The Nightingale
Author:Hannah, Kristin

They will be no trouble.

 

It had happened so fast. Vianne hadn’t really understood. Papa dropped off his daughters like soiled laundry and left them with a stranger. The girls were so far apart in age it was as if they were from different families. Vianne had wanted to comfort Isabelle—meant to—but Vianne had been in so much pain it was impossible to think of anyone else, especially a child as willful and impatient and loud as Isabelle. Vianne still remembered those first days here: Isabelle shrieking and Madame spanking her. Vianne had pleaded with her sister, saying, again and again, Mon Dieu, Isabelle, quit screeching. Just do as she bids, but even at four, Isabelle had been unmanageable.

 

Vianne had been undone by all of it—the grief for her dead mother, the pain of her father’s abandonment, the sudden change in their circumstances, and Isabelle’s cloying, needy loneliness.

 

It was Antoine who’d saved Vianne. That first summer after Maman’s death, the two of them had become inseparable. With him, Vianne had found an escape. By the time she was sixteen, she was pregnant; at seventeen, she was married and the mistress of Le Jardin. Two months later, she had a miscarriage and she lost herself for a while. There was no other way to put it. She’d crawled into her grief and cocooned it around her, unable to care about anyone or anything—certainly not a needy, wailing four-year-old sister.

 

But that was old news. Not the sort of memory she wanted on a beautiful day like today.

 

She leaned against her husband as their daughter ran up to them, announcing, “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

 

“Well,” Antoine said, grinning. “The princess is ready and so we must move.”

 

Vianne smiled as she went back into the house and retrieved her hat from the hook by the door. A strawberry blonde, with porcelain-thin skin and sea-blue eyes, she always protected herself from the sun. By the time she’d settled the wide-brimmed straw hat in place and collected her lacy gloves and picnic basket, Sophie and Antoine were already outside the gate.

 

Vianne joined them on the dirt road in front of their home. It was barely wide enough for an automobile. Beyond it stretched acres of hayfields, the green here and there studded with red poppies and blue cornflowers. Forests grew in patches. In this corner of the Loire Valley, fields were more likely to be growing hay than grapes. Although less than two hours from Paris by train, it felt like a different world altogether. Few tourists visited, even in the summer.

 

Now and then an automobile rumbled past, or a bicyclist, or an ox-driven cart, but for the most part, they were alone on the road. They lived nearly a mile from Carriveau, a town of less than a thousand souls that was known mostly as a stopping point on the pilgrimage of Ste. Jeanne d’Arc. There was no industry in town and few jobs—except for those at the airfield that was the pride of Carriveau. The only one of its kind for miles.

 

In town, narrow cobblestoned streets wound through ancient limestone buildings that leaned clumsily against one another. Mortar crumbled from stone walls, ivy hid the decay that lay beneath, unseen but always felt. The village had been cobbled together piecemeal—crooked streets, uneven steps, blind alleys—over hundreds of years. Colors enlivened the stone buildings: red awnings ribbed in black metal, ironwork balconies decorated with geraniums in terra-cotta planters. Everywhere there was something to tempt the eye: a display case of pastel macarons, rough willow baskets filled with cheese and ham and saucisson, crates of colorful tomatoes and aubergines and cucumbers. The cafés were full on this sunny day. Men sat around metal tables, drinking coffee and smoking hand-rolled brown cigarettes and arguing loudly.

 

A typical day in Carriveau. Monsieur LaChoa was sweeping the street in front of his saladerie, and Madame Clonet was washing the window of her hat shop, and a pack of adolescent boys was strolling through town, shoulder to shoulder, kicking bits of trash and passing a cigarette back and forth.

 

At the end of town, they turned toward the river. At a flat, grassy spot along the shore, Vianne set down her basket and spread out a blanket in the shade of a chestnut tree. From the picnic basket, she withdrew a crusty baguette, a wedge of rich, double-cream cheese, two apples, some slices of paper-thin Bayonne ham, and a bottle of Bollinger ’36. She poured her husband a glass of champagne and sat down beside him as Sophie ran toward the riverbank.

 

The day passed in a haze of sunshine-warmed contentment. They talked and laughed and shared their picnic. It wasn’t until late in the day, when Sophie was off with her fishing pole and Antoine was making their daughter a crown of daisies, that he said, “Hitler will suck us all into his war soon.”

 

War.