When she said time, she meant her grandmother’s mink coat, still torn from the formal dinner wars, holding its breath under the clear laundry bag in a dark closet.
The woman went missing for three days. She and her husband had been talking from either side of the breakfast nook, the dinner dishes cleared, the salt and pepper shakers still in close formation between them. Her husband got up to get something from the garage, and when he returned he found her car keys on the countertop. Her red slippers, one tilted on its side, sat on the tile near the door to the mud porch. Nothing like this had ever happened before, he said.
When she said earth, she meant the moon under each fingernail, the different stories they could tell about the body.
In the back of the police sedan, the man in the thin tie asked her how long she had been in the ravine. How did she get the small cut above her left temple? How, after three days missing, had her clothes stayed dry? Who left you there? Under the wool blanket stenciled with the name of a county—for the first time, as far as he could tell—she began shivering.
When she said sky, she meant everything changeable and above her.
It was their oldest she and her husband talked about, the son who left one day with most of his things and two weeks later sent them a post office box number from Oregon. The last words she said to him had been, Let us know how you’re doing. The thing she said to her husband before he went to the garage was, Don’t forget the lights.
When she said soul, she meant everything beyond sky or closer, here inside the first world.
The detective found her in a stand of basswood and oak several hundred yards down from the parking lot behind the mall, past the twisted shopping carts and tomato crates and runny Pennzoil cans. She sat on a fallen trunk, digging at the earth with the heel of one boot, lifting a small handful of soil to her nose to smell it, in no apparent distress. At the bottom of the ravine, the man knew, was the old railroad right-of-way, now a bike trail. From either spot, parking lot or path, she could have been dropped off, left on her own. We’re going to want to get you looked at, he said.
When she said evil, she meant the foot rolling the girl into the ditch, the two-beat pause before the lie, the hand writing the executive order, the easy stale air she breathes before turning away.
The truth is, she thought, the man in the thin tie feeding her questions, I can swallow these one after another but never give them back. It was an ordinary evening: She made roasted chicken, boiled potatoes, a rustic salad with salty olives and a shaving of parmesan on top. Brian’s work worries amounted to the date of his next computer upgrade. They both worried about Tim. I don’t know what to say about that anymore, she said. She crossed her hands at the kitchen table before Brian went outside to get a hammer. And it was then she felt the need to save a life—a young girl’s, she thought, but she didn’t know for sure. There was still a brief red light in the sky. She put on her boots and was gone. She never found the girl, but instead heard a whispering under the rush of cars as they passed her all one day, and the next day the way the shapes of buildings and the cursive power lines broadcast empty speeches for hours on end, and the three nights of temperature falling like a foreign language translating itself through her accidental clothes, and the quiet of that ravine all those nights, where fallen leaves always had something to say. The girl was still in danger, she knew, but what could she do? Every kind thing that had ever humanized her, every wound that had ever scarred, came down to this. She didn’t know what to do about it anymore. The police scanner squawked and popped. Maybe she was the girl, before anything ever started. Maybe the child was no one, on television once and only for a moment, between some other crime. She shivered under the blanket.
When she said love, and that was all husband or detective ever heard her say again, she meant the reservoir emptying, the rush of water down the canyon, the ornamental trees, cars, and broken households of the rich jostling toward the valley. In the one-story homes lower down, human beings could only dream of the love coming their way, driving them and animals to rooftops where in a rush of air the yellow sling would come to find them, to lift them into the dim room held aloft by each slicing blade.
(“Violence” originally appeared in our Spring 2011 issue).