Dear Laird Hunt,
Cold has descended on the county. By week’s end, we expect a hard frost. Now, in the evenings, the deer ever so timidly—well within, that is, their natural parameters, but more so, if such can be imagined—edge closer to our gaily lit windows, and the barn owl has found her way back into the house. No sooner had she done so than my wife, ever eager for company since a number of our children lately disappeared or died, placed a fourth chair at the table and set about putting her hands on a suitable supply of small furred meat. The remaining child, who has requested that, for the purposes of this letter, she be referred to as “The Individual,” in homage, she asks me to write, to the appelative predilection evinced in your novel, which we have all read and reread this Autumn, even acting out, as a family, some of the choicer scenes, has joined my wife, who for similar, she says, reasons, has asked me to refer to her as He/She, in setting traps and placing poison in the corners, while the barn owl looks on. The prospect of the two of them at work is indeed quite beguiling, and I must confess that for the past few minutes I have let my pen hover just above the page; the individual and He/She are an excellent team and bring all possible “fluidity of aspect,” to borrow your excellent phrase, to the task, which is largely carried out in crouches broken up by spurts of crab-walking so interesting to regard that it might be imagined to compliment the attractive power of the various cheeses and seasoned poisons in luring the mice and their fellows out of the floors and walls. I had assumed that the barn owl, long famous in our household for her voracious appetite, would continue to share my enthusiasm for this spectacle, which is already seeing results—two, now three traps have snapped shut and there is something small and grey writhing in the corner by our own “handsome floorlamp”—but the truth is she is dozing. The barn owl, one must admit, is no longer as young as she once was, a fact much discussed this past year by He/She and myself, leading us to speculate that one of these late Autumns in the near future, she will not appear. We have tried to keep this speculation to ourselves, as The Individual, who is of uncommonly tender disposition, is as fond of the barn owl as He/She is and, like He/She, all the more so since, one by one, recently, her siblings, our children, died or disappeared. This having occurred—and you can imagine The Individual and He/She’s cries of dismay, not to mention, of course, my own, as each latest incident was revealed—we found ourselves very much buoyed up by the notion of their having merely become—the ones who, through their unexplained absence, could not be said to have died—“barely visible,” as your novel proposes; and believe me we have spent many afternoons and evenings peering closely into the, some might say, overlit air of our little house in hopes of perceiving, perhaps “caught into a fold of light” as you might have (but didn’t) put it, one of our dearly departed. And I must confess that we have often this Autumn entertained hopes that the barn owl—further reason for our excitement at her long-anticipated, but not, as I say, entirely inevitable arrival—might with her extraordinary vision help us to make contact with these lost ones, which would allow us, if there was the sense that it was justified, to apologize to them. Not, I should clarify, that we do have any sense that apologies will be necessary; in fact, we believe that the children have always been treated appropriately, but we are not unwilling to admit that they may, at least a few of them, see it otherwise. As I say, some of them died. These are not the ones we are looking for. The Individual, in this regard, has been extremely helpful. Many an evening, she has made her way through the house, wheeling and pivoting and peering behind the curtains, before we took them down, and calling out to her absent siblings, in that lovely voice of hers, “where are you?” And you can hardly blame her if occasionally she indulges in an imaginative moment and, echoing that memorable instance in the last section of your book, stops and whispers hoarsely, “Here, I think you are here,” her lips all but grazing an ear that most likely, far from being “barely visible,” isn’t there at all. It is at these moments, when we have observed them, and of course there are certain signs—meaningful shifts in the carpet’s piling, bed linens cast aside—that allow us to infer that they also occur outside our presence, He/She and I have discussed this, The Individual is not the sort of child who would in any way attempt to dupe us, we are fairly sure of it; but at any rate, as I say, and as you so love to write, it is at these moments, when she whispers into an absent ear, one remembered and/or imagined, and pretends to lift a gun, slowly with both hands, television-detective style, that she seems most dear to us, and I am not the only one who has rushed forward and wrapped my arms around her and begged her not to die or disappear.
We have eaten dinner. I can’t tell you how festive it was. The barn owl recused herself from her stupor and, hopping straight onto the table, set to work on the tiny broken and contorted forms He/She and The Individual tossed before her. It is an exhilarating spectacle, this holding and tearing and swallowing, and I have little doubt that my loved ones, like myself, found themselves more ferociously attracted to the boiled meat and heavily cooked vegetables it has become our custom, since reading your novel, to eat, and that it was all they could do not to leap up onto the table, hold their arms at their sides, and imagine that their faces had flattened and grown faintly concave. At any rate, we all ate quickly, and The Individual told one or two of the little stories she so enjoys regaling us with, a treat we enjoy all the more frequently since her brothers and sisters, in a manner of speaking, ceded her the floor. All the excitement of dinner notwithstanding, or perhaps, indeed, because of it, the barn owl, once satisfied, immediately retreated to her chair back and fell asleep, so quickly, if truth be told, that He/She was just the slightest bit put out, as if, as I put it to her while we cleared and scrubbed the table, the old barn owl could be expected to begin her investigations on the very first night. He/She, to her credit, easily adjusted herself to this way of seeing things, and turned her thoughts and subsequent attention to an aspect of The Individual’s clothing that had been troubling her. I, for my part, and no doubt you will already have inferred this, set again to writing this letter to you, although not before slipping over to the kitchen window to have a look at the deer, their eyes and antlers glistening in the light, their breath steaming the cold air.
While it would not, I think, be over-far from the truth to suggest that our little household here is, on average, more stylishly dressed than most, I’m afraid I’m not in a position to report to you that we own anything so extravagant as a hunting cape. It was feeling slightly melancholy about this, as she later told me, that prompted The Individual this morning to tie an old bath towel around her neck and go prancing around the living room. It wasn’t long, of course, before she had put on one of my old hats and a pair of somewhat overlarge reflective sunglasses and was politely but persistently requesting that He/She make her a large portion of fried potatoes, which He/She, despite it only being 8:45 a.m., and above my rather feeble protestations, proceeded to do. So it chanced that, in addition to the breakfast of pastries and omelets we had lately consumed, we all then, with a fair measure of not all together forced jollity, treated ourselves to a number of fried potatoes with ketchup and mayonnaise and chopped onions. Even the barn owl, though she has always been known among us to observe the most restricted of diets, took a peck at one. This would have been the end of it, one small instance of domestic indulgence and high spirits and nothing more, had not the doorbell then rang. The Individual, who of course is much faster around the house than either of us, went racing over the couch and down the hallway clutching more than one mayonnaise-encumbered fried potato and, not bothering to in anyway disoblige her hand, or her mouth for that matter, of the sauce and grease that had accumulated, flung open the door and, calling back over her shoulder, said, “the extremely fat lady is here.” It was likely this remark, coupled with the somewhat complicitous expressions that took up their stations on our faces as we arrived a moment later to greet the woman from the local authorities, that prompted this latter, with eyebrow raised, to openly comment on the “filthy towel” The Individual was now both wearing and using to wipe her mouth, and to cast disparaging glances at our shorts. Far be it from me to expect the miracle of literacy from every soul who appears at our door, but I continue to register a palpable measure of shock that not everyone, after the publication of your novel, has taken to wearing shorts, even in the brisker weather, or that they would indicate surprise, much less indignation, on encountering those enlightened individuals—surely by now a majority—who have read, and so become devoted to, your book. Not for the first time, once we had convinced The Individual that it would be preferable for her to return to the remnants of her fried potatoes or to any of the other “beautiful bits of heat” available in the kitchen, I took this and related issues up with the horrid young lady on our doorstep. I still haven’t read it, she said. Too bad for you, fatcakes, I said. I am happy to report that on this occasion we did not have to endure the spectacle of her waving her writs and warrants in our faces, and that it was not so very long before she went away. Having dealt, as we thought, in an exemplary manner with our visitor, who in addition to being “as big as a balloon,” He/She remarked, was wearing a particularly unflattering cologne, the two of us returned to the five-thousand-piece puzzle we had just begun to attack in the living room. We had both settled into the comforting notion of, as we put it, “having our puzzle,” when a commotion in the kitchen caught our attention. What is that? said He/She. I don’t know, where is The Individual? I said. It wasn’t long before we had the answer to both our questions.
The loveliness of the late Autumn weather notwithstanding, it was with some impatience that He/She and I awaited the evening hours, which are when we feel most comfortable, and are the only time we can expect any activity, beyond eating, out of the barn owl. After four days, I can now, I believe, own up to a feeling of disappointment in this once magnificent creature, which in its day could almost knock over the less impressive of our children with a wing beat, and once swooped down unexpectedly, took hold of our youngest boy, albeit a sickly little fellow, and very nearly pulled him straight up off the ground. After all, it is in our hour of greatest need that she has chosen, as He/She has put it, to take her retirement; for if every several hours she leaves her position on the back of the chair and flaps around the living room once or twice, it is certainly not in order to accord us the benefit of her enhanced ocular capacities. In fact, now on those occasions when she opens her eyes, swivels her head and falls sideways off the chair into the warm air of the dining room to take one of her desultory turns, it has almost the effect of depressing us, so far is she, apparently, from undertaking a survey that would surely, even if the results were negative, buoy us up a little with the knowledge that something was being done. And clearly something must be done. Our little darling, The Individual, has gone missing. And, of course, she must be found. You will be saying to yourself, if I may presume, “well at least she didn’t, like some of the other children, die”. But the truth is we can’t be absolutely certain of that. We are far, of course, from having any conclusive proof to the contrary, but the fact remains that we have not, more or less, seen her since some days ago around lunch time. I phrase it that way because, as you have likely gathered, we continue to have faith in the possibility that we have in fact seen her, not to mention her unaccounted for siblings, but that they were, in their barely visible state, so faint, their presence so gossamer, as to not have registered in our conscious minds. This theory was somewhat bolstered up when this morning, around 10 a.m., He/She fell into a doze and saw all four or five of our not necessarily dead, I assure you, children, standing very still at different points around the house. It was all I could do to prevent her, when she woke and found herself unable to perceive them, from boxing the barn owl’s ears for its apparent refusal to help. It fell to me then to remind her, again, that our friend the barn owl is unusually old for her species, which is generally not much longer lived than the small and varied prey she so delights in tearing to shreds with her beak and talons, even when it is already dead and served up each night, broken or poisoned, on a plate. I was not, however, without a certain sympathy for He/She’s position regarding our drowsy guest, but did continue to hold out some hope. That is until her performance at dinner; which is to say non-performance—all she did was stuff her face and fall asleep. I might add that when, encouraged by He/She, I reached out my hand to at worst poke at her a little, she chose to adopt the course of snapping at me, and letting out a hissing and rasping sound. We would likely have come quickly to the point of washing our hands of the barn owl after this—at least insofar as the question of the children is concerned, for it must be said that, as in previous years, she has been in all other respects a mostly very pleasant house guest—had she not surprised us, a good two hours after dinner, by springing into the air, wheeling around the living room once or twice and flying straight down the hall. When, after exchanging somewhat startled glances, we stood and followed, we found her, in a somewhat agitated state, perched on the top of the wood-frame mirror that hangs not overfar far from the basement door. It was He/She who then, adopting a tone of measured hopefulness, said what we were both, I was quick to inform her, thinking—that it was this mirror, more than any of the many others in the house, that The Individual, not without her little moments of vanity, had loved to consult, often dancing around in front of it and flapping her arms. So it was that, having thanked and in some manner apologized to the barn owl, who at any rate had already fallen asleep and looked like she might fall off the narrow mirror at any moment, we took a deep breath, pulled out more or less imaginary guns and, circling and pivoting, began canvassing the small stretch of hallway, calling out to The Individual in hoarse voices that, as we had every reason to believe she was there, she should stop monkeying around.
“While many machines work with parts that move up and down or in and out, most depend on rotary motion. These machines contain wheels, but not only wheels that roll on roads. Just as important are a class of devices know as the wheel and axle, which are used to transmit force. Some of these devices look like wheels with axles while others do not. However, they all rotate around a fixed point to act as a rotating lever.”
—David Macaulay, The New Way Things Work
The preceding text is taken from a volume He/She and I purchased some months ago for our eldest boy—not so smart but something of a science buff nonetheless—which, when we tire of our puzzle and our increasingly irksome dealings with the various visitors, we occasionally take up and read. I have transcribed this particular passage at He/She’s request, because, even though she feels at present unable to explain just why, she is convinced you will see yourself in alignment with it. I myself have examined the text carefully, and apart from its undeniable value as a piece of expository writing, I have had a hard time imagining just what He/She could be driving at. I have to confess that, at times, I find myself somewhat perplexed by He/She’s behaviour—she was insistent to the point of unpleasantness that I include the above text—as if just absolutely everything had gone wrong. I am happy to report that I myself am quite some distance indeed from feeling this way, and in addition to going about my regular business continue to carry out my searches. You may be interested to learn that I have fallen onto the innovation of, in a manner of speaking, becoming almost barely visible myself. Actually, for the sake of accuracy, and He/She has endorsed this position, I should say that I have come to the point of being capable of becoming “somewhat visible”. It took some time, of course, to fall onto the set of modalities that would allow me to arrive at this state. Once, however, I had gotten on to them and began to feel myself fading, even if only slightly, it was an easy enough system to duplicate. It is in fact quite pleasant, this state, and I have found that if, as I begin to fade, I squint my eyes a little, it seems altogether possible that I might well begin to make some progress on determining the exact position of our little MIA’s, as I have jokingly called them. Beyond that, as it has occurred to me, any number of interesting things might become apparent to my thus adjusted eyes. I have tried, of course, to explain all this to He/She, but I do not seem to be making any headway. And I might add that when I suggested to her that she might just as well give the technique a try herself, her face assumed an expression that was very odd indeed. Try it, I said. What do you mean? she said. I mean, you know, you should try it, I said, hugging her. You’ll know what to do.
I have just left off rereading that part of the second section of your book, what I refer to as “the familiar strangers section,” in which the narrator, somewhat shaken by his recent interview, leaves the restaurant and wanders the lovely streets of that city of rivers and bridges where, as he puts it, he loses himself. It had been my hope this evening, after the recent events, and especially those of last night, to walk out of the house into the yard and to follow the deer tracks, if not the deer themselves, deep into the woods. Unfortunately, the deer, at that moment, were absent and although I looked carefully, I couldn’t find anything approximating a track on the icy ground. When this discouraging start is taken into account, it will probably not be altogether surprising to you to learn that, having settled on a direction, I hadn’t entirely succeeded in crossing the yard when I got too cold and felt it wise to turn back. It was at this juncture that I took up your novel, turned to the above-mentioned section, and followed the narrator along the “crowded boulevards, deep within a variety of circumstances”, and pondered, with great sympathy the gravity of the dilemma he invokes in connection with being an “interior in a world of exteriors” and about skin pressed against skin when in fact it is “the bones, stripped of their flesh and fat, [that] long to click and knock against each other.” Life, one is led by all of it to adduce, and here I return to my own circumstances, is the gravest of curiosities. Who would have imagined, after all, that far from relying on the putative quality of its eyes for hunting, it is the barn owl’s ears that guide it to its prey, and that this old barn owl, as far as I have learned—I have performed one or two tests—is all but deaf. Who would have imagined, further, and here we turn to trivia, though not entirely so, that this rather small, unremarkable strain of bird would have so many names; the book I took out from the library when I went into town this morning to file some of the necessary papers, informs me that we may alternately refer to the barn owl as the monkey-faced owl, ghost owl, church owl, death owl, hissing owl, hobgoblin owl, golden owl, silver owl, white owl, night owl, rat owl, scritch owl, screech owl, straw owl and delicate owl, this last, you will admit, is quite lovely. And is just the sort of tidbit I would have enjoyed sharing with He/She as we lay together late at night beneath the heavy quilt in our bed. “Delicate” and its derivatives is a word and concept I am in a position to tell you she much admired, and I feel I can extrapolate that she would have admired the irony of its conjunction with our old colleague at arms the owl. The Individual, too, would have liked this variation, although, as I think about it, she might well have preferred to refer to it as the scritch or screech owl, and her brothers and sisters, perhaps, as the monkey-faced, hobgoblin or hissing owl. Be that as it may, for me, in honor of He/She, it will be the delicate owl. Right now, my best wishes to you Laird Hunt, I can see and in fact hear the delicate little creature quite clearly.