The early months of that year were cold and terrible. Weeks and weeks of aching chill that made fond memories of a fresh green thaw dim and distant. The days were bleak but mornings were the long and lonely times. In the oppressive winter darkness, they squeezed your life thin until the pale afternoons, rinsed tight in watery sunshine, returned your density for the slow trudge home. The reaching trees with their witch fingers looked frail and brittle; dead black against the smooth white reminding those of us who needed it how fragile it all was. Cold bones, they said, were worse than old bones. Two women of our town would never get to find out.
When the night came, the air was not the crisp, clean cedar fragrance of calmer times but an acid sharpness on a wind that scraped you raw and the terrifying thing was that out there in this hard, bitter quiet not fit to live in, someone was killing people. Snapping their necks. Crack! Like frozen twigs.
We called him the Snowman because such creatures receive banal titles to reduce them but I doubted this one could know further depths. Between New Year and a late Easter, he took two lives apparently without mercy or remorse leaving their bodies in flagrant pose encased in ice. Not as the newspapers suggested, naked maidens entombed in translucent blocks, but clothed and saturated in water before being left out to solidify in the severe conditions. To make matters worse, the two women turned out to be sisters from a poor family, the Temples, who many years ago had been obliged to give up a third child when they were unable to afford its upkeep. Irony for the needy often took the form of tragedy. As if all that wasn’t enough, it was also hinted that the neck breaks were not fatal but incapacitating so the paralysed victims actually froze to death, helpless and alone.
The police chased shadows that soon stretched and disappeared into the darkness. The press peered into several blind alleys without any real conviction and all the while, frightened people trapped in their nestled-down homes under siege in our freezing town, whispered in vaporous breaths about retribution and revenge.
In response, I talked calmly of cooperation and confidence in the company we kept. Never be alone except with your prayers, I said. Faith in the Lord from the safety of the pulpit was rather a specialty of mine. Nobody said what everybody was thinking that right here in our small, peaceful pocket of familiarity, a murderer was demonstrating his contempt.
Not a stranger, said one cynic, because he “cloaked ‘em and soaked ‘em” in one place and “choked ‘em and croaked ‘em” in another without ever being spotted. Not a woman, half of them pointed out, since the victims had been carried out and left in open country which required masculine strength. Besides, of course, a woman would never do such a thing. Had to be an expert in anatomy to know which vertebrae to snap, the doctor remarked, then realising his error, lapsed back into silence. Not a Christian, said I; not enough blood for that, observed the sceptics.
The townspeople wanted action. To take to the streets, but their enthusiasm quickly perished in the harsh outdoors. I called a meeting in the church hall to boost morale and encourage pious fortitude in our adversity but was gently persuaded to adjourn instead to the local pub which enjoyed less medieval heating arrangements as well as more tangible spiritual comfort. The close atmosphere provoked hostility and accusations. Unlikely vigilante groups formed full of sour beer and jingoistic chants but when an especially strong blast of wild wind caused the door to suddenly fly open and flap menacingly, their frantic attempts to hide behind one another somewhat damaged their credibility.
I report these events in this way because fear, like the cold, will humble a community. Make them appear absurd as they scrutinise their neighbours for the Mark of Cain. Fear of the unknown is something that I endeavour to suppress in my work but fear of the known evokes different demons. As if to illustrate the mood of many, one gloomy soul speculated that we may have been fortunate to discover the bodies of the two women so quickly because with fresh snow falling each day without melting, a whole host of corpses indistinguishable from the landscape may be littered about the fields and ditches. Hidden evidence of a madman’s handiwork. After all, she continued with morose glee, people always went missing in bad weather without anybody noticing. When the Mayor’s daughter vanished two days later, these wine-soaked words were considered portentous.
Into April we lumbered with no end in sight to the arctic wilderness. My first Sunday congregation was the largest in living memory more due, I suspected, to the failure of telephone and television connections than the expectation of solace from my sermon. I studied my flock in their thick, woollen layers huddling together for warmth one minute and recoiling the next in case they were seated next to a maniac. Quoting from rousing biblical passages, I sought to stir them from their despair, inspire them with promises of summer sun and golden harvest. Some faces stared up at me inspired despite themselves, glowing and fearless with hope. More gazed at the floor still hopeless with fear.
Now wives viewed husbands with suspicion and mistrust while such close inspection was returned not only with resentment but glowering guilt for unrelated transgressions. Friends discussed each other’s shortcomings with outsiders in the attempt to enlist allies against the invisible menace even as traditional rivals put aside differences to appear unimpeachable. The police maintained their unbiased investigations despite a catalogue of anonymous reports from the public about the public. These were desperate and depressing times.
On Monday, during a brief spell of morning brightness, the Mayor’s daughter reappeared. She breezed into the family home explaining that her car had refused to start after a visit to her new boyfriend’s cottage on the edge of town but fortunately the gallant gentleman had been prepared to arrange accommodation for her in his one-bedroom hideaway. The Mayor, an extremely relieved man, raised his eyebrows momentarily and then nodded sagely observing that the telephone lines had probably been down in that area as well as cell-phone and email facilities almost certainly being affected. A minute later, she left him red-faced and open-mouthed by declaring that she had no idea about any communications difficulties as she had barely left the warmth of the bedroom for three days. She was simply grateful that her vehicle had unaccountably started first time that morning allowing her to return home for a change of undergarments.
On Tuesday, two cars moving cautiously over the treacherous ice on the high street collided with a muffled thump barely noticed by passers-by. Negligible damage resulted from the impact but injuries sustained in the subsequent altercation between the two drivers and a traffic warden, who, acting as peacemaker, had received a haymaker, were treated in the nearby doctor’s surgery. Such amusing interludes provided some light relief for the beleaguered citizens while speaking volumes about the tension and pressure they were under.
Then, on Wednesday, it happened. A miracle, some cried, looking to the skies and then to me for confirmation. A blessed relief, I smiled, trying my best to look reassuring instead of reprieved. People emerged curious from their houses like those in extremely hot climates who come out cheering every ten years to witness a rainstorm. This time they were welcoming the return of the sun.
Spring had arrived like a liberating army to the tattoo of trickling water dripping from eaves that were themselves creaking and cracking like stray gunshots. Patches of colour leaked through the ice in a pastel wash as the resurgent sun embraced us all. I looked around at the faces in the street, at the windows, in their cars and saw not just relief but reborn belief. Not necessarily the kind of faith that I advocated each week but a revival of trust in the natural order that had been denied them during these bleakest of times. Just for a moment they had forgotten that the weather was not their only adversary.
For the next few days the great melt continued unabated and without incident. Technology re-established itself as everybody’s favourite nanny while irregular mounds in the local topography revealed themselves to be natural phenomena rather than evidence of a massacre. I made it my business to visit the reserved and the remote finding, as I knew I would, that human dignity and spirit thrived wherever and whatever the adversity. Stories of endurance and survival had replaced death in the newspaper headlines as well as the minds of the people proving to me at least, that it took more than a double murder and months of misery to remind us of how truly exposed we were sometimes. When the Mayor’s daughter disappeared for a second time, not to be found on this occasion in the comfort of her colleague’s cottage, I was deathly afraid that the reminder might have been set.
This time it was the Mayor who called the meeting. He spoke at length with senior police officers about their apparent lack of progress in making an arrest. The media was summoned to report upon his anguish, broadcast his appeals and under no circumstances link his forthcoming re-election prospects with the harrowing disappearance of his daughter. Perhaps surprisingly, he also found the time to pay me a visit.
In the fifteen minutes that I was allotted by his Worship, we covered Anglican reform, community confidence and the role of the church in council politics. Which in translation meant how could I, his new friend, use my influence to help him remain in office for a couple more years? I nodded in all the right places and trotted out my least sincere litany; the one that answers a politician’s questions with earnest enthusiasm. Then I ruined our cosy new relationship by asking how his wife was dealing with the absence of their child. On his way out, the mayor dropped a few coins into the collection box.
Before I could close the door behind him, a bulky, heavily-wrapped figure stepped into the gap to ask if I could spare a few moments for a less illustrious parishioner. Despite my aversion to unplanned one-to-one meetings, I smiled cordially and widened the entrance. In so doing, I allowed in a murderer.
My visitor insisted on sitting in the last row of pews where light through the stained-glass windows barely reached. After listening for just a few moments to the chilling events being laid out before me, my thoughts drifted back to that frozen evening weeks before when the townspeople had met to debate the nature and identity of the killer. Now the Snowman sat beside me. Not a townsperson but a relative outsider. Not medically trained but a devout churchgoer and definitely not a man, snow or otherwise.
Her name was Lillian Marsh and this was her story.