way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name
Tao te Ching
There has been joy. There will be joy again
She was up on the roof, feeding the birds. She had laid out stale bread, soaked in water;
stringbags containing balls of fat; bowls of water; nuts. She had arranged an overflow
pipe from her bathroom so that a steady trickle of fresh water added to an almost
stagnant, weedy stream which snaked across the roof to the far gutter. In return the birds
had turned her roof into an avian chaos of shit and feathers.
Today her visitors were some immature starlings, brown and chattering, some sparrows and
two stately pigeons. A dominant cock sparrow was competing with the pigeons for control of
a fat-ball. She watched entranced. Starlings pecked at ragged rows of weeds. A sparrow
hopped purposefully in the sun. Another sparrow was cleaning itself in one of the small
ashpits she had provided over by the far wall. She wondered whether to replace these with
sand, but she would have to ask Polly to get it for her, and was that fair, and the pits
did seem to be popular. She shook her head. "Really easy decision - whining is n-o
g-o-o-d!" A redwing took the place of the sparrow.
She looked upwards, seeking out her favourites. There! Swifts in rapid, seemingly random
flight hoovering up unseen insects. Just as a the most randomly lived life can be seen to
have order when looked at more closely, when the scale taken by the observer changes. It
was all to do with resolution. "Ride easy, swifts, on lifes very essence. Resolve
your existance in never ending flight."
She thought of animals, and what she had just read. English animals becoming extinct. The
water vole 88% down on 5 years ago. Decline in habitat. Pesticides. The Water Rat dead!
Would Mole be next! People were working hard in keeping, designing habitats but "...
though the animal is to be found in increasing numbers, the number is often vanishingly
small in any one area where there is no control". She started to cry as she
remembered the list of British plants, with their beautiful common names, that now there
was no known example to be found: few-flowered fumitory, tasteless water-pepper, confused
fescue, nettle-leaved goosefoot, ghost orchid, yellow star of Bethlehem, red helloborine,
alpine blue sow thistle, western marsh orchid, large flowered hempnettle, blue heath,
shaggy mouse-ear hawkweed.
There was a knocking on her door. She rose and, brushing breadcrumbs from her hands and
tears from her eyes, briskly went down the stairs. She paused before the door, and spoke
quietly, but clearly.
"Gemma? It's OK. It's Polly". The order to which Gemma belonged allowed her only
one contact with the outside world at any one time and Polly, now a widow, had, in happier
times consented to take on this role.
She drew back the bolts and opened the door. Polly stood there, holding a FedEx parcel,
her face, once so full of life, bearing its now permanant rictus grin.
"This came for you"
"Thank you Polly. Come in - I have fresh coffee and have just baked rolls"
Gemma withdrew quickly from the doorway to show her total assent to Polly's entrance.
Without this, she knew, Polly would dither, would dart her head from side to side, looking
up and down the street, looking for help in her decision process. The smell of the
just-baked rolls, irresistable, wafting across the doorway, helped in getting Polly across
Gemma pointed to the sofa by the fire.
Polly plumped down on the sofa with a satisfied quiet gasp, seemingly now grateful for the
result of her passive decision to be entertained. While Gemma put together their
breakfast, Polly picked up, as she always did, the small, heavy top Gemma kept on the low
table in front of the fire. Smooth and tactile, the top was a constant delight to Polly.
The surface was made up from intertwined bands of translucent plastic, each of a different
colour, each shading into its neighbour. Embedded in each band were beads each of which,
in turn, was made up of similar intertwined bands. There seemed no end of self-duplication
in the object. Had she a magnifying glass, she hoped and trusted she might discover that
the bands, each with uncountable smaller beads each comprised of bands, might continue to
molecular level. All colours, hues and shades were represented in the top.
Gemma had put a small tray on the table bearing coffee, rolls and a preserve of some kind
- apricot? - and had sat down opposite, was looking at her and indeed seemed totally
content to continue doing so, waiting for Polly's enjoyment of the top to unwind.
Polly leant forward, put the top on the table holding it by its spindle upright between
her third finger and thumb; then with a slight snap, set the top spinning. They both
watched the spinning, enjoying the result, both aware that it had one more surprise, one
more wonder. As it slowed, and its rotational energy dropped to a level where it could no
longer sustain its motion in this way, it suddenly inverted itself, continuing to spin in
this way, turning on its spindle: the top's top transformed! Eventually, it slowed, and
fell on its side, all colours, hues and shades returned. Fine resolutions always come to a
limit. The fractal top was still.
Polly looked up at Gemma, her face now animated, smiling broadly, but her face was wet
with tears. She pulled a tissue from her bag and wiped her face like a child.
"Sorry Gem" and gave a small snort as she lay back in the sofa "it comes in
waves. I never know when the next'l be..." Her face was now blank as she looked at
the stilled top.
Gemma poured coffee, presentin a roll on a plate, forcing Polly to move forwards, to act,
to accept the offering.
"It will pass, Polly. He is at peace" and Gemma raised her hand by way of
denying Polly's irritable exclamation "I know - everyone says that, but I believe it.
You are only thinking of yourself." she paused, before continuing "You are the
only person I'm allowed to talk to and I'd rather that then the FedEx man". She
pointed at the parcel at Polly's side on the sofa. "Is there anyone you can talk
"I see Lily" snuffled Polly
"The Estate Witch!" Gemma cried happily "I like the sound of her a lot. She
must be able to cheer you up, surely"
"Yes..yes" said Polly, a bit doubtfully, "but she's always trying to get me
to play backgammon with her. And I can't. Tom and I used to play chess. At least once a
week. And. I." she stopped and stared down at the roll she was breaking in her
fingers. Every topic returned to the inescapable truth of her husband's death.
Gemma poured herself some coffee.
"One way to approach the Tao, to gain contentment, is to pursue a subject - probe it
as deep as you can. You will never get to the end - whatever the subject - but the study
itself will bring you closer to the One: that that remains unknown remains, but once
limits of that unknowingness are known, you are closer to the One."
To Gemma it was impossible to tell whether Polly was comprehending any of this. She
switched to direct questioning.
"What has been your main interest in life?"
Polly stirred on the sofa and lifted her cup to her lips and drank. She replaced the cup
on its saucer and seemed to think.
"I did Philology"
"Philology!" cried Gemma, delighted. "That, I thought, was a dead study,
like alchemy" She smiled broadly to remove any sting that might be inferred from her
"No" Polly quietly said, smiling slightly, perhaps familiar with this tenor of
response "It is perhaps too great a subject for what you have in mind for me"
So she had been listening, thought Gemma.
"Yes - I see. Linguistics, anthropology, philosophy - a vast pool of unknowingness -
the very One itself!" and she chuckled engagingly, such that Polly was forced into a
sympathetic nasal exhalation, a small proto-chuckle.
"OK - I'm a hermit, but I am also an ornathologist and the better the latter I
become, the better the former: the more I know about birds the less I know about birds and
am therefore closer to the One: a better hermit"
"Hermit" said Polly, thinking aloud, "Greek. Eremites - living in the
desert - which in turn comes from eremia desert, which in turn comes from eremos which
is" she paused to look at her friend, with a look of enquiry, "lonely."
Gemma looked immensely pleased
"That's the ticket!"
And leaning forward, she smiled at her friend, a smile so broad, so fixed on the friend,
that this friend was again forced into a sympathetic smile of pleasure. Polly's eyes
brightened not now with tears, but with delight and now between the two women's faces,
close over the table and the fractal top, there arose an oscillation of self-reinforcing
delight, a standing wave of pleasure, exiting both to a state of joy.