She may have been thirteen, fourteen at the most. Her hair was long and a light brown that might have been mousy on one whose skin was not so white. Hers was very white, actually blue-white, naturally, although something told me that she had always been pale. She was thin, which made her appear tall, even in that position. The nose was long but straight, and she had teeth in the front of her mouth that were prominent, a combination that distresses the young girl to see in the mirror, but promises future handsomeness. Her cheeks still had a wan touch of rose in them, though they were sunken, and her ears were delicate and angular. There was red around her lips, in contrast to the blueness of the face. It was coldly, indifferently pretty.
The thought was absurd, I know, misplaced, but it was pure. Like her. Maybe that’s what took hold of me. Her eyes were open, and kind, and seemed to be smiling at me, which was also absurd – why would she be smiling? Yet, that was my first thought when I found her. Her hair fanned out behind her head on the cold grass to make half of a halo, her coat was covering her, one of those quilted coats with a hood, and she was giving me a gentle smile, as if she knew that I would find her, and she didn’t want it to be too hard on me. So she welcomed me, you might say.
I walked up that steep path, feeling the chill, wind churning, the sea off to the left and down, a drop of a hundred feet, a harshly beautiful sky of shifting grey and white and black and orange that I seemed to walk into, the knoll ahead about to level off, the grass a brighter green than I expected. The last ten feet were difficult, almost vertical, but I had been there before, with Xan, and I knew the view was worth it, even though I wasn’t there solely for the view.
And there she was.
“Mr. Brown?” He is young, and African-American, and wears one of those Smokey the Bear hats with the wide brim. He never looks at my statement after he reads it; he looks only at me. I want my name to be something other than Brown. I want a long Greek name that he has to ask me to spell. His nameplate reads Upshaw.
“You’re the gentleman who found her?”
“Do you come here often?” He must know there is a joke there. We choose not to know it, together. His face is round and neutral, and there are tiny black spots on his cheeks that I feel ashamed to have noticed at such a time.
“I was here once before, about a month ago.”
Xan said she was taking me to her favorite spot. My idea was to walk at the wildlife preserve, but she changed my plans all the time, countermanded them. So we hiked up the shore to the cliff. She clipped along ten feet ahead of me (one foot for every year’s difference in our ages); she was pretty rugged and liked showing off. She also liked being competitive with me. Her face was happy; it always was happy when we did something that she wanted to do. But she mixed the selfish side of her personality with the generous; she surprised me by pulling sandwiches and fruit out of her backpack, and a couple of those little airline blankets.
“Hiking? Picnicking? Mr. Brown?”
He smiles. “Yeah, I guess you’d have to hike here to have a picnic. You’re alone today, sir?”
I expect to have to defend myself. I am prepared to be magnanimous and tolerant of law enforcement as they do their job, prepared to feel like a preliminary, though unlikely, suspect. I anticipate the next question to be: Who was there with you?
But he doesn’t ask that, he focuses on my eyes in a benign way.
“ Detective Sergeant Fleck may want to ask you a few questions.” He touches the brim of his hat. He knows. Young as he is, he knows more than I do. He knows I’m not the one, that I couldn’t do it, that I’m not lying, not only that I’m not lying but that I have no lies to tell. At least, none that would be important to him, none about the girl. I am a perverse disappointment to myself.
“It’s warm today,” Xan said. She gushed when she enjoyed the weather, made the moment into a sensory, physical, athletic experience. She pulled off her top and sat there in the sun, bare-breasted, shook her golden curls, stretched her arms out and up to the heavens in a pagan thanks to the gods for the wondrous day, and grinned at my unsteady surprise.
“Ha, ha. Your provincial side is showing. Your turn.”
“Take off your shirt. You won’t feel so out of it.”
I did. I was amusing to her. She took off her cross trainers and socks and flexed her toes. She forged ahead of me in these things; she embraced the freedom from physical restraints in a way that left me feeling like I was only along for the ride.
I took off my sneakers and socks and Xan, breasts bouncing and dimples beaming, very nearly laughing at what she knew to be my continued confusion about how to respond to her when she was walking the edges of social barriers, stood and removed her shorts. She wasn’t wearing underwear. She laughed hard, remained standing long enough to survey her realm and feel the air on her body, then enjoyed my regarding her nakedness (more pointedly, the mesmerizing profile of her sinewy rear end and thighs, her smooth pelvic skin and the top of the patch of hair that did match that on her head, and the welcome imperfection of her abdomen’s slight bulge), before she giggled and dropped onto one blanket while yanking the other out from under me and covering herself with it.
“You can take yours off under here if you want,” she invited, holding the top blanket above her.
“I’m Detective Sergeant Fleck.” His voice is from some neighborhood and has no reverence in it. “Mr. Brown?”
“Yes.” He is fast, too fast; I am sure he will miss something.
“I read your statement,” he nods his head at the clipboard in his hands, then he looks at me. Suddenly he is not fast, he is stuck, stuck looking at me. He will ask me for Xan’s number, he will ask about what we did here. I will have to tell him, for he knows I will only tell him the truth. I won’t be able not to, and then he will see me as depraved.
“ I may ask you to take a look at the scene again, go through exactly what you did, so I can see it first hand. This could be difficult, you’re probably upset already, but if you can handle it…” His hands go out to the sides. He has thin hair that gets combed over into a dark, shiny pool. “…it could be very helpful, obviously.”
I want to go there again. I cannot say it. That would be inexplicable, but I want to see her, that much I know.
“ Fine,” I say, and I worry for myself, and for what might be the deviant compulsion I am harboring so hospitably.
Stuck again, this time on me, he nods into my face. That’s what he does, he nods, he nods away the grey area in his brain and when it is satisfactory to him, he stops and looks at something else, looking for his next nod.
Her feet were twisted to her left, and her toes pointed straight at me when I first crested the hill. The shoes were brown with straps across the top of the foot with bulky socks of a dirty cream color stuffed into them. A short view of her legs could be seen under the edge of her coat. Her calves were unformed, yet about to assume some shape or character if they could get another year. But they wouldn’t, they would be stopped at the point of readiness, smooth and resilient, their only flaw a scrape under the right knee.
They regard me, Fleck and the African-American officer, Upshaw. The officer checks Fleck, Fleck checks me, nods. I don’t know whether to look away or not, if it would look more innocent, or more guilty. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t done anything. They are the cops and they are in control and I want to fit in. I don’t want to be wishy-washy, wacky, or weird.
“The Sergeant thinks that’s all we’ll need, for now.” The officer looms over me kindly. “He’d like to talk to you later, though, after we’ve had a chance to study things more thoroughly.”
“Do you want me to go to the station?”
“The Sergeant said we might even visit you at home. Are you sure you’re okay to drive? Is there someone at home who you could call to come for you?”
They don’t even want me to walk the scene with them. Fleck walks quickly toward us.
“Do you remember seeing anything, Sir?” he asks. “Any objects, food, toys, bags, anything at all around here, on the ground, even if it was far down the hill? Anything?”
“I don’t… I’m sorry.”
“Okay. We’re going to send you home, now but we’ll need to talk to you later, after we get more information and you get a chance to collect yourself. Okay?”
I won’t get to see her again.
“Sure…Whatever you need.”
He sort of laughs like there is a bitter irony in my words.
“Okay, we’ll see you later.” He walks back to the crest, and the scene, and her, her bed. It is a bed, a final bed.
My first sight of it was uplifting. The grass was tall and soft, and invited rolling in it. Children would roll and play, teens would roll and joke and tease, young adults would roll and make love, old folks would be reminded about rolling in the grass when they were kids.
It was warm and calm that first time. Xan finished me off, that’s what it was like to make love to her. She grabbed hold of the moment and took what she could, and it was mostly good for me, too. Afterward, we lay and napped. Then we ate some grapes and cookies, naked under the blankets, until it was time to go. She wanted to stay longer, but we had tickets. She didn’t care about the tickets. We always had that kind of hitch; she would change plans on a whim.
I drive home very slowly. Maybe it is because I have brought myself to that image of her in her final bed. And I can’t see it again, won’t be permitted to see it again. I drive very slowly past streets that I know, but which seem suddenly quite unfamiliar. They are having their second first impression on me and, though I navigate my way home errorlessly, as if on automatic pilot, I go twenty-five miles per hour on twenty-five mile per hour streets for the first time ever. I am mourning, I realize. But it is not just her death, for I didn’t know her alive. I am mourning the distance that increases between us with each twenty-five mile an hour street. I park in front of my strange house feeling ill, and sour, and forlorn.
Her face was turned to greet her discoverer. It was a soft look, gentle, intended, I felt, I believed, to ease the shock for whoever arrived. The cops would posit later that it was part of her assailant’s sick profile, done on purpose, a demonstration of deviant ego and demented whimsy. I knew that she was thinking beyond that heinous moment, thinking about her people, about me; she knew that I, whoever I would be, would need her help to get through it. Perhaps they all know something like that.
The things in my house seem to be waiting for me, to see how I am. My couch doesn’t extend the usual invitation to flop and flick on the television. The coffee table seems neater than I left it. The lamps and books and photographs on the walls and in the remote areas of the room watch and wait.
I put the TV on anyway, lie on the couch, probably sleeping, a light semi-conscious miasma of daydream and rehash. Then it’s on the news. It’s the earliest of the evening broadcasts, and it’s there. Her name is being withheld, but the police think they have a suspect, and they have a shot of the spot, with the yellow tape tied to sticks, and the white outline of the victim’s last position. It is all too soon for me; the world knows now, and worse, they disrespect me, they hurt me, by running to the story faster than I can, by disregarding her specialness and calling her a victim. I shut the thing off.
She was contained on that grass. All the room in the world for a girl her age, yet her legs and arms were close to the rest of her in an unspectacular position. The outline of her hips could be discerned under the coat, wide-hipped for a slender kid. Sometimes, even young girls show their future potential for carrying children.
Sergeant Fleck is on the phone.
“Hey, Mr. Brown, how are you?”
“You sure? You were kind of shook up before.”
“ I’m fine.”
“Okay. I wanted to go over some things with you, if I may, take, maybe, half an hour.”
“I can come over now, if it’s all right.”
“Sure.” He makes sure of the address, then repeats that it shouldn’t take more than half an hour.
He said ‘I’. ‘I’ will be over. I assumed it would be he and Upshaw, that they would come to look at me some more, to study me, the ‘sort of’ witness, the discoverer of horror, to judge me on my technique and originality. My ridiculous mind starts to worry over whether or not to put out a dish with nuts or some pretzels. Coffee comes to the rescue, coffee is more appropriate and, in fact, I have wanted coffee for hours.
I climbed those final twenty yards to the grassy overlook with coffee on my mind. It was the reward I would give myself for the hike, the boost I would turn to when it was time to move on, time to expunge the memory of Xan and claim that spot for myself. For a second, I had thought of bringing a cup with me, nice and hot and strong with three sugars and half and half. But I didn’t want it up there. It would bring too much complacency to the moment. I would sit for too long, and feel too comfortable. I only wanted to see it again and let it all go.
But there she was, with her fingers stopped in a position that resembled a hand in a painting, Michelangelo, slightly curled, poignant, open enough to see the palm, which still looked to have color in it, even though that made no sense. I didn’t see the other hand; her right arm was under the coat.
The coffee maker is still sputtering when the bell rings. Fleck enters, nodding. “Thanks for seeing me in your house,” and he moves to the living room, surveying as he goes.
Upshaw is not with him; he is alone.
Fleck sits without my offering. “When we have crimes of this nature,” he begins, “we try to provide some support for the folks who have come in contact with the scene. Before I go, I’ll give you the name of a counselor.”
I nod, not sure what to say. I can tell I will do everything during his visit with his regard of me in mind. I will be conscious of my walk, my waist, my breath, my voice, my stance – and he will be looking at me thinking of none of that. I won’t know what he is thinking, and I will care.
“You’re name is Doug, right?” he asks.
“Yes.” He remembered. “I made coffee.”
“That would be great,” says Fleck. I serve us both.
He has no papers in front of him. “I wanted to ask you something, I forgot before. When you were walking along that path, did you pick anything up?”
I hate him, now, because he has none of the romantic/heroic qualities I want to associate with brilliant police work, nor has he even one iota of the charming solidarity of the antihero with the one eye and the basset hound and the cigar and the car that always breaks down. But he has somehow figured out the one thing that I have omitted from my statement.
A piece of paper flew down at me in the wind. It was heavy, not crumpled, torn sprockets at one end, longer than letter size, and flying on the gusts, down from the direction in which I was headed, flat and right at me, stable and unwavering, as if it would decapitate me. I moved to my right and put up my hand. A corner of the thing struck my palm and traveled on, detained only for a second, but I saw that it was a drawing, in pencil, and it was the view of the ocean from somewhere nearby, and there were dolphins arching out of the water and splashing under again.
I tell him about the drawing. He smiles and nods a lot.
“Yeah, we found it. Forensics told us there was evidence of human contact — skin, body oils, as well as the victim’s prints. We found her sketchbook down by the water. Her family said she was an avid drawer. She wanted to be an art student. We were going to ask you to submit to a few tests, but since you remember touching the drawing…”
“I did touch it. I’m sorry I didn’t recall it before.”
He shrugs. “Very common.” He produces a notepad from his jacket pocket and scribbles something. He offers me a piece of gum. I refuse; he puts the pack back in his jacket pocket. “Okay, Mr. Brown. You’ll be hearing from the DA’s office and I’m afraid they’ll want to put you through this all over again, but it has to be.”
I want to ask about the suspect, I want to ask about the drawing, about the body, about the girl, but I will not compromise the desire that I have identified in myself as the strongest: I want to be the smartest, most prescient witness they have ever known, the least trouble, the most dependable.
“What am I allowed to know?” pops out of me. Fleck stops nodding and chewing.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
I hate him again. He’s supposed to know what I mean, supposed to be aware of my needs, but he’s stonewalling, making me explain what he understands perfectly well.
“It’s okay. I don’t want to overstep my bounds, but… What was her name?”
Fleck starts nodding again. “Her name was Grace, Grace-” and he speaks her last name but I do not hear it. I hear the reverberation of “Grace”.
Of course. With the same sense of the inevitable like a box that falls from the top of a pile as you try to move the pile all at once, the name tumbles on to me. What more fitting name could she have than a word which describes my one and only view of her? It came to me just as he said it, as if the word and the name were waiting for the precise instant of their greatest impact on me, and it brought me back to the picture of her hair fanned out on the green, green grass, and her nose, straight and long and proud.
He goes to the door. Fleck turns and hands me a card. “Call this number; someone can help,” he says and then he is gone.
Xan drove the shore road all the time, and kept telling me that she would take me to “that spot right there,” and she’d turn in the driver’s seat, take her eyes off the road, and point out the back window, laughing like a hyena because she knew it made me nuts.
Everything makes me ill. I can’t eat, sleep, can’t drink. The phone rings.
“Did you watch the news?”
“Eh, some of it.”
“You were on, at least I‘m pretty sure it was you. There was a murder at that spot by the shore where we picnicked that time and they had a shot of the police talking to you but there was no sound; you didn’t say anything. You seemed kind of out of it. It was you, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. It was.”
“The girl was stabbed and messed with, they said. You saw her?”
“What do you mean, messed with?” I have to sit down.
“Mutilated, like, he carved something in her stomach that looked like a whale or a dolphin or something.”
“Yeah — and her right hand is missing-”
I want to wail, like I am having myself carved up, I want her pain, in me.
“Isn’t that sick? Did you see that stuff? They have a guy in custody, I think.” She can’t know how much I hate that these things I need to know most I must get from her.
“Hello?” she says.
“Yeah, uh, I need to go out. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Oh, well, it’s okay, I just thought of you, so…”
“No, I’ll call you soon.”
“Okay. Hey, if you want to have a beer later, or something, Neil and I are just hangin’ out.”
Mutilated, that is one of the words I do not want to hear, do not want associated with her. Mutilated, molested, murdered, one by one they come for me, marching in single file to despoil the specter of Grace.
I walk. That afternoon, I went to a place to claim it for my own, to begin to loosen the grip of one woman, and I fell into the mortal lock of a girl. I wanted to replace the woman, but I didn’t ask for the girl. On a street called Sagamore Lane, not knowing how I got here, I think that I have been too willing to accept her, have given her too much room in my life, my soul, and that it is a fault in my character.
There was a sunken look to her nose and eyes that made me think of offering her a tissue, a congested look. This was puzzling to me after. Why would I think such a thing? The tangents that intersected the awful reality of the sight of her were innocuous and removed, Buddhist, almost, and I tagged myself selfish because of them.
“You found Grace.” The woman came all the way across the steps with two little girls, both under ten. It wasn’t easy, as the front of the Church of the Nativity was packed with hundreds of mourners. I saw her coming and waited, as if I knew.
“We saw you from over there and wanted to welcome you.” She shook my hand. Her face was fair and freckled and had too many wrinkles, her hair light, her eyes green.
“I’m Gracie’s Aunt Alice,” and she began to cry. So did I. So did the girls. “Thank you for coming.”
I almost said, ‘My pleasure’.
“ Of course,” I said.
She gives a tiny smile through a stream of tears, and she means both, the smile and the tears, and starts back to the other side of the steps, back to the rest of the family, and there, waiting for her, are a flock of green-eyed, light haired, weeping freckles, and they are all girls, or women who were once girls – I don’t see or look at the men – and there seem to be more and more of them.
That’s what the sunken, congested quality of her face was… crying. She had cried out all of her tears; her sinuses were a dried out wasteland.
Fleck walks over to me from across the back of the church. “You haven’t called the counselor.”
“No.” I can’t say more. He is lucky, I think at that moment, lucky to have a job title which allows him to stare at people, catalogue their behavior, and never be accountable for his own.
There are wonderful, beautiful tear-irrigated speeches about the talents and the intelligent sweetness and the endearing mixture of child and adult in the departed Grace, never mentioning the heinous acts which took her from us, an unbearably admirable restraint on the part of the speakers. I am no match for any of it. I break and flood with grief; I shake with the enormity of the release. I am way in the back of the church and no one is near, and it is so, so sad because I wouldn’t want them to see me, but I want more than anything to be in the midst of them all, her people, when I do this. Behind them, high overhead on the dome of the ceiling above the altar, is a mural of Jesus Christ ascending into heaven, ringed by cherubs, the white-headed, white-bearded father watching from the one side, and the mother, the woman in the prototypical nun’s garb, watching from the other. They all have their hands open, palms out, slightly curling in that same poignant way as did Gracie. With my eyes fixed on them, I utter a defiant prayer: “Where were you that day?” I demand. “Where else could you possibly have been?”
They file out of the church in even greater numbers, hundreds of them, now, blooming on the front steps of the Church of the Nativity, still weeping but smiling through it, still green-eyed and light-haired, and still freckled, unwilling to give each other up.
And I am unwilling to give her up, either. I drive to the shore road, stand at the bottom and look up at it. They have taken that place from me. He who did that, and the police, and the cameras; I can’t go there.
Until I saw those other girls on the church steps, I hadn’t remembered the freckles. She had them, but they were purple, and ever so small, they could have been anything, dirt, anything.
I can only stare up at the place. I can see it, and her, but I can’t go there.
“We’re going to do something up there, at the spot where she was killed,” Aunt Alice said to me after the Mass. “We’re not sure, probably a candle vigil, plant some things for her. If you’re interested, someone will call you.”
Of course. Then I will go back, with them, with the freckles and the green eyes and the light hair, for I never, ever, want to lose her, and if I go with them, the legion of the freckles and light hair, perhaps they will eventually come before her, eventually eclipse Gracie, giving her rest at last, and I won’t see her quite so much. I will have to wait, but I will go back.