Farm Girl

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By Ed Staskus

When my mother Angele Jurgelaityte was born in January 1928, it snowed until it got too cold to snow anymore. By the end of the month the thermometer rose to ten degrees below zero. When it warmed up the first week of February and the snow melted, a half-foot of slush was left behind. The next week there was heavy rain and her father’s fields were left under water. If it froze there would be acres of ice rink.

“I was born in an area we called the New Farm, in Suvalkija,” said Angele.

Suvalkija is the smallest of the five regions of Lithuania. It is girdled by the Nemunas River to the north. The region’s identity was molded in the 19th century when it was a part of Congress Poland. Suvalkija was an agricultural area, generating substantial sugar beet harvests. Sugar beet yield in Lithuania was almost half what it was in the United States, even though the country is 151 times smaller than the United States.

“My father’s name was Jonas Jurgelaitis. My mother’s name was Julija. We lived on a small farm. It was three miles from Marijampole.”

Marijampole is in the far south of Lithuania, bordering Poland and Kaliningrad. Lake Vistytis is nearby. The town was a center of book spreaders and freedom fighters in the long struggle leading to the country’s independence in 1918.

Their farm was thirty-seven acres. The nearest neighbors were out of sight, even though they were hard by. Woodlands of Scots Pine and Norway Spruce and copses of Birch were scattered along the periphery of their land. Her father kept a pair of horses, three to four cows, chickens, and a sounder of swine. Every week he loaded 10-gallon 90-pound milk cans into his wagon and took them to a local dairy. Their croplands were mainly devoted to sugar beets, a cash crop, harvested in early autumn.

Suvalkija has less forest than any other part of Lithuania. It has been brought to bear for tillage. Kazlu Ruda, a large forest, nearly 230 square miles of it, is in Suvalkija, but it is on sandy soil that doesn’t work for farming.

Rye, wheat, and barley have been cultivated in Lithuania for two thousand years. Potatoes got rolling three hundred years ago. The country has always been able to sustain itself with foodstuffs. After gaining home rule from the Russians, land reforms in 1922 turned over ground suitable for the plow to tens of thousands of new landowners. Two years later the Academy of Agriculture was established to oversee land exploitation and management.

“My mother was tall and thin and pretty. She looked like a Romanian, even though she was born near where we lived. I didn’t look like her, at all. I looked like my father.”

Her mother gave birth to eleven children in less than twenty years. Six of them survived infancy. Those that did survived World War Two, the forty-six-year subsequent Soviet occupation, and lived to see Lithuania regain its freedom.

Justinas was the oldest boy, born in 1919. “Justinas would invite his friends, and girls, to our house in the summer for dancing, before he joined the army.” Irena and the boys Sigitas and Jozukas were the youngest. Jozukas, the tenderfoot of the family, was two years old in 1938.

Julija started suffering chest pains that year, losing her appetite and losing weight. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a major killer in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost ninety years later tuberculosis is still prominent in Lithuania, one of the most highly TB-burdened countries in the world, falling behind most nearby countries in the prevalence of the disease.

“She went to the sanitorium in Kaunas the next year and got better.”

When family responsibilities and the family’s finances called her back, she got worse. Angele helped with the housework and cooking. She kept up her schoolwork, kept up her chores, and with her two older brothers nursed their mother.

“Irena and I went to school in Gizai, which was less than a mile from our house. In the winter, when it was snowy, my father hitched one of the horses to a sled and took us there. I went for six years.”

The family farm was five miles from Marijampole. It was forty miles southwest from Kaunas, the country’s second largest city. Vilnius, the capital, home to nearly a half million, was eighty miles away. It might as well have been a million miles away.

“We all had to work on the farm, but my father did everything. We had to work, since we were poor.” There were no hired men or seasonal laborers. “I mixed feed for the pigs and fed them. We earned our money by growing sugar beets. Irena and I helped, but Sigitas and Jozukas were too small. We pulled them out of the ground in the fall and used a big knife to cut the leaves away. We threw them in a cart and when we had enough to fill our wagon, my father hitched the two horses and took the beets to Marijampole.”

The family home was a frame house, clapboard siding painted green, two stories, although the second story was only an attic for storage and for smoking pork.

“We had another small house, a small barn where we kept wood for the fireplace.” They sawed their own cordwood. “On the second floor, up a ladder, there was hay for the animals and rye and barley for bread. Justinas and Bronius slept in a room beneath the loft.”

A brick-lined jumper duct fed heat from the farmhouse fireplace to the barn. Still and all, in the winter the young men gathered their blankets up and warmed them before going to bed. In deep winter the nights are 17 hours long.

Lithuania is a flat fertile country overlooking the Baltic Sea. The summers are mild, and the days are long, but the winters are cold and dark. Temperatures often drop well below freezing. The ground is ice and snow-covered from December to mid-March.

“We had a dog, in a house next to the barn, whose name was Sargis.” Saugotis means beware, watch out. “He was our guard dog, always tied up, who barked whenever a stranger came near. We had cats, too, who killed the mice and rats who ate our grain. We never let them into the house, though, they were only for outside.”

Barn cats lead a rough life, hunting vermin in outbuildings and fields. They sleep where they can, stay warm if they can. Living feral, they don’t live long.

The family knew everyone in their neck of the woods. Everyone was wary of strangers. Although they had no immediate neighbors, her mother’s father, a tailor, lived nearby, and her father’s mother also lived within walking distance.

“Whenever my mother made potato pancakes, she would sometimes give me a platter of them, and I took them to grandma’s house.” Her grandmother lived on the other side of the woods, with one of her father’s older sisters.

The family fed itself.

“We made our own bread and butter, made cheese, gathered eggs, and collected berries.” There were patches of wild blueberries at the edges of their fields. Although they didn’t have a cellar, they still canned pickles and beets. “We grew our own pigs and my father killed them.”

When the time came, Jonas selected a pig for slaughter, marched it to a clearing beside the barn, hit the animal between the eyes hard with a club hammer, and cut its throat. With the help of his two eldest sons he cleaned and skinned the pig with a sharp knife, keeping a knife sharpener at hand.

“We never sold our pigs to anyone. We ate all of them.”

Once the skin was separated from the muscle and fat, they cleaned out the guts and sawed the pig’s head off. After quartering the animal, Jonas found the hip joints and slid his knife into them, cutting off the two hams. He did the same thing when cutting the shoulders of the pig off. At the center, where the ribs are, he took whatever meat he could find.

They made sausages, bacon, and cured slabs of pork with salt and pepper. Jonas had built a closet around the chimney on the second floor of the house, which could be gotten to by ladder. There were no stairs. He smoked the pork in the closet, laying the meat on grates, opening a damper to vent smoke into the closet.

“I was scared of the upstairs, although the meat was delicious. When we ran out of food, we killed another pig.”

After her mother got sick, from the time she was ten years old, Angele cooked for the family. “My oldest brother Justinas helped me until he went into the army, and then Bronius helped.” She cooked up pork logs, made soup, and served bread and butter every day.

After Justinas apprenticed to a tailor, and learned the trade, he joined the army. Everyone knew a war was coming. “He became a cavalryman and was stationed near Marijampole. He rode home a few times, on his horse, in his uniform. He was so handsome.” He had just turned twenty-one.

When the Red Army invaded the Baltic states in June 1940, their troops numbering some fifty divisions, supported by tanks, they swept the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian forces aside in a matter of days. Justinas spent the rest of the war sewing and mending, first under the thumb of the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again.

A woman whose husband had died, who had no children and who lived on a nearby farm, helped Angele learn to bake bread in their brick-lined oven. They made five and six loaves at a time, working up to ten pounds of dough at a time, baking the free-standing loaves loosely arranged in front of a smoldering pile of coals that had been burning for several hours, pushed to the back of the oven. They added wood as they needed it, shifting the fire from side to side.

“We always had bread. We never had tea or coffee, just water. When we could, we collected herbs, and had herbal tea.”

The house did not have electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. They had oil lamps and an outhouse and a well. There was a sink in the kitchen. “The well had a pulley and a bucket until we finally got a hand crank.”

In January 1940 a bitter cold wave enveloped Lithuania, driving temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The next month it dove to 54 degrees below zero, the coldest in 160 years. The Baltic Sea iced over. Some people froze to death and more than 10,000 in the Baltics were severely frostbitten, losing fingers and toes.

When Julija had a relapse, she went back to the sanitorium, but returned home soon after in the fall. “A taxi brought her back. My mother said she had to be with her children.” She was not fully recovered. When winter bore down again, she ran down and became bedridden.

Jonas laid down rough wide planks over the packed dirt floor in one of the three rooms. He moved a metal stove into the room. His wife died in her bed, the head of the bed at the window, early the next spring. She was forty-three years old.

Her father re-married four months later. “He needed a woman to take care of Sigitas and Jozukas.” Jonas had decided to ask the nearby widow with the farm, the woman who had helped Angele bake bread, but by then she was spoken for by another man. He found a single woman in Gizai.

“It was where we always went. My school was there, and there was a church, a police station with a policeman, and a hardware store that had everything. Whenever we had a coin we bought candy there.”

Jonas’s new wife was younger than Julija had been and healthy. She had a daughter a year older than Angele, even though she had never been married. The wedding was in early September. It wasn’t long after the move-in before Angele realized she couldn’t stay.

“My new mother and my father started arguing. She loved the younger ones, and she loved her own daughter, but they started arguing about me. My father stood up for me, but he needed a wife. I don’t know what I was thinking, but one day I left.”

It was late September. She packed a loaf of bread, some cold pork, what clothes she could carry, and set off in the morning at first light for Alvitas, for her aunt’s house. Ona Kreivenas was her mother’s sister. Her aunt’s husband, a police captain, had been deported to Siberia by the Russians that summer, leaving her with three children and giving birth to a fourth.

Even though two German army groups had smashed into the country in late June that summer, ousting the Russians, by then it was too late for Jonas Kreivenas, who didn’t come back from Siberia for fifteen years, and when he did, found out his wife was living in Philadelphia, in the United States.

“I knew life wasn’t going to be any easier in Alytus, but I had to go.”

Alvitas is about fifteen miles from Gizai. It took her most of the day to walk there. She passed a small prisoner of war camp crowded with Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht. When she got to her aunt’s farm the sun was near to setting.

“I lived with my aunt for the next three years, until the Russians came again, and we had to run to Germany. I never went back home, except to visit, as a guest. I loved my father, and my brothers and sister, but I couldn’t go back.”

When Angele woke up early the next morning, she had a new home and a new mother. “She was my parent now. They were my family.” She helped her aunt make breakfast. There was strong black tea at the table. The first frost wasn’t far away, but that morning it was an Indian summer.

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Revenge on Race Point

By Ed Staskus

Vera Nyberg tugged on her bonnet, scrunching it down to the tops of her ears. She had braided her hair into a high bun earlier in the day, and reaching into her back pocket found her silver-plated Alice Teapot hatpins, pushing them though the hat and bun.

The wind was blowing hard, gusting off the Atlantic Ocean, and the Race Point sand stung her bare calves below the black Capri’s she was wearing. Looking ahead she broke into a trot to catch up with her friends. The bonnet stayed in place.

She had ridden her bike to the beach after finishing her late afternoon holiday class at Yoga East, past the Province Lands Visitor Center, and walked the surf to the near side of the lighthouse and Hatches Harbor. Race Point is the only beach on the east coast where the sun sets over a landslide of ocean in the west behind you. Twilight was near to hand, but dusk was still more than an hour away.

It was more than enough time to fly kites. If she could get hers off the ground. “I haven’t flown a kite since I was a kid,“ said Vera as she came abreast of her friends.

“It’s just like riding a bike,” said Caleb. “Here, I’ll show you.”

Her three friends were year-round Provincetown residents who operated an inn and guesthouse on Washington Avenue between the main thoroughfare, Commercial Street, and Bradford Street.

Caleb had been flying kites the past two summers on Race Point Beach. Four kites were laying flat in the sand.

“Yours is the delta,” said Caleb, pointing to a purple blue bright green kite with streamers off the back points. “The sled is mine, and the two diamonds, that’s Elliott’s, and the one with the Tasmanian Devil on it is Bruce’s.”

A Looney Tunes cartoon of the Tasmanian Devil was emblazoned on a yellow field bordered in black. The gaping mouth of the devil was red and lined with gleaming, white fangs.

Vera turned to look at her kite and asked, “How do I make it go up?”

“There’s nothing to it,” said Caleb “Delta’s are easy to launch, they fly no matter what, and almost always sit at a good steep angle. But, they’re unpredictable in gusty winds, so watch out.”

Caleb tossed a handful of sand up to see which way the wind was blowing. He held the kite in one hand and unwound several feet of string onto the sand. He gave the kite to Vera.

“Hold it over your head as high as you can with the tow line facing you,” he said. “Let the kite go as soon as it fills with wind and starts to pull. Unwind the string as you go, but make sure to hold the spool and not the string itself.”

Vera released string from the spool and the kite darted higher and higher, its streamers snapping in the wind. In a few minutes all the kites were flying high and spread out above the sand dunes.

When Vera’s kite slid downwards and she struggled to turn it parallel to the wind, Caleb came close enough to her to be heard. “Kites fly highest against the wind, not with it.” Vera pivoted towards the gloaming ocean and let out string, watching the wind take the kite. As she did she wondered who was flying the kite, her or the wind.

“There’s a saying that those who fly a kite live a long life,” said Elliott as they walked back to the parking lot in the last of the day..

“Flying a kite lifts my spirits,” said Bruce.

“It’s a little bit yogic, too,” said Caleb. “As you look up following the kite near to far, your neck opens. It’s a counterbalance to looking down or at eye level all the time. You have to pay attention. It keeps you in the moment.”

“And it’s fun, like happiness on a string” said Vera.

They walked side-by-side along the surf. Gray seals played peek-a-boo just outside the line of breaking waves. Ahead of them gulls were dive-bombing something rolling in the surf.

“It looks like they’ve found dinner,” said Bruce.

“Herring gulls,” said Caleb.

“No, those are the black-backs,” said Elliott.

The surf was heavy and the water foaming. The gulls let the wind take them away as Vera and her friends drew nearer. They soared across the beach and hovered along the ridge of the sand dunes.

“What is that?” asked Caleb as they approached the bulk the gulls had been attacking. A gang of sanderlings skittered past them, their skinny legs a blur, racing after the receding waves.

“Oh, my God, it’s a person, a man,” exclaimed Bruce, who was in the lead, stopping short, taking a step back.

The others crowded around him, en masse ran into the crashing surf, grabbing what they could of the man, and dragging him out and onto the backwash-rippled sand. Quickly rolling him over on his back they recoiled from his lacerated face, pockmarked with slashes. His scalp was mottled. The gulls had pecked his eyes out.

Time stopped for a moment, inconceivable. The four friends stared at the man in cargo shorts, his stomach bloated by the ocean, and features ravaged by the birds.

Vera looked across the expanse of Race Point to the dunes and across the open, endless water. She thought as far as death is concerned we all live in a world without walls where the walls are always falling down.

Caleb broke the spell by asking if anyone had brought a cell phone, but no one had. Elliott volunteered that his was in the car and he sprinted to the parking lot. As he grabbed his Samsung out of the glove compartment of his Ford Fiesta the idling engine of a Cadillac Esplanade parked on the far side of the lot purred.

Vera and Bruce sat down on the sand a short distance away from the surf, waiting, while Caleb stood guard over the dead man. The black-back gulls circled overhead, angry cawing squealing.

In the distance Vera heard the wailing of a siren.

The Cadillac slid out of its parking spot and skirred towards the Provincetown Municipal Airport.

A long hard rain fell the next day, Tuesday. It was the day after Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer on Cape Cod. It turned roads into rivers and all afternoon cars on Route 6 were compelled to pull off to the side, unable to see through the watery white-out. In the middle of town at Bradford Street beneath High Point Hill Road, at the bottom of Pilgrim Monument, sewers clogged and the street flooded.

A minivan stalled halfway through the deep water. The driver clambered on top and sat beneath his umbrella, watching the volunteer firemen, their hoses snaking away to MacMillan Pier, while a highway crew worked on the snarled drains. The rain turned to drizzle, but the sky stayed dark and threatening as the storm rumbled northeast towards Maine.

Wednesday morning dawned clear and bright, the sky a cerulean blue. Vera tidied up her room, showered, meditated on her mat for a half-hour, and then, not finding her friends anywhere, either in the guesthouse or the inn, found her way to the backyard enclosed by cypress hedges. She watched tree swallows and hermit thrushes darting in and out of the bird feeder.

Stretching her legs out, she slipped her feet into a pair of flip-flops and walked up Commercial Street to the Portuguese Bakery. She ordered eggs on a papo seco and Darjeeling to go. She walked to a bench at the far end of MacMillan Pier and ate her sandwich while looking out over the flat water. A black-and-white Provincetown squad car made its way slowly up one side of the pier, turned, and began to make its way back. As it approached her bench it stopped and a policewoman poked her head out the window.

“Hi, Vera,” said Patrol Officer Rachel Amparo, and stepped out of the car, its flashers blinking. Vera and the policewoman had become acquainted over the course of the summer at the twice-weekly Ashtanga Yoga classes Vera taught and Rachel Amparo struggled at.

“Hi, Rachel, nice day,” said Vera. “Especially after that storm we had.”

“You bet. Hey, I heard you found the drowned man on Race Point the other day. That must have been a shock.”

“It was, but we couldn’t help him. We pulled him out of the water, but it was too late. Have you found out who he was?”

“We did. He had a record and we were able to match his prints, lucky for us, because his face was a mess.”

“He was a criminal?”

“No, far from it. In fact, he was one of the Stoddard’s, maybe you’ve heard of them, the Boston fishing and shipping people.”

Vera had never heard of the Stoddard’s, or their shipping company, and since she was a vegetarian didn’t give fish much thought.

“Some vegetarians eat fish, you know,” Bruce had told her when she moved to Provincetown. “There’s a lot of fish here.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said.

“Stoddard was arrested two years ago at an Earth Day demonstration on the Commons. It wasn’t much, the way I saw the report. He pushed a policeman into the Frog Pond, but they processed him, so his prints were in the FBI database.”

“What happened? How did he drown?”

“We don’t know, but there was water in his lungs, so we know that’s what happened. We don’t know how it happened. We’re thinking he fell off a boat, the way the tides work there, but no one has reported anything, and the Coast Guard hasn’t spotted anything drifting.”

The radio on the policewoman’s vest squawked and she stepped to the side, speaking into it.

“Vera, I’ve got to go, fender bender,” she said, walking quickly back to her squad car. “See you in class tomorrow.”

“Bye, see you then,” said Vera, waving.

She finished her tea, tossed the sandwich wrapping and paper cup into a trash can outside a trap shed, and walked to Commercial Street. But, instead of turning right, back to the guesthouse, she turned left and walked to the Provincetown Bookstore.

The bookshop was in a weathered white building with black-framed windows. A small sign beside the door said “Since 1932”. Inside, stacks of books, most of them best sellers, romances, and self-help tomes, but with an offering of poetry and mysteries, as well, overflowed thick tables and disorderly floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

On the far side of the counter was an autographed photograph of John Waters, who had worked at the bookstore before leaving for Hollywood.

A trim middle-aged woman manned the small front counter. She glanced at the door with an expression of mild exasperation, pushing reading glasses up her nose with two fingers. A cardboard box of books squatted on the counter.

“Oh, Vera, I was just thinking of you,” she said, breaking into a smile.

“Hi, Hattie, something good, I hope.”

“The UPS man was just now here and gone. Maybe that Charles Bukowski you asked for is in this shipment.”

She pulled hardbound books out of the box one at a time, glancing at the covers. “Here we go, I was right.” She handed the book to Vera.

The cover was in black and lurid yellow. The title ‘Women’ was scrawled in jittery capital letters on the black background, while in the yellow field above the title a woman in a tight dress and stiletto heels imaged from the waist down bent over to scratch one of her ankles.

“I don’t know what you see in him,” said Hattie.

“He was an alcoholic, a postal worker, and probably a misogynist, too,” she added. “That book,” she said, pointing at it with her chin, “is about every sexual penchant of every woman who ever dared to sleep with him after he got famous. Most of them were mad as hornets after the book was published.”

“It’s probably not the best American novel ever written,” said Vera. “I know he could be simplistic and disgusting, and even narcissistic, but he was honest, maybe to a fault. He was always honest.”

“Vera, he was crazy honest, or honestly crazy,” said Hattie. “He never worried about what to say or how to say it, or how it could affect others, he just said it. That can’t be right. And you call yourself a yoga teacher.”

“He makes me laugh,” said Vera, abashed, but unwilling to abandon her recent enthusiasm for the writer. “It’s the truths he tells, it’s like you’re hearing them for the first time, and they can be funny, even when they’re serious.”

“Like Bukowski said, great writers are indecent people,” said Hattie.

“They live unfairly, saving the best part for paper. You should know that, being a bookseller,” said Vera. They both laughed.

“Oh, I heard you and the boys found that man on Race Point,” said Hattie, suddenly changing the subject. “What happened? Who was it?”

“I don’t know, he drowned. That’s how we found him, drowned, rolling in the surf. He was from Boston, one of the Stoddard family, but I don’t know who they are, although I heard he was an environmental activist.”

“Aidan Stoddard? I can’t believe it. He’s been on the Cape most of the summer. He was staying down in Wellfleet. He was here just a few days ago. He was always buying something, especially about the oceans and climate change, that kind of thing. He was friendly with Bruce, did you know? But, how could he drown? He was a champion college swimmer. I heard he was good enough to try out for the Olympics, even though he didn’t make the team.”

“Oh,” said Vera Nyberg, teasing the hair on the nape of her neck. World-class swimmers don’t sink to the bottom of the pool or wash up on Race Point in a pair of cargo shorts.

Walking back to her room, the book under her arm, Vera thought about Aidan Stoddard. How had he died? It didn’t seem to make sense.

“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us,” was something she remembered Charles Bukowski had written. Had Aidan Stoddard laughed at the odds and lost, or had death been forced on him somehow? She would have to talk to Bruce.

“That couldn’t have happened,” said Bruce that night when Vera told him, the two of them sitting in the backyard.

“He could swim for miles. I mean, the man was like a seal. There is no way he would ever drown. He told me they used to practice underwater breath holding until it felt like you were drowning. He said the sensation makes you remember real fast everything you ever knew about swimming. He knew everything about it. He was strong and in the water he was weightless and even stronger.”

“But if he didn’t drown,” asked Vera, “and the police say he did drown, what happened?”

“What I mean is, he couldn’t have drowned unless something, or her, or somebody, drowned him,” said Bruce. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that Tyler boyfriend of hers. I wouldn’t put it past them. He looks like he would do anything for money.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Aidan’s wife, Emily, and her boyfriend. I forgot, you didn’t know him, I mean, Aidan, or any of that.”

Bruce was quiet for a moment. Vera watched the late season lightning bugs in the twilight. She thought of how when she was a girl she and her friends would catch them. They held the fireflies between their fingers pretending they were diamond rings.

“Aidan was one of the Stoddard’s, the Boston fishing family that goes back more than one hundred and fifty years. You know how Cape Cod in the 17th century was named for the shoals of cod that were in the waters. Back then you could catch them as fast as you could bait and haul in line.”

A process of seagulls soared overhead flying toward the bay.

“A hundred years ago hooks gave way to draggers and the boats got bigger and bigger. Then the fishermen started using echo finders and satellite positioning and by the 1980s the fisheries around here collapsed. There were almost no more cod left. The government closed down 8000 square miles of ocean, but even though scallops and haddock have come back, the cod haven’t. The Stoddard’s were one of the fleets that emptied the ocean. They were the biggest and most modern, and not only that, they were so powerful and connected they worked hand-in-glove with the Fishery Council, which meant that every decision the council made favored the fishermen, at least in the short term.”

“Didn’t the Stoddard business collapse when all the fish were gone?” asked Vera.

“No, by that time they had diversified. Thjey were into shipping and banking. But, they were still in the fish business, processing the catch of floating factory trawlers out on the Atlantic. They had finished off the fish here and were hoovering it up out of the rest of the ocean.”

“What about Aidan?”

“He was groomed to take over the family business, went to Harvard Business School, and married a Hampton’s girl, but then things started to change with him. He was taking lessons at the Boston Old Path Sangha, like me, which is where we met.”

“How was he changing?”

“We had lunch one day last year. Oh, yeah, he had become a vegetarian, too, like you.”

“It’s better all around, you know.”

“It doesn’t say so in black and white in the yoga bible.”

“I know.”

“Anyway, he said civilization was all a conspiracy to keep us quiet and comfortable. One natural disaster, he talked about Hurricane Sandy, and you can see we’re at the mercy of nature, not the other way around.”

“Sometimes it’s a mistake to not be in awe,” said Vera. “Mother Nature’s teeth can be sharp.”

”When he showed up here this summer he told me his father had died, left him forty million dollars, he was divorcing his wife, and had signed up with Greenpeace. I wasn’t surprised about his wife. Emily is a harpy. She was having an affair behind his back, although he knew about it. What I wouldn’t be surprised about is if she had something to do with this.”

“Why?

“Because he was giving a lot of his money away to Greenpeace and to Coastal Studies here in P-town.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Vera.

“I think I’m going to talk to Ralph in the prosecutor’s office tomorrow and see what he can tell me.”

The next morning Vera was rolling up her yoga mat in the backyard where she had been practicing when Bruce barged through the gate with his car keys jangling.

“Vera, come to Sandwich with me.”

“Sure, but why?”

“They’re issuing a death certificate,” said Bruce.

The Chief Medical Examiner’s office in Sandwich was a one-story building with a high, sloping gray roof, gray clapboard, and a brick entrance. Parked to the side of the front door was a Cadillac Esplanade.

At the front counter Emily Stoddard and Tyler Bullock were talking to a tall bulky man with thick gooish lips. The man handed Emily Stoddard a manila envelope, shook her hand, and turning on his heel walked away down a hallway.

When Emily Stoddard saw Bruce she scowled, but then composed her face.

“Hello, Bruce, what a surprise to see you,” she said.

Bruce looked down at the manila envelope in her hand and back at her.

Emily Stoddard smiled pleasantly.

“They’ve ruled Aidan’s passing was an accidental death and issued a death certificate,” she said, showing him the envelope. “It’s all very sad, but now we can go on with our lives.”

She smoothed the front of her skirt, glanced at Vera, and back at Bruce.

“Goodbye,” she said.

“Wait for me in the car, I’ll just be a minute,” said Tyler Bullock.

As Emily Stoddard walked out he asked Vera, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere, riding a bicycle, maybe?”

“Maybe,” said Vera.

“Bicycles are for little girls,” he said, and followed where the Medical Examiner had gone.

“What was that all about?” asked Bruce.

“I don’t know,” said Vera.

As they walked along the front of the building to their car a sharp gust of wind blew Vera’s bonnet off her head. It somersaulted along the side of the building and came to rest in the thorns of a Rugosa bush at the far rear corner. Vera jogged to the bush and disentangled it.

She could smell the spicy clove fragrance of the white flowers.

As she straightened up she saw the Medical Examiner walking to his car and Tyler Bullock standing at the open rear door of the building.

What were they doing, she wondered?

As she made to go Tyler Bullock suddenly turned in her direction and glared, surprised and suspicious.

“What do you want?” he asked, loud, coming towards her.

“Just my hat,” she said, stepping back with it in her hand. Tyler Bullock was a large man.

“Go find your bike,” he said.

In the car Bruce asked, “Did you forget your hatpins?”

“Yes, I’ll have to make sure not to do that again.”

Later, driving through the Eastham-Orleans rotary, Vera asked, ”I wonder if the folks at Coastal Studies would tell us anything about the money Aidan was giving them?”

“They might,” said Bruce.

“I’ll go see them tomorrow.”

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies was on Bradford Street across from the Pilgrim Monument. As Vera came through the front door Kathy Neves da Graca, the executive assistant, turned from the filing cabinet she was stuffing with file folders.

“Hi, Vera, long time no see.”

“Teaching the tourists to twist and turn,” said Vera.

“Which reminds me…”

“I know, I’ll see you in October. But, that’s not why I stopped in.”

“I didn’t think so. What is it?”

“Have you heard about Aidan Stoddard?”

“Oh, my God! We couldn’t believe it. He was such a great kid.”

Kathy da Graca was in her mid-50s with two children in their mid-30s. Everyone 30-and-under was still a kid to her.

“He worked with us all summer, was a big help, and had signed on to Greenpeace. He was leaving for New Zealand next week. He was so excited. They had found a place for him on the new Rainbow Warrior. It’s such a loss. On top of that he was going to contribute a large amount of money to us. Now nobody knows where that stands.”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you about.”

“I don’t know much about the details. You should talk to Ran Olds. He’s our development officer. He’s out on the pier today, cleaning up our kiosk. He would know everything about it.”

As Vera walked onto MacMillan Pier Rachel Amparo waved from the front of Outermost Kites and joined her.

“You’re on foot patrol today?” asked Vera.

Rachel Amparo pointed to the Pier Parking Permit Required sign.

“The boss was cranky this morning and I rubbed him the wrong way. This is my reward,” she said.

“I’m going over to the Coastal Studies kiosk to talk to Ran Olds about Aidan Stoddard. Kathy told me he was handling the money Aidan had pledged to them. I just have a feeling there is something not right about what happened to him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was a world-class swimmer, but he drowned. How did he get out there? No boat, does that mean he paddled out on the spur of the moment wearing cargo shorts? He was leaving his wife and giving some of his inheritance to Coastal Studies and some of it to Greenpeace, but he ends up dead. What happens now? Does his wife inherit everything? There’s just something fishy about it.”

“I’ll tell you something really fishy,” said Rachel Amparo. “The Plymouth County District Attorney got a copy of the death certificate from the Medical Examiner in Sandwich this morning.”

“What’s fishy about that?” asked Vera. “Did it say someone killed him?”

“No, it basically said accident, or death by misadventure.”

“What’s fishy about that?”

”The Medical Examiner’s office in this state is a mess. They’re underfunded and understaffed. I mean, that office in Sandwich, they built it in 2009, but it was unused until it opened three years later. They couldn’t afford the staffing. They have long, long delays in producing death certificates. We’re talking a year-or-more. Court cases get delayed. Time is not your friend when you’re investigating a case or prosecuting it. But, here we’ve got Aidan Stoddard, it’s not exactly cut and dried, and we get a death certificate inside of a week.”

Vera thought suspicion was often recouped by finding what we suspected. She was not herself a suspicious woman. But, what had Tyler Bullock and the Medical Examiner been doing behind the building in Sandwich?

The door of the Coastal Studies kiosk was open. A man stepped out with a banker’s box and set it on top of two others. He was trim with thick salt and pepper hair, wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

“Mr. Olds?”

“Yes.”

“Hi, I’m Vera Nyberg, and this is Rachel Amparo of the police department. I wonder if we could ask you a few questions about Aidan Stoddard?”

Rachel Amparo gave Vera a sharp look. She ignored it.

“Sure, how can I help you?”

“It’s about the money he had pledged to Coastal Studies. Can you tell us how much it was going to be, and are you still getting it, now that he’s died?”

“It was a substantial amount.”

“How much?” Vera persisted.

“There’s probably no harm in telling you, now that we’re not going to be getting it.”

“No?”

“No, we got a call from Mrs. Stoddard’s lawyer yesterday afternoon that the offer was being rescinded, and a letter would follow to that effect. It was very disappointing.”

“How much are you not getting?”

“Mr. Stoddard had pledged ten million to us and the same amount to Greenpeace. I doubt they will be getting theirs, either. We’ve been looking for funding to study the gray seals, but it looks like it’s going to have to wait.”

“The seals?”

“Yes, the hue and cry about culling them. Fishermen blame the seals for eating all the cod. Some call them wolves that go into the water.”

Ran Olds gave them a thin smile.

“They say they attract sharks, too. They probably do, but the cod aren’t coming back because they were overfished, not because the seals are federally protected. But, many people on the Cape believe they’re overabundant. There is even a group calling itself the Seal Abatement Coalition. Aidan didn’t agree and had earmarked some of his pledge to study the issue.”

“That’s too bad,” sad Vera.

“Yes, it’s too bad.”

In the backyard later that night Vera grilled balsamic vinaigrette tofu for herself and beef patties for Bruce’s hamburgers. As they ate she looked at Bruce’s flowerbeds. The fragrance of the asters filled her with nostalgia. Vera’s mother had tended flowers when she was a child. Her knees had always been green at the end of the day.

After eating they lingered over bottles of Harpoon IPA.

“Did you know burning aster leaves keeps snakes away?” Vera asked Bruce.

“No,” he said. “What brought that on?”

“Tyler Bullock,” she said.

“Oh, right.”

“There’s something about the Medical Examiner that rubs me the wrong way. He was talking to Tyler Bullock behind the building before we left. It just makes me think there’s something not right about the death certificate. If only there was something we could do.”

“I could talk to Ralph tomorrow and check if his office can ask for a second opinion on the autopsy.”

“Do you think he might do that?”

Bruce took a pull on his Harpoon.

“We’re friends, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

Vera slept well that night, her breath beery and her window open wide to the cool breeze off the bay. The next day she did laundry and borrowed Elliot’s Ford Fiesta to get groceries from the Stop & Shop before jumping on her bike to go teach her classes at Yoga East.

She was sitting on a bench outside the studio waiting for the evening class to assemble when her iPhone rang.

It was Bruce.

“Vera, Ralph called down to Sandwich, but it’s not good news. Aidan’s wife had him picked up that same day and he’s already been cremated.”

“Holy moly!” Vera exclaimed.

“It’s like a dead end,” said Bruce.

Vera put on a brave face for her catch-all hot flow class, practicing along with the students to stay engaged, mixing in more sun salutations than she ordinarily would have.

“Great class everybody, namaste,” she said after corpse pose, the class dispersing to their cars, scooters, and bikes.

When the parking lot had emptied a Cadillac pulled quietly up to the Garden Renovations Nursery on the far side of Yoga East. Tyler Bullock let the engine idle.

“Don’t be long,” Emily Stoddard had said when he dropped her off at Race Point Beach.

“Save some of that for me,” he said pointing to the bottle of Dom Perignon dangling from her hand.

“I’ll try, sweetheart. Just don’t be long.”

When Tyler Bullock saw Vera in his rearview mirror with her back to him, locking the front door of the yoga studio, he stepped out of the black SUV and briskly crossed the parking lot to the sidewalk Vera was walking down to her bike.

“You’re quite the busybody,” he said as he stepped in front of her, blocking her way.

“Your name keeps coming up. I don’t like that.”

“That’s too bad,” she said.

His arm shot out and his hand clamped on Vera’s throat. He squeezed when Vera tried to pull back and wagged the fingers of his free hand in her face.

“Don’t,” he said.

“I’ll tell you once and once only. Stay out of my business. Remember the champion swimmer who drowned. You don’t want to be the yoga lady who ended up twisted into a pretzel.”

He lifted her up slightly so that Vera had to stand on her tiptoes to keep breathing. He smiled at her, his teeth showing. Gasping for air, Vera suddenly remembered she was wearing her bonnet. She reached up with her right hand and in a fast underhanded swing drove an eleven-inch Alice Teapot hatpin as hard as she could into Tyler Bullock’s thigh.

He reacted instantly, jumping back, shouting in pain, spittle spraying Vera’s face, and fell to his knees. When he looked down and saw the silver plated hatpin he grabbed it and pulled it out of his leg.

“I’ll kill you,” he screamed, but when he tried to stand up he fell down.

But, it was no matter by then. Vera was at the street side of the yoga studio, on her bike, crossing Route 6 and not stopping until she swerved into the Cumberland Farms gas station on Shank Painter Road, punching 911 into her iPhone.

The next morning Rachel Amparo picked Vera up at the guesthouse on Washington Avenue.

“I could have walked,” Vera said.

“No, we’re not going to the station. Ralph said it was all right if you heard it for yourself. The fisherman is still out on the beach, although he said he would be leaving by two, three o’clock, didn’t think he wanted to do anymore casting.”

“Can we bring Bruce along? He and Aidan were friends.”

“I think so.”

A park ranger met them at the south access ramp of Race Point and they crossed onto the beach, following the vehicle tracks, surprising terns hiding in the ruts. On the backshore side of the beach were scattered a half dozen RV’s.

“They’re self-contained vehicles. We call them SCV’s,” the ranger explained. “They carry their own water and toilet holding tank. Folks camp on the off-road corridor and fish, some of them for two, three weeks. There are families that come here every summer.”

He made a straight line for a white RV with blue trim and a slide out awning. The tires looked almost flat. A jolly roger was flying from a plastic pole stuck in the sand. The skull on the flag sported a red bandana and black eye patch.

A stocky middle-aged man met them outside the shade of the awning in the mid-morning sunlight.

“Bob, this is Rachel Amparo, Provincetown police, and these are the interested parties, Vera and Bruce,” said the ranger.

“The wife is watching the news. Maybe we could talk down by the fire pit,” said Bob.

“You have TV out here?” asked Bruce.

“Sure, satellite,” said Bob.

The fire pit was round with a flat donut mound in the middle littered with charred firewood. Bleacher seating had been dug out of the sand in a circle around the donut.

“I was taking a walk,” said Bob, once they were all seated.

“The wife was making dinner and I had an hour. She said to make myself scarce since she was making something special. I thought I’d work up an appetite.”

He grinned, but without any mirth.

“I never did have that dinner.”

He got a flip-top pack of Marlboros out of his breast pocket and lit a cigarette. He threw the match on the dead fire.

“I didn’t see her at first. I was watching the seals as I walked, there were so many of them, close in to shore. You don’t see that many around here, not like down in Chatham. When I did see her I wasn’t sure of what I was seeing.”

“What was it?” asked Bruce.

“There were seven or eight seals, I think, on the beach. The lady was lying on the sand, her legs stretched out to the breakers. She had a bottle in her hand. They had her penned in. At first she wasn’t moving, none of them were. Not her or the seals. When she tried to get up is when all hell broke loose. One of them clamped his mouth on to her ankle and pulled her down. She was hitting him with her bottle, but then the others got her by both legs and started pulling her into the water.”

He took a drag on his Marlboro.

“It all happened so fast. I didn’t know they could move that fast. They use their flippers, and sort of wiggle. By the time I got close enough to maybe help her, they had her in the water and there wasn’t anything I could do.”

He stubbed his cigarette out in the sand and put the butt in his pants pocket.

“She was trying to keep her head above the water, but they had her by both legs and one of them was biting her face. She was screaming something godawful and the seals were making a crazy high crying, like a dog howling. Then, just like that, it was all over, and it got real quiet. They pulled her down into the water and I didn’t see her or them again. When I looked up all the other seals who had been watching were gone, too.”

The man stood up and brushed sand off his pants.

“That’s what happened. At first I couldn’t believe it, but when I saw blood on the sand and the broken bottle I called the rangers,” he said.

Vera looked out at the horizon.

“I’ve got to go. We’re packing and leaving, going home. Oh, yeah, one other thing I forgot to tell you folks,” he said, looking at Rachel Amparo.

“There was a man who came down the beach, yelling, and lurching, like one of his legs hurt. I think he saw what happened, too. He fell down after the seals took her and started to slap the sand. He kept screaming goddamn, goddamn, goddamn, sounded like the seals, but when I tried to get close to him he gave me an eye that made me stop. After that he got up and dragged himself back towards the parking lot. He wasn’t walking too good, but it didn’t seem like he wanted my help.”

“Thanks, Bob,” the park ranger said.

“Sure,” said Bob, nodding at the others before he turned and walked away.

“I’ve never heard anything like it,” said the park ranger.

At Fanizzi’s, a restaurant on the quiet side of Commercial Street, Vera, Bruce, and Rachel Amparo sat at the bar, staring through the windows that made up the back wall of the bar out onto Provincetown Harbor. The policewoman worked on a plate of fish and chips, Bruce nursed a bottle of Magic Hat No. 9, and Vera played with the straw in her glass of ice water.

She wasn’t hungry or thirsty, just flummoxed, lonely.

The bar would begin to fill up soon, but she didn’t want to be there when it did.

“I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around,” Charles Bukowski had once said. Maybe Hattie was right about him, Vera thought. Or maybe she was all wrong.

“Are you thinking the same thing I am?” asked Bruce.

“Probably,” answered Vera.

“So, tell me.”

“The seals knew it was her.”

“That’s a relief. I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

Rachel Amparo, twisting towards them in her seat, a forkful of haddock almost in her mouth, said, “That’s crazy talk. Seals are just, you know, seals.”

“It makes you wonder who the big fish is,” said Bruce.

“Oh, Vera,” said Rachel Amparo, sliding a thick clear plastic bag marked ‘Evidence’ in black capital letters across the polished bar to her.

“I found this last night in the parking lot. I thought you might want it back. You never know when you might need it again.”

Inside the plastic bag was an Alice Teapot hatpin.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”