The old dinner horn has blown for the last time, I think. The rubber bulb which gave it voice has cracked with age.
This was a horn built to a heroic mold, the sort of horn that in an earlier day would have vanquished scores of dragons with the blast of its breath alone. It came from Calcutta, India, the gift of Alice's brother who had spent several years there working for the Ford Foundation.
In Calcutta it had graced a taxi, and no doubt done daily battle for years with the wicked dragon Holdfast, the patron deity of traffic snarls. Its shape or signature, appropriately enough, was serpentine, a sign of the tangles it should untangle. Beyond the dull black rather pear-shaped rubber bulb where dwelt the winds that gave it voice, it was brass, dulled with the years, dented and scratched, and looked old. But old is a slippery term.
Some people I know look as though they were born old - 'born on a bar stool' as the phrase has it - and never learned anything worth knowing.
Others, rare ones, look old with an enduring age that has seen much and still endures, from whom one might wish to ask and hope to hear again the ancient stories of our race.
Like our horn they are not distinctive in that sudden way of a pretty woman in a gathering of business suits. Rather, they have an inner calm, a character, that speaks through a humble exterior which only gradually draws attention, like the herb rue, 'herb-of-grace,' of which Henry Beston says "it stood in the gardens of Charlemagne, it rose dark among the tenth century herbs; the magic and medicine of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance both acknowledged it as a power; its roots are deep in the folklore of the West."
Our horn called us from the hayfield and from the woods, from whatever engrossing project we or children were intent upon. Its voice never failed to startle those who, unfamiliar with its powers, stood nearby absorbed in other concerns. Even knowing its powers and standing behind with the bell of the horn pointed out and away, one steeled oneself for the blast of sound that rushed forth when the fingers contracted quickly and firmly around the hand-sized rubber bulb.
It may have come from Calcutta. It may have been a taxi horn. There may be hundreds if not thousands of similar horns, all slightly different because made largely by hand, scattered around the world from the same impulse that sends lobster pots from Atlantic seaports home to Regina and Toronto and Calgary on the top of tourists' cars in our own day. So be it.
And yet our dinner horn is like the minstrel queen of Spain, who, when her husband the King of Spain was captured by the Moors, dressed herself in boy's clothes, went disguised to the tent of the Moorish chieftain, and so captivated him with singing that he granted the singer the boon of carrying the young king back to his people. Only after they were safely returned and in the midst of a great feast did she reveal who the 'boy' with the sweet voice really was. All true stories say the same, true nobility will shine out even when hidden behind a humble exterior.
Our horn and its mighty voice put me in mind of that ivory horn named Oliphant which Roland, the greatest of the Twelve Peers of France, had with him and blew so desperately when the fierce Moors came down upon him and the rear guard of twenty thousand picked men in a mountain pass at Roncesvalles in the Western Pyrenees a thousand years and more ago.
Roland's horn was of such a stout temper that Charlemagne heard its call from the other side of the Pyrenees. Three times Roland blew upon that horn at Roncesvalles, to summon the aid that was to come too late, and at the third blast the horn itself was shattered.
Roland the mighty was returning from aiding his Lord, Charles the Great or Charlemagne, in his battles with the Moors in what we now call Spain. Leader of the last part of the army of the Franks as it returned over the mountains to France, Roland and his men were ambushed by the Moors. Roland's arm was mighty and his sword was an old sword which had done mighty work in many battles and served his master well, as had Roland's horn which hung at his belt to be winded in time of need. Never was need greater, nor the battle fiercer, than it was on that day.
Though the king heard the sound of the distant horn and hurried with the rest of his army to Roland's aid, he came too late. All Twelve Peers and all twenty thousand picked men were dead.
And thence, too late, the Franks would ride
With swords as useless as their tears.
Even a humble thing like a dinner horn has its romance. May they waken in us some sense of life as more than the daily round. May they call us to more than dinner!
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.