The Normandy landscape is a watercolor of greens, golds and blues bleeding into one another. “That’s because of the rain,” said Sharon as we pulled into the long shadowy driveway, lined by tall dark trees just as the sun began to set and shadows cast long.
As we rounded the bend in the driveway, the sweet chateau came into full view. Big enough to be a bed & breakfast, but easily a family home. I felt sad seeing the signs, advertisements of the 3 star hotel, belying the private nature of the house. In her modesty, albeit a chateau modesty, it would seem she didn’t want to be opened up and shared with the public, her rooms rented out and her entrance serving as reception.
Our car pulled up short in front of the house. A tufted grey, white and tan dog – a husky – was lying flat on the gravel directly in our path. Sharon inched the car forward slowly, just steps from her. Still she didn’t move. A young man, 20 something and lean with bookish features popped his head out the chateau doors and motioned us to move forward and keep pulling in in spite of the dog.
“She’s going to move, won’t she?” Sharon asked.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, thinking back to my childhood dog, Miah. She was a husky mix who lay on the shady gravel in front of my childhood house during the hot summers. She stopped moving for cars as she got older. We drove around her dark figure, fur spread out over the gravel, increasingly delicate as she grew thinner.
Perhaps realizing this, the boy raced out, visibly embarassed as he tried to pull her out of our tracks by her collar. She bared her teeth and snapped at him, he pulled back surprised but she was already managing to her feet. Now I could see just how old she was. Her haunches were curved and plated. She ambled slowly toward a big shady tree where a large German Shephard waited alert and a goat on a lead rope stood some distance off. It was a strange welcoming committee to be sure.
“That’s never happened before,” said the boy once we’d parked and began to pull our bags from the car. He looked nervous and eager to please. I wondered how well he knew the old dogs that slept outside his family home. I looked back to them as he continued talking. The goat had moved as far from the dogs as possible.
The boy was talking about the house. It had been in the family for 120 years and he’d moved home after school to help take care of it and run the hotel. His father was the manager but wasn’t home at the moment. As he led us around the corner and to a separate building, that must have been the stables at one point, he began to explain the restoration that was taking place. “Each room is a theme,” he told us proudly. “The Africa Room, Middle Eastern Room, Argentine Room and China Room.” This surprise turned into a strange feeling I had settling into the Argentine Room, surrounded by artifacts amidst 18th century walls and structure in the French Countryside. It was a bit like being in the Spanish Classroom at an American high school, surrounded by white kids who had adopted names like “Geronimo” for the semester.
After dinner, when the other women had gone to sleep I walked across the gravel with my computer to use the internet in the main house drawing room. I nestled into a big green chair and could hear the boy and his father in the adjacent room going over numbers. I noticed a learning guide for small business marketing on the chair across from me, open with a pencil. The longer I sat, opening up my computer and emails, the more the voices registered as fretful and the more I felt I should leave before being noticed here. I packed up quietly and slipped out the big front doors, closing the latch quietly behind me.
By the light of the big moon I could see the husky had made her way back to her spot in the driveway. She was breathing slowly, not moving, I said hello and bent down to touch her fur. I stopped as my hand touched the oily mattedness along her flank, and I suddenly smelled the wretched stink on her coat. She was deeply matted in things I can only imagine and I withdrew quickly. The stench and filth was beyond a recent roll in something behind the house, it had been there a long time, stuck to her.
I looked from the old dog at my feet to the single light in the chateau salon. Father and son were presumably seated together trying to save this house, business and family name. With time, things fall apart from the outside sometimes more quickly than the inside. The dog had gone down with the chateau, I thought, too magnificent to be turned out, but disappearing slowly back into the landscape without the hands to care for her.
photo taken in normandy courtesty of quentin de briey