The nightingale, p.41
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       The Nightingale, p.41
 

           Kristin Hannah

  Vianne said nothing. She knew the men were giving her time and she both appreciated and hated it. She didn’t want to accept any of this. “Daniel—Ari—was born a week before Marc left for the war. He has no memory of either of his parents. It was the safest way—to let him believe he was my son.”

  “But he is not your son, Madame.” Lerner’s voice was gentle but the words were like the lash of a whip.

  “I promised Rachel I would keep him safe,” she said.

  “And you have. But now it is time for Ari to return to his family. To his people.”

  “He won’t understand,” she said.

  “Perhaps not,” Lerner said. “Still.”

  Vianne looked at Antoine for help. “We love him. He’s part of our family. He should stay with us. You want him to stay, don’t you, Antoine?”

  Her husband nodded solemnly.

  She turned to the men. “We could adopt him, raise him as our own. But Jewish, of course. We will tell him who he is and take him to synagogue and—”

  “Madame,” Lerner said with a sigh.

  Phillipe approached Vianne, took her hands in his. “We know you love him and he loves you. We know that Ari is too young to understand and that he will cry and miss you—perhaps for years.”

  “But you want to take him anyway.”

  “You look at the heartbreak of one boy. I am here because of the heartbreak of my people. You understand?” His face sagged, his mouth curved into a small frown. “Millions of Jews were killed in this war, Madame. Millions.” He let that sink in. “An entire generation is gone. We need to band together now, those few of us who are left; we need to rebuild. One boy with no memory of who he was may seem a small thing to lose, but to us, he is the future. We cannot let you raise him in a religion that is not yours and take him to synagogue when you remember. Ari needs to be who he is, and to be with his people. Surely his mother would want that.”

  Vianne thought of the people she’d seen at the Hôtel Lutetia, those walking skeletons with their haunted eyes, and the endless wall of photographs.

  Millions had been killed.

  A generation lost.

  How could she keep Ari from his people, his family? She would fight to the death for either of her children, but there was no opponent for her to fight, just loss on both sides.

  “Who is taking him?” she said, not caring that her voice cracked on the question.

  “His mother’s first cousin. She has an eleven-year-old girl and a six-year-old son. They will love Ari as their own.”

  Vianne couldn’t find the strength even to nod, or wipe the tears from her eyes. “Maybe they will send me pictures?”

  Phillipe gazed at her. “He will need to forget you, Madame, to start a new life.”

  How keenly Vianne knew the truth of that. “When will you take him?”

  “Now,” Lerner said.

  Now.

  “We cannot change this?” Antoine asked.

  “No, M’sieur,” Phillipe said. “It is the right thing for Ari to return to his people. He is one of the lucky ones—he still has family living.”

  Vianne felt Antoine take her hand in his. He led her to the stairs, tugging more than once to keep her moving. She climbed the wooden steps on legs that felt leaden and unresponsive.

  In her son’s bedroom (no, not her son’s) she moved like a sleepwalker, picking up his few clothes and gathering his belongings. A threadbare stuffed monkey whose eyes had been loved off, a piece of petrified wood he’d found by the river last summer, and the quilt Vianne had made from scraps of clothes he’d outgrown. On its back, she’d embroidered “To Our Daniel, love Maman, Papa, and Sophie.”

  She remembered when he’d first read it and said, “Is Papa coming back?” and she’d nodded and told him that families had a way of finding their way home.

  “I don’t want to lose him. I can’t…”

  Antoine held her close and let her cry. When she’d finally stilled, he murmured, “You’re strong,” against her ear. “We have to be. We love him, but he’s not ours.”

  She was so tired of being strong. How many losses could she bear?

  “You want me to tell him?” Antoine asked.

  She wanted him to do it, wanted it more than anything, but this was a mother’s job.

  With shaking hands, she stuffed Daniel’s—Ari’s—belongings into a ragged canvas rucksack, and then walked out of the room, realizing a second too late that she’d left Antoine behind. It took everything she had to keep breathing, keep moving. She opened the door to her bedroom and burrowed through her armoire until she found a small framed photograph of herself and Rachel. It was the only picture she had of Rachel. It had been taken ten or twelve years ago. She wrote their names on the back and then shoved it into the pocket of the rucksack and left the room. Ignoring the men downstairs, she went out to the backyard, where the children—still in capes and crowns—were playing on the makeshift stage.

  The three men followed her.

  Sophie looked at all of them. “Maman?”

  Daniel laughed. How long would she remember exactly that sound? Not long enough. She knew that now. Memories—even the best of them—faded.

  “Daniel?” She had to clear her throat and try again. “Daniel? Could you come here?”

  “What’s wrong, Maman?” Sophie said. “You look like you’ve been crying.”

  She moved forward, clutching the rucksack to her side. “Daniel?”

  He grinned up at her. “You want us to sing it again, Maman?” he asked, righting the crown as it slipped to one side of his head.

  “Can you come here, Daniel?” she asked it twice, just to be sure. She was afraid too much of this was happening in her head.

  He padded toward her, yanking his cape sideways so he didn’t trip over it.

  She knelt in the grass and took his hands in hers. “There’s no way to make you understand this.” Her voice caught. “In time, I would have told you everything. When you were older. We would have gone to your old house, even. But time’s up, Captain Dan.”

  He frowned. “What do you mean?”

  “You know how much we love you,” she said.

  “Oui, Maman,” Daniel said.

  “We love you, Daniel, and we have from the moment you came into our lives, but you belonged to another family first. You had another maman and another papa, and they loved you, too.”

  Daniel frowned. “I had another maman?”

  Behind her, Sophie said, “Oh, no…”

  “Her name was Rachel de Champlain, and she loved you with all her heart. And your papa was a brave man named Marc. I wish I could be the one to tell you their stories, but I can’t”—she dashed tears from her eyes—“because your maman’s cousin loves you, too, and she wants you to come live with them in America, where people have plenty to eat and lots of toys to play with.”

  Tears filled his eyes. “But you’re my maman. I don’t want to go.”

  She wanted to say “I don’t want you to go,” but that would only frighten him more, and her last job as his mother was to make him feel safe. “I know,” she said quietly, “but you are going to love it, Captain Dan, and your new family will love and adore you. Maybe they will even have a puppy, like you’ve always wanted.”

  He started to cry, and she pulled him into her arms. It took perhaps the greatest courage of her life to let go of him. She stood. The two men immediately appeared at her side.

  “Hello, young man,” Phillipe said to Daniel, giving him an earnest smile.

  Daniel wailed.

  Vianne took Daniel’s hand and led him through the house and into the front yard, past the dead apple tree littered with remembrance ribbons and through the broken gate to the blue Peugeot parked on the side of the road.

  Lerner got into the driver’s seat while Phillipe waited near the back fender. The engine fired up; smoke puffed out from the rear exhaust.

  Phillipe opened the back door. Giving Vianne one last sad look, he slid into the
seat, leaving the car door open.

  Sophie and Antoine came up beside her, and bent down together to hug Daniel.

  “We will always love you, Daniel,” Sophie said. “I hope you remember us.”

  Vianne knew that only she could get Daniel into the automobile. He would trust only her.

  Of all the heartbreaking, terrible things she’d done in this war, none hurt as badly as this: She took Daniel by the hand and led him into the automobile that would take him away from her. He climbed into the backseat.

  He stared at her through teary, confused eyes. “Maman?”

  Sophie said, “Just a minute!” and ran back to the house. She returned a moment later with Bébé and thrust the stuffed rabbit at Daniel.

  Vianne bent down to look him in the eye. “You need to go now, Daniel. Trust Maman.”

  His lower lip trembled. He clutched the toy to his chest. “Oui, Maman.”

  “Be a good boy.”

  Phillipe leaned over and shut the door.

  Daniel launched himself at the window, pressing his palms to the glass. He was crying now, yelling, “Maman! Maman!” They could hear his screams for minutes after the automobile was gone.

  Vianne said quietly, “Have a good life, Ari de Champlain.”

  THIRTY-EIGHT

  Isabelle stood at attention. She needed to stand up straight for roll call. If she gave in to her dizziness and toppled over, they would whip her, or worse.

  No. It wasn’t roll call. She was in Paris now, in a hospital room.

  She was waiting for something. For someone.

  Micheline had gone to speak to the Red Cross workers and journalists gathered in the lobby. Isabelle was supposed to wait here.

  The door opened.

  “Isabelle,” Micheline said in a scolding tone. “You shouldn’t be standing.”

  “I’m afraid I’ll die if I lie down,” Isabelle said. Or maybe she thought the words.

  Like Isabelle, Micheline was as thin as a matchstick, with hip bones that showed like knuckles beneath her shapeless dress. She was almost entirely bald—only tufts of hair grew here and there—and she had no eyebrows. The skin at her neck and along her arms was riddled with oozing, open sores. “Come,” Micheline said. She led her out of the room, through the strange crowd of silent, shuffling, rag-dressed returnees and the loud, watery-eyed family members in search of loved ones, past the journalists who asked questions. She steered her gently to a quieter room, where other camp survivors sat slumped in chairs.

  Isabelle sat down in a chair and dutifully put her hands in her lap. Her lungs ached and burned with every breath she drew and a headache pounded inside her skull.

  “It’s time for you to go home,” Micheline said.

  Isabelle looked up, blank and bleary-eyed.

  “Do you want me to travel with you?”

  She blinked slowly, trying to think. Her headache was blinding in its intensity. “Where am I going?”

  “Carriveau. You’re going to see your sister. She’s waiting for you.”

  “She is?”

  “Your train leaves in forty minutes. Mine leaves in an hour.”

  “How do we go back?” Isabelle dared to ask. Her voice was barely above a whisper.

  “We are the lucky ones,” Micheline said, and Isabelle nodded.

  Micheline helped Isabelle stand.

  Together they limped to the hospital’s back door, where a row of automobiles and Red Cross lorries waited to transport survivors to the train station. As they waited their turn, they stood together, tucked close as they’d done so often in the past year—in Appell lines, in cattle cars, in food queues.

  A bright-faced young woman in a Red Cross uniform came into the room, carrying a clipboard. “Rossignol?”

  Isabelle lifted her hot, sweaty hands and cupped Micheline’s wrinkled, grayed face. “I loved you, Micheline Babineau,” she said softly and kissed the older woman’s dry lips.

  “Don’t talk about yourself in the past tense.”

  “But I am past tense. The girl I was…”

  “She’s not gone, Isabelle. She’s sick and she’s been treated badly, but she can’t be gone. She had the heart of a lion.”

  “Now you’re speaking in the past tense.” Honestly, Isabelle couldn’t remember that girl at all, the one who’d jumped into the Resistance with barely a thought. The girl who’d recklessly brought an airman into her father’s apartment and foolishly brought another one into her sister’s barn. The girl who had hiked across the Pyrenees and fallen in love during the exodus from Paris.

  “We made it,” Micheline said.

  Isabelle had heard those words often in the past week. We made it. When the Americans had arrived to liberate the camp, those three words had been on every prisoner’s lips. Isabelle had felt relief then—after all of it, the beatings, the cold, the degradation, the disease, the forced march through the snow, she had survived.

  Now, though, she wondered what her life could possibly be. She couldn’t go back to who she’d been, but how could she go forward? She gave Micheline a last wave good-bye and climbed into the Red Cross vehicle.

  Later, on the train, she pretended not to notice how people stared at her. She tried to sit up straight, but she couldn’t do it. She slumped sideways, rested her head against the window.

  She closed her eyes and was asleep in no time, dreaming feverishly of a clattering ride in a cattle car, of babies crying and women trying desperately to soothe them … and then the doors opened and the dogs were waiting—

  Isabelle jolted awake. She was so disoriented it took her a moment to remember that she was safe. She dabbed at her forehead with the end of her sleeve. Her fever was back.

  Two hours later, the train rumbled into Carriveau.

  I made it. So, why didn’t she feel anything?

  She got to her feet and shuffled painfully from the train. As she stepped down onto the platform, a coughing spasm took over. She bent, hacking and coughing up blood into her hand. When she could breathe again, she straightened, feeling hollowed out and drained. Old.

  Her sister stood at the edge of the platform. She was big with pregnancy and dressed in a faded and patched summer dress. Her strawberry blond hair was longer now, past her shoulders and wavy. As she scanned the crowd leaving the train, her gaze went right past Isabelle.

  Isabelle raised her bony hand in greeting.

  Vianne saw her wave and paled. “Isabelle!” Vianne cried, rushing toward her. She cupped Isabelle’s hollow cheeks in her hands.

  “Don’t get too close. My breath is terrible.”

  Vianne kissed Isabelle’s cracked, swollen, dry lips and whispered, “Welcome home, sister.”

  “Home,” Isabelle repeated the unexpected word. She couldn’t bring up any images to go along with it, her thoughts were so jumbled and her head pounded.

  Vianne gently put her arms around Isabelle and pulled her close. Isabelle felt her sister’s soft skin and the lemony scent of her hair. She felt her sister stroking her back, just as she’d done when she was a little girl, and Isabelle thought, I made it.

  Home.

  * * *

  “You’re burning up,” Vianne said when they were back at Le Jardin, and Isabelle was clean and dry and lying in a warm bed.

  “Oui. I can’t seem to get rid of this fever.”

  “I will get you some aspirin.” Vianne started to rise.

  “No,” Isabelle said. “Don’t leave me. Please. Lie with me.”

  Vianne climbed into the small bed. Afraid that the lightest touch would leave a bruise, she gathered Isabelle close with exquisite care.

  “I’m sorry about Beck. Forgive me…” Isabelle said, coughing. She’d waited so long to say it, imagined this conversation a thousand times. “… for the way I put you and Sophie in danger…”

  “No, Isabelle,” Vianne said softly, “forgive me. I failed you at every turn. Starting when Papa left us with Madame Dumas. And when you ran off to Paris, how could I believe your
ridiculous story about an affair? That has haunted me.” Vianne leaned toward her. “Can we start over now? Be the sisters Maman wanted us to be?”

  Isabelle fought to stay awake. “I’d like that.”

  “I am so, so proud of what you did in this war, Isabelle.”

  Isabelle’s eyes filled with tears. “What about you, V?”

  Vianne looked away. “After Beck, another Nazi billeted here. A bad one.”

  Did Vianne realize that she touched her belly as she said it? That shame colored her cheeks? Isabelle knew instinctively what her sister had endured. Isabelle had heard countless stories of women being raped by the soldiers billeted with them. “You know what I learned in the camps?”

  Vianne looked at her. “What?”

  “They couldn’t touch my heart. They couldn’t change who I was inside. My body … they broke that in the first days, but not my heart, V. Whatever he did, it was to your body, and your body will heal.” She wanted to say more, maybe add “I love you,” but a hacking cough overtook her. When it passed, she lay back, spent, breathing shallow, ragged breaths.

  Vianne leaned closer, pressed a cool, wet rag to her fevered forehead.

  Isabelle stared at the blood on the quilt, remembering the end days of her mother’s life. There had been such blood then, too. She looked at Vianne and saw that her sister was remembering it, too.

  * * *

  Isabelle woke on a wooden floor. She was freezing and on fire at the same time, shivering and sweating.

  She heard nothing, no rats or cockroaches scurrying across the floor, no water bleeding through the wall cracks, turning to fat slugs of ice, no coughing or crying. She sat up slowly, wincing at every movement, no matter how fractional. Everything hurt. Her bones, her skin, her head, her chest; she had no muscles left to hurt, but her joints and ligaments ached.

  She heard a loud ra-ta-ta-tat. Gunfire. She covered her head and scurried into the corner, crouching low.

  No.

  She was at Le Jardin, not Ravensbrück.

  That sound was rain hitting the roof.

  She got slowly to her feet, feeling dizzy. How long had she been here?

  Four days? Five?

  She limped to the nightstand, where a porcelain pitcher sat beside a bowl of tepid water. She washed her hands and splashed water on her face and then dressed in the clothes Vianne had laid out for her—a dress that had belonged to Sophie when she was ten years old and bagged on Isabelle. She began the long, slow journey down the stairs.

  The front door was open. Outside, the apple trees were blurred by a falling rain. Isabelle went to the doorway, breathing in the sweet air.

  “Isabelle?” Vianne said, coming up beside her. “Let me get you some marrow broth. The doctor says you can drink it.”

  She nodded absently, letting Vianne pretend that the few tablespoons of broth Isabelle’s stomach could hold would make a difference.

  She stepped out into the rain. The world was alive with sound—birds cawing, church bells ringing, rain thumping on the roof, splashing in puddles. Traffic
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