Inspired by the existentialists Herman Hesse, and Knut Hamsun, this short story is the first part of a novella, 'The Observatory,' about the cultivation of prophetic vision.
I paused before starting work on the new observatory. I was deliberating whether an extra signpost, advertising its location, would be beneficial. There are those, after all, who have not discerned the real location of my observatory as being here (not to say that is necessarily bad, since they might know of other observatories anyway). But there must be a number who are dissatisfied with the observatories they already know, and did not know of mine, and thus might appreciate knowing how to find another. It was that observation that crystallized my purpose. I would put a reasonably large sign at the beginning of the meandering path to my garden, just at the point where the driveway leaves the road.
My intention was simple: to alert others where the heart of this domain may be found. Numerous other constructions stud the countryside, after all. And other roads, besides those in my gardens, cut the land in a jigsaw of purposes. I will perhaps cultivate other parks besides those within the boundaries of my own enclave in the future. But my own garden, which I continually believe so close to perfection that I will probably tire of attending its remaining defects—for they are, after all, inevitably minute in importance—continues to be the place to which I return and further refine.
It is strange for me now, considering the greater interest shown recently, to contemplate how cautious I had been to reveal the presence of this private paradise....but that is not so astonishing, however, when one considers the frequent occasions of total disinterest shown by each person to another’s paradise. It was that consideration that caused a long hesitation before even mentioning how I found my own.
When I first started admitting its presence, it was only to a close acquaintance that I could speak. Others were in earshot, but only this acquaintance could possibly know how the words were exclusively spoken. I made my announcement with a great deal of reluctance, even then. It is of no surprise that my words were greeted with a little curiosity; but my hesitation seemed justified, as the curiosity did not extend to any proactive fascination.
Her curiosity did not pass by without my own reflection and response. Knowing her sense of appropriateness would not let her ignore my invitation, I asked a little more persistently if she would permit me to guide her to my secret abode. Those were the early days, and the observatory had not even been started. I was simply hoping, then, that she would first enjoy the small garden house I had constructed in the middle of a forest. In retrospect, perhaps it was a naïve judgment on my part. At that date perhaps, I was struck by transitory whims of affection, wafting from the inevitable attraction a young man often enjoys or suffers for the opposite sex. Or perhaps my enthusiasm to share the joys of a garden with another soul outweighed my normal reservations and good judgment. Now I cannot say what force exactly moved my lips, but the deed was done, and she, with conventional courtesy, accepted the invitation.
The time arrived.
As we walked into the woods on the edge of the small plot, my heart trembled with anticipation.
Sometimes memory wavers, but now I recollect it with full force. I thought it was there, when we had reached the plot, that all would be revealed, and I would immediately know the destiny of our little journey. Could our passage end happily or sadly? Would an inconclusive resolution lead to an insurmountable dissatisfaction? I still think it is best to end an encounter with a simple smile, but there is somehow the undeniable wish for the fairy-tale ending, where there is a wedding and God willing, the two live happily ever after. Notwithstanding, however unrealistic that may be, life itself is made of such dreams.
But then as we had reached the edge of the plot, somehow, I knew only then, at the outset, that our journey was really only just beginning. Whatever conception I might have had about its conclusion, I would not be able to reach the end until the moment was actually at hand.
The trembling anticipation mounted. I asked myself, is it always premature to entertain anticipation? For I really had not made sufficient provision for unexpected events. In fact, on reflection I realize now that I was then even unprepared for the expected events. Yet while knowing that now, I also then knew that the lack of preparation would only serve to heighten my excitement. Being more youthful then, the innocent spontaneity certainly seemed preferable, even though it raised the risk that precious moments could be spoiled by unforeseen circumstances, which might have otherwise have been avoided via aforethought.
Perhaps I should even have planned to have one of those peculiarly lame conversations so many people prefer to silence. But that has never been my preference; filling a void with too empty words just creates a less profound void, after all.
Even so, I really should have waited longer before opening my private domain to its first shared experience. I should have at least considered more carefully what actions to take as the situations arose. Ignorant vigor, sadly, overran natural caution, thus that my fate was cast.
And so we had walked in. The twisting path through the bewildering catacomb of trees had the effect of isolating us. Soon it seemed the path had no beginning or end at all, just a short leg between where we had been and where we could be going.
Gradually, the delicate net of nature ensnared us in its wild beauty. Disconnected from the caterwauling drainpipes of the outside world, we penetrated deep into a phantasmal oasis of natural growth. We walked amidst the slender pillars of a glistening natural palace. In its wooden colonnades danced shimmering shadow wraiths, moist with morning dew and bedecked in speckles of sun. As we walked by, each one danced out of sight behind layers of sparkling leaves. By the side of our path, foxgloves and ferns, myrtle and violets wrapped a twisting breeze with thuriferous emanations, essences juggling the fancy and fading behind into a whimsical hunt for the censor that had so exquisitely embalmed the imagination. And above the fertile soil was a jostling of gnarled vines, lacing the foliage with a festoon of fetters--a lugubrious spree of delight in the waxing wind, as tall trees strained against their manacles, groaning a little, like protesting trolls.
She shivered a little in the draft and said "It's cold, isn't it?”
“Mornin’chill," I replied. “Refreshin’, ain’it? "
She did not respond immediately to the Devonian accent, but I knew she loved it. I should really have tried to comfort her in some greater way, but I was too overwhelmed by a sense of beauty that continually transcended itself. And the forest has seized me in such an enchantment of mystery that I could not further speak and rupture its spell.
It was thus that I led my acquaintance into this glorious caper of hidden glades, silently urging her to engulf itself in its luxurious embrace. As we meandered deeper into the woods, however, her original curiosity seemed to dampen, and the light in her eyes receded further and further away. She did not seem to be comforted by the absence of long wide roads and the discordant monoliths of the city, as I am, and always have been. Her waning interest, even at first, offset my sagacity more than I expected. It became increasingly difficult to lead with aplomb. I found it necessary to promise that the garden house was not far distant. She seemed reconciled, falling slightly behind me. Then, we reached a gorgeous log which nature had thrown across our trail. Lifting her corduroy skirt almost to her thighs, she straddled the trunk, then let her hem fall with a tiny smile of achievement, traversing the obstacle with consummate grace. She paused a moment there, looking back at the log, and I took the opportunity to consult the compass at my own hip.
"This way's shortest, 'ere," I said helpfully.
We plunged into a deeper forest grove. Lower branches rushed forward to meet us as our pace quickened, waving good-bye when we pushed them aside to clear our way, Her breath was now deeper, and her small chest rose and fell daintily with the increased labor of our passage. Like the crashing surf on a summer beach, leaves broke around us, flicking at us with tiny stings of natural joy; but she was clearly fearful lest they rip at her pretty Summer blouse, white with little blue flowers. So I moved further ahead, and the backwash from my own passage no longer struck her at all.
As the distance between us increased, I was simultaneously seized with conflicting emotions: the first, that of joyful abandonment to natural beauty, which swelled up in antithesis with the increasing distance and disconnection from my acquaintance, pulling down at the denied soft joys of her closer presence.
A stream flustered across our way, causing us to pause again. As she came up behind me, a little flushed now, I was immediately aware that she feared ruining her shiny shoes. The water tinkled from upstream over a tiny waterfall, a little merriment in its tone. I led her up a short embankment, where there would be a wider path over small boulders alongside the cascading stream. Now her breath rose in her chest even deeper as she clambered the bank, and her heart seemed to be rising to the challenge, lending a happy, restrained ferocity to her movement as she assaulted each handhold of protruding roots, polished to firmness by prior travelers, there between the trees marshaled along the rivulet’s bank.
When she had reached its top, I had found some sticks suitable for use as walking canes, and handed her one. Tossing her dark locks aside from her slender shoulders, she accepted the cane with untoward grace, twisting it as she accepted it from my hands. Looking then to the water’s edge, her downturned eyes shaped her brows in a dark curlicue of contrast with the heightened rosiness in her cheeks.
I forged ahead. When I had reached the far side of the stream, she followed me across the hopping stones. I watched cautiously, ready to extend a hand as she balanced, one foot on one stone, another poised, and the cane, an extra leg between her own two, holding her confidently over the gurgling brook. She glanced down into the water like a pirate who has successfully evaded the law, grinning slightly as the water could not even touch the delicate tips of her shoes. One last jump, and the brook chortled too as she successfully landed on the mossy verge, sinking slightly into its spongy softness. She had not even needed any support from me to help her complete the traversal. We briefly exchanged the gaze of accomplices with a purpose achieved, and immediately continued on our journey.
After the brook, our sudden arrival at the garden house was almost an anticlimax. Then, the little hazards that had obstructed our passage seemed almost wearisome, rather than creating the sense of adventure I had hoped. And I had expected, at least to some extent, that even such weariness would make the abode more attractive as a place for rest. Unfortunately, that simple expectation was remiss, and our long awaited destination was somehow, mysteriously disappointing. The small clearing in the woods, which encircled us like a fairy ring, did not seem enchanting at all, but rather, incidental and without the magical sensation I had before felt within it. And she seemed even more untouched than I could have possibly expected.
Our entrance into its shadowed interior heralded the total cessation of any real curiosity. Rather, she was restless. She moved around. She looked without expression at the supporting poles. She glanced at the shingle roof. She creased her brow while stepping over the natural floor of tan cut stones. Her feet moved nervously around, almost on tiptoe, uncertain of clear footing. Briefly, her eyes scanned the sky as if brooding for rain. She prowled around in a brief sortie, scrutinizing the simple decorations without real engagement. She would not share the comfortable seat suspended from the rafters of the little portico. And she was grateful when I suggested we should leave.
Her disappointments did not prevent her from remarking on my favorite spot at a later time, however. For she did then, later, rather than renew a frown, smile whimsically again once more, asking if 1 had spent many more days since enjoying the bower's seclusion, even with others. Somewhat shamefacedly I admitted that I had, but did not mention it was only by myself~ and that she was the only one who had ever seen my most private place.
I had wondered if I should never have asked her in the first place, and my reticence in answering was apparent. She, sensing a dejection, repented of her slight chiding, and spoke of her opinion a little more seriously, sharing a little mutual pleasure as she had before, above the waterfall. Then she did me the honor of calling my abode "a sweet little folly,” and I was again impressed by her elocution as she voiced her favorable opinion, twisting her hands in the same way as she had when accepting the wooden cane from my hands. That movement I had seen before by others holding canes, but only by more ancient people, and somehow within the movement, there was an unspoken promise that she would one day, when ancient herself, visit again, to see how the bower had changed.
And so it was, even though her conclusions at the time were superficially impartial, her remarks were not delivered in any way that might be demeaning. On the contrary, her statements had a sincerely helpful tone. Occasionally, I am still grateful to her for the favor she showed me, far more than I deserved, and offered long before my gardens had become internationally famous.
For before her visitation, I had seen no fault in my private gardens. But as a consequence of her assessments, I realized how perfection, so apparently obvious to one person, can be a solitary vision, and therefore, illusory. The building's plain decoration had to me suggested a careful abstinence from overzealous embellishment; but she helped me understand how its essential purity was in some ways disadvantageous. In the restraint of further expression, it was not obvious that the restraint from unnecessary decoration was intended to indicate an extensive appreciation of possible variation. I should have presupposed that a simple appearance leads to
misconstrual when observed superficially. I had not perceived how easily frivolous misconception can arise without providing further description of elegant intents. Instead the simple and uncomplicated design served only to leave the underlying, intended subtlety unrevealed. The uncluttered lines which I had chosen for my construction could appear to arise from ignorance, or lassitude, rather than appreciation of the fine ramifications of human freedom and simultaneously, our natural origin and predestined fate, which within my own being resonates continuously, in each moment I share with another.
I did not choose to rebuild the garden bower, however. The plot, in total, did contain some good memories, at least for the two of us.
Instead, as the years passed, I strove to extend the gardens beyond the sweet little folly. There I eventually staged a new building, within a more formal setting. I kept the forest by the road as a screen, to dissociate the planned organization of formal gardens from the hard flat roads and ugly estates around me. But within, over the years, the formal gardens grew.
That course of action led to my early folly becoming no more than the first grotto in a larger plot. The folly remained as a symbol of natural purity that would emphasize and demonstrate the depth of the overall vision (at least so I thought). Although the resolution was good, in fact, possibly too good than I even knew at the time, the goal invoked new financial handicaps which were to prove harassing, and I would consequentially be forced to live in the folly for a long time while building anew. Certainly I had never anticipated living in that folly, but it was all I had, while preparing the new plans.
Then however, my own material benefit was not a priority. I had been struck by a most ineffable malady: the wish to express an ideal, in material form, of a vision in abstract. I chose the course even knowing that the realization of a truly romantic vision is always beyond physical attainment. So then, I set about building the second abode, which was to become the observatory. The amount of planning and construction was immense; perhaps you know, by now, how much I thought of the nature and ways of a simple garden bower; what then would you think would be in something as impressive and grandiose as an observatory? Could you even imagine yourself what it would be like? Yes, it was indeed to take many years for me to finish it. Still I am waiting for the day when my first visitor will return. I know she will. I know she will adore this grand observatory, with its marble floors, and its shining lever which pulls aside a perfectly counterweighted roof, revealing the heavens after the smallest flick of the wrist. And I am not impatient, knowing each day how much I can improve upon the observatory, and the sight of the comets, and the rings of Saturn appearing so close one could almost reach out and touch them. After such a sight, the sky no longer seems so far away. Instead the resplendent colors of the nightly heavens appear to encompass and hold this gentle planet in the most sublime and warmest of embraces.
She has not yet returned, but in the interim, this place has yielded so many pleasurable discoveries to so many people like you who arrived thinking little of it, but left with a new inner knowledge of their own beauty within a fantastic universe, revealed through the inner and outer lenses, and mirrors, of the great, untarnished telescope, now in the polished heart of this once simple, yet now grandiose, earthly garden.