The Nightingale
Author:Hannah, Kristin

She stared out the dirty, mottled window at the flashing green landscape: fields of hay, red roofs, stone cottages, gray bridges, horses.

 

Everything looked exactly as it always had and that surprised her. War was coming, and she’d imagined it would leave a mark on the countryside somehow, changing the grass color or killing the trees or scaring away the birds, but now, as she sat on this train chugging into Paris, she saw that everything looked completely ordinary.

 

At the sprawling Gare de Lyon, the train came to a wheezing, belching stop. Isabelle reached down for the small valise at her feet and pulled it onto her lap. As she watched the passengers shuffle past her, exiting the train carriage, the question she’d avoided came back to her.

 

Papa.

 

She wanted to believe he would welcome her home, that finally, he would hold out his hands and say her name in a loving way, the way he had Before, when Maman had been the glue that held them together.

 

She stared down at her scuffed suitcase.

 

So small.

 

Most of the girls in the schools she’d attended had arrived with a collection of trunks bound in leather straps and studded with brass tacks. They had pictures on their desks and mementos on their nightstands and photograph albums in their drawers.

 

Isabelle had a single framed photograph of a woman she wanted to remember and couldn’t. When she tried, all that came to her were blurry images of people crying and the physician shaking his head and her mother saying something about holding tightly to her sister’s hand.

 

As if that would help. Vianne had been as quick to abandon Isabelle as Papa had been.

 

She realized that she was the only one left in the carriage. Clasping her suitcase in her gloved hand, she sidled out of the seat and exited the carriage.

 

The platforms were full of people. Trains stood in shuddering rows; smoke filled the air, puffed up toward the high, arched ceiling. Somewhere a whistle blared. Great iron wheels began to churn. The platform trembled beneath her feet.

 

Her father stood out, even in the crowd.

 

When he spotted her, she saw the irritation that transformed his features, reshaped his expression into one of grim determination.

 

He was a tall man, at least six foot two, but he had been bent by the Great War. Or at least that was what Isabelle remembered hearing once. His broad shoulders sloped downward, as if posture were too much to think about with all that was on his mind. His thinning hair was gray and unkempt. He had a broad, flattened nose, like a spatula, and lips as thin as an afterthought. On this hot summer day, he wore a wrinkled white shirt, with sleeves rolled up; a tie hung loosely tied around his fraying collar, and his corduroy pants were in need of laundering.

 

She tried to look … mature. Perhaps that was what he wanted of her.

 

“Isabelle.”

 

She clutched her suitcase handle in both hands. “Papa.”

 

“Kicked out of another one.”

 

She nodded, swallowing hard.

 

“How will we find another school in these times?”

 

That was her opening. “I want to live with you, Papa.”

 

“With me?” He seemed irritated and surprised. But wasn’t it normal for a girl to want to live with her father?

 

She took a step toward him. “I could work in the bookstore. I won’t get in your way.”

 

She drew in a sharp breath, waiting. Sound amplified suddenly. She heard people walking, the platforms groaning beneath them, pigeons flapping their wings overhead, a baby crying.

 

Of course, Isabelle.

 

Come home.

 

Her father sighed in disgust and walked away.

 

“Well,” he said, looking back. “Are you coming?”

 

*

 

Isabelle lay on a blanket in the sweet-smelling grass, a book open in front of her. Somewhere nearby a bee buzzed at a blossom; it sounded like a tiny motorcycle amid all this quiet. It was a blisteringly hot day, a week after she’d come home to Paris. Well, not home. She knew her father was still plotting to be rid of her, but she didn’t want to think about that on such a gorgeous day, in the air that smelled of cherries and sweet, green grass.

 

“You read too much,” Christophe said, chewing on a stalk of hay. “What is that, a romantic novel?”

 

She rolled toward him, snapping the book shut. It was about Edith Cavell, a nurse in the Great War. A hero. “I could be a war hero, Christophe.”

 

He laughed. “A girl? A hero? Absurd.”

 

Isabelle got to her feet quickly, yanking up her hat and white kid gloves.

 

“Don’t be mad,” he said, grinning up at her. “I’m just tired of the war talk. And it’s a fact that women are useless in war. Your job is to wait for our return.”

 

He propped his cheek in one hand and peered up at her through the mop of blond hair that fell across his eyes. In his yachting-style blazer and wide-legged white pants, he looked exactly like what he was—a privileged university student who was unused to work of any kind. Many students his age had volunteered to leave university and join the army. Not Christophe.