The Nightingale

  “Is there, pretty girl? What do you know about it?”

  “What was your crime?”

  “I took things that didn’t belong to me. Is that enough of an answer?”


  “And you got caught.”


  “That isn’t exactly comforting, Gaëtan. Were you careless?”

  “Gaët,” he said, moving toward her.

  “I haven’t decided if we’re friends yet.”

  He touched her hair, let a few strands coil around his dirty finger. “We’re friends. Bank on it. Now let’s go.”

  When he reached for her hand, it occurred to her to refuse him, but she didn’t. They walked out of the forest and back onto the road, merging once again into the crowd, which opened just enough to let them in and then closed around them. Isabelle hung on to Gaëtan with one hand and held her suitcase in the other.

  They walked for miles.

  Automobiles died around them. Cartwheels broke. Horses stopped and couldn’t be made to move again. Isabelle felt herself becoming listless and dull, exhausted by heat and dust and thirst. A woman limped along beside her, crying, her tears black with dirt and grit, and then that woman was replaced by an older woman in a fur coat who was sweating profusely and seemed to be wearing every piece of jewelry she owned.

  The sun grew stronger, became stiflingly, staggeringly hot. Children whined, women whimpered. The acrid, stuffy scent of body odor and sweat filled the air, but Isabelle had grown so used to it that she barely noticed other people’s smell or her own.

  It was almost three o’clock, the hottest part of the day, when they saw a regiment of French soldiers walking alongside them, dragging their rifles. The soldiers moved in a disorganized way, not in formation, not smartly. A tank rumbled beside them, crunching over belongings left in the road; on it several whey-faced French soldiers sat slumped, their heads hung low.

  Isabelle pulled free of Gaëtan and stumbled through the crowd, elbowing her way to the regiment. “You’re going the wrong way!” she screamed, surprised to hear how hoarse her voice was.

  Gaëtan pounced on a soldier, shoved him back so hard he stumbled and crashed into a slow-moving tank. “Who is fighting for France?”

  The bleary-eyed soldier shook his head. “No one.” In a glint of silver, Isabelle saw the knife Gaëtan held to the man’s throat. The soldier’s gaze narrowed. “Go ahead. Do it. Kill me.”

  Isabelle pulled Gaëtan away. In his eyes, she saw a rage so deep it scared her. He could do it; he could kill this man by slitting his throat. And she thought: They opened the prisons. Was he worse than a thief?

  “Gaët?” she said.

  Her voice got through to him. He shook his head as if to clear it and lowered his knife. “Who is fighting for us?” he said bitterly, coughing at the dust.

  “We will be,” she said. “Soon.”

  Behind her, an automobile honked its horn. Aah-ooh-gah. Isabelle ignored it. Automobiles were no better than walking anymore—the few that were still running were moving only at the whim of the people around them; like flotsam in the reeds of a muddy river. “Come on.” She pulled him away from the demoralized regiment.

  They walked on, still holding hands, but as the hours passed, Isabelle noticed a change in Gaëtan. He rarely spoke and didn’t smile.

  At each town, the crowd thinned. People stumbled into Artenay, Saran, and Orléans, their eyes alight with desperation as they reached into handbags and pockets and wallets for money they hoped to be able to spend.

  Still, Isabelle and Gaëtan kept going. They walked all day and fell into exhausted sleep in the dark and woke again to walk the next day. By their third day, Isabelle was numb with exhaustion. Oozing red blisters had formed between most of her toes and on the balls of her feet and every step was painful. Dehydration gave her a terrible, pounding headache and hunger gnawed at her empty stomach. Dust clogged her throat and eyes and made her cough constantly.

  She stumbled past a freshly dug grave on the side of the road, marked by a crudely hammered-together wooden cross. Her shoe caught on something—a dead cat—and she staggered forward, almost falling to her knees. Gaëtan steadied her.

  She clung to his hand, remained stubbornly upright.

  How much later was it that she heard something?

  An hour? A day?

  Bees. They buzzed around her head; she batted them away. She licked her dried lips and thought of pleasant days in the garden, with bees buzzing about.


  Not bees.

  She knew that sound.

  She stopped, frowning. Her thoughts were addled. What had she been trying to remember?

  The droning grew louder, filling the air, and then the aeroplanes appeared, six or seven of them, looking like small crucifixes against the blue and cloudless sky.

  Isabelle tented a hand over her eyes, watching the aeroplanes fly closer, lower …

  Someone yelled, “It’s the Boches!”

  In the distance, a stone bridge exploded in a spray of fire and stone and smoke.

  The aeroplanes dropped lower over the crowd.

  Gaëtan threw Isabelle to the ground and covered her body with his. The world became pure sound: the roar of the aeroplane engines, the rat-ta-ta-tat of machine-gun fire, the beat of her heart, people screaming. Bullets ate up the grass in rows, people screamed and cried out. Isabelle saw a woman fly into the air like a rag doll and hit the ground in a heap.

  Trees snapped in half and fell over, people yelled. Flames burst into existence. Smoke filled the air.

  And then … quiet.

  Gaëtan rolled off her.

  “Are you all right?” he asked.

  She pushed the hair from her eyes and sat up.

  There were mangled bodies everywhere, and fires, and billowing black smoke. People were screaming, crying, dying.

  An old man moaned, “Help me.”

  Isabelle crawled to him on her hands and knees, realizing as she got close that the ground was marshy with his blood. A stomach wound gaped through his ripped shirt; entrails bulged out of the torn flesh.

  “Maybe there’s a doctor” was all she could think of to say. And then she heard it again. The droning.

  “They’re coming back.” Gaëtan pulled her to her feet. She almost slipped in the blood-soaked grass. Not far away a bomb hit, exploding into fire. Isabelle saw a toddler in soiled nappies standing by a dead woman, crying.

  She stumbled toward the toddler. Gaëtan yanked her sideways.

  “I have to help—”

  “Your dying won’t help that kid,” he growled, pulling her so hard it hurt. She stumbled along beside him in a daze. They dodged discarded automobiles and bodies, most of which were ripped beyond repair, bleeding, bones sticking out through clothes.

  At the edge of town, Gaëtan pulled Isabelle into a small stone church. Others were already there, crouching in corners, hiding amid the pews, hugging their loved ones close.

  Aeroplanes roared overhead, accompanied by the stuttering shriek of machine guns. The stained-glass window shattered; bits of colored glass clattered to the floor, slicing through skin on the way down. Timbers cracked, dust and stones fell. Bullets ran across the church, nailing arms and legs to the floor. The altar exploded.

  Gaëtan said something to her, and she answered, or she thought she did, but she wasn’t sure, and before she could figure it out, another bomb whistled, fell, and the roof over her head exploded.


  The école élementaire was not a big school by city standards, but it was spacious and well laid out, plenty large enough for the children of the commune of Carriveau. Before its life as a school, the building had been stables for a rich landowner, and thus its U-shape design; the central courtyard had been a gathering place for carriages and tradesmen. It boasted gray stone walls, bright blue shutters, and wooden floors. The manor house, to which it had once been aligned, had been bombed in the Great War and never rebuilt. Like so
many schools in the small towns in France, it stood on the far edge of town.

  Vianne was in her classroom, behind her desk, staring out at the shining children’s faces in front of her, dabbing her upper lip with her wrinkled handkerchief. On the floor by each child’s desk was the obligatory gas mask. Children now carried them everywhere.

  The open windows and thick stone walls helped to keep the sun at bay, but still the heat was stifling. Lord knew, it was hard enough to concentrate without the added burden of the heat. The news from Paris was terrible, terrifying. All anyone could talk about was the gloomy future and the shocking present: Germans in Paris. The Maginot Line broken. French soldiers dead in trenches and running from the front. For the last three nights—since the telephone call from her father—she hadn’t slept. Isabelle was God-knew-where between Paris and Carriveau, and there had been no word from Antoine.

  “Who wants to conjugate the verb courir for me?” she asked tiredly.

  “Shouldn’t we be learning German?”

  Vianne realized what she’d just been asked. The students were interested now, sitting upright, their eyes bright.

  “Pardon?” she said, clearing her throat, buying time.

  “We should be learning German, not French.”

  It was young Gilles Fournier, the butcher’s son. His father and all three of his older brothers had gone off to the war, leaving only him and his mother to run the family’s butcher shop.

  “And shooting,” François agreed, nodding his head. “My maman says we will need to know how to shoot Germans, too.”

  “My grandmère says we should all just leave,” said Claire. “She remembers the last war and she says we are fools for staying.”

  “The Germans won’t cross the Loire, will they, Madame Mauriac?”

  In the front row, center, Sophie sat forward in her seat, her hands clasped atop the wooden desk, her eyes wide. She had been as upset by the rumors as Vianne. The child had cried herself to sleep two nights in a row, worrying over her father. Now Bébé came to school with her. Sarah sat in the desk beside her best friend, looking equally fearful.

  “It is all right to be afraid,” Vianne said, moving toward them. It was what she’d said to Sophie last night and to herself, but the words rang hollow.

  “I’m not afraid,” Gilles said. “I got a knife. I’ll kill any dirty Boches who show up in Carriveau.”

  Sarah’s eyes widened. “They’re coming here?”

  “No,” Vianne said. The denial didn’t come easily; her own fear caught at the word, stretched it out. “The French soldiers—your fathers and uncles and brothers—are the bravest men in the world. I’m sure they are fighting for Paris and Tours and Orléans even as we speak.”

  “But Paris is overrun,” Gilles said. “What happened to the French soldiers at the front?”

  “In wars, there are battles and skirmishes. Losses along the way. But our men will never let the Germans win. We will never give up.” She moved closer to her students. “But we have a part to play, too; those of us left behind. We have to be brave and strong, too, and not believe the worst. We have to keep on with our lives so our fathers and brothers and … husbands have lives to come home to, oui?”

  “But what about Tante Isabelle?” Sophie asked. “Grandpère said she should have been here by now.”

  “My cousin ran from Paris, too,” François said. “He is not arrived here, either.”

  “My uncle says it is bad on the roads.”

  The bell rang and students popped from their seats like springs. In an instant the war, the aeroplanes, the fear were forgotten. They were eight- and nine-year-olds freed at the end of a summer school day, and they acted like it. Yelling, laughing, talking all at once, pushing one another aside, running for the door.

  Vianne was thankful for the bell. She was a teacher, for God’s sake. What did she know to say about dangers such as these? How could she assuage a child’s fear when her own was straining at the leash? She busied herself with ordinary tasks—gathering up the detritus that sixteen children left behind, banging chalk from the soft erasers, putting books away. When everything was as it should be, she put her papers and pencils into her own leather satchel and took her handbag out of the desk’s bottom drawer. Then she put on her straw hat, pinned it in place, and left her classroom.

  She walked down the quiet hallways, waving to colleagues who were still in their classrooms. Several of the rooms were closed up now that the male teachers had been mobilized.

  At Rachel’s classroom, she paused, watching as Rachel put her son in his pram and wheeled it toward the door. Rachel had been planning to take this term off from teaching to stay home with Ari, but the war had changed all of that. Now, she had no choice but to bring her baby to work with her.

  “You look like I feel,” Vianne said as her friend neared. Rachel’s dark hair had responded to the humidity and doubled in size.

  “That can’t be a compliment but I’m desperate, so I am taking it as one. You have chalk on your cheek, by the way.”

  Vianne wiped her cheek absently and leaned over the pram. The baby was sleeping soundly. “How’s he doing?”

  “For a ten-month-old who is supposed to be at home with his maman and is instead gallivanting around town beneath enemy aeroplanes and listening to ten-year-old students shriek all day? Fine.” She smiled and pushed a damp ringlet from her face as they headed down the corridor. “Do I sound bitter?”

  “No more than the rest of us.”

  “Ha! Bitterness would do you good. All that smiling and pretending of yours would give me hives.”

  Rachel bumped the pram down the three stone steps and onto the walkway that led to the grassy play area that had once been an exercise arena for horses and a delivery area for tradesmen. A four-hundred-year-old stone fountain gurgled and dripped water in the center of the yard.

  “Come on, girls!” Rachel called out to Sophie and Sarah, who were sitting together on a park bench. The girls responded immediately and fell into step ahead of the women, chattering constantly, their heads cocked together, their hands clasped. A second generation of best friends.

  They turned into an alleyway and came out on rue Victor Hugo, right in front of a bistro where old men sat on ironwork chairs, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking politics. Ahead of them, Vianne saw a haggard trio of women limping along, their clothes tattered, their faces yellow with dust.

  “Poor women,” Rachel said with a sigh. “Hélène Ruelle told me this morning that at least a dozen refugees came to town late last night. The stories they bring are not good. But no one embellishes a story like Hélène.”

  Ordinarily Vianne would make a comment about what a gossip Hélène was, but she couldn’t be glib. According to Papa, Isabelle had left Paris days ago. She still hadn’t arrived at Le Jardin. “I’m worried about Isabelle,” she said.

  Rachel linked her arm through Vianne’s. “Do you remember the first time your sister ran away from that boarding school in Lyon?”

  “She was seven years old.”

  “She made it all the way to Amboise. Alone. With no money. She spent two nights in the woods and talked her way onto the train.”

  Vianne barely remembered anything of that time except for her own grief. When she’d lost the first baby, she’d fallen into despair. The lost year, Antoine called it. That was how she thought of it, too. When Antoine told her he was taking Isabelle to Paris, and to Papa, Vianne had been—God help her—relieved.

  Was it any surprise that Isabelle had run away from the boarding school to which she’d been sent? To this day, Vianne felt an abiding shame at how she had treated her baby sister.

  “She was nine the first time she made it to Paris,” Vianne said, trying to find comfort in the familiar story. Isabelle was tough and driven and determined; she always had been.

  “If I’m not mistaken, she was expelled two years later for running away from school to see a traveling circus. Or was that when she climbed ou
t of the second-floor dormitory window using a bedsheet?” Rachel smiled. “The point is, Isabelle will make it here if that’s what she wants.”

  “God help anyone who tries to stop her.”

  “She will arrive any day. I promise. Unless she has met an exiled prince and fallen desperately in love.”

  “That is the kind of thing that could happen to her.”

  “You see?” Rachel teased. “You feel better already. Now come to my house for lemonade. It’s just the thing on a day this hot.”

  * * *

  After supper, Vianne got Sophie settled into bed and went downstairs. She was too worried to relax. The silence in her house kept reminding her that no one had come to her door. She could not remain still. Regardless of her conversation with Rachel, she couldn’t dispel her worry—and a terrible sense of foreboding—about Isabelle.

  Vianne stood up, sat down, then stood again and walked to the front door, opening it.

  Outside, the fields lay beneath a purple and pink evening sky. Her yard was a series of familiar shapes—well-tended apple trees stood protectively between the front door and the rose-and-vine-covered stone wall, beyond which lay the road to town and acres and acres of fields, studded here and there with thickets of narrow-trunked trees. Off to the right was the deeper woods where she and Antoine had often sneaked off to be alone when they were younger.



  Where were they? Was he at the front? Was she walking from Paris?

  Don’t think about it.

  She needed to do something. Gardening. Keep her mind on something else.

  After retrieving her worn gardening gloves and stepping into the boots by the door, she made her way to the garden positioned on a flat patch of land between the shed and the barn. Potatoes, onions, carrots, broccoli, peas, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and radishes grew in its carefully tended beds. On the hillside between the garden and the barn were the berries—raspberries and blackberries in carefully contained rows. She knelt down in the rich, black dirt and began pulling weeds.

  Early summer was usually a time of promise. Certainly, things could go wrong in this most ardent season, but if one remained steady and calm and didn’t shirk the all-important duties of weeding and thinning, the plants could be guided and tamed. Vianne always made sure that the beds were precisely organized and tended with a firm yet gentle hand. Even more important than what she gave her garden was what it gave her. In it, she found a sense of calm.

  She became aware of something wrong slowly, in pieces. First, there was a sound that didn’t belong, a vibration, a thudding, and then a murmur. The odors came next: something wholly at odds with her sweet garden smell, something acrid and sharp that made her think of decay.

  Vianne wiped her forehead, aware that she was smearing black dirt across her skin, and stood up. Tucking her dirty gloves in the gaping hip pockets of her pants, she rose to her feet and moved toward her gate. Before she reached it, a trio of women appeared, as if sculpted out of the shadows. They stood clumped together in the road just behind her gate. An old woman, dressed in rags, held the others close to her—a young woman with a babe-in-arms and a teenaged girl who held an empty birdcage in one hand and a shovel in the other. Each looked glassy-eyed and feverish; the young mother was clearly trembling. Their faces were dripping with sweat, their eyes were filled with defeat. The old woman held out dirty, empty hands. “Can you spare some water?” she asked, but even as she asked her the question, she looked unconvinced. Beaten.

  Vianne opened the gate. “Of course. Would you like to come in? Sit down, perhaps?”

  The old woman shook her head. “We are ahead of them. There’s nothing for those in the back.”

  Vianne didn’t know what the woman meant, but it didn’t matter. She could see that the women were suffering from exhaustion and hunger. “Just a moment.” She went into the house and packed them some bread and raw carrots and a small bit of cheese. All that she had to spare. She filled a wine bottle with water and returned, offering them the provisions. “It’s not much,” she said.

  “It is more than we’ve had since Tours,” the young woman said in a toneless voice.

  “You were in Tours?” Vianne asked.

  “Drink, Sabine,” the old woman said, holding the water to the girl’s lips.

  Vianne was about to ask about Isabelle when the old woman said sharply, “They’re here.”