From the twelfth century convent of Schiffenberg, perched high above the Wieseckerwald in Hessen, Germany, my cousin Bernd and I descended to the valley floor and headed for two towers that stood stolidly against the horizon.
As the towers drew nearer, Bernd and I made haste. It was now afternoon and the late September sun was quickly sinking. Through the village of Krofdorf and up the hill we drove to the castle of Gleiberg. Here, some several centuries ago, ancestors of my late grandmother held sway over the surrounding region, making far-flung marriages with noble brides who brought the manners of distant and more sophisticated courts (or as sophisticated as it was possible to be in medieval Europe) to these craggy keeps. Fast forward, and here we were, Bernd and I, near a restaurant built into the old Schloss, where we were forced to dodge a drunken patron making an uncertain circuit of the courtyard. Politely shrugging off his beery chatter, we climbed the three-hundred-foot tower which is the ruin's main feature.
We emerged to find the sun and moon facing each other over the mist-filled valley below, a valley half red, half silver with sunset and approaching night. Giessen's city lights twinkled somewhere in that hazy gouache, insisting that we remain sane and level-headed men and remember that this was 1987, not 1187, and that if we didn't hurry across the valley to our next destination we might not be able to see it at all in the dark. So we descended the tower, smiled our way past the intoxicated restaurant patron, and were back in the car again, driving through another village, this time a village gone to supper and to bed. Above the sharply pitched roofs stood a ruined tower which is all that remains of a once impressive fortress called Vetzberg.
Already the ornamental lighting had been switched on, flooding a roseate yet cold glow across the tower's black stone walls. A wind blew up and the trees swayed. Sleepy streets grew darker, cottage windows brightened as we watched. Smoke rose from chimneys and the red-silver sky was still, save for the fluttering of homeward wings. Gleiberg glistened to us from across the valley; car lights rising up its drive told us that its walls still rang with the merriment of continued life. Vetzberg, however, sat apart, lifting its dark blade of masonry to the horizon. It seemed to say, but faintly, "I am dark now, but once I held life, too."
Bernd and I could barely follow the path that led up through brambles to stop abruptly at an aged wooden door let into a wall of the old knights' hall. Darkness obscured the oak panels, making them look smoked with age, and over all was an almost painful silence - just the lindens whispering above us. It was as if no one had been up here for years. Here I was, flesh and blood descendant of people who had once animated this castle for a string of eventful centuries, and I felt absolutely nothing. Is this, I wondered, the fitting end to genealogical and historical enquiry, that when we come to places where our forebears moved and breathed, ate and sung, loved and died, we are denied by some cosmic decency patrol any partaking of their mortal afterglow? Perhaps so. We may ask permission to enter these rooms not our own, but that doesn't mean we'll ever be let in.
My cousin was hungry, and by now so was I. "Let's try this door," he suggested, "and then we'll go home." I watched him reach for the rusted handle, saw him push on it - and the barmaid behind sidled dramatically out of the way, laughing as she expertly balanced a platter of foaming beers on one hand. Her patrons joined in the laughter, at which point music - very loud music - surged up to drown it out.
"Where are we?" asked my mystified cousin, born and bred in the area, when the barmaid returned. One of the men the barmaid had just served lifted his glass and with a crusty but lordly air said, "You're in the village tavern, that's where!"
"These oughta help you," said the happy lass in colorful Vetzbergian dialect, flinging aside her bright yellow hair and retrieving from beneath the bar a few sober booklets about the history of Castle Vetzberg, products of some local scholar's patient industry.
Dazed, we slapped some marks on the bar, the barmaid winked and smirked, her guests roared farewells, and we found ourselves outside again in the chill, calm, voiceless September twilight, clutching our historical pamphlets and laughing as we picked our way down to the sleeping village below.
I still felt far from home, but that was my empty stomach. I thought of evenings like this one, six centuries ago, when the knights' hall was warmed not by electricity but by great smoking fires and great mugs of mead. The hall had better lighting now and a wider range of beverages, but had anything else changed? It still rang with that same raucous insistence that even with its drawbacks, life is a good thing after all. And my ancestors? I now felt them as close to me as if they were sitting in the car with us, chuckling in the back seat at my lack of faith in the immortality of fun.