Forty-two years ago, I faced a young man I had just met.
“Come with me,” he said.
I had arrived in Luxembourg, that wee country squeezed by Germany, France and Belgium, just two days earlier, the beginning of a six-month stint abroad at my university’s branch campus. I had been placed with Kurt and Margareta Schroeder: Swedes, two of the loveliest people I have ever met. Lennart was their son.
“She’s an old friend,” he explained about the woman who owned the castle. “Every New Year’s Eve we go there and celebrate.”
I did not, at that point, sense there was something he was not telling me. Sweet Margareta, who would, over the course of my stay, squeeze me orange juice and provide fresh-baked bread and honey each morning, assured me that the short drive into France would be fun and that her blond, blue-eyed boy with the mass of unruly curls would take good care of me.
“Sure, I’ll go. What should I wear?”
“It’s a drafty, dirty old castle,” Lennart said. “Just wear jeans.”
Later, we drove past open fields and woodlands where trees stood naked and lacy, having long ago shed their leaves. Pewter clouds pressed from above. The chill made me glad to be wrapped in a turtleneck, heavy sweater, and ski jacket. My straight-legged Levi’s topped rugged hiking boots. As the countryside raced by, I wondered what a “dirty, old castle” might look like. I’d spent my life in New Jersey, a place pretty much devoid of castles of any kind.
Lennart turned onto a narrow road, like the rest, a quaint blend of forest and rolling pastures.
“This is part of the estate,” he said. “She inherited two thousand acres from her grandfather.”
When he pulled onto the circular drive, I stared at the massive, two-story stone structure that was several hundred years old. As we mounted a wide, white stairway, I considered the odd placement of a sculpture that appeared to be George Washington and his men on their fabled crossing of the Delaware. The piece rested halfway up the staircase. I would soon learn that the statue’s haphazard placement was a remnant of the castle’s World War II occupation by Nazi officers, who were caught amidst their attempts to steal artwork. The sculpture was left on the stairs as soldiers fled an attack by local French citizens and there it remained.
“The castle has sixty-six rooms,” Lennart said. “But we only use five or six of them. It costs too much to keep the heat on.”
Marie greeted us in French and with two kisses, one on each check for Lennart. She eyed me quizzically. I couldn’t help but notice her modelesque frame squeezed into impossibly tight jeans. A scarlet, long-sleeved shirt similarly hugged her curves, revealing a hint of cleavage, and perfectly matching red lipstick highlighted her lips. Raven hair hung loose down her back. High, black heels clicked with each step.
My hiking boots suddenly felt heavy. My cuffed Levi’s a bit too rustic.
Marie chattered on with Lennart in French, one of five languages he conversed in fluently. “She doesn’t speak English,” he whispered.
My French was pathetic. I could read menus and road signs and order wine, if I had to. But I didn’t need to understand the language to see there was something between them.
Marie led us into a dining room where a long table was set with linens and crystal. A chandelier sparkled above, throwing shadowed light on 16th century paintings. Over the course of the evening, eight other Parisians would join us, not one of whom spoke English.
Multiple bottles of wine and champagne were uncorked. When we were all seated, a silver tray appeared from the kitchen bearing a massive fish. I wondered if poisson was the traditional New Year’s Eve repast, as I requested another serving. I didn’t notice I was the only one asking for seconds.
I was surprised when the next platter appeared. And even more so when the many other courses arrived. I knew, without being told, that to decline an offering would be rude. So, I was greatly appreciative when we ran out of wine. Lennart explained we would trek to the cellar for more. One dark-haired, animated man, who, I was told, was a popular French comedian, led us through the castle’s murky halls and stairways. He started singing Gregorian chants, which seemed both fitting and a bit sacrilegious when we arrived at the family chapel, replete with alter and pews and cross. More than a bit tipsy, we joined him, our voices echoing off ancient stone walls.
We retrieved myriad dusty bottles of wine, some over 100 years old. As you might expect, much of the rest of the evening is a bit of a blur. But sometime later, I woke in a bedroom shrouded in shadow. I could hear the ticking of a grandfather clock. And stomping. Boots hitting the floor over and over. But my wine-addled brain and warm covers precluded me from investigating.
The next morning, I asked Lennart if I could see the clock. He translated my request. Marie, tilted her head.
“The clock was removed from that room many years ago,” Lennart said.
I wondered if the Nazis were to blame, but I didn’t ask.
“And the stomping?” I waited while Lennart spoke with Marie.
“That is the German soldier,” he said. “He was caught in the courtyard when the Nazis were fleeing. He was killed there. Later, Marie’s grandfather took the man’s skull and placed it in his library. He wanted to always remember. The soldier has been marching around the castle at night ever since.”
I stared at Marie. Her shrug told me a stomping Nazi ghost was no big deal in an old French castle.
On the drive back to Luxembourg, Lennart would confess that he and Marie had dated for years. This was the first New Year’s Eve celebration they weren’t a couple. He knew she was seeing someone and didn’t want to go to the castle alone. He did not disuuade the others when they inquired if we were dating.
Four decades of New Year’s Eve celebrations have passed since my trip into the French countryside, an evening filled with subterfuge, fabulous food, old wine, a stomping ghost, and an invisble grandfather clock.
I’m pretty sure nothing will ever top that.
Anne Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.