The Heirloom

The Heirloom

A good fit is not always necessary

Sarah was preoccupied by the past, and thought constantly about the people from those times: were they like us? The Puritan miss wearing her hood: the man thrown into the bog with a cord around his neck and barley in his stomach: the Victorian soldiers sitting round the campfire. Were they like us? They might sweat and toil like us, but did they weep and love in the same way? The same rain fell on them, the same moon shone down, but Sarah was pretty sure that the landscape of their feelings was different. Their sunlit uplands were from another world, and their dark forests were filled with different fears than ours.

It was Sarah’s own lack of anchorage that was the problem. Since she had no kin, apart from those she had chosen, she felt adrift on the river of time. There must be some object that would help her to think this through, so that she could understand how solid those people were, how secure in what they had been taught. She began to hunt for her heirloom.

Then one day she found a new junk shop. The owner seemed to have had a hard life, and to have accumulated a lot of unconsidered trifles. It was the end of the day, and the sun had almost disappeared. Sarah explained that she wanted something special. He gestured to an unsorted heap in a dark corner: “have a look through that” he said. “How deep do you want to go?” His smile was snaggle-toothed, his hand was clawed: ”help yourself.”

After some patient excavation of torn shawls and rusty kettles, she found her heirloom. It was a cabinet, but a very peculiar cabinet indeed. The sides were bevelled, the whole was slightly lop-sided, and it had a lock which was hard to force. The base was roughened on the outside, and the roof was polished. The owner sidled up to her. “Now, Missy” he said. “You know what it is? That’s an aumbry, that is.”

Sarah knew that an aumbry was a cupboard built to fit a specific recess. There was a skill to its manufacture: the wooden interior was meant to emit something like a sigh as it slid into its appointed aperture. It had to be a tight fit. Aumbrys were made for churches, to hold the blessed pyx or the sacred oils. But they could also be found in houses with thick walls, a secure place made to hide precious objects or the domestic gods of the family. Lares et Penates.

She lugged the aumbry home and placed in in the centre of her room. She sat back on her heels and regarded it, and it seemed to look back at her: “and so? What now?” Suddenly it went through Sarah with the speed of an arrow that the aumbry was a perfect metaphor for the way people lived in their own time. When they fitted tightly into their prepared slot, when all air was expelled as the wooden framework filled the hole with a sigh, there was no room for manoeuvre. People would be locked into the dominant thought-systems of their own time: they would seek for Osiris, they would sacrifice on the fields of Mars, they would believe in the Sacred Heart. And they were fervent and orthodox. Such people did breathe and eat and labour: but Sarah knew that they were not like us. Like her. There is a community between the living and the dead, but it was hard to find.

She looked at the aumbry again. Tentatively she pulled one of the staves out, and, with a piece of rough sandpaper, polished one of the corners out of true. She had a little tack-hammer, and drove some small nails in. She had committed an act of vandalism, no doubt. But it had made her see that this aumbry would now never sit tight and true in its conventional slot. And she suddenly knew too that in every period there were people like that: men and women who were awkward and imperfect, prickly and ramshackle, rebarbative and unorthodox. The misfits. It is the misfits who change the world, and who are our kin.

There the aumbry sat, injured and glowering rather at its new imperfections. Sarah had indeed inherited it, in an indirect way. She moved it over to the wall. She looked at it every day: “yes” she said: “Yes. I know. I see you. I’m listening to you. I am like you at last.”