The Diviner's Tale

By Bradford Morrow

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
January 2011, Hardcover
320 pages



It was as a diviner I made the discovery on the Henderson land.

Before Henderson’s, I never had a fear of being alone. Walking in the forest or crossing some unfamiliar field in the predawn morning or darkening night never bothered me. As my father’s daughter, I knew the flora and fauna here as well as I knew the names of my sons. I never worried about getting lost because I never got physically lost. Not in the field, not while divining. Besides, worrying never got anybody found.

Not that I wasn’t used to coming upon things that were unexpected. Calm quiet and then the quick stab of discovery, those are, for me, the two poles of divination. Mine is by definition a loner’s trade, a kind of work that involves spending a lot of time both in your head and on your feet, conversing with the invisible and sometimes the inexplicable. How often had I been dowsing a field in search of well water, or a mineral deposit, or something lost somebody wanted found, and thought, Nobody’s walked here for decades. Possibly centuries. So what is this half-buried clawfoot bathtub doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Where is the plow that went with this lonely wheel?

You get pretty far out into the wild sometimes when you’ve hired on with a person who wants to settle fresh terrain. After the twin towers went down, I found myself exploring bonier, harsher, uninhabited land for people from the city looking to relocate, to Thoreau for themselves a haven upstate. But even before that, with so many people building their way into the wilderness, developing the backlands, I had been asked by locals to suss out the prospects of one tract or another. Analyze what the aquifer was about, the prospects of creating more Waldens in the mountains. And so it wasn’t unusual to find myself way off the beaten track.

It was the third week of May. Rained overnight. The reeking skunk plants were well up and the delicate jack-in-the-pulpits wagged their cowled heads in the scrub shade. Overhead, mammoth clouds fringed in silver and charcoal flew hard and fast toward the Atlantic coast a hundred or so miles due east. Noisy warblers flitted in the high branches. Redstarts and yellowthroats. Thrushes conversed, invisible in the near distances. The surveyors had finished up a week before I came out. Their Day-Glo orange flags dangled brazenly from branches—property lines for projected building sites.

Here was a four-hundred-plus-acre parcel that needed consideration. Maybe a hunter had hammered two boards together on this place once, or some early settler chinked up a winter cabin that had long since fallen down. Now it was a habitat for coyote families, black bears, whitetail deer, even the occasional shy fisher cat. Heavy swaths of sugar maple and tall ash gave way to sheltered fields ringed by wild blueberry and serviceberry. A beautiful land, neither worked nor spoiled by man, going back almost forever. A deciduous Eden.

Though I had never traversed this valley before, it wasn’t entirely unknown to me. Christopher and I used to have a cave hideout in the rugged cliffs high above, along its eastern edge, and indeed my parents’ house was but a few miles’ hike beyond that rocky ridge. My developer client was looking to dig a pond large enough to call a lake, around which he planned to build an enclave of upscale homes. I almost felt—no, I did feel blameworthy doing my own survey of his lands so the tall rig could be brought in to drill. And before that Jimmy Brenner with his dozers and Earl Klat with his chainsaw singing and his skidder to make a pretty mess.

I had cut a dowsing rod and was walking, daydreaming a little. Whenever I sensed a sweet spot, even if the stick wasn’t reacting, I stopped and looked around. A dowser who knows what she’s doing can half the time anticipate where the land will give up its water beneath. A big patch of wild leeks reveals nearly as much as a witching stick does about a proximate trove of water near the surface. I drifted along through a thicket of shadblow and wood rhodies all waist- and shoulder-high. It smelled like strong spring, that sex and excrement odor of the world reawakening. There was a narrow curtain of lime-green and red buds at the end of this scrub corridor where the woods picked up and the land began to rise a touch. A redwing blackbird cried out over my left shoulder not far away. Again, a telltale sign there would be at least a shallow vein of water here, as redwings prefer to nest in cattail wetlands.

I was feeling okay. My twins were in school. They wanted to go to camp this year, where they could play baseball and swim and be free of me, and I was going to let them. For all three of us this was a big deal. Because they were going to the same place, I knew Jonah and Morgan would be fine. Would have family right there to look out for them. Meant an empty house for me, but part of Mama Cass—one of my least favorite nicknames, and I had more than a few, from Andy to Assandra, given most people avoided the mouthful Cassandra when addressing me—looked forward to the prospect.

Not that I had a single iota of a plan for what to do with my fancy free, beyond the couple of add-on summer school courses the district administration had agreed to, at my request.

I needed the extra work to pay for the boys’ summer away, which wasn’t in my budget. Remedial reading for some younger students and a continuing education course in my favorite subject, Greek myth. I could do worse than wander behind Odysseus for a few months with my aging pupils, or discuss with them the twelve tasks of Hercules, the story of Pandora’s box. I even proposed to screen that old camp classic, Jason and the Argonauts, with its stop-motion animated sword-wielding skeletons.

Then, without warning or any clear reason my mood should change, a black sensation just poured in, over, and through me. It felt as if a spontaneous, malevolent thunderhead had come flying fast over the ridge to instantly eclipse my world. I was, essentially and all of a sudden, deeply depressed. In retrospect, I wonder if I didn’t weep. Must have blinked through my tears because I did move forward out of the flat scrub and into the edge of the forest there.

A girl. Maybe in her middle teens. She wore a white sleeveless blouse, bedazzled with large dark violet flowers, fanciful orchids or gardenias, which was knotted just above her navel. A denim skirt came down not quite to her knees. Barefoot. Her feet pointed outward in a kind of loose relevé, like some ballet dancer frozen in the classic first position. Her wavy hair was brushed neatly, elegantly, over her shoulders, as if she were going to a party. She was hanged with a rope about her neck, not swaying in any breeze, but as dead still as a plumb stone. Her face bore an unaccountably serene, unforgiving half-smile. Her pale, quite colorless eyes stared straight ahead. She seemed somehow familiar, but that couldn’t be right.

For one last moment of hope I thought, No, this was a doll. A horrific and perfectly wrought wax figurine. Lifelike to a fault. Its martyrdom here was ceremonial. Some sort of devil worship or maybe a terrible practical joke. Prankster drugged-up teens from a nearby town with nothing better to do than hold a sick ritual, a hazing in the middle of nowhere. Then I looked once more at the ashen face. This was no mannequin, no lifelike dummy. She was none other than a girl who was alive probably last week, maybe yesterday, and wasn’t alive now.

I couldn’t help myself. I wasn’t thinking. I should have left her alone. Shouldn’t have touched anything. It was a crime scene, after all. Instead, I went and embraced her. She was light as a dried cornstalk. A shed skin. Wasn’t cold or warm. I held her in my arms and told her I was sorry, that I wished with all my heart I could have helped her.

Only after a moment of standing there whispering these words did it dawn on me that I myself might be in danger. Averting my eyes from the girl, I backed away from the woods toward the clearing a little. Numb, I studied the shadows shuffling across the ground. The outcroppings of glacial schist that jutted up here and there. The thin pools of standing water left from last night’s rain.

Last night’s rain. Her clothing was neat and dry, which meant her hanging happened sometime this morning. I was seized by the sickening prospect that someone was nearby taking me in, deciding how to deal with this unexpected, unwelcome intrusion. Like him, or them, I needed to think what to do. Slowly, in a quivering whisper, I began to spell the word patience backward. One of Nep’s many quaint and sane methods for clearing the mind before beginning to dowse. But this was not a usual divining, and I didn’t make it through all the letters before realizing that the immediate world had gone quiet. It would have been comforting to hear some birdcall. No air moved through the trees to rustle their budded limbs and first leaves. Gone were the tree frogs’ peepings I had heard. The dark tide of feeling that had engulfed me before now switched into another register. I became alert and focused and oddly unfeeling.

A hasty breeze arose. The highest branches of the trees creaked like rusty harrow tines. I turned in place and looked back the way I had come. A narrow path to the south of the scrub flat, which I hadn’t noticed before, led through the thick growth toward a copse of cherries and ironwood beyond. Deer trail, I guessed, nothing to do with this girl. I turned to face her again. What unspeakable terror she must have experienced. Yet it didn’t look like she had struggled. She appeared shocked and forlorn, yet so eerily serene. Which was more or less how I felt, though not serene but rather momentarily emptied, blank. Seemed as if I should apologize to her once more, this time for having to leave her here alone. Her feet were only a stool’s height from the ground carpeted with last year’s dead leaves and long creeping lovely ribbons of staghorn clubmoss. Curious how the ground around her appeared completely undisturbed. As if she’d been put here by some creature with wings.