The Eye of the Beholder—A Roger Knight Mystery

Mae Brown’s house was set Lack on her lot, on a slight knoll. On the opposite side of the road an imposing hill rose almost mountainlike. At various levels of its elevation there were houses, and it was one of Mrs. Brown’s innocent pleasures to sit in her front window and look across the road at the inexhaustibly interesting hillside. Not only were some of the houses at a considerable distance from her own but, because they were high on the hill, were as a practical matter even farther off. Not that she ever visited them, of course, though she thought of their occupants as her neighbors, and in a sense they were.

The binoculars Roger Knight had given her so that she could keep a closer watch on the neighborhood had been a joke, of course, but she had acquired the habit of using them. It was odd how the same house could look so different viewed with or without the binoculars.

She knew them not by name of owner but by descriptions taken from what she could see from her front window. There was the house with the Irish setter, another with a metal maintenance shack that reflected the afternoon sun annoyingly back to Mrs. Brown. There was the brick house, the ranch, what she thought of as the bird house, and then the barn.

It was no longer a barn, of course, having been converted for occupancy some years back. But it retained the shape and look of a barn and a barn it was to Mae Brown. It was next to the barn that one afternoon she saw something so awful she could scarcely believe her eyes.

A man in a bright plaid jacket came out the door, bent over, leaning forward, dragging something after him. So limp was the burden that it did not occur to Mrs. Brown at first that it was a man. The inert body was pulled to a stump where it was arranged in a kneeling position, the head resting on the tablelike surface of the stump. The man in the plaid jacket then returned to the barn. When he emerged again, he was carrying an axe. Mae Brown’s mouth had gone dry. For an awful minute the plaid clad arms lifted the axe high and then seemed to freeze. Mae Brown sat staring at the tableau, wanting to turn from her window or pull the drapes but unable to follow this sensible advice.

Suddenly the axe was brought down in a great sweeping arc. The head leapt free of the body and rolled across the lawn. Despite the distance and her weak eyes Mae was certain she not only saw blood but also the way it beaded as it fell. And then came the sound of the axe striking the stump after it had severed the head. Mae cried out, her hand flying to her throat.

Three minutes later nothing remained of what she had seen. The man in the plaid jacket was gone, the stump was gone, and the two pieces of the initially unconscious and now dead man had disappeared. Mae shut her eyes and then let them open.

“That didn’t happen,” she said aloud.

She went into the kitchen and made a cup of tea. She kept her back to the windows, not wanting to look across the road at the barn. She took the tea into the living room, sat, added sugar and cream and stirred it thoroughly. When she peeked across the road at the barn, there was nothing to see.

“It didn’t happen,” she said again and tried to laugh.

When the telephone rang, Roger ignored it, continuing what he was doing at the computer. The ringing stopped and the voice of his brother Philip drifted to him, and something about Phil’s tone was more distracting than a bell. Roger turned in his specially built chair and cocked an ear toward the other room.

“No, Mae, I think you’re right. It couldn’t have happened.”

A silence followed during which Roger thought of Mae Brown, the elderly woman up the road from their place. They felt informally responsible for her, since she lived alone in the house where she had raised her children. Her husband was gone now and the children were far-flung, one in Japan, the other in San Diego. Mae was forever pondering invitations to come visit, but in the end she decided against it and stayed put. Visits from her children were infrequent and hurried, although she frequently talked to them on the phone, particularly Evelyn in San Diego. For the Knight brothers, Mae substituted for the mother they had lost when they were boys, and it was pleasant to feel that they were responsible for her.

“Well, at that distance, you could have been easily deceived.” A pause. “Even with the glasses.”

When Roger had given her the binoculars, he had suggested that she make note of the different birds that came within view of her window, but he knew and she knew that she found it restful just to sit at her window and look out over the road to the hills beyond and the homes scattered along them. Sometimes at night, Roger would look out in the same direction, at the irregular pinpoints of light of varying intensity. It might have been a fallen portion of the night sky. The scene, night or day, did have an oddly mesmerizing effect.

“I may take it up myself in my old age, Philip.”

“Staring at the computer for hours doesn’t make a lot more sense.”

“Less. Looking across at those hills is far more contemplative.”

He didn’t expect Phil to agree. Phil didn’t have a contemplative bone in his body, all the more reason to admire his sympathy and compassion with Mae Brown.

“She thinks she saw someone chop off someone else’s head.”

“What?”

Phil gave him the story in the same detail he would have gotten it from Mae, and Roger felt a little twinge of concern that Mae should think she had seen such a thing. His own limited experience suggested that one’s gaze constantly traveled from object to object, seldom lingering for long on one house, tree, vehicle. At night it was even less likely that one would concentrate on one object. It was the whole panorama of light and darkness that held one’s desultory attention. Obviously it was wrong to suggest to Philip that such aimless gazing was contemplative. It seemed rather the essence of harmless distraction.

“She’s pretty sure where it happened. There’s a reconverted barn and a mobile home. . .

“I think the barn is new.”

“You know the place?” Phil turned toward the window and did not have to search long for the house May described.

“What do you call it when people think they see axe murders?”

“Does it have a name?”

“I hope not.”

Mae had survived her husband and lived longer than either of her parents, but this could have its drawbacks. The longer one lived the more ills and ailments he was subject to. And there was always the specter of senility.

Roger shook the thought away. A human life was not just a matter of pleasure and pain. Mae was a Catholic, like himself, and would have given a crisp catechetical answer to the question of what the meaning of life is. Still, the days got long, she wearied of television. There was something sad about the image of an old woman staring through the window at the distant scenery. He imagined her nodding off and dreaming an axe murder and then coming awake and thinking she had actually seen it happen.

“She kept saying that, of course it didn’t really happen.”

Phil took comfort in this and went off about his own business while Roger turned back to his computer. He had found a Web site where the works of Kant were accessible in the original and he was reacquainting himself with The Critique of Pure Reason. What would Kant have made of Mae’s report? What we see is what we see, according to the philosopher, what appears, that is, and this is never the same as what really is. The theory accounted for mistakes and even hallucinations, but nonetheless it made all sense experience seem hallucinatory. A philosophy like Kant’s, Roger was convinced, was something only a philosopher could take seriously.

But beating up on dead philosophers had its limitations as an indoor sport, and Roger soon found himself at the front window, with binoculars, looking across the road. The mobile home came into sight and he moved the glasses slowly to the right. The side of the barn seemed to jump up from nowhere, filling his field of vision. He shut his eyes and when he opened them again the focus had dropped and he was looking at a stump.

It was a weather-beaten thing, actually a section of a tree, not something that had grown where it stood. The top was stained and Roger could not help thinking of May’s claim of what she had seen. All too easily he imagined the fall of the axe and the head rolling away across the yard. He actually looked for it, through the glasses. He found nothing, of course, but when he tracked back to the barn something came into view that stopped him. An axe was propped against the barn, beside the door, and Roger wondered if that was the door that had figured in Mae’s hallucination. A man in a plaid coat had emerged, dragging his unconscious victim to that stump to lop his head off.

“Just a drive?” Phil said, turning from the television set Li where a game was in progress.

“For a change. I haven’t been out of the house for days.” “So what’s new?”

Roger was a homebody, no doubt about it. When he offered to drive himself, Phil scrambled out of the chair, a look of terror forming on his face.

“Don’t be silly. I’ll drive.”

“Who’s winning?”

“I’m not even sure who’s playing.”

That, Roger was sure, was a white lie, meant to relieve any guilt he might feel for tearing Phil away from the set. It was a moment when he could have changed his mind, gone back to his study, taken a nap. But he waited for Phil and then they went out to the van.

The van had been designed to their specifications, since it was in it that they did all their traveling. Phil did not like to fly, but in Roger’s case it was impossible. There was no way he could fit into an ordinary airline seat, neither were those in first class ample enough for him. Jokes about sending him air freight had worn thin. In any case, traveling in the van was something both brothers enjoyed. But its design was not really conducive to just driving around. In the back a special chair had been devised for Roger, one that rotated, enabling him to face any point on the compass. There was an adjustable desk for a portable computer, a cellular phone to accommodate his modem. He did not lose contact with his electronic friends when he and Phil were on the road.

“Where to, Roger?”

“Oh, nowhere in particular.”

The verdict on ESP and the transmission of thought was not yet in, but Roger concentrated, hoping Phil would get the idea without any need to say it. They seemed to have agreed not to take Mae Brown’s call seriously.

“We could drop in on Mae.”

“On the way back?”

“From where?” And then Phil smiled. “Why don’t we check out the scene of the axe murder?”

Roger relaxed. It would have been impossible to prove that his thought had had anything to do with Phil’s association of ideas.

Phil went to town and ran in for pipe tobacco as if to underscore that the proposed destination was just a lark. He went back to the first intersection and then turned toward the hills, following a county road. Lesser roads led away from it, in both directions, and the one they finally took was quite a bit below the barn. Phil had to continue on for some distance before there was an opportunity to climb higher. They came slowly back and began to catch glimpses of the barn.

“Can you see our place from here, Roger?”

“Not really. I know where it is, but the trees block it.”

The people who lived on the hill would not consider themselves to be objects on view for those below. Everything here was where it was, not an object in the distance.

“Here we are,” Phil called out. He had come around a turn in the road, and there was the barn.

“And there he is, Phil.”

A man in a plaid coat was standing by the barn, hands on his hips, staring at it. There was a sign over the door. Hillside Theater. Below it was another legend. A Man for All Seasons. Both brothers laughed at the same time, and Phil pulled in.

His name was Page, he had the self-absorbed look of an actor, and listened with an indulgent smile while Phil told him of Mae Brown’s report.

“Yesterday?” His expression became theatrically pensive. “Of course. She did indeed see what she thought she saw.”

In the final scene, the execution of Thomas More, they did not, of course, intend actually to execute the actor.

“Tempting as that is,” Page said, and his smile lost something of its warmth.

A dummy was substituted for the saint and Page had been testing whether the head would indeed roll free when the rubber axe fell.

“The lights go out immediately. It was tremendously effective.”

Another man came out of the barn, paused as if to make certain all eyes were on him, and then progressed toward them in a stately manner.

“This is Manchester,” Page said icily. “Never out of character. We have guests, Sir Thomas.”

Manchester was the actor who played Thomas More in the play and he listened to the story of what an old woman down in the valley had seen, a disapproving smile on his lips, as if the folly of mortals gave him pain. Roger wondered if the actor had any sense of the character he played.

They stopped of Moe’s on the way home, and it was considerably later than they would have expected. Wandering around the hillside roads was an adventure neither had a desire to repeat. They were still with Mae when the dreadful story appeared on the news. The old woman let out a little cry and clapped a hand over her mouth. Her wide eyes traveled from brother to brother.

“What an incredible coincidence,” Phil said, looking to Roger for corroboration. But Roger was following the account of the beheaded body that had been reported at the Hillside Theater just minutes before. The first pictures came in and while the cameraman tried to strike a balance between satisfying the viewer’s curiosity and arousing disgust, the fallen body in the plaid coat beside the stump was all too reminiscent of Mae’s story. A blanket had been thrown over the shoulders. Phil got up and turned off the television.

“No need for you to watch such stuff, Mae.”

“I’ve already seen it,” she said in a small voice.

Phil protested but back to the barn theater they went. The investigation was in full flow when they got there, and Manchester was center stage.

“Some men came earlier with a story of what someone had seen from down there.” His arm lifted, a finger uncurled, stiffened, pointed. “We were enacting the scene.”

And then he saw Roger and Philip and called them forward. “These are the men of whom I speak.”

The sheriff looked at them with mingled relief and annoyance. It was not an unmixed blessing to have private detectives in a jurisdiction as small and generally peaceful as his own. Phil repeated the story he had earlier told Page while Roger wandered to the tragic scene. A minute later he came back.

“Arrest him,” he advised the sheriff.

Manchester fell back, a splayed hand on his breast. “You haven’t been paying attention. We were playing a scene, Page took my place. . . .”

“You used a real axe,” Roger said. “Surely you can tell the difference between the real and the make-believe?”

Manchester was not so taken aback that he failed to insist that he have a lawyer. Shortly after, for the second time in a few hours, Philip directed the van out of the yard and started homeward.

“It wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Mae’s story.”

“Don’t tell her that, Phil.”

“I won’t have to.”

Roger frowned and turned in his swivel chair. Had Mae’s report of what had not happened become a cause of its happening? He tried the thought out aloud.

“Say that again, Roger?”

But some things said only once are said once too often.

By

Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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