Sylvie was sixteen when she met him, and very quickly he became her life. She had been quite bored when he came along, so part of it was finally having something to do with herself, but another part of it was his eyes and his mouth and the way he'd laugh at the observations she'd make about their village and the people in it. As if he thought she had something worth saying and worth listening to. Her parents liked him, which made the whole thing easy, a little too easy if Sylvie had been honest about it, but even at her young age, she knew that it was foolish to desire more conflict than necessary. So their marriage was agreed to by all interested parties, and soon she was a wife to the man who was only slightly less attractive once there was a contract in place.
They spent a bit over a year in their first house, which was small, but it sat right in front of a little stream that Sylvie fell asleep by almost every day that first summer. He would return to the house, expecting the domestic life he thought he had secured by marrying a nice girl while he was still young, and he would find her splayed out, drenched in sunlight with ants crawling across her arms, sometimes alone and sometimes with other girls from the area. She was a picture—one he would have enjoyed more if he weren't so hungry, but a picture nonetheless.
She tried to remember the recipes her mother had taught her, and she made an effort to visit her sisters and his parents, and he brought her flowers from gardens he passed on the way home. She never bothered telling him that this was stealing, in a sense, and that the women who tended those gardens put those flowers there on purpose. These things didn't bother her yet—after all she had only loved him for a few years.
The trouble started when he told her they'd have to move. Not just to a different village, but to an entirely different part of the world. How could she know that she'd like it? she asked him. She'd have to trust him. But she didn't speak the language, she objected. He would teach her and within a year she would be just as comfortable there as she had ever been here.
So they packed up their belongings, and she told her family she loved them, and her friends that she would miss them, and they moved to a larger house with no stream but a lovely garden and for a few months they were happy there too.
And then one day he died. He died so suddenly it made death seem terribly easy—like it was second nature. In a way that made Sylvie wonder whether she should be putting more effort into avoiding the thing. He was on the roof hunting for the source of a leak, looking for a tiny crack or pinprick, his nose so close to the shingles that his field of vision was no larger than a dinner plate, and then he was on the ground. On the ground, his body was a pile of organic matter. If you've seen a corpse, you understand. Like a house you know is abandoned before you've spotted definitive proof. Crumpled in the grass, his body was clearly vacant; she didn't need to knock to make sure. She stared at him, trying to translate what had happened into something she could understand, and then she burst into tears. She screamed and howled and gasped for breath. But then, after a few minutes, it occurred to her that nobody in the world heard her cries or saw her tears, and the realization made her feel silly. She quieted herself down and wondered what to do next.
Days later her appetite finally returned and she realized, suddenly, that she was starving. She had just begun peeling potatoes when she cut her finger at its base. The dark red of the blood and the bite of pain startled her, so she yelped, and then the sound of her voice startled her even more. It dawned on her that she hadn't spoken to anyone in days. Her voice already sounded foreign to her, covered in cobwebs and beginning to atrophy.
Her isolation stretched from weeks into months, and then slowly into a year. She slept through the nights, and then she slept through the days. She spent the fall walking into town to watch the men and women, hoping someone would recognize that she was lonely, or notice that she was new, and make an effort to include her, but people seemed to hurry away from her instead of towards her. And so she spent winter inside with the shades drawn. She cleaned her house from top to bottom before returning to the top, and then she stopped cleaning at all. She imagined what her sisters were doing and the parties she had missed. She hoped that her parents were still alive and thought that one day they would die and she would never know it. She wrote a list of every person she knew, every song she knew, every animal, every country, every word, and every number. And then slowly, so slowly you could miss it altogether, she began to lose her mind.
It wasn't long into her confinement before her personality began to feel like some vestigial thing. Had she been funny? It had been ages since she had made someone laugh. Had she been kind? She couldn't remember the last time she had been given the chance to do something for someone. If she had such an opportunity now would she take it? Was she beautiful? She couldn't remember, and besides, she was older now, and it had been so long since anyone had looked at her. Was she shy? Was she cruel? How would she know? There is no sound in a vacuum. Such is a woman alone day after day.
In the spring, either the next or the one after, she noticed an owl living in her back garden. There was something about him, something she couldn't explain, but something she liked, and so she began to speak to him. At first, of course, she knew it was a silly thing to do, but after a couple of months they began to understand each other. The owl was patient and a good listener. He would sit for hour and hours, eyes wide, head nodding as she explained who she was and how she had ended up in her current predicament. After weeks of these conversations they were thoroughly acquainted, but she found that she had more to say, and he didn't seem to mind. She recounted every piece of gossip she could remember about her village. She didn't want to forget anything about the life she had had, and she found it helpful to remind herself out loud, in much the same way her brother used to recite Latin.
One evening in the middle of Sylvie's favorite story about the first time an older boy had noticed her, the owl flew down from its usual spot in the tree and landed right in front of where she was sitting, tying blades of grass into a chain.
"Please give me the night off. It's a beautiful night, this is my favorite tree, and you've already told me this story twice this week."
"Excuse me?" Sylvie wasn't completely surprised her friend was speaking to her; in fact, she wasn't sure it hadn't happened before. Rather it was his sentiment that she found bewildering.
"Sylvie, I can't endure it tonight. Please."
"Are you asking me to lay here in silence?"
"I'm not asking you to do anything. On the contrary, I'm asking you not to do the one thing that you insist on doing night after night. That seems reasonable enough." The owl, hoping the conversation was over, returned to his perch.
"But I have nothing else to do. You know that."
"When do you foresee this condition of yours changing?"
"Never," she sighed, hoping to sound as pitiful as she felt. "I don't think I'll have anything to do for the rest of my life—which should be long because what could I possibly die of lying here? I'll probably live forever to add insult to injury."
Sylvie was angry that the owl, who until that moment she had considered to be her best friend, had made her cry. If he minded her so much, he should have said something before she told him all of her secrets; now she had no way to punish him. She wished she had enough pride to walk away, but she had nowhere to walk and so instead she tried staying silent as long as she could, and even though it was what the owl had asked for, she hoped her silence was torture.
"Why, do you have a better idea for what I should do with myself?" she finally asked after what she could only assume had been a punishing few hours.
"You're still here?"
"I'm always here."
"And you'll always be here unless I can help you?"
"Yes. I'll outlast that tree of yours."
"I see. And if I give you an alternative option will you take it?"
"Of course." Sylvie wondered if perhaps the owl wasn't teasing her.
"Then I'll see if I can help you. Meet me here at the same time tomorrow."
"Are you leaving? Please don't go."
"Please hurry back. I hate being alone."
"Meet me here tomorrow night."
The owl flew away from the tree and Sylvie looked around her garden, wondering if all of the other animals also thought it was rude that he had left without saying goodbye.
The next day, shortly after the sun dipped below the horizon, she noticed the silhouette of her friend against the saturated sapphire of early night.
"You came back!"
"I told you I would."
"I believed you, but it's been so long."
"I have an offer for you, although it's more complicated than you were probably hoping for."
"You should hear it first."
"There will be three dinner parties, three nights in a row—"
"And each night you will have a different guest."
"What kind of a guest?"
"Women your age."
"From here? But I won't be able to speak with them. I never learned the language."
"Don't worry about that. "
"And after the third night?"
"If one of these three women embraces you—considers you a friend at the end of your night with her, then I will help you return home."
"How? It's far, and I don't know the way. In fact, I'm not sure I remember where we are now, and how can you know where you're going if you don't even know where you are?"
"Don't worry about that either."
"So I need to befriend just one of these women?"
"And then I'll be able to go home."
"There's one more thing."
"This is a very generous offer, and you have to prove yourself worthy of it."
"I never claimed to be worthy of your help, just desiring of it."
"Have you seen the large blue house about an hour's walk from here?"
"The huge periwinkle one?"
"I can't say whether or not it's periwinkle; owls don't see very many colors."
"Yes, that must be the one. Why do you mention it?"
"The man who lives there is an Earl, Earl Abbot, and he lives there with his son. Many years ago, when the son was still young, he flew into a rage and tried to kill the Earl for his fortune. Ever since, the Earl has kept his son locked in his room, where he will remain until the Earl's death."
Sylvie wondered if she had heard the owl correctly. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me; in the blue mansion Earl Abbot has his son locked in his bedroom."
"Oh my goodness."
"If you tell any of these women his secret then not only will our agreement be voided, but you will be turned into a barnacle."
"I beg your pardon?" Sylvie was sure she had misheard him this time.
"You will become a barnacle."
"Why a barnacle?"
"Barnacles spend their entire lives cemented to a single surface from which they cannot move."
"That's the offer."
"Are you sure?"
"It seems I'm already a barnacle, and besides I always had friends, and I was never a gossip, so I imagine it will be easy."
"Then I'll be expecting you in the garden tomorrow night. All of the arrangements will be taken care of. Try to remember how to have a proper conversation. I haven't found the way you speak to me to be particularly endearing." The owl chuckled and flew away from the garden, once again without saying goodbye.
Finding herself alone again, Sylvie felt the urge to walk past the periwinkle mansion now that she knew what she did about its owner.
Sylvie spent the day getting dressed; she saw it as a luxury to clothe herself for a purpose, and not just out of habit. She took a long bath, which was necessary because when one is hardly able to keep track of the time, it is likely that bathing standards begin to slip. She tried to recall the most interesting things about herself. What anecdotes had she used to rely on? What pieces of trivia reliably elicited intrigue in her peers? She couldn't remember, but she hoped that being back in a familiar environment would give her access to that dusty and neglected corridor of her personality.
When evening came, both too soon and too late for her liking, Sylvie made her way to her garden. The owl had kept its word, and there was a lovely table, set elaborately, amongst her flowerbeds and trees. Her guest had already taken her seat.
"Good evening, my name is Henrietta," the woman said without standing.
Sylvie wanted to touch her, to clasp her hand or kiss her cheek, but instead she took her seat.
"I'm Sylvie. Thank you for coming." "Of course."
A pause. Sylvie knew there wasn't supposed to be a pause—not yet at least. Maybe after the dessert course, or between glasses of wine. Pauses belong between the end of one thing and the start of another. But to start with silence means that there is nothing to say, and this is never the case with friends, and so Sylvie began to speak.
A stream of words without breaths, stutters, or questions flowed from her mouth before her mind got the chance to approve it. She talked about how she longed to purchase a new hat, how the leak that killed her husband taunted her every rainfall, and how she had always secretly suspected that her youngest sister was the product of an affair since she had a completely different mouth than the rest of them. She rambled through the first two courses and even though she knew she should stop she couldn't. It dawned on her that the company of an owl couldn't compare to the company of a flesh-and-blood human. Not just a human—a woman her own age. They should have a lot to talk about. They should have a lot in common, but as the third course was brought to the table, Henrietta yawned and looked around the garden as if for an exit.
"Enough about me, tell me about yourself," Sylvie forced herself to say.
Henrietta's eyes darted back to Sylvie, and she opened her mouth so deliberately it was as if it had rusted shut.
"Oh, there's not much to tell," she said.
And Sylvie knew she had failed. As soon as a woman allows you to consider her uncomplicated, she is lost to you. Sylvie, of course, knew this. She'd had a friend who used to say, "Oh, there's nothing in that room," as she shuffled past a large closed door. There are very few, if any, empty rooms in the world, and so she understood that whatever was behind that door would never be revealed to her and was intended for someone else.
Sylvie considered her options. People tend to dislike being forced to speak, and so it seemed there was nothing left to do but try again the next night. But then it occurred to her that it might be in her best interest to finish saying everything on her mind to Henrietta, so that tomorrow's guest would get Sylvie at her best. And so she picked up where she left off. Every idea that popped into her head tumbled out of her mouth. She complained about the color of her bedroom and the size of the windows in her drawing room. She didn't understand why it was never windy here or why the sun set so late during the summer and so early in the winter when it wasn't nearly as dramatic at home. She complained about the number of trees and the humidity and the view she had from her garden. She knew that in criticizing her own home she was criticizing Henrietta's as well, but she figured every horrible, boorish thing she said tonight, was something she wouldn't say tomorrow.
Henrietta left before dessert, which did not come as a surprise. Sylvie ate both slices of cake feeling content.
"That didn't go well," the owl commented as Sylvie sat finishing her glass of wine. "Why are you smiling?"
"It just felt so good to talk. And besides, now that I've gotten all of that out of the way, tomorrow will be easy," Sylvie nodded assuredly before heading inside. She didn't want to be around the rude bird who seemed intent on ruining her mood. She knew her nerves wouldn't let her sleep, but she decided she could make a few changes to one of her dresses for tomorrow's guest after seeing what Henrietta had worn. The shape of her neckline was all wrong, but it was nothing she couldn't fix.
The next day as she readied herself, she felt that she was still lonely. Certainly talking to a human was better than talking to an owl, but maybe what she really missed was the push and pull of a proper conversation. The feeling of someone acknowledging an idea that she constructed in her own mind and wanting to collaborate on it. Or the revelation that someone had spent the morning with an entirely different inner dialogue, and realizing that she found those ideas worthwhile too.
The next evening when she met her guest, this time named Clara, she tried to imagine her mother watching their conversation to make sure she kept a hold of herself. Over the first course they said "hello" and "nice to meet you" in about a thousand different ways before they each began to rattle off numbers: the year they were born, the year they married, the age of their husbands, their number of siblings, how old was the oldest? How young was the youngest? Is your father older than your mother? It seems to work better that way.
When the second course came there was nothing left to count. "Do you live nearby?" Sylvie asked.
"I do, my husband and I are both from here." "Do you like it here?"
"Yes, I'm happy here—although I've never been anywhere else. How have you enjoyed living here?" Clara asked. She asked it like she actually wanted to know, and Sylvie felt a pinch in her nose.
"It's been alright." She scoured her mind for a new topic.
"I can't imagine being so far from my family. My brother and I are close." Clara looked sincere. She inspected Sylvie's face and waited; she was listening. The pinch spread to Sylvie's throat.
"I was close with my sisters."
She didn't know the current events or the local gossip. She didn't have a husband to complain about or children to worry about. What else could she say to this person? How had she said so much just the night before?
"Don't you miss them? And your husband is gone? I can't imagine it."
Sylvie wondered if Clara was being wonderfully kind or terribly nasty. The pinch reached the spot behind her eyes and Sylvie tried counting the blooms on the rose bush. She had only made it to eight when her vision blurred.
"I didn't mean to upset you, I'm sorry."
"No! I'm being foolish." Sylvie dabbed at her tears but they came faster and faster and then, to both women's horror, a low moan escaped from her throat.
"Oh dear, I shouldn't have said anything at all."
Sylvie wanted to tell her not to worry. She wanted to run inside her house, wash up, and pretend nothing had happened, but her spirit had disintegrated like a biscuit in boiling water. She struggled to catch her breath, and then suddenly she was breathing too much. Her mouth was full of tears; her neck was drenched, and Clara was gazing at her, her expression firmly in the intersection of confusion, pity, and discomfort. Sylvie had lost her. It was an earnest commitment to good manners that kept her seated in the chair, or perhaps even more likely a healthy fear of being thought to have bad manners. She was being sweet, but Sylvie knew she had made a fatal mistake. Being so honest so quickly suggests that there is something wrong with you. After all, manners themselves are a type of lying. Sylvie knew this woman would not consider her a friend by the end of the night, and so she let herself cry.
In the morning Sylvie decided to go for a walk so that she might stumble upon something to talk about at her final dinner party. After cataloging the sights of newborn rabbits and what appeared to be a newly-in-love couple, she found herself walking past Earl Abbot's house. She thought of the son trapped inside and wondered if she might have an easier time speaking with him. She had never tried to kill someone in a rage, of course, but spending so much time alone must change one's mind, and so they might have a lot in common. They were both human barnacles. She wondered why she wasn't permitted to tell her guests what she knew. Of course she knew that gossiping was impolite, her mother had told her that when she was still a tiny girl, but if she did talk about the boy it wouldn't be mean-spirited gossip. On the contrary, she sympathized with him—even though it seemed unfair that his solitude was punishment for his own evil actions and hers was just the unforeseen consequence of an ugly twist of fate. She found it peculiar how easy it was to fall out of human society without doing anything particularly wrong, and how difficult it was proving to be to claw her way back in. She resented that she had to prove herself worthy of the life she had been born into and had always taken for granted. Even if she were a gossip wouldn't she still be worthy of society?
By the time she arrived home she had lost track of time and only had a few moments to tie her hair up before meeting her third guest.
Emma was precisely one week younger than Sylvie but had gotten married nine months before Sylvie had. Emma's husband was still alive, which Sylvie saw as an advantage whereas Emma did not. Emma had one daughter who she could already tell wouldn't be beautiful, but it seemed as though she would be kind, so Emma wasn't overly worried. She had two sisters, and she had had a brother who had died when Emma was a child. Sylvie knew all of this and the two women were caught up by the time the second course was cleared. The third course arrived accompanied by silence. Sylvie had thought things were going well and so what felt like an end to the conversation made her nervous. She noticed that Emma was eating her fish quickly, and had begun shifting in her chair.
"I went for a walk this morning and passed a family of rabbits. The babies couldn't have been more than a few days old."
"That's sweet," Emma said, sounding hollow.
"I also saw a new couple. I could tell they were new because they looked so in love," Sylvie thought this was the type of remark she might have made to her older sister. "You know how in the beginning you can see love on the outside and then over the years it goes further and further inside, so that after thirty years a couple doesn't look in love at all, but then when one of them dies the other dies a week later and you realize they must have still been deeply in love after all?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
Sylvie noticed Emma's plate was empty.
"I think I should probably return home if you don't mind. My husband will need help with our daughter."
Sylvie wanted to lunge across the table and tie Emma to her chair. If she left now, Sylvie would never speak to another human again. She wanted to beg her to stay—to force her to stay, and so she said the one thing she knew might keep Emma in the garden.
"Do you know the mansion where Earl Abbot lives?"
As soon as she said it there was something in Emma's eyes that Sylvie hadn't seen in years. This woman wanted to hear what Sylvie had to say next.
"Yes, of course. What about it?"
"Never mind, I shouldn't say."
Emma's eyes widened. If Sylvie had really meant to quell her interest, she had only accomplished the opposite.
"Why, do you know something about him?"
"Well, not exactly. I've just heard rumors." Sylvie wondered if perhaps framing the secret as a story rather than a fact would prevent her from the curse, although it hardly mattered to her anyway. Emma was about to leave, and so this was Sylvie's last chance to feel what it is for someone to be interested in your words.
"What have you heard?"
"Probably the same thing as everyone else."
"Then what's the harm in telling me?"
"I heard that when the Earl's son was young, he flew into a rage and tried to murder his father for their fortune, and since then his father has kept him locked in his bedroom. He hasn't been outside since, not even for a day."
As soon as the secret had been uttered the kindling behind Emma's eyes caught ablaze, and it occurred to Sylvie that Emma was beautiful. She leaned across the table and grabbed Sylvie's wrist. The shock of physical contact sent a spark ricocheting up Sylvie's arm.
"No," Emma gasped, suspended mid-air waiting for Sylvie to give her steady footing.
"Do you think I could get away with doing that to my daughter?" Emma asked, and that was all it took. The two women were laughing; the tension between them vanished.
Suddenly a wind came, and Sylvie lowered her head to protect her face. When she looked back up, Emma was gone. Instead, the owl was facing her.
"You couldn't have let us finish our meal?" Sylvie cried.
"Why would I? You told the secret, you had already lost."
"But I was happy for a moment. Usually, people get to enjoy the sin before they are damned for it."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize how difficult it would be."
"Neither did I," Sylvie considered this for a moment. "So what now?"
"You're going to become a barnacle."
"Yes, right now."
"If it's any solace most barnacles only live for ten years."
"I can endure ten more years I suppose."