Saturday, January 4, 2014

Auld Lang Syne

     I sat on the edge of her tapestry sofa listening to the clocks—there were no less than twelve of them in the front room alone, most of them antique. Small pocket watches sheltered under glass domes on the bookshelves, with individual heartbeats that could not be felt; but their collective ticking whirred softly through the silence like insects in summer. The grandfather clock, standing next to the sofa like an attentive butler, cleared his throat and growled a familiar tune every fifteen minutes—indecorous for a butler, perhaps, but perfectly natural for a clock. I was tempted to hum along. The massive oak regulator hanging on the wall between the sitting and dining rooms dominated the space with its size but possessed a singularly mellifluous voice. And every hour on the hour a chorus of chimes burst forth from all over the house.

     She had married an horologist from Persia. He was older than her by well over a decade, but was so lean and active he always seemed younger than all of us. They’d had no children together so, apart from the clocks and her infectious laugh, the house was quiet. He kept a modest shop on Main Street where he sold and repaired clocks and watches. They lived behind the shop in a cozy, two bedroom flat—wood floors, small doorways, pitched roof with alcoves upstairs and a basement she would never let me see. In summer when the windows were left open, you could here the church bells echo the hours across the river valley as though they were trying to set a good example for the indoor timekeepers; in autumn the maple on the parking turned the light to gold in the sitting and guest rooms.

     It was winter now, and I sat on her tapestry sofa listening to the clocks and watching her make tea for us in the kitchen. She made it the Persian way and served it in little glass cups with pink-flowered demitasse saucers. She always made scones and jam when she served tea, sometimes with currents, sometimes with whipped cream. This time she had made shortbread as well. She sat down opposite me with the tea things laid out on a low table between us, a small woman with red hair, fair skin, sweet voice and a laugh as big as her soul. Outside the large picture window behind her sofa, it began to snow and she spoke poetry to me:

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

     She refilled my teacup and brought out a book to read to me. She always chose her passages well, but even if she hadn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered. The way her hands held a book, the sound of her voice as she read, the very act of sharing words that had vibrated within her own frame are what mattered to me. It was a rare and exquisite pleasure she offered as she read aloud, and she could not have bestowed her gift on a more appreciative listener.  

     A few years ago, the horologist retired. He sold his shop, packed up his wife and his lightbulbs and moved to a climate without snow. The shop is a day spa now, and no one quotes poetry or reads to me anymore, but those hours of fellowship over tea and scones and stories still tick inside me with the constancy of an old and cherished clock.

poetry excerpt by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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