Who Broke the Tail?

The library at the Biltmore Estate has a secret passageway above the fireplace. And the ceiling is painted like the Sistine Chapel. When we visited over the Christmas holiday, I wanted to climb the stairs and fondle the leather-bound spines, but alas, those areas were blocked from visitors.

On the special rooftop tour, our guide was a wonderful storyteller who gave us all the insight into family history and tales about how the home was built. One of the gargoyles was missing its tail. Where it was supposed to be, its well-carved bottom rested on the handrail instead. One cheeky tourist remarked that perhaps we should kiss it, “like the blarney stone, for luck.”

Visiting this beautiful castle-like residence, I couldn’t quite decide which fictional story to immerse myself in. Was this a Downton Abbey family or The Great Gatsby? I know the Vanderbilts were real people, and this is still a real family home even today. Yet for me it is a place that conjures larger-than-life stories of people from another time and position in society.

I wonder which book was George’s favorite. I wonder who broke the gargoyle. I wonder how the conversation went after that happened. That poor stone cutter told his boss, who told his boss, who told Mr. Hunt, the architect, who told George Vanderbilt. Then all of them crowded together on that narrow ledge on the roof and looked at the broken gargoyle’s tail.

“Maybe if we—”

“Do you think?”

“Just do it.”

And so the accident became a story to tell when guests came to visit.

That’s what I imagine, anyway. I guess that’s the writer in me.