Hortus Conclusus


Toti O’Brien



“For Talia. Do Not Break,” says the note. The box is kind of square, medium sized. At a glance, she sees that her younger siblings don’t have one such. Ah! Then it is a mark of age, a privilege of seniority—those talismans always come with a challenge. But it doesn’t matter. They are worth it.

Under the tree—huge, good smelling, towering in a corner, yet a bit incongruous with its lights off, while morning peers in—there are other gifts. Not many. Little money in the household, seldom a superfluity. That is why everything… thing new…  thing packaged, thing ribboned…


The box is well wrapped, but kind of severely. A piece of plain paper, no frills. What singles it out as exceptional is the handwritten note. The handwriting is Mother’s, she knows, though a part of her brain lends it an impersonal voice—wide, diffuse, remote, thunderous.

She opens it, at last, with some trepidation, and she registers en passant that container and contents don’t match. The box isn’t… Yet beautiful—thick cardboard, wide lid attached with golden hinges—but isn’t… It must have contained fine cigars, fine chocolates. There’s a brand on the side and tiny, hard to decipher print. She doesn’t linger.


So much straw, so much tissue paper. First her fingers hesitate then they become nervous. A small butterfly tickles her stomach. All this stuffing might hint at one of those grown-up jokes—when they trick you with a sparkling lure to see you chin tremble, your eyes veil with dismay as you figure…

She doesn’t have time to dwell on her fear. Doubt keeps silent and coy under her solar plexus as she feverishly undoes the shrouds of white tissue, burying a treasure smaller and smaller.


Two minuscule cups with their matching saucers. Cute and snug—the size of a thimble. She could wear them on the tip of her fingers and they wouldn’t fall. They are the pawns of the set, though—the infantry, common soldiers. There is more, and better.

Here’s a pitcher for milk. Here’s a sugar bowl with symmetrical handles, its lid carefully taped on. With those, slightly bigger, she almost falls in love. But here is the teapot! A large version of the sugar bowl—same enchanting roundness—yet the serpentine of the spout, the small hooks accommodating the handle (an arch of woven reed) make it special.

The teapot is the masterpiece. She admires it in awe, transfixed by a stupor clear of ownership pride. She doesn’t appropriate it. She is won.


She hasn’t seen a teapot before. Meaning full size. Teatime ceremonials don’t belong to the culture in which she was born. They drink tea, of course—cold, during summer. It is made once a week in huge quantities, loaded with sugar and lemon, bottled and stuck into the fridge. While hot tea is for the sick—if they get the flu or stomach trouble, water is boiled in a pan then poured into a cup where a small bag hangs. Looks and feels like medicine… She knows nothing of five o’clock rites and paraphernalia.

A printed label is tucked under the goodies—slightly crumpled. It says: “Toy Tea Set”. It sounds like an incantation. A spell.


“Do you like them?” says Mother. “Be careful! It is real porcelain! Treat it well. We thought we could trust you.” She’ll turn five in two months and she already knows how to read—sure sign of precocity.

She can’t take her eyes off the miniature china. She has never seen ware of such finery, such color. No, not even full size. Blue on white, and the blue draws intricate arabesques—eerie, enchanting, lacey and soothing like a Sunday dress.


Back in the kids’ quarters, she displays everything on the plastic table she shares with her siblings. Then she marches to the bathroom to fill up pitcher and teapot with water (pretend-milk, pretend-tea) while she ponders what might do for sugar. She tiptoes to open the tap. First, milk. Careful! The pitcher’s so tiny it keeps overflowing. Slowly, slowly—she needs just a trickle. Now the teapot. Pay attention! Full! Stop!

Butterflies have abandoned her guts. Her chest widens to allow a wave of happiness as she firmly, solidly grasps the arch of woven cane, closes her fist, lifts her arm.


The crash makes her knees buckle. Here she is, petrified between the sink and the door, elbow still up in triumph, fingers wrapped around the treacherous twigs. The handle and her palm have remained one, inseparable. The teapot has slipped underneath them, taking on a trajectory of its own. Now it lies on the floor, in pieces, while a puddle of water underlines disaster like blood on a battlefield.

Broken. Spilled. Quick! Before Mother comes. Pick up shards! Mop away!


But she can’t. Can’t let go of the reed, which adheres to her right hand by magic. She needs to understand what just happened. Look how these things are made! The handle threads into the loops of the pot then curves back—its ends slipping into small rings of rattan… kind of loose, as when you tie your shoelaces without double knotting, when a button is a bit too small for a buttonhole.

When she carried it a minute ago, the pot was light enough for the handle to remain in place. But as soon as she filled it, its weight caused the ends to slip out. Treason.


She feels cheated—not sure if by the reed or by water. Water, likely, as by nature it is accident-prone. Surely not by the teapot, which—on the contrary—lurks at her from the tiled floor, forlorn, wounded and mute. Vaguely menacing.

Dead? It can’t be.

For a split second only she is feeling betrayed. But, again, by whom? Cheap manufacturers? Who are they? She doesn’t know toys are made. The adults who didn’t explain? They usually don’t have time.

Then she simply feels bad. Ashamed. “For Talia…” Her mind stumbles like a frightened horse before the last words of the fated note.


She eventually glues the toy back. An adult must have understood her pain—if not fully, enough to provide glue as a form of consolation, plus some summary instructions. With adult assistance, perhaps, she has done a good job.

The handle ends are locked in, sewn in permanent fashion. The teapot is all patched but bears a triangular hole, as a shard was too crumbled and couldn’t be glued. No big deal—someone’s patting on her shoulder—she can turn it and the hole won’t show. No one will suspect there is one. Except… And the scars! Those glued cracks are visible, interrupting the pretty arabesque of blue. Because of the hole she cannot fill the pot with tea, meaning water. It has become a fake. A pretend-pot.


Mother hasn’t been extremely upset at this failure of hers. Talia expected worse. Either she looked really too contrite, too humiliated or—the thought only brushes her mind—the tea set wasn’t terribly precious, or…

Maybe Mother was busy and she let it pass. She moved on to some other problem.


Talia can’t. She keeps her toy-tea-set in the box. Sometimes, all by herself, she airs it briefly, turning the teapot at a convenient angle—hole in the back. Also managing to conceal as much as possible a ragged, huge, diagonal scar. She pours nothing into miniature cups. She has long given up on pretend-sugar (a clear sign of emotional disengagement). The milk pitcher is still pretty and smart, a joy to behold. But it looks kind of lost.


Author’s Statement on Beauty

As we leave the greenrooms and file up to the stage I notice how each member of the choir appears to change nature. We imperceptibly become a couple of inches taller. The tensed boredom of wait gives way to a bright intensity. We hold our folders like flags we are about to hoist in pride.

As my gaze wanders through the line, I am struck by the elegance and grace of each figure, either wrapped in velvet or clad in plain shirt and slacks. I guess even a uniform would achieve the same glamour. Where was this splendor hiding a few minutes ago? ‘Beauty’ my mind whispers ‘is a matter of attitude’.

    Then we start singing. We are a huge choir and the rafters are cramped. As we hit the highest pitch in the finale, our spines and torsos spontaneously lift to support our voices, and the lack of space causes our elbows to connect, slightly brushing. I don’t try to avoid contact. On the contrary, I let it occur. I have the impression of sustaining and being sustained by my right and left neighbors. I can feel the sound circulate through our connected bodies, and it resonates, deeper, deeper.

Later, I ask myself if my neighbors, perhaps, also touched the next singers—if we were all joined, one body. If that was the reason why the finale sounded so immensely glorious. ‘Beauty,’ my minds specifies, ‘is a matter of posture’. It is posture itself.

Now I am in the workshop, assembling sparse elements for a sculpture. I am totally absorbed into my task. My mind comments my gestures, half-consciously, as for a child muttering to herself while she plays. So I hear myself murmuring now and then: “No! This is too beautiful! It won’t work”. It is one of my rules as an artist: never use a discrete, single element that is very attractive per se. I don’t want stars in my artwork, I want scratches. Luscious colors, shine, jewel tones, elaborated shapes do not work for me. They create the illusion of beauty and not its reality.

    The reality of beauty is carried by the context—by the surprise of plain, drab, inconspicuous things, or no-things, interacting. By the way they intertwine, they reveal each other, cast light onto each other. ‘Beauty is in the ensemble’. It is the ensemble, the choir.

Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Triggerfish, The Almagre Review, O:JA&L, and Scryptic. More at: http://totihan.net/index.html