by Holly A. Case
It was the first garden party of the year. In attendance were a couple dozen writers and would-be writers, a pastor, and myself. I knew no one except the host and a couple of other people, who were all knotted around each other engaged in writerly shoptalk, so I made friends with the buffet. A potato salad presented itself to my acquaintance. We got on well, but there was no place to sit. A white-haired lady was perched on the side of a chaise out on the patio, not quite taking up the whole length of it, so I asked if I might occupy the end. She nodded her approval and looked at my plate. “How’s the potato salad?” I said I thought it was fine, but would benefit from some pickles. She claimed it as her own contribution to the buffet and quickly changed the subject.
“This party could have happened forty years ago,” she began, with the authority of an eyewitness. She pointed out the clothes people were wearing, their quiet and respectful social configurations and controlled outbursts of laughter. Her finger rose to single out a girl in shorts as the sole anachronism. Whether by force of empirical evidence or persuasion, I could see she was right.
But she did not linger long on the lawns of past parties. Turning to me she asked what I did, and soon we were talking about languages. Though she reads French, she confessed to not really believing in other languages; a chat is qualitatively not a cat. Then she stretched out her foot, “This is not a pied”; the streets of Paris may perfectly well be full of chiens, but they are not full of dogs. French words were like signifiers; they stood in for meaning like a paper cut-out stands in for the real chat. A man came by at that point whom she introduced as mon mari. Seeing my expression, she was quick to reassure me that he was not a signifier, but the real thing.
He moved on. We talked about W. H. Auden and how his poems start close up, and then pull back to a great distance. “It’s funny we’re talking about this,” she said, “because I’ve been thinking all this time that the branch of that tree looks like a horned owl from here.” I looked up and saw the branch; through a squint, the blurred outlines of an owl began to emerge. “Horned you say?” I asked. “Yes, definitely a horned owl. But if you could see it up close it would be impossible to see in it anything but a branch.” Indeed.
We talked about time travel, how utterly strange it is that Ebenezer Scrooge is watching himself up close in the present in A Christmas Carol, what it means when we say “If you could just hear yourself talk!”; how, in order to be moral, you have to be estranged from yourself, but not from a great distance. She told me about her passion for Edith Nesbit, who wrote about five children going around in time. “Nesbit was a Fabian.” Then she outed herself as the child of socialists who had called her parents by their first names. They had bought a book called The Gifted Child, which she promptly found on the shelf and read. In one passage the author explained how gifted children ask questions like, “Where does the wind come from?” As she walked to the mailbox with her father one day, she asked, “Harry, where does the wind come from?” “You read that in the book, didn’t you.”
She told me about going to Radcliffe and about the room full of typists at Oxford University Press where she typed correspondence after college; about having three babies and following her late first husband to four colleges. It began to grow dark. We moved from the chaise into the house and I lost track of her in the churn of other guests. Not knowing quite what to do, I remembered the potato salad and fell back to the buffet.
A few minutes later she made a surprising dash in my direction. “Come and see this!” she said, and led me by the sleeve to the washroom. “Look,” she pointed through the open door. “There’s another door!” On the adjacent wall there was indeed a door very like the one we were peering through. “I mistook this door for that one and opened it. Go in and see for yourself.” I went in, tried to disorient myself as one often does in another person’s house, and dutifully chose the wrong door. It opened onto a darkened room packed with shelves, a washer and dryer, stacks of toys and other exiles, faintly outlined by the dusk falling outside. The room was large, but felt tight and pushy with the crowd of half-visible objects, a sharp contrast to the eclectic warmth of rest of the house.
“Isn’t it incredible?” she greeted me as I came out through the “right” door. “Imagine going into there from here, expecting this, and coming out into that!” I couldn’t tell if she was thrilled or terrified. I mentioned the washer and dryer. She hadn’t noticed them. “But look!” she pointed at a stitched cushion on a chair against the wall—an owl. Not a horned one, but an owl nonetheless. “A horned owl!” Later I tried to work out how it was this woman could turn English into a foreign language, how her way of not seeing worked a kind of magic, turning dogs into chiens and quite ordinary owls into horned ones.
She asked what I thought the future held in store. I said the abolition of death. The party crowd was noticeably thinning and we relocated to a couch in the living room. No one else was there. “Most conversation bounces along on high,” she said with an emphatic accompanying gesture. I told her that was a benign metaphor; I would have chosen a nastier one. “I used to be meaner myself,” she nodded wistfully. Her mother would scold her for favoring the intelligent over the good. She said she was coming around to her mother’s way of thinking.
We were the last guests to leave. The host was good-natured about it. A friend of his, somewhat tipsy, on his way out said how adorable we were, the white-haired woman and I, the way we talked so intensively the whole evening. We both straightened up and traded off protesting that there was nothing whatever unusual about it. She wrote her name and mailing address on a piece of paper before we parted ways.
The next day I sat down to write an actual letter. “Dear Alison Lurie,” it began, and picked up the conversation where we had left off. “On the subject of the horned owl and the mysterious room,” the letter concluded after several paragraphs, “when I give it a third thought, it’s absolutely identical to the boar's skull over which Mrs. Ramsay (in To the Lighthouse) drapes her shawl so a child won’t be frightened by it at night, and where the shawl stays after Mrs. Ramsay is dead and the child has grown up. The boar's head is not in itself a horned owl, but with a shawl it approximates an owl much more readily, and when found in a mysterious room, adding to that an edge of fear and a sense that something at once trivial and immensely important has taken place, the identity is complete. All of this is to say that there are forces of cosmic disturbance in the world (viz. Mrs. Ramsay) around which (or whom) whole worlds move; invisibly, but sure enough. Insofar as you have magical sight of the sort that fails to see a washer and dryer, you must be such a person.”
[Dedicated to my own Mum.]