In the moments before she found the dirty bones, Ivy McKinney set out for her daily trek through field and forest with Tilly, her yellow lab.
The September morning was chillier than expected. The air sweet and woody, redolent with the scent of a Wisconsin autumn. A mist hung heavy over the land as she passed the fenced-in garden plot. Tomato vines still held onto a few green orbs. Pumpkins lay plump and orange. Golden cornstalks waited to be cut and bundled for fall decorations. Clumps of black-eyed susans still thrived but the phlox were lifeless and the dahlias a shriveled-up mess.
Once they reached the barn, Tilly ran ahead into the field. She knew the journey well.
Ivy had rescued her sweet Tilly from the shelter not quite a year ago. Now, on those weekends when the kids were with their father, Tilly was rescuing her back.
With boots crunching over the last vestiges of the hay harvest, Ivy watched as Tilly bound after a field mouse darting here and there among the stubble.
At the far end of the field Ivy entered the forest along the path created by cattle seeking to escape the sun in summer and the wintry gales that would come in another month or two. The hoof-worn path pitched and leveled with the landscape, broken here and there with root and rock, bending around stumps and fallen logs. The wind moaned through the canopy of maple and birch while evergreen whispered and passed their secrets.
As a child, Ivy ran this same path, a gangly, barefoot girl with copper curls flying behind, freckled nose turned toward the sun, and knobby knees stained with grass and soil. Back then, the animals were her only friends and the land her comfort, offering her a place to escape Aunt Helen’s disapproving glare. Not much had changed on that account except that Helen now lived in town.
As an adult, it was a comfort to Ivy to walk the same paths as those before her. Her grandparents, Harlon and Esther Foley were solid, hardworking folk who raised two children on this farm—Helen and her older brother, Luddie.
Just as Ivy realized she’d lost sight of Tilly, a crack split the air. A few feet before Ivy, a branch hurtled toward the earth and landed with a dead thump. A shiver shimmied up her spine as the forest went eerily still and Ivy had an irrational feeling of not being alone.
“Tilly!” The dog had to be at the river lapping up a cool drink. The Rock River cut a winding course at the northern boundary of McKinney’s farm.
Ivy shrugged off the momentary uneasiness, left the path and pushed through a stand of balsam where the land slanted down to meet the river’s edge and sure enough, there was Tilly, doing a perfect downward dog at the base of a fallen tree. The basswood had been a fixture by the river for as long as Ivy could remember. At least what was left of it. The top of the tree had blown off eons ago leaving a tall trunk listing to the south. It was more of an eyesore than anything. Now another storm had claimed the whole of it.
“There you are,” Ivy said to her furry companion.
Tilly, still at the base, retreated and advanced, back and forth, several times, teeth bared, the rumble of a growl deep in her throat.
The sun was a fuzzy orb behind the gray bank of clouds pushing in from the west. The forest darkened and the temperature dropped. Dead leaves scuttled across her boots. Ivy drew her jacket tight about her.
Tilly jumped into the air and barked wildly.
“Hey, buddy.” Ivy walked around to the base of the trunk to find a scene that would haunt her for the rest of her life.