Spilled Milk Part Deux
I now knew that Hassie had murdered Wilhem.
I dusted Hassie’s daguerreotype on the mantle, contemplating the intense stare of her dark deepset eyes while I waited for Mark, my youngest son, to arrive for a Halloween visit.
Believing what I saw in last night’s fevered apparition, did I see the anger of a jilted woman in Hassie’s stare? I shivered. And thought about how my pride had whispered violent suggestions to my broken heart when my ex had left me for his “new child bride.” In Hassie’s eyes was steely resolve. I’d seen that in my own mirror.
Leaves crunched underfoot and the backdoor banged open. “Mom? “ called Mark.
“What are you doing inside on such a beautiful…Mom, you look terrible!”
Exhaustion and exploratory excitement gave me energy, and I told the whole tale to Mark in a rush.
“Did you bring any of this mushroom back?” he asked with concern.
“I may have misjudged the mushroom, but the deadly ones either kill instantly or you feel nothing for days , then your liver and kidney shut down at once and you’re dead before you hit the floor. I might have had a reaction, but this vision was as real as you are standing before me right now.
Mark sat on the sofa and looked from me to Hassie. “Mom, you’re missing something here. It just doesn’t add up.” He leaned back. “Why would Hassie take that cheese back after it was soiled with the incriminating blood of a ‘lover’…where and how would Hassie have gotten such elegant gloves… how is this cheesemaker two timing her if they weren’t married? What did he have to gain when he had this beautiful young milkmaid…”
“I don’t know, Mark. But now I need to find that cave with the door inside by the river that grampa discovered when he was a child during his only meeting with Hassie. It must be the cheese cave. And I’ll bet we’ll find answers to this mystery inside. Will you help me?”
I leaned on Mark heavily but we went to the river with newly focused eyes. At first I despaired, but then…I saw it as Hassie saw it. She had rolled a boulder halfway down the embankment, where it had been stopped by the river rocks she’d piled up on the edge of the cave. The opening had been completely hidden over the years, with leaves and plants filling the gaps.
“Give me a lever, and I’ll move the world!” said Mark. And while I handshoveled the dirt and gravel Mark found a long heavy tentpole log and jimmied it under the rock on the uphill side. It didn’t take much anda sudden whoosh of cold stale air ruffled my hair.
Six feet in there was a door, still solid. Mark pushed it open with difficulty, and from the blackness inside came the musty bluster of uncirculated air…and, what was that tangy smell?
Mark had a flashlight. He switched it on, and we both gasped. The cave stretched back into the bank along the river’s edge for 30 feet or more. There were racks twelve feet high running the length, and on every shelf sat the remains of the cheese that had been the pride of Otis Creamery.
The mites had done their work over the 125 years, turning the tomes to lumps of ghostly dust. And there, on the first shelf, an empty spot, a cheese gone-missing. I pointed and Mark swung the flashlight to the table to the left of the door, and there it was; the ancient murder weapon. It was still bundled up; the cloth was splattered with rusty stains that could only be blood.
I reached for it, but out of the corner of my eye I saw something weirdly familiar…the spine of a ledger, jammed between the rocks at the highest point above the door. Mark pulled it out gently. Somehow it had survived intact, in better shape even, than its twin in my attic chest.
In this ledger, only one hand had written; Wilhem Demor’se. It opened with a confession that I now understand. “1 to 7, minimum flavor. 1 to 6 best. 1 to 5 long set” and these all marked by dates and cryptic shorthand I still can’t read. These careful notes showed make after make that he recorded. There was no sign of Hassie in here.
“These are ratios,” I said to Mark. “Of course, they’d skim the butter before they made the cheese,” I said as the plot took shape in my mind. “This was a monetary decision! Taking more butter out before you made the cheese, made you more money on the butter, but the cheese became increasingly lifeless…”
I stumbled to silence, and the last word reverberated in the cave. Lifeless. The face of the young milkmaid sinking into the pond came back in a flood and the brilliant white, pure unskimmed milk in her pail spilling out in the moonlight…
I turned to Mark. “Hassie killed Wilhem because he was making cheese in secret without taking every bit of butter out of the milk first. It was the reason cheeses became so tasteless. Hassie killed him because he was stealing from her. Stealing by making a better cheese. And he must have sold that better cheese to buy the gloves for the milkmaid who was his lover and accomplice. She set aside some of her daily take for his higher fat cheeses.”
Mark and I stood there for a long time. I had wanted love to have driven Hassie mad, but something evil had been in her heart instead; greed. She might have supported a driven cheesemaker to age the best, but instead, she wanted money today and she killed for it.