Spirit of the Place
With the wine settled into beauty rest, my thoughts turn to the great old house and surrounding land. They also seem to have nodded off for a long sleep. But “Vive le vent d’hiver,” the French children sing. When it’s all gone quiet, winter winds stir up other elements around here. They are shy things. Noise and bustle sends them into attic corners.
Yes, I miss the warmth of summer, but I shiver gladly as we bring in the firewood. Winter is best for chance encounters with those who only venture forth under a “vent d’hiver.”
Dark January Nights
R. the Gardien, called me in Paris on one of those black, interminable evenings of January. “Madame, my father is dead.” It took a few minutes to comprehend his unspoken sub text: “Please come immediately.”
It was rather a mad scramble to drop everything, but 24 hours later I pulled up. The house had no heat so R. served me dinner in his kitchen. He wasn’t his usual jaunty self of course, but he managed to crack a couple of funny lines before getting down to business and laying his gun on the table. “December and January are the worst. They come right up to the Grand Portail with their trucks, do they think I’m a fool?” I knew he was talking about the burglaries, how entire isolated houses like ours were emptied in a night. “But don’t worry, simply shoot off the gun. That will send them on their way.” And what about the local police, couldn’t I just call them? R. rolled his r’s at my naïveté. “Mais, Madame. Vrrraiment.”
I wasn’t keen on pursuing his conspiracy theories, so a quick gun lesson was a useful diversionary tactic. Then several bulletin updates – the property in winter was his domain, I didn’t come often then, it was too lonely and way too cold. He had laid up some groceries. Two old oil radiators would go on for a few hours in the night. There was an electric blanket. The chimneys had dry kindling and logs. Twenty rooms hovered at 6 C these days, but our bedroom faced south and with some luck and sunshine it would warm to 12 C. Nice. He had to be off before dawn, and as we said goodnight I watched him pack up his tiny, beat up, old deux chevaux and prayed it would get him there and back safely.
Although the air was so cold I could see my breath, it was R. on my mind as I mounted the stairs. He’d lost his wife a couple of years ago. Now his father. There were other tragic stories. One involving the beat up car. But in recent times, things had started to look up. He’d met a good woman from the village. I think they were in love. It made my heart soar to think of R. falling in love at the age of 58. His face was craggy from a lifetime of cigarettes, but when his eyes lit upon her, they sparkled.
In our room I laid the gun on the delicate antique dresser that I supposed the burglars were plotting for. From the south windows I could see all that transpired in the courtyard life of the domain. From the north windows I had a strategic view of the river and surrounding woods. The man and I used to spook ourselves by imagining the only way we could be invaded here was by submarines parking on the river just below our cliff. Suddenly that didn’t seem so funny – they could cut the phone lines. (Dinosaur days, before cell phones.)
Going to bed seemed the best option. At least I was almost warm. My sleep bonnet made me feel like Marie in “Little House on the Prairie;” not quite grown up, a girl wishing for something like that mythic family – some large, enveloping presence to tell me everything would be alright.
At 5 am I stood at the courtyard window watching R. fold his long limbs into his tiny car; it coughed and shook and rambled off. No point prolonging the insomnia so day 1 began. I put the coffee pot in the upstairs bathroom so I could essentially live in the two rooms with poky radiators.
Cold, gray January. The day limped along. I made a desk under the covers so I could work. Took breaks surveying the surrounding woods for escape routes. Pondered a week without human contact. When I fed the dogs at least I could pretend I wasn’t talking to myself. The evening came and went. Time to put on the bonnet and lay myself down. The image of my friend C. came to mind. She lives in a chateau even in winter and late one night I offered to help her do the rounds and lock up as we do here. She laughed. “Heavens. I don’t lock anything. Who wants to live in fear?”
So I assumed the position of Leonardo’s Measure of a Man and imagined myself in the center of wide, protected sphere. “I will not live in fear. I will not sleep in fear.”
* * *
Dreaming, I watched myself sleeping, then waking. There on the bedside table some thoughtful servant had placed a meal. Grateful at the thought of hot coffee I reached for breakfast but found dinner instead: roast beef, red wine, silver dishes, white linen, a rose in a slender vase…
It started that way and continued that way. Everything upside down.
The dogs barked at R.’s departure. Where he had been bone weary and craggy setting off for a long journey to his father’s funeral, he was now a jaunty young chevalier with his pretty fiancé. They were dressed in 18th century finery; she held him tight, her brightly colored hair ribbons flying as the horse pranced and then galloped off for their honeymoon.
My own fine garments were laid out just so; I dressed quickly in velvet and sheepskin and hurried across the courtyard – there was noise at the abandoned winery. Under the tower I was surprised to discover a shiny and ornate wrought iron shingle hung over the rotting old door. As I pushed on the door, it became a gem of gleaming new oak.
Smoke, music, laughter, voices, firelight, heat, the smell of ale and wine and sweat. A taverna! Behind the bar, a barman. Trays of overflowing pewter mugs. A saucy barmaid circulating in a crowd of drinkers. As I moved among them I sensed their eyes on me and yet I felt partially transparent. In fact we acknowledged this. Sensing the other, but partly blind. We inhabit the same space, yet we cannot touch.
I peered into a back room where more revelers sat at trestle tables. One man swirled around immediately. His eyes flashed and our gazes locked. It was like pausing along a string bridge over a bottomless chasm; an instant held in suspension on the same point on the radius in the sphere, a place where we know each other as lovers.
A bump from the serving girl, spilled wine. When I looked up, he had turned his eyes.
Regretfully, I forced myself to move on. From there, to the furthest woods of the property and then back through the rooms of the house, I floated through a gauzy world of parallel souls. Layers of disembodied voices. Layers, since they too were not all of the same time. From their various corners, I could feel them politely acknowledge my presence. They made room for me, as others had made room for them, as if they understood some unspoken code. Wherever I walked I saw the exhalations of hundreds of lives lived in this great place. I saw them hover over the fields, in the woods, in boats, on the river. Then the people on the land before the house was built. In the caves under the vineyard enacting their druidic rituals; and before them, the people of the cave paintings. All still here in the sphere, in their exhalations.
A day in dreamtime went by this way. I grew hungry. Hungry for that dinner of roast beef and wine, I found breakfast: coffee and fresh bread, butter and jams placed at my bedside. Hungry for the lover, but he remained a flash along the radius.
Even asleep, I must have known dawn was approaching for I tried to prolong my stay. But I woke, and it was this time. Our time.
* * *
At the end of the week R. returned in his coughing 2CV. He was coughing too, and continued to cough through the following months. We spoke for hours that night. He hinted at sorrows but that didn’t stop him from twinkling at my encounters – he’d made their acquaintance years ago; said they kept him good company through the solitary winters.
I’m grateful he was welcomed into their club because now I know I can find him whenever I need him. In November of that year we discovered R. sitting in the old chai at his workbench, chin still resting on his hand. Heart attack, broken heart… But where the radius meets the center, he is galloping off on his horse, his beloved held close, ribbons soaring.
After that January night, nothing was the same. The house is never empty to me now. When I meet the voices on the radius they share their stories. Family pride, loyalty, sacrifice, love, cruelty, betrayal, birth, hope… They whisper and I write.