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France -- January 22, 1998
"Spread my ashes at the convent," my father has told me a number of times since deciding to be cremated when he dies. The site in question, perched precariously on an outcrop of rock in the Vosges mountains of Alsace, is St. Odile. The first time I visited I was ten years old, which might explain why my most vivid memory of that trip is made-up. What I picture is God's perspective: an aerial view of the convent compound -- lodging quarters, dining hall, courtyard, and tiny chapel -- and then a sheer drop through the clouds to the evergreen trees crowding the sharp slope of the mountain below.
The convent and the mountain on which it rests are both called St. Odile. Thirty miles south of Strasbourg, the terrain surrounding St. Odile has been invaded, conquered, and passed back and forth between France and Germany at least ten times since the fifth century. The names of the towns -- Mulhouse, Guebwiller, Oberhaslach -- are reminders that while Alsace is French today, it has distinctly German roots. Alsatians speak French and German interchangeably with tourists, as proof that they can be, or appear to be, either French or German, depending on one's preference. The effect is unsettling, and contributes to the region's general air of ephemerality.
St. Odile itself is eerie. The "Pagan Wall," built of smooth boulders by Celts, still wraps around the mountain beneath the convent. Parts of the wall lie in ruins on the side of the slope, as if pushed over by a giant hand. It was named by early Christians, who in building the foundation of the convent incorporated a scattering of the improbably tall and heavy Celtic megaliths that dot the site. Then there's the tenth-century legend of St. Odile: born blind to the Duke of Alsace and hidden by sympathetic clergy from her angry father in a cave on the mountain, Odile was baptized at the mountain's spring (which still flows from a spigot set in the rock centuries ago) and miraculously regained her sight.
A few years ago I happened upon an account of an airbus that slammed into the steep, snow-covered slopes of St. Odile. Survivors froze to death waiting for search crews to cut through the dense forest; rescue efforts were further hampered by whipping winds, snow, and narrow mountain roads. In my mind St. Odile became a place not only of miracles but also of death.
I recently returned to St. Odile with my mother. Negotiating those same narrow roads on a dark November night, I ascended in second gear, careful not to swing out too far around blind corners or hug the hulking mountain too closely. There are no street lights on the way up St. Odile, and getting to the convent is not unlike a game of blindman's buff. A wrong turn leads to ever more distant and desolate hamlets abandoned during winter.
We settled in quickly once we arrived and dropped our bags on our side-by-side cots, deflating the fat feather beds. After putting on our layers we hurried outside to take a walk before midnight.
We decided to follow the flagstone path that loops around the convent, juts off the side of the mountain, and then continues behind the nun's living quarters, the kitchen, and various other rooms where linens are boiled and steam-ironed for tourists and pilgrims. I stopped to wrap my scarf around my head like a monk's cowl, crossed the ends, and tucked them into the collar of my coat. Tense with cold, my hands in tight fists, I then joined my mother. Snow pricked my face as we walked slowly, side by side, on the pathway so dark I couldn't see what lay on the other side of us. I grabbed my mother, worried that the only thing protecting her from a fall off the side of the mountain was a balustrade I could barely see in the darkness. What if I had imagined it?
I stepped closer to the balustrade, gripping it with a gloved hand, and leaned forward into the icy air, which then gusted up from below the precipice -- a bitter and purposeful reminder, perhaps, of my father's wish to rest here for eternity. It was a chilling thought, and St. Odile became again the macabre and unpredictable mountain that had taken the lives of the crash victims. I thought it was the loneliest and coldest place on earth; certainly it was no place for my father's ashes.
I turned around and found myself looking through the dim stained-glass windows of the convent chapel, which was perched like an aerie overlooking the valley. Lights flickered inside. Reflected in the glass, they looked like Fourth of July sparklers. I moved slowly around the apse, curious to peek in, and then came upon a clear window, set in a Romanesque arch just my height and cut into the side of the chapel. Suddenly I found myself looking at a hundred white votive candles, each one placed in a tiny cup of red glass. They were arranged in straight rows lining an interior corridor of winding stairs, facing bravely out into the darkness. The wind, stealing up again from the valley, was so strong behind me that it seemed to penetrate the chinks and crevices of the window. A few of the flames, indeed, died in front of my eyes. The others simply moved back and forth with the wind, as though they were breathing in the passageway. They looked like beacons, shining in the red cups, and I found comfort in the idea that they represented a hundred prayers for loved ones, each as individual and dear before death as the man who wished me to spread his ashes in this strange and alien place.
The next day we hiked down past the Pagan Wall to the spring that had restored sight to the young St. Odile, and we found a spot that might suit my father, near the waters collecting in a mossy basin. Or maybe, I thought, we could spread my father's ashes in the nuns' cemetery, tended so carefully beneath the chapel, or by the topiaries lining the terrace in the courtyard. Yes, I decided -- when the time came, I would leave my father at St. Odile.
Katherine Guckenberger is a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly.
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