Friday, February 15, 2013

The Hotel Sagistal

I remember the afternoon in 1985 that we spent at the old hotel beside the falls south of Iseltwald. In late September we decided abruptly one morning, over milky tea and bread, that we wanted one more hike before the snow began. Kathy and I were staying at our bed-and-breakfast for the winter, a forty room chalet where we’d worked until it closed at the end of August. The family had left us there with the two dogs and four cats, our pick of bedrooms, a fine stereo system, and an account at the tiny local grocery. It was quiet, too quiet.

By 9:00 we’d donned our boots and were on the easy walk into the hills, the part I liked best with a low stone wall and lightly graveled path. Kathy was the rugged hiker. We’d trekked all summer among the hills along the side of the lake, but today she wanted finally to see the falls. It was her last chance, she said, to hear the cataract rumble into the gorge beneath, on its way to the cool, blank lake. I agreed. We’d heard of the Hotel Sagistal on the cliff along that same road.  We did not plan to stop there because, like our chalet, it should be closed by now.

I think of this today, two decades later, because Kathy’s postcard, a hurried, scribbled affair, arrived in the mail this morning. She’d used a photo, a faint, misty picture of the Hotel Sagistal she’d taken that day, mounted on a square of cardstock. On the back, she wrote: “Remember that day? The hotel closed for good that year. I plan to go back this summer and find it again. All is well here. I hope you’re well too. Let me know if you come to France. All my love,” etc.  The postmark was from Avignon.

Her words did not lure me, as I sat comfortably with my hot tea in North Carolina, but the photograph did. It resurrected all the old feelings of longing and dread that I felt as we left the place that day years ago. In the snapshot, which Kathy took I’m sure in a spontaneous turning around at the last minute, I’m on the edge, turned also, looking back at the grey stones and bright moss, kept moist by the spray of the falls. The camera’s eye is sweeping up, focused on the steep spires and lofty windows of the fourth floor. My gaze is down though. In the picture, I look over the cliff’s edge, into the narrow cut of earth along which the building perches like a drunken parrot, waiting to fall.

The walk was longer than we expected, and in spite of the approach of winter, we were sweating and peeling layers of clothing as we neared the falls. We’d heard their continuous crashing for nearly a half hour, and our anticipation was high. The curve of the narrow road, the location of the falls, and the dense forest and underbrush prevented us from standing near the spray. But over the hullaballo of water and rock, we screamed to each other and grinned. Adventurous Kathy climbed over the rusted metal bars that served for guard rails on that rural strip of road, and approached as near as she could to the mist, hoping it might kiss her face, dampen her hair, cool her neck. Then she looked away and I felt her puzzling over something. She turned to me, waved, and pointed to the other side of the falls. In a rush, she came tumbling back to the road.

“Let’s go over there,” she gasped, catching her breath. “There’s a building, with a porch. We can see the falls better from there.” She grabbed my hand and we ran down the road that bulged and snuggled its way round the mountain.

Sure enough, there stood the Hotel Sagistal. Long past its glory days of the 1930s and ‘40s, it was still an elegant pile, somewhat Gothic, somewhat Italianate. To me, it seemed to lean slightly into the chasm, as if the edifice itself longed for a better look at the cataract next door. Gauzy curtains billowed out of some upper windows, and I marveled that anyone would have open windows on such a cool day. A stone veranda hugged the building all around on the ground floor, but it was vacant of chairs and tables.

“That’s the hotel, Kathy. But I think they’re closed,” I said. I stopped to study it. “It’s very beautiful.”

“It’s the Hotel Sagistal,” she said to me. “I thought it was somewhere up here.”  She looked at me with a gleam of joy in her eyes. “I didn’t know it was right next to the falls.”  She grinned. “Come on!”

And again with my hand in hers, she pulled me along across the veranda, and opening the French doors, brought me into the hotel’s cozy lobby. No one was there.

“They’re closed, Kathy,” I whispered. I don’t know why I whispered.

“No. Didn’t you see the couple on the balcony? They looked like guests. I bet they’re open. Let’s see if we can eat lunch here.” And before I knew it, she’d tapped her palm pertly on the domed bell on the marble desk. The shrillness echoed lightly into some back passages, and returned with a thin, sour-faced young woman.

This was the last day they were open for the season, she said. They offered no rooms for the night, but if we wanted lunch, they could oblige us. She extended a sinewy arm and pointed through an arch to the dining room. “Table three, ladies,” she said, and was gone.

The Hotel Sagistal had but ten tables for diners, hardly enough for their overnight guests if the establishment were full. We found a small, wobbly tea table next to a bank of four lofty windows facing the open ravine. Kathy was captivated. I fingered the thin metal stand on the table that held an oil-stained card, “#3.” Our hiking boots seemed out of place on their worn velvet in the lobby, and now on their gleaming tile in the restaurant.

“Where are the menus?” I asked Kathy. I forced myself not to whisper this time.

“Hmm?  Oh, I don’t know. They might not have them. End of the season, you know. Clearing out the pantry. They probably just have a few things available for lunch.” And she returned her gaze to the window, where her eyes carried on a noisy love affair with nature.

I stood to walk about the room. Only then did I notice a man sitting on the other side, his attention buried in a newspaper. He smoked a cigarette. I had already stood and faced him, accidentally, so he lowered his paper and gave a wan smile.

“Hello,” he said blandly.

“Hello,” I replied. “We’re just here for lunch.”  He nodded. “Do you know … do they have menus?”

“It’ll be a chicken salad today, or some such thing,” he replied, snapping his paper shut. “And the last of the white wine. You can ask if they have anything else, but it won’t be fancy. This is their last day.”

“Yes, we know.”

He glanced down. “Hiking?”

“Yes. We wanted to see the falls. We thought the hotel would be closed, and we didn’t realize it was right next to the falls.”

“Oh, yes. From my balcony I can feel the spray quite strongly. I can’t read my paper out there.”

This at last lured Kathy’s attention away from the windows. “Really?” she inquired. “That sounds lovely.  What floor are you on?”

I felt that was forward, and I gave her a look.

“Third floor,” he answered casually. “Ah, here’s my lunch,” he said brightly, and turned toward the door.  The whey-faced woman entered with an elegant plate of salad, a bottle, and a stem glass. I returned to my seat.

Kathy shrugged gently at me. “No harm asking,” she whispered.

“I guess not,” I said, and looked toward our waitress. She approached.

“We have only salad today,” she said in a bored voice.

“That’s fine,” Kathy and I chimed together.

The lunch was rather good, as I recall, the wine particularly so. Our fellow diner finished his plate and returned to his newspaper and a fresh cigarette. When the woman came to remove his plate, Kathy asked her across the room whether we could walk around the veranda to the other side of the building, and look at the falls.

“Of course,” she said.

Although it was past noon, the day had turned cold and the sky was a harsh gray. We re-layered our clothing and scooted out on the veranda. As we walked past a door onto the narrow lobby, voices lilted to us, as echoes seemed to do among those walls. A man brusquely spoke to the hotel’s pale concierge.

“I’m afraid we cannot check out yet.”

“Sir, it is necessary. I have told you and your wife -- you must leave today.”

We walked past and their muffled discourse fell behind us. Kathy’s steps quickened; she felt the spray of the falls on her face again and gravitated to the veranda rail. The stone was slick with water and moss.

“It must always be wet here!” I noted. I wondered why anyone would build a veranda that would always be damp with water, every day, every night. Who would want to stand there?

“Yes!” was Kathy’s reply, and I had my answer. Her eyes were closed in a deep rapture.

I heard a movement behind me. It was the man from the dining room.

“I say,” he began. “Would you ladies like to see the view from my room?”  He held out his key. “I’m leaving immediately, bags in the car and all. You can let yourselves in.”  And he dangled a room key attached to a green fob.

“But,” I stumbled, “What about your key?”

“Oh, they have a little dish on the lobby desk. Just drop it in there. They won’t mind a bit.” He continued to hold the key before my face, so I took it. The man smiled uncomfortably at me and glanced at Kathy, who still stood, mesmerized in mist.

“Well,” he said, and halted. “Do have a good hike back.”  And he was gone.

Kathy left the veranda only with my promise of a better, higher view closer to the falls, and we walked from the tumult of the water’s continuous thrumming back into the relative quiet of the hotel. The concierge had disappeared. This time I led the way, clutching the key. Kathy and I stepped clumsily in our boots up the velvet carpet of the stairwell as it curled around the edifice’s core. At the first floor landing we heard voices raised from somewhere down the dim hall. Two women argued heatedly, one in a hot temper and the other in the dominant measured tones that indicated control. At the second floor landing a young man passed us, very young. He muffled an ineffable reply to our greeting and, brushing past us climbed the stairs rapidly ahead of us.

The third floor was silent. We went to the door matching the key number, and entered. The bedroom was surprisingly large, considering the size of the hotel, and we surmised that this floor contained three suites of rooms, and nothing else. It was indeed sumptuous and agreeable. I eyed the lush carpet, the heavy brocade curtains, and the sensuous chaise lounge. A stone fireplace filled the far end of the room, and two deep armchairs with matching ottomans beckoned me to sit and warm myself before it.

“We should have come here for a weekend,” I whispered to Kathy, but she didn’t hear me. She was already at the French window, which slid open soundlessly. Kathy stepped out and gasped audibly.

“Come look!” she said.

From this position, the falls seemed within reach of our hands. The veranda did not extend to this side of the building, so we had not been this close to the water before. Again, I thought how eccentric to build balconies this near the constant moisture of the falls.

“Kathy, you’ll be wet through,” I whispered, again. “Come back in.”

“No,” she began. And then we heard the voices.

They were above us, the man and woman. His voice was stern; hers was sobbing. Instinctively I backed up to the wall beside the window and pulled at Kathy’s arm, but she didn’t move. The man’s voice elevated and we could hear him above the thudding of the falls.

“Caroline, we must go. This is no good, you know. She’s not here! She’s gone. We cannot stay another night, looking. You’ve ruined yourself with this grieving. Now, Caroline! You must come in!” He was shouting out his lungs at the last, but the only response she gave was the moaning and screeching of a human in utter pain, a wholesale release of anger and denial. Her wails brought to mind the agonies of a mother robbed of her infant, or a lover betrayed and abandoned. She seemed demented. There was more of this for several minutes. The man alternately cajoled and commanded, the woman resisting the force of his demands. My eyes lifted to the stone ceiling above us where they battled, just a few feet away. I had unwittingly moved to the side of the balcony rail and regarded above me the matching edge of the balcony overhead. When the woman screamed and sobbed, I saw her thin white fingers extend through the stone rails and curl desperately around the worn stone. I clapped my hand over my mouth to repress a scream myself. Kathy’s gaze followed mine, and we stood bewitched and horrified.

We heard the man’s voice no more, but a struggle, muffled somewhat by the noise of the waterfall, ensued above. It was no wild fracas of kicking and smacking, but a dull, nearly soundless contest of two bodies wrestling in a small space. A door slammed, and then there was silence. Kathy and I stared at each other, overwhelmed by the strangeness of the past few minutes. Again, I leaned against the cool wall, allowing the spray to wash my face. My friend came also and leaned with me, and we stood as two silent watchers, scanning across the gray ravine. The water poured thundering down as it had for so many thousand years.

And then, in one split second that seemed a mistake to the eye, something fell across our sight. It happened in a blink; indeed a blink could have caused us to miss it. Something fell from above, and passed in an instant and went into the ravine. So quickly did it pass that I could not tell its color or size, except that it seemed larger than a book but smaller than a bed. There was no sound. I wondered if it were a trick, a mistake of the mind, except that my eye argued otherwise. Kathy turned her head toward me.

“Did you see that?”


“What …?”

“I don’t know.”

Slowly, so slowly, we approached the balcony rail together, and gazed down. And although we studied the twisted mass of trees, rocks, and mist beneath us, we saw nothing. Slowly, very slowly, we turned our faces up and studied the balcony above, but no one was there. We did not want to stay there, perched like damp birds on a ledge. We did not relish returning through the hotel either.

Finally, I said it. “Come on. Let’s go.”

We rushed down the stairs, my hand gliding along the silky banister. We met no one there. But on the final flight of steps, we stopped. In the middle of the lobby, the lean, ashen concierge stood rigid, clutching a suitcase in one hand and pointing a skinny finger with the other. She addressed another elderly woman, seated on a low chair beside the desk.

“I will never come back, do you hear? I’ve had enough!” And here she approached to within a few inches of the old woman’s face. “You are through. This hotel is through.” She nearly spat the words. “You old witch.”  She backed away. “Enough!” she said again, soft and fierce. She turned quickly and exited through the dining room. Her heels rapped confidently on the tiles.

We did not move until she was gone. I approached the desk, but the old woman did not look up. She was slumped over, her back hunched as only an old, arthritic back can be. Her crooked fingers curled over her forehead and into the wisps of steely hair tightly bound in a bun. She cried silently into her palms. I dropped the key into the empty dish. Her head jerked up at this, and a pair of bleary gray eyes looked at me. Her wizened face was wet with tears.

“I …” I began. “We …” but I could not finish. She continued her mute stare, as she sat there, a trembling mass of gray and damp.

Outside, the concierge’s car was grinding out of the parking lot as we escaped the building. No other vehicles remained. We walked quickly to the road and turned to go back down the mountain. But as I passed the falls, in spite of the loathing and dread I felt in doing so, I stopped and turned, and looked up at the Hotel Sagistal. From this position, the balconies facing the falls protruded clearly from its side. On the third floor was the balcony where we’d stood. On the second floor, the old woman leaned over the balcony rail, her thin gray hair fallen from its restraints, her shoulders heaving in sorrow. Two thin arms draped from those shoulders toward the falls, and I thought I heard wave upon wave of sobbing moans from her ancient throat. And on the fourth floor, sheer white curtains billowed out like sails, over the balcony and into the roaring mist. I felt I could almost touch them. That was the last day of the Hotel Sagistal. We hiked back to the village in a soft rain that turned that night into snow.

That was over twenty years ago. Evidently Kathy and her new husband did leave Avignon in his Lamborghini and drive to Iseltwald. They found the hotel. About ten days later, I received a lengthy missive from her, which contained this puzzling portion:

The hotel was pitiful, deserted. I did enjoy seeing the falls, but I longed to stand on the balcony again, such a superior view. What an enchanted place! Our host in the village told me about the old woman we saw that day. She owned the hotel, and had for many years. It was a boring, stodgy old place, except for one piece of excitement long ago (in the ‘50s, I think?) when horribly, a baby was dropped accidentally from one of the balconies and died in the falls. They never recovered its body. I thought, of course, of the young couple we heard. But they were too young – she wouldn’t have been born in the ‘50s. I couldn’t figure it out. I did ask whether anybody else had ever died there, and he said no, not that he’d ever heard. I do still wonder what it was we saw that day. If we didn’t both see it, I would not have trusted my own eyes. He said the local rumor is that the hotel is haunted by women who moan and wail, and that some villagers claim to have seen them on the balconies where we stood.

The letter went on to other matters. I was glad not to have seen the Hotel Sagistal in its present state. In spite of its sadness, I prefer to remember it on the day when we were the last patrons to drop a key in the dish. The women, whoever they are, possess its rooms and views now wholly, with no one to intrude on their mourning.

- by M.K. Christiansen
copyright by the author 

The photo prompt that produced the story -- the Hotel del Salto near Bogota, Columbia


  1. Awesome story :) May I suggest working this into a full length novel? Two stories that wind into one?
    Joan :)

  2. Thank you so much, ladies! It was fun to write. I did spend some time in Iseltwald after college, so at least the frame of the story is real :) Joan -- thanks so much. I'll give it some thought! Too many stories to write, too little time.


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