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I do my best to believe, in the light and shadow of what I came to know about Elaine Bliss and her quest, that the sounds of March snow-melt trickling from slate hills, of red-winged blackbirds echoing their hollow and rattling arrival calls from the marshy thicket, were the last things she took notice of as she lay—cold, in shock, and bleeding out—on wet sedges. That as she took her final breaths, those sounds called her to remember only the true meaning of her life and work, and replaced all fear and all thoughts of the cruelty of what had been done to her.
In my best moments I think these things and hold to them. Perhaps it’s because I have to.
I was home for the evening when Vermont State Police Lieutenant Timothy Handler called. It was Shawn who went for the phone, moving slowly toward the counter, her pregnant belly plowing through the warm and cozy kitchen air like a filled-up sail in front of her. We’d just had some of her slow-simmered chili for supper, and the beef and spice and hot pepper aromas were still strong, mixing with the fresh spring smells of mid-April mud and new green growth that came in through the open kitchen window.
“Hello,” Shawn said into the receiver of my old black bakelite rotary phone. I caught her quick frown, a narrowing of her mocha-colored eyes as she listened to the caller.
“Sure, he’s here,” she said, pushing dark curls away from her forehead, looking over at me. “It’s Handler…” The troubled look was still clouding her face as she passed the phone to me.
Now I understood the reason for the frown. Handler calling our home was a reminder to both of us of some dark and difficult things, things that all too often came back to us, and sometimes stole a good night’s sleep. Of memories we hoped might somehow go away forever, but that we feared never would.
“This is Liam,” I said.
“Are you still teaching history at that prep school, Dutra?”
Hearing Handler’s voice again, I could almost see his coiled energy and distracted manner, the tense light of his slate-colored eyes. I imagined I could see his relentless pen-clicking, the way he gulped hot coffee without seeming to taste it, to even know it existed.
“Part time. Yes.”
“Excellent. That means we can probably pay you. We’ll call it an expert consultant’s fee. Listen Dutra, what I’ve got is a research project for you. Nothing dangerous to you. It’s just that we have a possible homicide case that involves a University of Vermont history professor, and I’m thinking you might be able to give us some background, see if what she was working on, some of her research, might have any connection to her death.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’m listening…”
“It’s some stuff she seemed to be looking into, happened in the 1920s. Kind of things that you don’t necessarily think about when you think about Vermont, especially back then…” I remembered now I had heard mention of her death on the news, with very few details given beyond her connection to the university, UVM. That there might be something Handler thought I could help dig up got my curiosity stirred, of course. And if anybody knew how much I could get stirred up by the power of things that had happened in the past, it would be Handler.
And Shawn, too, who was seven months pregnant, and sipping herb tea now at the table beside me, listening in.
Just a few days back we’d been talking about how peaceful and settled and steady our lives had become lately, and about how much we appreciated this feeling.
Despite that, I found myself taking the bait that Handler put out. I wanted to know more about this strange story, whatever it might be… I pushed away the little waves of apprehension that I felt rising inside me. I told Handler he could come by my office at school after my late-morning class the next day.
The next morning, all caffeinated up with dark roast coffee, and wearing shorts, fleece shirt, and running shoes, I left Shawn still snoring, and headed out the door.
It’s a bit more than eleven miles from my house in Montpelier, Vermont to Granite Ledge, a boarding preparatory school where I teach American history to high school students. This spring I had taken to running the distance to work once a week, arranging for rides home with Shawn in the afternoons. A river fog hung blue-gray over the Winooski River, rising and engulfing my little white cape house and its neighbors as I loped down the hilly street. The maples lining the street were past bud-break now, I noticed. Their fresh, fragile green and russet, muted by the fog, had a slick, wet sheen. At the bottom of the hill, my street met the main route into town. Here I ran easily, at warm-up pace, along the flat pavement for a while, beginning to sweat by the time I reached the old iron truss bridge that crossed the river and led to long Barre Street, with its neighborhood lined with railroad tracks. From the fog rose the rectangular bulks of the big old sheds that had once housed a busy industry cutting and carving local granite, much of it quarried from the hills around Barre,
’s twin city, six miles to the east. A few of the old sheds
along the river had been renewed and renovated, converted to apartment and
office buildings. But most of the long industrial buildings were battered and
empty now, abandoned time-and-weather-worn hulks. Montpelier
I sometimes felt I could sense ghosts of the past here, especially on quiet mornings like this. I could almost hear the ring of hammers and whine of the big rock saw, the roar and rumble of trains that used to transport raw material and finished product, but now don't come through here anymore. Fully warmed up now, picking up my pace, I reached the end of Barre Street and turned onto Montpelier’s Main Street. The wood and brick downtown buildings were quiet in the grayness, a few people out starting their day, carrying coffee mugs, briefcases, cell phones. Just outside of the downtown, I slipped between two quiet backyards on a residential street, headed up a switchback deer path that made a good shortcut, through second-growth thicket, to the steep climb of the dirt road headed north. I was feeling strong and fast this spring, a benefit gained from a winter of long snowshoe runs on hilly trails. Free of snowshoes and winter layers of clothing lately, I was feeling light-- unfettered and invincible—totally in the zone.
( excerpt from SNOW-DARK CROSSING by Kevin Macneil Brown)