The Nightingale

  She had been frugal with the money Antoine left for her. More than frugal—miserly—even though it had seemed like so much money in the beginning. She had used it for necessities only—wood, electricity, gas, food. But still it was gone. How would she and Sophie survive without her salary from teaching?

  At home, she moved in a daze. She made a pot of cabbage soup and loaded it up with shredded carrots that were soft as noodles. As soon as the meal was finished, she did laundry, and when it was hanging out on the line, she darned socks until night fell. Too early, she shuffled a whiny, complaining Sophie off to bed.

  Alone (and feeling it like a knife pressed to her throat), she sat down at the dining table with an official postcard and a fountain pen.

  Dearest Antoine,

  We are out of money and I have lost my job.

  What am I to do? Winter is only months away.

  She lifted the pen from the paper. The blue words seemed to expand against the white paper.

  Out of money.

  What kind of woman was she to even think of sending a letter like this to her prisoner-of-war husband?

  She balled up the postcard and threw it into the cold, soot-caked fireplace, where it lay all alone, a white ball on a bed of gray ash.


  It couldn’t be in the house. What if Sophie found it, read it? She retrieved it from the ashes and carried it out to the backyard, where she threw it into the pergola. The chickens would trample and peck it to death.

  Outside, she sat down in Antoine’s favorite chair, feeling dazed by the suddenness of her changed circumstances and this new and terrible fear. If only she could do it all over again. She’d spend even less money … she’d go without more … she’d let them take Monsieur Paretsky without a word.

  Behind her, the door creaked open and clicked shut.

  Footsteps. Breathing.

  She should get up and leave, but she was too tired to move.

  Beck came up behind her.

  “Would you care for a glass of wine? It’s a Chateau Margaux ’28. A very good year, apparently.”

  Wine. She wanted to say yes, please (perhaps she’d never needed a glass more), but she couldn’t do it. Neither could she say no, so she said nothing.

  She heard the thunk of a cork being freed, and then the gurgle of wine being poured. He set a full glass on the table beside her. The sweet, rich scent was intoxicating.

  He poured himself a glass and sat down in the chair beside her. “I am leaving,” he said after a long silence.

  She turned to him.

  “Do not look so eager. It is only for a while. A few weeks. I have not been home in two years.” He took a drink. “My wife may be sitting in our garden right now, wondering who will return to her. I am not the man who left, alas. I have seen things…” He paused. “This war, it is not as I expected. And things change in an absence this long, do you not agree?”

  “Oui,” she said. She had often thought the same thing.

  In the silence between them, she heard a frog croak and the leaves fluttering in a jasmine-scented breeze above their heads. A nightingale sang a sad and lonely song.

  “You do not seem yourself, Madame,” he said. “If you do not mind me saying so.”

  “I was fired from my teaching position today.” It was the first time she’d said the words aloud and they caused hot tears to glaze her eyes. “I … drew attention to myself.”

  “A dangerous thing to do.”

  “The money my husband left is gone. I am unemployed. And winter will soon be upon us. How am I to survive? To feed Sophie and keep her warm?” She turned to look at him.

  Their gazes came together. She wanted to look away but couldn’t.

  He placed the wineglass in her hand, forced her fingers to coil around it. His touch felt hot against her cold hands, made her shiver. She remembered his office suddenly—and all that food stacked within it. “It is just wine,” he said again, and the scent of it, of black cherries and dark rich earth and a hint of lavender, wafted up to her nose, reminding her of the life she’d had before, the nights she and Antoine had sat out here, drinking wine.

  She took a sip and gasped; she’d forgotten this simple pleasure.

  “You are beautiful, Madame,” he said, his voice as sweet and rich as the wine. “Perhaps it has been too long since you heard that.”

  Vianne got to her feet so fast she knocked into the table and spilled the wine. “You should not say such things, Herr Captain.”

  “No,” he said, rising to his feet. He stood in front of her, his breath scented by red wine and spearmint gum. “I should not.”

  “Please,” she said, unable even to finish the sentence.

  “Your daughter will not starve this winter, Madame,” he said. Softly, as if it were their secret accord. “That is one thing you can be sure of.”

  God help Vianne, it relieved her. She mumbled something—she wasn’t even sure what—and went back into the house, where she climbed into bed with Sophie, but it was a long time before she slept.

  * * *

  The bookshop had once been a gathering place for poets and writers and novelists and academics. Isabelle’s best childhood memories took place in these musty rooms. While Papa had worked in the back room on his printing press, Maman had read Isabelle stories and fables and made up plays for them to act out. They had been happy here, for a time, before Maman took sick and Papa started drinking.

  There’s my Iz, come sit on Papa’s lap while I write your maman a poem.

  Or maybe she had imagined that memory, constructed it from the threads of her own need and wrapped it tightly around her shoulders. She didn’t know anymore.

  Now it was Germans who crowded into the shadowy nooks and crannies.

  In the six weeks since Isabelle had reopened the shop, word had apparently spread among the soldiers that a pretty French girl could be found often at the shop’s counter.

  They arrived in a stream, dressed in their spotless uniforms, their voices loud as they jostled one another. Isabelle flirted with them mercilessly but made sure never to leave the shop until it was empty. And she always left by the back door, wearing a charcoal cloak with the hood drawn up, even in the heat of summer. The soldiers might be jovial and smiling—boys, really, who talked of pretty fräuleins back home and bought French classics by “acceptable” authors for their families—but she never forgot that they were the enemy.

  “M’mselle, you are so beautiful, and you are ignoring us. How will we survive?” A young German officer reached for her.

  She laughed prettily and pirouetted out of his reach. “Now, M’sieur, you know I can show no favorites.” She sidled into place behind the sales counter. “I see you are holding a book of poetry. Certainly you have a girl back home who would love to receive such a thoughtful gift from you.”

  His friends shoved him forward, all of them talking at once.

  Isabelle was taking his money when the bell above the front door tinkled gaily.

  Isabelle looked up, expecting to see more German soldiers, but it was Anouk. She was dressed, as usual, more for her temperament than the season, in all black. A fitted V-neck black sweater and straight skirt with a black beret and gloves. A Gauloises cigarette hung from her bright red lips, unlit.

  She paused in the open doorway, with a rectangle of the empty alley behind her, a flash of red geraniums and greenery.

  At the bell, the Germans turned.

  Anouk let the door shut behind her. She casually lit her cigarette and inhaled deeply.

  With half of the store length between them, and three German soldiers milling about, Isabelle’s gaze caught Anouk’s. In the weeks that Isabelle had been a courier (she’d gone to Blois, Lyon, and Marseilles, to Amboise and Nice, not to mention at least a dozen drops in Paris recently, all under her new name—Juliette Gervaise—using false papers that Anouk had slipped her one day in a bistro, right under the Germans’ noses), Anouk had been her most frequent contact and even with the
ir age difference—which had to be at least a decade, maybe more—they had become friends in the way of women who live parallel lives—wordlessly but no less real for its silence. Isabelle had learned to see past Anouk’s dour expression and flat mouth, to ignore her taciturn demeanor. Behind all that, Isabelle thought there was sadness. A lot of it. And anger.

  Anouk walked forward with a regal, disdainful air that cut a man down to size before he even spoke. The Germans fell silent, watching her, moving sideways to let her pass. Isabelle heard one of them say “mannish” and another “widow.”

  Anouk seemed not to notice them at all. At the counter she stopped and took a long drag on her cigarette. The smoke blurred her face, and for a moment, only her cherry-red lips were noticeable. She reached down for her handbag and withdrew a small brown book. The author’s name—Baudelaire—was etched into the leather, and although the surface was so scratched and worn and discolored the title was impossible to read, Isabelle knew the volume. Les Fleurs du mal. The Flowers of Evil. It was the book they used to signal a meeting.

  “I am looking for something else by this author,” Anouk said, exhaling smoke.

  “I am sorry, Madame. I have no more Baudelaire. Some Verlaine, perhaps? Or Rimbaud?”

  “Nothing then.” Anouk turned and left the bookshop. It wasn’t until the bell tinkled that her spell broke and the soldiers began speaking again. When no one was looking, Isabelle palmed the small volume of poetry. Inside of it was a message for her to deliver, along with the time it was to be delivered. The place was as usual: the bench in front of the Comédie Française. The message was hidden beneath the end papers, which had been lifted and reglued dozens of times.

  Isabelle watched the clock, willing the time to advance. She had her next assignment.

  At precisely six P.M., she herded the soldiers out of the bookshop and closed up for the night. Outside, she found the chef and owner of the bistro next door, Monsieur Deparde, smoking a cigarette. The poor man looked as tired as she felt. She wondered sometimes, when she saw him sweating over the fryer or shucking oysters, how he felt about feeding Germans. “Bonsoir, M’sieur,” she said.

  “Bonsoir, M’mselle.”

  “Long day?” she commiserated.


  She handed him a small, used copy of fables for his children. “For Jacques and Gigi,” she said with a smile.

  “One moment.” He rushed into the café and returned with a small, grease-stained sack. “Frites,” he said.

  Isabelle was absurdly grateful. These days she not only ate the enemy’s leftovers, she was thankful for them. “Merci.”

  Leaving her bicycle in the shop, she decided to ignore the crowded, depressingly silent Métro and walk home, enjoying the greasy, salty frites on her way. Everywhere she looked, Germans were pouring into cafés and bistros and restaurants, while the ashen-faced Parisians hurried to be home before curfew. Twice along the way, she had a niggling sense that she was being followed, but when she turned, there was no one behind her.

  She wasn’t sure what brought her to a halt on the corner near the park, but all at once, she knew that something was wrong. Out of place. In front of her, the street was full of Nazi vehicles honking at one another. Somewhere someone screamed.

  Isabelle felt the hairs on the back of her neck raise. She glanced back quickly, but no one was behind her. Lately she often felt as if she were being followed. It was her nerves working overtime. The golden dome of the Invalides shone in the fading rays of the sun. Her heart started pounding. Fear made her perspire. The musky, sour scent of it mingled with the greasy odor of frites, and for a moment her stomach tilted uncomfortably.

  Everything was fine. No one was following her. She was being foolish.

  She turned onto rue de Grenelle.

  Something caught her eye, made her stop.

  Up ahead she saw a shadow where there shouldn’t be a shadow. Movement where it should be still.

  Frowning, she crossed the street, picking her way through the slow-moving traffic. On the other side, she moved briskly past the clot of Germans drinking wine in the bistro toward an apartment building on the next corner.

  There, hidden in the dense shrubbery beside an ornate set of glossy black doors, she saw a man crouched down behind a tree in a huge copper urn.

  She opened the gate and stepped into the yard. She heard the man scramble backward, his boots crunching on the stones beneath him.

  Then he stilled.

  Isabelle could hear the Germans laughing at the café down the street, yelling out Sikt! s’il vous plaît to the poor, overworked waitress.

  It was the supper hour. The one hour of the day when all the enemy cared about was entertainment and stuffing their stomachs with food and wine that belonged to the French. She crept over to the potted lemon tree.

  The man was squatted down, trying to make himself as small as possible. Dirt smeared his face and one eye was swollen shut, but there was no mistaking him for a Frenchman: he was wearing a British flight suit.

  “Mon Dieu,” she muttered. “Anglais?”

  He said nothing.

  “RAF?” she asked in English.

  His eyes widened. She could see him trying to decide whether to trust her. Very slowly, he nodded.

  “How long have you been hiding here?”

  After a long moment, he said, “All day.”

  “You’ll get caught,” she said. “Sooner or later.” Isabelle knew she needed to question him further, but there wasn’t time. Every second she stood here with him, the danger to both of them increased. It was amazing that the Brit hadn’t been caught already.

  She needed either to help him or to walk away before attention was drawn. Certainly walking away was the smart move. “Fifty-seven Avenue de La Bourdonnais,” she said quietly, in English. “That’s where I am going. In one hour, I will go out for a cigarette. You come to the door then. If you arrive without being seen, I will help you. You understand me?”

  “How do I know I can trust you?”

  She laughed at that. “This is a foolish thing I am doing. And I promised not to be so impetuous. Ah well.” She pivoted on her heel and left the garden area, clanging the gate shut behind her. She hurried down the street. All the way home, her heart was pounding and she second-guessed her decision. But there was nothing to do about it now. She didn’t look back, not even at her apartment building. There, she stopped and faced the big brass knob in the center of the oak door. She felt dizzy and headachy, she was so scared.

  She fumbled with the key in the lock and twisted the knob and surged into the dark, shadowy interior. Inside, the narrow lobby was crowded with bicycles and handcarts. She made her way to the base of the winding stairway and sat on the bottom step, waiting.

  She looked at her wristwatch a thousand times, and each time she told herself not to do this, but at the appointed time, she went back outside. Night had fallen. With the blackout shades and unlit streetlamps, the street was as dark as a cave. Cars rumbled past, unseen without their headlamps on; heard and smelled but invisible unless an errant bit of moonlight caught them. She lit her brown cigarette, took a deep drag, and exhaled slowly, trying to calm herself.

  “I’m here, miss.”

  Isabelle stumbled backward and opened the door. “Stay behind me. Eyes down. Not too close.”

  She led him through the lobby, both of them banging into bicycles, clanging them, and rattling wooden carts. She had never run up the five flights of stairs faster. She pulled him into her apartment and slammed the door shut behind him.

  “Take off your clothes,” she said.

  “Pardon me?”

  She flicked on the light switch.

  He towered over her; she saw that now. He was broad-shouldered and skinny at the same time, narrow-faced, with a nose that looked like it had been broken a time or two. His hair was so short it looked like fuzz. “Your flight suit. Take it off. Quickly.”

  What had she been thinking to do this? Her fathe
r would come home and find the airman and then turn them both in to the Germans.

  Where would she hide his flight suit? And those boots were a dead giveaway.

  He bent forward and stepped out of his flight suit.

  She had never seen a grown man in his undershorts and T-shirt before. She felt her face flush.

  “No need to blush, miss,” he said, grinning as if this were ordinary.

  She yanked his suit into her arms and held out her hand for his identification tags. He handed them over; two small discs worn around his neck. Both contained the same information. Lieutenant Torrance MacLeish. His blood group and religion and number.

  “Follow me. Quietly. What’s the word … on the edges of your toes.”

  “Tiptoes,” he whispered.

  She led him to her bedroom. There—slowly, gently—she pushed the armoire out of the way and revealed the secret room.

  A row of glassy doll eyes stared back at her.

  “That’s creepy, miss,” he said. “And it’s a small space for a big man.”

  “Get in. Stay quiet. Any untoward sound could get us searched. Madame Leclerc next door is curious and could be a collaborator, you understand? Also, my father will be home soon. He works for the German high command.”


  She had no idea what that meant, and she was sweating so profusely her clothes were starting to stick to her chest. What had she been thinking to offer this man help?

  “What if I have to … you know?” he asked.

  “Hold it.” She pushed him into the room, giving him a pillow and blanket from her bed. “I’ll come back when I can. Quiet, oui?”

  He nodded. “Thank you.”

  She couldn’t help shaking her head. “I’m a fool. A fool.” She shut the door on him and shoved the armoire back into place, not quite where it went, but good enough for now. She had to get rid of his flight suit and tags before her father came home.

  She moved through the apartment on bare feet, as quietly as possible. She had no idea if the people downstairs would notice the sound of the armoire being moved or too many people moving about up here. Better safe than sorry. She jammed the flight suit in an old Samaritaine department store bag and crushed it to her chest.

  Leaving the apartment felt dangerous suddenly. So did staying.

  She crept past the Leclerc apartment and then rushed down the stairs.

  Outside, she drew in a gulping breath.

  Now what? She couldn’t throw this just anywhere. She didn’t want someone else to get in trouble …

  For the first time, she was grateful for the city’s blackout conditions. She slipped into the darkness on the sidewalk and all but disappeared. There were few Parisians out this close to curfew and the Germans were too busy drinking French wine to glance outside.

  She drew in a deep breath, trying to calm down. To think. She was probably moments away from curfew—although that was hardly her biggest problem. Papa would be home soon.

  The river.

  She was only a few blocks away, and there were trees along the quay.

  She found a smaller, barricaded side street and made her way to the river, past the row of military lorries parked along the street.

  She had never moved so slowly in her life. One step—one breath—at a time. The last fifty feet between her and the banks of the Seine seemed to grow and expand with each step she took, and then again as she descended the stairs to the water, but at last she was there, standing beside the river. She heard boat lines creaking in the darkness, waves slapping their wooden hulls. Once again she thought she heard footsteps behind her. When she stilled, so did they. She waited for someone to come up behind her, for a voice demanding her papers.

  Nothing. She was imagining it.

  One minute passed. Then another.

  She threw the bag into the black water and then hurled the identification tags in after it. The dark, swirling water swallowed the evidence instantly.

  Still, she felt shaky as she climbed the steps and crossed the street and headed for home.

  At her apartment door, she paused, finger-combing her sweat-dampened hair and pulling the damp cotton blouse from her breasts.

  The one light was on. The chandelier. Her father sat hunched over the dining room table with paperwork spread out before him. He appeared haggard and too