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February 6, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 4 (p. 50-57)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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The first thing D. noticed, after the throbbing pain in her bladder, of course, was the feel of the hour. The darkness pressed in against her open eyes and held, in its stillness, every hair on her body unquivered and irresponsive. The late sounds of night had ended, and the early sounds of morning were yet to begin. The air tasted bland... perhaps not bland so much as tepid and clement like lukewarm water, even lacking the mildly unpleasant taste of stagnant saliva. In everything around her was a wordless and indescribable lateness. It smelt late.

She slipped from the bed and into the robe and threw open the window curtain. The moonlight blew in and cast her shadow clear across the room. For a moment she considered opening the window a crack, but the roof overhanging the verandah beneath her outside the window persuaded her to tighten the window lock instead. And the branches were ever so close.

Her bladder tugged her thoughts inward. She stepped out from the reach of the moonlight and toward the door. The night before, she had used a bathroom adjacent to the kitchen, but she dreaded the thought of sneaking down the old squealing front steps, and even more the idea of having to pass through the ballroom and hallway below (crossing the courtyard was too frightening a prospect to even consider). Briefly, she mulled over slinking out onto the roof and urinating into the gutter, but femininity notwithstanding, an image of Alex lingering among the bushes out there sent a shiver through her. She decided that, this being a mansion, there must be a toilette near at least one of the two master bedrooms.

As quietly as she could, D. unlocked and opened her door just an eye's breadth. In the moonlight, she could see that the corners of the second story walls connected angularly on each side of John's room, with no unaccountable doorways. She silently shut the door and held the knob, thinking. Sliding her head into the corridor, she scanned first her hall, then the opposite, and finally the courtyard — not a soul to be seen.

She slipped out of the room and pulled the door closed behind her, turning the knob as she did so to avoid an unnecessary click. Glancing about, she inched her way toward the west end of the house with her back against the wall. At the point where her room ended, the hallway opened up into a rectangular area, the width of Nathaniel's room for one dimension and hers and the landing for the other, with a window overlooking the mountains on the far wall and a spiral staircase descending from a hole in the ceiling through the floor at the center. She stopped and inhaled deeply.

Nearly expecting to find Alex waiting for her, she peeked one eye around the corner. Set back a bit, so as to be inconspicuous, was another small room. The door was open merely a sliver, the darkness seeming to undulate outward from the crack.

By sheer force of will, inspired by natural needs, D. slowly swung the door open enough to make out a sink and a toilet. Stepping into the dimly moonlit room, she noticed an old porcelain bath tub with curved legs supporting it and an undrawn curtain hanging at its back. Just as with the one downstairs, this bathroom was trapped somewhere between the advent of indoor plumbing and that of hot water faucets: the water ran and the toilets flushed, but the water had to be pumped by hand and was deep-crevice cold.

The door closed quietly at her touch, and D. was thankful to find that it sported a bolt lock. She did what she had to there in what little light was provided by a small, murky window and, without flushing the toilet, snuck quietly back into her room, much relieved.


Early the following morning, D. lay in bed trying to cipher a way out of her mess. Were she positive that Alex and John were both in the building, she might be able to sneak out the window, or through the house were they both out of doors, but either way, she still would have been without her keys. That fact left her with two options: try to walk out of the forest with no shoes or hide in the woods and lay for Alex, attempting to collar him from behind and escape by car when she got the chance. It occurred to her that, for all she knew, Alex had passed her keys off to John, or even to somebody that she had yet to encounter. However she eventually escaped, she wasn't going to stay cramped in her room much longer.

From outside, she heard a sound like that of a galloping horse and made it to the window in time to see a large black dog charge into the bushes. The foliage swayed with the dog's roundabout motion. Hearing a loud double whistle, D. watched the dog's head appear through the twigs, looking expectantly toward the eastern end of the house. The dog bounded in the direction of the whistle and returned again, then, sniffing at the grass and bushes directly below D.'s window, looked back and forth between the ground and whoever was at the front of the house asking:

"What d'ya smell there, ay, Jim?" in a strikingly masculine voice full of southern drawl.

D. leaned to the side and pressed her left cheek against the glass, trying to see the speaker. The new arrival stepped into a spot of early morning sun. His bare toes curled in the stiff dead grass with the rolled legs of his over-sized denim slacks swinging bell-like over them. Unhooking his right thumb from his single suspender and running his hand through his slightly auburn silvering hair, he said, "I reckon somebody been doin' some spyin'."

He looked up at D.'s window. She shrank back into the shadows. With the sun at his back, the man had an unwrinkled boyish appearance as he smiled, winked, turned away, and whistled. "C'mon, boy." The dog ran after him.

Moments later there was a knock on the door. "Hello, anybody there?"

D. held her breath. The door knob jiggled.

"Well, I hope yer in there, 'cause there ain't no other key but one fer this door."

Crossing the room, D. told him, "Not to worry, I've got the key."

"Oh, well hello, missus. You figurin' on stayin' in there all day, are ya?"

"Not if I can help it," she responded cynically.

"What's preventin' you if you got the key?"

Pausing for a second, as if perhaps the answer were truly that simple, D. responded, "Because there are two gentlemen I'm not all that anxious to bump into."

The man outside her door laughed, "If one a' them gentlemen's John, I reckon you ain't got no reason to be afeared of more than the other'n. Who's he?"

"A younger guy, not much out of his teens, named Alex, I think."

"Well, as I don't know him, I can't offer no assurances about his demeaner, but I brought some surplies with me if yer hungry. Between Jim an' me, we oughtta be able to protect you from the chile so's you don't get ransomed to death." Jim the dog barked in agreement.

Ignoring a hungry growl in her stomach, D. declined the offer, saying that she'd rather stay put until she'd had time to consider her options.

"All right then. I'm gonna fix myself an omelet with bacon 'n' cheese. Yer welcome t' one if y'like."

D.'s mouth began to water, and she nearly swung the door right open. Something in her upbringing forced her to stop. "Could you bring it up to me?"

"Sure, if that's whatcha want. How 'bout some orange juice on the side?"

"That'd be wonderful, thank you."

"By the way, my name's Huck. You picked your'n yet?"

Picked it yet? she thought, then remembered how John had nearly fallen over himself to keep her from telling him her name. "No, but my real one..."

"Hold it. Needn't do what we ain't supposed to. Rules is rules."

"Don't tell me you're stuck on these silly rules, too. Is everybody here nuts?"

"Well, I can't account fer nobody but myself, but as fer me, I'm inclined to believe in the words of a wiser soul'n me, that 'it don't make no difference how foolish it is, it's the right way, and it's the regular way, and there ain't no other way.' Once you go messin' around an' doin' things diff'rent, yer liable to get it all muddled up."

"Let me guess. You're quoting that Nathaniel guy."

"No'm, but I might as a-well be."

Huck started to walk off, but D. called after him:

"Huck. Wait."

"Yes'm?"

"How did you get here?"

"Over land, mostly."

"No, I mean, do you have a car?"

"Yep, I reckon I do, but it's a way far off in the hills as it's supposed to be."

"Huck, would you be willing to take me to a nearby town? I could catch a bus or something from there."

"You got someone expectin' you elsewheres?"

Before she had thought, "No" slipped from her mouth. "No, I don't. But I'd like get out of this place nonetheless."

"Leave here? I reckon you ended up here a-lookin' fer a change, and I reckon that you found one. Fer what would you wanna go somewheres else fer?"

She couldn't come up with a quick answer straightaway; Huck might not have expected one. He sauntered off toward the kitchen.

Because everybody I've met out here has been absolutely crazy, Mr. Huckleberry Finn, she thought, and my name isn't going to be Alice.


Leaving the plate outside her door without any wheedling, Huck told her to holler out her window if she needed anything else. The omelet, made with real eggs, was perhaps the best she had ever had, and the orange juice tasted freshly squeezed. She looked out the window. Jim was ambling toward Huck with a medium-sized stick in his mouth.

Crossing the room, D. looked through the keyhole then inserted the key. She gathered up her dishes and was opening the door when she heard something charging up the stairs and down the hallway. Before she could react, Jim knocked the door open and jumped on her, toppling her over. Her plate rattled in circles until it was flush on the floor. She screamed a bit, but the dog was licking her face in such a friendly way that the screams turned into giggles. When the giggles and licks subsided, D. looked up and saw Huck standing in the doorway. Jim scurried back and forth between them excitedly.

"Oh I see," Huck said. "You'll let in a dog, but not a man."

With her laughter still evident in her smile, D. stood and brushed off the seat of her dress, "I didn't have much of a choice."

Up close, the wrinkles of later middle age were apparent at the corners of Huck's hazel eyes and in the smile-lines by his mouth. His hair was neatly combed, and D. thought that he might look more himself in a suit. The oversized white button-down and lone suspender seemed contrived, somehow.

"Y'want me to take 'im outta here?"

Reminding herself that this was a new man and that she had a generally trusting personality, D. decided that there was something about Huck that made the idea of him being dangerous ludicrous. Perhaps it was his laughing eyes. Feeling somehow more secure, "No, that's alright. To be completely honest, I could use the company."

"Well, that is somethin' no man nor woman should oft' be without."

D. sat on the bed, and Jim offered his head for scratching, "Have a seat if you'd like."

"Thank you, kindly. I think I might just do that. D'ya like me to close the door?"

Reflecting for a breath, D. responded, "No, I don't see any need for it right now."

They were both quiet for a moment, watching as Jim leaned to one side and scratched his own side with a hind leg. D. thought he looked like a Lab/shepherd mix, but she suspected that the truth was more likely that he was just a big black dog. Huck cleared his throat and said:

"So I reckon you've been havin' some excitement 'round here last few days."

"I've only been here for two nights, and I wouldn't call it exciting as much as disturbing."

"I'm always of a mind to hear a good story, if yer of a mind to tell'n."

"There's not much to tell, really," D. said and proceeded to relate the highlights of her arrival and residence at the old house, concluding with, "So now the questions are whether or not John is in alliance with Alex and how I get home."

Huck laughed. "I realize things can change consider'ble when a body's off gettin' sivilized, but John's been through this all so many a-time I don't imagine he gives more'n a hoot if you stay or go. Sticks to his own, mostly. As fer th'other guy, Jim 'n' me'll keep an eye on ya. Prob'ly don't even need ta, but better safe than sahry."

Turning her head a little to the side and considering Huck, whom for some reason she trusted, D. asked, "So what is this? A club, or a cult, or something?"

Huck laughed and smiled, but this time something in his eye hinted at a keen intelligence behind his country-bumpkin posture, "Leh's go upstairs, so's I can show you somethin.'" He stood and motioned toward the door.

"Upstairs? What's up stairs?"

Looking a little surprised, Huck asked, "Well, surely John showed you the towers?"

"No, he didn't. Just the front hall, dining room, and courtyard."

"You must'a been able to see'm from the other end of the yard."

"It was night when I got here, and ever since then I've been too concerned with what was going on around me to sightsee."

"Well, there's your problem. C'mon."

Huck walked out the door and toward Nathaniel's room with Jim at his heal. D. followed, inspecting the halls and courtyard as she went. Standing at the spiral staircase, Huck told Jim to "Set an' keep an eye out" and began to climb the stairs.

The drop from the towers, mostly by virtue of the steep hill directly behind the house, would most likely prove fatal. The mountains swelled and abated all around. The world was warming and greening. D. shivered and made a complete circle around the tower, looking down into the courtyard as she passed it.

"So what'd'ye see?" Huck asked her when she had settled at his side, looking west, the sun nearly directly over them now.

"It's pretty," was the answer.

"Darn, woman, anybody could see that! What do you see?"

D. realized the game that Huck was initiating and looked around at the mountains. One to the southwest peaked sharply, and a cascade of rocks coated the side facing the house. Pointing to it, D. said, "That one there is bald."

"Pfft! That one's bald! Well, shoot! I reckon next you'll tell me that the grass is a-turnin' green and the sky's mostly blue where there's no white and that the white's a-cause a' clouds!"

"What do you see, then?" She was beginning to fluster.

"D'you see that smaller'n off in the distance there?" he pointed to a hill next to the balding mountain, "the one that's got the small peak in the middle with two big lone trees afront of it? And the rounded hump at the back?" D. said that she did, and Huck continued, "See how it shoots up purty much straight all around, on all sides but the back?" Once again the answer was "yes." "So what does that look like to you?"

"I guess it looks a little like a steamroller going the other way."

Looking slightly disappointed, Huck told her, "Maybe it does, at that, but what I see's a steamboat ferry without any lights."

D. thought it did look like one, just a bit.

"Now, Nathaniel'll tell you that from th' other tower there's a whale-mountain to be seen up to the northwest there. I ain't been up in that tower but once, and then it was too dark to see it, but he takes these hills to be an ocean and this house, a ship. The Pequod, he calls it, from a book made by a man named Mr. Herman Melville. Fer my part, I like to think of this here pile-a-wood as a raft on a wild river durin' flood season. A ship's awf'ly cramped up and smothery, but not a raft. And that's the way to treat this house: free and easy and comf'terble. Yer on a ship 'cause you got to be 'til you hit land an' can git off. Yer on a raft 'cause you wanna be, an' can get off whenever you want. I reckon there ain't no home should be thought of but like a raft."

Before Huck could go on, if such was his intention, the front door squealed audibly open. The pair could hear Jim barking down the hallway and saw him disappear down the stairway across the courtyard. Even from where they were standing, they could hear John's faint groan of slightly disgusted surprise.

Posted by Justin Katz at February 6, 2005 12:27 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches