THE PROMISE OF MONT SAINT MICHEL
Carla Maria Verdino-SÃ¼llwold
From her new collection of short stories,
CAROUSEL and Other Stories
A biting February wind whipped down the cobblestone Rue Edouard Colonne in the 1e arrondissement as,
Margarete and Rafael climbed into their tiny rented Renault and headed out of Paris. It felt good to be escaping the city, especially after Grete’s upsetting previous
evening with her boss. She had been in Paris a week now in her capacity as personal assistant to Grant Moore during his run of performances in Don Carlo at the ChÃ¢telet,
and Rafe had flown over for the weekend. They were going to enjoy a quick getaway to Normandy to Mont Saint Michel, a trip of which they had long dreamed.
Rafe seemed surprisingly relaxed as they negotiated their way through the narrow streets and across the boulevards to the autoroute.
He had listened patiently and sympathetically, resisted his usual urge to lecture her as she recounted her tale of humiliation – her confrontation the night before with
Grant and his live-in love, ThÃ©rÃ¨se MarkgrÃ¤fin GrÃ¼nbach. After five years of working for the star tenor and skillfully handling so many of his personal and professional
projects, Grant, goaded by ThÃ©rÃ¨se, was taking Grete to task for her “omnipresence” in his life! He berated her for nagging, for badgering, but who could help it?
He always procrastinated. He proposed that she “back off” and when she asked him to define what that meant, he seemed helpless, exchanging some plaintive glances
with ThÃ©rÃ¨se before finishing lamely: “Just don’t call me so often.”
Grete remembered choking back anger and incomprehension before dissolving in tears as she retorted, “All I do for you and you
don’t have five minutes to talk to me each day about your business!” She had drawn herself up, grabbed her coat and left catching a momentary glance of remorse flit
across Grant’s face. She would have to attend the premiere Monday, and then Rafe and she could go home – get far away from Grant’s celebrity operatic whirl,
lick her wounds and decide what to do next.
A sharp scraping noise and a jolt to the passenger side brought her out of her reverie. A speeding motorcyclist had grazed their car,
tearing off the rear view mirror, giving the finger as he passed.
Salaud! Merde! Grete yelled back, surprised at her own eruption as the biker cut them off and disappeared into the fast lane.
Oddly enough, Rafe seemed serene as if he had taken no note of the assault or his wife’s unhinged outbur “No sense stopping for
it,” he said of the mirror. “It’s way back there shattered. Typical French!”
Grete could not let the last comment pass entirely. She liked the French and loved Paris. “There are jerks anywhere you go,” she
“Grant, for example?” Rafe twitted and turned his attention to the road. At the one hundred fifty kilometers an hour Rafe was
driving, it took only four hours before the spires of the eleventh century monastery appeared on the horizon. They had timed their arrival for low tide so that the causeway from
the mainland to the island enclave would be accessible by car. Once across, they would spend the night at MÃ¨re Poulard’s, the storied island hotel, and await low tide the
following afternoon to make their return to Paris.
Normally, Grete would feel claustrophobic without an exit strategy, but somehow there seemed to be something romantic about being marooned
within the ancient stonewalls, as if caught in a time capsule. They followed the signs though the winding streets and pulled up beneath MÃ¨re Poulard’s sign. Grete handled
check-in in French, and the smiling clerk informed them that there was only one other couple staying for the weekend. Donc, Ã§a sera romantique, n’est-ce pas? Grete
smiled in assent.
She and Rafe followed the bellman up a serpentine set of stairs to a turret room facing the water. She threw open the latticed shutters and
took in the view. The grey waters were slowly rolling in to shore. The gulls sang, and the stillness resonated with a subtle energy.
“We have the place all to ourselves, Rafe,” she commented with satisfaction. “Let’s go have a look before
Together they wandered through the cramped streets, under stone archways, peering into shop windows and nodding politely to the few locals
they encountered. At the end of an ascending alley, they reached the chapel, nestled high on the fortress ramparts. Rafe followed Grete inside.
The interior was dark, illuminated dramatically by the late afternoon light filtering through the tall stained glass windows of the apse.
The deep cobalt blue and vivid scarlet cast a magical aura over the
nave. Grete paused, entranced by the statue of the Archangel Michael, raised sword in hand, fierce yet radiantly gentle. It was at
awe-inspiring moments like these that her childhood Catholicism flickered momentarily to life. Inadvertently, she made the sign of the cross before Rafe tugged at her elbow and
led her out through the giant wooden portals.
“Don’t want you to get too carried away,” he teased. “We can come back tomorrow morning.”
“I just felt as if I were in another time and place, part of another world,” Grete explained.
“Hmm,” Rafe muttered noncommittally. “Let’s go back and dress for dinner.”
An hour later ensconced in a cozy banquette near the baronial fireplace, Rafe and Grete sipped the perfect Hemingway martini – (the
writer had been one of so many famous guests who came to MÃ¨re Poulard’s during his years as a war correspondent) - and perused MÃ¨re Poulard’s extensive and
exquisite menu. A vegetarian for decades, Grete was going to have difficulty as she always did in haute cuisine French restaurants finding something suitable, but she
settled on one of the famous omelets – a creamy soufflÃ© really, cooked over the open fire in a copper bowl. To her amazement, Rafe ordered the same. The accompanying
Bordeaux recommended by the sommelier was elegant, mellow, deep, fragrant, and warming to the palette and spirit. Tensions melted away. Grete forgot Grant and even
ThÃ©rÃ¨se; she forgot the pile of projects and correspondence waiting for her in New York next week. Rafe seemed transported, too. He had not once mentioned mid caps or futures
or commercial paper – those mystifying terms that Grete regarded as strange hieroglyphics, a language of a world she never understood.
After demitasse they drifted to the bar and disappeared into two huge overstuffed wing chairs. Since the other couple – Germans
– had already retired, they had the room to themselves. Rafe ordered two Calvados. The waiter brought huge snifters half filled with the burnished, apple scented liquor.
“Oh, my!” gasped Grete, tasting hers. ‘This is quite something!”
“I thought you’d like it,” Rafe rejoined.
“How was your omelet?” Grete asked. “Mine was scrumptious, but I was surprised you didn’t have something more Bocuse
– you know, the rack of lamb is a specialty apparently.”
“Yeah. I didn’t feel like it,” Rafe replied tersely. “All those sheep in Scotland last trip.”
He changed the subject. Indicating the walls bedecked with signed photos of MÃ¨re Poulard’s guests – artists, royalty,
politicians and presidents – he threw out a playful challenge.
“Imagine you have been here before – one of those ghosts. Who would you like to be?”
“I don’t know. No one on these walls. They’re so recent.”
“Well, anyone, anytime. Make up a story.”
Grete sighed for a moment and then closed her eyes. The fire warmed her eyelids, and she took several deep breaths. When she spoke, it was
in a strange faraway voice.
“I’m a medieval lady married to the lord of a great castle. He is old, rich, and powerful, and knights, poets, and musicians
grace our hall. There is a troubadour who comes every night to sing his songs for me. And we fall in love – passionately in love. My husband banishes him, and he becomes a
monk. He withdraws here to Saint Michel to live a solitary existence. I never see him again, but sometimes on a night like this, the silver rays of the moon sound his
“Too much opera,” Rafe interjected. “Who am I in your story? Your rich old husband?”
“No, silly, of course not!”
“The troubadour?” Grete only smiled, and Rafe fell silent in thought.
After a while, he rose, drained his snifter, and helped Grete from the comfort of her chair. “Shall we walk on the ramparts?”
Silently, she followed. They climbed the narrow, deserted street and stood on the fortifications. High above the sea, a sliver of moon
sliced the pitch-black sky, its crescent mirrored in the gentle ripples curling to shore.
A blanket of soft, muted monumental stillness enveloped them. Neither spoke. Grete felt Rafe’s arms encircle her from behind and turn
her to him. His kiss was like a feather brushing her lips. For a moment they seemed disembodied, and she felt his tears as he buried his head on her shoulder.
“I love you so much, Grete.”
“I love you, too, Rafe. What is it?”
He straightened up and looked deep into her eyes. “You are such a good person, and I haven’t always appreciated that.” She
started to protest, and he put his finger to her lips to silence her. “I will try to do better.”
It was Grete’s turn to solicit silence. She placed her lips on Rafe’s and kissed him hard. “There’s no one only you
and I – here and forever,” she whispered.
“Forever?” Grete thought with a pang of irony. She sat alone in their bedroom looking out over a vast expanse of dark woods.
“Nothing is forever,” she mused bitterly, though the reality of these words had not yet fully sunk into her consciousness. Rafe had been gone now a couple of weeks.
The funeral over, the family and friends had dispersed, leaving Grete adrift in Maine to contemplate the vastness of her own
rudderless solitude. It was not supposed to have been this way. She and Rafe were slated to enjoy a much-deserved retirement
far away from the city, by seashore and forest, drinking in the quiet pleasures of rural life – just the two of them. Except now,
there was only one, and Grete felt helpless in trying to grasp the new reality.
It was late, but she could not sleep. The white moonlight streamed through the lace curtains of the bedroom, framing the
tall pines in a surreal light. She aimlessly began to go through Rafe’s dresser drawers – his cufflinks, his watch, a few saved
Valentine’s cards – until she came to his wallet. She let herself go through the contents, feeling almost ashamed of this invasion
of privacy, as she would have if he were still alive.
No surprises, really – a license with a hideous mug shot, credit cards – and then she came upon a small laminated card she had
not seen before. It was tucked into the deepest fold of the well- worn brown leather.
It was a picture of the ancient abbey onto which Rafe had superimposed the words “the promise of Mont Saint Michel.”
Strange as that seemed to Grete, the reverse was even more puzzling. It was her picture taken in Scotland that same year.
There she was in a field dotted with sheep, leaning over to pet the black muzzle of a wooly creature.
Grete sat down in the chair by the window, absently fingering the card and staring at the diamond-studded sky. The moonlight
now etched an arc through the trees to the ground forming a half circle. She shivered. Where had she seen this nocturne before?
And then she knew. It had been in the ebony stillness of Saint Michel long ago. The memory of that moonlit night seemed to
complete the broken circle beyond her window. She glanced again at the little card in her lap. She had forgotten perhaps, but
Rafe had not. He had not let himself forget the completeness of that moment. Why had it meant so much to him that he carried
this talisman for over fifteen years? What was the promise he had vowed to keep?
“To be good,” he had said, but paired with the image of Grete and the sheep, this goodness became something else –
something manifest and yet elusive. For Rafe the promise of Saint Michel was the quest for compassion, for oneness with all fellow creatures.
Grete recalled the game they had played that night: her fantasy about the troubadour and the lady, the lovelorn monk and his
shattered song. And all at once, she thought she heard a faint, aching tune in the wind – the song of two souls spiraling through the ages, upward toward a perfect love.
CAROUSEL and Other Stories
available at Weiala Press