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April 10, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 6 (p. 111-120)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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The dish washing station was really quite remarkable. Perhaps the average visitor would pay it little heed, being accustomed to the luxury of instant hot water in the home and because the Pequod was so full of intriguing items and ingenuities that innovations of the domestic kind could only pale in comparison. But then, perhaps it wasn't such an amazing contrivance. After all, the inventor would most likely have been aware, himself, of modern running water systems and, thus, came up with this invention because he was unable to develop a more convenient method.

D. thought of Nick as she stoked the flame in the small enclosed oven under the dish basin and pumped water to clean the breakfast dishes the following morning. Huck had begun the process, with the promise of D.'s assistance, but had marched off, book under arm, hinting that he had some immediate personal business to attend to.

During breakfast, Nick had been excessively civil to D., and she could not help but feel that he was struggling to devise some means of speaking with her. They had sat, all five of them, at the servant's table in the kitchen, and Nick had remarked that it would be prudent of somebody to clear off the dining room table in the near future; their current dining arrangement would only seat one more. He had addressed the comment to the entire audience but, in some tacit way, made it clear that he had no intention of being the one to perform the task, or even to help.

She was pouring soap into the as yet cold water when D. heard the door swing open behind her. After waiting for some salutation or annunciation of intent that never came, D. turned to find Nick leaning, with arms and calves crossed, against the door frame: the picture of apathy even concerning the length of time it took for any conversation that he was planning to initiate to take form.

D. was the first to speak. "I don't know how we're going to continue to eat like that if many more people come."

"Oh, we'll get by."

A discomfiting silence, perhaps so for having been planned as such, settled on the room like downy linen. Nick shifted to the other shoulder on the opposite side of the door frame. "I've been meaning to apologize."

"What for?" asked D.

"I don't know, entirely. But I seem to have upset you last night, so this morning I'm apologizing."

Smiling amusedly, D. accepted the apology, half-heartedly insisting that it wasn't so much that she had been offended, but that she hadn't been of a mind to have a discussion as had seemed brewing.

"It's just," Nick struggled, "it's just that, to my experience, it is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment. I suppose I addressed you so put-offishly because I wanted to leave the way open to deny any insights you might have in the future that contradict everything I assume to be true. In part, as well, I must admit that any exhibition of complete self sufficiency, such as you were demonstrating, draws a stunned tribute from me."

D. wondered what specific evidence she had provided Nick to justify this flattery. The next swift moment, the door swung open to Huck proclaiming that he felt lighter. Nick was flung into the room and asprawl the table at its center. Huck sized up the situation and said, "Oh, I'm sorry Nick. I didn't know you was there."

Stroking his vest and hair so as to straighten them along with his composure, Nick suggested, "Well if you'd be more careful with that cruel body of yours..."

Huck cut him off with a laugh. "My body ain't been fitted fer cru'lty fer quite a while now, I'd say."

"Well still, if you weren't always seeking the dramatic turbulence of your irrecoverable college football games."

Huck corrected, "I was a baseball man."

Storming out of the room, Nick huffed, "And I'm sure you never tire of reminding the whole sad world of your advantages."

When Nick was gone, Huck shrugged his shoulders for D.'s benefit. "I'll wash, you dry?"

Having read the book to the very last word, D. lay it closed upon her thigh and ran her hand along the cover as if she wished to smooth a wrinkled cloth. She looked up from her chair and out the window of her room at the branches that hung threateningly near. Though parts of the book had dragged, she had to admit that in the end she was moved. One thought led to the next, and she decided that it would be best to stroll and clear her head.

From the balcony she could see John, still awake and reading in his chair. Huck was beneath the tree engulfed in an apparently humorous tale, and Jim pranced circles around the yard in pursuit of his own. Looking to the left as people look down well-known roads in their commutes, D. instead took the spiral staircase into the empty ballroom.

Her bare feet sent rhythmic shushes into eternal channels of echoing. She noticed that there was nothing to be seen from the broad picture windows but the budding green of the proximate trees. To be honest, the scene was mostly brown, and as the birth of leaves is one of nature's least spectacular events except when viewed in turns, she initiated a pirouette in order to leave the morose sight. But as she spun, some anomaly in the hue of one of the trunks caught her fancy. Having noticed a stark difference, more minute ones became apparent, and yet more. In one spot, a branch with the same curvature as another had a juvenile leaf at the elbow. One tree trunk was so wrinkled that the preponderance of shadow made the bark look nearly black.

Once, when she had been younger, though perhaps not much, D. had spent a house-ensnared snowstorm piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of a verdant forest. She was three quarters finished when the snow stopped. In conjunction with her placing of the final piece, the sun broke through and drove away the clouds.

While surveying the weighty mask that lay across the land, D. had noticed that what had appeared to be a blinding white was, in fact, a collage of hues and tinctures. Here a mound of snow fallen from an overhanging branch left a squirrel-shaped shadow. There the snow had melted into a sheet of nearly reflective ice and appeared to sparkle blue with the mirrored sky.

The differences, it need not be said, would have been there had she noticed them or not, but her eye had just graced three thousand similarly colored bits of cardboard for the most minuscule of details, and the habit had yet to dissolve. So did the trees before her now ripple into disparity.

A clicking of nails on marble startled D. from her reverie, and Jim came bobbing across the room with a rubber ball in his mouth.

"Where did you get that, boy?" inquired D. of her mute companion.

Jim swished his tail from side to side and dropped the ball at her feet. Sweeping it up before it had come completely to rest, D. hurled the ball against the nearest wall and watched as Jim slid, as if on ice skates, to intercept the unpredictable projectile.

Nick appeared from the hallway that ran along the southern side of the house and issued a resonant whisper, "Those toes of his make quite a racket in this room. I rather think that they are in need of grooming."

Jim did not answer the suggestion, nor did D. respond. Speaking in a near whisper, Nick said, "I don't suppose that it's difficult to discern that Huck and I are not on the best of terms."

"Oh. I hadn't noticed." D. reconsidered, "At least he hasn't said anything to me."

Crossing the room and gazing out the window with his arms clasped behind his back, Nick told her, "I've yet to deduce the reason that the builder of this house placed the widest range of windows in view of nothing more than tree trunks."

"I imagine that the house was built before the trees had grown so high."

"I suppose you're right. But for the half-decade that I've been here, I haven't noticed any significant change in their height, though I can't claim to have been watching closely."

D. noticed that Jim was quietly attempting to peel the skin from his ball and asked Nick, "So what story are you going to tell me?"

Turning only his head, with eye brows upraised, Nick seemed to be calculating the amplitude of D.'s interest. "There are many I could tell you. What would you like to hear about?"

D. chuckled at the seemingly superfluous question. "How about Nathaniel?"

"Oh? Have you been told much about him?" And after D. had answered in the moderate affirmative, "Have you been given the same portrait each of the three times you've heard tell of him?" D. stated that she hadn't. "Well I don't suppose he'd be bothered much whatever impression you develop of him, but I wouldn't care for you to get a wrong idea from all the stories you hear, so remember: until you've heard the same rumor from three people, you can't be certain that it's true." He smiled to indicate that the specific number was arbitrary.

After D. had reassured him that she would keep an open mind and not come to any conclusions at all until she had met the man, Nick yanked a chain that disappeared into a pocket of his vest and pulled out a watch. Debonairly flicking the cover shield with the nail of his thumb, he checked the time against the exterior shadows as if the trees formed a peculiarly accurate sundial. He replaced the watch and began to speak.

"I, like most of the people that you'll meet while you are here, was an uninvited guest. Oh, some will claim to have been brought. If not by Nathaniel then by some higher power or some such gobble-de-gook. To my knowledge, the only person who did not just arrive here, excepting acts of God, was John.

"No, I barged in on the Pequod's patrons in as harsh a manner as is likely to be possible without ending one's life. Several accomp... acquaintances of mine deserted me not far from here. You see, I was forced, by circumstances that I won't describe to you now, to make a quick exit from their moving vehicle, and it was quite beaten and bruised that I first knocked on the door of this house, without drawing a response from anything but a hooting owl.

"I must have fainted, because the next thing of which I was aware was a large tree that seemed to be dripping snakes all around me."

"The willow?" interrupted D.

"Yes," responded Nick, slightly perturbed that he hadn't gotten to tell it as he wanted. "Yes, the very same. But in my state it seemed a blurry monument dripping snakes all around me, and I nearly jumped through the branches when a strange, bulbous face leaned over me and glared with protruding bug-like eyes. The phrase, 'They're real, you know,' drifted through my semiconscious awareness.

"'What?' I said, startled to rising. 'The snakes?'

"The man, who I would later learn calls himself Martin, gave me a much deserved look of bewilderment, 'What snakes? I noticed that you were looking at the books, and I thought that I would save you the trouble of having to ascertain for yourself. They are all real. I've read the titles of every one.'

"I, understandably, had no idea what he was talking about, but rather than admit this to him, I merely asked, 'Why shouldn't the books be real?'

"'I don't know,' he said. 'I was fooled.'

"Before I could make any sense of the matter, John came into the courtyard and managed to get me cleaned and fed. After situating me in the room next to Martin's, John explained to me the etiquette of the household and told me that if I needed anything he'd be delighted to oblige."

D. interjected, "Sorry to interrupt, but there's something that I've been wondering about John that maybe you could shed some light upon."

Smiling sardonically, Nick told her that he'd be happy to try.

"OK. When I first met him, John lured me here by claiming to have a lit fire and plenty of food."

"What of it?" impatiently.

"Neither was true."

"You mean to say that he was unable to provide you with any sustenance?"

"Well, if you call instant eggs and stale bread sustenance..."

"So then he did give you food."

D. responded irresolutely, "I guess, but there was no fire."

Nick looked at her as if he could not comprehend her insinuation then explained, "Dishonesty in John is a thing that you never blame deeply," and a block of confused muteness was broken when he requested permission to continue his story.

"Oh, sure. I'm sorry."

"Not a problem," Nick consoled. "What was I about to say... oh, yes. I don't believe that there was anybody here then that you have yet to meet, including Nathaniel. Apparently he had disappeared quite mysteriously, and my arrival served only to exacerbate the uneasiness that seemed to monopolize every conversation. For my own part, I enjoyed this period, not only because I was as yet unnamed, but because I was generally unnoticed due to this ineffable vanishing of a person of greater concern. In short, I was within and without. I could drift from room to room and between conversations and the awareness of the others. I found, as you will, that quite a diverse clientele congregates here and amazing railleries are issued: even more amazing for the fact that diatribes and casual innuendoes alike are between men who've never known each other's names! But still, contrary to the tension that one might expect, there is an overall sense of calm. All keep in sight of the fact that presently this year's foray will be over and a short trip later they will all casually put each other away in their minds as strangers in a daydream.

"Perhaps some things never change. Perhaps there are constants in subject matter as much as in weather. Or perhaps some topics age like wine, becoming more pungent with each ferment of consideration. But then, it must be acknowledged that his mysterious absence made Nathaniel the modish topic of the early summer. Martin, I recall, was vainly attempting to deny that he was worried. His supposition was that Nathaniel was a juggernaut and that nothing short of an apocalypse would prevent him from returning. I suspected, and time has made me more firm in this conviction, that Martin was afraid that Nathaniel would never return and that such an act would be exclusively a comment about him.

"John, however, was afraid for Nathaniel's safety. 'He is, after all,' John would say, 'just a man named Nathaniel.' And while I agreed with this observation, I couldn't comprehend the need to refer to him as merely 'just a man.' Huck, on the other hand, claimed to have no concern about Nathaniel's safety, but I suspect that he was just covering his confusion, for his is a simple mind, and as I'm sure you know, there is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.

"However, despite all the conjectures, I couldn't help but feel an admiration for this man who was able to inspire romantic speculation, in the classic sense, from three so enthusiastically obsequious characters and yet still force them to pay him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him. On the other hand, I often question whether this treatment of his guests isn't more of an instinctive reaction to his lack of knowledge about them. After all, even I forced my way in after a fashion, and maybe he's just too polite to object.

"Nathaniel returned quite a while after I had arrived, and I wondered what all the fuss had been about. I had been pacing laps around the house on the verandah, and from the dreary east during sunset, I made out a figure in the murk emerging from the underbrush. His head was hung low, and as he passed under a tree, he reached up apathetically and plucked a ripe leaf from a low-hanging branch. The branch wobbled slightly and stopped as if it had been disturbed by no more than a slight twirl of air. I leaned against the railing and watched as the figure crossed the yard and, without so much as a glance in my direction, vanished into the house. He must have slunk directly into his room, because none of his ardent followers made any mention of his arrival until the moon had slid so far across the sky that his silhouette was suddenly visible on the southern tower.

"Huck noticed him first and, after squinting in his direction, called out (excuse my poor imitation of his accent), 'Nathaniel, is 'at you?'

"After everybody had called up to him in their own manner, he was finally persuaded to come down into the courtyard and greet everybody. I was introduced as a new arrival who had not yet chosen a name, and he shook my hand without meeting my eyes.

"Over the next week, I saw very little of Nathaniel. What I did see of him imparted to me the unfavorable impression that this sullen mopish figure was the embodiment of everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. He would drift around the house like a ghost, and if he approached you at all, it was as if he believed you were so indefinite that he could pass right through you. Each evening he would ignore the concerned inquiries of his purported friends as he stared off into the woods in the manner of one who is trying to determine what share of the local heavens belongs wholly to him.

"In late August, John came down to breakfast one morning with the news that Nathaniel was not feeling well, or at least not himself, and had requested with all possible submissiveness that we all bring our vacations in his home to an early end. Martin protested blandly, but John insisted that it was for the best and assured us that life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall, and Nathaniel would be his usual ebullient self come spring. The combination of Nathaniel's mysterious demeanor and what was probably an earnest reluctance to leave his host in such a disquieting state of mind with no means of finding out how he fared for at least seven months prompted Huck to refuse the request and storm off in search of Nathaniel.

"I was in my room looking around, feeling as if I should be packing despite my lack of personal effects, when an imperceptible sound called my startled attention to a figure in the doorway. It was Nathaniel, and he did look as if something undefinable was ailing him. Before he spoke, I felt a sudden surge of sympathy for him, as it occurred to me that there is nothing so disconcerting to a healthy man than one who is ill, even a stranger. As if he had read these thoughts, he said in a low voice, 'Listen, old sport, I was wondering if you might be able to stick around for a week or so.'

"The request was completely out of keeping from anything that I could have expected. I, after all, was already picturing my return home; so I stuttered those hasty questions that seem instinctual reactions in order to leave open avenues of evasion should such prove to be the rational mind's inclination, without closing doors of acceptance should the opposite prove true. After he informed me that he had convinced both Huck and Martin, who had approached him a few moments before he came to see me, that everything was fine and that he just needed to be alone, Nathaniel smiled.

"To be honest, my mind had been pretty much made up to leave, but something in this smile made me want to stay. I understood that he must have learned long ago that people would react favorably toward him when he smiled, but that comprehension did not in the least dampen the radiance of the one that now flashed for my benefit. There seemed to be nothing but sincere innocence in this particular smile, and I felt reassured that, even were politics his usual habit, in my case, it was different. Indeed, there was suddenly a pleasant significance in having been asked to stay, and I could not refuse.

"We decided for the sake of appearances that I should take an extended walk about the forest in order to avoid sparking the kind of jealous outbursts that were precisely what he did not need at the time. Having offered farewells to Martin and Huck — and even to John, though he assured me that he was not a seasonal occupant — I left for a very pleasant romp amongst the trees.

"When I returned, I approached from the west, a sliver of the moon protruding above the roofs of the house. It may seem odd, considering that the absence of two people from a property that commonly houses only four, with the capacity for much more, is hardly a populous decrease, but the silence that issued forth from the hard dark outline against the velvet sky seemed to infiltrate the entire countryside. The windows looked down the hill at me in empty conviction, broken only by the outline of Nathaniel sitting on the roof between the two towers.

"And so it was, because John is apt to disappear for long intervals without notice, that I found myself in Nathaniel's house, and alone."

As if he had been trying to make good time in his telling of the yarn, Nick produced his watch and repeated the dramatically indifferent flick that lay it bare for his inspection. "Well," he said, "would you mind if we concluded our colloquy in the evening?"

Posted by Justin Katz at April 10, 2005 3:16 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches

Posted by: Alison at July 28, 2005 10:10 AM