Letter 1 – Part 3
My occupation seems to be this letter-writing, if not this letter itself. I find I do not want to put aside the quill and tend to responsibilities. And when I do, when necessity requires it, I find that I am thinking of it, itching to return to it. I have heard stories of the opium fiends, the men (and women) who are possessed by a desire for the drug, no matter its deleterious qualities. I can now relate to that possession. Writing seems to have unlocked something in me. I can only pray that it will not prove as destructive as a burning thirst for the fruits of the poppy.
(I know I have not posted, but again I find myself only partway down a page, thus, my dear, to avoid the waste . . .)
The aroma of Mr Smythe’s Oriental tobacco wafted indoors as the kitchen windows were raised to let some air circulate. Mrs O and I were preparing vegetables to add to the simmering stock, whose richness competed with the bowls of tobacco. With the windows raised a quarter, between chops and scrapes of Mrs O’s and my blades, I overheard the pipe-smokers’ conversation. Mr S dominated the discussion (which I expected, given my brother’s taciturnity since his return). Mr S had served King and country in the Colonies, and he was relating a tale that he experienced ‘in the wilds of Nova Scotia.’ The Indians there—Mr S pronounced the tribe’s name but I shan’t attempt to spell it—had a legend of some beast that lived in the forest, some creature that walked upon two legs, like a man, and was even reported to speak the names of his victims before dispatching them most horrifically. Mr S acknowledged that he was yet a young man and still possessed of an overly romantic fancy, so he was prone to believe such tales more than he ought. He was assigned to escort a supply caravan to Fort Sackville, which required a three days’ hike through the woods. On the first day, light began to fade by midafternoon, so impenetrable were the woods and so far north. This particular band of Indians always kept dogs, and when they made camp the dogs would place themselves about its perimeter. The ragtag assembly of His Majesty’s foot-soldiers, native guides, and a pair of French trappers who served as linguists settled in for the long arboreal night, building their cook fire, preparing food and tea, and unpacking their bedrolls. The moment darkness descended in total, the dogs—great furry creatures, said Mr S, some northern relation of the English mastiff—they became on edge and watchful. Their wide, shaggy backsides shone in the golden firelight as they sat upon their haunches and stared ever so keenly into the blackness that surrounded them. The soldiers and the trappers attempted to disregard the dogs, who would emit every now and then a low growl, but their Indian masters were most attune to the dogs’ behavior. The Indians were as quiet as Anglicans at prayer, sipping their tea and keeping their fingers only inches from their long-bladed knives and war-hatchets. Mr S fell asleep, utterly exhausted from the hike and the Frenchmen’s homemade spirits that they’d packed—only to awake later to some sort of disturbance. It was still the blackest hours of night, and the Indians were fully alert, standing with backs to one another, their weapons drawn. Their big dogs were on their feet menacing the darkness with their rumbling growls. Mr Smythe took up his musket, not bothering to load it but brandishing its bayonet.
I must say, I was slow in my vegetable preparation as I was enthralled by our neighbor’s tale. I’m afraid that was the climax of it, however. The camp eventually settled—though no one returned to sleep, Mr S assured my brother. There were some language barriers, but Mr S came to understand from the Indians, filtered through the Frenchmen into broken English, that they believed they had had an encounter with ‘the Hairy Man of the Forest’—the being who had plagued their people for generations. They further believed it was only the presence of their powerful dogs that dissuaded the Hairy Man from entering their camp.
Mr S had been long of wind, and his story had taken some time to tell—but he had clearly reached its end, and by conventional rules it was Robin’s turn to respond in some verbal way. Yet a silence ensued. I realized that even Mrs O was quiet at her chopping as she too must’ve been spellbound by our neighbor’s narrative. From my vantage I couldn’t quite see the interlocutors. However, if I looked through the window, toward the left, I could see their pipes’ upward columns of smoke; and when a few seconds of long-enduring silence stretched itself out, I spied that Robin’s column was behaving most queerly, rising in a zigzag pattern as if a writhing serpent of steam. I leaned so that I had a fuller view and I saw that Robin’s hand which held the pipe was trembling rather violently. I hastened to exit the kitchen and as I did I heard Mr S questioning my brother as to his disposition. I was momentarily at Robin’s side. How to describe him? As I have said, his hand trembled, yes, as did his entire body; or perhaps more accurately, his entire being—for one received the impression that even his soul vibrated with whatever had taken hold of him. He stared into the space before him but not seeing the doors and windows of the close-quartered houses, as tight together as barrel staves, yet seeing something else, something terrible, for his brow was knit in a contortion of horror. I swear, his hair and beard, though now neatly trimmed, had turned a hoarier white, as if he’d aged while sitting in the alley, smoking and listening to our neighbor’s strange story. It may be that a pallor had come to his countenance, beneath the beard, and it had magnified the strands of white. It occurred to me that someone looking upon the scene may believe at a glance that Mr Smythe and Robin are contemporaries—yet my brother is but thirty years old. I considered for a moment that my arithmetic must be in error, he seemed so aged before my eyes there in the alley. The figure is quite correct, however.
Mr S removed the pipe from Robin’s trembling grip (his fingers were solidly locked around the bowl), and I coaxed him to stand. It required a moment’s urging but he did finally rise and allow me to assist him indoors. I thanked Mr S for his kindnesses, over my shoulder, and wished him a good evening. I believe he felt responsible as the instrument of Robin’s petrification, but I did not believe him at fault. There is no question that Robin returned to us with a fragile constitution—Mr S could not have known that an interesting traveler’s tale would have such an affect on Robin, himself now a man of the wide world. No doubt our neighbor was hoping to prompt Robin into sharing some intriguing narrative of his own journeys, tit for tat—something to bring some color to Mr S’s typically monochromatic day.
Robin’s reaction recalled for me the behaviors of some of the men who fought against the Colonies in their rebellion. I was still a girl when they began to come home in their inglorious defeat. In particular I recall the son of our neighbors, the Wadkinses. On occasion he would accompany them when they came for tea. Nathan was his name. I was permitted to sit in the parlor as long as I did not speak. I remember observing Mr Nathan, who also was largely taciturn on these visitings, and it occurred to me there was something rather shattered about him. Not his physique, I mean—although he did appear to favor one leg—rather, his spirit or his persona was in pieces, like a china platter that has been dropped, and it lay upon the floor essentially in the pattern of its former self, but the pieces are no longer connected and some are angled oddly from the whole of the new composition, and here and there some small pieces may seem to be missing altogether. (There have been nights, when I silently looked upon the children in their beds, that I felt a bit like such a platter, now that I conjure the comparison.)
So that is how I thought of Robin as I assisted him indoors: He resembled his former self, but there was something broken about him. I don’t want to alarm you, my dear; Robin is not violent, I am certain of it. Beneath whatever has affected him so profoundly, he is still the gentle, kindhearted brother whom I remember so fondly. And, to be sure, once he was seated in our cozy parlor, with a shawl upon his shoulders, though it was to ward off a chill that only he seemed to feel, and with a cup of Mrs O’s excellent tea—Robin became at peace again.
Ted Morrissey is the author of four books of fiction as well as two books of scholarship. His works of fiction include the novels An Untimely Frost and Men of Winter, and the novellaWeeping with an Ancient God, which was named a Best Book of 2015 by Chicago Book Review. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared in more than forty publications. He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at Lindenwood University. He lives near Springfield, Illinois, where he and his wife Melissa, an educator and children’s author, direct Twelve Winters Press.