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December 26, 2004

Exposition, Chapter 1 (p. 7-12)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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The woman was kneeling penitently on a large stone, which jutted out into the stream, watching her tears collide ripplingly with those that rose upward from her oppositely kneeling reflection in the pool of calm water between the current and its eddy, and she nearly fell in when a voice drifted across to her from a nearby cluster of bushes:

"You must learn to do without those if it is your intention to stay."

As she turned, startled, to face the speaker, she sat back and, in reflex, tried to dig her fingers into the rock to secure her position. The fake nail from her left ring finger fluttered into the water and floated down the stream. "Excuse me?"

"The tears," replied the man from within his thick silver beard. "You cannot scatter them here."

He now stood at the edge of rock and earth, where the soil petered off unevenly, looking very much the part of a roaming ascetic in his sorely worn, off-white robe, his thumbs tucked each into a pocket of a brown jacket. His long gray hair hung loosely around a deeply wrinkled, gnomish face that seemed to serve only as a contrast to his blue eyes, which had that dull bloodshot glow that is falsely suggestive of depth.

"What?" asked the woman, stalling, gathering options with each sidelong glance.

"Come, remove yourself from your headland, and I'll relate the entire story," and with this puzzling promise he extended his hand.

"I think I'll stay here for now."

Rising cautiously to her feet, the woman wiped dirt from her hands and sized up the stranger. She was nearing a resolution that he was, at most, 5:7, when her glance intermingled with his. He lowered his hand and with the slightest of grins said, "Well, it is the Sabbath, after all."

At that moment, in the inexplicable fashion of divine whim, her rubber-soled hiking boots lost their grip, and she slid into the stream. The water, still icy cold from a Winter not long thawed, seeped its chill fingers into the fibers of her clothing and strove to pull her along on its pilgrimage through the woods. Clawing instinctively at the stone upon which she had just been standing, the woman was relieved to find a hand reaching out for hers. She succumbed to its grasp and was raised as though newly baptized from the pool, now missing another nail, this time the right pointer.

The man stripped the jacket from his back and draped it over her shoulders, "We'll have to get you to some dry clothing. Come, I don't live far from here."

"W-w-wait," she chattered through her shivering lips, "my c-car."

"Think not twice on it. Things like that have a way of waiting for their owners."

"N-no, I have clothes."

"Well, I don't see the point in removing one set of doused clothing only to saturate another when I've a fire burning yet as we speak and a pantry full of food. Just a short jaunt away, really. It can't be much farther than your car, n'est-ce pas?"

"I ap-appreciate it, r-really, but I'd r-rather not."

Smiling as only old men in the company of younger women can, the man said, "So you've found me out. I must admit that I'm not being completely selfless. I haven't had company these many months, and I'm afraid that I must insist on the pleasure of yours. Come, I'm being as insouciant as I can, so it will be an insult to my veracity if you refuse."

She paused, perhaps attempting to reconcile a justly imparted fear of strange men in the forest with a poorly taught standard for etiquette, then said blankly, "But I don't even know who you are."

"Alas, that is the way it must always begin," he explained, gesturing toward a path into the trees. "My name is John."

He was a small man, after all, so what had she, a full grown and independent woman, to fear?

When motion had persuaded her blood to flow and moments had helped to settle her meandering thoughts, the woman halted in her march and leaned back, a sapling as her support, and asked, appropriately, "Who are you?"

"I've told you as much as you'd be apt to listen to for the time being," replied John in a rehearsedly candid way as he stopped his own advancement and turned toward her. "Don't worry, you needn't fear for your safety; my intentions are wholly ingenuous."

"Be that as it may, I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of being led off into the wilderness by a complete stranger."

"Young lady, the only artifice I have is to assist you and to secure for myself some companionship for the afternoon. You may, if you like, depart from my company and make your escape back to the metropolis from which you undoubtedly came, but let me assure you that we are now approaching as civilized a home as you are apt to find in the whole of the modern world. As for my leading you, well, I can only opine that you have made it thus far of your own volition and will most likely complete the journey through mere happenstance if left to your own devices. As importunate as our lack of acquaintance may temporarily appear to be, it is an obstacle which can only be overcome by each of us embarking on lengthy discourses, disclosing our chronologies and ideologies — a procedure that would hardly serve to evade any onslaught of influenza that may be impending in your future. So, if it helps, let us consider our cognizance of each other as inherently imparted and merely pending a more opportune moment for aggrandizing." His speech complete, John resumed his singular procession and muttered to himself, "Leading her into the wilderness, indeed."

Gripping the stalk of the young tree for a moment longer, the woman considered John, her head tilted like a curious puppy, and at last resigned herself to following. He had, after all, implied that he was alone. "Wait!"

John turned his head slightly toward the woman but continued walking.

"My name is D..."

Spinning quickly, and not gracefully, John spurted, "Utt-utt! That name will not do here. You must remain anonymous until you find one that better suits you." And he continued on his way.

Running the distance between herself and John, D. finally slowed to a complementary pace at his side and, after a few moments of walking and consideration, asked half jokingly, "Are there very many rules to name-picking in your forest?"

"They are not my rules any more than this is my forest. But it is my firm belief that they are sound rules despite their dubious nature, laid forth, as they are, by one so much greater than I."

"And who, pray tell, is that?"

"Why, Nathaniel, of course."

"Is this his land?"

"No, this over-hallowed ground is merely the foundation upon which he builds his cathedral, and these fruitless trees just the fodder for the great fire he incites in all who come to know him. But he makes the most prudent use of this otherwise barren society, so it is only fitting that he impart the regulations."

To assure herself that John was, in fact, alone, D. stated — reflecting in sarcasm — "Well, I'll have to look forward to meeting him."

"You shall. He generally comes to call before the Summer's quite arrived."

She chuckled. "That's a bit longer than I plan to hang around."

A cool breeze sifted through the branches and trifled John's hair like so many long blades of grass in a field. The playful gust seemed to be more the cause of his dry chuckle than any precognitive knowledge as he said, "Do as you like."

"I'd like to get out of these clothes."

"Again, do as you like," he said with a wry smile.

D. was glad that she hadn't decided to change in her car. Whatever his vocabulary, John was probably the epitome of a dirty old man, neither above nor beneath hiding in the bushes to watch a pretty woman undress. Still, as is the case with many dirty old men, there was something in John's manner that persuaded D. that he was harmless.

Stumbled by a protruding root, she steadied herself on his arm and regained her poise. "So do you stay out here by yourself all winter?"

"No, people pass through from time to time. Even when I'm left on my own, I've plenty to occupy myself. Plenty of wood to cut. Windows to polish, stray nails to hammer."

"You sound like quite the handyman."

"In a way. But I prefer to think of myself as a straightener. I keep things as they ought to be ordered. There's much that can go awry in an old house like ours when I'm the only one around to fix it."

"Do you get paid for the work or something?"

"Paid? What need have I for money? I've a shelter. I've bread enough to eat. The sunrise, sunset, and plenty to read between."

"Still, it seems a shame that you're stuck here."

"Miss, I've been out there in the real world before, and believe me when I tell you that I am much better off here."

"So you volunteer to remove yourself from the world."

"I consider it," pausing to form the phrase, "one of the detrimental quirks of modern society that none are any longer content to look after the way station. And I suppose you will fault me doubly for keeping it for somebody else rather than myself. But I will relinquish my own causes. They've never done me aught but harm, anyway. If I labor for the tranquillity of others, then I am enlarged. If I am the main source of support for the steeple, then am I not greater than the pews? It seems to me an honor to be the voice shouting in the desert rather than the close-mouthed whimpering begging aimlessly for forgiveness."

D. let the subject drop. She knew what was at issue here. A pity when people are so fooled into another's dogma that they willingly forsake their own right to self-realization. She wondered if she hadn't fallen into the hands of some diabolic sect and resolved to escape once her shivers were calmed and her hunger sated. She had had previous encounters with overzealous followers and self-proclaimed oracles and would not consent to being corrupted and so was immune. Her will was strong enough that she would not turn over her personality when she knew in her own heart what was true: that people are, each of them in their own right, both beggar and messiah. Perhaps she would report the cult to a friend of hers who dealt with deprogramming the brainwashed.

The pair, each considering the other's covenants, wandered wordlessly until they came to the peak of a hill, where the trees sprung up less densely and the sun beat down with as much force as is possible to muster in mid-March. As they began their descent down the other side, it occurred to D. that the work is never done, and can be found even in the middle of nowhere, for a person who would rid the world of deception. Perhaps this disciple could be saved simply, D. supposed, "He must be a great man, this Nathaniel."

"He most definitely is. It is a rare thing, indeed, to have the opportunity to call one so vital a friend."

"How did you come to be his messenger?"

John stopped and looked into the face of this foreign lady who had shown an interest in Nathaniel by expressing curiosity about himself, but his look held a secret that made it seem as though he understood her ulterior motive and had resolved to use it. For a moment, D. wasn't so confident that her assessment had been correct.

He smiled, revealing well-polished teeth that had at some previous time been left to rot beyond a full recovery, and she returned the gesture. Looking up at the sky and taking in the height of the sun, John bent to pick up a fairly thick stick. He looked along its length, plucked from it the remnants of broken twigs, and, slowly peeling the bark from one end to fashion a handle, resumed his stroll at a more conversational pace. Realizing that the bare wood was insufficient for the breadth of his hand, he stopped and extended the flaying. Satisfied, he continued his progress. D. followed, and the tale was begun.

Posted by Justin Katz at December 26, 2004 1:56 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches