"Greüzi!" The greeting was all over the airport: on banners, signs and the first word they heard from officials and servers.
They arrived early in the morning and passed through airport security quickly. The morning traffic was beginning to build up, but it was an uneventful drive through the city center and then to Meilen, a village to the south of Zurich.
The cleanliness and general tranquility of Switzerland was a much needed respite from the turmoil of New York. The air was crisp, the sun was out and the clarity of the lake brought a purity to their thoughts. Their rental car snaked along the road that followed the lakeshore, affording clear views of the lake and the houses alongside the road.
The villages and communities branching out from Zurich formed the usual commuter belt found in all major cities. Fortunately many of these had been able to retain their distinctive character and identity.
Tara was tired from the transatlantic flight but she was transfixed by sights along the way. The houses did look like they came from a chocolate box. Painted walls, wood-beamed roofs and oversized window boxes were the norm. They were simply, breath-taking. She followed the road signs indicating the districts they passed through: Zollikon, Goldbach, Küsnacht, Erlenbach, Herrliberg - trying to wrap her tongue around the unfamiliar words and pronunciations.
Following the map faxed to them by Aunt Hallie's housekeeper, they found the house at the top of a small hill and facing the lake. Willow carefully parked the car in front of the small garage and even before they could unload their bags, the door flew open and a woman of indeterminate age walked purposefully across to greet them.
"Greüzi! You must be Tara," she stepped up to Tara, shook her hand and gave her three pecks on alternate cheeks.
Tara was too frazzled to think why the woman recognized her so readily. "Um, yes. This is Willow. You must be Mrs George."
"Ja, ja. Married to Jörg for 27 years. But my son, he likes the English. Hence his father is George and I'm Mrs George," Mrs George chuckled.
She made to help with the luggage and a gentle tussle resulted since neither young women wanted to bother the older woman. She insisted and hefted Tara suitcase out of the trunk of the car effortlessly with one hand. They shrugged to each other and quickly gathered the rest of the bags to follow the rapidly retreating housekeeper.
"So, here is the living room and over there the formal dining room. Meals are taken in the kitchen and breakfast area, not the dining room," she pointed out the rooms, while still holding the suitcase as if it were a handbag. She was marching too quickly for them to keep up, let alone pause to admire the décor. There would be time for that. "Now upstairs."
Mrs George prepared two guest rooms when Madame's niece called her out of the blue to ask if she could visit. But one look at the two young women and the housekeeper decided they only needed one. She directed them to the larger of the two guest rooms. "And here we have the Moonlight Room. It is the full moon tonight, and you must leave the curtains open because the moonlight is so beautiful. So, I leave you to unpack? I have food in the pantry and directions to the village on the kitchen table."
"Mrs George, thank you," Tara said warmly.
The older woman paused, as if to say something, but hesitated at the end. She nodded and turned to leave them alone. "Miss Tara?" she asked, her voice shaking and very different from the matter-of-fact tone earlier.
Mrs George swallowed and tears were brimming in her eyes.. "Have you heard anything about Madame?"
Tara shook her head sadly. "Nothing new. The police think she has been kidnapped, but thankfully they have proof that she's alive." The news of Aunt Hallie's disappearance had of course been passed to her friends and staff, but Tara didn't want to go into too much detail. One of the reasons was not to cause more distress, as was so evident on Mrs George's face.
"Every day I still come, clean the house. She doesn't like it when the garden is neglected," Mrs George said.
"Thank you. I'm sure she appreciates this. Partly why we're here, to make sure it's fixed up when she comes home," Tara continued.
"She'll come back, no?" the older woman asked hopefully.
"Yes," both Tara and Willow said firmly.
They took their time to tour around the house and was awe-struck by its beauty. Surprisingly not extravagant, as they expected from it being Hallie's house. Instead, it was a perfect combination of rustic and luxury, a difficult balance to achieve. Most of the furniture looked as if they came from the mountains and yet the craftsmanship was so intricate that they wouldn't look out of place in a four hundred year old castle. It was the small details that caught their eye - hand painted stained glass window in the hallway, brass door knobs, gold-plated taps, full bathtub of the finest Italian marble, inlaid mother-of-pearl on the balustrades and the unmistakable quality of the soft furnishings attested to the care its owner put into the house.
The living room was dominated by a large fireplace, its brick hearth extending well into the floor of the room and with cushions of various sizes scattered at the side. Area rugs covered most of the flooring, but they could still see the original timber patterns underneath. The sofa was deep burgundy and very soft. Various armchairs and smaller sofas were tastefully positioned in the room to afford space and comfort.
As they surveyed the paintings and antique decorations that graced the room, Tara's eyes fell on a small faded photograph in a wooden frame. It was in a cluster of what appeared to be family photographs on the mantelpiece. Now I know why Mrs George recognized me. It was a photo of her when she was fifteen. She had no idea how Aunt Hallie had gotten it, perhaps Aunt Marie sent it to her. She hadn't changed that much over the years, although the open innocence of teenaged her was no longer evident.
The dining room, as Mrs George described, was formal. The oval Queen Anne Cherry table was surrounded by twelve chairs and covered by a fine lace tablecloth. A marble-top sideboard and an impressive convex china cabinet stood at one side of the room while paintings in matching frames were dotted on the walls. Mrs George told them that she made the centerpiece herself, using flowers from the garden.
The kitchen was functional and they could sense Mrs George's brand of homeliness stamped on each surface. She fed them a late breakfast of fresh coffee, homemade croissants and cheese, which tasted better than any hotel gourmet breakfast they'd ever tasted.
"I leave you to rest now. If you need me, telephone me. I am only 15 minutes away on bicycle," she said as she cleared up the breakfast plates.
Willow was on her second cup of coffee, sipping slowly to enjoy its taste. It was different from American coffee, and Mrs George served it with warm milk, which was a nice small touch that she made a mental note to remember. "You cycle?"
Mrs George smiled proudly. "Ja. I live in Herrliberg, the next village up. I cycled into Switzerland from Austria when the war started, and I have been cycling since then." She kissed both girls on the cheek and told them again to call her if they needed anything. Taking her basket from the kitchen table, she was gone and they heard faint whistles as she bicycled away.
After a day exploring the house and village, they had dinner at a restaurant on top of Pfannenstiel, a small hill behind Meilen with a view over the lake. Ordering was a challenge since they didn't speak German and the wait staff had a very limited knowledge of English. Nevertheless, Tara managed to order bratwurst mit zwiebelsauce und rösti, which tasted so much more superior than sausages with onion gravy and hash browns. Willow discovered that her cordon bleu gefüllt mit bauernschinken und käse, röstikroketten und gemüsegarnitur was wiener schnitzel filled with farmer ham and cheese, served with potato croquettes and vegetables. Washed down with a bottle of local white wine, it was an unforgettable meal.
After dinner, they found themselves strolling hand-in-hand along a narrow footpath by the lake. It was a beautiful full moon, as Mrs George said earlier. The bright moonlight illuminated the lake, casting a silvery shimmer on the surface. Lights from the houses dotted along the shore were reflected in the water's depths, and their reflection added to the symphony of lights playing on, and seemingly within, the water. There was no noise, just the gentle lapping of the waves as they splashed unhurriedly onto the shore.
"I can forget myself here," Tara sighed. "Nothing but you and me; the lake and the moon."
Narrow steps led down to a small jetty that served as landing platform for the small sailboats and dinghies anchored nearby. Willow sat on the top step; Tara wasted no time sitting on the step below and melting into the cocoon of Willow's body, relaxing as her lover's hands reached around her shoulders. "I should feel tired, but this is so nice," Willow said. "Are you cold?"
Tara snuggled further into Willow, earning a small gasp as her back ground against Willow's pelvis, sending arousing signals tingling from the pit of their stomachs. "No. I feel perfect right now."
Sometimes, a moment was so magical it transcended the fabric of language.
All they needed was the knowledge that their breathing, their rhythm and their emotions were completely in sync.
After a long time, Tara half-turned just as Willow dipped her head and their lips met in perfect harmony. Tara turned her body completely so she was kneeling between Willow's legs, close enough so their breasts crushed against each other. The kiss continued, grew in intensity and soon they felt their passions ignite.
"I can't get enough of you," Tara murmured into Willow's mouth.
"Oh god, neither can I," Willow responded.
The heat of their bodies flamed into a fever, and their hands explored hot flesh underneath clothing. Shirts became untucked and one hand, it didn't matter whose, undid the zipper of jeans and found its way inside. Another hand, and it didn't matter whose, cupped a breast that was soft and swollen. Fingers flicked on a nipple, making it hard; other fingers found a wet clit, feeling it stiffen.
The rays of the full moon filtered through swaying tree branches, but its brightness could not match the radiance of their desire.
"We can't do this here." They thought it was Tara. But it didn't matter as another deep, hungry kiss made them forget where they were.
"Bed. Moonlight. Can you hold it till we go back?" Definitely Willow. Another kiss. More, more.
Tara shook her head, trying to find some coherence. "We need to run. Fast." She looked deep into Willow's eyes, finding the same insatiable need reflecting her own.
And they ran, as if their lives depended on it. And well, their lives did depend on it.
The moon was beautiful that night.
And as its beams wandered through tall curtainless windows and shone on two lovers moving and dancing, sharing and singing, it bore witness to two souls reaching deep into each other's core and becoming as one.
Full. Complete. Whole.