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Vol. 3, No. 2

Northwood
by Paul Griner

~

Amanda pushed aside several low branches and climbed over the trunk of a fallen fir, then leaned into the straps of her pack as the trail began to ascend. The crisp air smelled of decaying leaves, and she chose carefully where she placed her boots among the tangled roots scoring the trail. Though her mother had died somewhere in these woods--and though she had frequent nightmares about stumbling across her bones while on one of her walks--she found it paradoxically soothing to go for long hikes in them. Something about the constant motion and the cool air and the exertion induced a trancelike state in which she could forget for long periods that her mother was dead, losing herself in reveries about her own future or in memories of their shared past. She'd taken to hiking more and more often as the semester went on, and she regretted that the weather would soon bring an end to it.
      After an hour of walking, she entered a clearing and was startled to hear someone call her name. She yelped with surprise, the sound echoing through the surrounding woods, before recognizing Mr. Stemmler. He was sitting on top of a boulder, arms clasped around his raised knees.
      "Oh, Mr. Stemmler," she said, hand to her chest. "Sorry. I didn't expect to see anyone here."
      "Please," he said. "No apologies. It is I who startled you, after all." He jumped down from the rock and clapped his hands clean. "Becky is not with you?"
      "Not today." They often hiked the woods together, talking, making plans, searching for clues.
      "You are solo, then." He pulled his pack from the rock and slung it over his shoulder, and nodded at the trail. "Allow me to go with you. We can walk together for a bit."
      As they moved off, he began to ask her about Becky.
      "She is doing well in her classes, yes?"
      "Really well. She's studying right now."
      "Good. I am sometimes worried about her." He broke a dead branch off a tree and knocked it against the trunks of other trees as they passed them.
      "But you're so close. I'm sure she'd tell you if something were wrong."
      "In a way, yes. Our tragedies have united us. But even fathers do not know everything about their daughters. Some things are shared only between sisters, or with friends."
      She blushed, feeling him watching her. "Well. She seems fine to me."
      "And you?"
      "Me?" She kept her eyes focused on the trail.
      "You are not happy, yet. Understandable. But you are adjusting to school, and to, well, to your new life?"
      She didn't answer immediately. She had appreciated Mr. Stemmler's solicitousness in the aftermath of her mother's disappearance--he'd been the only official to contact her consistently--but though she and Becky had become best friends through circumstance and inclination, she did not feel the affection for him that Becky did. Becky had been younger when her own mother had died, for one thing. She was twelve when her mother had come up to the school in search of a job and then been killed on the ride home when her car skidded off the weirwork bridge and into the water. Her body had never been found. In the following months, Mr. Stemmler told Becky he had a scholarship already set up for her at Northwood, and since for five years he kept in touch with her, encouraging her, cajoling her, she'd been happy to accept. For another thing, Mr. Stemmler had revealed things to Becky that he hadn't to Amanda, about his own wife and children--two daughters--and their deaths in a tragic accident. Still, she felt she should make an effort to repay his kindness.
      "Adjusting, yes," she said. "I suppose that's the word. I still haven't accepted it."
      "No. Acceptance takes time. Much time. And perhaps, if my own case is an example, it never comes. You must do things to make up for what you have lost."
      She wondered if that was what had motivated his concern after her mother had gone missing--memories of his own pain, and the desire to soften the blow for another.

 

~

They walked on in silence for more than a mile, Mr. Stemmler leading the way and turning up trails that were unfamiliar to her, until he stopped abruptly and asked Amanda if she could hear the noise.
      Concentrating, and making a conscious effort to quiet her own breathing, she began to hear a rushing sound, like cars on a highway. "Is that the waterfall?"
      "Yes," he said. "I find it a special spot. Come. We will eat lunch beside it. I have enough for two."
      Despite Mr. Stemmler's intrusion on her solitude, she was glad, as she'd heard about the waterfall and had wanted to visit it, but had always been too busy with searches to make the time. And when she reached it, she found it so stunning that she stopped just at the entrance to the clearing, mesmerized by the vibrating ribbon of silver water and by the small rainbows rising sequentially up the face of the fall as rapidly as bubbles in a champagne glass. They dissipated in the blue air once they reached the top, and, watching them, she couldn't help wishing that she'd stumbled across the waterfall with her mother rather than Mr. Stemmler, because it was exactly the kind of place Joan would have loved.

 

~

The lunch was heavy--sausage and salami, three types of cheeses, brown bread and Rome apples, and black Russian tea steaming as Mr. Stemmler poured it from the thermos. He was wrong about the amount of food; there was enough for three. While they ate, he suggested courses she should take the following semester, and professors she should be certain to sign up for, and other hikes she might enjoy, but she felt throughout the meal that his conversation was a type of shell, barely containing something he really wanted to say.
      At last he put both hands on the picnic table and sighed. "I wish we were able to talk like this more often," he said. "It is important for me to see you."
      Here was what he was after; she was sure of it. And she began to suspect that the meeting on the trail hadn't been fortuitous--he'd been waiting, after all, and he had so much food, and he would have known from Becky that they hiked every weekend, and their favorite routes. She wondered if he'd asked Becky not to go this time, in order to have this chance to talk; perhaps the paper she was working on had been a front.
      He picked up an apple and began to slice it. "You know, you and Becky are special to me. Our tragedies have been great, but, in an odd way, perhaps they have been good, as they brought us together."
      He paused but she did not answer, and he must have seen her surprise.
      "No," he said, waving the knife. "I am not saying it correctly. Or perhaps it is only with age that you will come to see it this way. What I mean is this: sometimes, from the worst things come unexpected joys. For me, I thought I would never again be happy after my children died. But these deaths, Becky's mother's and your mother's, they have allowed me to become close to two beautiful girls, who remind me of my own daughters. I am allowed to re-create my family."
      She was appalled that he could believe this, that he could find comfort in her mother's death. He hadn't known Joan, of course, having spent all of an hour with her, and yet Amanda found it almost impossible to believe he could so easily dismiss her desolation at her mother's loss. Only an ingrained habit of politeness prevented her from saying so, but she couldn't hold her tongue completely.
      "It's not really your family." She bit into an apple.
      "No?"
      "No wife."
      The knife slipped in his hand. "Scheisse," he said, holding his thumb up and shaking it. A thin red scratch at the base quickly began to fill with blood. He sucked the wound clean and wrapped it with a bandanna. "Macht nichts," he said.
      She shook her head, obviously puzzled. Since she spoke no German, she hadn't understood what he'd said.
      "You do not have the language then, like your mother? I said ‘never mind.' It was not your fault, you see."
      "How did you know my mother understood German?"
      "Oh, she sang it. As a way to comfort herself."
      "I don't remember her singing during the interview."
      He studied his hand for a moment, then touched his forehead and laughed at his own foolishness. "Quite right." He tightened the bandanna, aware that she was watching him. "She never did. It was something she mentioned during the interview, her knowledge of German. I suppose that, like you, I think of her so often, I had just imagined her singing and then believed it was true."
      For a few seconds she stared at him. The water thundered down behind her. Had her mother mentioned German during the interview? She didn't remember it. But so much had happened since, and she did not entirely trust her memory. Many things about her mother from that afternoon--nearly the last time Amanda had seen her alive--she knew to have disappeared from her memory: gestures, expressions, conversational inlets and eddies. A discussion about German could easily have been one of them.
      He rooted through his pack for some water and passed the bottle to Amanda. After letting her drink, he handed her some of the apple and began slicing another.
      "I think of my mother every day," she said.
      "You would be wrong not to," he said. "But for me, being without a wife is not a bad thing. In the end, my own was unfaithful." Touching her shoulder, he added, "But being without daughters is a terrible thing."
      Embarrassed, Amanda swiveled on the bench and untied the laces of her boots in order to tighten them, but Mr. Stemmler went on, telling her about discovering his wife with another man and about ordering her out of the house.
      "She took my girls, too, and that was when the accident occurred. I had no idea my daughters were in the car. So you see, we are all complicit in our sorrows."
      "I'm not," Amanda snapped.
      "Not directly. No more than I was. But the visit of your mother was because you wished to see the college, yes?"
      Amanda found herself standing, fingers trembling and voice quivering with anger. "Please stop. I don't want to talk about this anymore, Mr. Stemmler. I feel bad enough as it is."
      He stood, too. "I do not wish to injure you, Amanda, only to make you see that we have much in common."
      She was glad the table was between them, as she had the unsettling feeling that he wanted to hug her. She walked closer to the waterfall to collect herself, letting drops of water splash against her skin. One of her boots was still unlaced and she knelt to retie it. His shadow soon fell across her.
      "Please," he said, extracting a long, narrow object wrapped in brown felt from his pack. He held it out to her when she looked up. "I have gone about this all wrong. Forgive me. This is something I very much want you to have."
      "Mr. Stemmler." She closed her eyes, wishing that she'd never come to the woods, that she'd never heard of the school, that her mother was still alive, but most of all that right now she was alone.
      "Until you have seen it, I must ask you not to refuse," Mr. Stemmler said. He was manipulative, she knew, the way he used his own sorrow to try to win her sympathy, but perhaps it was unintentional--perhaps he couldn't help himself. And he was revealing things to her he'd never confided to Becky, she was sure of it; Becky would have told her if she'd known about his wife's affair. In the end, she decided, he was a pathetic figure, not a monstrous one. Her shoulders slumped. She saw no way of ending the situation other than to take what he was offering, and opening her eyes she held out her hand.

 

~

The nutcracker was beautifully made, she saw that instantly. But why was he giving it to her?
      He seemed to anticipate her question. "Years ago, I gave it to my wife, as a sign of love. It had been my mother's. I thought in you it would have another chance at purity."
      "Mr. Stemmler. It's beautiful. But that's so much to ask of me. Wouldn't you rather save it for someone closer?"
      "No." He went back to the picnic table and began cleaning up, folding the plastic bags of cold cuts, emptying the thermos and screwing tight its lid. "It is my hope that giving it to you will induce such closeness."
      She thanked him and wandered into the cave, eager to get away from him. It smelled smoky and the sound of the waterfall was magnified by the cave walls--she could feel the air around her trembling from the roar--and in the dim light it was a few seconds before her eyes adjusted and she began to read the inscriptions on the walls. When she saw her mother's drawing, she gasped.

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