If only he had not left her there in the undergrowth, next to the train tracks, for the engineer to see, her blue tongue cotted in a mouth that had only just cradled baby teeth. The belt uncinched to coil among the ivy. The fingers, nails dotted with whorls of chipped polish, still hesitant when they gripped a pen to scribble notes: Mom, I went to get my bike at Mark’s house. I didn’t want to leave it there. Be back soon. Tire deflated, its frame tossed nearby. She will be my first front-page correction, rechristened by a neglected letter, a dropped e, her name not restored to her until the next morning at the bottom of A2 in agate-sized type, a too-brief accounting of the past day’s mistakes.
This will come two days after the bundle discovered by a pack of children playing in a marsh bordered by office parks and the interstate, where red-wing blackbirds call from the trees over the groans of traffic. A red T-shirt, two towels and a pillowcase, bound with rope, tied off in a simple knot; the bunting unwound to reveal what now rests on a slatted silver table, the face turned to the medical examiner’s camera for photographs to be placed in the file marked “Baby Boy.” Would you like to look? the detective asks.Yes, I say. No, I mean. I will not get anything wrong this time— there is no name to record—but I will not make anything right, either.
How did this error happen, and how will you make sure that it does not happen again? I write: I will double-check my notes. I think: Do not tell the stories you do not have the heart to betray. The paper-voiced woman who imagines that the rustling in her garage is caused by something the size of a man, as big as hate and menace, only for the summoned police to discover—snuffling, feral, pinch-eyed—a raccoon.
But not the family practice physician who crams his hospital computer’s hard drive with tiny mouths and bent knees, and places a two-way mirror and video camera in the basement bathroom and adjoining bedroom where his daughter held her sleepovers.The police will conclude that the red light on the camera never came on, that he did not touch his own children or patients in the way of the pictures that he summons to the computer screen, even in the emergency room. But, he cannot stop looking. Pedophilia, he types into search engines. Incest. Father-Daughter Sex. I write: He declined to comment. What I mean is that when I find him, white coat surrendered for the black apron of a Boston Market—where he has devoted himself anew to the anonymous disarticulation of chickens, of turkeys, the proper carving of meatloaf— he blinks and blinks, his skin so red it looks abraded. His lips part so that I can see the worm-pink tip of his tongue, working, groping, but no sound comes out. I can see myself reflected in the lenses of his glasses, and I know I should wait, ask again, but I am already turning away in relief.
This is the year that begins with a missing mother, her station wagon returned to her driveway as if it had driven itself. Her body waiting beneath the river, currents loosening the ropes tied to the weights tied to her limbs. In February, she rises. And I dial: Detective. Medical examiner. The mother’s mother. Ex-husband (rechristened “Person of Interest” in the detective’s file). I do not want to speak with the children, but he insists, says they have no secrets, that they are a family and anything I need to ask him I can ask in front of them.
I’m so sorry, I want to say. The way I say it again and again on the day of the funeral, as the mother’s mother hides my tears with her shoulder, my lowered pen, a moment I do not admit to anyone, because it reveals me for what I fear I am. A cupcake, the veterans’ reproach. Cloying, soft, indulgent, too precious with the guilt I feel for inserting myself in places where I know I do not belong.
But when he says, Come take a seat in the living room, and I sit stiff on the lip of the sofa, the children watching from the burrows they have made on the carpeted floor, my questions on the chipboard backing of my notebook, all asked except one—Did you do it?—I wish I could say that I did not, that I never asked this of their father in front of them, forcing them even for a second to consider the rivered silence between my question and his answer, No, no, absolutely not.
Maybe this is why when I learn that baby Jesus has been snatched from his suburban manger, I let his little plastic light-up body go with a word. Why I leave forever wandering the miniature poodle found padding the streets of Lake Oswego, lost, no collar, its only identifying mark 16 parenthesis-sized toenails painted purple. And the urgent “juvenile problem,” which further investigation reveals to be two kindergarten-aged boys spraying the playground equipment with glorious yellow arcs, the attending police officer left to attempt his gravest counsel: Use restrooms from now on. The resident of 4754 Carman Drive cautioned for “goats at large.”The woman who calls 911 to report that a child “pooped in Sunset Pool.” Four months later, another woman will call to “advise two dogs, one black large dog with long fur, and a second dog, medium black, are connected in an awkward position,” though by the time the officer arrives, they will have disentangled themselves “and left the area in separate directions.”
But I cannot ignore the young couple gathering flashlights, shovels, a bag of lime.
Such a young couple: she, only just beginning to feel the new heaviness of her breasts; he, barely 20, out on bail, his name on the courthouse docket for torturing a man—called simple, childlike—in the months before they met. She accepts this fact about her love without question, but not the possibility of jail.
So out comes the special dress, a seat at the bar, Split a pitcher of beer with me, and when it is done, the man called simple, childlike, follows his new friend out to the green van where her boyfriend waits in the back under a blanket, hand on the shovel’s grip.
She admits her guilt on a spring morning three weeks after the discovery in the marsh. A flicker behind his lashes, and still she knelt on the ground on all fours and pushed his body into the hole she and her boyfriend hacked from the mountainside.
All this, I must let happen. All this, I find a way to write. But there is one thing I leave out, like a letter missing from a name, one thing I tell myself I do not have the space to include: that when they arrested her, the baby had already taken hold. No one will say what happened to it, or whether it is a boy or a girl—only that it is “in care” following the prison birth. And though it is my job to press, I can’t bring myself to ask any more, just as I do not visit the scene of the crime, so that I might go on telling myself without fear of ever being wrong that already sword ferns and salmonberries have grown back over the earth they turned.