Nebraska Center for Writers

THE FIG EATER
by Jody Shields

He stands up next to the girl's body. He looks down at it for a moment, then carefully steps over the narrow boards lying around it. He walks across the grass and joins the three men, waiting like mourners. No one speaks. The body is poised like a still life waiting for a painter.
Now they watch the photographer edge his way over the boards, his equipment balanced on one shoulder. He stops and gently lowers the legs of the tripod into place, then steadies the bulky camera directly above the girl. Without looking up, he snaps his fingers. The men silently move aside, shifting their lanterns as a boy passes between them, moving with a sleepwalker's strangely certain gait, eyes fixed on the frail pyramid of white powder he carries on a tray.
The boy stands by the photographer, nervously waiting while he adjusts the dials on the camera. The photographer ignores him. He hunches behind the camera and pulls a black cloth over his head. In the secret darkness, the camera lens tightens around the dead girl's mouth. The photographer mutters something unintelligible, then his hand blindly works its way out from under the cloth. The instant his fingers snap, the boy strikes a match and holds it to the powder on the tray.
A blinding flash lays transparent white light over the girl's body, her stiff arms and legs, the folds of her dress, transforming her into something eerily poised, a statue fallen on the grass. There's shadow, a black space carved under her neck, in the angle where her head is bent toward her shoulder, and below one outstretched arm. Her other arm hides her face. The light vanishes, leaving a cloud of odor. Burned sulphur.
The Inspector keeps this harsh image of the girl's sprawled figure in mind even later, after her body is cut open, becoming curiously tender and liquid.
She lies in the Volksgarten, near a seated stone figure of the Kaiserin Elizabeth. The statue faces a fountain pool in the center of a bosquet of low flowers, and behind it is a curved wall of bushes nearly twelve feet high. The park is a short distance from Spittelberg, Vienna's notorious district where the Beiseln offer music, drink, and women.
The Inspector points at a crumpled piece of white paper or cloth near the girl's body. Two of the policemen nod and begin to pick up the boards. There's no haste in their movements, even though it's getting late. They set a board on top of two rocks to make a walkway over to the cloth. If there are footprints on the ground, the boards will protect them.

Reprinted with permission
from The Fig Eater
Copyright © 2001
by Jody Shields
Back Bay Books


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