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November 7, 2005

Recapitulation, Chapter 14 (p. 257-263)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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The tree was ornate, with its intricately entwined branches and sporadic leaves scattered upon the branches like jewelry. Its many arms, like some Asian dancer's, undulating in impossible stillness, intriguing, nearly hypnotizing. It fairly coiled about itself as if dancing in the middle of the wrought iron grate in the pavement, while the misty steam from a nearby manhole caressed its limbs incense-like, twirling up its trunk, giving the impression that it was the tree itself that undulated.

Perhaps a tree in the city lends itself to images of exotic life. It stands as a hope for those who pass it each day. It shades the hard working pretzel vendor, whose fare gives the visitor a signature aroma as a memory, as he calls out to the passers by in his friendly, neighborly tones during steamy July afternoons. It likewise shelters the homeless who seek its patchy shade as a respite from the heat, and who, in the cooler months of autumn and winter, nestle up to it to be comforted, if not by any actual heat that it emits, then by the more interior warmth of kindred life. The children play beneath it, running between the legs of grownups who pass by on commutes and expeditions and pilgrimages. And the city tree surely lends a bit of cheer to the otherwise rushed and jostling rambles of those grown children, as they work their way through the shuffling crowd on foot, because, at the very least, it forces the wave of people to part and allow a cooling draft to waft equally upon all. And likewise for those faces that peer out from the cars that pass by must the tree act as a blur of hope for those being borne away by taxis, limousines, and police cars alike.

But most of all, Sybil thought as she peeled her forehead from the glass of her lofty office, this city tree was a beacon on which those whose windows were too high for them to partake of the rush of life, yet not high enough to see more substantial scenery in the distance, might relax their souls during a brief repose.

Sybil stepped back from her window. She was glad to be back in her city, in her office, and in her place. She sat in her acrylic chair at her fake-wood desk and looked at her green-metal shelves and her accumulated mass of crisp, unread books. Some of these unread books had made their authors famous by placing their names on the fleeting heights of best-sellers lists. Others had spread their influence into movies, at the expense, to be sure, of more than a little artistry and integrity. But still others, those on the extreme upper and lower shelves, in inaccessible, uneven piles, could only claim to be representatives of myriad unread copies of widely unheard-of books with forgotten titles and forgotten names, the authors having disappeared as if from the face of the Earth.

Sybil looked at the piles of manuscripts on her desk and on her floor. "So much to do," she said out loud. To her left and right on the desk were two piles of plain white paper, one labeled, in harsh red letters, REJECT, the other, POSSIBILITY, also in red but perhaps scrawled with a bit more of affection and hope.

Directly in front of her sat a pile of papers for which she had a more than common amount of affection and hope, and this not only because it had been her effort that had converted Nathaniel's scrawled handwriting, however poetic and charming the writing may have been in that form, into a presentable, word-processed manuscript. Her optimism about Nathaniel's work had, now, a stronger basis from the more full sense of the value of the thoughts that she had derived by typing them, racing to get from page to page, and the possibilities that it presented to all those who might buy and read it. She had absorbed the meaning as if through her fingers while she prepared it for the eyes of the men and women for whom she worked. It would not be relinquished, she was sure, to the forgotten piles of books on the extremities of her shelf — which required the would-be reader either to crawl along the grimy floor or to risk the harm that might come of falling from an unbalanced stool onto linoleum — despite the preference that Nathaniel might feign for such company.

Along with the words of Nathaniel, which she had transcribed with an almost religious adherence to the words that he had written (as well as she could make them out), she had typed a few pages of her own ideas about those written by Nathaniel, and it had been these, her words, accompanied by only a handful of citations from The Value of Breathing, that had eventually been passed around the upper floors of the skyscraper, gaining stamps of heavier rubber than hers. So, in a limited sense, it had been her words that had elicited the two sheets of paper she had been reading and rereading alternately with her admiration of the city tree outside.

One of the papers in her hand was scribbled all over with illegible notes and signatures, but with the unmistakable message of "yes." And that had been the word that she repeated to herself as the cars sped past below, though it was the other, smaller piece of paper that gave her the greater hope: a single rubber-stamped signature, the date, and a large number — a dollar amount — printed between them. All neatly printed in the name of Nathaniel Ariss.

But now she faced the daunting task of writing words that might explain what she had done and why, persuading, to the best of her ability, the receiver that she had been in the right to do as she had done and that he should allow her to keep going. She turned to her computer and thought, and typed, and thought some more.

By the time the sun had set out of sight in the West, the sky merely fading to darker shades from her side of the building, she held before her a work of the finest rhetoric that she had ever written. She read it over. If only he understands, she thought, that the world will never understand what it is not given to see.

She folded the letter in thirds and slipped it and the check into an envelope. She paused before touching the envelope to her tongue. She had on her desk, she truly believed, a writ of temporary manumission for all the world. They were good thoughts, as she had presented them in the letter that she had just written, which now lay in an unsealed envelope on her fake-wood desk.

"If only he understands," she pleaded to the books on her green-metal shelf, "that, even if nobody understands, at least the author will have a reward for his thoughts."

It could only be an undue vanity that would stop him from seeing that her proposal offered more than any worldly man might expect out of life. She glanced at the extremities of her shelf. And some don't even get the opportunity, she thought.

She dropped the sealed envelope in the "Outgoing" bin in the hallway as she made her way from her office, down the elevator, and into the street. She looked up at the sky. The moon was hidden behind a building. She crossed the street, walked around the tree, and descended into the subway tunnels, believing, as she disappeared into the ground, that all that stood between the world and its sure solution was the time that it would take a letter to travel from New York City to Rhode Island and gather one signature more.


"Nate!" her call spread across the sand, sweeping over shells and sea-polished stone, seeking him on the towels that were spread under sunbathers and among the curls of the incoming waves, where the few remaining swimmers bobbed with the tide, then it clambered between the jutting rocks nearby and the thick seaside brush beyond them and found him seated on the steps of an ancient house, or, rather, the ancient stone walls of a house that had mostly dissipated, as if washed away, and Nathaniel knew that Jen had found him. He looked up from his palms and saw her skirting along the edge of the rocks where a path had been worn in the tall grass.

"Whatcha doin'?" Jen asked playfully, though she already knew. He saw the envelope in her hand.

He stood and wiped the mixture of sand and dirt from his pants. He didn't want to have the conversation that he had known was approaching when he had walked out onto the beach. He had hoped that it would freeze in a white line on the horizon, but realizing that it was inexorable, he had trudged here to watch the approach and to prepare, both to make his point and to cede it.

"I needed some quiet," he spoke tentatively. "I've got a big decision to make."

And then it crashed upon him. "Is it really such a difficult choice?" she asked, though she knew the answer.

Nathaniel's lips turned into his mouth between his teeth, a characteristic gesture for him when he knew what had to be done but wasn't ready to admit it yet. "There's more to it than the money."

Placing her hands on his shoulder, Jen lightly urged Nathaniel to sit next to her on the steps. He couldn't meet her eyes. His position was an untenable mass of unrealistic pretensions and childish insecurities when all of its external justification was removed.

"What is it?" she asked, tenderly.

He looked over the ocean. "I don't know," he began. "I guess I've just become comfortable with the idea that this would never happen, and now it would be like replanning the rest of my life.

"No," he corrected himself, "that's not true. It's exactly the opportunity for which I've never stopped hoping. But it would bring such a terrible change to everything that I value in my life as it is."

Again he took up Jen's argument for her: "No. Half the people in my life wouldn't even notice it, and the other half would be thrilled even that I've gotten this far with it and have no expectations, only modest hopes that more might come of it... but even that for my sake only.

"But what if it proves to be just a false hope and dissolves like a dream? Although, we have gotten something tangible already," he continued, slipping the envelope from between Jen's fingers. "Or what if the dream of it has become a basis for my reality without it? Now that's just silly... but what if it changes everything that I've come to love for its own sake? No, that's ridiculous. But is it silly to worry that I'll get swept up in the dream and then be crushed when it fails? Maybe not, but what if it ends up being the only thing that I ever do, that I was ever able to do? What if it doesn't even get past the first volume? Or what if it succeeds, but I don't measure up to it as a human being? No, no, and no, again. I'm only lying to myself. I'm not really so insecure. I can take it for what it is. But I might be weak: what if I can't keep control of it, or myself under its influence? What if it doesn't change anything around me but changes me? Can I take that risk?"

"Hon, it's been your dream. And you don't have to make it into more than it really is. It can be just an extra experience in your life. And I love you, and I will love you no matter what, and I have faith in you. And we really need the money."

Nathaniel began to protest, "Screw the money."

"Well it's not the most important thing, but Nate, we don't make much, and we have to stretch it even further now that you've promised to support someone else."

"Oh I've explained that all to you," he snapped, allowing himself the ease of becoming defensive.

"I know," Jen quenched his mood. "I'm sorry. If it was only the money, I'd end up agreeing with you. I just want you to be happy. You know that. But as it is, I don't see any reason for you to be afraid of taking this as far as it goes. That's the only way that you'll be happy with it. If you don't you'll regret it. And I can't think of anybody who would be anything but excited for you however far you get, including me."

Nathaniel knew she was right. He had known as much before she had spoken a word. They looked at each other, stood, and kissed.

"This is exciting, isn't it?" Nathaniel asked, allowing himself, now that he had spoken and been told what he had wanted to believe all along, to feel the euphoria of success and the hope that follows the overcoming of a seemingly impassable obstacle.

"Yes," Jen agreed and kissed him again, "it is."


So we follow the lovers along the path, with the grass tickling at our ankles, through the stones, feeling the soothing coolness as we press our hands against the taller rocks for support, over the hot sand that burns at our feet even as we sink into it as into a field of down — crossing terrain that is familiar to us all to a degree. Already feeling, though we are but lookers-on, as if we have entered into an unknown world. Feeling the thrill of the coming days, days of excitement. So it is with change: we are wiled into believing that the rules that we have learned, for all our resistance, may no longer apply. We believe, no matter how much we warn ourselves to not believe, that this feeling of propitious change will become the stasis so that we will be in a state of perpetual hope, that, having gained a stair, we will find the next as easy to climb, forgetting the increasing labor as we've made each previous lunge.

But let these two forget that for now. Let them hope for now. And let us do so, too, as we follow them down the sunlit street, walking on the grass of our neighbors' yards so that our feet will not be burned by the scorching pavement, passing over, alternately, spots of iridescent sunlit lawn and cool fresh shade. Let us look into the windows of our neighbors' houses, though we see nothing, and picture, there, tranquilly reclining folks in the evenings of their lives who have no need nor desire to do otherwise than reminisce about lives well spent. And let us wave, as these two who walk before us do, to the families that play beneath curtains of water or sit on porches enjoying the way in which the breeze curls into their sleeves and the way ice cream melts on their tongues and over their fingers.

Now that the lovers have found their own house — no, not a house, but a cottage, suffice to say a home — let us peek through their windows, past the lazily undulating curtains, at a dream that seems too ideal, and perhaps too small of scale, to be contrived. We will be prudent, glancing only briefly at the quaint furnishings and the framed images of bliss and the wild flowers and the smiles, for many of us may have had this dream and found it too delicate to endure the throes of waking reality.

But let these two believe it all — all of it — for as long as it is their good fortune to be able.

Posted by Justin Katz at November 7, 2005 6:15 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches