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Vol. 3, No. 2

Northwood
by Paul Griner

The Kestens, Joan and her daughter, Amanda, arrived at Northwood's admissions office at 3:00--fifteen minutes early--and then were kept waiting beyond their appointed time. Mr. Stemmler, the admissions director, his redheaded secretary explained, had to take an important call.
      Brochures on the school's various majors were piled on a demilune table against one wall; Amanda leafed through them while Joan, working on her nails, listened unobtrusively through the closed door to Mr. Stemmler's murmuring voice. She wanted to get a sense of Mr. Stemmler, to gauge him before she met him. After numerous interviews, she'd found it paid to be prepared.
      Now and again he broke into what sounded like a rather excited German. His name was German, as was hers; perhaps it would be a point of conversation if discussion lagged, which it had at several other schools. Each time, she'd felt her daughter's chances of acceptance diminishing.
      When at last Mr. Stemmler was done and came out to greet them, he was tall, silver haired, handsome, and apologetic, and Joan found herself not minding the delay. He took his time introducing himself to Amanda, clasping her hand in both of his, and Joan used the opportunity to study him and his office. With each personal detail she took in, the long, elegant fingers, the scent of his aftershave--Old Spice--the pleasant swirl of pipe tobacco hanging beneath the paneled ceiling, her sense of his refinement grew stronger.

 

~

He made them immediately comfortable, seating them in a grouping of leather armchairs--Amanda directly across from him--and served them coffee himself. Before ever mentioning the school, he talked about the town the college was situated in and the surrounding mountains and forests. His voice, which had a slight Germanic accent, was cultured and melodious, and Joan realized she'd been lost in the sound of it when she found him discoursing on the joys of hiking in the nearby woods, a subject she wasn't sure how they'd gotten on. Her eyes had been straying over the green banker's lamp on the massive cherry desk and the black walnut bookshelves.
      "There are places in the woods no other human had been to in over a century," he said, and went on to add that many loved the area so much that they were in no hurry to leave. "Some," he said, looking directly at Joan, "never do."
      Joan felt her neck beginning to blotch and was grateful for her turtleneck. Smiling, she looked away, and noticed on his desk a photograph of a girl who was about Amanda's age and who bore a striking resemblance to Amanda: the same thick black hair, the same blue eyes, the same restrained smile. Only the shape of the girl's face was different, oval where Amanda's was more triangular. She assumed it was his daughter. Was she a student here? Before she could ask, Mr. Stemmler surprised her by snapping his fingers and standing.
      "But enough about the hiking. You came to hear about the school, no? Though for me the two are inseparable." He went around to his desk, where he fiddled with the picture, light glinting off the glass as he turned it, and then came back with Amanda's application, which he opened and paged through. For a few seconds Joan was left looking at an upside-down photograph of her daughter, attached to the front of the folder.
      "Ah yes, here it is," he said, marking his place as he sat. The old radiators throughout the building clanged noisily with steam. He closed the file, looked up at Amanda, and smiled.
      "Now Amanda," he said, resting his hands on the application. "Hydraulic engineering is your interest, is it?"
      "Yes." She sat forward in her seat.
      "Good." The radiators banged especially loudly, interrupting him. He waited until the noise subsided and then said, "The gods seem to be interested in it, too. An auspicious sign. Please. Tell me what you know of our programs."
      Joan recognized the move as an attempt to sound the seriousness of Amanda's interest, to discover whether Northwood was the college she really wanted to attend or simply another one on a list of dozens. She hoped Amanda recognized it, too, as the manner of her reply would reveal more than all of her essays or recommendations. "I know a fair amount, actually," Amanda said, and Joan felt herself exhale.
      Amanda began ticking off items on her fingers: that students could get a B.A. or a B.S., or, if they stayed an extra year, an M.S.; that within the major, she could direct her studies toward waterways management, water-rights management, or water treatment; that there was a canal.
      "A canal?" Joan said, resting her coffee cup in its saucer. "Oh yes. I read something about that, but I can't quite remember it." She put her hand on Amanda's arm. "Forgive me, but I'm getting the school catalogues mixed up. My memory's not what it used to be."
      Not true, strictly speaking. She remembered the canal, but she wanted Amanda to shine.
      "Perfectly understandable, Mrs. Kesten," Mr. Stemmler said, watching her. His fingertips strayed around the edges of the application file, coming to rest at last on the picture of Amanda. "It happens to us all. But the canal is what makes us unique."
      "It runs from the edge of the campus up to the St. Lawrence," Amanda said, and went on to detail the history of its opening in 1857--when loggers still swarmed through the local woods--and the school's involvement in its construction and maintenance, sounding so much like something from the catalogue that both Joan and Mr. Stemmler laughed with pleasure.
      "Correct," he said. "And you have come at just the right time. Tomorrow afternoon is the last day we will use it this year, before shutting it down for the winter. Our Autumn Festival." He rose and found them each a brochure.
      "Every autumn we have a tradition," he said, standing behind Amanda as she scanned the brochure. She was looking at the pictures of the canal and of the students operating the locks or captaining the boats. "The seniors get to take the last boat through it each year, which will be tomorrow afternoon. Classes are canceled after the noon hour, and the entire campus is involved. You are both invited, of course, as guests of the school. In the summer, we run tourists on it, to give the students practical experience and to make money for the school, but that last boat is just us. I hope you will come." He clapped his hands in anticipation, and he seemed so excited about it--which they both knew was a good sign--that they immediately agreed.
      With that settled, Mr. Stemmler, directing many of his comments to Joan, went on to discuss Northwood--its internships and dorms, the new equipment in its old labs, the possibility of financial aid--and by the time he was done it was late afternoon. He set up Amanda's classroom visits for the following morning, then introduced them to the student tour guide, who was waiting in the outer office.
      Her name was Becky, and Joan recognized her as the girl in the picture. In person, the girls' resemblance to one another was even more noticeable; both tall and pretty, both with the same bobbed hair--they might have been sisters.
      "Your daughter?" Joan said, and then added, "I saw the picture on your desk," when Mr. Stemmler looked surprised.
      "Oh no," Mr. Stemmler said. "No. Becky is no relation, though I think of her like a daughter." He rested his hand on her shoulder and smiled.
      Becky returned his smile, and then told them a bit about herself. She was from Plattsburgh and, like Amanda, loved hydraulic engineering. As Mr. Stemmler gave Becky some instructions, Amanda whispered to her mother, "A hydro who isn't a dork. This is definitely the place for me."
      Mr. Stemmler walked them all to the door, Amanda's file under his arm. "This is the perfect time for a tour," he said. "The school is at its most striking at this hour."
      He stood gazing out the window at the bare trees lining the walkways, silhouetted against an amber sky, and at the rectangles of yellow light thrown from the brick buildings onto the leaf-covered quad, and then turned to Becky. "We want them to see our best side, my dear."
      Joan and Amanda exchanged a quick, thrilled glance. He shook hands with both of them, giving Joan's a strong squeeze, and let them go. Just before she turned away, Joan thought she saw him wink at her.

 

~

That night, back at the town's small hotel, they splurged on room service. Over dinner, they discussed Amanda's chances, agreeing that Stemmler had been quite encouraging. They'd visited a dozen schools in New York and New England--five alone in Boston--and Northwood seemed to be the place for Amanda, but the question was, would she get in?
      As she had countless other times, Joan found herself wishing that her husband was still alive. It would have thrilled James to see their daughter so excited about choosing a school, and yet he would have known the precise tone to take in order to encourage Amanda without setting her up for disappointment, something Joan found difficult to do. And she would have liked to ask him: What was she to make of Mr. Stemmler's winking?

 

~

At 11:00, just as Joan was falling asleep, the phone rang. She turned the bedside light on and took a moment to regain her composure before answering.
      "Hello?" she whispered.
      She recognized the voice on the other end--cultured, male, accented--as Mr. Stemmler's, and with a rush she remembered the pleasant tobacco smell of his office and the scent of his Old Spice. She pulled the covers tightly around her, as if he could see her.
      "I am sorry to call so late," he said, "but I wanted to make a suggestion for tomorrow."
      "Certainly."
      "This is not meant to be forward, but as Amanda is going to be busy with her classroom tours in the morning, I would like to offer you my services."
      "Oh," Joan said, blushing up to her forehead. "I couldn't impose on you."
      "No imposition at all," he said. "Might you be intrigued by a hike?"
      "Why yes, I would," she said.
      "Good. There is a short trail just outside town that leads to a fascinating cave. The cave is behind a waterfall, which freezes in the winter. You can see this for only maybe another month. Would you be interested?"
      "Oh no, really Mr. Stemmler. You must have work to do." She wanted to get up and pace, but Amanda, though turned away, had obviously been listening, and now, at the mention of Mr. Stemmler's name, her body became extremely still.
      "Ah, but here is the beauty of it," Mr. Stemmler said, and she found herself taken again with his voice. "I will be working, to insure that the parent of a prospective student has an experience she will never forget." He paused so long that Joan found herself leaning closer to the phone, as if willing him to go on. "What time is Amanda to go with Becky tomorrow?"
      "Nine forty-five."
      "At nine, then, I will stop by. This will give Amanda the chance to ask me any questions that might have arisen during today's tour."

 

~

Amanda smiled at her when she hung up the phone.
      "What?"
      "You've got a boyfriend."
      "Amanda!"
      "Well, if it's not true, Mom, how come your face looks like a tomato?"
      "Hush now, and go to sleep."
      Amanda rolled over and pulled the covers up, so only the thin straps of her nightgown and her pale, freckled shoulders were visible. "You too, Mom. Sounds like you'll be having a big day. Just don't do anything to embarrass me."

 

~

After a shower and a quick breakfast, Joan waited for Mr. Stemmler's call, at first calmly, and then, as 9:00 came and went, while pacing. She'd dressed for a casual hike: sensible shoes, long silk underwear, jeans--which she was proud to still fit into--a turtleneck, a wool sweater, and an anorak. To her credit, Joan thought, Amanda neither teased nor tormented her; instead she put on a good show of being interested in the local paper, from which she was reading an entire article aloud.
      Joan appreciated that Amanda was trying to distract her, but listened only intermittently to the story while watching the clock and waiting for the phone to ring. The article concerned the seven-year anniversary of the disappearance of a woman whose daughter now attended Northwood. At one point, realizing that Amanda had paused for longer than usual, she stopped beside her daughter's chair.
      "Dear?"
      Amanda glanced up at her. "Sorry," she said. "I was just rereading this. Wasn't Becky's name Thibodeaux?"
      "Whose?"
      "Becky. Our guide. I think her name was Thibodeaux, and that's the name of the woman who went missing." She pointed at the newspaper.
      Joan checked her watch. It was 9:15. "You'll be able to ask her in half an hour."
      "I'm sure it was," Amanda said, bending over the page. "How horrible. Going to school at the place where your mother went missing--who'd want to be reminded of that every day?"
      "Well, maybe it's not that bad," Joan said, squeezing her shoulder and then beginning to pace again. "Perhaps on some level it's a comfort to her."

~

At 9:20 Joan decided she was angry, but by 9:30 she realized she was mostly embarrassed, and she shrugged off the anorak and lay it on the bed.
      Amanda, who'd put aside the paper and gone back to Northwood's brochures, asked her if she'd read about the weirwork bridge.
      "Weirwork?"
      "The bridge's cement pilings are hollow, and they allow the water to rise during the spring runoff without displacing them. It's the only one like it in the world. One of the engineering classes built it somewhere around here years ago."
      "Sounds interesting. Part of the canal, is it?"
      "Mom," Amanda said, waving at her to get her attention, "hello. You're not listening. It's a bridge. It's not anywhere near the canal. Here, take a look." She handed her the brochure, held open to a picture of the bridge, and below the picture began sketching an enlarged version of the weirwork, the interlaced concrete that looked like wicker, so her mother could see what she meant.
      Joan nodded and made a noise in her throat.
      Amanda put down her pen. "Are you sure he said nine?" she said.
      "Of course I'm sure."
      Amanda flinched at her tone, and when Joan spoke again, she made an effort to control her voice. She picked up the brochure. "Something must have come up, that's all. Or he'd have called. Nice," she said, tapping the picture Amanda had drawn. She folded the brochure and tucked it in her pocket.

 

~

At precisely 9:45 the phone rang, and, despite her resolution not to, Joan picked it up on the first ring. It was Becky, ready to take Amanda out for the morning.
      Amanda grabbed her bag, and, halfway out the door, blew her mother a kiss.
      "You all right?"
      "Fine, dear. Go." Joan stood and smiled.
      "Okay Mom, thanks. Sorry about the mix-up. I bet it's something simple."
      "Of course," Joan said, waving her off. "Go on now, have fun. I'll catch up to you at the boat."
      "Good." Amanda hugged her mother. "I know he liked you." She waited for a smile, got it, and hurried out the door.

 

~

Joan watched from the window as Amanda and Becky crossed the street, talking excitedly, their shadows trailing far behind them. Once they'd disappeared around the corner of the Northwood Five-and-Dime, she gathered up her things. It was five till ten, and she was determined to enjoy her day, so she left the hotel and started up the street. The air was so cold it stung her lungs, which didn't bother her, as she felt like marching off her anger. But at the first intersection a car pulled in front of her, small and brown, honking, and instinctively she bent to look. Mr. Stemmler was smiling and waving.
      "Hello, Mrs. Kesten!" he called out to her, his voice muffled through the partially opened window, and then it was too late to turn away. "I have everything planned!"
      She hesitated before opening the door, keenly aware that he was the admissions director and that petulance would serve no purpose. Amanda was probably right: most likely he had a simple explanation for his delay. She took a deep breath, told herself to get over it, and smiled at him as she reached for the door handle.

 

~

The trail, it turned out, began a few miles from town, and as they drove to it, Joan was surprised at how quickly the road grew worse: edges crumbling, large stones jutting through the pavement as if they were growing. Twice, they passed yellow road signs warning of moose, both pocked with bullet holes. The clearings beside the road, for houses and farms, grew smaller and less frequent, the buildings within them darker and more huddled, and she had the odd feeling that they were driving not only out into the country but backward in time, as well.
      They chatted about the weather and about what classes Amanda would visit, but not about Mr. Stemmler's delayed arrival, and finally he turned the conversation to the hike. It was not arduous, he said--the trail was mostly flat and clearly marked--but it did cover some distance. Because of that, it took about an hour each way.
      "You will like it, I am sure. And beside the waterfall is a nice picnic table. I had the cafeteria pack a box lunch for you to enjoy once you get there." He reached into the seat behind him for the lunch and handed it to her. "They always make excellent ones."
      "What a good idea," she said, resisting the temptation to open it and look inside. "I'm sure we'll enjoy them."
      "Oh, it will be just you, I'm afraid. I must apologize, but I am unable to join you. I have too much paperwork back at the office."
      "Really," she said. She turned away and watched the deep piney gloom of the north woods passing by, cycling back through their conversation of the night before, trying to recall at just what point she'd misunderstood him, but before she located it, he turned sharply into a gravel parking lot.
      "Here we are!" he said, and reached across her and opened her door. Briefly, before the smell of the cold air rushed in, she caught the scent of Old Spice again, and felt her throat clench: she'd been a fool to think he was interested in her. She knew her skin was blotching and she hurried from the car.
      "You see the water tower there?"
      She did. It was white and rose thirty feet above the surrounding forest. "Oh yes," she said, and began walking toward it.
      "Just beside it is a sign marking the way."
      The sign was too far off to make out clearly, but she saw something about the Easterbrook Trail.
      "Yes," she called back to him, not stopping. "The Easterbrook Trail."
      "That is it. Good. At one, then," he said. "No later. Otherwise we miss the boat." He started to drive off, then honked and circled toward her, lurching to a stop beside her.
      "Wait!"
      "Yes?" she said, leaning down to talk to him. Her pulse was throbbing at her throat. Had he changed his mind?
      He handed her the box lunch though his window, which in her confusion she'd left behind. "Do enjoy it."

 

~

The trail was marked with bronze disks at shoulder height on every fifth tree, and she tucked the lunch under her arm and began to walk, berating herself for her stupidity. "You're an old fool," she said, her breath condensing into small clouds. "And he probably saw that from the beginning."
      As she walked, she paid little attention to where she was going, concentrating instead on recalling their entire phone conversation, and several times she found herself off the trail and having to backtrack through scrubby pine and tangled brambles. But by the time she heard the rushing of the waterfall--and finally realized what it was--she'd concluded that Mr. Stemmler had never actually said he planned to accompany her. She'd simply interpreted his words that way, a sign of wishful thinking. All he'd promised her was an interesting morning, and she felt she couldn't be angry with him for her own eagerness; that would only compound her folly. That she'd expected some kind of romantic outing, some drama, wasn't his fault.
      And the waterfall was beautiful, a broad sheet of silver water dropping nearly seventy feet from a granite ledge overhung with leaning pines, and looking up from near the base of it, she saw rainbows floating in its spray against the ice-blue sky. The trail tucked around behind the water, into the cave, the entrance of which was tall and broad and surprisingly dry, but the cave itself was cold and smelled of old fires. Except for the first few feet, it was also forebodingly dark, and though the sunlight seen through the thundering, undulating sheet of water was mesmerizing, shifting prismatically with each ripple from the pale green of new grass to a nearly eggplant purple, she decided to eat outside the cave, at the picnic table.

 

~

After lunch, she sat warming herself in the sun, thinking of Amanda and what she would be doing at this hour: probably eating somewhere on campus with Becky, an event that, in a year, might become commonplace. She hoped so, as the image of the two of them sitting together like sisters pleased her. Then she went back to the cave for another look, where she let the changing light press against her closed eyelids. When she opened them, she had the sudden urge to scratch something on the wall, some sign to mark her passing.
      The remains of a fire lay a few feet back. She picked up a chunk of charred wood and stood before the pitted wall, thinking. What to write? Her name was too obvious, initials hardly better, and only clichéd phrases sprung to mind. Searching her pockets for inspiration, she came upon the symbol Amanda had drawn--the weave of the weirwork bridge, the interlacing concrete supports--and without hesitating she copied the markings at head height and then, below it, marked the date. It was a gesture to Amanda, a nod to her coming independence. In a short time, as a Northwood student, Amanda might make the same journey, and see her mother's mark, and be glad.

 

~

When it was time to go, Joan picked up the remains of the lunch and turned down the trail. Within minutes of starting back, she noticed sounds coming from the woods that she hadn't heard on the way in: breaking sticks, the too loud rustle of dried leaves, an odd, rhythmic clacking, like stone on stone. Though she suspected she was hearing things now to which she'd simply been oblivious on the way in, the sounds spooked her, especially the last one: its rhythms were too slow to be from a woodpecker, too irregular to be from anything mechanical. She picked up her pace and it stopped, but when it reappeared several minutes later, she froze to listen. Branches were being pushed aside, followed by steps that sounded too heavy for an animal's and that stopped abruptly, their cessation seeming to carry the quivering expectancy of a hunter rather than the trembling attention of its prey.
      Whipping around, she glimpsed a yellow flash far behind her on the trail, a color so bright it was nearly fluorescent, but when she squinted for a better look the color was gone, and though she waited--two minutes, three minutes, five--the sounds did not return. Only the calls of a few birds came, the short trill of the cardinal and the caustic cry of the jay, and the wind, moving high up in the bare branches of the birch trees. Perhaps that was the clacking sound, she thought--branch on branch rather than stone on stone--but just in case, she picked up a heavy stick and hurried off, her fingers twitching with adrenaline. She shouldn't have stopped. She did not want to be late; Mr. Stemmler would be back at the parking area, and Amanda would be waiting for her at the boat. She found herself moving at a jog.
      But even with the stick and her quickened pace, she was nervous. Perhaps the bright color had only been a hunter in his vest--was it deer season, after all? To soothe herself, and to make any hunters who might be about aware of her presence, she began to hum, Christmas carols from long ago. As she neared the trail's end, the absence of sounds from behind her had the paradoxical effect of making her more nervous. Nearly sprinting, she broke into song--"O Tannenbaum" and "Silent Night," in German.

 

~

When she burst into the parking area, she was sweating despite the cold, out of breath, and embarrassed to see Mr. Stemmler sitting on the hood of his car, reading a newspaper. But he didn't immediately notice her, which gladdened her, as his inattention allowed her the time to calm her breathing and to smooth her hair.
      He looked up only when her footsteps on the gravel approached his car.
      "Ah, Mrs. Kesten!" He stood and folded the paper. "A good hike, I trust? Your cheeks have wonderful color."
      "Oh yes," she said. "Quite an interesting outing." She was a little surprised, now that she was clear of the woods, at how scared she'd been. She'd hiked for years, often by herself, and rarely been afraid. Still, she was inordinately glad to see him, and she gave him a quick, honest smile.
      "Good that it was successful." He held open her door. "Let us be off, then," he said, "to our next adventure."

 

~

As they left the parking lot, they turned north, away from the school and the beginning of the canal.
      "A shortcut to the canal?" Joan said.
      "No." Mr. Stemmler lit his pipe and rolled down his window to let the smoke blow out. The cold air flowed in, but that seemed not to bother him.
      "But won't we be late for the boat? It leaves soon."
      "The beginning of the ride is always crazy. You would be stuck with a bunch of strangers. Students, faculty. No one you really wanted to talk to."
      "I'd be interested in meeting them, actually," she said, "and of course I'm eager to hear about Amanda's morning."
      "Amanda," he said. "She will be taken up with the other students. I am afraid you would see little of her."
      Joan was reluctant to say more. Amanda had woken up glowing, sure that Northwood was where she wanted to go, and Joan would do nothing to make that process more difficult.
      "So why are we going this way?" she said, trying to sound cheerful.
      He picked a bit of tobacco from his tongue before answering. "The second lock is about twenty miles down this road. I thought perhaps you might have an interest in seeing some of the countryside. We can join up with the boat there, when things have become more settled."

~

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.

~

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.

~

As she stared at it, the drawing seemed to pulse and grow smaller. At first she thought it was just the dimness of the cave, but then the noise of the falling water receded and the misty air in the cave grew thinner, and soon it was as if she was floating miles above the cave, looking down on the scene and seeing herself inside it as a small speck on a tiny piece of land. Her mother had been here, and Mr. Stemmler knew her mother spoke German, and she watched herself figuring out what it all meant, and none of it could touch her.
      But the sound of Mr. Stemmler entering the cave behind her, his boots scuffing over the rocky floor, locked everything back into place. Her skull tingled, just above her neck, where she imagined his eyes were focused, and she brought the nutcracker closer to her face and saw what she should have noticed immediately, the chip missing from the hand-painted figure, a section of the shoulder that showed new-wood blond rather than tobacco-stain brown.
      "Amanda, you are all right?"
      "Fine," she said, and then repeated it, trying to control the trembling of her voice. She let the nutcracker drop against her thigh. "I'm just feeling overwhelmed," she said, turning and standing so her back hid her mother's drawing. "The time of year, our talk, this." She lifted the nutcracker again. Tears sprung to her eyes, and she began to shake.
      "Amanda, please," he said, reaching out to her. "I have upset you so?"
      "No," she said, lurching back against the cave wall and putting out her hand to ward him off. "I'll be fine." She hugged herself and forced a smile. "I just need some air, I think. It's cold in here." She wanted to get by him, out into the open. Whatever had happened to her mother had probably happened at close quarters, and she guessed she could mislead him for only so long. Already he seemed to be studying her. Tears stung her skin and she rubbed them away with the heel of her palm. "Can we go out, please?"
      "Certainly." He stepped aside and extended his arm, indicating that she should go first.
      He shifted his weight from one foot to the other as she reached him, causing her to flinch, but he made no move to stop her, and suddenly she was beyond him and past the falling water, dizzy from the light and air. She stumbled into the clearing and put her head down and breathed deeply several times, knowing it was important to regain control, yet unable to do so with thoughts of her mother and Mr. Stemmler and the drawing swirling one after the other through her mind. She didn't want Mr. Stemmler to see her in disarray, so she fitted the nutcracker to a knuckle and squeezed hard enough to cause pain. The pain focused her, and as her dizziness began to clear, she straightened and turned back to face the falls.

 

~

When Mr. Stemmler emerged from behind the waterfall, he squatted and began pulling items from his backpack: the cold cuts, some dried fruit, a yellow anorak.
      "Amanda," he said, and produced a tobacco pouch, pipe, and knife from another pocket. "Let's go to the bridge." He scraped the inside of the bowl with the knife, then wiped the blade on his thigh.
      "No thanks." She made herself meet his gaze and, when she realized her fingers were clenched around the nutcracker, loosened her grip.
      "Come, it will allow us to recover the day," he said at last and smiled, then folded away the knife. "Becky told me you have yet to see the bridge up close. You should do so now--its engineering is really marvelous. As you remember, it is one of the draws of the school. In another few weeks it will be unapproachable." He put the pipe in his mouth and repacked all that he'd removed save for the anorak, which he slipped on.
      Amanda scanned the sky. "Is it supposed to rain?"
      "No." He spoke around the pipe. "I am only a little cold. As you were. Too long without activity, I think," he said, and pushed up the anorak's yellow sleeves. "Let us go."
      They would have to walk back through the woods together. A shiver slid down Amanda's spine; she was afraid that if she didn't go, he would intuit her suspicions.
      "All right," she said, trying to convince him that she was interested. Though she didn't want to go, there, at least, it was more likely others would be around. Here, miles from nowhere, it would be easier for him to cause her harm. And perhaps she would at last find out all that had happened.
      She turned and hurried down the trail before him.

 

~

In the car he looked at her only once--to make sure her seat belt was buckled--and then seemed to forget she was there, except when she shifted away from him as he reached to put her visor down, so it would block the sun.
      "You do not like that?" he asked.
      "No, it's fine. I was just startled is all, thinking about something else."
      "Oh yes. I imagine you have much to think about."
      He began to whistle, Christmas carols at first, and then snatches of popular tunes.
      She wasn't sure what to make of that, but the continued silence unnerved her. She was glad she'd refused his offer to put her pack in the trunk beside his--she was gripping it now against her stomach--and that she'd held on to the nutcracker, as well. She ran her fingers over it, to reassure herself, wondering if she'd made a mistake. Inside the car, after all, his superior weight and strength were at their greatest advantage, and if he moved, she would be unable to escape him.
      "Is it far to the bridge?" she asked, hoping conversation might forestall anything from happening.
      "No," he said, lifting one hand from the wheel and checking the odometer. "Not even a mile."
      And it wasn't, though the two minutes it took to reach it seemed an eternity, as she listened to him draw air through his pipe and breathed in the scent of his Old Spice. But at last he nodded at the bridge as they rounded a turn.
      "There, you see? I am true to my word."

 

~

Near the bridge, they pulled off onto a deeply rutted fire road. After fifteen or twenty yards the dense green forest encroached upon it, but Mr. Stemmler didn't slow until making an abrupt turn to the right into a small clearing, where he stopped the car with its bumper scraping against a boulder.
      "Come," he said, getting out and pocketing his pipe. "The car we will not need, nor anything else. Why not leave your pack? The bridge is very close."
      The pack would be no advantage here, so she left it. The nutcracker, the only thing remotely resembling a weapon she could carry, she brought along.

 

~

After a short, difficult hike through the tangled underbrush--branches slashing Amanda's hands and cheeks, pine pitch gumming her fingers--they came out at one end of the bridge.
      It had been oddly built, almost as two separate, one-lane bridges with fenced sides and an opening between them. Looking down into the opening, Amanda saw that the first set of piers rose twenty feet above the water, circular and honeycombed, green and orange with moss, and partially topped with concrete slabs. Into the slabs were bolted the steel trusses of the bridge, and inside the piers water sloshed and boiled. She could not hear herself breathing, though she knew she was doing so loudly.
      This might be exactly what he had done with her mother, and she wanted desperately to know. But if she accused him, he would either laugh or deny her accusations, and she had nothing concrete that she could take to the police. The chip from the nutcracker? He could have dropped that at any time, and he would say its appearance there was merely fortuitous.
      But she could drop it, too, she realized.
      "Mr. Stemmler?"
      He stopped and turned toward her. "Yes?"
      She held the nutcracker out over the fence.
      "I want to know what happened."
      "Excuse me?" he said. "When?" Though his face remained calm, his eyes did not leave the nutcracker, and she saw that it would go on like this, with him feigning ignorance and with her growing ever more frantic to know. In frustration, she flung the nutcracker at him. It bounced off his chest and over the fence, clattering down between the slabs, stopping only when its lever got caught in the weirwork.
      He grabbed for the nutcracker but stopped himself when he saw it hanging above the water, then shook his head.
      "Really, Amanda. This churlishness disappoints me. Your mother would be most surprised."
      He climbed over the fence and lowered himself to the slabs, then lay down and reached into the opening between them for the nutcracker, but as he stretched, he lost his balance and fell into the pier, saving himself from dropping all the way to the water only by shooting out one arm and grasping at the pier's rim. His body arced downward, a yellow blur pivoting around his grip, and he slammed against the inside of the weirwork with such force that the air in his lungs was expelled in a grunt.
      She scrambled down and grabbed his wrist, but the sound of the nutcracker being knocked against the inside of the weirwork by the current caught her attention. Within seconds it had started to break up, first the lever coming loose and then the head.
      "This is where you did it," she said, realizing what had happened. "This is where you got rid of the bodies." The turbulence would have destroyed all traces in a matter of hours.
      "Please!" he said. "Don't let go."
      She felt his weight pulling his hand from beneath her grip and tightened her hold, working her other hand over on top of the first and leaning back as far as she dared.
      "Tell me."
      "Yes," he said, arching his back and swinging his other arm up to try and grab her hands, but something had happened to it when he'd slammed against the cement; the hand was bloody and couldn't grip properly.
      "Why?"
      "My family," he said, clawing at the concrete and kicking at the weirwork in a futile attempt to gain purchase.
      "Becky and I were supposed to be replacements?"
      "Please," he said. "Help me and I'll tell you everything. I swear!"
      But she couldn't help him. All at once his wrist slipped from her hands and he was plunging into the water below. He fell awkwardly, and when he surfaced his face never rose above the water. The current had forced it against the weirwork and she turned away, so as not to see what the water and concrete would already be doing to flesh and bone.

 

~

Some time later she found herself sitting with her back against a pine tree, staring at the mud on the toe of her left boot. A car had passed over the bridge--she knew because she'd heard the odd thrumming of its tires echoing from the piers. Her hands were bloody, and she wiped them with pine needles and stood. Mr. Stemmler's car was nearby. In a few days, a week maybe, someone would find it and report it to the authorities. She and Becky would be at school when the news came, and the two of them would be among the first of all the search parties to begin looking for him.
      Downstream, she would suggest. If in his accumulated grief he had jumped from the bridge--or even if he'd fallen--the water would have carried him away.

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