The nightingale, p.42
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       The Nightingale, p.42
 

           Kristin Hannah

  clogged the narrow, muddy road; automobiles and lorries and bicyclists, honking and waving, yelling out to one another as people came home. An American lorry rumbled past, full of smiling, fresh-faced soldiers who waved at passersby.

  At the sight of them, Isabelle remembered Vianne telling her that Hitler had killed himself and Berlin had been surrounded and would fall soon.

  Was that true? Was the war over? She didn’t know, couldn’t remember. Her mind was such a mess these days.

  Isabelle limped out to the road, realizing too late that she was barefoot (she would get beaten for losing her shoes), but she kept going. Shivering, coughing, plastered by rain, she walked past the bombed-out airfield, taken over by Allied troops now.

  “Isabelle!”

  She turned, coughing hard, spitting blood into her hand. She was trembling now with cold, shivering. Her dress was soaking wet.

  “What are you doing out here?” Vianne said. “And where are your shoes? You have typhus and pneumonia and you’re out in the rain.” Vianne took off her coat and wrapped it around Isabelle’s shoulder.

  “Is the war over?”

  “We talked about this last night, remember?”

  Rain blurred Isabelle’s vision, fell in streaks down her back. She drew in a wet, shuddering breath and felt tears sting her eyes.

  Don’t cry. She knew that was important but she didn’t remember why.

  “Isabelle, you’re sick.”

  “Gaëtan promised to find me after the war was over,” she whispered. “I need to get to Paris so he can find me.”

  “If he came looking for you, he’d come to the house.”

  Isabelle didn’t understand. She shook her head.

  “He’s been here, remember? After Tours. He brought you home.”

  My nightingale, I got you home.

  “Oh.

  “He won’t think I’m pretty anymore.” Isabelle tried to smile, but she knew it was a failure.

  Vianne put an arm around Isabelle and gently turned her around. “We will go and write him a letter.”

  “I don’t know where to send it,” Isabelle said, leaning against her sister, shivering with cold and fire.

  How did she make it home? She wasn’t sure. She vaguely remembered Antoine carrying her up the stairs, kissing her forehead, and Sophie bringing her some hot broth, but she must have fallen asleep at some point because the next thing she knew night had fallen.

  Vianne sat sleeping in a chair beneath the window.

  Isabelle coughed.

  Vianne was on her feet in an instant, fixing the pillows behind Isabelle, propping her up. She dunked a cloth in the water at the bedside, wrung out the excess, and pressed it to Isabelle’s forehead. “You want some marrow broth?”

  “God, no.”

  “You’re not eating anything.”

  “I can’t keep it down.”

  Vianne reached for the chair and dragged it close to the bed.

  Vianne touched Isabelle’s hot, wet cheek and gazed into her sunken eyes. “I have something for you.” Vianne got up from her chair and left the room. Moments later, she was back with a yellowed envelope. She handed it to Isabelle. “This is for us. From Papa. He came by here on his way to see you in Girot.”

  “He did? Did he tell you that he was going to turn himself in to save me?”

  Vianne nodded and handed Isabelle the letter.

  The letters of her name blurred and elongated on the page. Malnutrition had ruined her eyesight. “Can you read it to me?”

  Vianne unsealed the envelope and withdrew the letter and began to read.

  Isabelle and Vianne,

  What I do now, I do without misgiving. My regret is not for my death, but for my life. I am sorry I was no father to you.

  I could make excuses—I was ruined by the war, I drank too much, I couldn’t go on without your maman—but none of that matters.

  Isabelle, I remember the first time you ran away to be with me. You made it all the way to Paris on your own. Everything about you said, Love me. And when I saw you on that platform, needing me, I turned away.

  How could I not see that you and Vianne were a gift, had I only reached out?

  Forgive me, my daughters, for all of it, and know that as I say good-bye, I loved you both with all of my damaged heart.

  Isabelle closed her eyes and lay back into the pillows. All her life she’d waited for those words—his love—and now all she felt was loss. They hadn’t loved each other enough in the time they had, and then time ran out. “Hold Sophie and Antoine and your new baby close, Vianne. Love is such a slippery thing.”

  “Don’t do that,” Vianne said.

  “What?”

  “Say good-bye. You’ll get strong and healthy and you’ll find Gaëtan and you’ll get married and be there when this baby of mine is born.”

  Isabelle sighed and closed her eyes. “What a pretty future that would be.”

  * * *

  A week later, Isabelle sat in a chair in the backyard, wrapped in two blankets and an eiderdown comforter. The early May sun blazed down on her and still she was trembling with cold. Sophie sat in the grass at her feet, reading her a story. Her niece tried to use a different voice for each character and sometimes, even as bad as Isabelle felt, as much as her bones felt too heavy for her skin to bear, she found herself smiling, even laughing.

  Antoine was somewhere, trying to build a cradle out of whatever scraps of wood Vianne hadn’t burned during the war. It was obvious to everyone that Vianne would be going into labor soon; she moved slowly and seemed always to have a hand pressed to the small of her back.

  With closed eyes, Isabelle savored the beautiful commonness of the day. In the distance, a church bell pealed. Bells had been ringing constantly in the past week to herald the war’s end.

  Sophie’s voice stopped abruptly in the middle of a sentence.

  Isabelle thought she said “keep reading,” but she wasn’t sure.

  She heard her sister say, “Isabelle,” in a tone of voice that meant something.

  Isabelle looked up. Vianne stood there, flour streaking her pale, freckled face and dusting her apron, her reddish hair bound by a frayed turban. “Someone is here to see you.”

  “Tell the doctor I’m fine.”

  “It’s not the doctor.” Vianne smiled and said, “Gaëtan is here.”

  Isabelle felt as if her heart might burst through the paper walls of her chest. She tried to stand and fell back to the chair in a heap. Vianne helped her to her feet, but once she was standing, she couldn’t move. How could she look at him? She was a bald, eyebrowless skeleton, with some of her teeth gone and most of her fingernails missing. She touched her head, realizing an awkward moment too late that she had no hair to tuck behind her ear.

  Vianne kissed her cheek. “You’re beautiful,” she said.

  Isabelle turned slowly, and there he was, standing in the open doorway. She saw how bad he looked—the weight and hair and vibrancy he’d lost—but none of it mattered. He was here.

  He limped toward her and took her in his arms.

  She brought her shaking hands up and put her arms around him. For the first time in days, weeks, a year, her heart was a reliable thing, pumping with life. When he drew back, he stared down at her and the love in his eyes burned away everything bad; it was just them again, Gaëtan and Isabelle, somehow falling in love in a world at war. “You’re as beautiful as I remember,” he said, and she actually laughed, and then she cried. She wiped her eyes, feeling foolish, but tears kept streaming down her face. She was crying for all of it at last—for the pain and loss and fear and anger, for the war and what it had done to her and to all of them, for the knowledge of evil she could never shake, for the horror of where she’d been and what she’d done to survive.

  “Don’t cry.”

  How could she not? They should have had a lifetime to share truths and secrets, to get to know each other. “I love you,” she whispered, remembering that time so long ago whe
n she’d said it to him before. She’d been so young and shiny then.

  “I love you, too,” he said, his voice breaking. “I did from the first minute I saw you. I thought I was protecting you by not telling you. If I’d known…”

  How fragile life was, how fragile they were.

  Love.

  It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between. It didn’t matter that she was broken and ugly and sick. He loved her and she loved him. All her life she had waited—longed for—people to love her, but now she saw what really mattered. She had known love, been blessed by it.

  Papa. Maman. Sophie.

  Antoine. Micheline. Anouk. Henri.

  Gaëtan.

  Vianne.

  She looked past Gaëtan to her sister, the other half of her. She remembered Maman telling them that someday they would be best friends, that time would stitch their lives together.

  Vianne nodded, crying now, too, her hand on her extended belly.

  Don’t forget me, Isabelle thought. She wished she had the strength to say it out loud.

  THIRTY-NINE

  May 7, 1995

  Somewhere over France

  The lights in the airplane cabin come on suddenly.

  I hear the ding! of the announcement system. It tells us that we are beginning our descent into Paris.

  Julien leans over and adjusts my seat belt, making sure that my seat is in the locked, upright position. That I am safe.

  “How does it feel to be landing in Paris again, Mom?”

  I don’t know what to say.

  * * *

  Hours later, the phone beside me rings.

  I am still more than half asleep when I answer it. “Hello?”

  “Hey, Mom. Did you sleep?”

  “I did.”

  “It’s three o’clock. What time do you want to leave for the reunion?”

  “Let’s walk around Paris. I can be ready in an hour.”

  “I’ll come by and pick you up.”

  I ease out of a bed the size of Nebraska and head for the marble-everywhere bathroom. A nice hot shower brings me back to myself and wakens me, but it isn’t until I am seated at the vanity, staring at my face magnified in the light-rimmed oval mirror, that it hits me.

  I am home.

  It doesn’t matter that I am an American citizen, that I have spent more of my life in the United States than in France; the truth is that none of that matters. I am home.

  I apply makeup carefully. Then I brush the snow-white hair back from my face, creating a chignon at the nape of my neck with hands that won’t stop trembling. In the mirror, I see an elegant, ancient woman with velvety, pleated skin, glossy, pale pink lips, and worry in her eyes.

  It is the best I can do.

  Pushing back from the mirror, I go to the closet and withdraw the winter white slacks and turtleneck that I have brought with me. It occurs to me that perhaps color would have been a better choice. I wasn’t thinking when I packed.

  I am ready when Julien arrives.

  He guides me out into the hallway, helping me as if I am blind and disabled, and I let him lead me through the elegant hotel lobby and out into the magic light of Paris in springtime.

  But when he asks the doorman for a taxi, I insist. “We will walk to the reunion.”

  He frowns. “But it’s in the Île de la Cité.”

  I wince at his pronunciation, but it is my own fault, really.

  I see the doorman smile.

  “My son loves maps,” I say. “And he has never been to Paris before.”

  The man nods.

  “It’s a long way, Mom,” Julien says, coming up to stand beside me. “And you’re…”

  “Old?” I can’t help smiling. “I am also French.”

  “You’re wearing heels.”

  Again, I say: “I’m French.”

  Julien turns to the doorman, who lifts his gloved hands and says, “C’est la vie, M’sieur.”

  “All right,” Julien says at last. “Let’s walk.”

  I take his arm and for a glorious moment, as we step out onto the bustling sidewalk, arm in arm, I feel like a girl again. Traffic rushes past us, honking and squealing; boys skateboard up the sidewalk, dodging in and out amid the throng of tourists and locals out on this brilliant afternoon. The air is full of chestnut blossoms and smells of baking bread, cinnamon, diesel fuel, car exhaust, and baked stone—smells that will forever remind me of Paris.

  To my right, I see one of my mother’s favorite pâtisseries, and suddenly I remember Maman handing me a butterfly macaron.

  “Mom?”

  I smile at him. “Come,” I say imperiously, leading him into the small shop. There is a long line and I take my place at the end of it.

  “I thought you didn’t like cookies.”

  I ignore him and stare at the glass case full of beautifully colored macarons and pain au chocolat.

  When it is my turn I buy two macarons—one coconut, one raspberry. I reach into the bag and get the coconut macaron, handing it to Julien.

  We are outside again, walking, when he takes a bite and stops dead. “Wow,” he says after a minute. Then, “Wow,” again.

  I smile. Everyone remembers their first taste of Paris. This will be his.

  When he has licked his fingers and thrown the bag away, he links his arm through mine again.

  At a pretty little bistro overlooking the Seine, I say, “Let’s have a glass of wine.”

  It is just past five o’clock. The genteel cocktail hour.

  We take a seat outside, beneath a canopy of flowering chestnut trees. Across the street, along the banks of the river, vendors are set up in green kiosks, selling everything from oil paintings to old Vogue covers to Eiffel Tower key chains.

  We share a greasy, paper-wrapped cone of frites and sip wine. One glass turns into two, and the afternoon begins to give way to the haze of dusk.

  I had forgotten how gently time passes in Paris. As lively as the city is, there’s a stillness to it, a peace that lures you in. In Paris, with a glass of wine in your hand, you can just be.

  All along the Seine, streetlamps come on, apartment windows turn golden.

  “It’s seven,” Julien says, and I realize that he has been keeping time all along, waiting. He is so American. No sitting idle, forgetting oneself, not for this young man of mine. He has also been letting me settle myself.

  I nod and watch him pay the check. As we stand, a well-dressed couple, both smoking cigarettes, glides in to take our seats.

  Julien and I walk arm in arm to the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge across the Seine. Beyond it is the Île de la Cité, the island that was once the heart of Paris. Notre Dame, with its soaring chalk-colored walls, looks like a giant bird of prey landing, gorgeous wings outstretched. The Seine captures and reflects dots of lamplight along its shores, golden coronas pulled out of shape by the waves.

  “Magic,” Julien says, and that is precisely true.

  We walk slowly, crossing over this graceful bridge that was built more than four hundred years ago. On the other side, we see a street vendor closing up his portable shop.

  Julien stops, picks up an antique snow globe. He tilts it and snow flurries and swirls within the glass, obscuring the delicate gilt Eiffel Tower.

  I see the tiny white flakes, and I know it’s all fake—nothing—but it makes me remember those terrible winters, when we had holes in our shoes and our bodies were wrapped in newsprint and every scrap of clothing we could find.

  “Mom? You’re shaking.”

  “We’re late,” I say. Julien puts down the antique snow globe and we are off again, bypassing the crowd waiting to enter Notre Dame.

  The hotel is on a side street behind the cathedral. Next to it is the Hôtel-Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris.

  “I’m afraid,” I say, surprising myself with the admission. I can’t remember admitting such a thing in years, although it has often been true. Four months ago, when they
told me the cancer was back, fear made me cry in the shower until the water ran cold.

  “We don’t have to go in,” he says.

  “Yes, we do,” I say.

  I put one foot in front of the other until I am in the lobby, where a sign directs us to the ballroom on the fourth floor.

  When we exit the elevator, I can hear a man speaking through a microphone that amplifies and garbles his voice in equal measure. There is a table out in the hallway, with name tags spread out. It reminds me of that old television show: Concentration. Most of the tags are missing, but mine remains.

  And there is another name I recognize; the tag is below mine. At the sight of it, my heart gives a little seize, knots up. I reach for my own name tag and pick it up. I peel off the back and stick the name tag to my sunken chest, but all the while, I am looking at the other name. I take the second tag and stare down at it.

  “Madame!” says the woman seated behind the table. She stands, looking flustered. “We’ve been waiting for you. There’s a seat—”

  “I’m fine. I’ll stand in the back of the room.”

  “Nonsense.” She takes my arm. I consider resisting, but haven’t the will for it just now. She leads me through a large crowd, seated wall to wall in the ballroom, on folding chairs, and toward a dais behind which three old women are seated. A young man in a rumpled blue sport coat and khaki pants—American, obviously—is standing at a podium. At my entrance, he stops speaking.

  The room goes quiet. I feel everyone looking at me.

  I sidle past the other old women on the dais and take my place at the empty chair next to the speaker.

  The man at the microphone looks at me and says, “Someone very special is with us tonight.”

  I see Julien at the back of the room, standing against the wall, his arms crossed. He is frowning. No doubt he is wondering why anyone would put me on a dais.

  “Would you like to say something?”

  I think the man at the podium has asked me this question twice before it registers.

  The room is so still I can hear chairs squeaking, feet tapping on carpet, women fanning themselves. I want to say, “no, no, not me,” but how can I be so cowardly?

  I get slowly to my feet and walk to the podium. While I’m gathering my
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