Uncertain Endings

Fergus Falls News, August, 1909

J Montgomery hospitalized for insanity… young man’s situation is pitiable as he has been a cripple for a long time. A few days ago he became violent and mustering all his strength, endeavored to kill his mother and sister with an ax. His father is dead, and he imagines that he has been buried alive and that his mother and sister were responsible for the imagined interment.

Jurgen had a perfect view of the cemetery across the street. The afternoon sun, unfiltered by clouds, was threading the fat-leafed tree branches. One especially bright beam zeroed in on the northwest quadrant where the newer granite markers were still shiny, polished like silver, names and epitaphs dark in relief.

No stone graced the newest plot, freshly dug and filled just four days before. Emil Montgomery, Jurgen’s father, occupied that hole, wearing the suit Jurgen’s mother had purchased the day after her husband supposedly died. A widow’s indulgence. A fancy suit like that, black wool, 20% mohair, lined with silk, Emil Montgomery would not have thrown his money away on such an overpriced vanity.

Batilde intuited Jurgen’s scowl. She came up behind his wheelchair and rested a hand on her brother’s shoulder.

“He’s at peace, Jurgen.”

“He’s not,” Jurgen said. “You cannot say so.”

“I know it was sudden, but such things happen sometimes. We can’t predict when God will take us, any of us.”

“God didn’t take him.”

“What are you saying, Jurgen? Of course Da’s in heaven.”

“God didn’t take him. Someone did, but not God,” Jurgen said. “He wasn’t dead. He may live still.”

He batted away Batilde’s hand. Jurgen’s upper body movements were surprisingly swift and strong. They were powered by anger.

By nightfall the family was at the police station, Jurgen, Batilde and their mother. At least they weren’t at the hospital or the morgue. Fact is, if it hadn’t been for Batilde’s speedy instincts, they’d likely have been digging a grave for another Montgomery that week.

Sergeant Norquist separated Jurgen from his mother and sister, but not because he believed there was any risk of Jurgen lashing out again. He simply thought odds of getting a straight story from the young man were better if the mother wasn’t in the room trying to take the blame. Though she hadn’t even been there, at the fishing pier, fourteen years earlier when Jurgen jumped or slipped, hitting a rock at just the wrong angle, she’d never forgiven herself for her son’s fractured spine.

Norquist liked to move things along. He had a reputation for closing cases quickly, and to do that, a man had to be efficient. He planned to interrogate Jurgen first, seeing as he was the calmest of the three, then he’d talk to the women. He didn’t even get through the preliminaries with Jurgen, though, before Mrs. Montgomery knocked at the interview room door. A light touch, but six rapid times in succession.

Norquist opened the door a few inches.

“How can I help, Mrs. Montgomery?”

“I’m so sorry to be meddlesome, Sergeant,” she said. Her hands were shaking. “I’m just wondering, how long will you be?”

“That’s really hard to say ma’am. We haven’t even gotten started.”

Mrs. Montgomery tried to peek past him, get a look at her son, but the sergeant blocked the door. In any case, Jurgen had his back to her.

“I understand, Sergeant. Maybe I should go fetch a sweater for him. We left the house in a bit of a rush.”

“I’m fine, Mother,” Jurgen said without turning in his chair.

“It’s best you wait there in the front office, ma’am,” Norquist said. “I’ll let you know if we need anything.”

“You sure you’re all right?” he added.

“Of course, of course, it’s hardly a scrape.”

Far more than a scrape, Norquist thought, and to say they’d left the house in a bit of a rush was more than a slight understatement. But he let it go. Batilde could be depended on to look after her mother. A responsible person, even if only seventeen.

Alone in the interview room again with Jurgen, Norquist led him through the events of the evening. Somewhat to the officer’s surprise, Jurgen was remarkably forthcoming. In the late afternoon, he related, not long after his brief conversation with Batilde, he’d removed the hatchet from under his mattress, where it had been stashed for three days, and hidden it behind the dining room door. As soon as he saw his chance, just as the family was sitting down to dinner, Jurgen retrieved the axe and swung it full force at his mother’s head.

Batilde had rushed to her mother’s defense, sending Mrs. Montgomery crashing through the dining room window and onto the adjoining porch. Then, with her right-foot brogue aimed precisely at Jurgen’s kneecap, Batilde took a dive close behind her mother. The axe slipped from a howling Jurgen’s grip and glided under a corner chair, out of Jurgen’s reach.

Sergeant Norquist, as he often did, gave thanks for the miracle of adrenalin. Instead of having her head unceremoniously separated from her neck, Mrs. Montgomery suffered only a slight gash on her right wrist, a mildly swollen ankle and a nasty abrasion along her left cheek from her skid along the front porch floorboards. Batilde’s dress and stockings got torn, but she was unhurt.

She had spirit, Batilde did, you had to give her that. Well, but too young for Norquist. And rather plain, not near as pretty as her mother, a truly elegant woman. Norquist had never understood why Emil lacked the proper appreciation for his wife. The old crumpet-stuffer had his nose in the air, had blue blood or something, claimed to be descended from an earl. Probably had his hoity-toity nose stuck up that day at the fishing pier, instead of keeping his sights on his boy. Well, it wasn’t Norquist’s business; nobody in Emil’s family blamed the old bean, so no reason for Norquist to be bothered. He had more important things to worry about. Like the present, the crippled boy seemingly turned into a Lizzie Borden.

“Why, Son? Why’d you do it?”

Jurgen answered with no hesitation. “Because they killed him.”

“Who did? Killed who?”

“My mother. Probably Batilde, too. They murdered my Da. Buried him alive.”

Jurgen showed no distress when accusing his mother this way, because he felt none. He did understand why others found her sympathetic. His mother was beautiful, her breasts were perfectly round, like cantaloupes, and her neck was long and smooth, pale and silken. She had eyes like his, light brown, speckled with black stars, and hooded by dark lashes a half inch in length. Naturally red lips, long slender hands that she kept smooth with Hinds’ Honey & Almond Cream. Beautiful, yes, but if you weren’t looking at her – and Jurgen had no wish to indulge in sexual fantasies about his mother – her presence was stultifying. Meek was the kindest word Jurgen could muster to describe her. Dreadfully boring was his more common complaint. Overprotective, provincial, insecure, obsequious. He hated that he needed her care and that she so willingly provided it.

His father, on the other hand, had never failed to amuse. It wasn’t just that he was Cambridge educated and well-read, or that he’d met the most interesting people, like William Randolph Hearst, William Jennings Bryan, Maud Jeffries, and Charles Bender, but that he had a knack for telling a good story. And if he chose, which wasn’t nearly often enough, but if he chose to, he could turn any moment into an adventure, simply by suggesting that something else was happening, or someone famous was present, or by describing the surroundings as if they were in an entirely different time or place. Also, he genuinely like Jurgen. Had the greatest respect for his curiosity and tenacity, as he often told him.

Although she looked a good deal like him, and had inherited his intellect, Batilde didn’t care for their father. Or maybe that’s why she didn’t care for him. She’d have traded her quick wit and considerable mathematic nimbleness to have men desire her half as much as Da desired his wife. Smart was something you could become, but beauty, you either had it or you didn’t. Batilde didn’t.

Both Batilde and Jurgen were acutely conscious of their father’s lust for their mother, and of their parents’ sexual habits. Wednesday evenings and Sundays after the noon meal, their mother would grow especially quiet and take extra time with the dishes, while their father grew ever more animated. Often, at some point, Da would say with uncharacteristic gruffness and emphasis, “Mrs. Montgomery!” and Mrs. Montgomery would drop whatever she was doing and follow her husband to the bedroom.

On the Saturday before “the incident,” as Sergeant Norquist so irritatingly called Jurgen’s act of revenge, Batilde was in town shopping. Over a chess game, Emil engaged Jurgen in a lively discussion about Commodore Peary’s North Pole expedition while Jurgen’s mother stood at the dining table in the next room arranging some flowers. Jurgen had just pinned his father’s Black Knight when Mrs. Montgomery abandoned her crafting and walked into the front parlor. She was wearing something flowery that cinched tightly at her waist, not her usual Saturday dress. She wanted something, and it wasn’t sex.

“May I speak with you for a moment, Emil?” she said and leaned toward the hallway leading to the master bedroom.

“Of course.”

Jurgen knew there was no preventing this interruption. An unexpected bonus for Emil. He couldn’t help himself, the woman was so beautiful.

“I won’t be long, Jurgen. Leave the board exactly as it is.”

Jurgen left the board exactly as it was and wheeled himself into position outside his parents’ bedroom door. Already in his mind was a vision of Margot Leis, with her auburn curls, vixen smile, smooth hips, ankles you could wrap your fingers around. He rarely got a chance to get this close to lovemaking, but with Batilde out shopping, there’d be no one to interfere with his pleasuring. And more luck, his parents were talking in loud voices, making it unlikely they’d be aware of Jurgen’s proximity. As it turned out, they were talking about him.

“Of course he appreciates all you do, my love. Don’t be silly.”

“He never says so. Not a word. A simple thank you, is that too much to ask once in a while?”

“You know how we men are.”

“I do indeed.”

“Oh not so bad as all that.”

“He wants nothing to do with me. He cares only for you.”

“I am his father, after all. We have a lot in common.”

“Oh yes, like chess I suppose.”

“Yes, like chess. And stimulating conversation. Would you expect him to be in the kitchen washing dishes, or at the dining table playing with flowers?”

“He’s my son, too, Emil, and –”

“Now, now, that’s enough I think. You’re his mother, but you’re my wife, and right now I’d like to take advantage of that fact.”

“I was hoping we could talk about this.”

“Talking can wait.”

The discussion ended there, and Jurgen was glad of it. He could hear the bed creaking, hungry breaths, then the growling noises his father made, and finally little mewing sounds of resistance coming from his mother. Those sounds always triggered a reaction in father and son. Emil moved more forcefully on the bed, said things like “I will!” and “Mine!” and “Pump! Pump!” On the other side of the bedroom door, Jurgen would imagine Margot whispering his name, Jurgen, feel the blood pounding in his crotch and the taste of victory urging him to smile.

Emil’s snores were the signal for Jurgen to head back to his own bedroom. It meant his mother would be dressing herself and rearranging her hair. This day was no different. Soon after the act was completed, Emil began to quietly wheeze, and the qentle rustling of a woman’s toilette could be heard. Jurgen eased out of the hallway, feeling a little sleepy himself. As he made his way across the house, he almost ran into Batilde, who seemed not to notice him as she swept past. The door to the master bedroom opened.

“I’m here, Mother,” Batilde said.

That’s odd, Jurgen thought, but he was in no state to scout it out.

Jurgen did give in to a short nap. By the time he got himself cleaned up and had worked his way back to the front room, hoping to pick up on the chess game, the house was in chaos.

“It must have been a heart attack,” Batilde was saying to the ambulance driver, a boy no older than she was.

“Please, take him to the undertaker right away. My mother can’t bear to have his body here. She is terribly distressed.”

Jurgen could not grasp what was happening. Who had a heart attack? When? How?

Within minutes, two men were carrying a stretcher with a white-sheeted form out to the White Steamer parked at the curb. Jurgen’s mother was nowhere to be seen. Not his father either.

“Batilde, what? What has happened?”

“Oh Jurgen, it’s too terrible!”

“What’s too terrible? Why didn’t you wake me?”

Batilde sank into the nearest chair and started to weep. Jurgen watched the ambulance pull away. He felt as impotent as he’d ever felt.

“God damn it, Batilde, what’s too terrible? Where’s Mother? Where’s Da? What is going on?”

Batilde came and knelt by Jurgen’s chair. “Da,” she said. “Jurgen, he’s dead.”

“What do you mean? How can he be dead?”

“He had a heart attack, or maybe a stroke,” said Batilde. “While they were making love,” she whispered.

“That’s impossible. He was alive, I know it. He was breathing!”

“You can’t possibly know that, Jurgen,” said Mrs. Montgomery coming up behind him.

Half a year later, Sergeant Norquist was still replaying the strange night in his head. Jurgen hadn’t sound crazy, but what he’d said was utter madness. All you had to do was look at these two women to know they weren’t capable of such evil. This was a Christian family. Emil Montgomery had been a decent soul, a snob maybe, but a Church-going man and a good provider. The house on Sheridan Street was unmortgaged, Mr. M had left a good-size life-insurance benefit if the rumors were true. And anyway, in this day and age, you couldn’t just stick a man in a coffin and bury him while he was still breathing.

He’d felt bad about it, but Sergeant Norquist had called in the experts from the State Hospital. There wasn’t any question in their minds that Jurgen was delusional, and he was dangerous, which, at the time, put Norquist’s mind at rest a little. They said lunatics often talked like they were sane. They could be extremely manipulative. Manipulative was not a word Norquist would have used to describe Jurgen Montgomery but, again, the specialists told him that cripples did have that tendency. It was a matter of survival, and the thing that made manipulators successful was that you couldn’t tell when they were scheming.

In the six months since Jurgen had been admitted to the asylum, Norquist had been to visit him ten or twelve times. He didn’t know why, really. They weren’t friends, Norquist was too young to be a father figure, and he didn’t suppose they had much in common. Maybe he was hoping for some sign, some definite proof that Jurgen was insane. In his own mind, the case wasn’t really closed, and that bothered Norquist.

Every time he called, Norquist found Mrs. Montgomery there. She was always busy talking to this attendant or that, some nurse or the doctor on duty, making sure that all of Jurgen’s needs were being met. Batilde usually accompanied her mother, but instead of fussing with Jurgen’s caretakers, she sat quietly by her brother’s side, often reading to him from newspapers she’d brought. (Patients weren’t permitted to have newspapers; they were considered unnecessarily vexing.) Jurgen seemed to enjoy his sister’s company. And on this fall day, his hand on her knee as he listened was evidence to Norquist that Jurgen no longer suspected Batilde of murder. The gesture touched Norquist, afforded an odd sense of relief, yet also aroused a tinge of jealousy. Batilde was plain, but her voice was soothing and the natural blush in her cheeks marked her with sweetness.

That blush reddened like new coals in the grate whenever her mother approached, as she did now. Norquist had been seated across from Jurgen for twenty minutes or so. He was about to leave, having exhausted his playbill of polite conversational topics and not wishing to impose too much on the good graces of the women. But his curiosity got the better of him, or maybe it was his investigative instincts, when Mrs. Montgomery went and stood behind her daughter’s chair. She made a show of tucking stray wisps of Batilde’s hair into a top bun and trying to rewind a side curl along her cheek.

“Leave her alone, Mother, her hair is fine,” Jurgen said.

Mrs. Montgomery’s fingers froze, but only for a moment.

“She likes me to fix it,” she said, and went back to her fidgeting.

Batilde said nothing.

“Do you?” Jurgen asked.

Again, Batilde said nothing. She shrugged her shoulders and pursed her lips.

Ordinarily, his upbringing would have dictated that at this point Norquist intervene with some banal comment, but his tongue was too tight. His eyes roamed from one character to another. There were stiff lips all around, stiff necks, too, and unblinking eyelids. Finally, Mrs. Montgomery broke the pane of silence.

“Goodness, where are my manners? Do you like clove cake, Sergeant?” She reached for a box tied with string, sitting next to a copy of a recent novel, The Secret Agent, on a nearby table. Patients were not allowed to have newspapers, mused Norquist to himself, but Joseph Conrad, that was all right?

“I made it special for Jurgen. It’s his favorite. But I’m sure he’d want you to have a slice.”

Norquist glanced over at Jurgen, expecting to see his eyes brimming with hatred, or at least contempt. Instead, Jurgen’s gaze was fixed on his sister. Norquist had seen that injured-animal look before. Was it pity? Despair? Policemen’s eyes sometimes got like that at morals raids when, along with gamblers and opium dealers, the coppers had to corral the whores who happened to be there, whether they be cousins, the neighbors’ daughter, a poor young widow with babies to feed, or an Indian without a reservation to go home to. It didn’t seem right, but that was part of the job.

Mrs. Montgomery held the opened box out to Norquist.

“Thank you, no, ma’am, that’s kind of you. But I don’t have much of an appetite just now.”

Batilde seemed surprised to see Sergeant Norquist a few weeks later coming up the walk as she made her way home after Thursday choir practice.

“How nice to see you, Sergeant. I hope all is well.”

“Oh, yes ma’am. I was just heading over by the post office. For a postage stamp.”

“Ah, I see. Well, that’s nice. I mean it’s a nice day for it.” She blushed.

“Yes, ma’am.” He blushed, too. “But, you know, I’m glad to have run into you. Something’s been on my mind lately and I’d value your opinion.”

It wasn’t entirely a coincidence that Norquist had found himself in Batilde’s path. The fact was she’d been regularly in his thoughts, and he had a pretty good notion she’d be coming from the church just then. He was thinking to gauge her interest in him, without being too obvious. Her blush was one hopeful sign, Norquist thought. But he also wanted to test a hypothesis about Emil Montgomery’s death. Not a working hypothesis, yet, but he had an itch to develop one and wanted more clues.

Norquist’s brain couldn’t let go of the bizarre possibility that Emil had been murdered. The very idea, of an unsolved crime, so many months after the event, deeply perturbed him. He couldn’t be faulted for failing to suspect mischief early on, of course. There’d been no inkling of anything being amiss, not until Emil was good and buried and there’d been the incident with Jurgen and the hatchet. Anyway, it was an absurd notion, what the young man alleged. Jurgen was not in his right mind, everybody said so.

Still. Except for the facts that he claimed his father had been buried alive and that he’d taken an axe to his mother, Jurgen didn’t seem the least bit crazy. Folks sometimes got the wrong idea about people in wheelchairs. And weirder things had happened. As that most famous of detectives, Sherlock Holmes, so shrewdly said, “Eliminate the impossible, and whatever is left, however improbable, is the truth.” Emil Montgomery was buried mighty fast. His was a closed casket, although that was not the tradition among Presbyterians. Mrs. Montgomery wasn’t present during visitation hours. People made much of the fact that she was too distraught to be seen, but couldn’t her nonappearance also signify she was experiencing a lack of feeling or maybe a different kind of emotion that she needed to hide? Eliminate the impossible….

“What’s on your mind, Sergeant?” Batilde asked.

“Well, it may sound strange –”

“I’m no stranger to strange things,” Batilde said, twisting her mouth into a one-sided smile.

“No? I suppose not. Well, if I may ask, did your father have any health troubles?”

“None whatsoever. He was slim, as you know, but fairly robust. Why do you ask?”

“And your brother, again, pardon my rudeness — I mean no disrespect –”

“I’m sure you don’t.”

“Miss Montgomery, was he ever, well, did he ever try to hurt you, or your mother? I mean, before the incident?”

Batilde touched Norquist’s arm. Her smile reassured him. Underneath his shirt sleeve, Norquist felt his old army tattoo — an eagle holding a heart in its talons — move its wings.

“My brother is the gentlest of souls.”

That was Norquist’s impression, too. “Forgive me, but do you think he’s insane?”

“Not in the least.”

His brain was working fast now. If Emil had not been dead, why would anyone have thought he was? What motive was there for lying about that? Money of course. But Mrs. Montgomery lived well enough without the life insurance benefit, the inheritance. She lived very well in fact.

Norquist rubbed his upper arm where Batilde had touched it.

Drugs could knock somebody out, fool someone who didn’t look closely into believing a person was dead. It was still possible to get laudanum, and a couple of teaspoons to the non-addicted could put a man into a coma. Even kill him.

“Suppose I could get your brother out of that place, the asylum?”

“You could do that? But how?”

“I’m not at all sure, but it’s possible. Certainly not impossible.”

Batilde stopped on the sidewalk, lowered her head, started to breathe irregularly.

“No,” she said. “Jurgen can’t come home.” There was the slightest tremor on her tongue. “He mustn’t be released. My mother is terrified of him. She would never sleep.”

From what Norquist could see, it was Batilde who was afraid. Her hands clutched her skirt, her shoulders were folding in over her heart.

“Are you certain it’s your mother –”

“Anyway,” Batilde interrupted, now looking Sergeant Norquist directly in the eye, “Jurgen doesn’t want to come home.”

“He doesn’t want to come home?”

“Not while she’s alive.”

So it was true, what Jurgen had said. It had to be true.

Quick as he dared, Norquist ran his thumb over Batilde’s candy-apple cheek. “I think I know what we should do,” he said.

He didn’t, but that was of no matter.

St Paul writer and teaching artist Nancy Cook is a Minnesota State Arts Board grantee and the 2017 recipient of a National Parks Arts Foundation residency at Gettysburg. Her newest work can be found in Stone Boat, Artificium, Pacific Review, and Centrifugal Eye. Nancy also runs a “Witness Project,” a series of free community writing workshops in Minneapolis designed to enable creative work by underrepresented voices.