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May 1, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 7 (p. 128-137)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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D. heard several voices in the courtyard when she woke up the next morning, so she walked out onto the balcony without much worry after she had slipped into her white dress. The sun was high overhead, and she knew that she had slept much later than she had been. Below her, Huck, John, and Martin were talking about something or other, in which she took no interest because, having slept so late, she expected to take a proportionate amount of time to wake up.

"I see the new girl's fine'ly 'cided to show," Huck called up.

Martin had been preparing to speak and huffed mildly. D. rubbed her right eye with her knuckle and mumbled.

"There's still some coffee in the kitchen," Huck said.

D. yawned and nodded and walked down the eastern stairs and into the kitchen. She pulled a cup from one of the pegs on the wall by the sink and poured herself coffee and drank it black and quickly. The coffee was lukewarm. Drinking a second cup, she ate a cold leftover pancake. Her third cup of coffee emptied the pot, and D. sat down to drink it.

The slight scare the night before had left her in an excited enough state that she had stayed up late with the four men of whom she was not afraid. They had all been quite drunk and moderately amusing. D. had been sober, and she had slept late.

Huck came into the kitchen followed by Jim and commenced to make more coffee. He told D. that there had been no sign of Alex and that she didn't really have to be afraid in the daytime at least. She agreed. Waking up this morning had felt like rising to a Sunday in any small resort hotel where all the guests know each other and the proprietor is mysteriously absent. The coffee was almost finished.

"What's through that door?" D. asked.

"Oh, that's jest the northern hallway. There's some paintin's that Jake drew."

"Who's Jake?"

"Another reg'lar."

"Are they any good."


"The paintings."

"I reckon they are, but some'v his newer'nes are a little modern fer my tastes."

With another cup of coffee, D. headed for the door. Huck clicked his tongue two times and nodded toward her back. Jim slipped through the door as it closed.

The corridor into which the door had opened was about six paces wide and went the length of the house into the ballroom. Halfway down the hallway two French doors faced each other, one in each wall, as did eight evenly spaced windows. D. noticed that some of the panes had been removed from the inside windows, probably to replace those on the outside, and the backs of books were visible in lieu of the courtyard. Jake's paintings filled the blank spaces between the windows and doors on both sides.

The first painting on D.'s left was not much more than a mediocre sketch of a proud looking matador framed by too-long horns, but the mediocrity was offset by the intricate furls of the cape, in which D. felt as if she could find beautiful images if only she could look more closely than she seemed able. She turned around. The picture opposite the one with the cape was also black and white and exhibited a human shape standing with arms uplifted against a turbulent gray sky on what appeared to be one of the western towers. Again, the picture was unremarkable but for the effort that had been put into the intricacy of one aspect, in this case the clouds.

The next set of pictures were more colorful. Headless blue eyes looking over a book on one wall stared at a smeared man spinning from a blur with horns on the other.

The bull-fighting series continued on the left with not much more than a colorful streak arching over a brown splotch, and the only detail was a pencil-drawn hand gripping a menacing horn. D. turned around. A black shape was contorted over a detailed drawing of the courtyard piano as if gently stroking it. The shape had little by way of definition, but the gentleness of the playing was somehow conveyed.

Crossing the hall to the inside, D. looked at a canvas with random splotches of blue suggesting the shape of a prostrate person over a pool of red, and surrounding the blue and red, grained yellow spread all around, and floating above the blue was a flowing red billow. D. realized that the lines of this streak were reminiscent, as if modeled upon those of the cape in the first painting, and she was turning to stroll back down the hallway and compare the two when the flicker of somebody entering the hallway through the outside French doors caused her to stop and gasp.

The man who strode into the hallway was tall, but not burly. He wore a short brown beard and classically short brown hair. His eyes were brown. Tucked into his blue jeans was a tan button-down shirt.

"Hello," he said.

D. staggered back a step and breathed a faint reply.

"Did I scare you?"

"Yes. Yes you did."

"I'm sorry. I don't like to use the front door, and there isn't usually anybody in this hallway."

"That's all right. I just thought you might be somebody else?"

"Well, who would I be?"

"The guy who attacked me and stole my car keys."

"Oh?" he asked. "That's not a usual part of the ethics."

"So I've been told."

"Who was he?"

D. looked the man full in the face. There was no malice in his eyes. But she wondered, "Who are you?"

The man stammered. "Oh, I'm sorry." He held out his right hand. "I'm Jake."

D. looked at Jake's hand. She shook it lightly. "Hello," she said. "I don't suppose you want to know mine?"

"Not if it's real." Jake looked down. Jim was looking up at him with his tongue out. "Hey Jim." Jake scratched behind the dog's ears. Jim wagged his tail.

D. smiled. "Strange that you should arrive just as I've discovered your paintings."

"Yes. I suppose it is."

He gave Jim a hearty smack on the side. Jim spun around in a blithe circle with his tongue hanging out.

"So this guy," Jake said, "was he attractive?"

"Excuse me?" asked D. It really was a strange question.

Jake cleared his throat. "Would you say he was a great looking boy?"

D. wrinkled her eyebrows. "Alex?"

"If that's his name."

"I really didn't get that good a look at him. Why?"

"No reason."

They were quiet for a moment. Jake looked through the French doors at the trees. The leaves were filling in the gaps quickly — as if before their eyes.

"I should say hello to everybody," he said and walked down the hall, through the door, and into the kitchen.

D. watched after him for a moment, feeling surreal, as if she ought to know some stage directions to apply. A flurry of wind moved through the ankle high grass, through the door, and into the corridor, cooling her ankles and convincing her that she was corporeal. She shut the door and followed Jake.

Everybody was in the courtyard when Jake walked in, followed by D. He hugged Huck, shook hands with John, waved to Martin, and nodded in Nick's general direction. After brief greetings, he excused himself and walked outside through the ballroom.

The men returned to what they had been doing. D. looked around and then meandered to the upstairs bathroom, where she washed her face and gargled some mouthwash. Then she mulled about her room deciding what to do.

Jake returned in half an hour with a large jangling duffelbag and two leather wine-bags dangling from each shoulder. In the short time that it took D. to make the trip down to the courtyard, one of the four leather satchels had made its way into everybody's hands. Nick turned down the wine but went up to his room next to Martin's, and the popping of a cork was heard. When the first wine-bag was empty, another made the rounds. Nick came back.

The conversation began lightly, while everybody was still aware enough to be careful. The topics were those that most people reserve for the beginning of reunions, but since questions of everyday life were forbidden, there really wasn't much to talk about, and the conversation didn't stay light for long. D. slipped into the kitchen to make more coffee. She didn't want any wine at this time of day. Jim followed her.

"So what's this I hear about somebody forcing the lady to stay against her will?" Jake asked when she was gone.

"Well, there really warn't much we could do 'bout it." Huck said. "I been watchin' fer the guy, but I ain't seen him. I reckon she'd stay now even if she had her keys."

"I think we saw him in the bushes last night," Nick said. He sipped his champagne. "She looked dreadfully frightened."

"What's his story, John?" Jake said.

"He seemed pleasant enough before she came. Kept to himself mostly. Wonderful pianist. I suppose I had a favorable opinion of him."

"How did he show up?"

"In the middle of the night, badly beaten. He said that he got lost and had quite a few falls while rambling about."

"I'd believe that," Martin said.

"Me, too," said Nick. He hid his face in his glass.

"His story is just simple and believable enough to mistrust it," Jake said. He looked at Nick.

"If I told the truth when I came, I don't see why we shouldn't believe him," said Martin. "People, on average, are only mendacious when they've something to hide, and since my story is much the same as his, I can only assume that he is telling the truth."

"Mendacious." Jake said. "Did you learn that word today?"

Martin looked down at his hands. "Last week."

"Well, you don't know a hell of a lot about people."

"And you do?"

"No, but you think that you do."

D. came into the courtyard carrying a cup. The conversation stopped as if they had been talking about her. The third wine-bag was passing hands. Jim bounded around allowing everyone to pet him.

"So Huck," Jake said, "I see you haven't had cause to stuff Jim yet."

D. looked at him in surprised disgust. "That's a horrible thing to say."

"At's a'right," said Huck. He was smiling. "It's a bit a' raillin' 'tween us."

"Still. I don't see the humor."

"I would never joke with a friend in that manner," Martin assured D.

"I'm sure that's only because you've got more enemies than you can handle by just being ingenuous," Jake said. "Maybe you should give joking a try."

Martin looked flustered. D. almost felt badly for him.

"Now, now," Nick said, "there's no reason to be picking on poor Martin. You're no better than him, Jake, and you know it."

"What's the matter, Nick? You two have something brewing?"

"Why don't you cut it out, Jake? You haven't even been here for two hours, and you're already causing trouble."

"You're right. Why don't you change the subject."

Nobody spoke. A small bird landed high in the willow and whistled.

"How 'bout some lunch?" Huck asked.

Martin skipped lunch in order to return to work. After the meal, John disappeared, and Nick was reading in his room. D. had intended to take a look at the final painting in the northern hallway and then see what was on the walls in the southern, but Huck had sat down at the piano, and she wanted to listen to the jazz that he was playing. Huck wasn't much of a piano player, so he repeated himself often. Soon Jake emptied his duffelbag of wine bottles and strolled off into the woods.

The sun was framed between the western towers when Jake walked back into the courtyard. D. looked up from her book. Jim pricked up his ears.

"Where is everybody?" Jake asked.

"I don't know," she said. "Huck's taking a nap."

Nick's door was closed. Martin's door was open.

"You'll have to excuse my behavior before."

"Oh? Why's that?"

"I don't know if you've noticed yet," said Jake, "but Nick brings out the worst in me. In anybody, really."

"I can see how he could rub the wrong way. But then again, I could see how you all could rub somebody the wrong way."

"Really? I thought that we were all pretty nice people."


Jake agreed. "So what did you think of my paintings."

"They're not bad."

"Well, I'm not an aficionado. Of that at least. I only paint two each summer that I'm here. I don't have the time or the excuses the rest of the year."

"So this is your fifth year."

"Yes. And I don't know what to paint."

"I noticed that you haven't painted the house yet. You could paint that."

"It could use it." Jake smiled.

D. looked at him for a moment and then smiled back.

"I meant that you could paint a picture of it."

"I suppose I could, but it seems pointless to hang a picture in a house that shows what can be seen by walking out of it."

"You could take the picture with you when you leave. Or is that against the rules?"

Jake nodded and sat in John's chair thinking. "I used to think it was ugly, you know."


"The façade of this house. But it's begun to appeal to me."

"I think it's spooky."

"That's because it's spring. The summers here are like a fairy tale. I imagine that the winters are a nightmare. We're in-between right now."

"I don't know how John stays here all winter by himself."

"John gets by. Sometimes I think that's the reason he reads all those horrific stories."

"To build up immunity?"

"No. To see what it's about. That way it's all explainable and has a definite end."

"But reading a story about the unknown won't circumvent reactions to it in the real world."

"It will if you have faith."

Jake walked across the courtyard to get the one wine-bag that hadn't spilled its contents yet. He came back, sat down, and took a drink. "After Nathaniel stayed through the winter one year and saw what the Pequod was really like, he gave John a list of books."

"This isn't the way the Pequod really is?"

"No. In the summer everything is unreal, and there aren't any perceivable consequences. The time is too short. At least usually. I think the fact that Nathaniel stayed here through that winter, the one before I came for the first time, and probably the state of mind that he was in at the time, blended the two fairy tale seasons."

Jake held the wine-bag above his head, and a stream of wine squirted into his mouth. D. went into the kitchen for a glass of water and returned.

"So what was the fairy tale?"

"I don't know if that's the best thing to call it, but I guess it'll do."

Jake drank more wine.

"I found this house in April. Normally, I guess, John would have been my only company. But like I said, Nathaniel had stayed through the winter. I think his problem had been himself, so he stayed because moving from here to somewhere else wouldn't have helped him any. At least here he wasn't surrounded by people he knew.

"By April, the house was a mess. It had snowed late in the season that year. The courtyard was full of it, and there were liquor bottles sticking up here and there. Nathaniel was too skinny, and he was sitting in John's chair when I first saw him. From what John told me later, Nathaniel hadn't been too concerned with food that winter, but the bottles had never run out. John didn't mind.

"It all felt like something I had been through before, only from a different perspective, so I decided to stay and help. I don't know why. I was in a helpful mood I guess; maybe it was only to help myself. I brought food and shoveled the courtyard. Nathaniel didn't talk to me for a little over a week. It took me several trips to get all the garbage to my car and several more to deliver it to the nearest dump. When I was finally finished, I found Nathaniel waiting for me on the eastern porch.

"'Hello,' I said.

"'I've been so miserable,' he said.

"After that, we talked more and more. Mostly about silly things and at times I felt like a therapist. He's very smart, you know. And such a fine looking boy. He told me things that he probably shouldn't have about himself and vaguely hinted at others of terrible darkness. I listened carefully and promised not to tell anybody. It didn't take me long to begin feeling very affectionately toward him. I suppose I even got to where I loved him." Jake looked at D. "Like a close friend, that is."

"Of course," said D.

"Eventually people started arriving, and they all monopolized Nathaniel's attention for a while. I didn't mind. I spent most of this time sitting apart from everybody watching. Nathaniel seemed to cheer up, and I was very glad to see it.

"He would sometimes try to involve me in their conversations, especially when he was tight. That was most of the time. One night he was blind. He found it damn funny that it was so difficult to talk to me because he didn't know what to call me. That was the night that Nick arrived.

"'Nick!' Nathaniel said. 'See,' he said to me, 'everybody has a name. Why don't you have a name yet?'

"Nick acted as if he knew Nathaniel better than anybody else present. Mostly, it seemed his superior attitude was directed at me. Nathaniel plucked at the piano and continued to drink and eventually fell asleep. Nick insisted that he carry him to his room. John told him that it wasn't necessary, and Huck offered to help. Nick made a big deal out of having been the last person to leave the autumn before and wouldn't let anybody help him. He seemed to like the idea of everyone knowing that he had been more or less alone with Nathaniel for some time.

"I guess that's when I started to hate him. The fact that it was a matter of course for everybody to get their moment with Nathaniel didn't seem to matter to him; nobody else seemed to feel so superior about it. I guess I couldn't help but profile Nick right there."

Jake paused as Nick's door swung open. He — Nick — looked down at them as if he knew what they were talking about and then walked toward the bathroom by the southern spiral staircase in accentuated ambivalence.

Jake drank the last of the wine in the bag. "I think I'll go see what I can do for dinner. Wake up Huck; he won't want to have slept through the entire day."

Posted by Justin Katz at May 1, 2005 12:08 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches