Dead Dancing Women
This Monday was like all Mondays up in northern Michigan. No better. No worse.
Another garbage day where first I lugged the battered garbage can a black bear’d been tossing around for the last few weeks, up the drive, then back down again. In between I hunted for the lid and fought off the scavenger crows. Spring, summer, winter, autumn, some things didn’t get any better no matter how you tried your best to overcome them.
Some days things got worse.
I knew I was in for it. I could feel that ‘something’ around me in the woods as I climbed my drive up to Willow Lake Road to get that fought over garbage can. I could feel it in the traitorous, looming, September air with needles of cold at its heart. Autumn. Prelude to death, I thought morosely as I climbed. Garden going to die; the ferns, grasses, and the last of the purple knapweed clinging to sheltered places on the hills—soon all gone. Then the trees, not dying but going to sleep. And the animals nervous—hunting season coming.
Autumn depressed me, despite all the raging color in the woods.
It was autumn when I first arrived up here, three years ago. Brought by serendipity; a few wrong turns; a mad desire to get away from my ex-husband, Jackson Rinaldi, back in Ann Arbor; a need to breathe air a million people hadn’t breathed before me; a sudden, if unwanted, infusion of cash from my dead father—all those things and more.
I found my little house on its wild lake by driving north after clearing out my father’s home, coming on photographs of happy childhood times I could barely remember, selling off furniture his hands had made, and closing more doors on my past than I’d known existed. It seemed natural to turn north at Grand Blanc, toward the woods, to take my tears where they didn’t require explanation. Getting lost was the serendipitous part. Wrong turn after wrong turn brought me to a faded ‘for sale’ sign and a driveway angling downhill; to my little golden house standing empty, alone in its sandy plot with the beginnings of a garden at the back and a sea of bronzed ferns at the front. I’d explored around the house; peeking in windows; following a narrow path through the ferns down to a wild lake where geese honked angrily at me and a beaver surfaced to give me the eye. I returned to Ann Arbor only to quit my job at the Ann Arbor Times and claim my division of the spoils from my marriage to poor Jackson, who still didn’t understand what I’d gotten so angry about.
I had this new place where I still wasn’t certain I belonged. This new writing life that wasn’t getting me anywhere--fast. And a lot of time left over to feel grateful for the quiet, sometimes too lonely, life I was leading.
I was halfway up the drive when I heard the crows. They’d be waiting; screeching because I dared to snatch my garbage can back before they’d finished picking every morsel they could gather. I’d learned quickly to resent the beady eyed birds who attacked anything left dangling from the can, attacked boxes I dared set on the ground, tore at black plastic bags with pointed beaks, then squawked and squeaked at me, making me feel as if, but for a technicality: being alive rather than dead, I’d do as well as any bloodied meat wrappings.
Corvus americanus. Forked tongues, bristling nostrils, convex beaks and all. I’d researched them because I believed one must know thine enemy. They would wait like thugs to hassle and harass me though it was only my empty garbage can the eternal dispute was about.
I climbed through an Ottoman mosaic, a patchwork of brown and dying ferns bent like weeping ladies; through bright red sumac, through the smells of autumn: fallen leaves, rotting weeds, damp air. Off to my right I could see my little lake between the trees. A flat, slate-colored oval of water. Above my head, the dark sky hung close and huge, threatening rain at any moment. The day was muddy gray, but still the pretty part of fall, before the leaves turned dark and old, before icy winds knocked them down, leaving gray branches bare and vulnerable, before somebody turned on the north wind and let loose the tons of snow that would lock me in the house for days, pacing and muttering about unhappy women who left good jobs and a not so bad husband (except for that one bad habit of his), and went to live on an iceberg.
I took deep breaths of cool air that tasted like water and reluctantly reached the top of the drive.
As I suspected, more crows than usual. Crows in the trees and sitting on overhead wires. Crows in the road. A convention of crows. A conglomeration of crows, staring without shame, without blinking. I was the thing caught in the headlights, frozen for the first minute before I waved my arms wildly, trying to scare them off because they scared the heck out of me.
A few of the black menaces flew up to perch on low, bloody, maple branches. Some hopped into a thicket beneath pines. Some strutted aggressively from the center of the road, toward me rather than away. Their beady black eyes bulged. They made rude, angry noises, telling me to get lost, get off their turf, buzz off lady. I stood and gave them as good as they gave me, muttering, making comments about their funny gait, about their ruffled feathers.
“Carrion eaters,” I grumbled and scuffed the toe of one tennis shoes in the gravel beside the road.
I figured I’d better grab my garbage can and get out of there fast though I couldn’t help waving my arms one more time and yelling “Shoo!” like an old lady running kids off her lawn. It did little good. The crows flapped their shaggy wings right back, and leaped, startled and irate, into the air. The cawing, squalling noise was deafening.
A dead possum lay on the far side of the road, salt and pepper furred testament to an attempt to cross in widening headlights the night before. Maybe the possum was the real cause of the morning’s crow chaos, I thought. But the crows weren’t bothering with the possum. It was me they kept their glazed eyes on, and my garbage can. They cawed in unison, commenting, I was sure, on my crummy jeans, my University of Michigan sweatshirt, my hair that hadn’t seen a Traverse City beautician’s hand since July. They laughed at my dirty tennis shoes, muddy from working in the garden, grabbing slugs off my late tomatoes, dropping them to dissolve in a plastic carton of kosher salt. And maybe they made a comment or two on my supposed sex life, my abortive mystery novels that always brought letters from agents like “This book just doesn’t excite me enough to offer representation. In fact, there is a familiar ring to the story. Sorry. Try us again with your next book.” As if I churned out a book a week and they would remember my name or care if I showed up with another book or not. As if they cared that I was beginning to be a laughing stock among my few acquaintances up here who knew how hard I worked to turn out these things—each one a masterpiece, I assure you. Or maybe not a laughing stock because northern Michigan people were too kind. Maybe they just pitied me since they would see me at the top of the drive, pull their pickups or their SUVs over to have a talk, and offer me a mystery plot that “just might do the trick for you, Emily,” though it always came from a TV show they’d watched the night before.
Maybe crows can’t know that much, but bright or not, these particular crows were daunting. I was making a grab for the empty garbage can when Simon, my mailman, drove around the curve with yellow flashers pulsing on top of his yellow Jeep. He aimed his car toward me, pretending he was going to run me down. I, in turn, pretended panic and jumped out of his way. Simon threw back his head of long, thick blond hair and laughed.
“Morning, Emily,” he called out his open window and bent to collect my mail from the seat beside him. I took the two official looking letters—one a bill from the electric company, the other from a department store in Traverse City, and asked him how he was doing. I had time to talk. It was either Simon, or a chapter of yet another mystery in which I was killing off a poor soul in the first chapter—a lot of carnage for nothing since the books didn’t sell.
I leaned in his window.
“How ya doin’.” Simon lowered his head and reared back, away from me. I intimidated Simon. He knew I was some kind of writer or painter or something because I got mail from arts and literary agencies and had books sent to me from bookstores. Being a female artist alone in the Michigan woods meant one of two things to him: I was nuts, or I was a man hater. Either way, Simon, who was all of twenty-three, wasn’t willing to take his chances.
“Got a lotta crows today.” He squinted pale blue eyes out at the birds leaving the trees to creep along the ground. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen so many all at once. What you got in your garbage, Emily? Big Macs?” He laughed and bent down, coming up with a squirming, black and white puppy in his large, cupped hands.
“See what I found? Wandering out on Double Lake Road. Near Arnold’s Swamp. Not a house anywhere. Somebody must’ve dropped him off. Couldn’t leave him like that.”
A darling puppy. Big brown eyes. A tiny pink tongue sticking out. He looked at me, blinked a few times, and woofed a sad woof.
“You keeping him?” I asked.
Simon looked down at the black and white, mottled face. The puppy woofed again, almost to himself.
“Got six dogs.” Simon shook his head. “I was thinking about you. I never seen a dog with you. And being all alone, well, I thought maybe you’d need one.”
I shook my head. Every thwarted instinct in me quivered. What I required was certainly a dog, I wanted to tell him, a little alive thing greeting me when I came into my empty house, or sitting at my feet out in my studio. Somebody to talk to other than myself, though I did a lot of that.
But what I couldn’t allow into my life right then was anything needing care. I had enough trouble caring for me, getting my life straight, learning what that life was going to include. No. I looked away from ‘puppy’ who, I swear, was smiling at me.
Nope, I told myself. Nothing demanding food and water and needing to go out nights. I’d left Jackson over stuff like that and wasn’t about to fall into that trap so soon again.
“I don’t think so,” I told Simon and backed away quickly before the puppy could snag me with his sad, black and white face. If things had been different. If my books sold. If I were at all sure of my future . . .
“Better to have a dog,” Simon said and shook his own shaggy head. “Could be killed in your bed some night. A dog gives you warning.”
“Really? Anybody been murdered lately up here?”
“Nope. None yet. But you never know. There’s old Mrs. Poet, from in town. Ain’t been seen in about a month. Had it on the TV. Still can’t find her. Then there’s escaped criminals coming down from up in Marquette. There’s men that go bonkers. Plenty of reason to have a good dog in the house. Look at old Harry, over there. You never know when old Harry might decide to go off.”
He pointed across the road toward the narrow, overgrown, dirt driveway headed with a battered black mailbox standing on a half-rotten, leaning post. A vague path led back through two rows of mossy elm trees, to where Harry Mockerman lived. Harry might not have pulled down a Nobel Prize for brain power but he was savvy enough to scrounge work cutting trees, selling wood, doing odd chores for ‘ladies of the woods’ (as he called me and any others around like me, of which there were a few).
“Nothing wrong with Harry.” I stood up for Harry because he taught me how to identify morels in May and puffballs in August and find wild leeks all summer, and other things, like tiny milkweed pods which, when cooked in three boiling waters, drained, and fried in butter, tasted like, oh, maybe chicken.
Simon curled his lip at me and shook his head as if I’d just confirmed how nuts I was, trusting a shuffling old guy who wore a shiny black funeral suit to cut down trees in case one fell on him and killed him and nobody knew where to find his burying suit. Or sometimes brought over a Mason jar of his woodchuck stew as a neighborly gesture. Stew made from a woodchuck he’d killed with a slingshot (he bragged to me one time). “Ya jist add a whole tamata, one patata, a onion, some peppa, a little bit a salt, an’ a lot a watta.”
Simon’d once mentioned finding a jar of stew sitting under the mailbox with his name ‘Mailman’ written across the lid. He said he took the stew and left a thank you but when he got home and offered it to his dogs they howled and backed away.
Well, I thought Harry’s stew was delicious and in return I’d baked Harry a loaf of bread which probably sent Harry howling and backing away, but still he was kind enough to thank me for the neighborly gesture.
“No sale,” I said and pointed toward the dog.
“I’ll keep trying to find him a home.” Simon sighed and put his car in gear. “If you change your mind, just leave a note in the box and I’ll bring him down.”
I patted the soft, round puppy head, enduring a long-suffering look and a few sweet licks at my hand. I reluctantly backed away, waving goodbye as Simon drove off.
The sky was darker now. Wind picking up. The maples and the pines in my woods began to dance the way they do during storms. Dancing and sometimes falling ungracefully into heaps, which occasioned my notes in Harry’s mailbox to bring his chainsaw and come see me because I had a job for him.
The breeze was already wet, as if it had been raining elsewhere and I was getting the residue, a dampness left over from Lake Michigan storms, serious storms that headed up toward Lake Superior to worry ships, wreak havoc, and cause gloomy songs to be written.
I stood still for a few minutes, waiting to see if anyone else would stop by and have a word or two, keep me from going back down the hill to my writing studio and the new novel about a New York writer who was suspected of a murder because a friend of hers was killed in the same manner the writer used to kill off a character in a book. I was having strange, mystical feelings of deja vu, as if I’d heard the plot before, and hoping I hadn’t taken it from one of my neighbors and was rewriting an old Jessica Fletcher rerun, or an Alias.
I looked down Willow Lake Road in one direction, then the other. Nobody was going to come and save me from working on the book or on the article I’d agreed to write for a local magazine, about a group of Survivalists living back in the woods, down the road from me. I had to make phone calls. An interview to arrange. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to doing either.
The trees along the road waved and bent in the wind. Clouds scudded by in brightly lighted puffs. Crows leapt about or hunkered down along the telephone wires, their thick plumage poking straight up in the damp wind.
I gave an involuntary shiver as I made a move for the garbage can. Willy, the garbage guy, had uncharacteristically put the lid back on instead of leading me on my usual treasure hunt. I wrapped my arms around the can and lifted. The can had an odd, off balanced, feel to it. Something left inside. I tipped it one way then the other, causing whatever was in there to roll like a basketball from side to side. Odd, I thought. I didn’t remember a cabbage, or anything round, that I’d thrown away
“Better be careful,” I yelled at the crows creeping toward me though they gave me only cheeky stares in return. “You hang around and Harry’s going to make crow stew out of you.”
I laughed as I set the can down to see what choice tidbit had so unsettled the crows. I pulled off the lid with a wide, round gesture.
I laughed again as I looked in to see the discarded morsel causing the morning’s greedy uproar.
I was laughing still as I stared into the wide blank eyes of an old woman’s severed head.