The valley is all men. Men, men, men.
We have men on the slope and men on the ridge. In the gully, more men. Men on the main road wait for the men on the esker to move up onto the ridge so that they (the men on the road) can take their (the esker-men’s) place. Men hesitate and grumble. The valley is all men. Men, men, men. Even those of us who spend all our time among men don’t quite know whether we’ve ever seen so many all in the same place. Have we? A few years ago? What was the city with the river and we laid siege and sacked it? That was the work of many, many men but this, probably, is more. From up here, if you close your eyes almost the whole way closed, so you’re only seeing movement rather than fine detail, then it looks like they’re swarming as only ants can swarm, ants on honey. We send a certain number of the men down the upslope, but only as a ruse—a feint. What’s that smell? one of the staff officers wants to know. And of course it’s men.
We have our spyglasses handy and use them to study the ranks. This from up on the hill, in the shade, by the peloother tree. We have our chairs and our tables. Most of us are majors but there are captains, too, and the Colonel. Anyone caught smoking, we send a runner down to take a name. After four or five we start a list. Subsequent runners are instructed to take a name and leave a warning: you’re on a list, pal.
The hours pass and we have a change of heart. What’s wrong, exactly? It may be that the men in the sunken road beyond the main road are too bunched up.
None of us can put a finger on it. We break up into working groups, and we circle our chairs. As officers we have a certain amount of swagger and a certain amount of fatherly concern. We keep the guilt at bay, but only just. We have a level of buzzing in the ears.
I take the time to write a note. Nobody minds. Dear Cornelia, I write—and just like that I have a whole long letter spilling out of me. My living heart, I’m writing, and Time is no ocean. Longing, itching. Remember when?
I watch in amazement. While I’m writing, I watch. I have all kinds of imagery, including bridges across water, moths and calisthenics. I call her chivalrous. I refer to various sounds she makes when she walks.
The fruits of our love, I write, which reminds me. I call her a beet-eater because it’s true: she does love her beets.
“Disgusting,” the Adjutant says.
One of the runners, while I’ve been letter-writing, brings back an example of a cigarette from the men. It’s a mean little black twig. It looks a bit like a fossil, a bit like a worm. We all crowd around. It is disgusting. A brand-new major we don’t know well says: “I literally cannot fathom some of these men.”
A captain, speaking freely, says, “What have they done, chewed it? They haven’t chewed it, have they? It looks to me like they don’t know how to smoke a cigarette.”
“Do we actually think,” says the Adjutant, “that just listing their names on a list is enough of a deterrent? If that’s the stick where’s the carrot?”
“I guess that’s something we might want to revisit,” says the Colonel. After a pause, a little breather, he goes on. “Frankly? I don’t mind too much if they’re smoking after five. After five I’ll allow. It’s smoking on the job I abhor.”
We’ve never heard this from the Colonel. It’s not his regular tone and it’s not his tenor, either. It shuts us right up.
Nighttime. The men light their fires and their smudge pots. They set up their triplines. Their traplines, I happen to know, are out over on the far side of the triplines—which makes no sense, in my book. We can see the cigarettes all too well now, little dots (cigarettes) clustering around so many larger dots (cookfires). We can see the smudgy outlines of their trenches. There’s nothing else we can do tonight. No speech anyone’s going to give is going to do any good at this point. Orders are, everybody sleep on your arms. The Colonel, having made a lot of night-before speeches in his day, has run out of things to say. The men, he says, have heard it all before.
As for us, we walk back up the hill, and also we ride. We run the last little bit, and also gallop. We’re headquartered in a farmstead under old oak trees and there’s a beautiful barn painted red and yellow and the whole set-up neat as a tablecloth until we showed up. And birch trees, too. Everybody says hi to the Colonel as we come up. They go out of their way, some of them, to come over and ask him how the day went.
The birches have dropped all their leaves since we’ve come, as though (as Cornelia puts it) they’re allergic to us. With our whores and our camp followers, we’ve moved right in, also our signallers and battalion foresters and dentists and the intelligence section. We have the yard filled right up with our bedding and kettles and cleft axes and pianola and piles of crutches. We have our lean-tos and our trestle tables. “Sin,” someone says, surveying the scene, “walks upright, doesn’t it? It surely seems like some kind of biped.”
The farmer is a man called Fifty. He’s an interesting study both in farmers and in displaced persons. He and his family are living in one of the back bedrooms. All his sons, all his daughters. He doesn’t seem too put out. He talks about the price of seed and about wheat rust. I don’t know too many of us who haven’t had a long talk with Farmer Fifty. The daughters all play guitars. The whores have taken his sons under their wing. There are stitched samplers all up the wall by the stairs and cloudy tintypes of grandparents in various farm scenes. Mrs. Fifty isn’t a subject that comes up.
Cornelia is usually there to meet me but today, no. I follow the sound of her guitar scales up the back stairs. The guitars the Fifty girls play are tiny little guitars, like ukuleles or violins or toy guitars in size and aspect, except for they’re very much guitars. She hears me coming and the notes speed up. Which makes me speed up. Except for, no, it’s her sister Janice instead. She smiles. “Smart guy,” she says, though I don’t know that she means it.
Cornelia isn’t in the infirmary and she’s not in the warroom. I end up searching the whole house before I find her. I find Karen and Suzy before I find Cornelia, who isn’t, after all, playing her guitar.
She’s in the kitchen. She’s sitting stripping the meats out of tomatoes.
“Hey,” she says.
We have a hard time containing ourselves. She only barely manages to keep her hands off me, and vice versa.
I hand her my letter. She only has to look at it to see its bulk and the obvious passion of it. She grins and bites her tongue at me and slots the letter away into the gut of the guitar. The passion is obvious to anyone, just in the furious look of my handwriting.
“Thanks tons,” she says. Without Cornelia, where would I be? Bumping around. She’s the one who cured me of my shyness. Cornelia has brown curls of hair and fantastic posture and an economical smile. She keeps her smile mostly to herself, hiding it behind her hands. Sometimes she doesn’t even show it to me. One of our attributes as a couple is, we make a lot of love. Whenever I see her again, and she me, we’re reminded of this.
“Oh,” she says now, “while I think of it? I was just thinking, you know how the regular thing, with lovers like we are, the expected thing would be, you know, battling the odds? Forbidden love? My dad? Your Colonel? We’d have to steal our moments together? Probably we’d run away? But everybody’s pretty supportive, I find.”
“Yes,” I say. “Everybody does seem to be a big fan of us, don’t they?”
“Yes they do. They’re all rooting for us, obviously.”
It’s true. We have lots of boosters. I say, “Hey, Cornelia, I’m not getting tired of this at all, what about you?”
“Nope,” she says. “I don’t find I’m bored one bit.”
One of the reasons the men like me so much is I know how they think and, plus, I like how they think. As well, I feel what they feel. The Adjutant likes to say that if you cut me, I bleed men. This is true though maybe not as true as it was before I met Cornelia. As I’ve said, Cornelia has changed me.
For example, with my job. One of the main parts of my job is I’m in charge of Panoramas for Artillery Use. Which is, make no mistake, a great job.
If. You. Can. Get. People. To. Draw. For. You.
I couldn’t. By people, of course, I mean men. My problem was I was doing all the Panorama-drawing myself. The drawing wasn’t my problem so much as all the walking, the lying on rocks, the hand cramps. The actual drawing I liked. Dealing with the artillery guys I didn’t mind. Great guys!
Then I met Cornelia. We’d actually been on the Fifty place for a week before we officially met. I met Janice first and then I met Suzy, in that order. Suzy tried to woo me but soon found I was not so easily wooed. Which was awkward, later, with all the wooing that Cornelia and I ended up doing. The two big changes for me, with Cornelia: one, I went from making no love at all to making a whole lot all at once and, two, all of a sudden I could get men to do Panoramas for Artillery Use instead of me having to do them all on my own.
“We must be mad,” Cornelia used to say and I could only nod in agreement.
I still do some of them myself. I did some yesterday. Yesterday I went up with Corporal Rolo for a spotter, we walked out through the lines of men and I carried my sketchboard and pencils and he carried my carbine. Spotter is a relative term—Rolo usually does more carrying of my carbine than he does actual spotting. He’s the one who knows all the watchwords. A lance-corporal. He’s studying for his corporal exams.
We went by Death Gully and up Sneak’s Alley. The best place for Panoramas is a natural rock pulpit just under the crest of the hill way over past Suicide Tree. It’s all rocks there, like a rock museum or a zoo. It’s well protected. There’s a rock chair for Rolo to sit on. It doesn’t have a name. Rocks are lined up on the path coming down, as though they’re waiting to see if they can get in.
I had to lie down to draw. I drew the barns and the hedges, the fences, a wriggling line for a stream. Trees. Everything I saw, I drew. Rolo thought it might bother some people to draw a picture just so someone else could rain down high-explosive shells on everything you drew. “But not you,” he said. “You don’t mind.” He’s a Bracebridge boy. Here he’s billeted in a sporting store. Hard to believe, but according to him he’d never even been inside a sporting store before this, let alone did he think he’d be dwelling in one. Dwelling, he said. “You would think my job is to defend the sporting goods to the death, but that is not my job, it’s simply a dwelling place.”
He said, “You hear any news out of Bracebridge, ever, sir?”
I said, “No, not really. Wait a minute—no, none.”
The whole time I was drawing he wanted to know, what is that and what did you just draw, there? Rather than wait to see whether he recognized what I was drawing, he had a habit of needing to know at the beginning. He said, “What about Gravenhurst news? A lot of Bracebridge people go over to Gravenhurst. It’s a bit of a brain drain situation we have going on with Gravenhurst.”
Rolo is one of the reasons I’m so sick of the men. His non-stop chatter. I could hardly draw yesterday, with all his nattering and throwing down squash balls. He had his pockets full of looted squash balls that he always had to throw down from the hill. I couldn’t stand it.
Farmer Fifty goes around asking people whether I’m husband material. He asks the whores and he asks the Colonel. “In your opinion,” he says. He has one bright eye and one that’s dull or hooded. The overall effect, though, is bright. The bright eye outbattles the dullard. The Colonel tells him, “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”
“Eight out of your proverbial ten,” say the whores.
Supper is a few morsels wading in a wet sauce. The morsels are either beef or muscly bread. Cornelia and I have a policy now of not spending too much time together—such as dining together every night, for instance. So I sit with the Colonel and the Adjutant at a table piled with files—a working supper.
“This is crazy,” the Colonel says.
“Nuts,” says the Adjutant.
The paperwork is killing us. The menwork, the Adjutant calls it. “The work of men,” he says. “There’s no stop to it and not much end.” Every night we have to update the files. The more we move the men around during the day, the more updating we have to do at night in terms of the files. That’s a lesson learned. “We should just have one or the other,” the Colonel has famously commented. “To have both the men and the files is just too much work. It’s self-defeating. It goes against the grain.” He keeps us all up at night, the Colonel, with his accounts. He’s a loud counter. Everybody has to know about his payables, his shrill shortfalls.
We get no sleep. First with the Colonel, then the Fiftys, singing and praying and going over their chord changes, then it’s the whores, who can’t just say something, they have to shout it. They have an ongoing discussion regarding market ups and downs. Something else, too: their approach to cooking is, no one’s stew can be cooked on one single cookfire, it has to feel the flame of two or even three. This means a lot of rushing around with hot cauldrons and skillets, not to mention plenty of guffawing and foolery, cavorting. They have to time everything. Everything, to the whores, is a race against the clock. They aren’t taking themselves too seriously, that’s for certain. It reminds the Colonel of nothing so much as his childhood. “Not that my childhood had any whores,” he says quickly. “But the spirit’s similar. The spirit and the spicy smell takes me back to my childhood.”
I hear Cornelia plucking away. She wakes me up with it. Of all the sisters, she plucks the fastest. She and Suzy, whenever they have their guitar races, Cornelia always wins.
We let the sun come up in silence. We watch as the piers of light lengthen down the yard. You’d never know there was a war anywhere, if you were just watching those piers. Then we catch sight of the Fiftys, all in their window, all looking out. We wave and they wave back, and then, still in the window, they get dressed. “Show’s over,” Fifty shouts down at us, but he’s wrong, it isn’t. They’re long and they’re languid, for farmers and farm children. The whores and the camp followers applaud, and hoot.
Typically what happens overnight is, the men get smoking and can’t stop themselves. They smoke so much that they make themselves sick, and a lot of them get so sick they can’t answer morning muster.
They don’t know where to draw the line with smoking overnight—or else they do know, they know exactly where, and they draw it, and then they ignore it. Also what happens, the men who do answer muster say the only way they can go on is to keep on smoking through the day. The hair of the dog, they say. The girl who brung you. They catch us coming and they catch us going is what they do. So mornings bring runners with lists: of sick men who smoked too much, of men requesting to smoke so they don’t get sick. Plus we get the final lists from yesterday. The paperwork keeps on coming.
But today the first runner isn’t one of our regular runners. He has a way about him, this runner, that’s not the same way as other, previous runners. His posture is different, for one thing. He looks like—this is the other thing, after the posture—he looks like his waist is in the wrong place. He has a too-high waist.
Then we get it. That’s when it occurs to us. “I thought we were the ones with runners,” says the Adjutant. “Since when did the men start having runners of their own?”
It’s a surprise to us all. Our first reaction, standing there facing the runner, isn’t to question him closely, our first reaction is more like, what the hell? But the more we get to know him, the better we like him. He’s clean and confident. He looks you in your eye. In some ways he’s more like an aristocrat than a runner. And what an optimist! Even when the news is grim he serves it up with a smile. He smells like a clean forest. Doesn’t know the meaning of rock bottom dead morale, he says. “This guy,” notes one of the majors, “just might be an example to us all, including the men.”
Everybody wants to impress him. The camp followers rake their hair straighter and put on fresh shirts, if they have them. The Fiftys run up and get changed again in the window. The whores braid their hair and breathe on their spectacles. The runner, when he sees us all looking up and watching the Fiftys, tries to look up too. He’s too close to the house, though. The angle isn’t right for him. He has a patience you don’t see much, let alone worn so nakedly on someone’s face.
Seen through the lens of their runner, the men take on new qualities, including exuberance, élan and statesmanship. When he starts to speak, everyone listens.
“This had better not be about be about individual rights,” says the Adjutant, an exception to the rule.
The runner has a low speaking voice. He begins by saying that the road up is not always the same one you take on the way down—the legendary return journey. We take a look into his face to see whether he’s talking conceptually or is he describing in very real terms how he got here from the front? Could be either one, judging just from his face. He seems to be building up to a larger point. He clasps his hands behind his back and strolls around a bit.
“The thing about men,” says the Colonel, “you point them in the right direction, the direction you want them to go in, but that’s the last time you have any control.” This is later, afterwards. “It’s like a house on fire,” says the Colonel. “It reminds me of the first planes to fly—or, I guess, a house on fire.”
“As someone who’s spent his whole life around men,” says the Adjutant, “I almost feel like I don’t know what they’re going to do next.”
What’s on the men’s minds, according to the runner, along with the usual cigarette concerns: not enough historians. The men, older now than once they were, know what it is to go into battle without the benefit of historians standing by. They want historians on hand. They’re tired of the historians hanging back, getting it all wrong from afar. They’re at the point now they aren’t willing to fight if there aren’t any historians watching from, quote, the front row. “It’s just not worth it for the men,” the runner tells us. “They’re not willing to do it. They don’t see the point.”
Cornelia and I don’t see one another for a couple of days. Friday, when we do, the Fiftys are celebrating some kind of holiday that either doesn’t have a name or else it has to be kept a secret from outsiders. She’s not allowed to say. They can’t play their guitars. They can’t even pick them up. They can only do chores after sundown. They have to keep warm, which means wearing constant sweaters. It’s a lot of detective work, for us. Are they fasting? Certainly, with Cornelia, we can’t make the love we’re so used to making. The whores are confused. We all are.
The gunners think maybe it’s Michaelmas. We walk up there, past the lines of men in their trenches and men sitting cross-legged in circles, along the path past the ammo dump. Cornelia walks ahead of me. When the artillery guys hear about her mystery high holiday they want to guess. “It’s not Michaelmas,” she says. “Not even close.”
Then they find out I haven’t brought them any new Panoramas. They’re pretty miffed.
They used to ask me to autograph my drawings. That’s a pretty good measure of how much they appreciated my work. It was a joy, they’d say, to shell the targets I’d drawn in my Panoramas. They loved how I tabulated the elevations and the ranges. And the angles of sight! The fact that I did any tabulating at all was a real refresher, to them. They always would compliment me. Without my Panoramas there was no way they’d be able to get so much destroyed in so little time. “We’ve cut way back on barrages since we got you on the job,” they said. “We look at your drawings, turn some wheels, crank down on the lever and boom, away we go. It’s a little more technical than that, actually. But in layman’s terms, that’s pretty much it.”
Sometimes I’d stay and watch the barrages, or at least listen to them. It became almost like a personal favour, the shelling, after what they’d said. It had that quality.
On the way back Cornelia isn’t talking. I try everything but she won’t say anything. I let her carry my carbine. I point to birds and she shoots them. She’s a great shot, of course. She has a natural eye. She says, “It’s not too far off from guitar, is it?”
The men, now, are talking openly about the historians they think they want. We stop on the way home to hear them out. The more we hear, the more we want to mention that historians such as they think they’d like don’t really exist except in very expensive books, usually privately printed. “With gold lettering on the spine,” pipes up Cornelia, to rub it in. She takes my hand and gives a sorrowful little look. History, according to these guys, is a fast-flowing river in flood. It’s sad to hear them go on about their idealized historians, always a hundred percent awake, wearing bright folkloric vests, never too far from a half-smoked cigarette. It’s hard to know when the last time was that they saw a real live historian, if ever.