The rather short first chapter of Body in the Pond, the second volume of the illuminating St. Max mystery series, set in the last outpost of Western civilization
“We have no star-crossed lovers this year,” lamented Smitty. A light powder from the sugar donut in his hand cascaded to the old priest’s navy Shetland. He brushed it away, pursed his lips, and looked thoughtfully into the fire. May was still young, but May nights in Massachusetts can be chill, and there had been the year’s last small pile of oak waiting patiently beside the fireplace, and we were determined to enjoy it. We’d gathered in the headmaster’s office to discuss the presence, or absence, of runaway lovers at the St. Max school, where we lived and taught and sheltered from the unruly world beyond our borders. A boy had recently run away from Phillips in nearby Andover. We had no idea if it was for love, but it was spring, after all.
“You make our good luck sound so sad,” I returned mournfully. I sipped at the headmaster’s Scotch.
Smitty exhaled with a satisfying sigh. “Elopements and runaways make me feel young,” he said as if remembering, although I doubt he’d ever done either. “You don’t want them, but you miss them when you don’t have them. You wonder what young people are doing if they’re not falling in love and running off in the spring.”
“They’ve seen too much ‘love’ on MTV to think it’s worth running away for,” I reminded him.
He waved his free hand beside his ear to brush the thought away. “Some of them must remember love. We do have them read books here, don’t we?”
“Personally, I still find D. H. Lawrence delicious.”
He sputtered his old man’s lips, smiled because what I’d said was true for him as well, although maybe Lawrence was too contemporary for him. The man had died less than a century before, making him practically warm in the grave according to St. Max time. Smitty took another bite from his donut.
Our headmaster, Malcolm Cunningham, stood before the fireplace. He was a large man, once a rower of sleek boats and a football player, and he made a large silhouette and a huge shadow that crept across the floor and climbed the opposite wall. He’d just finished poking a smoldering oak log and still held the iron poker in one hand, which was now clasped in his other hand behind his back. It would have looked menacing, except that Malcolm couldn’t manage menacing. The decades had turned him into a comfortable man, a very companionable, mellow retriever with a large, walrus-like moustache.
“Let’s just hope they find him,” he said quietly, “and that love is the least of it.”
The boy from Phillips had gone missing over the weekend. It is traditional for private schools to let one another know about these kinds of events, and if it happens in spring one of the possibilities is that the missing boy or girl has run off with his or her true love from a nearby school. It doesn’t happen often, but every few years a young couple will run away for a week, fleeing the prospects of their well-to-do futures, finding in each other solace from their privileged families, and then returning when they began to miss the comfort of the things they fled. But we had all of our young men and women in place at the end of a spring weekend. We worried about the boy, but we didn’t know him, and there was nothing we could do beyond worrying and staying attuned. And so as Smitty brushed the powder from his sweater, making white swirls on the wool, and Malcolm stood with his poker as if prepared to battle the demons-from-the-oak that attack youth with flames of desire, we were in fact relieved.
“He’s a foreign student,” said Malcolm.
“From?” I asked.
“Kosovo I think.” Undoubtedly one assistant headmaster or another from Phillips had informed Malcolm of just enough detail to be helpful but not enough to break the laws and traditions of discretion that we live by. “This was his first year. He’d entered as a fifth former.”
What we call a fifth former is known by the rest of the country as a high school junior.
“That raises a host of possibilities,” I said.
Smitty mumbled “mmmmppph” as he ate, not quite able to communicate one of the possibilities to us.
“It does indeed,” said Malcolm. “A year of alienation among students who’d made their friends in previous years.”
“A year of difficulty with the language and culture,” I added. “Does he have family in the states?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he a Serb Kosovar or an Albanian Kosovar?”
Malcolm bent and set the poker in its iron stand, where it clanged against the ash shovel. Then he brushed his hands and came to the round oak table where I was sitting.
“I have no idea,” Malcolm said. “Does it make a difference?”
“To the Serbs and the Albanians it would make several hundred years of very bloody difference.”
He nodded. “But as he’s not ours, and since we haven’t come across any connection to St. Max, I suppose it’s moot.”
The truth was, we were feeling at loose ends. We had all thought, What if he’d been one of ours? And even though we didn’t know him, we worried about him, because he was young and a student at a neighbor school, where we knew many people.
“I’m going home,” Smitty announced, now wiping his free hands against each other. “It’s getting late. We’re all accounted for. Maybe we’ll learn something tomorrow.”
“It’s only nine o’clock, Smitty,” I said.
“That late?” He almost jumped from the wingback chair where he’d been sitting. “Martha will be worried about me. Think I’ve run away.” He winked at us. We live and work at a place where winks are still a form of communication. Little nods can be books waiting to be opened. “Good night, Benschloss,” he said. “Headmaster.” He performed a little nod. I stood to signal goodbye—we also stand when people leave us. The rest of the world has abandoned these customs, and just look at the shape it’s in.