The Nightingale

  “W-what pilots? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  He growled again and cracked her head against the wall. “You asked for our help to get pilots over the Pyrenees.”

  “Me, a woman, climb across the Pyrenees? You must be joking. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Are you saying Madame Babineau is lying?”

  “I don’t know Madame Babineau. I just stopped here to ask for directions. I’m lost.”

  He smiled, revealing tobacco- and wine-stained teeth. “Clever girl,” he said, letting her go. “And not a bit weak in the knees.”

  Madame Babineau stood. “Good for her.”

  The man stepped back, giving her space. “I am Eduardo.” He turned to the old woman. “The weather is good. Her will is strong. The men may sleep here tonight. Unless they are weaklings, I will take them tomorrow.”

  “You’ll take us?” Isabelle said. “To Spain?”

  Eduardo looked to Madame Babineau, who looked at Isabelle. “It would be our great pleasure to help you, Juliette. Now, where are these pilots of yours?”

  * * *

  In the middle of the night, Madame Babineau woke Isabelle and led her into the farmhouse’s kitchen, where a fire was already blazing in the hearth. “Coffee?”

  Isabelle finger-combed her hair and tied a cotton scarf around her head. “No, merci, it is too precious.”

  The old woman gave her a smile. “No one suspects a woman my age of anything. It makes me good at trading. Here.” She offered Isabelle a cracked porcelain mug full of steaming black coffee. Real coffee.

  Isabelle wrapped her hands around the mug and breathed deeply of the familiar, never-again-to-be-taken-for-granted aroma.

  Madame Babineau sat down beside her.

  She looked into the woman’s dark eyes and saw a compassion that reminded her of her maman. “I am scared,” Isabelle admitted. It was the first time she’d said this to anyone.

  “As you should be. As we all must be.”

  “If something goes wrong, will you get word to Julien? He’s still in Paris. If we … don’t make it, tell him the Nightingale didn’t fly.”

  Madame Babineau nodded.

  As the women sat there, the airmen came into the room, one by one. It was the middle of the night, and none looked like they had slept well. Still, the hour appointed for their departure was here.

  Madame Babineau set out a meal of bread and sweet lavender honey and creamy goat cheese. The men planted themselves on the mismatched chairs and scooted close to the table, talking all at once, devouring the food in an instant.

  The door banged open, bringing with it a rush of cold night air. Dried leaves scudded inside, dancing across the floor, plastering themselves like tiny black hands to the stones of the fireplace. The flames within shivered and thinned. The door slammed shut.

  Eduardo stood there, looking like a scruffy giant in the low-ceilinged room. He was a typical Basque—with broad shoulders and a face that seemed to have been carved in stone with a dull blade. The coat he wore was thin for the weather and patched in more places than it was whole.

  He handed Isabelle a pair of Basque shoes, called espadrilles, with rope soles that were supposedly good in the rough terrain.

  “How is the weather for this journey, Eduardo?” Madame Babineau asked.

  “Cold is coming. We must not tarry.” He swung a ragged rucksack from his shoulder and dropped it on the ground. To the men, he said, “These are espadrilles. They will help you. Find a pair that fits.” Isabelle stood beside him, translating for the men.

  The men came forward obediently and squatted around the rucksack, pulling out shoes, passing them around.

  “None fit me,” MacLeish said.

  “Do what you can,” Madame Babineau said. “Sadly, we aren’t a shoe shop.”

  When the men had exchanged their flight boots for walking shoes, Eduardo had them stand in a line. He studied each man in turn, checking his clothing and his small pack. “Take everything out of your pockets and leave it here. The Spanish will arrest you for anything, and you do not want to escape the Germans only to find yourself in a Spanish prison.” He handed them each a goatskin bota bag full of wine and a walking stick that he’d made from knobby, mossy branches. When he was finished, he slapped them on the back hard enough to send most of them stumbling forward.

  “Silence,” Eduardo said. “Always.”

  They left the cottage and filed onto the uneven terrain of the goat pasture outside. The sky was lit by a weak blue moon. “Night is our protection,” Eduardo said. “Night and speed and quiet.” He turned, stopped them with a raised hand. “Juliette will be at the back of the line. I will be at the front. When I walk, you walk. You walk in single file. There is no talking. None. You will be cold—freezing cold on this night—and hungry and soon you will be tired. Keep walking.”

  Eduardo turned his back on the men and began walking up the hill.

  Isabelle felt the cold instantly; it bit into her exposed cheeks and slipped through the seams of her woolen coat. She used her gloved hand to hold the pieces of her collar together and began the long trek up the grassy hillside.

  Sometime around three in the morning, the walk became a hike. The terrain steepened, the moon slid behind invisible clouds and blinked out, leaving them in near-total darkness. Isabelle heard the men’s breathing become labored in front of her. She knew they were cold; most of them did not have adequate clothing for this freezing air, and few of them had shoes that fit correctly. Twigs snapped beneath their feet, rocks clattered away from them, made a sound like rain on a tin roof as they fell down the steep mountainside. The first pangs of hunger twisted her empty stomach.

  It started to rain. A gnashing wind swept up from the valley below, slamming into the party walking single file. It turned the rain into freezing shards that attacked their exposed skin. Isabelle began to shiver uncontrollably, her breath came out in great, heaving gasps, and still she climbed. Up, up, up, past the tree line.

  Ahead, someone made a yelping sound and fell hard. Isabelle couldn’t see who it was; the night had closed around them. The man in front of her stopped; she ran into his back and he stumbled sideways, fell into a boulder and cursed.

  “Don’t stop, men,” Isabelle said, trying to keep the spirit in her voice.

  They climbed until Isabelle gasped with every step, but Eduardo allowed them no respite. He stopped only long enough to make sure they were still behind him and then he was off again, clambering up the rocky hillside like a goat.

  Isabelle’s legs were on fire, aching painfully, and even with her espadrilles, blisters formed. Every step became an agony and a test of will.

  Hours and hours and hours passed. Isabelle grew so breathless she couldn’t have formed the words needed to beg for a drink of water, but she knew that Eduardo wouldn’t have listened to her anyway. She heard MacLeish in front of her, gasping, cursing every time he slipped, crying out in pain at the blisters she knew were turning his feet into open sores.

  She couldn’t make out the path at all anymore. She just trudged upward, her eyelids struggling to stay open.

  Angling forward against the wind, she pulled her scarf up over her nose and mouth and kept going. Her breath, coming in pants, warmed her scarf. The fabric turned moist and then froze into solid, icy folds.

  “Here.” Eduardo’s booming voice came at her from the darkness. They were so high up the mountain that there were sure to be no German or Spanish patrols. The risk to their lives up here came from the elements.

  Isabelle collapsed in a heap, landing hard enough on a piece of rock that she cried out, but she was too tired to care.

  MacLeish dropped down beside her, gasping, “Christ Almighty,” and pitching forward. She grabbed his arm, steadied him as he started to slide downward.

  She heard a cacophony of voices come after it—“thank God … bloody well time”—and then she heard bodies hit the ground. They fell downward in a group, as if
their legs could hold them no more.

  “Not here,” Eduardo said. “The goatherder’s shack. Over there.”

  Isabelle staggered to her feet. In the back of the line, she waited, shivering, her arms crossed around her body as if she could hold heat within, but there was no heat. She felt like a shard of ice, brittle and frozen. Her mind fought the stupor that wanted to take over. She had to keep shaking her head to keep her thoughts clear.

  She heard a footstep and knew Eduardo was standing beside her in the darkness, their faces pelted by icy rain.

  “Are you all right?” he asked.

  “I’m frozen solid. And I’m afraid to look at my feet.”


  “The size of dinner plates, I’m pretty sure. I can’t tell if the rain is making my shoes wet or if blood is bubbling through the material.”

  She felt tears sting her eyes and freeze instantly, binding her lashes together.

  Eduardo took her hand and led her to the goatherder’s shed, where he started a fire. The ice in her hair turned to water and dripped to the floor, puddling at her feet. She watched the men collapse where they stood, thumping back against the rough wooden walls as they pulled their rucksacks into their laps and began searching through them for food. MacLeish waved her over.

  Isabelle picked her way through the men and collapsed beside MacLeish. In silence, listening to men chewing and belching and sighing around her, she ate the cheese and apples she’d brought with her.

  She had no idea when she fell asleep. One minute she was awake, eating what passed for supper on the mountain, and the next thing she knew, Eduardo was waking them again. Gray light pressed against the dirty window of the shack. They’d slept through the day and been wakened in the late afternoon.

  Eduardo started a fire, made a pot of ersatz coffee, and handed it out to them. Breakfast was stale bread and hard cheese—good, but not nearly enough to stave off the hunger that was still sharp from yesterday.

  Eduardo took off at a brisk walk, climbing the slick, frost-covered shale of the treacherous trail like a billy goat.

  Isabelle was the last one out of the shack. She looked up the trail. Gray clouds obscured the peaks and snowflakes hushed the world until there was no earthly sound except their breathing. Men vanished in front of her, becoming small black dots in the whiteness. She plunged into the cold, climbing steadily, following the man in front of her. He was all she could see in the falling snow.

  Eduardo’s pace was punishing. He climbed up the twisting path without pause, seemingly unaware of the biting, burning cold that turned every breath into a fire that exploded in the lungs. Isabelle panted and kept going, encouraging the men when they started to lag, cajoling them and teasing them and urging them on.

  When darkness fell again, she redoubled her efforts to keep morale up. Even though she felt sick to her stomach with fatigue and parched with thirst, she kept going. If any one of them got more than a few feet away from the person in front of him, he could be lost forever in this frozen darkness. To leave the path for a few feet was to die.

  She stumbled on through the night.

  Someone fell in front of her, made a yelping sound. She rushed forward, found one of the Canadian fliers on his knees, wheezing hard, his moustache frozen. “I’m beat, baby doll,” he said, trying to smile.

  Isabelle slid down beside him, felt her backside instantly grow cold. “It’s Teddy, right?”

  “You got me. Look. I’m done for. Just go on ahead.”

  “You got a wife, Teddy, a girl back home in Canada?”

  She couldn’t see his face, but she heard the way he sucked in his breath at her question. “You aren’t playin’ fair, doll.”

  “There’s no fair in life and death, Teddy. What’s her name?”


  “Get on your feet for Alice, Teddy.”

  She felt him shift his weight, get his feet back underneath him. She angled her body against him, let him lean against her as he stood. “All right, then,” he said, shuddering hard.

  She let him go, heard him walk on ahead.

  She sighed heavily, shivering at the end of it. Hunger gnawed at her stomach. She swallowed dryly, wishing they could stop just for a minute. Instead, she pointed herself in the direction of the men and kept going. Her mind was muddling again, her thoughts blurring. All she could think of was taking this step, and the next one, and the next one.

  Sometime near dawn, the snow turned to rain that turned their woolen coats into sodden weights. Isabelle hardly noticed when they started going down. The only real difference was the men falling, slipping on the wet rocks and tumbling down the rocky, treacherous mountainside. There was no way to stop them; she just had to watch them fall and help them get back on their feet when they came to a breathless, broken stop. The visibility was so bad that they were constantly in fear of losing sight of the man in front and plunging off the path.

  At daybreak, Eduardo stopped and pointed to a yawning black cave tucked into the mountainside. The men gathered inside, making huffing sounds as they sat and stretched out their legs. Isabelle heard them opening their packs, burrowing through for the last bits of their food. Somewhere deep inside, an animal scurried around, its claws scratching lightly on the hard-packed dirt floor.

  Isabelle followed the men inside; roots hung down from the dripping stone-and-mud interior. Eduardo knelt down and made a small fire, using the moss he’d picked that morning and packed in his waistband. “Eat and sleep,” he said when the flames danced up. “Tomorrow we make the final trek.” He reached for his goatskin bota, drank deeply, and then left the cave.

  The damp wood crackled and popped, sounding like gunfire in the cave, but Isabelle—and the men—were too exhausted even to flinch. Isabelle sat down beside MacLeish and leaned tiredly against him.

  “You’re a wonder,” he said in a hushed voice.

  “I’ve been told I don’t make smart decisions. This may be proof of that.” She shivered, whether from cold or exhaustion, she didn’t know.

  “Dumb but brave,” he said with a smile.

  Isabelle was grateful for the conversation. “That’s me.”

  “I don’t think I’ve thanked you properly … for saving me.”

  “I don’t think I’ve saved you yet, Torrance.”

  “Call me Torry,” he said. “All my mates do.”

  He said something else—about a girl waiting for him in Ipswich, maybe—but she was too tired to hear what it was.

  When she wakened, it was raining.

  “Bollocks,” one of the men said. “It’s pissing out there.”

  Eduardo stood outside the cave, his strong legs braced widely apart, his face and hair pelted by rain that he seemed not to notice at all. Behind him, there was darkness.

  The airmen opened their rucksacks. No one had to be told to eat anymore; they knew the routine. When you were allowed to stop, you drank, you ate, you slept, and in that order. When you were wakened, you ate and drank and got to your feet, no matter how much it hurt to do so.

  As they stood, a groan moved from man to man. A few cursed. It was a rainy, moonless night. Utterly dark.

  They had made it over the mountain—almost one thousand meters high where they crossed the previous night—and were halfway down the other side, but the weather was worsening.

  As Isabelle left the cave, wet branches smacked her in the face. She pushed them away with a gloved hand and kept going. Her walking stick thumped with each step. Rain made the shale as slick as ice and ran in rivulets alongside them. She heard the men grunting in front of her. She trudged forward on blistered, aching feet. The pace set by Eduardo was gruelingly hard. Nothing stopped or slowed the man, and the airmen struggled to keep up.

  “Look!” she heard someone say.

  In the distance, far away, lights twinkled, a spiderweb pattern of white dots spanned the darkness.

  “Spain,” Eduardo said.

  The sight rejuvenated the group. They co
ntinued, their walking sticks thumping, their feet landing solidly as the ground gradually leveled out.

  How many hours passed this way? Five? Six? She didn’t know. Enough that her legs began to ache and the small of her back was a pit of pain. She was constantly spitting rain and wiping it out of her eyes, and the emptiness in her stomach was a rabid animal. A pale sheen of daylight began to appear at the horizon, a blade of lavender light, then pink, then yellow as she zigzagged down the trail. Her feet hurt so much she gritted her teeth to keep from crying out in pain.

  By the fourth nightfall, Isabelle had lost all sense of time and place. She had no idea where they were or how much longer this agony would go on. Her thoughts became a simple plea, tumbling through her mind, keeping pace with her aching steps. The consulate, the consulate, the consulate.

  “Stop,” Eduardo said, holding up his hand.

  Isabelle stumbled into MacLeish. His cheeks were bright red with cold and his lips were chapped and his breathing ragged.

  Not far away, past a blurry green hillside, she saw a patrol of soldiers in light green uniforms.

  Her first thought was, We are in Spain, and then Eduardo shoved them both behind a stand of trees.

  They hid for a long time and then set off again.

  Hours later, she heard a roar of rushing water. As they neared the river, the sound obliterated everything else.

  Finally, Eduardo stopped and gathered the men close together. He was standing in a pool of mud, his espadrilles disappearing into the muck. Behind him were gray granite cliffs upon which spindly trees grew in defiance of the laws of gravity. Bushes sprouted like cattle catchers around formidable gray rocks.

  “We hide here until nightfall,” Eduardo said. “Over that ridge is the Bidassoa River. On the other bank is Spain. We are close—but close is nothing. Between the river and your freedom are patrols with dogs. These patrols will shoot at anything they see moving. Do not move.”

  Isabelle watched Eduardo walk away from the group. When he was gone, she and the men hunkered down behind giant boulders and inside the lee of fallen trees.

  For hours, the rain beat down on them, turned the mud beneath them into a marsh. She shivered and drew her knees into her chest and closed her eyes. Impossibly, she fell into a deep, exhausted sleep that was over much too quickly.

  At midnight, Eduardo wakened her.

  The first thing Isabelle noticed when she opened her eyes was that the rain had stopped. The sky overhead was studded with stars. She climbed tiredly to her feet and immediately winced in pain. She could only imagine how much the airmen’s feet hurt—she was lucky enough to have shoes that fit.

  Under cover of night, they set off again, the sound of their footsteps swallowed by the roar of the river.

  And then they were there, standing amid the trees at the edge of a giant gorge. Far below, the water crashed and roiled and roared, splashing up along the rock sides.

  Eduardo gathered them close. “We can’t swim across. The rains have made the river a beast that will swallow us all. Follow me.”

  They walked along the river for a mile or two, and then Eduardo stopped again. She heard a creaking sound, like a boat line stretched by rising seas, and an occasional clatter.

  At first, there was nothing to see. Then the bright white searchlights on the other side flashed across the white-tipped, rushing river, and shone on a rickety suspension bridge that linked this side of the gorge to the opposite shore. There was a Spanish checkpoint not far away, with guards patrolling back and forth.

  “Holy Mother o’ God,” one of the airmen said.

  “Fuck me,” said another.

  Isabelle joined the men in a crouch behind some bushes, where they waited, watching the searchlights crisscross the river.

  It was after two in the morning when Eduardo finally nodded. There was no movement on the other side of the gorge at all. If their luck held—or if they had any at all—the sentries were asleep at their posts.

  “Let’s go,” Eduardo whispered, getting the men to their feet. He led them to the start of the bridge—a sagging sling with rope sides and a wooden-slat floor, through which the rushing white river could be seen in strips. Several of the slats were missing. The bridge blew side to side in the wind and made a whining, creaking sound.

  Isabelle looked at the men, most of whom were pale as ghosts.

  “One step at a time,” Eduardo said. “The slats look weak but they’ll hold your weight. You have sixty seconds to cross—that’s the amount of time between the searchlights. As soon as you get to the other side, drop to your knees and crawl beneath the window of the guardhouse.”

  “You’ve done this before, right?” Teddy said, his voice breaking on “before.”

  “Plenty of times, Teddy,” Isabelle lied. “And if a girl can do it, a strapping pilot like you will have no problem at all. Right?”

  He nodded. “You bet your arse.”

  Isabelle watched Eduardo cross. When he was on the other side, she gathered the airmen close. One by one, counting off in sixty-second intervals, she guided