The woman who found the body could not explain why she had not called the police herself. Perhaps, she reasoned, she had thought that the police could do nothing for a dead person; perhaps, she had not even considered it. She could not remember her thoughts much at all. She remembered her actions very clearly, however, and she would recollect them many times over the course of that night and the coming weeks.
She had come upon the body in the middle of the afternoon, while checking her mailbox. The mailbox was set across the road from the brambly hill where her house perched, and overlooked yet another short, gentle slope at the bottom of which she spotted, amongst red and yellow leaves, the minty gingham of the girl’s dress. The woman carefully carried her mail—a few letters and one periodical—down the hill to find that the dress was occupied. She asked the dead girl “Hello?” and then, in a panic, hurried less carefully up the hill to the road, and up the other hill to her house. She called her husband’s office. He did not answer. She returned to the corpse—to keep an eye on it, she said. She realized she was still holding her letters. She returned to the house. In the house, she noticed that one of the letters had come from her daughter, who was studying at a distant university. Then the woman had a strange thought which preoccupied her for some minutes, the only thought she remembered from that initial encounter with the dead girl.
She wished to open her daughter’s letter as quickly as possible. She wished to know what her daughter, who did not write very often (but did not write very infrequently, either) had to say. She thought: What if something was wrong? What if her daughter met a suitor? The woman would want to know as soon as possible. But if it was good news—even if it was ordinary news, or no news at all—she did not want to associate it forever with the dead girl lying at the foot of the hill, behind the mailbox. Yet again, she also thought: If my daughter needs help, that is more important. Or was this selfish? Certainly, the woman’s daughter was more important to her than anyone else. And this poor girl at the foot of the hill was already dead. But could she do any more for her own daughter, so far away? Whatever she thought next, the woman did not open the letter. She walked back down to the corpse and paced beside it, trying not to imagine her own daughter’s face peeking out of the red and yellow leaves. Then, after a while, she began to feel cold. She stayed a little longer, holding on as though her presence might revive the dead girl or reveal some clue. But at last, she could not stand being so cold, and she returned to the house.
The woman’s husband arrived shortly after. She asked him why he had not answered his phone, and he apologized. He must have been in a meeting when she called. There was a very important meeting that day, about a new service the man’s firm would soon be selling, a service which he was not yet allowed to describe, but which was very exciting. His wife allowed him to say all this and more about his day at work, not listening but letting him talk, until at last he asked her what she had called about, and she burst into tears, and told him “She’s dead!”
The man immediately thought of his daughter and demanded “Who?” His tone, however, only upset the woman further. He kept shouting “Who is dead?” and his wife kept crying. Finally, she told him that she didn’t know.
“The girl,” she said, “there’s a girl!” And this was enough to calm the husband down enough to calm the wife down enough to show the husband the corpse at the bottom of the hill. And he would have waited indefinitely there with her, for the police to arrive, had he not, out of an imagined obligation to stifle silence with questions, asked her “What did the police say?”
The police had said nothing, of course, because no one had called them. But now they said “We will be there as soon as we can.” The husband said “Thank you,” and hung up. He brewed a cup of hot tea which his wife drank while they waited together on the roadside, where they would be visible to the arriving officers.
“Should we cover her?” asked the husband, peering down the hill, at the dead girl.
“With what?” asked the wife.
“With a blanket—or a coat.”
“I don’t want to disturb the body. The police may want us to leave everything as it is.”
“What difference does a blanket make?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a police officer.”
“I’m going to cover her. We can’t just leave her lying about like that.”
“Why not?” she asked, but he didn’t hear her. He was already on his way back into the house again, to look for something to cover the body. He returned with a quilt.
“You want to use that?” she asked.
“Well, why not?” he echoed her, but his wife still would not let him touch the dead girl. They argued until the police arrived. One officer was quiet. The other officer was very quiet.
“Can we cover her?” asked the husband, holding up the quilt.
“Don’t see why not,” said the quiet officer.
The very quiet officer walked in circles around the body, looking every way and taking notes on a little notepad. The quiet officer leaned into the window of his police car, and radioed for assistance.
“Was she murdered?” asked the wife.
“Don’t know,” the quiet officer said. “Detective’s on the way. Coroner too. I’m going to take statements from you and your neighbors. My partner’ll check the body for evidence.” This is exactly what happened.
Only one house was in view of the first, and only because the trees were bare. Through half the year, dense foliage insisted on a more perfect isolation than the residents of this town could rely upon. The houses were not close by, however, so the quiet officer took his statements by driving from one to the next. Many of the neighbors had more questions for him than he had for them, but he had neither the urge nor the time to talk to them for long. He asked them all to take a walk or a drive to visit the dead girl, to see if they could recognize her. Some stopped by only for a few minutes, but many stayed, forming a small crowd of people and a short line of cars by the mailbox belonging to the woman who had discovered the body and the man who had covered it with a quilt. The very quiet officer had pulled the quilt off the dead girl’s face, and allowed people to descend the hill one by one, to try to identify her. One by one, each took a very close look and told him “No” or “I don’t know” or “I’ve never seen her before” or “Oh my god.”
They all agreed that she must have been from another town, for less than three-hundred people lived in this town, and they all knew each other and each other’s families. The girl could not have been older than twenty, but she was probably much younger. It was hard for anyone to tell. There was soil on her face, and her skin had turned grey. Whatever her age, she was young enough to be the daughter or granddaughter of nearly anyone in town. But she wasn’t.
The few neighborhood children each had their turn to gaze at the body, some hiding behind their parents, some pulling the adults along by a hand. The principal’s young son struck a commotion when he claimed to recognize the dead girl, but a handful of very quiet questions from the very quiet officer elicited progressively outlandish answers from the little boy, who recounted several fabulous adventures with the girl, including a daring escapade on a river raft. The very quiet officer asked him how it was possible that he and the girl had done so many amazing things without anyone else knowing. With nearly every eye in town on him, the boy told the officer that the girl was a witch, an accusation which he meant as a compliment, but which struck many of the neighbors as insensitive despite the fact that no women had been executed for witchcraft in that town for nearly two-hundred years. The little boy could not name the girl (her name, he said, was a secret), and when the principal finally asked her son whether he was telling the truth, he could only giggle.
One of the neighbors asked everyone—but quietly, as if he was asking only one person—
whether they thought the girl had been murdered.
“Of course she was murdered,” said an old woman, angrily. “She didn’t die of old age.”
Most people there agreed—some aloud, with their words, some silently, with a nod or an expression, and some secretly, without any word or gesture.
“She could have gotten lost in the woods,” someone pointed out. It was the young man from the city. He wasn’t really young, but people called him that because he had retired at forty-years-old. That was many years ago, now.
“But the road is right here.”
“She may not have seen it at night.”
“She was murdered,” said the old woman, this time without so much emotion, but with a casual finality, like she was announcing that a turkey was done cooking, or that someone had died in another town. “Someone murdered her, and brought her here, and dumped her off the side of the road.”
By now, the old woman’s son had arrived, and was listening impartially to his mother’s theory. He lived farther from the dead girl than she did. He noticed, as he always did, that she did not use the word “drove.” She had said “brought,” though it was obvious that to deposit a body here, in this town so far from the next, a murderer would have to drive. But his mother never talked about driving or cars unless she absolutely had to. She had never driven a car in her life, and was not habituated to its language. When he visited her, she would often caution him to not linger too long after dark, though the drive from her house to his was only several minutes. This train of thought led him to inquire as to how she had arrived here, at the mailbox of the woman who had discovered the dead girl. She told him: “Your aunt brought me.” The old woman’s son greeted and thanked his aunt, and offered to drive his mother home.
“I’m not going anywhere,” the old woman said.
“I mean when you’re ready,” answered her son.
People continued to trickle into the crowd, following their brief interviews with the quiet officer, who by now had a very thorough impression of the neighborhood’s geography, and a precise understanding of how the houses were numbered—a system which no one else but the mailman understood or ever thought about. The neighbors merely knew where each house was, not how it was enumerated.
The crowd now gathered at the mailbox could not quite be considered “large,” but this is how the editor of the town paper described it. According to his article, many things that night were “palpable,” “striking,” “noted,” “said,” and “believed.” He did not direct any questions to his neighbors because he never did; there was no need to pass on what they could say to each other in the grocery store, or at school soccer games. The editor did eagerly request comment from the very quiet officer, to predictable ends.
The quiet officer returned just as the Sun was setting. Evidently, he had already grown rather accustomed to the town’s empty streets because the crowd caught him by surprise. He slammed the brakes to avoid hitting the startled pedestrians. He apologized for the commotion as he stepped out of the car, and shuffled down the hill to where the very quiet officer stood with the woman who had found the body, and her husband, whom the very quiet officer had not bothered to dismiss. They stood about, alert and frowning, as if waiting for the dead girl’s parents to arrive and relieve them of some responsibility.
To his very quiet partner, the quiet officer gave a brief assessment of his findings in the neighborhood, which went as follows: “Mailman was the only one with anything to offer.”
The very quiet officer took a pair of spotlights out of the police car, and set them up around the body. The dead girl’s eyes shone like marbles in the light.
“Who could have done this?” asked the librarian. It was not a rhetorical question, but it may as well have been.
“It must be someone from another town,” said the school groundskeeper. “They must have killed her and left the body here.”
“A lot of people are coming up from the South, these days, moving into towns up here without any identification or money. Some of them are dangerous.” This person spoke a little louder than the others, and caught the attention of neighbors having more private conversations. It took a moment for many to discern who was speaking. “Nobody knows who they are. They can get away with anything.” It was the carpenter. He had built something—a kitchen counter, a flight of stairs, a porch, a garage—for nearly everyone in town, and had even renovated the firehouse. He smoked cigars. He had mouth cancer. When the old woman’s son was a boy, the carpenter had driven him and his mother all the way to the hospital. The boy had nearly cut his finger off with a kitchen knife. The carpenter was chewing on a cigar now, but he didn’t dare light it.
“There are a lot of sick people in the world,” said the old woman’s sister. It was a vague comment, but it had the tone of agreement. Someone recalled an old story he had heard from years ago—just a story, he said—that in a nearby town, long ago—many, many years—a man of a certain religion had abducted a little girl and drunk her blood.
“What on Earth are you talking about?” demanded the old woman. “Why would you say such a horrible thing?”
“It was just a story I heard,” said the person.
“What an awful story,” said the old woman’s sister.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, suggesting something like that.”
“I was only saying it because it came to mind. I didn’t mean anything by it.” This person must have had nothing else to add, for he left for home. Those who remained did their best to forget the comment. The editor of the paper, still present, did not make a note of it.
After a long silence, the librarian asked, of no one in particular, “Why?”
For a while, the neighbors had maintained a respectful distance from the mailbox around which they had gathered, but now, they had closed in around it. The groundskeeper was even leaning against it, with his weight on his elbow and his elbow on the mailbox. All the neighbors stared down the gentle slope, at the nondescript mass protruding under the quilt, in the light of the spotlights, at the foot of the officers standing shoulder to shoulder beside the woman who had found the body, and the man who had covered it with a quilt.
“She looks so young,” said the wife.
The husband put one arm around her, and gently massaged her upper arms.
“Mm,” said the quiet officer.
The very quiet officer shook his head.
“What if it was someone from here?” asked the young man from the city.
“It couldn’t have been,” the old woman said quickly.
“It could have,” her sister cautioned.
“We’re all here,” the carpenter said to the young man. “Why don’t you tell us which one of us you think the killer is?”
“That’s not necessary,” the principal scolded.
“Let’s ask them,” said the groundskeeper. “Officers,” he shouted, though he did not need to raise his voice, as the officers had been listening the whole time, “who could have done this?”
“Don’t know,” said the quiet officer. “Detective’ll be here any minute.”
“What did the mailman say?” asked the man who had covered the body with a quilt.
The officers both turned to the man, considering him skeptically for a moment. Then the quiet officer handed the man his notepad.
“Here,” he said, and walked away to urinate behind a tree. The very quiet officer watched the husband and wife pore over his partner’s notes.
Another car joined the line on the side of the road. The neighbors all turned in a hush to see who would emerge from the car, but he was not the detective. He was a man who, until recently, was accompanied without exception by his dog. For a couple years, the neighborhood custom was to ask him how the animal was faring through its illness, but by now the question felt impolite. The man was a divorcee of whom people often remarked that he was very kind, and of whom they remarked nothing else, for little else was known about him besides the fact that his dog was dying. This, their silence suggested, was not remarkable.
Surprised by the crowd’s reaction to his arrival, he took a moment to recover his thoughts, and when he did, his greeting came out backwards.
“I brought bread… Hello, everyone.”
He passed around a paper bag of bread rolls, and a deep glass jar of butter with a tarnished silver butter knife. The neighbors thanked him and quietly remarked to each other on how kind he
was. He carried food down to the corpse, and offered it to the wife and husband and police officers. The couple, who had not eaten dinner, were very grateful. The quiet officer said “No, thank you,” but his partner accepted and very quietly thanked the man whose dog was dying.
The man shook his head when the officers showed him the dead girl’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and returned to the crowd around the mailbox. “What are we waiting for?”
“The detective,” said the principal.
“And the coroner,” said the old woman’s son.
As the night grew colder, many people left. The woman who had discovered the body remained with her husband at attention beside the two police officers. The officers occasionally yawned and checked their watches. They seemed not to have forgotten the couple standing with them until the wife asked them for permission to fetch more blankets from her house.
“For the body?” asked the quiet officer.
“For us, and for them,” she said, gesturing to those huddled around her mailbox, as if it radiated some kind of warmth, “and for you, if you like.”
“Oh. No. Thank you. Go ahead, Ma’am.”
She and her husband left, and returned after several minutes with blankets and a tray of hot tea, which rattled threateningly as the husband bussed it down the hill from the house. The blankets were given first to the old woman, and then her sister, who remained by her side. The old woman’s son, who had long grown bored of the ordeal but could not convince his mother to leave with him, also received one. The last blanket was offered first to the man whose dog was dying, and then to the carpenter, but each refused. The young man from the city accepted it in their steads. The husband and wife wrapped themselves together in one blanket. Several people, including the officers, accepted tea. The carpenter finally lit his cigar, but he turned his back to the dead girl as he smoked it. More people went home.
The detective arrived just as a handful of people were leaving. Amidst their movement, no one noticed her until she was already standing over the covered body. The newspaper editor noted that the early dusk was owed the illusion that the detective had arrived in the dead of night, but he checked his watch, and recorded the exact time. All the neighbors knew that the night was younger than it felt because the owls had not yet begun to hoot as they would at eight or nine o’clock.
The very quiet officer withdrew the quilt from the dead girl’s face, and only then did the detective acknowledge him and his partner. She wanted to know who had discovered the body, and the quiet officer told her.
“You found her like this?” she asked the woman, though she was kneeling intently over the corpse.
“My husband put a quilt over her.”
“Wish you’d left her alone.”
“Apologies, Detective,” said the quiet officer.
The wife shot the husband a grave look.
“I’m sorry, Detective,” the husband said. “I didn’t think it would do any harm.”
“Has it disrupted anything?” asked the wife.
“Impossible to say.” The detective sighed as she put on a pair of leather gloves.
With the very quiet officer’s help, the detective carefully removed the quilt from the dead girl. The girl was lying on her stomach, but with her face turned and visible. The head did not turn at all when the detective raised the body by a shoulder. The arms did not move, either. The body was stiff and singular, like a wooden carving. The detective pointed a flashlight under the girl, illuminating a distention of her belly. There were black stains on her legs and the lower frills of her gingham dress. Her hands were stained the same color. The detective inspected the body for what seemed like a long time.
The detective asked the officers for their notes. The very quiet officer very quietly summarized his. The quiet officer could not find his notepad with the witness statements.
“Oh—I have those.” The woman who had found the body handed the detective the quiet officer’s notepad, which she had forgotten in the pocket of her coat.
“Mailman says the body wasn’t there when he delivered the mail?” asked the detective when she was done reading.
“Right,” said the quiet officer.
“And he knows exactly how long it takes to drive between the towns around here?”
The detective asked if there was a doctor present.
“There is a doctor here,” said the old woman’s sister, but she was mistaken. The doctor had gone home.
“You spoke to the doctor?” the detective asked the police officers.
“A little,” said the quiet officer. “He offered to take a look at the body, but I told him the coroner was on his way.”
The detective nodded. She seemed distracted.
“Is the coroner on his way?” asked the quiet officer.
“Better get the doctor,” she said.
The quiet officer left.
“Who killed her?” asked the young man from the city, but the detective ignored him. She paced around the body with the very quiet officer’s notepad. The young man from the city hung his blanket on the mailbox, and left. The quiet officer was gone for a long time. Everyone was shivering when he returned with the doctor.
The detective rolled the body onto its side again, and allowed the doctor to palpate the swollen belly with his fingers. He asked, in a whisper, to look under the girl’s dress. The detective allowed it.
“There’s a lot of blood,” the doctor told her. He was squinting to perceive the dead girl in the harsh rays of the spotlights and the very quiet officer’s flashlight. The detective and the quiet officer’s arms were feeling tired from holding the girl on her side. The detective didn’t want them to roll her all the way over.
“Anything, Doctor?” the detective asked.
The doctor sighed. He looked very tired, and he was wearing a pair of glasses which his neighbors had never seen him wear before.
“May we discuss this privately?” he asked.
“Go ahead, Doctor.”
He did not go ahead. He asked the husband and wife if he and the detective could speak in their house.
“If you insist, Doctor,” said the detective.
“Of course,” answered the woman who had discovered the body. She and her husband led the detective and the doctor past the group gathered in the road, and up to the house.
From the road, the neighbors could see one light and then another turn on in separate rooms of the house.
“What’s all this about?” asked the old woman’s sister.
“Doctors like their privacy,” the old woman’s son told his aunt.
“It’s not their own privacy they want,” said the man with the dying dog.
“They can only tell us what we already know,” said the old woman. “Someone killed this poor girl. Why won’t they take her away?”
“Where is the coroner?”
In the house, the doctor and the detective spoke awhile in the husband and wife’s bedroom, while the husband and wife made more tea and pondered the unopened letter from their daughter. When the doctor and the detective finally emerged, the detective asked first if the couple had a telephone, and then where it was. She dialed and waited. A small clock sat on the table beside the telephone, but the detective checked the pocket watch in her coat. Suddenly, she snapped it shut, and began to speak as she returned it to her pocket. The detective was asking someone about doctors in nearby towns: if there were any, how many there were, how many of them were gynecologists, if the person could make a list, and also if there was anyone who had been accused of practicing medicine without a license. And she asked if there was anyone on the area’s many farms who practiced animal husbandry, someone whom a farmer might call to deliver a foal, someone who needed money, perhaps. The detective wanted a list, she said—three lists, really—by the end of the week: a list of doctors—the generalists and specialists—and a list of amateurs and a list of farmers. Then the person on the other end of the line said or asked something, and for a long time, the detective listened. Then she wrote something down in her notepad, and without saying anything, she hung up the phone and left the house.
Owls had begun to hoot in the dark lacing of the trees, as if the woods themselves were sighing. The sound alerted the neighbors to the constant cricketing all around, which had begun a long while ago, but which they noticed only now. The coroner was waiting with the police officers and the body. The doctor followed the detective. The husband and wife joined the group around the mailbox, which had been hushed by the arrival of the coroner.
“Detective,” he said by way of greeting.
She nodded in response.
They stood over the body, each on one side, as if deciding how they would divide its parts between them.
“Your assessment, Doctor?” asked the coroner.
The doctor invited the coroner up to the house, where they could discuss privately. The detective spoke before the coroner could answer.
“A lot of blood, but it’s all dried on the body. Vaginal bleeding—not menstrual. Probably bled to death before she got here. No belongings on the person or around it. Probably took everything before they left her here.”
“Doctor thinks it was an amateur operation—an accident.”
The people in the crowd stared at the doctor. Without returning their gaze, he marched up the hill, and sat himself in the passenger seat of the police car, where he waited for the police officers to drive him home.
The coroner handed the keys to his vehicle over to the very quiet officer. The latter and his partner retrieved a stretcher and a bag from the back of the coroner’s van, which resembled an enormous cabinet. They carried the items down the hill, and helped the coroner and detective ease the dead girl into the bag and onto the stretcher. The two officers carried the body back up, and slid it into the back of the van. They locked the doors, and returned the keys to the coroner. They turned off the spotlights, and returned them to the trunk of the police car.
The woman who had found the body and the man who had covered it with a quilt tried to think of something to say as they watched the detective, the coroner, and the two police officers. But not a word passed as the three cars groaned to life, and disappeared down the dark street: first the coroner’s van followed by the detective’s car; then the police car with the doctor in the passenger’s seat, and the very quiet officer in the back. The three pairs of headlights rolled away like drops of dew behind the trees.
“How could this happen?” asked the old woman’s sister.
“Horrific,” said the old woman.
“It happens all the time, now,” the carpenter said. He felt warmer now that he had finished his cigar. He turned to the husband and wife. “I hope you taught your daughter better.”
They all gazed down the hill, toward the dark fringe of the woods, where the dead girl had been lying.
“Let me drive you home, Mother,” said the old woman’s son. He and his mother embraced his aunt, and the three of them returned their blankets to the husband and wife, who draped them over the one already hanging on the mailbox.
The husband of the woman who had found the dead girl asked if she had seen the quilt with which he had covered the body. He wanted to ensure that he washed it before returning it to their daughter’s bed. They asked around, and searched the colorless red and yellow leaves on the unlit hill below the road. After a few minutes, they gave up, certain that the police must have taken it with them.