Spring, 1993: There were more direct routes to the Oddfellows Hall, on a dry knob north of town, but Helen Farraley could not see below the muddy flood waters, couldn’t risk wrecking the boat on a tree, or chimney, or telephone pole; who knew what was just below the surface? The streets of town were lined with ancient oak, the leafy tops of which stuck out from the water like massive shrubs, and Helen steered the boat through the channel between them. The others in the boat sat silent as they passed their neighbors’ homes, slate-shingled Victorians underwater to the second-floor windows. Helen trolled high above the town’s main street, Old Saints Road, and the treetops dropped away as the land sloped into the valley’s low.
They passed the Super America gas station, only the hump and peak of the S/A on its road sign visible. The others stared into the muck water as if they might see the pumps or store below. Afloat in the current was random lumber, tree branches and strips of siding, a pair of trundling bar stools, a long metal box Helen believed was either a school locker or a feed trough. Then came Freely’s Diner and Freely’s General, three-story brownstones on opposite sides of the road, water up to the white-stone facing, roofs like rectangular docks. They passed within arm’s distance of the electric sign that read FREELY’S, which usually shone bright red, but was now dark and hung just above the water line. Freda Lawson, who wore a chambray dress over yellow waders and sat beside Helen, ran a finger along the sign’s second E. Helen yanked down the woman’s arm.
“They’s wires,” she snapped. Then she gently held Freda’s elbow and softened. “Please be careful, hon.”
They passed high above the converted boxcar that was the Old Fox Tavern, and the First Baptist Church, its steeple jutting crooked from the water like the mast of a sunken ship.
“They’ll steal everything we got,” Jake Tiernen said from the bow, his wife beneath his arm. “They’ll take what all they want.”
Freda twisted the hem of her dress around her fist. “I wet myself,” she whispered to Helen, crying.
“Ain’t nobody stealing nothing,” Helen said, and leaned a shoulder into Freda to let her know she’d been heard.
“To hell,” Jake said. “To hell they won’t.”
* * * *
Christmas Eve, 1992: Light from Freely’s Diner spilled over the snowy walkway and into the cruiser. Helen checked her face in the rearview mirror. Her left eye was badly swollen, and she tried to hide it by tilting her cap over her brow. She considered driving on. But then Freely stood in the diner’s window, the old man thin and hunched and his hands cupped against the glass. Helen climbed out into the cold. She walked around the car and Freely moved to the door and opened it a crack.
“I got pecan pie,” the old man said through the crack, then Helen was at the door and he opened it wide.
Helen stepped in and Freely had his arms around her in a hug. Ten years she’d worked in Freely’s General before becoming Krafton’s first and only law officer. It’d been Freely, longtime mayor of Krafton, who decided any real town had a sheriff, and raised funds to buy an old cruiser from the Boonville force, and called a town meeting in the First Baptist Church. It’d been a joke that Helen, a middle-aged grocery store manager, had been nominated and then elected, and when protests arose—I thought it’d be a goof to vote for her, didn’t think she’d win—it was Freely who declared civilized democracies stuck by a vote.
The dinner crowd had just left. Ham and potatoes fragranced the air. “I ain’t hungry,” Helen said. “Just saw the lights on.”
“No, no,” the old man said, hustling behind a glass counter. He pulled one of two pies from the dessert case and put the pie in a box. “You coming for Christmas supper? Marilyn said you might.”
Helen studied the front window. Jocey Dempsy’s photo was in all the shop windows: her middle-school portrait, a ponytail tied with red ribbon, braces, a blemish on her hawk nose. MISSING across the top. REWARD across the bottom. “Don’t know,” Helen said.
The old man was in front of her again. He held the box with the pie inside and wore a fur-lined coat that was much too large for him. “What you done to your eye?”
Helen turned towards the door. “Slipped on some ice.”
“Clumsy girl,” and he took her arm. “Walk me home?”
They left out onto the walkway. Freely’s hand quivered and he struggled to put the key in the lock. His house was down the road and up a small hill. Warm light shone from the windows, colored lights twined around two large spruce by the porch steps. “Looky there,” he said, pointing across the road. Over the dark field colored sparks burst, rained, faded in the night sky. They sounded far away, maybe miles, the pop of fireworks like a puff of breath in Helen’s ear.
* * * *
December 19, 1992: The cruiser’s headlights caught the shadows of footprints across the road’s new snow, and Helen pulled to the shoulder. The gravel sky looked heavy, the woods flanking Pentland Road lost in a fog of flurries. The footprints disappeared through a gap in the brambles. The girl, Jocey Dempsy, hadn’t come home from school, had been gone over a day. Nobody in town had seen or heard from her. Her folks said she often took walks in these woods. Helen retrieved the holster and pistol from the seat beside her. She turned the cruiser’s spotlight on the treeline but could not see through the falling snow. She shut off the engine. The motor ticked in the dark quiet, wet snow piling upon the windshield.
* * * *
Christmas Eve, 1992: In the glass of the door Helen’s swollen eye looked as if a stone had risen onto her face. Snow curled up the porch steps and over her boots. The door opened. There stood Connie Dempsy wearing a red sweater with snowflakes embroidered in silver thread. She did not say hello, but stepped aside for Helen to pass.
The front hall smelled of popcorn, of cinnamon. A little girl in pajamas, a smiling bear on her belly, hid behind Connie’s leg. She was Jocey’s baby sister and looked like her. Warm light fell into the hall from the kitchen, and then David was in the light, wiping his hands on an apron. Helen did not know where to stand. There was no doormat and she did not want to track snow into their house.
“Merry Christmas,” she said.
Connie lifted the girl into her arms, would not look at Helen.
“Would you like something to eat?” David asked, still down the hall in the kitchen doorway.
A puddle had formed on the tiles beneath her boots. “I don’t have any news,” Helen said. They did not move. They said nothing. Helen held out the pie box and another package wrapped in green paper with a white ribbon. “Here’s one of Freely’s pies,” she said. “And I got something for the girl. It ain’t much of anything, but it’s something.”
They went into the family room, an upright piano in the corner, the tree beside it, tiny colored lights flashing. Helen had removed her boots and was afraid her feet stunk; she’d worn the same wool socks five straight days. But she smelled only popcorn and cinnamon. The family sat on a sofa, the girl in the middle. Helen faced them in a high-backed wooden chair, her gunbelt awkward against the armrest.
The little girl did not tear the paper like most kids. She picked at the tape, her mother helping, and carefully unfolded the wrapping to reveal a box. Inside was a tiny pink shirt. Across the front was a golden star and the words JUNIOR DEPUTY; KRAFTON, INDIANA. Connie and David glanced at each other. Light glimmered off the silver thread in Connie’s sweater. The apron hung down between David’s legs. The little girl wrinkled her nose and stared at Helen’s face, and Helen was sure she’d ask about her swollen eye.
Helen crossed one socked foot over the other. She looked at Connie. “It ain’t much,” she said. “I didn’t know what to give a child.”
* * * *
December 19, 1992: Helen crossed Pentland Road and pushed through brambles and into the woods. Her flashlight created a tunnel of light, inside of which were the arms of catbrier and low slung limbs and the occasional shallows of footprints. She pulled her stocking cap to her brow. She felt the immense silence. Helen trudged on, and deeper in, where gray dusk lit the bench above her, she saw tracks of black soil where the snow had been tramped. Helen climbed, her feet slipping as she scaled the slope, and stopped on the ridge to examine a scuttle of bootprints.
Slivers of pink broached the flurries in the western sky. She paused, breathing heavily, and stared down over the valley. A black stream cut the mottled white, powdered trees hunched on their hummocks. In one distant corner of the prairie the last of daylight glinted off a tin roof.
Some gentle movement in her periphery made her notice the near trees. Far below, a large white oak still held its autumn leaves, its branches gently waving. Through a gap in its canopy she glimpsed a flash of pale skin. Her breath drew away, and then she was shuffling down the bench, and she slipped and fell hard on her back, sliding in the new snow to the base of the slope.
The oak towered above her. She shone her light up into it, over the girl’s exposed ribs, her dangling arms, and between her buds of breasts curved a swag of dried blood, dripped from where the rope had torn the skin of her neck. Helen turned on her side and retched. Vomit steamed in the dirt. She took clean snow into her mouth and caught her breath. She stood and unsnapped the latch over her pistol, and approached the darkness beneath the boughs.
The girl’s toes dangled inches from the ground. She wore only shoes. Clunky black shoes with square heels. Her naked skin glowed white against the dusk. Her mouth hung open and what little light came through the saffron boughs gleamed in her braces. Helen took off her coat. She tried throwing the jacket up over the girl’s shoulders, but it slid off and fell in a lump on the ground.
It was the girl. Jocelyn Dempsy, who everyone called Jocey. She raced motorbikes on a dirt track by the old mill, played J.V. basketball as an eighth grader. She loved Moon Pies. Loved cherry cola. She’d come to the General and buy them, and Helen would watch her eat alone by the road and return the bottle before riding off.
Brisk wind whistled through the limbs. Helen stumbled to sit against the trunk of the oak, her legs stretched out before her, pistol drawn in her lap. Dusk had settled. The prairie was tinted blue, shocks of blue sedge stiffly swaying.
* * * *
Spring, 1993: The current took the boat and she shone the spotlight across the black water and onto the house, the flood up to its second floor sills. She hooked the tow rope around a window box and the prow knocked against the siding. She pressed her forehead to the window’s cool glass. The room’s red fabric wallpaper had silver stripes that flashed in the spotlight like metal bars. A twin bed lay diagonal in the middle of the room. A cardboard box made a crater in the mattress, a new looking ball glove atop the box. Alone on a wall above a small dresser hung a poster of three busty women in yellow swimsuits, each suit with two letters that when pressed tightly together spelled YAMAHA.
Helen forced open the window. Careful not to sway the boat, she held her holster and stepped down into the room. It was the first time in hours she’d been out of the boat, and her legs tingled. The carpet glistened in the spotlight, a dark line three feet up the wall marking the flood’s highest point.
The room had not been disturbed, was kept like a museum; Helen had been in the room that winter, putting on a play of sorts, searching the girl’s drawers and beneath her bed and taking notes on what she passed off as evidence—report cards, a menu from the Boston Connection restaurant in Terre Haute, a ticket stub from a motocross event at the Motorhead in Evanston—she knew would lead nowhere. She wrote it all up in a report for the Staties.
The bedroom door was locked from the inside. Helen opened the lock and door, wiped the knob clean, then walked down the hall. Water splashed with each step. The walls were tiled with Dempsy family photos: Jocey, very young, donning a boy’s shag haircut and straddling a small motorbike; the family in matching cream sweaters with David on a haybale, the baby on his lap, Jocey and Connie each behind one of his shoulders; Jocey’s school portrait, a ponytail tied with red ribbon, braces, a blemish on her nose.
At the back of the house Helen entered the master bedroom. A canopy bed filled most of the room. Helen gazed out the bedside window at the flooded world, the dark roofs of houses spread wide like barges on a big river. Everything smelled of soil and fish. So much water, so much washed over, but perhaps when they’d start anew everything could be better, everything forgiven. Perhaps God would allow the girl to be dredged up by the flood and found, her parents granted their closure, yet the unrighteous cause of her death kept a gracious unknown.
Helen walked to a bureau and searched the drawers, one filled with scarves and nylons, the next with panties neatly folded and separated by color. She moved to the closet and shone her light over the clothes; pants at one end, then blouses, then dresses. Sweaters were on a shelf above the hanging clothes. She pulled the red sweater from the middle of a stack, unfolded it to be sure it was the right one. The silver thread of the embroidered snowflakes twinkled in Helen’s spotlight. She held the sweater to her face; it smelled faintly of Connie’s perfume. It was an impulse, and Helen could not explain why she needed it other than to say it was something clean and lovely in a world of mud. She hugged the sweater to her throat and lay down on the bed, the mattress soft and pulling her in, her boot heels heavy on the waterlogged carpet.
* * * *
December 19, 1992: Blue smoke trailed from a pipe in the cabin’s tin roof. His footprints had frozen like fossils in the snow, and Helen tracked them down through the prairie. The cabin belonged to Robert Joakes, who came into town once a month for supplies and sold beaver and coon pelts to a coatmaker in Jasper. A dim light came from the cabin’s only window, a small square high up the wall. Helen stood on her numb toes and peered through the window. A lantern on a rough wood table gave a scant circle of light. A figure hunched beside an iron stove. Helen removed a glove and drew her pistol, felt its weight in her hand, adjusted her finger on the trigger. For a good while she watched the dark figure, embers glowing behind the stove grate. Then Joakes moved off into the shadows.
Helen crouched beneath the window. Whittled gray clouds raced in from the north. The wind tore through her. Her hand on the pistol grew terribly cold. A half mile away in the tree, Jocey’s body was freezing solid, and Helen felt herself at the center of something enormous and urgent, bigger than her mind could hold, and though terrified, and angry, mainly she felt desperately alone. The urge to flee, to hide, was overwhelming. This is how Jocey felt, she thought, and clicked off her pistol’s safety.
She eased each step through the crackling snow, past firewood stacked to the roof, on around to the door where a metal bucket gave off the stench of urine. A dog barked inside the door, heavy and loud barking that did not cease.
* * * *
Christmas Eve, 1992: She followed at a safe distance, as children on innertubes towed behind a pick-up made wide tracks in the road’s snow. More children huddled in the truck’s bed, sparklers burning in their mittens and gloves. The truck took the curve of Elm Road, and the innertubes swung out, the last in line dropping into the ditch before the whip cracked and yanked it back onto the road. Helen switched on the blue and red lights atop the squad car. The truck did not pull to the shoulder but merely slowed and stopped, the innertubes sliding forward, one knocking into the next. Helen grabbed her flashlight and walked out into the snow, the kids splayed and breathing hard on their tubes.
“We ain’t done nothing,” said the boy on the last tube, a boy they all called Knight, his chin resting on his gloves.
“Not yet, you ain’t,” and Helen stayed the flashlight beam on his face just to get him riled.
“You’re piss mean even at Christmas,” Knight snapped, and all the other kids laughed.
Helen passed the kids in the truck bed, their sparklers hissing glitter and glistening in their eyes. “You kids cold?”
“No’m,” said one boy. “I am,” said a girl, and the boy told her to shut up.
Then Helen was at the truck’s door, and Willie Sharpton grinned at her, the flaps of his hat down over his ears and a cigarette in the slit between his mustache and beard. Helen put a boot up on the truck’s running board and leaned in the window.
“Them kids just grabbed hold of my truck,” Willie said. “Don’t know whose they are.”
“They just lassoed your tailgate?”
“That’s about right,” and Willie blew smoke back into the truck as to not blow it on Helen. He turned and studied her face and closed one of his eyes. “That eye looks like hell.”
“Our wedding pictures’ll look awful.”
It was a play on an old joke, one neither smiled at. Knight yelled for them to come on, that his nuts were freezing. Willie patted Helen’s arm and took a drag on the cigarette. He stared ahead where the snow was yet to be tracked by tires.
“Any leads?” he asked.
Then they were quiet, and Helen stepped down from the truck’s runner and looked back at the children. The sparklers had burned out and the bed was dark. Drift snow crawled out of the ditch and sidewound over the road. She shone her flashlight on the line of tubes. The kids had their hoods pulled over their faces.
* * * *
December 19, 1992: Footsteps and a man’s scolding voice came behind the cabin door. The barking ceased. Flat against the weatherboards, Helen tried keeping her frozen fingers from gripping the gun too tight. The door unlatched and swung open, its shadow covering her. A large yellow-haired dog ran into the prairie, stopped, raised its head, sniffed at a briar. Joakes walked out into the snow, shirtless, thick hair covering his shoulders and back. He watched the dog in the prairie. Helen stepped out. She pressed the gun against the dark beard of his cheek, and yelled at him to get on the ground.
Joakes whirled and hit Helen with an elbow, and she slipped to one knee. He paused and glanced over his shoulder, maybe looking for the dog, maybe checking to see if there were others. Helen drove into his legs and took him to the ground. Forearm under his chin, she pulled mace from her belt and doused his eyes. He flailed his fists. She scrambled out of his reach, then stepped forward and sprayed him again. He covered his face, mace dripping down his fingers and chin. The dog charged in, sniffing at the man and barking. Helen approached, both pistol and mace drawn, the dog baring its teeth, yapping, pouncing. She sprayed the dog and it recoiled, pawing its snout, then came at her again, viciously snapping at her legs. She fired the gun. The dog fell in a lump, a hole bore through its neck, hot blood leaching into the snow.
A knee in Joakes’s back, Helen pressed the gun to his ear and said she figured to kill him for what he’d done. His eyes were shut tight. He sniveled like a child. He did not move.
* * * *
Spring, 1993: Helen stared at the canopy’s sheer fabric, and heard it again; hissing and what sounded like a gunshot. She rose from the Dempsys’ bed and stepped to the window. Again came the hissing. In the northern sky the pop unleashed golden sparks that willowed down. On what she knew was Macey Goff’s roof stood a silhouette, another whining flare rising from its arm and exploding high above, green sparks shimmering, falling.
Helen held the Christmas sweater to her breast, like a child with her blanket. She stuffed it into her jacket, zipped up, and hustled down the damp hall to her boat. She hooked in the oars and began rowing around the Dempsys’ house, making for the Goffs’. The current was strong. To keep the boat straight Helen pulled twice on the right oar for each on the left. Across the bay a silver bass boat hitched to a second floor window thudded against the house. The man on the roof wore jeans tucked into his boots and a sleeveless flannel unbuttoned to show a mural of tattoos across his chest and abdomen. He dropped a Roman candle into the guttering, drew a fresh wand from his boot. He was Danny Martin, a young strip-miner who’d been a great ball player, even had offers to play in college, but then he beat up a girl and it all went to hell.
Blue sparks fell directly above. Helen brought in the oars and the boat glided. A flashlight beam waggled inside the house. She drew her pistol and switched on the boat’s spotlight. Inside the room a large long-haired man in black waders spun around. The spotlight threw his shadow on the back wall and when he shielded his eyes the shadow took the appearance of a hunchback, then grew larger as he ran to the window. He clanged out into the bass boat, the hull rocking and sliding away from the house.
“Danny,” the man hollered, furiously yanking the motor’s cord.
“Stay where you’re at,” Helen yelled.
A candle shot whistled low overhead. Helen ducked, trained the spotlight on the roof. Danny toed the gutter, the wand aimed down at her. She spun off the bench and onto the wet floor. A shot hissed into the water beside the boat. “This is the police,” Helen yelled. The other boat’s outboard turned over, and raised an octave speeding away. Then another pop, and Helen looked to the sky. Golden sparks rained down. Held in an eddy, her boat slowly turning, red sparks fell, and moments later the sky bled green. Then the candle was done and Danny gazed into the whitecaps thrashing the house. He teetered, raised his arms. He leapt from the roof, his legs scissoring as he hit the water.
* * * *
December 20, 1992: Robert Joakes sat tied to a chair in the lantern’s pitiful light; Helen had torn bed sheets and bound his ankles, his thighs, wrists, chest, waist, and gagged his mouth so he could not scream.
She’d found Jocey’s clothes atop a mound of salted venison in the root cellar, and sat thinking on the cellar steps with the girl’s jeans across her lap. Laws on killing, even God’s demands, didn’t allow for peace. Not always. There’d still be pain; missing that child would break her parents’ hearts. But what Helen knew, what she’d seen in those woods, would be too much for them, for everybody.
She made a plan to hide it all, and knew she’d have to be careful. She’d be ruined if Joakes got loose, or if someone found him like this, or if he died too soon. Those in town, and especially those from outside Krafton, might not see grace in her methods; what she’d begun to call in her mind the Big Peace.
* * * *
Spring, 1993: Danny emerged far downcurrent, pummeling the churning spate, flopping, thrashing. Helen gave chase, but the current was unpredictable and, afraid she’d brain him with the boat’s hull or outboard’s blades, she dare not get close. His body went slack, and he was swept toward the ropey tops of willow trees, disappearing through the curtain of their branches.
Helen cut the motor and scrambled to the bow. She grabbed several branches as they whisked past and was jerked backwards into the stern. The rush of water was amplified in the blackness. She held the ropes and took her feet and balanced herself, and with her free hand drew around the boat’s spotlight.
The canopy was a crewelwork of limbs, the water topped with brown froth and swirling as if over a drain. Danny draped one arm over a thick branch, his cheek against the trunk, his shoulders beneath the water. Helen pulled the boat deeper through the mess. Danny lifted his head, managed to tilt his chin into the tree’s crotch. “We was looking for my dog,” he said, gasping.
The branch forked into the water and Helen could not get to him. She leaned over the branch and reached as far as she could. Danny stared blankly at her hand. His head lolled, his elbow unhooking from the branch, and he held on with just his hand, his body dragging in the current. Helen lunged her entire body onto the branch and grabbed his wrist. She centered her weight and pulled until his elbow was hooked back safely, then dropped her feet down into what she thought would be the boat, but instead was the rush of freezing water. The boat had drifted from beneath her, the spotlight a trailing beacon as the hull curled into the rope branches, was held briefly, then the limbs parted and fell back into place and the boat was gone. Helen hugged the branch and held Danny, the flood whirling darkly around them, Connie Dempsey’s Christmas sweater a lump in the gathers of her jacket.
* * * *
December 22, 1992: Helen scanned the frozen prairie, worried someone had seen her sneak through the dawn tinged woods and into the cabin. Behind her, bound to the chair, Joakes stank of urine and shit. She carefully untied his ankles, then his legs, his waist.
Three days in the chair and his legs had atrophied; they buckled as he stood, and he staggered as she walked him to a snowy swale in the river’s bend. There she took down his soiled pants and told him to relieve himself. He stood shivering, loins exposed, mouth and upper body still bound, head drooped. He fell to his knees, then onto his side, and began to weep. Sunrise washed full over the eastern hills and burned through shreds of fog in the near woods. Someone’ll see him, Helen thought, and she rushed to him, trying to pull up his pants and get him to stand. But he just wept and shook, and Helen could do nothing with him.
She dragged him by his armpits, inch by inch, his pants at his ankles, bare legs wet and red with cold, heels leaving ruts in the snow. She dragged him past the pump frozen over with icicles, and past a stack of vegetable crates covered in snow, in which lived brown chickens that did not move and might be dead. The dog’s stiff body lay at the side of the stoop; it would look right that way, Helen figured; a man who kills his dog is a man who’s lost all hope.
It took half an hour to get him back in the chair. She removed his pants and covered his lower half with a heavy blanket. She carried the pants to the river, stomped a hole through the ice, and dangled the crotch in the water below. She returned and lay the pants over half the stove, and on the other half heated oats in a pot. A square blazon of sunlight flooded the window and covered his face. His eyes, scorched by the mace, were a deep watery red, the skin not covered by beard the color of tin.
She unbound his mouth and pushed oatmeal on a wooden spoon between his lips. He took the oats into his cheeks and she pushed in another spoonful. He stared through her, his red eyes narrowed in the sunlight, and for a moment Helen remembered what he’d done and stood frozen before him.
Joakes spat the oats into her face. He licked his lips. “I’m a Christian man,” he said, hoarsely, oats in the beard beneath his mouth. “I’m forgiven.”
* * * *
Christmas Day, 1992: Freely sat in a lounger by the fireplace, a blanket over his lap, his eyelids batting, closing. Helen sat on the hearth, the fire warming her back. She’d not worn her uniform for the first time in a long while, and found her old jeans to be loose in a way she greatly missed. On the floor by the tree a circle of children played a game where they rolled dice and moved tiny farm animals around a board. The adults sat around a long table, drinking hazelnut coffee and discussing a foundry opening in Jasper. Helen’s feet prickled with pain, and she worried they were frostbitten. Her swollen eye gave a headache aspirin could not help.
The front bell rang. Freely’s wife Marilyn walked to the foyer, wiping her hands on the back of her dress. She opened the door and in rushed the cold and the children sat upright to see who was there. Pastor Hamby, a bear of a man in a black overcoat, filled the doorway. Marilyn stepped aside to let him in, but he stayed where he was. He leaned down and talked quietly to Marilyn and glanced into the house at the same time. Then Marilyn turned, and they both looked at Helen, and Pastor Hamby waved her over with a gloved hand.
Helen stepped gingerly out on the porch and closed the door behind her. Four men in parkas, the First Baptist Deacons, stood at different levels on the steps, colored lights in the spruce reflecting in tracks of ice on the porch. Helen did not have her coat, and hugged herself with one arm and sipped her coffee.
Pastor Hamby’s cheeks were flushed, his thin lips drawn tightly over his teeth. “We were delivering care baskets out in the knobs like we always do,” he said, and looked back at the deacons.
They’d found Joakes’s body, this Helen knew by their faces. She tried to still her own face, her heart, to quiet the guilty part of her that wanted to confess and be forgiven. Frank Barker, a squat man in glasses, stepped a boot on the porch and leaned over his leg. “The holidays is hard on some,” he said. “It ain’t joy and cranberries for everyone. For some it’s only lonesome pain.”
* * * *
Spring, 1993: Willow limbs hung limply in the brightening morn, the current’s froth filling with light and bending prisms where black branches emerged. All night Helen had listened in darkness to the flood’s drone, and in a waking dream she’d seen the girl’s body float up from the quarry depths, drift and drift in the murky current to be caught in the high branches of one of the town’s ancient oak, and as the water receded, her neck wedged in a crook, there the girl dangled above Old Saints Road for all to see.
Now Helen sat high in the willow and tore away limbs until she could see out over the water. A single ridge humped out in the east. Her boat was nowhere to be seen. Danny was in a sort of sleep. She’d given him Connie Dempsy’s Christmas sweater and handcuffed his wrists to a branch overhead so he would not fall. His head hung in the hammock of his arms, the sweater too small and the sleeves far up his wrists.
To the north sunlight winked off the hull of a bass boat. Helen screamed and screamed, but with the rushing water she knew she would not be heard. She drew her pistol and fired into the gap of sky. She fired twice more before the boat veered their way, then fired again to keep the boat on track. Once it was close enough, she began to holler. She glanced below at Danny, who picked up his head and stared up at her, the sweater stretched tight across his chest. He too began to scream, and Helen could see the boat was steered by the long-haired man from the night before. He cut the motor, the hull piled high with bodies of dogs, and shaded his eyes to see into the tree.
The prow parted the canopy, and Helen stared down between her legs, the long-haired man watching her as he passed below. Danny called out to his friend, and the boat bumped against the trunk. The long-haired man held the tree with one hand, and with the other lifted a shotgun and aimed it up at Helen.
“No, Ray,” Danny said. “She’s alright,” and Danny stared up at her. “You alright, ain’t you?”
Helen nodded, held her hands out where he could see them.
“She’s alright, Ray,” Danny said again, and the man in the boat let the gun fall to his side.
Helen uncuffed Danny and they both climbed carefully into the boat and had to sit on the same tiny bench to avoid the dogs. Dogs filled the hull; a collie atop a German shepherd, and several hunting dogs, blueticks and grays. Stacked in an orderly way, heads at one end, tails the other, stacked like firewood. The boat drifted from beneath the tree, willow branches washing over them, and then the sun was warm.
Wisps of clouds feathered out above. Ray stuffed his lip with chaw and stared Helen down. “I found a body,” he said, then turned away and wrapped a cord around the outboard flywheel.
* * * *
Christmas Eve, 1992: Joakes quietly sobbed, lips smacking as if from thirst, and asked to smoke just one cigarette. Helen considered it a moment, then untied his right arm. She carried the lantern to the cupboard and pushed aside a jar of pickled eggs, and there was the thin wooden box. The smell of tobacco came out strong. She kept the lid open, hoping the smell would overtake the odors of Joakes himself. She even held it beneath Joakes’s nose. He shut his eyes and seemed to take solemn pleasure from the scent. Then he opened his lids and his red eyes drew onto her.
Like trap jaws sprung, he snatched the lantern from her and Helen was struck in the face and fell hard to the floor. The lantern light was gone. Moonlight through the tiny window lit a back wall where skinning tools hung on metal pegs. Sharp pain pierced Helen’s eye, shot deep into her skull. Chair legs thumped as Joakes rocked and fumbled with his free hand to untie his bindings. Helen’s eye swelled quickly; within seconds the eye was closed to sight. Dizzily she took her feet and drew her pistol. She stayed still until she found the pale skin of his bald spot in the moonlight, then Helen struck him and Joakes shrieked. With all her weight she struck him once more. Joakes’s head bobbed violently, and he made no sound.
Helen staggered into the yard, clutching her gun, and broke an icicle off the pump’s handle. She lay back in the snow, dim stars turning in fractured tracks, the frozen ground beneath her seeming to turn, and though she meant to hold the ice to her eye, she brought up the pistol, and it was cold and soothed her just the same.
* * * *
December 20, 1992: Parked on the quarry’s service road, the cruiser growing cold with the motor off, Helen sipped peppermint schnapps and considered the world made of her design. My religion is keeping peace, she thought. It hadn’t begun that way, was nothing she’d planned, but now she saw that’s how it was. I just ran a grocery, she thought. I don’t want this. I ain’t the one to make the world right. She swallowed more schnapps, then capped the bottle and put it away in the glovebox.
Helen stepped out onto the road and popped the trunk. The air had warmed, the boreal wind stilled. Like ashes from a furnace, thick and gentle snow began to fall. She’d taken the clothes from Joakes’s root cellar, washed them in the river, dressed the girl, and wrapped the girl in a green canvas tarp. Helen struggled lifting the body from the trunk. But she tugged the torso out over the fender and the rest followed and flopped down to the road. Helen had needed a sled, and without knowing its use Freely sold her one at half-price, and now she turned the canvas parcel onto the sheet of red plastic tethered with rope.
She dragged Jocelyn Dempsy on the sled, the girl’s weight breaking the undercrust of old snow and new snow collecting in wet mounds about her head. Helen pressed onward, eyes closed to the cold, legs plodding into drifts.
At the quarry’s rim she paused to unfasten the tarp. She did not look at the girl. She moved behind the sled and shoved it all over. From her knees she watched the sled and tarp flutter and the body turn and break through the film of ice with barely a sound.
Flakes fused to flakes and piled on her thighs and gloves. The quarry would soon be thick with ice, and what was below would be held for a time. In spring the body would rise through the gray slush and be found. The town told stories of children who’d fallen to their deaths in this quarry. Teenagers were drawn to its danger. They would all believe Jocey had just drowned, and it would be over. Helen gazed into the quarry. This is how I’ll be, she thought. I’ll be this icy hole, this season, this falling snow. I’ll just freeze myself over.
* * * *
Spring, 1993: In the flume between hillocks the floodwaters converged, dammed by logs and mud, a kitchen chair, a section of roof, a child’s plastic slide, refuse thick and high and brown water sluicing through random gaps. A riot of gulls hovered, filling the sky, the refuse wall alive with white birds. Ray ran the boat onto the grassy hillside and hopped out and stomped the anchor into the earth. Helen climbed cautiously over the mound of dogs, a glove to her nose. Scum-water churned at the dam’s base. The torrent on the other side, the swollen Little Squirrel River, charged madly east. Helen feverishly scanned the refuse. The tan face of a mare, what looked like a carousel pony, stuck out from beneath what might be a green tarp. Helen’s hands trembled; she’d lost control of her hands. She stuffed them in her pockets and clenched them into fists, thinking of Jocey’s school portrait on the Evansville news, remembering Freely, only weeks ago, taking down the same picture from his diner window.
They climbed the hill where rail tracks split the ridge and stood on the wooden ties. Down by the river lay swine, black-faced sheep, more dogs. Helen thought of Haley Winters’s cattle. Where’d all those cattle gone?
Ray pointed at an outcropping of rock. A body lay on a slab of limestone, fully clothed, feet spread apart. A gull roosted on the body’s shoulder, and Helen could not see the face. “I seen that boy some in the Old Fox,” Ray said. “Don’t know his name. Never said so much as hey to me.”
Helen rushed down the hillside, her momentum carrying her in a reckless sort of run. Wind blew the long grass flat. She followed the grass down with her eyes and then she was falling and landed hard on her side. The gull on the body raised its wings and glided downshore. It was Keller Lankford, a hay and bean farmer who lived south of town, nearly three miles from the river. His face was the blue of his overalls, his blackened fingers clawed into a fence slat clutched to his chest. Then Danny was over Helen pleading, don’t do that, oh come on now, and pulled her into his arms.
Helen shoved him away. She tried taking her feet, only to crumble. Her ankle was badly hurt. She wiped sweat from her eyes and face, and noticed small cuts had brought blood to her palms. “Take off that sweater,” Helen screamed at Danny, blood streaked across her cheeks. “Throw it in the river. It ain’t yours to be wearing.”
Ray was at the water’s edge breaking twigs and tossing them into the current. “Get rid of them dogs,” she screamed at Ray. “Nobody wants to see them dogs. Just let ‘em be gone. You hear what I say?” Ray snapped a twig and brought it to his mouth. He waved up his middle finger.
Danny ran past Ray, and thigh deep into the raging flood he tore the red sweater off over his head and hurled it into a rush of gulls.
* * * *
Christmas Morning, 1990: Helen held the lantern to Robert Joakes’s swollen face. Faint plumes of breath trickled from his lips. With a wooden spoon she pried opened his mouth, then pushed the spoon and his head tipped backwards. She considered, as she had many times before, to ask him why. Instead, she inserted the barrel of a shotgun into his mouth. He made noises, not words, gagging on the metal. She sat the lantern on the cold stove and closed tight her eyes.
The explosion in the small room made the pots in the cupboard rattle. A ringing pulsed in her ears. Joakes had toppled in his chair and lay in the dark of the floor. She worked fast, looking only when she had to, untying his legs and thighs, his hands and chest, blood pooling blackly over the uneven planks. She worried momentarily as to which hand was his shooting hand, then chose his right, and worked his thumb onto the trigger.
She piled the bindings into a garbage bag, and left the lantern burning on the table. She hurried outside, careful with her footprints, stepping sideways into drifts so the snow would collapse, then on the exposed rocks behind his house, up the hill, breaking the ice and splashing through a tiny brook, then down the bluff to the frozen stream, where she paused atop a granite boulder.
The moon was in its descent, the stars fading. She’d wait for dawn, for pale light to arise and cover her. She thought of Freely’s grandchildren tearing pretty paper from gifts, and singing “Away in a Manger” in church. She thought of families gathered around tables thick with holly. In her mind she tasted honey glazed ham, scalloped potatoes, macaroon cookies. But she could not wait for dawn. Her feet were wet and the night was bitterly cold. She clutched her collar and limped along the stony banks, and stepping up to enter the prairie she slipped and fell onto the garbage bag of rags and slid until she was out on the frozen stream. The ice popped, but held. Thistles of pain stabbed her toes. She lay on the brittle black ice and could hear water flowing beneath her.
* * * *
Spring, 1993: The men had come down the hill from the shelter and gathered around the boat. They were solemn, unshaven, shirts rumpled, the pits of Pastor Hamby’s white shirt stained with sweat. The farmer’s body lay in the hull where once had been dogs, Helen’s jacket shrouding his face. The sun was high, the air damp. A new wall of thunderheads and the fur of rain bulged forth in the west.
“You’ll tell the others?” Helen said.
Pastor Hamby nodded. “What can we do for you?”
“I need rest,” Helen said, wilting, and almost began to cry from tiredness. “Let me rest awhile.”
Suddenly came the wind, full and strong, and Helen’s coat blew off Keller Lankford and tumbled onto the hillside, exposing his blue bloated face. Helen lunged after her coat. Her ankle gave and she caught herself as she fell. A deacon, Jerry Timlinson, clambered into the boat and covered the dead man’s face with his own jacket, then squinted up at the approach of weather. Spatterings of rain fell sideways in wind and sunshine. Pastor Hamby and Frank Barker lifted Helen, each with a hand beneath her thigh and another at her back. Slate clouds rowed forward over the sun, its light dappling the hill and then the sunshower was a storm.
The men entered the lightless hall, shirts transparent with rain, Helen riding their arms. “Put me down,” she said, clutching their sleeves. Pale faces emerged from the darkness: Walt Freely and Marilyn, Connie and David Dempsy, the little girl held to his shoulder, everyone she knew, grimly nodding, touching her pant legs, stroking her wrists, some speaking her name with quiet reverence. “Let me down,” she repeated, but they did not, and Helen began to cry. Rain drummed the masonry. Light from the storm lay a greenish glow in the hall. She could not stop herself from crying. They huddled around Helen, silent in the gloam, then the pastor raised his pulpit voice and called for them all to just clear out and leave her be.