That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body. One Saturday in March, fog crept through the river valley and froze overnight. The morning sun crackled over a ghostly landscape across the road from my uncle’s general store, the burr oaks that leaned out over the banks of the North Fork River crystallized with a thick crust of hoarfrost. The tree nearest the road was dead, half-hollow, and it leaned farther than the rest, balanced at a precarious angle above the water. A trio of vultures roosted in the branches, according to Buddy Snell, a photographer for the Ozark County Record. Buddy snapped pictures of the tree, the stark contrast of black birds on white branches, for lack of anything better to print on the front page of the paper. It was eerie, he said. Haunting, almost. He moved closer, kneeling at the water’s edge to get a more interesting angle, and that was when he spied the long brown braid drifting in the shallows, barely visible among the stones. Then he saw Cheri’s head, snagged on a piece of driftwood: her freckled face, abbreviated nose, eyes spaced too wide to be pretty. Stuffed into the hollow of the tree were the rest of Cheri’s pieces, her skin etched with burns and amateur tattoos. Her flesh was unmarked when she disappeared, and I wondered if those new scars could explain what had happened to her, if they formed a cryptic map of the time she’d spent missing.
Cheri was eighteen when she died, one year older than me. We’d lived down the road from each other since grade school, and she’d wander over to my house to play whenever she felt like it and stay until my dad made her leave. She especially liked my Barbies because she didn’t have any dolls of her own, and we’d spend all day building little houses for them out in the woodpile, making swimming pools with the hose. Her mom never once called or came looking for her, not even the time I hid her in my closet so she could stay overnight. My dad found out the next morning and started hollering at us, but then he looked at Cheri, tears dripping off her face as she wolfed down the frozen waffles I’d made her, and he shut up and fried us some bacon. He waited until she finished eating and crying before giving her a ride back home.
Kids at school--including my best friend, Bess--thought Cheri was weird and didn’t want to play with her. I knew Cheri was slow, but I didn’t realize there was actually something different about her until fourth or fifth grade, when she disappeared into the special ed class for most of the day. Newspaper articles after the murder described her as “deficient” or “developmentally disabled,” with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. We weren’t as close in high school--I’d outgrown her in certain ways and spent most of my time with Bess--but we still shared a bus stop at the fork of Toad Holler Road, and she was always there first, sitting on a log under the persimmon trees, smoking cigarettes she’d steal from her mother and picking at her various scabs. She always offered me a cigarette if she had one to spare. I didn’t know how to inhale, and she probably didn’t, either, but we sat there every morning, elbow to elbow, talking and laughing in a cloud of smoke.
One morning I beat Cheri to the bus stop. I got worried when the bus rumbled up the dirt road and she still wasn’t there, because her mom always sent her to school, sick or not, if only to get her out of the way. Days passed with no sign of her, so I walked through the woods to her mom’s trailer and knocked and knocked, but nobody answered. There were rumors she’d dropped out of school, and when somebody from the county finally went to check it out, Doris Stoddard said her daughter had run away. She hadn’t reported her missing because she figured she would come back.
Flyers were posted in shopwindows around town, and I taped several up at my uncle’s store, Dane’s, which had been in our family for generations. Above Cheri’s picture, in thick black print, was the word runaway. I wasn’t convinced that she’d left on her own, but no one shared my concern. In time, the flyers faded and curled, and when they came down, no new ones went up in their place.
A year passed between Cheri’s disappearance and her murder, and during that time hardly anybody spoke of her. It felt like nobody missed her besides me. But as soon as her body turned up, it was all anybody could talk about. It was the biggest news to hit our tiny town of Henbane in years. Camera crews arrived in hordes, parking their vans by the river to get a shot of the tree, which had sprouted a modest memorial of stuffed animals and flowers. They barged into Dane’s demanding coffee and Red Bull and complaining about the roads and poor cellphone service. People who had ignored Cheri while she was alive were suddenly eager to share their connections to the now-famous dead girl. I used to sit behind her in health class. . . . She rode on my tractor one year in the Christmas parade. . . . I was there that time she threw up on the bus.
The whole town jittered with nervous speculation, wondering where she’d been for that missing year and why she’d turned up now. It was common knowledge that in the hills, with infinite hiding places, bodies disappeared. They were fed to hogs or buried in the woods or dropped into abandoned wells. They were not dismembered and set out on display. It just wasn’t how things were done. It was that lack of adherence to custom that seemed to frighten people the most. Why would someone risk getting caught to show us what he’d done to Cheri when it would’ve been so easy to keep her body hidden? The only reasonable explanation was that an outsider was responsible, and outsiders bred fear in a way no homegrown criminal could.
In the wake of Cheri’s murder, Meyer’s Hardware ran out of locks and ammunition. Few people went out after dark, and those who did were armed with shotguns. My dad took precautions, too. He worked construction jobs where he could get them, usually a couple hours away in Springfield or Branson, and he had been letting me stay home alone a couple days at a time while he was gone. After Cheri’s body was found, he went back to driving the round-trip every day, spending hours on the road so he could be home with me at night.
I replayed our mornings together, Cheri’s and mine, sifted through our last conversations. She’d talked mostly about her “boyfriends,” pervs who hung around her mom’s trailer and told her she was pretty and tried to feel her up. Boys our age, the ones at school, were cruel. They called her a retard and made her cry. I told her to ignore them, but I never told them to stop, and that’s what I remembered when Cheri’s body turned up in the tree: the ways I had failed her. Like how I’d been her best friend but she wasn’t mine. How I’d worried something bad might have happened when she went missing, but I didn’t do anything about it. All the way back to when we were little, me being less of a friend than she thought I was. I gave her my Happy Holidays Barbie, not because it was her favorite but because I had ruined its hair.
Spring was short-lived. The hills were ecstatic with blooms, an embarrassing wealth of trees and wildflowers: dogwoods in cream and pink, clouds of bright lavender redbuds, carpets of phlox and toothwort and buttercups. Then the leaves filled out the canopy, draping the woods in shadow. The vines and underbrush greened and resumed their constant creeping, and the heat blossomed into a living thing, its unwanted hands upon us at all times. Cheri had been buried at Baptist Grove in a child’s casket--which was cheaper and plenty big to hold what was left of her--but I couldn’t stop thinking about her, how she’d shared so much with me but hadn’t said a word about running away.
By the end of May, there were no real leads in Cheri’s case. Everybody in town still talked about the murder, arguing about whether the tree where she was found should be cut down or turned into some type of memorial, though most folks had gone back to their normal routines. Dad got tired of his daily commute and went back to leaving me alone for a day or two while he worked. As time passed, it seemed less and less likely that what happened to Cheri would happen to anyone else.
The shock and fear over Cheri’s death had faded to the point that kids joked about it at school. Most of my classmates thought Mr. Girardi, our former art teacher, had killed her, despite his alibi. He had returned to Chicago around the time Cheri disappeared, having lasted less than a semester in Henbane. Back then, kids gossiped that Cheri had run away with him, that he was hot for retarded girls. Why else, they asked, would he have encouraged her pathetic attempts in class or let her eat lunch in the art room?
Mr. Girardi had been doomed from the start for the simple fact that he wasn’t a native, but he made it worse every time he opened his mouth. He didn’t know that a haint was a ghost or that puny meant sick or that holler was the way we said hollow. Ah! he said when he figured it out. So a holler is like a valley! When a kid in class welcomed him to God’s country, Mr. Girardi wondered aloud why the churches in God’s country were outnumbered by monuments to the devil. It was true: the spiny ridge of Devil’s Backbone, the bottomless gorge of Devil’s Throat, the spring bubbling forth from the Devil’s Eye--his very anatomy worked into the grit of the landscape. Mr. Girardi spent an entire class period comparing Henbane to paintings of hell. The land was rocky and gummed with red clay, the thorny underbrush populated by all manner of biting, stinging beasts. The roads twisted in on themselves like intestines. The heat sucked the breath from your chest. Even the name, he’d said before being fired for showing us a Bosch, which was full of boobs, Henbane. Another name for nightshade--the devil’s weed. He’s everywhere. He’s all around you.
I’d felt sorry for Mr. Girardi because he didn’t understand why everyone treated him like a trespasser. Tourists came through on the river, but strangers rarely moved to town, and they naturally aroused suspicion. Even though I’d lived in Henbane all my life--had been born in the clapboard house my grandpa Dane built not a mile from the North Fork River--no one could forget that my mother was a foreigner, that she had come from someplace else, even if that place was only Iowa. Some folks didn’t think it possible that the cornfields and snowdrifts of the North had produced a creature as mysterious as my mother, so they had crafted origin myths involving Gypsies and wolves. As a kid, I didn’t know if such things could be true, so I’d studied photographs of her, seeking proof of their claims. Was her long black hair evidence of Gypsy blood? Did her ice-green eyes spring from a wolf? I had to admit there was a hint of something exotic in her olive skin, the fullness of her mouth, the wideness of her eyes. I’d read somewhere that beauty could be measured by scientific means, calculated in symmetry and distance, scale of features and angles of bone. Certainly my mother was beautiful, but beauty alone couldn’t account for the effect she’d had on our small town. There was something deep-rooted, intangible, that the pictures couldn’t quite grasp.
Part of it was that they didn’t know her, Dad said. She came to work for my uncle, and folks didn’t get why he’d hired an outsider. She had no family and wouldn’t talk about her past. A woman without kin, in the town’s eyes, had been cast out, and surely not without reason. Rumor spread that she was a witch. People still told the story of my mother turning Joe Bill Sump into a snake. They said she emitted a scent that would seduce you if you got too close. That her eyes had the same rectangular pupils as a goat’s. Some even said that her grave was dug up, revealing nothing inside but a bird. None of these things was true. She had no grave because we had no body. Most of Dad’s kin, the aunts and uncles and cousins on his mother’s side, broke away, treated us like strangers--like we were tainted because of her. But I didn’t mind the talk of witchcraft, however ridiculous it was. All the better if people were wary and left me alone. It was preferable to hearing them whisper about the one undisputed truth: that when I was a baby, my mother had walked into the inky limestone labyrinth of Old Scratch Cavern with my father’s derringer pistol and never returned. Before Cheri’s death, my mother’s disappearance had been the biggest mystery in town.
On the last day of school, I walked home from the bus stop alone. Over a year had passed since Cheri made the walk with me, and I remembered how she used to linger in my driveway before continuing down the road to her trailer. As my house came into view, I noticed that without Dad’s truck parked out front, the place looked almost abandoned. The yard was a mix of rock and scrub, with Queen Anne’s lace bordering the fence. The house once was white, but the paint had worn down to a dull, splintery gray. It was a simple two-story rectangle with porches on the front and back, one of the nicer homes around when Grandpa built it, before it started to succumb to dry rot and age. It sat in a grove of walnut trees, and Grandpa Dane crowded the foundation with viburnum bushes. Grandma Dane once fell from a second-floor window while cleaning the glass, and Grandpa claimed the viburnum broke her fall and saved her life. Inside, the wood floors had long since lost their varnish, but the walls in each room were the bright cheery colors of Easter eggs, pink and aqua and orange, painted by my mother in a fit of nesting before my birth.