andrew todhunter   The Mark  
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  In April of 1995 a young woman was raped and murdered in her bed in the town of Fairfax, California. She was strangled, apparently, with wire cord. There was evidence of a great struggle.

Violent crime remains rare in Marin County: there were two homicides in all of Marin in 1994. In Fairfax, population 7,200, there had not been a single murder since 1986. In the neighboring town of San Anselmo, a single woman can walk down the main street at four in the morning, past the red brick bank and the tobacco shop, past the Italian restaurant and the empty cafe and Gunning's hobby shop with a wooden sloop in its darkened window, and feel little more than melancholy in a suburban stillness untextured by crickets or hoot owls. By day, police cars roll aimlessly past. Children sit on benches, unaccompanied by adults, and lick gelato. At eleven o'clock on a weekday, mountain bikers--men and women--strut like bull-fighters in front of the coffee roastery. Their knobbed shoes rap like castanets on the pavement. Beneath helmets like ribbed beetles, their sunglasses gleam with the shifting hues of spilled gasoline. Foam rises from their paper cups.

The single anomalous feature on this landscape, a tree blackened by lightning in a cornfield, is the homeless man who often stands shell-shocked in front of the upscale pizza parlor.

The murder, then, came as a shock. From a clip in the Ross Valley Reporter we accumulated the principal facts (delivered free, the Reporter provides agreeably provincial news stories, slipshod movie reviews and a listing of the week's crimes in the townships of Ross, San Anselmo and Fairfax. These rarely involve much more than an incident or two of "mutual combat," alternatively reported as fisticuffs, and petty theft).

The victim was twenty-one years old. Raised in Fairfax County, Virginia, she spent the last six months of her life in California, working two jobs and attending classes at a local college. She was known as a hard-worker. We imagined she was drawn to Fairfax in some part for its name; that she found a vague amusement, even comfort, in a strange town possessing those attractive syllables, Fair-fax, which rang of home. She had been married briefly and was in the process of suing for divorce. We immediately--and incorrectly, it seems--suspected her estranged husband, and with some relief demoted the crime from a random to a personal affair; awful, certainly, but unlikely to be repeated.

In the days immediately following the murder no photograph of the victim appeared in the local papers. And like a heroine of fiction she acquired a face, a shifting arrangement of features drawn unconsciously from the countless named and nameless faces in our memory, a face too fluid to be drawn or readily described, and yet as clear to the imagination as the Grand Inquisitor in Christ's cell.

A week after the murder, returning home from the market at midday, I crossed the street and stopped still, three feet from the curb, before a black and white photocopy of a full face photograph of a young woman--the victim--taped to the back of a newspaper dispenser. I recognized the face.

Two weeks before the murder I visited an Aikido dojo, or practice hall, in Fairfax. I had been training erratically in the martial art for several years, moving between dojos. The great majority of Aikido techniques are practiced with partners alternating in the role of "uke", or attacker, and nage, or "one who leads." Properly speaking, there are no offensive techniques in Aikido. Extremely subtle, requiring years to learn, many techniques involve a process known as "entering": the nage joins and redirects the attacker's inertia in expansive, spherical patterns until the uke's balance is disrupted and the roles are gracefully reversed. A properly executed technique should repel or, more commonly, immobilize the uke without injury to either party.

It is customary to switch partners for each exercise. The young woman was in the class, and at some point we practiced together. We bowed, exchanged first names, shook hands. She was new to the art; her movements were self-conscious and untrained. She would improve with time, of course, and I remember feeling some relief that this awkward, gentle young woman had decided to take up a practice of self-defense. She bore a luminous mark of frailty, a mark that speaks to the protector and destroyer in us all.

Her accused killer, a young man of her acquaintance with a police record and a history of violent outbursts, ran all night through the heavy rain on the night of the murder and appeared before dawn on his step-father's doorstep. Sobbing, frantic, soaked to the skin, he told his step-father that he had no reason left to live. The elder man called the police. If he is indeed the culprit--fluids found at the scene match his own--what does the young man think, I wonder, in the hollow of his cell? Does he ask himself, how did the part of me that is decent fail to intercede? I followed the case in the papers for a time, but became discouraged when the young man's defense attorneys--encouraged by the recent debacle in Los Angeles--began to discredit the evidence gathering skills of the Fairfax police department. For all I know, her killer has been found innocent and set free.

There is a voice, untiring in hindsight, that says I should have known. Granted that brief awareness of a stranger's vulnerability, I should have done something. Realistically, I can't imagine what. But for months after the crime, I had persistent fantasies of sensing, from my bedroom, the intent and the approach of her attacker, of driving through the rain to intercept him. More than a year has passed since the murder, and I still feel, somehow, that I failed her.
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Copyright © 1998 Andrew Todhunter.

Photo of Andrew Todhunter copyright © Erin Todhunter.