Cover Her Body: A Singular Village Mystery
03 May 1833
Ropes creaked as Adelaide slid off the bed and waited, clutching herself in the cold. In the cradle next to the bed, her infant puckered her lips and let out a sigh before sinking back into sleep. Benjamin’s side of the bed remained empty. Had he even returned during the night?
Adelaide grabbed her dress from the hook on the wall, pulled it over her head, and moved on stocking feet through the cabin, her hem whispering across the wood plank floor. With a glance up the stairs where her sister slept, she bent to button her shoes, then snatched her shawl off a peg and slipped outside.
The air hung heavy with moisture from last night’s storm. Apple blossoms littered the ground by the door, their scent cloying. Nothing stirred. Good. If she hurried she might have just enough time to herself before the workday began.
A fleeting sensation of guilt washed over her. No good Separatist would sneak out for an unsanctioned outing.
With a shrug, she looped her shawl across her chest, grasped her skirts, and plunged down the hill, her feet moving silently over the rough cinders. She hurried past Benjamin’s cabinet shop and the blacksmith shop next to it, around the store and dairy, continuing on the path into the woods. She didn’t need the moonlight nor a lantern to guide her way. The sound of rushing water hidden below the hill drew her to a favored spot.
She skidded to a stop.
The willow tree—her tree—lay sprawled in the water, its branches flailing about in the raging water. She sank onto a boulder to the side, and shut her eyes against the image. No longer would the tree shield her from the prying eyes of her community. Only naked spikes of its stump remained.
A cock crowed in the distance.
The river roared downstream and splattered foam on the boulder. Adelaide tucked her skirt around her ankles, hugged her knees to her chest, and rocked back and forth. The quarrel she’d had with Benjamin the night before lingered in her mouth like the taste of an unripe persimmon.
Her eyes wandered over the surface of the water, pausing on a white object bobbing in the darkness. Blue fabric trailed in the current. Her mind worked to make sense of the sight until horror plunged through her, tightening her throat.
It was a hand. A girl’s hand.
A wave splashed over the body and twisted it loose to bob beneath the water and spring up again. Only a strand of tangled hair tethered to a branch kept her from plummeting downstream. If she left to get someone, the girl might be gone. She couldn’t let the river take her.
Adelaide hiked up her skirts and plunged into the water, the cold sucking her breath. She struggled for a few steps, but her shoes filled with water, and she tumbled forward. The panic she’d felt all those years ago when the boys had tossed her into the river came back with a rush. She flailed about, gulping dirt-choked water, her arms splashing uselessly.
At last her feet touched bottom. She pushed against it, sprang to the surface, and grabbed onto the body, its buoyancy keeping them both afloat. She spit out muddy water and jerked the girl’s hair loose from its tangle. Her churning legs steered them forward until the girl’s head bumped into the bank.
She slipped off the corpse and stood in the waist-high water, shivering as a gust of wind rose from the river. Her sodden clothing clung to her small frame, the wet-wool smell of her shawl tangled around her neck choking her. Adelaide bent down and turned the body toward her.
Johanna. She stared at the open eyes of her friends’ beloved daughter as water washed over the girl’s face. Her knees buckled as a vision of her own precious baby rose in her mind. She clutched Johanna to her breast and rocked back and forth, the chill forgotten. Whatever would Helga do when she learned of another daughter’s death?
The wind picked up, and a wave splattered them. Joanna’s lifeless arms flapped about, slapping her with icy hands. She’s so cold, poor child. I have to get her out. She groaned as she lifted the water-logged body farther up onto the bank. A whoosh of air escaped from Johanna’s lips.
Air? No water?
She tugged again. Only a dribble escaped the girl’s lips. Puzzled, she rolled Johanna over gently. The skin on the girl’s colorless face seemed as if it had been molded out of paraffin. Adelaide reached over and closed her eyes.
A voice from above cut through her. “Was machst Du?”
♦ ♦ ♦
Benjamin ran his hand across the top of the wooden chest with practiced precision, trusting his fingers to tell him if the surface was smooth enough. The lantern pegged on the wall yielded scant light, and wispy haze clogged the view through the cabinet shop’s one window. Dissatisfied, he took up a plane and scraped it across the top, tendrils of wood curling in its wake. The reassuring scent of fresh shavings lingered in the crisp air. Once again he examined his work, fingers searching for exposed grain. Better. Still some rough edges.
Dust rose in the air and settled on his shoulders. He brushed it off his smock but only managed to rub it into the cloth. He sighed. So much left to do on the Cleveland man’s order and only a week to finish.
The door slammed open, the lantern bobbing on its hook. He whirled at the interruption as young Emmett, pink-cheeked and black hair disheveled, sputtered, “Herr Bechtmann, there’s a body in the river.” He sank to his knees, his breath coming in spurts.
Fear clutched his throat as he grabbed the boy by his suspenders and pulled him to his feet. “Who? Who is it?”
Emmett’s head jerked about as Benjamin shook him. “I don’t know,” he stammered. “Herr Guenther just told me to get you.”
He shoved the frightened boy aside and fled out the door. If anything happened to her. . . .
He ignored several men who yelled to him as he sped down the hill, boots sliding on dew-covered grass. His heel caught on a tuft of grass and sent him stumbling, but he caught himself and continued to charge ahead, thoughts of Adelaide holding him upright.
Whyever hadn’t he stopped her from going to the river? Alone. By herself. A verboten pleasure denied the Separatists. Admittedly difficult, redemption required constant vigilance, and self-denial was the bedrock of their beliefs. Why couldn’t she understand? They had to follow the rules. Everyone did.
He crested the hill, fear numbing his limbs, and scanned the group gathered by the banks of the river. There she was. Water-drenched, shivering, her cap awry, but alive. Seeing him,
Adelaide ducked her head, shoulders hunched against the cold, her feet flying toward him. He crushed her to him, relief flowing out of him like the water from her clothes that pooled at their feet. He buried his head in her hair that smelled of river and fish and rotted wood, and he didn’t care.
“I thought,” he choked. “They said a body in the river—”
She stuttered, but he drew her closer. “It doesn’t matter now,” he murmured into her neck.
Footsteps crunched on the path behind them. Martin Guenther, the cow boss, stomped his staff into the ground and grasped it with burly hands as he caught his breath. His beefy, bullnecked body towered over them. “I need a coffin built.”
“It was Johanna, Johanna Appelgate,” she told him.
He felt the blood drain from his head. Not Johanna.
She stared at him, her face tilted in puzzlement. Auburn curls plastered against her face, green eyes confused. How could she understand his pain?
Raised in the Appelgate’s household along with their many children, he had thought of Johanna as an almost sister, more beloved than any of the others because of her impish ways and adoring blue eyes.
“It couldn’t be,” he said, shaking his head. She’s so alive, so forceful, so strong. “I’m sure you’re wrong.”
She laid a hand on his arm. “Benjamin, I pulled her out of the water. It’s her. I’m so sorry.”
He stared down at his wife, and her face told him she spoke the truth. “But how?” he asked them both. “And why?”
“Comes from giving the girls so much freedom,” Martin said. Black hair flopped in his face, and he swiped it back with a practiced motion. “I try to tell them—”
“Tell them what?” Adelaide asked. “Not to be themselves, to catch a bit of fun whenever they can? They’re innocent children. What are they supposed to do?”
“Humph. They’re—we’re—all sinners, even children.” He spit on the ground. “And I need that coffin before nightfall,” he told Benjamin.
“Today?” Adelaide slammed her hands on her hips. “What about her parents? No time to mourn her? Is that what they want?”
“They have no say.” He yanked his staff out of the ground. “She’s mine to decide.”
“I thought Ilse Forster supervised the dairy maids,” Adelaide argued. “Doesn’t she have anything to say about it?”
“My decision,” Martin said.
He gritted his teeth. Johanna, so laughing, so teasing, always able to cheer him whenever he thought of his own lost family. Just last night she’d tried to talk to him but he’d turned away. Her body ripe with womanhood had surprised him, and when she’d tried to tell him her secret, he couldn’t bear it.
Now it was too late. But he wouldn’t let Martin see his grief. “As soon as I can get some walnut,” he said, fingers clutched in Adelaide hair.
“Don’t wait for that. I want her buried by evening. And you,” he said to Adelaide. “You best be readying the body.”
“Nathan and Helga,” Adelaide said, her voice shaking. “We have to tell them. I can’t imagine. . . .”
Martin flapped a hand toward her. “I’ll handle it.”
“We must go to Nellie,” Adelaide said, heading toward their cabin. “No telling what this will do to her.”