Authors: Keith Donohue
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Psychological, #Literary, #Supernatural, #Psychological Fiction, #Fiction - General, #Visionary & Metaphysical, #Girls, #American Contemporary Fiction - Individual Authors +, #Widows
The Stolen Child
For my brothers and sisters
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.
Einst werd ich liegen im Nirgend bei einem Engel irgend.
One day I will lie Nowhere with an angel at my side.
he heard the fist tap again, tentative and small.
From the cocoon of her bed, she threw off the eiderdown duvet and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders against the winter's chill. Alone in the house, Margaret took the stairs cautiously, holding her breath to verify that the sound at the front door was not just another auditory hallucination to disturb her hard-won sleep. On the fourth step from the bottom, she peered through the transom window but saw only minatory blackness and the blue reflected light of moon and stars arcing off the cover of new snow. She whispered a prayer to herself:
just don't hurt me…
Margaret pressed her palms against the oak to deduce the presence on the other side, without seeing, without being seen, and on faith undid the locks and swung wide the door. Shivering on the threshold stood a young girl, no more than nine years old, with a tattered suitcase leaning against her legs. Between the hem of her coat and the top of her kneesocks, her bare skin flushed salmon pink. She wore no hat, and even in the dim light, the tops of her ears blazed red through her fine blonde hair. A visible chill sashayed up the girl's spine, and her bony knees knocked and her thin hips wriggled as the shiver ended in convulsions of the shoulders and an involuntary clacking of the teeth. She flexed her fingers into fists to keep the circulation going. Beneath the threadbare plaid coat more suited for early autumn, the girl appeared no more than a frame of bones, all lines and sharp angles. Winter blew right through her.
“You poor thing, come in. How long have you been out there in the cold?”
Margaret Quinn regarded her visitor, then stepped outside to the porch, brought in the miniature suitcase, and locked the door behind her. What had seemed unreal through the open door now confronted her in the safety of the house. The girl stood in the foyer, thawing and shaking with tremors. Pinned to her cloth coat was a torn paper badge with three letters printed in an earnest and unsteady hand: N-O-R.
“Is that your name, child? You're missing something. That's no way to spell Norah. It's with an A and an H. Is that who you are? Norah?”
The child did not reply, but the heat had begun to work its way into her, loosening the icy grip on her personality. When she noticed the woman watching her, she grimaced with thin blue lips. Margaret busied herself, switching on the lights, through the dining room and into the kitchen, and the girl followed like a pup as Margaret struck a match and lit the woodstove and, with a kindling stick, shut the iron door. “Come warm yourself.”
Old habits and dormant instincts returned. Margaret heated milk in a saucepan and spread butter on saltines. Perched in a chair by the wood-stove, the girl unbuttoned her coat and worked her arms from the sleeves. When her severe glasses fogged with condensation, she took them off, wiped the lenses on the hem of her dress, and then promptly returned them to her nose. The blood rushed back to her cheeks and set them ablaze. Her eyes brightened, and without a word, she took the mug and gulped down half her drink.
“You'll have to excuse these buttered crackers, that's all I have. Don't get many children here.”
The saltines vanished. The drained mug was refilled. The old house groaned and ticked, stirring from sleep. Behind her eyes, a light came on inside as she sat perfectly still and poised next to Margaret at the kitchen table, the two creatures considering one another in the enveloping warmth.
“Where did you come from? How did you get here?”
The coat slipped from the girl's shoulders, revealing a blue jumper with a yellow blouse and white kneesocks dingy from a hundred washings. Two mismatched barrettes held back her ragged hair, and a chalky rime glistened above her chapped lips. Contemplating her answer, she disappeared into blankness, and when she closed her eyes, small veins laced across the pale lids. Realizing the lateness of the hour, Margaret felt all at once her weary age, the heaviness in her arms and legs, the ache of her joints. A saturnine mood came over her. “Can you speak, child?”
“I was frozen,” she answered in a phlegmy voice. “Cold as the point of an icicle.” An old soul in a child's body, one of the preternaturally mature. In one swift swallow she finished her milk, and then she cleared her throat, the tones of her speech lightening an octave. “I hadn't had a thing to eat all night, so thank you, Mrs. Quinn.”
Margaret wondered how she knew her name, and then reckoned that the child must have read it off the mailbox. The little girl yawned, revealing the jagged mouth of baby molars and holes, the serrated edges of her adult teeth piercing the gums at odd angles.
“You must be tired, my girl.”
“Norah, with an A-H at the end. I feel like I haven't slept in a thousand years.”
Both hands of the clock slipped off twelve. “There's an extra bed at the top of the stairs. But first thing we'll call your mother.”
“I haven't any mother. Or father either. No one at all in this wide world. I am an orphan, Mrs. Quinn.”
A sliver of sorrow cut through her heart. “I'm so sorry. How long have you been on your own?”
“Always. Since the beginning. I never knew my parents.”
“And where have you come from? We should call the police to see if anyone is missing a child.” She tried to remember the name of the detective—Willet was it?—who bothered her for months after Erica went missing. They never did find her daughter.
“I am not lost.” The girl stared, unblinking.
The police are useless, she thought. “But how did you get here?”
“I have been looking for some place, and your light was on, and there is a welcome mat at your door. You were expecting someone.”
“No one ever comes.”
“I am here.”
“That you are.” On her fingertips, she calculated the years, thinking all the while of the possibilities. Her daughter had been gone for a decade, and the girl appeared to be just shy of nine. Old enough to be her own granddaughter, had such a child ever existed. Margaret led the girl upstairs to the empty room, which she rarely visited any longer, not more than once a month to run a duster over the wooden bureau, the desk, the bedframe. There had been many times when, suddenly tired of life, she sat on the edge of the mattress and felt unable to ever move from the spot. Sending Norah to wash her face and hands, Margaret stood before the closet, afraid of what might spring out, and reached in its dark recesses to pull out a trunk reeking of camphor. Under layers of too-large coats and a never-worn dress, she found a young girl's nightgown, creased and stiff. Norah wrapped herself inside the old clothes, crawled under the covers, and chirped her goodnight.
The question, dormant but habitual, arrived without thought. “Have you said your prayers?” She looked at the child's tiny head upon the pillow and saw in the faint light an unexpected answer to her own hopes. Switching off the lamp, she dared touch the child's soft hair, whispered “sweet dreams,” and left the room to stand, breathless, outside the bedroom door. Listening from the hallway, unnerved by the presence of another, Margaret waited for the rhythmic breath of sleep, and nodding to the sound of the slumbering child, she padded back to her darkened bedroom.
he depth of darkness made the warning signs difficult to see. He was nearly upon the caution before he could read: Bridge Freezes Before Roadway, which made him laugh, for he had been cold a long time, and nothing would make him colder. Screwing his hat tighter against his scalp and gathering his scarf into the collar of his coat, the figure leaned into the breeze and strolled onto the bridge. The moisture wicked away from the chapped skin on his shaved jawline, and with every breath he drew, the air drove into the misery of his sinuses. The cold dried his eyes, and each time he blinked, he made warm tears which unsettled his ideas of order. No headlights approached; none had crossed his path that night. The bitterness of that late hour kept everyone indoors, nestled in their blankets and prayers to stay warm and safe. He stepped over the water and listened to the river, choked with broken ice, crawl and lap softly against the long steel shafts sunk into its bed. As he walked on, his heels echoed against the pavement, and when he paused, the world froze all over again.
Through the sad and fading town he moved in deliberate measure, past the shuttered windows and vacant storefronts. Down in the valley, the residual orange glow from one of the last mills huffed and dissipated like a lifting fog, as if hell itself were dying, going out of business. Once clear of the streetlights, the ambient light faded, and pinprick stars glowed through the crystal skies. In the corner of a constellation, an ember winked and traced a fleeting parabola. A cold night is best, he thought. Chances of encountering another soul grew more remote as the distance widened between the houses. He came across an old elementary school, a foursquare brick monument built during a more prosperous age, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence with a few teeth missing. Even through his gloves, the bars chilled his fingers. The vacant schoolyard echoed with laughter, and afterimages of playing children appeared like the ghosts of a half century ago. He drew in their memories, beholding nothing but these refugees of time.
Following his own sense of surety, he crossed through the woods and came to a small house whose yard lay protected by a split-rail fence. The darkened windows entrapped the sleepers and their dreams, Margaret and the foundling she had taken in. He circled round to the front and stood by the car parked in the drive to gaze at the porch and sheltering door. He knew the girl had finally found her.
Locked in place, he watched the old house while the air seeped into his marrow, as if he had been standing in the same frozen spot for days. Solitude had emptied him, and the quietus of three in the morning filled his mind with winter. Nothing more than the substance of prayer, the fear to complement hope, he tested the limits of his new form, shifting his weight from one leg to the other and cracking the stiffness in his muscles and bones to break the icehold. From next door, a tiny dog began yapping and bouncing to see through the window, its small head popping into view, steady as a metronome. He stared down the beast with one withering glance. To free his hands, he flexed his fingers in the leather gloves and touched the brim of his hat goodnight to mother and child asleep in the house. Before departing, he carved with his fingertip the name
in the frost of the windshield, and breathing once upon the glass, he melted the word.
aul had brought the baby at dawn, woke her with the fresh smell of talc and warm skin, the mewling bundle laid in the bed so close that Erica could tap her mother on the nose with a wild fist no bigger than a fig. Leaning over to kiss a bare sole that had escaped the blanket and then his wife's lined brow, he said goodbye before leaving for his job at the new clinic. The gesture reminded Margaret of the unexpected blessing of their daughter, granted well after all hope had been expended, and she knew that Paul, too, was surprised by joy and could not resist the cradle call. A gift each morning. Gathering warmth, she fell into a drowse, time escaping its hold, and saw her new baby, curious of all beyond her grasp. Lying in bed next to the infant, the new mother watched through the scant light her daughter's searching eyes, wide and bright as two moons, and the spastic flailing of kicks and stabs into the still air, as if Erica reached out to embrace the whole of life. A bright mystery and wonder in that gaze, creating the universe for herself by mouthfuls. That first year of her daughter's life, she worried that something terrible would happen to take away her baby. If Erica cried to excess, Margaret assumed the child was in mortal pain, and she could not be dissuaded by Paul's assurances about new teeth or a bout of indigestion. If the baby slept too long, Margaret would rush to the cradle to look for the beating pulse on the soft crown and the quick but steady rise and fall of the tiny chest. She fretted the child would die suddenly and forever, and only when she held Erica in her arms and felt the beating heart could Margaret truly rest. Beyond the two of them, the world itself was threat enough.
and the Hydrogen Bomb in the USSR. Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming. A school bus in Kentucky slid off a road and into a river, leaving twenty-seven dead. A fire at a Catholic school in Chicago took ninety students and three nuns. Unrest in Cuba and Iraq, brickbats for Vice President Nixon in Caracas, bombs between the Chinese in Quemoy. She held her baby close while the television measured out the toll, wanting to protect her at all costs from evil and harm, accidental or intended.
As her daughter's infancy gave way to walking and talking, and the Fifties became the Sixties, she worried still that some illness or accident would interrupt the dream, and she kept a mother's watch on sharp corners, pennies on the floor, and the inviting holes of electric sockets. When she was three, Erica developed what Margaret feared were petechiae along the concave notch of her collarbone, a necklace of bloodpricks, and in her panic Margaret ran through all the thromboembolic dangers, only to be laughed at when her doctor husband diagnosed mild impetigo. When she was six, Erica jumped off a swing at school and lost her first baby teeth. At age seven, Erica fell off her bicycle and needed two stitches to close the wound in her chin. Paul patched her until she grew too old for his ministrations. But those few scares were the only bad things that had ever happened. Only the accretion of days and weeks and years eased Margaret's anxiety and threaded the beads of worry onto a stronger chain, and yet, no amount of love was store enough.
Awake that winter's morning, she decided that the child who had come as if summoned was a blank slate upon which, at this late hour of life, she might begin again. She longed to check on the sleeping girl but thought better of it. The house itself seemed to breathe the steady rhythms of slumber, coming to life once more at the hour of nine, which ordinarily settled into listlessness, lulled by the neighborhood emptying of children off to school and parents off to work.
She was used to moving numbly through the desolation of her life. Like the survivors of momentous devastation, she had patched her sorrow and moved on to some semblance of normalcy. And now the girl had come, and Margaret sensed the cracks in her will to abide nothing but the memory of her daughter. Everything, bad as it was, had been fine, bearable. But this morning, Norah had shattered the world.