I still remember the first time I heard Dubhna ("Doov-na") Rhiadra tell a story in Second Life. It was enough years ago that I cannot remember exactly how many. She was presenting at a region that most likely is not longer in existence. There was a circle of "foresty" things and a fire, and Dubhna telling tales of that North American trickster and purveyor of native wisdoms, Raven. I was drawn in immediately, as Raven comes from my neck of North America, and because Dubhna's style of delivery is incredibly accessible. Her voice carries the musical lilt of Britain and Wales, and there is nothing formal or formulaic about her storytelling.
All these years later, I have stood around other story fires with Dubhna: telling tales together from the native lore of North America, musing in Celtic dreams, sharing our own writing in small group sessions which were insightful and thought-provoking. She was the first person I had become friends with in virtual worlds that I actually met in the corporeal world - spending several delightful hours in a Seattle Tea Shop in that fascinating ritual of getting to know someone who you already seem to know. Dubhna's stories and storytelling are a reflection of who she is: soulful, thoughtful, conscientious, full of conviction, and with an earthy humor that can side swipe you if you are not paying attention.
Stories are hardwired into most of us - it's part of being human. For Dubhna, telling stories and expressing ideas through art is a life-long practice. It's no surprise that we became friends, as we both came to writing later in our creative lives. "From my teens onward I would do cartoon stories, or just draw illustrations," Dubhna shared. "Then I became a dancer when I was in my 30s, and worked with disabled adults, doing music, art and dance for some years, then branched out on my own and worked in community dance in my own right, creating work for performance and teaching creative dance. I finally found my way back to writing through story-telling."
Rhiadra, who lives in Britain near London, had been telling stories of her own making, as well as traditional tales, for quite some time before she became involved with virtual worlds. Storytelling in Second Life just seemed a natural fit, as did collaboration, and over the years Dubhna has created several dance-story-art performance pieces with other creative souls that she has encountered.
Her first love is folk-lore and folk-tales. "My idol and role-model is Angela Carter, who led the way in re-tellings of traditional tales for the modern age. I will share work by SF and fantasy authors if I can find a good extract. I am always looking for new unexplored work that would be suitable."
The growth in spoken word popularity on the Second Life grid in recent years reflects a keen interest in poetry and storytelling done in the age-old manner through a new millennia medium. "I see more and more people coming in to listen and present work in this way in SL, which indicates that it's a thing that attracts and engages people. It's so easy to speak on voice, and time spent researching subject matter means you start thinking about what you read in your daily life in a different way." A naturally collaborative artist, Dubhna sees this further reflected in how other artists view the potential of adding spoken word components to their visual, music, or dance work. She gives the example, "Years ago, very few LEA builds would have included a story-telling component, but now I am getting invitations from many different LEA projects. This in turn inspires me to write new material, or look at material - such as Victorian literature, that I may not have thought about before."
Dubhna is currently engaged with JenniferMay Carlucci's "Existence in the Balance" installation on LEA Region 18. She has been sharing creation tales there over the last few months, since the installation opened. She has used her years as a folklorist and theologian, studying and reflecting on creation tales from many different cultures to create a new story of the creation of the world. Set to the music of Ahnue Heartlight, she has created a fresh tale of the Earth's nativity that speaks to the people of the 21st century. This new tale will debut Sunday, March 28th at 2pm slt on LEA 18.http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/LEA18/224/98/1191
You can experience Dubhna's stories at The Magic Tree at Ce Soir Arts every other week, where she follows BrynTaleweaver on the Wednesday afternoon schedule (https://cesoirarts.com/). She promotes her sessions through various groups in-world including The Storytelling Guild of Second Life, and through the Stories Unlimited! Subscriber Group. She also posts her events on facebook on the account CathAnne Blackfeather.
GOING ON THIS MONTH:
FINAL WEEKEND: LEA Region 4 - Poetry of the Planets
Niamh's Journey of Dreams continues at Mistwood Isle - CK Ballyhoo's newest watercolour creation inspired by Cybele Moon's original adaptation of a Celtic legend. Take the walk and read the story as you follow in the steps of Niamh as she searches for her scattered dreams.http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Storybrooke/20/13/32
Know of a cool spoken word venue or project? Send me a notecard (Caledonia Skytower) with the basics and a landmark, and I will be happy to check them out as a possible feature.
This Month's Quote: “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
IMAGE CREDIT: Seanchai Library and StoryFest SL Archives, and Caledonia Skytower
Arianna’s hometown seemed to be a peaceful, almost sleepy one. There was little the local constabulary seemed to have to do to maintain a modicum of order. The majority of criminal cases that were reported in the local press were victimless crimes, such as illegal gambling. Murder cases were few and far between, and were covered in a rather sensationalist manner. On the other hand, white-collar crimes and domestic abuse cases were usually covered up, often at the behest of local MPs, so that balances in the Town Hall and within families wouldn’t be upset.
“Inappropriate allocation of scarce police resources, my ass,” thought Stevens as he read Arianna’s suicide note again. “They never bother to investigate anything, unless a body riddled with bullet holes or brutally slaughtered is involved.” It was already ten o’clock in the morning and very little in the way of work seemed to be happening at the station. He asked McMahon to join him on patrol. It would be a good excuse for him to mingle and ask questions. After all, there were other officers to handle citizens’ bureaucratic needs.
“Have you contacted any of the schools Arianna went to?” he asked Sally.
“Yes. Some of her old teachers are still in town, one of them retired.”
“How come none of them spoke to the media?”
“No idea. Perhaps they’re wary of appearing on TV,” Sally replied.
“Can’t blame them.”
“So, where do we start?”
“St. Mary’s High School. It’s the last school she attended before leaving town for her higher education, so perhaps they can tell us more about her formative teenage years. It also seems its headmaster is still the same as when she was a student there,” said Richard as they fastened their seatbelts.
“Who’s that?” asked Sally.
“A man named Philip Hendricks. He also ran that school when Helen went there.”
Sally’s mobile phone rang. It was a journalist friend of hers from Dagenhull.
“Yes? Uh-huh. Yes. I see. Yes, yes, thank you Mike. I’ll tell my colleague. Perhaps this will give us greater freedom to act. Thanks again!”
“What did he say?” Asked Richard.
“Dagenhull aren’t ruling out foul play yet.”
“How so?” said Richard, surprised. “It’s as obvious a suicide as they come.”
“Obvious it may be, but are we sure she wasn’t driven to suicide by parties that wanted to silence her?” asked Sally. “Harassment, bullying, threats, intimidation… These things can drive someone to suicide, and it’s happened before.”
“Still, she wasn’t an investigative journalist. Who and why would want her silenced?”
“Even opinion columnists and non-investigative journalists can get in trouble. It happens often. Hell, it’s even happened to ordinary teenagers who’ve been bullied on the internet,” said Sally, as the car reached St. Mary’s.
Richard stopped the car.
“Arianna was known for her feminist perspective, and this caused her to be harassed by online trolls and MRAs,” she told Richard.
“Men’s Rights Activists,” replied Sally, her speech becoming quicker. “They’re loudmouth misogynists, usually posting on the internet about how women have all the power in the world and men are disenfranchised. Some of them, however, in collaboration with ultra-conservative circles and the far right, have gone beyond their usual whining and have orchestrated campaigns against women in various industry sectors, such as computing. Their attacks can get pretty nasty and obsessive. And they can keep it up for many years.”
“And what do these people want to achieve?”
“In a nutshell: They want women to shut up and accept being inferior to men. Among other things, they’re pushing the line that rape is acceptable and a way to show women how much they’re appreciated.”
“And there are people taking them seriously?” he asked.
“Apparently. There are many conservative pundits ready to pamper them.”
They exited the car and entered the school’s premises.
Back in Dagenhull, Sergeant Amanda Bennett and her partner, Police Constable Anthony Cavers had gone to the Dagenhull Herald’s offices in search of information. The Dagenhull Herald is a newspaper with progressive leanings and one of the few led by a woman. The Dagenhull Herald was the highest-circulation newspaper in its area, and even nationwide it was remarkably popular for a newspaper not based in the capital.
Arianna’s death was a great shock to everyone at the paper. Everybody in the offices had words of praise for her writing and her supportive, compassionate, but also determined personality. Her writing focused on gender issues and, in particular, how women from disenfranchised social classes were affected by central and local government policies.
Bennett was a seasoned police officer, who had successfully worked on numerous mysterious criminal cases in the past, including cases of sexual abuse within families. While it would seem odd that she, a policewoman whose main strength was solving cases where much was going on beneath the surface, would be appointed to investigate what was obviously a suicide, the chief inspector had not ruled out foul play. Arianna’s outspoken writing had attracted violent threats from various people associated with the far right and the MRA movement. Furthermore, while Bennett was politically more moderate than Arianna, she still admired her writing and shared her dream of a society that would be safe for women.
The Herald’s editor was an affable, balding man in his late fifties, with a round head, sporting a short, grey beard. His name was Henry Sanders. A veteran investigative journalist, with many successes under his belt, he was now running the Herald as Dagenhull’s largest progressive news source, and was quick to adapt to the capabilities offered by new technologies, from a full-featured portal to web radio, including a successful subscription model. Under his management, the Herald was going from strength to strength in the internet era, while other newspapers faltered.
“Arianna has been with us for six years until her death,” he told the officers. “She joined us as an intern when she was twenty-five and was an intern for… ” He paused for a bit to remember, and continued. “Five months, I think, and then she was hired as a regular columnist. Her death shocked all of us here, because she was one of our best contributors, she was deeply appreciated and we never thought she’d end up like this.”
“What did she write about?” asked Cavers.
“Gender issues, mostly. She wrote a lot about how various policy decisions made by the central or local administration affected the lives of women, especially those in more vulnerable situations. You know, single mothers, women working in low-income jobs, women in the LGBTQ community, domestic abuse victims, sex workers… Her advocacy pieces for sex workers and domestic abuse victims frequently caused the ire of the conservatives, but what can you do?”
“Had she ever received threats for her work?” asked Bennett.
“Yes, many times. Each time it happened, we advised her to ignore them and to not give the abusers the pleasure of knowing they can influence her actions in any way. She took our advice, but I think she was still affected. She often complained about how no one in the newspaper would say a word and how this gave others the impression that she was really alone and exposed.”
Bennett wanted to dwell on this subject for a bit.
“Were her feelings on this justified?” she asked.
“With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps they were. Each time these attacks on her person were happening, or resuming, she seemed depressed. Or, I should say, more depressed than usual.”
“More depressed than usual?” asked Cavers.
“Yes… Arianna was never a particularly happy person. She rarely smiled and I could see something was bothering her.”
“What was bothering her?” Bennett asked.
“I’m not sure. She never complained about her pay, so I’d say it must have been something personal, and it must have been running pretty deep.”
Sanders took off his glasses.
“I’m not sure. Family matters? Personal issues? Clinical depression? She didn’t open up.” He paused for a bit, sighed and continued. “Whatever it was, it must have been eating her up from the inside for years. Now that I think about it, I’m beginning to wonder if her complaints and her requests for a few words of support when she was attacked were a cry for help that hardened investigative veterans like me didn’t listen to.”
“Did she have any support network that you know of? Anyone she could turn to?” asked Bennett.
“Here in the newspaper, she was closest with another columnist, Emma Rowlings. She handles music, theatre and movie reviews, and also writes on social issues occasionally. There were also rumours that they were together romantically. She’s also the one who wrote her obituary.”
“Can we talk to her?”
“Yes, she’s here. I’ll take you to her office.” Sanders offered.
Emma Rowlings was one of the Herald’s shining stars – in fact, she was the Herald’s most famous columnist and was considered as the leader of a trio of influential progressive writers, and Arianna was one of them. Her knowledge of music, cinema, theatre and literature was vast, and her reviews were extremely influential. Her collection of movies and books was a movie buff’s delight, and her personal library was always very well-stocked with fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and even included a sizable collection of scholarly books and articles on various subjects. She also wrote, from time to time, very poignant and well-received articles on social issues. She was admired by many, and Arianna never hid her own respect and admiration for her. Even in her own articles, she frequently referenced her with great reverence. Sanders led the two officers to Rowling’s office. He knocked on the door.
Sanders opened the door and showed the officers in. Emma was sitting at her desk; she was a very elegant woman in her early forties, with a cosmopolitan air. Her hair was black, straight and cut shoulder-length, with two white streaks; intense, almond-shaped brown eyes gazed gracefully, if a bit distantly, at those around her. Her nails were cut short and featured a perfect french manicure. Her black, three-piece outfit was very elegant, and, although the furniture in her office was the standard fare purchased by the newspaper, she had brought her own style to it, with books on architecture, oriental culture, classical and jazz music, various decorative pieces from her travels around the globe, and mementos from friends and loved ones. Despite the rumours about a romantic liaison between her and Arianna, no picture of hers was to be seen anywhere; instead, there was only a picture of Rowlings with a pale-skinned woman with long, straight blond hair.
“Emma, the officers here would like to ask you about Arianna. Do you have some time?”
She rose from her chair and offered her hand. Introductions were made, and she asked the officers to sit.
“How may I help you?” she asked.
“Ms Rowlings, Mr Sanders told us that, of all the people here, you were the one who’s most likely to know enough about Ms Smith to help us in our investigation. Is there something you could tell us?” Bennett asked.
“Arianna was…” she paused for a few seconds, trying to consider her words. “A valued and trusted friend. She confided in me, and I did in her. We spent many hours together, discussing topics which later found their way in our articles. We also opened up to each other, sharing much of our life stories. She was by far the most intelligent columnist I’ve ever worked with, although there were many issues that got in the way. I wish I could have prevented what happened. To be more honest with you, I wish I could have seen it coming.”
“What issues are you referring to?”
“From what Arianna had told me, she was coming from a very dysfunctional family that never gave her the affection and support she needed while growing up. This made her extremely insecure and hesitant to reach out and make friends. As far as I know, in this whole newspaper, I was the only person she approached to befriend. Even as she gained acceptance and respect through her writing, she still didn’t believe in herself and her own worth, as a writer and even as a person. She didn’t have much of a social circle, either. She was known by many, but it seems I was the only one she ever got out with and, I dare say, the only one she felt close to. This, unfortunately, caused frictions between us.”
“There are rumours your relationship with Arianna went beyond the confines of a mere friendship.” noted Cavers.
Emma paused for a bit. She gulped, and continued.
“That’s true. Me and Arianna had shared some intimate encounters a long time ago. It was a rather stupid mistake on my behalf that I’d made when I should have said no. Afterwards, she kept wanting to get back to the way we used to be, although I tried to keep things as friends. But I’m not sure how information on this could help you.” She had started feeling more uncomfortable with the conversation.
“Were these intimate encounters just what one would call ‘one night stands’?” asked Cavers.
“What do you mean?” Emma asked, turning her annoyed gaze at him.
“Was there any emotion in these encounters? Were they just all about sex, or was there a deeper connection?” he insisted.
“I don’t see how this is relevant, or how it could help your investigation.” Her speech had become abrupt.
“Ms Rowlings, we’re trying to determine what caused her to jump off that bridge,” intervened Bennett to calm her, seeing that her partner’s upfront approach was angering Rowlings. “No one makes such a decision lightly. There are factors that lead someone to it. We need to find out what influenced her. What caused her to end her life. From possible harassment problems that may have been brought about by her articles to personal issues, we need to find out. You told us earlier that you valued her as a friend and a confidante. Don’t you think she deserves the truth to be told about her? Don’t you think you yourself deserve the truth about what caused your friend’s death?”
Rowlings paused for a bit, her lips slightly parted. Her stern expression slowly became softer, then what looked like a shadow of sorrow set over her eyes. She looked at the officers and reached to her calling card holder, picking up two of her calling cards. She offered one to each officer.
“I’m sorry for overreacting. This is my card. Please call me so we can talk in private.”
Bennett and Cavers thanked her and gave her their cards in return.
“Thank you. Also, please give us a call if you think of any information that might help us,” Cavers said.
“Oh, and… Before we leave. Since you seem to have been the closest person to Arianna in this city, I think we should give you this copy of her suicide note. The original has been sent to her parents,” Bennett said and, producing an envelope from her bag, gave it to Rowlings, who reluctantly took it with trembling hands.
“Th… Thank you.”
The two officers got back in their car to return to the police station.
“So, we have our first two leads. One: Smith was most likely trying to cope with depression. Two: She was romantically involved with Rowlings,” Bennett said as they were waiting at a traffic light.
“An unrequited love, if Rowlings’ words are anything to go by,” Cavers noted.
“Unrequited? To me, this looks more like a regretted affair that caught Smith off-guard and kicked her out of balance and deeper into depression, with other factors adding up and making her situation worse.”
“Could be. Now we’ll have to wait until we can compare notes with the guys that went to her place. And we’ll have to talk to her again, of course.”
In Sunford, Stevens and McMahon waited at the lobby of the headmaster’s office for about ten minutes before he could see them. The secretary stood up, went in the office and showed them in.
“Police Constables Stevens and McMahon,” said Stevens. “We are investigating the circumstances of Ms Arianna Smith’s suicide, and we would like to know if there is anything in her background that could perhaps help us explain what happened to her.”
The headmaster, Philip Hendricks, was a greying man nearing his sixties. Conservatively dressed, with tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, he paused a bit and thought.
“Arianna Smith… Yes, I remember that name. She was a student of remarkable performance. She never failed a single exam or test, and her grades were always among the top three or four. However, she never participated in any extra-curricular activities at all. And several teachers also expressed concern about her complete lack of friends.”
“Let’s start with what you mentioned first. Why didn’t a student of such extraordinary performance participate in any activities?” asked McMahon.
“When asked, she used to claim her family couldn’t afford it, but that certainly wasn’t true,” answered the headmaster.
“How do you know it wasn’t so?”
Hendricks took off his glasses, opened their case, which was lying on his desk, cleaned them and put them on again.
“I know they could afford other things that were more expensive than a student-grade guitar or a melodica. And her older brother, Kyle, was always dressed in upmarket clothing, in stark contrast with Arianna, whose clothes always were on the shabby side and looked like hand-me-downs from other kids.”
“What did her parents do for a living? questioned Stevens.
“Her father was a farmer and gardener. Not the most successful one, but he never seemed to be in dire straits or have trouble finding clients. Her mother was a housewife.”
“So, at least financially, there was no reason why she would be unable to participate in activities. Is that correct?” Stevens wanted to confirm.
“Correct. While they were never particularly well-off, they had no problem keeping the wolf from the door. Or at least that’s what outsiders were allowed to see.”
“You also mentioned she didn’t have any friends. That’s very strange for a child anywhere, isn’t it?” asked McMahon.
“Oh yes. Very strange. She was very isolated. During breaks, she would just sit alone, either studying for her next class, or just waiting silently,” answered Hendricks. “We tried to get her to mingle with the other students, but it never worked.”
“Why?” asked Stevens.
“She was often ridiculed for her clothing by some of the richer, and more influential girls. You know how peer pressure works and how the ‘cool kids’ can influence others to isolate someone. We tried intervening when we saw it, but we didn’t get the desired results. She was further isolated, and I think we might have done more damage. And, even when we tried to introduce her to other students, we could feel she was uncomfortable. She soon reverted back to her isolation. I feel rather angry with myself and my school. We failed her, because we never managed to make her feel welcome here. We saw the signs, but we just failed to act accordingly.”
“What signs?” McMahon asked.
“Well, her parents never came to take her grades. They were ‘too busy’ or sick or any other excuse you could think of. They never had any time to come over and ask how their daughter was doing. If she had difficulties. If she had any problems. Nothing. We even called them from time to time when we saw she was given a hard time by other kids. They never seemed to care.”
“Have you ever tried to contact child protection services?” asked Stevens.
“I and a colleague had contacted them, but, with the laws being what they are, as long as a child is fed, clothed, doesn’t miss schooldays and shows no obvious signs of abuse, there’s nothing for them to do. Dealing with a kid’s loneliness isn’t part of their job description.”
After Bennett and Cavers left the Herald’s offices, Emma went to Sanders and asked to depart early, promising she’d continue working on her piece, which was scheduled for the end of the week, from home. She could barely hide her upset. He agreed, and she left.
On the subway route back home, she stared into the dark tunnels through the window, paying no attention to her surroundings. She almost missed her stop. She went on the street, and absentmindedly walked to her home.
Once there, her cat, a black-and-white moggy named Sonny, greeted her, wanting his lunch. “Oh Sonny…” she said, with her voice breaking up. She knelt, petted him, and proceeded to feed him. After feeding Sonny, she went back to the coat hanger near the entrance and opened her bag to take the envelope with Arianna’s suicide note. She opened it and began to read, walking to the living room. Emotions started overwhelming her. She sat on the sofa and tried to finish reading the note. She couldn’t. She let it fall to the floor. “Arianna… I’m sorry. I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m…” she said, sobbing, and burst into tears a few moments later, covering her face with her hands.
Back at the police station, Bennett and Cavers met with the officers who had gone to collect evidence from Arianna’s apartment. Among other things, they had brought back her desktop computer, an external storage system, two portable hard drives, six USB sticks, a few notepads, a careworn, leather-bound organiser, her tablet, and her laptop.
“We’ll need to have our personnel look for the passwords for these devices. Perhaps she’s written them down somewhere. Or we could have the passwords cracked, but I don’t know how successful that could be. In the meantime, would you like to visit her place, to see if you can find anything else now that you’ve been to her workplace?” one of the officers asked Bennett.
“Yes, I think we should do that. In the meantime, I want a warrant to have a look at her belongings, her email account and her computer in her office at the Herald. And witness summons to be sent to her blog’s ISP and to the providers of any webmail accounts she had,” she said.
Police Constables Richard Stevens and Sally McMahon parked their patrol car in front of the Smiths' residence and walked to the door. Notifying the next of kin that a family member had committed suicide was one of the most harrowing parts of their job. McMahon in particular always hated being the harbinger of such news. Stevens rang the bell.
"This is the Police, open up, please." The door opened, and Arianna's parents met the two officers.
"Is there a problem, officers?" her father asked.
The officers took off their caps and proceeded to inform the parents.
"Do you have a daughter named Arianna Smith, Sir?" Stevens asked.
"Yeah, what about her?" Mr Smith asked, looking rather irritated.
"I'm afraid she's dead, Sir. Please accept our condolences." said McMahon, with her hands sweating. She barely resisted wiping them on her skirt.
A few moments of awkward silence followed. Surprised, Mr and Mrs Smith looked at each other, then at the two officers.
"Dead... How?" asked Mrs Smith, while Mr Smith looked on, with his arms crossed.
One would expect a mother to be in a state of complete shock upon receiving such news and burst into tears, but Mrs Smith's eyes looked puzzled rather than sad. No tear formed in them. McMahon hesitated a bit, cleared her throat and said:
"She jumped off the Ashworth Bridge outside Dagenhull, Ma'am."
"I'm not surprised," said Mr Smith. Annoyance and a degree of anger coloured his voice rather than sadness, as his greyish eyebrows became an ominous frown. "She never fit in."
"Honey, please..." Mrs Smith started to say, placing her hand on his arm.
The two officers were lost for words. Never before had they seen such reactions from the relatives of someone who had committed suicide. They were used to see relatives burst into tears at the shock, even if they knew it was a matter of time - but the Smiths' reaction seemed so cold.
"She left this note behind, Sir. We should give it to you. Could you please come to the police station with us to collect her personal effects? We can arrange for your transportation to the hospital where she is, for recognition, retrieval and last rites, if you want."
"No." grumbled Mr Smith, and closed the door on the officers' faces, without accepting the suicide note.
Once the Smiths got back inside their house, their son, a thirty-five-year-old man named Kyle, was walking from his room to the kitchen. He had woken up at half-past-noon and was fixing breakfast for himself.
"What's the matter, mum?" he asked.
"Your sister killed herself."
"What? No way! How?"
"She jumped off the Ashworth Bridge, outside Dagenhull." said Mr Smith.
"The coppers wanted to give me her suicide note, but I didn't take it."
"Why should I?" he said, and tried to end the conversation.
"Dad, she's your daughter and my sister. And you may not have liked her, but we should at least know why she got there."
"I may not have liked her? Ha! I've always said we should have aborted her when we had the chance. Who told you I wanted her to be born in the first place?"
Those last words stopped Kyle right in his tracks. He remained silent as Mrs Smith went on to prepare lunch.
To those who knew the Smiths, it was no secret that the entire clan had scant regard for women, so Mr Smith's words wouldn't have surprised them. They were a deeply patriarchal, backwards family. To them, daughters were nothing but a burden on their parents' shoulders. Oddly enough for a family with such a common, mundane name, they valued the continuation of the family name more than anything. Well, almost anything. The other thing they held in the highest regard was the set of virtues they considered to be part and parcel of masculinity: strength, self-reliance, virility and such. The "elders" of the Smiths clan viewed women as weak, nagging, troublesome second-rate beings whose only acceptable roles were the kitchen, the church, and the birth and upbringing of children and, more specifically, boys. Beyond that, they were supposed to just keep their mouths shut and cater to the needs and wishes of the men in the family.
Arianna broke away from the Smiths' mould at the young age of eighteen. She was known as a columnist for two publications of nationwide circulation and a well-regarded blogger / journalist, but kept her personal life... personal. Where she lived, only a very narrow circle of friends knew anything about her past. She avoided talking about her family or her childhood. She was often described as a highly-intelligent and deeply caring person, and, at the same time, as a shy loner who had trouble getting to know new people. News of her suicide were duly reported on nationwide TV and radio, as well as on news sites over the internet; obituaries for her appeared in the publications she worked for, as well as on her hometown's local newspapers and news sites. As is the case with such news, the townsfolk quickly started discussing... Or gossiping.
At a local hair salon, the patrons were vigorously discussing the real and unreal, probable and improbable circumstances of her death over perm and manicure: Devoid of any decorum and laced with uncontrollable giggling, stories about her love life, her family life and whatever issues she might have been facing flew in the air between the clients and personnel, under the watchful eye of the sneering manager.
"Shhhhh... Her mother is coming," said an assistant. She nodded, showing them the door, as Mrs Smith was opening the door to enter the salon. Some of the ladies stood, walked up to her and offered her their condolences and comforting hugs, trying their hardest to look like they were sorry for her loss.
Later in the evening, at the bar where Kyle worked, his friends asked him about his sister's suicide while unloading new crates of drinks and arranging the chairs and tables. He didn't know what to tell them, because he didn't know the reasons that drove her to end her life. After all, he hadn't seen her in five years, and it had been three years since she last talked to them.
A local TV station tracked down some old classmates of Arianna's and interviewed them in order to offer some "insight" on the deceased. None of them could explain her suicide, but their recollections had a few things in common. All of them described her as a "loner" who "rarely smiled" and was "rarely happy", but was always the best in her class and others could always count on her, although she didn't seem to have any friends at school. No one remembered having her number while she was growing up, and no one remembered spending time with her outside of school. No one remembered seeing her playing with other kids, actually. The recurring image in the description was that of a girl who was always alone in every aspect of her short life, whatever she did. The media also tried to contact her family, but were denied any comment.
"This is my great escape
My final curtain and my last goodbye
To those I loved but had no love for me
To those I tried to reach out to
But chose to stay far out of reach.
To this body that needed a pair of arms around it
To soothe the soul therein, to dry the tears
But was denied.
By the time you're reading this,
You're all thirty years too late.
You're asking why I'm doing this
You're asking the wrong questions
A life in loneliness and silence
A life spent unwanted
Because of who I was born to be
Because of who I was... Or am.
I always felt inferior
I always felt so small
And tried to prove myself
I thought I could prove myself
Worthy of recognition
Worthy of some love
Worthy of a pair of arms around me
To heal my wounds, to soothe my soul
To dry away my tears
Worthy of some tender words
Worthy of a kiss...
But I was proven wrong
I felt the numbness of the deep
The murky depths of nothing
To this nothing I return
This time... For good
The first casualty I shan't be
Neither shall I be the last
So, here you are:
Add another number
To your suicide stats
Police Constable Stevens, who had attempted to give the note to Arianna's parents, kept reading it again and again. Her gut-wrenching words tip-toed around the darkness of the deepest depression and the most extreme lucidity, with glimpses of sarcasm. How could a well-regarded columnist end up having to write this? What kind of suffering was hidden behind these words? Although the case was to be officially closed a week later, he chose to investigate on his own time and dime. The reasons he stated for his request didn't quite convince his superiors, but they half-heartedly agreed to let him find out the deeper reasons for Arianna's act and not obstruct his work, on the condition that it would not constitute an "inappropriate allocation of scarce Police resources". McMahon supported him in his desire to look deeper into this particular case and offered to help as best she could.
Why would anyone care, though? With a little cruelty, one could pigeonhole her as a would-be media celebrity with first-world problems. "Love"? "Loneliness"? Ha! There are far worse problems out there, one could say - like abject poverty, starvation, chronic unemployment, homelessness, disabilities, metastatic cancer in its final stages, HIV, etc. She had embarked on a reasonably successful career which was showing promise and she was complaining about being "unwanted"? How exactly does this all add up?
Stevens opened his desk's drawer and pulled out a photograph of a young, brown-haired woman. A heartfelt smile shone on her pretty face, as she posed goofily on a fallen tree trunk at a park. His face turned from calm to sad, and then he struggled in vain to keep his eyes from getting flooded with tears. "Helen..." he whispered. He sobbed as he hastily wiped his tears and put the photograph away again as McMahon appeared at the office's door, holding two mugs of coffee.
"Did she bring back memories of your sister?" she asked, trying to soothe him.
"No... I mean yes. I don't know."
"It's OK." she said, offering him a mug of coffee.
"Thanks. I still haven't come to terms with Helen's death. And to think it's been ten years..." he replied, with his voice trembling.
Sally nodded, understanding the pain he had to remember.
"Have you heard the news? All those people the reporters asked... They all describe her as a totally isolated girl, who was nice, smart, intelligent, but had no friends and no social circle. How the Hell is that even possible?" he continued.
"Yeah, I've been wondering the same thing myself." Sally sighed. "Then again, who knows what's been going on in that family for all those years? Her father's eyes... And the tone of his voice... I don't know, there was nothing fatherly about them."
"You got that right. You'd think he hated her." replied Richard.
"Yeah, I wonder why... Why all this hatred? And so far, we haven't heard any negative comments about her from anyone."
Richard sipped a bit of his coffee.
"I'm surprised too. Only a few times have I seen this sort of attitude." he said. "Will you help me try to get to the heart of this matter?"
"You didn't have to ask." Sally said, and patted him on the back.
"Thank you. Where do you think we should begin our investigation?"
"Let's try her schoolmates and teachers first. They described her as a loner, so we need to see what sort of a loner she was, and why." suggested Sally.
"Makes sense. Think we can start looking tomorrow?"
"Sounds good to me."
"OK. I'll contact her school and see what they have to tell me."
For personal reasons, I have decided to try my hand at storywriting. The story’s title is “Arianna”, and it’s my first attempt. It’s a fictional story, which has many autobiographical elements and draws on many of my own experiences in both the physical and the virtual realm. As you can guess, it’s deeply personal. I’m still not quite sure what its aim is. Not plot-wise; I’ve pretty much figured that out. But as to what I want this story to do for me… I still don’t know, not least because of the emotional state I’ve been in for the past two weeks. Do I want to get my darkness and pain out? Do I want to mourn for parts of me that I’ve lost? I’m still unsure. Anyway, without any further ado, the story begins.
Chapter 1. Bridge
“Are you sure this is the end, lady?” asked the tired taxi driver after pulling up on the side of the road in the middle of the long, suspended bridge.
“Yes,” she said nervously and paid him. She paused. “Here’s an extra tip for you to remain silent and drive away right after I get out of the car – and step on it.” She looked at him with a steely gaze, her otherwise gentle characteristics becoming strict and stern, showing she wouldn’t take no for an answer, and gave him double the route’s fare.
No one else was there. Just them and the CCTV cameras, which were there to record traffic, accidents and the occasional jumper. Clearly, she was not going to meet a business partner or a partner-in-crime there. She didn’t even look like the criminal sort.
She looked rather elegant, with her black, straight, shoulder-length hair, brown eyes and slender build. Dressed in a black leather trench coat and almost black slacks, she seemed as though she was about to go on a business appointment. Yet, no briefcase was in sight – just her purse.
He looked back at her and prepared to say something. He knew where this was going. “Please,” she said, softening her voice, “take the money and leave.” He gulped as she reached for the door pull. “How old could she be? Doesn’t even look thirty. Why’d she want to–” his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the nearside rear door getting opened. She stepped out.
“Go!” she yelled. The taxi sped away. She knew there wasn’t a lot of time. If she wanted this to be over, she needed to act fast. She put down her purse and climbed swiftly over the fence. She stood there for a bit. Staring out over the bridge, she saw the sun dawning above the tranquil river as the street lights were still mirrored in the water. She took a breath. And jumped. One last smile on her face, and the first in a long time.
Seconds later, she hit the water. At the moment of impact, she was falling at a speed of approximately 120 km/h and the water, like a concrete wall, stopped her in a matter of nanoseconds. Her internal organs tore loose; as her ribs broke, they impaled her heart and lungs. It was all over.
The rescue boat of the Coast Guard arrived two minutes later. They pulled her body out of the water and frantically performed CPR until they reached the shore. No response.
Time Of Death: 6:03AM
Her body was uncovered as the coroner arrived. He put on his rubber gloves and snapped them tightly against his wrists. He turned her on her side. Along her midsection, there were scrapes, caused by the Coast Guard crew pulling her on board their vessel. Her midsection and abdomen also had a purple discolouration, a tell-tale sign of massive internal bleeding. Simon Elders, the coroner, started his routine investigation.
“Not another…” said a young petty officer to herself. “When I signed up, I thought I’d be saving lives, not pulling bodies out of this damned river.”
In the meantime, the motorway patrol arrived, along with an ambulance to carry the body.
“What have you got, guys?” Elders asked the officers.
“Arianna Smith, 31 years old. She’s the columnist from the Herald.” said one of the policemen. “She left her purse on the pavement, with a suicide note, her wallet and a few other personal effects in it. Seems like she’s been planning it for months.”
“Yes. To the nines. Every last detail.”
“Information about next-of-kin?”
“OK then, time to send her to the morgue and call her relatives.”
The paramedics put on their rubber gloves, unwrapped a body bag and put her in. They picked her up and placed her on the gurney, which they rolled back to the ambulance. Elders followed the ambulance to the county hospital.
They say that graveyards are the places where the line between the living and the dead becomes extremely thin, but in reality, the place where the line between life and death, joy and sorrow, hope and despair ceases to exist is a hospital. Graveyards are static places – once you are deposited there, you’re going to remain dead. It’s over. In hospitals, though, every day, every night, someone is cured and someone dies; one family’s happiness is restored, another’s is lost – it’s a constant ebb and flow.
The paramedics wheeled the gurney to the morgue, followed by Elders, who came to complete the necessary paperwork and provide information to the pathologist who would proceed to perform the autopsy.
Arianna came from a small town, about 300 km to the north. Rural, but with urban pretences. During a recent artificial economic boom, fuelled by cotton crop subsidies, many among the townsfolk indulged in some ostentatious demonstrations of consumerism. Others tried to mimic them through easily-accessible, pre-approved loans. Finally, others remained poor both in appearances and in reality. Arianna’s family sat squarely in the second category: a working-class family that tried hard to look wealthy. When the police arrived at their place to give them the grim news, the Smiths responded rather unexpectedly. They didn’t seem surprised or particularly saddened by the news. Rather, it was as if they were just informed a trouble-making, ne’er-do-well distant relative ended up in jail.