Printer friendly version

January 16, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 2 (p. 29-37)

A Whispering Through the Branches
< Previous | Beginning | Next >

"Properly approached from the east, the darkly looming homestead presents the traveler with a verandah, slanted slightly with age as if in a scowl, and not a single plant that hangs from the beams looks more than a bead of sickly green-brown saliva frozen lustily upon the upper lip of a letch. The windows on this side, denied even sunrise by the ever drawn curtains and bitter for their lessened view, seem to glare down in jealous scorn at any creature with the ability to shift perspective.

"When one ascends from the lawn to the buckled steps, the ear is accosted by groans of agony, and it is a fortitudinous traveler indeed who dares unaccompanied to cross the protesting boards to the double doors. Progressing nearer the entrance, a wooden sign, delicately carved but time-hardened, comes into view."

All my means are sane, My motive and my object mad.

"Woe to thee shouldst thou stop to consider. Best here to move on, to rush, and thus to pass the conundrum — to know not what lurks in the heart of the engraver. Enter, and do so quickly because you can feel eyes in the trees. With walls near, the spirits who've followed thus far find a new, desperate confidence and close in. So enter. And ignore the creaking of the hinges and the wild wind which whips through the aperture, for once shutting the door on the tornadoed rustling, you may yet find a mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve about you, deep inside you may still discover an eternal mildness of joy."

"Here above, the ceiling hovers, slipping, across from the door, into an accentuated statement of space broken only by a chandelier dangling down above some stairs, encandled for there is no electricity within these confines but for the occasional flash of lightening. Bathed in the murky illumination of a stained-glass window, the stairwell leads abreast the far wall, curving counterclockwise within the semicircular niche to the landing overhead.

"Though further mention of it will surely be made later by those more qualified to discuss it, the mosaic glass levies a more enumerative account presently as some certain significance lurks in all things set apart and sanctified, as if misplaced. Much as in nature, when the sun goes down behind this window, it illuminates three glass mountains, clearly minted after the Catskills surrounding. On the leftmost peak, an owl looks across at the steeple which protrudes from the rightmost. The central summit, somewhat lower than the others, supports a clear circle of convex glass directly in the middle, which completes the trinity but once a year when it catches the sun and sends it radiating in a single spotlight, illuminating the entrance and darkening the entire room by contrast.

"Through an opening in the left wall, an elegant table that once served in recreation of luminaries of every profession, each hanging by another's words, is covered with papers strewn about haphazardly, and the dozen chairs, for all their lush velvet luxury, are now host only to boxes of random books and papers on arts and sciences of all types, as if promoted to supporting the stores of ideas rather than the medium through which they are often discharged.

"Across the entrance hall from the dining room, right of the stairs, two swinging doors lead to and from a kitchen, in which a thorough search might still find evidence of dishes once prepared to please the palates of any and all resident intelligencia.

"Stepping from the front door, when but a spine's length within, you may sneeze — and do so uncontrollably until you've stumbled a few feet farther into the room. But do you notice that the boards on which you stand are particularly loose and pliant? No? Well, would that you were provided a key to the more interesting aspects of the house, for the outburst's explanation is no farther than beneath your toes.

"Lean down and the effect is heightened; stand up and you are more distant from the truth: for underfoot are the bones of the first wanderer to cross this threshold. A man who took not the dry-boned hint and laid his own beneath the very noses of every visitor. One morning, upon waking from a restless slumber, he felt the approach of that cold acquaintance who but visits once, and then only to pay his respects. Old as he was, so long linked to life, he wouldn't have aught to do with anything that looked like death. No. No coffin for this old soul. His place, he knew, was as usher, and so tearing up the boards before the door, he awaited his settlement.

"Often would he pass the better part of a day leaning back in his trench, but as no visitors were quick to arrive, and because a man who suspects any wrong in a matter in which he be already involved insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself, he drew the wooden slabs in above him. Thus lying did he spend a quarter moon, until, deciding that time was poorly wasted in this fashion, he resolved to pass on forthwith.

"How the wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable — deep memories yielding no epitaphs. Dear man, if only you'd taken the time to inscribe a plaque in the center of the great hall, then perhaps your company would bow their heads in reverence rather than cursing the sudden onslaught and rushing to surpass your station."

"Onward. Overstep, with the imagined dinner party, the nigh forgotten rabble and pass beneath the stairs. Through a magic portal as if into another world you find an opening. Sparse are the clouds which gather above this central yard, yet tall are the flowers. An odd place for a garden, yes, but odder still for the imposing willow that mourns its enclosure dead center of the courtyard.

"The strange effect is immeasurably heightened because no longer is the way consistently open to the sky. Perhaps it was the aristocratic second denizen who decided to enclose this eye with a glass cataract. Surely it was he who preferred a skylight to illuminate inwards, for his was the type that considers little of value in an outward view. Whatever its origin, the translucent dome was overspread; so, protected from inclemency, you may take the time to look around.

"Fearless of showers, with the space being continuously habitable for the estudious, the perimeter grew shelves upon which sit volumes of literature, each thrice perused: first in black ink marked, then in blue. The third examination, when so deserving, is underscored in green, until scarcely a word remains bare. However, and this is truly rare, if an author has fabricated an uncommon amount of insight, his most discerning propositions are emblazoned with a red tetradinal consideration. But cursed be all things which cast man's eyes aloft to the heavens to be scorched, for thus reading, red pencil in hand, while reclining under the glass ceiling, the bejeweled and ofttimes tiaraed mistress of the manor was inadvertently massacred by her progeny, who, offering a billiard ball to the gods from outside of the house, discovered that his youthful reach fell far short, and his mother's vaulted canopy came crashing down.

"The lesson well learned from this tragedy, the house was deserted. Grass sprang up between the shards on the ground, and weeds invaded the garden. Perhaps counseled by some prophetic oracle and encouraged by that inexplicable force of nature called Fate, some future tenant found the ingenuity to contrive a system of translucent plastic sheets which, with the simple turning of a crank, allowed the open air access when tranquil and denied it when acrimony prevailed. Thus did mankind convert the jaws of death into an easy chair, but take care if you tread this carpet unsoled, for still may you be pricked by the conceits of the past."

"Tea time over, take your exit. Traveling along below the second story balconies that shade the archives, letting your fingers only briefly caress the grand piano that stands open to catch the willow's tears, make your way through another portal into a more securely hooded chamber. Here, encompassing the entire width of the western end of the structure, is what once served as the next stop in the recreational series following reclination in the solarium, at the time of day when that indoor-outdoors had lost its direct line to the sun. The only windows are those that look westward down the steep hill at the back of the house (or its front, depending upon your attitude). Some years ago, this wall of panes, as it may be properly called, offered a magnificent view of the sunset, and so the room was a lovely setting for an after dinner soirée. The design, so natural an orifice for the promotion of acoustics, presented a mellifluous resonance for the lovely voices of young maidens in their Summer dresses, and often, were the tune either particularly deserving, or in need, of a rhythm section, the spectators would add their own timpani by tapping their refined leather shoes upon the large black and white marble tiles. Doubtless, it was also here that the dwarves played their somber bout of nine-pins, the rumbling of which lulled Rip Van Winkle into his famous slumber. But with the passage of time, the ever-growing partition of trees had gained a height so as to leave the room in an eternal twilight during those months that generally yield felicity most unhinderedly, forcing those who would watch the sun descend to its evening's rest to rise by means of the two wrought-iron spiral staircases curling steeply up each far corner to the next level. Considering the gloomy aspect which now through most of the day prevails, it seems only natural that even the furniture would have removed itself from this shadow-laden ballroom.

"With every door swung open, and by virtue of the broad hallways that connect the dining room on one end and the kitchen on the other to this side of the house, as well as the openings created by the stairwells, even the most discreet of whispers throughout the building may be discerned by any who might stand gazing out at the foliage from this room. And it was here that a grand, ungodly, god-like man took to fixing himself statuesquely — not so much seeming to think as to feel the world groaning about him. Indeed, if his nose were not nearly pressing up against the glass, irreparably fogging it with the acrid condensation of each breath exhaled, he may have been some ancient biblical pillar turned to salt for his refusal to flee the room at its loss of daylight. Perhaps he stood so still for so long to augment his paltry baseness, thus furthering his infinite inferiority to his young cardinal: hereby, with his subservient relation to a Divine Inert, he ensured his own fame. But still there can be little doubt that this incurable idea of submission often gnawed at his insides, only relieved by the firm belief that, through his constant residency, he was the real owner and commander of this vessel, for it was his very conscience that daily stained the walls. On occasion, he would twist his head as if hailed by some silent spirit, then turn and pad barefootedly, with but the slightest of limps, across the cold and dimple-fissured floor, white robe trailing behind in billows. Returning with a new acquaintance each time this happened, and a human eye in which to look, his purpose was thus renewed and the ballroom would be host only to the occasional flurry of dust.

"In conjunction with the cycles of nature, the company would come and go, leaving John to remove that mask which form and usage insisted he wear to disguise his more private ends, and he would return to the gnarls of trees and marble. Often, at these times, a tear or two would blur his vision, but whether they were for the resumed solitude or the renewed affirmation of his status is impossible to divulge.

"Leave him now. Sunset nears and demands that you climb to its spectacle. Take the left stair. With your hand on the banisters proceed up and ignore the residual sob which explains from behind that, ‘to whom all eternity is but time, all creativeness is mechanical.'"

* * *

"My how the very air changes once the upper chambers have been gained! Across from where you now stand, above the entrance hall, its door accessible from an open hallway, sits the gray dishevelment of John's quarters, rarely visited and so partly free of the dark disposition that his presence might have lain blanket-like over the room. But so must this splotch, this obscurity, be forgiven, as it keeps the two layers in harmony and eases the roamer from the bends.

"Five doors on each side separate John's room from its twin master bedroom on the western side, but these doors are all firmly closed. Allow them to open of their own accord. Were you to pass them by, you would have to walk along a balcony overlooking the courtyard and, thus forced with each movement to be enlightened by the sun (or moon if your cravings are of the midnight sort), would be presented to any who linger yet below. But our path leads up at the moment, and not but for curiosity would you find reason to cross to the darker side of this level.

"Before climbing the last coiling flight, take but a moment to glance, yea briefly lest you be blinded, through the ever-open door to the bedroom with the sunset view. This room, though of the same proportions, is only the more light and airy in contrast to John's across the yard, with broad windows standing watch over both the courtyard and the mountains and another door on the northern side. Were all the windows boarded and the doors forever locked, still would the zephyr send an elfin flourish through the translucent silk canopy around the bed. But as it is, be blessed by the scent of the breeze that caresses your eyes and bids you close them. Ah, turn away newcomer, you are as yet unprepared. Take to the flight."

* * *

"Up, up the foremast of this solidly rooted vessel and through a hatch. Springtime here, the fog lingers to cloud the vision, as ever all clouds choose the loftiest peaks to pile themselves upon. But breaking through to the open parapet and breathing in the purest crystalline air that March has to offer, you find that the sky looks lacquered. Of clouds there are none. Look thee to the horizon, the nakedness of unrelieved radiance, the view infinite in scope. The insufferable splendors of God's throne! The mountains: a picture of their own merit frozen in time, memories to which you may return as oft as you like (damned be those clouds of mutable form). A view as of the ocean, with its hue apt to change, a browned sea of branches beats against the mountainous islets, each haloed from its superimposition over the sun. Whether these were the visions which so captivated the prototypal pioneer will forever remain a mystery, but it cannot be doubted, nor can it be ignored, that from this lucky point of view you will catch passing glimpses of the immortal profiles of whales defined along the undulating ridges.

"Just so, while leaning on his elbows and gazing out at this great gulf, at the time covered in a shroud of dead Winter white, did the young man who carved his name, ‘Nathaniel,' in the stone of the tower, mutter, ‘let this be mine, the Pequod.' Perhaps it is a question whether the mist which consistently lingers by the stair is but a remnant of the semivisible steam produced by this callow hermit's ponderous profundities, for there is none about the mizzen-tower, but it is certain that being left completely to himself at such a thought-engendering altitude the lad tackled greater ruminations than the average youth.

"Many years ago, he arrived as a sireless and damless fugitive on a crisp Christmas morning and proceeded, as if drawn, to this very spot. What'ere his crimes, the icy steps melted to his footfall, and the sky flew open to herald his arrival as he thrust his arms heavenward. He was a child of superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart. All nature's sweet and savage impressions did submit, fresh from her own confiding breast, to his scrutiny. His new life was begun. He learned a bold and lofty language formed from the circumspect and ponderous works to be found downstairs. When his was the sole heartbeat of the manor, he spent many a night-watch beneath the constellations in stillness and seclusion, but as with all men tragically great, his visits became so much the sweeter for their brevity. His became an absentee presence, but still the very walls rang with his resonance. Every lingering vitality owed its debt to him, for just as his first sign of maturity brought the Spring, so did every facet of the house with a need for renovation rush forward in an unabashed flurry to be renewed by his touch."

But these have all been phantoms; now it is night, and the blossoms are sorely wanting Nathaniel's caress. They quiver in expectancy at his approach, only to shy away at the passing of another, an unknown figure.

John sleeps fitfully in his cabin. The woman has drifted off easily behind the closed northern door nearest Nathaniel's empty room, inscribing her essence upon her new chamber, untouched and anonymous in its evenness, with each slumberous turn. But a third, vigilant occupant marks his barefooted strides in the thawing turf of the courtyard. A single night owl coos softly from its perch in the willow. The stranger glances upward into the branches, and the bird takes to its wings.

A cloud passes from the moon, nearly full and bright in its reflection of the sun, and two green eyes peer out at it from behind a shaggy mane of blonde hair. He pauses. From a distance comes a low groan, as if a mountain is inching its way through the waves of a pasture. The restless interloper turns, but winces from a sudden stab at his heel. He reaches down and removes a daggeresque piece of glass.

Holding it up to the moon, he examines it: five inches long and sharp as a razor. His foot will heal; he pockets the shard. Whistling the melody of a well rehearsed choral symphony, he strolls to the old ballroom, where he leaves his trail in warm pellets of blood upon the cold, colorless marble.

The sleepers sing out mildly in unison. But now it is night. Time will roll along. The green eyes stare through the panes at the dark, forbidding trees. Time will roll along. What's to be will be: it's all fixed, all arranged. Then again, perhaps the die is not so surely cast.

Posted by Justin Katz at January 16, 2005 6:32 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches