The house of X appears to us in resplendent white, like a great, ranging crystal, upheaved from earth then carefully carved.
Ilse and I seek the house in deciduous woods, until the woods part to make space for it. A bushy hill rises to the high entrance, the approach increasing our anxiety with each step. The entrance is confusing, and at first we don’t know how to pass it. When we find the knocker we’re surprised by its effectiveness. When the door finally opens, we spend an uncomfortable stretch of time explaining our names to the butler, expressing our credentials, before he finally allows us past the threshold.
Inside, he permits us to sit in one of X’s earliest rooms. The decorations in it are modest and tasteful. Nothing baroque complicates the light, which falls from the Bauhaus chandelier. The silence has turned to whispers.
The air in this place is surprisingly clear; I’ve never before seen things through air quite like this air. When I look at any of X’s decorations, each time it’s as if I’m looking at something new and odd. I regard each subject in turn. Then I look at Ilse, and I see that her eyes and head, too, are shifting about almost frantically. Like nothingness! The molecules! Je né sais quoi! I whisper to her, but it comes out like long gasps. My friend looks at me with eyes wide.
When X enters, she’s as tall as we’ve expected her to be, and as regal. Her voice is a sculptural thing.
X invites our questions so she can answer them. With each question entering her hands she becomes determined in particular. Our questions are meek, although it’s true that in the morning, before we set out for the house of X, we entertained intentions to rarefy this noble thing with more acidic sentences. In her intimidating presence, under the strong chandelier, we’ve lost our determination. X has made a trimming of us. Clearly, this letter has been in the business of trimming people in this way for a long time, much longer than any one of us has lived. Her grandiosity is rich, her roots deep.
Magnificently, X shows us around. Her hands seem to know already how the air works around us and within us. She handles us like a set of mirrors, turning our faces expertly. Our impressions of X fill successive rooms.
There’s no carpeting on her floors. The wood is almost blueish grey, and thickly varnished. When there are windows they appear each as a single pane of glass filling a perfect square. The doors are thin and precise. When these doors open, they make a shoosh sound, then close with a soft, low thump. When each door opens, the connection between room and room — or room and hall — is immediate and firm. This connection is broken only by the doors, when they close.
In these rooms we have to step carefully, to find the words we’re constantly looking for. They hide behind the objects, fitting themselves with precision to their consigned spaces; but we’re resolute in our hunt. Our hands reach out at the spaces, and from these spaces we pull out words, now and then. Always when we find a word we’re very pleased with ourselves. We’re certain each time that this is just the word we need, reshaping itself around our fingers.
X, I’m sure, is aware of every thought and sensation we experience, having watched her earlier visitors pass through these thoughts and sensations enough times to generate predictable patterns. She directs us with absolute craft, every motion practiced and precise.
Finally, she asks if we’ve received enough information. Of course we reply that yes we have, so she fares us well with our return and with the story we’re to write about the alphabet. The butler leads us out, our newly found words cradled in our arms.
“That took her precisely twenty minutes,” I note. Ilse looks at me. “You timed her?” she inflects. “I just happened to look at my watch when she came in,” I answer, “I looked again when she left us.”
“I get a feeling she’s lonely,” Ilse says. “Lonely?” I repeat. “I don’t think she has many people to talk to,” Ilse explains, “well, there’s other letters, obviously, but I don’t know how many of them talk to her, so much as just tolerate her.” “Oh,” I concede.
Then I add: “You might be right. I mean, think about what happened to us in there: we were struck dumb. I imagine it must get a little frustrating, after a while, when everyone you talk to is struck dumb by you. You probably end up almost desperate to speak with people who aren’t cowed— I mean, who stay the same in her presence, people as strong as she is, who can speak to her on her own level.” “Not weak creatures like us,” Ilse adds, and I say: “Well… no. I mean, yeah: right. Wouldn’t you be frustrated if everyone you talked to acted like we just did?”
I nod; Ilse says: “I would. If I was her.”
“X is lonely,” I repeat.
“Twenty minutes,” Ilse answers.
Owen Kaelin lives alternately in Boston and northeast Connecticut. He is not yet dead. He edits the webjournal Gone Lawn , was a founding member of the Step Chamber Literary Collective, and is currently co-writing a literary computer fantasy game, presently titled “The Pale City”.
Lead image: “X 2” (image via Flickr user steve_lynx)