Hemlock Haven was my mother’s place.  She discovered a quiet grove of hemlocks on the southern point of the Tennessee property.  The hemlock branches were low and stately and ferns grew in the bed of needles beneath them. My father built my mother a little bench under the tallest hemlock—its lowest branches high enough to admit a woman even as tall as she. It was her place.  

She would go there to sit and “meditate.”  

Surely it was difficult for her up here in the wild woods while my father was off felling trees and chopping wood. In the beginning they had to haul water. Mother was in charge of providing meals and cleaning up—without the benefit of vacuums or other electric devices.  

A few months ago—when Beth and I visited her in Raleigh for her 89th birthday—she told us she hated coming here.  

“HATED IT.”  

She didn’t mince words. 

“It was a vacation for your father,” she continued.  “But for me it was never-ending work.  As soon as the breakfast dishes were done, I had to begin preparing lunch.  And you couldn’t keep the place clean, what with your father coming and going in his dirty boots.  But he loved it. So I came along.”

When she could find a minute to spare, she visited her Hemlock Haven.  Her refuge.  She could sit there quietly without worrying over cleaning rags and iron skillets.

It’s gone now. 

I don’t know quite what happened.  A few hemlocks still remain, but more than a few are denuded, their stately branches now skeletal. Once known as the redwoods of the East, the great trees now stand against the vibrancy of the other pines like grey ghosts.  And where the ferns once grew in lush profusion I find piles of branches and upturned trees. 

My mother told me the trees were damaged by a massive storm that rolled over the mountains a few years ago, uprooting everything with powerful downbursts.  But later I learned a new predator, the hemlock woolly adelgid (an Asian aphid-like insect), began to make its deadly passage through the mountains of eastern Tennessee in the early 2000s, born by storm winds and migratory birds.

The wanton destruction at my feet makes we think of the capricious nature of death—particularly of murder. 

I need a victim for my novel, The Kimono Tattoo. For the last few days, I’ve been introducing myself to my characters. I’ve been writing back stories.

 But soon, I will need to tell the story of a murder.  William G. Tapply in The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit states: “Before you write this story of detection, you must first write the story of the murder itself.”  Emphasis his.  He’s pretty clear on this point.  

No murder, no murder mystery.  

Apparently, the murder mystery author needs to have substantial knowledge of the victim and the murderer.  Both must have a back story—and both must interact with a number of random characters themselves with interesting stories.  So far, I’ve met Ruth, her friend Maho, with the mohawk, and their boss, Mrs. Shibasaki, the president of the translation company where they both work.  Of course, there’s the author Shōtarō Tani and his sister, the elegant and capable Satoko Tani. And then there’s Miyo Tokuda who sets the wheels in motion by asking Ruth to translate Tani’s novel.

Someone’s gotta die.

Gazing out over the grey ghosts of the Eastern Redwoods, I think I know who it will be.


Featured photo by Brice Cooper on Unsplash