The nightingale, p.40
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       The Nightingale, p.40
 

           Kristin Hannah

  Isabelle stepped over a dead body, from which someone had already taken the shoes.

  On the other side of the platform, a line of prisoners was forming.

  Isabelle limped forward. The woman in front of Isabelle stumbled and fell to her knees.

  An SS officer yanked the woman to her feet and shot her in the face.

  Isabelle didn’t slow down. Alternately freezing cold and burning hot, unsteady on her feet, she plodded forward through the snowy forest until another camp came into view.

  “Schnell!”

  Isabelle followed the women in front of her. They passed through open gates, past a throng of skeletal men and women in gray-striped pajamas who looked at them through a chain-link fence.

  “Juliette!”

  She heard the name. At first it meant nothing to her, just another sound. Then she remembered.

  She’d been Juliette. And Isabelle before that. And the Nightingale. Not just F-5491.

  She glanced at the skeletal prisoners lined up behind the chain link.

  Someone was waving at her. A woman: gray skin and a hooked, pointed nose and sunken eyes.

  Eyes.

  Isabelle recognized the tired, knowing gaze fixed on her.

  Anouk.

  Isabelle stumbled to the chain-link fence.

  Anouk met her. Their fingers clasped through the ice-cold metal. “Anouk,” she said, hearing the break in her voice. She coughed a little, covered her mouth.

  The sadness in Anouk’s dark eyes was unbearable. Her friend’s gaze cut to a building whose chimney puffed out putrid black smoke. “They’re killing us to cover what they’ve done.”

  “Henri? Paul?… Gaëtan?”

  “They were all arrested, Juliette. Henri was hanged in the town square. The rest…” She shrugged.

  Isabelle heard an SS soldier yell at her. She backed away from the fence. She wanted to say something real to Anouk, something that would last, but she couldn’t do anything but cough. She covered her mouth and stumbled sideways, got back into line.

  She saw her friend mouth “Good-bye,” and Isabelle couldn’t even respond. She was so, so tired of good-byes.

  THIRTY-SEVEN

  Even on this blue-skied March day, the apartment on the Avenue de La Bourdonnais felt like a mausoleum. Dust covered every surface and layered the floor. Vianne went to the windows and tore the blackout shades down, letting light into this room for the first time in years.

  It looked like no one had been in this apartment for some time. Probably not since that day Papa had left to save Isabelle.

  Most of the paintings were still on the walls and the furniture was in place—some of it had been hacked up for firewood and piled in the corner. An empty soup bowl and spoon sat on the dining room table. His volumes of self-published poetry lined the mantel. “It doesn’t look like she’s been here. We must try the Hôtel Lutetia.”

  Vianne knew she should pack up her family’s things, claim these remnants of a different life, but she couldn’t do it now. She didn’t want to. Later.

  She and Antoine and Sophie left the apartment. On the street outside, all around them were signs of recovery. Parisians were like moles, coming out into the sunshine after years in the dark. But still there were food lines everywhere and rationing and deprivation. The war might have been winding down—the Germans were retreating everywhere—but it wasn’t over yet.

  They went to the Hôtel Lutetia, which had been home to the Abwehr under the occupation and was now a reception center for people returning from the camps.

  Vianne stood in the elegant, crowded lobby. As she looked around, she felt sick to her stomach and grateful that she’d left Daniel with Mother Marie-Therese. The reception area was filled with rail-thin, bald, vacant-eyed people dressed in rags. They looked like walking cadavers. Moving among them were doctors and Red Cross workers and journalists.

  A man approached Vianne, stuck a faded black-and-white photograph in her face. “Have you seen her? Last we heard she was at Auschwitz.”

  The photograph showed a lovely girl standing beside a bicycle, smiling brightly. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old.

  “No,” Vianne said. “I’m sorry.”

  The man was already walking away, looking as dazed as Vianne felt.

  Everywhere Vianne looked she saw anxious families, photographs held in their shaking hands, begging for news of their loved ones. The wall to her right was covered with photographs and notes and names and addresses. The living looking for the lost. Antoine moved close to Vianne, put a hand on her shoulder. “We will find her, V.”

  “Maman?” Sophie said. “Are you all right?”

  She looked down at her daughter. “Perhaps we should have left you at home.”

  “It’s too late to protect me,” Sophie said. “You must know that.”

  Vianne hated that truth as much as any. She held on to her daughter’s hand and moved resolutely through the crowd, with Antoine beside her. In an area to the left, she saw a gathering of men in dirty striped pajamas who looked like skeletons. How were they still alive?

  She didn’t even realize that she had stopped again until a woman appeared in front of her.

  “Madame?” the woman—a Red Cross worker—said gently.

  Vianne tore her gaze from the ragged survivors. “I have people I’m looking for … my sister, Isabelle Rossignol. She was arrested for aiding the enemy and deported. And my best friend, Rachel de Champlain, was deported. Her husband, Marc, was a prisoner of war. I … don’t know what happened to any of them or how to look for them. And … I have a list of Jewish children in Carriveau. I need to reunite them with their parents.”

  The Red Cross worker, a thin, gray-haired woman, took out a piece of paper and wrote down the names Vianne had given her. “I will go to the records desk and check these names. As to the children, come with me.” She led the three of them to a room down the hall, where an ancient-looking man with a long beard sat behind a desk piled with papers.

  “M’sieur Montand,” the Red Cross worker said, “this woman has information on some Jewish children.”

  The old man looked up at her through bloodshot eyes and made a flicking motion with his long, hair-tufted fingers. “Come in.”

  The Red Cross worker left the room. The sudden quiet was disconcerting after so much noise and commotion.

  Vianne approached the desk. Her hands were damp with perspiration. She rubbed them along the sides of her skirt. “I am Vianne Mauriac. From Carriveau.” She opened her handbag and withdrew the list she had compiled last night from the three lists she’d kept throughout the war. She set it on his desk. “These are some hidden Jewish children, M’sieur. They are in the Abbaye de la Trinité orphanage under the care of Mother Superior Marie-Therese. I don’t know how to reunite them with their parents. Except for the first name on the list. Ari de Champlain is with me. I am searching for his parents.”

  “Nineteen children,” he said quietly.

  “It is not many, I know, but…”

  He looked up at her as if she were a heroine instead of a scared survivor. “It is nineteen who would have died in the camps along with their parents, Madame.”

  “Can you reunite them with their families?” she asked softly.

  “I will try, Madame. But sadly, most of these children are indeed orphans now. The lists coming from the camps are all the same: mother dead, father dead, no relatives alive in France. And so few children survived.” He ran a hand through the thinning gray hair on his head. “I will forward your list to the OSE in Nice. They are trying to reunite families. Merci, Madame.”

  Vianne waited a moment, but the man said no more. She rejoined her husband and daughter and they left the office and stepped back into the crowd of refugees and families and camp survivors.

  “What do we do now?” Sophie asked.

  “We wait to hear from the Red Cross worker,” Vianne said.

  Antoine pointed to the wall of photographs and names of t
he missing. “We should look for her there.”

  A look passed between them, an acknowledgment of how much it would hurt to stand there, looking through the photographs of the missing. Still, they moved to the sea of pictures and notes and began to look through them, one by one.

  They were there for nearly two hours before the Red Cross worker returned.

  “Madame?”

  Vianne turned.

  “I am sorry, Madame. Rachel and Marc de Champlain are listed among the deceased. And there is no record of an Isabelle Rossignol anywhere.”

  Vianne heard deceased and felt an almost unbearable grief. She pushed the emotion aside resolutely. She would think of Rachel later, when she was alone. She would have a glass of champagne outside, beneath the yew tree, and talk to her friend. “What does that mean? No record of Isabelle? I saw them take her away.”

  “Go home and wait for your sister’s return,” the Red Cross worker said. She touched Vianne’s arm. “Have hope. Not all of the camps have been liberated.”

  Sophie looked up at her. “Maybe she made herself invisible.”

  Vianne touched her daughter’s face, managed a small, sad smile. “You are so grown-up. It makes me proud and breaks my heart at the same time.”

  “Come on,” Sophie said, tugging on her hand. Vianne allowed her daughter to lead her away. She felt more like the child than the parent as they made their way through the crowded lobby and out onto the brightly lit street.

  Hours later, when they were on the train bound for home, seated on a wooden banquette in the third-class carriage, Vianne stared out the window at the bombed-out countryside. Antoine sat sleeping beside her, his head resting against the dirty window.

  “How are you feeling?” Sophie asked.

  Vianne placed a hand on her swollen abdomen. A tiny flutter—a kick—tapped against her palm. She reached for Sophie’s hand.

  Sophie tried to pull away; Vianne gently insisted. She placed her daughter’s hand on her belly.

  Sophie felt the flutter of movement and her eyes widened. She looked up at Vianne. “How can you…”

  “We are all changed by this war, Soph. Daniel is your brother now that Rachel is … gone. Truly your brother. And this baby; he or she is innocent of … his or her creation.”

  “It’s hard to forget,” she said quietly. “And I’ll never forgive.”

  “But love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.”

  Sophie sighed. “I suppose,” she said, sounding too adult for a girl of her age.

  Vianne placed a hand on top of her daughter’s. “We will remind each other, oui? On the dark days. We will be strong for each other.”

  * * *

  Roll call had been going on for hours. Isabelle dropped to her knees. The minute she hit the ground, she thought stay alive and clambered back up.

  Guards patrolled the perimeter with their dogs, selecting women for the gas chamber. Word was that another march was coming. This one to Mauthausen, where thousands had already been worked to death: Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, Allied airmen, political prisoners. It was said that none who walked through its gates would ever walk out.

  Isabelle coughed. Blood sprayed across her palm. She wiped it on her dirty dress quickly, before the guards could see.

  Her throat burned, her head pulsed and ached. She was so focused on her agony that it took her a moment to notice the sound of engines.

  “Do you hear that?” Micheline said.

  Isabelle felt a commotion moving through the prisoners. It was hard to concentrate when she hurt so badly. Her lungs ached with every breath.

  “They’re leaving,” she heard.

  “Isabelle, look!”

  At first all she saw was bright blue sky and trees and prisoners. Then she noticed.

  “The guards are gone,” she said in a hoarse, ragged voice.

  The gates clattered open and a stream of American trucks drove through the gates; soldiers sat on the bonnets and hung out the back, their rifles held across their chests.

  Americans.

  Isabelle’s knees gave out. “Mich … e … line,” she whispered, her voice as broken as her spirit. “We … made … it.”

  * * *

  That spring, the war began to end. General Eisenhower broadcast a demand for the German surrender. Americans crossed the Rhine and went into Germany; the Allies won one battle after another and began to liberate the camps. Hitler was living in a bunker.

  And still, Isabelle didn’t come home.

  Vianne let the letter box clang shut. “It’s as if she disappeared.”

  Antoine said nothing. For weeks they had been searching for Isabelle. Vianne stood in queues for hours to make telephone calls and sent countless letters to agencies and hospitals. Last week they visited more displaced-person camps, but to no avail. There was no record of Isabelle Rossignol anywhere. It was as if she had disappeared from the face of the earth—along with hundreds of thousands of others.

  Maybe Isabelle had survived the camps, only to be shot a day before the Allies arrived. Supposedly in one of the camps, a place called Bergen-Belsen, the Allies had found heaps of still-warm bodies at liberation.

  Why?

  So they wouldn’t talk.

  “Come with me,” Antoine said, taking her by the hand. She no longer stiffened at his touch, or flinched, but she couldn’t seem to relax into it, either. In the months since Antoine’s return, they were playacting at love and both of them knew it. He said he didn’t make love to her because of the baby, and she agreed that it was for the best, but they knew.

  “I have a surprise for you,” he said, leading her into the backyard.

  The sky was a bright cerulean beneath which the yew tree provided a patch of cool brown shade. In the pergola, the few chickens that were left pecked at the dirt, clucking and flapping.

  An old bedsheet had been stretched between a branch of the yew tree and an iron hat rack that Antoine must have found in the barn. He led her to one of the chairs set on the stone patio. In the years of his absence, the moss and grass had begun to overtake this part of the yard, so her chair sat unsteadily on the uneven surface. She sat down carefully; she was unwieldy these days. The smile her husband gave her was both dazzling in its joy and startling in its intimacy. “The kids and I have been working on this all day. It’s for you.”

  The kids and I.

  Antoine took his place in front of the sagging sheet and lifted his good arm in a sweeping gesture. “Ladies and gentlemen, children and scrawny rabbits and chickens who smell like shit—”

  Behind the curtain, Daniel giggled and Sophie shushed him.

  “In the rich tradition of Madelaine in Paris, which was Mademoiselle Mauriac’s first starring role, I give you the Le Jardin singers.” With a flourish, he unsnapped one side of the sheet-curtain and swept it aside to reveal a wooden platform set upon the grass at a not-quite-level slant. On it, Sophie stood beside Daniel. Both wore blankets as capes, with a sprig of apple blossoms at the throat and crowns made of some shiny metal, onto which they had glued pretty rocks and bits of colored glass.

  “Hi, Maman!” Daniel said, waving furiously.

  “Shhh,” Sophie said to him. “Remember?”

  Daniel nodded seriously.

  They turned carefully—the plank floor teetered beneath them—and held hands, facing Vianne.

  Antoine brought a silver harmonica to his mouth and let out a mournful note. It hung in the air for a long time, vibrating in invitation, and then he started to play.

  Sophie began to sing in a high, pure voice. “Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques…”

  She squatted down and Daniel popped up, singing, “Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?”

  Vianne clamped her hand over her mouth but not before a little laughter slipped out.

  Onstage, the song went on. She could see how happy Sophie was to do this once-ordinary thing, this little performance for her parents, and how hard Daniel was concentrating to do his part we
ll.

  It felt both profoundly magical and beautifully ordinary. A moment from the life they’d had before.

  Vianne felt joy open up inside of her.

  We’re going to be all right, she thought, looking at Antoine. In the shade cast by the tree her great-grandfather had planted, with their children’s voices in the air, she saw her other half, thought again: We’re going to be all right.

  “… ding … dang … dong…”

  When the song ended, Vianne clapped wildly. The children bowed majestically. Daniel tripped on his bedspread cape and tumbled to the grass and came up laughing. Vianne waddled to the stage and smothered her children with kisses and compliments.

  “What a lovely idea,” she said to Sophie, her eyes shining with love and pride.

  “I was concentrating, Maman,” Daniel said proudly.

  Vianne couldn’t let them go. This future she’d glimpsed filled her soul with joy.

  “I planned with Papa,” Sophie said. “Just like before, Maman.”

  “I planned it, too,” Daniel said, puffing out his little chest.

  She laughed. “How grand you both were at singing. And—”

  “Vianne?” Antoine said from behind her.

  She couldn’t look away from Daniel’s smile. “How long did it take you to learn your part?”

  “Maman,” Sophie said quietly. “Someone is here.”

  Vianne turned to look behind her.

  Antoine was standing near the back door with two men; both wore threadbare black suits and black berets. One carried a tattered briefcase.

  “Sophie, take care of your brother for a minute,” Antoine said to the children. “We have something to discuss with these men.” He moved in beside Vianne, placing a hand at the small of her back, helping her to her feet, urging her forward. They filed into the house in a silent line.

  When the door closed behind them, the men turned to face Vianne.

  “I am Nathaniel Lerner,” said the older of the two men. He had gray hair and skin the color of tea-stained linen. Age spots discolored large patches of his cheeks.

  “And I am Phillipe Horowitz,” said the other man. “We are from the OSE.”

  “Why are you here?” Vianne asked.

  “We are here for Ari de Champlain,” Phillipe said in a gentle voice. “He has relatives in America—Boston, in fact—and they have contacted us.”

  Vianne might have collapsed if Antoine had not held her steady.

  “We understand you rescued nineteen Jewish children all by yourself. And with German officers billeted in your home. That’s impressive, Madame.”

  “Heroic,” Nathaniel added.

  Antoine placed his hand on her shoulder and at that, his touch, she realized how long she’d been silent. “Rachel was my best friend,” she said quietly. “I tried to help her sneak into the Free Zone before the deportation, but…”

  “Her daughter was killed,” Lerner said.

  “How do you know that?”

  “It is our job to collect stories and to reunite families,” he answered. “We have spoken to several women who were in Auschwitz with Rachel. Sadly, she lived less than a month there. Her husband, Marc, was killed in Stalag 13A. He was not as lucky as your husband.”

 
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