The Copper Beech
by Sandra Leigh
When the birds woke her in the morning with their song, she went to the window to look out at them. They reminded her that there was still beauty in the world, and she loved them for that. She peeked around the edge of the curtains, and for a moment she was blinded by the morning sun. Then she saw the shoes. They were made of brown leather, scuffed and worn, old-fashioned. What were they called? Wing tips. She remembered them. And there they were, hanging by their laces outside her bedroom window. She snatched her hand back from the curtain, shutting out the light, shutting out the shoes. If you happened to be looking up toward her window, you might not even notice the slight movement of the curtains.
He had hung his shoes in the copper beech tree. She knew they were his, even though he had hung them there during the night, while she was sleeping, and she hadn't seen him. Not this time.
For a long time, that was all she ever saw of him, just those shoes. She would hear him pacing back and forth in the next room, muttering something she couldn't understand, although she knew somehow that he was speaking English. She would get down on her belly on the bare, cold, floor and peer under the locked door of the room where he had hidden her, and she would see the shoes. She would watch them go back and forth in front of the door. She would dread their stopping, because that would mean he was going to come in, and she didn't want that to happen, so she stayed very quiet and watched. But of course, it did happen. It happened over and over again, once it started, once he stopped muttering, stopped pacing, and made up his mind. "You are mine now," he said, that first time. "You will always be mine. Forever." She didn't think she would survive, but she did, somehow.
Eventually, the police came, like the cavalry of old, and rescued her. She had lost seven pounds, and she had no idea how long she had been in captivity. It was fifteen days, they told her. And fifteen nights. They noted that although she was hungry and weak, and although her clothes were stained -- they took those away for testing when they got her to the police station -- her long, red hair was clean and glossy, as if she had spent that fifteen days and fifteen nights washing and brushing it. They assigned a female officer to stand with her and help her keep a scratchy woolen blanket wrapped around her shoulders while they conducted their initial investigation. The officer watched her, studied her bruised face. She turned away and pulled the blanket across her face, hiding the bruises and her green eyes.
They found a hairbrush. It wasn't in the room where she was kept for fifteen days and fifteen nights. It was in the main room, on the coffee table. It was an antique brush – boar bristle, someone guessed – part of a set. There was no mirror, no comb. Just the brush, inlaid with mother of pearl, edged with gold. They dusted it for fingerprints, but the prints were not in their database. He had always been a careful man.
When the police broke in, he was not there. He had gone out to the store for cigarettes for himself and sandwiches for the two of them, because she had been compliant that day. Returning from the store, he saw the police cars surrounding the derelict property, and he simply didn't come back. It was that easy.
The police took her description – white man, forty or maybe forty-five -- thinning blond hair, blue eyes, five feet nine, a hundred and fifty pounds. They used her description to produce a composite drawing. When she saw it, she wept, and then she was sick. They put out an all-points bulletin, but it didn't help. He looked like everybody and nobody. He got away. It was easy.
There were a front-page story in the newspaper, a manhunt that came to nothing, a flurry of public sympathy, and later, a falling away on the part of her friends, who sensed that she was different now. She didn't really mind. She needed to concentrate, to keep her wits about her. She would always know that he was out there, watching her, waiting for his chance to take her again. She knew that if she were going to survive, if she were ever to have her life back, she would have to overcome her fear. It didn't happen. She never overcame her fear, and she never stood in front of the window and brushed her hair again. Not ever.
That is what she was doing, the first time he saw her – standing in front of the window. It was evening, and she was brushing her hair. It was her hair that fascinated him. It reached halfway down her back, and it was the colour of flame. He could almost feel it, watching her. (He told her that, later.) He knew what it would be like to wind his fingers in her hair, to pull her toward him with a sharp jerk, to use her beautiful hair as a weapon against her, and that excited him. He knew, from the colour of her hair, that her eyes would be green. He liked green eyes. He pictured them filled with fear, and he liked that even more. That very evening, he started making his plans.
When the time came, he had planned so well, spent so much time tracking her movements, that he knew everything about her. He knew where she worked. He knew how she took her coffee at Starbucks -- and what route she walked every morning to get to the bus stop where she would stand and drink her tall dark roast while she waited for the bus. He knew that she favoured pink brassieres and matching panties, that she slept in a silky green nightgown, that when she went out, she paid little attention to her surroundings. She was deep in thought while she walked. She had no idea that he was watching her. That was what made it so easy.
Afterward, after those fifteen days and nights, she learned to keep her eyes and ears open and alert when she was out, to watch and listen as she passed by darkened doorways, the entrances to alleyways and abandoned buildings. Not that she went out anymore, at least no more often than necessary. Whenever she had to leave the house, she listened so carefully while she walked, that she heard the whisper of the wind in the leaves, the muffled sound of voices in conversation behind closed doors and windows, the skittering sounds of small animals in the shrubbery. She saw shadows everywhere; she watched them for any sign of movement – and she saw him. She saw him everywhere, in every hooded figure, every face half seen through a steamy cafe window. She knew that he was there somewhere, that he was watching her and waiting for his chance. She grew thinner and more pale, but although her hair might have lost some of its lustre, it was still beautiful. Strangers would look at her and think What a lovely girl. She looks so sad, though.
This is what she thought: He is here. He has been here all along. He has seen me. I will never be safe from him, no matter what they say. She was right. You know that too, don't you? It was only a matter of time.
On the morning when she found his shoes hanging from the branches of the copper beech tree, she knew that the time had come. She knew what she had to do. She hanged herself from the copper beech tree. The last things she saw were his brown leather shoes, scuffed and worn, hanging by their laces, spinning in the breeze.
The last thing he saw, before he put the gun to his head, was her body, hanging there in the sunshine, spinning, her long red hair gleaming among the copper beech leaves, beside his brown leather shoes.