Ann Joslin Williams is the author of the novel Down From Cascom Mountain (Bloomsbury, USA,), and the short story collection The Woman in The Woods, which won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. She is director of the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire.
Shortly before Kenton Pierce discovered the bones — human bones — he flushed thirteen ruffed grouse. It was late afternoon; the sun glowed behind poplar leaves and blinked between branches as he came from the woods into the little field.
The first bird thundered out of the tall grass and Kenton recoiled, twisting his shoulder away from the sound as if dodging a shot fired in his direction.
“Jesus H.,” he said, and then the second and third birds boomed skyward. Another step and four, five, six, seven, eight, nine pounded their wings up and away in the same direction. “Are you kidding me?” he said. And then the next bunch followed, not all at once but quickly thereafter from the same depressed area, a trough of tall yellow grass and low blueberry bushes near the lone apple tree. By this time they didn’t startle him so much as amaze him. Odd, so many in one spot.
“Okay,” he said and took a breath, waited to see if there were more. When he lifted his foot, the last grouse beat its wings in a tremendous flurry. Like the others, it went headlong into the woods, out of sight so quickly it seemed to have vanished into the air. Thirteen seemed to be the last of them. Thirteen in all, he was pretty sure.
“Did you see that, Gem?” he said, gazing toward the treetops. She’d always said thirteen was her lucky number.
He turned to look at their cabin atop the hill; its huge picture window lit up and full of reflection — clouds, sky, ridges — beaming at him. The shed roof tilted so that the cabin appeared as if it were leaning toward the valley, getting a good look. They had bought the cabin twelve years ago, not long after they’d first met. Soon after, he’d cleared this field of trees to open a bright portal into the forest, shaping the perimeter with uneven edges, like a cumulus cloud. Animals felt safer if there were plenty of quick corners and shadowy grooves to dart into. Through binoculars they’d seen foxes, turkeys, coyotes, deer, moose, bears. They’d spent many hours in that window, observing the view as other couples might watch television. This was his first summer alone.
Recently he’d observed a black bear sow and her cub rooting around for grubs, ants, blueberries. Wouldn’t want to startle a mother bear with her cub. Now, as he moved across the field, he sang some nonsense words in no particular melody: I’m coming. I’m walking. I’m here. He clapped his hands, whistled.
The apple tree he’d left standing in the middle of the field was spent, branches crooked and knurled like ancient arthritic fingers sewn together at the joints. In another couple of hours, under receding light, the branches would transform into the slender arms of dancers circling each other. Trees were full of that kind of magic.
An image of Gem shaking off heavy canvas gloves came to him. This had been happening lately, these incidental memories, and when they surfaced he made a point to linger in them. There were her hands, her long fingers, the middle finger on her left hand — knuckle and distal phalanx, they’d learned — broken long ago and bent slightly to the right. She was helping him build a stone wall, stretching a string taut as a level, when a rock he was placing slipped out of his hands, rolled, and jammed her finger. The way she yowled — pissed as hell at him, but only because of the pain. Then the clinic, the splint, and her holding it up. Flipping the bird at him, shaking her head in disbelief.
Gem had asked to have her ashes spread in the field, which he’d done late last August. He shook her out of the cardboard box the funeral home had given him. Then, over her, he spread the ashes of Gret, Gem’s beagle mutt who’d been put down a year before, cremated too and stored in a tin box on a shelf in the living room for Gem to deal with when she was ready. But she’d never been ready, so it had seemed right to give Gret a resting place along with Gem. Gem would have appreciated that.
And there she was, kneeling next to her rusty Schwinn with a flat tire. Baggy cargo shorts, dirty knees, skinny calves. She stood up, flagging his truck down. A squinty-eyed puppy nosing up from the front basket.
The dog had lived a good full life until it was too old to function, blind and full of tumors. One day Gem leaned against the doorjamb of Kenton’s office and said, “It’s time.” Without discussion they were on their way to the vet.
He bent now and peered into the grass, wondering if any cremated pieces would still be visible. All that dust and bone and other little shapes, like porous coral or bits of pearl, that he’d seen when he shook Gem out. There was no evidence of anything. Absorbed into the ground. Just a lungful of cut grass, mowed days ago. He kicked at a rotten stump, breaking it down so the tractor might be able to mow over it next summer.
Wondering where the grouse might have resettled, he went into the woods. Walking off-trail wasn’t easygoing because of the damage left by a terrific windstorm last fall. The wind had howled around the cabin in an abrasive voice he’d never heard before — a rasping scream — not like the gentle moan it sometimes made against the edges of the cabin. This was a locomotive, roaring down the valley. He heard trees snapping and the crackle and whoosh of falling branches. The next day it seemed as if half the forest had been beheaded, the crowns of trees sheared six or seven feet off the top — just gone, leaving jagged, splintery spikes. The power had been out for days.
Now he wove between broken branches. Some trees leaned precariously, caught up on the limbs of their neighbors. He paused at the mangled base of a pine that had fallen, its roots torn from the ground like a giant raised hand. Twisted tentacles and dangling rootlets snaked out, some still hanging onto clumps of dirt.
Gem had loved wandering the forest, but uprooted trees gave her the willies. She’d called them octopuses. He stood in front of the octopus, thinking of Gem, her long graying braids tied in a knot at the back of her neck, her eyes light as clear water. She was reedy but tough. Not much in the wilderness unnerved her. Kenton got a chill himself facing the grisly roots, uncanny and incorrect, a crater of fresh dirt below.
At first he thought he was looking at scattered birch branches lying there below the roots, their chalky bark muddied by the dark soil. When he refocused his gaze he realized they were not branches but bones. Slender bones, the basket of a ribcage, some broken and bent inward. An animal carcass, he thought—a small deer or a coyote. The skeleton was nestled into the cavity left by the roots, as if the tree had hatched it when it fell. He drew closer, noting the two sides of the ribcage and vertebrae laid end to end like some sort of winged, tuberous fungus. Dried bluish hide, wrinkled and stiff, was wedged between some ribs — but then it wasn’t hide. It was the startling pattern of plaid cloth. Below the ribs, a flat polypore-shaped piece, a pelvis, then a femur extended from there, disappearing underground. After a stretch of dirt there were the unmistakable bones of a human foot lying sideways and, nearby, a sneaker packed with soil, the laces untied and worming into the ground.
Human. He let the word firm in his mind. He rose and took a step back, released his breath, pulled his gaze up to the octopus roots above the skeleton, then higher to the treetops. Light fell through the highest leaves, but it wouldn’t last long. He looked back at the bones. A person, somehow here.
“This is not good,” he said to the woods, as if it had been waiting for him to have an opinion. Maybe it was a hunting accident or a suicide. Or someone lost last winter, hypothermia. The body might have been shifted by all sorts of scavengers: coyote, fox, vultures, crows. But the way the skeleton was so perfectly situated under the base of the tree made it seem as if a sapling had taken root over the body, maybe even using it as sustenance as the tree began to grow, extending its roots, cradling the remains.
He imagined that one could hide a body under an overturned tree. If the tree wasn’t too big, the body could be laid beneath and the tree hoisted back up, righted and reset. Dirt could be shoveled over its roots again and rocks situated to anchor it. Replanted, essentially. The tree might sink its roots into the earth and grow again. No one would look directly under a growing tree — the perfect hiding place, until a windstorm came along to challenge an already vulnerable root base.
He shook himself free of this thought. Probably a hunter or hiker or suicide. Someone wandered out here and died. Time and nature had made a grave and now had exhumed it.
“Well, all right,” he said. Now he’d have to call the authorities, bring them here. His afternoon with Gem was done.
. . .
Back inside his cabin, he took a moment to look out the front window at the various shades of the hills, the bright green of hardwoods on lower ridges, the grayish olive of conifers higher up. The sky was still bright above the ridges but the little field was all in shadow. The toppled pine and the bones were not visible from here, of course, but he felt uncomfortable knowing that out there in the forest there was a dead soul. A person yet to be identified.
“You wouldn’t believe it, Gem,” he said in the direction of her chair, barely daring to look at its empty seat. “A body. A skeleton, in the little field.”
He fell into a reverie imagining Gem’s cremated fragments rising from the grass, swirling into a cloud of glittering white powder. Fragments attracted like magnets, reforming themselves into bones and puzzling together a frame. Then organs, flesh, blood. Breasts and the curve of her hip. She’d dance into the middle of the little field, back through the portal, back to her place next to him. He’d put his ear to her chest and, yes! — a heartbeat, a faraway drum. She’d make the smallest sound, like a breeze catching a loose wire at the edge of the cabin. The sound of life, of coming alive, not the strained breath she’d had at the end.
The sun was low on the horizon, scattering rose and orange lace into dusty blue. Dusk was his favorite time of day. Night, well, these days he could do without that — the strange dreams, the muddle of circular thinking and doubt.
. . .
He heard them before he saw them, the two police cars rumbling up his road. The first car had its lights on, spinning blue around the yard. It nosed in and backed up, barricading the road.
A young cop with a narrow scrap of mustache got out and announced that he’d clipped the signpost at the end of the road and it had fallen over, cracking the sign in two. He retrieved the pieces from the back of his car and held them up for Kenton to see.
The second car was unmarked but had the sleek shape of a police car. It stopped in the middle of the road, nearly touching the side of the first car in a T.
Kenton had seen the police chief before. She was a husky woman, broad shoulders and hips to match, slender waist with a thick belt that held a holstered gun on her hip. She wore a white shirt with patches on the chest and sleeves, navy blue slacks tucked into tall boots. She looked like she should have ridden up on a horse. Another cop — a young man, clean shaven — got out of her car. All three walked slowly toward him, arms dangling at their sides as if they were ready to draw. The mustached cop leaned forward and handed Kenton the two halves of the wooden sign.
It had split horizontally, down the middle. Kenton had carved it and Gem had stained the board and painted the letters white. He fit the two parts together, squeezed until the line vanished and it read Pierce again. White glue and a few cleats on the back might hold it together.
“Sorry about that,” the cop said.
The sheriff looked over her shoulder and gave the mustached cop a withering stare. In turn, he cringed at the ground.
“Mr. Pierce?” she said.
“Yours truly,” he said, regretting such a cavalier remark when her eyebrows went up and she drew her lips into a sideways pucker. “Kenton,” he said. “You’re Sheriff Beaulieu?”
“Yes. Carol Beaulieu. Carol’s fine.”
It was she he’d talked with on the phone. When she’d asked what his emergency was, he’d said, “I found something you ought to see. Bones. Some remains.”
“And this is who?” she had asked.
“Kenton Pierce,” he’d said, adding, “road number eighteen. Up the mountain off River Road. Last left before the end. Found it under a tree.”
“Mr. Pierce,” she’d said. “Tell me again. Is anyone hurt?”
“No,” he said, somewhat bemused. “Dead.”
“I see. And do you know how this happened?”
In the end, it was the morphine that had eased Gem away. Watching as she tried to breathe, her grayed skin, sunken eyes, jutting bones — it was hard to take. Even with an oxygen mask, she couldn’t get enough air. Her whole body rose and collapsed with effort and he couldn’t help but think of a fish reeled out of water. The hospice people had taught him, made him responsible, and so it was he who’d put liquid morphine to her lips. He worried that he’d been too hasty. Maybe her platelet count would have cranked up and they could have tried chemotherapy again. This idea dogged him, especially at night when his mind seemed not his own.
Carol said, “Take us. Show us just the same way as you found it.”
They walked the logging road toward the brook. Carol walked just a hair behind his shoulder so that he had to crane his neck when he spoke to her. The other two brought up the rear, flanking them, marching through puddles and mud where any normal person would have stepped around or walked in the middle strip where it was dry. It occurred to him that he might be their first suspect.
“What set you out here in this direction today, Mr. Pierce?” Carol asked.
“Looking at my land. Walking my borders,” he said, annoyed that he’d have to answer for being on his own property. If he’d killed someone, why would he call the police? Then, he supposed, that might be what the guilty did.
“You’ve lived here a long time?”
“Twelve years plus. My wife and I renovated the place. She passed last August.”
“I think I remember her,” Carol said. “Saw her in town. Funny three-legged dog always with her?”
“No Regret,” he said.
Carol raised her eyebrows at him.
“Her dog’s name. She claimed it was good luck, a three-legged dog. We met the day she rescued it.”
Carol laughed and he appreciated that. “Sorry about your loss, Mr. Pierce. Your wife seemed awfully young to be struck down.”
“Fifty-four,” he said, wondering at the language — struck down. Like a bolt of lightning. “Lung cancer. Never smoked in her life.” He refrained from saying, except pot once in a blue moon. Then he added, “You can call me Kenton.”
Carol nodded. “Only fifty-four,” she said. She shook her head, and he wondered how old Carol was, early-forties, maybe Gem’s age when he first met her. Old enough to understand how young fifty-four truly was.
“Can’t imagine,” she said. “Kids?”
“Nope,” he said, feeling the tinge of an old defensiveness, as if there’d been something wrong with him or Gem for not having kids. They were older even when they met and they just hadn’t wanted to. No regrets. Or, maybe some regret, now that he was on his own, alone. Sixty, headed toward old age. A nice cabin to leave behind to nobody. Yes, lately, he’d been wishing there was a daughter or son to come by and enjoy the view, maybe someday bring two or three grandkids around who longed for animal sightings and needed fishhooks baited.
They’d come to the path that led to the old bridge over the brook. He turned at the last minute, a little bit on purpose. Carol flowed along next to him, but the other two strode two paces beyond the turn and then bumped into each other as they scrambled to right their direction.
He took them over the bridge into the darkening woods and then finally out into the little field.
“Nice spot,” Carol said. “Sort of like a secret room.” She looked up the hill toward the cabin. “You cleared this?”
He nodded, proud of himself. “Took a summer,” he said. “Still requires a bit of upkeep.”
“What were you doing here today?” she asked.
He repeated himself by rote. “Walking my land. Checking my borders.” Then he added, “Saying hello to Gem.”
Carol smiled, pulled a flashlight from somewhere around her back, used it to scratch her elbow, and then pointed it toward the trees. She didn’t turn it on.
Kenton felt like taunting the two young cops as they followed behind, maybe lurching to the side, cutting back, sprinting ahead. He could get away if he had to. He knew the woods better than anybody, he was fit and fast. He could imagine their startled expressions, arms flung out, as though trying to corral a crazy chicken. In their panic they might shoot him in the back. But in a second he could have dropped out of sight, blending with the landscape like the grouse.
At the toppled pine, Carol squatted and peered down.
“Yup,” she said. “Human.” Then she turned her flashlight on and ran the beam over the area. “No head that I can see.”
The two young cops scanned flashlights around as well.
“No head?” the mustached one said.
“Could be the Bird case,” the other said.
. . .
More people came over the next two days, scouring the area for evidence. They put up police tape and dug around, sifted debris, gathered samples. The bones were taken away. Kenton was instructed to avoid the vicinity, which he resented but obeyed, retreating to his cabin. Some stopped at his door and asked him the same or similar questions: Had he noticed any suspicious vehicles or tracks? Had he noticed that uprooted tree before? Did he know of anyone who might use his land for hunting or otherwise?
Otherwise? he wanted to say. Like, for body disposal?
If Carol hadn’t been there on occasion, looking put out by the others’ intrusion, he might have been sarcastic. Instead he said no, nope, and not that I noticed. He told them that Gem’s ashes were spread there in the field, hoping they’d understand it was sacred ground. One man looked disconcerted, as if he thought it crude, no cemetery, no headstone. Or maybe he thought it too much of a coincidence — two dead people in such proximity to one another.
. . .
A week passed. Carol stopped by and finally let on a few things. They’d been looking for the body of a woman who’d been missing nearly two years and were running tests to see if the bones were hers. It seemed a likely match, plus she’d last been seen wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt. The husband was the suspect.
“Okay,” Kenton said. “The husband.”
“A sad case,” Carol said. “I’ll never understand how someone could fall in love, marry, and then end up murdering that very same person.”
Kenton nodded, but uncertainty flickered through him as he remembered sliding his hand under Gem’s head, lifting it from the pillow, her mouth open, tongue protruding to receive the morphine ampule he brought to her lips.
“Poor woman,” Carol said. “I guess he wasn’t the man she thought she married.”
He wondered if Carol had a husband. She wore no band, but he’d never worn his. It could get in the way, be hazardous when working with saws and tools, get hooked on a blade or rub up a blister. Gem had always worn hers, saying it kept the wolves at bay. Now it was in her jewelry box along with his. For a second, he felt bad, thought to get his ring and wear it finally, but now he wasn’t actually married anymore — he was a widower.
“This Bird woman,” he asked. “She live in Leah?”
“You must not watch the news much.”
“Make it a point not to.”
“Sherry Bird,” Carol said. “Wife of Darryl Bird, the former tax collector of Leah.”
. . .
Kenton poured a cold beer and took his chair next to Gem’s in front of the picture window. He raised his glass to toast the ridges, then looked at the empty chair, wondered again if he’d given her the morphine too soon. In the middle of things, exhausted, seeing the end was coming, he’d known it was utterly right. She was in pain. But in retrospect, she’d been alive, still here.
In his chair he nodded off and dreamed that a woman floated up the hill toward the front windows of the cabin. She wore an unbuttoned flannel shirt, breasts free and full, blue jeans, and a wide black belt. There was dirt smeared across her belly, leaves in her yellow hair. She smiled and waved. The damn tree had incubated and hatched her after all. She was alive. Then it wasn’t Gem, but Carol the sheriff. “What’d you say the dog’s name was again?” she asked, putting her hands over her breasts. The dream turned and went somewhere else, but when he woke in the middle of the night, still in his chair, he felt a strange mixture of joy and consternation. He got up and sat in Gem’s chair. Heaving sobs overcame him, until he put his hands on his head and told himself to stop. No sense in it.
. . .
They arrested Darryl Bird and charged him with murder. The DNA matched Sherry Bird’s. It was her under the tree, after all.
“Technically I shouldn’t be telling you any of this,” Carol told him. “But it was her daughter by another marriage, grown and living in Arizona, who reported something wrong when her mother didn’t return her calls. The daughter never thought much of Darryl Bird. Says he was hot-tempered and controlling. Of course, he claims it was an accident, that his wife tripped and fell against a table edge, but that begs the question, why hide the body? Not to mention the head, which he dumped in the Pemigewasset River. Says he loved his wife and would have given his own life for hers. Which he will, in a manner of speaking.”
They were sitting on the front deck, looking out. One maple tree on a lower ridge had turned early, a dab of bright red standing out in the green, maybe a sick tree. Carol wore jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt, flip-flops. It was her day off, she’d said. She happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to drop by, bring him up to date. Case closed, justice at hand.
“What made him think to put the body in that spot?” he asked. “Did he think he could right the tree and hide the body under it?”
Carol shook off one flip-flop, then inched her long toes back into it.
“Well, that’s an interesting theory,” she said. “Though you’d have to have a crane to lift a tree like that.”
Kenton cringed at himself, as if he were the guilty one.
“I think he just came upon soft ground. Maybe he thought a place already dug up might not appear as a grave.”
“And why here? My land. He must have come down my road, maybe at night or when I closed up for the season?”
“Said he used to fish the brook and hunt these fields when he was a kid. Knew his way around.”
Kenton felt a quick wave of sympathy for the man. A world turned upside down and no way to right it.
“Glad I found her,” Kenton said. “For the daughter’s sake. Now she knows what happened and where her mother is.”
“Closure,” Carol said. “Closure is truly helpful.”
“Time for a beer?” he asked, feeling a spark of liberation.
“Thanks, but I should get back. My husband’s cooking his famous lasagna tonight.” He took this information in stride — of course she was married — though a trace of something, a tiny disappointment, flew through him.
Carol slid her hands up to her pony tail, dragged the elastic down its length, and pulled her hair up to refasten it again. For a second, he saw what she looked like with her hair loose around her face — pretty, softer, younger. He thought of Gem, the way she’d worn her hair in braids and let them loose at night, a crimped fan down her back like the tail feathers on a grouse, spread out and checkered with zigzagging markings.
“You know that day I found that woman, it was the damnedest thing,” he said. “I flushed thirteen grouse. I mean, all at once, all from one spot.” He made a sweep with his arm to indicate the small area they’d emerged from. “Never seen anything like it. Forgot about it, given all the ensuing events.”
“That’s a lot,” Carol said. “Thirteen?”
“I counted them. First few had me jumping out of my skin. Then I was mesmerized, almost.”
“Funny birds, aren’t they?” she said. “That wing drumming thing they do? The first time I heard it I swore it was somebody trying to start a cranky motorcycle out in the back forty.”
“That sounds about right.” Though, from his experience, the sound was more felt than heard. It was as if the vibrations — those hollow throbs — traveled the ground and entered your body, disguised as the rhythm of your own heart. Like his ear on Gem’s chest, that drum of life seemed to be both their heartbeats merged together, yet there was nothing he could do to rescue her.
He and Carol watched the little field in silence, as if the grouse had just now burst into the sky.
“Thirteen was Gem’s lucky number,” he said, with a hitch in his voice he didn’t expect.
Carol smiled. “Maybe it was her way of saying hello.”
Kenton gazed at the little field, a blurry green.
“Hey,” Carol said, eyeing him. “You like to join us for dinner? Rob always makes plenty.”
“Ah, thanks, no. I’ve got a some stew made up.” He could almost hear Gem say, Quit lying. Go.
Halfway to her car Carol called back, “Rain check?”
“I’ll take it,” he said and waved.
Inside, he sat in front of the window as her car rumbled away over the rutted road. The sun was a squinting eye, lowering over the south ridge, about to vanish.
And there was Gem on the side of the road, waving him down. He put her bike in the back of his truck as she climbed into the cab, cradling the puppy like a newborn baby. The smell of fresh-mown hay got in the truck with her and some force he couldn’t have predicted nor defined overtook him. Gem teased later, “I knew you were the one who’d take me where I needed to go.”
On the other side of the cabin, one crow argued with another.
He’d held his wife’s hand, heard her halting breath. “It’s okay,” he’d told her. “You can go. I’ll be all right.” And then she stopped breathing. A small mercy.
The sun shot feathery needles in every direction, then slipped behind the ridge. He sat in silence and soon the little field disappeared in darkness. Portal closed.