The nightingale, p.39
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       The Nightingale, p.39

           Kristin Hannah

  guiltily and gave them a mumbled apology.

  Daniel talked constantly, while Sophie and Vianne studied the shadow version of Antoine. He jumped at every sound and flinched when he was touched, and the pain in his eyes was impossible to miss.

  After supper, he put the children to bed while Vianne did the dishes alone. She was happy to let him go, which only increased her guilt. He was her husband, the love of her life, and yet, when he touched her, it was all she could do not to turn away. Now, standing at the window in her bedroom, she felt nervous as she awaited him.

  He came up behind her. She felt his strong sure hands on her shoulders, heard him breathing behind her. She longed to lean back, rest her body against his with the familiarity that came from years together, but she couldn’t. His hands caressed her shoulders, ran down her arms, and then settled on her hips. He gently turned her to face him.

  He eased the collar of her robe sideways and kissed her shoulder. “You’re so thin,” he said, his voice hoarse with passion and something else, something new between them—loss, maybe, an acknowledgment that change had occurred in their absence.

  “I’ve gained weight since the winter,” she said.

  “Yeah,” he said. “Me, too.”

  “How did you escape?”

  “When they started losing the war, it got … bad. They beat me so badly I lost the use of my left arm. I decided then I’d rather get shot running to you than be tortured to death. Once you’re ready to die, the plan gets easy.”

  Now was the time to tell him the truth. He might understand that rape was torture and that she’d been a prisoner, too. It wasn’t her fault, what had happened to her. She believed that, but she didn’t think fault mattered in a thing like this.

  He took her face in his hands and forced her to lift her chin.

  Their kiss was sad, an apology almost, a reminder of what they’d once shared. She trembled as he undressed her. She saw the red marks that crisscrossed his back and torso, and the jagged, angry, puckering scars that ran the length of his left arm.

  She knew Antoine wouldn’t hit her or hurt her. And still she was afraid.

  “What is it, Vianne?” he said, drawing back.

  She glanced at the bed, their bed, and all she could think about was him. Von Richter. “W-while you were gone…”

  “Do we need to talk about it?”

  She wanted to confess it all, to cry in his arms and be comforted and told that it would be all right. But what about Antoine? He’d been through hell, too. She could see it in him. There were red, slashing scars on his chest that looked like whip marks.

  He loved her. She saw that, too, felt it.

  But he was a man. If she told him she’d been raped—and that another man’s baby grew in her belly—it would eat at him. In time, he would wonder if she could have stopped Von Richter. Maybe someday he’d wonder if she’d enjoyed it.

  And there it was. She could tell him about Beck, even that she’d killed him, but she could never tell Antoine she’d been raped. This child in her belly would be born early. Children were born a month early all the time.

  She couldn’t help wondering if this secret would destroy them either way.

  “I could tell you all of it,” she said quietly. Her tears were tears of shame and loss and love. Love most of all. “I could tell you about the German officers who billeted here and how hard life was and how we barely survived and how Sarah died in front of me and how strong Rachel was when they put her on the cattle car and how I promised to keep Ari safe. I could tell you how my father died and Isabelle was arrested and deported … but I think you know it all.” God forgive me. “And maybe there’s no point talking about any of it. Maybe…” She traced a red welt that ran like a lightning bolt down his left bicep. “Maybe it’s best to just forget the past and go on.”

  He kissed her. When he drew back, his lips remained against hers. “I love you, Vianne.”

  She closed her eyes and returned his kiss, waiting for her body to come alive at his touch, but when she slid beneath him and felt their bodies come together as they’d done so many times before, she felt nothing at all.

  “I love you, too, Antoine.” She tried not to cry as she said it.

  * * *

  A cold November night. Antoine had been home for almost two months. There had been no word from Isabelle.

  Vianne couldn’t sleep. She lay in bed beside her husband, listening to his quiet snore. It had never bothered her before, never kept her awake, but now it did.


  That wasn’t true.

  She turned, lay on her side, and stared at him. In the darkness, with the light of a full moon coming through the window, he was unfamiliar: thin, sharp, gray-haired at thirty-five. She inched out of bed and covered him with the heavy eiderdown that had been her grandmère’s.

  She put on her robe. Downstairs, she wandered from room to room, looking for—what? Her old life perhaps, or the love for a man she’d lost.

  Nothing felt right anymore. They were like strangers. He felt it, too. She knew he did. The war lay between them at night.

  She got a quilt from the living room trunk, wrapped it around herself, and went outside.

  A full moon hung over the ruined fields. Light fell in crackled patches on the ground below the apple trees. She went to the middle tree, stood beneath it. The dead black branch arched above her, leafless and gnarled. On it were all her scraps of twine and yarn and ribbon.

  When she’d tied the remembrances onto this branch, Vianne had naïvely thought that staying alive was all that mattered. The door behind her opened and closed quietly. She felt her husband’s presence as she always had.

  “Vianne,” he said, coming up behind her. He put his arms around her. She wanted to lean back into him but she couldn’t do it. She stared at the first ribbon she’d tied to this tree. Antoine’s. The color of it was as changed, as weathered, as they were.

  It was time. She couldn’t wait any longer. Her belly was growing.

  She turned, looked up at him. “Antoine” was all she could say.

  “I love you, Vianne.”

  She drew in a deep breath and said, “I’m going to have a baby.”

  He went still. It was a long moment before he said, “What? When?”

  She stared up at him, remembering their other pregnancies, how they’d come together in loss and in joy. “I’m almost two months along, I think. It must have happened … that first night you were home.”

  She saw every nuance of emotion in his eyes: surprise, worry, concern, wonder, and, finally, joy. He grazed her chin, tilted her face up. “I know why you look so afraid, but don’t worry, V. We won’t lose this one,” he said. “Not after all of this. It’s a miracle.”

  Tears stung her eyes. She tried to smile, but her guilt was suffocating.

  “You’ve been through so much.”

  “We all have.”

  “So we choose to see miracles.”

  Was that his way of saying he knew the truth? Had suspicion planted itself? What would he say when the baby was born early? “Wh-what do you mean?”

  She saw tears glaze his eyes. “I mean forget the past, V. Now is what matters. We will always love each other. That’s the promise we made when we were fourteen. By the pond when I first kissed you, remember?”

  “I remember.” She was so lucky to have found this man. No wonder she had fallen in love with him. And she would find her way back to him, just as he’d found his way back to her.

  “This baby will be our new beginning.”

  “Kiss me,” she whispered. “Make me forget.”

  “It’s not forgetting we need, Vianne,” he said, leaning down to kiss her. “It’s remembering.”


  In February 1945, snow covered the naked bodies piled outside the camp’s newly built crematorium. Putrid black smoke roiled up from the chimneys.

  Isabelle stood, shivering, in her place at the morning Appell—roll call. It was th
e kind of cold that ached in the lungs and froze eyelashes and burned fingertips and toes.

  She waited for the roll call to end, but no whistle blared.

  Snow was still falling. In the prisoners’ ranks, some women started to cough. Another one pitched face-first into the mushy, muddy snow and couldn’t be raised. A bitter wind blew across the camp.

  Finally, an SS officer on horseback rode past the women, eyeing them one by one. He seemed to notice everything—the shorn hair, the flea bites, the blue tips of frostbitten fingers, and the patches that identified them as Jews, or homosexuals, or political prisoners. In the distance, bombs fell, exploded like distant thunder.

  When the officer pointed out a woman, she was immediately pulled from the line.

  He pointed at Isabelle, and she was yanked nearly off her feet, dragged out of line.

  The SS squads surrounded the women who’d been chosen, forced them to form two lines. A whistle blared. “Schnell! Eins! Zwei! Drei!”

  Isabelle marched forward, her feet aching with cold, her lungs burning. Micheline fell into step beside her.

  They had made it a mile or so outside of the gates when a lorry rumbled past them, its back heaped high with naked corpses.

  Micheline stumbled. Isabelle reached out, holding her friend upright.

  And still they marched.

  At last they came to a snowy field blanketed in fog.

  The Germans separated the women again. Isabelle was yanked away from Micheline and pushed into a group of other Nacht und Nebel political prisoners.

  The Germans shoved them together and shouted at them and pointed until Isabelle understood.

  The woman beside her screamed when she saw what they’d been chosen for. Road crew.

  “Don’t,” Isabelle said just as a truncheon hit the woman hard enough to send her sprawling.

  Isabelle stood as numb as a plow mule as the Nazis slipped rough leather harness straps over her shoulders and tightened them at her waist. She was harnessed to eleven other young women, elbow-to-elbow. Behind them, attached to the harness, was a steel wheel the size of an automobile.

  Isabelle tried to take a step, couldn’t.

  A whip cracked across her back, setting her flesh on fire. She clutched the harness straps and tried again, taking a step forward. They were exhausted. They had no strength and their feet were freezing on the snowy ground, but they had to move or they’d be whipped. Isabelle angled forward, straining to move, to get the stone wheel turning. The straps bit into her chest. One of the women stumbled, fell; the others kept pulling. The leather harness creaked and the wheel turned.

  They pulled and pulled and pulled, creating a road from the snow-covered ground behind them. Other women used shovels and wheelbarrows to clear the way.

  All the while, the guards sat in pods, gathered around open fires, talking and laughing among themselves.




  Isabelle couldn’t think of anything else. Not the cold, not her hunger or thirst, not the flea and lice bites that covered her body. And not real life. That was the worst of all. The thing that would get her to miss a step, to draw attention to herself, to be hit or whipped or worse.


  Just think about moving.

  Her leg gave out. She crumpled to the snow. The woman beside her reached out. Isabelle grabbed the shaking, blue-white hand, gripped it in her numb fingers, and crawled back to stand. Gritting her teeth, she took another pain-filled step. And then another.

  * * *

  The siren went off at 3:30 A.M., as it did every morning for roll call. Like her nine bunkmates, Isabelle slept in every bit of clothing she had—ill-fitting shoes and underwear; the baggy, striped dress with her prisoner identification number sewn on the sleeve. But none of it provided warmth. She tried to encourage the women around her to hold strong, but she herself was weakening. It had been a terrible winter; all of them were dying, some quickly, of typhus and cruelty, and some slowly of starvation and cold, but all were dying.

  Isabelle had had a fever for weeks, but not high enough to send her to the hospital block, and last week she’d been beaten so badly she’d lost consciousness at work—and then she’d been beaten for falling down. Her body, which couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds, was crawling with lice and covered in open sores.

  Ravensbrück had been dangerous from the beginning, but now, in March 1945, it was even more so. Hundreds of women had been killed or gassed or beaten in the last month. The only women who’d been left alive were the Verfügbaren—the disposables, who were sick or frail or elderly—and the women of Nacht und Nebel, “Night and Fog.” Political prisoners, like Isabelle and Micheline. Women of the Resistance. The rumor was that the Nazis were afraid to gas them now that the tide of war had turned.

  “You’re going to make it.”

  Isabelle realized she’d been weaving in place, beginning to fall.

  Micheline Babineau gave her a tired, encouraging smile. “Don’t cry.”

  “I’m not crying,” Isabelle said. They both knew that the women who cried at night were the women who died in the morning. Sadness and loss were drawn in with each breath but never expelled. You couldn’t give in. Not for a second.

  Isabelle knew this. In the camp, she fought back the only way she knew how—by caring for her fellow prisoners and helping them to stay strong. All they had in this hell was each other. In the evenings, they crouched in their dark bunks, whispering among themselves, singing softly, trying to keep alive some memory of who they’d been. Over the nine months Isabelle had been here, she had found—and lost—too many friends to count.

  But Isabelle was tired now, and sick.

  Pneumonia, she was pretty sure. And typhus, maybe. She coughed quietly and did her job and tried to draw no attention. The last thing she wanted was to end up in the “tent”—a small brick building with tarp walls, into which the Nazis put any woman with an incurable disease. It was where women went to die.

  “Stay alive,” Isabelle said softly.

  Micheline nodded encouragingly.

  They had to stay alive. Now more than ever. Last week, new prisoners had come with news: the Russians were advancing across Germany, smashing and defeating the Nazi army. Auschwitz had been liberated. The Allies were said to be winning one victory after another in the west.

  A race for survival was on and everyone knew it. The war was ending. Isabelle had to stay alive long enough to see an Allied victory and a free France.

  A whistle blared at the front of the line.

  A hush fell over the crowd of prisoners—women, mostly, and a few children. In front of them, a trio of SS officers paced with their dogs.

  The camp Kommandant appeared in front of them. He stopped and clasped his hands behind his back. He called out something in German and the SS officers advanced. Isabelle heard the words “Nacht und Nebel.”

  An SS officer pointed at her, and another one pushed through the crowd, knocking women to the ground, stepping on or over them. He grabbed Isabelle’s skinny arm and pulled hard. She stumbled along beside him, praying her shoes wouldn’t fall off—it was a whipping offense to lose a shoe, and if she did, she’d spend the rest of this winter with a bare, frostbitten foot.

  Not far away, she saw Micheline being dragged off by another officer.

  All Isabelle could think was that she needed to keep her shoes on.

  An SS officer called out a word Isabelle recognized.

  They were being sent to another camp.

  She felt a wave of impotent rage. She would never survive a forced march through the snow to another camp.

  “No,” she muttered. Talking to herself had become a way of life. For months, as she stood in line at work, doing something that repelled and horrified her, she whispered to herself. As she sat on a hole in a row of pit toilets, surrounded by other woman with dysentery, staring at the women sitting across from her, trying not to gag on the stench of their bowel m
ovements, she whispered to herself. In the beginning, it had been stories she told herself about the future, memories she shared with herself about the past.

  Now it was just words. Gibberish sometimes, anything to remind herself that she was human and alive.

  Her toe caught on something and she pitched to the ground, falling face-first in the dirty snow.

  “To your feet,” someone yelled. “March.”

  Isabelle couldn’t move, but if she stayed there, they’d whip her again. Or worse.

  “On your feet,” Micheline said.

  “I can’t.”

  “You can. Now. Before they see you’ve fallen.” Micheline helped her to her feet.

  Isabelle and Micheline fell into the ragged line of prisoners, walking wearily forward, past the brick-walled perimeter of the camp, beneath the watchful eye of the soldier in the watchtower.

  They walked for two days, traveled thirty-five miles, collapsing on the cold ground at night, huddling together for warmth, praying to see the dawn, only to be wakened by whistles and told to march again.

  How many died along the way? She wanted to remember their names, but she was so cold and hungry and exhausted her brain barely worked.

  Finally, they arrived at their destination, a train station, where they were shoved onto cattle cars that smelled of death and excrement. Black smoke rose into the snow-whitened sky. The trees were bare. There were no birds anymore in the sky, no chirping or screeching or chatter of living things filled this forest.

  Isabelle clambered up onto the bales of hay that were stacked along the wall and tried to make herself as small as possible. She pulled her bleeding knees into her chest and wrapped her arms around her ankles to conserve what little warmth she had.

  The pain in her chest was excruciating. She covered her mouth just as a cough racked her, bent her forward.

  “There you are,” Micheline said in the dark, climbing onto the hay bale beside her.

  Isabelle let out a sigh of relief, and immediately she was coughing again. She put a hand over her mouth and felt blood spray into her palm. She’d been coughing up blood for weeks now.

  Isabelle felt a dry hand on her forehead and she coughed again.

  “You’re burning up.”

  The cattle car doors clanged shut. The carriage shuddered and the giant iron wheels began to turn. The car swayed and clattered. Inside, the women banded together and sat down. At least in this weather their urine would freeze in the barrel and not slosh all over.

  Isabelle sagged next to her friend and closed her eyes.

  From somewhere far away, she heard a high-pitched whistling sound. A bomb falling. The train screeched to a halt and the bomb exploded, near enough that the carriage rattled. The smell of smoke and fire filled the air. The next one could fall on this train and kill them all.

  * * *

  Four days later, when the train finally came to a complete stop (it had slowed dozens of times to avoid being bombed) the doors clattered open to reveal a white landscape broken only by the black greatcoats of the SS officers waiting outside.

  Isabelle sat up, surprised to find that she wasn’t cold. She felt hot; so hot she was perspiring.

  She saw how many of her friends had died overnight, but there was no time to grieve for them, no time to say a prayer or whisper a good-bye. The Nazis on the platform were coming for them, blowing their whistles, yelling.

  “Schnell! Schnell!”

  Isabelle nudged Micheline awake. “Take my hand,” Isabelle said.

  The two women held hands and climbed gingerly down from the hay bales.
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