Published Rosette Maleficarum in December 2017
Mary Jo Clemens and her husband Howard had been hikers, canoers, birders, amateur botanists – outdoors people. After Howie’s death, she began checking out retirement communities, looking for those with well-maintained paths, trails. She was no longer up to the backpack hiking they’d done in their prime, nor the canoeing and kayaking they’d enjoyed into their fifties. Outdoor walks, though, she could still enjoy, even in wet or cold weather.
Portland Meadows had five miles of trails through meadows and woods. Five miles! She moved in and began exploring them.
It was painful at first, missing Howie, being constantly reminded that he was not beside her with his uncanny ability to identify every tree or plant or bush along their walks. She got out his field guides to wildflowers and to trees and shrubs, which she’d kept and brought to her new apartment, and began taking one along every morning. The new preoccupation with naming things distracted her from the loneliness of walking alone.
But only partially: She had to admit to herself that she was exploring not only the trails, but also the male population of Portland Meadows: She hoped to encounter on these intersecting paths a compatible man with whom to share the walk. Women in places like this typically outnumbered men two to one, so only with determined effort and prodigious luck would she find a man who was good company and unclaimed, so to speak.
Her vigilance watching for male walkers occasioned more than a few twinges of guilt, although she was sure Howie would have understood. He knew how much she’d enjoyed discussing current events with his friends. He knew that she’d never been one for women’s clubs or bridge, and that she found most women’s talk boring. And she wasn’t looking for another husband. God knows she was too dried up to be looking for a lover. Just a man to chat with now and then.
She quickly became a familiar sight to other walkers: A woman whose long gray hair – she’d stopped having it colored after Howie’s death — was tied into a huge bun. Her pastel pantsuits displayed a well-kept trim shape that belied her years, and she set a brisker pace than almost anyone.
She broke that pace often, though, to take photos. Her grandson Peter last year had given her – and helped her learn to use — the perfect tool to make her presence known: a smartphone that was more compact and easier to use than any of the cameras Howie had given her over the years. Portland Meadows, she’d discovered, had several “interest group list-serves” so that like-minded people could share e-mails.
Every day, she took a photo: of the latest shy blossom to poke up beside a trail, of burgeoning meadow shrubs, of colorful fungi, of forest blossoms and leaves. She then posted each photo, properly named — yellow goatsbeard, white pine blossom, cinnamon fern, fothergilla, wild raisin – on the “Trails and Nature” e-mail listserve, which earned her new friends among residents pleased to learn the names of what they saw on the trails.
Mary Jo thought her approach to morning walks was a sharp contrast to that idiot Ellen Connelly, who also went walking most early mornings – strolling, really, far short of vigorous exercise. She was always overdressed, her improbably blonde hair well-coiffed, thoroughly made up as though dawn might miss her without mascara. She never failed to carry a huge gold-trimmed purse, buried in which – along with heaven knew what else valuable — was an iPod playing string quartets and other classical music into high-tech earbuds.
Helped her “celebrate nature,” Ellen told people. Pish-tush, Mary Jo said to herself; the stupid woman obviously never heard the twitter of birdsong or the sigh of wind in the trees. “If there were hungry bears,” Mary Jo said to her neighbor Charles Moore, “Ellen would be breakfast before she knew it was coming.”
Charlie. He’d caught up with her one morning as she was thumbing through the guide to identify what turned out to be a wild sweet pea. He was tall, with a trim grey goatee and mustache and a frame just as trim. His wife had died almost a decade ago, and he introduced himself as “a confirmed widower,” making it sound like confirmed bachelor. Howie, she was sure, would approve.
He soon became a regular morning companion, sharing her interest in nature’s bounty and often commenting online on the photographs she posted.
She was pleased to notice that Charlie never joined Ellen Connelly in her morning strolls. It would have been pointless, plodding along with a woman totally absorbed in Beethoven or Brahms or whoever she listened on those damned earbuds.
He did, though, sit with Ellen occasionally at dinner, and seemed to enjoy her company then. Dining at Portland Meadows was informal. A few people, mostly couples, made reservations in the well-appointed dining room and ate with friends most of the time. Many residents just gathered in the parlor outside the dining room, and made casual choices of others to be dinner partners.
For a few evenings, Mary Jo tried arriving early and chatting with people until Charlie showed up. Although no one seemed to notice, she began to feel as though she were stalking him, which made her feel disloyal, so she gave that up. She kept hoping, however, during each morning walk, that he’d suggest making a dinner reservation for that evening — or any evening.
So far he’d made no such suggestion, and her ambivalence about seeking a male friend made her reluctant to take the initiative. She assumed he was avoiding commitment, and hoped that in time he would understand her as a kindred spirit who wanted companionship without obligation or complication.
That Ellen Connelly, by contrast, was absolutely predatory. She’d arrive in the parlor early, and make a beeline for Charlie Moore the minute he appeared, a mere dot, at the far end of the corridor. She was a reasonably attractive woman, and looked a decade younger than Mary Jo, probably beneficiary of a few cosmetic nips and tucks or even liposuction. Charlie didn’t seem to mind dining with a woman as artificial as a department store window model.
Worse, Ellen obviously saw Mary Jo as a rival, and seemed blithely to disregard the unseemliness, at their age, of unbridled competition over a man. One night, as people gathered in the parlor, Mary Jo overheard a catty remark obviously aimed at her photograph postings: “Next thing you know we’ll be naming every blade of grass,” or something like that.
Although some others must have known she’d heard Ellen’s mean-spirited dig, she chose to ignore it, hoping her prompt pivot to join another conversation didn’t seem too studied. She didn’t want to make it obvious that she was vying for Charlie’s attention.
Mornings, mostly, she had him to herself. He was a better birder than she, especially welcome company for his skill at recognizing birds by their calls. He carried a smartphone loaded with birdsongs, and could sometimes be persuaded to echo a calling bird’s song, luring it close enough that Mary Jo could get a photo. She posted those on the website too, with credit to Charlie – bobolinks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, redwinged blackbirds, goldfinches, mockingbirds, downy woodpeckers. One morning, he helped her identify and photograph a rare Eurasian collared-dove.
Not long after that, she chanced to be out alone; Charlie wasn’t waiting where she usually found him. Never mind; she certainly didn’t mind setting out alone, didn’t want to be dependent on anyone’s company. A little solitude might do her good.
After a time, she stopped to photograph a lovely pink blossom in the meadow, what some called a cuckoo flower but which Howie’s field guide identified as a ragged robin. While paused, she listened attentively to a bird burbling in a nearby tree, one Charlie had said was a house finch. “Ordinary bird, very musical voice,” she remembered.
It was almost a Zen meditative moment, so serene that what followed was horrifically disorienting.
She hadn’t walked another twenty yards before suddenly there was Ellen Connelly, splayed out over an embankment, a huge gaping gash in her skull, lying on a crimson pillow of bloody grass. Her eyes were open, glassy, unseeing. A thick branch the size of a baseball bat, more like a club, lay on the ground a few yards away, smeared with blood.
Kneeling at Ellen’s side, Mary Jo knew immediately she was dead, but forced herself to feel for a pulse in a still-warm wrist, and to look for signs of breathing. She remembered Sherlock Holmes’ trying to see if any shallow breath might fog a mirror. She might have dug into that fancy purse for a mirror, but it was several yards from Ellen, wide open. An earbud was still in Ellen’s left ear, the other dangling on her shoulder, making obvious that the iPod had been snatched away.
She wished that Howie were here to tell her what to do. Or Charlie. Perhaps he’d just been a little late this morning and would soon catch up, rescue her from this terrible scene.
Portland Meadows gave everyone a call button that used modern technology to know where one was, even out on the trails. Ellen’s, on a lanyard, hung out of her blouse. Mary Jo had hers; she instinctively reached to her neck to push the button.
But hesitated. Might the security people, when they came, think she’d committed the murder?
Surely not. People might think they were rivals of a sort, but everyone who knew her must know she would be incapable of such violence. She looked again at the bloodied branch that must be the murder weapon; she couldn’t possibly be thought strong enough wield that club.
Perhaps instead of pushing her own button, she might push Ellen’s, as though it had been a dying attempt to summon help, and then hurry along to another trail that crossed this one just a short distance ahead. It would be plausible that she’d been on that trail the whole time; she could be “shocked to learn,” hours later, of Ellen’s death.
What nonsense! She should get the security team out here right away, and have them summon police detectives before the murderer’s trail got cold.
But at the very least the police would want to question her. Where was she when she first saw the body? Did she scream? Did she run forward to try to help? What time was it exactly?
She had already forgotten some of those details; it had been a confusing few minutes. Would she sound evasive saying “I don’t remember”?
Perhaps it would be best to get onto that other trail right away, and go back to her apartment as though she had seen nothing unusual. Let someone else find the body.
No, that would be cowardly.
She heard someone coming, and turned just as two security guards arrived.
“Mrs. Clemens!” the first said, looking puzzled. “We had a call button alarm, but it wasn’t from your button.” Then he saw Ellen Connelly. “Oh, my God! Joe, call the police!”
He turned back to Mary Jo. “Tell us exactly how it happened, ma’am.”
She hadn’t been here when it happened, she told them. She’d just stumbled into the scene of the crime. Had hastened to see if it was too late to help. Maybe they could figure out if anything of value had been in that stupid gold-trimmed purse, apart from the iPod. Maybe that gadget could be traced electronically. If the police quickly put out a bulletin, they might apprehend the villain who did this.
She hoped so. Please, God, let the man who did this be caught right away.
Because Charlie Moore, too, would want to know how it happened.