The Other Room
by Mary Heaton
From McCall's Magazine
It was after John MacFarland was Captain of Black Bar Life-Saving
Station for nearly twenty years. Every summer evening all that time I
would see him and Mis' MacFarland driving along to the station, for in
the summer the crew is off for two months and only the Captain stays
there from sundown to sunup.
I never saw her drive past without thinking how she hated to look at
the sea. She never sat where she could see salt water. She had been
going out to Black Bar all these years and never once had seen the
boat-drill. This was because she knew, on account of her husband's
being a life-saver, what the sea does to the vessels and the men in
When Mis' MacFarland's married daughter died and her little
granddaughter Moira came to live with her, I would see all of them, the
Captain, Mis' MacFarland and Moira, driving to the station summer
evenings, Moira's head peeping out between them like a little bird. And
I would always think how Mis' MacFarland hated the sea, and I'd be real
glad that the blowing of the sand grinds the station windows white till
you can't see through them.
Then John MacFarland died all of a sudden just at the end of the
summer. He had been building a yawl out there at the station for nearly
two years, and she was just ready to la'nch. I remember meeting him on
the boardwalk and him telling me about that boat of his, and thinking
what a fine figure of a man he was for over sixty. And next I heard he
Then Mis' MacFarland had a spell of sickness, and that is how I came
to be housekeeper to her and Moira. And I remember how she struck me
the first day, for there she was sitting looking out over the bay
watching the boats as though the sight of them gave her pleasure. I was
so surprised I spoke right out:
Why, Mis' MacFarland, says I, I thought you couldn't abide the
look of salt water.
I don't seem to feel there's the difference between land and sea I
used to, she says in her gentle, smiling way. We learn.
I wanted to ask her how we learned what I saw she'd learned, for, if
you can understand me, she seemed to have gotten beyond grief,
but before I could speak Moira came running in and it seemed as if the
joy in her heart shone out of her so the place was all lighted up. Her
face was tanned so brown that her blue eyes looked strange, and against
her skin the fair hair around her forehead looked almost silver.
Where you been, I said, to have so much fun?
In the back country, says she. I'm always happy when I come from
Were you alone? She stopped a minute before she answered.
YesI suppose so, as if she didn't quite know. It was a funny
answer but there was a funny, secret, joyful look on her face that
suddenly made me take her in my arms and kiss her, and quite surprised
to find myself doing it.
Then she sat down and I went around getting supper; first I thought
she was reading, she was so still. Then my eyes happened to fall on her
and I saw she was listening; then suddenly it was like she
heard. She had the stillest, shiningest look. All this don't sound
like much, I know, but I won't forget how Moira and Mis' MacFarland
struck me that first day, not till I die.
When I went to bed I couldn't get 'em out of my mind and I found
myself saying out loud:
There's joy and peace in this house!
It was quite a time before I sensed what had happened to Mis'
MacFarland and what made her change so toward the sea. She'd sit by the
window, a Bible in her hands and praying, and you would catch the words
of her prayer, and she was praying for those she lovedfor the living
and the dead. That was only naturalbut what I got to understand was
that she didn't feel any different about them. Not a bit
different did she feel about the living and the dead!
They were all there in her heart, the dead and the living, and not
divided off at all like in most folks' minds.
I used to wonder about Moira, too, when she'd have these quiet
spellslike she was listening, but not to any sounds. Then next
you'd feel as if she was gladder than anything you'd ever known,
sitting there so still with that listening look on her faceonly now
like I told you, as if she'd heard. She'd be so happy inside
that you'd like to be near her, as if there was a light in her heart so
you could warm yourself by it.
It's hard to tell just how I came to feel this. I suppose just by
living with folks you get to know all sorts of things about them. It's
not the things they say that matters. I knew a woman once, a
pleasant-spoken body, yet she'd pizen the air about her by the unspoken
thoughts of her heart. Sometimes these thoughts would burst out in
awful fits of angerbut you'd know how she was inside, if she spoke to
you always as gentle as a dove.
I'd like to be near Moira those times and yet it made me uneasy,
too, her sitting so still, listening, and Mis' MacFarland, as you might
say, always looking over the edge of eternity. It was all right for
her but I'd wonder about Moira. I wondered so hard I took it up
with Mis' MacFarland.
Do you think you're doing right by that child? I asked her right
Why, how do you mean? she says in her calm way.
Teaching her things that's all right for us older people to know
but that don't seem to me are for young things.
Teaching her things! says Mis' MacFarland. I haven't taught Moira
nothing. If you mean them still, quiet, happy spells of hers, she's
always had 'em. She taught me. It was watching her when
she was little that taught me
Taught you what? I asked her when she wouldn't go on.
It's hard to say it in wordstaught me how near all the rest is.
I didn't get her, so I asked what she meant by the rest.
The rest of creation! says she. Some folks is born in the world
feeling and knowing it in their hearts that creation don't stop where
the sight of the eyes stop, and the thinner the veil is the better, and
something in them sickens when the veil gets too thick.
You talk like you believed in spooks and God knows what, I says,
but more to make myself comfortable than anything else.
You know what I mean, Jane McQuarry, says she. There's very few
folks, especially older ones, who haven't sometimes felt the veil get
thinner and thinner until you could see the light shining through. But
we've been brought up to think such ideas are silly and to be ashamed
of 'em and only to believe in what we can touch and taste and, in spite
of stars shining every night over our heads, to think creation stops
with heavy things like us. And how anyone who's ever seen a fish
swimming in the water can think thatI don't know. What do they know
of us and how can they imagine folks on legs walking around and
breathing the air that makes 'em die? So why aren't there creatures,
all kind of 'em, we can no more see than a fish can us?
I couldn't answer that, so I went back to Moira.
She'll get queer going on like this, I said. Thin veils and light
shining through and creatures that feel about us like we do about
fishes are all right for old folks who've lived their lives. She's got
to live hers and live it the way ordinary folks do.
Ain't she happy? asked Mis' MacFarland. Don't she like rolling a
hoop and playing with the other children? Didn't you say only yesterday
her mischief would drive you out of your senses?
I couldn't deny this. Unless you'd seen her as I had, she was just
like any other happy little girl, only happier maybe. Like, I said, you
could see her heart shine some days, she was so happy. About that time
I found out more how she felt. One still night, for no reason, I got
out of my bed and went into Moira's room and there she was sitting up
in her bed, her eyes like starlight.
What are you doing? I asked.
WhyIdon't knowI'm waiting for something!
Waiting! At this time of the night! How you talk! You lie right
down, Moira Anderson, and go to sleep, says I, sharp.
I can't yet, she says, turning to me. I haven't been able to find
it for two days now. I've not been good inside and I drove it away.
For mercy's sake, speak plain! What did you drive away?
Why, don't you know? says she. You lose your good when you're
unkind or anything.
Your good! I says. Where do you get it from? For she
spoke as though she were talking of something that was outside herself
and that came and went.
It comes from out there, she says, surprised that I didn't know.
From out there?
Oh, out there where all the things are you can feel but
can't see. There's lots of things out there.
I sat quiet, for all of a sudden I knew plain as day that she
thought she was feeling what everybody else in the world felt. She
hadn't any idea she was different.
You know, she said, how it is when you sit quiet, you know it's
theresomething good, it floods all over you. It's like people you
love make you feel, only more. Just like something beautiful that can
get right inside your heart!
Now this may seem queer to you, for Moira was only a little girl of
twelve, but there was a look on her face of just sheer, wonderful love,
the way you see a girl look sometimes, or a young mother. It was so
beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. That was the last time I
worried about Moira for a long time, for, think I, anything as
beautiful as that is holy even if it ain't regular.
I told Mis' MacFarland about our talk.
What do you think she means when she says 'her good'? Is it like
feeling God's near? I asked. She shook her head.
I don't believe it, she said. It's more human than that. I think
it's someone out there that Moira loves
How you talk! I said. Someone out there! If you keep on like this
you'll be fey, as my old grandmother used to call it.
Well, she said, when you get to where I am, lots of things that
seem curious at first thought don't seem a mite more curious than birth
or death. Not as curious even, when you come to think about it. What's
there so curious I'd like to know, Jane McQuarry, about sensing the
feelings of somebody else off to a distance? How about your own mother,
the night your brother was lost at sea; didn't she know that and hadn't
you all mourned him dead for two months before the real word came to
I couldn't deny this, and I felt that the wind was taken out of my
sails. I suppose it was all along with that feeling of hers, with not
making a difference between those that were dead and those that were
not. All the world was mysterious, and she had a sense of the wonder of
the least blade of grass in it, so the things that were not so usual as
you might say didn't disturb her any.
Why, says she, sometimes I sit in a maze just to look at this
Why, what ails this room? said I.
'T was a room like many you've seen hereabouts, with a good
horse-hair sofy and the mahogany furniture nice and shiny from being
varnished every spring, and over the sofy was thrown a fur rug made in
lozenges of harp seal and some other fur and a dark fur border. It was
real prettyit was always wonderful to me that folks like Eskimos can
make the things they do. There was some little walrus ivory carvings on
the what-not, and on the mantel a row of pink mounted shells, and the
model of her father's barkentine when he was in the China trade was on
the wall in a glass case.
There's many rooms alike here in this town, with the furniture kept
so nice and the things the men's brought back with 'em from the north
and south, as you'd expect in a seafaring town
What ails this room? I said.
Why, it's the folks who made it, says she. So many and from so
far. The whole world's here! She went on like that until it seemed to
me the room was full of folkssavages and Eskimos and seafaring men
dead a long while ago, all of 'em. It was wonderful if you looked at it
So, she said, jumping out on me sudden, what's there strange
about Moira feeling like she does when there's rooms like this? It's
less common, but it's no more wonderful.
I saw what she meant, though at the time her explanation of Moira
seemed just nonsense to me. Though I'll say I could tell myself when
Moira lost what she called her good. She'd be like a lost child;
she'd be like a plant without water and without sun.
Except for that she grew up just like any other girl, a favorite
with the children, and a lovely dancer. Only there it wasshe had
something that other children didn't. It came and went, and when it
went away she would grow dim like a smoky lamp. I got so used to it
that it just seemed to me like a part of Moira. Nothing that marked her
off from nobody, or that gave you anything like a queer and creepy
feeling about her. Quite the contrary. She just seemed to have an
abiding loveliness about her that everybody else ought to have but
didn't, not so much.
When Kenneth Everett came along, Well, thinks I, I might have
saved myself the worry. For worry I always had for fear that this
other feeling of hers would cut her off from the regular things in
life. It would have been all very well in another time in the world
when a girl could go off and be a saint, but there was no such place
for a girl to go in a town like ours.
There was no one but Moira for Kenneth from the first. He was as
dark as she was fair; sunlight and starshine they seemed to me. It used
to make me happy just to see him come storming in calling out, Moira!
from the time he passed the Rose of Sharon bush at the gate.
Things in those days seemed right to me. Maybe I didn't see far
enough; maybe I wanted too much for herall the things it seems to me
a woman in this life ought to haveand that I hadn't understood what
made Moira the way she was. No wonder he loved her. I wish I could make
you feel the way Moira looked. You had to feel it in your heart some
way. She was fair and her face was tanned with the wind to a lovely
golden color and her cheeks were smooth like ripe fruit and her eyes
were blue and steady, so dark sometimes they seemed blackseeing eyes,
that looked beyond what Mis' MacFarland called the veil of things.
She always seemed to me as if the spirit of the sea and the dunes
between them was more her father and mother than anything else. That's
a fanciful idea, but she gave you thoughts like that. She was the kind
that makes even plain bodies like me fanciful.
There was days when she looked to me like something out of a lovely
dreamif you can imagine a girl that's been dreamed by the sea and the
dunes come true.
I can't quite tell when I first sensed what Kenneth felt about the
times Moira was away, for as she went to the back countryyou
know how wild and secret that back country behind the town isso there
was what you might call the back country of the spirit she used to go
to. I guess I found out how he felt one afternoon when he was waiting
for her to come back from the dunes. She flew in as if she was helped
by wings and she was listeningI'd got so used to it by now, it
was so part of her, that I forgot how it might strike lots of folks.
He jumped toward her. Oh, I've been waiting such a time, Moira! I'm
so glad you're back!
I knew he'd seen she was away and he was putting himself between
her and whatever it was. For a moment she stood looking at him puzzled,
as if it had taken her a minute to come back, and then she was as glad
to see him as he was her.
Well, thinks I, when she gets married all her odd ways will go.
I took to watching them, and then and again I'd see him, as you
might say, bring her back to real earth from the shining spot to which
her thoughts went. Then sometimes after he'd go she'd be restless like
she was when she was little when she'd lost her good.
I could tell Mis' MacFarland was watching her, too, as she'd sit
there praying like she did so much of the time, though it often seemed
to me that her prayers wasn't so much prayers as a kind of getting near
to those she loved.
I was sure then, as I ever was of anything, that Moira loved
Kenneth. At the sound of his voice, light would come to her eyes and
color to her face and her hand would fly to her breast as if there
wasn't enough air in the world for her to breathe. Yet there was
something else, too. She was always sort of escaping from him and then
coming back to him like a half-tamed bird, and all the time he came
nearer and nearer to her heart. All the time he had more of her
thoughts. He fought for them.
He loved her. It seemed he understood her. He sensed all that was in
her heart, the way one does with those we love. He'd look at her
sometimes with such anxious eyes as if he was afraid for her, as if he
wanted to save her from something. I couldn't blame him. I'd felt that
way myself, but I'd gotten used to her ways.
Now I saw all over again that there was strange thoughts in her
heartthoughts that don't rightly belong in the kind of world we live
It seems queer to you, I suppose, and kind of crazy, but I couldn't
someway see what would become of Moira without her good. If you'd
lived with her the way I did all those years you'd have seen something
beautiful reflected in her like the reflection of a star in a little
pool at evening, only I couldn't see the star myself, just the
reflection of it, but she saw the star.
I couldn't blame Kenneth; he wanted for her all the things I'd
wanted for her alwaysand I couldn't bring myself to feel that the
reflection of a star was better than the warm light of the fire from
the hearth, but it was the star that had made her so lovely.
All this time Mis' MacFarland talked liked nothing was going on and
all the time I knew she was watchin'. I'd try and sound her and she'd
manage not to answer.
There came a time when I couldn't hold in. Moira'd been out all day
on the dunes and toward night the fog had swept over us.
She came back out of the fog with a look on her face like a lost
soul. I knew what had happenedI knew what was wrongyet I couldn't
help crying out:
What's the matter?
She just looked at me the way animals do when they suffer and can't
understand. Her mouth was white and her eyes were dark, as if she was
in pain, and when Kenneth came she ran to him as if she would have
thrown herself in his arms to hide. They went out on the porch and that
was when I could hold in no longer.
What do you think about it? I asked Mis' MacFarland right plain
About what? she asked.
I looked to where they was sitting. 'T was a wet night; the windows
and trees seemed like they was crying. The great drops that fell from
them, plopplop, was like tears. There was a rainbow around the street
light that made it look like the moon had dropped down close. Mis'
MacFarland looked at them and she just shut her mouth and she shook her
head and I could tell she wasn't pleased. Then says she:
The light fell on Moira's face and she was seeing out into the night
and I knew she was out there. Kenneth spoke and she answered and
yet she wasn't with him.
He got up and walked up and down. He spoke again, and again she
answered, but Moira's voice answered without Moira. Her face was
shining like silver.
She'd heardshe'd found it again.
Then he stood in front of her and said in a strange sort of a voice:
Moira, what are you doing?
Dreaming, she said.
What are you dreaming about?
I don't know
It's not about me, it's nothing about me. Moira, look at me!
I tell you his tone made my heart bleed. She didn't answer, but
looked out into the fog in that absorbed, happy way of hers.
Moira, he said again, Moira! He couldn't get her; he couldn't
reach her, any more than if she'd stepped into another world. He put
his hands on her shoulders and turned her to him.
Moira! he said; his voice was husky with fear. What do you find
out there? She turned to him as in a dream. She looked at him and she
looked like some spirit when she spoke.
I find the one I love! she said.
What do you mean? he said. What do you mean?
The one I love, she said again.
Do you mean there's someone you love better than you do me?
She nodded, with that flooding look of wonder on her face.
I didn't know, she said next. I didn't knownotuntil nowall
All about it? he cried.
Yes, the meaning of what I feltthat it's someone as real as you,
as real as methat I love someone out theresomeone I can't see.
Moira! His voice sent shivers down my back. You're crazyyou're
madyou meanyou meanyou love someone you've never metsomeone you
can't see? She nodded.
I've loved him always, she said. All my life I've known him for
ever and everI know him more than anything in the worldfrom the
time I could think he has lived in my heartI didn't know him until
nowI only suffered when he wasn't there, and went wandering and
searching for himand you've kept me from himfor I didn't know
Moira, he called to her in his pain, don't think these
thingsdon't feel these things
But she only looked at him kindly and as if she were a long way off.
I love him, she said, better than life.
He stared at her then, and I saw what was in his mind. He thought
she was crazystark, staring crazy. Next he said, Good night,
Moiramy darling, Moira. And he stumbled out into the fog like a man
that's been struck blind.
But I knew she wasn't crazy. Maybe 't was living with Mis'
MacFarland made me believe things like that. Maybe 't was Moira
herself. But I didn't feel she was any more crazy than I do when I've
heard folks recite, I know that my Redeemer liveth.
But this isn't the endthis isn't the strangest part! Listen to
what happened next.
There was a storm after the fog and strange vessels came into the
portand Moira came to Mis' MacFarland and her eyes were starry and
I'm going to get 'em to put me aboard that vessel, and she points
to a bark which is a rare thing to see nowadays in these waters.
He's out there, says she.
I didn't doubt herI didn't doubt her any more than if she'd said
the sun was shining when my own eyes were blinded by the light of it.
Go, then, says Mis' MacFarland.
I tell you Moira was dragged out of that house as by a magnet. The
sky had cleared and lay far off and cold, and the wrack of the broken
clouds was burning itself up in the west when I saw a dory cast off
from the vessel.
It was a queer procession came up our path, some foreign-looking
sailors, and they carried a man on a sort of stretcher, and Moira
walked alongside of him. I saw three things about him the same way you
see a whole country in a flash of lightning.
One was that he was the strangest, the most beautiful man I had ever
looked on, and I saw that he was dying.
Then in the next breath I knew he belonged to Moira more than anyone
on earth ever had or would. Then all of a sudden it was as if a hand
caught hold of my heart and squeezed the blood from it like water out
of a sponge, for all at the same time I saw that they hadn't been born
at the right time for each other and that they had only a moment to
look into each other's facesbefore the darkness of death could
I couldn't bear it. I wanted to cry out to God that this miracle had
come to pass only to be wiped out like a mark in the sand. He was as
different from anyone I'd ever seen as Moira was. How can I say to you
what I saw and felt. I knew that he belonged to Moira and Moira
belonged to him. If I'd have met him at the ends of the earth I'd have
known that they belonged together. We all dream about things like this
when we're youngabout there being a perfect love for us somewhere on
earthbut there isn't, because we're not good enough.
The perfect flower can't bloom in most gardens. What these two had
was love beyond lovethe thing that poor, blundering mankind's been
working for and straining toward all down the ages.
Love was what they had, not dimmed and tarnished, not the little
flicker that comes for a moment and is gone, like in most of our lives,
but the pure fire. The love that mankind tries to find in Godthe
final wonder. Some of us, at most, have a day or houra vision that's
as far off and dim as northern lights.
Mis' MacFarland and me looked at each other and, without saying
anything, we walked from the room. I saw tears streaming down her face
and then I realized that I couldn't see for my own, I was crying the
way you may do twice in your life, if you're lucky, because you've seen
something so beautiful, poor, weak human nature can't bear it.
After a long time Mis' MacFarland spoke.
It has to happen on earth, once in a while, she said, the heart's
desire to millions and millions of people living and deadthe dream of
all who know the meaning of love. Sometimes it must come true.
That's how it made me feel, and I've always wanted to be a witness
to what I sawbut there aren't many to whom you dare to tell it.
After a time we went back and he was lying there, his face shining
like Moira's had when she'd found him in the dark spaces where she'd
had to search for him. His hair was like dark silver, and his eyes were
young like Moira's and blue as the sea at dawn. Wisdom was what was in
his face, and loveand he lay there, quiet, holding Moira's hand in
But even as I looked a change came over him and I saw the end wasn't
far away, and Moira saw it and clung fast to him.
Take me with you, she said. I have found you and can't leave you.
I've looked for you so often and I couldn't find you. We lost each
other so many times and the road together was so blind.
It's all the same, he said, she knows. He nodded to Mis'
MacFarland. It's all the same.
Mis' MacFarland motioned to me and I came to her and I was trembling
like a leaf.
It's only walking into another room, she said.
Moira sat beside him, his hand in hers, pleading with her eyes. He
turned to Mis' MacFarlandYou make her understand, he said, we all
have to wait our turn. You make her understand that we're all the
And we knew that he was talking about life and death. And then, as I
watched, I saw the life of him was ebbing out and saw that Moira knew
it. And then he was gone, just like the slow turning out of a light.
Moira turned to Mis' MacFarland and looked at her, and then I saw
she'd gotten to the other side of grief, to where Mis' MacFarland
wasto the place where there wasn't any death.