When the body of Jody Bartuk freed itself in a late winter thaw, I was the first one who saw it. I didn’t scream, even though it was only the second time I had seen a dead body. My father was up on the bank by the car. Glancing guiltily up at him, I waved. It was my own moment and for some reason I didn’t want to share it.
The woman – it was a woman – had a dark dress on, with a collar of what once must have been white lace. I remember the small bald spot on the back of her head, made apparent by the parting of her hair in the icy water. Tiny waves broke on the pale beach of that spot of skin, and the bobbing of her head gave the unsettling impression that she still struggled. That’s when Daddy came down and got me. I was in mid-air kicking my feet when he saw her and put me down.
“Janie, go to the car and wait for Daddy.” It was his serious voice so I didn’t wait before hurrying up the slope. Near the car, I turned around and saw my father talking on the phone. He clicked it shut then grabbed a large stick and tried to pull the body closer to shore. It didn’t move much, surrounded by ice, and it wasn’t going anywhere so he let it be.
“Janie, are you okay up there?” he called.
“Yeah,” I shouted. I wanted to come down and look closer, but Daddy would be mad. He stood near the river, his hands on his hips, his head moving side to side and looking, searching for something. I looked around too. The wind picked up and, though I could still see him, I felt alone and scared.
“Daddy? I’m cold. Can we go home now?” I yelled.
“In a little while, Janie. Get in the car and I’ll be up in a minute.” It was never a minute. I hopped into the back seat and picked through my books.
It was mid-March, but winter lingered that year. The ice still hadn’t completely broken up. Jagged little mountains of it, littered with dirt and debris, jammed into the river bank. Where Jody Bartuk’s body once froze and freed itself was again ice. No one could tell that the spot had just released a dead woman.
I didn’t dream during that spring or summer. Only in the fall, with its chill and clarity, did they come to me – late at night, deep in the folds of sleep, barely to be remembered…
“How did you know my name? Do I know…”
The gun came out of the black night and landed on the side of her head. She fell and screamed.
“Shut up or I’ll kill you. I will.”
The gun felt harder than she imagined it would, stuck against her back as she stumbled further from the road. His voice sounded nervous and shaky, without the viciousness of a villain. Evil was never what you thought it would be. Everything she had been warned about was happening, and none of the advice seemed practical or possible, and the gun was too hard anyway…
Daddy rushed into the room and switched on the desk lamp as I pulled the matted hair away from my damp forehead. He held me tight and let out a sigh. He knew trouble in the night too. He also knew he couldn’t hold onto me forever. I think I understood that before he did.
“Was it a nightmare?’ he asked when my breathing slowed. I nodded. “What was it about?”
I lied. “A monster.” It wasn’t the first lie a daughter told her father, and it wasn’t the first lie I told him. It wouldn’t do to burden him now. The dreams continued, to the point where I was afraid to go to sleep. He thought I was growing afraid of the dark. It was easier than having to explain those dreams, the visitations from a woman I had never met, but who felt so familiar, and the way I saw life so much more vividly then. Daddy wouldn’t understand that. He would worry. Even then I knew it fell to me to protect him from that. It was all I could give to him. The dreams remained mine. Their vividness grew more real, the details coalescing into tangible memories. These memories stayed with me, burning themselves upon my formative youth. I was almost convinced it had been I who was killed that night.
“Lay down there,” he hissed nervously, angry agitation surfacing above his fear. “No, there.” And then her simple compliance, without objection. Had she thought it would be easier that way? Had she bargained this body for that life? What might she have done differently if she knew he was going to kill her anyway? What would any of us have done differently?
He pulled her skirt down. The rush of cold. The icy leaves. The hardness of the gun again. She thought he might be so hard, but found herself violated by something softer. That’s when she knew he would kill her. Men did things like that. They shamed themselves, then blamed others for it. Maybe that’s why she didn’t bother to fight. She did wonder that, at the end.
His heavy breathing, and then his crying. His spent self, his shuddering sobs, and then his frightening, hot anger.
“You did this! You!” he screamed. And then the gun shot. She turned away to look at the silhouettes of the naked trees rising above them. She didn’t want to leave looking at his face.
I thought Christmas might ease the dreams. I’d been good that year, even as I wondered if such self-awareness negated the goodness. A truly selfless act was so difficult to pull off, but I was trying. Daddy held me closer during the holidays. I couldn’t tell why – there were too many reasons – and I let him because he seemed to need it more than me.
My Christmases had become quiet days, and I listened to the animated retellings of schoolmate’s holidays with a distant disinterest. I never understood the noisiness of their lives. It seemed better to go on in silence.
The anniversary of that late winter discovery both thrilled and frightened me. In it was the hope of some magical eradication – a new start to rid myself of these messy dreams. When you’re a kid, those demarcations mean something – they hold an enchantment that may or may not exist, but it all depends on believing.
As the date neared, I checked in my diary, thumbing back to that moment, trying to re-create and honor what had transpired. If it was done correctly – properly – if I gave her what she wanted, it might be okay. It might make her go away.
He dragged her body deeper into the woods, out to the river. He weighed her down with stones. He was getting ready to leave this place. The body didn’t need to be hidden forever. He waded into the shallow water. His shoes fought with the mud, his skin crying out against the cold. She was already rigid. It always surprised him how quickly it happened. Even when he moved fast, it happened so soon.
Even dead, some fought back. She seemed to fight more now that she was gone than when she was alive. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work as well this time. The fight was an engagement, a connection more real than the dismissals to which he was accustomed. They couldn’t understand that.
The body wouldn’t go down. He started pounding on it, splashing the cold water upward. The anger flashed again. The coldness of the water bit at him. He found a large stick and pushed the stiffening load into the muck at the bottom of the river. At last it stuck. He didn’t care if it rose in the morning.
There was no such magic when it came to dreams – either in making them come true or stopping them altogether. The anniversary of when we first found Jody Bartuk passed, and my dreams continued. Daddy let me sleep with him on the nights they left me breathless and sweaty. We clung to each other in our shared grief, in our loneliness, not really knowing what we would do the next day.
Like so many things, those dreams didn’t come to an abrupt end. I couldn’t will them to stop, not any more than we can conjure a desired dream world. Slowly they tapered off. A few days of restful, uneventful sleep, and then a few fitful nights. Soon, the rest took over, and my sleep went uninterrupted. After another year, I barely dreamt of her at all. She resided instead in my memory, one of those I kept at first begrudgingly, but in the end willingly, as if she had been a major figure of my childhood, a ghost of a mother, taken too soon.Back to Blog