Who in Mortal Chains
By Claire Humphrey
8 March 2010
I almost had friends in 1965.
Ryder was a brewer in those days, when brewing was a thing no one much cared to do. He was well loved among a circle of twenty or so, every one with a lost art. Mylene was a weaver; Tom worked leather; Eskil kept bees. Up on the mountain, Andy ran a print shop, with a hundred fonts of lead type, sorted by letter into a hundred wooden trays. Clifton made images with light: albumen prints, salt prints, silver negatives on glass.
I suppose I could have taught someone the art of the bayonet, or the language of signal-flags, but I was mostly just hanging around getting drunk with them. It was almost like hanging around people my own age, except that everyone my age is an asshole.
I did teach Ryder how to bake bannock over coals. We ate his first attempt with some of Eskil's honey, and mugs of beer pulled from the cask. Clifton took a daguerreotype of all of us seated on blankets under the arbutus tree behind Ryder's house.
He made copies for everyone, but I wrecked mine, of course.
The only thing I've managed to keep from that time is a rough forging from the shop of Jason the blacksmith. Steel, and therefore tempered against my temper. Jason would have made it a blade, but I told him I'd only end up cutting someone.
The rough forging sits now on the windowsill in my kitchen, half a continent away and four decades later. The window itself has been replaced by an ill-fitting piece of Plexiglas held in place with duct tape. The things I break, I cannot always fix.
"He's so gentle," Mylene said of Tom, who was setting up their market table with rows of tooled belts and satchels. Mylene sat on one of the trunks, nursing the baby; I sat on the other, sipping from a canteen of coffee and whiskey.
"With the baby?" I said.
"Yes; but with me, too. With other things. He found a bird fallen from the nest at Ryder's place; cupped it so carefully, put it in a little box with shredded newspaper, fed it from a dropper."
"That's kind," I said, although it wasn't.
"It died anyway," Mylene said. She wrapped her hand over the baby's skull, lifting it away from her breast. "Little things are so fragile."
She passed me the baby, while she unpacked the diaper bag.
I rocked it and cosseted it. It blinked at me, with great round eyes of indeterminate colour. It looked very serious. Mylene said it was not old enough yet to know how to smile.
She sang to it while she diapered it. "Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies; farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain. . . ."
In addition to weaving, Mylene knew folk songs.
I wandered away; that song reminded me of things. My canteen was empty, and I was due for another drink. My life in that time ran smooth and light, but it would be tempting the fates for me to go among people sober. Even these people, even in this town. We heard about riots in the cities, and protests; such things might touch us some day. Now, here, it was mostly childbearing and music and craftsmanship. The milking of cows, and the turning of the milk into yogurt; the keeping of bees, and the turning of the honey into mead.
Eskil had some of the mead at his table. While he finished setting out the beeswax candles and the honey pots and the sticky wedges of comb, I drank, and told him the story of the Battle of Ladysmith.
He blew his blond hair out of his mouth and said, "You always speak of history as if you were there."
"I was," I said.
"Why haven't I learned of you?"
"I haven't done anything historical," I said. "I just keep getting up in the morning."
Eskil smiled. "'The past is never dead. It's not even past,'" he quoted, gesturing around the market.
I followed his hand. In addition to the folk I knew, I saw bakers, growers of herbs, cheesemakers, hatters, wheelers, potters, smiths, calligraphers, and one lutenist.
"I haven't seen it like this before," I said. "I don't know how you're managing to make it work."
"It is a gift, or a collection of gifts," Eskil said. "It may last, or it may not. I suggest you enjoy it."
I raised my canteen to him, and drank his mead.
Tom looked dark, and sucked on his finger where the kitten had scratched him. "I don't know what gets into everything in this house," he said.
The kitten was under a chair in the corner, hissing. The baby, in its cradle, howled. Tom led me into the kitchen and poured us each a glass of Ryder's beer.
"I know how much you like to drink," he said. Something in his tone: complicity, or judgement, or something of both.
He joined me in a long draught, licked his lips and shook his head. "I'm sorry about all the noise. Mylene's hanging clothes." He put his face to the window screen and shouted, "Mylene! Can't you hear the baby?"
She came in a moment later, flushed, and she soothed the child until it fell asleep; then she folded laundry while Tom and I talked, and Tom tuned his mandolin. He had long fingers, clubbed a bit at the tips; one of his knuckles was swollen and split.
I tilted my head at it, to inquire.
"Punched a wall," he said briefly.
"It happens," I said. "It didn't hurt your music?"
"It's no different. Not like I was any good to begin with." He swept his hand down over the strings once, hard, and set the instrument aside.
I didn't know how to answer that.
Mylene said, "You have a good ear, you just don't practice enough."
"How am I supposed to practice when there's no bloody peace around here?"
"Tom, I just remembered," I said. "Parry's Jug Band is playing at the Roadhouse tonight. Starts in an hour. Want to come with me?"
Mylene mouthed "thanks" as Tom went to the back door for his boots.
"You don't mind, do you?" I whispered, belatedly.
"Of course not. He needs time out with the guys—I mean," she said, colouring up, "people who get him. I just wanted you to know I . . . think I understand the way you are." She stopped again, flustered.
I couldn't tell whether she really understood, or whether she had come to some separate conclusion of her own; but it did not matter.
I kissed her on the cheek, and she smiled, and then I kissed the baby, who was still too little to smile.
Tom came back with his things, and he wasn't smiling; but it came to him a bit later, once we were out under the trees.
Tom kept touching the arm of the woman next to us at the bar. He told me her name was Sharon.
Sharon glanced at me every time Tom touched her. I couldn't tell whether she wanted protection or permission. I did nothing. I was half drunk myself by then, exactly the way I wanted to be, loose and restful, elbows on the bar. Tom and Sharon talked over the music, and I sipped whiskey and listened.
"Gus," Tom said, when Sharon went to use the facilities. "What's it short for, Gus?"
"Augusta," I said. "Augusta Susan Hillyard."
I didn't think Tom understood about me at all, yet. Eskil clearly did, but maybe he hadn't told anyone.
"Gus," Tom said, "you don't like men. Do you?"
"Sure, I do, Tom."
"But you, you're not really . . . Mylene told me you swing the other way."
I laughed. That made her earlier comment a lot clearer.
"That girl, Sharon," Tom went on. "She likes men. Men like her. You know? A man can appreciate a woman like that. Not that I'd, you know. I'm married. It's only that with a baby in the house, a wife doesn't really, you know. I should shut up."
"You wouldn't tell Mylene if I . . . would you? Is there some kind of sisterhood thing? Because you know I don't mean any harm."
For a second it was all wrong in his eyes. He did mean harm. Not to me, even if he could. Not to Sharon, probably not to Mylene. But there was harm in him, meaning to happen.
"Jesus, Tom," I said, laughing. "I've got no idea what you're on about. Have another damn drink, and I'll make sure you get home somehow."
"Mylene will be mad as hell if I come home three sheets again."
"I'll square it with her."
And I did; she laughed too hard to be angry, when she saw me at the door with her husband over my shoulder like a sandbag. I carted him into the bedroom and Mylene tucked him in, with a glass of water by the bed in case he should wake up parched.
"Stay for a nightcap?" she said. "I'll be up for a bit; Arthur needs to be fed."
I accepted; I drank beer, Mylene drank chamomile tea, and little Arthur drank milk from his mother's breast. As peaceful as anything ever was, I thought.
Until the very end of the night, when Mylene was putting the dishes on a tray to take to the kitchen, and I was tying my boots. She said, "Thanks for taking Tom out. He has a hard time with . . . He needs to be around other people a lot right now, I think."
"And you don't?"
She pulled her lower lip between her teeth. "I'd like it. But I'm a grown-up. Arthur comes first, and it's not like I can leave him with Tom."
"You could leave him with me sometime," I said.
She laughed. "No offense, Gus, but you don't exactly have the maternal instinct, do you? Just help me keep Tom happy and you'll be doing us all a great favour."
I went off the rails not long after that.
It wasn't Ryder's fault. He would have let the whole thing slide.
It wasn't my fault, either. It was the fault of two guys who were drunk and impolite. They offered violence. It's an offer I can't help but accept.
They were on their way out of the Roadhouse, and we were on our way in, with a batch of Ryder's beer. Ryder was carrying two flats of bottles, and I had the keg.
When the two guys bulled into him, he went down on one knee. Bottles fell and broke. Ale foamed out and spilled over the boards.
One of the guys said to Ryder, "Jackass! You spilled our beer!"
The other one laughed immoderately. "But you brought us a woman to clean it up." He leered at me.
I took the time to set down the keg where it wouldn't get jostled. "Sit out," I said to Ryder.
The first guy gave me a bemused look. He hadn't apologized. He opened his mouth as if he was about to start.
I broke his jaw.
After that it went the way it always goes.
I stopped when I heard Ryder's voice: "Gus! Gus! Cops are on the way."
I dropped the guy I was holding, and licked a smear of blood off my knuckle.
"Jesus," said Ryder. "I didn't know you were some kind of black belt."
"You should skip out," he said. "Fast."
I think I started toward him.
"Gus," he said. "Augusta. You need to go."
I remember him backing away from me, with his hands spread wide. I let him get beyond my reach. I went outside, and around the bar, into the woods.
I spent some days on the mountain, running and climbing, doing whatever I needed to do. When I had it all out of my system, I came down again, filthy and hungry and exhausted. At the door of my apartment, I found a few bottles of mead and a honey cake from Eskil, along with a note saying that the two guys had not died.
I couldn't show my face at the Roadhouse after that anyway, but I went over to Ryder's to apologize, once I was cleaned up a bit.
His face went cool when he opened the door. He looked me up and down, and his mouth twisted, and he stepped back to let me in.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sorry you had to see that."
He didn't say anything right away. He sat me down at his table and gave me bread, cheddar, apples, roast beef, mustard, and several glasses of his beer. I hadn't eaten a meal since I went off. I think he could tell. He waited until I'd cleared my plate a couple of times.
"You're sorry I had to see that," he said finally. "Not quite the same as being sorry you did it."
"Sometimes I am that too," I said.
"Eskil told me you were . . . different. I thought he meant you were better, somehow."
I shook my head. "Not better. Not very different, either."
"You think I could have done something like that?"
He meant it as a denial, I think, but when I didn't answer, his face changed, and I saw him start to wonder.
"I'm sure you'd have a better reason than I did," I said, because I wanted to be kind to him, and because it might even be true. It was Ryder, after all. He and his friends were making the kind of oasis I had been thirsting for through all my long life.
I worked in the smithy with Jason: hot, filthy work. He made me stay sober while I was there, after the first time I burned myself, but the work was mostly hard enough to keep me occupied, and when it wasn't, I could run out back and up the mountain path for a while.
I tried to help Eskil with the bees, but when they stung me, it didn't go well.
I helped another man, a farmer lower in the valley; I gave feed to his chickens, collected their eggs, fixed the wire on their pen; I held his sheep while they were sheared, and one while it birthed. I helped him load his vegetables onto the truck for market days.
I did not go to market myself, though, nor did I go to the Roadhouse, nor to the shops in town.
No one seemed to put much energy into looking for me; no one came to my flat. I never found out what the guys had told the police. Once, I saw an RCMP car leaving Ryder's house just as I came up, and Ryder and Eskil on the porch waving goodbye; I hung back in the trees until the dust drifted down onto the road again, and nothing was said.
I broke things in my flat, not that I had much in the way of breakables. I broke a glass at Ryder's house: smashed it against the trunk of the arbutus, and then spent an hour crawling around the roots looking for all the pieces. I bought him a new one, but it did not quite match the others.
The peace of the place was still there, in the big meals at Ryder's table, in the slow fire in the wood stove and the breath of the sleeping dog. It wasn't for me, though. Never had been. I could only warm my hands at it for a while. I was just glad no one had yet asked me to leave.
We'd been working on Ryder's old truck—Ryder, Eskil, and me. We were sitting under the tree afterward, when Mylene arrived. She had Arthur in his sling across her body, and one of her hand-woven satchels stuffed with all the things you need to take a baby out into the world.
She did not smile. She marched up to Ryder and said, "I need to stay here."
"Arthur too." She sat down on the grass and rooted through her bag for a handkerchief. "I'm going to cry now," she said. "Just let me." And she did, angrily, scrubbing at her eyes. Before she was done, the baby was crying too. Ryder took it from her, cradled it in his big grease-smeared hands and comforted it. Eskil went into the house and came back with a glass of water.
I sat there, drinking my beer.
Finally Mylene tucked her hair behind her ears and held out her arms to take Arthur back. "Thanks," she said. "I don't want to let him out of my sight right now. When it was just me . . . But he's so tiny, and he's mine to protect. . . ."
"Tom did something," I said, getting it. Ryder and Eskil looked at me. "You knew already?"
"He's been different," Mylene said. "Since Arthur was born. He hasn't really hurt me, except . . ." She shook her head, and fell silent.
Eskil patted her arm. "We'll go over later, pick up some things for you. We'll make sure he's doing okay."
"I don't know if he knows how to make coffee for himself," Mylene said, with a sad little laugh.
I stayed behind, with Mylene and Arthur, while Ryder and Eskil went over to check on Tom. I made bread in Ryder's oven, and drank some red wine. Mylene even had a glass. We broke bread together.
"If Tom ever raises a hand to you again," I said, "you let me know. I'm not good for much, but I'm good for that."
"Gus . . . I don't think that will be necessary."
"I know violence," I said. "It breeds."
"You're trying to help, and that's sweet. But . . . I just want things to be nice again. I know Tom can do that. He's a gentle person."
And I wasn't, and she knew it. I bit my tongue, and drank more wine, and later on when Ryder and Eskil returned, I slipped out and jogged home the long way, so that I could go to my bed tired.
Mylene went back home after a week. Tom had apologized, she said, and fixed her loom, which he'd been promising to do for months.
I asked Ryder if he thought this was a good idea.
"It's Mylene's idea," he said.
The autumn was a warm, golden one. Apples grew crisp and sweet in the valley. Goldenrod spiked the roadsides. I found my ease again, a little, between the cool smoky evenings and Eskil's mead and the way everyone had of greeting me the same way they greeted each other.
Ryder told me that the guys from the Roadhouse had left town, and I dared to go in again a couple of times, anonymous enough in the crowds that gathered for a Maritime fiddler and a blues guitarist.
Tom was there the night of the blues guitarist, and I did not like how his eyes looked, but he only nodded to me and raised his glass. He did not touch any woman on the arm, or bother any person.
When he left, I followed him. I can be quiet.
The night was cold enough that I could see his breath steaming out. He walked with his hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans, kicking at pebbles. When he reached his house, Mylene opened the door to him, in a wash of warm light. Tom did not kiss her, but he smiled, and then the door closed and the light was cut off.
I spent that night wandering on the mountain, and some of the next day. When I came home, my flat was stuffy and the thermostat was broken. I was ready to sleep, but not there. I went up to Ryder's house instead, and lay on an old rug under the arbutus tree, and fell asleep to the play of late sunlight through the shifting branches.
When Mylene knocked at my door, I had just finished making coffee. Cold, hard rain was falling and the sun had already set. I was not expecting visitors.
She had Arthur with her in the sling. Rain beaded on the fabric, but within it, the baby was snug, asleep. So was the kitten.
Mylene accepted coffee. I gave it to her in one of my plastic camping mugs; in my canteen, I mixed my own coffee with whiskey.
"You're good at being quiet," she said. "It always makes me want to confide in you."
"Sure," I said.
"You were right," she said.
I waited some more.
"Tom's gotten worse," she said. Gently, she loosened the sling from her shoulder and pulled back the fabric.
"Did he hurt the baby?"
Mylene shook her head. She lifted out the kitten, set it upon the floor, and passed Arthur to me. She opened the collar of her shirt, to show me the bruising around her throat.
I held very still. I did not want my hands to tighten upon the baby.
"I don't know what to do," she said. "Ryder said if it happened again I ought to call the police, but I can't see how that would help. If they put Tom in jail, he'll be furious and I'll be alone. If they don't, he'll be furious and he'll take it out on me."
"You could leave him."
"If he keeps on like this, I'll have to. I guess. But I can't forget . . . how he used to be. How he still is, a lot of the time, really. He's the kind of man who picks goldenrod on his way home and fills a jug with it for the kitchen table. He strokes my hair when he thinks I'm sleeping. He . . . he wants us to have another baby, Gus. And I don't want Arthur to grow up without his father."
"And you thought I could help you? Christ, Mylene, I'm the last person who can help Tom learn to control his temper. You heard what I did at the Roadhouse."
Her eyes flicked to mine, dry and burning. "I heard."
Then I knew what she wanted of me.
"He needs to learn how it feels," she said.
I gave her back the baby, and I walked outside.
I knew it would not help. Tom already knew how it felt to be at the mercy of someone stronger. He'd probably known since he was a child.
I knew it would not help me, either. But Mylene had given me an engraved invitation to do what is in my nature to do. I could no more refuse than I could stop my heart from beating.
I went around the house to the back door. From within, I heard the Byrds on the radio. I went inside, not bothering to be quiet.
"Mylene?" Tom said. "Oh. Hey, Gus."
He was sitting cross-legged beside the hearth, feeding the fire. Beside him was an open bottle. He offered me a drink.
"No, thanks," I said.
I took the bottle from him, and set it upon the mantel.
"I'm here to correct you," I said.
He laughed. So did I.
I tangled my fingers in his hair, and lifted him up. He seized my arm and then hit me in the face.
I don't know if I could have administered his punishment coldly, like a schoolmistress. But once he was struggling and calling me crude names and grabbing at my throat the way he'd grabbed at Mylene's, I relaxed, and did what I liked.
I left him there groaning in front of his hearth. I put the bottle back down beside him, in case he wanted to rinse the blood from his mouth.
I broke nothing in the house, because it was Mylene's house, and in any case I am not interested in objects when I have a living person there to wreck.
Mylene was still in my flat when I returned. Her eyes were not dry any more.
"Jesus," she said. "Are you okay?"
"I heal quickly."
"Mylene," I said. She caught her lip between her teeth and looked at me. "He doesn't heal quickly. But he'll be well enough in a couple of weeks. I didn't break anything. Except for his finger, maybe."
She turned her head away, with a little intake of breath.
"Look at me," I said, as gently as I could. "You wanted this to happen."
"Not like this—"
"That's right," I said. "But this is the only way it ever happens."
She put her head on her knees, and sobbed.
I found my canteen. The coffee in it was still warm, a little, and I held it in my mouth, letting it sting the place where my teeth had cut the inside of my cheek.
After a while she looked up at me again. She wiped her face, and pulled back her hair. "I guess I should go and stay with Ryder again."
I took her up to his house. She was quiet, gazing at the road under the moon, and nursing Arthur.
She didn't thank me. I wasn't surprised.
I waited in the kitchen while Ryder, wakened from sleep and clad only in long johns, set up a bed for Mylene, a saucer for the kitten, and a cradle for Arthur.
Finally he joined me. He crossed his arms over his furry chest and leaned on the cold stove.
"She can't go back there," I told him.
"You didn't . . ."
"Kill Tom? No."
"I'm sorry I even had to ask that," he said.
"I only beat him up. She asked me to."
"And you took her literally?"
I didn't feel like trying to make him understand that she really had meant it, even if she regretted it now. Ryder wouldn't have believed that of Mylene, because it wouldn't have been true of himself. Not then.
Maybe not ever. I didn't stay in town long enough to find out. I packed my camping dishes and my last bottle of Eskil's mead, and I bought a train ticket, and I left that place the next day.
I thought about all of them constantly for a few weeks, and then I got involved in something else, and I did not think about them at all for a while. Unrest was spreading, elsewhere in the country, and people of my talents could find employment.
And I was used to leaving things unfinished, and I was used to leaving friends behind.
Sometimes, in my long life, I've come back, years later, to places where I was once happy. I have never gone back to that town.
I believe it's still prosperous. I hear there is a well-regarded brewery. Bands still play at the Roadhouse, which still bears the same name. The mountain's been logged clean, along with every other mountain in the province, but it's been so long now that the clearcut will have been replanted, and the trees might even have grown high again.
My acquaintances there are probably still alive, if no accidents have befallen them. They'll be aging. Even baby Arthur will be fully grown. He probably has his father's long hands and his mother's pale hair.
He wouldn't recognize me; he was too little when I was around. The others would, though. I have not changed, apart from a few more scars.
Even my sole memento, the steel forging, will change before I do, unless something very terrible happens. It already shows traces of rust from the times I've forgotten to care for it.
I like to touch it, turn it in my hands, here beside my broken window. The air in this city weighs heavily in the lungs, and smells of frying oil and ozone and paint. I think of the mountain and the scent of arbutus.
I know the mountain is less beautiful now. It cannot be otherwise. But as long as I don't return, I can at least imagine that my friends grew happy again together, and that they made something lasting with the work of their hands, and that if they saw me coming up the road, they would greet me and fill my cup.