This week brings the publication of my eleventh novel, the seventh in the Liam Dutra New England mystery series. This book--which I hope will be the only one I write during a pandemic,--grew from daily trail runs in a place that was new to me, though very close to home. Watching, close-up, the same locus of woods and meadows transition from spring to summer was a gift for which I am grateful, as is the story that came with it.
Becca Oakley, a brilliant Vermont naturalist recovering from a traumatic incident, seeks help when her wooded land in the shadow of the Green Mountains-- home to Abenaki people for many, many generations-- is vandalized and desecrated. Liam Dutra, with his reputation for finding lost objects and ancient stories, and Shawn Donahue, partner in Becca’s field work, are willing to assist.
But there are many layers to the situation: layers of time, landscape, geology, and local history. And it isn’t long before Liam and Shawn realize that they are in way over their heads, as deeper mysteries are unearthed in a remote place that resonates with power, beauty--and danger.
The light at dawn on that August morning ripped my heart wide open. It arrived, rust-suffused and hollow, glowing as brightly in the second floor windows of the house next door as it did over the pine and spruce clad hills of the eastern horizon.
I sat on the back deck with a mug of dark coffee. I felt just a few sprinkles of rain. Over to the west, for just a couple of seconds, the arc of a rainbow appeared, directly across from the rising gold of the sun clearing the dark hills.
And then the clouds closed in, the world turned a luminous gray, and the rain began to fall.
It rained all day on that late summer Sunday in Vermont: more rain than I had ever seen in one day. By late afternoon the steep street outside our house in the tiny city of Montpelier had become a new river, fast making its brown and foaming way to the swollen Winooski across Route 2 at the bottom of the hill.
By dusk the big old sugar maples in the backyard were swaying in storm winds, bent with the weight of water, their lush summer foliage a shiny dark green that seemed other-wordly.
And after dark, after dinner, after story time for our daughter Rose, after she and, eventually, Shawn had been long asleep, it was still raining hard with no sign of letting up.
I sat in my study with the old AM radio tuned to nearby WDEV in Waterbury. It was coming on to midnight, and the familiar, usually smooth baritone of the announcer was beginning to fray and rasp. He was alone in the station, he explained, in a second-story studio, while the dark streets outside ran with floodwater. He relayed every piece of information he could get, letting the airwaves fill with reports of road closures, washed out culverts, places where what had been dry and solid land was now water in dangerous motion.
When the power went out, he switched to generator.
When the internet went down, he worked the data and battery of his personal cell phone to the limits.
I listened, trying to stay calm and centered; trying to build inside me a map of what was happening as the tropical storm called Irene hammered Vermont. I was trying to avoid thoughts of those big maples, root structures sodden, ripping from rain-softened earth, falling and crashing through the roof of our old house.
Eventually I dozed, then woke groggy and confused. The radio was sending out only static and clicks as I stirred myself to lumber still half-asleep down the dark hallway into bed beside Shawn’s warmth and snores. It was still raining, but maybe not as hard…
Before I fell asleep again, I had a sudden thought. We were on an island now, drifting on huge dark rivers. Not just us, our little family, but people all over Vermont. Our world, our maps, would be different now.
In the light-- if it came --of a new day, we would only begin to know what had changed.
“The baby turtles,” Rose said, grinning as she shook her head,
“That’s what I remember most about Irene. I remember that my teacher had been telling us that first week of school about how the snapping turtle eggs were hatching along the rivers, ponds, and lakes. And with all that flooding, I was so worried about the little baby turtles...”
I had just sliced the pizzas-- hot off my charcoal grill, on a scarred and battered long-handled wooden peel-- and placed them on the picnic table beneath the big maples. The aromas of melted cheese, wood smoke, and singed pepperoni rose into the spring evening.
I was the only person present who was not a scientist. At the table, already grabbing slices, were my life-partner Shawn-- a biochemist-- and our daughter, Rose, who was as accomplished a 6th Grade backyard naturalist as could be found. The other woman, tall, with a cascade of silver-hair, and politely waiting her turn at the pizzas, was Rebecca Oakley, a herpetologist who was a colleague of Shawn at the Echo Center at Lake Champlain.
“I could get you that data, Rose.” The lowering sunlight caught a glint in the wire-framed glasses that made Rebecca look only a little old-fashioned, a slight accent against her outdoorsy, windswept look. “My focus has been on the Spiny-shelled turtles, of course, but we’ve also done some work with snappers.”
Rose grinned wider. It was a lopsided grin that she’d gotten from her mother, along with the dark curls and mocha-colored eyes of the Donahue women. “I’ve never seen a spiny,” she said, “But I read that some places on Lake Champlain are the only New England habitat they can be found in.”
Shawn, having just finished loading her slices with red pepper flakes and Parmesan cheese, grinned her own grin. “Yep,” she said. “I always thought they looked like swimming dinner plates. Or big green Frisbees. I worked up some water profiles up in Swanton as part of Rebecca’s project a couple of years back.”
“Well, let’s take you up to see some, Rose,” Rebecca said.
Rose nodded with enthusiasm, then bounced up from the table. “I’ve got some really cool nature books by Sy Montgomery, if you want to take a look, later. Mom, can I be excused?”
“Sure,” Shawn said.
I knew that Becca had come tonight because she wanted to ask for our help with something; something of great importance to her. Shawn had invited her over, knowing full well that whatever that something was, it had been eating at her friend and colleague. The question of just what it might be had been hanging with the charcoal-smoke in the air all evening.
We all waited quietly until Rose had gone inside and pattered up the stairs, and then Shawn spoke, her voice softer now. “Anyway, Becca, you had been talking about what happened after Irene.”
Becca nodded slowly. She swirled red wine in her glass, then took a long deep breath.
“Okay,” she said, “First off, let me be clear. I’m not going to talk about how it feels to...kill another human being.”
The evening suddenly felt heavier by a factor of ten, and I felt a veined and stony chill twist its way through the splash of stark evening sunlight.
“But here,” Becca said, “Let me show you something.”
Becca reached over to the tablet she’d had beside her, swiped the screen open. After a couple more swipes she moved the tablet further into a patch of leaf-shade, positioned it so both Shawn and I could see it.
The first photo showed what seemed to be a woodland floor: green moss, brown leaf-litter, some rocks and the blue-gray shadows that they cast.
And a human skull. The skull was dull gray, flecked with brown splotches. Another swipe of Becca’s long fingers brought more bones, and some objects that looked like tarnished metal. A bracelet, perhaps; a rusted blade. A closer look revealed six stone arrowheads laid out carefully on a bed of moss. The cool softness of the moss seemed to accentuate the flinty sharpness of the arrowheads.
That chill I had felt was getting stronger. I glanced up at Shawn, caught a fleck of light in the brown eyes beneath her tousled, almost-black hair. Her tendoned hand was wrapped tightly around the tall green can of Genny Cream Ale. She was biting her lip in concentration, and after all these years with her, I could feel the curiosity, excitement—and jolt of fear—that was likely rising inside her. I had a current of my own flowing inside.
And I had the sudden feeling that Shawn and I would be saying yes to whatever it was that Becca was about to ask of us.
Becca’s matter-of-fact phrasing pulled me back from the current.
“I’m Abenaki. Indian,” she said. “I don’t make a big deal of it. Maybe I should.” she shrugged, reached for the bottle and poured another half-glass of Shiraz. “The land-- the place where all that had been buried until the brook changed course in the storm-- has been in my family for six generations-- according to the deed, that is. I always knew that the land was sacred, that our ancestors from long, long before rested there.” She shook her head, swirled wine in her glass. “But those bones, the other objects --I reburied them carefully, just days after I found them-- are gone now. Dug up again. Has to have been in the past two weeks. And I need to get them back. They belong there, at rest. At home...”
I knew now why Becca was here. I am good at finding things. In particular old things, lost trails; sometimes even lost people. I’ve made at least part of my living doing just that, along with writing articles about history and, until a couple of years ago, teaching high school students. I have worked as a consultant for the Vermont state police a few times as well, exploring events from the past to find lost things, missing people. And as a result of all my past experience, I knew that the undertaking described was most definitely illegal. In more ways than one.
Shawn must have been reading my mind.
“And you’ve not called the...authorities... about any of this?”
“No.” Becca’s gray eyes flashed, hard flint for a moment behind the glasses. “That’s not the right thing here. Bringing in law enforcement, archaeologists. That wouldn’t honor my real responsibility.” She sighed, and her glare softened again. “Look, maybe I’ve taken a big chance here, trusting Shawn, trusting both of you.” She stood up, and I could see her shoulders tightening. She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. I’m praying that, if nothing else, you’ll keep all this just among us.”
Shawn shot a quick look my way, one that I could not quite decode.
“I don’t know what I… what we...can do to help, Becca. But, yes, this will stay among just us,” I said.
“Absolutely,” Shawn said, her voice quiet but burred with iron.
“Okay. I respect that.” Becca said. “I’ve prayed for help. And whatever you might think, I believe it’s going to come, at least partly, from you.”
None of us spoke for a while. After all that it was going to be pretty hard to go back to beer and wine and small talk. Nonetheless Becca did her best. “Okay if I check in with Rose before I go, take a look at those books she wanted to show me?”
“Of course,” I said. I looked up from the table, saw the white-gold orb of the sun as it settled into a picket of bare April trees on the ridgeline to the west. The low light smeared and spread, formless now behind the dark trees. A robin bubbled out a song, even as the evening air lost its warmth. I began to wonder if the conversation shared just minutes ago had actually happened at all.