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The Found Woman
They found a body in the Salford Cemetery, but aboveground and alive. An ice storm the day before had beheaded the daffodils, and the cemetery was draped in frost: midspring, Massachusetts, the turn of the century before last. The body lay faceup near the obelisk that marked several generations of Pickersgills.
Soon everyone in town would know her, but for now it was as though she’d dropped from the sky. A woman, stout, one bare fist held to her chin, white as a monument and soft as marble rubbed for luck. Her limbs were willy-nilly. Even her skirt looked broken in two along its central axis, though it was merely divided, for cycling. Her name was Bertha Truitt. The gladstone bag beside her contained one abandoned corset, one small bowling ball, one slender candlepin, and, under a false bottom, fifteen pounds of gold.
The watchman was on the Avenue of Sorrows near where the babies were interred when he spotted her down the hill in the frost. He was a teenager, uneasy among the living and not much better among the dead. He’d been hired to keep an eye out. Things had been stolen. Bodies? No, not bodies: statuary, a stone or two, half a grieving angel’s granite wing.
The young man, being alive, was not afraid of body snatchers, but he feared the dead breaking out of their sepulchres. Perhaps here one was. Himself, he wanted to be buried at sea, though to be buried at sea you had to go to sea. He’d been born on a ship in Boston Harbor, someone had once told him, but he had no memory of his birth, nor of any boat, nor of his parents. He was an orphan.
The woman: Was she alive or dead? The slope worried him. He’d had a troubled gait all his life—the boat, or an accident at birth had caused it—and between the slick and the angle he might end up falling upon her. “Hello!” he shouted, then, “Help!” though he believed he was the only living person anywhere near.
But here came another man, entirely bundled, suspiciously bundled, dusky wool and speckled tweed, arboreal. From a distance, dark, and the young man expected him to brighten up the closer he got but he never did.
“What is it?” the stranger asked.
The young man said, “The lady,” and pointed. “She dead, you think?”
“Come,” said the stranger, “and we will see.”
The slope, the frost. The possibility she was dead. The young man said, “I’ll call a doctor, shall I.”
“I’m a doctor.”
“You?” He’d never heard of a colored doctor before. Moreover the stranger had on his back an immense duffel bag more vagabond than medical, and looked as though he’d been sleeping rough for some time. He had a refined accent from no region the watchman could place.