Miss Jessie Comptom deceased, December 24, 1946, Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
Harry Fraiser, the milk deliveryman
found Miss Jessie Comptom hanging
from a rope by her neck in the attic.
The front door was ajar and she
didn’t answer when he knocked,
so he went in and traveled all the way
up three flights. The shoe on the stair
was odd. The attic came into view
as he rounded the top railing,
the chimney behind him. When he
saw her was she swinging still
or just still? We only have this diorama
to look at, after all. Facing
the handmade quilt that hung
on the far wall, her face looked
bruised. Dusty maybe. Harry had
to step over letters that were strewn
in a heap on the floor. “Love, Jessie,”
he could make out. Each brick
in the chimney prevented smoke
from entering the sloped ceiling.
What did the smoke know
having seen nothing? Having been
smoke, it had begun as fire, which
had begun as wood and match.
Incensed by the friction of a lonely
old woman’s strike. Having traipsed
up those stairs one last time, her shoe
being on the stair meant it had flown
there. Been kicked off. Who loses
a shoe like that if not from some
violence? The shoe that dangled
from the tip of her toe must have
been tied tighter to have stayed on.
What had been the intent? No clothes
were hanging on the clothesline to dry.
Only her body, which hung by the neck
at the end of the rope. A doll’s body
with no weight to it at all. You would
think she couldn’t have succeeded.
The physics weren’t right.
The verisimilitude to real life
almost impossible to achieve. In a doll’s house,
the attic might contain a few meaningful
items: a lamp, a phonograph, old books
on a bookshelf. It was the letters
out of place and the knot
around her neck that didn’t belong.
The shawl over her shoulders
barely looked disturbed. The gray hairs
had been loosened from her bun.
The knot could be examined for DNA.
For any evidence that she didn’t
tie it herself. The knot. Was it the kind
a fisherman might tie? A hunter?
Love letters returned meant something
didn’t they? It was easy to think
she had been an old maid, despondent
and despairing. It was Christmas Eve, 1946.
So easy to conclude her unhappiness.
The knot tied her to this assumption.
The knot itself that tightened against
her throat as she kicked the chair
out from under her. Slipped out
of the last letter he returned, as if
by black magic, snaked itself over
the rafters by an unseen hand, caught
her by the back of her grandma dress,
knocked her shoe off, and lifted her
easily into the air.
Jessica Purdy holds an MFA from Emerson College. She teaches Poetry Workshops and Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. Her poems and reviews have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, gravel, Hole in the Head Review, The Plath Poetry Project, The Ekphrastic Review, The Light Ekphrastic, SurVision, The Wild Word, isacoustic, Nixes Mate Review, Bluestem Magazine, The Telephone Game, The Tower Journal, and The Cafe Review, among others. Anthologies include COVID Spring, Except for Love: New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall, Nancy Drew Anthology, and Lunation. Her chapbook, Learning the Names, was published in 2015 by Finishing Line Press. Her books STARLAND and Sleep in a Strange House were released by Nixes Mate Books in 2017 and 2018. Sleep in a Strange House was a finalist for the NH Literary Awards in 2019.