The Nightingale
Author:Hannah, Kristin

She kissed her daughter again, letting her lips linger on the little girl’s cheek.

 

Vianne went down the stairs and headed for the backyard. Outside, the night was sultry; the air smelled of jasmine. She found Antoine sitting in one of the iron café chairs out on the grass, his legs stretched out, his body slumped uncomfortably to one side.

 

She came up beside him, put a hand on his shoulder. He exhaled smoke and took another long drag on the cigarette. Then he looked up at her. In the moonlight, his face appeared pale and shadowed. Almost unfamiliar. He reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled out a piece of paper. “I have been mobilized, Vianne. Along with most men between eighteen and thirty-five.”

 

“Mobilized? But … we are not at war. I don’t—”

 

“I am to report for duty on Tuesday.”

 

“But … but … you’re a postman.”

 

He held her gaze and suddenly she couldn’t breathe. “I am a soldier now, it seems.”

 

 

 

 

 

THREE

 

Vianne knew something of war. Not its clash and clatter and smoke and blood, perhaps, but the aftermath. Though she had been born in peacetime, her earliest memories were of the war. She remembered watching her maman cry as she said good-bye to Papa. She remembered being hungry and always being cold. But most of all, she remembered how different her father was when he came home, how he limped and sighed and was silent. That was when he began drinking and keeping to himself and ignoring his family. After that, she remembered doors slamming shut, arguments erupting and disappearing into clumsy silences, and her parents sleeping in different rooms.

 

The father who went off to war was not the one who came home. She had tried to be loved by him; more important, she had tried to keep loving him, but in the end, one was as impossible as the other. In the years since he’d shipped her off to Carriveau, Vianne had made her own life. She sent her father Christmas and birthday cards, but she’d never received one in return, and they rarely spoke. What was there left to say? Unlike Isabelle, who seemed incapable of letting go, Vianne understood—and accepted—that when Maman had died, their family had been irreparably broken. He was a man who simply refused to be a father to his children.

 

“I know how war scares you,” Antoine said.

 

“The Maginot Line will hold,” she said, trying to sound convincing. “You’ll be home by Christmas.” The Maginot Line was miles and miles of concrete walls and obstacles and weapons that had been constructed along the German border after the Great War to protect France. The Germans couldn’t breach it.

 

Antoine took her in his arms. The scent of jasmine was intoxicating, and she knew suddenly, certainly, that from now on, whenever she smelled jasmine, she would remember this good-bye.

 

“I love you, Antoine Mauriac, and I expect you to come home to me.”

 

Later, she couldn’t remember them moving into the house, climbing the stairs, lying down in bed, undressing each other. She remembered only being naked in his arms, lying beneath him as he made love to her in a way he never had before, with frantic, searching kisses and hands that seemed to want to tear her apart even as they held her together.

 

“You’re stronger than you think you are, V,” he said afterward, when they lay quietly in each other’s arms.

 

“I’m not,” she whispered too quietly for him to hear.

 

*

 

The next morning, Vianne wanted to keep Antoine in bed all day, maybe even convince him that they should pack their bags and run like thieves in the night.

 

But where would they go? War hung over all of Europe.

 

By the time she finished making breakfast and doing the dishes, a headache throbbed at the base of her skull.

 

“You seem sad, Maman,” Sophie said.

 

“How can I be sad on a gorgeous summer’s day when we are going to visit our best friends?” Vianne smiled a bit too brightly.

 

It wasn’t until she was out the front door and standing beneath one of the apple trees in the front yard that she realized she was barefoot.

 

“Maman,” Sophie said impatiently.

 

“I’m coming,” she said, as she followed Sophie through the front yard, past the old dovecote (now a gardening shed) and the empty barn. Sophie opened the back gate and ran into the well-tended neighboring yard, toward a small stone cottage with blue shutters.

 

Sophie knocked once, got no answer, and went inside.