A Map of Her Town
Jason Schwartz

The knife recurs as a figure in certain rooms. Take the parlor, where the matron, aflame, parts the drapes—and the bedroom, where brown ants cover the haft.
     Have a better look.
     The spine, despite its color, whatever this may be—I imagine you find the light as dim as I—dates the item. The break remains the break—in halves, left of the letters, all alone. The pike hides the mark quite nicely.
     Your carving articles, years ago, might include a little brass hook, this to remove the eyes. A scullion would address the red tables. An abigail would attire the girls, were there any. These cleavers, of the kind we were accustomed to in childhood, if more ornate, had been devised for cadavers, in fact. Pluck its feathers, they say, and a butcherbird resembles the blade. Hold it this way and it resembles a hand aslant. But skinning implements have no place in a good home, have they? The demeanor of these, I submit, and of the leavings, to say nothing of the town steeples—evident now at the near window—settles the question.
     Flay, in any case, once meant bed, as in a ditch or trench, or on a wide green lawn one summer afternoon—given the terms of the early American lexicon.
     While stab would prevail on more suitable occasions.
     At the time of our murder, reader, a knife might display the victim’s name. This was less the habit later in the century. Messages of other kinds, engraved on the male side, were customary in some marriages. I suppose this notion spoke to matters of loss. The effect upon the heart, as distinct from the throat, to cite only two bodily objects, was certainly great—but was often described in unfortunate ways. The t as cross and the v as arrow, in one view. In another, the l as dagger or maggot. Immurement of this sort, whatever the text, came to appear rather too mannered a practice.
     The man stands in the corridor, the woman at the stairs.
     The color changes at the ridge—toward the wood now, once and for all. Blue usually implies something human. Black letters, as these, left of the emblem and below the rust, contrive to escape harm.
     Surgical instruments—in a hemlock box, in a bridget—would sometimes assume curious forms. They were likely to split at the top, grips of this variety—stag instead of hickory or larch. Ivory—forgive me the handprints and the rats, the late hour—was always taken down first, the carts marked with pitch. The bone saw would say the boy’s name. Horn saws would bloom in the road. But some maps favor exaggeration, don’t they? From above, the houses seemed to bleed. These versions, rivets pitted brown, were reserved for oxen—fallen in the straw, or lost—and these, with nickel-plated teeth, for cuckolds and Jews. Another tale, offering the latter facts more amply, though less dully, notes the shape of the rope in the dayroom.

If death is a room, as a common conception has it, then where is the family? Let us wait in a safe place and consider this. Are the doors an argument for ornament? Doubtless they are said to resemble sad men. The route to the bureau, I suspect, is just as you remember it. Do excuse the collars—or excise them. Can we conclude that the bed is properly dressed? See how the knife lies there, at this angle, in lieu of you.

In the history of knives, women cross all night, east to west, as in the parable of the gown: a murderer left—in the parlance—for dead, without further confession, post after post after post. In the history of knives, women cross from this corner to that, in gowns, as in the parable of the copse, where a body is found—broken, according to one description; dead, according to another—though suddenly the origins of corpse seem in order, or at least preferable, post after post after post, the other houses without a sound. In the history of knives, men fall in the walk, and at the gate, one by one, or they kneel, merely, among a woman’s things, as in the parable of the house, where the room faces south, and where the husband finds the wife.

See how the drapes disclose the road.
     The declining hour, I can confide, is always lonely, a fact that returns us to the terms of the town—but I ought not speak so often of grief.
     Manners for mourners differed somewhat in the country, where a dinner-setting might include, left of the strop, a jar of hearts. A child’s knives should sit crosswise. A white plate should conceal the hex marks or divide the table in two. Have they measured, quite yet, the length of the carcass? Grouse, in bruises, to use the local phrase, was acceptable on these occasions. Pox hen, gutted and trussed—or potted—was not. The decorum of boys, as to the body, and in the event of slaughter, for that matter—sheep at the rail, and then the goats—was a separate concern.
     There they were, in bleak attire.
     A flaying blade appears as ornament in certain documents, and also as the sign of Saint Bartholomew—flayed alive, by all accounts, and now drawn without a face.
     In some later murders, furthermore, the blades would display forms for organs. Spires meant the eyes. A pitchfork or an orphan pin—I suppose these meant the heart. Such engravings were always made just above the groove. Other knives were designed for daughters. While the bed knife—sometimes called a pale or a picket, after the fashion of the more lavish axes—was an indication of shame, in every case. Hold it this way, at night, and it resembles the throat. Have the shadows as you prefer them. The maul sword, for the cleaving of limbs, was said to die as we do. A strange notion, that, given the location of the gouge—rather green from across the room—and given the hilt in the light.
     The ridge is blue, like the wound—but easy to mistake for a stain. A black emblem, left of the fault, shows the town’s arms and, in the background, a pattern of animals. The spine reflects a portion of flesh.
     The man stands at the window, the woman at the bed.
     A knife box of the period—in locust or elm—might display the family name. Calfskin would conceal the nails. Hinges of the spike type—shot copper instead of low brass—were believed to carry plague. Is ours without a proper lock? A knife box of the period might sit atop a red table, near the Queen Anne chairs. Open, it might resemble an urn. There were usually two, side by side—quaint as that now sounds. Wrought-iron rings were a great regret. Battle scabbards were absent from the narrative altogether—apart from the matter of the beadle and the chambermaid, stabbed at last in a church tower.

The family is far away. Ornament, according to one argument, is evidence of death. But what does this mean? Do approve of the birds in the bureau drawer. Posts of the old sort, I suspect, are more common in other rooms. The blanket presents a flaw all its own. The sheet is embroidered with hornets—or spotted with blood. The gown is torn. Does the knife hide politely? Brown ants cover the hands, the outline traced with dye.