Mistaken – a parable

Edward Lear, View of St Antonio, Malta (1866)

A visitor, say. A distant country, whose manners and language are unfamiliar. The guest of persons of power and privilege, on an official mission of some sensitivity. Make the place a compound, a grand house of many rooms, a closely guarded gate at the road, a high masonry wall making up the perimeter of spacious grounds, in which servants, workmen and perhaps guards or other security agents move continually back and forth on obscure and silent errands.

Of many strange things the visitor observes, let us say the strangest is the circulation in these errands toward a certain place at the circumference wall, not marked by any sign or gate or door or visible structure other than the blank wall itself, a place at which all manner of rubbish and other discarded objects are thrown unceremoniously over the wall to the outside. Plastic bags of what may be scraps and offal from the kitchens, worn bits of clothing and shoes, broken implements. All go over the wall, where there is nothing visible above it on the other side but a dense wood.

Give her some days to think about this, in the intervals of such diplomatic and social encounters as are the reason for her visit, and make it that she has hatched a plan to satisfy her curiosity. A walk outside the grounds, she says. Unaccompanied insisted on, in spite of raised eyebrows. Once out of sight of the gate a quick and furtive detour around the outside of the wall to where she has reckoned the midden or refuse dump to be.

We will suppose she is not entirely surprised to discover that the ground there is bare. Not a sign of disturbance or clutter, not a loose scrap anywhere. Only the trees arching above, a fragrant undergrowth of resinous plants, and a narrow well-trodden path leading into the distance, upon which she sets out with a determined tread.

What she encounters may be quickly sketched. No more than a quarter mile down the track in the wood, a tidy settlement of half-a-dozen houses, itself a suburb of a town just visible further on, a market town it may be. A quiet industry suffuses the peaceful scene. Here plastic bags are cleaned, folded, bundled. There a pile of garments waits for repairs on an ancient treadle sewing machine set in the shade of a tree. Elsewhere a small forge and a workbench with simple tools. Several women tend a cauldron from which arises an aroma of boiled meat, bones and vegetable scraps.

Returned by the same route, we shall suppose our visitor, that night or the next day, will make discreet inquiries. Not, needless to say, confessing to her jaunt, which will be taken as a breach of an understood condition of her presence here, nor yet posing a question direct. Rather merely wondering out loud in different companies what there might be in such and such a direction, waving a hand vaguely toward a different quarter of the compass each time, until at last she gets from an amused and offhand response the assurance that in the direction in which she has a secret and particular interest, there is nothing whatever, a trackless and uninhabited forest stretching all the way to a bleak and distant coast.

We take it that her official objects in this visit are successfully encompassed and that her mind is mostly occupied with these things right up to the time of her departure. Only occasionally, in glancing toward the activities in the grounds that had so interested her before, will she reflect with a rueful smile how she had been mistaken. There is no business of refuse and the wall. No mention of it will find its way into her final report.

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