The nightingale, p.43
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       The Nightingale, p.43
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           Kristin Hannah

  thoughts, I glance to my right, at the old women seated at the dais and see their names: Almadora, Eliane, and Anouk.

  My fingers clutch the wooden edges of the podium. “My sister, Isabelle, was a woman of great passions,” I say quietly at first. “Everything she did, she did full speed ahead, no brakes. When she was little, we worried about her constantly. She was always running away from boarding schools and convents and finishing school, sneaking out of windows and onto trains. I thought she was reckless and irresponsible and almost too beautiful to look at. And during the war, she used that against me. She told me that she was running off to Paris to have an affair, and I believed her.

  “I believed her. All these years later, that still breaks my heart a little. I should have known she wasn’t following a man, but her beliefs, that she was doing something important.” I close my eyes for a moment and remember: Isabelle, standing with Gaëtan, her arms around him, her eyes on me, shining with tears. With love. And then closing her eyes, saying something none of us could hear, taking her last breath in the arms of the man who loved her.

  Then, I saw tragedy in it; now I see beauty.

  I remember every nuance of that moment in my backyard, with the branches of the yew tree spread out above our heads and the scent of jasmine in the air.

  I look down at the second name tag in my hand.

  Sophie Mauriac.

  My beautiful baby girl, who grew into a solemn, thoughtful woman, who stayed near me for the whole of her life, always worrying, fluttering around me like a mama hen. Afraid. She was always just a little afraid of the world after all that we had lived through, and I hated that. But she knew how to love, my Sophie, and when cancer came for her, she wasn’t afraid. At the end, I was holding her hand, and she closed her eyes and said, “Tante … there you are.”

  Now, soon, they will be waiting for me, my sister and my daughter.

  I tear my gaze away from the name tag and look out at the audience again. They don’t care that I’m teary-eyed. “Isabelle and my father, Julien Rossignol, and their friends ran the Nightingale escape route. Together, they saved over one hundred and seventeen men.”

  I swallow hard. “Isabelle and I didn’t talk much during the war. She stayed away from me to protect me from the danger of what she was doing. So I didn’t know everything Isabelle had done until she came back from Ravensbrück.”

  I wipe my eyes. Now there are no squeaking chairs, no tapping feet. The audience is utterly still, staring up at me. I see Julien in the back, his handsome face a study in confusion. All of this is news to him. For the first time in his life, he understands the gulf between us, rather than the bridge. I am not simply his mother now, an extension of him. I am a woman in whole and he doesn’t quite know what to make of me. “The Isabelle who came back from the concentration camp was not the woman who’d survived the bombing at Tours or crossed the Pyrenees. The Isabelle who came home was broken and sick. She was unsure of so many things, but not about what she’d done.” I look out at the people seated in front of me. “On the day before she died, she sat in the shade beside me and held my hand and said, ‘V, it’s enough for me.’ I said, ‘What’s enough?’ and she said, ‘My life. It’s enough.’

  “And it was. I know she saved some of the men in this room, but I know that you saved her, too. Isabelle Rossignol died both a hero and a woman in love. She couldn’t have made a different choice. And all she wanted was to be remembered. So, I thank you all, for giving her life meaning, for bringing out the very best in her, and for remembering her all these years later.”

  I let go of the podium and step back.

  The audience surges to their feet, clapping wildly. I see how many of the older people are crying and it strikes me suddenly: These are the families of the men she saved. Every man saved came home to create a family: more people who owed their lives to a brave girl and her father and their friends.

  After that, I am sucked into a whirlwind of gratitude and memories and photographs. Everyone in the room wants to thank me personally and tell me how much Isabelle and my father meant to them. At some point, Julien settles himself along my side and becomes a bodyguard of sorts. I hear him say, “It looks like we have a lot to talk about,” and I nod and keep moving, clinging to his arm. I do my best to be my sister’s ambassador, collecting the thanks she deserves.

  We are almost through the crowd—it is thinning now, people are making their way to the bar for wine—when I hear someone say, “Hello, Vianne,” in a familiar voice.

  Even with all the years that have passed, I recognize his eyes. Gaëtan. He is shorter than I remember, a little stooped in the shoulders, and his tanned face is deeply creased by both weather and time. His hair is long, almost to his shoulders, and as white as gardenias, but still I would know him anywhere.

  “Vianne,” he says. “I wanted you to meet my daughter.” He reaches back for a classically beautiful young woman wearing a chic black sheath and vibrant pink neck scarf. She comes toward me, smiling as if we are friends.

  “I’m Isabelle,” she says.

  I lean heavily into Julien’s hand. I wonder if Gaëtan knows what this small remembrance would mean to Isabelle.

  Of course he does.

  He leans close and kisses each of my cheeks, whispering, “I loved her all of my life,” as he draws back.

  We talk for a few more minutes, about nothing really, and then he leaves.

  Suddenly I am tired. Exhausted. I pull free of my son’s possessive grip and move past the crowd to the quiet balcony. There, I step out into the night. Notre Dame is lit up, its glow coloring the black waves of the Seine. I can hear the river lapping against stone and boat lines creaking.

  Julien comes up beside me.

  “So,” he says. “Your sister—my aunt—was in a concentration camp in Germany because she helped to create a route to save downed airmen, and this route meant that she hiked across the Pyrenees mountains?”

  It is as heroic as he makes it sound.

  “Why have I never heard anything about all this—and not just from you? Sophie never said a word. Hell, I didn’t even know that people escaped over the mountains or that there was a concentration camp just for women who resisted the Nazis.”

  “Men tell stories,” I say. It is the truest, simplest answer to his question. “Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over. Your sister was as desperate to forget it as I was. Maybe that was another mistake I made—letting her forget. Maybe we should have talked about it.”

  “So Isabelle was off saving airmen and Dad was a prisoner of war and you were left alone with Sophie.” I know he is seeing me differently already, wondering how much he doesn’t know. “What did you do in the war, Mom?”

  “I survived,” I say quietly. At the admission, I miss my daughter almost more than I can bear, because the truth of it is that we survived. Together. Against all odds.

  “That couldn’t have been easy.”

  “It wasn’t.” The admission slips out, surprising me.

  And suddenly we are looking at each other, mother and son. He is giving me his surgeon’s look that misses nothing—not my newest wrinkles or the way my heart is beating a little too fast or the pulse that pumps in the hollow of my throat.

  He touches my cheek, smiling softly. My boy. “You think the past could change how I feel about you? Really, Mom?”

  “Mrs. Mauriac?”

  I am glad for the interruption. It’s a question I don’t want to answer.

  I turn to see a handsome young man waiting to talk to me. He is American, but not obviously so. A New Yorker, perhaps, with close-cropped graying hair and designer glasses. He is wearing a fitted black blazer and an expensive white shirt, with faded jeans. I step forward, extending my hand. He does the same thing at the same time, and when he does, our e
yes meet and I miss a step. It is just that, a missed step, one among many at my age, but Julien is there to catch me. “Mom?”

  I stare at the man before me. In him, I can see the boy I loved so deeply and the woman who was my best friend. “Ariel de Champlain,” I say, his name a whisper, a prayer.

  He takes me in his arms and holds me tightly and the memories return. When he finally pulls back, we are both crying.

  “I never forgot you or Sophie,” he says. “They told me to, and I tried, but I couldn’t. I’ve been looking for you both for years.”

  I feel that constriction in my heart again. “Sophie passed away about fifteen years ago.”

  Ari looks away. Quietly, he says, “I slept with her stuffed animal for years.”

  “Bébé,” I say, remembering.

  Ari reaches into his pocket and pulls out the framed photograph of me and Rachel. “My mom gave this to me when I graduated from college.”

  I stare down at it through tears.

  “You and Sophie saved my life,” Ari says matter-of-factly.

  I hear Julien’s intake of breath and know what it means. He has questions now.

  “Ari is my best friend’s son,” I say. “When Rachel was deported to Auschwitz, I hid him in our home, even though a Nazi billeted with us. It was quite … frightening.”

  “Your mother is being modest,” Ari says. “She rescued nineteen Jewish children during the war.”

  I see the incredulity in my son’s eyes and it makes me smile. Our children see us so imperfectly.

  “I’m a Rossignol,” I say quietly. “A Nightingale in my own way.”

  “A survivor,” Ari adds.

  “Did Dad know?” Julien asks.

  “Your father…” I pause, draw in a breath. Your father. And there it is, the secret that made me bury it all.

  I have spent a lifetime running from it, trying to forget, but now I see what a waste all that was.

  Antoine was Julien’s father in every way that mattered. It is not biology that determines fatherhood. It is love.

  I touch his cheek and gaze up at him. “You brought me back to life, Julien. When I held you, after all that ugliness, I could breathe again. I could love your father again.”

  I never realized that truth before. Julien brought me back. His birth was a miracle in the midst of despair. He made me and Antoine and Sophie a family again. I named him after the father I learned to love too late, after he was gone. Sophie became the big sister she always wanted to be.

  I will tell my son my life story at last. There will be pain in remembering, but there will be joy, too.

  “You’ll tell me everything?”

  “Almost everything,” I say with a smile. “A Frenchwoman must have her secrets.” And I will … I’ll keep one secret.

  I smile at them, my two boys who should have broken me, but somehow saved me, each in his own way. Because of them, I know now what matters, and it is not what I have lost. It is my memories. Wounds heal. Love lasts.

  We remain.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  This book was a labor of love, and like a woman in labor, I often felt overwhelmed and desperate in that please-help-me-this-can’t-be-what-I-signed-up-for-give-me-drugs kind of way. Yet, miraculously, it all came together in the end.

  It literally takes a village of dedicated, tireless, type A–personality people to make a single book live up to its potential and find an audience. In the twenty plus years of my career, my work has been championed by some truly incredible individuals. I would like to take a paragraph or two—at long last and much overdue—to acknowledge a few who made a real difference. Susan Peterson Kennedy, Leona Nevler, Linda Grey, Elisa Wares, Rob Cohen, Chip Gibson, Andrew Martin, Jane Berkey, Meg Ruley, Gina Centrello, Linda Marrow, and Kim Hovey. Thanks to all of you for believing in me before I believed in myself. A special shout-out to Ann Patty, who changed the course of my career and helped me find my voice.

  To the folks at St. Martin’s and Macmillan. Your support and enthusiasm has had a profound impact on my career and my writing. Thanks to Sally Richardson for your tireless enthusiasm and your enduring friendship. To Jennifer Enderlin, my amazing editor, thank you for pushing me and demanding the very best from me. You rock. Thanks also to Alison Lazarus, Anne Marie Tallberg, Lisa Senz, Dori Weintraub, John Murphy, Tracey Guest, Martin Quinn, Jeff Capshew, Lisa Tomasello, Elizabeth Catalano, Kathryn Parise, Susan Joseph, Astra Berzinskas, and the always fabulous, absolutely gifted Michael Storrings.

  People often say that writing is a lonely profession, and it’s true, but it can also be a brilliant party filled with interesting, amazing guests who speak in a shorthand that only a few understand. I have a few very special people who prop me up when I need it, aren’t afraid to pour tequila when it’s warranted, and help me celebrate the smallest victory. Thanks first and foremost to my longtime agent, Andrea Cirillo. Honestly, I couldn’t have done it without you—and more important, I wouldn’t have wanted to. To Megan Chance, my first and last reader, the red pen of doom, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I wouldn’t be here at all without our partnership. To Jill Marie Landis, you taught me an invaluable writing lesson this year, and it made The Nightingale what it is.

  I would also like to thank fellow author Tatiana de Rosnay, whose generosity was an unexpected gift in the writing of this novel. She took time out of her busy schedule to help me make The Nightingale as accurate as possible. I am forever and profoundly grateful. Of course, any and all mistakes (and creative licenses) are my responsibility alone.

  Thanks also to Dr. Miriam Klein Kassenoff, Director, Holocaust Studies Summer Institute/School of Education, University of Miami Coral Gables. Your help was invaluable.

  Last, but certainly not least, to my family: Benjamin, Tucker, Kaylee, Sara, Laurence, Debbie, Kent, Julie, Mackenzie, Laura, Lucas, Logan, Frank, Toni, Jacqui, Dana, Doug, Katie, and Leslie. Storytellers, all. I love you guys.

 
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