The nightmares wouldn’t leave me. I saw the townsfolk in the nightmares. I saw them denouncing his mother. And I saw her sweet, angelic, non-caring boldness. Nightmare after nightmare, I saw her lugging her saw, bucket, homemade fishing pole, and a bait can across the frozen lake. I even saw her shivering, waiting for the telltale tug from a creature down below.
The man, who looked to be in his early twenties, told me that this torturous task wasn’t for the fairer sex, but that his mother had no other choice, no other way to feed the two of them. He then quickly explained what he had meant to say, “She had to feed me . . . ah I mean the three of us, but I was so mortified. The townsfolk made fun of her, my ten-year-old baby brother, and me,” he cried out. His voice cracked, and he began sobbing those bottomless, desperate sobs that came from deep within him. I had never seen a man cry like that.
When he stopped, he shouted, “I just hated her fishing on the lake like that. I just hated it. I hated it. I hated it.” He then balled up his fist and punched it several times into his open palm.
My encounter with the man, whose name I never knew, was in the month of June 1982—twenty-two years ago. We were on the Greyhound bus from Baltimore to Danville, Virginia. The gut-wrenching despondency I felt at the end of the trip surfaces every time I wander back there. I’ve tried my best to erase the whole incident, to forget I ever sat next to the man on the bus, and to forget I ever allowed him to tell me his story, but the memory of that trip steadfastly refused to leave me.
I have wished a thousand times I had sat in another seat, but this was the only seat available in the section of the bus my father told me to always sit in—the front. I hadn’t realized the man had been drinking when I first sat down. It didn’t take long to smell the telltale sign on his breath.
When he told me about a particular day his mother had been on the frozen lake for a long time, I remember not quite believing him. He said clouds and a north wind had rolled in from the mountains as he and his baby brother were standing at the edge of the lake, shouting to her and pointing toward their house. When she reached them, they told her their house was on fire. They all rushed home and saw smoke coming out of the windows on one side of the house.
I remember the man’s voice croaking as he said, “She told us to stay outside, but we went in behind her. I didn’t know the fire was as bad as it was. Ceiling beams fell on my baby brother, and he died before my mother and I could swat the fire off of him. After he died, my mother and I moved away from Baltimore County. She never fished again. I live in Danville now near the airport. From time to time, I go back to where we used to live to visit my baby brother’s grave. That’s where I’m coming from now.”
There was something about his story that seemed amiss; the depth of his pain didn’t match the light-heartiness he was trying to portray. I saw this, but I was too young to discern a meaning of it all. I was fifteen years old at the time, on my way from Baltimore to visit my father in Danville. After my parents’ divorce, I spent specific holidays and summers with him. I had taken the Greyhound bus trip several times since I was twelve years old.
Why I remember the man and the specifics of what he told me, when I couldn’t remember any specifics about my other trips, frightened me. The man’s story wouldn’t wane or go away like other trip memories. I didn’t know what to do about it, so I tolerated it.
By 2004, I had become a college professor living in Baltimore County teaching at a local college. At the beginning of the school semester, I allowed the students in my criminology class to choose a cold case to work on. While doing research for this project, I came across a recent article about the human remains of a woman who had been found in an old abandoned well in Baltimore County. Excavation on the land by the current owner brought the skeletal remains to light.
The article stated she had been in the well for twenty-nine years. Long-time citizens from the community reported that the remains could be Berra Cates who had lived on the property back then and often fished on the nearby lake when it was frozen. She and her fourteen-year-old son had mysteriously moved away, after burning down the house they rented. It was assumed they had burned down the house since an accelerant had been used to start the fire. No notice of their intention to move had been given to the then landlord, an undertaking the landlord claimed Berra never would have done. Since no one had reported Berra missing, identification of the remains was still pending.
The mention of the frozen lake garnished my attention. I read further and found that Berra only had one child—the fourteen year old son who went missing with her. The son would now be in his early forties. The article stated that the authorities were asking anyone who knew the whereabouts of Berra or her son to contact them.
As I read on, the years fell away. I saw the man on the bus in 1982 telling me the story of his mother fishing on a frozen lake. The man’s well-preserved story in my memory kept circling in my mind, like the light from a lighthouse, making it clear where my path lay.
I knew I had to tell my story to the authorities, in spite of the fact that the man had said he had had a brother. Before meeting with the authorities, the explanation for the brother came upon me. It was inconceivable.
An inconceivable fact of the excavation is that the skull of the woman’s remains was smashed in, and a saw, bucket, homemade fishing pole, and a bait can were found with her. Most inconceivable was that the small pieces of clothing found on her were charred and well preserved.
Dr. Sandra Tanner is an African American native of Pittsylvania County, Virginia. She received a doctorate degree from Capella University. She has self-published four mystery novels: Sundrenched Water, Secrets of Salmer Tawgg, Sacks of Murder, and Stolen Four Minutes. Her novels can be found on Amazon.com, Barnesandnobles.com, and Xlibris.com.