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March 6, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 4 (p. 76-83)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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Scattered glimpses of the house began appearing through the branches, the shadows of trees drawing stripes across its sides. D.'s stomach growled, and she asked Huck what he had planned for dinner.

"I had a hankerin' for a burger an' thought I'd drag out the grill."

"Sounds good," D. said, and she meant it. The idea of a juicy cheeseburger made her mouth water. She helped Huck drag an old charcoal grill out to the front yard, where Jim trotted around it in happy expectation.

After Huck had gotten the coals lit, he suggested they go in search of John. Finding nothing but an empty brandy bottle by his recliner, the pair took a package of supermarket ground beef from an old ice box, the type that actually kept food cold with the insertion of a block of ice, and a package of hamburger buns from an even older wooden box with a loaf of steaming bread carved into the lid.

Perhaps catching D. staring inquisitively at the ice box, Huck told her, "Enough people gener'ly bring ice enough to keep the per'shibles good for a while." He motioned toward an empty red plastic cooler that looked entirely out of place. "It's reg'lar for the last person here to go off an' get enough to last John 'til he don't need it no more. There's usually people here well into the cooler months anyhow."

D. didn't ask for any more information, so they brought the meat and bread out to the grill, which was well on its way to smoldering already. While the paddies of beef simmered, D. asked how long Huck had stayed in the cave.

"Oh," he responded, "not long. Nathaniel came out to see me ev'ry day to tell me what kind a' state he'd got John into, an' ev'ry night I snuck back in an' borrowed a bottle'r two a' liquor so's Nathaniel could convince John that things was startin' to disappear. We figured that was all he'd a' noticed missin'.

"Two nights into the whole thing, I asked Nathaniel if a crim'nal who snuck into a body's house to take his booze wouldn't steal a fishin' pole if he warn't havin' no luck stabbin' at the things an' fallin' in the lake most ev'ry time. He reckoned it'd be possible if somebody in the house got it out to the hall with the intention a' usin' it. So's it'd be missed an' all. Then I told Nathaniel that I had a terrible time tryin' to light a fire a' green wood, so he says it's alright 'cause he warn't able to make out the smoke at night anyhow.

"Once I'd got the pole, bein' out in the woods was like playin' hooky, what with drinkin' an' nappin' by the water ev'ry day a-fishin', an' lookin' up at the stars most ev'ry night tryin' to 'cipher whether they was made or jest happened. Me an' Nathaniel built us a raft — jest fer the sake a passin' the time, he said, but I reckoned he was workin' out a way to fit it into our plan.

"In about a week, John was missin' his lost bottles so much that he started drinkin' as much as he could so's it couldn't be filtched, an' Nathaniel'd got him so outta mind 'bout my disappearin' that he was gettin' afeared to go out a' the house. Purty soon, it got so't Nathaniel'd have to bring him up his meals to his room. But at night John got so thick he warn't afeared of nobody, spesh'ly nobody who warn't there anyways, so he'd go staggerin' around the courtyard yellin' up at the saterlites that they might's well just out an' take 'im away. When this got to be the usual way a' things, Nathaniel took that white robe a' mine an' started walkin' up 'n' down the balconies after John knocked off in his chair.

"We figured it'd be safe for me to sneak into the house to hide and watch, so one night I was hidin' in the shadows by the piano when John shot up outta his sleep 'n' started hollerin' at Nathaniel (only he didn't know it was him a-cause a' the robe with the hood up) to leave 'im be 'cause he never was nasty to the dead an' they had no quar'l with him. Nathaniel jest raised one arm slow so it was pointin' at John, an' the robe was so big on him that it didn't look like he had no hands. John screamed an' ran off through the front hall an' out the door. Throwin' the robe down to me, Nathaniel whispered, 'Quick now, Huck, follow after us an' wait on my signal.' Out he went after John.

"Well, this was all impr'vised, so I jest chased after'm a little ways off, an' I see'd that Nathaniel had got John headin' fer the lake. I ran quick 'round infront a' them an' threw on the robe when I'd got to the gazebo. The fog was toler'ble thick over the water, an' when they got to there, Nathaniel saw where I was an' turned his back to me. Jest then, John looked right up at me an' screams:

"'Oh Lord! Banish this evil spirit! Save me, save me!'

"So Nathaniel turns back around twice an' asks John what the hell he's a-screamin' about 'cause he can't see nothin'. John starts cryin' an' screamin' that it must be the angel a' death come fer him, an' nobody but him would be able to see'm. I took the hint an' slipped off into the bushes.

"'John, calm down! Look again, I'm sure yer jest seein' things,' I heared Nathaniel sayin'.

"John looks an' says, 'He was jest there! I'd swear by it! Lordy, lordy, I's sunk, Nathaniel, you got to help me!'

"Takin' him by the arm, Nathaniel says that he reckons they'd best get away by water, 'cause Death couldn't likely swim out'n fear that his robe 'n' sickle'd drag 'im down, an' pushes John over to the raft. I reckon John musta been consider'ble drunk 'cause he staggered onto the planks an' nearly tumbled right off th'other side, shoutin', 'quick, quick!'

"Nathaniel signals to where I was, though I don't reckon he could see me, an' I got his meanin' to be that I should set the robe afloat on a piece of wood an' push it off into the water. When it was a ways out on the edge a' where I couldn't see into the fog, I swear it nearly sent the shivers into my guts, 'cause nothin' don't look nat'ral nor right in a fog. They set off, with Nathaniel usin' a paddle we'd found on the shore a couple a' days b'fore, an' I lost sight a' them in the fog, but I could hear 'em goin' in circles 'cause Nathaniel didn't want to get too far from shore an' knowed that John wouldn't know the diff'rence.

"For a while, ev'rythin' was quiet, an' then Nathaniel was standin' there all drippin' wet next to me. I asked him what he was doin', an' he says he slipped off the raft real quiet an' swam away, so John would be floatin' all by his lonesome. Jest then we hears this terr'ble scream, an' then a splashin' right toward us.

"'Quick,' says Nathaniel, 'go off that ways a piece an' make ghost sounds so't John runs straight up to the cave.' We both done it, with John runnin' back 'n' forth between our 'woooooos' an' 'ahhhhhs.' He got to where the hill's real steep an' with loose dirt, an' down he slides, loosin' his gown an' gettin' covered in dirt. I could see that he was naked as the day he was born, an' it was all I could do to keep from bustin' out laughin', but eventu'lly we get him up to the cave entrance, an' in he goes.

"We was outside a' that cave fer near a half-hour when finally Nathaniel takes off his shirt an' makes a torch on a stick. When John sees us comin' into the cave, he throws down a bottle he'd found an' starts prancin' this way 'n' that an' screamin' that he warn't ready to die an' then busts out right between us with his arms all wavin' over his head. That was it; neither of us couldn't help but start hollerin' an' laughin' 'til tears rolled down our cheeks.

"We walked back here an' set on the roof a' the porch right there," he pointed to a spot over the door, "an' waited fer John to get back from wherever he'd gone to. We fell asleep an' woke up, an' went through the whole next day without hearin' nothin' from him, but late in the afternoon, John totters outta the bushes with a bottle in his hand an' his gown on, all ripped an' dirtied up, an' shouts, 'Get on down here! I've a mind to lynch the lot a' you!'

"Nathaniel jest stands up, all calm an' delib'rate, an' looks down on him. John tried a little to outgaze him but faltered an' looked away. 'You think you got the nerve to lynch us?' says Nathaniel, knowin', I 'spect, that it was jest a tern-a-phrase. 'Why, nobody but a man'd have the gall to follow through on that one! An' you ain't been a man fer quite some time, I reckon! That's it, look away. Don't look up here; you ain't got the right! Now yer gonna stand there an' listen to me good, 'cause yer gonna take to heart ev'ry word I has to say. I know you feel you've suffered, an' I'll give you that you have more'n most an' had a right to wallow a bit. An' I know yer thinkin' we ain't done nothin' but make you suffer some more, an' I'll give you that we have. But we jest as much had the right to do what we done 'cause you long ago used up all a' yer wallowin' priv'ledges, an' I'm damn sick of it!

"'I know yer prob'ly thinkin' 'bout leavin' now. An' if you do, I'm a-goin' to help you pack. But I don't b'lieve you'll do it. No, I don't b'lieve yer man enough to even give up an' take off. You ain't nothin' but a coward! Wallow all you like, but if you was a man, you'd have pulled yourself together when I brought you here. You ain't even tried! Not once!'

"John sunk down as low as he could an' still be standin'.

"'Now, what we did, we done fer the adventure of it an' to teach you a lesson,' Nathaniel kept on, 'A body that ups an' tells the truth is takin' consider'ble many resks, an' I know it. But I'm a-goin' to tell you that you got to stop actin' like there ain't no world but the one in a bottle. I don't want you to leave, and I won't insist you keep off the booze if you stay. I don't b'lieve droppin' it altogether will settle anythin' for you. But if you stay, yer gonna drink like a man. If you choose to live here, as I hope you do, yer gonna treat others like a gentleman should. Y'hear?'

"John whimpered that he did, an' Nathaniel hopped down off the roof. Bein' not as young an' spritely, I climbed through the window to John's room and walked down past that window town clock, an'..."

D. interrupted, "Wait. I don't know what you're talking about."

"You must a' seen it," said Huck, "it's that window over the stairs. You know which'n I'm talkin' about?"

"You mean that stained glass one?"

"Well, yes, that'n is the only one over the stairs, I reckon. Anyway, seems ev'rybody thinks a' that picture in a diff'rent way, but to me it's a little country town scene, an' the clear spot is where the sun swings by ev'ry now an' then like a pendulum, though not keepin' reglar time as far as we see it. It don't go by jest right to fit the hole but once a year, an' I ain't never been able to 'cipher out any rhythm to it."

Considering this for a moment, D. told Huck to go on.

"The front door was openin' when I got to the bottom of the stairs, an' in comes first John then Nathaniel, an' he was sayin' that th'other should go relax an' he'd heat up some water fer him fer a warm bath. Jest as he was closin' the door an' turnin' around, the sun hit the window jest right, an' a beam a light shoots across an' hits square on Nathaniel. I swear I thought he must'a' been an angel sent from Heaven. He sort of tilted his head an' smiled, with the light glintin' off his eyes and teeth. Nearly as quick as it came, the sunbeam went away, but both me an' John had seen it.

"John took a long bath down in the room by the kitchen, an' Nathaniel played at the piano. Music is a good an' freshenin' thing, 'specially after such hard talkin'. Since then, I've jest kept up with the little pranks an' games at John's expense an' callin' him 'yer majesty' and that cave the Nonesuch Inn, jest to remind him. He still drinks consider'ble when he gets the chance, but I reckon he's much improved in his habits."

They had gotten ketchup from the kitchen and eaten their burgers on the front steps, Jim lying quietly at their feet and gobbling up what scraps were given to him. The sun was far down on the other side of the house, and the stars were beginning to show to the east. Directly across from where they sat, a shadow moved behind the bushes. Perking up his ears, Jim lifted his head. John walked out of the bushes into the yard. He looked at the two of them.

"I don't imagine I'd be far off if I guessed that Huck has been telling some of his favorite yarns."

Not believing that she had been afraid to bump into this man not twelve hours ago, D. told him he was right.

"Don't believe it all, miss. He's renowned for his tendency to fib."

Huck defended himself, "Now there's things I stretched a little, but mainly I ain't told nothin' but the truth." Huck smiled, and D. thought that John might have, too, just a little.

"We made an extra hamburger for you," she told him.

John thanked her and sat down on the steps to eat it. After helping Huck stifle the coals and put the dinner provisions where they belonged in the kitchen, D. asked John if he would mind if she drew a bath for herself. John didn't object, so she went back into the kitchen, where Huck helped her prepare to heat water on an old wood-burning stove that had been converted to be gas fueled. He escorted her up to her room so she could get her candle, her book, and her bathrobe and found a towel for her in his room, the one at the other end of the same hallway.

Once inside the bathroom by the kitchen, D. locked the door behind her and slid into the tub. Finding the water extremely refreshing, she recalled what John had said about getting clean after a long period of being filthy. She hoped she would never have to know the feeling to the same extent that he had.

After her bath, D. unlocked the door as softly as she could and opened it enough to peek one eye through. There was nobody there save Jim the dog lying right outside the door. He looked up at her with friendly brown eyes. Jim followed her halfway up the stairs and then turned to the sound of Huck's voice:

"Hey Jim, why don't you keep the lady comp'ny tonight?" Jim barked his approval.

"That's really not necessary," D. explained, "I can take care of myself."

"Still," said Huck, "better safe... Lest I See Thee Not In the Morn Alas, sweet Emmeline. You never know what the people livin' here can get themselves up to."

Dismissing the strange phrase and name despite their familiar ring, D. agreed, "I'm starting to see that. But I must say that you seem awfully jovial to be among such strange fellows."

"Well, thank you."

"What keeps you here? If you don't mind my asking."

"I don't b'lieve in lonesome vacations, an' I reckon that in a barrel of odds an' ends things go better." He turned back toward the front door.

"Huck," D. called after him, "are you sure you don't want Jim to sleep with you?"

"Naw, I reckon I already know where I'm headed in the end; I decided that one forever long ago, an' now I don't have nothin' to be afeared of. Ain't nothin' or nobody a-goin' to lay a hand on me."

Huck looked young and old at the same time. Extraordinarily alive and tired, too. "What makes you so sure?" D. asked.

"'Cause I don't put no stock in there bein' a plot to this whole thing, I don't give a dern fer any motives but mine, an' I got my own damn morals." He turned and left.

Jim followed D. up to her room, sat comfortably by the door, and watched her lock them in, blow out the candle, and climb into bed. "Goodnight Jim," she said. Jim barked in response.

It is late at night. D. is sleeping peacefully, not dreaming.

The front door squeals open, leading Jim to raise his ears. There are footsteps up the stairs and along the balcony, and he sniffs at the bottom of the door. A green eye looks through the keyhole, only to jump back at the sight of sharp teeth behind a vicious snarl. Alex flees, but calmly, down the spiral staircase, with a slight chuckle and a jingling at his side.

D. rolls over and asks Jim what the matter is. He ambles to her bed and licks her face. Nothing at all. Looking at the door, she lies back with her hands behind her head. She feels safe. The room is warm. Climbing out of the bed, she opens the window a little — just the tiniest bit, but a cool breeze squeezes its way into the room.

Giving Jim one last pat and scratch on the head, D. goes back to bed and to sleep. The dog hunkers down for the night.

The wind flows dreamily through the courtyard and out over the trees. It whistles through a hole in a cave. It ripples the grass in the field and the water in the lake. Tiny waves lap up against the bottom of the mountain. The water recedes enough for the moonlight to reveal a white robe with a hood buried in the mud.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 6, 2005 12:29 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches