|Ferdinand Hodler - Snow in the Engadine - 1907|
“The Old Fields”, written in 2012, is most likely my longest short story. Originally, it was even longer, but, upon finishing it, I realized that I had pursued my plot-line too relentlessly at the conclusion, providing descriptions of a lot of unnecessary and repetitive action that didn't contribute meaning to the story. It was painful to rewrite the ending. After months of work, I was relieved to be done with the thing. And the ending included a lot of writing with which I had struggled mightily and a few passages that absolutely sang. But it had to be done. The plot didn't change at all; only my method of relating it did. The resulting work is shorter and, I believe, a much better read. I also must admit that every time I reread this story I tinker with a description or some dialogue, so maybe it will never be truly finished.
I've inserted within the story a number of images. They are not intended as illustrations. I was solely interested in them because they seemed to embody the mood or spirit of my narrative. Hopefully their inclusion enhances the reading experience without imprinting images, more concrete than I intended, in the reader's mind.
As always, I encourage readers to comment here. If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at email@example.com.
The Old Fields
|Andrew Wyeth - Marriage - 1993|
She jostled his shoulder stubbornly. He was in a deep sleep and unable to understand what was happening.
“Walt!” she hissed. “Walt! Wake up!”
He rolled onto his back, his eyes still closed.
“Walt! For Christ’s sake! Wake up!”
“What?” he grumbled.
“I heard something outside.”
“Animals.” He turned away from her and pulled the blankets up on his shoulders. She gave him a solid shove. “What?” he winced.
“It wasn’t an animal.”
His head felt heavy and leaden. He longed to go back to sleep, to slip back into unconsciousness, but he roused himself. “What did you hear, Van?”
“A woman... outside.”
“A woman outside the house?” Walter couldn’t mask the tone of incredulity that crept into his voice.
“Yes!” Vanessa insisted.
“We’re miles from anything.”
Vanessa propped herself up on her elbow to get her face closer to his. Her warm breath dampened his skin unpleasantly. “She was screaming... really screaming. Just for a moment. Maybe half a minute at most.”
“What was she screaming?”
“Just screaming. Like she was in distress.”
Walter was concerned. “Near the house?”
“No, far off to the north. The old fields, around there.”
“Van,” he scolded, “that’s at least a mile and a half away. At that distance, you couldn’t tell a coyote from a car horn.”
“It was a woman. I know it.”
“Trust me. There are a lot of animals that can sound just like humans. Elk, for instance. Or deer. Even some birds.” He laughed. “You had me going there for a second.”
His heart was racing a bit. He rolled over on his side but did not draw the blankets up about his head. Instead, his eyes remained open, even in the impenetrable darkness, and he listened to the sounds of the night: the wind, the creaking of the house, his own breathing. But he heard nothing that sounded human and slowly began to sink into sleep once more, at least until he became aware of movement in the room.
“Damn! What are you up to now, Vanessa?”
In the darkness, Vanessa was pulling on her pants.
“Go back to sleep,” she commanded.
“What are you thinking of doing?” he asked.
“I’m not going to lie in bed, while someone needs my help.”
Walt recognized the implied criticism and reluctantly edged out of bed. “Get back to bed,” he said with as much kindness as he could muster. “I’ll look into it.”
“No,” she said. “I’m already up.”
He hurried to his feet. “Really. I’ll go take a look.”
She hesitated a while, then began shedding her clothes. “The old fields,” she reminded him.
|Lois Dodd -Snow Covered Outcroppings - 1977|
Walt pulled on his pants over his pajamas and left the room, gently closing the door behind him. The roughhewn floorboards drew the last warmth of bed from the soles of his feet. The house was quite cold. To economize on heating, they turned the thermostat down very low at night. As he stopped in the bathroom, he felt somewhat at a loss, sure that no one was out in the darkness but knowing he had to appease his wife. He passed through the kitchen, slipped his bare feet into his work boots and pulled on his coat which had hung on a hook by the door.
He reached out for the doorknob, then paused. Did he really have to go out there? Couldn’t he just wait for Vanessa to fall back asleep? No, Walt had never been one to indulge in subterfuge, even in little things like this. He went out into the night.
His intention was to walk out towards the old fields, listening for anything astir out there. With luck, he might be able to identify what actually made the noise that his wife had mistaken for a human voice and quickly return to his warm bed. He knew no one could be on his property. The ranch house was too isolated. No major roads ran near the property, and the locals would know better than to trek out to his home in the middle of the night. It wouldn’t make sense to walk literally miles through knee-deep snow in sub-zero weather to waken a retiree and his wife, transplants from New York City at that, to seek assistance. There were too many better alternatives.
He hadn’t taken more than a dozen strides before becoming aware that with each step snow was dropping into his boots, caking at his ankles, then crumbling down on his bare feet. And it was a bad day for his rheumatoid arthritis. Actually the entire winter was difficult for him, but this morning, after days of hanging mist and occasional precipitation, was particularly bad. Not only was his left knee on fire but the entire leg felt numb, almost dead. Quickly retreating to the porch which had been freshly shoveled the afternoon before, Walt stood at the railing and looked out at the landscape.
|Edvard Munch - Winter Forest - 1900-01|
The scene was truly beautiful, a vast plain of pale cerulean blue edged, far off, with a border of deciduous trees and undergrowth. Even though the wind was not strong, the low temperatures left the snow crystalline, ready to gather up in wisps of gray at the slightest gust. There was no moon, the sky being obscured by a thin mesh of clouds. All was perfectly quiet except for the occasional whistle of the wind and the soft sighing of the shade trees clustered near the house. No house or building interrupted the view to the distant horizon. The soft luminosity of the landscape, which almost seemed to swell from within the earth, quietly reigned, with neither headlight nor house light to contend.
Walt couldn’t help but marvel at the sight and, in doing so, assure himself that he had made the right decision in coming here, a decision that many of the people closest to him had opposed. The suggestion of a smile lit up his face as he remembered the small gathering organized to celebrate his retirement. His request that he be permitted to quietly exit the company without recognition or ritual had caused some consternation among his coworkers, many with whom he felt a sincere attachment. At the eleventh hour, he had relented, agreeing to a reasonably contained party at a nearby restaurant. The establishment had been very warm, a noisy mob of regulars crowding their table. As he struggled to hear his companions, beads of sweat dotted his brow. He felt deflated and out-of-place. After listening to the kind words of his coworkers and receiving a few generous gifts, he began to rise from his chair to stand, then thinking better of it, returned to his seat. He hadn’t prepared a speech, so he paused, smiling benignly at the group as he gathered his thoughts.
“You know I’ve never been one for speeches. Stupidly I put nothing together for today... which doesn’t bode well for you.” He smiled, then paused an uncomfortably long moment before beginning again. “You may not know that I hadn’t planned on going into publishing. No, it was sort of an accident. I thought I was an author.” He laughed alone. “But I was an author who kept putting off writing for a multitude of very good reasons. These good reasons seemed to crop up whenever I was about to make a serious commitment to my work. I won’t elaborate on these good reasons. Suffice it to say that at the time they seemed unavoidable and insurmountable. When I look back now they don’t seem nearly as formidable.” He paused and swiped his forehead with his hand. “You know, I almost did it again. Really! When I was requested to stay on a while longer, I almost convinced myself that I was irreplaceable and owed a debt... a debt... to lord knows whom to postpone my plans again. But I’m not irreplaceable. In a couple of weeks, you’ll find yourselves wondering what the hell I did here for all these long years.” The gathering laughed amicably. “Now I’m going to do something for myself... something that I probably should have done years ago. I’m going to try my hand at writing and see what comes of it.”
A friend of his, who was already a little drunk, cried out, “That’s fine, Walt. But why do you have to go out in the woods to do it?”
Again polite laughter.
“You know I’ve given that a lot of thought. And I think it comes down to fear... fear that, if I don’t get away from it all, if I don’t get rid of all the distractions, I’ll just get sucked right back into some inane routine all over again.”
It hadn’t been an easy decision for him. His wife had not been supportive of the change and had only come around to the idea when he suggested that a reasonable compromise might be for him to go off on his own to write a few months at a time, returning to New York for extended visits now and then. In some way, that arrangement contradicted her notion of how marriage ought to work. In truth, he was somewhat surprised that she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of getting rid of him for a spell. Their marriage was far from passionate, and they seemed to butt heads regularly over the most insignificant issues. Perhaps, economics played a role in her decision; maintaining two households would definitely be challenging on his retirement benefits. Somehow, over the years they had not built up a lot of equity in their home, and purchasing the ranch with its considerable acreage would cut dramatically into their savings. And she had declared bluntly that life on a ranch, even one enhanced with most of the modern conveniences, wouldn’t be easy. He had to admit that Vanessa had very legitimate reasons to resist the change. In addition to the economic hardship that would result from purchasing the stead and the physical demands that day-to-day living in semi-isolation would impose, they would be cut off from their daughter and grandson, inevitably seeing them only rarely.
But Walt knew that he had had no choice, that coming here was his only sensible option.
A light snow had been falling for hours. He hoped it wouldn’t amount to much. The last serious storm had left them without access to the road for three days. Not that he wasn’t prepared for being snowed-in; he had stocked the house with sufficient supplies for such occurrences. Just the thought of being cut off left him uneasy, a remnant perhaps of his years of easy living in the east. At the same time, he had to confess, though he would never admit it to Vanessa, that the prospect of being completely on his own inspired a certain romantic elation in himself. From the look of the sky, a big snow was certainly a possibility. He had, at least, learned that much during his brief stay on the ranch. Living in a place where the sky dominated every view made attaining a certain sensitivity to weather patterns inevitable.
He looked out towards the old fields, listening for any unusual sounds, but he heard nothing, not even the wind. He laughed a little to himself considering Vanessa’s uneasiness, but he could not scoff at her concern completely. Over the years, he had come to appreciate her sense of social conscience, perhaps a remnant of her participation in a number of “movements” during the 60's, often being compelled to make uncomfortable but ethical choices at her urging.
Walt reentered the house and, to avoid disturbing his wife, chose to sleep on a recliner in the living room, a light blanket draped over his body.
|Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - The Married Couple Mueller - 1919|
Vanessa was surprised to find herself alone in bed. Even though the hour was early (the first glow of dawn had barely lit the bedroom), she got up, slipped on her robe and went to look for Walt. She peered out the kitchen window and was surprised to find that the night had brought a heavy blanket of snow, one that was still growing thicker by the minute. Momentarily, she felt a pang of fear at her husband’s absence and croaked “Walt!” in concern. Then, thinking more clearly, she went to search the house.
She found him slumbering peacefully, swathed in the imitation Navajo blanket she had purchased from a catalog their first month at the ranch. She shook his arm empathically.
“Huh,” he responded sleepily.
“Walt. What are you doing out here?”
“Oh, I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“But it’s freezing.”
“But your back. It’s not going to be fine,” she scolded.
He paused a moment. “You’re probably right. I hadn’t thought.”
“Well?” She looked at him questioningly.
“What did you find?”
At first, he looked at her blankly. “Oh, last night! The sound! Didn’t find anything.”
She smiled. “Oh, thank goodness. I’m really relieved. I was so sure.” She took his hand, rocked back on her heels and pulled him from the recliner. “Why don’t you put on the coffee? I’m going to make some eggs and toast.”
|Oskar Kokoschka - Hans Tietze and Erica Tietza-Conrad - 1909|
“Did I tell you I spoke with Kate yesterday?”
Walt looked up from his eggs. “No. Where was I?” He was disappointed that he wasn’t included.
“You were in the garage. For quite a while.”
“I was running the car. I think it’s been losing its charge lately if you don’t take it out every couple of days. Might need a new battery.”
“You should take it in. We don’t want to be stranded out here.”
“I was just waiting for the roads to improve.” Frowning, he put down his fork. “You were saying that you talked with Kate.”
She laughed at herself. “Oh yes. It seems that Ethan may be leaving Stonecrest.”
“I never understood why he had to attend private school in the first place.”
Vanessa paused, openmouthed. “I don’t get it. You’re such a proponent of intellectual excellence, and yet you begrudge your own grandchild getting a quality education.”
“Not true. I just think it’s better to broaden your perspective than to restrict it.”
“Well, it appears that Ethan solved that problem for you. Seems he’s been expelled.”
Walt stopped eating. “Really!” he exclaimed.
“Was involved in some kind of a fight, and one of the kids got cut up pretty badly on a fence. Needed stitches and a tetanus shot. You know the drill. But he’s fine now.”
“I’m surprised.” Walt glanced out the window sadly.
“Ethan is such a sweet child.”
“Where have you been, Walt? Kate’s been having a lot of problems with him lately.” Vanessa looked incredulous.
“Oh? What kind of problems?”
“Acting up. Getting into fights.”
Walt stared blankly at Vanessa. “But he’s only a little kid.”
“Well, little kids get into trouble too.”
Walt flushed angrily. “If only Kate had....” he grumbled, stopping abruptly.
“Yes? If Kate had what?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
“No. I’m not going to forget it. You were going to blame this on Mike, weren’t you?”
He got up from the table and walked to the refrigerator. “You know my opinion.”
“You’ve made it very clear. You don’t like Mike.”
“It’s really not a question of ‘like’.” He murmured as he filled a glass with juice.
“Then what is the question?” she insisted.
“I was just surprised that Kate... chose someone like him. I thought she would have done better with someone a little more sensitive, a little more engaged.” He came back to the table. “But you’re right. It’s water under the bridge.”
“I think it’s your issue, not Kate’s. It’s you that has the problem with a traditional male.”
He stopped to consider her words. “Do you think so? I guess it comes down to how you define traditional male.” He started to leave the room, then turned back. “By the way, any response on Ethan spending the summer here?”
“With all this snow, the thought of summer completely slipped my mind.” She looked out the window. “It’s just not letting up. Was it this bad last night?”
“It had just started.”
“Did you have any trouble reaching the old fields?”
Walt’s jaw tightened. “Well…I never made it quite that far.”
“The snow was too deep. I turned back. But I listened for quite a while. Nothing.”
“You promised me, Walt.”
“I know, but...”
|Fairfield Porter - Snowy Landscape - ca1960-65|
For the first time in weeks, Walt found himself in his study with the prospect of writing for several hours without interruption. Since the move, he had been surprised at how active his retirement in isolation had proven to be. Even a non-working ranch demanded regular attention. And he was new to it all. Every little problem turned into a major distraction entailing research and consultation with neighbors or professionals. Hoping to function fairly independently and avoid needless expense, he strove to perform much of the labor on the ranch himself. But he was quickly coming to the realization that he was utterly unprepared for most of the everyday eventualities that ranch life threw his way. In the city, he could honestly rate himself as extremely capable and handy, doing most of the plumbing, electrical and carpentry chores around the house. On the ranch, he was completely at sea, looking for assistance, seemingly, at every instant. His neighbors really were a mixed bag. Most evidently dismissed him as some sort of pampered and monied intruder, but a handful gladly provided direction and occasionally elbow grease on his various projects. However, Walt was learning fast and expected that at some point in the near future he would handle almost all of the ranch maintenance himself without help.
So, Walt hadn’t been able to devote a lot of time to his writing. And, even when he found the time, he struggled to get started. The focus just wasn’t there, the process seeming artificial and peripheral. He would sit at his desk, hands on the keyboard, and nothing came. He actually felt guilt over neglecting his work on the ranch and would inevitably throw in the towel to rush to a chore. Several times, he had begun to explore some promising ideas, giving days of thought to a storyline, even getting through most of a first chapter, only to recognize that he was writing garbage.
Fortunately a change had come with winter. The pace of life had slowed, the demands of the ranch were not quite so heavy and he found himself enjoying more down time. Ideas began to form organically. And he ached to get down to some serious writing.
|Andrew Wyeth - The Corner - 1962|
Walt heard hurried footsteps on the stairs, then Vanessa rushed into the room, her hair disheveled and her boots and pants caked with snow. She tried to speak but could not, panting uncontrollably.
“There I told you,” she gasped.
“Told me what?” he asked, a little annoyed.
“The old fields...”
“Oh, Van! Don’t tell me you...” She nodded her head emphatically. “But it’s still snowing. That was extremely dangerous. You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“They’re out there. In the old house.”
“Somebody’s out there!”
“In the old house?”
“Yes!” she barked. “I never made it to the house, but I’m sure I saw smoke rising over the hills that lay behind the property.”
“You know, Van, when snow gets caught in a swirling updraft, it looks a lot like smoke.”
“It was smoke”
“But why would anyone be out there? The place is in shambles. It barely offers shelter.”
“Oh, come on, Van. Don’t let your imagination run away from you.” He scowled.
“No. I know what I know, and there’s something wrong here.”
“Start at the beginning, Vanessa. What happened?”
She placed the palm of her hand on her chest and took a couple of deep breaths. “There isn’t much to tell really. I knew I had to see for myself. I had to go out there, or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. So after breakfast I went out to the old fields.”
“But, Van, there’s got to be three feet of snow out there.”
“In some places even more. But the wind is blowing pretty hard, and it’s not collecting as much in open areas. The biggest drifts are definitely at the tree line. It took some time but I made my way. The problem was, I realized, that once I got out there I knew there couldn’t be anything to see from last night. I could barely see my own foot prints after a minute or two. I thought I had wasted my time and was set to start for home when I smelled smoke and knew it had to be coming from the old house.”
“I can’t believe you did this, Van. It was incredibly dangerous.” Walt sighed.
She snorted angrily. “I would have kept going except the snow had picked up and I was feeling like I was going to pass out. I thought it would be best to get home and call the police. Let them handle it.”
“Hold on there.” He went to peer out the window. “I don’t like the idea of somebody being out there. The place isn’t habitable. I guess they’re using that old wood burning stove, but I’d be surprised if the flue’s clear. They’ll either burn the place down or asphyxiate themselves.” Vanessa crossed her arms and gave him a look of exasperation. “Oh and I forgot to tell you,” he added. “ We lost the phones a couple of hours ago. The cells and the land line. So the option of contacting the authorities is out.”
She was startled. “Then we’re on our own!” she nearly cried.
“We’ve been through this plenty of times, Van. Out here, the cells are spotty at best, and with every big snow, the lines get taken out by a downed tree, a car crash or something of the sort. I’m not worried. We’ll have the phones back in a day or two.”
“You’re not hearing me at all, are you? There’s something very wrong here. And you’re as relaxed as can be.”
“No. I am concerned. As a matter of fact, I’m going to head out to the old fields this afternoon. Can’t say that I’ll make it though.” He cleared the pane with his palm. “Wish this damned snow would stop.”
|Anselm Kiefer - Schwarzen Flocken - 2006|
After lunch, Walt bundled himself up in several layers of clothing, put on two pairs of socks with his heavy boots and headed for the door. Vanessa pulled his hat down around his ears. “I think you should have some kind of weapon.”
Walt raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
“Yes! You should be prepared.”
He thought for a moment. “Honestly, Van. I can’t think of anything I could possibly bring with me. Could you imagine me carrying an axe or a kitchen knife over there?” He smiled. “And, I’ve got to tell you, my purpose in making this trip is to let these folks know they’re on private property and make sure they’re not in danger. I’m not expecting any trouble.”
“Try to see the woman,” she demanded. “Make sure she’s okay.”
“What woman?” he looked at her in amazement. “You said you never… Oh, you’re still on that track.”
“Of course,” she stated bluntly. “Why else would I have gone out there?”
He started out the door. “I’ll do what I can.”
|Anselm Kiefer - Jungfrau - 2011|
On the broad wooden steps, there was no sign of Vanessa’s movements from just an hour ago. It was a dry snow, the temperature having never risen out of the teens that day, which left the steps pretty slippery. Walt grasped the railing tightly. He surveyed the scene momentarily before starting out. What he saw didn’t give him cause for optimism. Visibility was very limited. Sky and earth had merged into a uniform whiteness. At times, hard grains of snow pelted his face, collecting in his eyebrows and eyelashes. He turned his head downward, out of the wind, to watch his black feet trudge through the snow, but he would quickly lose his bearings and need to look up once more, driving face forward into the wind.
He really wasn’t sure he would make it to the old fields, the snow having swelled into drifts waist-deep. The old fields weren’t actually fields at all but were acres of pastureland left fallow to serve as warm weather grazing for cattle. Maybe, at some time in the distant past, the land was cultivated, but there was little evidence of that now. On the edge of the fields, there was a house, built in the thirties, a rather depressing affair with little personality or ornamentation. Walt’s impression of the place was determined overwhelmingly by glimpses of cheap linoleum, stained formica and gaudy wallpaper. Abandoned once the entire parcel was sold in the early nineties, the house had not been maintained, but, having been fastidiously secured at that time, had not suffered terrible deterioration. The roof had leaked a little, particularly at the eaves where ice damming had occurred during the winter months, and mold was rampant in a few of the rooms. Overall, the structure was sound and not overly drafty. Walt planned on having the house demolished but hadn’t got to it. The expense would be considerable, and, in truth, the structure was far enough from the main house to be easily ignored. “A loose end…”, he thought. “Another loose end.”
He slowly plowed through the snow, each step being a trial. His heart was pounding, and sweat moistened the layer of clothing closest to his body. Walt had never had heart problems, but he had his concerns, his late adolescence being scarred by the deaths of a number of close relatives felled by heart attacks, the last being his own father. He seldom worried about his health, just didn’t like to push himself too hard, knowing that in an instant a seemingly healthy person could be swept away. He was noticeably limping, the arthritis in his knee making flexing the joint close to unbearable. At times, he kept the left leg stiff, fully extended, adopting the shuffling gait of Frankenstein’s monster, but that quickly became just as untenable, forcing him to return to his loping gait.
|Lois Dodd -Tree Shadow on Snow - 1995|
It was rare to see it snow so long and so heavily. Several feet of snow had already accumulated, and there was no end in sight. When he had left the house, he used the dull glow of the sun to steer his way, but the sun had disappeared completely. Now, his only clue to his location was provided when he accidentally stumbled onto some object he recognized like a unique tree or an old fence post.
His shin struck something solid beneath the snow, causing him to topple into a drift. In his blindness, he hadn’t seen anything before him. His shin throbbed considerably, and he was sure he was bleeding. Walt felt in the snow carefully. No, it wasn’t a boulder. He had hit something made of metal. He ran his hand across it, clearing the snow away to expose red paint scarred with years of rust, and immediately knew that he had collided with an old reaping machine left abandoned at the edge of one of the fields. Somehow, he had wandered far to the west, a path that would lead him away from the old fields. He would have to backtrack a ways, before veering off north again.
Between the bruised shin and his arthritis, further progress was going to be very difficult and painful. The snow was piling up very quickly, and visibility was extremely poor. His clothing was damp and left some parts of his body feeling unpleasantly warm and others exposed and freezing. He thought about going home and was surprised to find himself wondering if either objective, home or the abandoned ranch house, was attainable at this point. For a moment, he was gripped by panic, losing focus. He desperately wanted to lie down, just briefly, to rest a bit, but instinct warned him that to do so would mean ending his struggle there. Instead, he bent over, hands upon his knees, and took a couple of deep breaths. The air was so cold that his nasal passages tingled painfully with each drawing in of breath. Forcing himself to remain calm, he considered his predicament. He was definitely closer to the old fields house, but once there, though out of the elements, he would be attempting to gather his remaining strength in a freezing structure. After waiting out the storm, would he have the strength to make it home again? He still wanted to make sure that, if, however improbably, visitors were staying at the ranch house, they were okay. It would be a shame if he came this far only to turn back. He chose to hold off deciding until he had made his way back east to where he had originally gone astray.
So Walt began to backtrack following his old path and was relieved to find the going much easier. His steps became automatic, less labored, and as he trod wearily forward, he found his mind meandering, drifting back in time to a Christmas over thirty years past. He and Vanessa had been married not many years and lived in an affordable apartment, a hundred year old walk-up, in a pretty rough section of Brooklyn. Though initially dismissive of traditional holidays, the two of them had struggled to arrange an acceptable Christmas experience for their two year old daughter, with Walt shopping at Manhattan outlets and carrying home enormous bundles on the subway. Vanessa had bought a small tree on the street and, along with Kate, decorated it, draping homemade strings of popcorn and cranberries upon its branches. On Christmas morning, with Nat King Cole crooning in the background, Walt and Vanessa watched as their daughter opened her presents. The festivities began well enough with Kate quietly unwrapping each bundle and expressing delight at uncovering a new toy or book beneath the colorful paper. Soon, however, the wrapping was being stripped away with mad abandon and gifts were tossed aside, without pause, in anticipation of receiving another. On those rare occasions when Walt or Vanessa stopped to open a gift, Kate became furious, almost demonic, demanding that she must have another present. Finally, when there were no further gifts to bestow upon her, Kate fell to pieces, alternating between tearful despair and despotic tantrums. Witnessing his daughter’s behavior, Walt was mystified.
“What the hell brought this on?” he pondered.
“She’s overexcited, Walt,” Vanessa calmly stated.
“Yes, but I’ve never seen her like this.”
“She’s all messed up. First, all that sugar at your brother’s house last night, and, of course, we stayed out way too late. Her sleep patterns are all screwed up. She just got up and she’s already overtired. Getting all these gifts is like throwing gasoline on a fire.”
“Not much of a holiday, though.”
“She’ll be fine once she’s had her breakfast.”
But it didn’t play out that way. Kate was uncontrollable, battling with Walt as he attempted to strap her into her highchair and immediately swiping her cup of juice off the tray. Vanessa could only coax her to eat a mouthful or two of food and finally had to give up. Walt tried unsuccessfully to interest her in play, then turned to Vanessa with a serious expression. “We’ve got to get her out of here,” he declared, and Vanessa nodded vigorously in full agreement.
Though it was a frigidly cold morning with whipping winds, they bundled up their daughter and headed for a local park, Vanessa holding her daughter’s hand and Walt carrying a large, blue ball, one of Kate’s presents. Immediately, Kate wanted to hold the ball herself, an impossibility because of its size and the strength of the winds. When Walt explained that she could have the ball at the park, she refused to walk and began to tug strenuously on Vanessa’s arm. Walt ended up carrying the screaming child the entire way.
“We’ve got to get her running!” Vanessa exclaimed, tossing the ball onto the grass plot at the center of the park. Kate raced after the ball and threw herself bodily on top of it, grinding it into the ground. Walt entreated her to throw the ball to him, but she ignored him. Instead, she threw it away, chased it down frantically and pounced upon it. This occurred over and over with Walt and Vanessa struggling to keep her on the grass and Kate clearly resentful of their interference. Finally, the ball strayed onto the cobblestones, the wind propelling it toward the park exit. Kate took off with Walt racing behind her. When she caught up with the ball and leapt upon it, it suddenly burst, causing Kate’s head to slam into the walkway. She wailed hysterically, tears rolling down her bright red cheeks. Neither Vanessa nor Walt could console her.
Walt threw his head back and stared into the sky, feeling strangely empty, wondering how their efforts to please their daughter had failed so miserably.
Emerging from his thoughts, Walt was surprised to discover that he had quickly made his way back to the point where he had earlier drifted from his intended path. Retracing his previous steps had proven much easier than anticipated, and he was now faced with choosing a direction to go on. After a quarter hour of less demanding travel, he certainly felt much better. Stopping a moment to look around, he realized that the snow had let up, weakening to gentle flurries. The once impenetrable gray of the sky was now infused with a faint glow, which meant that Walt could use the sun to guide his movements. He determined that it was not unreasonable to continue on to the old house.
|Andrew Wyeth - The Granary - 1961|
Even with Vanessa’s scouting, Walt was surprised to see smoke curling from the chimney top. So, someone was actually stopping on his property. He could only wonder how the devil they had ended up in this remote spot. He plowed down a hill of snow, crossed a gully and rose from the depression behind a decrepit barn, separate from the house. As he came around the corner of the barn, he discovered a black Range Rover parked in the clearing between the two structures. Approaching the car, he peered quickly through the tinted windows, finding nothing in the front seat other than a handful of maps and a six pack of empty beer bottles.
As he started toward the house, the screen door swung open and a man exited the house. The man smiled in a friendly fashion, using his hand to shield his eyes. “Surprised to see anyone out here in this storm,” he called over the wind. “Can I help you?”
Walt quickly examined the man still perched on the steps of the house. He wore faded jeans, a knit shirt and a short leather jacket. Walt would guess that he was in his late thirties. His face was ruddy and rather handsome. As would be expected, he had a couple days’ growth of beard on his cheeks and his hair was greasy and matted. “Owner,” Walt bleated ineffectually.
The man looked confused.
“I’m the owner,” he clarified. “Walt Garnett.”
The man squinted at him incredulously. “You live here?”
Walt laughed. “No, I live a mile or two from here. But this old shack is mine too.”
“Oh, we had no idea. Thought the place was abandoned. Sorry for trespassing, but we were sorta desperate. Storm took us by surprise.”
Walt took a step closer. Now he could see him clearly: a large mole on his cheek, nose slightly askew as if once broken and imperfectly mended.
“Not a problem. Not a problem at all.” Walt extended his gloved hand, which the man shook amiably. “I was concerned that you may be in trouble and need help.”
The man smiled. “No, we’re doing fine.”
“I see you got a fire started.”
The man looked up at the ribbon of smoke overhead. “We used some old beams we found in the barn. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. You’re welcome to anything you find on the floor. Just don’t compromise the structure, alright?”
“Not a chance. There’s still plenty of wood in there. Looks like someone tore down a pretty big structure and stored the frame in there.”
Walt turned to the barn. He had taken a brief look in there when he purchased the place, but couldn’t recall much about its contents. “Oh? That was lucky.” He turned back to the man. “How did you end up out here?”
“Hunting… up around Eversville. Were headed home when the road became pretty much impassable. Came across a turnoff, a dirt road, and thought it best to get out of the way of the plows once they came through. We really expected to wait out the storm in the car but then we found this old house.”
“They weren’t predicting this much snow. Caught me by surprise too.” He paused. “What about food? Do you need anything?”
“Nope. We’ve got plenty of food and water… hunting trip and all. Nope. We’re doing fine. Looks like the snow is tapering off. My guess is the plows will be through later today or early tomorrow and we’ll be on our way.”
“Can’t be so sure about that. Might take a bit longer. You’re sure that you’re okay.”
Walt was reluctant to end the conversation. In some way, he felt responsible for this man. Then Vanessa’s concern came to mind.
“Oh, are there any women hunting with you?”
The man seemed to smirk at the ridiculousness of this question.
“Nope. Just me and my buddy.” He smiled broadly. “Don’t hook up with a lot of ladies that are into hunting. If I ever do, that one’ll be a keeper.”
“ The wife…,” Walt said apologetically. “The wife thought she heard a woman last night. I explained that it had to be an animal or the wind, but she wouldn’t accept that…had to be certain. You know.”
“Sure do. I’ve tangled with enough females to know that there’s no point in resisting. Best to just knuckle under and get it done.”
Walt looked again at the smoke trailing overhead.
“Oh. Before I leave, I’d just like to check the flue on the stove. You know, it hasn’t been used in years. It might be improperly opened or clogged with debris. This old place would go up like a tinderbox. I’ll just take a quick look.”
Walt started for the door, but the man stood in his path.
“The flue is fine. I checked it before we lit the fire.”
Walt was surprised. This was his property after all. The man smiled abashedly at him, then added.
“My friend’s asleep in that room, only room warm enough to sleep in. We take turns tending the fire. Were up most of the night. Couldn’t have it going out, could we? We had a pretty tough time getting it going in the first place. Anyway, he just got the chance to lie down about twenty minutes ago. Wouldn’t be right to disturb him.”
“Listen. I’m an ol’ country boy. Been tending fires my whole life. I promise you, sir, that I checked to make sure that the flue was wide open and the smoke was venting proper.”
Walt decided to let it go. To be honest, with a fire burning, it would have been pretty tough to effectively check the flue, and the man appeared to be correct: the smoke gave every sign of venting as it should, without constriction.
“Alright. I just want to be certain that you guys don’t get hurt.”
Walt turned from the man and looked up at the rise behind the barn, the smudge of his footprints marring the pristine whiteness. He couldn’t help sighing to himself, considering the effort awaiting him. He faced the man again.
“Would you please do your best to secure the place before you leave? Windows and doors all closed… oh, and the barn too. If the fire’s been out a while before you leave, you should shut the flue. I suppose we should try to keep the place together, just in case some other wayfarer finds his way here in a storm.”
The man smiled handsomely.
“We’ll be sure to take care of everything. Don’t you worry.”
Walt weakly waved to him as he turned and started away. Walt was surprised to find the man walking beside him as he traced his old tracks past the barn. He noticed that one of the sliding doors of the barn had been pushed open, and he glanced inside as he approached it.
And then it happened.
Right at the entrance, half buried in the snow, lay one rubber boot. In a flash, Walt took it all in, then quickly averted his eyes. He needed to say something.
“Almost balmy…,” he uttered inanely.
“The weather. Much improved.”
Walt forced himself to look into his companion’s eyes. He saw no concern, no alarm there, just blank geniality. Walt stumbled, falling onto his knee, and the man helped him to his feet. As they approached the back of the barn, the man stopped, and Walt realized that the critical moment had arrived. He shook the man’s hand once more.
“I wish you luck,” Walt murmured.
|Peter Doig - Figures in Trees - 1997-98|
Walt began to descend into the gully, his shoulders rising defensively. As he laboriously climbed the hill behind the barn, he wondered if his momentary glance into the open doorway had not been observed. He desperately wanted to look back to see if the man was still watching him but dared not to. Instead, he carefully chose each step in the slippery snow, realizing that, once he had crossed over the top, he would disappear from view.
He knew what he had seen: a single, calf-high rubber boot, bright red and dotted with a pattern of bright yellow bananas. Recently, he had seen many young women in town wearing similar trendy boots, intensely colored and dappled with ornate paisley patterns or whimsical themes. Walt could not help but note the day-glo tones and crazy patterns, at times, chuckling to himself upon seeing the silly footwear. There was no doubt in his mind. He had seen a woman’s boot, lying upon fresh snow, just at the barn’s door. Of course, there were possible explanations for it being there. It may have been abandoned in the barn by an earlier visitor or fallen from the Range Rover while the men were unloading equipment and supplies. It was only a boot.
On the other hand, Walt couldn’t help thinking that something awful was going on at that house. Damn that Vanessa! She had his mind working in ridiculous ways. The man had to have seen him react to the boot; he had been looking right at him. And yet he had remained calm and confident, permitting Walt to leave without attempting to detain him or gauge whether he suspected anything. And it would have been an easy thing to keep Walt from going. At his age, he couldn’t hope to intimidate a young man, particularly one most likely armed. No, this didn’t add up at all.
Then it occurred to Walt that this man wasn’t dressed like any of the hunters he had seen in the area…heavy boots, caps, waders and multi-pocketed, fleece-lined jackets, all splattered in camo. No, he was dressed like he was going out to eat or see a movie… urban casual. And hunting season ended over a month ago. Naturally, he could have changed his clothing once becoming snowbound, and no one in this isolated corner of the state seemed to take hunting seasons seriously. During off-season, Walt often heard gun fire from his porch and, while driving, actually passed hunters, who had parked blatantly along public roads, wading into the woods rifles in hand.
Walt couldn’t decide if there really was cause for alarm. There were definitely reasonable explanations for everything he had observed, but there were also reasons to be suspicious. He determined that he would contact the police as soon as possible and let them investigate the situation. He wondered if phone service had been restored at his home yet. If something were awry, time could be critical. He thought about driving his car and remembered the faulty battery. Would it even start?
Having reached the top of the rise, Walt had been on level ground for some time now. He stopped to look back and was relieved to find no one following him. The pulse which had been pounding in his temples slowed a bit, and he took a couple of deep breaths.
“God,” he thought, “I was losing it there for a minute. I’ve got to keep my wits about me. I’m sure that in a few days I’ll be laughing about the whole thing.”
He plodded on toward home, each step being a minor trial. It was definitely easier following his previous path. And once he had established a regular pace, the pattern of his steps became sustainable and automatic. Every couple of minutes, he turned to check behind him and found no one following him.
“I’m still going to contact the police,” he thought. “They may think me an old fool, but I think it best under the circumstances to err on the side of caution.”
But, in truth, the longer he walked and the further he got unmolested from the house, the calmer he felt. His breathing eased, and the sense of panic subsided. He forced himself to remember that there could be a woman out at that house who needed help. Immediately, he thought of Kate. He hoped that if she were in a grave situation someone would go the extra yard to make certain her wellbeing. And Kate was so headstrong and determined that she often took unnecessary risks, exposing herself regularly to real danger. It wasn’t that difficult for Walt to reconcile his concept of the young woman he knew today with the image of the two year old child he had been reminiscing about earlier that day.
|Peter Doig - Almost Grown - 2001|
Kate had always been a strong willed child, but, on that Christmas Day, her behavior had amazed and discouraged him. After her tumble, they had gone home immediately to clean and bandage what turned out to be just a scrape. Vanessa dug out a Colorforms set and unsuccessfully tried to entertain her daughter, who petulantly placed a series of vinyl exotic animals onto a jungle background, an arbitrary clot of beasts forming in the greenery. Walt brought out his camera and lighting in the hopes of recording a quintessential holiday moment but soon gloomily packed away his equipment. It was pointless.
The hours passed with Walt and Vanessa trying every trick in the book to delight their daughter, repeatedly failing in their attempts. By dinnertime, Walt was getting disgusted, his impatience showing plainly, and Vanessa played the referee, keeping the two of them apart. The meal was a fiasco with Kate refusing to eat and Walter gobbling down his food absentmindedly while focused on his daughter’s transgressions. Afterwards, Vanessa put on a children’s video and practically ordered Walter to sit down and watch it with his daughter while she cleaned up. In the flickering glare of the TV screen, the two of them found their first peace that day. Walt watched contentedly what he would usually refer to as “abominable Disney agitprop” while Kate rested her head angelically on his thigh. Within a quarter hour, Kate was fast asleep, a string of drool stretching from the corner of her mouth, and Walt and Vanessa nervously deposited her in her bed, exiting the room in silence.
Walt opened a bottle of wine while Vanessa rinsed the dusty glasses, lit a squat candle and turned off the lights. Together, on the sofa, seated side-by-side, they turned to each other and, with smiling eyes, sighed in relief.
“Unbelievable!” Walt groaned happily.
“She’s a real tiger, that one,” Vanessa responded.
Sipping wine and laughing contentedly, they relived the day, drawing out details and exploring and re-exploring the most critical moments, their conversation serving like balm to their wounds. Walt felt the warmth of the wine flowing through his veins and clouding his perception pleasantly. He knew that the right moment had come.
“Van, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something.”
She faced him quickly with stricken features.
“No… No, nothing bad.”
She smiled warily at him. “I don’t think I could handle anything bad right now, Walt.”
“No. It’s something to do with work.”
She looked relieved. “Oh?”
“I’ve told you how much they like me… you know, appreciate my work”
“Oh, Walt! Is there going to be more freelance work? Because we could really use the money right now.”
“Better than that. They’ve offered me a fulltime position, Editorial Assistant, with benefits and a pension and even an office. I couldn’t have been more surprised.”
“Wow! That was sudden.”
“Couldn’t have happened at a better time. Let’s face it. I was only getting the freelance work when they were in a bind, and it really didn’t pay well at all. And with the baby and all, we were going through our savings much quicker than we expected. I was starting to get a little desperate, thinking out my options, my prospects appearing pretty bleak. But then a couple of weeks ago, Joe Reilly announced he’s out, taking a position with the competition. Sort of leaving them in the lurch, of course. I’m not sure what happened. I’m certain they were looking around a bit... you know, putting out feelers. The next thing I know I’m in with Oscar and he’s asking all sorts of strange questions about my education and experience and aspirations and all. Of course, after a while, I saw it coming. And sure enough, I got the job offer. Can you believe it? It’s almost impossible to get a foot in the door there, and I got a job offer without even applying. It’s incredible. Of course, I’ve got to buy a couple of cheap suits. Oh, and those old shoes. I can’t wear them to the office.”
Walt looked at Vanessa, his face alight with satisfaction.
She was crying.
“But Walt. What about your writing?”
“Taking a job doesn’t mean giving up writing.”
“That’s nonsense,” she objected, her cheeks etched with reflections of the candlelight.
“No, it isn’t. I’ve just got to structure my life a bit.”
“What about our plan? You’ve barely given it a try.” He didn’t respond, just stared into the darkness. “We can hold out. Why not finish the novel? Walt?”
“Let’s be realistic, Van. A baby wasn’t part of the equation. I mean I’m not complaining, but that changed everything. And this is an opportunity to attain some security that may not come around again. It’s not the perfect job but could grow into something better. And most importantly, I am going to finish my novel. I’m not giving that up.”
Vanessa held her head in her hands, her long hair draped over her face.
“I thought you’d be happy,” he sighed.
|Erich Heckel - Selbstbildnis - 1965|
Walter stopped and stood in the snow a moment, his features ashen with these memories. He wearily looked behind him to find the bleak landscape just as deserted as before. And then he saw something, a single... no, two gray blurs on a distant hill, perhaps three quarters of a mile off. He wasn’t sure what they were, possibly just brambles or a pair of young saplings. But he continued to look all the same. And then we saw movement. No, not caused by the sporadic wind, but purposeful movement. The blurs appeared to be headed east, following the crest of the hill, but then he noticed that they were growing larger and realized that they were rising over the crest, coming towards him.
Both of the men were following him! And, at that instant, he knew, in his core, that his life was at risk. After his visit, they must have discussed their options, determined that Walt could not be permitted to return home, dressed and armed themselves and then set off in pursuit. Even with the multitude of other plausible explanations, Walt understood this to be true. He suddenly felt nauseous as he watched the blurs descending behind a knoll. They were moving rapidly and, if he remained where he was, would catch up with him in fifteen minutes, more or less. His only hope was to beat them to the house with considerable time to spare.
|Winslow Homer - Fox Hunt - 1893|
Walt began scrambling through the snow. His prospects were poor; he was already pretty much exhausted from his exertions up to that point, and he could only assume that both men were considerably younger than he and in much better condition. Lucky for him, a surge of adrenaline pushed him onward, suppressing the pain which had hampered him earlier that day. He adopted a lumbering jog which, for all its awkwardness, did permit him to move at a respectable pace. He assumed that the men had seen him well before he caught sight of them and wondered whether they had detected, as yet, that he had quickened his pace. Hoping that they were still so far away that such nuances would be imperceptible, Walt had to use this brief period to gain some distance from them or, at least, hold his own. Once they understood that he was fleeing, the chase would be on in earnest.
The situation seemed surreal to Walt, a nightmare born from the hackneyed imagery of bad movies and television shows. Walt had never known violence. Except for a few minor scuffles as a child, he had never had to defend himself. He had never been in a car accident, even a minor one. And even though as a young man he frequented sections of the city that were considered dangerous, at times adding to his vulnerability by being drunk, no one ever harassed him. He never served in the armed forces. He had never been a victim. In spite of the mountains of evidence to the contrary, Walt considered the world a pretty benign place. This occurrence, this strange rift in an uneventful life, was incomprehensible. He desperately wanted to dismiss his conclusions about what was happening here, but could not. No, these men were after him and meant him harm.
|Peter Doig - Untitled - 2001-02|
After ten minutes of pushing himself to the utmost, Walt looked back. He couldn’t believe that the men were gaining on him. But, in the brightening light of a clearing sky, he could tell that they were definitely closer. The pale gray blurs were now a velvety black: two jeering crows set in a field of white. Realizing how little he had accomplished, Walt was panicked. He tried to pick up his pace and lost all sense of form, stumbling awkwardly in the snow with his arms flailing in the air. Losing his footing on a hillside, he hit the ground hard and tumbled to the bottom, his hat left behind in his tracks.
Walt got up and began to gallop madly towards his home. He could not catch his breath, and the bitterly cold air drawn through his gaping mouth slashed at his lungs. His pulse quickened and intensified, and his heart struggled to escape the boundaries of his body, to breach the confines of the ribcage and take flight. Walt knew that he was pushing too hard, that he risked ending his struggles in these old fields, that his pursuers may accomplish their end without ever catching him. But he had no choice. To slow down would mean his death.
He fell to his knees and vomited in the snow.
|Andrew Wyeth - Race Bridge -1984|
“Van!” he hollered into the quiet house. “Vanessa, come quickly!”
Walt rushed to the kitchen cupboard, where the car keys hung on a hook along with a cork screw and a penlight.
“Vanessa!” he cried, choking on his spittle, as he opened the door to the laundry room to look for her. “Damn it! Where the hell is she?”
As he reentered the kitchen, she suddenly appeared, having come from upstairs. She was startled and frightened. “I was just taking a nap, Walt,” she explained. “What is it?”
“Throw on your coat. Oh, and grab the cell phone,” he gasped.
“It’s still not working,” she objected.
“Vanessa!” he pleaded. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
She ran to the front entry hall, picked up her coat and returned to the kitchen where Walt was raking through the cutlery.
“Hopeless!” he groaned. Seeing Vanessa, he asked, “Phone?”
“In the pocket.”
“Good,” he responded, as he pulled her out the door, coat in hand and still stepping into her boots.
He dragged her to the garage, a structure separate from the house. Having already hit the remote on the porch, Walt found the door close to fully open when they made it to the garage. As they got into the car, he said, “I’m not sure it will start. It was touch and go yesterday morning.”
“What is it, Walt?” Vanessa cried.
He put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine coughed and wheezed but would not start. He depressed the gas pedal twice, thinking all the while, “Can’t flood it. Can’t flood it.”
“Please tell me what happened out there, Walt.”
He tried the ignition once more with no better luck and, throwing caution to the wind, held the pedal to the floor for a couple of seconds. As before, the car groaned and shuddered but would not start. And then, suddenly, it just barely caught. He quickly gave it plenty of gas and the engine roared, white smoke billowing out of the tailpipe.
His face bathed in sweat, Walt turned to look out the back window and edged the car onto the long, gravel-covered driveway. They made steady progress for a few seconds, then the car stopped, its wheels spinning ineffectually. Walt put the car into drive and was able to pull back into the garage, nosing it in as far as it could go.
“Hold on tight, Van,” he advised, shifting again and then hitting the gas. The car shot out of the garage, plowing through the snow, careening over hollows and veering wildly left and right as Walt struggled to retain control. They made it down three quarters of the length of the driveway before he lost all traction, and the car skidded into a deep culvert. As it smacked into the frozen earth, the engine stopped abruptly. Walt tried futilely to restart the car.
He grabbed Vanessa’s hand.
“You’ve got to go, Van. Head towards town and stick to the road. If you lose the road, you’re done for.” He was breathing so heavily that he could only get out a few words at a time.
“What are you talking about, Walt?”
“You don’t have much time, so listen carefully to me. You were right. There are two men out there, and I’m pretty sure they have a woman, like you thought. They’re denying it, but I’m sure they’re lying. They’ve followed me back to the house. Will be here any minute. So you’ve got to get going now.”
“So we’re going together. Right, Walt?” She raised both eyebrows in question.
“Can’t do it, Van. The car was my only chance. I’m spent.”
“I’m not leaving you here,” she sobbed.
“No time for this. You’re our only hope now, mine and that woman’s. Sorry to ask this of you. But you’ve got to go.” He reached across her and opened her door. “Go!”
“Walt, you can try, can’t you? You’ve got to try.”
“Van, my head is pounding. Please. Try the cell every half hour or so. If you get a signal, call the police. Now go!”
He began pushing her out the door, but she frantically fought him off. And time stopped for a brief interval. She scrutinized his face a moment, then turned and bounded from the car.
“I’ll try to delay them, but you’ve got to understand that they might follow you. Stay alert!” he called after her, as he watched her scurry away through the snow.
|Tom Thomson - In Algonquin Park - 1914|
Walt ran back to the house and quickly locked the doors. He stood in the kitchen, gasping for air. Knowing he had just a couple of minutes, his mind raced wildly, unable to form a plan. The thought of hiding terrified him and would probably be ineffectual with all his wheezing and coughing. Then he remembered the rifle he was coerced into purchasing at the time they bought the ranch. Wildlife, he had been told, ain’t called wild for nothing. Seems the area hosted a number of fairly dangerous predators. He had reluctantly purchased a small caliber long rifle at a sporting goods store, learned to load and shoot it and promptly packed it away out of sight. Pretty sure that he had buried it in the back of the closet in his study, Walt stumbled up the stairs and began to search, digging through coats and old suits, boxes of records and legal documents, bags of papers and mementos he had brought home from the office upon retirement, handmade holiday cards from his daughter, an assortment of manuals and stacks of family photo albums.
There was a loud knock on the door.
Walt found a long item wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, which turned out to be a display easel he had used for years during work presentations.
“Walt!” It was the voice of the man he had spoken with earlier. “Walt! We were wondering if you could share a little fresh water… and some matches.”
Walt wasn’t sure what to do. It was fairly evident that he would not find the rifle in time to defend himself if that became necessary. And staying put would mean getting trapped on the second floor with no possibility of egress. It seemed prudent to move to ground level. With no intention of responding to their calls, Walt crept toward the study door when a dusty trophy sitting on a shelf caught his attention. It was a plastic and chrome affair, an award received in Junior High when his baseball team, a team for which he never started and only played three innings the entire season, finished second in the regional playoffs. Even back then, Walt had known that his contribution to the team had been embarrassingly small but had cherished the trophy as indicative of his untapped potential, anticipating many more awards to come. What interested Walt at that moment was the trophy’s marble base which could inflict serious injury if brought to bear on the skull of an adversary. Grasping the golden batter atop the trophy, he wielded the base like a club and slowly descended the stairs.
“Walt. What’s up? I thought everything was cool with you. Can’t you open the door for a second just to talk with us?”
There was more pounding on the kitchen door. Walt edged around the banister’s newel post, careful to remain hidden from view, and retreated to the entry hall. He stood at an old hope chest his wife had purchased at an antiques auction, its top covered with family photos. Then he heard the shattering of the glass window in the kitchen door.
“This is it,” he thought and bolted out the front door.
|Kathe Kollwitz - Self Portrait with Hand on Brow - 1910|
Vanessa looked across the table at the two young people and wondered if this would ever end. Her head was spinning after three days of answering the same questions over and over again. At this point, she was losing touch with reality and had no idea if her versions of events were consistent and accurate. There was a fly in the room which wouldn’t leave her alone. It swooped in front of her face, circled her head and landed on her cheek. She brushed it away and it disappeared, though she could still hear the buzzing clearly in her ears. Even as new questions were posed to her, she found herself focused on the fly, marveling that it could possibly be active in the dead of winter, speculating on what the lifespan of a fly was anyway.
Today, it was a new team, a man and a woman, most likely in their late twenties or early thirties. They were dressed in business attire and looked more like student interns than police officers. Of all the individuals who had questioned her, these were the worst yet, lacking in confidence and experience, stumbling over disjunct, irrelevant questions. The man, his jaw line and neck dotted with acne, was obviously following a predetermined game plan, however poorly, and was doggedly putting questions and carefully recording Vanessa’s responses, while the woman, seemingly genuinely empathetic, expressed shock and sympathy as Vanessa related details from the incident. Though she was determined to cooperate and to retain control of her temper, Vanessa was losing her composure, giving way to anger and confusion.
Then, a man she had not seen before entered the room. He was an ordinary looking man, with rounded contours and a head crowned with wisps of grey hair. His expression was congenial, almost conveying surprise at finding the room inhabited. The female interrogator, upon seeing him, stopped in mid-sentence and looked up at him. He gave her an apologetic nod and indicated the door, through which both of Vanessa’s tormentors quickly disappeared. He placed a stack of folders onto the table, sat down in the chair opposite her and stretched out his legs. Without saying a word, he began shuffling through the folders, examining pages carefully, occasionally a soft sigh of exasperation escaping from his mouth.
Vanessa could wait no longer. “I’ve been questioned for days by you people, and I think I have a right to know. Am I a suspect?” she demanded sharply.
He paused momentarily, glancing over his glasses to inspect her. “Under the circumstances, I guess that would naturally follow,” he responded gently, before going back to his papers.
“Well, then, are you going to arrest me?”
He continued to read through some handwritten notes. “No,” he answered without taking a second look at her. Finally, he closed the folder and eyed Vanessa sadly. “Very disturbing business. Pretty unusual for these parts.”
Vanessa waited for more.
“So you left your husband at the house?” he said.
“In the car,” she corrected him.
“Why did you separate?”
“Walt made me leave him. He said that he couldn’t go any further, that he was exhausted. I’ve said all this before… several times. It should all be in one of those folders.”
“Please indulge me. I’d like to hear it myself.”
Vanessa nodded. This man had a strange delivery, a soft, tentative murmur that commanded her attention. She leaned in closer.
“That must have been a difficult thing to do,” he stated. “Leaving him behind, that is.”
“I begged him to come with me, but he wouldn’t. He forced me out of the car.”
“And where were you headed?”
“That’s a long ways, and night was falling. You could easily have frozen to death.”
“I would have made it.”
He shrugged his shoulders as if to say that’s debatable, but simply said, “You were lucky to run into that plow.”
“I was lucky the snow had stopped, or there wouldn’t have been a plow on that road.”
He paused. “Let’s go back a moment. Did anyone mention to you that one of the men started to follow you? We found his tracks in the snow.”
“No. But I knew that.”
“And may I ask how you knew you were being followed?”
“I saw him.”
The man sat up straight, and his eyes widened. “You saw him?”
“Yes. He was still very far off, but he was gaining on me quickly. The next time I looked behind me, the man was gone. He could easily have caught up with me. I can’t understand why he turned back.”
“My guess is that they wanted to make a pretty quick exit, having no idea whether you and Walt had been able to contact the police. And, let’s face it, you weren’t that important to them. You’d never seen them and couldn’t ID them... couldn't describe their vehicle.” Visibly frustrated, he underlined a phrase and jotted down some notes on one of the typewritten reports before him. “Their priority was to get back to the old house and get the hell out of there. That’s probably what saved your life.”
Vanessa leaned in close again and held the man’s eyes. “So are you going to tell me?” she asked.
“Tell you what?”
“What was going on at the old house? What happened to that girl?”
“What girl was that?” he asked, returning her gaze.
“The one I heard screaming in the night. The one I sent Walt out to help.”
“It’s quite a distance between the houses. How could you be so sure you heard a girl?”
“Oh, I’m sure about that.” Vanessa frowned. “You know, I’ve asked everyone who’s questioned me to let me know what went on out there with that girl, and not a single person would tell me a thing.”
“They were just doing their job properly, supposed to gather info from you… not provide it.”
Vanessa stated hopefully, “But you’re going to be different.”
“This is outrageous. It’s my life that’s been turned upside-down, but I’m the one who can’t know anything.”
“Honestly, ma’am, I would let it lie. There’s really no point in your delving into all of those horrors.”
Vanessa eyed him sternly. “Absolutely not! I’ve got to know what this was all for.”
He hesitated a very long while, scratching at his chin with an index card. “That’s understandable. Maybe I can spare you the details.”
“Spare me nothing,” Vanessa insisted.
“Well, we’ll see about that,” he said drily. He exhaled loudly, gathered himself up and began uneasily relating his story. “Young girl, just nineteen years old, working late at a mall about 150 miles north of here. She stayed a little after regular hours to balance her register and neaten up the stock for the next morning. Her car was parked in an active and well-lit lot. Once she got done what she had to do, she exited alone, leaving two co-workers still at work in the store.” He paused, obviously frustrated. “That’s something I can’t understand. Why not wait a couple of minutes for them to leave with her? What’s the big hurry?”
Vanessa’s expression soured. “A woman’s got to make choices like that a couple times every day. That’s something hard for men to appreciate.”
He cleared his throat. “Well, she never made it home. Her parents contacted the police a few hours later. Not a trace of her was found. The police couldn’t locate a single witness. She just disappeared, leaving her car locked and secure in the parking lot. End of story. At least, until you stepped into it.” He leafed through his folders, Vanessa seeing only the top of his head, and then he looked up with a pained expression on his face. “It took some time to get a patrol car out to that old farm house. By the way, we learned later that the locals refer to it as the Wheeler place. I guess the Wheelers were the original owners?” Vanessa confirmed this with a nod. “First, there was some confusion about where the Wheeler place actually is. Then there was the question of whether the road was plowed or not. It would be nigh impossible to get out there if it wasn’t. And… well, the long and short of it is those men were long gone before a car made it up to the property.”
“And they took that poor girl with them?” Vanessa was stunned.
“No, ma’am, they did not. And here is where I’m going to ask you for a little lenience.”
“What did they do to her?” Vanessa demanded.
“I’m not prepared to go into that. I’m sorry.”
Vanessa looked hard into his eyes. “Listen to me. We’re the victims here, my husband and I. You can abuse me all you want, but this is as plain as day. We’re the victims. And if there’s any consolation to be found in all this heartbreak, it would be to feel that there was a point to it all… that Walt’s going out to that house could have made a difference, that it was necessary. So stop treating me like a china doll.”
The man sat still for a long time.
“A lot of this is just conjecture.”
“I will listen to your conjecture.”
“And not a word of what I tell you can leave this room.”
“We’re not sure why they stopped at your place. We believe that they must have known the location prior to abducting the girl. The Wheeler house can just barely be seen from the road, but that would be in daylight. If they traveled south immediately after the abduction, which seems most probable, it would have taken them a minimum of three hours to get down here, which, of course, would make it about one in the morning. Not a lot of light then, is there?”
“Again, this is my guess. They went up there with the prior intention of nabbing some girl, and just happened to see your place on the way up. Of course, they could just as easily be from this area, but that seems unlikely. Too risky to bring a captive to your own neighborhood.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his front pocket, tapped on the bottom of the pack and, apparently reconsidering his actions, placed the cigarettes on the tabletop. “So, they must have had her at the house for four days before you heard that scream in the night. It is our thinking that during those four days they…” He ran his finger over the manila folder, tracing a circle. He looked at Vanessa sadly. “From the amount of bruising and the quantity of … genetic material, it’s clear that there was a lot of activity over a prolonged period. We suspect that at some point she refused to submit, that she began to resist, and that’s when it got very unpleasant. The coroner estimates, from examining her wounds, that the physical abuse began on the third day. And we think that on that fourth night, she must have tried to get away, that she must have gotten out of the house while the men were sleeping perhaps and fled toward the road, but they caught up with her pretty quickly. Again, it’s only conjecture, but we think that’s when you heard the screaming. The storm pretty much eradicated any sign of a struggle, but by carefully removing the snow, layer by layer, we’ve uncovered a blood trail leading about a hundred or so yards straight out from the house… at which point it ceases. Most likely, the girl was forcibly brought back to the house, and I suspect that her abductors weren’t too pleased with her behavior. The coroner puts her time of death at about sunrise the following morning.”
Vanessa winced. “They shot her?”
The man looked surprised. “Really?” He raised his shoulders and splayed his open hands before him. “What good is that going to do you?”
“It’s going to tell me how bad these men were… what kind of trash had taken up residence on our land. Don’t worry about me. I’m not going to wail or pass out or whatever you think I’m going to do.”
The man opened a folder and scanned a page. “I really shouldn’t be doing this…” Vanessa stared at him expectantly. “Oh, damn!” He paused. “No, they didn’t shoot her. They made a garrote out of her own clothing and strangled her. Are you satisfied now?”
“They really are bastards,” she seethed.
“They probably didn’t want to risk anyone hearing the discharge of the gun. But, you’re right, these guys were sadists. No doubt about it. They were not looking for a humane way to do this, to say the least.”
As he replaced the report in the folder, his wrist toppled the entire stack, sending folders skidding across the table. A number of reports and photographs spilled out before them. Before the man had a chance to collect them, Vanessa exclaimed, “Is that Walt?”
He groaned, “I am so sorry. You shouldn’t have seen that.”
Vanessa snatched the photograph from his hand. It was taken in the night with a flash which pushed the contrast between darks and lights to an extreme. But even so, Vanessa knew exactly what she was seeing. There was Walt lying face down in the snow, a pale pink halo of blood encircling his body, his outstretched hand still absurdly grasping a trophy.
The man was exasperated. “May I have that back… please?”
“You know… Of course, they had to tell me what happened to him. After all, he’s my husband. But until now, I don’t think I really understood. Poor Walt. What a way to end your life.” Vanessa took a tissue out of her purse and blew her nose. “Do you think he suffered much?” she asked.
“We’re pretty sure he didn’t.”
“Yeah?” she responded weakly. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, there were tracks in the snow that told us a lot. Like one man broke in through the porch door, while the other waited out of view at the front of the house. Walt probably never saw his assailant. He was running away from the house when he was hit.”
“So he was shot from behind.”
“And he died immediately?”
The man hesitated. “Yes. Pretty much so.”
“What do you mean pretty much so?”
“Like I said. He died almost immediately.”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“The details aren’t going to help you.”
“So he didn’t die quickly. He suffered terribly.” A flash of understanding lit up her eyes, and she raised her hand to her open mouth. “They tortured him, didn’t they? They tortured him!”
“This is precisely why I didn’t…” He sighed. “The first shot…”
“The first shot?” she nearly screamed.
The man closed his eyes and continued patiently. “The first shot hit him in the left lung and brought him down instantly. That probably was all it took. But the man approached the body and took an additional shot. That had to be within a minute of the initial shot, and it was certainly conclusive.”
Vanessa wanted to ask if the second shot was to the head, but she recognized that she had pushed her interrogator to his limits. And she knew the answer anyway. Vanessa turned her face away from the man and wept.
“So it was all for nothing.” She sniffled. “Walt died for nothing. That girl was dead long before Walt made it out to the house.”
“I wouldn’t say that. These men were pretty organized… pretty meticulous in their activities. For instance, they managed to grab this girl without exciting any interest at a fairly public location. Not a single witness. And they had selected an ideal site at which to hold her. If luck hadn’t gone against them, if the weather hadn’t turned, if Walt hadn’t made an appearance, I believe they would have tidied up the place, left not a scrap of evidence… disposed of the body in a way that would have ensured that it would never be found. But they were spooked, had to get out of there quickly. They abandoned the body, providing us with critical DNA evidence. In the house, we found fingerprints, partially eaten meals and clothing. They may have gotten away, but we are going to find them.”
Vanessa studied the wrinkles lining the backs of her hands. “I guess that’s some consolation.”
“It may be all you’re going to get.” The man got out of his chair and stood beside the table. “Now I hear that you have a daughter waiting for you outside.”
“Yes. She flew out here the day after... We’ve been staying at a motel. I couldn’t go back to the house.”
“That’s understandable. So this is what I want you to do. I hear that you intend to have the body transported to New York.” Vanessa nodded. “Go out to your daughter and see if over the next day or two you can make arrangements. Don’t leave town, just yet. We may have a couple of questions for you still. Just check in with us before you leave.”
“I’m really sorry that any of this happened .”
Vanessa turned the knob on the door.
“Oh, and Mrs. Garnett,” he called after her. She turned back to him. “Thank you.”
That was the last time Vanessa saw this man. When she later called to inquire into the investigation, she never spoke with him. She never even learned his name.
|Karl Hubbuch (Title and Date Unavailable)|
Vanessa and Kate stayed at a motel for five days more before returning to New York where a memorial service was held that most likely would have contradicted Walt’s sensibilities if he had been alive to express them. Walt had always opined that death was a private matter for the deceased and grief was an affliction that could only be suffered by the bereaved alone. But Vanessa felt that Walt’s friends and associates would be disappointed, possibly offended, if some kind of service were not held.
Immediately after her return to New York, Vanessa lived with her daughter. Kate and her husband, Mike, got along with her fine, actually appreciated having a live-in babysitter on the premises, but Vanessa thought it would be best to live on her own. Nearly a year after the murders, the ranch was sold by a broker, Vanessa having never set foot in the place since she and Walt had fled that winter’s afternoon. On an extended weekend, Kate and Mike packed up the contents of the ranch house and arranged to have everything trucked back east to a storage facility near their home. With the proceeds from the sale, Vanessa purchased a unit in a nearby retirement community, which not only afforded ample opportunity for socializing, but also was designed with the frail in mind, the site restricted to one-story structures and crisscrossed with a web of ramps. Should it become necessary, meals could be enjoyed in a communal dining hall and nursing services were available too. For Vanessa, these accommodations seemed unquestionably sensible.
|Edvard Munch - Red and Black - 1888|
Vanessa regularly called for progress reports on the investigation. At first, in the voices at the other end of the line, she sensed dynamism and optimism. As she had been informed earlier, the sloppy crime scene had provided a wealth of evidence, and everyone she spoke with was sure it was only a matter of time before the perpetrators were brought to justice. After several months of her calling, the voices became more strained, expressing a hint of frustration. Sometimes, she would have to wait several days for a call back, and, sometimes, she would get no response at all. Finally, near the first anniversary of the murders, a blunt officer explained to her that “you could have enough fingerprints and semen to fill the Grand Canyon, but if the perpetrators aren’t in any of our databases, it’s pretty much worthless”.
|Edvard Munch - Inger - n.d.|
Over the years, Vanessa continued to make those calls, though of course less frequently. She could tell by the tone that the detectives took with her that she was now considered a nuisance, but she knew it was her duty to keep up the pressure on the police. It shocked her when she was told by an inexperienced clerk that the double homicides were considered a cold case, that the investigation was no longer active. She made numerous calls, even wrote to local politicians, but always hit the same wall: without new evidence or leads, it was impossible to make further progress. For Vanessa, it felt as if Walt had died a second time, and she mourned his loss again, this time, perhaps, more intensely. Kate would often find her napping in her dark bedroom, no matter what time of day she stopped by, and Vanessa seemed listless and disinterested. Seeing her mother slipping into depression, Kate began forcing her to accompany her on errands and appointments. Vanessa at first grumbled about assisting with the grocery shopping and hiking through malls but soon fell into the routine amenably. And, of course, she was always included in any of Ethan’s events: plays, concerts, soccer games, swim meets and birthday celebrations. Kate also contacted the staff at the retirement community to express her concerns about her mother, and Vanessa was encouraged to participate more in community activities and take an occasional meal with the other residents. Vanessa’s mood improved gradually. She became more alert and engaged, Kate even suspecting that her mother had a boyfriend, though Vanessa would neither confirm nor deny her insinuations.
As years passed, Vanessa settled more and more into her new life, eventually conceding that this new “existence” made infinitely more sense than the one she had left behind. One morning, as she flipped through a mail-order catalog while watching a news program, she turned the page to find a section devoted to bedding, and, spotting a blanket nearly identical to the Navajo blanket she had purchased long ago for the ranch, she quivered to realize that more than a year had passed since her last call to the police. Initially, she felt a twinge of guilt, immediately calculating in her head the time difference in anticipation of making a call. But then she thought it best to let it go, to surrender to the past what the past had taken from her. She placed the catalog on her coffee table, sat immobile for a moment and said a silent farewell to Walt.
|Jane Muus - Laila - n.d.|
© 2012 by Gerard Wickham