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The Major's Cabin
... the girl in the mirror winked with both eyes

It was only a quarter past seven. There was no need to hurry home. Sophie's mother always took it easy on Sundays, so she would probably sleep for another two hours.

Should she go a bit farther into the woods and try to find Alberto Knox? And why had the dog snarled at her so viciously?

Sophie got up and began to walk down the path Hermes had taken. She had the brown envelope with the pages on Plato in her hand. Wherever the path diverged she took the wider one.

Birds were chirping everywhere--in the trees and in the air, in bush and thicket. They were busily occupied with their morning pursuits. They knew no difference between weekdays and Sundays. Who had taught them to do all that? Was there a tiny computer inside each one of them, programming them to do certain things?

The path led up over a little hill, then steeply down between tall pine trees. The woods were so dense now that she could only see a few yards between the trees.

Suddenly she caught sight of something glittering between the pine trunks. It must be a little lake. The path went the other way but Sophie picked her way among the trees. Without really knowing why, she let her feet lead her.

The lake was no bigger than a soccer field. Over on the other side she could see a red-painted cabin in a small clearing surrounded by silver birches. A faint wisp of smoke was rising from the chimney.

Sophie went down to the water's edge. It was very muddy in many places, but then she noticed a rowboat. It was drawn halfway out of the water. There was a pair of oars in it.

Sophie looked around. Whatever she did, it would be impossible to get around the lake to the red cabin without getting her shoes soaked. She went resolutely over to the boat and pushed it into the water. Then she climbed aboard, set the oars in the rowlocks, and rowed across the lake. The boat soon touched the opposite bank. Sophie went ashore and tried to pull the boat up after her. The bank was much steeper here than the opposite bank had been.

She glanced over her shoulder only once before walking up toward the cabin.

She was quite startled at her own boldness. How did she dare do this? She had no idea. It was as if "something" impelled her.

Sophie went up to the door and knocked. She waited a while but nobody answered. She tried the handle cautiously, and the door opened.

"Hallo!" she called. "Is anyone at home?"

She went in and found herself in a living room. She dared not shut the door behind her.

Somebody was obviously living here. Sophie could hear wood crackling in the old stove. Someone had been here very recently.

On a big dining table stood a typewriter, some books, a couple of pencils, and a pile of paper. A smaller table and two chairs stood by the window that overlooked the lake. Apart from that there was very little furniture, although the whole of one wall was lined with book-shelves filled with books. Above a white chest of drawers hung a large round mirror in a heavy brass frame. It looked very old.

On one of the walls hung two pictures. One was an oil painting of a white house which lay a stone's throw from a little bay with a red boathouse. Between the house and the boathouse was a sloping garden with an apple tree, a few thick bushes, and some rocks. A dense fringe of birch trees framed the garden like a garland. The title of the painting was "Bjerkely."

Beside that painting hung an old portrait of a man sitting in a chair by a window. He had a book in his lap. This picture also had a little bay with trees and rocks in the background. It looked as though it had been painted several hundred years ago. The title of the picture was "Berkeley." The painter's name was Smibert.

Berkeley and Bjerkely. How strange!

Sophie continued her investigation. A door led from the living room to a small kitchen. Someone had just done the dishes. Plates and glasses were piled on a tea towel, some of them still glistening with drops of soapy water. There was a tin bowl on the floor with some leftover scraps of food in it. Whoever lived here had a pet, a dog or a cat.

Sophie went back to the living room. Another door led to a tiny bedroom. On the floor next to the bed there were a couple of blankets in a thick bundle. Sophie discovered some golden hairs on the blankets. Here was the evidence! Now Sophie knew that the occupants of the cabin were Alberto Knox and Hermes.

Back in the living room, Sophie stood in front of the mirror. The glass was matte and scratched, and her reflection correspondingly blurred. Sophie began to make faces at herself like she did at home in the bathroom. Her reflection did exactly the same, which was only to be expected.

But all of a sudden something scary happened. Just once--in the space of a split second--Sophie saw quite clearly that the girl in the mirror winked with both eyes. Sophie started back in fright. If she herself had winked--how could she have seen the other girl wink? And not only that, it seemed as though the other girl had winked at Sophie as if to say: I can see you, Sophie. I am in here, on the other side.

Sophie felt her heart beating, and at the same time she heard a dog barking in the distance. Hermes! She had to get out of here at once. Then she noticed a green wallet on the chest of drawers under the mirror. It contained a hundred-crown note, a fifty, and a school I.D. card. It showed a picture of a girl with fair hair. Under the picture was the girl's name: Hilde Moller Knag ...

Sophie shivered. Again she heard the dog bark. She had to get out, at once!

As she hurried past the table she noticed a white envelope between all the books and the pile of paper. It had one word written on it: SOPHIE.

Before she had time to realize what she was doing, she grabbed the envelope and stuffed it into the brown envelope with the Plato pages. Then she rushed out of the door and slammed it behind her.

The barking was getting closer. But worst of all was that the boat was gone. After a second or two she saw it, adrift halfway across the lake. One of the oars was floating beside it. All because she hadn't been able to pull it completely up on land. She heard the dog barking quite nearby now and saw movements between the trees on the other side of the lake.

Sophie didn't hesitate any longer. With the big envelope in her hand, she plunged into the bushes behind the cabin. Soon she was having to wade through marshy ground, sinking in several times to well above her ankles. But she had to keep going. She had to get home.

Presently she stumbled onto a path. Was it the path she had taken earlier? She stopped to wring out her dress. And then she began to cry.

How could she have been so stupid? The worst of all was the boat. She couldn't forget the sight of the row-boat with the one oar drifting helplessly on the lake. It was all so embarrassing, so shameful. . .

The philosophy teacher had probably reached the lake by now. He would need the boat to get home. Sophie felt almost like a criminal. But she hadn't done it on purpose.

The envelope! That was probably even worse. Why had she taken it? Because her name was on it, of course, so in a way it was hers. But even so, she felt like a thief. And what's more, she had provided the evidence that it was she who had been there.

Sophie drew the note out of the envelope. It said:

What came first--the chicken or the "idea" chicken ?

Are we born with innate "ideas"? What is the difference between a plant, an animal, and a human? Why does it rain? What does it take to live a good life?

Sophie couldn't possibly think about these questions right now, but she assumed they had something to do with the next philosopher. Wasn't he called Aristotle?

When she finally saw the hedge after running so far through the woods it was like swimming ashore after a shipwreck. The hedge looked funny from the other side.

She didn't look at her watch until she had crawled into the den. It was ten-thirty. She put the big envelope into the biscuit tin with the other papers and stuffed the note with the new questions down her tights.

Her mother was on the telephone when she came in. When she saw Sophie she hung up quickly.

"Where on earth have you been?"

"I... went for a walk ... in the woods," she stammered.

"So I see."

Sophie stood silently, watching the water dripping from her dress.

"I called Joanna..."

"Joanna?"

Her mother brought her some dry clothes. Sophie only just managed to hide the philosopher's note. Then they sat together in the kitchen, and her mother made some hot chocolate.

"Were you with him?" she asked after a while.

"Him?"

Sophie could only think about her philosophy teacher.

"With him, yes. Him.... your rabbit!"

Sophie shook her head.

"What do you do when you're together, Sophie? Why are you so wet?"

Sophie sat staring gravely at the table. But deep down inside she was laughing. Poor Mom, now she had that to worry about.

She shook her head again. Then more questions came raining down on her.

"Now I want the truth. Were you out all night? Why did you go to bed with your clothes on? Did you sneak out as soon as I had gone to bed? You're only fourteen, Sophie. I demand to know who you are seeing!"

Sophie started to cry. Then she talked. She was still frightened, and when you are frightened you usually talk.

She explained that she had woken up very early and had gone for a walk in the woods. She told her mother about the cabin and the boat, and about the mysterious mirror. But she mentioned nothing about the secret correspondence course. Neither did she mention the green wallet. She didn't quite know why, but she had to keep Hilde for herself.

Her mother put her arms around Sophie, and Sophie knew that her mother believed her now.

"I don't have a boyfriend," Sophie sniffed. "It was just something I said because you were so upset about the white rabbit."

"And you really went all the way to the major's cabin ..." said her mother thoughtfully.

"The major's cabin?" Sophie stared at her mother.

"The little woodland cabin is called the major's cabin because some years ago an army major lived there for a time. He was rather eccentric, a little crazy, I think. But never mind that. Since then the cabin has been unoccupied."

"But it isn't! There's a philosopher living there now."

"Oh stop, don't start fantasizing again!"

Sophie stayed in her room, thinking about what had happened. Her head felt like a roaring circus full of lumbering elephants, silly clowns, daring trapeze flyers, and trained monkeys. But one image recurred unceasingly-- a small rowboat with one oar drifting in a lake deep in the woods--and someone needing the boat to get home.

She felt sure that the philosophy teacher didn't wish her any harm, and would certainly forgive her if he knew she had been to his cabin. But she had broken an agreement. That was all the thanks he got for taking on her philosophic education. How could she make up for it? Sophie took out her pink notepaper and began to write:

Dear Philosopher, It was me who was in your cabin early Sunday morning. I wanted so much to meet you and discuss some of the philosophic problems. For the moment I am a Plato fan, but I am not so sure he was right about ideas or pattern pictures existing in another reality. Of course they exist in our souls, but I think--for the moment anyway-- that this is a different thing. I have to admit too that I am not altogether convinced of the immortality of the soul. Personally, I have no recollections from my former lives. If you could convince me that my deceased grandmother's soul is happy in the world of ideas, I would be most grateful.

Actually, it was not for philosophic reasons that I started to write this letter (which I shall put in a pink envelope with a lump of sugar). I just wanted to say I was sorry for being disobedient. I tried to pull the boat completely up on shore but I was obviously not strong enough. Or perhaps a big wave dragged the boat out again.

I hope you managed to get home without getting your feet wet. If not, it might comfort you to know that I got soaked and will probably have a terrible cold. But that'll be my own fault.

I didn't touch anything in the cabin, but I am sorry to say that I couldn't resist the temptation to take the envelope that was on the table. It wasn't because I wanted to steal anything, but as my name was on it, I thought in my confusion that it belonged to me. I am really and truly sorry, and I promise never to disappoint you again.

P.S. I will think all the new questions through very carefully, starting now.

P.P.S. Is the mirror with the brass frame above the white chest of drawers an ordinary mirror or a magic mirror? I'm only asking because I am not used to seeing my own reflection wink with both eyes.

With regards from your sincerely interested pupil, SOPHIE

Sophie read the letter through twice before she put it in the envelope. She thought it was less formal than the previous letter she had written. Before she went downstairs to the kitchen to get a lump of sugar she looked at the note with the day's questions:

"What came first--the chicken or the "idea" chicken?

This question was just as tricky as the old riddle of the chicken and the egg. There would be no chicken without the egg, and no egg without the chicken. Was it really just as complicated to figure out whether the chicken or the "idea" chicken came first? Sophie understood what Plato meant. He meant that the "idea" chicken had existed in the world of ideas long before chickens existed in the sensory world. According to Plato, the soul had "seen" the "idea" chicken before it took up residence in a body. But wasn't this just where Sophie thought Plato must be mistaken? How could a person who had never seen a live chicken or a picture of a chicken ever have any "idea" of a chicken? Which brought her to the next question:

Are we born with innate "ideas"? Most unlikely, thought Sophie. She could hardly imagine a newborn baby being especially well equipped with ideas. One could obviously never be sure, because the fact that the baby had no language did not necessarily mean that it had no ideas in its head. But surely we have to see things in the world before we can know anything about them.

"What is the difference between a plant, an animal, and a human?" Sophie could immediately see very clear differences.

For instance, she did not think a plant had a very complicated emotional life. Who had ever heard of a bluebell with a broken heart? A plant grows, takes nourishment, and produces seeds so that it can reproduce itself. That's about all one could say about plants. Sophie concluded that everything that applied to plants also applied to animals and humans. But animals had other attributes as well. They could move, for example. (When did a rose ever run a marathon?) It was a bit harder to point to any differences between animals and humans. Humans could think, but couldn't animals do so as well? Sophie was convinced that her cat Sherekan could think. At least, it could be very calculating. But could it reflect on philosophical questions? Could a cat speculate about the difference between a plant, an animal, and a human? Hardly! A cat could probably be either contented or unhappy, but did it ever ask itself if there was a God or whether it had an immortal soul? Sophie thought that was extremely doubtful. But the same problem was raised here as with the baby and the innate ideas. It was just as difficult to talk to a cat about such questions as it would be to discuss them with a baby.

"Why does it rain?" Sophie shrugged her shoulders. It probably rains because seawater evaporates and the clouds condense into raindrops. Hadn't she learnt that in the third grade? Of course, one could always say that it rains so that plants and animals can grow. But was that true? Had a shower any actual purpose?

The last question definitely had something to do with purpose: "What does it take to live a good life?"

The philosopher had written something about this quite early on in the course. Everybody needs food, warmth, love, and care. Such basics were the primary condition for a good life, at any rate. Then he had pointed out that people also needed to find answers to certain philosophical questions. It was probably also quite important to have a job you liked. If you hated traffic, for instance, you would not be very happy as a taxi driver. And if you hated doing homework it would probably be a bad idea to become a teacher. Sophie loved animals and wanted to be a vet. But in any case she didn't think it was necessary to win a million in the lottery to live a good life.

Quite the opposite, more likely. There was a saying:

The devil finds work for idle hands.

Sophie stayed in her room until her mother called her down to a big midday meal. She had prepared sirloin steak and baked potatoes. There were cloudberries and cream for dessert.

They talked about all kinds of things. Sophie's mother asked her how she wanted to celebrate her fifteenth birthday. It was only a few weeks away.

Sophie shrugged.

"Aren't you going to invite anyone? I mean, don't you want to have a party?"

"Maybe."

"We could ask Martha and Anne Marie ... and Helen. And Joanna, of course. And Jeremy, perhaps. But that's for you to decide. I remember my own fifteenth birthday so clearly, you know. It doesn't seem all that long ago. I felt I was already quite grown up. Isn't it odd, Sophie! I don't feel I have changed at all since then."

"You haven't. Nothing changes. You have just developed, gotten older..."

"Mm ... that was a very grownup thing to say. I just think it's all happened so very quickly."


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