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January 30, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 3 (p. 44-49)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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"What's gotten into you?" asked John's voice. "Stop it! I've got you."

She stopped punching at him and gasped out, "Alex," pant pant, "just attacked me."

John looked over her shoulder and, seeing nothing there, suggested, "We'd best get back to the house for the time being."

After a bit of quick walking, John told her, "When Nathaniel departed last Autumn, he told me that if a man should come and be unwilling or unable to choose his own name, then I should call him 'Alex' if it suited him."

"Hmm?" asked D., who hadn't been listening; she had been too occupied casting glances all around, trying to see everything at once and imagining that there was a flicker of a shadow behind every tree.

John, having either not heard or not cared to hear her, went on, "In the midst of January, late at night, a rapping came at the front door, making me jump because I had been reading an eerie book by candle light." He paused to consider, "What was it that I was reading? Hmm. Well, it must have been Poe. Or was it Brown? No, it was definitely Poe, but which story I cannot recall. Whatever it was that had gotten my hairs on end, I was still a little apprehensive when I walked through the entrance vestibule to answer the door. Standing on the porch, all hunched over and shivering from the icy rain that was falling, was a young man, looking as if he had been badly beaten. He didn't speak, but I fed him and gave him a change of clothes and led him to sleep in the room nearest mine on the southern side of the house.

"He didn't say much throughout the following weeks, and generally in an odd nonsense slang when he did speak. After a while it seemed apparent that he wasn't going to name himself, so I started calling him Alex to no objections. Strange lad, Alex. I hardly ever see him during the day, but he appears most evenings to play the piano, which, by the way, he tunes himself. Pianists are generally mild in temperament, and it is very pleasant to have music while I read at night, so when next I see him, I'll ascertain what it was that possessed him this morning. I'm sure there's a perfectly plausible expla..."

"That's not good enough," D. interrupted. "I want you to stop your babbling and get my keys back right away and then walk me to my car. He wouldn't even have them if you hadn't snuck in last night with this stupid dress!"

"Excuse me?"

"This dress! The one that you put on the desk in my room last night while I slept!"

"I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about. I read in the solarium for a while last night after you went to your room, and then I went to my own bed. Besides, I heard you turn the lock, and I haven't another key."

"Then how do you suppose this dress was there instead of my own clothes this morning?"

"How am I to know? I slept directly through the night, and there's no way Alex could have done it, because there is, as I've said, only the one key. Perhaps it was the work of a phantasm," John suggested, with a slight gleam of intrigue in his eyes.

Now the anger pulsed in D.'s temples, and in her exasperation, she had nearly forgotten the danger she might be in. "What? Forget it. I'm not going to listen to any more of this shit! I'm going to go lock myself in that room, and you are going to go find that psycho and get my car keys!" They had just pushed through the bushes into the grassy yard of the house, and D. stormed up the first step to the porch. "Come get me when you've got them." She stopped in front of the entrance and turned to face John, "And get my shoes back while you're at it!" Slamming the door behind her, D. stomped to her room and locked the door behind her, throwing the key on the bed.

She paced circles, looking at the dirt and grass stains all over the white dress reflected in the mirror when she passed that, glaring at the entangled branches and budding leaves through the window when she came to that. Conducting herself thus for nearly an hour, D. heard a tentative knocking at the door.

"You better have my keys!" she announced, but there was no answer. Placing her palms on the wood, she called out, "John?"

Still receiving no answer, she pressed her ear against the door and fancied she heard a like breathing sound. She started to shake as she looked through the klootch hole, this being a very old-type lock. She saw nothing but the top of the willow and the doors, all closed, on the other side of the house. Then suddenly, a green glaz sprung to the other side of the hole. She fell back.

"Go away! You better leave me alone!" There was a smecking like chuckle from the balcony. "I mean it," she warned. Now there came a scraping as of glass on wood. She started to cry, "Leave me alone!"

Just then the front door could be heard shutting. There was a shuffling of feet from outside her room. A moment later, John knocked at the door, "I can't descry him anywhere."

Through her tears she managed to creech, "He was just here."

"Oh," said John, "did he give you your keys?"

Almost laughing, she told him that Alex had only come to the door. "Maybe I can catch him then," John said and sauntered off.

After another long period of time, John's voice called from outside the room, "I can't find him. I'm sure that he's only playing around and that I'll be able to get your keys when he comes back, for supper most likely. Would you like to come out and have some breakfast? It's almost eleven o'clock."

D., who had skirted backwards to the wall across from the door raised her head from her knees and told him that she was very happy where she was, thank you very much.

"Then would you like me to bring you something?"


"Do you want eggs and toast?"

"No," grimacing at the thought of instant egg.

"Then perhaps a sandwich?"

"That's fine," she said, and then added, "and some water, please."

John acknowledged and went downstairs to prepare the meal. He returned with a knock and said, "Open up, I've got your aliment."

D. was in the midst of standing when it occurred to her that it was very possible, if not likely, that John and Alex were in cahoots. "Why don't you just leave it outside the door," she suggested.

"Oh please, dear! You don't think that Alex and I are in league against you, do you?"

"How do I know you're not?"

"All right, fine. I'll just leave it here. If you need anything else just cry out. You may need to open the door, a smidgen at least, for me to hear you." And with this she could clearly hear John's exaggerated footsteps moving toward the front stairs.

She rose and picked the key up from the bed. Placing her ear to the door and looking through the keyhole, she satisfied herself that there was nobody outside her room and cautiously opened the door, seized the plate and glass that were waiting for her, and made sure she was securely locked in.

She considered the food, smelling it and tasting for strange flavors in every bite. The sandwich was only peanut butter and jelly, and the bread was a bit stale around the edges, but as she was more hungry than she had thought, it was a calming relief to eat something. When she finished, she placed the dishes on the desk and lay down in bed.

Wondering how best to proceed from here, she drifted off to sleep.

D. awoke with a bit of sun in her eyes, so she knew it had to be sometime in the middle of the afternoon. She wiped a little crust from her eyes and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. After a moment of head clearing, she tried to call out to John, but a glop of phlegm prevented her from making ample sound. Encouraged by her dreamless nap, she went to the door and opened it enough to fit her head.

The weather had turned quite fine, and the smells of early Spring had drifted into the courtyard. Sticking her head out and glancing up and down the second floor landings, she noticed John sitting in a plush but worn chair on the opposite side of the tree from the piano. She called his name a bit more unobstructedly, and he looked up from a book he had been reading.

"Have you gotten my keys?" she asked, having to raise her voice to compete with the sound of birds.

"No, Alex hasn't been by yet. Why don't you come down for a cup of tea?"

With no reason to trust him, D. just asked John what time it was.

"I think it's about three o'clock. Are you going to stay up there all afternoon?"

"At least until you get my keys."

"Have it your way. Would you like something to peet?" he queried.

Perhaps she misheard, but something in that last word brought suspicion slinking up her throat and through to her eyes, "What did you say?"

"Drink. Would you like a drink?"

She glanced up and down the hallway again, thinking that perhaps she was being tricked, "No thank you, I'm fine, really."

"Well, if you've no desire for company and have resolved to spend the entire day, and perchance another night, in that room, would you like a book?"

She thought about this for a moment. "Yes, please."

"What would you like to read?"

"I don't know. What have you got?"

"Miss, there's quite an extensive library here. Why don't you just come down and look for yourself. I'm not going to hurt you."

Looking right and then left again, she stepped out to the railing, but a strange sort of rustling of the willow frightened her back to the doorway, "Why don't you just grab one and throw it up here?"

John, appearing somewhat perturbed, strode to the far bookshelf, looked for a moment, and grabbed a book. D. checked the landing again and stepped out. Up came a formulaic romance novel, and back into her room went D., again locking the door behind her.

Night has come once more. John brings the woman another sandwich and some more water, feeling unsettlingly like a prison warden as he leaves the food and a bellboy as he takes the dishes that she has left on the floor outside of her room. He returns to his place in the ballroom, and D. slyly cracks open the door and snatches the food. Her fingers, in nervous picking, have shed the six fake nails that were left after her tromp through the forest.

While she munches on the sandwich, of the same flavor as the last, she jumps at a tapping on the window pane. Silly woman! It is no more than a twig on a branch on a tree, undulating to and fro with the wind. She rises and glides to the window to check the lock and to close the curtain.

Two green eyes watch her by the light of the moon as she pauses to look out into the darkness. She closes the curtain. Alex lingers for a moment and then strolls away into the night, whistling the first movement of a symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus (number 40 in g-minor) and twirling something shiny around his finger.

The moon glitters against the keys. The branches continue their swaying in time to the melody. The wind shushes still through the branches.

Posted by Justin Katz at January 30, 2005 11:47 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches