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Vol. 3, No. 2

Northwood
by Paul Griner

~

The ground rose steadily and their progress was slow, as the road curved and switched back repeatedly, but Mr. Stemmler assured Joan that the view from the top was worth it.
      And it was. They came to an overlook, and Joan got out to enjoy it: miles of blue forest in the valleys between jagged gray mountains, emerald lakes rimmed by white scimitars of birch, fat slow-moving clouds stretching to the horizon, their bulbous undersides glowing in the afternoon's pink light. Still, she was impatient to go, and the air was so cold she couldn't stand out in it for long. After waiting a decent interval, she returned to the car and found it hot and smoke-filled.
      "Thank you," she said. "You've shown me some beautiful things today."
      "I am happy for you," he said, and put the car in gear. "And here." He placed a long, narrow box across her knees. "A gift for you. To clear up any misunderstanding."
      "Misunderstanding?"
      "You seemed upset that I did not accompany you. So, a small gift from my homeland. You will enjoy it, I think."
      Inside the box was a hand-painted nutcracker in the shape of a woman, about eight inches high, carved from wood. It could stand upright on its two legs, and it had a lever jutting from its back that was connected to the figure's lower jaw. When the lever was raised, the jaw pushed out and down, dropping almost to the figure's knees, and her white blouse disappeared. She looked as though she was screaming.
      Joan worked the lever a few times and then inspected the piece, the delicate carving, the care with which it had been painted. The face was faintly exotic, the cheekbones inordinately angled, the eyes luminous and overlarge. She guessed it was very old and probably expensive, and it seemed too extravagant a gift for an apology.
      "I don't know what to say."
      "Say nothing. If you enjoy it, that will be enough."
      "I do. Thank you. It's very kind."
      "But you like the carving?"
      "Very much."
      "Good. That pleases me." He sucked loudly on his pipe. "It was my wife's."
      She tried to hand it back. "Really, Mr. Stemmler. You should keep it."
      He shook his head and removed the pipe from his mouth. "Her things are everywhere in the house, and I am trying now to find uses for them."
      "I'm sorry. I know what it's like to lose a spouse."
      "No." He waved the pipe. "It was long ago. An accident. The true tragedy was losing my daughters. What is important is that this go to someone else deserving, the mother of a wonderful girl."
      She wondered what else would happen that she'd misinterpret, and wished she was with Amanda, but that would be a while yet. To distract herself, she turned the carving over and over in her hands while she looked out at the passing woods. It was growing darker, and the individual trees were less distinct, the ground beneath them shadowed.

 

~

They drove in silence for a few miles, still heading north, and then they came off the spur of a mountain and crossed a bridge spanning a narrow gorge, with the river below them silver and high. The tires made an odd, thrumming noise as they passed over the bridge.
      "What a strange sound."
      "Weirwork," Mr. Stemmler said. "The only one like it in the world. The concrete vibrates from the tires." He downshifted to gain speed for the next hill.
      Hadn't Amanda said the bridge was nowhere near the canal? Or had she meant only nowhere near its beginning? Joan checked her watch and put the back of her hand to her cheek; her skin was hot and she felt herself beginning to sweat.
      "It's almost two-fifteen," she said. "Will we be there soon?"
      "The canal you mean?"
      She nodded.
      "Oh yes."
      About a quarter mile farther on they slowed for a sharp corner, and just after it was an old gas station, a light showing behind its one small window, and Joan found herself gripping the door handle as they approached it.
      Mr. Stemmler glanced over at her, then swerved into the station's concrete lot.
      "Wait here," he said, resting his hand briefly on her knee as they came to a stop. "Unless you want something inside."
      He opened the door and stepped out, leaving the car running, then leaned back in to hear her response.
      She was being foolish again, she told herself. He would not leave her alone in the car with the engine running if he weren't trustworthy, and going inside would only embarrass her. By now, her face and neck were probably scarlet.
      "Thanks," she said. "I'll just wait here."
      "I will return shortly, then." He shook an empty tobacco pouch by way of explanation and strode off.
      As he entered the garage, she felt her body relaxing. The nutcracker was still in her hand, its mouth open. She put it in the box and closed it and slipped the box under Mr. Stemmler's seat, intending to leave it behind. The day was turning into one she didn't particularly wish to remember.

 

~

Five minutes later, Mr. Stemmler pointed to a line of blue flashing through the green darkness of the trees in the valley below them.
      "The canal," he said. And there, captured in the lock, was a long, white boat, its windows all lighted. Seeing it had the odd effect of making Joan more nervous, as if it were a mirage, bound to disappear as soon as she reached for it. Her breathing was very shallow, and she tried to concentrate on the boat. She found it hard to tell, viewing it as she did through the intervening and changeable screen of the trees, but the deck looked festive and crowded.
      "The lock will be filling now," Mr. Stemmler said.
      It took a few minutes for them to drive down the winding road into the valley, and as they did, Mr. Stemmler explained the lock's workings: how the student pilot stopped the boat, how others jumped off and worked the lock's complicated mechanisms, and how, once the boat was through, the students manning the lock ran after the boat and jumped aboard again. "Amanda will get to do all that," he said. "Think how much she will enjoy it."
      As they reached the valley floor, the boat sounded its horn, and then a band began playing loudly--all guitars and drums. From inside the car, Joan could no longer see the boat, as the valley sloped upward and the canal itself hugged the base of the hills on the far side of the valley. They were below the boat's line of sight.
      "Perfect timing," Mr. Stemmler said, and pulled into a dirt lot about a mile from the canal. She could walk from here, he explained. "The boat will just have started when you get there." They both got out. "Ich werde auch gehen," he said.
      "Nein," she said. She didn't need him to go with her. She turned to him, her nostrils flaring. "How did you know I understood German?"
      "Oh." He blushed for the first time. "Was that not you I heard singing, far off down the trail?" He closed the door and moved around to the trunk, humming "Silent Night." "Go on now," he said, sorting through his keys. "Run. Beside the canal is a towpath. You will just be able to catch up with the boat."
      She began walking along the rising ground toward the canal and the boat, which gave another blast of its horn and started forward behind the trees, its lights looking fantastically bright in the fading daylight.
      The boat was picking up speed, moving faster than she'd thought, and she started to jog after it. There was a chance that he'd heard her on the trail, she told herself; she'd been singing as she reached its end, and perhaps he'd been listening after all.
      She climbed a final slope, up to the towpath, and at last could see the deck, where people were shuffling about, dancing to the music. At the lock, she had to make her way through a gate, and by the time she was out, the boat was a quarter mile farther on, nearing a bend in the canal. The gravel towpath stretched ahead, white and shining. She heard an odd, familiar sound behind her, a tocking sound, like stone on stone, and when she looked back, she saw Mr. Stemmler knocking the bowl of his pipe against a rock, wearing a bright yellow anorak, so bright it seemed to glow in the darkening air.
      She ran after the boat, waving, shouting to be noticed, and just before the boat disappeared around the bend, two girls on the deck looked at her and pointed. Was one of them Amanda? No, she couldn't have been: Amanda didn't have a blue scarf, and even if she had, she wouldn't have worn it in her hair like that. Still, the thought of Amanda made her go even faster.
      "Amanda!" she called, yelling out her daughter's name and waving, and the girls were waving back and shouting something, too, though what it was she couldn't distinguish over the noise of the music, and then the boat rounded the corner and was gone. She went faster still, turning the bend so quickly that it suddenly felt as though the ground had dropped away beneath her, and by the time she realized it had, it was too late to stop herself from falling.

 

~

When she awoke, Mr. Stemmler was standing above her on the towpath, pipe in his mouth, smoke rising from the bowl. He looked like a cutout against the sky, which now was indigo and orange, and she could not make out his face. She decided she had lain there for some time, an hour, possibly two, and she realized she was shivering. She probed her teeth with her tongue; they were all there, but she tasted blood, and when she tried to sit up, pain shot through her arm.
      She lay back until she remembered what had happened, and then she stood and took a few steps. She had lost a shoe, and it was hard to balance herself with one useless arm. As she made her slow way up the slope toward Mr. Stemmler, her foot slipped and she reached for a branch to steady herself but it broke off in her hand and sent her tumbling once again to the bottom.
      She sobbed. Mr. Stemmler, who had been watching, put his thumb over the pipe to snuff it, then tucked it in his pocket and worked his way down to her. In one swift motion he bent and put his hands under her arms and hoisted her to her feet. She clung to him until they reached the top, when he pushed her to arm's length and looked at her.
      With an effort, she was able to bring his face into focus. He was observing her closely.
      "Something terrible is about to happen," she said, slurring her words from the blood in her mouth. "Isn't it?"
      "No," he said, and his voice was reassuring. He rubbed some dirt from her anorak with the back of his hand, then picked a few leaves from her hair and let them fall to the ground. At last he lay his palm against her cheek. "Not about to. Is it not clear to you? It already has."
      She understood; it had been carefully planned. Near where the path ended the police would find her shoe, perhaps some hair and a bit of blood on the rocks, and a snapped branch she'd held on to as she scrambled back up to the towpath. The conclusion would be obvious: she had stumbled and fallen, and--hurt--she could have wandered off in any direction, and in all directions there was water and gorges, cliffs and bogs. Her body would never be found. Mr. Stemmler, she remembered, had snuffed his pipe with his thumb and then pocketed it, so his own presence would be nowhere in evidence. She realized she was crying when she felt his fingers, warm against her skin, wiping away her tears.
      "Come now," he said. "What is the use of these tears? It is time we go. Back to that bridge you were so curious about. There have been accidents there before."
      He took her arm, the good one, and pressed something into her hand. It was the nutcracker, the lever raised, the mouth open in its silent scream. She dropped it and it clattered off a rock, but he picked it up and pushed it into her hand again, clasping his fingers so tightly around hers that she felt each ridge of the wood bite into her skin.

II

The squirrels were fat and cautious, searching for mast yet scattering at the approach of Amanda's footsteps, which made a terrific racket in the leaves. Now and again she stopped along the trail to listen to their claws ticking against the bark or to watch them chase one another into the upper branches, where they were silhouetted against the blue dome of the sky. A few cardinals were left, crimson streaks flashing through the dusty green pines, and on the ride out she'd seen fallen apples clustered around the trunks of trees like red blankets and shining in the morning sun, but winter was fast approaching.
      It was just over a year since her mother's disappearance, and much of the time was a horrific blur. She'd muddled through her senior year of high school--knowing that all she had to do for Northwood to take her was graduate--returning to search during breaks and the occasional long weekend, to no avail.
      The police were in the end unhelpful. They were not indifferent, but they'd told her that there was little they could do. They'd searched daily for a month, weekly thereafter, starting from the last spot Joan had been seen, the towpath beside the canal. They'd found her shoe, some blood, a chip of polychromed wood, and nothing else.
      "There must be footprints," she'd said to the sergeant in charge of the case, a small, Italian man with slicked-back hair and the palest skin she'd ever seen, so pale it looked as if he painted it white each morning after shaving.
      "Of course there are, that's the problem. Or there were. Thousands of them, which now are under snow. It's a towpath, at the end of a busy season. We found kids' footprints, women's, men's. We even found one or two barefoot ones, which might have been hers, but it's impossible to tell. The truth is, other than the blood and the shoe, there's not much to go on."
      Even the girls who had seen Joan running behind the boat couldn't say much about her. They hadn't seen her fall, they'd only seen her running. And they hadn't thought about it again for a couple of days, until they heard about the missing woman, and by then it was probably too late: the day following Joan's disappearance, the weather had turned bitterly cold. She couldn't have survived long, and after a few days it became obvious they were looking not for Amanda's mother but for her mother's body. So far, it hadn't appeared.

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