Growing up in the Fulda Gap was tense enough. Then the murder of a child in my small town took away my last illusions of shelter.
JULY 21, 2020 BY ALEXANDRA BURT
Houses are paramount in domestic suspense. After all, dark tales take place in those structures, be they attics, cabins, mansions, or suburban bungalows. Literature is abundant with settings that are not just physical locations but mirror a character’s state of mind: from Manderley to 124 Bluestone Road to Hill House, structures are more than just dwellings—they are whole beings. Breathing, judging, keeping you prisoner.
So much of being attached to a house resonated with me and shaped Donna Pryor, the protagonist of Shadow Garden. In the beginning chapter, she spends her days at a luxury apartment community and something has happened that took her beloved Tudor “Hawthorne Court” from her and the novel is about the loss of home and Donna Pryor’s fall from grace.
While writing the final draft of Shadow Garden, I left the house I’d lived in for fifteen years, where I had written my first two books and where I had raised my daughter. Due to poor planning and building delays, the construction of our new house took much longer than expected and we ended up living in a hotel and then an apartment. Calling four different places home, I felt in flux; on one hand I mourned the house where my daughter grew up and on the other I longed to be firmly rooted in a new place.
My very own childhood home was far removed from the Tudor mansion in the novel. I grew up in a village on a hill in the Hesse Highlands, and my childhood home was a three-story red-bricked house with an entire floor underground: root cellar, coal bunker, laundry, canning storage, and an area below the stairs that remained forever frightening. A curtain separated the rectangle floor space from the rest of the basement and I dared not peek behind as if some thing was going to pounce at me from that black and dank space. In my mind, the darkness I’d find there expanded beyond this world and it isn’t safe was the predominant thought of my childhood.
For whatever reason, I took to crime early and wholeheartedly. I was drawn to dark tales and read my way through mostly age-inappropriate books I plucked from dusty wardrobes in the attic or hardcovers from the local library. But there was a more sinister threat that lurked around me, a threat more tangible than the otherworldly area under the stairs. My village on the hill overlooked rolling hills and farms dotting the landscape and Fulda, a baroque town with a dark history.
I DON’T RECALL ANY ‘DUCK-AND-COVER’ DRILLS IN SCHOOL. THERE WAS NO NEED FOR THAT…EVERY SHELTER WOULD BE TOO FAR OR TOO SHALLOW, EVERY THOUGHT OF SURVIVAL NOTHING BUT A MYTH.
The town was put on the map by infamy: Fulda was the place where Armageddon was supposed to happen. Fulda Gap, two lowland corridors and obvious routes for a hypothetical Soviet tank attack on West Germany from Eastern Europe, was the spot where large numbers of U.S. and Soviet soldiers pointed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles at each other. In the distance, East German look-out towers with guards and spotlights stared back at me. I don’t recall any ‘duck-and-cover’ drills in school. There was no need for that. Grownups knew what we children could barely wrap our heads around; in case of a nuclear fallout we’d be turned into radioactive dust within minutes. Every shelter would be too far or too shallow, every thought of survival nothing but a myth.
In 1983, the town of Fulda gained notoriety of a different yet equally cruel kind. I was a teenager when I heard about the death of a five-year-old girl. It was the weekend after Fronleichnam and was in stark contrast with the solemn church holiday when girls dressed in their Sunday best, scattering flowers from baskets as they proceeded through town. I happened to be close to the scene of the crime, a quarter of a mile, the way the crow flies. Days after her body was discovered, curiosity drove me to the rather unassuming building where she had initially disappeared. The plaster coating was painted in a pale yellow, somewhere between vanilla, lemon chiffon, and butter, tucked between similar white and gray buildings with ornate window designs, three stories high with an iron gate leading into the courtyard from where she was abducted. Behind the building stretched a long and overgrown garden, at the end of it a culvert in which the killer had shoved her body, raped and beaten to death. I stood and watched mothers tightly grip the hands of their children as they turned to wipe away their tears, every corner and every angle of the building was in a semi-shadow and a kind of sinister darkness loomed that swallowed my teenage mind.
There was no arrest, not then, not ever. The only witnesses were her discarded toys and clothes, a beaten and abused body in a culvert, and a phantom of a killer. The police assumed she knew him, given the fact that she so willingly abandoned the safety of that courtyard and followed him behind the house and toward the sprawling gardens. In 1983, forensic science was still years away from DNA testing solving crimes, particularly those involving sexual assaults. DNA was recovered years later, once science caught up, but there wasn’t a match to any profile. The killer’s DNA remained in a box somewhere on a shelf and the fact that police had part of the killer while he continued to remain elusive, was mind-boggling.
I wondered if he would strike again. I couldn’t shake the images, even when I closed my eyes. My mind played an endless reel of the moment he spotted her. Did she know what was coming next? Did tears well in her eyes? When his closed fists made contact, did the impact confuse her? Was she conscious when welts rose on her skin? I imagined him stumbling backward, looking down at what he had done.
For years to come I longed to loosen the strands of the spider web that determined her destiny. I wanted to somehow undo the cold burning of his rage, the look in his eyes, upward, away from her—or so I imagined—because what kind of animal looks a child in the eyes and inflicts such pain? Over three decades have passed and the summer of 1983 still clings to me like a second skin. I have raised a daughter and I write crime fiction but I have never forgotten the girl that lost her life before it even began.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that her death changed me. I was a wild teenager, prone to ignoring whatever lurked around corners, feeling invincible and making bold choices. Something shifted inside of me that summer; barely lit tunnels and venturing out into the night became a sure guarantee for life to take a dark turn. I was no longer carefree, and I understood that safety was an illusion, what looked inconspicuous one moment would be hidden by the darkness the next. Danger was everywhere, could strike at any time, and no one would be the wiser as who’d done it. From that moment on, whenever there was a choice to be made, I made a safe one.
Where reconnaissance planes once scrutinized the jagged border between West and East Germany, the roar of the tanks faded, and American troops left Germany. The Iron Curtain lifted and the Cold War was over. I have raised a daughter and made a life for myself in the Hill Country of Central Texas, in the southeast part of the Edwards Plateau that is not unlike the Hesse highlands of my childhood. But the summer of 1983 refuses to loosen its grip, thirty-seven years cannot remove the darkness that clings to me like a second skin.
With Shadow Garden completed, the months of living out of a suitcase finally came to an end. I’ve been in my new house for over a year now. In a courtyard, behind a metal gate, leaves of an oak tree as old as a tree can be, gather in round pools as the wind twirls them into a perfect circle. That was the first thing I noticed about the house. From the courtyard I watch the sun come up in the morning behind a peak in the distance. The peak is part of a 600-acre park with hiking trails circling the shoreline of a lake. Roadrunners are abundant on the dry rocky hillsides, hummingbirds zip back and forth across the trails, and songbirds with gleaming black heads and thick white spectacles around bright red eyes skulk in thick scrub. Here, I hike five miles and never encounter a living soul. Whatever the day or season or weather, I stop the car where I can overlook the lake and the wooded peaks and with a fierce understanding of place I know I’m home.
I imagine Donna Pryor feeling the same way about Hawthorne Court. Once you’ve arrived where you belong, who can uproot you? Is anyone even allowed to? Sometimes we end up in houses we are destined to live in and sometimes we are fated to move on. The story of Donna Pryor, her husband Edward and her daughter Penelope is as tragic as it is destined. While some mothers neglect to protect their children, Donna might have gone too far but you be the judge of that.
I have never learned to trust the world with my daughter’s life. That summer taught me that a watchful eye is not enough, that a simple moment of inattention, a minute of carelessness, can turn into something that cannot be undone. And little girls don’t always make it home alive. And every day I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world, and so I write about them.