We find bodies all the time. Lots of folks come up here to die or kill, or get killed. My first one came in the summer. We were up Back Branch, near the Virginia border, where the treeline thickens above the bald. It was me and Coralis, who trained me when I started with the Park Service. Coralis taught me pretty much my whole job, and the only part I’ve ever questioned is whether he taught me how to deal with the living and the dead the right way around.
That first time, Coralis and me were heading from Back Branch to Sugar Knob. This was back in ’83, my first month on the job, before I got my own vehicle. I was one of the only woman rangers in the whole state then. We were heading north, coming out of an early morning fog, and we saw a flash off to the right, like a gleam off somebody’s smile in those old toothpaste commercials. We thought that was strange with it so gray and misty, so we checked it out.
Coralis pulled over in the grass near a mile marker—the old stones, white and square, the ones you see all along the whole length of the parkway. When tourists first see them, they pull over to take pictures, touch the hand-carved numbers, but after a while they stop caring and ignore them. Those markers look to me like little headstones, so I think people get creeped out after too many.
We hopped out of the truck, looked down the bank, and Coralis pointed into the woods.
“I see a wheel,” he said.
We went down a few more feet, and we found this little old red Gremlin tucked down into the trees, like somebody hid it on purpose. She was in there.
Through the rear windshield, we saw her long hair lying across the back seat, her head tilted at an unnatural angle. Her face was so white, I thought maybe she was sleeping. I kept inching toward the car; I guess part of me wanted to wake her up, whisper to her or stroke her hair to raise her.
Coralis gripped my shoulder to hold me back and said, “Call it in, Priscilla.”
That might be the only time he ever touched me or used my real name. His voice had a cold rattle in it, and the words shook in his throat. My voice shook too when I radioed the ranger station.
I came back and stood next to Coralis, who clenched his teeth for a long time. Finally he said, “We should stay with her. Don’t let’s leave her alone, Pea. Not til they get here.”
So we sat on the bank looking at her hair through that back windshield. State police arrived a while later, and homicide detectives and all that. I stood out of the way when Coralis told me to let him handle it. Me being a woman and a rookie, I think he was worried I’d faint. I kept staring at the Gremlin while the cops took pictures, taped off a line, and the morning warmed itself.
A few hours later, as the coroner packed her away, Coralis said I’d have to get used to finding corpses now and then.
“Once a year,” he said, “maybe twice. Mostly cliff jumpers and accidents, mostly intact, but sometimes only parts.” He nodded at the body bag. “Sometimes frightful whole ones like her.”
I crossed my arms and stifled a sob. I was real young then, young minded I mean, and I had never thought I’d have to do this kind of work. I just wanted to be in the woods.
“Now comes the paperwork,” Coralis said. His face wasn’t stern like usual, and the deep lines around his eyes held less shadow. He didn’t smile exactly, but I could tell he was glad to have found her. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
On the way back to the ranger station, Coralis told me a bunch of stuff.
“This job is boring as hell most of the time,” he said. Then he went on about how I’d spend less time than I wanted outside, and instead I’d just drive forever along the tops of mountains. I’d have to deal with things I couldn’t quantify, and some of the male rangers might hassle me, but mostly I’d get to work in my own way.
“In the end,” he said, “it’s a fair deal, as long as you take care of the worst things.”
“Like her,” I said, thumbing back to the scene behind us.
Coralis nodded. “Nobody wants to see that on vacation. You have to look at it for them.”
We rode in silence for a while, both of us watching the mountains, until the forest closed in and made a tunnel of green.
“I guess it makes sense to dump a body up here,” I said.
Coralis didn’t say anything until the thick canopy opened onto another viewshed.
“People use parks for selfish reasons,” he said.
He pulled into a scenic overlook and cut off his truck. Slowly, he let go of the steering wheel and cast his hands towards the narrow valley below us. “Four hundred miles of parkway through some of the prettiest country there is, and everybody brings their shit.” He leaned forward and shook his head. “There’s more murders, starved dogs, more toddlers slipping off cliffs, more sadness than anybody knows.” He glanced at me, then the road behind us, and shrugged. “We clean it up. Then maybe we give a tour, hand out some brochures. Almost nobody knows where they’re going. Maintain order, even when there isn’t any. That’s all.”
It was the longest conversation he and I ever had.
We never did figure out what lit up, what made that flashy gleam we saw before we found her. That Gremlin had a rusty old bumper; no chrome, so that couldn’t have been it. Maybe a bird flew past carrying something shiny, or the light was playing tricks, or maybe we were just supposed to find her.
The coroner said the girl had been there about three days, dying slow from deep wounds in her chest and guts. I only saw her face, white and clean, never any of the blood, which I was glad of.
Turned out it was her cousin who had killed her. They caught him pretty quick, and we had to go to the trial a few months later. I was working my own routes and had my own truck by then, but the morning he was called to testify, Coralis picked me up early and we went to the courthouse together. He wore a suit that looked a hundred years old. I climbed in his truck and saw him all pleated and grim in his charcoal three-piece straight out of some museum painting, and I laughed.
“Why’re you wearing that getup?” I asked him. “Coulda just worn your uniform.”
Coralis gripped the gear shift and stared straight ahead.
A lot of people when they die turn their feet inward, just like a baby does when he’s napping deep.
On the stand, Coralis explained to the jury about finding her. I sat in the back of the courtroom and kept still. Coralis talked in a flat one-two, methodical, looking down at his veiny hands, about how we came upon her, how we stayed with her. The victim’s family was up front with their backs to me. They leaned on each other, and I watched the light hitting them while their shoulders shook from crying. That girl seemed real close and fresh to me while Coralis talked. I studied her family a good while, but none of them had hair like hers.
I remember every body I’ve found the same as I remember that girl. I remember mostly how soft they always look, especially the accidents, if you can see their faces. Sometimes if they’ve been dead a while, the bugs have got to them, or they’ve been cut by a windshield or somebody’s slashed them up. Even then, it’s little things that make me go tender. Like the way a body’s feet are laid out. A lot of people when they die turn their feet inward, just like a baby does when he’s napping deep. Over the years, after what I’ve found, I believe we all get warm before we go. We sink down into some warm place like we did in our cribs when we were little.
Most bodies I found had special marks, or little objects that surprised me. Five years ago, right after my youngest niece was born, I was on overnight south of Asheville, moving a fawn’s body off the road where she’d been hit by a car. I had my headlights trained on myself while I picked up the fresh carcass. She was still warm, even in the December chill, her body a velvety sack of limbs. As I stood to carry her off, I noticed the hand-painted billboard for the quilting museum about twenty yards ahead. It came to me that I should look behind it.
Bodies have beacons, I think. They want to get found.
I laid the fawn in my truck bed, took off my gloves, and went to him. He was leaned up against the back of that old quilting museum sign, staring glassy into the forest. No more than twenty years old, small and delicate, dead only a few hours from what looked like an overdose. A thin line of drool sparkled like a glass needle from the corner of his mouth. He had this little purse, a bag he carried, and for whatever reason he was still holding it when I found him. The bag had cats on it made out of white sequins, with little black whisker threads sewn in lines around the faces. It looked homemade, with perfect, tight stitches. There was something about him hanging on to that purse; I thought my heart might split.
I squatted down, and how it was, was I talked to him. I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone. I told him who I was, what I did; I talked about the fawn and how I’d come to be there. I told him how the grass looked around him in the dark, inky and cool.
People think it’s peaceful here, I said, but it’s not. I put one hand in the grass to steady myself. Nobody should come up here if they can help it. But I could see him, I said. He was found. I rubbed my throat to slow my breath. I’m here, I said.
I walked into the road and reached for the radio on my shoulder. Stood in the middle of the silent blacktop and called parkway dispatch and the sheriff. Then I came back and sat down. Authorities’ll be along, I told him, and you’ll be home soon, with your family, or whoever’s waiting on you.
I stared at the road; he looked into the forest. We both settled into the stillness. He was slumped sideways, one shoulder up higher than the other. His skin wasn’t scary like it could have been. Every part of him, even his clothes, was soft purple in the moonlight, like lavender paper. State Bureau never did figure out who he was.
Coralis’s half-sister Rita works at the casino in Cherokee; I see her sometimes when I take my nieces to their dance competitions. I went to find her and play some slots the day after I heard Coralis was dead. Rita told me I was the only person he’d ever agreed to train or allowed to ride with him.
Rita’s mom, Coralis’s stepmother, was EBCI, so he went to the tribal school part of every year. Rita said when they were kids, Coralis would always get in trouble at recess.
“He’d never come in,” she said. “The teachers would have to go find him. He’d be over at the creek, catching salamanders or watching elk. He never changed. Hardly ever talked, even back then.”
I said that must have been rough, not having your big brother talk to you. Rita just shrugged. Then she gave me a drink voucher and said, “Least he figured out the right line of work for himself.” She tapped a long fingernail on her empty drink tray. “Just like you, Miss Pea.”
Coralis died from a heart attack. He was on duty, five days before he hit forty years of service, and two months before I hit twenty years myself. He sat down in front of his truck at the top of Herman Falls and passed on alone. If he made a noise, no one heard him over the whitewater rushing into the gorge. I felt bad for not being the one who found him, even though we didn’t work the same counties anymore. He never talked to the other rangers much, and he’d gotten even quieter in recent years. The last time I saw him, he was sulking around the rangers’ station. I made small talk at his mumbles, then he made like he wanted to hand me an article on that big garbage patch in the Pacific. He didn’t look at me, just gripped the paper like he couldn’t let me have it. Then he walked off with it still in his fist.
I felt bad, too, that I hardly knew his people. I met his wife a few times before they divorced, and I see Rita when I go to Cherokee, but that’s all. Then again, I’m not sure Coralis saw his people himself all that much. None of his grandkids came to the funeral. We delayed the ceremony for them, but then Pastor said they’d got the times confused and hadn’t even left Knoxville, so we carried on with the Celebration of Life with a lot of empty chairs.
Everybody talked to me after the service longer than they talked to Rita. Lots of people offered me condolences.
Suzanne, who works dispatch up at the ranger station, patted my hand and said, “I’m so sorry, Pea. I know you two were best friends.”
Being Coralis’s best friend was news to me.
After the funeral I decided I’d better take early retirement and find another job soon, while my family still knows my name. My wife Danielle told me I’m not allowed to talk about the parkway anymore. Coralis dying made me gloomier than ever. Even without the bodies, I’m not up to the job. Used to be we could live off what the park service paid, but they keep cutting benefits, and there’s more territory now since the state parks have started to close, and fewer rangers to cover it, and nobody to keep our trucks running. Last winter I had to buy my own tires, and I go out for longer and longer days.
Danielle doesn’t want to hear it.
“Don’t talk about it in the house,” she says. “It puts a blanket over everything.”
I didn’t quit until the last body. The teacher, six weeks ago. I found him when I was closing the main gates up at Old Balsam. We got hit with a March blizzard, always the worst, so we were scrambling to clear traffic and shut access ramps before anybody got trapped.
It was snowing hard, and the evergreens around me were catching white thick and fast. There was no beacon or pretty flash like the others. No ease or calm. I didn’t think there was a body waiting. Instead I felt cold slip under my collar, felt anger all around me. I clunked the pin into the entrance gate and I stood there in the snow.
I was supposed to wait, so I did.
It didn’t take long to see him. It was like my eyes were dragged, like they had to pull to the left and look to the hemlocks. My eyes couldn’t notlook. And I got that feeling in my stomach similar to what I got all those other times I found a body, but this time it felt worse, as bad as anything. This time harder and darker. Snow coming down all around me heavy and mean, my truck engine humming twenty feet behind, churning warmth too far to reach. My eyes pulled left, then up and along the hillside at the tree line. It felt like the moment before somebody fires a bullet, except the gun never goes off. As tense as that.
At first I thought some coyotes had got a big kill, maybe a calf from a nearby farm. Most of the blood had been snowed over already, in that short time, even though he’d just done it. I got there soon after, real soon. It looked to me like meat hanging for a butcher.
My knees bent. I wanted to run, jump in the truck. But this job moves muscles for you, so even though I wanted to crouch and hide and run, the whole time thinking somebody’s behind me, or in front, or all over, instead I stood still and reached inside my jacket to call it in and follow procedure. I can’t help but do what I’m supposed to.
The snow eased up for a few seconds and everything came clear. I saw his legs. His legs and back, blood everywhere. It looks so lonely, so human, that shape of a person’s legs hanging down. Something broke in me, and I started talking, real high pitched, saying nothing, rattling and whining like I did when I was little and my daddy would get drunk and belt me. I made that same baby gibber talk; it flowed out of me into my radio, into the cold.
His legs were the only part of himself he hadn’t cut up. Everything else he’d carved and splayed. The examiner’s report, when I read it a few days later, said he removed his clothes slow and careful, climbed up, tied a noose, and sat in those thick hemlock boughs doing things to himself until he fainted from the pain and dropped from his own gallows.
I didn’t know that then, of course. The homicide detective had to tell me three times before I’d believe her, and I still wanted to read the report later on. In the moment I figured murder. I figured whatever did that was still around, and maybe I was scared it wasn’t even a person or animal that had done it, but another thing entirely. I don’t know what else I thought it could have been, but I was alone out there with it.
The branches swung him a little, and his body turned toward me. His face looked torn and wrong, and his guts were hanging out. Fire finally welled in my legs, and I spun and scrambled. I fumbled into the truck and locked the doors, breathing whoosh-whooshlike a woman giving birth. All I thought was get out, get out, go, but it seemed like whatever had brought that body was everywhere, and I couldn’t escape.
I radioed again, giving details as best I could. Suzanne was on dispatch that day, and she could barely recognize my voice.
I shut my eyes tight as they’d go, but then I was afraid of what might see me while I wasn’t looking. So I opened my eyes and looked straight ahead. The snow fell like a sheet. I yanked the truck into gear and drove in tight circles in the gravel turnaround beside the gate, just so I could be moving. If something jumped down or came for me, I could gun the accelerator and drive off. I did that for an hour, circling, keeping that body just on the edge of view, waiting for the thud of flesh or beast against my door, until backup got there and I didn’t have to be alone with him anymore. I wouldn’t get out of my truck until four deputies and a fire truck arrived.
Danielle heard about the teacher on the news before I got home. It was a big story, and the snowstorm kept me at the scene and the police station for a whole day. By the time I walked in the back door, she had worried herself into one of her headaches.
I stood on the wet floor mat and the first words out of my mouth, my first words to my wife were, “Who goes to that much trouble?”
I still had my coat on, and the linoleum was covered in slush I’d tracked in. I unlaced my boots, kicked them off, and stood in my sock feet. The television in the living room was bouncing blue light off the kitchen countertops.
“Pea,” Danielle said, “why in the world don’t you just leave it?”
She reached out and tugged at my heavy coat sleeves, one at a time, back and forth. It rocked me off balance, and I tottered like a child.
“We got options,” she said. “We could go someplace warm together.”
“You reckon?” I leaned close to her and whispered, “You reckon all this death wouldn’t follow me?”
Danielle tugged at me again, and I felt my throat tighten around a sob. Then she backed away and got herself some water and more headache pills, and I undressed alone in the kitchen.
They put me on the standard mandatory leave after the teacher. After every found body, a ranger has to stay off the parkway for a week or two, depending on how bad the situation is. The regional deputy director took one look at me and said I had to take a month. He told me to eat and take care of myself, to let Danielle cook me something nice.
I had a few nightmares. In my dreams, the teacher’s body would jump down from that tree and hurl itself at me, guts cut open, screaming for me through mutilated cheeks, beating my windshield with his bloody hands. Those nights were bad, but I got bored during the day, so I finally went to the ranger station and asked for desk duty. Suzanne gave me a bunch of filing to do. I went through old personnel records, purchase orders, that kind of thing. Most of it we destroyed. Suzanne said they keep everything on the computer now, so we shredded piles of National Park Service history.
They also required me to attend counseling at a psych practice in West Asheville. It looked hippie-dippie, stuck in some creaky-floored Victorian house with pale green walls and wind chimes on the porch. I had to do three sessions, and I had to talk about the bodies.
The first session, the therapist made me do a visualization exercise to calm myself after the Traumatic Event. That’s what he called it.
“Just pay attention to your breathing,” the therapist told me. “Find a place where you’re completely comfortable.”
I lay back on the long tweed couch in his office, closed my eyes, and pictured my brother-in-law’s place down on the coast.
In my last session, the therapist got all whispery and asked if I ever read Dante, or if I knew about the boatman on the Styx.
I lay on that itchy sofa and felt the air passing in and out of my chest, the tweedy fabric digging little needles into my back through my cotton shirt. I crossed my arms over myself between my breasts and thought about the flatness of the coast, the warmth. I love my brother-in-law’s driveway, how long and open it is—treeless and sandy hot. I kept staring down that driveway until my toes curled, and I almost could see the ocean. The therapist’s sofa started to smell beach-musty instead of mold-musty, and I eased into a warm place. I could see what was coming. The emptiness in front of me was clear and straight, free of switchbacks, no fog. I felt Danielle beside me, the quiet between us easy and soft, like it used to be, not tense like it had been lately. After that I figured maybe the therapist knew what he was doing.
In my last session, the therapist got all whispery and asked if I ever read Dante, or if I knew about the boatman on the Styx. I said sure, but I didn’t understand the connection, except that sometimes after it rains, the asphalt on the parkway can look black and winding like a river. And anyway, after what the teacher had done to himself I didn’t want to carry his body or help him, not like I helped those other people I found.
When my mandatory leave was over, I went on rotation for a couple of days. I worried maybe I’d have the shakes or see shadows.
I spent the first day at Water Rock watching Harleys thrum past and shake the spring buds. It seemed like there were thousands more visitors than usual, all louder than before. I watched tourists stop at the overlook and take pictures. Everyone moved strangely, spoke in echoes, as if their bodies were hollow.
I spent the second day in the elk trail lot. I sat on my bumper with my arms crossed over the park patches on my chest. I tried to talk to folks, but I had cottonmouth. Somebody asked me for directions to a waterfall, and I couldn’t remember which milestone to send them to. So I climbed in the truck and watched everybody from there. Nothing connected. No flow or rhythm to the traffic, no breeze whirling a pattern in the leaves.
The parkway had this gloss on it, like a plastic apple I couldn’t eat. I thought about Coralis all alone at Herman Falls, and I went home finished. There’s going to be more bodies like the teacher, and I don’t want that job.
I went up to the ranger station this morning to put in my separation papers and talk to Suzanne one last time. Our station sits above five thousand feet, in among the spines of evergreens stripped bare by invasive adelgids. The station is the last place in three states to see any leaves in spring, and those skeletons poke out from the maples and poplars all year round. I used to love to end my shifts up there, with the hushed Blue Ridge undulating in every direction and birds calling down in lonesome coos.
This morning the ranger station seemed like the worst place I could be. I didn’t want to be among dead trees or watch the blue valleys. I don’t want to be above all that, looking down into it.
Suzanne seemed real sorry about it when I told her I was leaving, but I didn’t let her pat my hand this time. I held my arm up to keep her off me and told her me and Danielle were moving to the coast. That’ll be news to Danielle, but I’m pretty sure she’ll go along with the idea.
Milestones and bodies. These ridgelines can’t hold them anymore. Coralis was right about people using parks for selfish reasons. We empty sorrow and trash out of ourselves into them, and now everything is harrowing up and spilling out from the boundary. I have to look away.