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Post Road Magazine #31

Children Left to be Raised by Wolves

Carrie Messenger

The children in the photographs in the old woman's album had no style. Or maybe, it would be more accurate to say they had a style, but one that was alien to me, both ancient and inappropriate. Scraggly, wild hair. You couldn't tell the boys and girls apart, like they were all one kind of creature, and wild, furtive eyes, ready to bolt, the way they had when the police came calling. The jeans were clean, but bulging at the cuffs, as if the jeans wanted to grow out, too. They had sandals barely covering their slender feet. They had flowers in their hair. I thought the taller one was the man. There was so much hair flopping in their faces that I couldn't tell whether there were beards, sideburns, something that would guide me other than height, but the old woman corrected me, pointing to the tall one, saying, that's your mother, that's my daughter. See, she's pregnant in this picture, see how her blouse catches a curve? She traced it with her bony, spotted finger. Here. See?

I didn't see it.

She grabbed my hand, pulled my finger to the curling snapshot, and made me trace it with her. That's you, she said. Until now, it was my only picture of you. It's my last picture of her. She was taken before you were born. She was at seven months when they took her. He'd just finished building the crib. We kept it right there by the bookshelf. I kept it until you turned four. I figured, if I found you then, you'd climb out anyway. And look at you now.

She was crazy, crazy as her daughter in her own way. My knuckles hurt where she had squeezed. She stared at me, hard, as if I would look like either the baby in the belly or the tall girl in the peasant blouse with the hair in her face. Any of my friends would have left then, but me, I'm polite. I have the courtesy of my mother, the one in pearls, the one smelling of gardenias, the one who I know is a woman because she has every feminine grace. And maybe I have the curiosity of these other people, these wild animals. Maybe I was already marked one of them since before I was born, and my parents as well as this woman have always been waiting for wildness to out.

How could I come from them? The wild children in the photographs, playing guitars and sticking flowers in their hair? How was that a way to run a revolution? They must have never gotten anything done, unless they only took pictures of their most innocuous activities. If you listen to my parents, the children of the left were dangerous radicals with bombs, who got what they deserved. If I listened to this woman in this room, the only bombs that went off blew up the radicals themselves.

How could I come from my own parents? My father in his pressed uniform, my mother in her pearls, coming in to kiss me goodnight before they went to one of their parties, promising to kiss me again when they came back home. I'd wait for them for hours, building my blankets into a tent with the bedposts, until I finally fell asleep, blankets tangled around me, and who knew if they kept their promise. I would pretend that when they would come home, it wouldn't be them, but wolves wearing their faces as masks. When I told my mother one morning at breakfast, she took away Little Red Riding Hood. She must have known, then, that it was her face that was the mask. If they are wolves, the children of this woman here in this room where I couldn't breathe were sheep, and I was a lamb that shouldn't be. I should have been killed in my mother's womb along with my mother when they killed my father. They waited to kill her until I was born, and then they pushed her out of an airplane into the sea. That's what the old woman is waiting to tell me, the old woman, my grandmother.

We all should have died together, the three of us. Everything would have been simpler, cleaner. My grandmother would have had no hope, but she could have spent the last thirty years taking up a hobby instead of standing around the square holding pictures, waiting for a baby, a girl, a woman who never came. But if they killed my mother before I was born, my own children wouldn't be, my boys, wrestling each other on the kitchen floor, picking me wildflowers when we walked in the park, tugging at my hand with their sticky fingers, demanding it was their turn now.

How could I come from this crazy old woman, who let her daughter dabble in revolution when she should have been studying? This woman was not the grandmother I would have chosen. I wouldn't have wanted to spend my childhood visiting this stuffy, small apartment in this outskirt neighborhood, one I've never had reason to venture to before in my entire life. There wasn't a garden, just a balcony facing traffic, draped with laundry. I couldn't bring my own children here. There would be no place for them to play among the piles of books and papers.

She didn't offer me pastries, just hard candies melted down into the chipped porcelain bowl. The tea she brewed for me was so weak I couldn't tell whether she didn't have money for more, or that was how she liked it. The cup was thin with a pearly sheen, nothing but a checkered, black and gold Art Deco design on the rims. Her family must have had money, once, either before they came to this country or before they joined the left and didn't believe in pretty things any more.

She must not have believed I would come this time or she would have surely supplied pastries. I'd turned down the other invitations, and I'd only accepted this one because my mother took me aside to whisper, it might go better with your father's case if you made a visit. Just one, just once. Until the DNA results are established, darling.

The old woman wanted to keep looking at the photo album. It was the old kind, cream corners glued to black thick paper to hold the snapshots in place. Some popped out as the pages turned, and she wouldn't move on until everything was back in place. Most of the photos were black and white, and in the ones in color, the colors were off, garish like a Technicolor movie, as if that decade never happened except in documentaries.

She paused at a picture of radicals seated around a campsite. The green of the forest made me see spots after I stared too long. She said, He would play the guitar for you and she would sing. Before you were born. From the day she found out about you to the day they took her. Do you sing? She was an alto. What are you?


And you're so short. But you could have gotten that from him. He was short, but feisty. Real tough, like he had something to prove. But he was the kindest of all of them, his group of friends. He took care of everyone. They didn't have enough money for their own place because so much of his paycheck went to making sure his students had enough to eat. I knew him since he was a boy. Oh, if only your other grandmother had lived to see this day. She came to the demonstrations until she got sick, and when she couldn't come any more, I would hold up his picture, too. This one.

He was in an old man's suit for first communion. It was too big for him. Maybe it belonged to a cousin first, but if so, why hadn't somebody altered it for him? Maybe there were more cousins coming down the line. He clutched his Book of Saints to his chest. His hair was cut short and it stood up in spikes. You could see his big, luminous eyes. It was easier for me to think of this boy as my father than the hairy short man in the first picture she showed me, even though it was impossible for this boy to be a father. It seemed like a strange choice of the other grandmother to bring this picture to the demonstration. They hadn't killed this boy on the day of his first communion. They killed a radical, a wild, shaggy man, a dangerous man. The other grandmother must have been hoping they would see the boy within the man. The fact that this very boy became the man, for somebody like my father in the uniform and my mother in the pearls, was all the more reason to kill him. In their eyes, he turned out to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

It was the photo of my mother on the first day of school when I knew without doubts. I knew, but I didn't say anything to her yet, this little old woman, my grandmother who wanted so much more from me than I would ever be capable of giving. Not just because of what had happened to me, but because of what was in me. Maybe I changed in those last two months in my mother's womb, when she was being tortured in detention. Or maybe I was the kind of baby who couldn't protect their parents, who couldn't make them choose safer, easier ways. My boys were that kind of baby. I wouldn't risk anything for myself, but everything for them.

I knew because the nervous grin of my mother holding her mother's hand at the school door was the one my youngest son flashed at me when he wanted to tell me he was worried, but would be all right. That I could go, as long as I came back. Now when I would watch him, it would be like seeing a ghost, exactly the ghost this old woman was so hungry for. I didn't say anything, though, until we'd worked backwards through the album, to baby pictures that looked like me except the surroundings were wrong, the decade twenty years earlier than mine, as if I'd been photoshopped into somebody else's movie set.

Now you see, she said to me, closing the cover gingerly. Now you know what the DNA results will show you. I didn't want science to show us why we are family. I wanted history, the history that was stolen from you the way that you were stolen from us. But she couldn't help herself, and the phrases she'd been practicing since the first grandmothers found their grandchildren through DNA were not enough for her. She had to add, The history that was stolen from you when those people murdered your parents.

You are telling me, I asked her, my voice starting out cordial but wavering as I went, that my parents murdered my real parents? Which am I meant to most distraught over? That my parents aren't my real parents? Or that they are murderers? One alone might be enough for today. I was polite and my mother's daughter. Only the teacup trembling in my hand gave me away.

She wasn't polite, this crazy woman, her dark eyes feverish, bony hands waving wildly as she talked. Your parents are murderers and you are not who you think you are. I've spent the last thirty years looking for you. Every child who came to look in the library where I worked at the circulation desk, I'd stare into their eyes. When you were at the university, I'd walk through the halls on all my lunch breaks. I thought, maybe you'd like music, too. She grabbed a folder and spilled out the ticket stubs of decades' worth of musical events. Why did you deny what you love? she said. Why weren't you where I looked for you? Why did I have to look so hard?

I wasn't allowed to go to the library when I was small. My father, with his deep and abiding love of private ownership, always said, any book worth reading is a book worth owning. I didn't finish the university. I started with my class and attended the lectures, but I was too nervous to sit for the exams. I didn't go to concerts often, because they made me cry. I sat at home and played records. My ex-husband called me agoraphobic, first as a joke when we started dating and I wanted to stay at my home or his but not go out, and then for real when he said my problems were scaring the boys and pretty soon nobody would go outside anywhere.

I have a lovely apartment with a garden. I don't get out much now, except to the market and to take the boys to the park. The alimony is good, and even if it wasn't, my parents would help. The wolves, I mean, the uniform and pearls, not the parents dropped from the plane into the sea. My ex-husband is a successful dentist putting braces on the city's upper middle class children. The kind of child I was, once. Dentists aren't often found on the left. They rip out people's teeth. What they do would be considered torture if you didn't have to pay them so much. My ex-husband has asked me, no matter what I find out, yes or no, not to share it with the boys. Or with him, either. He says he doesn't care. He already knows me, and he's already found me wanting.

I don't have grandmothers any more, I told her. They both died years ago, when I was little. So you can be my grandmother if you'd like. I thought I was making a grand gesture, more polite than my mother in the pearls, as kind as my brand new father clutching his children's Book of Saints.

I am your grandmother, she wailed. I don't need your permission to be what I am.

But I've been waiting my whole life for permission to be who I am. Lambs have to ask the wolves. Wolves don't ask to be lambs. They just put on the masks.

I didn't take a taxi to the house on the hill. I rode the metro, packed with people, packed with DNA and history. I imagined swabbing the insides of people's cheeks, pulling at stray hair on the collars of coats. So many ways to find out you weren't who you thought you were. You could go around asking about political parties now and those of thirty years ago, but most of older people on the metro car would lie and the young wouldn't care. DNA doesn't lie. I've watched enough soap operas, though, in my years as a housewife, to know that results can be contaminated by human error, or human desire if there's enough money involved. I didn't care any more what the results would be. I knew from my child's nervous grin on the face of my mother as a girl. I'd known my whole life that something was wrong with me, and now I knew there was something wrong with everybody else.

My mother held her pearls at her throat and said, What a lovely surprise. She had the kettle on and there were éclairs that the maid had picked up that morning, so they weren't fresh, she could send the maid out again, but I told her I didn't care. My mother was worried to see me out of the house and wanted to know first where the boys were. When I said, with the neighbors, she didn't like the answer. She never liked the neighbors. She wanted me to bring them up the hill, where she could watch them, which meant the maid would watch them. There had been many maids since the one I'd loved when I was a girl, the one who'd read me Little Red Riding Hood, who sang the songs that my mother must have sung to me. Not this one in pearls, the androgynous one in sandals, the tall one who towers over her man. I can't figure out how to say "real." They both are unreal, the wolf, the wild one. Maybe mothers are always unreal.

She fingered her pearls with her blood-red fingernails and waited for me to speak.

You knew what the DNA results would be all along, didn't you?

You have the results?

I don't need the results now.

So now you think you know something. You know nothing. You don't know what it's like to want a child. Yours came so easily. I held my breath for you, and you didn't even know how lucky you were, both times.

She was jealous of me and my fertility, jealous of my hairy flower mother and hers. Which was worse, the murder or the kidnapping? The kidnapping. Because if you hate people so much you want them to die, you shouldn't want their children. She must have been so confident that she could turn me into her. A book worth reading is a book worth owning. A child worth raising is a child worth owning. I didn't say anything. The cream oozed out of the éclair as I pressed it with my thumb.

There were five miscarriages before you, darling. Five. You didn't have one. You can't know. So many dead babies, so much blood. I couldn't try again. The doctors said it would kill me. But your father needed a son. And I needed something to love.

But I wasn't a boy.

Your father saw you and he fell in love. He didn't care whether or not you were a boy once he saw you, so little you fit in his two hands, like a puppy or a kitten, so tiny! How nervous we were as we waited for you to grow. And I, of course, never cared as long as you were ours.

The words binding me to her again. Ours. If you wish it, it must be so. If you wish it, your adopted daughter will dutifully forge a relationship with the crazy old grandmother so that when your husband stands trial, the court will see that his attitude toward radicals and their families has relaxed. He's a kind man, a gentle man, a father, not a murderer and kidnapper any more.

Why didn't you try what you said you did, when you told me I was adopted? Go and see the nuns?

You fell into our lives, don't you see? We didn't have to try anything. You were there. You needed so much care. You were so little. We gave you everything. It wasn't something I thought about. It happened. Wasn't it a good life, darling? You remember when the boys were little, how much there is to be done, how you never sleep, but you don't care because there is a baby in your arms?

The idea of my mother, sleepless, a baby in her arms. It must have been maids who were sleepless, the maids she ran through as if the job description stated it was only to be temporary. I don't mean that she didn't love me, didn't take care of me. But her vision of herself never matched the reality. She couldn't see her mask, although she could see that I couldn't manage keeping mine from slipping.

They'd admitted I was adopted when I was first contacted by the old woman, when her letter stayed in my pocketbook for days before I could bring myself to finish it. Yes, I was adopted, she was right about that, but not the rest, that was crazy. I was adopted, but they hadn't wanted to tell me to make me feel I was anything less than theirs because I was, I was their everything. I was from an orphanage, nuns handled the paperwork, but from what they understood, my parents died in a bus crash that I survived, and the distant relatives still in the countryside, although heartbroken, were too poor to take me in. No loose ends. Everything virtuous. Poor but noble. The perfect orphan story, straight from a soap opera. Rags to riches because I was such an adorable baby. I earned my fate through my cooing.

They had to tell me I was adopted because they knew the first court-ordered DNA tests would reveal that the DNA was an impossible match for us, and the next step would be to match my DNA with one of the grandmothers, the whole group of them who stood in the square, and although they weren't sure there would be a match, they knew I would know I was adopted. My parents were doling out truth and building new lies for scaffolding. When the DNA showed my grandmother was my grandmother, were they planning to claim the nuns had tricked them into taking a baby without knowing the origins? Without knowing that the baby's parents had been killed by my father? Bad origins twice: the murdered and the murderers. Bad by nature, worse by nurture.

What child doesn't think, maybe I'm adopted? Waiting for the wolves who wear the masks of parent faces to fool the careless child. My father, on the stairs of the house on the hill, sneering down at me, when he'd found out that I hadn't failed my university exams, but hadn't taken them in the first place: you're no child of mine. He was right.

I put the teacup down. The pattern that had once seemed so delicate resolved into a military crest. The pearls themselves were a uniform.

Your father will be home soon. Can't you wait to talk to him? You can help him. You're the only one who can. I'm losing you, maybe my grandchildren, too.

I didn't respond.

Don't let me lose him. He's all I'll have left.

I can't keep him from prison.

But you can decide how long he goes. Darling, he isn't young. All I ask is that you remember how much he loves you. She folded her hands around her teacup and crossed her ankles together. The interview was over. She wouldn't say another word because she wanted to end on this sentimental note. All I ask is everything of you, darling.

I stood in the garden waiting for my father. The cushions were out for the chaise lounge, and I could have walked to the gazebo, but to sit in comfort would reveal me as part of the world of the pearls. I'd wait to sit in my own home, on chairs paid for by skillful dentistry. The rosebushes were pruned so tightly they looked skeletal, and the lawn as regular as Astroturf and as lush as a painting. A green so bright I thought of the Technicolor photographs at my grandmother's.

I knew my father wouldn't approach me in the garden. He didn't meet people, not even halfway. People came in to talk to him, either once he was ensconced beyond the massive oak desk in the study or propped up in his club chair in the den, cigar in hand. He didn't enter rooms or exit them. He was already there, the space already claimed and shaped by him. I tiptoed around him when I was little. I only came to him when I was called. Which is not to say I didn't love him, or that I feared him. When I was little, he would pull me up into his lap and listen patiently while I narrated inventions. He would hide candy and small treats he thought I would like in his pockets: change from other countries, stamps with birds and flowers, pencils with cartoon characters. He wanted to see me every day, no matter how late he returned from his office. He called it the viewing, and sometimes I would turn it into a performance, ballet steps, warbling I called opera, poems about rabbits in the garden. As I grew older, sitting in his lap seemed ridiculous, and I became self-conscious about the viewing. I didn't want to perform, and what teenager wants to be looked at? I stopped seeking him out, and he didn't meet people halfway.

He was done with me when I dropped out of the university. I wasn't a boy, which would have meant an army career. What my mother had hoped for me was at least a few years at the university and marriage. When it was a few months at the university instead, she found me my dentist, the son of a childhood friend of hers. I'd known him all my life. When he came to my house or I went to his, he expected a viewing. He liked to examine my teeth. He found mouths erotic, and it was an efficient step to kissing and things that can be done with mouths that would horrify my mother. When I married my dentist, my father warmed up to me again, although I never remember speaking to him alone, always my mother and my husband in the room instead, as if we were trapped in some play on a country estate where all principals must be on stage at once. When I had the boys, he was transformed, bringing out tin soldiers to scatter on the rugs, the patterns terrain. When I was divorced, it didn't matter to him because I'd produced the boys. His heirs were here, an heir and a spare. They could run two branches of the armed forces between them. I could be dumped from the plane now.

My mother called me back inside. Darling, he's in the study. You can take his tea in to him, she said, handing me the tray. As if I needed a reason to talk to him, when he was the one desperate to talk to me.

I didn't take the tray. She had to put it back on the sideboard. Behind the desk in the study, he looked shrunken, not that much younger than the old lady who was my grandmother, and his uniform didn't fit so well any more, as if he was shrinking too fast for adjustments. The medals gleamed; epaulets framed his shoulders. He waited for me to say something, as if I were the supplicant. But I waited for him to speak first.

Your mother says the situation has changed, he said.

Yes, I said.

What do you want me to do? he asked. I was the supplicant. He couldn't ask me to save him. It wasn't in him, wasn't within the uniform.

Can you kill her, Daddy? I don't want to go back there. You should have seen her apartment. And it's so sad, her story.

He scowled. It isn't funny, he said. We didn't raise you to be flippant.

What do you want me to do, Daddy?

His eyes flickered. He knew what my mother wanted him to ask, but he couldn't do it. Either he didn't want to debase himself and ask a favor of me, or there was something in him, maybe the part that put those old knees down on the rug for my boys, that wanted to be punished.

Nothing, he said. There is nothing for you to do. What do you want from me?

I do want to know if you were the one who killed them. I know you must have killed radicals. Killed their friends. But did you kill them. Did you kill my mother and father?

Your mother is in the garden. I'm your father, sitting here before you.

But we both know that's not true. At least, not wholly true. I have many parents.

What would you believe? That I killed them? That I didn't kill them? If you know the truth before the DNA results have come, you must know this truth, too.

I did. I knew. He was a man who liked to delegate, but wouldn't shirk from something hard. He prided himself on being a hard man. There would have been bargains between brothers. He would have tortured and killed other mothers for fellow officers who needed babies, too. He'd be complicit in the crime, but able to look at his child and not see a copy of his victims' eyes. If the wolf had killed my parents, I would have felt most bound to him, I think. He would have been the parent who mattered most. But he lacked the courage of his convictions. He was a murderer, just not my murderer.

You didn't kill them, Daddy.

Thank you. Tell your mother I'd like my tea now, darling, will you? He didn't look up from his newspaper as I left. I didn't stop to talk to my mother. I walked all the way home, down the hill, the whole city spread out before me.

I didn't testify for leniency for my father ,the murderer, and my mother, the kidnapper. I didn't testify for my grandmother, either. I stayed here, insulated by the money of my dentist, bringing up my own wolfpack. We're alone, set adrift in the island of childhood, those years before school when a parent is everything to a child, but we're surrounded by family. My father snug in the prison, my mother high in the mansion on the hill, my grandmother out in her tiny apartment, my parents falling from the plane into the sea, if you drew a circle, there I would be in the center, with my boys, neither left nor right. Nothing will be the same. Everything will be the same. I'm the one who's right. I'm what's left.

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