Death in her hands

Ottessa Moshfegh

     Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.

     But there was no body. No bloodstain. No tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes. There was just the note on the ground, rustling at my feet in the soft May wind. I happened upon it on my dawn walk through the birch woods with my dog, Charlie.

     I’d discovered the path the previous spring just after Charlie and I had moved to Levant. We’d worn it down all spring, summer, and fall, but abandoned it during winter. The slim white trees had been nearly invisible against the snow. On foggy mornings, the birches completely disappeared in the mist. Since the thaw, Charlie had been waking me up every morning at daybreak. We’d cross the dirt road and trudge up the slow rise and fall of a little hill, and weave our way back and forth through the birches. That morning, when I found the note laid flat on the path, we’d made it about a mile into the woods.

     Charlie did not slow or tilt his head or even lower his nose to the ground to sniff. It seemed very odd to me that he’d just ignore it—my Charlie, who once broke off his leash and ran across the freeway to fetch a dead bird, so strong was his instinct to ferret out the dead. No, he didn’t give the note a second glance. Little black rocks pinned the note down to the ground, each placed carefully on the page in the top margin and along the bottom. I bent down to read it again. Under my hands, the earth was almost warm, shy pale grass poking up here and there in the crumbly black dirt, the sun just starting to brighten in hue from silver to yellow.

     Her name was Magda.

     It was a joke, I thought, a prank, a ruse. Somebody was playing games. That was my initial impression. Isn’t it sweet to look back at how my mind jumped to the most innocuous conclusion? That after so many years, at seventytwo, my imagination was still so naive? Experience should have taught me that first impressions are often misleading. Kneeling down in the dirt, I considered the details: the paper was a page from a lined, spiral notebook, its perforated edge broken cleanly, no straggly bits from where it had been torn out; careful, small printed letters in blue ballpoint pen. It was hard to decipher much from the penmanship, and that seemed deliberate. It was the kind of neat, impersonal printing you’d use when making a sign for a yard sale, or filling out a form at the dentist. Wise, I thought. Smart. Whoever had written the note understood that by masking one’s peculiarities, one invokes authority. There is nothing as imposing as anonymity. But the words themselves, when I spoke them aloud, seemed witty, a rare quality in Levant, where most people were blue collar and dull. I read the note again and almost chuckled over that penultimate line, It wasn’t me. Of course it wasn’t.

     If not a prank, the note could have been the beginning of a story tossed out as a false start, a bad opening. I could understand the hesitation. It’s a rather dark, damning way to begin a story: the pronouncement of a mystery whose investigation is futile. Nobody will ever know who killed her. The story is over just as it’s begun. Was futility a subject worthy of exploration? The note certainly didn’t promise any happy ending.

     Here is her dead body. Surely there was more to say. Where was Magda? Was it so hard to come up with a description of her corpse, tangled in the brush under a fallen tree, her face half sunken into the soft black dirt, her hands hogtied behind her back, the blood from her stab wounds leaching into the ground? How hard was it to imagine a small golden locket glinting between sodden birch leaves, the chain broken and dashed through the new, tender, hairy grass? The locket could contain photos of a young, gaptoothed child on one side—Magda at age five—and a man in a military hat on the other, her father, I’d guess. Or maybe “hogtied” would be a bit too strong. Maybe “stab wounds” were too graphic too soon. Perhaps the killer simply positioned her arms behind her back so they wouldn’t stick out from under the rotting branches and catch somebody’s eye. The pale skin of Magda’s hands would stand out against the dark ground, like the white paper on the path, I imagined. It seemed better to begin with gentler descriptions. I could write the book myself if I had the discipline, if I thought anyone might read it.

     As I stood, my thoughts were bleached and stunted by a terrible pain in my head and eyes, which often happened when I got up too quickly. I always had poor circulation, low blood pressure, “a weak heart,” my husband had called it. Or perhaps I was hungry. I have to be careful, I told myself. One day I might faint in the wrong place and hit my head, or cause an accident in my car. That would be the end of me. I had no one to tend to me if I fell ill. I’d die in some cheap country hospital and Charlie would get slaughtered at the pound.

     Charlie, as though he could sense my dizziness, came to my side and licked my hand. In doing so, he stepped on the note. I heard the paper crinkle. Pity to have that pristine page now sullied with a paw print. But I didn’t chide him. I scratched his silky head with my fingers.

     Maybe I was being too imaginative, I thought, scanning the note again. I could picture a high school boy wandering the woods, thinking up some funny gore, writing these first few lines, then losing steam, discarding the story for one he found easier to conjure up: the tale of a lost sock, a fight on the football field, a man going fishing, kissing a girl behind the garage.

     What did some Levant teen need with Magda and her mystery? Magda. This was not a Jenny or Sally or Mary or Sue. Magda was a name for a character with substance, a mysterious past. Exotic, even. And who would want to read about that here, in Levant? The only books at Goodwill were about knitting and World War II.

     “Magda. She’s strange,” they’d say.

     “I wouldn’t want Jenny or Sally to be hanging around a girl like Magda. Who knows what kind of values she was raised with?”

     “Magda. What kind of name is that? An immigrant? Some different language?”

     No wonder he had given up on Magda so quickly. Her situation was too complex, too nuanced for a young kid to understand. It would take a wise mind to do Magda’s story real justice. Death was hard to look at, after all. “Skip it,” I can imagine the boy saying, discarding these first few lines. And with that, Magda and all her potential were abandoned. However, there were no signs of neglect, or frustration, nothing revised or rewritten. On the contrary, the lines were pristine and even. Nothing was scribbled out. The paper hadn’t been crumpled up or even folded. And those little rocks . . .

     “Magda?” I said aloud, not knowing exactly why. Charlie seemed not to care. He busied himself chasing drifting dandelion puffs through the trees. I paced up and down the path for a few minutes, scrutinized the dirt for anything that seemed out of place, then walked around the surrounding area in a narrowing gyre. I was hoping to find another note, another clue. I whistled to Charlie every time he strayed too far. There weren’t any strange new paths through the trees that I could see, but then, of course, my own shuffling around made a mess of things and confused me. Still, there was nothing. I found nothing. Not even a cigarette butt or a crushed soda can.

     We’d had a TV set back in Monlith. I’d seen plenty of murder mystery shows. I could picture twin gutters etched into the dirt by the heels of a corpse being dragged. Or an impression in the ground where a body had been laid, the grass matted down, tender seedlings bent, a mushroom crushed. And then, of course, fresh black dirt covering a new, shallow grave. But the ground of the birch woods was undisturbed as far as I could tell. Everything was as it had been the previous morning, at least in that little area. It would take days, weeks, to cover the entire woods. Poor Magda, wherever she is, I thought, turning around slowly in case I’d missed something poking out—a shoe, a plastic barrette. The note on the path seemed to indicate that she was nearby, didn’t it? Wasn’t the note more of a headstone than a madeup story? Here lies Magda, it seemed to say. What’s the use of such a note, like a tag, a title, if the thing it’s referring to isn’t anywhere near it? Or anywhere at all, for that matter? The land was held in public trust, I knew, so anybody had the right to come through it.

     Levant wasn’t a particularly beautiful place. There were no covered bridges or colonial manors, no museums or historic municipal buildings. But the nature in Levant was pretty enough to distinguish it from Bethsmane, the neighboring township. We were two hours from the coast. A big river ran through Bethsmane, and people would sail through up from Maconsett in summer, I’d heard. So the area wasn’t completely ignored by the world outside of it. Still, it wasn’t any kind of destination. There were no sights to see in

     Bethsmane. Main Street was boarded up. It had once been a mill town with brick sidewalks and old warehouses that, if they still existed, would have made for a charming old town. But there were no ghosts or romance left there. Bethsmane now was just a strip mall, a bowling alley and bar with glaring neon, a tiny post office that closed at noon each day, a few fastfood restaurants off the freeway. Out in Levant, we didn’t even have our own post office, not that I sent or received much mail. There was a gas station with a small general store that sold bait and essentials, canned food, candy, cheap beer. I had no idea what the few residents of Levant did for recreation, other than drink and go bowling in Bethsmane. They didn’t strike me as the type of folks to take scenic strolls. So who, then, would have found his way into my beloved birch woods and felt the need to upset things with a note about a dead body?

     “Charlie?” I called out, when I had reached the path again.

     I walked back to the note, still fluttering gently in the warm wind. For a moment it seemed alive somehow, a strange and fragile creature weighed down by the black rocks, struggling to be free, like a butterfly or a bird with a broken wing. Like Magda must have felt, I imagined, under the hands of the one who killed her. Who could have done such a thing? It wasn’t me, the note insisted. And for the first time that morning, as though it had just occurred to me to be frightened, a chill went through my bones. Her name was Magda. It seemed so sinister all of a sudden. It seemed so real.

     Where was that dog? Waiting for Charlie to come bounding back to me through the birches, I got the feeling that I ought not lift my eyes too high, that there might be someone watching me from up in the trees. A madman in the boughs. A ghost. A god. Or Magda herself. A hungry zombie. A purgatoried soul looking for a live body to possess. When I heard Charlie thundering through the trees, I dared myself to look up. There wasn’t anybody there, of course. “Be reasonable,” I told myself, bracing for the head rush that I hoped courage might stave off as I knelt down to collect the little black rocks. I put them in my coat pocket and picked up the note.

     If I’d been alone there in the woods, without my dog, would I have been so bold? I may have left the note there on the path and run away, rushed home to drive to the police station in Bethsmane. “There’s been a murder,” I might have said. What nonsense I’d describe. “I found a note in the woods. A woman named Magda. No, I didn’t see her body. Just the note. I left it there, of course. But it says she’s been killed. I didn’t want to disturb the scene. Magda. Yes, Magda. I don’t know her last name. No, I don’t know her. I haven’t met a Magda in all my life. I just found the note, just now. Please, hurry. Oh, please go out there right away.” I would have seemed hysterical. It wasn’t good for my health to get so worked up. Walter had always told me that when I got emotional, it put a great strain on my heart. “Danger zone,” he’d say, and insist on putting me to bed and turning down the lights, drawing the curtains closed if it was daytime. “Best to lie down and rest until the fit passes.” It was true that when I got anxious, it was hard to keep my wits about me. I got clumsy. I got dizzy. Even just walking home to the cabin in my anxiety, I could have tripped and fallen. I could have broken an arm or a hip tumbling down the little hill from the birch woods to the road. Someone could have driven by and seen me, an old lady covered in dirt, trembling with fear over what—a piece of paper? I’d have waved my arms. “Stop! There’s been a murder! Magda is dead!” What a commotion I could have caused. How embarrassing that would have been.

     But with Charlie around, I was calm. Nobody could say I hadn’t been calm. I’d been living well the whole year in Levant, peaceful and satisfied, and pleased with my decision to make such a drastic move so many thousands of miles across the country from Monlith. I was proud that I’d had the pluck to sell the house, pack up, and leave. Truth be told, I would still be back there in that old house if it hadn’t been for Charlie. I wouldn’t have had the courage to move. It was comforting to have an animal, so consistently near and needy, to focus on, to nurture. Just to have another heart beating in the room, a live energy, had cheered me. I hadn’t realized how lonely I’d been, and then suddenly I wasn’t alone at all. I had a dog. Never again would I be alone, I thought. What a gift to have such a companion, like a child and protector, both, something wiser than me in so many ways, and yet doting, loyal, and affectionate.

     The worst I’d felt since getting Charlie was that day with the dead bird back in Monlith. Charlie had never been off the leash before except at the fencedin dog park at Lithgate Greens, and watching him run off like that across the freeway, I’d felt I was losing him forever. We’d been together just a few months then, and I was still finding my footing as his master, still a little shy, hesitant— insecure, you’d say. As I stood there, I worried that the bond between us wasn’t strong enough to keep him from chasing a better life, exploring new pastures, being more of a dog than he could be with me. I was only human, after all. Wasn’t I limited? Wasn’t I a bore? But then I thought, what could be better than the life I had to offer him? Really, what? To run free in the hills over Monlith, to chase grouse? He’d be eaten by coyotes. And anyway, he wasn’t that kind of dog. He was bred for service, to fetch, retrieve, and always to return. I’d asked myself, watching him disappear across the freeway, what I could have done to make him more comfortable, feel more important, more loved, more anything. Was he not satisfied? Was he not pampered? I could have cooked for him, I’d thought. The women at the dog park had spoken about “the toxicity of namebrand kibble.” Oh, there was always more one could do to keep a creature happy. I should have made him bones, sappy with marrow, I thought, and I should have let him sleep in my bed with me. It was too cold in the kitchen of that old house in Monlith, even with the dog bed and fuzzy fleece blanket. I’d wrapped him in that blanket and held him like a newborn baby in my arms that first night in the old drafty house. He’d cried and cried, and I’d soothed him and promised him, “Nothing bad will ever happen to you. I won’t let it. I love you too much. I promise, you are safe now, here, with me, forever.”

    And a few months later—how fast he’d grown!—I took him out for a walk and he pulled and tugged and broke loose. That morning in Monlith, his leash simply snapped and he was gone, crushing through the thin crust of snow down the hill and over the freeway.

     It felt like only yesterday, I thought then, over a year later, walking home through the birches in Levant with the note, my heart beating hard. What would I have done without Charlie? How close had I come to losing him that day in Monlith? I had run after him, of course, but couldn’t bring myself to step over the sharp metal guardrail that he had leapt over so effortlessly. Even at that early hour, with just a car or two passing slowly on the ice, it seemed too dangerous to step foot on the freeway blacktop. I’ve never been one to break any rules. It was not out of a sense of civic duty or pride or moral certitude, but it was the way I was raised. In fact, the only time I’d ever been admonished was in kindergarten. I stepped out of line on the way down to the music room, and the teacher raised her voice. “Vesta, where are you going? You think you are so special to wander off alone like a queen?” I never forgave myself. And my mother was very keen on discipline. I was never beaten or restrained. But there was always order, and when I behaved as though there weren’t, I was corrected.

     And anyway, I could have slipped on the ice. I could have been struck by a car. Would it have been worth the risk? Oh, it would have, it would have, if it meant otherwise losing my dear, sweet dog. But I couldn’t budge, stuck there behind the guardrail watching Charlie’s tail flouncing away. He disappeared down the embankment on the other side of the freeway, where there was a frozen marsh. I was much too frightened to even scream or shut my eyes or breathe. When I tried to whistle, my mouth wouldn’t work. It was like a nightmare, when the hatchet man is coming for you and you want to scream, but you can’t. All I could do was wave to the few cars driving by with my little red gloves, like a fool, tears beading at the corners of my eyes from both the cold wind and my terror.

     But then Charlie returned. He came scuttling back at full speed across the ice, catching a stretch of complete stillness on the freeway, thank heavens. He carried the dead bird—a meadowlark—softly between his fangs and laid it at my feet and sat next to it. “Good boy,” I said, embarrassed by my unruly emotions even in front of my own dog. I dried my tears and embraced him and held his neck in my arms and kissed his head. His breath in the cold was like a steam engine, his heart thumping. Oh, how I loved him. How much life there was rumbling in that furry thing just astounded me.

     Since then, I’d taught Charlie to fetch sticks and neon yellow tennis balls that turned brown and soggy with saliva, then gray and cracked, rolling under the front seat of the car, where I’d forget them. “This is a retriever, some bastard combination of Labrador and Weimaraner,” the vet in Monlith had told me. That morning with the meadowlark was, perhaps, a significant day for Charlie. He discovered his innate purpose, some instinct kicked in. But what could I possibly want with that dead bird? I hadn’t shot it down, nobody had. It was an odd thing to feel impelled to retrieve. Such are instincts. They aren’t always reasonable, and often they lead us down dangerous paths.

     I whistled, and Charlie came, a crumbling red shard of rotten wood poking out from his soft lips. I put the leash on him. “Just in case,” I told him. He eyed me querulously, but didn’t pull. I kept my eyes on the path on the walk home, one hand holding Charlie’s leash, the other tucked inside my coat, grasping the note, to keep it safe, I told myself.

     It wasn’t me.

     Who was this me? I wondered. It seemed unlikely that a woman would abandon a dead body in the woods, so I felt I could safely presume that the writer of the note, this me, this character, the I of the story, must be male. He seemed very sure of himself, indeed. Nobody will ever know who killed her. And how could he know that? And why would he bother to say it? Was it some kind of macho taunt? I know something you don’t know. Men could be like that. But was murder an appropriate occasion to be so boastful? Magda was dead. That was no laughing matter. Nobody will ever know who killed her. What a silly way to ward off suspicion. How arrogant to think people are all so gullible. I wasn’t. We were not all idiots. We weren’t all lemmings, sheep, fools, like Walter always said all people were. If anybody knew who killed Magda, it was the “I.” Where was Magda now? Clearly I had been with her dead body while the note was being written. And so, what had become of her? Who had run off with her body? Had it been the killer? Had the killer come back for Magda after he, I, whatever, had written and laid down that note?

     My note, I felt it was. And it was mine. I possessed it now, tried not to crinkle it in the warmth of my heavy down coat.

     I’d need a name for this me, the writer of the note. At first I thought I’d need a name as just a placeholder, something lacking in personality so as not to describe the me too particularly, a name like the anonymous printed penmanship. It was important to keep an open mind. I could be anybody. But there was something to be gleaned from the serious and youthful ballpoint pen, the precise print, the strange nonadmission, the nobodyness of I. Blank. My husband’s name, Walter, was one of my favorite names. Charlie was a good name for a dog, I thought. When we were feeling regal, I’d call him Charles. He did look regal sometimes, his ears perked up and eyes cast downward, like a king on his throne. But he was too good natured to be truly kingly. He wasn’t a snobbish dog. He was no poodle or setter or spaniel. I’d wanted a manly breed, and when I’d gone into the kennel in Monlith, there he’d been. “Abandoned,” they told me. “Discovered two months ago in a black duffel bag on the banks of the river. Barely three weeks old. The only one of the litter to survive.” I spent a minute piecing that together. What horror! And then, what a miracle! From then on, I pictured myself as the one who had come upon the black duffel in the mud, under the bridge where the river thins, and that I had unzipped the bag to find a huddled swarm of heady, raisincolored pups, only one of them breathing, and that one was mine. Charlie. Can you imagine abandoning such dear little creatures?

     “Who would do something like that?”

     “Times are tough,” the woman told me.

     I filled out the requisite forms, paid one hundred dollars for medical testing and vaccines, and signed a promise to get Charlie neutered, which I never did. I also didn’t tell them that I’d be moving east, across seven states, all the way to Levant mere months later. These dog pounds, they need assurances. They want it in writing that a person will care for the animal and raise it in the right way. I promised not to abuse it or breed it, or let it run wild in the streets, as though a signature, a mere scribble on paper, could seal fate in place. I didn’t want to neuter my dog. That seemed inhumane. But I signed my name on the contract, heart racing at this, one of very few deceptions I’ve ever enacted knowingly, blushing, trembling even at the thought that I’d be found out. “What kind of sick person doesn’t neuter their mutt? What kind of perverse . . .” Naive, actually, to think that a mere signature was so binding. It’s just a little ink on paper, just a scribble, my name. They couldn’t come after me, drag me back to Monlith, simply because I’d moved a pen around.

     So I got away all right. After Walter’s funeral, I packed up the house in Monlith, bade farewell to the place and all it had put upon me. What a relief it was to get out of there, the house sold, and a new home in Levant ready and waiting. In the pictures it was my dream home: a rustic cabin on a lake. The land needed work. There were some rotting trees, overgrowth, et cetera. I’d bought it sight unseen for a song. The place had been under foreclosure for six years. Times are tough, yes. And there I went. I tried not to think too much of the house back in Monlith, what the new owners were doing inside of it, how the porch had withstood the winter. And what my neighbors were saying. “She just took off, like a thief in the night.” That wasn’t true, though. I knew that. I was a good woman. I deserved some peace at last.

     I thought some more about a name for this me. In the end, I settled on Blake. It was the kind of name parents were naming their boys those days. It had a twinge of pretension to it in that sense. Blake, as in the shaggy blond boy on the skateboard, the boy eating ice cream from the container, the boy with a squirt gun. Blake, clean your room. Blake, don’t be late for dinner. Given these associations, the name was sneaky and a bit dumb, the kind of boy who would write, It wasn’t me.

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