The Tenth Circle
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December 23, 2005
This is how it feels when you realize your child is missing: The pit of your stomach freezes fast, while your legs go to jelly. There's one single, blue-bass thud of your heart. The shape of her name, sharp as metal filings, gets caught between your teeth even as you try to force it out in a shout. Fear breathes like a monster into your ear: Where did I see her last? Would she have wandered away? Who could have taken her? And then, finally, your throat seals shut, as you swallow the fact that you've made a mistake you will never be able to fix.
The first time it happened to Daniel Stone, a decade ago, he had been visiting Boston. His wife was at a colloquium at Harvard; that was a good enough reason to take a family vacation. While Laura sat on her panel, Daniel pushed Trixie's stroller the cobbled length of the Freedom Trail. They fed the ducks in the Public Garden; they watched the sloe-eyed sea turtles doing water ballet at the aquarium. After that, when Trixie announced that she was hungry, Daniel headed toward Faneuil Hall and its endless food court.
That particular April day was the first one warm enough for New Englanders to unzip their jackets, to remember that there was any season other than winter. In addition to the centipedes of school groups and the shutter-happy tourists, it seemed that the whole of the financial district had bled out, men Daniel's age in suits and ties, who smelled of aftershave and envy. They sat with their gyros and chowder and corned beef on rye on the benches near the statue of Red Auerbach. They sneaked sideways glances at Daniel.
He was used to this -- it was unusual for a father to be the primary caretaker of his four-year-old daughter. Women who saw him with Trixie assumed that his wife had died, or that he was newly divorced. Men who saw him quickly looked the other way, embarrassed on his behalf. And yet Daniel would not have traded his setup for the world. He enjoyed molding his job around Trixie's schedule. He liked her questions: Did dogs know they were naked? Is adult supervision a power grown-ups use to fight bad guys? He loved the fact that when Trixie was spacing out in her car seat and wanted attention, she always started with "Dad. . . ?" even if Laura happened to be driving the car.
"What do you want for lunch?" Daniel asked Trixie that day in Boston. "Pizza? Soup? A burger?"
She stared up at him from her stroller, a miniature of her mother with the same blue eyes and strawberry hair, and nodded yes to all three. Daniel had hefted the stroller up the steps to the central food court, the scent of the salted ocean air giving way to grease and onions and stir-fry. He would get Trixie a burger and fries, he decided, and for himself, he'd buy a fisherman's platter at another kiosk. He stood in line at the grill, the stroller jutting out like a stone that altered the flow of human traffic. "A cheeseburger," Daniel yelled out to a cook he hoped was listening. When he was handed the paper plate he juggled his wallet free so that he could pay and then decided that it wasn't worth a second tour of duty just to get himself lunch, too. He and Trixie could share.
Daniel maneuvered the stroller into the stream of people again, waiting to be spit out into the cupola. After a few minutes, an elderly man sitting at a long table shuffled his trash together and left. Daniel set down the burger and turned the stroller so that he could feed Trixie -- but the child inside was a dark-haired, dark-skinned infant who burst into tears when he saw the stranger in front of him.
Daniel's first thought: Why was this baby in Trixie's stroller? His second: Was this Trixie's stroller? Yes, it was yellow and blue with a tiny repeating bear print. Yes, there was a carrying basket underneath. But Graco must have sold millions of these, thousands alone in the Northeast. Now, at closer inspection, Daniel realized that this particular stroller had a plastic activity bar attached on the front. Trixie's ratty security blanket was not folded up in the bottom, just in case of crisis.
Such as now.
Daniel looked down at the baby again, the baby that was not his, and immediately grabbed the stroller and starting running to the grill. Standing there, with a cabbage-cheeked Boston cop, was a hysterical mother whose sights homed in on the stroller Daniel was using to part the crowd like the Red Sea. She ran the last ten feet and yanked her baby out of the safety restraint and into her arms while Daniel tried to explain, but all that came out of his mouth was, "Where is she?" He thought, hysterical, of the fact that this was an open-air market, that there was no way to seal the entrance or even make a general public announcement, that by now five minutes had passed and his daughter could be with the psychopath who stole her on the T heading to the farthest outskirts of the Boston suburbs.
Then he noticed the stroller -- his stroller -- kicked over onto its side, the safety belt undone. Trixie had gotten proficient at this just last week. It had gotten comical -- they would be out walking and suddenly she was standing up in the fabric hammock, facing Daniel, grinning at her own clever expertise. Had she freed herself to come looking for him? Or had someone, seeing a golden opportunity for abduction, done it for her?
In the moments afterward, there were tracts of time that Daniel couldn't remember even to this day. For example, how long it took the swarm of police that converged on Faneuil Hall to do a search. Or the way other mothers pulled their own children close to their side as he passed, certain bad luck was contagious. The detective's hammered questions, a quiz of good parenting: How tall is Trixie? What does she weigh? What was she wearing? Have you ever talked to her about strangers? This last one, Daniel couldn't answer. Had he, or had he just been planning to? Would Trixie know to scream, to run away? Would she be loud enough, fast enough?
The police wanted him to sit down, so that they'd know where to find him if necessary. Daniel nodded and promised, and then was on his feet the moment their backs were turned. He searched behind each of the food kiosks in the central court. He looked under the tables in the cupola. He burst into the women's bathroom, crying Trixie's name. He checked beneath the ruffled skirts of the pushcarts that sold rhinestone earrings, moose socks, your name written on a grain of rice. Then he ran outside.
The courtyard was full of people who didn't know that just twenty feet away from them the world had been overturned. Oblivious, they shopped and milled and laughed as Daniel stumbled past them. The corporate lunch hour had ended, and many of the businessmen were gone. Pigeons pecked at the crumbs they'd left behind, caught between the cobblestones. And huddled beside the seated bronze of Red Auerbach, sucking her thumb, was Trixie.
Until Daniel saw her, he didn't truly realize how much of himself had been carved away by her absence. He felt -- ironically -- the same symptoms that had come the moment he knew she was missing: the shaking legs, the loss of speech, the utter immobility. "Trixie," he said finally, then she was in his arms, thirty pounds of sweet relief.
Now -- ten years later -- Daniel had again mistaken his daughter for someone she wasn't. Except this time, she was no longer a four-year-old in a stroller. This time, she had been gone much longer than twenty-four minutes. And she had left him, instead of the other way around.
Forcing his mind back to the present, Daniel cut the throttle of the snow machine as he came to a fork in the path. Immediately the storm whipped into a funnel -- he couldn't see two feet in front of himself, and when he took the time to look behind, his tracks had already been filled, a seamless stretch. The Yup'ik Eskimos had a word for this kind of snow, the kind that bit at the back of your eyes and landed like a hail of arrows on your bare skin: pirrelvag. The term rose in Daniel's throat, as startling as a second moon, proof that he had been here before, no matter how good a job he'd done of convincing himself otherwise.
He squinted -- it was nine o'clock in the morning, but in December in Alaska, there wasn't much sunlight. His breath hung before him like lace. For a moment, through the curtain of snow, he thought he could see the bright flash of her hair -- a fox's tail peeking from a snug woolen cap -- but as quickly as he saw it, it was gone.
The Yupiit also had a word for the moments when it was so cold that a mug of water thrown into the air would harden like glass before it ever hit the frozen ground: cikuq'erluni. One wrong move, Daniel thought, and everything will go to pieces around me. So he closed his eyes, gunned the machine, and let instinct take over. Almost immediately, the voices of elders he used to know came back to him -- spruce needles stick out sharper on the north side of trees; shallow sandbars make the ice buckle -- hints about how to find yourself, when the world changed around you.
He suddenly thought back to the way, at Faneuil Hall, Trixie had melted against him when they were reunited. Her chin had notched just behind his shoulder, her body went boneless with faith. In spite of what he'd done, she'd still trusted him to keep her safe, to bring her home. In hindsight, Daniel could see that the real mistake he'd made that day hadn't been turning his back momentarily. It had been believing that you could lose someone you loved in an instant, when in reality it was a process that took months, years, her lifetime.
It was the kind of cold that made your eyelashes freeze the minute you walked outside and the insides of your nostrils feel like shattered glass. It was the kind of cold that went through you as if you were no more than a mesh screen. Trixie Stone shivered on the frozen riverbank beneath the school building that was checkpoint headquarters in Tuluksak, sixty miles from the spot where her father's borrowed snow machine was carving a signature across the tundra, and tried to think up reasons to stay right where she was.
Unfortunately, there were more reasons -- better reasons -- to leave. First and foremost, it was a mistake to stay in one place too long. Second, sooner or later, people were going to figure out that she wasn't who they thought she was, especially if she kept screwing up every task they gave her. But then again, how was she supposed to know that all the mushers were entitled to complimentary straw for their sled dogs at several points during the K300 racecourse, including here in Tuluksak? Or that you could take a musher to the spot where food and water was stored. . . but you weren't allowed to help feed the dogs? After those two fiascos, Trixie was demoted to babysitting the dogs that were dropped from a team, until the bush pilots arrived to transport them back to Bethel.
So far the only dropped dog was a husky named Juno. Frostbite -- that was the official reason given by the musher. The dog had one brown eye and one blue eye, and he stared at Trixie with an expression that spoke of being misunderstood.
In the past hour, Trixie had managed to sneak Juno an extra handful of kibble and a couple of biscuits, stolen from the vet's supply. She wondered if she could buy Juno from the musher with some of the money left over in the stolen wallet. She thought maybe it would be easier to keep running if she had someone else to confide in, someone who couldn't possibly tell on her.
She wondered what Zephyr and Moss and anyone else back home in the other Bethel -- Bethel, Maine -- would say if they saw her sitting in a snowbank and eating salmon jerky and listening for the crazy fugue of barking that preceded the arrival of a dog team. Probably, they would think she had lost her mind. They'd say, Who are you, and what have you done with Trixie Stone? The thing is, she wanted to ask the same question.
She wanted to crawl into her favorite flannel pajamas, the ones that had been washed so often they were as soft as the skin of a rose. She wanted to open up the refrigerator and not be able to find anything on its stocked shelves worth eating. She wanted to get sick of a song on the radio and smell her father's shampoo and trip over the curly edge of the rug in the hallway. She wanted to go back -- not just to Maine, but to early September.
Trixie could feel tears rising in her throat like the watermarks on the Portland dock, and she was afraid someone would notice. So she lay down on the matted straw, her nose nearly touching Juno's. "You know," she whispered, "I got left behind once, too."
Her father didn't think she remembered what had happened that day in Faneuil Hall, but she did -- bits and pieces cropped up at the strangest times. Like when they went to the beach in the summer and she smelled the ocean: It suddenly got harder to breathe. Or how at hockey games and movie theaters and other places where she got mixed up in a crowd, she sometimes felt sick to her stomach. Trixie remembered, too, that they had abandoned the stroller at Faneuil Hall -- her father simply carried her back in his arms. Even after they returned from vacation and bought a new stroller, Trixie had refused to ride in it.
Here's what she didn't remember about that day: the getting-lost part. Trixie could not recall unbuckling the safety harness or pushing through the shifting sea of legs to the doors that led outside. Then, she saw the man who looked like he might be her father but who actually turned out to be a statue sitting down. Trixie had walked to the bench and climbed up beside him only to realize that his metal skin was warm, because the sun had been beating down on it all day. She'd curled up against the statue, wishing with every shaky breath that she would be found.
This time around, that's what scared her most.