Kate Ristow

The Wooden Lady

The wooden lady was missing.

“We can’t go on without her,” the fishermen wailed. But they weren’t really crying. They watched Nancy out of the corners of their eyes.

Bess and I stood by, literally twiddling our thumbs. Nancy was nodding, asking the usual questions. When was the last time they’d seen her? (Nailed to the front of the ship). What was she wearing? (Nothing). Nancy had her head down. She was writing something in her notebook. I looked over her shoulder to see what it was. But it was nothing. The usual spirals and hexagons. Girl doodles. “Shit,” I said, under my breath. I nudged Bess. Bess nodded, sighed, offered me a quarter of her Butterfinger. The fishermen circled. We all got dizzy. They were so tired, they said. They hadn’t slept in days.

People in our town really loved fish. They wanted fish at all hours of the day, and they wanted it to be: fresh, wild-caught, mercury/conflict free etc. Superfoods, they said. Omegas, they said. Give us our Omegas. They were like zombies, walking the docks, reaching for shrimp with their bare hands.

“We love you, Nancy,” the fishermen said. Their eyes were glassy. Were they drunk?

Probably. Everyone knew the fishermen lived rough. It was the wooden lady who had guided them through storm and darkness. Who remained silent, smiling into the air, naked and arched, even in the rain.

“We could all learn a thing or two from the wooden lady,” said the mayor.    “Especially you.” He pointed at Darcy Baker, the lesbian who was on her 5th unsuccessful run for County Commissioner.

Nancy returned her notebook to her purse and let the fishermen rest their heads on her chest. “Now, now,” she said. “There, there.” She smiled, but not too much. Braces. We all had them and had learned how to smile without any teeth. But it wasn’t just the braces. Nancy looked tired, like the weight of those big, dark heads might push her right off the edge of the dock. Lately she’d been falling asleep at inopportune moments: in Algebra II, standing in line at the grocery store, during football games when she was supposed to be waving from the back of a float. The doctors suspected anemia. “Get some rest,” they winked. “When it’s that time of the month eat a steak, extra rare. We’re buying.”

The fishermen sighed a shuddering, collective sigh. They really were sad. Homesick, probably. Unlike Nancy, they had mothers. Sweet old mothers with candy bowls and church. But those mothers were far away. They didn’t know what their sons did in the dark of night because they didn’t ask. Let’s keep it that way, thought everyone.

Nancy’s fingers were strong and graceful and white. She could have been a mother herself. The men in town were lining up to make that happen. “Hey, Nancy,” they said. They wrung their fingers into complicated knots.

“I’m only sixteen,” said Nancy.

“That’s so great,” said the men.

The boat was called the Poet’s Revenge. I rolled my eyes. Bess made the universal sign of gagging. It was the last boat on the dock.

Nancy examined the front. The rough openness of the bow. She furrowed her pretty brow and tapped a pencil on her chin. We looked inside the boat, took our little tape recorders out a couple of times, put some random things into plastic bags. But all of this was just for show. Already a small crowd had gathered to watch us work.

“Not to worry,” concluded Nancy. But when the fishermen weren’t looking she pressed her nose against the boat and smelled the stain of the wooden lady’s blood.

We followed the clues down the dock to the shore: a footprint here, a cigarette butt there. A scrap of paper, cut to the size of a business card that said:

WOODEN LADY

POET’S REVENGE, SLIP # 777

Ph.360-378-1222

C. 360-378-1333

She wasn’t very discreet. But then, who was anymore? Soon everyone would be able to solve their own mysteries and it would be no more young detectives for us. Bess and I would probably go to the State U after graduation. But we worried about Nancy. Her father had taken off on some Astronomy cruise. “I can’t stand to look at you,” he’d wept before boarding the boat. “You are so much like your mother: your face, your eyes, the way you talk and think.” He took his sunglasses off and wiped his tears with the end of Nancy’s braid. That was five years ago. She was eleven years old. Now it was just Nancy and the housekeeper, plus her dead mother’s immortal cats. They all lived together in this old Victorian up Blair Hill. It basically couldn’t have been more depressing. It was no wonder she worked so much.

We walked along the beach to a small cove. A year or so ago the tides had shifted and weird foreign debris had started to wash up on the beach. The seagulls were eating the trash, then dying which everyone agreed was fine. But despite all the Styrofoam and the paint cans, and the cracked up pieces of furniture the wooden lady was not well-hidden. She was lying on her back, tanning, reading a waterlogged Danielle Steele novel and eating oysters. The shells were piled around her like stacks of cards. Her breasts were rubbed so smooth that the nipples were gone. We put our arms over our chests. It hurt, just looking at her.

Nancy tiptoed up behind her. “Found you,” she said. The crowd, who had grown substantially, clapped.

“Wow,” said the wooden lady. “Amazing.” She blinked her eyes. “Sleuthy as promised.”

Nancy sat down beside her. “What a view!” she exclaimed. “Are those whales?” She shielded her eyes against the sun. But we could see she was frowning. There was something out there that she didn’t like.

“So,” the wooden lady blinked. “What are you looking for?”

“You,” said Nancy.

“No, really.”

This is where things always got awkward. Nancy didn’t like the Big Questions. Last year some up and coming reporter from the mainland came to town. She wanted to get inside Nancy’s head, tell some kind of true story. But Nancy wouldn’t talk. When she saw the reporter coming up the driveway in her rental car she locked the housekeeper and the cats in the bathroom, invited the lady in for Earl Grey and turned on the charm. In the end the reporter wrote a lifestyle piece for Better Homes and Gardens. It focused on Nancy’s mother’s impressive collection of antique lace.

Sometimes, while lying in the dark on her bedroom floor, the pictures of her mother staring down at us, the cats covering our feet, we said things like: “So, Nancy, what was your mom like?” But she always pretended to be asleep, snoring suddenly through her perfect nose. We went to sleep listening to the wind and the housekeeper, going through the silver with a toothbrush.

“Look,” she said when we came down in the morning. She held candlesticks up to our faces. “Can you see your reflections? Can you see yourselves?”

“Flippin’ Weirdo,” Bess and I said when we peeled out of the driveway. But the truth was, I could, and I didn’t particularly like what I saw.

 
 
“Ahem,” Nancy said. Her eyelids were getting heavy. Silence washed in with the waves and a new pile of trash. That was our cue. We approached the lady with our hands behind our backs—non-threatening.

“The fishermen need you,” we said, hushed and confidential, girlfriends style. “Can’t you hear them? They’ve been crying for days.”

“Ha,” said the wooden lady. “Hahahahahaha. I’ll tell you about crying. I’ve been nailed to the front of that boat for one hundred years. For sixty of those I haven’t bled.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Nancy. She was studying the skin above her knees. We could tell what she was thinking. How the heck were you supposed to keep your legs smooth when the hair wanted so badly to grow?

“Um, girls,” the police chief had said. “You do realize you are public figures? Role models for the next generation? Surely we pay you enough to buy razors.”

“That’s right,” said the Wooden Lady, sitting up, straightening her shoulders and chin like the Queen of England. “You don’t know what I mean. And it’s about time you figured it out.”

We used an empty Clorox bottle to rinse the sand from the wooden lady’s skin. We kneeled beside her and started braiding her hair. “You have the best hair, we said.” That was a lie. The wooden lady’s hair was stiff, inflexible, covered in seaweed and impossible to style.

“Yuck,” I mouthed to Bess.

The wooden lady rolled her eyes. But we could tell she liked the way our fingers felt on her scalp. She had her eyes closed and her chin tilted up, toward the sky.

Nancy, on the other hand, was pacing along the shoreline. Her heels kept getting stuck in the wet sand. Eventually she just kicked them right off, into the waves. They’d float off with the rest of the trash. Then, eventually, they’d come back.

“Who’s ready to celebrate?” she said and took a flask from her pocket.

We looked at eachother with concern. The crowd on the cliff gasped. Mothers covered the eyes of their children.

“It’s just cranberry juice,” slobbered Nancy. Her eyes were bright. Her cheeks red. She smiled so beautifully that the fish came to the surface of the sea.

 
 
Because you are wondering I will tell you the truth: there were times when I wanted to be Nancy. The tragedy of her, the beauty, the faraway look in her violet eyes. Nancy was a fairy tale in motion and I knew it. She could do pretty much anything she wanted. No curfew, no corny dad to introduce to boyfriends. “She’s really strong,” everyone said. “She’s really brave.” The church ladies were always praying for her, bringing her cookies and knitting her sweaters. Meanwhile I did my homework, adopted a new hairstyle, helped solve a mystery, slammed a couple of doors in our super-clean and comfortable ranch style home. I think I might be boring, I wrote in my diary. But I couldn’t even elaborate.

 
 
On the beach, the wooden lady put her hand out, grabbed the flask and took a long drink. “Cranberry juice, huh? That’s more like it.”

“So,” said Nancy. “I’m going to ask you a few questions. For example, how did you end up here?” She sat down on a piece of driftwood and wiped the mascara from under her eyes.

The wooden lady looked at the book in her hand and then threw it in a pile of seaweed and rope. “Well,” she said. “One of them took me to prom. Another one got me pregnant. The third one married me in a chapel.”

“How nice,” said Nancy. “And was there dancing?” Her voice was hollow, husky. But she really did have impeccable manners.

“All three times. We danced until dawn and then we fell asleep.”

The townspeople smiled from the cliffside. This was a story they could get behind.

Nancy shook her head, blinked her eyes. She picked up a handful of rocks and tried to skip them. One after the next they fell to the bottom of the sea. Her arms moved angrily in their delicate sockets. “Fuck,” she screamed when the rocks fell, slow and deep to the ocean floor. “Fuck this.”

“Hey Nancy?” we said. “Everything OK?” We surrounded her. Took the rocks from her clenched up hands. This had been happening, lately. We were all a little angry. We were teenagers. But on Nancy the sudden fits of rage were harder to swallow. Once a year we had to sit through this boring PowerPoint about crime scene etiquette. “There are certain ways to behave,” the police chief said. “When on the job. Whatever you are feeling, deal with it. Go home; write poems in your diary, howl at the moon, paint your nails while eating pizza. Whatever you need to do to show up for work and act like ladies.”

“You’re okay,” we said, which was a lie.

Nancy’s hair had fallen from her headband and was covering her eyes.

“I would like to skip just this one fucking rock,” she whispered.

“That’s it,” said the wooden lady. “Let it out.”

“Shut-up,” we hissed.

The whale, or whatever it was, was floating belly-up. Dead or asleep, surrounded by trash.

“Sorry,” Nancy shuddered. She smoothed her headband over her hair, smiled, and reached in her pocket book for her lipstick.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with me,” she said.

 
 
And there were the times that I was really glad to not be Nancy. I’d watch her drive up the hill in her rusty convertible and then go home to my mother, who’d be making macaroni and cheese. She’d look at me with her whole face, like I’d done something amazing just for showing up. When I went to college she’d make curtains for my dorm room and cry and I’d pretend to be embarrassed but when she drove away I’d hold those curtains between my fingers and press them to my nose like they were the skin itself.

“No thanks,” said the wooden lady.

“I’d rather not use force.” Nancy flashed her official badge. The police chief had made it on his color printer, specifically for situations like this one.

“I’m just tired,” said the wooden lady. “Surely you understand?”

Nancy held out a pair of shimmering handcuffs. “Nope,” she said. “I don’t. Say, have you had any beef lately? Works wonders for me.”

“Beef.” The wooden lady had eyes that flashed, smooth and bright as the bark of a Madrona. “I bet.” She threw a wishing stone into the water. It skipped 25 times.

“Calm down,” said Nancy. She held the handcuffs.

“Is that what they tell you?”

In the distance, the fishermen howled a sad tune. We knew that one of them was a poet. Another a drummer in a jam band. The third was an actor. Sometimes, on still nights you could hear him reciting Shakespeare from all the way across the sound. We are sad, they sang. We are lonely and lost. What and for whom do we have to live for? Where is the light in the darkest of nights? One by one they fell to their knees, weeping into the sea until the waves grew swollen and restless.

“Good Lord,” said the wooden lady. “Listen to them. Is this some kind of open-mic?” She rolled over on her back, her body long, hairless and brown. She had her arms above her head.

Hands up, I thought, and looked away.

“I’m sorry,” Nancy whispered. The crowd leaned forward, trying to hear. A couple of people stumbled and rolled down the cliff.

Bess and I looked at each other. “Shit,” whispered Bess.

“Hands up,” said Nancy, all business. We relaxed.

“They already are,” said the wooden lady.

Nancy closed her eyes and turned the key. We carried the wooden lady back to the ship. She squirmed and thrashed, but we were strong. We held on.

“I don’t agree with what you’re doing right now,” she said. “But I don’t blame you and I know that someday you’ll be sorry.”

Nancy put her sunglasses on. “Help me lift her,” she said. So we did.

When Nancy nailed the wooden lady back in place everyone cheered. But Nancy hid her face behind her hair. The waves grew calm and flat and the fish swam easily into the nets. It was true that the wooden lady didn’t bleed when the nails pierced her skin. It was true that the only thing that came out of those holes was saltwater and air.

The townspeople were dancing down the docks. Someone had an accordion, someone had a flute. There was even a little kid riding a miniature horse.

“What the?” I said.

“Omegas,” they yelled. They threw twenties at the boat, and at Nancy. They were so hungry. Thank God, nobody saw the way Nancy looked at the wooden lady, laid her head between the breasts, loosened the nails that she’d only just secured.

“She’s going to cost us our jobs,” said Bess. “One of these days, she’s going to cost us our jobs. How will I pay for college then?”

Nancy reached into the glittering sea and took out a handful of a fish. She put them in her purse. For the cats, we knew. She only fed them the best food. Then she turned and walked up the dock, purse wriggling with the motion of the fish inside, her feet bare and a little bloody. She left pink prints on the dock. I followed her, trying to scuff out the marks with the toe of my tennis shoes. I turned around, but by then, the wooden lady was doing the crawl, headed towards Canada. But I’m pretty sure she waved at me. Thank God, nobody saw.

 

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Kate Ristow has published fiction in The Sonora Review and The Coe Review, among other places. She lives in Hailey, ID with her husband and daughter.