• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
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  • 9. What Saffi Knew

    By Carol Windley

    We were delighted when our friends at the Atlantic Monthly Press shared with us the work of Carol Windley, from her new story collection, Home Schooling. “What Saffi Knew” asks questions all children would if we could: What are we to do with knowledge? How can we be expected to make sense of what we see? And what will happen to us if we try?

    That summer a boy went missing from a field known as the old potato farm, although no one could remember anything growing there but wild meadow barley, thistles in their multitudes, black lilies with a stink of rotten meat if you brought your face too close or tried to pick them. There were white fawn lilies like stars fallen to earth and bog-orchids, also called candle-scent, and stinging nettles, blameless to look at, leaves limp as flannel, yet caustic and burning to the touch. Even so, nettle leaves could be brewed into a tea that acted on the system like a tonic, or so Saffi’s aunt told her. She recited a little rhyme that went: Nettle tea in March, mugwort leaves in May, and all the fine maidens will not go to clay.

    Imagine a field, untended, sequestered, grass undulating in a fitful wind. Then disruption, volunteer members of the search party arriving, milling around, uniformed police and tracking dogs, distraught relatives of the missing boy. No place for a child, Saffi’s mother said, yet here Saffi was, holding tight to her aunt’s hand, taking everything in.

    All the people were cutout dolls. The sun hovered above the trees like a hot-air balloon cut free. Saffi’s shoes were wet from walking in the grass; she was wearing a sundress that tied at the back of her neck and she kept scratching at mosquito bites on her arms and legs until they bled and her Aunt Loretta said she’d give herself blood poisoning, but Saffi didn’t stop, she liked how it felt, it gave her something to do. She could see her daddy, standing a little apart from the others, drinking coffee from a paper cup. He was a young man then, tall, well-built, his hair a sprightly reddish-brown, his head thrown back, eyes narrowed in concentration, as if he hoped to be first to catch sight of any unusual movement in the woods, down near the river. Saffi looked where he was looking and saw a flitting movement in the trees like a turtledove, its silvery wings spread like a fan and its voice going coo-coo, the sound a turtledove would make when it was home and could rest at last. But there was no turtledove. Never would there be a turtledove. Saffi was the only one who knew. But who would listen to her?

    July 1964, in a town on Vancouver Island, in the days before the tourists and land developers arrived and it was quiet, still, and everyone more or less knew everyone else. There was a pulp and paper mill, a harbour where the fishing fleet tied up, churches, good schools, neighbourhoods where children played unsupervised. Children were safe in this town. They did not go missing. But now, unbelievably, not one but two children were gone, one for nearly six weeks and then three days ago this other boy, his red three-speed bike found ditched at the edge of the old potato farm, where it seemed he liked to play, hunting snakes and butterflies, but never hurting anything, just catching things and letting them go.

    His name was Eugene Dexter. His jacket had been found snagged in a hawthorn tree beside the Millstone River, at the far end of the old potato farm. Or else it was a baseball cap that was found. Or a catcher’s mitt. You heard different stories. There was a ransom note. There was no such note. The police had a suspect, or, alternately, they had no suspects, although they’d questioned and released someone and were refusing to give out details. But, said Saffi’s mother, wasn’t that how they operated, secretly, out of the public eye, trying to conceal their own ineptness? She kicked at a pebble. A woman beside her spoke of premonition, showing the gooseflesh on her arms. Some men got into a scrum, like elderly, underfed rugby players, and began praying aloud.

    One minute it was warm and then the wind made Saffi shiver. Behind the mountain dark clouds welled up, filled with a hidden, shoddy light. The boy’s parents arrived in a police car, lights flashing. But maybe Saffi was remembering that wrong. Maybe they drove up in their own car, Mr. Dexter behind the wheel. In any case, there they were, Mr. and Mrs. Dexter, making their way over to tables borrowed from the high school cafeteria and set up in the field, with sandwiches and donuts and coffee and mimeographed instructions for the search party, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising when Mr. Arthur Dawsley sidled up to Saffi’s mother and said wasn’t this turning into quite a three-ring circus? He was their neighbour. He lived on the other side of a tall hedge. Along the front of his yard was a picket fence painted green and on his front door was a sign that said: No Peddlers. When Saffi was small, less than two years old, she’d mispronounced his name, saying Arthur Daisy, and in her family it was the wrong name that had stuck. It didn’t suit him; she wished she could take it back. Her parents teased her, calling Arthur Daisy her friend, but he wasn’t. His hair the colour of a cooking pot sat in deep waves above his forehead. Under his windbreaker he was wearing a white shirt and a tie. He said he knew this gathering was no circus, that was merely a figure of speech, and not a good one, considering. He said he supposed he was too old to be of much help in the search, but surely he could lend a
    little moral support.

    “Beautiful weather, all the same,” he said, and then walked in his
    peculiar upright, stolid fashion over to Saffi’s daddy, who averted his face slightly and emptied the dregs of his coffee onto the ground, as if the last thing he craved was a word with Arthur Daisy. At the same time the boy’s father was handing an item of clothing over to the police, a green striped soccer shirt, it looked like, tenderly folded, and the police let their dogs sniff it and they strained at their leashes as if they’d been given a new idea and the sound of their baying came like a cheerless chorus off the mountain. Later the wind died down and the clouds built up, dark clouds edged with a beautiful translucent white, dazzling to the eye, and just as Saffi and her mother and aunt got in the car to go home there came a violent drenching downpour, and everyone said it was almost a relief; it was turning out to be such a hot, dry summer.


    This could be said of her: as a child she noticed things, she took things in, and to this day she can’t decide, is this a curse or a gift? A curse, she thinks, for the most part.

    The child she was and the person she’s become: in a way they’re like two separate people trapped in the same head. Could that be? The child mystifies her. The child with her pallor, her baby-fine, dry hair; her solemn grey-blue eyes, her air of distraction and wariness. Her odd little name that her mother had got out of a book of names: Saffi, meaning “wisdom.” Who are you? I am Saffi, no one else. She feels sympathy for that child, of course she does, and affection, impatience, anger, shame. And sorrow. Shouldn’t someone have been looking out for her? Shouldn’t someone have been watching over her? “Daddy’s girl,” her daddy called her, but daddy didn’t have much time for her, not really.


    When Saffi was in her yard she made a game out of watching for Arthur Daisy to leave in his car, which he did sometimes, not every day, and as soon as he was gone she crawled through a gap in the hedge into his backyard. She knelt in the shade, looking out at the things he kept there: a wheelbarrow tipped up against a garden shed, a pile of buckets, a heap of steamy grass clippings buzzing with bluebottles, a mound of composted dirt he made from dead leaves and egg shells and potato peelings, garbage from his kitchen.

    At the foot of his porch steps there was a folding chair and an overturned washtub he used as a table, a coffee mug on it. Two of his shirts hung from the clothesline like guards he’d left on duty.

    He had painted his cellar window black, but he’d missed a little place shaped like a star and she could get up close to it and see a shaded light hanging from the ceiling and beneath the light a table with a boy crouched on it. He was a real boy. She saw him and he saw her, his eyes alert and shining, and then he let his head droop on his chest. Don’t be scared, she said; don’t be. He was awake but sleeping, his arm twitching, his feet curled like a bird’s claws on a perch. All she could see in the dim light was his hair, nearly white. He was wearing a pair of shorts.

    She called him bird-boy. She whistled at him softly, as if he were a wild thing. She had to be careful. Since he’d got the bird-boy, Arthur Daisy never stayed away for long; he’d drive off and then almost at once he was back, slamming his car door and pounding up his front steps. Before he got that far, though, Saffi would have scrambled through the hedge, her hair catching in the branches so that she’d have to give it a cruel tug, but she never cried or uttered the least sound, and at last she was home free.

    If Arthur Daisy didn’t drive away in his car, if he happened instead to be working in his garden and saw her playing outside, he’d call to her. “Well, Saffi, what do you think I’ve got?” He kept calling to her. Your friend, Arthur Daisy, her daddy would tease her. She walked to his house on the side of the road, placing the heel of one foot in front of the toe of the other, her arms out for balance. “Hurry up, slowpoke,” he would say, pushing his gate open to let her in.

    He looked like the old troll that lived under the bridge in Three Billy Goats Gruff, one of Saffi’s picture books. He wore an old brown cardigan, the pockets sagging with junk. “What do you think I’ve got?” he’d say, and he’d pull something out of a pocket and hold it in his clenched fist and if she stepped back he’d bend closer, closer, his colourless lips drawn back so that she could see his stained teeth, gums the bluish-pink of a dog’s gums. She didn’t want to guess, she was no good at it. She covered her eyes until he told her to look and it would turn out to be an old nail or a screwdriver or the sharp little scissors he used for cutting roses.

    “Well?” he’d say. “What do you say? Has the cat got Saffi’s tongue?” He slapped his hand on his trouser leg and laughed his old troll laugh and picked up his shovel and went back to work digging in his garden.


    That summer Saffi’s mother got hired as an operator at the B.C. Telephone Co. on Fitzwilliam Street. Her first job, she said, since she got married. Her first real job, ever. If she had a choice, she wouldn’t leave Saffi every day, but the truth was, she had no choice, she needed the extra income; she’d lost interest in being poor her entire life. She ran up some dresses for work on her old treadle sewing machine, dark blue dresses, in rayon or a serviceable poplin, something she said she could gussy up with a little white collar, or a strand of pearls.

    Saffi remembered her mother wearing those dresses to work for years. When at last they’d gone completely out of style or had simply worn out, she’d cut them into squares and stitched them into a quilt for Saffi, and Saffi had it still, folded away in a cedar chest her husband’s parents gave her for a wedding present. When she took it out and ran her fingers over the scraps of fabric, little cornfields, meadows of blue, she couldn’t help returning in her mind to those long-ago summer mornings, bright and hot, dreamlike, almost, when she’d clung to her mother and begged her to stay home, and her mother had given her a weary, abstracted glance and pulled on the little chamois-soft gloves she wore for driving. She kissed Saffi on the top of her head and then she was gone, and Saffi heard her backing her car out onto the road and driving away. Aunt Loretta made Saffi sit at the table and eat her breakfast, but Saffi’s throat ached from not crying and she couldn’t swallow a spoonful. Aunt Loretta rinsed her uneaten porridge down the drain—what a terrible waste, she said—and then she wiped Saffi’s face with a dishrag and sent her outside to play in the sun while she got on with tidying the house. Saffi sat on the front steps and looked at one of her books, with pictures of a frog prince, his blubbery mouth pursed for a kiss, a scraggly old witch with skinny fingers reaching out to grab anyone she could catch.

    Even though she knew he couldn’t see her, she imagined the bird-boy
    was watching, and so she turned the pages carefully. She was good at reading, but poor at arithmetic. It wasn’t her fault. The numbers had their own separate lives, their own shapes, and refused to let her touch them. Nine in its soldier’s uniform the colour of an olive with a double row of brass buttons. Three a Canterbury bell, a curled-up snail leaving a trail of slime, dragging its little clamshell house behind. Seven had a licking tongue of fire and smelled like a thunderstorm. Four was the sea coming in along the shore, it was a ship sailing, it was blue and white and stood on its one leg.

    The numbers said: Leave us be! Be quiet! Don’t touch! They kept themselves apart, like little wicked soldiers in a castle. The teacher held her worksheets up in class and said, Is this the work a grade one girl should be doing? Saffi had to cover her ears and sing to herself about the Pied Piper, how he made the rats skip after him out of town and then the children followed and the town got dark and the parents wrung their hands and lamented, Oh, what have we done?

    When Aunt Loretta finished the housework she called Saffi inside and read her a story about a turtledove.

    “I know what that is,” Saffi said. “I seen a turtledove in the cellar at Arthur Daisy’s house.”

    Aunt Loretta said she must have seen some other kind of bird. “All we have around here is pigeons,” she said. “You know what a pigeon looks like, don’t you? And it’s I saw, not I seen.

    “It looked like a boy,” Saffi said. “It had white feathers on its head. It sang like this: cheep, cheep, cheep.

    “Oh, Saffi,” her aunt said. “You are a funny little thing.”


    Outside her house the road was all churned up where her daddy parked his logging truck when he got home. Sometimes he’d swing her up into the cab and she’d sit behind the steering wheel and he’d get her to pretend she was the driver, telling her, “Start the engine, Saffi, or we’ll still be sitting here when those logs sprout a whole new set of roots and branches.” He made engine noises like a growling cat and she pretended to turn the wheel and he gave directions. “Turn left,” he’d say. “Gear down for the hill, now shift into third, that’s the way.” It was hot in the truck and there was a sour smell of her daddy’s sweaty work shirt, the smell of stale thermos coffee and engine oil, the beer her daddy drank. Her daddy always said he was a hard-working, hard-drinking man and people could take him or leave him. Leave him, was his preference. He liked a quiet life. He liked his home and when he got home he deserved a beer, didn’t he? “Yes,” said Saffi. “Yes, sir, you do.”

    “Who are you?” her daddy said. “Are you daddy’s favourite girl?”

    Her daddy. Danny Shaughnessy. He was away in the woods for days at a time, then he’d be home, he’d come into the kitchen, where Saffi was standing on a kitchen chair at the counter, helping Aunt Loretta coat chicken pieces with flour or peel potatoes, little tasks her aunt allotted her to fill in the last hour or so until her mother returned. Her daddy would go straight to the fridge for a beer and sometimes he gave Saffi a taste, the beer making her gag and trickling down her chin and her daddy laughed and kissed it away. Her aunt told him to leave her alone. He said Saffi was his kid, wasn’t she? He didn’t have to leave his own kid alone, did he? Aunt Loretta said he could at least take off his work boots and wash his hands.

    “Don’t you have a kitchen of your own to go to?” he’d say. “Isn’t it time you got back to good old Vernon, Loretta?”

    They fought like kids, the way kids at school went at each other, hands on their hips, faces thrust forward, then they agreed to an armistice and sat at the kitchen table and had a glass of beer together, Saffi with them, and her daddy praised her, saying what a doll she was, a real little lady. On the drive down from Campbell River, he said, he’d heard on the radio a boy was missing, ten years old, a slightly built boy, with white-blond hair, last seen wearing shorts, a blue jacket, running shoes. And then, just south of Royston, a boy who answered that description exactly was standing at the side of the highway. He’d blasted the horn at him, because kids never understood, they had no idea how much room a truck like that needed to stop, they’d run out without thinking. More than likely it was some other kid, but what if it was this Eugene Dexter and he’d just driven on by?

    He had another beer. He talked about joining the search party, if they needed more volunteers. He had a sense for these things, he said, a kind of infallible sixth sense, which was why he never got lost in the woods or took a wrong turn driving the truck. He stood up and stretched his arms and said he was going to have a shower. What time was supper going to be, he wanted to know, and Aunt Loretta said it would be when it was ready and not a minute sooner. “Daddy’s girl!” her daddy said, sweeping Saffi off her feet, holding her high above his head, shaking her as if she were a cloth doll, her hair flopping in her eyes, and she laughed so hard she thought her sides would split open and the stuffing would fall out. I’ll knock the stuffing out of you, her daddy said when he was angry. But he was teasing. He was never angry with her. She was his girl. He tossed her in the air and caught her safely, every time. His fingers dug hard into her ribs and she couldn’t get a breath.

    “Can’t you see she’s had enough?” her aunt said.

    If she wasn’t laughing so hard, if her daddy wasn’t laughing and cursing Aunt Loretta, telling her she was a tight-assed old broad, she could tell him she had this bad secret in her head that hurt like blisters from a stinging nettle. In Arthur Daisy’s cellar there was a bird-boy, a turtledove, its head tucked beneath its wing.


    It seemed to her a line divided her yard from Arthur Daisy’s yard. Even after all these years she saw this line as a real thing, like a skipping rope or a length of clothesline or a whip, taut, then slack, then pulled tight again until it sang like a banjo string and nearly snapped in two. The line or the rope or whatever it was separated the dangerous elements, fire and air, from the more tolerable elements of earth and water. That was how she pictured it. She crept into Arthur Daisy’s yard, holding her breath, mousey small, so small and quick no one could catch her. She pressed her hands to the window. She had to see if the bird-boy was still there, perched on his roost. He was. He scared her to death. His skull was luminous and frail as an egg, yet he seemed strong to her, his gaze cold, not beseeching but full of strength, as if nothing could hurt him. His eyes were dark, like a bird’s eyes. What did he eat? Where did he sleep? She called to him, whistling a tune she’d made up. She told him not to be afraid. She cupped a black and yellow caterpillar in her hand. It was so small she felt her heart curl around it. She pictured the hawthorn tree near the river, light spilling in tatters through the leaves, the sun caught in its branches. She saw the boy’s jacket hanging there still, as if no one cared enough to take it home.

    She held the caterpillar up to the window, saying, look at this, look at this.

    All around there was fire and air, scorching her hair and clothes, leaving her weak and sick and shaking with a chill, so that her mother would have to put her to bed and take her temperature and fuss over her and say, What have you done to yourself, Saffi? She put a cold cloth on Saffi’s forehead and called her dumpling pie and gave her half a baby Aspirin and a little ginger ale to swallow it with.


    What did Saffi see? She saw Arthur Daisy in his garden, snipping at
    blood-red roses and sprays of spirea, telling Saffi he was on his way to visit the municipal cemetery to put flowers on his mother’s grave. His dear old mother, who’d passed away twenty years ago this month, almost to the day, dead of a wasting disease, did Saffi know what that meant? It ate her body up, her skin, her flesh, and she never was a fleshy person. She shrivelled up to the size of an old lima bean, a dried pea. She’d scare the liver out of you, he said, and that’s a fact. That was what happened when you got to be the age he was, he told Saffi. You ended up having to visit the dear departed on a regular basis. He placed his scissors and cut flowers on the ground.

    “What’s wrong with you?” he said. “Cat got your tongue, little girl?” He bent over, his hands on his knees. He looked at her. He looked into her eyes and she knew he saw everything in her head; he knew how scared she was.

    “Well, well,” he said, straightening up and brushing a leaf off his sleeve. “Isn’t Saffi a funny little monkey?” he said.

    Before she could do a thing—run, or squirm away—he’d reached out and pinched her arm just above her elbow. It burned like a hornet’s sting. “There, now,” said Arthur Daisy, turning his face away. He picked up his flowers. He pocketed his scissors. Don’t think anything, she told herself. Behind her in the house there was the bird-boy crouched in the cellar, eating crumbs from the palm of his hand. She saw him like that in her dreams. She couldn’t get rid of him.


    Sleep: what was sleep? Saffi’s mother complained to Saffi that never before in her life had she suffered from insomnia, normally she didn’t even dream, and now she was lucky if she got two or three hours of decent sleep a night. It could be the heat, she said. Or it could be that her head was crackling with the sound of voices, her own voice repeating endlessly, Number, please, and One moment, please, while your call is completed, and then the voices of strangers, people to whom she’d never in this life be able to attach a face or name. She was in her bedroom, the blind pulled down against the evening sun. Saffi stood beside her mother’s dressing table, watching her take off her pearl earrings and put them away in a jeweler’s box. Her mother pressed her hands to her head. She wasn’t used to working, she said; her nerves were shot. She’d lie awake until dawn, her temples throbbing, and a feeling of unbearable sadness, of grief, would descend on her. It haunted her all day. She hated this summer, it was unlucky; it was a trial to her and everyone else.

    The real reason she couldn’t sleep, she said, was that she worried about life passing her by, about not getting the things she’d set her heart on, like a nicer house, with three bedrooms, in case she and Danny decided to have more kids, which they might, a little brother or sister for Saffi, or maybe one of each. Wouldn’t that be fun? she said, picking up her comb and tugging it painfully through the snarls in Saffi’s hair. In the mirror her eyes were resolute and bright, the skin around her mouth taut and pale.

    Aunt Loretta always said that as far as babies went, it was her turn next. Who could doubt her? At her house she had a nursery prepared, the walls papered with kittens tangled up in balls of yarn. There were drawers full of handmade baby clothes and a bassinet with a silk coverlet and when Saffi visited she was allowed to lay her doll in it. Aunt Loretta patted the doll’s tummy and said, What a fine baby you have there, and for a moment it truly did seem there was a real baby asleep in the bassinet, snoring and fat as a little cabbage.

    On the drive home, Saffi’s mother would say what a shame, what a shame, but not everyone could have they wanted. She shifted gears with a brisk movement of her wrist. “You can have a perfectly fulfilled life without children, they say. Sometimes I almost wish . . .” She glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror, running a finger along the edge of her lip. “Well,” she said. “I wish Loretta luck, that’s all.” Saffi understood that her mother didn’t want Aunt Loretta to have a baby or anything else; she was afraid Aunt Loretta would use up all the available good luck, the small quantity of it there was in this world, thus stealing something irreplaceable from Saffi’s mother. But knowing this didn’t make Saffi love her mother less. If anything, it made her love her more, but from a little further off, like the time her daddy took her to watch Uncle Vernon’s team playing baseball and they sat so high up in the bleachers her daddy said they needed high-powered binoculars to figure out who in the hell was on the pitcher’s mound.

    “You can make your life turn out any way you want,” Saffi’s mother said. “You can realize your dreams through persistence and hard work combined with just a smidgeon of good fortune. Just a smidgeon. That’s all I ask.”

    She drove so fast, barely slowing at stop signs, that a police ghost car pulled her over and the officer gave her a ticket and Saffi’s mother said, “Not again!” Then she told the police officer he had such a nice smile it was almost worth it. Son of a bitch, she muttered, letting the ticket fall to the floor of the car, where it got ripped in half when Saffi trod on it getting out. She knew she should have talked to the police officer. He was right there beside her mother’s car. She could have said, Wait, I know where he is, I know where he’s hiding, please listen, but she’d remained in her seat, glued to the upholstery, the heat making her sweaty and numb. She hated herself; stupid, stupid Saffi, what’s the matter, cat got your tongue?

    “We are all autonomous beings,” her mother said, her hands on the steering wheel. “We all have free will. It’s just a matter of getting a few lucky breaks, that’s all.”

    Within a very few years, as it turned out, Aunt Loretta and Uncle Vernon were the parents of twin boys, and then less than two years later they had a baby girl, so Saffi had three cousins to love and help care for, but she never did get the brother or sister her mother had promised her. Life didn’t work out as expected, not then, or, it seemed, at any other time. In 1968, when Saffi was eleven, her father was forced to quit work after developing chronic lower back pain, diagnosed variously as a herniated disc, sciatica, an acute inflammation at the juncture of the sacrum and the iliac, perhaps treatable with cortisone injections, perhaps not. Her father said it was all the same to him, he was fed up with the whole deal. He stayed at home, he watched TV and stared out the window at the rain, drumming his fingers on the glass, a prisoner, he said. Saffi’s mother would come home from work and grab his prescription drugs up off the kitchen table and say in disgust, “Beer and painkillers? Not that I care. You’re not a child, Danny Shaughnessy, are you? You can do what you damned well like.”

    Her father moved out of the house. He stayed at a dubious-looking
    motel on the island highway and collected sick pay until it ran out, and then he packed up and announced he was moving to Ontario. He said he was no good to anyone and Saffi’s mother said she wasn’t about to argue the point. His hair was prematurely grey; he walked with the slightest stoop, alarmingly noticeable to Saffi, if not to him. Take me with you, she had pleaded. Things went wrong all around her and she was helpless to prevent it. She wanted a normal, happy life, like other girls her age. Couldn’t her daddy see that? She beat her fists against his chest and he caught her hands in his, still muscular, fit in spite of the injury to his back, and he said, “Hold on there, little girl, that’s enough of that.” Saffi swore she’d never speak to him again if he left and he said, “Well, Sugar, if that’s how you feel.” But she did speak to him. She kept in touch. Several years later, in Ontario, he got married for a second time, to someone called Liz, and then in the 1980s he went back to school and became a photocopier technician.

    “What did you say your job was again?” Saffi would tease him on the phone. “Could you repeat that? Could you just run that by me again?” She made him laugh. He said she must have inherited his sick sense of humour.

    “Daddy,” she said. “I wish I could see you. I really miss you.”

    He mumbled something and then recovered and said, in his new brusque yet genial voice, the voice of a man in business, with business contacts and a little windowless office of his own, that she would always be his girl. Of course she would. “I know that,” she said. “I know.”


    But the summer she was seven, a little girl in a sundress, her hair in pigtails, she didn’t believe anything would change in her life. She wouldn’t allow it. “I am not moving to any new house,” she said, kicking at the table legs. She sat there crayoning the pictures in her colouring book black and purple. She gave the sun a mad face. Outside there was Arthur Daisy’s house with its dark cellar and a bird-boy trapped in it. He had claws and a head full of feathers. If she stayed close nothing bad would happen to him, nothing bad; he would sleep and wake and sleep again and one day he’d fly up into the air, blinking at the light. Shoo, she’d say to him, and he’d fly off like a ladybug.


    July 1964, there were dogs at the old potato farm, straining at their
    leashes, anxious to be let go, to pick up a scent and run with it along the banks of the Millstone River. Or who knows, maybe the dogs dreamed of steak dinners and only pretended to sniff the ground. In any event, they didn’t seem to have much luck tracking anything down.

    It was a day of brilliant sun eclipsed at intervals by dark clouds. And there was Arthur Dawsley, a man in his late sixties, a bachelor or perhaps a widower, a man seemingly without family of his own, a volunteer member of the search party, after all, in spite of his age. He was given a clipboard and a pencil and told to keep track of the other volunteers. At the end of the day his shoulders drooped a little with fatigue. He wasn’t much help, really, more of a diversion, chatting to the police officers, reminiscing about a time when it was safe to leave your doors unlocked at night, you could forget your wallet in a public place and pick it up later, the bills still folded inside. People said that, they got nostalgic for a vanished code of ethics or morality; wishful thinking, in Arthur Dawsley’s opinion. He was a likeable old guy, or maybe not so likeable, maybe more of a nuisance, full of questions and bright ideas, not that they were of any real value.

    Not everyone appreciated him. A young cop by the name of Alex Walters gave him a hollow, exasperated stare and considered asking him why he was so darned curious and where he’d been, exactly, on the afternoon young Eugene Dexter was last seen, wearing a blue cotton jacket and carrying two Marvel comics, all of which had been recovered from the bottom of the field. Or were the comics found near the three-speed bicycle, red with gold and black decals, the kind of bicycle Alex Waters dreamed of buying for his own infant son some day? He’d have to check the report again to be sure. Questioning Arthur Dawsley was just a thought that came to him, a result of his increasing sense of fatigue and irritation, more than anything, although for a moment the thought felt right, felt germane, almost woke him up, then got pushed to the back of his mind.


    What kind of a boy had he been? What kind of boy, before he was lost? It was said he was in the habit of wandering around on his own, that he had a passion for collecting butterflies and tadpoles, that he’d been a good student who had, at the assembly on the last day of school, received an award for academic achievement and a trophy for sportsmanship, his name inscribed for posterity on a little silver plaque. He was well-liked, mischievous, yet thoughtful, a little withdrawn at times, unexpectedly serious, old for his years, some said. For weeks, for months, there had been posters stapled to telephone poles, pictures of the missing boy, his fair hair sticking up a little in front, a wide smile, his teeth milk white and slightly protuberant, a small dimple at the corner of his mouth. An ordinary boy. His parents’ only son. How was it possible he was there one day and gone the next? And how was it possible that not one but two boys had vanished within a few weeks of each other, as if they’d never existed, or as if they had existed merely to be each other’s shadow image, a sad confirmation.

    There were no answers, it seemed. It was a genuine and terrible mystery that infected the town like a virus and then suddenly cleared up, leaving as an after-effect an epidemic of amnesia. Not even the land appeared to remember: each spring the old potato farm erupted in a vigorous new crop of tufted grasses and coarse-leafed weeds drenched in dew, lopsided with spit-bug saliva. Tiny grey moths and butterflies patterned like curtains rose up in clouds. Birds nested in the trees. Children played there, running through the long grass, switching each other across the shins with willow branches. On the other side of the Millstone River the marsh got set aside as a park and bird sanctuary and Saffi walked there almost every day when her own children were young and even she didn’t always remember. The field she glimpsed on the far side of the river did not seem like the same field. That was, it did and did not look the same. For one thing, the town had grown up around it, crowding at its outermost boundaries. Some of the alders and hawthorns near the river had been cut down. But it remained just a field, innocent, mild, apart.

    For each separate person the Earth came into being. It began its existence anew and surprised everyone with its beauty. So Saffi believed. The loss of any individual, any single life, must, therefore, dull the perception of beauty. Wasn’t that true? Loss was something you fought. But if it happened you got over it. What choice did you have? You recovered and went on. Wasn’t that what the therapists meant, when they used the word “healing”? Wasn’t that the promise implicit in therapy, and, for that matter, in religion? And all the fine maidens will not go to clay!

    What did Saffi know? What had she seen and forgotten, or not forgotten, but remembered, shakily, in fragments that, once re-assembled, would make up a picture she could scarcely bear to contemplate? For a time she’d suffered with some kind of anxiety disorder, quite incapacitating and disagreeable. She no longer took
    medication; she had no need of it. But what a struggle! It was difficult
    to pinpoint a cause for the spells of depression and exhaustion and what she could only think of as an unnameable dread, a nearly living presence that did, at times, choose to haunt her. She’d gone through a hard time when she was first married, when the children were babies, but she’d recovered, hadn’t she? She just didn’t have the luxury of understanding every little thing that had happened in her life. How many people did? Memory was so imperfect. The habit of reticence, of keeping secrets, was, on the other hand, easily perfected; it was powerful and compelling, irresistible.

    She was a vigilant parent. She couldn’t help it. If she lost sight of her kids, even for the briefest time, she felt a bleak, enervating moment of inevitability and it was as if she herself had vanished, as if the world was simply gone, all its substance and splendour disintegrating into nothing. She wouldn’t allow it. Just as her Aunt Loretta had taught her to love and respect nature, to study and give names to all things—trees, grasses, wildflowers, all growing things—Saffi passed on to her children what she laughingly called my arcane secrets. Because wasn’t there something arcane and essentially troubling in wild plants—their brief tenure on Earth, their straggling, indiscriminate growth and contradictory natures, both healing and destructive, the small stink of decay at the heart of each flower like a reproach or accusation?


    She taught her children to be observant, to see the wonderful, unexpected architecture of an ant’s nest glistening like molten lava in the sun. Listen to the crickets, she said. Look at the mallard ducks, how they swim in pairs, peaceably. Look at the dragonflies, filled with light, primitive, unsteady, like ancient aircraft. Even: Look at this robin’s egg, shattered, vacant, useless. Look at this dead raccoon, its paws stiff as hooks. Go ahead, look, she said. It won’t hurt you to look.


    She had a recurring dream, only it was more the memory of a dream that recurred, rather than the dream itself. In the dream she got up from her bed and went outside. She crawled through the hedge and crouched there in its shelter. She could see Arthur Daisy by his shed, the door swinging open, and inside the shed it seemed there was a greater darkness than the dark of night. There was Arthur Daisy, striking with his shovel at the ground, which had baked hard as clay after a long drought interrupted only by that one downpour the day the search party went out with the dogs and all the other useless things they took, sticks to beat down the grass and maps and walkie-talkie radios. All of them searching in the wrong place. Saffi was the only one who knew. But who would listen to her? What was true and what was something else, a made-up story?

    It happened on the seventh day of the seventh month; Saffi was seven years old. She saw the sevens in a line, affronted, braced like
    sailors, their little tongues of flame licking at the air. They linked up and made a barbed-wire fence no one could get through. They made a prison house no one could enter. A mist was rising over the yard. In the mist was a turtledove. The bird-boy wasn’t lost anymore. He wasn’t a boy waiting near a riverbank for a shape to appear comic and deceptive and dangerous as a troll. He was indeed a turtledove, soaring higher and higher, giving the night a sort of radiance that came from within, his soul or spirit shining out. In the dream Saffi spoke to herself kindly, saying, Hush, hush, it’s all right. It will be all right. And the only sound that came to her from the soundless well of her dream was the ringing of a shovel against the unyielding earth.

    From the collection Home Schooling. Copyright © 2006 by Carol Windley. Used by Permission of Atlantic Monthly Press.

    Elle finds the Jamesian echoes in Windley’s work.

    Read more about Home Schooling at AtlanticMonthlyPress.com.

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