The Nightingale
Author:Hannah, Kristin

Through the open window behind them, she heard the slow, even clop-clop-clop of a horse moving up the road and the clattering of the wagon being pulled along behind.

 

That would be Monsieur Quillian on his way to market with his flowers. If she were in the yard, he would stop and give her one and say it couldn’t match her beauty, and she would smile and say merci and offer him something to drink.

 

Vianne pulled away reluctantly. She went over to the wooden dresser and poured tepid water from the blue crockery pitcher into the bowl and washed her face. In the alcove that served as their wardrobe, behind a pair of gold and white toile curtains, she put on her brassiere and stepped into her lace-trimmed drawers and garter. She smoothed the silk stockings up her legs, fastened them to her garters, and then slipped into a belted cotton frock with a squared yoke collar. When she closed the curtains and turned around, Antoine was gone.

 

She retrieved her handbag and went down the hallway to Sophie’s room. Like theirs, it was small, with a steeply pitched, timbered ceiling, wide plank wooden floors, and a window that overlooked the orchard. An ironwork bed, a nightstand with a hand-me-down lamp, and a blue-painted armoire filled the space. Sophie’s drawings decorated the walls.

 

Vianne opened the shutters and let light flood the room.

 

As usual in the hot summer months, Sophie had kicked the coverlet to the floor sometime in the night. Her pink stuffed teddy bear, Bébé, slept against her cheek.

 

Vianne picked up the bear, staring down at its matted, much petted face. Last year, Bébé had been forgotten on a shelf by the window as Sophie moved on to newer toys.

 

Now Bébé was back.

 

Vianne leaned down to kiss her daughter’s cheek.

 

Sophie rolled over and blinked awake.

 

“I don’t want Papa to go, Maman,” she whispered. She reached out for Bébé, practically snatched the bear from Vianne’s hands.

 

“I know.” Vianne sighed. “I know.”

 

Vianne went to the armoire, where she picked out the sailor dress that was Sophie’s favorite.

 

“Can I wear the daisy crown Papa made me?”

 

The daisy “crown” lay crumpled on the nightstand, the little flowers wilted. Vianne picked it up gently and placed it on Sophie’s head.

 

Vianne thought she was doing all right until she stepped into the living room and saw Antoine.

 

“Papa?” Sophie touched the wilted daisy crown uncertainly. “Don’t go.”

 

Antoine knelt down and drew Sophie into his embrace. “I have to be a soldier to keep you and Maman safe. But I’ll be back before you know it.”

 

Vianne heard the crack in his voice.

 

Sophie drew back. The daisy crown was sagging down the side of her head. “You promise you’ll come home?”

 

Antoine looked past his daughter’s earnest face to Vianne’s worried gaze.

 

“Oui,” he said at last.

 

Sophie nodded.

 

The three of them were silent as they left the house. They walked hand in hand up the hillside to the gray wooden barn. Knee-high golden grass covered the knoll, and lilac bushes as big as hay wagons grew along the perimeter of the property. Three small white crosses were all that remained in this world to mark the babies Vianne had lost. Today, she didn’t let her gaze linger there at all. Her emotions were heavy enough right now; she couldn’t add the weight of those memories, too.

 

Inside the barn sat their old, green Renault. When they were all in the automobile, Antoine started up the engine, backed out of the barn, and drove on browning ribbons of dead grass to the road. Vianne stared out the small, dusty window, watching the green valley pass in a blur of familiar images—red tile roofs, stone cottages, fields of hay and grapes, spindly-treed forests.

 

All too quickly they arrived at the train station near Tours.

 

The platform was filled with young men carrying suitcases and women kissing them good-bye and children crying.

 

A generation of men were going off to war. Again.

 

Don’t think about it, Vianne told herself. Don’t remember what it was like last time when the men limped home, faces burned, missing arms and legs …

 

Vianne clung to her husband’s hand as Antoine bought their tickets and led them onto the train. In the third-class carriage—stiflingly hot, people packed in like marsh reeds—she sat stiffly upright, still holding her husband’s hand, with her handbag on her lap.

 

At their destination, a dozen or so men disembarked. Vianne and Sophie and Antoine followed the others down a cobblestoned street and into a charming village that looked like most small communes in Touraine. How was it possible that war was coming and that this quaint town with its tumbling flowers and crumbling walls was amassing soldiers to fight?

 

Antoine tugged at her hand, got her moving again. When had she stopped?

 

Up ahead a set of tall, recently erected iron gates had been bolted into stone walls. Behind them were rows of temporary housing.