Men + Men

Stephen Smith

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.

“Heya.”

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,

Tags
No items found.

Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith has written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Canadian Geographic, Outside, Quill & Quire, West End Phoenix and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Toronto and at puckstruck.com.


SUGGESTIONS FOR YOU

Reviews
Patty Osborne

A Secret Well Kept

Review of "The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation" by Rosemary Sullivan.

Dispatches
David Sheskin

PRESS 1 IF

PRESS 1 IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE HEARD THE BIG BANG.

Dispatches
Mazzy Sleep

Heart Medicine

"You have bruises / There was time / You spent trying to / Heal them. / As in, time wasted."