A Stone is Frozen Music
Kyle Virtanen sat in driver’s seat of his Silverado 1500, engine idling, two-barrel over/under shotgun across his lap, waiting for his daughter’s murderer to step from the doors of Bluewater State Prison.
Jessika Virtanen had been in her grave for eighteen years. The ugly trail between then and now writhed like an adder on the prong of a pitchfork, and this was the end of it; he had calculated all possible post-trail contingencies and was content with any of them—each was as immaterial as the next. In the world of men there are situations of such consequence that a specific response is foregone; it is an emotional mandate. No law offers adequate redress—no sex-offender registry, no term of detention, no state-mandated arm-needle is enough. This is a fact that Kyle Virtanen assumed to be the baseline in the heart of every father who ever lived. Whether or not you choose to acknowledge it is your business, but in the event that you don’t, it is likely that you will never experience the sublime relief that settled over Kyle’s spirit as he waited.
Where grief had galvanized him, it had exhausted his wife, and the end, it had exhausted her to death. Friends and relations had recommended that they sell the red farmhouse on the outskirts of Port Makade, the site of her kidnapping and probable assault, but neither would hear of it: No chance that new owners would treat Jessika’s bedroom with proportionate reverence—more likely, that precious cube would be shrouded in horror stories, intentionally and pointedly papered over with foreign touches and alien memories. So Ann and he had remained in the house, tight-lipped, increasingly estranged, orbiting in their personal agony until, three years after Jessika’s death, she had caromed off into her own ultimate oblivion—‘ventricular dysfunction’ that her doctor believed was aggravated by emotional stress. Ann was buried next to her daughter in the St. Vincent cemetery, but Kyle’s touchstone to his daughter was not there; it was miles away, at the beveled-cap cross he had erected beneath the wild crabapple tree where her body was found a week after she disappeared.
The drive from the red farmhouse to Bluewater Prison took about two hours. He left early, intending to arrive at the gates by ten o’clock, the hour when discharged inmates are allowed their first gulp of non-custodial air. It was late March, a time of year that Kyle disliked: In this part of the world, springtime is dirty and wet, dark and short. As a Finn raised in the Upper Peninsula, he preferred the cleanliness of low-sun January, and even now, when you sniffed, you could detect traces of winter on the wind, sterile spores beneath the croupy cough of returning geese. The trees remained bare, and among the heaving hills and pallid half-mowed cornstalks, they stood sharply against the horizon. To Kyle, they did not look skeletal; they looked unburdened and clean.
But in the low places, especially in stands of oak and hornbeam, a few trees still clung to last year’s leaves, brown, shriveled and quite dead, like a gangrened foot that remains attached to the limb. He was not entirely sure why this sight bothered him, but it did. He knew how he could make those leaves fall—a foot against the trunk, the other planted on the ground, the CZ double barrel at his shoulder, two quick blasts. Not today, though, and not with these shells.
Ornate memories were a brume that sidled by him as he drove. Some, perhaps, were waves of sensation more precise than any frozen twinkle in time. As he did often, he thought of Jessika’s soft-string Epiphone—a present on her twelfth birthday, when she wanted to join the St. Vincent’s guitar-mass group. By thirteen, she was sufficiently chord-adept to handle ‘You Are My Sunshine’, a song that his mother had sung to him in his cradle—a song that had made him weep even when Jessika was alive. Should he hear it now, purely by mischance, it was too sweet to bear; he had to turn it off or leave the room. He had two sons as well, now adults, partners in a successful cabinetry business in Traverse City. Raising them, the bond had been effortless, tangible and easily defined; shared impulse, masculine impetus, blue-gold morning fields of flushing pheasants and gravel Manistee bottom with holes for floating hats. Had Jessika ever asked to come along on one of those trips, he would have gladly pushed the boys into the crew cab and loaded her up, but she had not—horses and music were her passions. Along with his sons, he had built her a small stable on their acres, and on Jessika’s thirteenth birthday he’d presented her with a pliant, pretty Appaloosa she named Poppy. That long-gone morning, she had been so elevated in elemental joy that she seemed to him to be inviolable. It was excruciating difficult to think about: Not only had Poppy outlived her, Poppy was still alive on the day he drove out to the prison.
In the rolling farmlands of Newaygo County, he began to scroll through radio stations. There was a lot of country music, which he liked, a lot of Jesus-drunk pastors, which he didn’t, and one station—90.1 out of Grand Rapids—running a 24/7 promotional gag as it changed formats, playing an old four-line old gimmick song in an endless loop: ‘…this is the song that never ends, it goes round and round, my friends…”
Kyle drove on, detached among feathers of reverie. Some of the images were lifted from the deepest vaults he could access, deliberately so, because after today, he would not go rooting in these cellars again. During these last two hours, he wanted to give his daughter the dignity of his focus, a final farewell to the tender fluff. After today, his most intimate nightmare would be over; the end not only of Jessika’s killer, but of his grieving. Wherever he was at this time tomorrow, his daughter would no longer be with him; he would not reflect on her again. The toll had been too great and beyond justice, this was today’s most vital imperative:
Very little in life was bedrock, but of this he was certain.
Absently, he scanned the FM waves, alighting nowhere. Every time the circuit ran its course, the warbling woman with the ukulele popped up again: “…some people started singing it, not knowing what it was, and they kept on singing it forever just because… this is the song that never ends…”
Sometimes Kyle had trouble remembering the color of Jessika’s eyes. Pictures of her beaming happily beneath little girl bangs were painful to look at, but even so, none were true to the complexity of eye color. Many years before, he had a found a solution: Port Makade State Park had a harbor pier that extended eight hundred feet into Lake Michigan, and from it, you could watch as the shining disc transformed itself softly, in gradations, from a gentle, tropical turquoise to deep-water blue. Depending on the sun, Jessika’s eyes showed up at a distance out of about one nautical mile.
At dawn, this thin, cold band of lake water sparkled with a vibrancy and eagerness that he remembered in his daughter, and he thought it was fitting: he had carved her full name into the beveled cross—Jessika Dawn Virtanen, and in the abstract, he believed that at the spot where she had been found, evil leaked from the earth, and that her cross stopped it up.
Another tradition had evolved along the Lake Michigan beach; one he performed every year in November on Jessika’s birthday. On the day she disappeared, they had found a single tennis shoe outside the Volvo S70 he had bought for her when she turned sixteen; the car was bay-colored, like Poppy, and the shoe was white. Inside the house, they had found her phone in the hallway with a single number punched in—‘9’—as though she had been trying to call for help. In her bedroom were signs of a struggle and her Appaloosa-spotted bedspread was missing. Sheriff Resch thought this was significant, and the family cringed and sickened as they realized what he was thinking: The kidnapper might have rolled up a body in it.
A small glass terrarium vase she kept on her nightstand had been overturned, and the contents—small, pretty pebbles and rounded pellets of beach glass she had found on the shoreline—were scattered across the floor. They’d been swept up and thoughtlessly discarded in the aftermath, but Kyle had found the vase beneath her bed, long after their simpering, slow-witted neighbor had confessed to killing her, and each year on the anniversary of her birth, Kyle wandered the beach, head bowed, searching the sand and detritus for pebbles he thought would have pleased her, slowly refilling the vase.
It was the closest he came to putting himself inside her head: As it is with sons, the nexus between fathers and daughters is biology radiating outward from birth, but with the girls, it soon gets caught up in soft clouds of femininity and trapped behind an impenetrable barrier. He believed implicitly that this was a genetic safeguard and was entirely comfortable with his place outside her perfumed nebula—perforating it was beyond his skillset anyway. He did not then see a father’s emotional intimacy (beyond unquestioned love) as being necessary; she had her mother for the delicate talks; his role was to gut rainbow trouts and grind venison and keep a shotgun at the ready in case it ever became necessary.
Yet when it actually did become necessary, he was not there—he was repairing a broken gangway at the port. Jessika’s mother had been shopping and her older brothers were at work in the saw mill. It was a simple and haunting fluke of circumstance that, in the intervening years, had pummeled the family into dust. So each year, he put a new pebble into the terrarium vase by her bed, and now, there were eighteen of them.
As time peeled away, the importance of this ritual became magnified in his mind, but until recently, he was not sure why. At 66, Kyle was an otherwise practical man, nearing the end of his career in waterfront operations at Kallela Seaways. He had long since come to terms with the cosmos and its single most essential lesson: Life, neither cruel nor benevolent, is bestowed upon us as is, and most of us try to forge a safe path through while doing as little harm as possible. He was not well-read and he had never heard the story of Pythagoras holding up a stone to his students and saying, “Here is frozen music,” referring to the tone ratios that are the foundation of scales and progressions; physical objects, the mathematician taught, express ratios in stasis.
Kyle did not know the quote, but to him, each pebble he placed tenderly in the vase represented exactly that—the music Jessika might have played for him over the course of that year, her broad-set, nautical-mile eyes shining, her dimpled smile both beautiful and wholesome and without a hint of wantonness despite being poised to suffer the most wanton fate conceivable.
So now Kyle arrived in the visitor’s lot of the Bluewater prison, pulling the Silverado into a slot behind the prison van that would take discharged inmates to the bus depot. He finished his meditations, once, for all, and forever. He steeled himself, turned off the radio, shutting down the song that doesn’t end, positioning himself carefully behind the truck’s rear fender, perfectly serene except for a muscle that twitched obstinately in his cheek.
At twenty minutes past ten, a massive black woman led Jessika’s killer from the sally port, down a fenced, concertina-wired causeway, nodded him through the gate to leave him simpering in the muddy March sunlight for a couple of minutes before he noticed Kyle standing by his truck.
The man had no time to react when Kyle raised the shotgun, nor did the van driver or the fat black guard. Kyle unloaded both barrels into his podgy gut, killing him.
The man who lived with his parents on the neighboring property had never before sounded emotional alarms; Ronnie Virgil was an overweight fellow with a receding chin and wispy, ginger-blond hair that hung like milfoil from a boat propeller. In high school, Kyle’s sons had called him ‘Virgil the Virgin’ and as adults, they had forgotten all about him.
Ronnie was a janitor at the Pines Motel, but he was inside the ramshackle, one-story bungalow the day that Jessika disappeared, the day the sheriff was still theorizing that she was a runaway—although, who runs away wearing only one shoe? In the absence of police focus, the family had taken it upon themselves to canvas the neighbors, and at when Ronnie came to the door, he took one look at Kyle and howled, “Please don’t kill me.”
The following day, when Sheriff Resch finally conceded that the girl had not vanished voluntarily, he hauled Ronnie in for questioning. His parents were farmhouse rubes without a handle on civil rights or lawyers; they let him go to the courthouse station unrepresented, urging him only to tell the truth. Shortly he confessed, but not to kidnapping her—to watching her with binoculars every time she washed her car. That, he insisted, is why he thought Kyle was hammering on his storm door. Having no evidential reason to hold Ronnie after this explanation, they released him.
Meanwhile, a phalanx of family descended from the Upper Peninsula in RVs and big-block trucks—mostly males, with a few wives along to tend to Ann, who was near an emotional breakdown. Cousins stayed inside their Winnebagos; Kyle put up an elderly uncle in a spare bedroom, and his older brother Herman stayed with his younger brother Marty in nearby Elbridge, while the rest took rooms at the Pines Motel. Port Makade was so small that the high school’s football team only had eight members—five linemen and three backs—and Oceana County had limited resources to mount a comprehensive search. Even so, including deputies, neighbors, church volunteers and Kyle’s family, up to fifty people fanned out daily across the countryside, some with hunting dogs. They drew up a county grid and formed teams, one led by Sheriff Resch, one by Kyle, one by his brother Herman and the other by his brother Marty, and one by one, they clambered through gnarled orchards, along sere creek beds, inside barns, old trailers, a long-ago abandoned school bus where the local kids shot dope; most meticulously, they picked their way through many acres of farmland, the air heavy with the smell of fertilizer, and at the end every day, reconvened empty-handed at the Port Makade fairgrounds.
And then one midnight, a week after Jessika disappeared, Kyle Jr. swore he heard her voice calling for help from the direction of the Virgil farm; the Virtanens loaded up their hunting rifles and went after her. They did not find her, but instead found a burn barrel on the edge of the property, and inside, flashlights illuminated the charred remains of underclothing and half-burned pages torn from the high school yearbook—each bearing an image of Jessika. His son called the sheriff and Kyle sat purposefully on his haunches in front of the barrel, over/under shotgun across his knees, and waited for him to arrive.
Ronnie Virgil was taken back into custody, and this time, he admitted to stealing items from the Virtanen’s clothesline and the yearbook from the Port Makade library, but in a pathetic and endless litany, he insisted that he did not know what had happened to the girl. The sheriff tried to frighten him; in a hard, metallic voice he said: “If we were to find Jessika dead, and your fingerprints were on her body, what would you say then?”
“Oh, well,” the slow maintenance man simpered, “If that happened, I guess I’d have to say I done it.”
That was enough to justify keeping him in custody.
The following morning, having bought up Old Village Sport Shop’s supply of fishing waders, the search crews were just beginning to drag area ponds when a teenaged boy on an ATV, off-roading in a field that flanked N. Amber Highway, spied a figure in the weeds propped up against a crabapple tree. He went to investigate and called the cops after getting as close as the smell allowed.
Because somebody had to do it, Kyle braced himself to make the identification, but when he looked, he did not find his little girl beneath that tree; he found a caricature of a human being, a stinking sun-black doll wet with heavy dew and obscene exudations, dried blood and mucous, broken jaw gaping, hair without luster, guitar hands splayed out and missing most of the fingers. It was not a person and surely it was not Jessika despite familiar earrings and a bloody blouse identical to the one she was wearing the morning she disappeared, the one that read, I Ride Like a Girl—Try to Keep Up.
In the end, though, he had to concede that it was her and then he had to collapse. His brothers quickly got him back on his feet and told him to bear up for Ann. Back at the holding cell, the sheriff put a camera on Ronnie Virgil and informed that they’d found the girl’s corpse and that his fingerprints were all over her; whereupon Ronnie wheezed and grunted and simpered, “Well, then I guess I done it.”
It should have been a slam-dunk conviction fast-tracked to mandatory life without parole, but it did not work out like that. At his arraignment, Ronnie was provided with counsel—a young, rabidly eager public defender named Lauren Terzo—who immediately started shooting buckshot through the state’s case. She ordered a mental evaluation that estimated Ronne Virgil’s IQ at 61, laying foundation for a diminished capacity defense. She insisted that prosecution’s lynchpin confession had been forced from the accused under duress, without an attorney present, and based on a deliberate lie—not only were Ronnie’s fingerprints not found on the corpse but no physical evidence tied him to the murder. Besides, she pointed out, eyes rolling, Ronnie pedaled a bike to work and the prosecution would not be able to explain how he managed to get her dead body to the field on N. Amber, five miles from the Virgil’s bungalow.
A month after Jessika’s body was found, the district attorney summoned the Virtanens to his courthouse office and explained the hard reality of American jurisprudence: Based on the valid points that the defense was making, a single doubtful juror would get Ronnie off the hook entirely, and he’d worked out an arrangement with Terzo wherein Ronnie would plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison.
The Virtanens agreed to the deal because there were ways in which it suited them better than the mandatory sentence he would otherwise have received. In their minds, sitting in prison was not justice. No one can change the past, Kyle said, but anyone can affect the future. Kyle spoke about the future to Ann on her deathbed, when she was intubated and hard-wired to graphs and not expected to recover.
He said: “Jessika’s killer will get out of jail one day and I’ll be waiting for him.”
The year he fulfilled that promise marked the 45th anniversary of his arrival in Oceana County. He’d moved downstate with his two brothers to work for Kallela Seaways; they’d rented a shabby little house with a wood-burning stove on a couple of jack-pine acres in Elbridge and lived as a trio of bachelors until Kyle married Ann and bought a house in Port Makade and Herman returned to the charter fishing boats of Ontonagon. Marty also quit the docks, but stayed on in the little Elbridge house, earning his living doing handyman jobs, tending bar at the dives scattered throughout the county and sometimes, slinging a little dope.
After Jessika died, Kyle generally avoided his family—they meant well, but they were clueless as to the magnitude of what he had become. He disliked their pity and despised himself when the personal triumphs of their own daughters were too painful for him to bless. But he had no interest in celebrating milestones and graduations; he wanted to shout down every smiling face with the obscenity of truth and bellow about the brevity of each beautiful inhale. It was a persistent throb, too; Kirkus Kallela’s eldest girl Taimi was only a toddler when Jessika died, and it took a lot for Kyle to attend her wedding. Had Kallela not been his employer of more than forty years, he would have skipped it, as he had skipped many weddings over the years, nieces and neighbors, and his boss would probably have understood.
As it does, though, time rounded the spindle, flattened the peaks; sharp grief dissipated in soughs, leaving in its wake a desolation that was far more terrifying. People who haven’t experienced this phenomenon cannot comprehend it: Grief is tangible, pain with boundaries—that’s what makes it so claustrophobic. The keening melancholy that follows is wind from the emptiest hollows that humans can experience. On her birthday, year after year, after he placed the pebble in her vase, Kyle spent hours inside the room with ponies on the wallpaper, looking at all the bright things on her shelves, reading the project board with stable duties written in bubble letters with the ‘I’s’ dotted in hearts. He wanted to stroke the guitar in the corner in case something of her remained in the soft strings and warm rosewood, but he resisted so that the sounds her touch had made would be frozen there forever. So he sat quietly on the edge of the bed with the missing spread in a room that remained just as they had found it on that awful morning, with nothing superimposed.
But in his mind, images overlapped the class photo on her dresser and that’s why he couldn’t look at it very long. It was in a small white frame; Jessika at fifteen, big hair feathered and teased, a golden cascade on a snow-white neck, a waterfall in the sunlight, her translucent smile bright, even reassuring. The face he’d seen beneath the crabapple tree, briefly but indelibly, belonged to a creature unfathomed even in a horror movie, where death is always malevolent and never vacant; the pair of juxtaposed images burned through his soft tissue like a brand. As the years dissolved and the hour-glass drained, he became further entrenched in the idea that his final liberation was only a trigger-pull away, whether the barrel was aimed at her killer or placed beneath his own chin.
When it happened, a billow of confusion swept through the town, the community, the county, the state—they did not know the things he knew, and this was because he had never told them.
The year after Ronnie Bridge died during an asthma attack in the prison hospital, chained to a gurney and alone, Kyle’s brother Marty was arrested for drunk driving and when his car was impounded, they found a quantity of crystal meth in the trunk. Kyle new that Marty had once tried to set up a cook shop in the pole barn on the Eldridge property, and it occurred to him that if the remnants of that lab remained, and if the police went looking, they would put Marty away for a lot longer than the five-year sentence he was likely to get for simple possession.
When he went to search the pole barn behind the bungalow, he found the moldered boxes of beakers and Bunsen burners, but also, in a wet corner, he a feathery corner of fabric sticking from the ground. He tugged at it and it ripped; he fetched a spade and dug, and uncovered the rest of Jessika’s bedspread, now fouled with rot and age, but unquestionably the Appaloosa-spotted one he remembered. Inside was a length of rope, handcuffs, a pair of rusted pruning shears and seven small blackened fingers, bones protruding.
Many strange things made sudden sense to him as he sat on his haunches weeping; the false confession of a mental defective under pressure from a dishonest sheriff; law enforcement’s inability to find physical evidence linking Ronnie Virgil to the murder, his brothers peculiar behavior during the search, including outrageously insensitive comments he had made, like, “Drag the river, drag the swamp, drag the Pentwater Pond—if somebody was gonna get rid of a body, that’s what they’d do.” Jessika Dawn would not have let Ronnie Virgil into the house, but she would probably have let her Uncle Marty in, and now, without question, there was enough evidence in the small, fetid pile to win Ronnie a posthumous exoneration and lock his brother up forever.
Neither was true justice, though, and Kyle already had an inkling of what was. And Marty was set to be released from Bluewater State Prison the following March.
The Virtanens were avid pheasant hunters, and among Kyle’s hobbies was hand-loading the cartridges they used in their shotguns. He made his own gunpowder—saltpeter, charcoal and potassium nitrate—and he cast the shot by attaching a kitchen sieve to a vibrating motor and pouring in molten lead over oil drum filled with water; due to gravity, the higher above surface he suspended the sieve, the smaller the pellets became.
To fill a 2¾-inch 12 gauge shell, he’d normally use between eight and ten 00-buck pellets, but to load the over/under CZ he’d brought to kill his brother, he did not use lead pellets at all. Instead, he filled the cartridges with the pebbles he had had collected at the lakeshore at Port Makade State Park; they were divided evenly between the shells, one for each year since Jessika died.
Of course, he knew that the force of the discharge would cause the smaller pebbles to vaporize. He did not want to risk an uncertain outcome, so before he raised the gun, he waited until Marty was within three feet of the Silverado bumper, simpering, relieved, grateful, holding out both arms, eager for an overdue embrace.
Chris Kassel is a former columnist for Michigan’s largest daily newspaper (The Detroit Free Press) and has two Michigan-Chapter Emmy Awards for Writing. He is the co-producer of the popular PBS series ‘Our Story’ and his Amazon Author’s page currently lists 13 titles, both fiction and non-fiction.