Dead Dogs and Englishmen
The deadly summer of the worm began in spring when the tent worms crawled into my northwest Michigan woods after May blossoms faded on the wild cherry trees and tiny leaves first appeared on the Juneberry, when the trees bloomed again with thick, gauzy webs at every fork of their branches. Each of the sticky, white webs woven into the blackened and sickly trees writhed with thousands of worms. I tried not to notice the moving webs when I walked with Sorrow, my happy lump of a mixed breed dog. I hoped the worms would go away; that maybe the birds would feast on them. Maybe, I thought, they’d turn into moths and be nothing more than a nuisance after summer dark, pulsing around my porch lights and bombarding the window screens with buzzing thumps.
That wasn’t what happened. None of that.
In June, the worms tore open their gauzy webs and marched up the newly leafed oaks and maples, chewing as they climbed, stripping every tree—these evil, voracious, Bernie Madoff’s of the natural world.
By July, the forest was turned upside down and backward, as was my life. The oaks and maples were bare. Bright sun poured into places that should never see the summer sun: damp places in deep woods; small caverns under the exposed roots of old basswood trees; thick beds of leaf mold where the morels grew in May. Other mushrooms tried to poke through last year’s leaves but dried and disappeared quickly. Wild flowers were sparse. The loamy earth slowly turned brown. In places it cracked open.
We tried, me and Sorrow, to stay happy as he snuffled chipmunk houses and howled at fox holes now caught in pools of sunshine. My shady paths were where ideas for novels simmered, my mysteries that didn’t sell although I thought them great—or maybe not great, but pretty good. Now, sadly, the only thing I found as I walked were steady, tinkling streams of black tent worm shit falling on the old leaves and on my head. I wanted to stay with the usual paths but had to give them up as, spitting and angry, I took my sad dog back to our little golden cabin near the shore of Willow Lake to give us both a shower, getting the slime out of our respective hair and fur, and off my skin.
In early July I gave up the woods completely and we kept to roads, to gravel and cement, and looked longingly into the suffering forest. Sorrow didn’t seem to mind worms pooping on him; and didn’t mind if shady walks were sunny, if no mushrooms grew, if wild leek and purslane patches were few and far between. He was a creature who had decided early on to be happy and never let go of happy thoughts as he bounced merrily through life—unless he got caught chewing one of my sandals, or sneaking away from a steaming pile he’d left, inadvertently, I’m sure, in the middle of my living room Oriental rug.
The quiet woods were one of the many reasons I’d left Ann Arbor and the newspaper I worked on to come to northwest Michigan after a bad divorce left my ego bent back on itself like a piece of cheap wire. Jackson Rinaldi, my ex-husband, a good-looking, forty-one year old, cheating jerk of an English professor from the University of Michigan was one of the biggest reasons I’d run to the north woods to find peace and write the mysteries I’d been dying to write, and to live a kind of life I’d only dreamed of living back when every day was filled with appointments and meetings and interviews and deadlines and I had no idea who I, the real Emily Kincaid, was beyond a journalist and an aggrieved wife. Mid-thirties, starting over, and still not sure I could make it in the woods by myself. Sometimes everything was too much--like winter and being jobless. Sometimes I regretted that I’d tossed my old life away. But there were those other times, times when I wanted to pat myself on the back and wanted to click my heels in the air. Times when I wanted to shout out how happy I was.
Now my ex had come to stay near Traverse City, on Sabbatical, writing his giant tome—to end all tomes—on Chaucer and his pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. He was far enough away from Willow Lake to keep him from being a pest. Close enough by phone, email, and need to be a nuisance.
That particular hot morning, temperature 83 at nine a.m., Sorrow and I climbed to the top of our gravel drive. Up on Willow Lake Road I waved half-heartedly to three noisy crows sitting in a white pine. The crows had become a source of solace and inspiration for me since I’d convinced myself they were my muse and my guardians. Woods people came to me with stories of crow intelligence, crow ingenuity, and crow prescience. I believed it all. Crows gave me the mystery novel I was trying desperately to sell, and seemed always to be around when I needed a bird to lean on. Today they shook their black heads and cawed, probably commenting on my white legs in old denim shorts and my washed out tee shirt and my blond and brown hair caught up on top of my head with a tortoiseshell clamp.
I checked my mailbox. The mailman hadn’t been yet. The thought of an empty mailbox made me smile. No bills. No threats to shut off one thing or another. But also nothing yet from the agent I’d sent my mystery to. Not a word since she’d requested changes months before. I’d done everything she’d asked me to do and got the manuscript back to her in record time.
I shut the mailbox door as Sorrow romped ahead down the road. Old Harry Mockerman, my handyman, neighbor, and teacher of woods smarts, was out on his usual morning quest, bent over at the far side of the street with a shovel and a coal scoop in his hands, a silhouette in the streaming sunshine. He was salvaging a dead raccoon—road kill from the night before. Harry found road kill an easy supply of meat for his soups and stews. Kind of like the crows who hung around for the same reason. Harry ate everything except skunk—or so I liked to think. Rabbits were at the top of Harry’s list, he’d once told me. Then came birds. In a jumble behind those two were raccoon, squirrel, chipmunk, and once—a fox. I’d tried most of them. Not bad. Not good. Harry knew how to live off the land around him, and was teaching me though there were still some things I wouldn’t stoop to, like stuffing a flattened chipmunk.
“Hey, Harry,” I called down at him.
He straightened, a hand at the small of his back, his very shiny funeral suit jacket (which he wore in case of his death in the woods) falling open as he leaned back, stretching his old bones and muscles.
“Emily.” He waved, then picked up his shovel and tucked it under one arm. Carrying the scoop straight out in front of him, he ambled over to have our morning talk as all people in the north country do. He put a bony knee up to stop Sorrow’s overly effusive greeting, nodded to me a few times, and then looked off into the woods, shaking his head.
“Awful, ain’t it? Them worms and what they’re doin’? Get’im two years in a row and the whole woods could die. You hear that?”
I shook my head.
“Truth. Read it in that newspaper you write for. Eugenia, at EATS, showed me. Everybody’s talking. Damn things crawled right into Dumphy’s attic. Took’em out with a snow shovel. That’s what I heard.” He nodded his skinny head on his long, skinny neck a few times to impress me with the importance of his news. What he meant was the Northern Statesman, a Traverse City paper whose editor, Bill Corcoran, threw work my way—keeping the wolf and the gas shut-off guy from my door yet another month. That he got his news through Eugenia Fuller, who owned the only restaurant in Leetsville, didn’t surprise me. Everybody went to EATS for the latest news, for the latest trouble bedeviling anyone within fifty miles of Leetsville, the latest grumbling about the mayor, about deer foraging town gardens—whatever was going on, was going on strong at EATS.
“Mushrooms aren’t growing with all that sun in the woods,” I said.
He clucked a couple of times. “Tell me about it. ‘Course they can’t grow. You findin’ any leeks?”
I shook my head. “They’re too strong. Taste like rotten onion. My pantry’s going to be pretty empty by winter. No mushrooms. Garden’s not doing too good.”
“Thought about fish?” He lowered his thick, gray and white, eyebrows at me.
“What about fish?”
“Never heard of such a thing.”
He shook his head a few times though he was used to me. “Don’t know how you lived up to now,” he said as he bent to pat Sorrow’s head. “I’m going fishin’ in a couple a days. You want to come? I’d be happy to have the company.”
“OK, but . . .”
“Get us a couple a suckers. Bring’em back here and we’ll can’em. I know how to do that and make’em taste like salmon by the time you open’em next winter. Got me a secret.” He looked up slyly and I knew I was going to be the lucky recipient of a long held family recipe.
“I got jars,” he said. “You get us some new lids. Old ones don’t seal right.”
I agreed. Might as well move on to canning fish since my morel supply was low, no leeks in frozen stews, cattail root for flour not quite ready, and my vegetable garden, behind a wire fence Harry put up to keep the animals out, wasn’t flourishing.
“Say, Emily.” Harry, with a bent finger in the air, had a sudden thought. “Meanin’ to ask you. What’s up with your friend, Deputy Dolly?”
I made a face. I hadn’t seen Dolly in weeks. Happy weeks without the little flea of an officer on the two-person Leetsville Police Department calling me out to play—or investigate yet another dead body. A few weeks without her blazing siren screeching down my drive, without her frantic and angry phone calls. I shook my head at Harry.
“Eugenia was asking what’s going on with her.”
“Like—what did she mean?”
“Says Dolly’s meaner than ever. Growls at everybody. She’s not giving out no more warnings to speeders, only tickets. And those for the full speed they was goin’.”
“Sounds normal enough to me—for Dolly.”
“Yeah, well . . . people in town kind of worried. She almost never comes into EATS no more. And, you know, Eugenia offered her free donuts in the morning.”
“Bet she didn’t take them.” I laughed at the thought of straight-edged, ‘law’s the law,’ Dolly Wakowski taking free donuts. Be like a New York cop taking kickbacks from a drug dealer. I could see her slapping the cuffs on poor Eugenia, Leetsville’s only restaurateur, just for offering. The one thing Dolly never tolerated was law breaking. “Not on my watch,” she’d say and shake her head until her police hat wobbled back and forth.
Harry shifted the heavy scoop to his other hand then flexed his fingers a few times. “Arthur-itis,” he explained. “Storm comin’, I’ll bet. But, as I was sayin’, lots a folks noticin’. Something wrong with the deputy.”
“Her grandmother’s living with her now. Maybe it’s hard for Dolly to get used to having somebody in the house. She’s been alone a long time.”
“Yeah, and the old lady’s nuttier than a fruitcake, you ask me. But, the way Dolly always carried on about havin’ no family of her own, you’d think she’d be happier.”
“Then it’s probably something else. If I see her, I’ll ask.”
Harry waved his shovel at a crow creeping from the high grass toward the dead thing in his coal scoop.
“Got to get this down ‘fore it gets too ripe to use,” he said. “Ya just got so much time, ya know. One minute—fresh as a daisy. Next—shot to hell.”
While Harry shuffled off through the picker bushes and straggly raspberries lining his overgrown, two-track driveway, I whistled to Sorrow, figuring I could get back down to my house and begin work on a new book I had in mind. Or I could make phone calls—I had a couple of human interest stories Bill Corcoran had assigned me. Or I could do laundry. Or I could do nothing. Maybe go swimming.
Or, I could just stand there as Deputy Dolly Wakowski, in her battered blue squad car, drove in behind me.