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April 17, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 6 (p. 121-127)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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Dinner had passed with no sign of Nick. D. was surprised to find herself mildly apprehensive, not unlike a girl awaiting a merely hinted rendezvous. It wasn't that she was developing any attraction whatsoever for him, but Nick's tale, apparent in the telling, had been heading into the realm of melancholy. With her imagination hopelessly inclined to create vast and morbid possibilities, D. began to long for the end of the story so that she could choose another book from the shelf and curl into a literate ball in her room. That would, after all, leave her mind to ponder securely fictional accounts.

After dinner, D. noticed that the day lingered longer than it had been, and strolling through the entrance hall, she watched the bright blur of the sun pass through the stained glass owl and disappear as it sank below the distant roof. The hall turned instantly dismal, and she hardly heard the creak of the door and footsteps behind her until a voice whispered, "So what do you see?"

Spinning with a start, D. inhaled deeply and pressed a hand to her chest, "Oh, Nick. It's you." Then, "What did you say?"

"The window," he replied, gesturing to the subject of his inquiry, "what does it look like to you?"

Turning back around, as if a final glance after having looked at it so long would prove to be the decisive one, D. decided, "I haven't decided yet. What does it make you think of?"

"A token," Nick told her curtly, "for the subway."

"Oh."

Moving next to her, Nick watched with D. as the shadow of the roof rose until it had completely engulfed the window. As if he had been waiting for the exact moment when the darkening of the room would cease to be observable and begin deepening in increasingly murky shades of gray, Nick said:

"You know, my first year here I used to watch undevotedly for the day that the sun would line up with that pigmentless hole in the middle. Even more so once everybody had left, but before Nathaniel and I began to talk in earnest. It was only a matter of days after I had watched him on the roof from the underbrush that I was standing on this very spot watching the bright splotch of the sun descending in a direct course for that center circle.

"It sounds either fanciful or dimwitted to say it now, but as the climactic moment approached, I noticed that my pulse began to quicken and my eyes refused to blink. I watched as the first sliver of unadulterated light curled around the edge of the ring. I turned to witness the crescent-moon shape that had appeared against the wall behind me, only to see a silhouette block out the light. Unjustly chastising myself for having blinked and missed it, I turned to discover that the obstruction was on the other side of the glass. I could even make out the arms and legs of Nathaniel on the distant rooftop. I don't believe that he knew the calamitous maneuver that he had made, but it seemed almost too convenient that he moved out of the way just in time for me to watch the sun loose its grip on the bottom arch of the ring.

"Part of me, I suspect, was bent on reprimanding him for his inconsiderate action, but when I emerged into the courtyard, I merely stood there and watched Nathaniel pace back and forth on that precipitous crux between the two towers. He'd caress the cold stone of each before twisting and casually crossing to the other.

"Would you like to go sit on the verandah?"

D. did not answer the question, for she had not understood that it hadn't been part of Nick's narrative, but she responded to the extended silence. "What was that?"

"I was just wondering if you wanted to sit down somewhere. I feel as if I've been standing all day."

D. acquiesced, and Nick led her out onto the porch, where they sat next to each other in individual wicker chairs and looked off into the increasingly obscure trees.

With an elegant clearing of his throat, Nick continued, "The daily ritual of the household became so routine that it was nearly comfortable for all its morbid ambiance. John, for all I could tell, was either absent for long intervals or wandered off before I awoke and staggered in after I was asleep. Nathaniel stayed up all through the night at his perilous vigil and so slept all day. I took the freedom of my days to reinvigorate my long lost literacy and at night watched from below as Nathaniel measured out the sunset in footsteps and glared off into nothing once the moon had risen behind him. One evening, I was speculating about Nathaniel's purpose in having me stay and resolved to rise to the southern tower and confront him.

"I made no effort to conceal my ascension or position, but still he didn't appear to notice that I was watching him. From my new vantage point, I could tell that he wasn't looking after the sunken light of the day, but into his palms: with one eye covered by each hand. His posture bespoke an aloofness that compelled me to hold my tongue, and so I spent that evening, and several nights after, just watching him after he had sat down into stillness.

"No, that's not right. I say that he was still, but had that been truly the case, I imagine that some common concern for humanity would have forced me to attempt to lift his spirits. The truth was that he was never quite still. There was always some kind of motion of his feet or hands that made him appear to be lost in grappling with some indomitable question, so I didn't dare disrupt him.

"It was already very nearly autumn when I finally picked a name for myself. I realize now that that must sound like a frivolous pedantism to be elated about when I had effectively been left to myself for several weeks. However, like the missed sunset through the token hole, I had been so consistently curious about the significance of the event that when it came I felt as if I had been cheated by not having anyone with whom to share the moment. I decided to celebrate myself, and it was dark by the time I had finished the sole remaining bottle of champagne, and the house and its living gargoyle changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound. It was in this state that I finally stumbled up to my accustomed perch and called out the news to Nathaniel.

"I've decided since then that he must have been really very distant in thought, because I needed to remind him of the book from which the name had been drawn. He glanced up at me, and through the dim light I could make out his lips moving slightly as if he were formulating a response. I flattered myself that I had diverted his thoughts onto me, but then he said, in a whisper that required me to lean so far towards him that I nearly tumbled end over end to my doom, 'I'm afraid I won't be much of a protagonist for you.'

"I thought I was being cavalier when I told him, 'Who's to say that it is your role to play,' but he just cocked back an eyebrow in dismissal and resumed his previous position. I had resolved, before I had climbed to the height, that I was either going to converse with him that night or leave in the morning. The stakes on my next words being so high, I took a moment to consider. Nathaniel was, I imagine, in his early twenties at that time, and by virtue of my being a little bit older, and at that age at which 'a little bit older' seems more significant than 'much older,' I thought I'd be able to draw a fair conclusion of his state through mere deduction.

"On first reflection of him sitting there curled into a cocoon of consideration, it seemed to me that Nathaniel was in the process of undergoing some sort of metamorphosis, one that was still too fresh for him to have realized what he had gained by it, so he was caught in the lamenting of that which he had lost. An eager leaf, brown and dead, skimmed the rooftop, making a deceptively loud scratching noise before it floated down into the courtyard. I looked at what Nathaniel had built around him. I thought of the droll companions that he kept always surrounding: interesting if not worthy of celebration. First I brought a vision of Huck to be considered, he of the demeanor that suggests that he is the only person unaware that his life runs on now as if in an inevitable anticlimax to those shining, regal days of youth. Displacing Huck in my mind's eye was Martin, a man who had been so drunk all his life on the rote maneuvers of a complacent existence and understood it enough to believe that some benefit might be gained from the world of books but was too lazy and stupid to do more than pace the library reading titles. And over them all, to be dealt with on an even longer-term basis, John, who made no qualms about preferring to be alone, then submitting himself to the rape of privacy that comes from small gatherings.

"They were, and still are, as are all of us who come here, careless people. When our individual seasons are over, we disappear and forget whatever messes we've made of Nathaniel's world. At that time, I almost pitied him. I sighed at the misapprehension of this simple gift that he gave to those who shared his home for a time.

"In his turn, I realized that Nathaniel had developed his own creation of himself before he threw open the gates to his reality. His, however, had not been an idle diversion. He was younger then, and his identity was still malleable. Once he had perceived his freedom to do so, he had thrown himself into the molding of his adolescence with a creative passion, picking bits and pieces of any plume that drifted his way. But because he was young, he invented the sort of figure that any young man of his intellect and spirit would be likely to invent and had explored this symbol of himself to the extent that it became comfortable and real to him. But, of course, we grow out of the fancies of childhood, and I had arrived just in time to witness the crucial moment of readjustment. He was running down like an old clock in order to rewind himself to a different rhythm.

"I think, though, that his poetic nature had imbued him with a longing for exactly the type of liberty that youth inherently imparts. I concluded that he felt his freedom slipping away like the sun into dusk and that the sunset, as it sank and blew the verdant hue from the foliage in a radiant beacon, had become to him the sinking vision of the person that he had been, and in losing himself, his count of enchanted objects had diminished by not one, but two. If this were true, he must have felt that he had lost the whole warm world and so, in melancholy reflections, lamented the disappearance of the sun too devoutly through the night and was forced to forego his relish of it during the day by the natural necessity of sleep.

"'They're a rotten crowd,' I called out to him. 'You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.'

"After that evening it was as if I had discovered the key to the treasure chest and lifted the lid to observe jewels that were mine whenever I wanted, if only temporarily. Nathaniel began to retire earlier each night, and as he partook of more and more of the day, we increasingly occupied each other with conversation. He talked often about the summers of the past, and I felt confirmed in my suspicion that he wanted to recover something, but realized that it was currency that must eventually be traded in.

"As the first cool breezes began to blow, Nathaniel prepared to leave. I made it known to him that I had no means of departure, and he offered to break the mores of the household just that once when he went into a nearby town to replenish John's supplies for the winter. He dropped me off outside of a small, one window train station on the outskirts of the town.

"I remember that I had sat there for a moment wanting to say something insightful and uplifting. The thought didn't come to me until I was out of his titanic and ancient Oldsmobile, and I held the door open as I told him, 'I truly believe that sometimes, if you've given up something from your past and the future proves that you made an error, then you can reinvigorate that part of you that you've lost.'

"'No,' he said, 'you can't repeat the past.'

"And with that he leaned over and pulled the door closed and drove away. To this day I consider his departing words to be proof of his extraordinary gift for hope. I knew then, as I know now that Nathaniel will turn out right in the..."


The sound of a breaking twig stops Nick before he finishes his sentence; rather, it is D. jumping up from her seat and backing toward the door that stops him. Nick calls out, "Is somebody there?"

The quiver of a nearby bush is the only response. In the eerie light of the moon, the shadows of each budding leaf can be seen to flutter like scarabs frightened from their carrion. A metallic jingle sends D. racing into the house in search of Jim, or perhaps any company will do at this point. Nick, unshaken in his familiar surroundings, stands up, placing his hand on the rail, a disquieted expression on his face as he stares into the impenetrable darkness of the forest.

"Who's there?" he shouts. In the gloom he can vaguely make out a dark shape floating away.

Shivering as the shape blends into the deep shadows all around and a whistled tune that he finds familiar but cannot place drifts out of the anonymity of the darkness, Nick enters the house, muttering, "Like a figure of ashes gliding away from him through the shapeless trees."

Posted by Justin Katz at April 17, 2005 11:47 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches