Under the Ground

Chapters four and five (who says you must start at the beginning?) of volume three (in progress) of the history of St. Max.

IV

She woke at five in the morning, as she always did, in every season, with no need of an alarm. And, as always, she stepped directly from sleep to consciousness, with no need to linger.

Smitty made light breathing sounds from the other bed. Even as a young woman Martha thought, “How can I invite him into mine if I don’t have my own?” Now, of course, they each luxuriated in the space of their unfettered sleep, and when they shared a bed it was a vacation.

Martha pulled the door behind her but didn’t latch it. She knew he liked to hear her moving around the cottage, even in his sleep, as long as the sounds were soothing and regular. She’d become a coffee snob late in life, and she wrapped the grinder in a towel to dampen the noise, then set the maker to steam the resulting Sumatran powder before brewing. It pleased her to develop a new indulgent habit at this age.

After preparing her mug she walked out the back door and stood for a while on the top of the three steps that led to a small patio and backyard. Deciduous trees embraced the cottage and clearing all around: oaks, maples, and a few birches. In another month she would see their naked fingers against cold skies, but not yet. When the sun rose it would find them ridiculous with color. She cupped the mug in her hands. She liked the balancing act of cold mornings and warm coffee. She would stand like this even in deep winter, with snow and ice on the ground. But only for a minute. She shook herself. Things to do.

She dressed quickly, made a breakfast of granola and yogurt, and opened her folder of notes in the corner of the dining room, where she’d made an office at the cherry secretary. It seemed she’d just settled when the mantle clock chimed seven. Martha raised her arms in mock alarm. Where does the time go? Car keys, jacket, canvas brief case, a travel mug of coffee, and finally she opened the door to the bedroom: “I’m going.”

“Be right there,” mumbled the lump of blankets.

Then she was off in her car as the sky began to lighten.

*

It had the same color when she returned, although now the light had begun its retreat rather than its advance. She hadn’t intended to stay this long. She never did.

Rather than driving to the cottage she drove to the school. Smitty kept a mailbox there, and he often forgot to check it. Martha also had a book she wanted to return to Adelaide Simpson, from whom she’d borrowed it: the teachers had bins as well as mailboxes in the mailroom, and she thought she would leave it there. All of this was unimportant. She’d thought of it only because she wanted to speak with Benschloss, and she had decided she wanted to do this in person. Loose associations waved in a breeze. The spring before, Benschloss’s life—more accurately, his imagination—had intersected with Adelaide’s life when her father had died, and Benschloss had learned something that Martha needed now.

She parked in the little lot near the main building. Benschloss’s shed stood alone across the lane. He liked to call it a cottage, but it had been, after all, a farm shed. She thought a shed suited him better. Only old people live in cottages, and although Benschloss pretended to be old, he wasn’t. He in fact always seemed on the verge of falling backward into adolescence, but the way he kept his footing was endearing.

As Martha entered the building a student was simultaneously exiting, and they both stumbled a bit as the door opened more quickly than either had expected.

“Chitwood.”

“Ma’am. Sorry.”

“No harm done. How was summer?”

She knew it had been eventful. His life had changed. Martha hadn’t yet spoken to him since his return. Having a life separate from the school, she had irregular contact with the students and lived a step away from them. It was often a help.

“It was good.”

“Tell me one good thing.”

If she’d been a faculty member, this would have felt like an intrusion. But she wasn’t, and being old she could be direct.

He thought for a moment. “Cinder,” he said. “Our dog.”

“Ah.” She knew what he meant. “Good answer. We had dogs.”

Chitwood looked up. His eyes held the question.

“You get to that ‘last dog’ stage of life,” she replied. “It wouldn’t be fair, would it?”

She knew he knew what she meant. He smiled and looked down.

“Off you go. Good to see you, Chitwood.”

Off he went. Martha descended to the mailroom and retrieved a bundle of envelopes and catalogs from Smitty’s box. She shuffled through them in dim light that came from the corridor. All of the catalogs featured warm, lovely, expensive things for women: clothing, linens, bedding, quirky objets d’art to strew around a cottage. Either Smitty had a girlfriend or was planning on buying her something. She smiled. He was a thoughtful man, but most likely he had found himself on a mailing list after buying her a gift a decade ago and had received catalogs ever since. She pulled one from the pile: sale items from the previous winter.

Outside, she saw that lights had started to appear at the entrances to buildings. It was the perfect time of day, the cusp of light. She smelled autumn in the air, the sharp watery scent with a hint of apple, a time to get things done. She knocked on Benschloss’s door.

“Martha.”

“Benschloss.”

They paused to gather their wits.

“I’m here about the other bones,” she said. “I need your help.”

V

When Martha knocked I was in the midst of grading essays on the Peace of Westphalia, which no one remembers but which is responsible for everything in the West. It’s not unusual for someone to appear at my door in the evening, but I didn’t expect it to be Martha. She’d said she was going to call, but there she stood, wanting to talk about bones.

Martha enjoyed the freedom to be abrupt that age gave her. “It’s a bit late,” she said, both an apology and its dismissal. I liked Martha.

“Coffee?”

“I didn’t know you kept any.” She observed our habits and rituals at St. Max from a step removed, and remembered everything.

“Just for you.”

It’s almost always safe, if sometimes too cute, to be flirtatious with a woman in her seventies. She was good enough to smile rather than shake her head and mutter.

“In that case,” she said, took off her jacket, and folded it over the back of a chair.

I went to the tiny kitchen area in the backroom—it was the size of the small snack corner for a small office—and began brewing with my seldom used machine while she examined my bookshelves.

“I didn’t see Smitty today,” I called. Smitty, being unique, existed outside our usual naming rituals.

“I haven’t either. He had a meeting in Cambridge. I worked today and left the house early. He was asleep last time I saw him.”

“What was his meeting?”

“The usual. Making the world a better place.”

When I’d set things to brewing I found her examining the two shelves of vinyl records I keep. I collect them for their covers. Like the rest of the human hoard I can find anything I want to hear in nonphysical form, floating in the digital ether. It frightens me, but fear doesn’t stop me from scouring the invisible world for revelations like old tracks from Manu Dibango with the Cuarteto Patria Cubafrica. In the end we all embrace our particle beings and become less solid.

The coffee aroma seeped into the room from the kitchen. I love the smell of coffee, just don’t like the accompanying scour of acid when I drink it. Martha pulled an album of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s work from the shelf and looked at me with her brow raised. She pulled the record from the sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and turned the system on.

“I like the pops and scratches,” she said. “And this version of Greensleeves. They bring me back.”

The coffee maker made a sound like a small electronic mouse, and I poured her coffee. She sipped from the cup gratefully, thanked me, set it on the side table I’d found in the school’s collection of lost furniture, and said, sitting, “So.”

I waited. She shifted in her seat, sat back, draped a leg—gathered herself. She now looked as if this room was hers; she’d taken possession.

“Last spring,” she said, “as you were looking into the death of Adelaide Simpson’s father, you conducted a little field research. Into encampments of homeless people in the area, if I understand correctly.”

I nodded and sat on the arm of my small sofa.

“Joan told me about the excursions.”

I nodded again. “Actually, it was a more narrow, um, study. I visited drinkers’ camps.”

She looked at me steadily. After a few moments it became unnerving. She was assessing me. Finally she said, “Would you take me to one?”

I felt I should take my time answering, just as she’d taken her time asking. I let my consideration hang in the space between us. She didn’t mind.

“Any one?” I asked. “Or one in particular?”

She sipped her coffee. I wondered if it would keep her awake, or if she was one of those people who it relaxed.

“One in particular,” she said, and I saw that she was gathering the thought behind her request.

I waited again. It wasn’t a game. I offered patience as a gesture of respect. I would listen. The evening had both slowed and lengthened. The music had meandered outside the channel of its folk routes. It has always been a wistful song, and in Williams’s fantasia it’s more so. Martha was anchoring me in my own rooms as it flowed around us. The table lamps simmered with that light that’s seen through windows on autumn evenings.

“Tell me,” I said.

She nurtured her hands with the warm cup, looked off into the music, and settled into her knowledge that, after all, telling me is what she’d come to do. I was humbled. Martha has a reputation at St. Max as a curious creature who has embraced her place as the diminutive wife of our chaplain as a base from which to conduct excursions and undertake missions in the wider world. She muted evidence of the depth of her life in order to live it less noticed.

“The body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave near one of these encampments.”

I remembered seeing the article in the Townsman, and remembered avoiding it. She looked at me, again, assessing me, again, trying to determine if I was, in fact, the person with whom to partner on whatever quest she was about to embark on. There was sorrow in her face. I bowed my head.

“I know her,” she released at last. Then, after several slow moments, “knew her.”

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