TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
SCHERZO - STAVE XLVIII
S T A V E
Green Bottle. What a Comfort. It Soothes. Releases. Flings out. What stands against Gin? Indeed, a contrary effect as the Drinker tumbles down the Circles of Hell to find a Monster. “What’s that on your neck?” – Geordie. She’s been drinking rum? In the hot kitchen her fescue’s down on her shoulders and there, the red splotches. Is that where the bastard had his lips? “What are you talking about?” “There,” he says. “These? Don’t know.” She rubs the bloody things and runs to look in a hall mirror. “Oh, these.” A lie so graceful. “Bruises from hefting a trunk to the attic for Mrs. Grisham. We both have them. Too bad she’s not here to show you hers. What’s your dirty thinking?” “What should I be thinking?” “Don’t know. Tell me.” “I’ll tell you,” but he wouldn’t say. Saying it would make it true and he’d die if it was true.
He heard of rumours, but never the rumours themselves. Officers come back to the lines like twittering birds.
“Our time,” he’d said. “We’ve never been given a proper chance. This war must end so we can make a life.”
“Make a life?” she said. “In the barracks? On Old Pye? Be glad for what you have.”
“I’ve nothing and you’ve a room, clothes, and money.”
“Which I earned.” Her voice more powerful than his.
On your back.
She threw up her hands. “Did I ask for this?”
“What are you saying?”
What was she saying? “D’ you think I want this to end? It frightens me too. I don’t want to cause you pain.”
“Cause me pain? I should say such thing to a rebel I slay.”
“Enough,” she said and escaped to the parlour, him following like a dog. She stopped. “What are we, connected to the hip?”
“What . . . are – you – saying?”
A pause – infinitesimal. Then the Knife. “It died.” A hush. “All things die . . . Grace died, Jaruesha died, Billy died – What do you want me to do, die along with it?”
“I sold my soul for you.”
She took a breath. “You did . . . God, you did. And that’s too much to bare. I cannot have it . . . You’re weak, MacEachran. Weak – ” A nod to put a point on it. “And that’s not safe for all your affection.” He shook his head. “This is what war has taught me,” she pronounced. “I can live on my own. Look at this –” She pinched the frill on her green bodice. “Bought this with my own cash.” She picked up the empty bottle. “I drank it and can buy another. Last night I dined with General Robertson. I’ve just come from tea with General Howard . . .” Is this what man looks like shot? She dared to take his hand. “We’re of different worlds . . . Do what you do best . . . what I love you for . . . Let me go . . .”
Geordie asprawl in a hulk of a building, gutted, roofless and charred. Fire Victim – that it was even standing. Might suddenly fall in. That’s the plan. He stared at the bottle. His face distorted in the glass. Through the broken casements, the twilight and with it, his Coat afire with evening light. He tore off a button, the Thistle and Cross of St Andrew, and flung it ‘cross the room. Piss on it. In his pocket, in an oil skin – strands of her Hair. He took it out and held them tight between his fingers. Do it, his pain demanded –
They had stood when no more could be said. She, in a seductive, albeit, unconscious manner, took his arm and led him to the door as she would lead him to bed, even put her head on his shoulder. At the threshold, a kiss. She stepped back in with her hand on the door and looked at him so quizzically. “Billy’d never do this,” she said. “Goodbye, my Deorsa.”
He held the strands, hating her, hating him. He’s weak. What for it? He loved her. Shouldn’t that remit the sin? If not, all children should be cast away. All parents abandoned. All ties worn thin and severed. If he’s weak, what’s she? Foolish Geordie. Knowing better and wanting to be green. Hating her for what she could not do. But if Christ tried to heal him, he’d slap the Hand away.
Another drink of gin. It burned. Rye would be better.
A test, he thought, she still loved him. No denial or cuckolding could make it any different. He knew it would happen all along, from the first moment, in the church – She said it would Happen. No, by God, it’ll not end. Damn all the Dalrymples and Howards . . .
And the Coat, that too betrayed. “Fuck’n, bloody Coat.” He ripped it further. “Fuck’n bloody Guards. Fuck’n bloody War.” But he loved the Coat. “Piss on it.”
The sun set. Somewhere a taptoo sounded. Call on Dalrymple. Cut off his gentrified cock . . . be hanged for it. Call on Elliot. What’s the bastard got on her? Put a knife in his kidney; cut the big artery in the back of his leg and watch him die slowly. That’s what a normal man would do. No, a normal man would take that bitch down . . . Cut off her bubbies . . .
He wept ‘til he could hardly breathe, then struggled to his feet and out into the street. Time to pay, he thought; a sotted private with the evening crowds – dragoons patrolled for soldiers like Geordie. He didn’t care. He was in God’s hands now, little good it did him. And why shouldn’t he be punished? He brought it on himself. “This is just,” he slurred as he stumbled passed a trio of local toughs.
“What you call me, soldier?” cried a leathery fellow with a breath of salt cod and beer. “What you call me?” He grabbed Geordie by the collar and pinned him to a wall.
“Ain’t said nothing to you,” Geordie mumbled.
“Bloodybacks think they own the world. Bloody cunts.” He bounced Geordie against the bricks. “Why don’t you go back where you belong?”
“I got no quarrel with you,” Geordie said, trying to sober. “My wife . . .” He dropped his head. “I’m drunk and ain’t hurting no one, least of all you.”
“Your wife is it? What she do? Roger the barracks while you’s taking a shite? I hope so. No less than you deserve.”
Geordie struggled as they hauled him in an alley with a fist to his stomach. If he hadn’t puked, they would’ve done more.
He awoke with a shiver, still drunk, but not so much not to know his way out the city. He slipped by the pickets spread thin and not too watchful at the rear of the lines. He was somewhere in the camp, stumbling past kitchens and the dining flies. Up ahead the glow from an officer’s marquee.
Whose wife is the bastard fucking, the chinless prick.
Silhouettes moving in the tent. Geordie undid his fly. “Whose wife, you chinless prick?” And pissed an entire night’s drinking about the canvas. The pee drummed against the tent as he spelled out C-h-i-n-l-e-s-s-P-r-i-c-k.
“Sykes,” the officer called. “D’ you hear that?” He took a lamp and walked to the door.
“Piss on you,” Geordie shouted.
“What? What!” the young officer cried. “Damn you, man! Sergeant! Sergeant!”
They walked by lamplight to a weathered shack at the far side of Grisham’s yard. A child-sized house to Obedience’s thinking, that could accommodate only the smallest of anything. And upon entering, a single room dominated by a great bed with pillows and coverlets.
“My luxury,” Binah said before Obedience could comment. “My comfort. I worked for it.” And scuttled to a table with two straight back chairs whose rush seats were worn and frazzled. “You sure you let no one know you’re coming?” She placed the lamp on the table.
“No one. They went to bed over an hour ago. Their room dark.”
“They find out, we’ll catch hell.”
“Binah, they don’t punish people for this.”
“Grishams aren’t that kind.”
“They’re all that kind . . . You’re that kind . . . ” She blinked at her own frankness. “No, maybe not you. You got the money?”
Obedience pulled a leather purse. “How much?”
“I told you . . . If you want to stop, that’s fine. You’re not paying me. You’re paying the Spirits. It’s a Sacrifice. Mother told me you never call on them without a Sacrifice. So, do we carry on, mistress?”
“Pay now. You get bad news and you may think twice about paying afterwards.”
“You think it’ll be bad news?”
“How am I supposed to know? I don’t know nothing.” She cleared a space on the floor and from the hearth grabbed a piece of charred wood, drew a circle on the floor and with a candle in the center, bade Obedience to enter.
“What are we going to do?”
Binah sat opposite, the bag to her breast. “I’m going to bring on the Truth,” she said fearfully. “The Sandu. This bag – shells, handed down from mother to me, from grandmother to her, from the Black Country. That they came over with her . . . She was Sanufa and conjured the Tobugala. Magick.”
“How do you know?”
“She’d go inside herself. Inside is the Outside. Inside, the Truth, beyond this World’s Angles, and the shells speak it. No 2+2 answer. That’s what makes dread. 2+2 binds – what makes you People crazy. You’re war – 2+2 . . . Everybody’s 2+2, knocking heads, one another. Mother could go Inside. Her mother too. Her Mother before that. I can too. I see with their eyes.”
Obedience, elbows to her ribs and hands held tight. “Christ Jesus,” she whispered.
“Jesus? . . . I love Jesus,” Binah fierce. “I’d die for Him . . . You asked for this. Now give me your hand.”
And Binah with Mystery, and Binah with Power, took it, her palm hot like a handle on a frypan. Obedience pulled, but Binah, already slipping Inside, held tight, in her throat, a hum. She stirred the bag with a circular motion and into the circle, poured out the shells.
“Tobugala is here,” her breathy announcement. “Ask your questions.”
Obedience swallowed. “What does it know?”
Binah slapped their gripped hands against Obedience's thigh in a steady cadence. “You’re afraid of a Dark Man,” Binah spoke to the Outside. “You’ve been hurt by a man, but you been hurt more by secrets. You don't own your secrets – they own you. They own you more each day. The more you run, the more you make. You’re a Jonah. The Dark Man the fish. You look to men to save you, but they don't save you. You try to save yourself . . .” Binah banged their hands harder. “You talk what is good and kind; you want what is good and kind, but Secrets wrap you up and run you . . .”
Binah's voice rising. Obedience lightheaded, energy draining through her hand.
“. . . You’re strong one way, weak another. Can’t sit still. Sleep light. Running all the time and don't know it. You think you see, but it’s a snake’s tail go'n down a hole . . .” Binah then paused. “You’re with child.”
Obedience jerked free. “No!”
Binah opened her eyes. “The Tobugala can’t lie. Mother said, ‘what goes around, comes around.’”
“You can say no all you want . . .”
“D’ you see anything else?” Obedience flattened. “Anything ‘bout the future?”
“Your future is tied with powerful men some close, some far away. As their future is tied with others. Though you may never see them or know what they do, you and yours will rise and fall with them.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t go getting mad with me. I warned you.”
“Can’t you be more plain?”
“I was,” Binah said. “You’re with child.”
“I’ve been pregnant before. I know how it feels. I’ve no signs.”
Binah shrugged. “So you say, but that’s the Vision.”
“I can’t be pregnant,” Obedience cried. “I can’t. I have to perform so General Howard will keep up his support. I have to make money. I can’t do it if I’m with child. He’ll turn me loose. I’d have to go back to the barracks. I can’t go back pregnant . . .”
“Nothing special about being with child. Nothing special about carrying another man’s baby, especially in the army. All these officers have ladies – usually other men’s wives.”
“I’m not some other man’s mistress.”
“I am not.” Her eyes like flint. “General Howard supports me for Profit. I’m an investment, not a lover. I’ll be murdered if I go back.”
“What did you think was going happen – all that rut’n and grunt’n. Of course you’re gonna get with child. What did you think?”
“I never think.” The flint turned inward. “I do.” A pitilessness. “I’m stupid because I know better. And knowing better doesn’t mean a thing.” She grimaced. “I can’t be pregnant . . .”
Binah touched her as Grace would do. “Maybe you’re not. Pray to God you’re not.”
“I would know.”
“Where are those other babies?”