Bounding the Meers
by David W. Landrum
Frederick Toliver and Sorcha McLeod had split up the first day of the conference. In an isolated lecture room, she told him they were finished.
“And what, young lady, impels you to abandon me?”
She resented his elevated diction and sarcastic tone of voice.
“I’m not young,” she said. “I’m almost fifty—of course, that is a few years younger than you. I’m simply tired of it, that’s all.”
“So you’re going back to being a bona fide spinster?”
“Something like that.” She hesitated and then said, “I hope we can be . . . cordial.”
“Meaning, I’m on the editorial board of the press you’re hoping will publish your book. Don’t worry. I won’t block publication. It’s a good study. And it will be amusing to take down from the shelf a book by a woman I’ve known so very well.”
His insults rolled off her. Sorcha had slept with him the last five years only because it was convenient. She had men back home in Aberdeen. She had occasional flings with particularly handsome older male students. Her plan never to remarry did not prevent her from finding lovers. His smugness, and his inaccurate assessment of his place in her life, angered her more than anything he actually said.
“I hope you get your joy from it,” he said, his Parthian shot as she turned and left.
Outside, out of the air conditioning, away from him, she relaxed. She did not regret the split, but it gave her some trepidation that he was highly placed and could cause trouble—and, she knew, was malicious enough to do so despite his assurances to the contrary.
Sorcha rolled a cigarette. Drawing in the welcome smoke, she smiled grimly to think that she had something on Freddie—something he did not know she had he detected. He had plagiarized three of her articles over the years they had been lovers.
The articles, on the English Renaissance poet Sir John Sucking, had figured heavily on his promotion to senior scholar at his Cambridge. He had done the bit right out of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis: translated her work and sent it off to foreign journals, one Italian, two French, representing it as his own. She had brought copies of the journals with her and copies of the original work she had published. Was he so shallow-minded to think that she would not recognize her own stolen scholarship? Apparently, he had no idea she knew. It was beyond his capability to imagine she could read French and Italian.
She smoked. A young girl, Alice Crutendon, walked around the corner, saw Sorcha, and smiled.
Sorcha returned her greeting. Alice was pretty, animated, friendly, talkative in an articulate way. She wondered if Freddie had set his sights on the girl as a possible seduction. Alice wore a short yellow dress and boots. She asked if Sorcha planned to go bounding the meers tonight. She had forgotten.
“I suppose I might.”
“I’d like you have you there. I’m the only woman signed up. I don’t think anything would happen, you understand, but it would be nice to have another female presence.”
Sorcha finished her cigarette and ground the butt underfoot. She liked Alice and knew the group going out would consist mostly of men. And Freddie knew his stuff. What he would say during the bounding trip would be valuable, not to say interesting.
“I’ll be there. It should be a fascinating time,” she answered. Alice expressed relief and went her way. Sorcha went for a walk to enjoy the cool breeze and the sunshine.
The conference center, quiet now, looked picturesque under the old-growth oaks and poplars spared when the place was built. She walked and contemplated.
She had to turn Freddie in. Plagiarism, a cardinal sin in academic circles, could not be tolerated. No one, however highly placed, should be allowed to get away with it. As she went on, passing the lavender garden and the chapel, she wondered what had motivated Freddie to do something so dangerous to his career. But she knew the answer immediately.
She remembered back to the days when she seemed a different person from a different life. She grew up in Aberdeen, married, bore two children, worked in an accounting office, and considered herself to have done well—a not-very-pretty woman, plain (though tall and slender), at least attractive enough to marry and settle down in a reasonably nice position in life. Or so she thought. When her children were four and five, her husband announced he was leaving her.
Black days of winter, she thought, remembering a lyric from a song by Nick Drake she had liked back then. She kept her job and managed to give the children a stable home, but it took its toll on her. For years she lived as an automaton, working, eating, sleeping, and caring for her children. She did not date or try to remarry. She began smoking then. An uncle taught her to roll her own cigarettes and she preferred these to manufactured brands—perhaps because it was a unique ability she owned. Like a soldier suffering from shellshock, she flinched and cringed at any noisy emotions. Reading books and listening to music gave her solace and showed her glimpses of what she had believed in long ago—beauty, purpose, a life that had some quality to it.
She might have gone on in zombie mode, she thought, rolling and lighting up another smoke, but one of those things you never expect (like she had not expected her husband’s exit) befell her. A solicitor’s firm called and asked if she were Sorcha McLeod. She said she was, alarmed, wondering if someone had filed a lawsuit against her or if her ex-husband might be making some kind of claim. The solicitor told her Mrs. Gayle Stuart had included her in her will. Could she please come to their offices to learn the details? They asked her to bring proof of identity. The lawyer added, breaking out of professional mode, “I think you will be quite pleased with what you are about to come into.”
She went back to her apartment to get ready for tonight. She laid out clothes, ran a bath, and lowered herself into the water, relaxing, again recalling past days.
The lawyer, she thought, had been correct. She was quite pleased. Her Aunt Gayle had left her a substantial amount of money along with property in London that Sorcha sold for what she thought was an extravagant sum. Suddenly, she had wealth. She went to the counselor she saw once a month and talked the situation over with her.
“I think I should maybe send the children away to school,” she said. “They both like the idea of boarding school. It’s some they really want.”
The counselor crossed her arms, leaned forward on them, and asked, “What does Sorcha want?”
She had not even considered the question. She went home to think about it. What brought her happiness? She loved music but had never learned to play an instrument or read a score. She loved books. The next week, she told her counselor she thought she might do something related to books.
“Don’t be so vague,” she said. “‘Something related to books’ could be dusting them off on a shelf at a Tesco. Have you thought of going back to school? Maybe you should get an advanced degree in literature.”
She went home that night filled with excitement and with hope and vision for the first time in five years. Her Aunt Gayle had left her enough money that she could send the children to boarding school and enroll at the local university—which happened, by chance, to be one of the most prestigious in the UK and the world.
She took to academic life like a fish to water. Reading books all her life, she had accrued the ability to analyze and respond, to catch nuances and subtleties in a writer’s work, to comprehend complex critical theories (a must in contemporary academic endeavor), and to express her insights in cogent, well-organized prose. Her instructors recognized her capabilities. She received scholarships and a position as the graduate editor of a scholarly journal. By the time she finished her degree, Sorcha had published two monographs on the poetry of Robert Herrick and a short book on Sir John Suckling. She graduated and immediately accepted a non-tenured position at Cambridge. She taught there three years before going on to a tenure-track post at the University of London.
It was at Cambridge that she had met Freddie Toliver.
He was older than she was, but Sorcha liked his attention. She had never thought of herself as good-looking; maybe not ugly, but plain, too skinny, not much up front. In graduate school, she was older than most of the male student but they flattered her by coming on to her, and she rewarded some of them for their attention, settling back into sexual expressed after so many years of abstinence. Her affairs with the young men in her school were casual and non-committal. The one with Freddie turned out to be more emotional.
She began to wash herself. Her cell, which she always took out and laid close to the tub when she bathed, rang. She looked at the caller ID. It was Freddie.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Very nice greeting.”
“What it is you want? I’m busy.”
“I wondered if you’re coming on the walk tonight.”
“I’m planning to, yes—why?”
“One of my female students is worried about going in the woods with a lot of men. She wondered if there would be any other women along.”
“I’ll be there, so will Alice.”
“Thanks. She’ll appreciate you two being there.”
Sorcha clicked off.
Their affair had gone on, intermittently, for ten years. The last three, she had lost interest in him and developed relationships with better men in London. Still, she saw Freddie from time to time at academic gatherings. It was too much work to rebuff him. During the tension of a competitive scholarly conference, she did not need the additional pressure of fending off a former lover. Besides that, sex and someone warm sharing your bed was a great tension-buster. Nights, she fell in with him, went through their familiar lovemaking routines, and left feeling indifferently satisfied. She had not seen him much in the last eighteen months.
Freddie, she thought, overestimated her need for him. He seemed to think he was the only star her romantic sky. Though this had never really been true of him, vanity had written a fable for his imagination. In it, she became the ugly peasant girl with talent but no hope; he became Prince Charming, her academic and romantic savior.
Of course, in real life, he had become an academic parasite.
She finished bathing, got up and dressed, and had a good time at dinner talking to some of the other conferees. She went back to her room, read until it was time to go, and changed into a long-sleeved singlet, a hiking skirt, and a pair of sturdy boots. She did not want to take her purse but strapped on a fanny pack for her cell phone, tobacco, and cigarette papers. She tied her hair in a ponytail, met up with Alice, and the two of them walked over to where the van was parked.
The vehicle sat by a wall with flowers growing out of gaps in its stones—it made her think of Tennyson’s “Flower in the Crannied Wall.” Six men and two women greeted them when they walked up. Seeing the two other women, Sorcha thought she might go back to her room. But Alice might take it wrong, and she had promised. She decided to go through with it.
When Freddie showed up the group piled into the van and drove to a remote area fifteen kilometers from the conference center. By then the sun had sunk to the horizon. Long shadows brooded on the grass. The air cooled. Birds sang their evensong.
Devon, she reflected, had not changed a great deal from the days when Herrick had lived within its borders. It was still rural and sparsely populated, still mostly given over to farming. Large swaths of wilderness stood unchanged and undeveloped. Areas of forest and meadow enclosed huge outcroppings of rock. Ancient walls caught the light of the fading sun. As they dismounted from the van, they saw two foxes prowling on the edge of the wood. When the foxes saw them, they did not run in terror but turned and sauntered lazily into the shelter of the trees.
The group stretched after the long ride. People had brought flashlights (Sorcha had not brought one but Alice said they could share). Freddie stood on a dilapidated turnstile and began his lecture.
“Bounding the meers,” he said, “was an old custom that went back to the days of Roman Britain. Property lines were not recorded as they are presently recorded—not written down—so, at given times—either every three or five years—a man would walk the property line with his heirs and point out the physical objects that defined—‘bounded’—their land so the heirs would know what areas of land the family owned.
“I don’t think the Romans did this, but from medieval times to the Elizabethan era, bounding the meers was not a pleasant experience for the young men who went on such excursions. Very often, when the family arrived at a significant landmark—a tree, brook, or boulder that marked one of the corners of the family property—the father would administer a beating so the son, or sons, would not forget the significance of the object and its location.”
A murmur of astonished indignation went up from the group. Freddie continued: “The practice was also incorporated into the church. At certain times of the year—very often on Rogation Days—the congregation from a church would walk the boundaries of the parish—without the beatings, I suspect, though you never know. Herrick mentions this in one of his poems. It was called ‘bounding the meers,’ ‘beating the bounds’ or ‘gang day.’ The congregation would pray for protection of their parish as they walked along its perimeters.”
“When did the beating stop?” one of the young men asked.
“It stopped when the local authorities began to file property surveys. The custom became superfluous. I’m sure young men were tired of getting their arses lacerated every three years.”
The group, which seemed in high spirits, laughed and applauded.
“So, let’s go. We’ll bound the meers of this piece of property, which someone donated to Cambridge University before World War I, but the university has never developed. We want to make this authentic, so I’ll need some volunteers who are willing to take a little bit of a beating when we reach the significant landmarks, so be thinking about it. Let’s go.”
They followed him over the turnstile and into the darkening meadow.
The terrain in the parcel of land varied. Part of it was woods and part meadow. True to Devon’s storied landscape, large boulders, smooth and grey, jutted from the soil. The moon, gibbous, shone brightly so that some of the group did not click on their flashlights. Sorcha brought up the rear with Alice.
They walked probably a quarter of a mile and came to a boulder that jutted six feet out of the ground. It stood next to a small rill running a trickle of water over its stones. They leaped over the sunken brook, halted at the boulder, and gathered around Freddie. Sorcha noticed he held a willow switch in his hand.
“So here we are at a corner of the property. The stone marks one of its limits. This is a place of significance—an important marker. To be genuine, I need a volunteer to take a swat.”
A laugh ran through the crowd. Freddie let the swithie swish against his shoes. One of the young me stepped forward.
“All right. Lyndon,” he said. “Drop your pants and bend over.”
A gasp and more laughter went up. Freddie said nothing but maintained a persistent look. Lyndon held up his hands in a gesture of acquiescence, dropped his pants, and bent over. Freddie told him to drop his underwear, which he did. Mostly in shadow, he revealed nothing to the surprised, giggling group. Freddie struck a hard, shape blow to Lyndon’s bare buttocks. He winced, shouted in pain, and stood up.
“Bravo!” Freddie said. “Of course, if this was the real thing, you would not have got just one swat but a bona fide caning. Thank you. Let’s hear it for Mr. Lyndon Bleauer, who came to the aid of the party.” The group applauded, whistled, and cheered.
Lyndon hitched up his trousers, smiled, and took a bow.
They started walking again.
“Can you believe that?” Alice giggled. Sorcha only raised her eyebrows.
They went through a grove of trees and out into the moonlight once more, crossing an open area and coming to a huge oak tree. He stopped.
“Here is the north limit of the property, this signature, old-growth oak. Again, we need a volunteer. Let’s have someone from the fairer sex this time. Ladies?”
There were four women in the group. Sorcha looked around at them and felt astonishment when Alice turned, asked her to hold the flashlight, and walked forward. Freddie smiled.
“Ah, a woman of courage. Bend over, girlie.”
She bent over and flipped the white miniskirt she was wearing over her lower back.
“Come on, now,” Freddie coaxed. “Knickers off.”
Alice squeezed her legs together, and let her underwear fall to her ankles. In the clear moonlight, Sorcha (and, she surmised, everyone else) could see the white mounds of her pretty arse and the split loaf of her vulva below.
He hit her. She screamed. More laughed and applause as she pulled up her underpants, let her skirt drop down, and then curtsied.
“Damn! That hurt!” she whispered to Sorcha when she rejoined her.
Sorcha wanted to smoke. Disgusted by Freddie’s crude theatrics, upset that he had drawn Alice into his petty, sexist joke, she picked up her pace to be even with Freddie.
“I’m going to smoke,” she told him. “I’ll catch up with you after I roll my cigarette.”
She dropped back. Alice had given her the flashlight—a large old metal thing, heavy and ponderous, that had probably come from her father’s cache of hunting gear. She tucked it under her arm, got out her cigarette papers and tobacco. She had just poured the tobacco on the paper when she felt something—felt someone—seize her.
“Hold tight,” a voice behind her said, “and don’t make a sound.” She felt a strong hand grip her arm and another clamp her mouth shut.
Fear coursed through Sorcha’s body, but her instinct for survival and her propensity to struggle and fight asserted itself. She swung her fist, striking the back portion of the long metal flashing and driving it violently into her assailant’s ribs.
The surprise and pain made him let go of her. Sorcha wheeled around and flung tobacco into his eyes.
He roared in pain, slipped, and fell. She heard rapid steps and twigs snapping, turned, and saw another figure running toward her.
She dropped the flashlight and ran, too frightened to scream or shout. Her pursuer was close. The moonlight enabled her to see well enough to put some distance between and the man chasing her. Then he seemed to get his footing and began to close the gap between them.
The boulder where Lyndon had taken a swat loomed before her. She remembered the rill that ran beside it. After passing the rock, she leaped over the tiny rivulet, landed hard on the other side, regained her balance, and scanned the ground ahead for the wall and the turnstile.
She heard a crash, rock clattering, and a roar of pain and surprise.
Sorcha knew her pursuer had tripped and fallen into the rill. She ran harder. The turnstile loomed up, white and ghostly in the moonlight. She scrambled over it and staggered toward the van. Fear of finding it locked chilled her. She seized the door handle. It opened. She climbed in, latched the doors, and laid on the horn. After blowing four long blasts, she got out her cell phone and dialed emergency. By the time she had given her location, she saw Freddie and the others coming over the turnstile to rescue her.
Two constables from a near-by town arrived fifteen minutes later. They hurried into the wood and almost immediately emerged with the two men who had assaulted Sorcha. One was blinded from tobacco in his eyes. The other had a broken leg and cracked ribs.
They took Sorcha to the police station to file statements. Time dragged as she waited for further instructions from the police. Alice stayed with her. At three a.m., a police inspector came in and asked her if Professor Frederick Toliver would have any reason to want her harmed.
“He would, I think,” she answered, and then told him about the plagiarized articles and their split after a long romantic relationship. She asked why he wanted to know this.
He paused thoughtfully and then said, “The young men who assaulted you claim Professor Toliver hired them.”
“We don’t know all that is involved, but they both have said so and have given us a plausible story as evidence. We have detained the Professor for questioning.”
They asked her to stay longer. Alice said she would wait there with her. Sorcha went outside to smoke. For the first time in years, she smoked a manufactured cigarette, one a constable gave her. The smoke curled into her lungs. Nasty habit, she thought, and decided she would quit smoking. She flipped the white, smooth smoke away, watching the orange light at the end of it shine in the forest darkness. The sky shone black and clear; the gibbous moon about to set behind the hills to the west gave light. It made sense, she thought. Toliver had called to make certain she was coming on the walk. He knew she had discovered his plagiarism and meant to eliminate her as threat to his academic career. He knew she rolled her own cigarettes and would have to drop behind the rest of the group to do so, giving the thugs he hired a chance to assault her. But he had done the job of bounding the meers too well. The two beatings had cemented the landmarks—the oak tree and the rock—in her mind, just like it had done for the heirs to the property in the olden days. She had remembered the small brook by the boulder and leaped over it. She had remembered where the turnstile was located. Her pursuer had fallen in. She stretched, yawned because it was getting so late, and chuckled.
Alice walked out into the darkness. “Something funny?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you later.”
“I don’t know why I did that back there,” she said. Sorcha could see her blush even in the dark. “I mean, why I showed my bare arse to ten people I hardly know. It’s unbelievable.”
“Some teachers are also good persuaders,” Sorcha said. “Only they are persuasive for the worst of reasons.”
Alice nodded in agreement. Sorcha watched the glowworms blink off and in the meadow across from the police station. Andrewe Marvell had called them “Ye country comets that portend / No war nor princes’ funeral, / Shinng unto no other end / Than to presage the grass’s fall.”
These particular glowworms did presage someone’s funeral. They presaged the death of his academic career. She strongly felt the urge to smoke but steeled herself against it.
In the Devon sky, the moon continued to descend.