Staring at the decomposing body, swelling like living tissue with insects, flesh slipping into the dirt as another bone sank into the loam, Jane forced herself to do what she’d come to do. Shoot the dead woman.
Sliding the glass into the box she’d made just for this project, she draped a black cloth over her head, the camera, and her body. Wearing deepest black for this shoot made sense. No one else was mourning these newly dead bodies.
Sliding the cap off the lens, she held her breath as pale light poured into the camera, onto the silver, forging images of the decomposing body of a woman of an age that no longer mattered. The corpse’s flesh had sunk into a filmy coating for bones that would last a while longer, as long as the wild animals were kept at bay by the Body Farm’s razor wire fence. Gazing through the lens, Jane counted slowly until the image was firmly planted on the glass. The lens cover slid back into place with no hint of anxiety.
Jane’s hands shook as she folded the black drape and dropped it into the back of her Suburban. She had to expose the plate quickly. Slipping into protective gloves, she began the chemical wash that would turn this nameless, faceless body into art. A silver plate she’d call “Beauty from Ashes No. 3.” As the image developed, she had to bite her lip to keep from shouting. She knew she had ‘it’ right this time. This poor woman, unknown and unburied, had been relegated to the scientists after the medical examiner finished with her and no one stepped up to claim the remains. What was left of her red hair fanned the ground. Though her final bits and pieces would one day be excessed to the crematory, she’d live on as long as Jane’s shimmery, ethereal picture survived.
“I won’t forget you,” Jane murmured as she fixed the plate with the reverence of a pall bearer touching the coffin for the last time. She didn’t want it hurt during the long drive back to her farm.
Stripping off the gloves, Jane secured the camera and the rest of her equipment and climbed into the driver’s seat. With a honk at the guard, she let him know she’d finished for the day. Getting permission to photograph the decomposing bodies at the Farm had taken a bit of arm-twisting. Much as she disliked it, fame held some perks. Her agent assured the scientists who studied the rates of bodily decomposition that Jane would treat her subjects with respect and dignity. Showing a few of her prior pieces in the Beauty from Ashes series to the gruff, older men who spent their lives trying to find out how and when people died, she’d earned their trust. She didn’t know if they understood the questions she was asking in her art, but they’d quickly comprehended she wasn’t a sensationalist. Dr. Brody had even paid her a quiet compliment, when he’d told her he had the same feeling whenever he saw the dead.
She drove the long hours back to Culvert without seeing the road. Somehow, every face she’d shot today morphed into that of her mother the last time she’d seen her - dead in the dirt of an embankment hidden from the highway, her murky eyes staring straight at Jane’s four year old self.
Now, though, she had to get back to the farm and get ready for the work that paid for her rolling acres and all that expensive fencing. As she pulled off the paved state road onto the gravel drive, flanked by ancient magnolias, she felt some of the tension that rode her shoulders ease up a bit.
The white farm house, a classic American four-square, Granting in the shadows of the huge oak trees that guarded its corners, welcomed her with its solid plain lines. She’d worked long and hard for this home. Her roots ran shallow, but they grew deeper each day she lived on the this land, these gently sloping pastures, by the pond with its mud-trampled bank where the horses watered each morning when she let them out of their stalls.
Life in the city had given her a name in art circles, showings in the right galleries, and the luxury of paying for a big chunk of
countryside. Now, she went to bed to the rustle of leaves
or the burping of mating frogs, instead of emergency sirens and neon
lights. The trade-off between the energy
of the city and hours that slipped by without notice was worth every penny her
farm had cost her. Virginia
Parking the Suburban by the back door, Jane unloaded the plates onto the enclosed porch. As she turned the knob into the kitchen, she paused, part of her listening still for Beau’s raucous greeting. His bark should have shaken the house’s framing by now. Sadness swept over her, a deep, bone-chilling grief she lived with every day.
She’d buried the Russian wolfhound near the pecan tree by the stable. Beau’s affinity for horses hadn’t been returned by the equines he’d wanted as friends. Nipping playfully at their heels, expecting a game of chase, he’d dodged too close to a cranky mare named Letty. One hoof caught Beau under his chin, killing him instantly.
She’d run to his body, too late to save him, too late for the vet, in the middle of the yard, his blue eyes clouded with death, his skin growing cold.
Her hands ached to stroke his fur, to run down his spine to his tickle spot, sending his tail beating against her leg.
The quiet kitchen gave her no greeting.
“I should get another dog,” she muttered, carting the precious glass plates into her darkroom.
She wouldn’t, however. She seldom made a mistake like Beau. Everyone she loved died. The horses had been purchased to serve as subjects for her art, nothing more. She’d become death’s child at the age of four and the Grim Reaper had settled in for the long haul. Beau was just his most recent victim. Eventually, death would cart her off too. Often, when the quiet in her head threatened to explode, she wished it would be sooner rather than later.
“Not tonight,” she protested as she jerked off her filthy clogs and tossed them by the back door.
Food. Work. The trappings of normalcy, or as close as she could come. She shook herself out of memories of Beau by staring in her refrigerator.
Nothing there. Bread and peanut butter would be enough. She hauled them out of the pantry and made dinner. Popping her answering machine on, she listened as a man’s voice on the recording boomed into her quiet sanctuary of a home.
“Just making sure we’re on for tomorrow. I’ll be in the cabin out back, let yourself in through the garden gate,” he continued after tossing his name out first.
Grant Winston. Former stock car Cup winner. More money than God, and that was before his other enterprises. Part interest in a professional baseball team. Much to her shock, he was a Culvert neighbor. None of her neighbors recognized the name as someone famous. In fact, was he just another farmer, raising big, black Angus cattle on his many acres, using hundreds more as an environmental refuge. She knew that part had stumped the locals, who wondered why any farmer in his right mind wouldn’t use every acre to its fullest capacity.
Evidently, the environmentalists backed by Grant wanted to use his image in an ad campaign. A Jane Lewis portrait had been his request, her agent told her, and since her astronomical price had been accepted, Jane was stuck. She’d really hoped she wouldn’t have to do another portrait, and her fee would force them to turn her down. Evidently, Grant Winston wanted her and no one else, her agent had told her when she’d called with the bad news.
Chewing on the sandwich, Jane flopped on the ancient couch in the front room and threw her feet onto the hassock. She was in no mood to pamper some fancy, spoiled stock car racer with more money than sense. Not that her portraits were flattering, even when the subject sizzled with natural beauty. Beneath the skin and bone, blood and tendons, everyone was a skeleton. Eschewing color, Jane found the core within each subject in brutal black and white.
Often, the results weren’t pretty. In fact, if you looked at the Beauty to Ashes series, they were far from it. Grant Winston would get what he wanted, a true Jane Lewis. If he didn’t like it, well, tough. As a neighbor, she seldom saw him. Picking up dog food for Beau, she’d spied him now and then at the Southern States store, that was all. His name had meant nothing to her. It still didn’t. Nascar and stock car racing held no interest for her, even if it seemed that every man in town sported a ball cap with a number 24 or 8 emblazoned on the bill.
A raindrop struck the porch’s tin roof with a quick ping. Another followed. Pulling her thoughts from Beau, Jane tried to remember if she’d rolled up the driver’s window in the Suburban. Rain had drenched the valley for a month, making it the wettest spring in memory. She’d pulled into her yard in a rare lull in the deluge, sucking in fresh air through the opened windows like a drowning victim.
A flash of lightning followed by a roof-shaking burst of thunder jerked her to her feet. Summer storms in the valley had brutalized the lower-lying areas, swelling creeks over roads and into basements with sudden savagery. Oblivious to the rain that now pounded her, she hurried into the yard, car keys in her hand.
Sure enough, she’d left the window down. Inside, she turned on the power and pressed the button that raised it. As rain sluiced down the windshield, she relaxed into the leather seat, careless of her wet clothes, her soaked hair. She loved the sound made by rain on the roof. The downpour promised air cleansed, even if only for a few morning hours, of the humidity that bore down on the valley this time of year. Crisp light. Clarity for her lenses. If the storm blew over before morning, she’d try her pinhole camera.
First, though, she’d check on the horses. Braving the pelting rain, she popped out of the Suburban and raced for the old barn. Chris would have brought them in from the pasture and fed them. Eleven years old, he lived in a rundown farm house on the north side of her property, a small buffer between her farm and that of Grant Winston. Chris showed up at her door one day and offered to take care of the three animals in return for riding rights. She’d been glad to take him up on it.
The horses embodied beauty to her, nothing else. Chris had shown her their power and personalities, and along with his lessons, she’d grown to know and admire this resilient child who refused to let anything stand in his way. If he continued to grow at his current rate, however, he’d never become the jockey he believed was his destiny. Maybe, Jane mused, staring at the storm from the safety of the barn door, she’d find a way to get him some work with a trainer. Trainers didn’t have to weigh a hundred pounds.
Inside the barn, the horses wickered with the next clap of thunder. Jane checked each one, stroking soft muzzles to calm them as Chris had taught her. Unsettled but fine, she decided, as she returned to the opened door to risk a run to the porch.
The torrent rampaging across the muddy paddock swept soil like a broken dam across the ungrassed yard between house and barn. Shoeless, Jane didn’t worry as she stepped into the muddy mess. Head down, she raced for the house, cold water pummeling her back.
A large lump of cloth and something else, something that seemed familiar, caught her eye. Skidding to a stop, she shoved rain-soaked hair from her eyes. Not here, not now. She’d just driven back from the Body Farm. How could this be in her own back yard?
Not this, but she. Touching the fabric, caked with mud and debris, Jane made out a flower pattern. A bit of tattered lace. A mother-of-pearl button. A skull. Bones tangled in what remained of a dress.
A dead woman.