Sara Biggs Chaney
You are standing in a kitchen. You are here because someone is dead or about to be dead. You hope someone isn't you. You hope to close the investigation quickly.
At first look, the kitchen appears unused. The yellow linoleum countertops are bare. No stray crumb. No still-smeared butter dish. No coffee mug in the chrome sink. No flecks of gristle in the drain.
Lined up at the counter's edge, a collection of mismatched souvenirs, tattered and scratched. Maybe picked up at the Salvation Army? More likely, dug out of the basement. Definitely out of place in such a lifeless house.
You take inventory of the objects:
Two stained travel mugs, both reading "University of Denver," both missing their lids.
An empty wicker basket, shaped like a cone. The kind used for centerpieces at Thanksgiving. What are they called? Horns of plenty.
A napkin holder made of cheap tin, its outside printed with pictures of little cartoon girls—maybe Betty and Veronica? You can't quite tell.
A cracked wooden peppershaker, the kind you might see on the table at a Cracker Barrel. Or more likely at a garage sale. Marked: "MISSING ITS PARTNER. 25 CENTS OR BEST OFFER."
You move to turn on the kitchen light, but the switch doesn't work, so you have to pull the string under the ceiling fan. The fan spins faster than you expected (though you aren't sure why you had expectations in this case at all, having never been inside this room before, having never been inside this house). You stutter step backward. For some reason, you take a minute to secure the buttons at the v tips of your oxford collar. You notice that the fan's bulb is more brown than white. It knocks on your retina, unnerving as a stranger who calls you by your proper name.
Once your eyes adjust, you see that someone has wound a shiny black ribbon around the objects on the countertop. The kind with a metallic sheen, normally used for wrapping gifts. Someone knotted the ribbon around the handle of one travel mug, then noosed it twice around the other. From there they braided it through the horn of plenty's brittle branches (and did so with great care, you notice, so as to keep the ribbon from becoming tangled in itself). Then someone, likely the same someone, has lain the ribbon carefully against the bottom of the napkin holder, using bobby pins to secure it in an S shape on each side. Finally this someone has wound the ribbon tight around the peppershaker and tied it with a constrictor knot at the top. The knot has been tightened into a tiny X, and you know that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to untie.
You become absorbed in running your fingers over the constrictor knot. The puzzle of it all has snared you. Part menace, part message, part meaningless art installation. Who devotes such craft to trivial objects? Who wraps a wedding gift with black ribbon?
You have been so distracted that you fail to notice what's been placed beneath the unused objects—a flat, brown circle made of what feels like durable cardboard. About the width of both your hands, placed side by side. You ease it out from under the napkin holder and turn it over.
On the underside of the circle, you see two blue peacocks coiled around each other on a red nest that looks like two petals or an open book. Their symmetrical tail feathers curve inward beneath the book nest to create the impression of a heart. You know the symbol, from the Pennsylvania Dutch. This is a hex sign, meant to symbolize a happy marriage and a peaceful household. Considered a fine gift for newlyweds.
Though you still want to believe that you have never been here before, somehow, you know now that the basement door is four steps beyond the kitchen, and you know that when you open that door and descend the stairs you'll find a woman waiting for you. Maybe she will be sitting in a cracked leather chair, watching you with half slit eyes. Or maybe she will be standing with her back to you and her face to the window.
One of her hands will be gripping a mess of black ribbon. What will she have in the other hand? A paring knife? A hypodermic needle? A semi-automatic pistol? A poisoned dart? You don't know for sure. But you understand that her time is running out, and she understands the same thing about you. In fact, she's had her own investigation under way. She's ready now to close her case.
You pull your gun, take four long steps, and open the basement door.
Sara Biggs Chaney
received her Ph.D. in English in 2008 and currently teaches first-year and upper-level writing courses in Dartmouth's Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Her second chapbook, Ann Coulter's Letter to the Young Poets
, was released from dancing girl press
in November, 2014. Sara's poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, RHINO, [PANK], Thrush Poetry Journal and other places.