A Simple Room

Robert Kelly

For many years, the admirably placed and interestingly furnished chalet of Madame Gallay has been the envy of all the housewives of the hamlet of La Borne, in the old Duchy of Savoie, on the left bank of the river Dranse one hears all night rushing down from the high massifs to the south. The chalet is called “Les Mouflons,” and its owners run a successful crêperie in the ski station of Les Gets up the valley and over the mountain from which the hang-gliders sail. The restaurant is called by a word that means Jackdaw in English, Kafka in Czech, while here it also refers to the heroic fighters of the Resistance who were so active, and so successful, in this part of France. The name of the chalet, though, just means those mountain goats seldom seen these days in the hills below the Roc d’Enfer.

The largest room in the chalet is rich with its considerable population of what used to be called objects of virtue – objects decorative, sentimental or puzzling that occupy many of the flat surfaces of the room, most of all the broad sills of the clerestory windows. Objects in a room anywhere in the world always seem to draw the viewer into some intrigue, and these do so more than most.

Where the staircase turns, on its way to the balcony that overhangs the room, the wall is ornamented with a large cluster of grapes, huge, in polished wood, complete with wooden grape leaf and wooden trucial coil. The grapes are of various sizes, the largest five inches or so in diameter, the smallest no more than two inches. A visitor seated at the dining room table, left alone for a moment, might amuse himself by counting the grapes, and would find sixteen of them in the big cluster. This imposing arrangement, high on the roughcast wall, is the most elevated object in the room, not counting the two wagon wheels, still iron-felloed, which hang down from the transverse beams. Each is fitted at the hub, in lieu of an axle, with a spotlight, countersunk, that beams its light straight down.

Under the wooden grapes, on the curve of the stairs, a china elephant, quite a bit smaller than life-size, stands, its howdah is a pedestal. Remarkably, nothing stands upon it. North of the elephant is a tall grandfather clock stopped at 5:56. On the case of the clock, a decal shows flowers of the hortensia sort, hydrangea. Below this the candelabra with four metal candles rising out of the base of white gardenias, false as the candles. Under the large, sloping window, which from some angles shows La Grande Terche, ‘the big cliff,’ and which at night is bright with the streetlight over the roadsign that marks this hamlet as La Borne, ‘the boundary,’ is a broad, tall china cabinet. On top of this (we are reading from south to north) are two wooden tub-like objects meant to hang on the wall, perhaps to uplift flowers. Certainly the wooden souvenir-like objects are decorated with appliquéd flowers. Next, to the south, is a blue kerosene lamp; an oval basket of artificial flowers, one of which looks vaguely like a peony improbably arisen from autumn foliage. North of that, a tall kerosene lamp in celadon green. Then a wooden butter-mold whose whole function was to intaglio a pretty rose on a loaf of butter. Then a tiny wooden souvenir in the shape of a cottage with thatched roof. Beyond that, at the very edge of the cabinet, a tall object, rectangular, on the fore-edge of which a landscape has been painted; but because the box is on its end, the landscape finds itself running perpendicular to its conventional situation, the land reaching up forever, and no sky.

Beyond the china closet, the floor bears a four-footed ceramic, green-slipped flower-stand, three feet tall, supporting a Grecian-style, garlanded flower-pot of the same material as the base; from it a very dry dracena-like plant, size of a small tree, rises high along the wall, reaching and almost obscuring a flat panel bearing the outline of a clock stopped at 9:23. The rough-cast wall now meets the wooden upper wall of the chalet on the south side. A ledge runs beneath the large window on either side of the central chimney. Starting at the right, a panel bearing the outline of two ducks, or perhaps swans, long-necked ducks or short-necked swans; the outline of these animals is formed by what, from down below (we stare at them up there, ten feet above our floor), looks like dried bits of feather that have been used to outline the birds with their red beaks on a brown wooden background. Past the ducks are: a brown and amber-slip pitcher, a mauve-and-white slip pitcher, a milk pitcher displaying a decal of a cow, a blue pitcher with an edelweiss, a green pitcher with Grecian festoon, a blue pitcher with a five-petalled flower in red, a pale-blue pitcher with pale-blue flower in white, a brown jug with Grecian festoon, a beige-colored jug with a sunflower, a very large jug with a pattern of flowers (white and green in the reddish glaze), a very large two-handled pottery canister holding perhaps two gallons, dark brown, with another of the same in a paler brown. This gives way to the elaborate stone chimney-piece, on which, about eight feet above the floor, is hung an elaborately ornamented clock, whose antique face bearing roman numerals insists that the time is two minutes after one. Below this on the chimney-face are two big shiny copper plates; one of them, with its inside facing us, shows a determined woodsman with a large axe about to chop at a tree-stump tall as himself. The angle of his arms is such that he will never succeed in striking this trunk, so his image facing us, green tree in the background, must express a perpetual dissatisfaction with the geometry of everyday life. Across from this, a copper pan with two handles, its bottom facing us, shows in relief a baker removing a baked loaf from his oven, in front of which stands a basket with an assortment of breads in it, brown and long. Between these two copper objects, but closer to the second, a hexagonal child’s beadwork of a jack-o-lantern, smiling, made in plastic beads. Just past the chimney is another tree in a large green pot, standing actually on the apron of the chimney. The tree, not easy to identify, has lance-shaped leaves in dark and bright green mottled. Round the slim trunk, an ivy-like vine has chosen to grow. Above the tree on the window-ledge, balancing the jugs and pitchers on the other side: a woodsaw in its wooden case; a pale pine tube from which three hand-carved wooden tulips, brightly painted red, emerge; against the sky, an antique mallet, upside down, looks like the hammer of Thor, fallen. Next to it, another agricultural implement of elusive purpose leans against the mullion of the window. It has two handles, a trough in the middle from which a tongue-like piece of wood emerges; handle slits are on either side. There are old people in the town who will certainly know what it is. Beside it, teeth against the window, the head of an antique hay-rake. Beside it, twenty-four sharp teeth pointing upward, is what looks like a carding-frame. Beside this, an ornamental bellows, nozzle down, ornamented with white flowers. Then a perfectly functional ordinary kerosene hurricane lamp. A grocer’s scales, each pan eight inches broad. Another wood-saw leans against the rafter just where it joins the outer wall. Under the angle of the saw, a wooden basket, apparently empty, stands directly below the rafter. Next to it, an old wooden scoop in which someone could lift two pounds of flour at a try. Beside it, a two-man draw-saw stands sideways, still with its blade attached.

Now to the eastern window: on the ledge before the eastern window, the decor shifts to the culinary. Four hand-cranked coffee grinders lead the way north. The first, green rectangular, the second white rectangular and decorated in a belle-époque fashion, the third wooden and typical of those used still in New England, with a little drawer in the front into which the ground coffee falls. The fourth is wooden of a kind unfamiliar to me. All four are used by cranking the handle sideways horizontally. After the coffee-grinders a procession of five coffee pots, the first with a pointed spout looking like camping gear; the next four, far prettier, with curved spouts and ornate handles and decorated lids. All four point in the same direction, like elephants on parade, their spouts raised to, as if praying to, a vast antique espresso maker, three feet tall, topped with a gilded swan, just where down in Italy one would expect to find an eagle. This espresso machine stands in front of the wide wooden mullion that separates the two halves of the window. Beyond the espresso maker are four more vessels, the first a very large cafe-filtre with spout again pointing to its source machine; then a conventional ewer, graceful enough but having no explicit reference to coffee, has somehow inserted itself in this parade of coffee pots. It is followed by two completely appropriate, decorated nineteenth-century cafe-filtre pots in porcelain. Beneath these pots, a two-barreled shotgun is mounted, with its carrying strap. Its barrels point past a wooden hanging basket of artificial flowers and a large platter bearing an improbably recent painting of two ancient Greek warriors confronting each other, towards an immense white goose, larger than life-size, in bright china, with a very yellow bill, and black shiny eyes. This stands on a lowboy, its upraised tail propped against a framed tapestry of a heart outlined by many little hearts surrounding an indecipherable flower above which “Bienvenue” has been embroidered in blood-red. The goose wears a black ceramic kerchief, and someone has slipped over goose head and neck, so that it lies on the goose’s broad shoulders, a silk ribbon in grosgrain. Below the goose’s right shoulder, a picture frame shows three cherubs, the middle one resting its cheek on its hand, the one on the right blowing a kiss to the viewer over its left palm, the one on the left with its right palm. These three cherubs are perched on top of a small looks-to-be handmade frame inside which two pictures are displayed, one of them a North African merchant squatting in front of his stall where huge piles of pepper, cumin, and other spices are colorfully arrayed; in front of him is a grocer’s scale exactly like the much older actual scale that faces the picture from across the room. Below the photo of the spicer and his wares is a picture of a crowd in Marrakech; in the foreground three French women admire a camel seated before them. The woman on the left pats the camel’s head with her right hand. A child between the first and second woman gazes diffidently at the camel. Another child in Basque jersey, safe between the second and third woman, nevertheless hides his head between the women as if in fear of the camel. To the left of this interesting picture, and under the shoulder and by the immense yellow foot of the china goose, a small, dingy papier-mâché duck is sitting, looking up in terror at the goose; or it might just be hiding behind the goose from the shotgun that is still aimed at all these exhibits. Behind the duck sits a small pottery chicken, or better, rooster. It says on the bottom: “Poule ou coq.” Coq, however, is misspelt cog next to the mutilated bar-code indicating that this object cost someone 25 francs, or in smaller print, 3.81 Euros – the ambiguous pricing argues the fairly recent acquisition of this ambiguous fowl. Next to the rooster or chicken’s right wing is the large wooden bowl that is found in every bar and tourist attraction in the Savoy, the large wooden vessel used to mix and drink from that ceremonial wassail, la Grolle. It is round and flat, the top carved roughly in floral pattern lifts off, and in the roughly two-quart interior, la grolle is mixed. From four spouts, crosswise disposed, friends, strangers and travelers can all drink from the same vessel. By tradition, the whole vessel, spouts and all, must be carved from a single piece of wood. Past la grolle, and directly in line with the beak of the goose who seems to examine it with speculation, stands an enigmatic and perplexing object. It is a plastic flower, size of a softball, made up of tiny plastic flowers in bright green, studded here and there with bright red currants, also plastic. The whole stands on a thick green stalk and comes out of a perfectly ordinary flower-pot. Beside it, however, arises a green plastic sheaf of wheat, as if displaced from some lost Eleusinian ceremony. Both the strange green plastic flower made up of many flowers and the fugitive plastic sheaf of wheat stand out of a cluster of plastic, bright-red snapdragon-like flowers.

Moving east from this enigma, we see against the side of the lowboy a tall warming-pan with a three-foot handle. The pan’s lid is embossed with the fierce round bearded face of the Sun, looking Old Gaulish.

At or slightly above eye-height, around the room, are pictures and paintings. First, on the north wall, beside the stair, in a rustic wooden frame, mortise and tenon constructed, three printed photographs labeled “Les Alpes.” These three photographs show: the top of the Matterhorn, or something like it; the roof of a chalet drowned in snow, with snow-bearing pines behind it; an alpine meadow seen through a screen of pink epilobes. The wide frame is wreathed with a length of rope, twig, and stem into which have been worked pine cones, leaves, and less nameable arboreal evidences.

On the south wall, under the clerestory windows, beginning under the swans and pitchers, we encounter the first of seven oil-paintings, all by the same hand. Three are in the shape of tombstones, for some reason. The first shows a nineteenth-century couple leaving footprints as they walk through the snow towards a Savoyard village covered in snow, big flakes of snow still falling; the second is an autumn scene, haystacks, bare trees, a church steeple, a snow-covered mountain, some vigorous fir trees. The third brings us back to winter again. Houses, a low wall, a muffled figure facing tracks it has already left in the snow and has now whirled round to check the size of his progress. The houses in the middle distance have blue shutters. Snow covers all. The fourth picture has for some reason been removed from its position on the ledge and is leaning against the fireplace. It shows a lake in summer, filling up the lower half of the tombstone; beyond it, a very tall church steeple over red house roofs. Behind that in turn are sharp peaks of those low mountains that elsewhere in France are called “alpilles.” A hawk is soaring towards a storm-cloud. Behind the storm, the radiance of what might be a daytime moon. It is not clear why this pleasant image, amateurish though it is like all the rest, has been demoted from the picture-rail to stand, almost unseeable, in the chimney-corner, half-hidden by a terrestrial globe inscribed in French. There is still a Soviet Union; there is still a Rhodesia. Behind the globe, a teddy-bear made of straw stands with its nose pressed against the side of the TV. A child who picked it up with the enthusiasm teddy bears deserve might be roughly scratched. Behind the bear stands a pewter lantern with a candle lying toppled in it. Above this bear’s nose, and perched on top of the television set, is a bright Russian doll with a painted pink face and little cupiedoll lips. It is the sort of doll that usually opens up to reveal many smaller dolls just like itself in descending sizes all nested within. This one however, when opened, reveals the tip of a brush, a yellow wax crayon, a small pencil-sharpener, and the stub of a violet pencil for it to sharpen. There is also a tiny red gingham bow. Past the television set is another straw, bear-like creature, this one looking even less caressable than the first. Then a small table bearing the radio tuner, the VCR and its gear. Past that, still in the entertainment corner, there sits on the very rim of the tile ledge a metal wavy-lipped tray filled with artificial flowers in the midst of which a round, green candle, partly burned, sits in an angle. In front of this, a big stone owl with a gold ribbon and cord around its neck faces into the room. The ribbon is bright but not as bright as the beak of the owl, which gleams in the morning sun.

Right next to the fireplace itself stands a metal pot full of artificial flowers.

In front of the window on the southeast, in a child’s cradle (perhaps replica, perhaps original) of the late nineteenth century, the infant’s place is taken by two potted plants, one a sort of dracena or snakeplant, and one the sort playfully called mother-in-law’s tongue. In the southeast corner of the room, next to these plants, stands a wooden barstool, with bent wood buttressing. This supports a very large Christmas cactus, not in flower. This four-foot-wide cactus partially hides a curio cabinet, which stands right beside the east window in this southeast corner of the room. The cabinet has four shelves. On the first shelf, at the top, above eye level, a pewter candleholder with one half-melted candle; a green glass apothecary jar with gilt decoration. A strange figure, perhaps it is a bottle, in the form of a grey female creature in grey robe holds what seems like a small infant, also in grey. She might be a nun, or an ancient noblewoman, or a nightmare figure that comes to snatch children away, a Lilith of the mountains. Her face is perfectly heart-shaped, cream-colored against the grey of her wimple and robe. She has a small mouth, and her eyes have no pupils. Standing beside her, sitting upright in the begging posture, is a dog with a very long neck, china, with brightly colored flowers dotted here and there about its body and paws.

On the second shelf at the left is another candle-holder, this one in brightly-colored clay, made presumably by a child. Next to it, a small ointment jar has “Rebecca” written on it. Beside it, a small black tea caddy from Jackson’s of Piccadilly, full of stones. Next to it, a small ointment pot, with two infants in clay in ceramic on top of it. You open it by pulling up the infants. Next to the infants, and actually resting on the head of the girl infant, is the spout of an ornamental and impractical teapot that would hold perhaps a cup of tea. Alongside it is a china shoe, empty, shaped for the right foot of an infant. The china shoe has a cloth ribbon and plastic flowers attached where the laces would be.

On the third shelf, a glass yogurt jar has been wrapped in paper. On it, a child’s hand has written in crayon, “Mamie bonne fête.” In front of this, a small china dog sports with its puppies. Something sad happens then: a young china gentleman, seven inches tall, dressed in 18th century costume, has lost his right hand. Worse than that, his head was broken quite off on the line running through the lower jar of the right to the upper jar of the left, and it has been mended, not unskillfully, so the boy can still look out with the serene smile common to china figurines. Next to him and partly hanging over him is a floral vase containing a pint, but not of liquid; containing instead an assortment of unusual festive characters: two one-horned devils, for example; a large bumblebee; a parrot with blue and yellow feathers and red bill; all of these made from pipecleaners. Then a larger creature with three snaky heads, two large creatures, perhaps serpents, serpents made from some pipe cleaner-like material that winds around tall plastic stalks upright in the jar. Almost hidden inside the jar is a dragonfly in plastic with pipecleaner obbligato and sticking out of the jar too is a perfectly ordinary Guatemalan wooden brightly painted gift-shop parrot. The snakes are yellow and have long red tongues. Beside this, a small étui of wood carries an embroidered cover showing an auk-like bird perched in flowers.

On the fourth shelf is a copper cauldron, a miniature version of the kind that, full size, hang from the ledges of this and many another alpine chalet. This little one supports a candle or candle-like object coated in gold metal. Beside it, another plate of the woodsman chopping a tree his blade cannot reach stands beside a small goat bell, perhaps the most beautiful object in the room, made of bell metal with an iron strap atop it, marked on the metal, primitively with a sun and a moon. In the corner of the lowest shelf in the cabinet stands a wooden cuckoo clock, non-functioning, both in respect of the time it does not keep and the cuckoo it does not emit. It does, though, have the shape of an alpine chalet, a stylized and somewhat more folkloric version of the very building in which all these things have been collected and displayed. Before the tiny, romantic chalet stands a cutout figure of a green fir tree in front of which in turn is an improbably large bright red white-spotted amanita mushroom. Over the clock proper, a bluebird seems to have been snared on the ledge of the chalet.

But there is a real cuckoo clock in the room. It hangs beneath the wooden mallet of Thor right next to the chimney piece, on the south wall of the chalet, below the window through which one can see the top of La Frasse, a curiously conical mountain of twelve hundred meters just south of town. The cuckoo clock, though, is a misnomer: it is not a cuckoo clock, it is rather a clock of the German style in which peasant figures are meant to come out and pass before the eye as the hour strikes, as their little turntable admits them, displays them, and conceals them in turn. The clock itself says it is 8:24. On either side of the clock beaks up towards the figure are two figures that might be birds or might be floral. They seem to have beaks, but their colors are those of no birds that live in Germany or Switzerland. Next to this clock is an oval painting by the same hand as all the others. It shows two shacks in the mountains, again in winter, with a rickety fence not quite connecting one with the other. Before the door of each shack or cabin are signs of a path. Each cabin has a chimney. Each chimney is emitting dense black smoke, as if a month’s worth of newspapers were being burnt inside. To the east of this is another painting, oddly shaped: imagine a tombstone with two rectangulars on either side of it, or perhaps a bay window. Here is a long street covered in snow spottily bordered on one side by a tall grey wall; along the street a man with an umbrella furled is walking slowly behind his dog. They are on their way to the heart of the village, where a number of buildings cluster around a low-steepled church. A fenced field is at the left side of the road.

In the corner is another oval showing a figure muffled in heavy clothing; the figure wears a tall hat, and leaves tracks in the snow as he or she advances up a road between a granary and two chalets towards a fence beyond which is a church that looks very much like our own little church in La Moussière, ‘the mossy place.’

On the east wall in the same corner is a framed reproduction of a painting of a large, handsome building of the 19th century with hills beyond it. It is not labeled, but it could very well be the établissements thermales down in Thonon-les-Bains, where one can take the waters, or be immersed in greenish healing mud. Beside the painting is a black and white photograph of mountain barns and sheds with snow mountains behind them, with a cherry tree in the foreground, not in blossom. This photograph has been mounted on cardboard and is unframed. Next to it, in an entirely different style, is a framed painting or reproduction, a gouache in full naive style showing scenes of peasant life. A woodcarver is carving a life-size figure of a saint or wanderer. Beside him as he works is a heart-shaped pond. A house is being built, tiny workmen imposing the roof beam. In the middle distance, a building with turreted roof proclaims itself a MENUISERIE. Beyond this wood-working plant is a pond with a sawmill, and quite a big truck loaded with logs is driving towards it. Beyond the roof of the sawmill many large logs have been piled up neatly. Beyond that, a modern backhoe is lifting some logs from the ground. Not far away a small house has tiny cows in its front yard. Beyond all that, hills and mountains. All the proportions seem studiedly wrong; large and small give no information about near or far. This picture hangs directly below the large espresso maker. Beyond the window, to the left and thus on the northeast corner of the room, just before the goose and just under the muzzle of the shotgun, mounted against the wooden wall above the light switch are first of all: a child’s drawing of perhaps a dog is mounted sideways so that it looks more abstract and perhaps more interesting than it is. Below that is a large thermometer registering both Fahrenheit and Celsius; at the moment it reads 21 C (71 F). Above the column of mercury is a large raised relief of a goose looking backwards over its tail towards a farm in the distance. Yet another goose in raised relief (small plaster, glued to the back) just beyond it has lost its head and is available to the viewer only as a large white irregular object with a pointed wing. Below the thermometer is a large hard-to-see child’s picture, as if a birthday cake for a five-year-old, though the number 6 is plainly written on it. Underneath, a card shows a penguin wrapped warm in muffler and tall hat carrying in his left flipper a wrapped parcel – he is wishing the occupants of the room Bonne année and meilleures voeux. Beneath the light switch, and jammed into the doorframe, a small cloth figure of another penguin has been wedged.

At the center of the room stands a fig tree, Ficus benjamina, in a large green ceramic tub. In the branches of the tree are: a bodyless snowman, wearing blue hat, muffler, and mittens on his no arms; a cluster of plastic raspberries hanging from a high branch; another cluster of plastic raspberries hanging a little lower down on the other side of the tree. On the branch furthest to the south (that is, in the direction of Mont Blanc) a little cloth sheep wearing a pale green jumper hangs by its head. Straight across from it, at the highest point of the tree, just past the first cluster of false raspberries, a gold ribbon in plastic has been hung loosely, forming a kind of double helix dangling from the topmost leaf. In the very center of the tree, in cloth, with blue and avocado wings, perches a bright red parrot. Yellow beak and feet. A bright green eye.