A Maiden’s Grave Excerpt

Eight gray birds, sitting in dark.
     Cold wind blows, it isn’t kind.”

The small yellow school bus crested an abrupt rise on the highway and for a moment all she could see was a huge quilt of pale wheat, a thousand miles wide, waving, waving under the gray sky. Then they dipped down once again and the horizon was gone.

“Sitting on wire, they lift their wings
and sail off into billowy clouds.”

When she paused she looked at the girls, who nodded approvingly. She realized that she’d been staring at the thick pelt of wheat and ignoring her audience.

“Are you nervous?” Shannon asked.

“Don’t ask her that.” Beverly warned. “Bad luck.”

No, Melanie explained, she wasn’t nervous. She looked out again at the fields that streamed past.

Three of the girls were drowsing but the other five were wide awake and waiting for her to continue. Melanie began again but was interrupted before she’d recited the first line of the poem.

“Wait, what kind of birds are they?” Kielle frowned.

“Don’t interrupt.” From seventeen-year-old Susan. “People who interrupt are philistines.”

“Am not!” Kielle shot back. “What is that?”

“Crass dummy,” Susan explained.

“What’s crass?” Kielle demanded.

“Let her finish!”

Melanie continued.

“Eight little birds high in sky,
They fly all night till they find sun.”

“Time out.” Susan laughed. “It was five birds yesterday.”

“Now you’re interrupting,” lean tomboy Shannon pointed out. “You Philadelphian.”

“Philistine,” Susan corrected.

Chubby Jocylyn nodded emphatically as if she also had caught the slip but was too timid to point it out. Jocylyn was too timid to do very much at all.

“But there are eight of you so I changed it.”

“Can you do that?” wondered Beverly.

“It’s my poem,” Melanie responded. “I can make as many birds as I want.”

“How many people will be there? At recital?”

“One hundred thousand.” Melanie looked quite sincere.

“No! Really?” offered enthusiastic eight-year-old Shannon, as a much older eight-year-old Kielle rolled her eyes.

Melanie’s gaze was again drawn to the bleak scenery of south central Kansas. The only color was the occasional blue Harvestore prefab silo. It was July but the weather was cold and heavily overcast; rain threatened. They passed huge combines and buses filled with migrant workers, their Porta-Potti’s wheeling along behind. They saw landowners and sharecroppers, piloting their huge Deeres, Masseys and IH’s. Melanie imagined they were glancing nervously at the sky; this was harvest time for the winter wheat; a storm now could ruin eight months of arduous work.

Melanie turned away from the window and self-consciously examined her fingernails, which she trimmed and filed religiously every night. They were coated with faint polish and looked like perfect flakes of pearl. She lifted her hands and recited several poems again, signing the words elegantly. Now all the girls were awake, four looking out the windows, three watching Melanie’s fingers and chubby Jocylyn Weiderman watching her teacher’s every move.

These fields go on forever, Melanie thinks. Susan’s gaze follows Melanie’s. “They’re black birds,” the teenager signs. “Crows.”

Yes, they were. Not five or eight. But a thousand, a flock of them. Looking down their black glossy beaks, they watched the ground, they watched the yellow bus, they watched the overcast sky, gray and purple.

Melanie looked at her watch. They weren’t even to the highway yet. It would be three hours before they got to Topeka.

The bus descended into another canyon of wheat.

She sensed the trouble before a single clue registered in her conscious thoughts. Later she would conclude that it was no psychic message or premonition; it was Mrs. Harstrawn’s big, ruddy fingers flexing anxiously on the steering wheel.

Hands, in motion.

Then the older woman’s eyes narrowed slightly. Her shoulders shifted. Her head tilted a millimeter. The small things a body does that reveal what the mind is thinking.

“Are girls asleep?” The question was blunt and the fingers returned immediately to the wheel. Melanie scooted forward and signed that they weren’t.

Now the twins, Anna and Suzie, delicate as feathers, were sitting up, leaning forward, breathing on the older teacher’s broad shoulders, looking ahead. Mrs. Harstrawn waved them back. “Don’t look. Sit back and look out opposite window. Do it. Now! The left window.”

Then Melanie saw the car. And the blood. There was a lot of it. She shepherded the girls back to their seats.

“Don’t look,” Melanie instructed. Her heart pounded fiercely, her arms suddenly weighed a thousand pounds. She had trouble making the words. “And put seat belts on.”

Jocylyn, Beverly and ten-year-old Emily did as instructed immediately. Shannon grimaced and peeked while Kielle blatantly ignored Melanie. Susan got to look, she pointed out. Why couldn’t she?

Of the twins, it was Annie who’d gone still, hands in her lap and her face paler than usual, in sharp contrast to her sister’s nut-brown tan. Melanie stroked the girl’s hair. She pointed out the window on the left side of the bus. “Look at wheat,” she instructed.

“Totally interesting,” Shannon replied sarcastically.

“Those poor people.” Twelve-year-old Jocylyn wiped copious tears from her fat cheeks.

The burgundy Cadillac had run hard into a metal irrigation gate. Steam rose from its front end. The driver was an elderly man. He lay sprawled half out of the car, his head on the asphalt.

Melanie could now see a second car as well, a gray Chevy. The collision had happened at an intersection. The Cadillac had had the right of way and seemed to have slammed into the gray car, which must have run a stop sign. The Chevy had skidded off the road into the tall wheat. There was no one inside; its hood was twisted and steam plumed from the radiator.

Mrs. Harstrawn brought the bus to a stop, reached for the worn chrome handle of the door.

No! thought Melanie. Keep going! Go to a grocery store, a 7-Eleven, a house. They hadn’t passed anything for miles; but surely there was something up ahead. Don’t stop. Keep going. She’d been thinking those words. But her hands must have been moving because Susan responded, “No, we have to. He is hurt.”

But the blood, Melanie thought. They shouldn’t get his blood on them. There was AIDS, there were other diseases.

These people needed help but they needed official help.

Eight gray birds, sitting in dark. . . .

Susan, eight years younger than Melanie, was the first out of the school bus, running toward the injured man, her long, black hair dancing around her in the gusting wind.

Then Mrs. Harstrawn.

Melanie hung back, staring. The driver lay like a sawdust doll, one leg bent at a terrible angle. Head floppy, hands fat and pale.

She had never before seen a dead body.

But he isn’t dead, of course. No, no, just a cut. It’s nothing. He’s just fainted.

One by one the little girls turned to gaze at the accident; Kielle and Shannon first of course — the Dynamic Duo. The Power Rangers. The X-Men. Then fragile Emily, whose hands were glued together in prayer. (Her parents insisted that she pray every night for her hearing to return. She had told this to Melanie but no one else.) Beverly clutched her chest, an instinctive gesture; she wasn’t having an attack just yet.

Melanie climbed out and walked toward the Cadillac. Halfway there she slowed. In contrast to the gray sky, the gray wheat and the pale highway, the blood was so very red; it was on everything — the man’s bald head, his chest, the car door, the yellow leather seat.

The roller coaster of fear sends her heart plummeting toward the ground.

Mrs. Harstrawn was the mother of two teenage boys, a humorless woman, smart, dependable, solid as vulcanized rubber. She ripped the tail of her blouse into an impromptu bandage and wrapped it around a deep gash in the torn head. She bent down and whispered into the man’s ear, pressed on his chest and breathed into his mouth.

And then she listened.

I can’t hear, Melanie thinks. So I can’t help. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll go back to the bus. Keep an eye on the girls. The roller coaster levels out. Good, good.

Susan crouched too, stanching a wound on his neck. Frowning, the student looked up at Mrs. Harstrawn. With bloody fingers she signed, “Why bleeding so much? Look at neck.”

Mrs. Harstrawn examined it. She too frowned, shaking her head.

“There’s hole in his neck,” the teacher signed in astonishment. “Like a bullet hole.”

Melanie gasped at this message. The flimsy car of the roller coaster drops again, leaving Melanie’s stomach somewhere else — way, way above her. She stopped walking altogether.

Then she saw the purse.

Ten feet away.

Thankful for any distraction to keep her eyes off the injured man, she walked over to the bag and examined it. The chain pattern on the cloth was some designer’s; Melanie Charrol — a farm girl who made sixteen thousand, five hundred dollars a year as an apprentice teacher of the deaf — had never in her twenty-five years touched a designer accessory. Because the purse was small it seemed precious. Like a radiant jewel. It was the sort of purse that a woman would sling around her shoulder when she walked into an office high above downtown Kansas City or even Manhattan or Los Angeles. The sort of purse she’d drop onto a desk and from which she’d pull a silver pen to write a few words that would set assistants and secretaries in motion.

But as Melanie stared at the purse a tiny thought formed in her mind, growing, growing until it blossomed: Where was the woman who owned it?

That was when the shadow fell on her.