The nightingale, p.38
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       The Nightingale, p.38
 

           Kristin Hannah

  Vianne breathed as quietly as she could. In the hot, muggy darkness of this upstairs bedroom—her bedroom, the one she’d shared with Antoine—every sound was amplified. She heard the bedsprings ping in protest as Von Richter rolled onto his side. She watched his exhalations, gauging each one. When he started to snore, she inched sideways and peeled the damp sheet away from her naked body.

  In the last few months, Vianne had learned about pain and shame and degradation. She knew about survival, too—how to gauge Von Richter’s moods and when to stay out of his way and when to be silent. Sometimes, if she did everything just right, he barely saw her. It was only when he’d had a bad day, when he came home already angry, that she was in trouble. Like last night.

  He’d come home in a terrible temper, muttering about the fighting in Paris. The Maquis had started fighting in the streets. Vianne had known instantly what he’d want that night.

  To inflict pain.

  She’d herded her children out of the room quickly, put them to bed in the downstairs bedroom. Then she’d gone upstairs.

  That was the worst of it, maybe; that he made her come to him and she did. She took off her clothes so he wouldn’t rip them away.

  Now, as she dressed she noticed how much it hurt to raise her arms. She paused at the blacked-out window. Beyond it lay fields destroyed by incendiary bombs; trees broken in half, many of them still smoldering, gates and chimneys broken. An apocalyptic landscape. The airfield was a crushed pile of stone and wood surrounded by broken aeroplanes and bombed-out lorries. Since Général de Gaulle had taken over the Free French Army and the Allies had landed in Normandy, the bombing of Europe had become constant.

  Was Antoine out there still? Was he somewhere in his prison camp, looking out a slit in the barracks wall or a boarded-up window, looking at this moon that had once shone on a house filled with love? And Isabelle. She’d been gone only two months, but it felt like a lifetime. Vianne worried about her constantly, but there was nothing to be done about worry; it had to be borne.

  Downstairs, she lit a candle. The electricity had been off for a long time now. In the water closet, she set the candle down by the sink and stared at herself in the oval mirror. Even in candlelight, she looked pasty and gaunt. Her dull, reddish gold hair hung limp on either side of her face. In the years of deprivation, her nose seemed to have lengthened and her cheekbones had become more prominent. A bruise discolored her temple. Soon, she knew, it would darken. She knew without looking that there would be handprints on her upper arms and an ugly bruise on her left breast.

  He was getting meaner. Angrier. The Allied forces had landed in southern France and begun liberating towns. The Germans were losing the war, and Von Richter seemed hell-bent on making Vianne pay for it.

  She stripped and washed in tepid water. She scrubbed until her skin was mottled and red, and still she didn’t feel clean. She never felt clean.

  When she could stand no more, she dried off and redressed in her nightgown, adding a robe over it. Tying it at the waist, she left the bathroom, carrying her candle.

  Sophie was in the living room, waiting for her. She sat on the last good piece of furniture in the room—the divan—with her knees drawn together and her hands clasped. The rest of the furniture had been requisitioned or burned.

  “What are you doing up so late?”

  “I could ask you the same question, but I don’t really need to, do I?”

  Vianne tightened the belt on her robe. It was a nervous habit, something to do with her hands. “Let’s go to bed.”

  Sophie looked up at her. At almost fourteen, Sophie’s face had begun to mature. Her eyes were black against her pale skin, her lashes lush and long. A poor diet had thinned Sophie’s hair, but it still hung in ringlets. She pursed her full lips. “Really, Maman? How long must we pretend?” The sadness—and the anger—in those beautiful eyes was heartbreaking. Vianne apparently had hidden nothing from this child who’d lost her childhood to war.

  What was the right thing for a mother to say to her nearly grown daughter about the ugliness in the world? How could she be honest? How could Vianne expect her daughter to judge her less harshly than she judged herself?

  Vianne sat down beside Sophie. She thought about their old life—laughter, kisses, family suppers, Christmas mornings, lost baby teeth, first words.

  “I’m not stupid,” Sophie said.

  “I have never thought you were. Not for a moment.” She drew in a breath and let it out. “I only wanted to protect you.”

  “From the truth?”

  “From everything.”

  “There’s no such thing,” Sophie said bitterly. “Don’t you know that by now? Rachel is gone. Sarah is dead. Grandpère is dead. Tante Isabelle is…” Tears filled her eyes. “And Papa … when did we last hear from him? A year? Eight months? He’s probably dead, too.”

  “Your father is alive. So is your aunt. I’d feel it if they were gone.” She put a hand over her heart. “I’d know it here.”

  “Your heart? You’d feel it in your heart?”

  Vianne knew that Sophie was being shaped by this war, roughened by fear and desperation into a sharper, more cynical version of herself, but still it was hard to see in such sharp detail.

  “How can you just … go to him? I see the bruises.”

  “That’s my war,” Vianne said quietly, ashamed almost more than she could stand.

  “Tante Isabelle would have strangled him in his sleep.”

  “Oui,” she agreed. “Isabelle is a strong woman. I am not. I am just … a mother trying to keep her children safe.”

  “You think we want you to save us this way?”

  “You’re young,” she said, her shoulders slumping in defeat. “When you are a mother yourself…”

  “I won’t be a mother,” she said.

  “I’m sorry to have disappointed you, Sophie.”

  “I want to kill him,” Sophie said after a moment.

  “Me, too.”

  “We could hold a pillow over his head while he sleeps.”

  “You think I have not dreamed of doing it? But it is too dangerous. Beck already disappeared while living in this house. To have a second officer do the same? They would turn their attention on us, which we don’t want.”

  Sophie nodded glumly.

  “I can stand what Von Richter does to me, Sophie. I couldn’t stand losing you or Daniel or being sent away from you. Or seeing you hurt.”

  Sophie didn’t look away. “I hate him.”

  “So do I,” Vianne said quietly. “So do I.”

  * * *

  “It is hot out today. I was thinking it would be a good day for swimming,” Vianne said with a smile.

  The uproar was immediate and unanimous.

  Vianne guided the children out of the orphanage classroom, keeping them tucked in close as they walked down the cloisters. They were passing Mother Superior’s office when the door opened.

  “Madame Mauriac,” Mother said, smiling. “Your little gaggle looks happy enough to burst into song.”

  “Not on a day this hot, Mother.” She linked her arm through Mother’s. “Come to the pond with us.”

  “A thoroughly lovely idea on a September day.”

  “Single file,” Vianne said to the children as they reached the main road. The children immediately fell into line. Vianne started them off on a song and they picked it up instantly, singing loudly as they clapped and bounced and skipped.

  Did they even notice the bombed-out buildings they passed? The smoking piles of rubble that had once been homes? Or was destruction the ordinary view of their childhoods, unremarkable, unnoticeable?

  Daniel—as always—stayed with Vianne, clinging to her hand. He was like that lately, afraid to be apart from her for long. Sometimes it bothered her, even broke her heart. She wondered if there was a part of him, deep down, that remembered all that he had lost—the mother, the father, the sister. She worried that when he slept, curled up against her side, he was Ari
, the boy left behind.

  Vianne clapped her hands. “Children, you are to cross the street in an orderly fashion. Sophie, you are my leader.”

  The children crossed the street carefully and then raced up the hill to the wide, seasonal pond that was one of Vianne’s favorite places. Antoine had first kissed her at this very spot.

  At the water’s edge, the students started stripping down. In no time, they were in the water.

  She looked down at Daniel. “Do you want to go play in the water with your sister?”

  Daniel chewed his lower lip, watching the children splash in the still, blue water. “I don’t know…”

  “You don’t have to swim if you don’t want to. You could just get your feet wet.”

  He frowned, his round cheeks bunched in consideration. Then he let go of her hand and walked cautiously toward Sophie.

  “He still clings to you,” Mother said.

  “He has nightmares, too.” Vianne was about to say, Lord knows I do, when nausea hit. She mumbled, “Excuse me,” and ran through the tall grass to a copse of trees, where she bent over and vomited. There was almost nothing in her stomach, but the dry heaves went on and on, leaving her feeling weak and exhausted.

  She felt Mother’s hand on her back, rubbing her, soothing her.

  Vianne straightened. She tried to smile. “I’m sorry. I don’t—” She stopped. The truth washed over her. She turned to Mother. “I threw up yesterday morning.”

  “Oh, no, Vianne. A baby?”

  Vianne didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or scream at God. She had prayed and prayed for another child to grow in her womb.

  But not now.

  Not his.

  * * *

  Vianne hadn’t slept in a week. She felt rickety and tired and terrified. And her morning sickness had gotten even worse.

  Now she sat at the edge of the bed, looking down at Daniel. At five, he was outgrowing his pajamas again; skinny wrists and ankles stuck out from the frayed sleeves and pant legs. Unlike Sophie, he never complained about being hungry or reading by candlelight or the terrible gray bread their rations provided. He remembered nothing else.

  “Hey, Captain Dan,” she said, pushing the damp black curls out of his eyes. He rolled onto his back and grinned up at her, showing off his missing front teeth.

  “Maman, I dreamed there was candy.”

  The door to the bedroom banged open. Sophie appeared, breathing hard. “Come quick, Maman.”

  “Oh, Sophie, I am—”

  “Now.”

  “Come on, Daniel. She looks serious.”

  He surged at her exuberantly. He was too big for her to carry, so she hugged him tightly and then withdrew. She retrieved the only clothes that fit him—a pair of canvas pants that had been made from painter’s cloth she’d found in the barn and a sweater she’d knitted with precious blue wool. When he was dressed, she took his hand and led him into the living room. The front door was standing open.

  Bells were ringing. Church bells. It sounded as if music were playing somewhere. “La Marseillaise”? On a Tuesday at nine in the morning?

  Outside, Sophie stood beneath the apple tree. A line of Nazis marched past the house. Moments later came the vehicles. Tanks and lorries and automobiles rumbled past Le Jardin, one after another, churning up dust.

  A black Citroën pulled over to the side of the road and parked. Von Richter got out and came to her, his boots dirty, his eyes hidden behind black sunglasses, his mouth drawn into a thin, angry line.

  “Madame Mauriac.”

  “Herr Sturmbannführer.”

  “We are leaving your sorry, sickly little town.”

  She didn’t speak. If she had, she would have said something that could get her killed.

  “This war isn’t over,” he said, but whether this was for her benefit or his own, she wasn’t sure.

  His gaze flicked past Sophie and landed on Daniel.

  Vianne stood utterly still, her face impassive.

  He turned to her. The newest bruise on her cheek made him smile.

  “Von Richter!” someone in the entourage yelled. “Leave your French whore behind.”

  “That’s what you were, you know,” he said.

  She pressed her lips together to keep from speaking.

  “I’ll forget you.” He leaned forward. “I wonder if you can say the same.”

  He marched into the house and came out again, carrying his leather valise. Without a glance at her, he returned to his automobile. The door slammed shut behind him.

  Vianne reached for the gate to steady herself.

  “They’re leaving,” Sophie said.

  Vianne’s legs gave out. She crumpled to her knees. “He’s gone.”

  Sophie knelt beside Vianne and held her tightly.

  Daniel ran barefooted through the patch of dirt between them. “Me, too!” he yelled. “I want a hug!” He threw himself into them so hard they toppled over, fell into the dry grass.

  * * *

  In the month since the Germans had left Carriveau, there was good news everywhere about the Allied victories, but the war hadn’t ended. Germany hadn’t surrendered. The blackout had been softened to a “dim out,” so the windows let in light again—a surprising gift. But still Vianne couldn’t relax. Without Von Richter on her mind (she would never say his name out loud again, not as long as she lived, but she couldn’t stop thinking about him), she was obsessed with worry for Isabelle and Rachel and Antoine. She wrote Antoine a letter almost every day and stood in line to mail them, even though the Red Cross reported that no mail was getting through. They hadn’t heard from him in more than a year.

  “You’re pacing again, Maman,” Sophie said. She was seated at the divan, snuggled up with Daniel, a book open between them. On the fireplace mantel were a few of the photographs Vianne had brought in from the cellar in the barn. It was one of the few things she could think to do to make Le Jardin a home again.

  “Maman?”

  Sophie’s voice brought Vianne back to herself.

  “He’s coming home,” Sophie said. “And so is Tante Isabelle.”

  “Mais oui.”

  “What will we tell Papa?” Sophie asked, and Vianne knew by the look in Sophie’s eyes that she’d wanted to ask this for a while.

  Vianne placed a hand on her still flat abdomen. There was no sign of the baby yet, but Vianne knew her body well; a life was growing within her. She left the living room and went to the front door, pushing it open. Barefooted, she stepped down on the cracked stone steps, feeling the soft moss on the bottoms of her feet. Taking care not to step on a sharp rock, she walked out to the road and turned toward town. Kept walking.

  The cemetery appeared on her right. It had been ruined by a bomb blast two months ago. Aged stone markers lay on their sides, split in pieces. The ground was cracked and broken, with gaping holes here and there; skeletons hung from the tree branches, bones clattering in the breeze.

  In the distance, she saw a man coming around the bend in the road.

  In years to come, she would ask herself what had drawn her out here on this hot autumn day at exactly this hour, but she knew.

  Antoine.

  She started to run, heedless of her bare feet. It wasn’t until she was almost in his arms, close enough to reach out, that she stopped suddenly, drew herself up short. He would take one look at her and know that she had been ruined by another man.

  “Vianne,” he said in a voice she barely recognized. “I escaped.”

  He was so changed; his face had sharpened and his hair had gone gray. White stubble covered his hollow cheeks and jawline, and he was so terribly thin. His left arm hung at an odd angle, as if it had been broken and badly reset.

  He was thinking the same of her. She could see it in his eyes.

  His name came out in a whisper of breath. “Antoine.” She felt the sting of tears and saw that he was crying, too. She went to him, kissed him, but when he drew back, he looked like a man she’d never seen befo
re.

  “I can do better,” he said.

  She took his hand. More than anything she wanted to feel close to him, connected, but the shame of what she’d endured created a wall between them.

  “I thought of you every night,” he said as they walked toward home. “I imagined you in our bed, thought of how you looked in that white nightgown … I knew you were as alone as I was.”

  Vianne couldn’t find her voice.

  “Your letters and packages kept me going,” he said.

  At the broken gate in front of Le Jardin, he paused.

  She saw the house through his eyes. The tilted gate, the fallen wall, the dead apple tree that grew dirty scraps of cloth instead of bright red fruit.

  He pushed the gate out of the way. It clattered sideways, still connected to the crumbling post by a single unsteady screw and bolt. It creaked in protest at being touched.

  “Wait,” she said.

  She had to tell him now, before it was too late. The whole town knew Nazis had billeted with Vianne. He would hear gossip, for sure. If a baby was born in eight months, they would suspect.

  “It was hard without you,” she began, trying to find her way. “Le Jardin is so close to the airfield. The Germans noticed the house on their way into town. Two officers billeted here—”

  The front door burst open and Sophie screamed, “Papa!” and came running across the yard.

  Antoine dropped awkwardly to one knee and opened his arms and Sophie ran into him.

  Vianne felt pain open up and expand. He was home, just as she’d prayed for, but she knew now that it wasn’t the same; it couldn’t be. He was changed. She was changed. She placed a hand on her flat belly.

  “You are so grown up,” Antoine said to his daughter. “I left a little girl and came home to a young woman. You’ll have to tell me what I missed.”

  Sophie looked past him to Vianne. “I don’t think we should talk about the war. Any of it. Ever. It’s over.”

  Sophie wanted Vianne to lie.

  Daniel appeared in the doorway, dressed in short pants and a red knit turtleneck that had lost its shape and socks that sagged over his ill-fitting secondhand shoes. Clutching a picture book to his narrow chest, he jumped down from the step and came toward them, frowning.

  “And who is this good-looking young man?” Antoine asked.

  “I’m Daniel,” he said. “Who are you?”

  “I’m Sophie’s father.”

  Daniel’s eyes widened. He dropped the book and threw himself at Antoine, yelling, “Papa! You’re home!”

  Antoine scooped the boy into his arms and lifted him up.

  “I’ll tell you,” Vianne said. “But let’s go inside now and celebrate.”

  * * *

  Vianne had fantasized about her husband’s return from war a thousand times. In the beginning, she’d imagined him dropping his suitcase at the sight of her and sweeping her into his big, strong arms.

  And then Beck had moved into her home, making her feel things for a man—an enemy—that even now she refused to name. When he’d told her of Antoine’s imprisonment, she’d pared down her expectations. She’d imagined her husband thinner, more ragged looking, but still Antoine when he returned.

  The man at her dinner table was a stranger. He hunched over his food and wrapped his arms around his plate, spooning marrow bone broth into his mouth as if the meal were a timed event. When he realized what he was doing, he flushed
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