Alma died in her tidy New York home shortly after 5pm on October 17th, before the news came on but after the daytime talk shows ended. No one noticed that they were short one Alma Perch, aged sixty-five, quiet librarian and widow of Melvin Perch, a mild-mannered ornithologist who discovered a rare type of pigeon in the late eighties. This discovery brought him mild academic fame but nobody was really that impressed: this impacted nothing, and the general consensus was that the Perch Pigeon was going to shit on your car no matter what. Still, the Perch family was well liked and the neighbors mourned Alma once they realized she’d left them.
The coroner said he’d never seen anything like it and refused to talk about the Perch case to anyone after the investigation was over. After signing her death certificate, he offered his resignation and moved to Connecticut to open a rare book shop. The funeral director in charge of Alma’s remains took an early retirement soon after her funeral. His bewildered sons sold the business and reported that their father was sailing around the world in a cruiser with sails that snapped happily in the wind. Alma’s death was recorded as natural and listed as heart failure. Everyone involved agreed that the body be cremated. It was just too weird.
She was found on November 4th by a trustee of the library who was concerned when Alma didn’t show up for two weeks and didn’t answer her phone. There was no bloated corpse lying in sweet repose, squishily leaking into the arm chair, no malodorous stench clinging to the curtains and the carpet. Alma sat with her hands in her lap and her head leaning back, resting lightly on the upholstery. She was cold—her skin a creamy white under all the blue—and papery dry. Rigor mortis had come and gone and despite the anomalies, she looked quite alive. The trustee, Bertie St. Louis, gingerly reached out to touch Alma’s neat hair, knowing full well the old girl was gone. The house had that air about it; it ached with the stillness that comes to a room when there are no heartbeats reverberating across the walls. Alma’s head lulled to the side with a quiet rustle and Bertie began to scream—long, high-pitched and theatrical. For years afterward, Bertie recounted the story of Finding Alma Perch to her new friends in Atlantic City over neon-colored cocktails as the old girls cooed and clucked what-a-shame, tutting and ruffling their feathers as they exchanged other gruesome Help-I’ve-Fallen unfound moments: broken hips in the bathtub, toast smoldering in the kitchen while the air thickens around a small frail shape, fetal on the linoleum. It wasn’t like that for Alma. Bertie never bothered to explain that part, and just smiled sadly with a nod and a sip of her luridly colored drink and felt very much alive. Funny how death does that to a person.
John Schwartz, having lived a few houses down from Alma, was the first to respond to Bertie’s cries of shock and horror. A veteran of the police force for thirty years, John thought he’d seen everything. A year later, he would tell his new girlfriend (a pretty, tanned divorcée who he’d meet on “the computer”) all about the Alma Perch case, how her eyes still followed him sometimes, button-black and brimming with the unknowable. This story would earn him a busty, perfumed hug, and probably something more.
Foul play had been everyone’s first impression—they couldn’t figure that she would have done that to herself. After the investigation yielded no answers and the autopsy went down in morgue lore as “creepy as fuck”, the book was closed on poor Alma.
Alma’s heart was blackened and enlarged. There were abrasions in the tissue, fine and delicate, as if someone had scraped a needle over her heart—pinpricks and dashes and long jagged scrapes. Words. All of them looping one over the other. The doctor couldn’t explain how capillaries on her face had risen to the surface, delicate and spidery, working in intricate patterns across Alma’s fine creamy skin, epitaphs and sonnets written—each vein curling into a letter or ending a word.
The more they investigated, the more uneasy they all became for reasons that were too big to understand or explain but still hovered in the periphery of their lives until they gave up searching. It loomed, this giant thing: solid and undefinable in its presence but still frightening. Her bones were engraved, quick pen strokes over white silken tissues, they rippled with words. On her femurs were epics, with script flowing like ivy vines. Her clavicles, haikus of sunsets and leaves on the wind. On her ribs were poems of love and hate, of despair, triumph and regret. Her tiny stapes bone held only one small inscription, like a warning: listen. At the time of this discovery, a young medical student named Marcus who had been given the task of cataloguing Alma’s malady could almost hear her whisper it at the edge of his hearing, a little flicker of sound. There was no blood in her veins, but a deep blue-black tarry substance. A coldness crept up his neck and there were blotches of ink staining his lab coat, Rorschach-spattered and dark. He left her there—cracked open on the cold table, words and heart and brain exposed to the world—and walked away. That hovering feeling, that looming, lessened with each squeak of his wingtips on the tile floor. Prayers and hosannas were drafted across her palms and journeys dictated on the soles of her feet—Marcus recited them to himself as he walked quickly towards the exit. He loosened his tie and kept walking, feet planted firmly west, where the mountains were, in the direction of the first one he would climb, swinging freely hand hold to foot hold, the sun on his back and his face to the stone.
Her teeth were the worst. Alma’s teeth had been smashed in, broken into jagged little barbs, and sharp splinters of them were found sprinkled down her neck and chest, coated with the same blue-black ink. The police wanted to believe that someone cracked her in the face with an inkwell. The coroner was determined to say it was drug related because he wasn’t a very creative man and the idea of drugs frightened him, as did Alma’s case, so he put two and two together just because they shared a common fear. Straws, of course. Something small and insignificant to grasp at. What they were ignoring, what they pretended none of them saw, was that her tongue had shrunk and sharpened to a point like a quill and was tipped black.
A forensic dentist they called in to look at Alma’s teeth promptly returned all the evidence including the molds, x-rays, and specimens, quit her job and moved to the mountains with her husband and young daughter to open up a ski lodge. When approached by a curious medical student several months later, the dentist wouldn’t speak to him but gave the phone to her three-year-old daughter who tortured the agonized student with her musings on children’s television programming and potty training until the demoralized young man hung up. He did not call again.
One thing the dentist never told anyone, not even her husband, was that she kept one of Alma Perch’s bicuspids: the smooth white enamel etched in as if with a laser, so small and fine the writing that it was almost invisible to the naked eye. But, after many impressions and enlargements and photographs it was all there just the same—a fragment of a sentence, just a half formed idea that struck her in a way she never understood. She kept the tooth in the bottom of her sock drawer in an old box that her business checks came in. Nobody ever knew. Her life unspooled before her in a happy and winding trail of seasonal ski rentals, late check-ins, her husband’s flushed cheeks after a cold day on the mountain, and her daughter’s sleeping form, one hand curled on a pink fluffy blanket and one wrapped around a stuffed moose.
Coronary artery disease was ruled out after Alma’s heart dried up. It crumbled away to a greasy pile of ashes when the coroner poked at it with tweezers. It was impossible to get a blood sample as all of the tarry ink had clogged in the tubing and hardened into sticky clots. The medical tools used to crack Alma’s sternum, to cut open her cranium, to drain the blood from her veins were blocked with the substance. It was decided the tools should be thrown out. Jessie, an intern with ghoulish curiosity, pocketed the hagedorn needle used to sew the skin back together over Alma’s ribs—one flap over the other like an envelope—and showed it to her friends one night when they were all young and vibrant and full of the possibilities of their innocence. All those involved that night passed the needle from one to the other, shaking it side to side in the plastic tube with frightened glee. One bold youth exclaimed he was going to open the container and examine the needle more closely. He did this with the hope of impressing Jessie. There were girlish squeaks of horrified delight and brave macho chuffing in amused disbelief. The young man popped the top off and slid the needle out into the palm of his hand. It rested there: innocuous and dull. A nervous titter bubbled up from Jessie’s throat and she felt uneasy in a wordless way. That needle was wrong, cursed maybe, infected, and she should have thrown it out with the other instruments. Panicked, she slapped the needle out of his hand only to pierce her own skin. Her friends watched, eyes alight with gruesome fascination as she plucked the needle from her finger tip. Would she fall asleep for a thousand years? Would her hand turn black and rot off? Would she begin foaming at the mouth and attack a nearby bar patron? They all tensed, readying to jump if they had to catch her, run from her, subdue her. She blinked for a moment and let the incredible itching sensation pass over her. Everything felt wrong. Her own skin didn’t fit. She did not belong at that bar, with those people, in that time or that place. Smiling, she slung her purse over her shoulder and waved a distracted goodbye. The young man who had held the needle looked stunned, she patted his shoulder absently as she walked past. Jessie didn’t feel the same way about him and didn’t want to lead him on. She twirled her car keys around her punctured finger tip and wondered if she could really make it as a painter. Years later, her haunting works centered around portraits of a dead woman would be selling for astronomical amounts and the art gallery patrons would be horrified and fixated by the delicate, haunting face of Alma Perch, immortalized forever in oils.
All of this information: the odd biological findings, the high emotions, the fear, was kept quiet when Bertie called Auggie Perch and told him his mother had died. If they had told Auggie about how they found her, they would have had answers to the frightening yet curious circumstances of Alma’s death. The town was half convinced there was a tattoo artist serial killer hunting their tidy suburban streets, ready to attack and mutilate with the deft whirrrrrrr of his tattoo gun. All Auggie had been told of his mother’s death was that they were pretty sure it was heart failure, but they couldn’t rule out foul play, but they didn’t have a suspect, and they’d accidentally cremated her.
On a rainy November afternoon Auggie Perch found himself outside his childhood home, his mother’s ashes in his hands and the cool ceramic of the urn warming by the heat of his palms. Inside the house he knew his father’s field work was still stacked neatly on the desk in his study, the prints from the Audubon Society still hung on the blue and white flowered wallpaper, the remote still rested on the coffee table between a dish of mints and the TV guide.
He fumbled for his keys and opened the door; cold rain dripped from the eaves down the back of his collar. He put Alma’s urn down gently on the kitchen counter and flicked on the hall light to begin the merciless hunt for her will.
Augie searched for the better part of the afternoon, but he found little more than the usual crumbs of a life: ticket stubs, dry cleaning receipts, match books, dusty buttons, mismatched earrings.
Augie had few regrets in a life that was spotless and smooth like a clear pane of glass. His parents were loving and good people; he was educated and good with money, so he took the next logical step and became a banker—making money not only for himself but many other people as well. It took him a very long time to realize his days felt like an empty and constant plod to nowhere. He knew he was alive in the way all of us know we’re alive: because people still expected him to do things. Nobody asks you for favors or expects you to do anything if you’re dead.
Sitting in his mother’s closet, these thoughts battered him, flapping their dark and slippery wings around his face. He moved clothes, packed boxes. Under the Christmas decorations was a small chest full of blank journals and notebooks. Their empty pages fluttered restlessly as he picked up the first one: red leather bound with a gold silk ribbon marking the first page. The inscription read:
The next one read the same save for the date and the others under it as well, some from his father, or aunt, or a library patron, the pages glowing with possibility and hope locked away in a gleaming trunk under a dusty blanket. He remembered then, with a clarity that hurt, the first time he realized he could write a sentence that would be read by other people. He was young, and very small for his age, sitting at the kitchen table with a yellow pencil clutched in his little fist and his toes swinging above the floor. He looked at the paper in front of him, at his craggy hesitant pencil strokes and mouthed the words he had written over and over again. Auggie looked at the small sentence; it was little like he was, and so unprotected in the world of words. He wanted to shield it from everyone, take it somewhere far away and plant it so the words could grow bigger. Alma had noticed him struggling and watched him sharply over the kitchen counter. She stirred a pot with no heed to the sauce slopping over the sides. Auggie thought long and hard about how vulnerable his words were and angrily tore the page out of his workbook and threw them into the trash. He thought he could hear the letters rattle at the bottom of the can as they slipped off the page. He put his head down on the table and cried. It wasn’t a skinned-knee, little boy cry, these were the tears of someone learning a lesson far too harsh at too young an age. Alma sighed and stopped stirring. She squatted down next to Auggie and nuzzled his shoulder.
“Mamma,” he said between sharp little sobs, “Mamma, there’s words in my heart but I don’t know how to let them out.”
“You’ll learn how, Auggie,” she said, stroking the wispy curls at the nape of his neck. “You’ll learn, baby.”
“But what if I don’t? What if I can’t?” he wailed, burying his face in her shoulder. She sighed and rocked him, saying nothing.
That memory folded over him like a blanket and suddenly the rumors all made sense. Unlike the rest of the town, Auggie had known his mother’s way with words. He could see the gentle but firm way her hand held a book, reverently and with awe. He also could have told them how white her face would become when forced to confront the blank page and a pen. Shopping lists terrified her. School excuses were petrifying. It fell to Melvin, in his blocky scientist scribble, to excuse Auggie from class or allow him to go on a field trip. A letter to the electric company was a windmill Alma Perch could not conquer.
Auggie always knew by the look in his mother’s eyes and the set of her jaw that there were worlds trapped inside her, struggling to get out: whole eternities that could not be spun out like celestial thread to hang the stars upon. No one understood, least of all Alma, that the words could not stay trapped forever and that it was a cleaner fate to let them out—stampeding out of the pen—than to keep and guard them. The words, they breed, become stories, lives, sunsets, universes.
No one could ever know the storm of them as they boiled under Alma’s heart when she couldn’t capture the sibilant hiss of the wind through new spring leaves or the gripping cold fear of the empty page. Alma never thought the story would write itself whether she wanted it to or not. A child coming into this world does not mean to bring death to its mother but birth must happen. So it was with Alma’s stories, forcing their way out, bursting into the world.
Some years later, after Alma’s house had been packed and sold, Auggie hiked to the summit of the nearest mountain and looked at the sweet green view of the valley. His hometown spread beneath him like an unfurled map. The library where Alma worked was tucked into the folds of the land like a bookmark in the middle of some grand novel. Auggie tipped the urn holding his mother’s ashes over the edge of the cliff. It did not surprise him when thousands of tiny pieces of paper flew out, soaked with ink and unreadable.