The Nightingale

  “You went to Beck for a favor?”

  “I had to.”

  “Frenchwomen do not ask Nazis for help, Vianne. Mon Dieu, you must know this.”

  “I know,” Vianne said defiantly. “But…”

  “But what?”

  Vianne couldn’t hold it in anymore. “I gave him a list of names.”

  Isabelle went very still. For an instant she seemed not to be breathing. The look she gave Vianne stung more than a slap across the face. “How could you do that? Did you give him Rachel’s name?”

  “I d-didn’t know,” Vianne stammered. “How could I know? He said it was clerical.” She grabbed Isabelle’s hand. “Forgive me, Isabelle. Truly. I didn’t know.”

  “It is not my forgiveness you need to seek, Vianne.”

  Vianne felt a stinging, profound shame. How could she have been so foolish, and how in God’s name could she make amends? She glanced at her wristwatch. Classes would be ending soon. “Go to the school,” Vianne said. “Get Sophie, Sarah, and take them home. There’s something I need to do.”

  “Whatever it is, I hope you’ve thought it through.”

  “Go,” Vianne said tiredly.

  * * *

  The chapel of St. Jeanne was a small stone Norman church at the edge of town. Behind it, and within its medieval walls, lay the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph, nuns who ran both an orphanage and a school.

  Vianne went into the church, her footsteps echoing on the cold stone floor; her breath plumed in front of her. She took off her mittens just long enough to touch her fingertips to the frozen holy water. She made the sign of the cross and went to an empty pew; she genuflected and then knelt. Closing her eyes, she bent her head in prayer.

  She needed guidance—and forgiveness—but for the first time in her life she could find no words for her prayer. How could she be forgiven for such a foolish, thoughtless act?

  God would see her guilt and fear, and He would judge her. She lowered her clasped hands and climbed back up to sit on the wooden pew.

  “Vianne Mauriac, is that you?”

  Mother Superior Marie-Therese moved in beside Vianne and sat down. She waited for Vianne to speak. It had always been this way between them. The first time Vianne had come to Mother for advice, Vianne had been sixteen years old and pregnant. It had been Mother who comforted Vianne after Papa called her a disgrace; Mother who had planned for a rushed wedding and talked Papa into letting Vianne and Antoine have Le Jardin; Mother who’d promised Vianne that a child was always a miracle and that young love could endure.

  “You know there is a German billeted at my house,” Vianne said finally.

  “They are at all of the big homes and in every hotel.”

  “He asked me which of the teachers at school were Jewish or communist or Freemasons.”

  “Ah. And you answered him.”

  “That makes me the fool Isabelle calls me, doesn’t it?”

  “You are no fool, Vianne.” She gazed at Vianne. “And your sister is quick to judge. That much I remember about her.”

  “I ask myself if they would have found these names without my help.”

  “They have dismissed Jews from positions all over town. Do you not know this? M’sieur Penoir is not the postmaster anymore, and Judge Braias has been replaced. I have had news from Paris that the headmistress of Collège Sévigné was forced to resign, as have all of the Jewish singers at the Paris Opera. Perhaps they needed your help, perhaps they did not. Certainly they would have found the names without your help,” Mother said in a voice that was both gentle and stern. “But that is not what matters.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I think, as this war goes on, we will all have to look more deeply. These questions are not about them, but about us.”

  Vianne felt tears sting her eyes. “I don’t know what to do anymore. Antoine always took care of everything. The Wehrmacht and the Gestapo are more than I can handle.”

  “Don’t think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you.”

  “It’s all breaking me. I need to be more like Isabelle. She is so certain of everything. This war is black and white for her. Nothing seems to scare her.”

  “Isabelle will have her crisis of faith in this, too. As will we all. I have been here before, in the Great War. I know the hardships are just beginning. You must stay strong.”

  “By believing in God.”

  “Yes, of course, but not only by believing in God. Prayers and faith will not be enough, I’m afraid. The path of righteousness is often dangerous. Get ready, Vianne. This is only your first test. Learn from it.” Mother leaned forward and hugged Vianne again. Vianne held on tightly, her face pressed to the scratchy wool habit.

  When she pulled back, she felt a little better.

  Mother Superior stood, took Vianne’s hand, and drew her to a stand. “Perhaps you could find the time to visit the children this week and give them a lesson? They loved it when you taught them painting. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of grumbling about empty bellies these days. Praise the Lord the sisters have an excellent garden, and the goats’ milk and cheese is a Godsend. Still…”

  “Yes,” Vianne said. Everyone knew about how the belt-tightening felt, especially to children.

  “You’re not alone, and you’re not the one in charge,” Mother said gently. “Ask for help when you need it, and give help when you can. I think that is how we serve God—and each other and ourselves—in times as dark as these.”

  * * *

  You’re not the one in charge.

  Vianne contemplated Mother’s words all the way home.

  She had always taken great comfort in her faith. When Maman had first begun to cough, and then when that coughing deepened into a hacking shudder that left sprays of blood on handkerchiefs, Vianne had prayed to God for all that she needed. Help. Guidance. A way to cheat the death that had come to call. At fourteen she’d promised God anything—everything—if He would just spare her maman’s life. With her prayers unanswered, she returned to God and prayed for the strength to deal with the aftermath—her loneliness, Papa’s bleak, angry silences and drunken rages, Isabelle’s wailing neediness.

  Time and again, she had returned to God, pleading for help, promising her faith. She wanted to believe that she was neither alone nor in charge, but rather that her life was unfolding according to His plan, even if she couldn’t see it.

  Now, though, such hope felt as slight and bendable as tin.

  She was alone and there was no one else in charge, no one but the Nazis.

  She had made a terrible, grievous mistake. She couldn’t take it back, however much she might hope for such a chance; she couldn’t undo it, but a good woman would accept responsibility—and blame—and apologize. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, whatever her failings, she intended to be a good woman.

  And so she knew what she needed to do.

  She knew it, and still when she came to the gate at Rachel’s cottage, she found herself unable to move. Her feet felt heavy, her heart even more so.

  She took a deep breath and knocked on the door. There was a shuffling of feet within and then the door opened. Rachel held her sleeping son in one arm and had a pair of dungarees slung over the other. “Vianne,” she said, smiling. “Come in.”

  Vianne almost gave in to cowardice. Oh, Rachel, I just stopped by to say hello. Instead, she took a deep breath and followed her friend into the house. She took her usual place in the comfortable upholstered chair tucked in close to the blazing fire.

  “Take Ari, I’ll make us coffee.”

  Vianne reached for the sleeping baby and took him in her arms. He snuggled close and she stroked his back and kissed the back of his head.

  “We heard that some care packages were being delivered to prisoner of war camps by the Red Cross,” Rachel said a moment later, coming into the room carrying two cups of coffee. She set one down on the table next to Vianne. “Wh
ere are the girls?”

  “At my house, with Isabelle. Probably learning how to shoot a gun.”

  Rachel laughed. “There are worse skills to have.” She pulled the dungarees from her shoulder and tossed them onto a straw basket with the rest of her sewing. Then she sat down across from Vianne.

  Vianne breathed in deeply of the sweet scent that was pure baby. When she looked up, Rachel was staring at her.

  “Is it one of those days?” she asked quietly.

  Vianne gave an unsteady smile. Rachel knew how much Vianne sometimes mourned her lost babies and how deeply she’d prayed for more children. It had been difficult between them—not a lot, but a little—when Rachel had gotten pregnant with Ari. There was joy for Rachel … and a thread of envy. “No,” she said. She lifted her chin slowly, looked her best friend in the eyes. “I have something to tell you.”


  Vianne drew in a breath. “Do you remember the day we wrote the postcards? And Captain Beck was waiting for me when we got home?”

  “Oui. I offered to come in with you.”

  “I wish you had, although I don’t suppose it would have made a difference. He just would have waited until you left.”

  Rachel started to rise. “Did he—”

  “No, no,” she said quickly. “Not that. He was working at the dining room table that day, writing something when I returned. He … asked me for a list of names. He wanted to know which of the teachers at the school were Jewish or communists.” She paused. “He asked about homosexuals and Freemasons, too, as if people talk about such things.”

  “You told him you didn’t know.”

  Shame made Vianne look away, but only for a second. She forced herself to say, “I gave him your name, Rachel. Along with the others.”

  Rachel went very still; the color drained from her face, making her dark eyes stand out. “And they fired us.”

  Vianne swallowed hard, nodded.

  Rachel got to her feet and walked past Vianne without stopping, ignoring her pleading please, Rachel, pulling away so she couldn’t be touched. She went into her bedroom and slammed the door shut.

  Time passed slowly, in indrawn breaths and captured prayers and creaks of the chair. Vianne watched the tiny black hands on the mantel clock click forward. She patted the baby’s back in rhythm with the passing minutes.

  Finally, the door opened. Rachel walked back into the room. Her hair was a mess, as if she’d been shoving her hands through it; her cheeks were blotchy, from either anxiety or anger. Maybe both. Her eyes were red from crying.

  “I’m so sorry,” Vianne said, rising. “Forgive me.”

  Rachel came to a stop in front of her, looking down at her. Anger flashed in her eyes, then faded and was replaced by resignation. “Everyone in town knows I’m a Jew, Vianne. I’ve always been proud of it.”

  “I know that. It’s what I told myself. Still, I shouldn’t have helped him. I am sorry. I wouldn’t hurt you for the world. I hope you know that.”

  “Of course I know it,” Rachel said quietly. “But V, you need to be more careful. I know Beck is young and handsome and friendly and polite, but he’s a Nazi, and they are dangerous.”

  * * *

  The winter of 1940 was the coldest anyone could remember. Snow fell day after day, blanketing the trees and fields; icicles glittered on drooping tree branches.

  And still, Isabelle woke every Friday morning, hours before dawn, and distributed her “terrorist papers,” as the Nazis now called them. Last week’s tract followed the military operations in North Africa and alerted the French people to the fact that the winter’s food shortages were not a result of the British blockades—as Nazi propaganda insisted—but rather were caused by the Germans looting everything France produced.

  Isabelle had been distributing these tracts for months now, and truthfully, she couldn’t see that they were having much impact on the people of Carriveau. Many of the villagers still supported Pétain. Even more didn’t care. A disturbing number of her neighbors looked upon the Germans and thought so young, just boys, and went on trudging through life with their heads down, just trying to stay out of danger.

  The Nazis had noticed the flyers, of course. Some French men and women would use any excuse to curry favor—and giving the Nazis the flyers they found in their letter boxes was a start.

  Isabelle knew that the Germans were looking for whoever printed and distributed the tracts, but they weren’t looking too hard. Especially not on these snowy days when the Blitz of London was all anyone could talk about. Perhaps the Germans knew that words on a piece of paper were not enough to turn the tide of a war.

  Today, Isabelle lay in bed, with Sophie curled like a tiny sword fern beside her, and Vianne sleeping heavily on the girl’s other side. The three of them now slept together in Vianne’s bed. Over the past month they’d added every quilt and blanket they could find to the bed. Isabelle lay watching her breath gather and disappear in thin white clouds.

  She knew how cold the floor would be even through the woolen stockings she wore to bed. She knew this was the last time all day she would be warm. She steeled herself and eased out from underneath the pile of quilts. Beside her, Sophie made a moaning sound and rolled over to her mother’s body for heat.

  When Isabelle’s feet hit the floor, pain shot into her shins. She winced and hobbled out of the room.

  The stairs took forever; her feet hurt so badly. The damn chilblains. Everyone was suffering from them this winter. Supposedly it was from a lack of butter and fat, but Isabelle knew it was caused by cold weather and socks full of holes and shoes that were coming apart at the seams.

  She wanted to start a fire—ached for even a moment’s warmth, really—but they were on their last bit of wood. In late January they’d started ripping out barn wood and burning it, along with tool boxes and old chairs and whatever else they could find. She made herself a cup of boiling water and drank it down, letting the heat and weight trick her stomach into thinking it wasn’t empty. She ate a small bit of stale bread, wrapped her body in a layer of newsprint, and then put on Antoine’s coat and her own mittens and boots. A woolen scarf she wrapped around her head and neck, and even so, when she stepped outside the cold took her breath away. She closed the door behind her and trudged out into the snow, her chilblained toes throbbing with every step, her fingers going cold instantly, even inside the mittens.

  It was eerily quiet out here. She hiked through the knee-deep snow and opened the broken gate and stepped out onto the white-packed road.

  Because of the cold and snow, it took her three hours to deliver her papers (this week’s content was about the Blitz—the Boches had dropped 32,000 bombs on London in one night alone). Dawn, when it came, was as weak as meatless broth. She was the first in line at the butcher’s shop, but others soon followed. At seven A.M., the butcher’s wife rolled open the window gate and unlocked the door.

  “Octopus,” the woman said.

  Isabelle felt a pang of disappointment. “No meat?”

  “Not for the French, M’mselle.”

  She heard grumbling behind her from the women who wanted meat, and farther back, from the women who knew they wouldn’t even be lucky enough to get octopus.

  Isabelle took the paper-wrapped octopus and left the shop. At least she’d gotten something. There was no tinned milk to be had anymore, not with ration cards or even on the black market. She was fortunate enough to get a little Camembert after two more hours in line. She covered her precious items with the heavy towel in her basket and hobbled down rue Victor Hugo.

  As she passed a café filled with German soldiers and French policemen, she smelled brewed coffee and freshly baked croissants and her stomach grumbled.


  A French policeman nodded crisply and indicated a need to step around her. She moved aside and watched him put up a poster in an abandoned storefront’s window. The first poster read:



  And the second:



  “They’re shooting ordinary French people for nothing?” she said.

  “Don’t look so pale, Mademoiselle. These warnings are not for beautiful women such as yourself.”

  Isabelle glared at the man. He was worse than the Germans, a Frenchman doing this to his own people. This was why she hated the Vichy government. What good was self-rule for half of France if it turned them into Nazi puppets?

  “Are you unwell, Mademoiselle?”

  So solicitous. So caring. What would he do if she called him a traitor and spat in his face? “I am fine, merci.”

  She watched him cross the street confidently, his back straight, his hat positioned just so on his cropped brown hair. The German soldiers in the café welcomed him warmly, clapped him on the back and pulled him into their midst.

  Isabelle turned away in disgust.

  That was when she saw it: a bright silver bicycle leaning against the side wall of the café. At the sight of it, she thought how much it would change her life, ease her pain, to ride to town and back each day.

  Normally a bicycle would be guarded by the soldiers in the café, but on this snow-dusted morning, no one was outside at a table.

  Don’t do it.

  Her heart started beating quickly, her palms turned damp and hot within her mittens. She glanced around. The women queued up at the butcher’s made it a point to see nothing and make eye contact with no one. The windows of the café across the street were fogged; inside, the men were olive-hued silhouettes.

  So certain of themselves.

  Of us, she thought bitterly.

  At that, whatever sliver of restraint she possessed disappeared. She held the basket close to her side and limped out onto the ice-slicked cobblestoned street. From that second, that one step forward, the world seemed to blur around her and time slowed down. She heard her breath, saw the plumes of it in front of her face. The buildings blurred or faded into white hulks, the snow dazzled, until all she could see was the glint of the silver handlebars and the two black tires.

  She knew there was only one way to do this. Fast. Without a glance sideways or a pause in her step.

  Somewhere a dog barked. A door banged shut.

  Isabelle kept walking; five steps separated her from the bicycle.




  She stepped up onto the sidewalk and took hold of the bicycle and jumped onto it. She rode down the cobblestoned street, the chassis clanging at bumps in the road. She skidded around the corner, almost fell, and righted herself, pedaling hard toward rue La Grande.

  There, she turned into the alley and jumped off the bicycle to knock on the door. Four hard clacks.

  The door opened slowly. Henri saw her and frowned.

  She pushed her way inside.

  The small meeting room was barely lit. A single oil lamp sat on a scarred wooden table. Henri was the only one here. He was making sausage from a tray of meat and fat. Skeins of it hung from hooks on the wall. The room smelled of meat and blood and cigarette smoke. She yanked the bicycle in with her and slammed the door shut.

  “Well, hello,” he said, wiping his hands on a towel. “Have we called a meeting I don’t know about?”


  He glanced at her side. “That’s not your bicycle.”

  “I stole it,” she said. “From right under their noses.”

  “It is—or was—Alain Deschamp’s bicycle. He left everything and fled to Lyon with his family when the occupation began.” Henri moved toward her. “Lately, I have been seeing an SS soldier riding it around town.”

  “SS?” Isabelle’s elation faded. There were ugly rumors swirling about the SS and their cruelty. Perhaps she should have thought this through …

  He moved closer, so close she could feel the warmth of his body.

  She had never been alone with him before, nor so near him. She saw for the