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September 18, 2005

Development, Chapter 13 (p. 242-248)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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The Catskills looked mysterious with the undulating vapor lapping at the feet of the trees and flowing over bushes. It slid beneath high-arching roots of trees struggling to keep together the soil of a landfall and fell like a waterfall down the hillsides. It swirled around the legs of Nathaniel and Sybil as they waded through it as through a warm-weather snow drift.

Though the mist made the path even more veiled than Sybil had found it when she marveled at Huck's ability to find his way, Nathaniel strolled casually along as if by intuition. Rambling over knolls and between trees, Sybil found herself tripped by dim obstacles, but Nathaniel seemed to be walking beyond their reach. Sybil, realizing that this illusion must have owed its power to the early enchantment of the rural morning, began to watch vigilantly for some sign of a stagger as Nathaniel led the way and thought that she had caught him when he stooped into the vanishing moisture.

"Here it is," he said and dug his hand into the soil.

She squatted down, causing the lingering cloud to waft away, and watched as Nathaniel, dirt under his nails and trickling down his arm, lifted what looked to be a nose. They stood, and looking at the increasingly visible ground, Sybil could make out here a finger and there an ear. They were the broken pieces of a statue.

"Who made it?" she asked.

"I don't know," Nathaniel confessed. "I only know who destroyed it."

"What's it doing all the way out here?"

"Does it matter?" Hunching over, Nathaniel scanned the ground and picked up a large chunk of rock. Sybil could see that it was half of what had been the head. She took it in her hands and ran her finger down the gashes that ran along the cheek. Nathaniel found a hand.

"Well I don't think that it was any great loss to the art world. Some idle amateur probably made it. I doubt that it's the work of an important artist."

"Of course not. But that makes its destruction all the worse," Nathaniel chastised the unnamed assassin, "because it wasn't made for money or fame. It was done for its own sake and with the hope of an amateur."

Sensing Nathaniel's darkening mood, Sybil tried to provide a modicum of light heartedness. "Look at it this way," she suggested, "some day in the future people will find it and think it evidence of the arts of an ancient era."

"Destroyed in the Dark Ages," Nathaniel joked blandly, little consoled. "But it's not just the statue; the terror is what it represents: the shattered shards of callous memories that I've piled up as ruins on all the thoughts of my life."

Tossing the stone hand to the ground and pulling up the sleeve on his own left arm, he pushed on, headlong and with no preamble, toward his real and honest confession, as if he had prepared a speech but hadn't the patience for the crescendo, "This cold inanimate body is not the only one that I've scarred." He held out his arm, and Sybil saw the faded white scars of burns along the underside of his forearm. She'd heard and experienced that brilliance in an author often comes at a price. "I've chiseled my innocence away with less care than the wind does a temple and stained my past, my life, with the stupid acts of feigned insanity. Sometimes I feel the past swelling up inside of me in waves of nausea, and I must stop what I'm doing and choke it back with shivers and twitches."

"Everybody goes through the same to varying degrees," she excused him, though she wasn't positive what she was excusing. To be sure, his extemporaneous confessions struck her as common enough in certain company. "More, I imagine, in people who have some great talent. But it can be turned into something rewarding. It's nothing to feel guilty about."

"Guilty? It's the only thing to feel guilty about. It's a poison voluntarily drunk. All humanity might take of it, but not all do, and of those who so err, for many it acts as its own nepenthe, heaving out in violent waves that purge as they go. But for others, it settles in slowly, causing only the ill temper of the discomfited, but, in that way, seeping into every part of life. And it's all so silly!" he exclaimed suddenly, his eyes glassing over and flashing at the same time. "I feel guilty for the smile of a girl in New York when I was a young boy in the hugeness of the city, bridging the gap between my bustling mother one city block ahead and my woolgathering father reveling in the human drama that passed him in a river behind. And in one of those waves, as it passed me before it broke and circled about my father, I spied the gleaming eyes of a young girl performing the very same task for her own family, and she smiled at me like a glimmer of light from a distant mountain as I waded through the crowd. It's so damn silly to feel guilty about it all! It could not have been love: I was too young, and the moment too fleeting. But though I'd never hope to recognize the face, I sometimes long for a glimmer of that very smile. And the glimmer of hope that I harbor as to whether or not I had a similar effect on her is a source of guilt. The disloyalty implied by being such a selfish dreamer is guilt. I've amassed this and other faces of lost opportunities in my memory to view like sculpted nudes kept by excuse of artistry because nothing real has ever been good enough for me. Oh no. Selfish, selfish as I've been! I've only wanted to be good, to earn what trust and affection people have given to me, to justify the pain for which only I can take the responsibility of inflicting."

He paused and set his jaw for composure. This sudden flood of emotion urged Sybil to step closer to him, and she was about to put her hand on his elbow as she told him that "It only shows that you've got a tremendous imagination. Turn it to profitable ends." But he stepped away and put his own hand on a knot in a tree. In his position, he was perfectly engulfed in the shadow of one of a pair of nearby birch trees. The birches looked out of place. He went on:

"I cannot take away their lesson by turning them to profit. These memories and the deeds that they bespeak are mine, and I must face them as with a shiver and let them pass for the time being. The man who says that he regrets nothing has never truly lived, and I'm so full of life and living that I would purge myself though it meant my death.

"It's funny, y'know," he said, turning toward her. "You fight with your emotions and your impulses. Then you nurse them and revel in them. And then, if it doesn't kill you, maybe you become wise, but it's a tenuous wisdom, threatening to break into recrudescence. Just as nobody is ever an alcoholic until they've lost themselves to drinking, and then it's too late: they can never drink again. Or that's what we tell them. Although the whole drunken world might always be tottering on the edge, once you've fallen, even if you prove by clawing up the raw cliff face of sobriety that you have beaten it, you will never be trusted to stand among the others again."

"But it can be cathartic to voice it, as you have, and share it with other people who might feel the same."

Nathaniel chuckled and sat down on the arch of a fallen tree. "Yes, I've considered that. But I chose to overcome my weaknesses rather than excuse them as illnesses or creative eccentricity. I think I've found the answer, and it nearly killed me to find it, but I've read that 'the truly wise will be led into the common path,' and I believe it. I know the answer and that I could not help but find it. We take the wrong path too quickly in our impatience to take the right, so I now choose not to look. I had thought my happiness late in coming, but now I realize that it was just unable to keep pace with me, and displaying the journal of my discovery would only be an excuse for the world to push me off on another jaunt. Postponing my life again."

"But wouldn't it be living to publish that book and put yourself in a position to be noticed in the human drama?" Sybil asked, sitting beside him and crossing her legs.

"I can live just as much in the life that I've built already. They are all shadows — there is no difference between the world in the mind and that outside of it. If we feel it, it is real. If I am recognized by people whom I want to recognize me, then I am recognized by the whole of humanity. We can feel just as successful in our smaller ways if we believe them to be all that matters. And, for myself, I know of no more satisfying moment than that in the evening between the shower by which I have refreshed my body from its long day's toil and the dressing for the evening that still lies before me. Naked and exhausted and basking in a knowing smile. I will not relinquish my part in life by making myself into somebody else's unreality. I know it may sound as if I've struggled so very hard only to gain the ground on which I had already been standing, but I want to live, to feel, to... live."

Sybil leaned, almost imperceptibly, toward him, as if to listen more closely.

"And what would make you feel like you were living?" she asked.

"To be real for somebody else because she realizes a dream for me and because I am able to enjoy her fantasy of me."

Sybil's eyes turned up to him, her head leaning to one side. "So how would she do that for you?"

Nathaniel wet his lips and stood, returning to the knot in the tree and the shadow of a birch. "I think I've found my destiny," he told her. "And I now think that there is no moral, or rather, that it would be wiser to ignore it."

Sybil moved to his side, finding for herself the shadow of the other birch, and said in a low, raspy voice, "So what do you propose to do?"

"To have this last summer here and then never return," he replied, bowing his head. "We are all playing dead men alive, and here I am but a dream of the dead. I have to live, and I have to leave what I've done here behind. I built this dream to have an inbetween, and now the inbetween is all that links me to the before. It's all been temporary and unreal."

"You'll be able to wake from it like a dream?"

"Yes. I considered burning it down when I left, to leave in a brilliant flash, but it was here before I came, and it should be left for someone else to find. There are other ways to say goodbye."

"So you'll forget it all. No regrets."

Nathaniel looked at the stone face that Sybil had dropped on the ground. "There is always one there to remind me. I can't forget. I can only mitigate what I've done before and allow myself more, though never total, periods of simple feeling."

"What kind of feelings?"

"Pleasurable feelings. We are the things of a moment."

"And let the moments find you, like when the sun welcomed you when you arrived."

"Maybe I just knew when to walk through the door. Other doors I can't even open." He blushed as he spoke.

"Maybe I can open some of them for you."

"As if they were opened by the wind, unlatched by a dream."

The wind rushed through the trees and set them to swaying. The shadows of the two birch trees swayed toward each other and seemed to intertwine into one, embracing into an uninterrupted column of shade, smooth and unknotted.

There was a moment, once the breeze had passed, that found the world held in a breathless pause, then the shadows of the birches separated, revealing two smaller shadows between them that had not broken their embrace as quickly.

Nathaniel stepped out of his shadow. "I'm getting married," he told Sybil. "That's one of the reasons that I'm giving up the Pequod."

She remained silent.

"She's my door to life. She's my hope for the future."

Sybil spoke, "What's her name?"

Nathaniel thought that it was a strange question, given their circumstances. "What does it matter?" he asked and began walking toward the house.


Nathaniel kept well ahead of Sybil on the walk back to the Pequod, taking care, however, to keep always within her view so she would not get lost. It was a strange pace at which he found himself meandering: slow and melancholy, but feeling as if he were rushing. He felt the weight of his guilt pulling him back, but pushed on.

"Why do I do these things?" he asked himself. He felt as if he were an addict who had proven his precarious position by failing to fall, but who knew by the seductiveness of the drop that he had not yet cured himself. "Why can't I stop myself?" he whispered.

Nathaniel knew, somewhere deep within his confusion, that were he to be truthful with himself he would realize that he had shown more control than his society expected, even mandated, but still, he wanted to hold himself to a higher standard because he wanted to believe the theories that he had contrived so that he might call them Truth. Again, a part of him understood that he was closer to being correct about that elusive Truth than he was willing to admit, even more so, perhaps, for his near undoing, in reality, of all that he had pieced together in his mind. A voice echoed within his head, as if from within a deep gorge, to turn back toward Sybil. It may not be too late, he thought without thinking, unable to suppress the idea as he felt it rumbling through his head, as if through a crowd, and chastising himself for the thought almost before it had been articulated.

Damn me! He whispered to himself again, "You save yourself no accountability by keeping your body from doing what your mind readily acted out. You don't undo what you've thought by cursing yourself for it." And he believed this to be true. It saddened him that for all his effort he continued to feel on no more steady ground than he had been at his worst.

I might as well have done it, he thought. Then, carefully selecting words, For I took it far enough to layer my already unbearable guilt without offering a wicked pleasure for my iniquitous moods of the future.

"It may not be too late," he said out loud, punishing himself instantly with a slight shiver, seizure-like. He made a conscious effort to not turn around for fear that Sybil would be close enough that he would get the better of himself. His fingers twitched in empathy to those mental fingers with which he shuffled through his murky brain, and he looked at his hands. Then he came upon an idea that shimmered through the grime, Perhaps the temptation was just a desperate attempt of the man that I used to be to foil the man that I am becoming; I haven't relapsed. In fact, I've just survived a crisis, the rejection of which has exiled me from all that I have been. He smiled. Of course! No matter our resolve, it's a difficult task to relinquished a habit or manner of being, no matter how mournful, to which we've become accustomed.

I ought to head off for home today and stay as near her always as I possibly can. His lips moved, his breath barely giving voice to the words that they shaped, "First, I should go through with this just to prove to myself that I didn't really want to do it."

He glanced over his shoulder. Sybil was well behind him now, somehow managing to move more slowly than he was. His muscles seemed to be moving him in contradictory directions. The voice in his head stated again that it might not be too late, but he cut that voice off with the guillotine whisper, "Remember Lolita." He stopped and looked at the ground in front of him. I wish I could cry, he thought. And the lack of tears set his eyes to a desiccated flame. He wasn't stupid. He knew what he had been trying to talk himself into doing.

Just then a nearby shout made him realize that he had been moving more quickly than he had thought to be already within earshot of the Pequod. He heard another shout, raging. He broke into a run and was soon bounding across the familiar portico and through the French doors.

Posted by Justin Katz at September 18, 2005 11:32 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches