The swings hang perfectly still in the windless dawn. I come here most mornings to stand among the abandoned jungle gyms and sliding boards; sometimes the swings squeak, sometimes they are still, but either way the equation comes to loss. Either way I think of Sarah. Ellen stays behind, sleepless, wandering the empty house like a ghost, the T.V. in the family room spilling its perpetual stream of speculation into the silent air. But even now, three months later, the talking heads can’t say what happened. And though they say, those talking heads, that soon such places will ring once again with the cries of children—that already life kindles in the wombs of millions of mothers to be—I can find little comfort in this.
Once, in September, not a month after the catastrophe, I suggested to Ellen that we too could make a fresh start, that we were not yet too old, that there were other children to be born.
She slapped me, and I deserved it.
There is no replacing a child, she said, and she is right. If I could have found words to apologize, I would have, but apologies are meaningless in this empty world of ours. What have I suffered or inflicted that hundreds of millions of other parents around the globe do not suffer or inflict as well?
So it is the dawn for me, and the empty playground where I brought Sarah when she was a child, all those years ago. She was nearly grown when it happened—and though there was no neat threshold of division, I think of that sometimes, how close to grown she was, how close we were to keeping her forever. Another year, another month, perhaps a mere handful of days. There is no logic to the thing, no sense, no order that we can discern. Other girls her age are with us still. But that’s a selfish thought; to remind myself, I come here to the deserted elementary school where I once dropped her off at kindergarten, where I had admired her art taped to the wall outside her classroom, where I saw her graduate from sixth grade. An absurd idea, I had thought then, graduation from elementary school, and I attended the ceremony as I had attended so many of her activities—the soccer games and the dance recitals and the fifth-grade picnic—with a kind of grudging resentment: outwardly the good father, inwardly narcissistic and coldly isolate. Little did I know that it was the only graduation she would ever have. Or that I would someday be so utterly bereft.
Not alone, though.
We keep the company of millions, Ellen and I, and some days when I drift down to the playground under the lowering November sky, someone else is there: a woman wedged into one of the tiny swings, her face cupped in her palms, or a man standing in the mulch by the teeter-totter, staring into the middle distance. Today it is a woman: tall, her hair tied back beneath a scarf, her hands in the pockets of a blue woolen coat that has seen better days. She’s standing under the great elm that grows just inside one corner of the black iron fence. She glances at me as I push through the gate. I wander over to the benches that line the sidewalk, sweep one dry with the edge of my hand, and sit down.
Once, teachers would have taken their lunches here, eating their sandwiches and chatting while the children played on the swing sets, their skin dappled with coins of light. I lean my head back and close my eyes. The days are long, the nights restless. I am weary to the bone, and perhaps I doze—this is how I sleep now, in snatches—and then I feel her shadow fall across me.
I open my eyes.
She stands three or four feet away, lean and young—much younger than I am—but no longer youthful. Grief has stolen away whatever youth she might have once possessed. Her skin is waxy and lucid, as if lit from underneath. She has weather-gray eyes, thin lips set in an expression I cannot read. Beyond her, the playground stretches empty beneath the overcast; the swing set and jungle gym—the towering elm—stand black and depthless against the sky.
She sits down on the other end of the bench. She smoothes the coat across her thighs. Her breath is a ghostly plume in the still air.
“How old?” she says at last.
“So close,” she says: my own thought echoed back to me.
Then we are silent for a time, it’s hard to be sure how long. A car hisses by in the street, a blur of red beyond the fleeting black columns of the fence. This is not conversation, but something more distant and impersonal: dots and dashes tapped out in bursts down transcontinental lines. Words punctuate the silence; they do not fill it.
“Six and nine,” she says, though I haven’t asked.
I ponder the arithmetic of despair. Is sixteen greater than or less than six and nine? One child versus two, exponents of how much pain? I steal a look at her, head bowed beneath her scarf. Jutting cheekbones, hawkish nose: She looks like she is starving, like some parasite is devouring her from the inside.
“Let’s walk,” she says.
She leads me out of the playground, moving away along the sidewalk toward the center of town. Ours is no metropolis. I’m not sure of the population—thirty thousand, thirty-five? Large enough that most of the population has moved to the outskirts of the city, small enough that downtown has survived in a fashion: banks; a dollar theater; a couple of limping old furniture stores, mahogany tables and oaken vanities, powdered with dust. Streets of Edwardian houses—beautiful old mansions, most of them—radiate from this core. The ones to the west are still inhabited by genteel families who built high-end furniture factories here generations ago. Now the furniture factories are gone, replaced by call centers and server farms. To the east, the houses have been mutilated, chopped into sagging, poorly air-conditioned apartments.
She leads me east. Thin smears of sun now and then appear in the overcast, throwing watery shadows across the pavement. The air smells of bright, prickling cold. Around us the town stirs. Lights flick on in upstairs windows. Cars cough and exhale in the stillness. There is more traffic now, the faraway din of a siren. The elementary school falls behind us, my house still farther. I can picture Ellen there, pacing, always pacing.
“Where are you taking me?” I ask, just to hear the sound of my own voice.
The woman doesn’t respond.
I don’t press the issue. I feel a sort of kinship with her, the silence in which she endures her loss. Not all the bereft have responded in this way. Others fill the airwaves at night, voices lifted in lamentation or cries for justice, as if the universe is interested in justice, or has recourse to it. There has never been justice, I think now, imagining the legions of children lost to famine, to disease and war, over long centuries. It is the scale of the thing that is different—its clean efficiency across lines of class and race, across borders, across oceans—its concentration in time. A handful of fourteen-year-olds survived—no more than two or three thousand around the world—a scattering of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, most seventeen-year-olds. In three months, no one has come forward to report a missing eighteen-year-old. Missing, taken, disappeared. Choose your term. The reaping, some have called it; others, the rapture. Language cannot contain the scope of the bereavement.
The woman stops outside one of those peeling Edwardian houses that have been divided into apartments. A frost-heaved sidewalk leads up to a sagging front porch where a rusty swing hangs. A car passes, swirling up a platoon of leaves. The woman’s key rattles in the lock. Before I know it—before there is any moment of decision—I am inside a family room. Surgically shining surfaces gleam back at me. The piney aroma of furniture polish permeates the air. A spavined sofa and faded armchair sit at angles to an old-fashioned television, almost as deep as it is wide. In the ambient morning light that steals around the blinds, the woman leads me down a hallway into a kitchen. When she flips on the light, it snaps into relief, hyper-real: glistening countertops and white cabinets, a deal table with three wooden chairs against the windows. A cat clock hangs on one wall, rolling its eyes and switching its tail with each passing second. The deep hum of the refrigerator anchors and compounds the stillness.
I too am still, watching as she shucks her coat and scarf and drapes them over a chair. She loosens her hair. Then she busies herself about the kitchen, setting water to boil, pouring ground coffee into a French press. This room, like the family room, has been scrubbed clean of any evidence that a six- and nine-year-old once lived here. No youthful artifact remains—no toy soldier shoved halfway under the range, no plastic cell phone abandoned on the counter. After Sarah disappeared, Ellen made her room into an immaculate chapel, smoothing tight the counterpane and dusting the bureau daily; imperceptibly, over the last few months, our house has reorganized itself around this new center. Anywhere in the house, any time of day—in my basement workshop, in the bedroom where I lie sleepless at night—I feel it exert its pull upon me, inexorable as the gravity of a collapsed star. I stand in the doorway for fifteen minutes at a time, not sure how I came to be there, wishing that Ellen had left things as they were, the bedclothes twisted, the desk piled high with books and papers. Then I might sense some lingering hint of Sarah’s presence—the faint jasmine scent of her shampoo, the echo of her voice. In the pristine shrine I sense nothing at all.
The woman pushes a cup of black, aromatic coffee across the table to me. I clasp my hands around the cup, leaning into the rising steam, hungry for its warmth. Simple pleasures; the worst thing about them is that you still enjoy them. The body has its own logic, immune to the calculus of grief. We sit there, sipping coffee. I don’t know how long. I watch her steady herself half a dozen times, and seeing it, I know that this small home has its own true north, the axis upon which her heart’s compass turns. Morning deepens. Sourceless gray light illuminates the unkempt garden outside the window.
“Here,” she said. “It happened here.”
“What do you mean?”
She swallows, pushes her hair out of her face. She cradles her forehead. “They were eating breakfast,” she says. “In this kitchen. I stepped out of the room, that’s all—”
Here is another mystery, much speculated upon: No one witnessed it. No one saw it happen—not even in the daylit regions of the world. In that moment—for just that moment—parents stepped out of the room, they dropped their children’s hands, they didn’t glance in the rearview mirror. Teachers turned to their desks. Security cameras went black. One moment our children were here. The next moment they were gone.
“I could hear them,” she said. “They were fighting over the toy inside the cereal box. The way kids do, that constant back and forth, and I just needed a moment, you know, the way they drive you crazy sometimes, and you just need a moment of quiet? And the next moment I had all the quiet I could ever want.” She speaks in a dull monotone, empty of expression. “I knew something was wrong, because I couldn’t hear them anymore. They used to fight all the time. I heard their spoons clatter to the floor,” she says, and I imagine the moment, things falling all over the world, spoons and jewelry, pencils and eyeglasses, fillings. “When I rushed in—” she says, “I knew something was wrong, I was so scared—they were just . . . gone.”
She pauses, gives me a searching look.
Close up, her eyes are the color of rainwater.
“Do you think—” she says. “Do you think I could have caused it? Do you think I was a bad parent? I was sometimes. I know that. Do you think it was my fault?”
I laugh bitterly. “Not unless we’re all bad parents.”
“I think about them at night. I’m lying in bed and it’s so still. It used to be I could never get any sleep. Mommy, can I have some water? Mommy, Jeff kicked me. Mommy, I’m afraid. And I would just leave them sometimes, to fight it out for themselves. Or to cry it out. That’s what the parenting books tell you to do, to let them cry it out. But that’s what I think about: the nights they were afraid and I was too tired or too selfish to go to them.”
A thin rain starts to spit down. I listen to it tick against the window. Tracks of water branch down the glass.
“Do you think I was a bad parent?”
Ellen’s question. My question.
I don’t know. How can we ever know?
“Sounds to me like you were human,” I say.
Something a therapist had told me—before we realized therapy wouldn’t help. Nothing can help. Not even time. But it’s all I have to offer.
“I never had any way of looking at it from the outside,” she says.
“Did a disappearing act of his own. Almost four years ago now.”
The refrigerator shuts off.
The woman pushes her coffee away. Her hands knot themselves upon the table.
“What happened?” she says. “Dear God, what happened?”
For that too there is no answer. Just the sound of the clock switching its tail, the rain at the window, the damp loam of the neglected garden. Just the world as it is, not as I would have it be. The old business of suffering, its human position. The universe getting down to work. I can imagine the kitchen that bright morning. The trapezoid of sunlight on the far wall, the aroma of coffee in the air, the sound of a radio playing in some back room. Shouts and laughter, the cereal box spewing flakes as they tug it back and forth. I see her looking at herself in the mirror, running a brush through her hair. Tilting her head to put in an earring. And then there’s a silence under the sound, a deeper silence, more profound. The radio plays over a sudden vacuum: the hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of the clock. The water splashing in the sink cannot disguise it.
She twists the faucet closed.
She lets the silence gather around her, afraid suddenly to move. The radio playing in the bedroom—the good-natured banter about the weather and the latest celebrity gossip, the endless commercials, the idiot unawareness that the world has abruptly changed forever—cannot disguise the deeper silence, sudden, featureless, and black, like an ebony slab. She can feel the thunder of blood at her temples, the pulse of her heart in her breast. She knows the way you know when the world has gone irretrievably wrong—the way I had sensed it as I made my way down the too-quiet hallway to wake Sarah, ever late, for school. Sarah, I remember saying, it’s time to wake up, honey, fearing even as I flipped on the light that I would see something terrible, and I did: covers twisted and empty, my daughter’s earrings nestled in a fold of her pillowcase.
Everything else is aftermath. The lies you tell yourself—
—she’s in the bathroom, she sneaked out with friends—
—the panicky minutes working your way through the contacts in her phone. Voicemail. Voicemail. Voicemail. And then the panicky call to the police, the phone lines jammed, and finally the television, carrying word of the horror unfolding in the familiar rooms of your own house, making it real and universal. I don’t have to imagine how she must have felt as she slipped through the bathroom door and padded down the hall to the kitchen, already the terror of what she would find bearing down upon her, then the horror of actually finding it. I don’t have to imagine what comes after. I know. I’m living it still.
“Sixteen,” she says.
We sit there for a long time. I think of Ellen, pausing to pour herself a cup of coffee and stare at the little television flickering on the counter. And then, the coffee forgotten, resuming her circuit of the rooms, until at last she finds her way back to the new center of our home, the center we had known was there all along without really knowing what it was, or where. Sarah’s room.
We have not slept in the same bed for two months. I drifted away to the guestroom for reasons I can neither articulate nor resist. At night, we lie sleepless, each alone in our private darkness.
I reach out and cover the woman’s hand upon the table.
She doesn’t pull away, and that’s enough for a while. It’s something anyway, something as we wait and long and hope, this little comfort we can offer one another. Some enigmas defy explanation. Sometimes you lose your children, that’s all. And so we wait as the morning brightens toward full day, our coffee growing cold between us; hand upon hand we wait in silence, hoping that somewhere, somehow, a doorway will open in a hill and our children will come home to us.
© 2012 Dale Bailey.