Chapter 15: The Stranger in the Stairwell
A surreal evening in an empty pilgrim's hostel.
My host escorts me through the pilgrim’s section of her home like a friendly realtor.
A set off wing of her Hansel and Gretel cottage holds eight pilgrims, sometimes more, she explains with crisp pride. The pilgrim’s area is composed of a stand-alone shower, a full kitchen, a long wooden table, and a reading area with armchairs to one side. An old upright piano stands near the stairs. I ask for permission to play it, explaining that I haven’t played piano in over a month. She encourages me warmly. It’s an unexpected dividend.
She leads me up a tight, winding stairwell. It is narrow enough that I have to step carefully on the pie-wedge stairs beneath my feet and make sure I don’t lumber my backpack into framed pictures on the walls. At the top of the landing, the stairwell opens onto an attic area converted into a dormitory. The space is pristine, immaculate and quiet. The cots are as taught and trim as military barrack’s.
I notice for the first time that everything within this home is quiet. It is the one outstanding feature that my friendly realtor does not call attention to.
She gives me a moment to take in the dormitory, pick a spot, and set down my bag. Chance, late afternoon sounds drift in from the fields. I select a cot at the rear by a window and set down my backpack carefully, telegraphing a respect for her effort here and her hospitality. I’m making a point to appreciate what she’s built, to let her know that I’ll respect it, that the stranger staying up here alone is safe.
We return downstairs.
I learn through chance serendipity that the hostess’s mother is Russian or speaks Russian. My host returns to her own home and returns with her mother. The mother and I fall into speaking Russian, a language I started in middle school, continued through college and have stuck with in fits and starts over the years. But soon we pass back to French, and our conversation turns to the upright piano.
You play, she says. Embarrassed, I demur and shuffle. But with a burst of enthusiasm and the task of coaxing another musician to play, she excuses herself and offers to bring back a wealth of sheet music. She returns with a pile, but in the end pulls out a single page of sheet music, a one-page fugue, by a composer whose name isn’t even indicated. She opens the fall board by way of inviting me to play and departs. Standing, I play a few, scattered notes, stop, gauge for the volume carrying into their home, and for the second time the quiet rushes back.
The surreal flow of the last few days is amplifying. Everything slightly “off” the whole time, crackling and charged, but in a good way.
I set myself a challenge to see if I can learn the one page fugue before dinner. The fugue’s melody starts on a G in the bass and jumps an octave on the second note. This charms me. There is no second note more fundamental, fitting for this miniature composition. I spend the next hour stumbling around and around the nameless fugue, gradually making traction.
The hostess’s mother returns to check on me, and we discuss the fugue’s construction for a moment, indicating at bars of the sheet music, but each waiting for the other to touch the keys first to sit down and play. Each of us wants to be asked by the other to dance.
Still standing, she picks out the melody to make an observation on the piece, but before long, we find ourselves on the stool together. She takes the left hand, I the right, and we’re off. Between bursts of playing, we are eye-to-eye in discussion, corrections, let me try that part agains, and musical camaraderie. I’ve missed this. The whole time we’ve been living in France I’ve missed the pleasure of musical collaboration. It can be as stimulating as the music itself.
After the miracle of Sunday’s lunch - yesterday’s lunch, already a lifetime ago - I wonder if I will be invited to dinner with her family inside the main house, but I am not, and in truth I don’t need or even want to be. I speculate on whether the social boundary between the main home and the pilgrims’ lodgings is a policy. That would make sense. The French are as measured and precise in social matters as bakers.
Or maybe the mother has an instinct for how connected I’m feeling in the space, communing with something she knows is in here. As she leaves, she tells me the exact time that her daughter will bring my dinner and gives me instructions about the cat and the entrance door in the morning.
I am alone.
Again, it’s quiet.
The stillness is ready for me to allow it to expand at any time, to understand that this moment doesn’t need more volume. It needs less and less sound, and I take in the lid shutting on the piano, then birds at dusk, then a muffled voice through the wall. I move to the window and look out. There are faint, empty field sounds. There’s a pond, a single, gliding duck carving its silent V.
I flip through the spines of a few books on the shelf, pull one down, study it absently, shuffle its pages, feel the paper’s corrugated edge with my thumb. I don’t want or need to read it. I slide the book back snugly into its vacant slot. I’m fully in the room, participating in the quiet. It’s become a meditation. I’m almost doing as I’m told. The room is now playing me.
It’s getting dark.
My meal is brought to me on a tray by the hostess. In a soft voice, each part of the meal is explained and inventoried like the delivery of a luxury automobile. She has done this many times. She lights a candle on the table. I follow most of her French, not all. Maybe she’s telling me I don’t have to clean up afterwards. Maybe she’s telling me I do. For the second time, there’s something about the morning, the cat, and the door.
I eat at the long wooden table. I picture the large groups that must crowd in and dine here some nights, laughing loudly, passing large bowls back and forth, guiding them over the candles. Strangers flow through this room season after season after season. Some brave, cheery souls must show up in the heart of winter.
It’s getting dark in the room.
I turn on two table lamps. There is also candle burning on the dining room table and a full pitcher of wine provided with the meal. I drink it all. There is a basket of bread. I eat it all. Afterwards, I quietly wash my dishes in the sink, and return them to the tray that the hostess brought in, exactly refolding my napkin as I found it. The plates and silverware chime and rattle and then fall millpond quiet. I imagine the smooth trail of the duck still spreading across the pond.
I sit down in one of the library area armchairs facing the window.
Muffled voices carry through the walls.
The last purple of the day’s light filters through the living room windows. For a passing moment, I consider playing the piano again, memorizing the last of the nameless fugue before I head to bed, getting busy with it. If I don’t, I’ll never find that fugue again, because I never asked who wrote it. I choose not to play, though. I opt for millpond quiet. It’s very rare that I sit this still without activity, without a hint of anxiety.
There’s a monastery feeling in here. This might be a monastery disguised as a home. What a few days this has been.
A decade ago, I read Zen and the Art of Archery, and all I take away is that if you use the bow of a master, for a brief period your skills will improve from something imparted there by its owner. This room might have that imparted thing. Maybe someone very wise or enlightened stayed here last night, maybe they played the piano with the mother or pulled a leather-bound book down from its slot or washed their dishes and set them back on the tray like I just did. I am diving now, navigating below the surface, listening to breath in blue water.
The last few days have been an Alice in Wonderland dream journey: the walk into Toulouse, the sublime day with my family, the elderly strangers, the brutal night of sickness, the feverish walk, the field and the straw, the charmed arrival at this home, speaking Russian with the host’s mother, playing the old piano together, the single page of an unnamed fugue. This veil of quiet. Something is vaguely out of control, demonstrating, bewitched. I can’t put my finger on it.
It is early, but I decide to retire. My instinct is that the evening is complete, and I take my queue. I turn off the lamps, deliberately feeling the movement of their switches and sliders, putting the room to bed like a sleeping child. I’m now tracing my own late-sunset ripple across the millpond of the downstairs.
Then, as I am circling up to the second floor through the tight stairwell I stop.
I am on the edge of something. The quiet swells. Listening, listening, listening. I hear the creak of the wood on the stairs as I shift my weight. The small paintings are just to my right.
There’s no one to catch me halted there for no reason, no one to appear noisily coming down and past. It is all me. There is no threat. I hear my breathing and the sense of peace amplifying. I have that sensation where you think you might have heard someone enter your home without knocking, like when you stop and strain to listen, because you’re not sure if you actually heard anything at all. But there is no edge of fear there. I’m on the edge of something.
And then nothing.
Just the hard, flat echo of my tight space.
I continue upstairs.
I prepare for bed. The faucet taps squeak as I brush my teeth, spit into the basin, rinse out the sink, wipe it, leaving it as I found it, better than I found it. I ready my things for my early morning exit. My bedside lamp is the only light in the room, barely bright enough to illuminate the far corners of the attic.
I lay out my sleeping bag. I set my toiletries bag at the foot of the bed. I stick my waist-pack of personal papers and money deep into the foot of my sleeping bag for safekeeping. I place my backpack into position for morning access in the dark. I know exactly where I’ll stick my pajama bottoms inside of it when I wake, where my toothbrush will go, my fresh socks and underwear, where I’ll unplug the charger for my phone, wrap the cord around my fingers and then tie off neatly with a rubber band.
On this morning, there won’t be any other pilgrims to disturb my usual early departure, but the daily habits of the Camino provide a ritual comfort, and I observe them as if the cots were crowded with pilgrims from a loud dinner, drinking, not drinking, laughing, silent, writing, reading, getting ready for bed themselves.
I reach to the side of the bed and turn off the light and put my head down. What an unusual stretch of days this has been since Toulouse, a Camino within a Camino.
I no longer hear noises from the adjoining house.
And then, suddenly, I know.
It is as if I have been told. The stranger in the house has spoken.
The words are fast, declarative and incontrovertible.
“You will send your son off to school next year. It will be across the country. He will be thirteen.”
I am startled.
One of the year’s major decisions has been made, unilaterally, out of nowhere, unbidden, one that I thought Melanie and I would make on the plane home or subconsciously push off so long the decision would never need to be made at all. The trade-offs of opportunity and loss on sending a child to a boarding school across the country have been agonizing and stirring for a decade.
Now I feel caught, tested - even tricked.
How can I possibly explain this to Melanie? What if she says no?
I turn on my lamp, sit up on the edge of my bed. Thoughts, expanding repercussions, come at me hard. All the years when he still could have been home with us through high school are suddenly stripped away. Taken. Possibly it is right for him to go, to seize an incredible opportunity, but for me it is like losing a son.
The stranger in the stillness has taken my son, and I let him. I invited him in.
I weep loudly enough into the quiet room to hear myself sob.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.