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August 14, 2005

Development, Chapter 13 (p. 227-233)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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It rapidly became Sybil's opinion, if not immediately after the initial brilliance of the moment that sprang, along with the sunlight, out of its limited circle, then certainly as the entrance hall, which none had as yet found cause to leave, began to dim, that Nathaniel was intensely, nearly terribly, ordinary. Oh, he was handsome in a friendly neighborhood boy type of way and had a spark of intelligence emanating from his face, but whether or not this intelligence — the sole saving grace of he who can boast only modestly about an appearance that lacks notable faults because it evinces no noticeable risks toward radiance — would prove to be the brilliance of genius was a question about which she was skeptical.

His hair was a lively, entangled mass of bronze locks that seemed to have pretensions to a golden hue; his lips were thin, tending to evaporate entirely when he smiled; his chin neither projected strongly forth nor sank weakly beneath the rest of his features; the whole of his face, in short, was unextraordinary in every way — a face that might pass in a crowd without eliciting more notice than a dull leaf in the midst of autumn.

Nor did his attire, consisting of a dark, collarless shirt and beige slacks, seem intended to do otherwise than accentuate Nathaniel's plainness. From the short period of Sybil's observation, she found only his eyes to have intrigue enough to merit more than a moment's consideration. Even with these two windows of the soul, however, she wondered if it wasn't some process of reflected light, culminating in its contact with Nathaniel's glasses, that imparted a twinkle that might be mistakenly assumed to exude from within rather than to be impressed from without.

Whatever the case, it would have been unfair of Sybil not to admit to herself the part that she played in her own perception of Nathaniel. She hadn't realized the extent of her expectations of this man about whom she had heard so much. She would, it must be owned, have been less surprised had he walked through the door and pronounced the most profound words ever uttered.

And so, she realized, now, that it was more the petty conversation that had followed his appearance than his plain visage that left her in disappointment. Whether he were extremely handsome or terribly unbecoming, had his mouth released words of great truth and import upon his materialization, she would not likely have noticed his appearance at all. Moreover, moderately inspired ideas issuing from the very face that she could plainly see belonged to him would have propelled that face into gorgeousness. But even on this count she had to admit that her hopes had been too high when it was considered that he had made his way not twenty minutes ago into a society where all conversation must be based solely on either the whole grand world itself or the limited company present in the circumscribed sphere of the Pequod. No matter her reasoning, however, she was unable to shake the feeling that some vision that recent tales had managed to create of Nathaniel had been done irreparable harm.

Just as these thoughts had found voice within her mind, Sybil began to suspect that she was not alone in her feelings. Despite many interactions with him, every inhabitant of the Pequod had had three full seasons to build up an image of Nathaniel that was, to varying degrees, disproportionate to the reality of the man, and only a handful of the guests seemed to understand the emotion, either having become accustomed to being perennially disappointed or sagely realizing that Nathaniel was, despite what tricks the memory might perform, only human. Perhaps it was by reason of a general lack of this realization that the crowd in the hall began to disperse as mobs are known to do when some calamity has been too efficaciously averted or some promised boon had been given without the ostentation that had been the true impetus of the gathering.

Whether or not Nathaniel, the center of all this inadequately recompensed attention, was cognizant of his failure to make an impression, he seemed content to postpone any sermon that he might have intended to muster and excused himself from his few remaining auditors in order that he might reacquaint himself with his surroundings and rest from his long journey. After Nathaniel had passed into the courtyard, Martin leaned toward Sybil and whispered:

"Isn't he even more exhilarating in person?"

Whereas the others, as they had arrived, had quickly divided into their own cliques or casts and filled their time with their own interests, Nathaniel spent the first week of his visit allotting his days so evenly that his schedule was nearly curricular. Sybil observed as Nathaniel unobtrusively approached each man in his turn and joined whatever activity had been in progress, giving her to fancy that she was a child in day care and Nathaniel the dutiful instructor, or more appropriately, she thought, she was another guest in an asylum and he, in his evenness and closeness to the human norm, the therapist, imparting what lessons he could subtly while he kept the inmates distracted.

In the evenings, after a charitably prepared dinner, usually courtesy of Huck or Nathaniel himself, or the random self-fending meal-time gatherings in the kitchen that were more common (once Sybil had cooked for the others, though the impetus, she had to admit, had been found more in boredom than in goodwill), Nathaniel made himself available to all in the courtyard, where he gently played the piano or quietly read, offering brief and noncommittal Socratic rebuttals to the inquiries or statements of discussants.

Overall, Nathaniel had brought with him a pervading sense of calm and indolent relaxation that seeped into the habits of everybody present. Partially due to the stories that she had been told, and, in larger part, by the demeanors of her companions, Sybil thought that Nathaniel's tranquillity was out of character and that some of the others kept their peace, as it were, holding back issues and emotions that they secretly hoped need not fester for much longer, out of shock that they should feel inclined to be restrained at all.

Martin and Holden seemed to be at a loss as to how they should be acting, if not what to consider proper truth. Sal restlessly hovered over Nathaniel at the piano with his horn poking about futilely for a way in which to make an entrance into the ethereal music. But the darkest mist, which seemed to be lingering just out of reach of the sunlit atmosphere, could be felt swelling and churning itself into a thunder cloud between Nick and Jake, who scowled furtively at one another with each passing. Sybil was probably not alone in her belief that Nathaniel might at any moment sweep in and disperse this cloud with a quick gust of mediation. Still, he had been thus far successful both in holding the storm at bay and in staying calmly out of it.

Sybil was quick to assess her situation and realize that Nathaniel, though among the most courteous men she had ever met, would not be of any use entertaining her until it became her turn to occupy a handful of his hours, and perhaps, for all she could tell, only for her apportioned time. She decided that she would wait until Nathaniel had come around to her, so that her departure would not be entirely anticlimactic, and then she would simply leave — an act that this diluted reality of the folklore Nathaniel would probably quietly accept, if he noticed at all. In the meantime, she began to occupy herself in much the same way as when she'd had no end in sight: she talked to Nathaniel's other guests, wandered around the house and surrounding forest, worked her way lazily through a book, and explored what crevices of the house she could make of interest to herself.

On the third day, it rained like spittle dribbling down from the sky in dreary mists. The house was closed up and stagnant, without the benefit of howling winds or claps of thunder. Sybil felt stifled and sat in her room, restlessly watching the words on the page infront of her undulate with her boredom. Tossing the book on the bed, she stood and said to herself, "I need some fresh air."

The courtyard, though occupied by several of her fellow loafers, had a vacant feel and seemed only the more silent for the slight patter of rain on its canopy. Through the house, she could hear the occasional echo of Sal's horn as he idly bounced discordant toots off the walls. She made her way to the entrance hall.

As she crossed from the stairway to the doors, she heard the murmur of voices on the portico.

"So what do you think?" somebody said in a calm voice that had sunk into her consciousness, though she knew not when or how, as Nathaniel's.

Following a brief moment of apparent thought, the slinky voice of Alex answered, "Why are you asking me?"

Sybil tiptoed quietly toward the door and peeped through the old-fashioned keyhole. Alex was facing away from her in a posture that bespoke a confident haggler, while Nathaniel, with an uncommon look of anxiety on his face, watched him.

"Because it is the solution that lends itself."

"To what?"

"To it all, Alex. Don't you see, it would tie it all together perfectly."

"But why? And why me?"

"Look, I can't stick around forever, and you just happen to be a perfect fit."

Suddenly, without waiting for further response, Alex simply stated, "I'll think about it," and slid down the steps, entering the mist on his way south. Nathaniel walked after him.

Creeping stealthily into the dining room, Sybil separated the closed curtains just enough to allow one eye to peer out into the dark green leaves. The two men walked into view, and D. thought how strikingly they looked like brothers. Nathaniel caught Alex by the arm to stop him and made what appeared to be an offer in too low of a voice for Sybil to make out, but that exhibited an unprecedented amount of vehemence. Alex smiled and looked at the window, behind which Sybil shivered. With a dismissive glance toward the house, Nathaniel led Alex through the thicket and out of sight.

Very curious, thought Sybil, as she slipped into one of the creaky chairs to imagine some possible implications of the scene that she had just witnessed. It was, after all, a dull and dreary day. Finding no crags of reality around which to swirl her bouts of emotion, Sybil soon tired of the sport and glanced around the room. The company ate an occasional meal here, but it was more often empty or occupied by a lone diner. Nonetheless, given that she was the only female on the premises, she was surprised not to find crusted dishes spread across the table. In fact, without an exhaustive inspection, the single box of Nathaniel's writing that she had not moved was the only untidiness.

Intending to finish the task that she had begun some days ago, Sybil hoisted the box off the table and was preparing to prop the door that led to the southern hallway when the topmost notebook in the box caught her eye. Someone, whom she could only guess to have been Nathaniel, had torn the cardboard cover from the front and sketched a tree, very much akin to their willow in the courtyard, on the first sheet. Looking more closely, Sybil noticed that, interspersed with the hanging branches of the drawing, there were cleverly wrought letters that read The Value of Breathing.

Uncurling the bottom edge of the page, which had been folded indecorously, likely by being shoved haphazardly into a box, Sybil could make out the smeared attribution of "by Nathaniel Ariss" and the words "Volume One." Sybil, merely for the sake of passing time, grabbed a handful more of notebooks from the box and laid them on the table. Before her now were volumes three, seven, four, and ten. In all, she found that The Value of Breathing consisted of twelve handwritten volumes, each of which filled its respective notebook entirely, except for the twelfth, which ended with several blank pages remaining, yet still ending definitively, with a script "Finis" after the final paragraph. Taking into consideration the height of the lines and the width of Nathaniel's letters, Sybil guessed that the twelve volumes would probably make for three moderately thick printed paperbacks.

She sat in the chair at the head of the table and sorted the notebooks by volume; then, and only to discern what genre of writing was contained therein, she opened the first volume and began to read. The language was simple and direct, with none of the extravagances of the other piece of Nathaniel's work that she had read. "Oh to take a breath!" it began and broke into what appeared to be either an introduction, an invocation, or both at once. By the end of the first page, Sybil decided that Nathaniel had written an elaborate essay. Too bad, she thought, this type of writing doesn't sell anymore.

But reading further, Sybil found herself forgetting that she had been taking a purely academic interest in the work and became drawn into forgetfulness by the words. By the time the house began to rumble with hungry stomachs, the men who were making their way at intervals toward the kitchen might have heard Sybil gasp "Brilliant truth!" or some other words of praise such as authors solicit for the backs of their books. Before she had truly realized that she had begun to read, Sybil was interrupted in her reading by the sun tearing away its light from the room.

Though she had not reached the final page of the first notebook, she spread several of the other volumes on the table in front of her and flung them open, as if one of them might exclaim on its first page, "You Won!" Each had been given a different title concerning some aspect of life. With the rare excitement of a college student uncovering a potential thesis, she looked back at the volume that she had been reading and saw the purpose that united them all: Nathaniel had written a complete guide to the art of living. Without the pretensions of a self-help book or the complaints of a dogmatic doctrine, he had first put forth, in broad and simple terms, a series of general observations and theories by which the most dim of minds could be enlightened, then he had followed his idea through every walk of life.

Nathaniel was suddenly gorgeous in her mind. He had voiced every vague thought that she had ever been unable to congeal into a concrete idea. It was honest; it was easy; it read like fiction; most importantly, it rang true. It was that ingenuous answer to every question that seemed unanswerable. It was the simple ingenuity against which every thinking person had at one time or another jostled. It could be separated into versions, with different prospective readers in view, each beginning with that first, marvelous essay, and each enabling every reader to understand everyone else because they had all begun with the same basic Truth.

Sybil had to find Nathaniel. Even out here in the middle of nowhere, she had a desperate need to discuss this idea with him. It was as if the world had opened up in truth before her and any breath lost in chasing that honest and beautiful world down was like a suffocating moment before true life begins.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 14, 2005 8:06 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches