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Authors: Aleksandr Voinov

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BOOK: Nightingale
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Chapter 29

 

It all turned out to be futile. Maurice claimed that, while he had helped pilots leave the country by putting them up for a night or more, he wasn’t currently doing so. When Yves insisted, he finally demurred and admitted “the line had been closed down.” Which meant that, through that network at least, nobody was leaving the country. And besides, the Germans were cracking down ever harder on illegal activities—at least those that were committed in any interest but their own.

The last night with Falk was awful. Falk was clearly hurting as badly as Yves, and they barely dared to touch, but when they did, they clung together and pretended strength, Falk making promises in his broken French that they both knew he couldn’t keep.

In the morning, Yves accompanied him to the Gare du Nord.

“Just turn around and walk away,” Falk said. “Please.”

Yves felt the tears scratch in his throat. They couldn’t possibly show any sign of affection, and Yves had already been lucky that nobody had recognized him and asked for an autograph.

He stood mute, unable to cry in public for an illicit lover. So he did as he was told, turned around, and hurried back to his flat.

There, he noticed Falk’s notebook. It had been placed so carefully on his desk that Yves didn’t believe it had simply been forgotten. A letter sticking out confirmed it, as it was addressed simply to “You.”

The enveloped hadn’t been sealed, and Yves opened it. It was written entirely in French, which was largely correct, though such categories struck him as unspeakably petty considering Falk was travelling on a train into an unknowable future and battlefields that had no name in any civilized language.

 

Dear Yves,

I couldn’t come up with a gift for you. I spent the last hours thinking about it, but I had nothing. Since I’ve known you, it was you who gave me gifts. You saved my life. Returned my hat. Gave your time, kindness, understanding. I’m sure you must have seen something worthwhile in me, because you never made me feel any less than that.

Since I met you that first time, I’ve tried to be a worthy friend. Unlike some, I don’t have rank or power. Some of my comrades trade favors and presents with their French lovers, but I don’t believe you care a great deal about flowers or other tokens, and I didn’t want to embarrass you, the handsome star, with how poor and cheap those gifts would have been.

I don’t know much about love. I daresay I’ve never loved in that way. I love my family, of course, but I never thought I could feel something like I’ve felt in Paris, with you. When my family was very poor, I wrote my mother a poem as a Christmas present. It’s a childish thing to give. I copied it out of my school book and just changed a few words to fit her. I must have ruined the rhythm, but I still made her cry, and it disturbed me because of course I didn’t want to make my mother cry. I wanted to make her happy.

So that is what I thought of when I was looking for a gift. I still have this. It holds all the poems I’ve written. There are even poems I wrote while out camping with the Hitler Youth, overwhelmed by the stars at night and the feeling of singing with my comrades (I called them blood brothers at that age) round the camp fire.

Since I met you, I know that those poems aren’t very good. I’ve had enough time to read poems in German and French, and I think I can now tell a good one from a bad one. But this is not for a lack of trying. I wanted to write you good poems and formulate what you mean to me. Maybe it doesn’t matter if they are good. Maybe this proves that I tried, and maybe trying and wanting to be good is enough that you’ll believe me and keep me in your fond memory. I don’t expect I’ll be going to a place that leaves much space for poetry. What’s more, I want to know that my attempts are safe, so I make them a gift to you, from all of my heart.

 

Yours,

Falk

 

Yves finished reading the letter through tears, then let the tears run free. He collapsed onto the chair, cradled his head in his hands, and cried. The tears had been lurking, as though gathering their forces, and now they overwhelmed him. He cried the kind of inconsolable, wracking sobs he remembered from childhood, a time when all emotions had been unguarded and naked, when the death of a pet meant that a world ended. Little had he known what depth of pain adulthood could hold.

 

* * *

 

If he’d thought that
Little Kisses
was a success, it was nothing compared to
I Light a Candle
, a song that began with a solemn mood of remembrance and gradually lifted into quiet defiance and hope. He’d written it for Édith, who had indeed been released by Gestapo and at the same time been conscripted to labor in a munitions factory in Essen.

The words were careful—careful enough for any German censor; this was an art Yves had mastered just like everybody else. Still, many people seemed to have received its message, considering the letters and notes that poured in from his fans.

Within a few months, the record sold almost a hundred thousand copies – dwarfing those of
Little Kisses
. And even more astonishing, a prominent German singer and dancer named Marika Rökk adapted it to
Ich zünd’ dir eine Kerze an
, which became a big hit in the Reich. Yves heard drunken German soldiers sing it, and both versions were played on the radio.

However, as summer turned into autumn, it became clear there would be no invasion. The show at the Palace had ended, and Yves hadn’t signed on for a new one. He’d sung at a number of other places for an evening or ten, and he received a lot of dinner invitations. Sometimes he accepted them, singing for nobles and bankers and other rich people. While he did, it was easy enough to forget. Singing, he was in the moment, but once offstage, he almost couldn’t bear the thought to go back.

That feeling became stronger and stronger until he relented. He stopped taking invitations and declined all offers of galas. He packed a couple of suitcases, and left Paris by train. Only let Maurice and Jean-Michel knew he was going to visit his mother, and they were to tell nobody about this. Officially, he was looking in the countryside for a house to buy.

His nerves were still ragged when he arrived, and he only began to relax somewhat when Madeleine greeted him at the train station. They drove the way to her chateau in almost complete silence, but Yves didn’t notice any censure or resentment while she drove.

Up on the hill, she parked the car outside the main door and waved Yves to follow. “I’ll have your luggage brought in. Now come in, relax.”

Her cook had prepared food, and maybe it was the fresh air outside of Paris, but this was the first time in months that he had a proper appetite. He was downright hungry.

Madeleine came in a bit later. “Your room is ready.”

“Thank you.”

“And a bath, if you want to bathe and change.”

He finished the last two bites of bread and stood. “Thank you.”

“Rest as much as you need. I’ll be in the salon.”

Yves nodded again. Nothing had changed in the building—and clearly, Madeleine didn’t want for anything. She was living in too remote a place to be much bothered by any German presence, and the chateau itself was too difficult to reach for it to be requisitioned by their officers. Unless Heinrich again insisted on following him here, he should be fairly safe from attention.

He bathed and shaved, changed into fresh clothes, much more rustic and casual than he’d recently worn outside his own flat. Here were no fans to impress, no star image to uphold.

Madeleine sat near the fireplace, knitting needles clicking softly. She was listening to classical music that Yves didn’t immediately recognize. She looked up and invited him in with a nod. Yves sat down, warming himself by the fire. The music—it had to be some kind of baroque string concerto, played earnestly and cleanly, but after being immersed in jazz and swing and bebop and the constantly evolving music of Paris, this seemed as staid and dusty as Louis XIV furniture that was kept under protective blankets and uncovered for only visitors. It was pleasant enough, but didn’t stir his emotions.

When the music ended, Madeleine lifted the gramophone needle and put it back on its rest. Then she looked at him. “So, tell me what happened?”

He’d worried about how to tell her. Paris was far away. The Germans seemed far away. How could he explain what was going on in the streets, and how, above all, he hadn’t been able to protect Édith?

He told Madeleine everything—how Améry had gotten into trouble, and how Gestapo had finally rounded them all up. Told from this distance, he barely recognized his own life. Madeleine just sat there, knitting needles and wool resting in her lap, hand curled lightly around the bundle, and Yves notices the lines in his mother’s face. She’d always struck him as strong and proud, rarely maternal, but just then she looked like somebody else’s elderly aunt.

He also told her of his visit to Heinrich’s office, and she nodded to confirm she still remembered the German officer. At the news of Édith’s transfer from the hands of the Gestapo into the German labor program, she closed her eyes and shook her head.

Yves waited breathlessly to see whether she’d accuse him, because he still felt like he should have done something more, curried more favors, maybe gone to the Ambassador or General von Stülpnagel directly, bribed his way through the system. And yet, that might have attracted von Grimmstein’s attention, and Édith was quite possibly safer when the Germans assumed she was one of many, rather than somebody people would do anything to free. Heinrich had promised to keep an eye on her and to ensure she was protected by friends he had locally, but even then, working in a munitions factory was dangerous and hard. Yves hated himself for his easy life while his sister was, in every sense of the word, a slave of the enemy.

Madeleine said nothing. She picked up the knitting needles and continued her work on what looked like a sock. Yves had never seen his mother do any domestic work, but maybe the monotony of it soothed her here in front of the fire. After a while, he relaxed into the chair and got lost in the flames, only adding bits of wood when the fire died down. Here he could let his mind drift, as secure as he could possibly be in France these days.

What little news reached them was alarming. The battle for control of Italy between the Germans and the Allies raged back and forth, with Mussolini first deposed, then freed and re-established. Italy surrendered, then declared war on Germany. The Nazis occupied Rome, and Yves shuddered at the thought—whatever happened to Rome now might also prove to be Paris’s destiny.

As winter rolled in, the news grew ever more grim for the Germans; first the Russians took back Kiev, then the British and Americans began to relentlessly bomb Berlin—even during daylight—and so heavily that people whispered they were trying to scrub it off the map entirely in retaliation for what the Nazis had done to Europe. A few days later, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met again, and seemingly everybody was holding their breath. With Germany on the retreat and hard-pushed on what positions it was still holding, it felt like the turnaround everybody had been waiting for, but nobody expected any major news before the New Year.

While Yves had been writing more songs and rehearsing them for only the pleasure of his mother and her servants, Madeleine decided to host a small Christmas party for the villagers, the planning of which took up nearly all of December. Both Yves and Madeleine sang for them on their own, and then together, and there were presents and a festive, if restless and worried, mood. People were discussing sabotage, thievery by
maquisards
, reprisals, and terrorist attacks. Most agreed with the young men defying the Germans, but wished their actions wouldn’t bring down reprisals and executions on innocent people.

Shortly before the New Year, news arrived of major offensives along the Ukraine border, and this time, people expected Stalin to march on straight to Berlin. But all this was far away, and while Italy was now free, France and especially Paris were deep in territory that the Germans still controlled—and nobody could imagine they’d leave without a fight.

Chapter 30

 

Yves had attempted a few times to leave Madeleine’s chateau, but kept pushing out his date of departure. First, he caught a cold he found very hard to shed, then Madeleine entered one of her dark moods that sometimes plagued her in February, and Yves was too worried to leave her to herself. March came, and with it the very first signs of spring. When he did buy tickets back to Paris, however, the train didn’t arrive, and the waiting passengers were told that it had been derailed by a terrorist attack. That spooked him—it seemed that any train he might now take would be attacked, and he might be injured or worse. Rumors were rife about Germans just rounding up passengers and shooting them, and the maquis supposedly did the same to anybody wearing a uniform. High-ranking German officers had been assassinated out in the open.

By now, it was easy to come by illegal newspapers. They were left in public places, on trains and in taxis, at train stations and in cafes, and nobody bothered gathering them and throwing them away to ensure they weren’t found by Germans. There were rumors that the countryside was in the hands of the maquis, and the Germans only held on to the large towns—to venture forth every now and then when the maquis became too daring. The German show of force seemed to Yves like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut—the SS would simply storm and massacre an entire village. When this happened to a village in the same prefecture, Yves couldn’t shed the fear anymore. Paris, whatever its other problems and challenges, seemed much safer all of a sudden, as long as Heinrich kept an eye on him, as he promised he would. Besides, while he enjoyed being able to read, write, and sleep as long as he wanted, the winter had been long, and he missed Paris.

The countryside could never quite compete, and while the villagers were friendly to him as Mme Lacroix’s son, none had Maurice’s gaiety or the ability to provide any kind of stimulating discussion. The farmers struck him as dour and provincial. Most didn’t know of any of the gossip or its main actors, and none seemed to care about either in the least.

After so many months away, Yves felt he could even deal with being famous—though he suspected that Paris had long since moved on. As an audience, Parisians were always looking for the next thing, and there was something soothing about the idea that he would have to start all over again.

It was late April when Yves again braved the trains. Madeleine waited with him until he was onboard and waited for the train to begin moving before she turned back toward her car.

Yves noticed several passengers loaded down with foodstuffs, though many of the vegetables looked like the poor dregs summoned up from the cellars, and he couldn’t imagine those were the best that Parisian citizens could cajole out of the local farmers.

He arrived in Paris late in the evening, much later than expected because the train had to be diverted and stood on its tracks for a few hours at around noon. Most likely because of sabotage—an occurrence so common that passengers merely acknowledged it and barely speculated as to the who and the why. It had become a given, like rain or Gestapo raids.

One well-to-do couple in Yves’s compartment did mention that the so-called “resistance” didn’t exactly inspire confidence, considering that they were apparently being led by “Jews, Freemasons, and Communists,” and the woman worried aloud just what kind of France their son would return to from captivity if “such elements prevailed.” Those remarks were made without much fire or resignation, clearly well-worn arguments, and Yves pretended to be asleep and not have heard.

He took a horse-drawn taxi home from the station. He’d expected Paris to be just as dreary and depressing as it had been when he left, but spring had grabbed hold. The trees were green, some blooming, and the air smelled fresh. Paris wasn’t as cheerful as it had been once upon a time, but even a weary woman could be beautiful when she smiled.

Once home, he got his suitcases up into his flat, which was musty and cool with months of absence. He opened the windows and gathered up his letters, but none of them were from Falk. Any news from the Eastern front had been bad, and whenever Yves heard anything at all about it, his stomach churned and he couldn’t sleep. He’d seen war but nothing on that same scale, and knowing Falk was likely somewhere in the center of that meat grinder was nearly unbearable. He assumed Falk, if he was still alive, had more important things to worry about than writing him. Maybe he couldn’t because of censorship. Or maybe he’d chosen not to frighten Yves with what he might have to say, but if he’d somehow thought that it would be easier to just not write, that was clearly wrong. Just knowing whether Falk was still alive would have made life much easier.

He sought out Heinrich, finding him at the Tour d’Argent in the company of several high-ranking German officers. He recognized General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the highest military authority in France, and was about to turn back when Heinrich spotted him and waved him over. Yves stepped closer, feeling like he was in the wrong place, but Heinrich said, “This is the singer I’ve been telling you about,” and offered him a seat at the table, with waiters rushing to add another chair and plate, glasses and cutlery.

The conversation concentrated on polite small talk. When Heinrich asked, Yves only volunteered that he’d spent the winter with his mother in the countryside, and Heinrich seemed to accept that at face value.

After dinner, the other officers took their leave, some continuing on to the theater, but Heinrich stayed behind. He seemed unusually solemn.

“Would you like to come to my place for a coffee?” Yves asked as they left the restaurant.

Heinrich paused, then nodded, but didn’t smile. If anything, he looked sad, and Yves had the whole drive to his flat to worry about what that meant.

When they stepped out of the car, Heinrich addressed his driver, “It’ll be just a few minutes.” That, too, struck Yves as ominous, but he tried not to show his concern as he led Heinrich into his flat.

Inside, Heinrich briefly looked around as if to confirm every piece of furniture was still in its place, then looked at Yves, and Yves’s stomach plummeted.

“I’m not sure how to tell you this.” Heinrich took off his hat and placed it between torso and arm. “So I will just state the facts. On the night of the 26th of April, approximately five hundred bombers attacked Essen. The factory where your sister and other Frenchwomen were working suffered a direct hit. There were few survivors, and your sister was not one of them. Which, considering the state of the erstwhile survivors, is a mercy.” Heinrich took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Yves’s face grew cold, then his head began to spin. Heinrich’s tone left no doubt that he spoke the truth, so while he couldn’t believe it—Édith, dead?—part of him knew it was true because Heinrich would never lie about that. There was no reason to lie. If anything, Heinrich had more to gain by claiming Édith was still alive.

Yves reached out for a chair and almost fell over his own suddenly nerveless legs. The night of the 26th. He remembered a bad dream recently, maybe even that night, a kind of burning, tearing pain and a blaze of intense horror, but he’d thought the dream might be have been about being shelled by the Germans. He didn’t often dream about those days at the front, but sometimes the images still came back, and the dreams were even worse than reality. You could escape reality, but not the inside of your own head.

Heinrich caught him under the arm and helped him sit down. His touch was reluctant, but Yves was too numb to feel anything, even rage at Heinrich. All he felt was a gaping, hollow wound all along his being, and then guilt bearing down on him that felt like it would drive him insane. He clutched to the one thought he could muster. “What about . . . her body?”

Heinrich hesitated. “It’s a munitions factory, Yves. It was a very large explosion.”

What he didn’t say still echoed between them: There is no body.

“I can’t tell my mother.”

“I will make sure she receives a letter. It’s the least I can do.” Heinrich patted his shoulder and stepped away. “I am sorry.”

“She was my twin.”

“Yes.” Heinrich seemed to want to reach out, and Yves almost hoped he would, but they weren’t affectionate like that, and the months of distance had effectively turned them into mere acquaintances. If they’d ever truly been more than that. “She resembled you.”

And now, nothing. Ashes. Ashes mixed with the ashes of a building and shards of machines ripped apart by bombs that had fallen from the sky.

Heinrich stepped away and put his hat back on, no doubt to make good on the promise to his driver. Yves had no idea how to be alone now, or whether he’d want Heinrich to stay, to keep him from going mad when he finally, viscerally, understood that Édith was dead.

“The war will end, Yves.” Heinrich turned around, looked at him from across the room. “Measures are being taken.”

“What measures?”

Heinrich shifted on his feet and seemed reluctant to speak. “There won’t be a slow end to the war. It will all finish quite quickly.”

“How?”

Heinrich shook his head. “I can’t tell you, but I know it will happen. There are men who’ve had quite enough.”

Yves wasn’t sure whether to laugh or rage, or where to draw the energy for either. “I have no idea what you mean.”

“You will when the time comes.” Heinrich turned away. “Call upon me anytime, Yves. If there is anything I can do . . .”

“Yes.” Needless to say, the last time Heinrich had promised assistance it had changed nothing, and they both knew it. Yves waited for the door to close, then just sat there, giving himself over to the numbness as the minutes or hours ticked by.

The air raid siren tore him back into the here and now, but he couldn’t bring himself to evacuate. It all felt arbitrary, like nothing anybody did could make a difference to what was happening. Getting Édith out of harm’s way had put her directly into harm’s way. He remembered that first night when Falk had held him, shielded him with his own body, but that, too, had been folly and madness, imagining that bodies could withstand a direct hit or a house collapsing around them. There were stories of people being trapped in their cellars, crushed and asphyxiated. Everything else didn’t seem to matter one bit: the past, fame, money, affection, dreams. Just a creature encased in a fragile deceit of protection, assuming that, just because there was an “I” struggling in an even more fragile body, that it couldn’t just end because a pilot released a bomb hatch. But the pilot didn’t even know, didn’t even feel, just released the hatch so he could turn around and go home—a home that was just as vulnerable to similar men.

Yves just sat and listened. Listening was the one sense he couldn’t effectively dull. He could close his eyes and he was barely aware of the chair beneath him, its threadbare cushions. There were no particular smells. But he heard the sirens, and people calling out on the street, and the bells of a fire truck.

And he, here, as rigid and unfeeling as stone. As the city itself around him.

BOOK: Nightingale
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