squad of narrow-eyed Milice—the brutal Vichy police—sat in another part of the carriage.

  Vianne didn’t look at either of the women in the compartment with her. One of them stank of garlic and onions. The smell made Vianne faintly sick in the hot, airless compartment. Fortunately, her destination was not far away, and just after ten o’clock in the morning, she disembarked at the small train station on the outskirts of Girot.

  Now what?

  The sun rode high overhead, baking the small town into a stupor. Vianne clutched her handbag close, felt perspiration crawl down her back and drip from her temples. Many of the sand-colored buildings had been bombed; piles of rubble were everywhere. A blue Cross of Lorraine had been painted onto the stone sides of an abandoned school.

  She encountered few people on the crooked, cobblestoned streets. Now and then a girl on a bicycle or a boy with a wheelbarrow would thump and rattle past her, but for the most part, what she noticed was the silence, an air of desertion.

  Then a woman screamed.

  Vianne came around the last crooked corner and saw the town square. A dead body was lashed to the fountain in the square. Blood reddened the water that lapped around his ankles. His head had been strapped back with an army belt so that he seemed almost relaxed there, with his mouth slack, his eyes open, sightless. Bullet holes chewed up his chest, left his sweater in tatters; blood darkened his chest and pant legs.

  Her father.

  * * *

  Isabelle had spent last night huddled in the damp, black corner of her cell. The horror of her father’s death replayed itself over and over.

  She would be killed soon. Of that she had no doubt.

  As the hours passed—time measured in breaths taken and released, in heartbeats—she wrote imaginary letters of good-bye to her father, to Gaëtan, to Vianne. She strung her memories into sentences that she memorized, or tried to, but they all ended with “I’m sorry.” When the soldiers came for her, iron keys rattling in ancient locks, worm-eaten doors scraping open across the uneven floor, she wanted to scream and protest, yell NO, but she had no voice left.

  She was yanked to her feet. A woman built like a panzer tank thrust shoes and socks at her and said something in German. Obviously she didn’t speak French.

  She gave Isabelle back her Juliette identity papers. They were stained now, and crumpled.

  The shoes were too small and pinched her toes but Isabelle was grateful for them. The woman hauled her out of the cell and up the uneven stone steps and out into the blinding sunlight of the square. Several soldiers stood by the opposite buildings, their rifles strapped to their backs, going about their business. She saw her father’s bullet-ridden dead body lashed to the fountain and screamed.

  Everyone in the square looked up. The soldiers laughed at her, pointed.

  “Quiet,” th
e German tank woman hissed.

  Isabelle was about to say something when she saw Vianne moving toward her.

  Her sister moved forward awkwardly, as if she wasn’t quite in control of her body. She wore a tattered dress that Isabelle remembered as once being pretty. Her red-gold hair was dull and lank, tucked behind her ears. Her face was as thin and hollow as a bone china teacup. “I’ve come to help you,” Vianne said quietly.

  Isabelle could have cried. More than anything in the world, she wanted to run to her big sister, to drop to her knees and beg for forgiveness and then to hold her in gratitude. To say “I’m sorry” and “I love you” and all the words in between. But she couldn’t do any of that. She had to protect Vianne.

  “So did he,” she said, cocking her head toward her father. “Go away. Please. Forget me.”

  The German woman yanked Isabelle forward. She stumbled along, her feet screaming in pain, not allowing herself to look back. She thought she was being led to a firing squad, but she went past her father’s slumped body and out of the square and onto a side street, where a lorry was waiting.

  The woman shoved Isabelle into the back of the lorry. She scrambled back to the corner and squatted down, alone. The canvas flaps unfurled, bringing darkness. As the engine roared to life, she rested her chin in the hard and empty valley between her bony knees and closed her eyes.

  When she woke, it was to stillness. The truck had stopped moving. Somewhere, a whistle blared.

  The flaps of the truck were whisked sideways and light flooded into the back of the truck, so bright Isabelle couldn’t see anything but shadow men coming toward her, yelling, “Schnell, schnell!”

  She was pulled out of the truck and tossed to the cobblestoned street like a sack of trash. There were four empty cattle cars lined up along the platform. The first three were shut tightly. The fourth was open—and crammed with women and children. The noise was overwhelming—screaming, crying, dogs barking, soldiers shouting, whistles blaring, the chugging hum of the waiting train.

  The Nazi shoved Isabelle into the crowd, pushing her forward every time she stopped, until the last carriage appeared in front of her.

  He picked her up and threw her inside; she stumbled into the crowd, almost fell. Only the other bodies kept her on her feet. They were still coming in, stumbling forward, crying, clutching their children’s hands, trying to find a six-inch opening between bodies in which to stand.

  Iron bars covered the windows. In the corner, Isabelle saw a single barrel.

  Their toilet.

  Suitcases were piled in the corner on a stack of hay bales.

  Limping on feet that ached with every step, Isabelle pushed through the crowd of whimpering, crying women, past their screaming children, to the back of the train carriage. In the corner, she saw a woman standing alone, her arms crossed defiantly across her chest, her coarse gray hair covered by a black scarf.

  Madame Babineau’s bruised face broke into a brown-toothed smile. Isabelle was so relieved by the sight of her friend that she almost cried.

  “Madame Babineau,” Isabelle whispered, hugging her friend tightly.

  “I think it’s time you called me Micheline,” her friend said. She was dressed in men’s pants that were too long for her and a flannel work shirt. She touched Isabelle’s cracked, bruised, bloodied face. “What have they done to you?”

  “Their worst,” she said, trying to sound like herself.

  “I think not.” Micheline let that sink in a moment and then cocked her head toward a bucket near her booted feet. This one was filled with a gray water that sloshed over the edges as the wooden floor rattled beneath so many moving bodies. A split wooden ladle lay to one side. “Drink. While it’s there,” she said.

  Isabelle filled the ladle with the fetid-smelling water. Gagging at the taste, she forced herself to swallow. She stood, offered a ladleful to Micheline, who drank it all and wiped her wet lips with the back of her sleeve.

  “This is going to be bad,” Micheline said.

  “I’m sorry I got you into this,” Isabelle said.

  “You did not get me into anything, Juliette,” Micheline said. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

  The whistle sounded again and the car doors banged shut, plunging them all into darkness. Bolts clanged into place, locking them in. The train lurched forward. People fell into one another, fell down. Babies screamed and children whined. Someone was peeing in the bucket and the smell overlaid the stench of the sweat and fear.

  Micheline put an arm around Isabelle and the two women climbed to the top of the hay bales and sat together.

  “I am Isabelle Rossignol,” she said quietly, hearing her name swallowed by the darkness. If she was going to die on this train, she wanted someone to know who she was.

  Micheline sighed. “You are Julien and Madeleine’s daughter.”

  “Did you know from the start?”

  “Oui. You have your mother’s eyes and your father’s temperament.”

  “He was executed,” she said. “He admitted to being the Nightingale.”

  Micheline held her hand. “Of course he did. Someday, when you are a mother, you will understand. I remember thinking your parents were unmatched—quiet, intellectual Julien and your vivacious, steel-spined maman. I thought they had nothing in common, but now I know how often love is like that. It was the war, you know; it broke him like a cigarette. Irreparable. She tried to save him. So hard.”

  “When she died…”

  “Oui. Instead of fixing himself, he drank and made himself worse, but the man he became was not the man he was,” Micheline said. “Some stories don’t have happy endings. Even love stories. Maybe especially love stories.”

  The hours rolled by slowly. Often, the train stopped to take on more women and children or to avoid bombing. The women took turns sitting down and standing up, each helping the others when they could. The water disappeared and the urine barrel overfilled, sloshing over. Whenever the train slowed, Isabelle pushed to the sides of the carriage, peering through the slats, trying to see where they were, but all she saw were more soldiers and dogs and whips … more women being herded like cattle into more train cars. Women wrote their names on scraps of paper or cloth and shoved them through cracks in the carriage walls, hoping against hope to be remembered.

  By the second day, they were all exhausted and hungry and so thirsty they remained quiet, saving their saliva. The heat and stench in the carriage was unbearable.

  Be afraid.

  Wasn’t that what Gaëtan had said to her? He said the warning had come from Vianne that night in the barn.

  Isabelle hadn’t fully understood it then. She understood it now. She had thought herself indestructible.

  But what would she have done differently?

  “Nothing,” she whispered into the darkness.

  She would do it all again.

  And this wasn’t the end. She had to remember that. Each day she lived there was a chance for salvation. She couldn’t give up. She could never give up.

  * * *

  The train stopped. Isabelle sat up, bleary-eyed, her body aching and in pain from the beatings of her interrogation. She heard harsh voices, dogs barking. A whistle blared.

  “Wake up, Micheline,” Isabelle said, gently jostling the woman beside her.

  Micheline edged upright.

  The seventy other people in the car—women and children—slowly roused themselves from the stupor of the journey. Those who were seated rose. The women came together instinctively, packed in closer.

  Isabelle winced in pain as she stood on torn feet in shoes too small. She held Micheline’s cold hand.

  The giant carriage doors rumbled open. Sunlight poured in, blinding them all. Isabelle saw SS officers dressed in black, with their snarling, barking dogs. They were shouting orders at the women and children, incomprehensible words with obvious meaning. Climb down, move on, get into line.

  The women helped one another down. Isabelle held on to Micheline
’s hand and stepped down onto the platform.

  A truncheon hit her in the head so hard she stumbled sideways and dropped to her knees.

  “Get up,” a woman said. “You must.”

  Isabelle let herself be helped to her feet. Dizzy, she leaned into the woman. Micheline came up on her other side, put an arm around her waist to steady her.

  To Isabelle’s left, a whip snaked through the air, hissing, and cracked into the fleshy pink of a woman’s cheek. The woman screamed and held the torn skin of her cheek together. Blood poured between her fingers, but she kept moving.

  The women formed ragged lines and marched across uneven ground through an open gate that was surrounded by barbed wire. A watchtower loomed above them.

  Inside the gates, Isabelle saw hundreds—thousands—of women who looked like ghosts moving through a surreal landscape of gray, their bodies emaciated, their eyes sunken and dead looking in gray faces, their hair shorn. They wore baggy, dirty striped dresses; some were barefooted. Only women and children. No men.

  Behind the gates and beneath the watchtower, she saw barracks stretching out in lines.

  A corpse of a woman lay in the mud in front of them. Isabelle stepped over the dead woman, too numb to think anything but keep moving. The last woman who’d stopped had been hit so hard she didn’t get up again.

  Soldiers yanked the suitcases from their hands, snatched necklaces, pulled earrings and wedding rings off. When their valuables were all gone, they were led into a room, where they stood crowded together, sweating from the heat, dizzy from thirst. A woman grabbed Isabelle’s arms, pulled her aside. Before she could even think, she was being stripped naked—they all were. Rough hands scratched her skin with dirty fingernails. She was shaved everywhere—under her arms, her head, and her pubic hair—with a viciousness that left her bleeding.

  “Schnell!”

  Isabelle stood with the other shaved, freezing, naked women, her feet aching, her head still ringing from the blows. And then they were being moved again, herded forward toward another building.

  She remembered suddenly the stories she’d heard at MI9 and on the BBC, news stories about Jewish people being gassed to death at the concentration camps.

  She felt a feeble sense of panic as she shuffled forward with the herd, into a giant room full of showerheads.

  Isabelle stood beneath one of the showerheads, naked and trembling. Over the noise of the guards and the prisoners and the dogs, she heard the rattling of an old ventilation system. Something was coming on, clattering through the pipes.

  This is it.

  The doors of the building banged shut.

  Ice-cold water gushed from the showerheads, shocking Isabelle, chilling her to the bone. In no time it was over and they were being herded again. Shivering, trying futilely to cover her nakedness with her trembling hands, she moved into the crowd and stumbled forward with the other women. One by one they were deloused. Then Isabelle was handed a shapeless striped dress and a dirty pair of men’s underwear and two left shoes without laces.

  Clutching her new possessions to her clammy breasts, she was shoved into a barn-like building with stacks of wooden bunks. She climbed into one of the bunks and lay there with nine other women. Moving slowly, she dressed and then lay back, staring up at the gray wooden underside of the bunk above her. “Micheline?” she whispered.

  “I’m here, Isabelle,” her friend said from the bunk above.

  Isabelle was too tired to say more. Outside, she heard the smacking of leather belts, the hissing of whips, and the screams of women who moved too slowly.

  “Welcome to Ravensbrück,” said the woman beside her.

  Isabelle felt the woman’s skeletal hip against her leg.

  She closed her eyes, trying to block out the sounds, the smell, the fear, the pain.

  Stay alive, she thought.

  Stay. Alive.

  THIRTY-FIVE

  August.

 
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