Nettles
written by Alice Munro and narrated by Kymberly Dakin

 

Johnston had warned us before we left that there was a prediction of rain. Mike had said that we’d take our chances. I liked his saying “we” and I liked riding beside him, in the wife’s seat. I felt a pleasure in the idea of us as a couple—a pleasure that I knew was lightheaded as an adolescent girl’s. The notion of being a wife beguiled me, just as if I had never been one. This had never happened with the man who was now my actual lover. Could I really have settled in, with a true love, and somehow just got rid of the parts of me that did not fit, and been happy?

But now that we were alone, there was some constraint.

“Isn’t the country here beautiful?” I said. And today I meant it. The hills looked softer, under this cloudy white sky, than they had looked yesterday in the brazen sunlight. The trees, at the end of summer, had a raggedy foliage, many of their leaves beginning to rust around the edges, and some had actually turned brown or red. I recognized different leaves now. I said, “Oak trees.”

“This is sandy soil,” Mike said. “All through here—they call it Oak Ridges.”

I said I supposed that Ireland was beautiful.

“Parts of it are really bare. Bare rock.”

“Did your wife grow up there? Does she have that lovely accent?”

“You’d think she did, if you heard her. But when she goes back there, they tell her she’s lost it. They tell her she sounds just like an American. American’s what they always say—they don’t bother with Canadian.”

“And your kids—I guess they don’t sound Irish at all?”

“Nope.”

“What are they anyway—boys or girls?”

“Two boys and a girl.”

I had an urge now to tell him about the contradictions, the griefs and necessities of my life. I said, “I miss my kids.”

But he said nothing. No sympathetic word, no encouragement. It might be that he thought it unseemly to talk of our partners or our children, under the circumstances.

Soon after that we pulled into the parking lot beside the clubhouse, and he said, rather boisterously, as if to make up for his stiffness, “Looks like the rain scare’s kept the Sunday golfers home.” There was only one car in the lot.

He got out and went into the office to pay the visitor’s fee.

I had never been on a golf course. I had seen the game being played on television, once or twice and never by choice, and I had an idea that some of the clubs were called irons, or some of the irons clubs, and that there was one of them called a niblick, and that the course itself was called the links. When I told him this Mike said, “Maybe you’re going to be awfully bored.”

“If I am I’ll go for a walk.”

That seemed to please him. He laid the weight of his warm hand on my shoulder and said, “You would, too.”

My ignorance did not matter—of course I did not really have to caddy—and I was not bored. All there was for me to do was to follow him around, and watch him. I didn’t even have to watch him. I could have watched the trees at the edges of the course—they were tall trees with feathery tops and slender trunks, whose name I was not sure of—acacia?—and they were ruffled by occasional winds that we could not feel at all, here below. Also there were flocks of birds, blackbirds or starlings, flying about with a communal sense of urgency, but only from one treetop to another. I remembered now that birds did that; in August or even late July they began to have noisy mass meetings, preparing for the trip south.

Mike talked now and then, but it was hardly to me. There was no need for me to reply, and in fact I couldn’t have done so. I thought he talked more, though, than a man would have done if he’d been playing here by himself. His disconnected words were reproaches or cautious congratulations or warnings to himself, or they were hardly words at all—just the kind of noises that are meant to convey meaning, and that do convey meaning, in the long intimacy of lives lived in willing proximity.

This was what I was supposed to do, then—to give him an amplified, an extended notion of himself. A more comfortable notion, you might say, a reassuring sense of human padding around his solitude. He wouldn’t have expected this in quite the same way, or asked it quite so naturally and easily, if I had been another man. Or if I had been a woman with whom he did not feel some established connection.

I didn’t think this out. It was all there in the pleasure I felt come over me as we made our way around the links. Lust that had given me shooting pains in the night was all chastened and trimmed back now into a tidy pilot flame, attentive, wifely. I followed his setting up and choosing and pondering and squinting and swinging, and watched the course of the ball, which always seemed to me triumphant but to him usually problematic, to the site of our next challenge, our immediate future.

Walking there, we hardly talked at all. Will it rain? we said. Did you feel a drop? I thought I felt a drop. Maybe not. This was not dutiful weather talk—it was all in the context of the game. Would we finish the round or not?

As it turned out, we would not. There was a drop of rain, definitely a drop of rain, then another, then a splatter. Mike looked along the length of the course, to where the clouds had changed color, becoming dark blue instead of white, and he said without particular alarm or disappointment, “Here comes our weather.” He began methodically to pack up and fasten his bag.

We were then about as far away as we could be from the clubhouse. The birds had increased their commotion, and were wheeling about overhead in an agitated, indecisive way. The tops of the trees were swaying, and there was a sound—it seemed to be above us—like the sound of a wave full of stones crashing on the beach. Mike said, “Okay, then. We better get in here,” and he took my hand and hurried us across the mown grass into bushes and the tall weeds that grew between the course and the river.

The bushes right at the edge of the grass had dark leaves and an almost formal look, as if they had been a hedge, set out there. But they were in a clump, growing wild. They also looked impenetrable, but close up there were little openings, the narrow paths that animals or people looking for golf balls had made. The ground sloped slightly downward, and once you were through the irregular wall of bushes you could see a bit of the river—the river that was in fact the reason for the sign at the gate, the name on the clubhouse. Riverside Golf Club. The water was steel gray, and looked to be rolling, not breaking in a chop the way pond water would do, in this rush of weather. Between it and us there was a meadow of weeds, all of it seemed in bloom. Goldenrod, jewelweed with its red and yellow bells, and what I thought were flowering nettles with pinkish-purple clusters, and wild asters. Grapevine, too, grabbing and wrapping whatever it could find, and tangling underfoot. The soil was soft, not quite gummy. Even the most frail-stemmed, delicate-looking plants had grown up almost as high as, or higher than, our heads. When we stopped and looked up through them we could see trees at a little distance tossing around like bouquets. And something coming, from the direction of the midnight clouds. It was the real rain, coming at us behind this splatter we were getting, but it appeared to be so much more than rain. It was as if a large portion of the sky had detached itself and was bearing down, bustling and resolute, taking a not quite recognizable but animate shape. Curtains of rain—not veils but really thick and wildly slapping curtains—were driven ahead of it. We could see them distinctly, when all we were feeling, still, were these light, lazy drops. It was almost as if we were looking through a window, and not quite believing that the window would shatter, until it did, and rain and wind hit us, all together, and my hair was lifted and fanned out above my head. I felt as if my skin might do that next.

I tried to turn around then—I had an urge, that I had not felt before, to run out of the bushes and head for the clubhouse. But I could not move. It was hard enough to stand up—out in the open the wind would have knocked you down at once.

Stooping, butting his head through the weeds and against the wind, Mike got around in front of me, all the time holding on to my arm. Then he faced me, with his body between me and the storm. That made as much difference as a toothpick might have done. He said something, right into my face, but I could not hear him. He was shouting, but not a sound from him could reach me. He had hold of both my arms now, he worked his hands down to my wrists and held them tight. He pulled me down—both of us staggering, the moment we tried to make any change of position—so that we were crouched close to the ground. So close together that we could not look at each other—we could only look down, at the miniature rivers already breaking up the earth around our feet, and the crushed plants and our soaked shoes. And even this had to be seen through the waterfall that was running down our faces.

Mike released my wrists and clamped his hands on my shoulders. His touch was still one of restraint, more than comfort.

We remained like this till the wind passed over. That could not have been more than five minutes, perhaps only two or three. Rain still fell, but now it was ordinary heavy rain. He took his hands away, and we stood up shakily. Our shirts and slacks were stuck fast to our bodies. My hair fell down over my face in long witch’s tendrils and his hair was flattened in short dark tails to his forehead. We tried to smile, but had hardly the strength for it. Then we kissed and pressed together briefly. This was more of a ritual, a recognition of survival rather than of our bodies’ inclinations. Our lips slid against each other, slick and cool, and the pressure of the embrace made us slightly chilly, as fresh water was squished out of our clothing.

Every minute, the rain grew lighter. We made our way, slightly staggering, through the half-flattened weeds, then between the thick and drenching bushes. Big tree branches had been hurled all over the golf course. I did not think until later that any one of them could have killed us.

We walked in the open, detouring around the fallen limbs. The rain had almost stopped, and the air brightened. I was walking with my head bent—so that the water from my hair fell to the ground and not down my face—and I felt the heat of the sun strike my shoulders before I looked up into its festival light.

I stood still, took a deep breath, and swung my hair out of my face. Now was the time, when we were drenched and safe and confronted with radiance. Now something had to be said.

“There’s something I didn’t mention to you.”

His voice surprised me, like the sun. But in the opposite way. It had a weight to it, a warning—determination edged with apology.

“About our youngest boy,” he said. “Our youngest boy was killed last summer.”

Oh.

“He was run over,” he said. “I was the one ran over him. Backing out of our driveway.”

I stopped again. He stopped with me. Both of us stared ahead.

“His name was Brian. He was three.

“The thing was, I thought he was upstairs in bed. The others were still up, but he’d been put to bed. Then he’d got up again.

“I should have looked, though. I should have looked more carefully.” I thought of the moment when he got out of the car. The noise he must have made. The moment when the child’s mother came running out of the house. This isn’t him, he isn’t here, it didn’t happen.

Upstairs in bed.

He started walking again, entering the parking lot. I walked a little behind him. And I did not say anything—not one kind, common, helpless word. We had passed right by that.

He didn’t say, It was my fault and I’ll never get over it. I’ll never forgive myself. But I do as well as I can.

Or, My wife forgives me but she’ll never get over it either.

I knew all that. I knew now that he was a person who had hit rock bottom. A person who knew—as I did not know, did not come near knowing—exactly what rock bottom was like. He and his wife knew that together and it bound them, as something like that would either break you apart or bind you, for life. Not that they would live at rock bottom. But they would share a knowledge of it—that cool, empty, locked, and central space.

It could happen to anybody.

Yes. But it doesn’t seem that way. It seems as if it happens to this one, that one, picked out specially here and there, one at a time.

I said, “It isn’t fair.” I was talking about the dealing out of these idle punishments, these wicked and ruinous swipes. Worse like this, perhaps, than when they happen in the midst of plentiful distress, in wars or the earth’s disasters. Worst of all when there is the one whose act, probably an uncharacteristic act, is singly and permanently responsible.

That’s what I was talking about. But meaning also, It is not fair. What has this got to do with us?

A protest so brutal that it seems almost innocent, coming out of such a raw core of self. Innocent, that is, if you are the one it’s coming from, and if it has not been made public.

“Well,” he said, quite gently. Fairness being neither here nor there.

“Sunny and Johnston don’t know about it,” he said. “None of the people know, that we met since we moved. It seemed as if it might work better that way. Even the other kids—they don’t hardly ever mention him. Never mention his name.”

I was not one of the people they had met since they moved. Not one of the people amongst whom they would make their new, hard, normal life. I was a person who knew—that was all. A person he had, on his own, who knew.

“That’s strange,” he said, looking around before he opened the trunk of the car to stow away the golf case.

“What happened to the guy who was parked here before?

Didn’t you see another car parked here when we came in? But I never saw one other person on the course. Now that I think of it.

Did you?”

I said no.

“Mystery,” he said. And again, “Well.”

That was a word that I used to hear fairly often, said in that same tone of voice, when I was a child. A bridge between one thing and another, or a conclusion, or a way of saying something that couldn’t be any more fully said, or thought.

“A well is a hole in the ground.” That was the joking answer.

 

 

The storm had brought an end to the swimming-pool party. Too many people had been there for everybody to crowd into the house, and those with children had mostly chosen to go home.

While we were driving back, Mike and I had both noticed, and spoken about, a prickling, an itch or burning, on our bare forearms, the backs of our hands, and around our ankles. Places that had not been protected by our clothing when we crouched in the weeds. I remembered the nettles.

Sitting in Sunny’s farmhouse kitchen, wearing dry clothes, we told about our adventure and revealed our rashes.

Sunny knew what to do for us. Yesterday’s trip with Claire, to the emergency room of the local hospital, had not been this family’s first visit. On an earlier weekend the boys had gone down into the weedy mud-bottomed field behind the barn and come back covered with welts and blotches. The doctor said they must have got into some nettles. Must have been rolling in them, was what he said. Cold compresses were prescribed, an antihistamine lotion, and pills. There was still part of a bottle of lotion unused, and there were some pills too, because Mark and Gregory had recovered quickly.

We said no to the pills—our case seemed not serious enough.

Sunny said that she had talked to the woman out on the highway, who put gas in her car, and this woman had said there was a plant whose leaves made the best poultice you could have, for nettle rash. You don’t need all them pills and junk, the woman said. The name of the plant was something like calf’s foot. Coldfoot? The woman had told her she could find it in a certain road cut, by a bridge.

“I could go and ask her to tell me again, exactly. I could go and get some.”

She was eager to do that, she liked the idea of a folklore remedy. We had to point out that the lotion was already there, and paid for.

Sunny enjoyed ministering to us. In fact, our plight put the whole family into a good humor, brought them out of the doldrums of the drenched day and cancelled plans. The fact that we had chosen to go off together and that we had this adventure—an adventure that left its evidence on our bodies—seemed to rouse in Sunny and Johnston a teasing excitement. Droll looks from him, a bright solicitousness from her. If we had brought back evidence of real misdoing—welts on the buttocks, red splashes on the thighs and belly—they would not of course have been so charmed and forgiving.

The children thought it was funny to see us sitting there with our feet in basins, our arms and hands clumsy with their wrappings of thick cloths. Claire especially was delighted with the sight of our naked, foolish, adult feet. Mike wriggled his long toes for her, and she broke into fits of alarmed giggles.

Well. It would be the same old thing, if we ever met again. Or if we didn’t. Love that was not usable, that knew its place. (Some would say not real, because it would never risk getting its neck wrung, or turning into a bad joke, or sadly wearing out.) Not risking a thing yet staying alive as a sweet trickle, an underground resource. With the weight of this new stillness on it, this seal.

I never asked Sunny for news of him, or got any, during all the years of our dwindling friendship.

 

 

Those plants with the big pinkish-purple flowers are not nettles.

I have discovered that they are called joe-pye weed. The stinging nettles that we must have got into are more insignificant plants, with a paler purple flower, and stalks wickedly outfitted with fine, fierce, skin-piercing and inflaming spines. Those would be present too, unnoticed, in all the flourishing of the waste meadow.

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