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February 20, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 4 (p. 62-69)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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"I reckon I was the first to come along after Nathaniel invited John to the house," Huck began. "Back then it seemed John found his way into some town or other an' got himself a jug a' somethin' to help thicken him up when he needed it, which was most a' the time. He'd been storin' the empty bottles in his room so long that there warn't nowheres left in there to put any more. By the time I got here, he'd got in the habit of usin'm as decoration where there warn't no books on the shelves.

"Things was quiet for a while, and time went quick on account of there bein' so many books to read and me an' Nathaniel havin' such prime talks all the time. He had an amazin' head fer jest a boy! We'd talk all the time, an' when we warn't a-talkin', I was a-readin'. Finally one day, Nathaniel was playin' at the piano when I walked up to him an' told him my name. He said it suited me just fine, and we set about rummagin' through all the rooms to find me an outfit. What we found was the same as what I'm a-wearin' now, only a sight older an' more authenticated, an' when I had got it all on, Nathaniel laughed an' whistled. 'I do b'lieve we done found a match,' he said, an' I was awful glad to know who I was, 'cause now we could get on in a suitable way.

"'Round this time, John's bottles had got so they filled all the empty spots on the shelves, an' he started puttin'm on the railin' outside his room. Well, Nathaniel saw this an' was tolerable mad. 'I'll never b'grudge a man his whiskey,' he said, 'but purty soon we'll be throwin' out the drinkers to keep what's been drunk outta.' An' I could see that this gave him an idea."

"Hold it," interrupted D. "John told me that he was homeless before he came here and that he doesn't get paid for watching the house."

"Yes'm, that's true enough, from what I've heard."

"Then how could he possibly afford to fill the bookshelves with bottles, let alone his room?"

"Well, that's a question I've yet t'have answered fer me, so I'll be darned if I c'n give'n to you; but I 'magine Nathaniel'd been givin' him some comp'nsation on top a' providin' all his food an' housin'. Now where he got it from, I daren't even guess."

"Why didn't Nathaniel just cut John off if the drinking was becoming a problem?"

"Well darn, woman! What good would that do but creatin' an ornery an' sober ol' man to deal with? Nobody minded the drinkin'. Truth be told, we would sometimes take a peck at the stock, an' stoppin' the flow would 'a' been like dryin' out a toilet to keep a chile from playin' in it!"

D. had to mull that one over a little, and Huck let her. They had reached the tree line at the other end of the field when he started up again.

"While John was off restockin', or wherever, me and Nathaniel borrowed a dozen'r so bottles from his room, 'cause we knowed he wouldn't miss them from that mess. The col'rd ones, that was about six of'm, an' two of the clear ones that had vodka labels, we filled with water from the bathroom, and we took the rest of the clear ones down to the stream to fill'm with muddy water that didn't look much like the dark rum that John drinks but would pass from a distance if ya shook it first. We tucked all the water bottles away up in the south tower an' waited for John to git back.

"He was already a-whoopin' an' a-hollerin' drunk by the time he walked in the door, an' it warn't long before he was snorin' away in that big ol' chair a' his. Gatherin' up all his new jugs, 'bout seven all told, we lugged 'em up to the tower and started workin' our way to rip-roarin'. After one a' the bottles was tapped, we was makin' such a racket that John sort of waked up a little, but not enough for what we wanted, so Nathaniel whoops to him an' shouts down:

"'Hey there John! What's a fella gotta do to getcha outta that there chair?'

"John didn't pay no never mind to that, except to sort of mumble a yell and slip back to nappin' a bit. So Nathaniel whoops again and yells:

"'What if I told you that if you didn't come help us out with these here drinks, I don't reckon we'll be able to finish'm before earlier than six in the mornin', just the two of us?'

"This got John a-rollin' enough to get 'im outta the chair, an' he screams that we best not finish them all without him and he warn't of the mood to drink no more.

"'Well then,' says Nathaniel, 'I reckon we'll have to find ourselves some other way to unload this here burden.' An' he takes a big swig outta'n bottle a' rum an' drops his hand enough so John couldn't see that he was switchin' it fer a bottle a' nothin' but dirty water. Nathaniel, he takes an' holds the water up so's John gets a good enough look to think it was the rum and chucks it right off into the trees. I ain't never heard the woods so quiet as when waitin' fer that bottle to fall, an' when it did, it was the most God awful and beautiful crash a body ever heard.

"Now John's purty well stirred, with this look on his face like bloody murder, an' he comes a-rushin' up the stairs, an' I barely had the time to throw myself over the hatch so he couldn't lift it. I've always been a sight heavier than John could hoist. So there we are, Nathaniel a-laughin' like to raise the dead, John a-swearin' cusses that I knowed he made most of 'em up an' tryin' to get through, an' me just bouncin' up an' down on the hatch and a-gigglin' away like a Sunday School girl at a circus clown. Eventu'lly, John gets tired an' we heared him goin' down the stairs; next we knowed, there he was on the other tower a rantin' an' ravin' an' carryin' on like the house was on fire. When he'd got a hold a' his self, Nathaniel takes up a bottle a' clear water, takes a sip an' makes like it's the worst moonshine he ever tasted and then throws that bottle far off into the trees.

"John couldn't take no more a' this, so he climbs all shaky like down th'other tower an' starts crossin' the peak a' the roof with his arms out fer balance. Well, I was mighty impressed, 'cause he made it 'bout halfway without fallin', an' when he did fall, he didn't stop swearin', not for one second. No sirree, he just kept on a-yellin' at the top a' his voice an' tryin' to stand. He got to his feet an' started swingin' his arms, an' I don't think I ever seen a man so sober or scared as when he discovered that he was a-goin' to topple anyway. He rolled over backwards once'r twice, an' slid the rest a' the way 'til his feet was danglin' over the edge of the roof an' he was grabbin' at the shingles to save his neck, all the time slidin' just a little more.

"I reckon me an' Nathaniel sobered up then just about as fast as John did, an' we shinned it down into Nathaniel's room. And there in the window was two hairy legs all bare an' naked an' white as a ghost, just a-swingin' an' trying to get back up to safety. His robe was all bunched up by his waist, an' I see'd that he was wearin' a brand new pair a' boxer shorts with little paisley designs all over 'em. We throwed open the window and grabbed those kickin' legs an' told John to just let go so we could get 'im in. After a minute of arguin', he just let go his faith an' slipped over the edge an' into the room.

"Well, me an' Nathaniel felt a world a' sorry for what we'd done an' fixed John up with a rum 'n' coke. He went on fer a while 'bout us tryin' to kill such an' old an' kindly gentl'man who'd never been nothin' but good to us, an' we just kept on apologizin' until he wore himself out an' we all went to bed."

Huck and D. had come to the edge of a small lake (or big pond), and Huck skimmed a rock across its surface. The sun had dipped out of sight behind a mountain to the left, turning the water a pale and silent kind of black. Except for the faint buzzing of mosquitoes and the more vehement tweeting of the birds, the air was still. About twenty feet to the right of where they stood, D. saw a haphazardly built gazebo beginning to bend in on one side with the weight of a drastically tilted roof. The pair walked past the structure, keeping to the water's edge, and Huck skimmed another stone. Jim dove in and swam to the spot where it had sunk, paddling about and looking for it before giving up and swimming back to shore.

"Me an' Nathaniel agreed to be nice to John for the time bein', an' there warn't nothin' we didn't do to help him out an' make him feel all at home an' 'mongst friends again," Huck continued. "He started hidin' all his bottles but the one he'd be drinkin' at the time, so a' course we couldn't help but try to find 'em all out. One of'm he put in the piano, which warn't too hard to 'cipher out on account of it rattlin' so every time you hit the lower keys. There was a couple behind the bathtub upstairs and a cartload under a loose board in the front hall. 'Bout the hardest one to find was away behind some books by a man named James Fenimore Cooper. I found that one detective fashion, 'cause I figured nobody'd ever take them books down off'n the shelves t'actuly read 'em. It got to where we knowed where just about ev'ry bottle was.

"Nathaniel an' me was out explorin' one afternoon when he turns to me an says, 'Well, Huck, I reckon that it ain't no use havin' all this infermation an' not usin' it.' I told him I reckoned he was right, so he goes on, 'and I don't think it would hurt the ol' man all that much if we was to fool with 'im jest a little.' I told him I reckoned he was jest about on the mark again.

"The first thing we did next time John was a-snorin' in his chair, which warn't too long away, was to switch all the liquors around. We got an ol' crystal pitcher with a real slim spout from the kitchen an' went an' put vodka from the bathroom in the Kahlua bottle from the front hall an' filled the vodka bottle with water, an' swapped the whiskey in the piano with the Southern Comfort behind that Muleravisher book or whatever it's called. Next all we did was wait.

"The afternoon after, we climbed up into the willow, which was all thick with leaves, an' watched John take his sweet-tooth over to the bookshelf. He looked around like he was bein' sneaky and took down the bottle a' what he thought was SoCo. He sort a' smiled to himself an' went off into the ballroom. We dropped down from the tree just in time to hear his loud 'yeck' when he discovered that his Southern Comfort was beginnin' to taste awful sim'lar to Jack Daniel's. We strolled in to where he was an' Nathaniel says:

"'What's all the gaggin' fer John?'

"'Well, this here bottle's supposed to be full of Southern Comfort, but I'll be damned if it ain't J.D.,' John snarls back, an' in a voice that showed that he suspicioned what we was up to.

"'Give it here,' says Nathaniel, an' he takes a big pull, 'tastes like SoCo to me. Here, Huck, you give it a try.'

"I took the bottle an' says that I hope'ts the Comfort, 'cause Jack Daniels makes me powerful sick from just a sniff. So I takes the bottle an' smells the top with one eye all squinted so's it looks like I'm really makin' sure, an' then I gulped down a good amount a' the whiskey an' says, 'Well, I ain't a-pukin', so's I guess it's just what it says on the bottle.'

"'Gimme that,' says John, not believin' us more'n a bit. He took a sip an' gave us a look like either we was foolin' with him or he was goin' crazy. He ordered us out to the courtyard an' to close our eyes. We did what we was told, an' I heared him gettin' the Jack Daniel's bottle that was full a' Southern Comfort out from where it was hid in the piano. 'Now you two are gonna drink this'n here with yer eyes shet an' tell me what yer tastin'. And don't say nothin' 'til you've both had yer go.'

"First Nathaniel took a drink an' then smacks his lips real loud. Next John shoves the bottle against my chest and says it's my turn. Well, I hardly had the bottle to my lips an' I starts gaggin' an' makin' like I'm gonna throw up. I was bent over on my knees an' spittin' on the ground when Nathaniel says, 'I reckon Huck agrees with me that that there is Jack Daniel's.'

"John took a swig an' swore up 'n' down that what he was a-tastin' was Southern Comfort. Nathaniel chimes in with, 'Well, I see what's goin' on here.'

"'Really? An' what's that?'

"'You've been mixin' an' matchin' these diff'rent liquors so much yer heads gone an' switched 'em all around.' So John says we'll see about that, an' marches up to the bathroom. I guess he didn't want to let on where his big stash was, 'case we hadn't found it yet. Well first he takes a drink a' the gin that was there, points to the label an' says, 'Now that says gin, it smells like gin, it tastes like gin, an' I'll swear by God that it ain't nothin' else!'

"We didn't say nothin' diff'rent, so he takes up the vodka bottle an' just about finishes the whole thing in two gulps. 'Try it,' he d'mands without sayin' nothin' else. Nathaniel drinks it an' makes a more squintin' an' wrinkled face any twelve year old fiddlin' around in his pap's liquor cabinet ever made.

"'That's some powerful stuff!' he says when he's all done makin' like he's gaspin'.

"So John says, 'Look me in the eye an' tell me that warn't water you just took a drink of.'

"'Damn, John, would I be all a-fluster like this if I was drinkin' jest water?' an' I see'd that he was indeed all a-fluster, with his eyes a-tearin' an' ev'rything.

"John reckoned not if he was tellin' the truth, an' when I tasted the water I told purty much the same tale, but not with so much style. We was all gettin' a little thick from all the tastin', an' John twice as much on account a' his startin' to believe that it was vodka that he had drunk so much of. So now he takes us down the stairs so's he can prove he's not insane an' all the bottles under the floor is what they say they is.

"First he goes through a few tastes a' rum before he believes his tongue on that one. Then he had a pull a' tequila that we hadn't even seen hidin' down there an' says that he reckons if it wasn't tequila he was tastin' then he'd have to be an imigr'nt. At last he comes to the Kahlua, which, if you never had it, is sweet as molasses compared to vodka, an' takes the biggest gulp yet. Believe you me that there vodka didn't so much as touch his guts before he was down on one knee doin' all he can to keep it down. Meanwhile, Nathaniel's dumpin' the vodka in a plant that used to be by the door there, before it died a short while later, so when John righted himself an' asked fer the bottle, there wouldn't be nothin' but air.

"'Dagnabit,' he says, still kinda droolin', 'that warn't like no Kahlua I ever had. No way, no how! That was vodka or I'll eat myself a hairball!'

"'Well, John, I'd love to prove you right, but you done drank all there was to drink. That Kahlua's some heavy stuff, you must be feelin' a might bloated right about now.'

"Snatchin' away the bottle, John sees that there ain't nothin' left but a lingerin' smell a' the Kahlua that used to be there before me and Nathaniel drank it all, an' let's out this moan, 'Awwohh, boys, I reckon I'm a gonner now.'

"Nathaniel grabs him 'round the waist and leads him to his chair. 'You better rest for a while,' he advises, an' John sort of groans his agreement. The way the man went on you'd a thought he had drank a whole case a' caster oil. 'Ventually he's off an' snorin' again like always."

Huck stopped talking for a moment.

"So what's the Nonesuch Inn?" asked D., who was looking over the treetops to where the towers of the house protruded from the mist of bare branches. They had been climbing the rocky side of the first hill to the north of the house that was higher than the one upon which it stood.

"I'm a-gettin' to it," Huck told her, "but while I do, I think we best head back. My stomach's tellin' me that it's gettin' on to dinner time."

Stopping a moment to look at the view of the little lake, D. followed Huck down the rocks the way they had come. They walked in silence, listening to the late afternoon stillness in the air. Jim broke D. from the state of country enchantment that had started to come over her by poking her in the bottom with a stick that he wanted her to throw. Once she realized that it was going to be more work than it was worth to wrestle over a stick that Jim wouldn't even chase after it was thrown, D. picked a fresh one from between the blades of brown grass and threw it. Jim dropped his stick and ran off after a new one altogether. D. was surprised at how quickly the day seemed to be passing.

Posted by Justin Katz at February 20, 2005 1:51 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches