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August 20, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 17 (p. 280-285)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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Nathaniel looked out over the ocean, which had not yet turned the reflective, alluring midnight blue of painful waters. The rise and fall of the surface seemed mild and lulling, and he knew that it was still warm. He could, if he wanted, jump in for a swim. He looked down the side of the barnacled wooden boat at the lapping undulations that swept from bow to stern and then curled around themselves in swirling, playful hugs before slipping into the rhythm of the rest of the ocean. He felt, through his feet, the rocking of the boat as it drifted along at the slight urging of the tide.

In the distance, he heard the subtle ring of that seemingly ubiquitous buoy that had come so much to bespeak the coastal ocean that its absence would change entirely the ambiance that nature had done so much to create on its own. It occurred to Nathaniel that the bell might be the perfect emblem of perspective's power: it was simultaneously the herald of a homecoming to society for the seafarer and an omen of endless solitude and inevitability to the landlubber. Nathaniel wondered if it wouldn't take an awfully long journey at sea to reverse the import of the bell when first one has left the land, for the bell had become so much associated with solitude, for Nathaniel, that even the similar timbre of metal rope-weights clanging against an inland flagpole in the night was apt to feel just as lonely, especially when the wind whipped through the flag as through a sail and even more so when an orphaned seagull cawed out miles from the shore.

Here, though, the subtle image was difficult to sustain because the seagulls kept up such a racket that feelings of solitude were quickly dispersed. Normally, the gulls' chatter was imperceptibly interwoven with the scenery, but the smell of fish that no amount of bleach or harsh scrubbing could dispel from the boat attracted entire communities of the birds, which hovered in the air, occasionally dipping down to look for the carrion that they felt to be there. One gull was paying particular attention to a pile of knotted netting but darted into the air with a shout when Nathaniel swayed across the deck. He reached between the cords of fraying rope and pealed loose a dry and tacky fluke. It made his stomach churn even to just hold it loosely at arms length by the fin of its tail. He hurled it away. It fell to the water with a sickening slap, and the gulls swarmed down upon it, each trying to rip it from the beak of another until the fish had been torn in half, and they all chased after the two birds that tried to sneak away with their prizes. They nipped at each other and beat their wings against the backs of their neighbors as they grappled for their own little pieces of the rotting meat. The wily ones hovered at the edge of the riot and swooped down to gather what little bits of flesh and guts were flung from the carnage. Finally, the halves of the fish fell into the water and sank, bits of meat and skin trailing behind them. Some of the gulls dove into the water to salvage what scraps still clung to the bones. Perhaps one or two of them chased it to the bottom. Then the flock floated above the waves and cast one sidelong eye each on Nathaniel as if hoping that he might fling himself overboard.

Glad I'm as big as I am, Nathaniel mused, trying to bring to mind the imperfect comparison that he had heard on the docks...

"Rats of the sea!" yelled a voice from the cabin. Nathaniel had heard the clomping of knee-high rubber boots climbing the stairs from the hold below, where drinks were stowed in piles of ice, and now the wearer of those boots stepped, squinting, into the genial early-Autumn sunlight. He had found a whiting that the lumper had missed among all the ice. The fish gave a weary contraction, and Steinbeck threw it overboard, the seagulls clawing at each other for skimpy bites of the bony fish's body. "Tell me again why you didn't want to take out my sailboat?"

Nathaniel smiled. "I wouldn't want to ruin the polish with my callused feet."

"I don't think she'd mind," Steinbeck told him, meaning the boat. "These rubber boots don't make my feet none too delicate."

Steinbeck handed Nathaniel a soda and opened his beer. It fizzed over as if agitated by the rocking. They both leaned back on the wooden sideboards, the seagulls sizing them up from behind. Nathaniel commented, "It's always felt kind of fake and arrogant to me to go out on the water in a boat that was only built for pleasure."

"I think you'd change your mind about that if you came out in this utilitarian bucket with me for weeks at a time. It's nice to know the difference between work and play."

"I guess."

"Guess nothin'. You know it so well that you stick with a job that you hate just so's you don't start thinking of it as play, and you've tried so hard to keep your hobbies private for fear that they'd come to feel like work."

"That's not entirely true."

"Well mostly, anyway," Steinbeck took a swig of his beer. "Why do you still bust your ass out here with us workin' men? 'Specially since you've got a chance to make a real career for yourself out of your writing?"

"I like you workin' men."

"And we like you, but I bet there isn't a man on those docks that wouldn't rather hear about you doin' great things far away than watch you work your way up to foreman hereabouts." He rethought his statement, then, "in a good way."

"There's no need to lecture me about it. I've been giving my whole situation some thought."

"That's great. What're you gonna do?"

"Well, I've been thinking about what Sal said..."

"Oh this again!" exclaimed Steinbeck with a chuckle. "You know there's nothing you can do for him right now, and he ought to've known it before he came lookin'."

After sipping his soda, Nathaniel responded, "Well I can understand why he did. I tried for many years, and with different strategies, to get some kind of a break that would help me get to where I could live off of things that I do because I love them, and it wasn't until after I gave up that some strange combination of circumstances and luck gave me a start entirely by accident. It just seems an awfully slim chance on which to hang much hope."

"First of all," Steinbeck began, "it doesn't take but a thread of chance to catch some hope. And second of all, if it was easier it wouldn't mean as much."

"But what a waste to have it mean so much for most people that they never get it. Especially now that everything's marketing and business."

"Well what're you gonna do? There are other ways to be happy. Look at me: I never intended to be a fisherman, but I'm happy with my lot, and sometimes I have moments that I wouldn't trade for anything."

"Yeah, but wouldn't you have liked to have a chance?"

"At what?"

Nathaniel was bewildered by this question, though it was one that he had heard many times before, because it was so foreign to his way of thinking that he hadn't even considered it for his own life. "Wasn't there ever anything that you wanted to do out of passion for it?" he asked.

Steinbeck's face gave the impression that he was cycling through his memory. "No." he said plainly. "Never anything like you and writing. I mean, I always wanted to be happy, of course, but I just figured I'd set out and hope that eventually the happy moments would maybe equal the not so happy ones. Lately I'm happy just being satisfied."

"Oh how I envy you."

Laughing, Steinbeck countered, "Envy me? What's to envy? I'm happy, sure, but you've got a shot at the big reward."

"And what's that?"

"You might just change the world. You may be miserable most of the time you're doin' it, and you may get to thinking that you're getting nowhere, but at the end of the day, I think you'll know that you counted for something. You better, at any rate; otherwise I'll take you out in old lady Steadfast here," Steinbeck gave a good natured slap to the side of the fishing boat and changed tone, sensing that he ought to lighten the conversation, "and throw you over the side."

Nathaniel turned around and leaned with his forearms against the wooden railing. "I guess you're getting at the way I've been heading with my thoughts. Since I gave up trying to be famous, every day I understand a little bit less why I ever wanted it."

"Well I don't mean to hurry you, but I get the feeling from the buzz I've been hearin' that you're gonna have to make the call soon. What's your plan?"

"I don't know," Nathaniel confessed. "I thought, well I've been thinking more and more, about maybe forming some kind of group to help all the Sals of the world get their shot. Just take all the business out of the whole thing and make it mean something again. I mean, give artists the means and a reason to get better rather than closer to some marketable idea of artistry, whatever that means."

Steinbeck's lips and eyebrows arched in a sign of pensive approval, and he told Nathaniel that he thought it was a great idea, sincerely. "Be tough, though," he appended.

Smiling with sweet cynicism, Nathaniel replied, "Well it wouldn't mean as much if it were easy."

They were both quiet for a moment. Treading waters that were far too deep for such a pleasant and still afternoon, and neither was still young and innocent enough to imagine that their Sunday talk might instantly solve the world's problems. Better, perhaps, to leave Sundays to drifting fancies and conversations of gentle rocking. Steinbeck wanted to ask one more question before they sank into the repose that they both knew was imminent. "What're you gonna call it?"

Looking sidelong at Steinbeck while putting the soda can to his lips, Nathaniel let out an amused thrill of air through his nose. "I was thinking maybe Timshel."

Steinbeck let out a hearty laugh and slapped Nathaniel on the back. "Sounds like a good name to me!" he said.

A good, hopeful name indeed! Even the seagulls seem to flutter about with slightly more anticipation. Their anticipation, however, may owe more to the fact that the men on the good ship Steadfast have stirred, one going below deck, and they think by their sense of smell from far above in the air that the innards of the boat store fish enough for all to get their fill. Being birds, they do not understand that the boat has been emptied for the insatiable humans, and all that is stored under the boards is ice and intoxicating fluid. Perhaps, if the man who took the fish from the hold to earn his singular living had overlooked some morsel in his haste to fill his baskets, then there will be some small treat for them when the captain returns aboveboard. But they will have to claw each other's backs and snap at each other's beaks to get even just a taste, more often the taste of blood than that of fish, though whether they are still capable of the distinction is a matter of some doubt.

No, hope is an abstraction, no matter how we might feel it to have substance. It cannot be woven into platters, although, in a sense, it may be shattered. Hope flutters, perhaps glisteningly, for a moment, but the object to which it is tied slaps against unpredictable reality and is quickly consumed, and what is not claimed cannot do otherwise than sink below our reach until another chance is fabricated out of the misty air.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 20, 2006 11:32 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches