first time that his eyes were neither brown nor green but rather a hazel gray that made her think of fog in a deep forest. She saw a small scar at his brow that had either been a terrible gash at one time or poorly stitched and it made her wonder all at once what kind of life he’d led that had brought him here, and to communism. He was older than she by at least a decade, although to be honest, he seemed even older sometimes, as if perhaps he’d suffered a great loss.
“You’ll need to paint it,” he said.
“I don’t have any paint.”
“A kiss,” he said.
“A kiss?” She repeated it to stall for time. This was the sort of thing that she’d taken for granted before the war. Men desired her; they always had. She wanted that back, wanted to flirt with Henri and be flirted with, and yet the very idea of it felt sad and a little lost, as if perhaps kisses didn’t mean much anymore and flirtation even less.
“One kiss and I’ll paint your bicycle tonight and you can pick it up tomorrow.”
She stepped toward him and tilted her face up to his.
They came together easily, even with all the coats and layers of newsprint and wool between them. He took her in his arms and kissed her. For a beautiful second, she was Isabelle Rossignol again, the passionate girl whom men desired.
When it ended and he drew back, she felt … deflated. Sad.
She should say something, make a joke, or perhaps pretend that she felt more than she did. That’s what she would have done before, when kisses had meant more, or maybe less.
“There’s someone else,” Henri said, studying her intently.
“No there isn’t.”
Henri touched her cheek gently. “You’re lying.”
Isabelle thought of all that Henri had given her. He was the one who’d brought her into the Free French network and given her a chance; he was the one who believed in her. And yet when he kissed her, she thought of Gaëtan. “He didn’t want me,” she said. It was the first time she’d told anyone the truth. The admission surprised her.
“If things were different, I’d make you forget him.”
“And I’d let you try.”
She saw the way he smiled at that, saw the sorrow in it. “Blue,” he said after a pause.
“It’s the paint color I have.”
Isabelle smiled. “How fitting.”
Later that day, as she stood in one line after another for too little food, and then as she gathered wood from the forest and carried it home, she thought about that kiss.
What she thought, over and over again, was if only.
On a beautiful day in late April 1941, Isabelle lay stretched out on a woolen blanket in the field across from the house. The sweet smell of ripening hay filled her nostrils. When she closed her eyes, she could almost forget that the engines in the distance were German lorries taking soldiers—and France’s produce—to the train station at Tours. After the disastrous winter, she appreciated how sunshine on her face lulled her into a drowsy state.
“There you are.”
Isabelle sighed and sat up.
Vianne wore a faded blue gingham day dress that had been grayed by harsh homemade soap. Hunger had whittled her down over the winter, sharpened her cheekbones and deepened the hollow at the base of her throat. An old scarf turbaned her head, hiding hair that had lost its shine and curl.
“This came for you.” Vianne held out a piece of paper. “It was delivered. By a man. For you,” she said, as if that fact bore repeating.
Isabelle clambered awkwardly to her feet and snatched the paper from Vianne’s grasp. On it, in scrawled handwriting, was: The curtains are open. She reached down for her blanket and began folding it up. What did it mean? They’d never summoned her before. Something important must be happening.
“Isabelle? Would you care to explain?”
“It was Henri Navarre. The innkeeper’s son. I didn’t think you knew him.”
Isabelle ripped the note into tiny pieces and let it fall away.
“He is a communist, you know,” Vianne said in a whisper.
“I need to go.”
Vianne grabbed her wrist. “You cannot have been sneaking out all winter to see a communist. You know what the Nazis think of them. It’s dangerous to even be seen with this man.”
“You think I care what the Nazis think?” Isabelle said, wrenching free. She ran barefooted across the field. At home, she grabbed some shoes and climbed aboard her bicycle. With an au revoir! to a stunned-looking Vianne, Isabelle was off, pedaling down the dirt road.
In town, she coasted past the abandoned hat shop—sure enough, the curtains were open—and veered into the cobblestoned alley and came to a stop.
She leaned her bicycle against the rough limestone wall beside her and rapped four times. It didn’t occur to her until the final knock that it might be a trap. The idea, when it came, made her draw in a sharp breath and glance left and right, but it was too late now.
Henri opened the door.
Isabelle ducked inside. The room was hazy with cigarette smoke and reeked of burned chicory coffee. There was about the place a lingering scent of blood—sausage making. The burly man who had first grabbed her—Didier—was seated on an old hickory-backed chair. He was leaning back so far the two front chair legs were off the floor and his back grazed the wall behind him.
“You shouldn’t have brought a notice to my house, Henri. My sister is asking questions.”
“It was important we talk to you immediately.”
Isabelle felt a little bump of excitement. Would they finally ask her to do something more than dropping papers in letter boxes? “I am here.”
Henri lit up a cigarette. She could feel him watching her as he exhaled the gray smoke and put down his match. “Have you heard of a prefect in Chartres who was arrested and tortured for being a communist?”
Isabelle frowned. “No.”
“He cut his own throat with a piece of glass rather than name anyone or confess.” Henri snubbed his cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe and saved the rest for later in his coat pocket. “He is putting a group together, of people like us who want to heed de Gaulle’s call. He—the one who cut his own throat—is trying to get to London to speak to de Gaulle himself. He seeks to organize a Free French movement.”
“He didn’t die?” Isabelle asked. “Or cut his vocal cords?”
“No. They’re calling it a miracle,” Didier said.
Henri studied Isabelle. “I have a letter—very important—that needs to be delivered to our contact in Paris. Unfortunately, I am being watched closely these days. As is Didier.”
“Oh,” Isabelle said.
“I thought of you,” Didier said.
Henri reached into his pocket and withdrew a crumpled envelope. “Will you deliver this to our man in Paris? He is expecting it a week from today.”
“But … I don’t have an Ausweis.”
“Oui,” Henri said quietly. “And if you were caught…” He let that threat dangle. “Certainly no one would think badly of you if you declined. This is dangerous.”
Dangerous was an understatement. There were signs posted throughout Carriveau about executions that were taking place all over the Occupied Zone. The Nazis were killing French citizens for the smallest of infractions. Aiding this Free French movement could get her imprisoned at the very least. Still, she believed in a free France the way her sister believed in God. “So you want me to get a pass, go to Paris, deliver a letter, and come home.” It didn’t sound so perilous when put that way.
“No,” Henri said. “We need you to stay in Paris and be our … letter box, as it were. In the coming months there will be many such deliveries. Your father has an apartment there, oui?”
It was what she’d longed for from the moment her father had exiled her. To leave Carriveau and return to Paris and be part of a network of people who resisted this war. “My father will not offer me a place to stay.”
“Convince him otherwise,” Didier said evenly, watching her. Judging her.
“He is not a man who is easily convinced,” she said.
“So you can’t do it. Voilà. We have our answer.”
“Wait,” Isabelle said.
Henri approached her. She saw reluctance in his eyes and knew that he wanted her to turn down this assignment. No doubt he was worried about her. She lifted her chin and looked him in the eyes. “I will do this.”
“You will have to lie to everyone you love, and always be afraid. Can you live that way? You’ll not feel safe anywhere.”
Isabelle laughed grimly. It was not so different from the life she’d lived since she was a little girl. “Will you watch over my sister?” she asked Henri. “Make sure she’s safe?”
“There is a price for all our work,” Henri said. He gave her a sad look. In it was the truth they had all learned. There was no safety. “I hope you see that.”
All Isabelle saw was her chance to do something that mattered. “When do I leave?”
“As soon as you get an Ausweis, which will not be easy.”
* * *
What in heaven’s name is that girl thinking?
Really, a school-yard-style note from a man? A communist?
Vianne unwrapped the stringy piece of mutton that had been this week’s ration and set it on the kitchen counter.
Isabelle had always been impetuous, a force of nature, really, a girl who liked to break rules. Countless nuns and teachers had learned that she could be neither controlled nor contained.
But this. This was not kissing a boy on the dance floor or running away to see the circus or refusing to wear a girdle and stockings.
This was wartime in an occupied country. How could Isabelle still believe that her choices had no consequences?
Vianne began finely chopping the mutton. She added a precious egg to the mix, and stale bread, then seasoned it with salt and pepper. She was forming the mixture into patties when she heard a motorcycle putt-puttering toward the house. She went to the front door and opened it just enough to peer out.
Captain Beck’s head and shoulders could be seen above the stone wall as he dismounted his motorcycle. Moments later, a green military lorry pulled up behind him and parked. Three other German soldiers appeared in her yard. The men talked among themselves and then gathered at the rose-covered stone wall her great-great-grandfather had built. One of the soldiers lifted a sledgehammer and brought it down hard on the wall, which shattered. Stones broke into pieces, a skein of roses fell, their pink petals scattering across the grass.
Vianne rushed out into her yard. “Herr Captain!”
The sledgehammer came down again. Craaaack.
“Madame,” Beck said, looking unhappy. It bothered Vianne that she knew him well enough to notice his state of mind. “We have orders to tear down all the walls along this road.”
As one soldier demolished the wall, two others came toward the front door, laughing at some joke between them. Without asking permission, they walked past her and went into her house.
“My condolences,” Beck said, stepping over the rubble on his way to her. “I know you love the roses. And—most sorrowfully—my men will be fulfilling a requisition order from your house.”
The soldiers came out of the house; one carried the oil painting that had been over the mantel and the other had the overstuffed chair from the salon.
“That was my grandmère’s favorite chair,” Vianne said quietly.
“I’m sorry,” Beck said. “I was unable to stop this.”
“What in the world…”
Vianne didn’t know whether to be relieved or concerned when Isabelle yanked her bike over the pile of stone and leaned it against the tree. Already there was no barrier between her property and the road anymore.
Isabelle looked beautiful, even with her face pink from the exertion of riding her bicycle and shiny with perspiration. Glossy blond waves framed her face. Her faded red dress clung to her body in all the right places.
The soldiers stopped to stare at her, the rolled-up Aubusson rug from the living room slung between them.
Beck removed his military cap. He said something to the soldiers who were carrying the rolled-up carpet, and they hurried toward the lorry.
“You’ve torn down our wall?” Isabelle said.
“The Sturmbannführer wants to be able to see all houses from the road. Somebody is distributing anti-German propaganda. We will find and arrest him.”
“You think harmless pieces of paper are worth all of this?” Isabelle asked.
“They are far from harmless, Mademoiselle. They encourage terrorism.”
“Terrorism must be avoided,” Isabelle said, crossing her arms.
Vianne couldn’t look away from Isabelle. There was something going on. Her sister seemed to be drawing her emotions back, going still, like a cat preparing to pounce. “Herr Captain,” Isabelle said after a while.
Soldiers walked past them, carrying out the breakfast table.
Isabelle let them pass and then walked to the captain. “My papa is ill.”
“He is?” Vianne said. “Why don’t I know this? What’s wrong with him?”
Isabelle ignored Vianne. “He has asked that I come to Paris to nurse him. But…”
“He wants you to nurse him?” Vianne said, incredulous.
Beck said, “You need a travel pass to leave, M’mselle. You know this.”
“I know this.” Isabelle seemed to barely breathe. “I … thought perhaps you would procure one for me. You are a family man. Certainly you understand how important it is to answer a father’s call?”
Strangely, as Isabelle spoke, the captain turned slightly to look at Vianne, as if she were the one who mattered.
“I could get you a pass, oui,” the captain said. “For a family emergency such as this.”
“I am grateful,” Isabelle said.
Vianne was stunned. Did Beck not see how her sister was manipulating him—and why had he looked at Vianne when making his decision?
As soon as Isabelle got what she wanted, she returned to her bicycle. She took hold of the handlebars and walked it toward the barn. The rubber wheels bumped and thumped on the uneven ground.
Vianne rushed after her. “Papa’s ill?” she said when she caught up with her sister.
“You lied? Why?”
Isabelle’s pause was slight but perceptible. “I suppose there is no reason to lie. It’s all out in the open now. I have been sneaking out on Friday mornings to meet Henri and now he has asked me to go to Paris with him. He has a lovely little pied-à-terre in the Montmarte, apparently.”
“Are you mad?”
“I’m in love, I think. A little. Maybe.”
“You are going to cross Nazi-occupied France to spend a few nights in Paris in the bed of a man whom you might love. A little.”
“I know,” Isabelle said. “It’s so romantic.”
“You must be feverish. Perhaps you have a brain sickness of some kind.” She put her hands on her hips and made a huff of disapproval.
“If love is a disease, I suppose I’m infected.”
“Good God.” Vianne crossed her arms. “Is there anything I can say to stop this foolishness?”
Isabelle looked at her. “You believe me? You believe I would cross Nazi-occupied France on a lark?”
“This is not like running away to see the circus, Isabelle.”
“But … you believe this of me?”
“Of course.” Vianne shrugged. “So foolish.”
Isabelle looked oddly crestfallen. “Just stay away from Beck while I’m gone. Don’t trust him.”
“Isn’t that just like you? You’re worried enough to warn me, but not wo rried enough to stay with me. What you want is what really matters. Sophie and I can rot for all you care.”
“That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it? Go to Paris. Have your fun but don’t for one minute forget that you are abandoning your niece and me.” Vianne crossed her arms and glanced back at the man in her yard who was supervising the looting of her house. “With him.”
April 27, 1995
The Oregon Coast
I am trussed up like a chicken for roasting. I know these modern seat belts are a good thing, but they make me feel claustrophobic. I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger.
I remember what it used to be like, back in the days when one was required to make smart choices. We knew the risks and took them anyway. I remember driving too fast in my old Chevrolet, my foot pressed hard on the gas, smoking a cigarette and listening to Price sing “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” through small black speakers while children rolled around in the backseat like bowling pins.
My son is afraid that I will make a break for it, I suppose, and it is a reasonable fear. In the past month, my entire life has been turned upside down. There is a SOLD sign in my front yard and I am leaving home.
“It’s a pretty driveway, don’t you think?” my son says. It’s what he does; he fills space with words, and he chooses them carefully. It is what makes him a good surgeon. Precision.
He turns into the parking lot. Like the driveway, it is lined in flowering trees. Tiny white blossoms drop to the ground like bits of lace on a dressmaker’s floor, stark against the black asphalt.
I fumble with my seat belt as we park. My hands do not obey my will these days. It frustrates me so much that I curse out loud.
“I’ll do that,” my son says, reaching sideways to unhook my seat belt.
He is out of the automobile and at my door before I have even retrieved my handbag.
The door opens. He takes me by the hand and helps me out of the car. In the short distance between the parking lot and the entrance, I have to stop twice to catch my breath.
“The trees are so pretty this time of year,” he says as we walk together across the parking lot.
“Yes.” They are flowering plum trees, gorgeous and pink, but I think suddenly of chestnut trees in bloom along the Champs Élysées.
My son tightens his hold on my hand. It is a reminder that he understands the pain of leaving a home that has been my sanctuary for nearly fifty years. But now it is time to look ahead, not behind.