"It's a dreadful smell, this one of smoldering leather and parchment, though at first it is just a blasphemous curl, seeping through the books and entangling itself in the disembodied thought of smoke betwixt the arms of the willow as if in mocking emulation of the leaves that have long been missing. Then, as if the books are being taken up one by one from their pile around the willow's trunk and their pages crumpled by an invisible hand, the crackling of paper is frightful, like the rattling of old bones in a playground of quiet fantasies. A binding makes an audible pop like a firecracker in a distant barrel, and a single sheet of paper floats into the air, scraping against the bark and sending forth its words in tiny spurts of sparks.
"The crackle begins to churn upon itself until it is a grumble, as if the spirits of the authors of the books are taking up their arguments with strained civility. One must have been stricken with an incendiary rhetorical tool, for his entire volume bursts into flames and brands the works around it. It seems that all of our questions will be answered after millennia of debate and consecrated in a baptism of fire!
"And now it is as if the great minds of all time have come to an agreement and taken up the same enlightened idea in unison, for the grumble has become a roar, and the flames lap at the bottom arms of the tree, covering the illusion of dead nature with the weight of real death in soot. The tree gives the impression of undulation, and the theories of humanity branch out, making the short leap from literature to music, and the strings of the grand piano begin to twang discordantly as they break when strained by this hot earliest of discoveries.
"And the dead flowers and the browned grassy hair of Nature seem compelled to take up the cry, for they carry the conflagration across the ground to the chair and to the shelves. The fire begins to climb the walls, as it is even now making its way up the middle part of the tree. It curls between branches and banisters alike, and all char and burn and fall to black pieces.
"The conflagration, for it is a conflagration now, scrapes across the roof, sucking air into the courtyard, though the air there is no longer breathable. The flames search the house, tearing down doors if they are closed, for any evidence that has yet to be converted. It finds the beds and the counterpanes and lavishes especially in the silky awning of Nathaniel's bed. It claims a shirt that has been carelessly flung across the arm of a chair, and then it claims the chair itself.
"Seeping through the walls, the blaze finds the front hall and pounces on the old, dry floorboards. It frees the old guardian beneath the boards, only to crush his bones into fine powder. It slips beneath the swinging door of the kitchen and rattles about among the pots and pans. It finds little support in the meager stock of firewood, but the kitchen itself is fuel enough to melt the silverware around the edges. The kitchen flames rush into the northern hall, perhaps to lay claim to paintings that hang unexpectantly upon the walls, only to find that others of the fire's tendrils have found them out already and used up what sport there was in tearing the canvases from the frames.
"The whole Pequod fills with smoke and temporary black stains rush along the walls and the floors. Nothing, it seems, will be left after this malignant philosophy has consummated its inevitable conclusion, lest it be the cold marble of the ballroom or the antiquated plumbing. And for this, it seems the fire tells the truth of the dead authors' theory, and all is really one, in the end. And for this reason, I say, nay I cackle, that it is beautiful. See the majesty of my end! Hear the roar of my undoing!
"My God how I burn!"
When the windows of the dining room imploded over his shoulder, forcing him to keep his seat by will rather than impulse, and his beard was ruffled and singed by a burst of heat, John knew that he had done what he had set out to do. No others would convert the Pequod to their own needs at the expense, each time, of a memory. No more of Nathaniel's manuscripts would be subjected to a worse destruction than the flames that were tearing the words from the pages at that moment.
Still, a tear cut its way down John's face, and he sucked it into his mouth with a swig of rum. He turned his head to look at the wooden sign that somebody had hung above the entrance. The message of that, too, would burn away. He looked at the eastern lawn and watched the flow of shadows. A breeze seemed to skitter across it toward the house then change its mind and dissipate in all directions. John watched the trees sway in the distance. He looked toward the hills, his eyes lingering for a moment on one in particular. He laughed.
"The Nonesuch Inn," he said and laughed again. He took a long drink of rum and leaned back on the porch swing.
Let us away. It is disgusting what men will do. We were wrong to tarry our rest. The pomp! Come now, we must admit it. We must own it. The ostentation of our hopes. To have put off a much needed departure from all these things only for the sake of learning that we were right all along. I am sick with them, and I am sick with us.
We've always been right; we've always known.
But should we not continue our vigil and watch what comes as the smoke is cleared and listen for the resolution? No, for we have seen every epoch and every symphony end thus: with calamity and crescendo in a final blaze. And the masses and the audiences stand to applaud the end of an era crashing down until the players are revealed in all their homogeneity and the clapping smolders and peters out until all but one or two have left the hall. We must resolve to sleep, for we may expect no more pleasing show than what dreams provide in the silence.
So to the brook. It is winter now, and the birds will not disturb us, nor will humanity. Nor, truly, will the brook itself, for it lies before us in frozen turmoil. There is nothing to keep us now from our sleep. Indeed, we've the soothing crackle in the distance of the cleansing fire to lull us.
True that spring sadly will come again and bring with it the false hope of a renewed world, though it will still, as always, be buried beneath the autumnal waste and the dust of time. But if the world might find a new constructed hope, then let us have hope that we will be long gone when it comes. And hope for a better place to go, too.
I fear, though, for all our hopes, false or otherwise, too many of us have little faith. So let us hope, and let those who cannot believe in divine Meaning in the least have faith in grand Nothing, simply for the boon of a difference. No more of the turbulent monotony of faith in faithlessness!
So let us to sleep. We were right all along: this world is not one in which to be awake. To sleep, then, sleep. If Meaning seems too vague and Nothing seems too bleak for faith, have faith then that, at the very least, you will have missed nothing for having slept, for it will all be exactly as it is today if you open your eyes again to this world. Different shades, perhaps a different landscape of images, but the underlying foundation will be the same. The rough shape of the mountains. Nothing will ever truly change.
Were this art, we would be able to resign ourselves to it as such and sleep the eternal night in peace, dreaming sweet dreams of forevermores and never-ending lines of progeny, for it would all have been a reverie. Were this art, doctrine would demand that the ending be ambiguous, and we could find, for comfort, our own opinions buried and ratified by their interment. But this is life! In life we may end trite and not be concerned with platitudes. This is life, and we may not sleep easy until we have interred the concern itself. And because this is life, we may leave it all with no hope, yet no true despair: with no doubt, yet no surety.
So, finally, I will have done my chatter and let us sleep to the crackle of the fire, and the whisper of the wind through the branches, and the soft plea of the owl asking, "Who?"
And in answer to all we will snore, as if to say, "Nobody," for a cadence can only be followed by silence.
Perhaps I am no genius, after all.
Nathaniel wasn't sure where he was running to, or, for that matter, what he was running from, but with each city block, his sprint decreased, as the rain was decreasing, toward a quick walk. Whether the pace of his mind, ever more meandering as the original surge of perplexity faded into consideration, caused his feet to slow or the more rational pace of his legs gave his thoughts wider breadth, he began to think, as he walked through the thickening crowd of people around him, of what he should do.
Around him, he knew, were thousands of lives, each with its own concerns. What's more, on the faces of the vast majority, Nathaniel could not see a trace of recognition, even on those that dared to look at him. It is a huge and populated world, he thought. There must be somewhere that I can go.
Though he didn't fear that Huck would chase him, he suddenly realized that, as one of the myriad different faces in the street, each with its own hue and texture, he was indistinguishable. Perhaps, he mused, were he of a mind to lower his eyes in accord with the unwritten, pervasive dictum, he could actually disappear. For as long as he could keep his head down and keep himself quiet and acting only along the direct middle line of behavior, he might even be able to disappear from himself; surely, then, could he give all of those who would use him, not even his self but just his name, the slip. After all, if he ceased to be the man behind his name, Nathaniel Ariss, the Nathaniel Ariss who seemed to be in such a bind, would no longer exist.
With each person who harshly grazed his shoulder, he might be brushing arms with an entirely different person of the same name. Similarly, he noted faces that, as he fancied, matched his to lengths just shy of exactness, yet only his facial features disguised his particular self. Why, if people could share names or features and still be different people, could he not combine the two and become another person, though one with the same name and face? But, it came to him as he passed a dusky little book store, this was the exact problem that he now faced: he could not have been less akin to the boy whom Holden had unearthed, but the world would not acknowledge him as somebody else.
Now that this particular avenue of casuistry had been cut off, he realized that he would be unable to turn his back on himself it just wouldn't be, well... him. He chuckled, not out of desperation or nervousness, as had been increasingly the case with his laughter, but out of sincere amusement with the silliness of his largely semantic conundrum. But this simple trick of words helped him to move toward a new perspective.
"The way out of my predicament," he spoke out loud, disregarding the sidelong glances around him, "isn't to run from the past; it's to slow down in the present."
He stopped in place, feeling, rather than hearing, the discontented grunts at his doing so. In this huge and populated world, with all its pursuant options, the easiest way to escape problems might truly be to ignore them, without even allowing the problems the weight of an active dismissal. He would simply walk right past them as if they weren't there. Strength, real gargantuan physical strength wasn't seen in the being who could buffet a path through the crowd, but in the being who was unaware of the crowd, so why could the same not be true of more mental obstacles? He wouldn't battle with the world to reclaim his life, he would simply reclaim it.
A shadow skirting across his nose caused Nathaniel to look up, and a quick gust of cold air curled around his ears and hooked into his nostrils. Likewise, his eyes were assaulted by the cold, mechanical light of neon and spotlights and headlights jumbled together in the whole artificial bonfire of Times Square.
Nathaniel's first thought was to turn his steps away so that his mind might not be distracted by the harsh cacophony of material life. But he stood his ground, forcing himself to acknowledge that he must, after all his theorizing, deal in the world of which this spot was so appropriate a representation. He glared at the bright lights, moving and stationary, the flashing, informationless proponents of barely distinguishable products identified not by value or even use, but by name. He watched a bus speed past, no longer devoted to advertising by means only of a side-panel, but splashed entirely with colors in the name of some scarcely decipherable service. He forced himself to stare at the torn posters of adulterated beauty.
Then he turned his eyes to the people around him. He watched all the familiar images of New York pass him by: from the fur-bedecked trophy wives of lascivious old men to other old men who were bedraggled in filth; from the pompous police officers to the cocky hoodlums; from the dealers to the beggars. He spotted a stairwell across the way that he knew would bring him into the intestines of the city.
Let me make of this a symbolic act, he thought. Just as he had been resolving to stride through his trials as if they were but vague clouds that wafted across the sky of his private world, he would slip through the crowd and the traffic. Just as he must first lower himself in his plans, so, too, would he descend into the subway. From there, his symbol and his life would blend together over the course of time. His actions would become less symbolic and more effectual.
He decided now what he would do: once he emerged from the bowels of the city downtown, he would reclaim his car and return to Rhode Island. He would persuade Jen to leave with him, less with excuses than before and more with vows. Together, they would head out for the Pequod, where they would weather the winter and emerge new people. The somewhat harsher living would bind them together. They would share the welcome birth of spring and know each other for their selves rather than their names, abilities, or accomplishments. Then they would return to the world, married, now, in reality if not in fact. By summer, the world would have forgotten him, and he could begin rebuilding his life, with more strength this time because he would be sharing the labor and rewards with someone who would know not just who he was, but who he had been, and have hopes of who they were to become together.
With this resolution, Nathaniel plunged through the bodies that flooded the sidewalk around him and marched across the street, unthreatened by the racing traffic that seemed, miraculously, to sway its own course for his sake. In the space of a breath, and not a bit disheveled, Nathaniel hopped onto the concrete island in the midst of the pandemonium. Even the light around him seemed to have changed, even the smells. This was not the same world that had watched the sun disappear to the West. This world had hope. Nathaniel looked up triumphantly.
Within a mass of passing pedestrians, he thought he saw a familiar face, but he was not unsettled, as he had been several times earlier, by the strange coincidence that suggested some esoteric and possibly cryptic scheme. In fact, he was anxious to share his moment of resolution.
"Alex!" he called out.
But his call had apparently not been necessary; Alex had already spotted him and was walking his way. Nathaniel held out his hand and smiled. This is how he would defeat the world, with a welcome. Alex reached out his own, and Nathaniel stepped toward him to shake it but saw that the spot into which he would put his hand was occupied by what looked to be a long shard of glass. Before he could withdraw his greeting, Nathaniel felt the sharp pain that explained the blood that gushed from his palm where Alex had pressed the glass into it.
Nathaniel looked into Alex's face, and Alex smiled at him coyly. Nathaniel pressed his bleeding hand with a corner of his jacket, looked at Alex again, and in a puzzling gasp asked, "Why?"
The answer came in a slightly accented near-kiss whisper in his ear: "I'm not an American."
Alex stepped back, and Nathaniel looked toward his hand as at something unreal.
He looked down at his wound and the sanguine liquid that splattered instant stains on the filthy, discolored, and splotchy pavement. When he looked up, Alex had disappeared. Nathaniel was alone in that indistinguishable crowd, looking ambiguously relieved or disappointed, but, without a doubt to anyone who saw him, decidedly unheroic.
It seems as if the neon lights ought to warm the floor of the city, where the shade of the tall buildings is not impenetrable, but the wind that whips through the channels of the streets makes the air bitter cold. The people shuffle past each other with nary a glance. Some meander aimlessly, lost as they are and anonymous in the mass of bodies that might be pungent were it not so cold. Others run. Whether to or away appears to make no difference, they rebound off the meanderers and the strollers. Amazingly, none of these hustlers collide with one another, only with those who choose a slower pace. A faceless man on a bicycle whips through the racing cars and hops the curb onto the sidewalk, nearly rolling over an old man who is propped up against a mesh wire garbage can. His can jingles, but he doesn't notice the bicyclist.
Nor does he notice the horns nor the grumbling engines that spit their smoke through growling exhaust pipes. He has ceased, it seems, to hear these sounds, or to see the steam that rises from the sewers and the manholes. He still smells the decay, though, despite the cold. It is in his nostrils, more a memory than a sense.
A young boy crouches beside the road, glancing up and down the street at the rushing cars. He sees an opening and sprints across. Some might say that he barely makes it, but he laughs with the exhilaration. He scurries off toward an unknown destination.
But the boy is depressing, even as he adds a sparkle to the mass of duplicate citizens. Please, let us away, for it is too much to think of getting caught up in these other plotless stories. Soon, we hope, we might cross the river and return to our brook, and let us see if we might persuade Nathaniel to raise his eyes from the cold filthy floor and to leave with us.