As he stood alone in the immense library of his college a week after Michaelmas term, mourning the arrival of his sixty-fifth birthday and contemplating the mild, pristinely white light pouring in through the high arched windows, the senior scholar reflected that over the years he had added no accomplishments at all to those his father had instilled in him as a child. And these had been few enough: mastery of classical languages, knowledge of antique literature, and skill in the hybridization of phalaenopses. Moreover, he thought, closing the volume of Statius that had lain open on the table before him at no particular page for ten minutes, in none of these spheres had he ever equaled, let alone surpassed, that saturnine, perpetually weary man, whose image he could now summon up in memory only as a spectrally pallid face casting a disappointed gaze over the top of milky spectacles.
Then again, he mused, he had finally succeeded, as his father had repeatedly failed to do, in producing a durable orchid from two seemingly incommiscible breeds: one a small ruby lithophyte—rupestrine, riparian, originally plucked from granite scree winding in a sleek purple ribbon along the banks of a Chinese mountain river—the other a cream-white epiphyte—philoskiastic, with petals of almost carnal lushness, roused long ago from a moist mossy bed among the blue shadows of a Malaysian forest. And the issue of that unlikely exogamy had been truly lovely, reminiscent of a delicate Phalaenopsis aphrodite, but with an elusive peach patina misted by faint red stippling, most concentrated at the blossom’s center and wholly dissipating just short of its petals’ edges. It was a feat of natural magic before which his father might have felt, and even deigned to express, real admiration; but by then the old man was long dead.
The scholar sighed, lifted the book from the table, turned about, replaced it on its shelf at the end of the nearest case, and idly ran his finger down its lustrous red leather spine. As a classicist, he thought, he certainly had made no contributions comparable to his father’s. His entire scholarly and literary posterity would consist in one tedious monograph on philological reconstructions of Attic pronunciations, a critical edition of Appian, a few boringly recherché articles, a translation of Nonnus’s verse rendering of John’s Gospel, and the one volume he had written that had achieved a small measure of popular success (but which his colleagues mostly regarded as a frivolity): his book on the classification of nymphs. Perhaps this was his father’s real legacy to him, he thought. The old man had rarely betrayed any hint of a suppler, more poetic nature hiding behind the starched curtains of his prosaic demeanor; but his love of Greek myth at its most Arcadian, like his fascination with exotic flowers, suggested depths of imagination perhaps somewhat belied by the stilted aridity of his manner. There was, after all, that single mysterious utterance he had allowed to escape in one unguarded moment, in reaction to twenty lines of Latin verse his son had composed at school and brought home at the Christmas recess: “In one’s life, one may know only one moment when perfect beauty is within reach; and then the rest of one’s life means nothing.” But he had never elaborated upon the remark—or, for that matter, said what he thought of his son’s poem.
That book on the nymphs, though—the only book he had ever really wanted to write—but for his father . . .
He moved further down the stacks, to another shelf, and removed—he had no need to search for it—a large, black, handsomely bound copy of Golding’s translation of Ovid: the same edition that his father had kept in his study, and to which as a boy he had often repaired not so much for the text as for the exquisite and tastefully salacious ink illustrations. He took it back to the reading table and opened it with a practiced hand; he had to turn only three pages to find what he sought. It was a plate depicting Lotis running from Priapus, before being turned into the flower bearing her name. Framed by vine-leaf illuminations was a full-length image of the fleeing nymph, viewed from behind, and the figure of her pursuer, from the waist upward, looming in the foreground: she outstretched in flight, unclad except for a diaphanous wisp of raiment irrelevantly flung over one shoulder and billowing out behind her, all her dorsal glory on display, her face turned back in three-quarter profile with an expression of pure terror, her hair a wild tumult of hyacinthine locks more appropriate to one of the Anthousai than to a Nereid; he a shadowy mass of brute sinew, with one grasping arm outstretched like a warped oak branch. The scholar closed his eyes after a moment. That image had delighted him when he was a boy; the figure and face of Lotis had so perfectly accorded with—or formed—his ideal of feminine beauty that he had repaired to it continually during certain crucial years. And still, he thought, after all this time . . .
But something stirred beside him, at his shoulder; there was a soft, high sound of breath taken in, surely a woman’s, and the sound of bare feet gently falling on the hardwood floor. Yet it took him a few seconds to wake from his thoughts, open his eyes, turn, and glimpse a woman’s naked hip, shoulder, and calf, disappearing around the edge of a row of stacks, trailing a tangle of hyacinthine black tresses and a wisp of white fabric. He caught his breath, trembled violently, and then heard himself—before he was aware of speaking—calling out in a strained voice: “Wait, please!” Then, scarcely aware of what he was doing, he was running, unsteadily, and in a moment had come to the end of the row, already out of breath. There she stood, halfway along the length of the stacks, turned sideways, gazing at him with a gorgeously enigmatic smile, her near leg drawn up and delicately crooked, her arms gathered in, her fingers at her lips, in a pose that seemed—despite her nudity—impeccably demure. “Oh,” he said softly, and then began slowly to approach her. She watched him, without any change of expression, until he was only five feet away; but then she turned with a high bell-like laugh and dashed away, and in an instant had disappeared again around the row’s far end. “Oh, please,” he called again, beginning to run once more, and from the other side of the books her laughter rose in a rippling glissando, somehow both innocent and wanton. “Please!”
Now, as he came around the end of the row, he was nearly staggering; and there she was, halfway along the stacks again, but now slowly backing away from him, still smiling, beckoning him to follow with her fingers. “Devte! Devte!” she called out in a voice of extraordinary sweetness. But as he started forward again, she turned and ran once more, and was gone. Now he began to feel something like despair growing in him, but he followed even so, at scarcely more than a shamble. And, on reaching the end of the row, he had to reach out and support himself on the nearest shelf, and he bowed his head with eyes closed. But then a thrill of warmth passed from his hand along his arm, and he opened his eyes again to see her standing before him, her hand laid upon his; and, as he gazed wordlessly at her impossibly lovely smile, she suddenly leaned forward and pressed her lips against his. There was something like the taste of honey, the fragrance of nameless flowers, the softness of a gentle rain—something delicious, something heartbreakingly intangible—and then a feeling of delirium. He shut his eyes once more, felt himself gently sinking down against the shelves, and again that musical laughter rang out, and faded overhead.
He must have lost consciousness for a time. Something, at least—perhaps the altered angle of the daylight coming through the windows—told him so when he opened his eyes; but he had no recollection of it. And he knew she was gone.
It was several moments before he was able to rise to his feet (laboriously, as a man of sixty-five must) and return to the reading table. It was several moments more before he was able to detach his gaze from the image of Lotis—in part because the longing it had always provoked in him now seemed subtly displaced by something like happiness, and in part because the expression on her face now seemed to him less one of terror and more one of mirth—and to return the book to its shelf. And then it was half an hour more before he felt composed enough to leave the library for home, reflecting as he passed through the door that possibly he had surpassed his father after all, and at something of the greatest importance. At least, he knew something the old man had not: There may indeed come only one such moment in a man’s life, but when it comes it does not reduce the rest of life to meaninglessness; quite the reverse, in fact.