On a walk in the woods on a rainy day, a woman stumbles upon the body of a stranger. In this new short story, Susan Scarf Merrell probes the ethnic divide on the East End and the silence that has fallen between neighbors.
You meditate, straight-backed, cross-legged on a pad on the floor, facing a wall of glass. It’s morning. Dipsy-do spring rain, and edges blur: the universe and you, circulating respirating the drift of fans behind the knees and eyes, out to the street, where men in trucks gather your tied-up newspapers and deliver oil to your tank. The dog greets them, howling with delight. The web of all.
After, you walk in the woods, and — flat wet hair drenched sneakers soggy pants — you are adrift in the liminal world between thought and action. Word and deed. Life and Death. Even the deer corpse that has been sinking back to earth since the previous August pleases you, skull on the left side of the path, bloated belly and crossed limbs on the right. The smell is the odor of time passing, of how small you are on this Earth, how minuscule you are compared to forever.
Your rhythm is no rhythm, is bigger than you and softer than you, and the dog scampers ahead, his short legs umbrella-springing from the barrel of his body. Lob lob lob of his tail, ecstatic, the universe, the all!
The man is on the path, and you swim toward him through the rain — the dog has already sniffed his groin and licked his face where mud has streaked from chin to nose. His mouth is partly open; his teeth are wet, his lips no longer pink. Cold skin, you know it will be cold to touch, as cold as your father when you found him sitting open-eyed in his wheelchair, but the dog does not mind the chill of it. He does not say to himself Death. Or Life. He only measures one scent against another.
You squat. Reach a hand to touch the face, the cheek. You would not know this man in life. I am so hopeful, you want to tell him. Hopeful that where you are is better than how I found you. Could you have saved him? If you’d skipped the meditation, headed to the woods a little earlier? Can you save anyone?
The police are polite, after they’ve established jurisdiction, for the man has chosen to die on a path that divides two villages, to die squarely in the middle. If he were a wallet, no one would know which Lost and Found should have him. There is blood on the back of his skull and you feel faint — you haven’t eaten after all, and it is now near 11 am and it is still raining — did he fall? You ask, but no one answers, they are all too busy. And the ambulance worker who pronounces him dead observes you thoughtfully, as if you, too, might fall at any moment. You are drenched with rain, and they let you sit on the open back of the ambulance while they lever your new friend onto a stretcher and then drape a stiff, water-resistant sheet atop his form. You stand so they can place him in the vehicle.
What was it you had planned to do today?
The dog is quiet now, sprawled napping on the muddy path, his eyes half-open — he would jump at any opportunity to eat, or run, but if that’s not to be, it’s fine. You had always known that one day you would find a body in the woods, you say to the policeman, who looks puzzled and a little wary. But you had known. You had walked past animal corpses, mice and squirrels and deer, even a red fox once. You had skirted discarded couches and empty oil barrels, and condoms and buckshot and more beer bottles than you could count — broken ones, half-empty ones filled with piss-yellow brew, sodden cartons, a thousand bent caps. Single socks and bras and diapers and half-eaten hamburgers, all these things. And now the body, as you had known would one day be.
“Can you identify him?”
You shake your head, no. They’ve already asked you this.
The cop would like you to sit in his car a moment. You get in the front seat, next to him. He asks if he can drive you home. You say yes. He asks if he can come in, he has some questions. You say yes.
He is bright-faced young, and agrees that he would like a cup of coffee. You go upstairs, quickly change into dry clothes, put your sodden hair into a ponytail. By the time you return, the coffee is done. He takes milk, which you only have because of houseguests who did not finish the quart. You sit at the kitchen table, across from one another. The clock over the sink ticks loudly. The coffee pot warmer makes creaky settling sounds. Last night’s napkins are on the table, crumpled, and you sweep them into a pile on the side.
“He was Spanish,” you say. Meaning you don’t know if he came from Ecuador or Mexico, from Colombia or Peru.
The cop nods. You wonder if you should offer him a towel for his military buzz of hair. He has already dripped across your kitchen floor, even though he thoughtfully removed his raincoat and his hat and boots in the front hall.
“There are Spanish houses in the neighborhood,” you say. Meaning group houses. Meaning houses where the back yard has been turned into a parking lot and volleyball court, where the thud and grunt of play is a soundtrack to the heat of summer evenings. You don’t mind the houses — there are two of them, across the street from one another — but some of the neighbors do. They wanted neighbors they could speak to, who would watch their houses and feed their cats and bring in their mail. They worry about housing values. They don’t like what they don’t know.
“Did someone hurt him?” you ask.
The cop takes a sip of coffee. He sighs. He asks, “Was he a familiar face?” As if you did not understand the question when he asked the other way.
“No.” But then you wonder if perhaps he asked to shovel your driveway after that last big storm in March, three men in their 20s, short-legged, wide-faced, down-jacketed, with huge bright gloves you imagined had been given them at Christmas, who knocked on the front door and offered their services. Your husband had thought this late in March the snow would melt quickly, and he turned out to be right. “He looked nice,” you say awkwardly, you want the cop to understand something about you that you aren’t sure you understand yourself.
Was he legal, this kid? Had his end been foreseen by his beginning? Is anyone’s?
You sit in silence with the cop. The dog snores gutturally. Oh, you did not towel him down! Smears of mud goop his ears, the bed, the floor.
The cop thanks you for the coffee, says he’ll be in touch if there are questions. You assure him you will make yourself available. At the door, he leans against the frame to replace his boots. You can tell that this is difficult for him, that his legs and back are stiff. He must sit so much in that patrol car, waiting for bad to happen. He seems so kind. Earnest and eager, precisely the sort of person you would want watching over you and yours. “Sit on the stairs,” you say to him. “To make it easier.”
And he does. He sits on the second stair, and pulls on first one boot and then the other. You cannot picture this polite kid breaking down a door. Pulling someone from a family away from all the others. Deporting people. You think the words, deporting people, not realizing you have said them out loud. But you have.
Deporting people hangs in the air between you, like the mantra you let go of this morning, like the howl of your dog racing out into the limitless sky, brushing up against other howls and other voices, against sobs and fury, against killings and illness and making love and birthing, against the seething of bees in a hive and the drifting of sand under the harsh repeated insistence of a wave, the doubling of single-celled organisms, of friendships, of cancer cells, of joy.
His eyes meet yours and he shakes his head. You do not know what it is he disapproves of, whether it is you, or deportation, or the universe. You are part of this, the universe, and careful of your place.
You do not ask.
Top: “Sleeping," Ben Fenske. Oil on linen (2014). Courtesy of Grenning Gallery