Nettles
written by Alice Munro and narrated by Kymberly Dakin

 

In the summer of 1979, I walked into the kitchen of my friend Sunny’s house near Uxbridge, Ontario, and saw a man standing at the counter, making himself a ketchup sandwich.

I have driven around in the hills northeast of Toronto, with my husband—my second husband, not the one I had left behind that summer—and I have looked for the house, in an idly persistent way, I have tried to locate the road it was on, but I have never succeeded. It has probably been torn down. Sunny and her husband sold it a few years after I visited them. It was too far from Ottawa, where they lived, to serve as a convenient summer place. Their children, as they became teenagers, balked at going there. And there was too much upkeep work for Johnston—Sunny’s husband—who liked to spend his weekends golfing.

I have found the golf course—I think it the right one, though the ragged verges have been cleaned up and there is a fancier clubhouse.

 

 

In the countryside where I lived as a child, wells would go dry in the summer. This happened once in about every five or six years, when there was not enough rain. These wells were holes dug in the ground. Our well was a deeper hole than most, but we needed a good supply of water for our penned animals—my father raised silver foxes and mink—so one day the well driller arrived with impressive equipment, and the hole was extended down, down, deep into the earth until it found the water in the rock. From that time on we could pump out pure, cold water no matter what the time of year and no matter how dry the weather. That was something to be proud of. There was a tin mug hanging on the pump, and when I drank from it on a burning day, I thought of black rocks where the water ran sparkling like diamonds.

The well driller—he was sometimes called the well digger, as if nobody could be bothered to be precise about what he did and the older description was the more comfortable—was a man named Mike McCallum. He lived in the town close by our farm but he did not have a house there. He lived in the Clark Hotel—he had come there in the spring, and he would stay until he finished up whatever work he found to do in this part of the country. Then he would move on.

Mike McCallum was a younger man than my father, but he had a son who was a year and two months older than I was. This boy lived with his father in hotel rooms or boardinghouses, wherever his father was working, and he went to whatever school was at hand. His name was Mike McCallum too.

I know exactly how old he was because that is something children establish immediately, it is one of the essential matters on which they negotiate whether to be friends or not. He was nine and I was eight. His birthday was in April, mine in June. The summer holidays were well under way when he arrived at our house with his father.

His father drove a dark-red truck that was always muddy or dusty. Mike and I climbed into the cab when it rained. I don’t remember whether his father went into our kitchen then, for a smoke and a cup of tea, or stood under a tree, or went right on working. Rain washed down the windows of the cab and made a racket like stones on the roof. The smell was of men—their work clothes and tools and tobacco and mucky boots and sour-cheese socks. Also of damp long-haired dog, because we had taken Ranger in with us. I took Ranger for granted, I was used to having him follow me around and sometimes for no good reason I would order him to stay home, go off to the barn, leave me alone. But Mike was fond of him and always addressed him kindly and by name, telling him our plans and waiting for him when he took off on one of his dog-projects, chasing a groundhog or a rabbit. Living as he did with his father, Mike could never have a dog of his own.

One day when Ranger was with us he chased a skunk, and the skunk turned and sprayed him. Mike and I were held to be somewhat to blame. My mother had to stop whatever she was doing and drive into town and get several large tins of tomato juice. Mike persuaded Ranger to get into a tub and we poured the tomato juice over him and brushed it into his hair. It looked as if we were washing him in blood. How many people would it take to supply that much blood? we wondered. How many horses? Elephants?

I had more acquaintance with blood and animal-killing than Mike did. I took him to see the spot in the corner of the pasture near the barnyard gate where my father shot and butchered the horses that were fed to the foxes and mink. The ground was trodden bare and appeared to have a deep blood-stain, an iron-red cast to it. Then I took him to the meat-house in the barnyard where the horse carcasses were hung before being ground up for feed. The meat-house was just a shed with wire walls and the walls were black with flies, drunk on the smell of carrion. We got shingles and smashed them dead.

Our farm was small—nine acres. It was small enough for me to have explored every part of it, and every part had a particular look and character, which I could not have put into words. It is easy to see what would be special about the wire shed with the long, pale horse carcasses hung from brutal hooks, or about the trodden blood-soaked ground where they had changed from live horses into those supplies of meat. But there were other things, such as the stones on either side of the barn gangway, that had just as much to say to me, though nothing memorable had ever occurred there. On one side there was a big smooth whitish stone that bulged out and dominated all the others, and so that side had to me an expansive and public air, and I would always choose to climb that way rather than on the other side, where the stones were darker and clung together in a more mean-spirited way. Each of the trees on the place had likewise an attitude and a presence—the elm looked serene and the oak threatening, the maples friendly and workaday, the hawthorn old and crabby. Even the pits on the river flats—where my father had sold off gravel years ago—had their distinct character, perhaps easiest to spot if you saw them full of water at the receding of the spring floods. There was the one that was small and round and deep and perfect; the one that was spread out like a tail; and the one that was wide and irresolute in shape and always with a chop on it because the water was so shallow.

Mike saw all these things from a different angle. And so did I, now that I was with him. I saw them his way and mine, and my way was by its very nature incommunicable, so that it had to stay secret. His had to do with immediate advantage. The large pale stone in the gangway was for jumping off, taking a short hard run and then launching yourself out into the air, to clear the smaller stones in the slope beneath and land on the packed earth by the stable door. All the trees were for climbing, but particularly the maple next to the house, with the branch that you could crawl out on, so as to drop yourself onto the verandah roof. And the gravel pits were simply for leaping into, with the shouts of animals leaping on their prey, after a furious run through the long grass. If it had been earlier in the year, Mike said, when these held more water, we could have built a raft.

That project was considered, with regard to the river. But the river in August was almost as much a stony road as it was a watercourse, and instead of trying to float down it or swim in it we took off our shoes and waded—jumping from one bare bone-white rock to another and slipping on the scummy rocks below the surface, plowing through mats of flat-leafed water lilies and other water plants whose names I can’t recall or never knew (wild parsnip, water hemlock?). These grew so thick they looked as if they must be rooted on islands, on dry land, but they were actually growing out of river muck, and trapped our legs in their snaky roots.

This river was the same one that ran publicly through the town, and walking upstream, we came in sight of the double-span highway bridge. When I was by myself or just with Ranger I had never gone as far as the bridge, because there were usually town people there. They came to fish over the side, and when the water was high enough boys jumped from the railing. They wouldn’t be doing that now, but it was more than likely some of them would be splashing around down below—loudmouthed and hostile as town children always were.

Tramps were another possibility. But I said nothing of this to Mike, who went ahead of me as if the bridge was an ordinary destination and there was nothing unpleasant or forbidden about it. Voices reached us, and as I expected they were the voices of boys yelling—you would think the bridge belonged to them. Ranger had followed us this far, unenthusiastically, but now he veered off towards the bank. He was an old dog by this time, and he had never been indiscriminately fond of children.

There was a man fishing, not off the bridge but from the bank, and he swore at the commotion Ranger made getting out of the water. He asked us whether we couldn’t keep our arse of a dog at home. Mike went straight on as if this man had only whistled at us, and then we passed into the shadow of the bridge itself, where I had never been in my life.

The floor of the bridge was our roof, with streaks of sunlight showing between the planks. And now a car passed over, with a sound of thunder and a blotting out of the light. We stood still for this event, looking up. Under-the-bridge was a place on its own, not just a short stretch of the river. When the car had passed and the sun shone through the cracks again, its reflection on the water cast waves of light, queer bubbles of light, high on the cement pilings. Mike yelled to test the echo, and I did the same, but faintly, because the boys on the shore, the strangers, on the other side of the bridge scared me more than tramps would have done.

I went to the country school beyond our farm. Enrollment there had dwindled to the point where I was the only child in my class. But Mike had been going to the town school since spring and these boys were not strangers to him. He would probably have been playing with them, and not with me, if his father had not had the idea of taking him along on his jobs, so that he could—now and then—keep an eye on him.

There must have been some words of greeting passed, between these town boys and Mike.

Hey. What do you think you’re doing here?

Nothing. What do you think you’re doing?

Nothing. Who’s that you got with you?

Nobody. Just her.

Nnya-nnya. Just her.

There was in fact a game going on, which was taking up everybody’s attention. And everybody included girls—there were girls farther up on the bank, intent on their own business-—though we were all past the age at which groups of boys and girls played together as a customary thing. They might have followed the boys out from town—pretending not to follow—or the boys might have come along after them, intending some harassment, but somehow when they all got together this game had taken shape and had needed everybody in it, so the usual restrictions had broken down. And the more people who were in it, the better the game was, so it was easy for Mike to become involved, and bring me in after him.

It was a game of war. The boys had divided themselves into two armies who fought each other from behind barricades roughly made of tree branches, and also from the shelter of the coarse, sharp grass, and of the bulrushes and water weeds that were higher than our heads. The chief weapons were balls of clay, mud balls, about the size of baseballs. There happened to be a special source of clay, a gray pit hollowed out, half hidden by weeds, partway up the bank (discovery of this might have been what suggested the game), and it was there that the girls were working, preparing the ammunition. You squeezed and patted the sticky clay into as hard a ball as you could make—there could be some gravel in it and binding material of grass, leaves, bits of twigs gathered at the spot, but no stones added on purpose—and there had to be a great many of these balls, because they were good for only one throw. There was no possibility of picking up the balls that had missed and packing them together and throwing them over again.

The rules of the war were simple. If you were hit by a ball—the official name for them was cannonballs—in the face, head, or body, you had to fall down dead. If you were hit in the arms or legs you had to fall down, but you were only wounded. Then another thing that girls had to do was crawl out and drag the wounded soldiers back to a trampled place that was the hospital. Leaves were plastered on their wounds and they were supposed to lie still till they counted to one hundred. When they’d done that they could get up and fight again. The dead soldiers were not supposed to get up until the war was over, and the war was not over till everybody on one side was dead.

The girls as well as the boys were divided into two sides, but since there were not nearly as many girls as boys we could not serve as munitions makers and nurses for just one soldier. There were alliances, just the same. Each girl had her own pile of balls and was working for particular soldiers, and when a soldier fell wounded he would call out a girl’s name, so that she could drag him away and dress his wounds as soon as possible. I made weapons for Mike and mine was the name Mike called. There was so much noise going on—constant cries of “You’re dead,” either triumphant or outraged (outraged because of course people who were supposed to be dead were always trying to sneak back into the fighting) and the barking of a dog, not Ranger, who had somehow got mixed up in the battle—so much noise that you had to be always alert for the boy’s voice that called your own name. There was a keen alarm when the cry came, a wire zinging through your whole body, a fanatic feeling of devotion. (At least it was so for me who, unlike the other girls, owed my services to only one warrior.)

I don’t suppose, either, that I had ever played in a group, like this, before. It was such a joy to be part of a large and desperate enterprise, and to be singled out, within it, to be essentially pledged to the service of a fighter. When Mike was wounded he never opened his eyes, he lay limp and still while I pressed the slimy large leaves to his forehead and throat and—pulling out his shirt—to his pale, tender stomach, with its sweet and vulnerable belly button.

Nobody won. The game disintegrated, after a long while, in arguments and mass resurrections. We tried to get some of the clay off us, on the way home, by lying down flat in the river water. Our shorts and shirts were filthy and dripping.

It was late in the afternoon. Mike’s father was getting ready to leave.

“For Christ’s sake,” he said.

We had a part-time hired man who came to help my father when there was a butchering or some extra job to be done. He had an elderly, boyish look and a wheezing asthmatic way of breathing. He liked to grab me and tickle me until I thought I would suffocate.

Nobody interfered with this. My mother didn’t like it, but my father told her it was only a joke.

He was there in the yard, helping Mike’s father.

“You two been rolling in the mud,” he said. “First thing you know you gonna have to get married.”

From behind the screen door my mother heard that. (If the men had known she was there, neither one of them would have spoken as he had.) She came out and said something to the hired man, in a low, reproving voice, before she said anything about the way we looked.

I heard part of what she said.

Like brother and sister.

The hired man looked at his boots, grinning helplessly.

She was wrong. The hired man was closer to the truth than she was. We were not like brother and sister, or not like any brother and sister I had ever seen. My one brother was hardly more than a baby, so I had no experience of that on my own. And we were not like the wives and husbands I knew, who were old, for one thing, and who lived in such separate worlds that they seemed barely to recognize one another. We were like sturdy and accustomed sweethearts, whose bond needs not much outward expression. And for me at least that was solemn and thrilling. I knew that the hired man was talking about sex, though I don’t think I knew the word “sex.” And I hated him for that even more than I usually hated him. Specifically, he was wrong. We did not go in for any showings and rubbings and guilty intimacies—there was none of that bothered search for hiding places, none of the twiddling pleasure and frustration and immediate, raw shame. Such scenes had taken place for me with a boy cousin and with a couple of slightly older girls, sisters, who went to my school. I disliked these partners before and after the event and would angrily deny, even in my own mind, that any of these things had happened. Such escapades could never have been considered, with anybody for whom I felt any fondness or respect—only with people who disgusted me, as those randy abhorrent itches disgusted me with myself.

In my feelings for Mike the localized demon was transformed into a diffuse excitement and tenderness spread everywhere under the skin, a pleasure of the eyes and ears and a tingling contentment, in the presence of the other person. I woke up every morning hungry for the sight of him, for the sound of the well driller’s truck as it came bumping and rattling down the lane. I worshipped, without any show of it, the back of his neck and the shape of his head, the frown of his eyebrows, his long, bare toes and his dirty elbows, his loud and confident voice, his smell. I accepted readily, even devoutly, the roles that did not have to be explained or worked out between us—that I would aid and admire him, he would direct and stand ready to protect me.

 

 

And one morning the truck did not come. One morning, of course, the job was all finished, the well capped, the pump reinstated, the fresh water marvelled at. There were two chairs fewer at the table for the noon meal. Both the older and the younger Mike had always eaten that meal with us. The younger Mike and I never talked and barely looked at each other. He liked to put ketchup on his bread. His father talked to my father, and the talk was mostly about wells, accidents, water tables. A serious man. All work, my father said. Yet he—Mike’s father—ended nearly every speech with a laugh. The laugh had a lonely boom in it, as if he was still down the well.

They did not come. The work was finished, there was no reason for them ever to come again. And it turned out that this job was the last one that the well driller had to do in our part of the country. He had other jobs lined up elsewhere, and he wanted to get to them as soon as he could, while the good weather lasted. Living as he did, in the hotel, he could just pack up and be gone. And that was what he had done.

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