She kept looking for the answer. The little girl was running from shop front to shop front, shouting her question: ‘When will I die? When will I die?’ She had long blonde curls and a fierce look in her eye that made the shop keepers laugh.
‘In a very long time!’
‘Ten minutes if you keep up that racket!’
The answers were always different and the little girl started to get confused. She ran to the shop of her favourite grocer, Pierre. Pierre was an old man; surely he would know the answer to her question. Pierre laughed softly, not like the others, and hoisted her onto his knee and began to tell her a story:
‘A long time ago there was a little girl just like you who always questioned everything. She always asked ‘Why?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’ This little girl, who had lovely blonde hair just like you, cherie, learnt so much that she grew up to be very clever. She quickly learnt everything that anyone in her small village could tell her, but still found she had questions. She started to get frustrated with the villagers who could no longer answer her. The old people of the village looked on with sadness in their eyes because they knew that soon they would lose this beautiful little girl who asked all the questions.
‘She grew up fast and soon she was a beautiful young woman, impatiently counting the days until she would be allowed to leave the small village and go to Paris to study at the Grande Ecole there. That day arrived and all the old men of the village wept as she boarded her carriage, knowing that they would not see her beautiful face again, that they would die before she returned – if she ever returned. The old women of the village wept also, knowing that this curious young woman was going to learn secrets that had evaded them all their lives. Everybody wept because they knew that the young woman would not return for many years and that the village would not see the benefit of her great intellect and curiosity.
‘Well, the young woman, whose name was Therese, left that day by carriage and arrived two days later in Paris. This beautiful young woman had never been in such a huge city and knew nothing of the ways of the townspeople. So she started asking her questions: ‘Where can I stay the night?’, ‘How do I operate the trolley-bus?’, ‘Where can I take a carriage to the Sorbonne?’ She learnt the ways of Paris very quickly and soon settled into city life.
‘One day she decided to move from her room in the Hotel Cosmopolitan and so she asked a young man, ‘Where can I rent lodgings?’ The young man led her to a house where an old man sat outside, whittling a piece of wood. He stopped when he saw her and looked her up and looked her down. She started to feel uncomfortable, for she was very beautiful, so she asked, ‘Why do you look at me like that?’ The old man replied, ‘Because you are beautiful, I will give you good clean lodgings.’
‘Thank you. But how much will it cost me?’
‘Oh very cheap,’ the old man’s mouth cracked into a smile, ‘very cheap for a face like that.’
The young woman felt uncomfortable, but followed the old man into the house. He showed her a room, which was satisfactory and she paid a deposit of 15 francs.
‘The old man was a very attentive landlord and Therese would often find him waiting outside her door when she went to bathe. This made her uncomfortable so she asked, ‘Why do you wait outside my door when I bathe?’
He replied, ‘Because you are beautiful. I am an old man and it gives me great peace to see such a beautiful young woman.’
Therese couldn’t find the words to deny this old man his pleasure so lowered her head and didn’t say anything.
‘All this time Therese was studying at the Grande Ecole, asking her questions and getting her answers from her very intelligent tutors. One tutor, whose name was Jean, took a particular interest in her development and took it upon himself to ensure that she had full access to whatever materials she needed and also to his personal library. One day, after she mentioned that she was struggling to find money for tuition as well as food and even her very cheap lodgings, Jean offered to help pay for her room in the old man’s house. Therese thought this very kind and, because he was very intelligent, she trusted him and confided that the old man with whom she was staying made her feel uncomfortable. Upon hearing this, the tutor immediately offered her a room in his house until she could find more appropriate lodgings. Therese accepted with relief and immediately hired a carriage to move her few bags across town.
‘Jean’s house was much more convenient for the Grande Ecole and Jean himself was a very convivial host. They would spend the evenings talking in great depth about her interests and he would spend hours and hours answering her questions, sometimes even before she asked them. They would have long, relaxing dinners with wine and cheese. He had a taste that was delicately refined and he reveled in teaching Therese the subtleties of society. She had many questions about this of course, coming as she did from a small country village. She had scarcely thought about the village since being in Paris: the old villagers had been right to cry.
‘After two weeks of wine and intellectual lodging with Jean, Therese suddenly realized that she was supposed to find her own lodgings. When she told Jean of her intention, however, he grew offended and insisted that she remain with him. This made her puzzled and so she asked, ‘Why do you insist on me staying here?’ He did not reply, but left the room.
‘This was the first time that somebody had given her no answer at all and it made her think. He had not said, ‘I do not know.’ He had not said, ‘Please ask someone else.’ He had not said, ‘You can find the answer in this book.’ He had not said ‘I shall try to find out for you.’ He had not said ‘Examine the evidence and you will find out for yourself.’ He had not said anything. He had simply left the room. This confused Therese deeply and she went to bed that night with her mind in a frantic state. She could not sleep and tossed and turned until midnight. Jean’s house overlooked a church square and Therese could see from her bedroom window the tower of the church. The moon was high and shone its light over the clock face. The two hands of the clock were pointing straight up to the stars, as if pointing to the answer for her question. She stared out of her window as the clock struck midnight. She opened the window wide; perhaps the air would help her sleep.
‘As the twelfth note sounded there was a commotion of wings and, to Therese’s astonishment, a white barn owl landed on the eaves of the house just in front of her. She didn’t dare breathe as the owl surveyed the square below, seeking a mouse for prey. She was close enough to reach out and touch the soft down of the owl’s wings, but she didn’t dare move a muscle. The owl stood there, alert, its head rotating as its eyes penetrated the gloom. Its claws gripped the straw of the roof thatching and Therese felt like she was in a dream. The beauty of the owl in the moonlight haunted her and she grew bolder, inching her head closer to the owl’s. The owl caught her movement in his wide eyes, but stayed calm and rotated his head all around to consider her. The two stared at each other in the moonlight as the last echoes of the church bells drifted over the sleeping city roofs. Time seemed to stand still; the two creatures staring deep into each others eyes. Therese realised this was the moment she would find her answer. So she whispered, very faintly, ‘Why did he run away from my question, Owl?’
The owl looked deep into her eyes, his claws twitched on the thatch. He had her question and Therese waited breathless for the answer. But the owl batted his wings and, with one last look, took to the skies. Therese sighed and watched him disappear over the sleeping rooftops.’
There was a pause as Pierre stopped talking and smiled at the little girl.
‘Well what was the answer to her question?!’ The little girl almost screamed. ‘That’s not fair! Tell me the answer!’
Pierre looked down at the furrowed brow underneath the blonde curls of the little girl on his knee, ‘Sometimes, cherie, there are no answers; just moments.’