A Most Curious Murder
“Oh dear,” said a little voice from behind where Jenny Weston knelt in the spring grass, in early light, soft rain running down her face.
“Like jars of strawberry jam,” you know.”
Jenny ignored the child, wishing she’d go away, leave her alone to confront the ruin of her mother’s Little Library, all the books she’d loved scattered across the grass, each soaked and swollen by the night’s rain, some covers empty, pages torn and tossed everywhere and now giving the weak rustle of dying weeds when the chill wind blew in off Lake Michigan.
And the library box that held the books—special to so many, especially to her mother, Dora—smashed and splintered into jagged red and green and white shards. The post it stood on split in two. Jenny squeezed down her feelings—all the hurt and anger and outrage. She saw, after only a few hours back home, that there weren’t going to be any happier or sunnier days back here in Michigan than there’d been in Chicago. This wasn’t a return to Eden, only another war zone.
She reached out to pick up a large wooden splinter near one knee. Red—part of a chimney. And another piece—a green step to the screened porch. Her father had built the Little Library, an exact replica of the house they lived in. All of it gone.
She hoped it was done by a careless person—a car jumping the curb during the rainy night, then driving off. She hoped that was how it happened, not someone cruel enough to deliberately hurt her mother and deliberately take books away from the readers of Bear Falls. Whichever way it happened, the Little Library lay in ruins.
“What I mean to say is,” the squeaky voice said this time. ““The day was wet, the rain fell souse, like jars of strawberry jam.””
“Go home,” Jenny said without turning. “You should be in bed. And anyway, I’m busy here.”
She sniffed to emphasize the busy then wrapped her arms around herself, shivering in her shorts and yellow shirt though it was June, but a damp and gloomy, early June morning with rolling dark clouds overhead and a fine mist among the pines separating the houses along Elderberry Street.
Jenny moved from one knee to the other, reaching out to touch remnants of the little house. A last gift for Mom before Dad was killed out on Highway 31, his car struck and sent into a ditch, then into a tree. Left to die by the faceless, nameless driver who hit his car. The Little Library was an anniversary gift for Dora, his wife—a one-time librarian who followed her husband to this disappointing town, a Northern Michigan town without a library.
“Awful, that the little house is nothing but splinters,” the voice talked on. “I liked that little house. Looked just like your mother’s, with the red chimney and the dormers and all. And such fun, that the roof opened all the way and books were tucked inside like little soldiers in their cots.”
Jenny squeezed her eyes tight enough to hurt. She wiped rain from her face. Maybe, she thought, if I keep my eyes closed and wish very hard the smart aleck kid will disappear. She had a lot to think about, many memories bubbling up and hurting—mixing with good memories from childhood. Her life in sudden, independent scenes: running through the sprinkler under a hot July sun; barely escaping when she and her older sister, Lisa, stole kohlrabi from the neighbor’s garden; Dad, calling her mom out to see the surprise he’d built for their anniversary; Dad killed—the perfect traveling salesman’s death—found by a passing motorist, dead behind the wheel.
“Come out, dear Dora, and see what your man has wrought.” Jim Weston had stood at the curb so proudly six months before he died. A flourish of the cloth he’d laid over the Little Library, and then his carefully rehearsed speech:
“Because Bear Falls has no library for my own, beautiful librarian; never had a library; will never have a library; and you, dear Dora, are a reader to be reckoned with . . .”
Terrible, what someone had done. And even worse—now Jenny had to go into the house and break this awful news on the morning of her arrival home.
She wasn’t going to cry in front of an intrusive child.
“If you ask me . . .” the voice went on.
Jenny tried to block her ears.
“As I was saying . . .” The voice was peremptory.
“Listen kid, I’m calling your mother.”
She turned to a very little woman in small, dirty sneakers and faded jeans rolled just above the shoes. The sturdy body was wrapped in a child’s plastic raincoat, the flowered hood tied tight around a small, pretty face topped by tendrils of wildly curly blond hair.
“Well, I’m certainly not a kid.” The indignant, little woman shot her pale eyebrows high. “Thirty-three years old. Don’t look it, do I? Not a day over twelve, I’ll bet you’d say.”
“Maybe ten,” Jenny growled, not in the mood for a chipper grin.
“Hmm. Don’t worry your head over hurting my feelings.” The round blue eyes narrowed with sarcasm.
Jenny wiped her wet hands along the sides of her shorts. “I’m sorry but . . .”
“That’s okay. I was surprised to see you, too. You don’t look like your mother at all. Much taller than I expected.”
“I’m kneeling in the grass. How can you tell how tall I am?”
“One learns to gauge a person’s height. Your body’s long. Your legs are long. Put them together and you get a tall person. Maybe a gigantic person.” The woman rubbed her hands together, gave them a shake, and nodded to emphasize the rightness of her equation.
“You are Jenny, Dora’s Chicago daughter, aren’t you?”
“Your mom told me you were coming. I was glad to hear it. She misses both you girls. I’ve seen your sister, Lisa, but never you.”
She held her breath and raised her eyebrows, as if waiting for an explanation.
“Anyway.” The woman put a small, drooping hand out for Jenny to shake. “Welcome home. Sorry it’s to this mess.” She waved at the ruin spread over the grass. “I’m Zoe Zola. Next-door neighbor.” She pointed vaguely in a southerly direction. “Been here a year. Your mom and I are already good friends.”
“Did Mrs. Ford move?” Jenny wracked her brain. Five years since she’d been home. A lot had happened in that time.
“Died. Poor Granny.” The little woman drooped with sadness.
“Sorry, about your grandmother, but I’ve never seen you before either.”
“Would’ve remembered, eh? “Smaller than a tadpole.” No. “Smaller than a minute.” Heard that one a lot. How about “Smaller than a bumble bee?” You ever hear of a pygmy shrew? One man told me I was smaller than that.” Zoe’s eyes weren’t laughing.
She talked on. “Granny left me the house though I barely knew her. My mother’s side of the family. They didn’t like me much. Surprised me, when I got the news. But welcomed. You can just imagine. A home of my own. In a little town. Quiet enough to think for long stretches of time. Quiet enough to take my mind off . . .” She glanced down at the short distance to the ground. “Well, enough to take my mind off other things, survival being one of them. I write books, you see, and writers always expect to exist in someone else’s garret. Not our own garret, you understand, because we’re never rich enough to own one.” She puzzled, with a finger at her chin. “What’s the name of the bird that crawls into other people’s nests?”
She ruminated a while, “Cuckoo!” she squawked.
Which brought a black nose nudging out from behind Zoe Zola’s legs. A small, shaggy, white dog with drooping ears and a quiver running along her body. The only bit of color on her—other than mud, was a red collar peeking out at her neck. The dog snuffled back and forth, nose to ground, then nose up to look at Jenny, who stared down into an opal of an eye—a half blind little dog. The other eye was happy to see her, being deep brown and wet. The dog gave the smallest of necessary growls.
“Her name is Fida. She doesn’t mean you any harm,” Zoe said. “She’s just upset at this awful mess. And it wasn’t Fida who made the comment about the strawberry jam which, if I may say so, was apropos at the moment.”
Jenny took a deep breath. Oz, certainly. The Lollypop Kid.
The little dog gave a sharp yip. The woman cautioned: “Quiet,” then turned a wide smile to Jenny.
“Fida is a feminist.” Zoe Zola’s face lighted with playfulness. “Her name would have been Fido, if she’d been born of the other persuasion. Instead she calls herself “Fida.”” She introduced the dog that, happy now, wiggled forward until her head lay on Jenny’s knees, her one good eye turned up in adoration.
“None of this is what it seems to be, you know.”
Jenny muttered, “You can say that again.”
“And not what you’re thinking at all.” Zoe grabbed Fida by the collar, pulling her away from nuzzling Jenny to death.
“And it’s not about strawberry jam,” Jenny came back.
“Oh, that.” Zoe flipped a hand to blow away the thought. “I write books about fairy tales and magic people. The Wizard of Oz as Dream, came out a couple of years ago. I’m working on Lewis Carroll and the two Alices now, a study in madness and murder: “Off with her head.” “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” The Hatter, of course. And the dormouse into the teapot. An amazing human being: Mr. Carroll. Or Charles Dodgson—as he thought he was called. In his personal notes alone there must be at least a dozen or two ideas to fit each and every happenstance of life.”
“Including broken libraries?”
“Oh, I’m sure. If you’ll let me think for an hour or two, I’ll come up with something perfect to mark the occasion.”
Jenny was going to ask how any quote would be “perfect for the occasion,” but didn’t, figuring she was in the presence of a different kind of human being, with a thought process she would never tune into. She had the disconnected, childhood feeling that a fairy had popped out of nowhere to badger her at the very worst time of her life.