In the Ground

A few words from the draft of In the Ground, the third volume of the revelatory Murder at St. Max series, set at the last outpost of Western civilization. The words here grow, shrink, vanish, visit unexpectedly.

“I saw Martha the other day.”

“Me too,” he quipped.

I laughed. “Well, the sighting is a bit more unusual for me than for you.”

He made a slight humming sound that I interpreted as “don’t be so sure.”

“She was with Lieutenant Oxenbow.”

“Not arrested, I hope.”

“I don’t think so. They seemed in deep conversation.”

“Mmm. The best kind.”

“She said they’d been talking about bones.”

“Well,” he sighed, “we seem to have more of them about than usual.”

He made a slight hacking sound and stirred the old fluids in the back of his throat, then took a handkerchief from a coat pocket and wiped his lips.

“I asked if she meant the bones from Hopkins’ dig, but she said no, others.”

I let the words settle, giving Smitty an opportunity to illuminate me, but we remained in darkness.

“She made a point of saying she’d be in touch.”

I let these linger in the air as well, but Smitty didn’t rise from the depths to the bait. So we stared together and danced motionlessly, gazing into the darkness across the pond. Mist had settled on the water. From our vantage, the moon was hidden by trees to the south, but its light found cracks in the canopy and caught the mist now and again, and the mist, not warmed and so not rising, glowed faintly.

“This was not always a pond,” he said.

I waited.

“It was bottomland, of course.”

Where we sat on the floats there must once have been the branches of trees.

“People once walked beneath us,” he went on, softly. Then he stirred and shook his shoulders as if cold. “Sorry, Benschloss, this is old man’s talk. By this age things that happened long ago don’t seem so far away anymore. You probably don’t spend much time in the past.”

 “You’ve got me walking there now, Smitty.” He’d forgotten for a moment that I taught history, but that involved an impersonal past.

“Mmm. Well. Autumn. Warm days and chill nights. Leaves falling.”

I nodded. He couldn’t see it, but I trusted he felt it.

“Was that a haiku?” he asked suddenly. He put forth a hand and started counting syllables, extending a finger for each. Then he lost count and started again. He laughed. “I count twelve. How many do I need?”

Where else but here does anyone spend their time trying to remember the structure of a poem’s form?

“Seventeen?” I offered. “I think.”

“I need five more then.”

“Do those count?”

He laughed aloud now and splayed his two hands and ten fingers in front of him, like an infant just discovering that these things at the end of his arms were his.

“Martha will call,” he said, then muttered “bones” in a low voice.

With a satisfying sound he rose and made another, equally satisfying sound, as if proud he’d made it all the way up.

“She will call. She has a question for you. About other bones. And now I will wander home.”

“I’ll go part way with you.”

“Good  of you, Benschloss. Don’t let me get lost.”

“You’ll be perfectly safe for the first half.”

“Halfway home and a long way to go.”

We marched up the hill together. By now I wished I’d brought a warmer jacket, but I’d soon be in my cottage. We parted just beyond my door, where the main lane turns, grows narrower, and heads off into the wild at the southern end of campus, where Smitty and Martha’s cottage sits in a small clearing. Martha called the next day.