Sleuths

Ohio Magazine November 1989

We needed a mystery, my sister and I, and so we went looking for one. That year we discovered the Nancy Drew series of mystery books, and the remarkable word sleuth entered our vocabulary. We read the books after school and during recess. Though we weren’t allowed to read during meals, we took the books to the dinner table and read until every glass of milk had been poured and poured again, every conceivable condiment requested, and simple good manners dictated the meal must begin. We read them at night under the covers with a flashlight passed back and forth between the beds. There were fifty-six books in the series, and we had to finish them all: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery — every book ended with the mention of yet another mystery that would challenge the young sleuth next.

And here we were, two reasonably good students at Westgate Elementary School in Cadiz, Ohio, age seven and nine, utterly obsessed with, and available for, detective work, and no mysteries presented themselves the way they seemed to seek out Nancy Drew. With the school year ending, we had one goal only: to find a mystery, and solve it before summer’s end.

No longer were rides on the orange Hillcrest Dairy truck, with its van doors open on both sides and the sweating crates of bottled milk rattling in the back, thrill enough for a summer day. That year the Fourth of July fireworks at the drive-in movie, a highlight of summers past, seemed just a display of colored noise. Marcia and I knew no credible sleuth would be seen in her pajamas in the back seat of the family station wagon, watching a Fred MacMurray Disney movie.

By mid-summer no mystery had presented itself. As I did with most things then, I asked our father for advice.

“Is there a mystery in our house?” I said one evening, hoping he could supply one the way he furnished us with a badminton set or shelves for our room.

“Well,” and he was respectful in his tone of voice, “there is this noise at night on the roof. I’m not sure what it is, a little tapping sound…”

“Probably a squirrel,” Marcia said despairingly, when I brought her this modest clue. We’d spent the morning flattening ourselves against the wall in our bedroom, pretending our very breaths could give us away to someone who required our demise. Even in daylight one of us carried a flashlight. As we prowled the backyard and the woods behind our house, shining the light under the garage eaves or into the thick green of the mulberry tree, the faintest and most familiar sounds could signal us to freeze in our tracks. We were so ready for a mystery, and my sister was the readiest of all.

For some time she’d been engaged in small acts of everyday heroism, beginning with me and the cold. She knew I hated it, and dreaded the walk home from Westgate Elementary on days of high wind and a wet, penetrating chill. She waited for me after school for the walk down Cunningham Avenue. Then, when we reached the bottom of our lane, a treeless, open space where the wind was the worst, she handed me her scarf and walked in front me until we got to the house. She was equal to any heroine, I thought, with her straight back and her long chestnut hair tangling in the wind. The reddened, stinging ears and chapped lips and cheeks I suffered she wore like emblems of courage. Where was the mystery she deserved?

In desperation, I turned to the Cadiz Public Library. I’m not sure I expected to find “Mysteries — Unsolved” in the card catalogue, but in the past kind librarians there had patiently found me books on whatever currently engrossed me: Greek mythology, the solar system, a copy of Clara Barton, First Woman Nurse. What they found this time was a pamphlet about “haunts and superstitions” in the Buckeye Hills, and I took home to my sister the story of ghosts said to haunt Lady Bend Hill, along U.S. 40 near St. Clairsville.

Marcia was lying under the grape arbor, chewing a blade of grass while she endured my rather vague retelling of the young woman in olden times who had left her house in a fury one night and took off in a horse-drawn carriage toward the dangerously steep hill. A thunderstorm came, the frightened horse panicked, and all went tumbling over the hillside.

“Marcia, are you listening?”

“I’m listening.”

But she wasn’t really listening, not in her excited way, when she tapped her toes and drummed her fingers and virtually willed you to finish quickly so she could begin to sleuth. I finished lamely, trying to make myself excited about the observation that, especially during thunderstorms, sad cries are heard from the ghost of the furious driver on Lady Bend Hill.

“So? I asked, somewhat defiantly.

“So what?”

“What about the mystery?”

“That’s not a mystery,” she said wearily, sitting up to face my disappointment. “That‘s a legend.”

The hottest days of August arrived, and still we had no mystery. Marcia had taken to brooding alone by the Orange Creek behind our house, and her solitude and moodiness made her irresistible to my friends. They professed to be coming to visit me, but after fifteen minutes or so they would begin asking if she were around. They knew we could find her down by the creek stained orange from a strip pit pond, poking in the water with the green end of a cattail. Sometimes we just stood on the hill above and watched her staring into the water, already as mysterious as any fourth grader could be.

When I had almost given up finding a mystery; when finally even a friend’s hobby of collecting salamanders began to seem a decent respite from the summer’s boredom, my sister found us a mystery. Perhaps she was goaded by my developing interest in the Northern Red, the Slimy, the Red-backed, the Northern Dusky, the Long-Tailed and the Two-Lined species of amphibian my young male friend from down the lane had been uncovering all over Harrison County. But she abruptly ceased her brooding at the Orange Creek, and in the last week of August she presented me with our first real clue.

She said she found it in the grandfather clock in our living room. We’d opened that clock earlier in the summer, figuring that Nancy Drew’s first case had been The Secret of the Old Clock, and that our luck might begin there, too. The clock had belonged to a Mrs. Cope, who sold our parents the 1837 farmhouse and who decided, after the papers were signed, that she would like to have the white enamel sink in the kitchen, after all. So she traded the sink for the grandfather clock. Its weights were filled with birdshot, and in the upper right-hand corner of the clock face hung a black and gold moon and star — mysterious to us even before we began reading Nancy Drew.

But Marcia said we’d missed a folded piece of paper wedged behind the pendulum. The square of paper, unlined and burned around the edges, was encrusted with patches of dried earth. The pen markings were faint, but the paper appeared to be a map.

“Don’t you see, that’s a fence,” Marcia pointed out, tracing the triple lines at the top of the page. “It could be, I’m not sure, Art Wallace’s fence in front of our house. And here,” she pointed to a faint circle above two parallel lines, “here is where something is buried, probably off our driveway, beside the garage.”

I was mute with awe.

It was early evening. We were sitting on the front porch steps alternately counting the earliest fireflies out loud and whispering about the mystery. I was trying not to shiver, trying to concentrate on the familiar background noise of the television set and dishes being washed in the kitchen. Who else knew about the map? Did the elderly woman who sold us the house have a son who might come back? By now the prospect of solving the mystery had me paralyzed with fear, as did most adult projects of any sort.

“Let’s start digging,” Marcia said, clicking the flashlight on and off. But I stopped her with what was always my first instinct in matters of grave importance.

“Let’s tell Dad first,” I insisted. “This could be dangerous.”

“But we’re just going to dig.”

“But we don’t know what for.”

“So what? Let’s find out.”

It was impossible for me to imagine that something as important as a mystery should not be brought to our father’s immediate attention. We argued another hour, remained quiet through Huntley Brinkley, then began again after Wyatt Earp. It was overwhelming to me, the magnitude of adult responsibility we’d been handed: an actual mystery. I was determined to go to Dad at bedtime and tell him everything.

“Don’t do that,” Marcia said quietly. “If you do that, there isn’t a mystery.”

“But we’ve got a map.”

“I drew the map.”

“But it’s old.”

But it wasn’t. She had used our mother’s good vellum paper for writing thank you notes, buried her map under a thin layer of dirt for a night in the rain, and dropped it into the toaster for a little searing of the edges. She was planning to put a silver dollar she’d been given for New Year’s in the scooped-out space she dug by the garage, and to bury another map. Before I shattered what was by then our mutual faith — mutual because my sister was always capable of utterly believing in whatever fictions she created — there might have been endless hours of discussion and practice sleuthing, of exquisite anticipation mingled with a frisson of danger. Angry as I was, I began to regret I had provoked her into telling the truth.

Soon enough September came, and our parents lined up my two sisters and me to have our first-day-of-school picture taken. In the photograph we’re wearing new plaid dresses and carry freshly sharpened pencils that slide into our ringed notebooks. Andrea is still the tallest, I am the youngest, and Marcia the sleepiest-looking from the kinds of nights she has: up late reading Sherlock Holmes, who, she says, puts Nancy Drew to shame. My answer is to insist I prefer rest to mysteries, and go to sleep facing the wall.

For years I try to share her new passions, to love quarterhorses and West Side Story and John Lennon and modern dance lessons. But at fifteen she chooses to attend the Mount de Chantal Academy for Girls in Wheeling, West Virginia, and I am not brave enough to follow her there. Where is the mystery she deserved?

I hoped she would find it in Wheeling, and in Cleveland and Washington and Atlanta and San Francisco, all places she has lived since we’ve grown up. She has traveled to Europe and China and Mexico and driven across the United States, too. But the day she pulled away in the family station wagon for boarding school, with half the contents of our room piled high in the back, I knew it was my sister who was the mystery, braver in that moment than all the times she had walked before me down Cope’s Lane, fending off the wind.