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July 10, 2005

Exposition, Chapter 11 (p. 203-209)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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That evening passed in much the same manner as many previous evenings, and there was still the fine coating of anticipation over everything, making conversation awkward, although voluminous, because everybody was waiting for that something else, that something more, to come. Each exchange was characterized by revelatory beginnings and quickly fading interest, lending the night a choppy, antsy feeling.

Perhaps having spent so much energy in excitement, or perhaps because the members of the evening congregation had been much more active in the day than was usual, their numbers thinned rapidly as individual members drifted off to their rooms. Wishing good nights to Nick, Sal, Jake, and Huck, D. strolled past John, asleep, as customary, in his chair, toward the stairs and her room. Othello, she saw as she strolled down the hallway past his room, was still awake, removing sundry objects from a leather suitcase that he closed and slid next to the desk when he saw her deciding to enter, his motion causing the candle at his elbow to flicker.

"Is this a working vacation for you?" she asked him.

Othello glanced at the various items around him to which D. must have been referring: some pens, a yellow legal pad, a package of computer disks, and several other items that can be found more readily in offices than in mountain mansions with no electricity. "Well, the world will go on without me, no doubt, but I don't know how these other guys retain their places in it without keeping pace while they're here."

"I guess it depends what they do." D. leaned against the door frame, and the sound of one stalwart member of the remaining few in the courtyard opening a can of beer burst up behind her. "So why aren't you downstairs socializing?"

"I will; there's plenty of time for that. I just wanted a little quiet at first."

Smiling amiably, D. asked, "So does that mean I have to wait until tomorrow for your Nathaniel story?"

"Hmm?" Othello appeared not to understood the question. "Oh, I don't really have one."

"Really?" D. was surprised. "I thought everybody had some tale about Nathaniel's exploits. Or some of them have been more about their own. Didn't he do anything crazy and amazing your first summer here?"

"Nathaniel? No, not really. Last summer was very pleasant, but I wouldn't say that anything exciting happened. I guess I could embellish some things and make stories out of them, but I'm not much of a storyteller by nature. How did Shakespeare put it? 'Rude am I in my speech, and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace.'"

Giggling, D. asked, "In whose mouth did he put those words?"

"Well, mine, I guess, if you want to think of it that way." Othello snickered to himself as he thought of something. "I guess I just haven't been here long enough to have worked up a plot."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, before I could tell a story that's in keeping with the game, I'd have to figure out what role to assign to everybody. I guess I've already started, in a way, or at least some characters are just easy to parallel. For example, it would sound like Huck to say something along the lines of, 'the robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief,' only with an accent, and Nick has certainly alluded to his reputation as the 'immortal part of himself.' And for you... well, I guess the fact that you want me to tell a story means that I can say that you've got 'greedy ears.'"

D. blushed faintly. "Would that make me Desdemona?"

"For me, at least. Have you betrayed John, yet?"

"Excuse me?"

"Well, no matter, we'll find another way to fit it all together." Othello took the opportunity to tell D. that she could sit, if she wanted. She looked around the room and noticed that, though it was very much, in style and content, like her own, Othello had managed to procure more chairs, in one of which she now sat down.

"So what made you choose the name Othello?" she asked, by way of making conversation.

"Who should I have picked?"

"Oh, I don't know. I just thought that you might rather..." and she shrugged the end of her sentence.

Othello finished it,: "pay homage to an author of my own race?"

"I suppose that's what I meant."

"Hmm. I don't know entirely. I do know that was one of the reasons I didn't choose a Faulkner as Nathaniel hoped I would (I guess he's been waiting for one to come along), although, as I recall, I just couldn't find anybody in his books that I wanted to be; I guess race must have played a part in that. Sometimes I think that the one thing that we all have in common in this country is that issues of race are so constantly aroused that they are inescapable for everybody. In differentiating between fictional characters, though, I choose not to believe that the color of the author has to make all the difference either way. I prefer to focus more on what makes us alike than what makes us different. All writing in modern English is descended from Shakespeare, anyway, so even black characters created by black authors aren't pure blooded."

"Perhaps, but why Othello? He was a fool."

"No, he wasn't. He was incredibly strong. In the end he takes responsibility and sees the world clearly enough, and is courageous enough, to see that he has become the enemy of what he believes in. It wasn't an issue of race for him, but one of faith and honor."

"Some might say that he only did what the people who ruled him wanted him to do. A white man tricked him into killing a white woman, and he was going to have to answer to a white society. He had to have known what was coming."

"I think that's too easy an answer. If that were true, then his suicide would have only confirmed the instincts, as some might call them, that he thought he was rising above by killing himself. His suicide wasn't an act of passion, self-loathing, or even fear. In fact, in the end, he requests that his actions not be exaggerated or extenuated. It was honor and duty, a return to civility and reason.

"It's a vague point, but consider Iago. Throughout the play he seems to be the wisest, or at least the most clever, character: he's got all the best lines, and the things he says ring the most of truth, but he ends up looking hollow and cowardly when he runs away like a common thief, is easily caught, and is denied the poignant ending. He just lives. There's no great death scene, no moment of proof that his cynicism was right or justified. Quite the contrary, actually. He hedges and tells a half-truth about believing what he had told Othello to be true and shows himself to be a worm when he reveals his true self by killing his own wife because he is powerless to stop her from speaking her mind. He isn't even a devil, which would raise a question of higher purpose to his actions; he's just a pernicious man who leaves in his wake a bed full of dead bodies. It all comes down to honor and the strength to follow convictions. When Othello says, 'Speak of me as I am,' he is confirming that he is a human with the ability to reason, choose, and take responsibility."

"Well, you've obviously done your homework, and I have to admit I don't know enough about it to contradict what you're saying, but I'm still not ready to agree."

Smiling, Othello told D. that Nathaniel had said much the same thing during a similar conversation, "'But it doesn't matter,' he told me, 'because your name is justified if it gets us to think and talk and respect what the other is saying enough to defend our own opinions.'"

"Strange way to show respect."

"Do you think? I think it shows tremendous respect because it requires a cool and egalitarian mindset. As long as defending your own opinion doesn't mean dismissing others, you have to listen with at least a little credulity before you know how best to argue. As Shakespeare had Othello say, 'I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove.'"

"But Shakespeare's Othello was fooled."

"Well, now you're making it harder for me to come up with a plot for my own story."

"Why's that?"

"Because it would be your line to suggest that 'we must think men are not gods.' Instead you blame Othello for being only human. Nobody is immune to being deceived. But, as I've been saying, the proof of conviction comes after, in our reaction: whether we say, 'yes, I have been fooled, but I take responsibility for what I've done,' or whether we backstep and try to excuse ourselves."

"Well," D. laughed, "I can see that I'll have to give more thought to what you've said."

"Good. But don't seem so surprised."

Abashed, "Oh, I'm not."

Othello just smiled at her.

Huck stuck his head into the room, "'Night all."

"Goodnight, Huck," Othello replied.

"Glad ta see you back."

"Glad to be back."

Huck nodded to D., who smiled in return, and disappeared toward his room. The house was quiet and sleeping. The faint light of a candle, left lit to guide John should he wake up before morning and desire his bed, glowed dim and red against the doorways across the yard.

"I'm sorry that I seemed surprised."

"That's alright," Othello consoled her, "I don't think you really were."

After a break in the conversation, D. changed the subject, "So who would Nathaniel be in your story?"

"I don't know. Maybe that's why I don't have one yet. He would have to be someone important, but..."

"Not Iago?"

"No, that wouldn't work. Maybe if Iago had managed to end better. Nathaniel's certainly clever, in a brilliant way, but he's also compassionate and dependable." He laughed, "Maybe he should be Othello."

"Who would that make you?"

"Nobody important, I guess. I've only been here a year. Maybe the sibyl."

"Who?"

"The woman who was supposed to have sewed Othello's handkerchief. But the gender's all wrong."

"And I've assumed that Nathaniel is white."

"Well I'm not going to hold that against him."

"Neither will I," D. said, feeling that she was playing along. "You know, your picture of Nathaniel is quite a bit different than the one that I've gotten from almost everybody else."

"That doesn't surprise me. I've heard all those stories, too, probably, and they all lead up to some huge event that seems to have happened in his life the spring before I got here, but nobody knows what it was. It's all a little too dramatic if you ask me. Maybe he just grew up, but I think something in between the two extremes must have happened to him."

"After he left Sal in the middle of the country?"

"It would have to be." Then he mused, "Has Sal developed his story much, do you think?"

"Well, I've never heard it before, but it was pretty short."

"Yes. It would have to be."

D. thought that there must be more to this comment than she was perceiving, but before she could ask Othello to elaborate, the sound of flapping wings, seemingly at her ear, startled her. The willow bristled, and D. heard an owl calling out its one mystery through the door.

"So do you know the answer?" Othello asked her.

"To what?"

"The owl's question?"

D. didn't understand, and she must have lost herself in listening longer than she knew because Othello roused her, as if out of a trance, by standing and unzipping a piece of luggage that was on his bed. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll brush my teeth and go to bed. It's been a long day."

"That it has," she said and left the room with him. Her door was open, and Jim lay with his head sticking out onto the balcony. Othello stopped to pet Jim fondly on the head; the dog stood in order to better wag his tail.

D. watched and found the edge of a thought, which she uncovered in time to call out to Othello as he turned the corner to the bathroom. "Othello."

"Yes?" he said, stepping back into view.

"What do you think of Jim?"

"He's a remarkable and very friendly dog," he said, realizing that he wasn't answering her question.

"No, I meant..."

"I know," he interrupted. "I see what it might be meant to signify, but do you think Huck named him out of malice or affection?"

"Well Huck is about as far from spiteful as anyone that I've ever known, but I don't think it excuses him that he didn't realize the significance."

"Oh, I think he understood. So what do you think of Jim?"

"He's great," she said petting the dog affectionately. "I don't know what I'd have done without him. But..."

Othello interrupted her again. "Well," he said, approximating Huck's accent, "if virtue no deli'ted beauty lack, then that there dog is fah more fayer th'n black."

Othello stepped out of view. D. watched after him for a breath and then shook her head once to the side with a quizzical smile. Squatting down, she asked the dog, "Well, fair Jim, are you sleeping in my room again tonight?"

Jim wagged his tail and licked D.'s face. She reciprocated with a hearty laugh, and the pair went into the room.


The moon has begun its slow decent into the end of night. It is not yet full, but bright enough to send a sliver of light into every room of the old mansion. The rooms are quiet, and the moonlight is free to play about the windows and caress the sleeping faces without fear of protest, for each eye is closed in sleep.

We may peep in on eleven silent forms in eleven rooms where all is still, for the wind seems sleeping, too, save for where human wind shivers the edge of a sheet or a hair. And though the twelfth chamber has no form in its bed, still the silken veil sweeps slowly from side to side as the pendulum of some expectant clock counting out the moments to the arrival of some great substance and a revelation.

Posted by Justin Katz at July 10, 2005 1:31 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches