In the Ground

A snippet from In the Ground, which follows Body in the Pond, and is in the works.

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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