It was stingingly cold—on a gravel road beneath a bluff just east of the river, the sun already up far enough to lay long lines out from the fence posts and the spruce trees that threatened the hills’ otherwise naked lines. It was another Sabbath morning gamble, looking for the place Tom thought flooded out with tears: somewhere north, somewhere west—off a bluff and beneath a huge old maple, broken branches. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he had this strange feeling that if he’d find it, he’d know it.
He hadn’t been up north this far too often before, so when he spotted an old barn in a crystalline sky, he figured he needed the hike. There was no dancing cottonwood, but something drew him anyway. To get there required a hike because what there was of a driveway had long ago been erased by fence line-to-fence line corn or beans, but when he’d left that morning he’d made sure he was ready for the cold—long johns, boots, turtle-neck, and fleece because, as Carolyn used to say, you could never have enough fleece.
If he’d known the country well—if he’d been a farm boy—he could have described that barn by type or genre, long and straight, not slumped like some old nag the way many others were along these river roads.
The river had determined its own path some long-ago April or May, when the rush of melting ice and snow had turned tumultuous. Years ago already some hardscrabble farmer tried to make a place for a family, a passel of kids. But the river’s new course had made the place treacherous, parked as it was so close to the water; and, all around, thin grainy soil of bottom land almost sure to dry up by July.
It was a long walk, but what he wanted to shoot was the lines the dutiful morning sun would make through all that aged siding, long lines of sun and shade across whatever was inside. The contrasts would be strong, and it wasn’t a landscape. He remembered the kid’s admonitions—Shawn, his name was.
When he got down there, he shot a couple close-ups of the siding panels, graying wood with old raised grain that seemed almost serpentine with shadows that would soon disappear when dawn cleared into morning. Beneath his cap, his hair was wet with sweat from marching through the edge of ice atop the snow.
The north wall was pretty well gone, so, watching for nails in the mess beneath his feet, he made his way into the place, then looked up and saw her—a body dangling from a rafter. There she was, a dark, suspended bundle against lines between the slats behind her—a dead woman, a suicide, the body up high and out of the reach of whatever animals might otherwise have made her frozen body their own feast in the desperate cold.
Somehow—maybe it was Tom’s story, maybe it was the obsession about Carolyn—but somehow that body being there shocked him less than he might have anticipated; and when he thought about it later, he thought it odd that coming on her so suddenly, seeing this woman hanging there, suspended as she was, hadn’t really upset him more than it did. He’d felt no quickening of the pulse—none of that.
Three bales of hay lay beneath her, the one beneath the other two, tipped on edge, having fallen from the stack when she’d determined to jump.
He reached for his cell.
Her face was hidden away beneath a shock of dark hair that fell in an awkward angle. Somehow he knew, again, as if by instinct, she wasn’t anyone he’d ever met. But she was a human being, he told himself. Once, she was alive.
He flipped open the cell.
There was no house on the place, so she’d walked here?—left a car—maybe? He hadn’t seen one. Must have been tramping along this gravel road—but why? Maybe someone let her off, knowing she was going to do what she was. Accomplice to murder?
A bottle lay on its side, just a foot or so away from the broken stack of bales beneath her feet. She’d had something to drink, maybe plenty, some final communion, a final drunk maybe.
Frost lined the folds of the sweatshirt, a gash of pale gray skin left exposed on the right side of her misshapen body, where what little she had on angled up and away slightly from her waist.
She was heavy and she was dead, perfectly dead. Beside the bales of straw at her feet, there seemed no sign of a struggle. Couldn’t have been a hanging. This wasn’t the wild west.
There was no way of knowing her age. He flipped the phone shut again and stuck it back in his pocket. Her hair wasn’t silver or gray. She was motionless, a few stripes on her back and sleeves from the morning sun slashing between ancient slats.
That it wasn’t Caroline wasn’t something he even had to tell himself. Not until the thought came to him did his mind make that kind of jump. It wasn’t his wife, who was blonde, dishwater. It wasn’t her, he told himself again, even though from the moment he’d first seen her he hadn’t really thought it could be. Maybe it was her. She might have dyed her hair. Who was she looking for anyway? Who was he?
It could have been Carolyn, despite her promise two years ago already.
He stood there motionless, as if hammered into time and place. He couldn’t fumble though that pouch in her sweatshirt, looking for identification. Besides, who she was, was not his business. She was a woman, and she was dead, and it was clear that if she had been missed somewhere in the neighborhood, he probably would have heard.
He wondered if maybe not feeling shock was the shock itself—that he was breathing easily, that it seemed clear to him that there was nothing he could do, that he hadn’t even been all that surprised at finding her, that this wretched discovery seemed painless, as if his finding this woman was something that happened every other Sunday.
But she wasn’t no one. She was someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s daughter.
He walked closer, still holding the cell, then stepped around her. She wore a silver down vest over a red hooded sweatshirt with a graphic that was all but gone beneath “Coral Gables” embroidered in a off-white semi-circle. Lot of miles on that shirt, he thought—Salvation Army, St. Vincent De Paul?
Her face was emaciated, colorless, her skin drawn tight over high cheekbones, bulging eyes, just nothing but murky darkness, mouth open crookedly. What hung there in the stillness bore little resemblance to what she must have been, no fire in her, no breath. She was the end of a story he alone was privy to, even though he knew nothing of what had come before—who she was, why she’d ended it here so wretchedly, on the river, in some old barn even the poor long ago left behind. All he knew—and what he knew—was that something was over here.
Someone could find Carolyn like that and know nothing, just as little. But for someone there would be no more mystery. She was what he’d been looking for—an end.
He looked up at her again, at arms and hands that fell easily at her side, no sign of distress, at her body at rest.
He reached out for the edge of her sweatshirt and held it, frosty and hard, in his fingers, then his hands; and when he did the body swung toward him. She was cold and lifeless, but she was something. And for a moment, stepping even closer, he wanted to hold her, not as if to bring life back into her, but simply to have her in his arms because she felt like an answer to prayer he’d never received, a gift.
He shouldn’t touch anything. He knew that. He didn’t take off his gloves, but he picked up the open purse, one of those roomy ones woven from something hemp-like, a long shoulder-strap, then swept a half-empty pack of cigarettes back in, and brought it up to his lap. A pack of gum, a compact, some sales receipts from a grocery store.
He opened the wallet to a face on a driver’s license he didn’t recognize, couldn’t recognize. She wore a stiff smile, and her name was Joleen Meersberger. The address was there, someplace far south.
What had brought her way up here, walking, was not at all clear. Behind the plastic window that held her license, he found a picture—three kids, Sunday best, against a background of snowy mountains in some cheap department store studio, dated—ten years ago at least, twenty maybe; you could tell by the haircuts. All three wore stiff obliged smiles.
He looked back up and stood, holding the picture of the children chest-high as if that way he could see them. It was always about children, he thought. It was always related to kids, the one they’d wanted for so very long.
The place Tom Sturtevant visited, somewhere near here—he had no way of knowing if this had been it—had once been full of prayers, three times at least, three choruses for a child that was gone. Here he sat in the presence of someone whose life had mattered so little that she took it herself in a frantic, drunken leap from a pile of straw bales. What had happened to him that he couldn’t pray, couldn’t cry?
What if it was Carolyn? Would he cry? Would he raise his hands right here and pray—and if he would, what would he say?
He looked up into a misshapen, gray face that was somehow peaceful.
He opened the cell again and called 911, then told the dispatcher that it wasn’t really an emergency. “A suicide,” he told her, “a woman. I’m in an old barn maybe five miles south of Chester, right along the river, east side—gravel road, river road. Place stands all by itself, and my Jeep is parked up on the road.”
She asked if it just happened, this suicide, and he said no, that she’d likely been there for some time, how long he couldn’t tell.
“Someone will be there shortly,” she said.
And that would be the end of things. But he couldn’t leave. She needed a vigil.
He couldn’t pray. It would have seemed pretense. He remembered the disciples, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” But this was different because what did God have to do with this? Where was he when this woman emptied that bottle, whatever it was? Why weren’t there guardian angels in the damn rafters—even a bad rope? Why wasn’t God doing something about Carolyn, about him?
He listened for some kind of vehicle up the gravel.
If he’d get up on a few bales and hold her body against his side with one arm—she wasn’t that big—he could loosen the noose. What could he possibly spoil about the place by doing that, by letting her rest? He simply couldn’t let her hang.
He walked over to a stack of bales where she’d picked out a few herself. He grabbed strings and lugged them back into the center, packed them with the other three, then grabbed a few more until he had a platform tall enough. Outside, the wind was building, singing a frozen song through the open siding. He looked through the open north end and up the road east. Nothing. No one.