The nightingale, p.7
word Isabelle never thought she’d hear in France.
Isabelle hobbled out of the room on her bloody feet and went into the backyard, needing air suddenly, unable to draw a decent breath.
Surrender. France. To Hitler.
“It must be for the best,” her sister said calmly.
When had Vianne come out here?
“You’ve heard about Maréchal Pétain. He is a hero unparalleled. If he says we must quit fighting, we must. I’m sure he’ll reason with Hitler.” Vianne reached out.
Isabelle yanked away. The thought of Vianne’s comforting touch made her feel sick. She limped around to face her sister. “You don’t reason with men like Hitler.”
“So you know more than our heroes now?”
“I know we shouldn’t give up.”
Vianne made a tsking sound, a little scuff of disappointment. “If Maréchal Pétain thinks surrender is best for France, it is. Period. At least the war will be over and our men will come home.”
“You are a fool.”
Vianne said, “Fine,” and went back into the house.
Isabelle tented a hand over her eyes and stared up into the bright and cloudless sky. How long would it be before all this blue was filled with German aeroplanes?
She didn’t know how long she stood there, imagining the worst—remembering how the Nazis had opened fire on innocent women and children in Tours, obliterating them, turning the grass red with their blood.
Isabelle heard the small, tentative voice as if from far away. She turned slowly.
A beautiful girl stood at Le Jardin’s back door. She had skin like her mother’s, as pale as fine porcelain, and expressive eyes that appeared coal black from this distance, as dark as her father’s. She could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale—Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.
“You can’t be Sophie,” Isabelle said. “The last time I saw you … you were sucking your thumb.”
“I still do sometimes,” Sophie said with a conspiratorial smile. “You won’t tell?”
“Me? I am the best of secret keepers.” Isabelle moved toward her, thinking, my niece. Family. “Shall I tell you a secret about me, just so that we are fair?”
Sophie nodded earnestly, her eyes widening.
“I can make myself invisible.”
“No, you can’t.”
Isabelle saw Vianne appear at the back door. “Ask your maman. I have sneaked onto trains and climbed out of windows and run away from convent dungeons. All of this because I can disappear.”
“Isabelle,” Vianne said sternly.
Sophie stared up at Isabelle, enraptured. “Really?”
Isabelle glanced at Vianne. “It is easy to disappear when no one is looking at you.”
“I am looking at you,” Sophie said. “Will you make yourself invisible now?”
Isabelle laughed. “Of course not. Magic, to be its best, must be unexpected. Don’t you agree? And now, shall we play a game of checkers?”
The surrender was a bitter pill to swallow, but Maréchal Pétain was an honorable man. A hero of the last war with Germany. Yes, he was old, but Vianne shared the belief that this only gave him a better perspective from which to judge their circumstances. He had fashioned a way for their men to come home, so it wouldn’t be like the Great War.
Vianne understood what Isabelle could not: Pétain had surrendered on behalf of France to save lives and preserve their nation and their way of life. It was true that the terms of this surrender were difficult: France had been divided into two zones. The Occupied Zone—the northern half of the country and the coastal regions (including Carriveau)—was to be taken over and governed by the Nazis. The great middle of the country, the land that lay below Paris and above the sea, would be the Free Zone, governed by a new French government in Vichy, led by Maréchal Pétain himself, in collaboration with the Nazis.
Immediately upon France’s surrender, food became scarce. Laundry soap: unobtainable. Ration cards could not be counted upon. Phone service became unreliable, as did the mail. The Nazis effectively cut off communication between cities and towns. The only mail allowed was on official German postcards. But for Vianne, these were not the worst of the changes.
Isabelle became impossible to live with. Several times since the surrender, while Vianne toiled to reconstruct and replant her garden and repair her damaged fruit trees, she had paused in her work and seen Isabelle standing at the gate staring up at the sky as if some dark and horrible thing were headed this way.
All Isabelle could talk about was the monstrosity of the Nazis and their determination to kill the French. She had no ability—of course—to hold her tongue, and since Vianne refused to listen, Sophie became Isabelle’s audience, her acolyte. She filled poor Sophie’s head with terrible images of what would happen, so much so that the child had nightmares. Vianne dared not leave the two of them alone, and so today, like each of the previous days, she made them both come to town with her to see what their ration cards would get them.
They had been standing in a food queue at the butcher’s shop for two hours already. Isabelle had been complaining nearly that whole time. Apparently it made no sense to her that she should have to shop for food.
“Vianne, look,” Isabelle said.
She turned—just to silence her sister—and saw them.
Up and down the street, windows and doors slammed shut. People disappeared so quickly Vianne found herself suddenly standing alone on the sidewalk with her sister and daughter. She grabbed Sophie and pulled her against the butcher shop’s closed door.
Isabelle stepped defiantly into the street.
“Isabelle,” Vianne hissed, but Isabelle stood her ground, her green eyes bright with hatred, her pale, fine-boned beautiful face marred by scratches and bruises.
The green lorry in the lead came to a halt in front of Isabelle. In the back, soldiers sat on benches, facing one another, rifles laid casually across their laps. They looked young and clean shaven and eager in brand-new helmets, with medals glinting on their gray-green uniforms. Young most of all. Not monsters; just boys, really. They craned their necks to see what had stopped traffic. At the sight of Isabelle standing there, the soldiers started to smile and wave.
Vianne grabbed Isabelle’s hand and yanked her out of the way.
The military entourage rumbled past them, a string of vehicles and motorcycles and lorries covered in camouflaged netting. Armored tanks rolled thunderously on the cobblestoned street. And then came the soldiers.
Two long lines of them, marching into town.
Isabelle walked boldly alongside them, up rue Victor Hugo. The Germans waved to her, looking more like tourists than conquerors.
“Maman, you can’t let her go off by herself,” Sophie said.
“Merde.” Vianne clutched Sophie’s hand and ran after Isabelle. They caught up with her in the next block.
The town square, usually full of people, had practically emptied. Only a few townspeople dared to remain as the German vehicles pulled up in front of the town hall and parked.
An officer appeared—or Vianne assumed he was an officer because of the way he began barking orders.
Soldiers marched around the large cobblestoned square, claiming it with their overwhelming presence. They ripped down the flag of France and replaced it with their Nazi flag: a huge black swastika against a red and black background. When it was in place, the troops stopped as one, extended their right arms, and yelled, “Heil Hitler.”
“If I had a gun,” Isabelle said, “I’d show them not all of us wanted to surrender.”
“Shhh,” Vianne said. “You’ll get us all killed with that mouth of yours. Let’s go.”
“No. I want—”
Vianne spun to face Isabelle. “Enough. You will not draw attention to us. Is that understood?
Isabelle gave one last hate-filled glance at the marching soldiers and then let Vianne lead her away.
They slipped from the main street and entered a dark cleft in the walls that led to a back alley behind the milliner’s shop. They could hear the soldiers singing. Then a shot rang out. And another. Someone screamed.
“Don’t you dare,” Vianne said. “Move.”
They kept to the dark alleys, ducking into doorways when they heard voices coming their way. It took longer than usual to get through town, but eventually they made it to the dirt road. They walked silently past the cemetery and all the way home. Once inside, Vianne slammed the door behind her and locked it.
“You see?” Isabelle said instantly. She had obviously been waiting to throw out the question.
“Go to your room,” Vianne said to Sophie. Whatever Isabelle was going to say, she didn’t want Sophie to hear. Vianne eased the hat from her head and set down her empty basket. Her hands were shaking.
“They’re here because of the airfield,” Isabelle said. She began pacing. “I didn’t think it would happen so fast, even with the surrender. I didn’t believe … I thought our soldiers would fight anyway. I thought…”
“Quit biting at your nails. You’ll make them bleed, you know.”
Isabelle looked a madwoman, with her waist-length blond hair falling loose from its braid and her bruised face twisted with fury. “The Nazis are here, Vianne. In Carriveau. Their flag flies from the hôtel de ville as it flies from the Arc du Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. They weren’t in town five minutes and a shot was fired.”
“The war is over, Isabelle. Maréchal Pétain said so.”
“The war is over? The war is over? Did you see them back there, with their guns and their flags and their arrogance? We need to get out of here, V. We’ll take Sophie and leave Carriveau.”
“And go where?”
“Anywhere. Lyon, maybe. Provence. What was that town in the Dordogne where Maman was born? Brantôme. We could find her friend, that Basque woman, what was her name? She might help us.”
“You are giving me a headache.”
“A headache is the least of your problems,” Isabelle said, pacing again.
Vianne approached her. “You are not going to do anything crazy or stupid. Am I understood?”
Isabelle growled in frustration and marched upstairs, slamming the door behind her.
* * *
The word stuck in Isabelle’s thoughts. That night, as she lay in the downstairs guest bedroom, staring up at the ceiling, she felt frustration lodge in her so deeply she could hardly think straight.
Was she supposed to spend the war in this house like some helpless girl, doing laundry and standing in food lines and sweeping the floor? Was she to stand by and watch the enemy take everything from France?
She had always felt lonely and frustrated—or at least she had felt it for as long as she could remember—but never as sharply as now. She was stuck here in the country with no friends and nothing to do.
There must be something she could do. Even here, even now.
Hide the valuables.
It was all that came to her. The Germans would loot the houses in town; of that she had no doubt, and when they did they would take everything of value. Her own government—cowards that they were—had known that. It was why they had emptied much of the Louvre and put fake paintings on the museum walls.
“Not much of a plan,” she muttered. But it was better than nothing.
The next day, as soon as Vianne and Sophie left for school, Isabelle began. She ignored Vianne’s request that she go to town for food. She couldn’t stand to see the Nazis, and one day without meat would hardly matter. Instead, she searched the house, opening closets and rummaging through drawers and looking under the beds. She took every item of value and set it on the trestle table in the dining room. There were lots of valuable heirlooms. Lacework tatted by her great-grandmother, a set of sterling silver salt and pepper shakers, a gilt-edged Limoges platter that had been their aunt’s, several small impressionist paintings, a tablecloth made of fine ivory Alençon lace, several photograph albums, a silver-framed photograph of Vianne and Antoine and baby Sophie, her mother’s pearls, Vianne’s wedding dress and more. Isabelle boxed up everything that would fit in a wooden-trimmed leather trunk, which she dragged through the trampled grass, wincing every time it scraped on a stone or thudded into something. By the time she reached the barn, she was breathing hard and sweating.
The barn was smaller than she remembered. The hayloft—once the only place in the world where she was happy—was really just a small tier on the second floor, a bit of floor perched at the top of a rickety ladder and beneath the roof, through which slats of sky could be seen. How many hours had she spent up there alone with her picture books, pretending that someone cared enough to come looking for her? Waiting for her sister, who was always out with Rachel or Antoine.
She pushed that memory aside.
The center of the barn was no more than thirty feet wide. It had been built by her great-grandfather to hold buggies—back when the family had money. Now there was only an old Renault parked in the center. The stalls were filled with tractor parts and web-draped wooden ladders and rusted farm implements.
She closed the barn door and went to the automobile. The driver’s side door opened with a squeaking, clattering reluctance. She climbed in, started the engine, drove forward about eight feet, and then parked.
The trapdoor was revealed now. About five feet long and four feet wide and made of planks connected by leather straps, the cellar door was nearly impossible to see, especially as it was now, covered in dust and old hay. She pulled the trapdoor open, letting it rest against the automobile’s dinged-up bumper, and peered down into the musty darkness.
Holding the trunk by its strap, she turned on her torchlight and clamped it under her other armpit and climbed down the ladder slowly, clanking the trunk down, rung by rung, until she was at the bottom. The trunk clattered onto the dirt floor beside her.
Like the loft, this hidey-hole had seemed bigger to her as a child. It was about eight feet wide and ten feet long, with shelving along one side and an old mattress on the floor. The shelves used to hold barrels for winemaking, but a lantern was the only thing left on the shelves.
She tucked the trunk into the back corner and then went back to the house, where she gathered up some preserved food, blankets, some medical supplies, her father’s hunting shotgun, and a bottle of wine, all of which she put out on the shelves.
When she climbed back up the ladder, she found Vianne in the barn.
“What in the world are you doing out here?”
Isabelle wiped her dusty hands on the worn cotton of her skirt. “Hiding your valuables and putting supplies down here—in case we need to hide from the Nazis. Come down and look. I did a good job, I think.” She backed down the ladder and Vianne followed her into the darkness. Lighting a lantern, Isabelle proudly showed off Papa’s shotgun and the foodstuffs and medical supplies.
Vianne went straight to their mother’s jewelry box, opening it.
Inside lay brooches and earrings and necklaces, mostly costume pieces. But at the bottom, lying on blue velvet, were the pearls that Grandmère had worn on her wedding day and given to Maman to wear on her wedding day.
“You may need to sell them someday,” Isabelle said.
Vianne clamped the box shut. “They are heirlooms, Isabelle. For Sophie’s wedding day—and yours. I would never sell them.” She sighed impatiently and turned to Isabelle. “What food were you able to get in town?”
“I did this instead.”
“Of course you did. It’s more important to hide Maman’s pearls than to feed your niece supper. Honestly, Isabelle.” Vianne climbed up the ladder, her displeasure revealed in tiny, disgusted huffs.
Isabelle left the cellar and drove the Renault back into p
When she finally returned to the house, Vianne was in the kitchen, frying potatoes in a cast-iron skillet. “I hope you aren’t hungry.”
“I’m not.” She moved past Vianne, barely making eye contact. “Oh, and I hid the keys and distributor cap in the first stall, behind a broken board.” In the living room, she turned on the radio and scooted close, hoping for news from the BBC.
There was a staticky crackle and then an unfamiliar voice said, “This is the BBC. Général de Gaulle is speaking to you.”
“Vianne!” Isabelle yelled toward the kitchen. “Who is Général de Gaulle?”
Vianne came into the living room, drying her hands on her apron. “What is—”
“Shush,” Isabelle snapped.
“… the leaders who have been at the head of the French army for many years have formed a government. On the pretext that our army has been defeated, this government has approached the enemy with a view to ceasing hostilities.”
Isabelle stared at the small wooden radio, transfixed. This man they’d never heard of spoke directly to the people of France, not at them as Pétain had done, but to them in an impassioned voice. “Pretext of defeat. I knew it!”
“… we certainly have been, and still are, submerged by the mechanical strength of the enemy, both on land and in the air. The tanks, the aeroplanes, the tactics of the Germans astounded our generals to such an extent that they have been brought to the pain which they are in today. But has the last word been said? Has all hope disappeared? Is the defeat final?”
“Mon Dieu,” Isabelle said. This was what she’d been waiting to hear. There was something to be done, a fight to engage in. The surrender wasn’t final.
“Whatever happens,” de Gaulle’s voice went on, “the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.”
Isabelle hardly noticed that she was crying. The French hadn’t given up. Now all Isabelle had to do was figure out how to answer this call.
* * *
Two days after the Nazis occupied Carriveau, they called a meeting for the late afternoon. Everyone was to attend. No exceptions. Even so, Vianne had had to fight with Isabelle to get her to come. As usual, Isabelle did not think ordinary rules pertained to her and she wanted to use defiance to show her displeasure. As if the Nazis cared what one impetuous eighteen-year-old girl thought of their occupation of her country.
“Wait here,” Vianne said impatiently when she’d finally gotten Isabelle and Sophie out of the house. She gently closed the broken gate behind them. It gave a little click of closure.
Moments later, Rachel appeared in the road, coming toward them, with the baby in her arms and Sarah at her side.
“That’s my best friend, Sarah,” Sophie said, gazing up at Isabelle.
“Isabelle,” Rachel said with a smile. “It is good to see you again.”
“Is it?” Isabelle said.
Rachel moved closer to Isabelle. “That was a long time ago,” Rachel said gently. “We were young and stupid and selfish. I’m sorry we treated you badly. Ignored you. That must have been very painful.”
Isabelle’s mouth opened, closed. For once, she had nothing to say.
“Let’s go,” Vianne said, irritated that Rachel had said to Isabelle what Vianne had not been able to. “We shouldn’t be late.”
Even this late in the day, the weather was unseasonably warm, and in no time, Vianne felt herself beginning to sweat. In town, they joined the grumbling crowd that filled the narrow cobblestoned street from storefront to storefront. The shops were closed and the windows were shuttered, even though the heat would be unbearable when they got home. Most of the display cases were empty, which was hardly surprising. The Germans ate so much; even worse, they left food on their plates in the cafés. Careless and cruel, it was, with so many mothers beginning to count the jars in their cellars so that they could dole out every precious bite to their children. Nazi propaganda was everywhere, on windows and shop walls; posters that showed smiling German soldiers surrounded by French children with captions designed to encourage the French to accept their conquerors and become good citizens of the Reich.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on85 votes