The Laughing Lady (Bookends II)
Copyright © 2014
All Rights Reserved
I might never have found myself in this spot if three things hadn’t happened: If I hadn’t heard the woman screaming behind my house last night; if she hadn’t worn that dress; and if I hadn’t known her a long time ago.
So I’ll tell you the second thing first, the first thing second, and the third thing last.
I noticed her, of course the very pretty, very dark-haired lady who supervised the little Sub Shop in our store while I was concealed away in the sporting goods department. Curiously enough, I don’t recall speaking to her for the first couple of years I worked at the big box store. It was sort of like if an empty cab drove up, out I would step. I was that invisible.
It was common enough to hear her laugh ring through the workplace. Some of it was, I supposed, PR for the customers, some of it real. Since I didn’t know her name I simply thought of her as The Laughing Lady. We passed each other on our assorted errands, not speaking or acknowledging each other. She was just one of a hundred other people drudging away in obscurity.
Until she wore that dress.
Our normal work uniform was a T-shirt, blue jeans and a baseball cap with the company logo on it. But one day, as I sat out front on the employee’s bench taking my break, she walked up from the parking lot. Gone the way of an honest evangelist were the hat and the blue jeans and kicks, in their places a Victoria Falls of shining black hair, a simple, black, tiered peasant skirt that stopped an unassuming inch above the knee, and a pair of high-heeled sandals (I wouldn’t have believed it possible but, yes, there really is such a thing). Her blouse was an eye-burning, multi-colored palette of diagonal stripes that formed a bodice that crossed her bosom like a double set of bandoleers. I suppose there’s a haute couture name for such a contrivance, but I didn't -and don't- know it. What I did know was that I could never look at her the same way again. We didn’t speak even then, and she swept by me like a freshly born spring wind as I scooped my clattering jaw up from the ground, sadly pondering that I would have to bandage it later where it had scraped on the sidewalk.
Had she never spoken to me, all might have been well -at least for a while. Some notes will always come due- but speak to me she finally did a few days later. What she said doesn't really matter because -as threadbare and cliché as it sounds- the moment I turned and full-on looked her in the eyes for the very first time, that was it. In one stumbling instant I wondered how I could have passed by this woman year after year and not noticed she was breathtakingly gorgeous, a troubled white rose fretting in a thicket of wire grass. There was a thing indefinable, and bewitching, and provocative in those deep-green, all but brown eyes, and it took me but a moment to mark it.
She had the eyes of a little girl.
She was lithe and cream-skinned, maybe ninety-five pounds soaking wet and wearing a beach towel and a gold chain, as if her preferred breakfast was comprised of a carrot slice and three kelp strands. But the willowy look suited her. Trim ladies didn’t fool me. I once had a similarly trim girlfriend many years ago. We worked third shift at a hosiery mill and one summer morning after work, we decided to go to a local water park. When she came out of her house sporting a bikini fashioned from three eye patches and a couple of hanks of twine, buddy, my cap snapped. So I knew what might be decorously concealed beneath the sedate jeans and loose smock of my little sandwich maker. I spent many a moment trying to get a look at her without her catching me (which really wasn’t difficult, since she hardly ever glanced my way). I had seen those legs. It was hard to believe those pins wrapped in blue denim had been rolling for better than four decades.
Though her pale skin hinted at Celtic or Gallic roots, her dark eyes and hair, and almost Roman nose told a different tale; a story of a bloodline further east. A bit of the Wallachian or Moldavian in her, a thin trickle of Romany blood from centuries past.
I was smitten -badly smitten- for no good reason I could dope out or discern. At least not then. Charisma is a word you hear, but until you have firsthand knowledge of it, you can’t really know what it means. And when God doled out her share, she got it paid to her in spades. She was like a queen bee, but instead of drones it was an unpromising mix of fifty know-nothing duds and ten watt bulbs buzzing around her every day. Of course, my opinion was a little colored. I was more attracted to her than any woman I had ever known, and this from a man who has known the company of a wide and varied array of ladies over many years. I’ll not tell you how old I am, but the candles on my birthday cake look like the firebombing of Dresden, the Great Chicago Fire, or the eruption of Krakatoa. I thought with better than half a century churning in my wake, such things as crushes were long past me. Still, I knew if she came into the store barefoot, wearing a bulky flannel nightgown, with her hair rolled up in beer cans, I would have turned to look. You know, there is nothing more beautiful in God’s Creation than a woman in the moonlight, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that only a man who was a fool wouldn’t wonder what it would be like to look down and see her face in that moonlight, her eyes closed, lips partway open, that ink-black hair untidy, tousled across her brow and forehead. And I’m no fool.
She fascinated me, but getting her to talk about herself was like giving CPR to a corpse, or trying to teach color to the blind. She was outgoing, but always left aside the best of herself for someone else. It was a sad recognition that I was never going to be that someone else. I was never going to be her fair-haired boy; she was never going to have eyes for me.
We were, I guess, friends, but always a little distant. She may not have even realized it, but there was always some barrier between us: a cart, a counter, even something as inconsequential as a clipboard or a piece of paper, but always there. And that bothered me. I didn’t know then why she seemed always a little afraid of me. It was ever down there, buried so deep you could barely see it, skulking beneath the sparkle; that mistrust in her eyes from some previous, great hurt that had become a slothful, unevictable squatter.
Since I worked only part time I would once in a while, only half teasing, hit her up to let me come to work in the sandwich shop full time. The last time I did that, she looked up at me, eyes bright and coy, and said: “If you had to work for me, you wouldn’t like me anymore.”
“I’d like you less,” I answered, “for letting me starve to death.”
But that was okay. I didn’t want to not like her.
And I liked her very much. Some things just stick with you, small sketches that seem trivial to most, but mark the beholder deeply. Like the time she came out of the store shaking out that mane of coffee-black hair. She caught me looking at her and, in saving my soul from perdition by telling the truth, she gave it a little extra flip, knowing I was watching. But that was just her, and just me. Dark haired women have always monkey-hammered my brain into hot oatmeal. Even if I just acted normal I would be fool enough, but she rocketed me into full-metal moron territory. I would think of the times I heard her laugh carrying through the store, and wonder who it was that caused it, and think: if only I could make her laugh like that. But we did laugh now and again and my best times with her were when she would smile, the lines crinkling up at the corners of her eyes and the bridge of her nose, and I knew we had shared a genuine chuckle.
Of course, we were both sinners and saints in this thing. I tried not to be up her ass all the time, as my dear, departed mother was fond of saying, but sometimes I just couldn’t resist speaking to her. And that could be a problem. Most times she was lively and laughing, but when she did lose it, she lost her shit completely. More often than I want to confess, I’d say something that would set her off to the point that if I were to go running through the store on fire, she would sprint after me with a pack of hot dogs and a bag of marshmallows, and those watching would acclaim her actions. There were other moments she was so sweet that honey would have seemed vinegar in her mouth. But I suppose it’s fair to say that about all women, isn’t it? If they weren’t dynamite and blasting caps, gunpowder and matches, we wouldn’t love them so, would we? If I was a writery sort of fellow, I might have written down all these things I could never say to her out loud. But I’m not, so I never did. Until now.
Even so, events pile up, and the thing that started the train wreck for fair was when we had to attend some mandatory work function. Who could have guessed that something that started off so well would end so badly?
At a pleasant enough lunch, we sat at a table supplemented with one of those stylishly trendy kiosks that let you order from the table without need of a server, as if the passably fashionable sit-down restaurant we had walked into had somehow unluckily devolved into Jack in the Box before we even got settled. She asked me if I wanted to use it.
“If I’m going to pay ten dollars for a hamburger,” I said, “I’m not going to order it from a clown’s head.”
And that, I guess, was the last smile I ever got out of her.
After lunch we ended up sharing an elevator. It struck me again how tiny she was, standing there by the lighted panel. She told me she didn’t like elevators and when I asked her why, she said she was “afraid of the drop.” A peculiar thing, but not so curious that it should have made a sudden chill raise goose pimples on my arms.
Which brings me to the first thing.
I heard it last night, the woman screaming behind my house. I sat upstairs at my computer, finally contriving to let it all out, pecking out this very thing you're reading now, when I heard the scream drift through the open window above my back porch. I stopped abruptly, listening, my hackles raised, not quite believing what I had heard. A screaming woman is not a reassuring or usual sound and I was taken aback by the inconsistency of the thing. Such a sound didn't fit my world view, where women were at home or at work, being watched over and cared for by husbands or fathers, not beaten and raped and killed by predators. And it was that cognitive dissonance – that belief that what I was hearing was incompatible with what should be- that made me stop typing, move my chair back, and listen.
The scream came again a few seconds later. It seemed to have moved a little from left to right, coming from somewhere in the one hundred-yard-deep woods that set apart my back yard from the fields of the next door neighbor. It was just loud enough to be upsetting -not so far away that it would be useless to try to render aid, and not so close that I could have seen what was happening and helped. It seemed to be… baiting me.
I got up from my desk, chilled, and walked across the creaking boards of the next room to the open window above the back porch, looking out into the darkness of a moonless night. I could see nothing save the hulking trees in the woods, fat and lazy with summer growth, the stars pulsing dimly in the humid murk above their crowns. The scream came again as I leaned my palms against the window sill, straining to hear. The sound had moved again, now coming again from my left, but no closer. And this time I sensed something a little off key. Yes, it sounded like a woman screaming, but not exactly. And a screaming woman would likely not be moving back and forth and voicing those screams at precise, eight to ten second intervals. Still, it was a close enough thing that I grabbed my cell phone, walked downstairs and outside into my back yard, and called the police. I would never forgive myself if, after everything, it actually was a woman screaming for her life.
I waited a harrowing ten minutes for the police to show up, listening to the screams track back and forth every few seconds, but unable to see anything. Sometimes the screams moved away, sometimes they came so close that I believed they were coming right from the edge of the woods that came up onto the cleared lawn of my back yard, the maker slyly hidden just inside the tree line. Then they would move off again.
Finally, with no sign of the police after ten minutes, I could stand it no more. I waded into the woods, exhibiting as little good sense as I usually did. As a young man, when I normally wandered around like a gasoline-soaked scarecrow looking for a spark, fist fights and gun-play were a weekly feature and I wouldn’t have thought twice about such a foolhardy effort. But I wasn’t a young man anymore, and still I rushed blindly into what might have been real danger. I carried no flashlight, no arms, bumbling through the blackberry thorns and poison oak hither and thither, wearing nothing for protection but a pair of navy-blue sweat pants.
I could have been no more than twenty yards into the woods when I heard the scream again, off to my left. I jerked my eyes that way and saw it for the first time. The summer-sweat streaming down my arms and bare back turned clammy and cold.
Whatever it was was low to the ground, lissome and muscular, sable and blending with the black pastels of the night. A pair of green-brown eyes stared back at me from twenty-four inches above the ground, a tapetum reflecting back far more light than was available. I couldn’t see it, but I had the impression of a stalking quadruped, crouched, its tail swishing back and forth. When the scream came again, there was no doubt it issued from this creature. I was looking right at it.
I froze, still as a gravestone, fear speeding my heart like the jolt of a cattle prod. With what seemed synchronous thought, I began to slowly back away and the creature moved in the opposite direction, weaving sinuously through the undergrowth, shuffling aside dried leaves and slipping through low hanging vines, its passage plainly heard in the windless night. Neither of us, this night at least, wanted to push the confrontation.
By the time I backed out of the woods, I was shaking and sweating uncontrollably, my legs as soft as hot taffy. I turned to hurry back into my house when the Deputy Sheriff’s cruiser pulled into my driveway.
The deputy was a big man and as I told him what had happened, the screams started up again. I felt foolishly relieved. At least there was some confirmation of what I had reported. We both stood there, listening as the screams moved back and forth with little pattern, the deputy’s face betraying the same consternation mine had: it was impossible to believe it was a woman screaming, but equally impossible to just dismiss it out of hand. The deputy clicked on his flashlight and shone it into the woods, its critical beam picking out nothing but more shadow. Even with his badge and his gun, the big man reassured me very little.
Some two hundred yards to the north of my house, a dirt road ran adjacent to the fields that curved around the woods behind my house. Probably in contravention to every police procedure known to man, the deputy had me ride with him down this dirt road to a spot where the cleared fields butted up against the woods on my property, but on the opposite side.
We stood silent in the muggy night, the deputy’s cruiser spotlight playing over the nodding heads of wheat. It happened to land on movement in the field. There it was, moving around in the field, its back below the tops of the wheat, just out of sight. We could see the wake it left as it began to move off. We stood there for twenty more minutes and heard no more screams. The deputy drove me back to my house and left. There seemed to be nothing else we could do.
I didn’t hear the screams anymore that night, but I didn’t sleep, either. A more reasonable man would have closed his upstairs window, but I didn’t. I didn’t think I was meant to.
Instead, I spent the next few minutes searching the interwebs for an animal sound that mimicked a screaming woman.
And I found it.
As I listened to the electronic file faithfully playing back the primeval sounds on the cool, digital circuits of my computer, I was possibly more chilled than when I had heard the actual screams. I played it over and over again, trying to make sure I wasn’t injecting any bias into it. But it was unmistakable. I could have recorded the sound myself with a tape recorder out of my window that night.
The most terrifying thing was knowing it had been only twenty feet away from me. And it was still out there.
It was the sound of a Mountain Lion screaming.
Now for the third thing. When I said before that she always reserved the best of herself for someone else, I didn’t necessarily mean a different person, but perhaps a different incarnation. She never appeared to truly dislike me, but was always wary of me. It seemed a conundrum I would never riddle out. The puzzle began to fit together a little better when I finally admitted to myself that I had known her before. Not years ago, but lifetimes ago, and, when you think about it, why should that really be so odd? In a universe which is ninety-five percent dark matter and energy – things we can’t even see much less explain- past lives are just a passing fancy, one of those inexpressible things that you really can't say out loud, like seeing a ghost or discerning Jesus in the butter. You could never tell anyone for fear of being labeled disturbed, but it is real enough.
Never one to throw in much with the idea of kismet or past lives, I could no longer deceive myself about vague memories that had floated up from time to time over the years like spirits emerging from some blackened ruin in my brain. Ghosts that formed body and blood and wrote a dark story of early, seventeenth-century Wallachia, a place I’ve never seen. I recalled the place not from dreams, but from the first time I looked directly into her eyes. I knew instantly that she was that unformed spirit in my mind, now given substance by cordial flesh.
I had met her in a tavern, a black-haired vixen with a smile that could light up the dark side of the world. Time had not touched her fairness with its withering hand. It had been only a few years prior that Wallachia had been completely under Ottoman rule, and a tavern, if one could be found, would have been a good place to get arrested. But the oppression of the Ottoman empire was slowly eroding, and it was a time to celebrate.
I am not sinless now and was less so then. Calling me a cad would have been a kindness. I found her as seductive and bewitching then as I do now, and she, me. Leave aside that I had a wife and children at home. Being with her was like dancing on knives, or walking through fire, or diving headlong from a precipice. She was as wild and unbroken as the nail marks she clawed into my back, and I looked with more than eagerness to the times I could steal away and feel the heat of her body against mine, or bury my face in her hair, or run my fingers down the pink bloom of her cheek, or hear her laugh. And she made me laugh, too. She was hot-blooded and hot-tempered, unbridled and full of life in a time when life was cheaper than dirt. She was the drug that made my life worth living in a part of dismal, seventeenth century Europe which had yet to be lit by the newly budding Renaissance. It was a place where familiars still prowled and witches were hanged. It was the black time; the Burning Times.
Then, as now, she was a closed book. What I knew of her life when she wasn’t with me was a secret. And so it was that her secrets didn’t sit well with others of the town. Such beauty, they whispered cattily among themselves, was not natural. That she was unmarried and childless was the pinnacle of scandal. It was rumored, far and wide, that she had dishonorable liaisons. She was a free-spirited threat to the town’s loathsome, swamp-donkey women, heartless harridans, and court eunuch, Pope’s whores, clown-suited as the town council, whose piety stretched a mile wide and an inch deep. And they intended to punish her for it.
I was nearly caught many times, but managed to steal away when discovery was at hand. Our trysts were always at night and nobody got a really good look at me. But tongues started wagging. Where was she when the Great Cat that had begun to plague the town was seen? Livestock had been slaughtered, children frightened. The attempt was a ham-fisted one to paint her as a familiar. Wallachia was home only to some rather small, wild cats, nothing so large as a cougar or a panther. No-one I knew had seen such a cat, and I dismissed it as political theater, but the seed for her destruction had been planted. Wallachia had thrown off the shackles of the Sultans only to hang the anvil of the Holy Roman Emperor around its neck, with its inquisitions and imprisonment of heretics, and its burning and hanging of witches.
I couldn’t discount the stories entirely. Indeed, I was not with her every moment and knew nothing of her life outside of our time together. In one of my only noble gestures, I tried to persuade her to leave, at least for a while, until things had settled, but she refused. I told her that powerful forces were aligning against her. They meant to have her head, and I couldn’t help her. My job was such that I couldn’t be associated with her and risk not only myself, but my family. Like Icarus, I was only a man, with wings of wax, and I was flying too close to the sun, about to plunge into the killing sea with her.
She didn’t want to listen as I tried to explain the ugly realities of life to her. I don’t think she really believed it could be that bad, and was content to think that everything would, somehow, turn out alright.
I wasn’t there when she was arrested at the tavern and hauled away, charged with adultery and witchcraft. She was tried and convicted that night in a candle-lit sham of a drumhead court, convened specifically for that reason. The judge made his pronouncement and she was sentenced to hang the very next afternoon, when the crowd would be the largest. Yet when I heard, I didn’t protest. I had too much to lose.
The assemblage was restless the next afternoon as she was rudely shoved up onto the rickety gallows, its unsound wood gray and sad, the hooded hangman standing by. I saw confusion and hurt in her eyes more than fear, the sadness that was the lovelorn’s unhappiest harvest. The whispers flew amongst the crowd. Who was it? Why didn’t she tell? What kind of a coward would let a good woman, if indeed she were good, to suffer the gallows and not reveal himself? She looked into the crowd, her scared eyes searching for me, perhaps expecting me to step forward and put an end to this. But she never saw me. No eye, neither hers nor the crowd’s, fell upon me. I was invisible and beyond suspicion. I was respected and respectable with a good, necessary job. A decent, family man with children and a loving wife.
There were catcalls and tears, advocates of her good nature and detractors out for innocent blood. I suppose I was the last one to see the hopelessly lost look of betrayal in her eyes before the hood was placed over her head and the noose secured. It was this, this look in her eyes, that I had recognized those many centuries later. The crowd quieted as the moment approached and I heard her softly sobbing beneath the hood: small as a child, her fragile wrists bound with thick coils of rope, alone, and finally afraid. The lever groaned back with a clank, the trap door banged and clattered.
Then the drop.
As I said, I didn’t sleep last night and I didn’t expect to hear her laugh today when I came to the store, working the twelve-thirty to nine shift. And I didn’t. Perhaps it was one of her days off, but I didn’t think so. Some things weigh like a black spot on your heart and I knew it was going to be my last day. I even thought about going around and saying goodbye to everyone at work, but I didn’t. The only one I wanted to see was already gone. The place seemed downright cheerless without her laughter, and I knew now it was best for her when she laughed alone. I walked around my department, turning out the lights. When the shop door closed behind me, it was already dark and I didn’t even look in my rear view mirror when I got into my car.
On the drive home, I pondered over why she never outed me, but I can’t dwell on it for long, because the only answer that makes any sense is too bittersweet and shameful for me to deal with:
just maybe she loved me.
I didn’t sleep as I lay down, because I was thinking. They say each trip back is a chance to improve yourself and I hoped that, in this life, at least, I was a better man. That this time I would do better by her than I did the last.
The screams are very close tonight, coming from just beneath my back porch, close enough that if I got up to look, I would see her on the ground, looking up. But I stayed in bed, listening as she scaled the tree by my back porch and landed on the roof with an easy creaking of wood. The soft thud of padded paws thumped lightly on the sill as she slipped through the open window, the curtains silent silk gliding along her back. I heard the catty fall of her pads as they crossed the room next to mine, tolling like the tell-tale heart that beats accusingly beneath the bed of every villain. I felt the sinewy weight as she crawled up onto my bed like a serpent, the sultry heat of her body as she nestled down beside me, a thing I had looked forward to in happier circumstances lifetimes ago.
I feel the warm fog of her respiration on my neck, the wet, black-velvet nose on my cheek. The soft growling and intake of breath -almost like a purr, or a low chuckle- are directly in my ear. I turn my wide eyes to see her final embodiment: Fur black, like her hair, green in eye and red of tongue, white in tooth and claw. So this is what happens when the world goes pear-shaped, the trap drops, and your life is whittled down to a few, final ticks of breathless anticipation. I wonder if I will see her ears laid back, or hear the snarl as she lunges for the killing strike.
Because all things come around in their own good time; all debts get paid in this life or another, and I wouldn’t beg for redemption, even if I wanted to.
You see, I was her executioner.
And I miss her laugh.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed The Laughing Lady. This story and seventeen more can be yours absolutely free in . Just my way of saying thanks and introducing you to my work. So download now and enjoy eighteen tales of Lost Loves, aliens, bankers, weird sisters, werewolves, spontaneous human combustion, pagans, evil government conspiracies, and more!
Other books available at my . Thanks for reading!