The nightingale, p.6
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       The Nightingale, p.6
 

           Kristin Hannah

  The young mother made a moaning sound and tightened her hold on the baby, who was so quiet—and his tiny fist so blue—that Vianne gasped.

  The baby was dead.

  Vianne knew about the kind of talon grief that wouldn’t let go; she had fallen into the fathomless gray that warped a mind and made a mother keep holding on long after hope was gone.

  “Go inside,” the old woman said to Vianne. “Lock your doors.”

  “But…”

  The ragged trio backed away—lurched, really—as if Vianne’s breath had become noxious.

  And then she saw the mass of black shapes moving across the field and coming up the road.

  The smell preceded them. Human sweat and filth and body odor. As they neared, the miasma of black separated, peeled into forms. She saw people on the road and in the fields; walking, limping, coming toward her. Some were pushing bicycles or prams or dragging wagons. Dogs barked, babies cried. There was coughing, throat clearing, whining. They came forward, through the field and up the road, relentlessly moving closer, pushing one another aside, their voices rising.

  Vianne couldn’t help so many. She rushed into her house and locked the door behind her. Inside, she went from room to room, locking doors and closing shutters. When she was finished, she stood in the living room, uncertain, her heart pounding.

  The house began to shake, just a little. The windows rattled, the shutters thumped against the stone exterior. Dust rained down from the exposed timbers of the ceiling.

  Someone pounded on the front door. It went on and on and on, fists landing on the front door in hammer blows that made Vianne flinch.

  Sophie came running down the stairs, clutching Bébé to her chest. “Maman!”

  Vianne opened her arms and Sophie ran into her embrace. Vianne held her daughter close as the onslaught increased. Someone pounded on the side door. The copper pots and pans hanging in the kitchen clanged together, made a sound like church bells. She heard the high squealing of the outdoor pump. They were getting water.

  Vianne said to Sophie, “Wait here one moment. Sit on the divan.”

  “Don’t leave me!”

  Vianne peeled her daughter away and forced her to sit down. Taking an iron poker from the side of the fireplace, she crept cautiously up the stairs. From the safety of her bedroom, she peered out the window, careful to remain hidden.

  There were dozens of people in her yard; mostly women and children, moving like a pack of hungry wolves. Their voices melded into a single desperate growl.

  Vianne backed away. What if the doors didn’t hold? So many people could break down doors and windows, even walls.

  Terrified, she went back downstairs, not breathing until she saw Sophie still safe on the divan. Vianne sat down beside her daughter and took her in her arms, letting Sophie curl up as if she were a much littler girl. She stroked her daughter’s curly hair. A better mother, a stronger mother, would have had a story to tell right now, but Vianne was so afraid that her voice had gone completely. All she could think was an endless, beginningless prayer. Please.

  She pulled Sophie closer and said, “Go to sleep, Sophie. I’m here.”

  “Maman,” Sophie said, her voice almost lost in the pounding on the door. “What if Tante Isabelle is out there?”

  Vianne stared down at Sophie’s small, earnest face, covered now in a sheen of sweat and dust. “God help her” was all she could think of to say.

  * * *

  At the sight of the gray stone house, Isabelle felt awash in exhaustion. Her shoulders sagged. The blisters on her feet became unbearable. In front of her, Gaëtan opened the gate. She heard it clatter brokenly and tilt sideways.

  Leaning into him, she stumbled up to the front door. She knocked twice, wincing each time her bloodied knuckles hit the wood.

  No one answered.

  She pounded with both of her fists, trying to call out her sister’s name, but her voice was too hoarse to find any volume.

  She staggered back, almost sinking to her knees in defeat.

  “Where can you sleep?” Gaëtan said, holding her upright with his hand on her waist.

  “In the back. The pergola.”

  He led her around the house to the backyard. In the lush, jasmine-perfumed shadows of the arbor, she collapsed to her knees. She hardly noticed that he was gone, and then he was back with some tepid water, which she gulped from his cupped hands. It wasn’t enough. Her stomach gnarled with hunger, sent an ache deep, deep inside of her. Still, when he started to leave again, she reached out for him, mumbled something, a plea not to be left alone, and he sank down beside her, putting out his arm for her to rest her head upon. They lay side by side in the warm dirt, staring up through the black thicket of vines that looped around the timbers and cascaded to the ground. The heady aromas of jasmine and blooming roses and rich earth created a beautiful bower. And yet, even here, in this quiet, it was impossible to forget what they’d just been through … and the changes that were close on their heels.

  She had seen a change in Gaëtan, watched anger and impotent rage erase the compassion in his eyes and the smile from his lips. He had hardly spoken since the bombing, and when he did his voice was clipped and curt. They both knew more about war now, about what was coming.

  “You could be safe here, with your sister,” he said.

  “I don’t want to be safe. And my sister will not want me.”

  She twisted around to look at him. Moonlight came through in lacy patterns, illuminating his eyes, his mouth, leaving his nose and chin in darkness. He looked different again, older already, in just these few days; careworn, angry. He smelled of sweat and blood and mud and death, but she knew she smelled the same.

  “Have you heard of Edith Cavell?” she asked.

  “Do I strike you as an educated man?”

  She thought about that for a moment and then said, “Yes.”

  He was quiet long enough that she knew she’d surprised him. “I know who she is. She saved the lives of hundreds of Allied airmen in the Great War. She is famous for saying that ‘patriotism is not enough.’ And this is your hero, a woman executed by the enemy.”

  “A woman who made a difference,” Isabelle said, studying him. “I am relying on you—a criminal and a communist—to help me make a difference. Perhaps I am as mad and impetuous as they say.”

  “Who are ‘they’?”

  “Everyone.” She paused, felt her expectation gather close. She had made a point of never trusting anyone, and yet she believed Gaëtan. He looked at her as if she mattered. “You will take me. As you promised.”

  “You know how such bargains are sealed?”

  “How?”

  “With a kiss.”

  “Quit teasing. This is serious.”

  “What’s more serious than a kiss on the brink of war?” He was smiling, but not quite. That banked anger was in his eyes again, and it frightened her, reminded her that she really didn’t know him at all.

  “I would kiss a man who was brave enough to take me into battle with him.”

  “I think you know nothing of kissing,” he said with a sigh.

  “Shows what you know.” She rolled away from him and immediately missed his touch. Trying to be nonchalant, she rolled back to face him and felt his breath on her eyelashes. “You may kiss me then. To seal our deal.”

  He reached out slowly, put a hand around the back of her neck, and pulled her toward him.

  “Are you sure?” he asked, his lips almost touching hers. She didn’t know if he was asking about going off to war or granting permission for a kiss, but right now, in this moment, it didn’t matter. Isabelle had traded kisses with boys as if they were pennies to be left on park benches and lost in chair cushions—meaningless. Never before, not once, had she really yearned for a kiss.

  “Oui,” she whispered, leaning toward him.

  At his kiss, something opened up inside the scraped, empty interior of her heart, unfurled. For the first time, her romantic novels made sens
e; she realized that the landscape of a woman’s soul could change as quickly as a world at war.

  “I love you,” she whispered. She hadn’t said these words since she was four years old; then, it had been to her mother. At her declaration, Gaëtan’s expression changed, hardened. The smile he gave her was so tight and false she couldn’t make sense of it. “What? Did I do something wrong?”

  “No. Of course not,” he said.

  “We are lucky to have found each other,” she said.

  “We are not lucky, Isabelle. Trust me on this.” As he said it, he drew her in for another kiss.

  She gave herself over to the sensations of the kiss, let it become the whole of her universe, and knew finally how it felt to be enough for someone.

  * * *

  When Vianne awoke, she noticed the quiet first. Somewhere a bird sang. She lay perfectly still in bed, listening. Beside her Sophie snored and grumbled in her sleep.

  Vianne went to the window, lifting the blackout shade.

  In her yard, apple branches hung like broken arms from the trees; the gate hung sideways, two of its three hinges ripped out. Across the road, the hayfield was flattened, the flowers crushed. The refugees who’d come through had left belongings and refuse in their wake—suitcases, buggies, coats too heavy to carry and too hot to wear, pillowcases, and wagons.

  Vianne went downstairs and cautiously opened the front door. Listening for noise—hearing none—she unlatched the lock and turned the knob.

  They had destroyed her garden, ripping up anything that looked edible, leaving broken stalks and mounds of dirt.

  Everything was ruined, gone. Feeling defeated, she walked around the house to the backyard, which had also been ravaged.

  She was about to go back inside when she heard a sound. A mewling. Maybe a baby crying.

  There it was again. Had someone left an infant behind?

  She moved cautiously across the yard to the wooden pergola draped in roses and jasmine.

  Isabelle lay curled up on the ground, her dress ripped to shreds, her face cut up and bruised, her left eye swollen nearly shut, a piece of paper pinned to her bodice.

  “Isabelle!”

  Her sister’s chin tilted upward slightly; she opened one bloodshot eye. “V,” she said in a cracked, hoarse voice. “Thanks for locking me out.”

  Vianne went to her sister and knelt beside her. “Isabelle, you are covered in blood and bruised. Were you…”

  Isabelle seemed not to understand for a moment. “Oh. It is not my blood. Most of it isn’t, anyway.” She looked around. “Where’s Gaët?”

  “What?”

  Isabelle staggered to her feet, almost toppling over. “Did he leave me? He did.” She started to cry. “He left me.”

  “Come on,” Vianne said gently. She guided her sister into the cool interior of the house, where Isabelle kicked off her blood-splattered shoes, let them crack into the wall and clatter to the floor. Bloody footprints followed them to the bathroom tucked beneath the stairs.

  While Vianne heated water and filled the bath, Isabelle sat on the floor, her legs splayed out, her feet discolored by blood, muttering to herself and wiping tears from her eyes, which turned to mud on her cheeks.

  When the bath was ready, Vianne returned to Isabelle, gently undressing her. Isabelle was like a child, pliable, whimpering in pain.

  Vianne unbuttoned the back of Isabelle’s once-red dress and peeled it away, afraid that the slightest breath might topple her sister over. Isabelle’s lacy undergarments were stained in places with blood. Vianne unlaced the corseted midsection of the foundation and eased it off.

  Isabelle gritted her teeth and stepped into the tub.

  “Lean back.”

  Isabelle did as she was told, and Vianne poured hot water over her sister’s head, keeping the water from her sister’s eyes. All the while, as she washed Isabelle’s dirty hair and bruised body, she kept up a steady, soothing croon of meaningless words, meant to comfort.

  She helped Isabelle out of the tub and dried her body with a soft, white towel. Isabelle stared at her, slack-jawed, blank-eyed.

  “How about some sleep?” Vianne said.

  “Sleep,” Isabelle mumbled, her head lolling to one side.

  Vianne brought Isabelle a nightdress that smelled of lavender and rose water and helped her into it. Isabelle could hardly keep her eyes open as Vianne guided her to the upstairs bedroom and settled her beneath a light blanket. Isabelle was asleep before her head hit the pillow.

  * * *

  Isabelle woke to darkness. She remembered daylight.

  Where was she?

  She sat up so quickly her head spun. She took a few shallow breaths and then looked around.

  The upstairs bedroom at Le Jardin. Her old room. It did not give her a warm feeling. How often had Madame Doom locked her in the bedroom “for her own good”?

  “Don’t think about that,” she said aloud.

  An even worse memory followed: Gaëtan. He had abandoned her after all; it filled her with the kind of bone-deep disappointment she knew so well.

  Had she learned nothing in life? People left. She knew that. They especially left her.

  She dressed in the shapeless blue housedress Vianne had left draped across the foot of the bed. Then she went down the narrow, shallow-stepped stairs, holding on to the iron banister. Every pain-filled step felt like a triumph.

  Downstairs, the house was quiet except for the crackling, staticky sound of a radio on at a low volume. She was pretty sure Maurice Chevalier was singing a love song. Perfect.

  Vianne was in the kitchen, wearing a gingham apron over a pale yellow housedress. A floral scarf covered her hair. She was peeling potatoes with a paring knife. Behind her, a cast-iron pot made a cheery little bubbling sound.

  The aromas made Isabelle’s mouth water.

  Vianne rushed forward to pull out a chair at the small table in the kitchen’s corner. “Here, sit.”

  Isabelle fell onto the seat. Vianne brought her a plate that was already prepared. A hunk of still-warm bread, a triangle of cheese, a smear of quince paste, and a few slices of ham.

  Isabelle took the bread in her red, scraped-up hands, lifting it to her face, breathing in the yeasty smell. Her hands were shaking as she picked up a knife and slathered the bread with fruit and cheese. When she set down the knife it clattered. She picked up the bread and bit into it; the single best bite of food of her life. The hard crust of the bread, its pillow-soft interior, the buttery cheese, and the fruit all combined to make her practically swoon. She ate the rest of it like a madwoman, barely noticing the cup of café noir her sister had set down beside her.

  “Where’s Sophie?” Isabelle asked, her cheeks bulging with food. It was difficult to stop eating, even to be polite. She reached for a peach, felt its fuzzy ripeness in her hand, and bit into it. Juice dribbled down her chin.

  “She’s next door, playing with Sarah. You remember my friend, Rachel?”

  “I remember her,” Isabelle said.

  Vianne poured herself a tiny cup of espresso and brought it to the table, where she sat down.

  Isabelle burped and covered her mouth. “Pardon.”

  “I think a lapse in manners can be overlooked,” Vianne said with a smile.

  “You haven’t met Madame Dufour. No doubt she would hit me with a brick for that transgression.” Isabelle sighed. Her stomach hurt now; she felt like she might vomit. She wiped her moist chin with her sleeve. “What is the news from Paris?”

  “The swastika flag flies from the Eiffel Tower.”

  “And Papa?”

  “Fine, he says.”

  “Worried about me, I’ll bet,” Isabelle said bitterly. “He shouldn’t have sent me away. But when has he ever done anything else?”

  A look passed between them. It was one of the few memories they shared, that abandonment, but clearly Vianne didn’t want to remember it. “We hear there were more than ten million of you on the roads.”

  “T
he crowds weren’t the worst of it,” Isabelle said. “We were mostly women and children, V, and old men and boys. And they just … obliterated us.”

  “It’s over now, thank God,” Vianne said. “It’s best to focus on the good. Who is Gaëtan? You spoke of him in your delirium.”

  Isabelle picked at one of the scrapes on the back of her hand, realizing an instant too late that she should have let it alone. The scab ripped away and blood bubbled up.

  “Maybe he has to do with this,” Vianne said when the silence elongated. She pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of her apron pocket. It was the note that had been pinned to Isabelle’s bodice. Dirty, bloody fingerprints ran across the paper. On it was written: You are not ready.

  Isabelle felt the world drop out from under her. It was a ridiculous, girlish reaction, overblown, and she knew it, but still it hit her hard, wounded deep. He had wanted to take her with him until the kiss. Somehow he’d tasted the lack in her. “He’s no one,” she said grimly, taking the note, crumpling it. “Just a boy with black hair and a sharp face who tells lies. He’s nothing.” Then she looked at Vianne. “I’m going off to the war. I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’ll drive an ambulance or roll bandages. Anything.”

  “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Isabelle. Paris is overrun. The Nazis control the city. What is an eighteen-year-old girl to do about all of that?”

  “I am not hiding out in the country while the Nazis destroy France. And let’s face it, you have never exactly felt sisterly toward me.” Her aching face tightened. “I’ll be leaving as soon as I can walk.”

  “You will be safe here, Isabelle. That’s what matters. You must stay.”

  “Safe?” Isabelle spat. “You think that is what matters now, Vianne? Let me tell you what I saw out there. French troops running from the enemy. Nazis murdering innocents. Maybe you can ignore that, but I won’t.”

  “You will stay here and be safe. We will speak of it no more.”

  “When have I ever been safe with you, Vianne?” Isabelle said, seeing hurt blossom in her sister’s eyes.

  “I was young, Isabelle. I tried to be a mother to you.”

  “Oh, please. Let’s not start with a lie.”

  “After I lost the baby—”

  Isabelle turned her back on her sister and limped away before she said something unforgiveable. She clasped her hands to still their trembling. This was why she hadn’t wanted to return to this house and see her sister, why she’d stayed away for years. There was too much pain between them. She turned up the radio to drown out her thoughts.

  A voice crackled over the airwaves. “… Maréchal Pétain speaking to you…”

  Isabelle frowned. Pétain was a hero of the Great War, a beloved leader of France. She turned up the volume further.

  Vianne appeared beside her.

  “… I assumed the direction of the government of France…”

  Static overtook his deep voice, crackled through it.

  Isabelle thumped the radio impatiently.

  “… our admirable army, which is fighting with a heroism worthy of its long military traditions against an enemy superior in numbers and arms…”

  Static. Isabelle hit the radio again, whispering, “Zut.”

  “… in these painful hours I think of the unhappy refugees who, in extreme misery, clog our roads. I express to them my compassion and my solicitude. It is with a broken heart that I tell you today it is necessary to stop fighting.”

  “We’ve won?” Vianne said.

  “Shhh,” Isabelle said sharply.

  “… addressed myself last night to the adversary to ask him if he is ready to speak with me, as soldier to soldier, after the actual fighting is over, and with honor, the means of putting an end to hostilities.”

  The old man’s words droned on, saying things like “trying days” and “control their anguish” and, worst of all, “destiny of the fatherland.” Then he said the
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