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The Dogs of Babel
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Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death. There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei; it was a weekday afternoon, and none of our neighbors were at home, sitting in their kitchens with their windows open, to hear whether, in that brief midair moment, my wife cried out or gasped or made no sound at all. None of them were working in their yards, enjoying the last of the warm weather, to see whether her body crumpled before she hit the ground, or whether she tried to right herself in the air, or whether she simply spread her arms open to the sky.
I was in the university library when it happened, doing research for a paper I was working on for an upcoming symposium. I had an evening seminar to teach that night, and if I hadn't called home to tell Lexy something interesting I'd read about a movie she'd been wanting to see, then I might have taught my class, gone out for my weekly beer with my graduate students, and spent a few last hours of normalcy, happily unaware that my yard was full of policemen kneeling in the dirt.
As it was, though, I dialed my home number and a man answered the phone. "Ransome residence," he said.
I paused for a moment, confused. I scanned my mental catalog of male voices, friends and relatives who might possibly be at the house for one reason or another, but I couldn't match any of them to the voice on the other end of the line. I was a bit thrown by the phrase "Ransome residence," as well; my last name is Iverson, and to hear a strange man refer to my house as if only Lexy lived there gave me the strange feeling that I'd somehow, in the course of a day, been written out of my own life's script.
"May I speak to Lexy?" I said finally.
"May I ask who's calling?" the man said.
"This is her husband, Paul. Iverson."
"Mr. Iverson, this is Detective Anthony Stack. I'm going to need you to come home now. There's been an accident."
Apparently Lorelei was the one responsible for summoning the police. As our neighbors returned home from work, one by one, they heard her endless, keening howl coming from our yard. They knew Lorelei, most of them, and were used to hearing her bark, barrel-chested and deep, when she chased birds and squirrels around the yard. But they'd never heard her make a sound like this. Our neighbor to the left, Jim Perasso, was the first to peer over the top of our fence and make the discovery. It was already dark out the days were getting shorter, and dusk was coming earlier and earlier each day but as Lorelei ran frantically between the apple tree and the back door of the house, her movements activated our backyard motion-sensor lights. With every circle Lorelei made, she'd pause to nudge Lexy's body with her nose, stopping long enough to allow the lights to go out; then, as she resumed her wild race to each corner of the yard, the lights would go on again. It was through this surreal, strobelike flickering that Jim saw Lexy lying beneath the tree and called 911.
When I arrived, there was police tape marking off the backyard gate, and the man I had spoken to on the phone met me as I walked across the lawn. He introduced himself again and took me to sit in the living room. I followed him dumbly, all my half-questions stalled by the dread that seemed to have stopped the passage of air through my lungs. I guess I knew what was coming. Already, the house felt still and bare, as if it had been emptied of all the living complexity that had been there when I left. Even Lorelei was gone, having been sedated and taken away by animal control for the night.
Detective Stack told me what had happened as I sat there, numb.
"Do you have any idea what your wife might have been doing in the tree?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. She had never, in the time I had known her, shown any interest in climbing trees, and this one couldn't have been an easy one to start with. The apple tree in our yard is unusually tall, a monster compared to the dwarf varieties you see in orchards and autumn pick-your-own farms. We had neglected it, not pruning it even once in the time we'd lived there, and it had grown to an unruly height of twenty-five or thirty feet. I couldn't begin to guess what she might have been doing up there. Detective Stack was watching me closely. "Maybe she wanted to pick some apples," I said weakly.
"Well, that seems to be the logical answer." He looked at me and at the floor. "It seems pretty clear to us that your wife's death was an accident, but in cases like this when there are no witnesses, we need to do a brief investigation to rule out suicide. I have to ask did your wife seem at all depressed lately? Did she ever mention suicide, even in a casual way?"
I shook my head.
"I didn't think so," he said. "I just had to ask."
When the men in the yard finished taking their pictures and collecting their evidence, Detective Stack talked to them and reported back to me that everyone was satisfied. It had been an accident, no question. Apparently there are two ways of falling, and each one tells a story. A person who jumps from a great height, even as high as seven or eight floors up, can control the way she falls; if she lands on her feet, she may sustain great injuries to her legs and spine, but she may survive. And if she does not survive, then the particular way her bones break, the way her ankles and knee shatter from the stress of the impact, lets us know that her jump was intentional. But a person who reaches the top branches of an apple tree, twenty-five feet off the ground, and simply loses her footing has no control over how she falls. She may tumble in the air and land on her stomach or her back or her head. She may land with her skin intact and still break every bone and crush every organ inside her. This is how we decide what is an accident and what is not. When they found Lexy, she was lying faceup, and her neck was broken. This is how we know that Lexy didn't jump.
Later, after the police had left and Lexy's body had been taken away, I went out into the yard. Underneath the tree, there was a scattering of apples that had fallen to the ground. Had Lexy climbed the tree to pick the last of the apples before they grew rotten on the branches? Perhaps she was going to bake something; perhaps she was going to put them in a pretty bowl and set them someplace sunny for us to snack on. I gathered them up carefully and brought them inside. I kept them on the kitchen table until the smell of their sweet rot began to draw flies.
It wasn't until a few days after the funeral that I began to find certain clues well, I hesitate to use the word "clues," which excludes the possibility of sheer coincidence or overanalyzing on my part. To say I found clues would suggest that someone had laid out a careful trail of bits of information with the aim of leading me to a conclusion so well hidden and yet so obvious that its accuracy could not be disputed. I don't expect I'll be that lucky. I'll say instead that I began to discover certain anomalies, certain incongruities, that suggested that the day of Lexy's death had not been a usual day.
The first of these anomalies had to do with our bookshelves. Lexy and I were both big readers, and our bookshelves, like anyone's, I imagine, were halfheartedly organized according to a number of different systems. On some shelves, books were grouped by size, big coffee-table books all together on the bottommost shelf, and mass-market paperbacks crammed in where nothing else would fit. There were enclaves of books grouped by subject our cookbooks were all on the same shelf, for example but this type of classification was too painstaking to carry very far. Finally, there were her books and my books books whose subject matter reflected our own individual interests, and books each of us had owned before we were married that just ended up in their own sections. Beyond that, it was a hodge-podge. Even so, I came to have a sense of which books belonged where. A mental impression that I had seen the novel I had loved when I was twenty sitting snugly between a book of poems we'd received as a wedding gift and a sci-fi thriller I had read on the beach one summer. If you asked me where you might find a particular textbook I coauthored, I could point you right to its place between a Beatles biography and a book about how to brew your own beer. This is how I know that Lexy rearranged the books before she died.
The second anomaly has to do with Lorelei. As far as I can piece together, it seems that Lexy took a steak from the refrigerator, one we'd been planning to barbecue that night on the grill, cooked it, and gave it to the dog. At first I thought she must have eaten it herself and merely given Lorelei the bone to chew on I found the bone several days later, hidden in a corner of the bedroom but the thing is, there were no dirty plates or cutlery, only the frying pan sitting on the stove where she left it. The dishwasher was locked, having been run that morning after breakfast, and when I opened it up, I could still recognize my own handiwork in the way the dishes had been negotiated into place. The dishwasher hadn't been touched, the dish rack next to the sink was empty, and the dish towels weren't even moist. I have to conclude that one of two things happened: either Lexy surprised Lorelei with an unprecedented wealth of meat or she stood in our kitchen on the last day of her life and ate an entire twenty-ounce steak with her fingers. As I think about it now, it occurs to me that there might be a third scenario, and it might be the best one of all: perhaps the two of them shared it.
Maybe these events mean nothing. After all, I am a grieving man, and I am trying very hard to find some sense in my wife's death. But the evidence I have discovered is sufficiently strange to make me wonder what really happened that day, whether it was really a desire for apples that led my sweet wife to climb to the top of that tree. Lorelei is my witness, not just to Lexy's death itself but to all the events leading up to it. She watched Lexy move through her days and her nights. She was there for the unfolding of our marriage from its first day to its last. Simply put, she knows things I don't. I feel I must do whatever I can to unlock that knowledge.