The Lady of Rêver by Shelby Cohen
The wait at the border was interminable, but my irritation vanishes on approach to Grandfather’s chateau. Situated on the shore of the St. Lawrence, Rêver is an imposing and beautiful old house, though house is an inadequate term. It’s more of a castle, and despite annual visits during childhood, I’m sure I haven’t seen every room it hides. Those summers I spent exploring Rêver were punctuated with long walks along the shoreline with my grandfather, giggling at the stories he told to scare me and sharing a seemingly endless supply of exotic Dutch licorice candies from his sweater pocket.
Grandfather passed only days ago, but the wider Levesque relatives have already been summoned to Rêver for la veillee mortuaire and the reading of his will. That means that not only are my cousins, aunts, and uncles on their way, but also the progeny of Grandfather’s six siblings, en route from all over Canada and the States. I think a few, more distant relations may even be coming from France and the UK, though I haven’t seen any of them in more than a decade, and I can never remember who’s still alive and who’s dead.
The white crushed stone crunches under my Volvo’s tires in the circular drive, and I catch a glimpse of the river sparkling between the blazing leaves of the maple trees that flank the property, blocking neighbors’ views of the Chateau. She was always best seen from the water anyway, and I wonder who will get Grandfather’s prized antique Chris-craft, La Liberté.
My cousin Scott waves as he grabs a leather weekender bag out of the back of his Acura. The driveway is already jammed with luxury vehicles and Subarus. Those belong to the Canadians. I navigate to a spot along the edge of the drive and park, swinging open the door and calling out, “Hey Scott, it’s been a minute.”
He’s wearing jeans and a navy bomber jacket. We’ll both have to change before the reading.
“El, come here!” He drops the bag and scoops me into a bear hug. “It’s been too long. Hell of a thing, isn’t it?”
Tears prickle my eyes, surprising me. I haven’t cried since hearing the news, and now isn’t the time to start.
“It is. I miss him already.”
He releases me and shoves his hands into his pockets. “I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. No one who inherits the chateau gets too long, do they? But still, I’ll miss him.”
“Have you seen him lately?”
I collect my bags and we walk to the towering mahogany front doors, adorned with vines and leaves of verdigris copper and massive wrought iron hinges. God, this place is gorgeous. As an adult, I can really appreciate every detail of brutal beauty.
“No, but we chatted once a week or so. He was a cool old codger.”
The second we’re in the door, Aunt Cherie, Grandfather’s sister, is on us. I barely have time to take in the foyer, a grand hall, really, its frescoed plaster, depicting angels and demons locked in perpetual battle, stretching twenty feet over our heads.
“You two must change your clothes,” she hisses. She’s already donned the Victorian-looking long black gown that all Levesque women wear to formal family occasions, her steel-gray hair swept up into a Gibson Girl updo.
“Hello to you, too, Auntie Cherie. I’m sorry about Grandfather. And I’m not doing my hair.”
Cherie hugs me, and I catch her rolling her eyes at Scott before she fixes a tight smile on her face. She’s tall and thin, which, in this get-up, really completes the Wicked Witch of the West vibe. She’s not wicked, but she’s certainly no Glinda.
“Sorry about Grandfather, too, Aunt Cherie,” Scott says. “I’m sad his death is the reason we’re visiting after all this time.”
“Yes, well. Needs must.”
Auntie Cherie is always brusque, but it’s clear she’s extra hassled by our late arrival, so I leave them and hustle over to the small powder room under the staircase to change.
It’s only a couple of minutes later that I rush into the receiving room, just off the foyer, but the huge fireplace is roaring and Levesques are wall-to-wall. Cherie is standing in front of the mahogany mantel, squaring her shoulders up to address the crowd. I sidle up next to Uncle Claude, my dad’s brother. He’s with a red-headed woman I don’t recognize, but I think I remember seeing something on Facebook about his wedding in Vancouver last year. She’s younger than I am, her eyes wide and her hands busy smoothing down the fabric of her pristine and new black dress. The silk twill tends to be itchy until it’s been worn a few times, and the exaggerated puffed sleeves only suit Cherie.
“As you know, we’ve gathered here today to say goodbye to my beloved, departed brother Claude,” begins Cherie.
“Ariel, it’s good to see you,” Uncle Claude, Grandfather’s oldest son, whispers, placing a chubby hand on my back. “I’d like you to meet Sally, my new wife. This is her first Levesque function.”
“Let me be the first to apologize in advance,” I quip, giving her a brief smile, then direct my gaze back to Cherie. She’ll be quick to call me out if she hears us whispering.
She hasn’t lived in this house since she left for Queens University in the sixties, but she might as well own the place, given her attitude. She eulogizes Grandfather in the briefest possible terms, mentioning only his parliamentary role and that he inherited Rêver from their father, Renee, who had lived just one year after inheriting the chateau from his grandfather, also named Renee.
“We will celebrate the life of Claude upstairs immediately following the reading of the will by his trusted attorney, Monsieur Gagne,” she concluded.
Gagne, a small, balding man with wire-rimmed glasses as out-of-date as the garb worn by every Levesque descendant in the room, stands and shakes out a sheaf of papers.
I move up next to Scott for this part. I know Uncle Claude expects to get the house, and I don’t feel like absorbing his anticipation while the rest of Grandfather’s belongings are divvied up.
Gagne begins with the Limoges, which Aunt Suzette inherits. Next, my cousin John is enthusiastic to learn he’s getting the mint condition 1966 Jaguar E-type.
“Nice dress, El. You get that from the Morticia Adams online store?” Scott whispers.
“Naw, her new boutique on The Cape,” I volley back. “Where’d ya get your suit? Ye Olde Curiosities Shoppe in the West Village?”
Scott snorts, and Cherie makes direct eye contact with me and raises one eyebrow in warning. She’s really flexing the villain thing today.
Then I hear Gagne say Scott’s name; Grandfather gave him La Liberté. Scott smiles and looks down for a moment before whispering, “I bet he gave you the jewelry.”
But Grandmother’s vast collection of rare gems and her engagement ring go to my father’s younger sister, Jeanette, and Cherie’s eyes blaze as Gagne lists each item. Her turn is next, though, and the beautiful Biedermeier desk, settee, and rather valuable artwork from Grandfather’s study become hers.
Finally, it’s only Uncle Claude and I left of Grandfather’s closest descendants. I can’t imagine why I’ve been saved for last, despite the fact that my parents were close with Grandfather before they died, and I always sensed I was particularly beloved among his grandchildren.
My memory flashes to a story Grandfather used to tell me during our walks on days when the sky was streaked gray over the river. It was of the Levesque family curse, cast by the wife of his great-grandfather many, many years ago, to wrest control of Rêver from his own uncle. The curse’s vessel was a fairy cake with a single candle in its middle. “Like a birthday cupcake,” he would explain. The curse is where we get our family motto, but also what keeps Levesques throughout the generations safe and flourishing. So while the curse means one Levesque will die, it’s also a blessing for most of the family.
Gagne clears his throat, and I snap back to reality.
“The residence on Wolf Island, its surrounding acre of land, and one Boston Whaler watercraft are bequeathed to Claude Levesque Jr. The taxes on that property have been paid in advance for this calendar year by the estate.”
I look back at Uncle Claude, and his face is bright red, eyebrows buried in his hairline. In his old-fashioned black suit and pinstripe vest, he looks like one of the three stooges making a funny face. He’s glaring at me. This can only mean one thing: Rêver is mine.
I hear “holy shit,” from Scott, under his breath, and it feels like the lump in my throat will choke me. Gagne reads out the full bequest. Then the group, all except the lawyer, says in unison, “May the candle go unlit.”
I hate when they say that.
Before Aunt Cherie can usher me into the study where Monsieur Gagne is waiting for me to sign paperwork, a stream of Levesques mutter congratulations and condolences to me in turn as they shuffle out of the room to the staircase. Claude is not among them. I assume he and Sally made a beeline for the bar to drown their sorrows, though the cottage on Wolf Island is nothing to sneeze at, and most likely worth north of a million.
Gagne recites a long statement and implores me to read a document he puts in front of me on the burled walnut desk that now belongs to Cherie, but it all goes over my head. Something about a trust for the significant property taxes, blah blah. I sign without comprehending a word, knowing that whether or not I do, no matter the legalese, Rêver and all her secrets now belong to me.
The ordeal in the study goes by in whoosh, my thoughts spinning. Where is the damn thing? I have to find it and secure it; make sure no one lights the candle. I’ll need the combination to Grandfather’s safe, which is mine now. Or should I take it back to Boston with me? No, that probably isn’t allowed. I should have paid closer attention to Grandfather’s stories.
Gagne hands me a thick packet of paperwork. Everything I need better be in it, or I’m screwed.
Minutes later, while I’m still spinning on the curse and the ramifications of the fact that I’m now the lady of Rêver, Auntie Cherie sweeps ahead of me into the second-floor ballroom, which is even bigger than I remember. The cavernous space is lit by what must be a thousand candles, plus a black marble fireplace on each of the four walls and a positively medieval-looking sunken fire pit separating the lounge and dining space, its massive, ornate brass vent hood attached to the ceiling above, covered with acanthus leaves and flowers rendered in gleaming copper. Cherie must have polished the copper for the event, as I remember it being patinaed a crusty green. Or perhaps the staff takes care of stuff like that? What do I know about how this place works?
While the relatives have much more room to spread out up here, plus alcoves and side rooms to fan out into, it’s still a striking tableau: upwards of a hundred people in this sumptuous setting, dressed all in elaborate black suits and floor-length gowns. The cut crystal of their glassware glints in the firelight, and a steady hum of conversation hangs in the air.
I head over to Scott, his parents, and Aunt Suzette, who are at the less crowded of the two bars set up at either end of the room. My stupid skirt rustles against my legs, and I feel like everyone’s looking at my booties, which are Stuart Weitzman and definitely don’t match the vintage of the dress. I haven’t worn the damn thing since my mother’s la veillee mortuaire, and I’d like to rip it off and throw it in one of the fires.
“Grey Goose is the answer, but I’m not sure I can verbalize the question,” I say, hugging Aunt Suzette and then Scott’s mom, Gina.
Uncle Gary raises his highball glass. “Hail to the lady of Rêver!”
They all start to respond, “May the candle go unlit,” but I shush them before they can finish, and Scott laughs and orders me a vodka soda.
“Did that lawyer give you the cupcake?” Suzette asks me, leaning close. I shiver when the rough silk of her puffed shoulder slides against my face. Her gown is shot through with silver thread, and were it cut differently, it would almost be fashionable today.
“I don’t think he even knows about it,” I answer, accepting a heavy crystal glass from Scott. I meet his eyes. “Hey, you got the boat. Congrats.”
“Thanks,” he says, the smile that’s slain too many New York millennials spreading across his face. “Finding a dock slip in the City will be a picnic, I’m sure.”
But the group is fixated on the damn curse. Gina sips her red wine, then, “I’ve never even seen it. How old and disgusting it’s got to be at this point!”
“Oh no, sweetheart, it doesn’t go bad,” Gary informs her. “Dad always told us that from the moment the curse began, on old Pierre Levesque’s birthday back in the late 1800s—they called it a fairy cake then, I think—it’s been in some sort of suspended animation. Pristine glaçage, and the candle never drips.”
“I’ve never seen it, either,” adds Suzette. “But when you get the house, you take responsibility for the curse. That’s how it works. You need to keep it safe, Ariel.”
Don’t I know it. I want that thing locked up, tout suite.
“I’m sure Auntie Cherie will know where he kept it. I just needed a drink before I face her again. Between her and Uncle Claude, I got a distinct frosty feeling downstairs.”
“I guarantee Cherie is worried about the candle, but Claude has his mind on the money,” Suzette says, and I catch Gary making a face at her that I don’t understand. I brush it aside; I have bigger fish to fry right now. Uncle Gary and Dad were very close, which is why Scott is my favorite cousin. We spent a lot of time together at Rêver when we were kids, trying to climb maple trees and skimming rocks across the water when the river was calm. Even from my earliest visits, though, I felt the gravity of Rêver. Its sinister edge was palpable to even the most casual visitor.
“Never mind the candle and the chateau,” I say, raising my glass. “We’re here for Grandfather. To Claude Levesque, the brother, father, and grand-pére we all loved!”
“Here, here,” Uncle Gary says, raising his glass.
Everyone else raises their glasses as well.
“He was such a dear man,” Gina says, her dark eyes sparkling.
“He loved you very much, El,” Suzette adds. “I always remember him being fond of you, but his pride only grew as you got out on your own and made your way. He was gutted when you lost your parents so close together. I think he wanted you to have Rêver to recapture your childhood. You were so happy here.”
I love this house, but I never wanted to own it. I have so much going on back in Boston. I’m angling for a big promotion at work. I just started seeing a woman who makes everything feel like promise. I love my life. I can’t move to Quebec—I won’t—but all the same, Rêver deserves a full-time resident.
I’ve never been one to shy away from responsibility, but assuming ownership of our family’s ancestral home—in another country, no less—is a tall order. The chateau is massive. I’m not sure how many square feet, but even as a child, even with my parents and grandparents sleeping upstairs and a full-time staff of at least eight under its roof, it felt empty. Taking her over is a major undertaking, even with taxes and maintenance accounted for in Grandfather’s will.
I say none of that, and instead reply, “It was an incredibly generous and unexpected gift.”
Then I gulp down the rest of my drink. Aunt Suzette smiles at me in a sad sort of way, and the pressure of her expectations is too much. I split off from the group to go find Cherie.
She’s by one of the fireplaces. This one’s swirl of dark marble is carved with a riot of spring blossoms, macabrely rendered in the obsidian stone. She’s talking to one of the cousins from Europe—I can’t remember his name. He has jet hair that’s just greying at the temples and a very formal version of the standard black suit on, with tails.
As I approach, before I can speak, her hand flies up and she says, “I don’t know where it is, Ariel! Claude was always difficult about the whole, well you know, about the cupcake. I haven’t seen it or heard about where he keeps it for years.”
The ivory-on-black cameo at her throat trembles.
I take a deep breath. It won’t help anything to shriek at her, even though a low level of hysteria is rising up my throat. The European cousin dematerializes, but I swear I hear him mutter, “May the candle go unlit,” under his breath, like a damn protection spell. We are not witches! I refocus on Cherie.
“Auntie Cherie. I know Grandfather trusted you the most among his brothers and sisters. Please help me. I’m sure there are some clues in that stack of paperwork Gagne gave me, but is there anything you can think of? Any clue on where he might have stashed it?”
The party is ramping up now, most people on their second or third drinks, and the noise level is roaring in my ears. My relatives’ faces look like ghoulish caricatures in the candlelight. House staff, also clad in all-black, is starting to lay food out on long tables flanking the fire pit, and my stomach flips.
“I’m sorry, child. I know how you must feel. This is all a lot to take in. But as I’ve said, your Grandfather was famously difficult on the matter of the cur—the cupcake. Cagey, almost. Don’t fret about it now, darling. I’m sure the papers in Monsieur Gagne’s envelope will lead you to it. It wouldn’t be acceptable to handle it during the celebration anyway.”
Shit. She’s starting to edge away from me in her wicked witch costume, and I’ve gained nothing. It’s time for another cocktail.
Just as I’m turning from the bar with a fresh glass of mostly Grey Goose with a splash of seltzer and a helpful lime slice, Claude the younger slithers over. I should have known I wouldn’t get out of this without a ration of crap from him. I would trade my current predicament for the cottage in the Thousand Islands in a second.
“This place was meant for me,” he starts without preamble, standing a little too close for my comfort. “I know Papa had a soft spot for his little orphan American granddaughter, but Rêver was supposed to be mine. I know its secrets. I know where the candle is.”
My pulse takes off like Le Liberté on a calm river.
“Uncle Claude, I have no idea why Grandfather chose me, but believe me, I’m willing to share in every way possible. You can use Rêver whenever you and Sally would like. Live here, for all I care! I have a life in Boston and no plans to move. But I need to know where it is.”
His muddy brown eyes are ringed red—he’s into his cups much farther than I am, and he’s gearing up to argue. It clicks for him about four seconds after I stop talking that I’ve just told him he can essentially have the chateau. The play of thought and emotion across his face would be comical if I weren’t in a panic to get my hands on the cupcake. His crow’s feet settle on resolve and he moves in even closer. A waft of gin assaults my nostrils.
“I suppose we could come to some arrangement, El. It would need to be a little more formal than just a verbal agreement, of course. It really falls to me, as head of the family now, to protect the Levesque legacy. Make sure the curse does its job.”
His gaslighting is interrupted by daffy old Auntie Lillian, eldest daughter of Renee Levesque II and recent recipient of her brother’s priceless art, including an original Vermeer. She’s standing near the autumnal fireplace, all four feet eleven inches of her clad in the moldiest of black taffeta gowns. It looks like it actually came from Queen Victoria’s closet. I’ve never understood how she ended up so tiny when her sister Cherie is about seven feet tall.
She’s singing Les Trois Hommes Noirs at the top of her shriveled lungs. Where the hell did she find a microphone? This isn’t the first time Auntie Lil has gotten loaded at an otherwise somber family get-together and rolled out some old French Canadian folk song—and for some reason, I’m surprised every time—but this one really beats the band. It’s about three men who steal a bride on her wedding night and take her to Hell.
There’s no stopping her once she gets going, so the whole crowd quiets somewhat to give her credence. Even Claude shuts his fat mouth.
She warbles out the last notes: J’en ai pour toure l’éternité or I’ll now stay here forever, and you can hear the collective sigh of relief as people turn back to one another to pick up interrupted conversations. I steel myself for a second assault from Lord Douchebag, when out of the corner of my eye, I catch the trail of a moving flame.
And then Uncle Claude’s new wife, Sally, is standing before us, a blood-red, lit candle jammed into a dark chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting in an elaborate piped swirl on top cradled before her in both hands. There’s a wide grin plastered to her face. She shoves the thing toward me.
“I heard it’s your birthday in a few days, Ariel. Happy Birthday and congratulations!”
The impulse to run away from her is hot and overpowering.
“Where? Where did you find that?” I stammer.
Claude’s eyes are huge. His mouth is working, but no words are coming out. Sally’s eyes dart to him, then back to me.
“This dress is so itchy, I ducked into another room somewhere down the hall. There were shelves all around and lots of books and vases? I just needed a minute to unbutton it and take a breath, so I closed the door and I was looking around and found this cupcake. The caterers must have left it when they were setting up? Your Aunt Suzette told me your birthday is this week, so I thought—”
She trails off.
Shit. Shit shit shit. Why was it just sitting out, for anyone to grab? I’ve only seen the cupcake once in my life, peeking around a corner and spying on Grandfather and Dad in the study when I was small. This is definitely it. I’ve signed the papers; Rêver is mine. My brain refuses to extrapolate the horror of the next link in that chain of logic. There has to be a way out of this.
Cherie appears to my left, her hand on my arm. I don’t look at her, but I can see her towering over me from the side. That skeletal silhouette is unmistakable. My sight has narrowed to that flickering candle flame, like the fires of Hell dancing in the eyes of the damned.
Cherie clears her throat. The room has already quieted once more, as word of the candle spread quickly around it.
“According to Levesque family ritual, incepted by Marie Levesque, wife of Renee, in 1883, the Candle Initiation has occurred. We know not why the cupcake compels a Levesque to light its candle, only that it chooses its quarry soon after inheritance of Rêver. Its lighting marks the commencement of a one-year period of mourning, culminating in the death of the Lady of Rêver, Ariel Marie Levesque. Her sacrifice will ensure the continued prosperity of the Levesque family for subsequent generations.”
Her grip on my arm tightens when she says my name. Her long, bony fingers may as well be around my neck. I draw a ragged breath. Bile rises in my burning throat. Don’t say it. Don’t say it!“My dear Levesque brethren, brave Ariel, the candle has been lit.”
Shelby Cohen has worked in public relations in the defense industry for 20 years, and was the weekly food columnist for the Watertown Daily Times for two years. She was a frequent contributor to Fourpoints Magazine, and the writer behind the Big Hungry Shelby blog for 10 years, imploring her readers to patronize mom and pop restaurants in Upstate New York and shun Red Lobster. If you’d like to talk about food or stories, follow her @BigHungryShelby wherever you get your social jollies.