“She stood at the edge of the lake and thought that the woods had never seemed so lovely. The glistening ten-inch French kitchen knife that she held at her side, dripped blood onto the slushy snow at her feet and into the icy water. It pooled around the body of the man, lying face down near the shore. The man was dead. And she was glad. Glad that he was dead and glad that she had killed him. Glad that her world would most certainly be a better place.
She pushed at his weight with her foot, until he was free from the debris of sticks and leaves and mud. Until his body floated out into the crusty chunks of ice that dotted the water, like so many unique and independent islands. She stood very quiet and very still for a long, long time, and she watched. She wondered for only a moment about the manner in which he might be found.
The sky was a swirl of pinks and oranges and purples in the dusky March twilight. All around her the pines and oaks and maples drooped with the heavy wet snow of a recent spring storm. She took it all in, thinking that it had been many years since she had enjoyed it. This calm, this peace, and this stillness of the woods, just before the equinox.
She turned and glanced down at her blood stained wellies, thinking that she should probably walk through the water a bit, and then return to the barn before the night air enveloped her. So, as she walked the path through the woods, she retraced her steps and the steps of the man who lay dead in her lake. And when she reached her east meadow, she thought of him no more.”
I’ve always thought that it would be fantastic to be able to write murder mysteries. The bit you’ve just read, I wrote decades ago during a writer’s workshop I attended. The author that ran the workshop said they liked my writing, very much. They liked that I wanted to tackle something as complex and as intricately detailed as a murder mystery. I had no idea what I was doing, trying to write a murder mystery, and I never wrote anything beyond what I’ve shared here, today. At the time, I believe I wanted to imagine that, like Agatha Christie, I might walk along a path in the countryside wearing plaids and tweeds, with my hair tied in a beautiful Laura Ashley scarf, while pondering the next great plot twist for the book I was writing. I didn’t believe what the author that conducted the workshop said about my writing, thinking that in order to fill their up and coming programs, they needed to say that they liked everyone’s writing. And, until now, I’ve never much considered having a crack at it again.
My husband, Stratton, thinks that I have all the material I need for writing a great series of murder mysteries, not very far from our home in Boston, but just up Interstate 95, deep into rural New England. Specifically, by the seaside. After living along the Atlantic coast in New England during my graduate school years, I am convinced, as well, that Mr. Stephen King got almost all of his great writing material from real life and real time in the villages or towns where he lived in rural New England. It was a kind of cultural and societal wilderness for us, to be sure, after we crossed the Portsmouth, New Hampshire bridge over the Piscataqua River, (pronounced piss-ka-ta-kwa river, and yes, you can pronounce it, too…), past the new sign that read, “Maine: Open For Business: The Way Life Should Be,” just beyond the exits for York and Cape Neddick, and across the Maine Turnpike toll. Even the pine trees seemed to whisper to me, that I was leaving the abundance of oaks and maples behind, and that I was about to become enveloped in a thick, prickly, green darkness.
Yes, there are lobsters, and lighthouses, and L.L.Bean, and all that. These are the charming things about rural New England that one considers when viewing travel websites on the Internet and making inquiries at Inns for weekends away from New York, or Boston, or Montreal. Before living by the sea for the duration of my thesis work, one of my colleagues said to me, “Coastal New England?” And, I nodded yeah, and then asked, why? “Have you been there for anything other than a visit?” she asked, sounding a little alarmed. No, no, I admitted that I had not, but went on to argue that my advisor assured me the university, which had recruited me as their graduate research scholar, housed the very best department in American & New England Studies, even better than my other choice, Brown University. She looked at me as though I were barking mad. “Honey,” she said with grave concern, “It is bloody backwards up there.”
Oh, I should have listened to her. It was, indeed, “bloody backwards.” The general population in our area was over the age of fifty, mostly retired, and worse – generationally and conservatively Republican. Prejudice and racism in general, and misogyny in particular, were hallmarks of the community. I was doomed. Or, so I thought. I figured I would do my best to keep my head down, while the reigning Governor, Paul LePage, and his cronies, attacked everything that I loved about Barack and Michelle Obama. A lot of wonderful hipsters that we befriended were beginning to settle into our general neighborhood by the sea, and home in Boston was still an easy drive by the highway, or even better, a leisurely train ride into North Station, from the area, where we lived. I spent most of my days writing, or in seminars, with other like minded grad and post grad students. I wasn’t always subjected to the day in and day out of the opioid crisis, the occasional body reported floating mysteriously in a local harbor, or the casual remark that I was, “From away, don’t you know.”
It wasn’t until during the last semester of my last year, that it was announced the university, overseen by a newly Governor appointed Board of Trustees, had made the decision that the American & New England Studies Graduate Department was to be eliminated. “Huh?” and “What?” This was not good. I had just returned from Washington, DC and my research at the Smithsonian Institute. I had nearly completed my thesis and gallery project. I had only another summer and another semester, before I would be finished, and applying for post graduate positions, and moving the hell out and away from all that apparently was, “bloody backwards.” My cohort and I petitioned, demonstrated, and spoke for the continuation of the department, even as our professors were fired, classes were eliminated, and the administration took over. It got worse, after that, when it was further announced that the departments of English and History were to be gutted, during the next year.
“Bloody backwards,” indeed. I managed to finish up my MA in American & New England Studies with the help of other professors that stepped in, particularly the former head of the department, now fired, but who worked tirelessly to help all of us file our paperwork. In the interim, as my husband was finishing with his own MFA in Studio Arts, Photography, I accepted a Director position at a very small, very rural historical society, against all my instincts and all my better judgement. There was something odd about the place. I was alerted first, by the clerk at the local mom and pop hardware store, where I was picking up tacks for the wall hangings in the historical society library. “I call ’em the ‘Hysterical Society,’ the clerk said, as they carefully placed my few purchases into a paper bag, and handed me the receipt, ‘because they are mad as hatters, over there!’ ” Really, I wondered, mad as all that? They could tell what I was thinking, by the look on my face, so issued a smokers cough and hacked after me, as I made my way out the door, “You’ll see!”
I did see, actually, since the next stop that very same day was to inquire at the Chamber of Commerce, as to whether or not our little non-profit might be included in their next publication of local advertisements, for the sake of tourists. I’d launched a few programs of historical interest and hoped that we might do some tours through our historic site. “Watch your back, over there,” the President of the Chamber of Commerce said to me, on my way out the door. I looked at their Administrative Assistant and smiled, a bit uneasy, as this was the second time in the same day that I was advised that there was something strange about the historical society. I raised my brows inquiring, and they both smiled, “Just be very, very careful, and if you ever need anything – our door is open,” they both said. I thanked them, very much, and got into my car with a real sense of discomfort. I rang colleagues, with whom I networked at New England Museum Association, and expressed my concerns. Had they ever heard of this place and did they know anything about it? “It’s probably just rural New England,” they all said. Yikes.
About a month later, just before my own mandatory, (I had insisted), temporary agreement with the organization was over, and I was about to sign a contract; I learned what the culmination of my introductory experience at the historical society was all about. Upon reviewing the budget, I discovered that the Chairperson of the Board of Directors had been helping themselves to a great sum of money for an annual fundraising event that they managed, and annually spent most of the money on obsolete fundraising items at a company in which they had keen financial interest, and that they annually fundraised only a little bit over their initial withdrawal from the bank. Worse, the Vice Chairperson of the Board of Directors, the Treasurer, and the Secretary all knew that they were doing it. At the very next board meeting, I gently and gingerly inquired as to whether or not anyone, including the Bookkeeper, could account for the many years of discrepancies in the budget over this annual fundraising event? The other members of the board, none of whom had any real knowledge of these activities, looked at me in dismay.
As I continued on to explain, with paperwork that showed the discrepancies, the Chairperson excused themselves to “go and check on something in the basement,” of the historic building that we maintained, and where we held the monthly board meetings, just outside my office, in our little library. No one, it seemed, could account for the mysterious fundraising effort, for the money taken from the historical society, and for the small return on the fundraising investment. Throats were cleared, chairs were adjusted, eyes looked up and down from the agenda, to myself, then to the others, and back again. A motion was made to move on to another item on the agenda, passing over my report of findings, and in favor of a more comfortable topic of discussion. The meeting concluded faster than either of the other of the two board meetings I had previously attended. Folks found reasons to get home to spouses, to other meetings, and to family dinners. I stood alone when everyone left, looking around at the small library, and I wondered. Just how, “bloody backwards,” was the situation in which I now found myself? I learned the very next day.
It was after noontime, very cloudy, and cold in my office, where I had adjusted the thermostat to warm the building. The historical society kept no open hours, that day. It would be quiet and without interruption, so that I might complete the business of research, writing, answering email, messages, and following up on some treasured, (no, not actual treasure), maps of an old mill site, which had mysteriously disappeared from the collection a few weeks before. It was common for townsfolk to treat historical society collections, which were often former “Ladies Village Improvement Societies,” quite casually, and it was possible that someone had removed the eighteenth century maps for the purposes of a school visit, or an inquiry. I was working steadily along, throughout the morning, when I felt a bit odd. And so, thinking that I was hungry, I enjoyed a cup of soup and a half a sandwich. Not long after, I was sleepy. And, not one to ever nap or nod off, I thought I would put my head down on my desk for just a few moments.
Then, it was quite some time later, that a voice inside my mind whispered that I needed to wake. I needed to wake, now. I needed to wake now and leave the building. Now, now, now! I sat up, shook my head, and walked from my office to the stairs, where I was suddenly dizzy. Carefully holding the rail, I walked to the exit, below, and made my way out into the January air. I inhaled great big gulps of it, with big long draws into my lungs. Slowly and carefully, I told myself, in and out, until your head clears. I could not imagine what had happened to me, until I made my way back into my office, where I noted a very distinct and unpleasant odor. Immediately, and instinctively, I turned off the furnace and called the heating company. I told them everything about what had happened, and they sent a repairperson over, right away. Once there, they made their way into the basement, where they spent about five minutes, before coming to find me in my office, where the windows were now open.
“You could have died,” they said, holding up a large piece of what looked like the hose attached to the dryer next to my washing machine at home, “This was unattached from the furnace and you had carbon monoxide coming through the vent, straight into your office. “Bloody backwards,” I murmured under my breath, after they left to reattach the dismantled piece of the heating system. As soon as they were finished, I packed my bag, returned home, and emailed each of the Officers of the Board of Directors of the historical society, asking them each, one by one, to come to my office the next day, at different scheduled times. The Chairperson never showed up, instead packing their luggage, and leaving to drive to southern climes for the duration of the winter. The Secretary and the Treasurer showed up together, and when I informed them that I would have to report the financial discrepancies to the town offices, from whom the historical society received a hefty annual sum for their operating expenses, they looked frightened. Truly frightened.
The Vice Chairperson showed up, after having what seemed to me, at least two vodka tonics, probably doubles, and they had tears in their eyes. I informed them that I would be resigning, and that they would have my letter of resignation in their email inbox, by the end of the week. They nodded, asked me if I would please not send the letter to everyone on the board, and send it only to them. “Not likely,” I said, and they left the building, quickly. I rang the town library and asked if two of their wonderful and dedicated staff would mind stopping at the historical society, the next day. During our brief visit, I walked them through the entire inventoried collections I had completed, all the development and outreach I had launched, and several of the educational programs I had prepared for the summer months, during tourist season. I explained to them, that I was unsure of the future of the organization, and would they please watch out for it, after I resigned? They agreed, and they were super kind. I never mentioned what happened to me, and I never contacted the town offices, except to let them know that I would not be accepting a contract with the historical society. No one ever asked, “Why?” Apparently, I was one of many others, before me.
Yes, “bloody backwards,” just about sums it up for me, through this, and a few more instances connected to non profit organizations in rural New England. Which, brings me back to the writing of murder mysteries. You see, I do want to write about all the landscapes, characters, and experiences that I have known in rural places. I think that all together, they might make for a really terrific series of murder mysteries. I think I’d fancy myself the heroic crime solver of such narratives. But, I also think that, instead, it might be more therapeutic if I wrote myself as the murderer. This is, after all, the age of the anti-hero. Hell, I even have a French kitchen knife. And, I still own a favorite pair of wellies, if I ever walk a path through the woods from my own lake, until I reach my own east meadow. Preferably after a spring storm, beneath a sky that swirls in pinks and oranges and purples in the dusky March twilight. I’d like to write that I had pushed at someone’s weight with my foot, until they were free from the debris of sticks and leaves and mud. Until their body floated out into the crusty chunks of ice that dotted the water, like so many unique and independent islands. Now, that. That would be, “bloody backwards.”
On Mayhem, Mystery, and Murder, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.