Lost and found.
That’s where Kathleen would go if this had happened at a big box store, her carelessness broadcast over the loudspeaker. Instead, she lost something precious in the snow, in deep, cold, silent snow. Beautiful, but impossible to search — unlike the hard floors and ordered aisles of housewares and sports equipment, toiletries and toys.
She lost her ten-year-old daughter, April, and she wonders at the irony of that as she tacks down the icy hillside where her family came to sled nine days ago, in late January. She has plowed through snow every day and called April’s name as if trying to invoke a spring thaw. All she sees before her is whiteness, blankness. The trees have lost their shape, becoming mere brushstrokes flat against the snow and sky. Her eyes are trained now for movement, for the odd, the unnatural. Like a little girl huddled against herself. A sudden pang of yearning for April startles her. She slips and tumbles.
Several of the searchers run to her aid, the sheriff reaching her first. She has thought of something important, information about April that he needs. He is close to calling off the search, has been for two days. It has drained the county’s rescue budget, volunteers are weary, resources are needed elsewhere, he says. The helicopters and search planes have ceased flying over. Even the tone of local newspaper articles, which she reads every morning before driving the 40 miles out here, has become final.
Kathleen grabs his arm, looks in his drooping, sleepless eyes, and says, “April plays the piano. She was learning a sonatina, an advanced piece for her age. Clementi, I think. In C.”
“Yes, Kathleen, you’ve told us.” He says this so kindly that she wants to scream, push him violently away, stomp on his dirty tree-limb-scratched leather jacket. “Are you all right?”
No, she is not all right. She has heard music in the woods for the past four days, a solo that fades in and out, indecipherable. Just now, she almost recognized it, but then the music stopped. If the search is called off, she will never identify the instrument or the tune. She is afraid to tell the sheriff because he will think she is hallucinating. Instead, she says something else.
“She takes lessons every Tuesday from 3:45 until 4:30. I didn’t call the piano teacher last week. He will be furious. His time is precious. April must go to her next lesson or he’ll drop her.”
If she had more tears, they would appear now, but she pushed the last one out three days ago. What she hasn’t run out of yet is hope. Like an island castaway with a vial of life-sustaining medicine, she has apportioned a bit of hope for each day.
A woman appears behind the sheriff, his wife. Since the second day, she has hiked this mountain calling April’s name and poking in snow drifts with the others. She throws back the hood of her yellow parka and exposes her chafed skin to the biting wind to hear Kathleen better. The day is clear, but bitterly cold, and Kathleen can see small red lines radiating around the woman’s nose. She can’t bear the sorrow and pity on this woman’s face, a look she has seen more often as the days have passed.
The sheriff’s wife wears another look, new to Kathleen, or at least one she hasn’t noticed until now. It shocks her. It is an accusation: How horrible for you that you are the parent responsible for your child’s disappearance. How will you live with yourself?
How will she? Kathleen hadn’t considered it. She looks around at the remaining rescue workers, tracking dogs, volunteers. She realizes that other people have had the same thoughts. She feels it now. She backs away from the sheriff and his wife. They let her go without speaking. Everyone else leaves her alone, as they have from the beginning. At first, she had decided they were being respectful, focusing on their duties in the search and giving her the room to be frantic. Instead they are horrified by her, a mother who misplaced her child.
She scrambles toward the woods and again thinks through the circumstances, which she has repeated countless times to the sheriff, the volunteer coordinator, the reporters, her family.
Jim had told her not to go, but the boys were so rowdy, clamoring to race down the hill she had built to mythic proportions in her tales of childhood sledding. She hankered to do anything counter to Jim’s wishes. They had descended that far. Only her father knew exactly where the hill lay on the mountain, and his visit with them was almost over, his flight back to the sunny comfort of Florida scheduled for the next day. Against Jim’s wishes, she took them: her father, Todd, Matt, and April. She had thought of loading Grendel, their 110-pound Akita, into the Jeep, but at the last minute decided that his paws might freeze if he stayed out in the snow too long. A bad decision. Grendel may have been able to find April in those crucial first minutes.
In the early morning, the sky had been an even pearl gray, the air heavy and moist. The snow hadn’t started falling until after their second run down the hill, a steep treeless slope wedged between two densely forested ridges. The bottom of the slope flattened out gradually into a glade, to which an unmarked half-mile path ran from the old logging road where they parked. Until the snow began, they could see from the glade to the top of the long hill and a short distance into the woods. The tiny swirling flakes conspired to confuse and obscure.
Her father was exhausted by the hike to the glade, but the boys had just gotten their feel for the run. One last time, she told them, looking at the darkening sky. The forecast called for heavy snow later in the day. She had planned to be on the road well before the storm began. Her father returned to the Jeep alone. April was tired, too, and he asked if she wanted to go with him. April knew if she did her brothers would tease her later, so she said no, quietly. Kathleen knew she would slow them down, and she should have made her go back to the car. Some part of her wanted to teach April a lesson about the consequence of choices, the part of her that mistakenly thought this the strategy of a conscientious parent. Her second bad decision, the one she has twisted around herself like a shroud these past nine days.
As she and the boys headed toward the hill, Kathleen turned to see April still watching her grandfather’s disappearing form. Irritated, Kathleen had called to her sharply.
April turned to her slowly, apprehensively, and Kathleen saw in her daughter everything she had wearied of in Jim. Her deliberate yet soundless manner. Her probing brown eyes. Her fragile body. Even her ordinary hair, mousy and straight, hair that resisted curling with vehemence. How did their genes combine to make her so different from the boys with their sturdy builds and dark blond curls?
They lost her during a snowball fight, which Kathleen started. Todd and Matt ran from her, sidetracking into the woods to gain an advantage. Gleeful, playful, intent — she followed, thinking April was right behind her, calling back once early on for April to keep up. The fight couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes, but by the time Kathleen and the boys had collapsed in a heap of giggles near the top of the hill, April was gone. They hadn’t noticed that the snow was falling much faster, filling in their tracks, cutting off the view of the glade below. For a few seconds, Kathleen hesitated. But then …
She’s gone back to Grandpa, the boys yelled as they ran ahead, picking up the sleds where they had dropped them. Kathleen hesitated again, this time wondering where April would have turned back, how far up the path. Then her boys called to her for the last run. They would catch up to April, they said, maybe even pass her on the way down.
When they trudged back to the Jeep, having gone crazily off the trail once, disoriented by the thick curtain of flakes, Todd, the middle child, was the first to notice.
Where is April? he demanded of his grandfather.
Where is April? their grandfather, confused, asked the boys.
Then they panicked, looking wildly around and screaming her name. Kathleen emptied her purse into the snow, digging for the cell phone she knew she had tossed onto the kitchen counter before leaving home. She hadn’t wanted Jim to disturb them. Her, to disturb her. Kathleen looked up at the dark fortress of trees on the slope, now almost obliterated by the driving snow.
Todd and Matt headed for the woods, but their grandfather stopped them. We need more people, he said. He understood the danger of letting them search for their sister alone, the risk of their getting lost as well. The boys sensed he was right.
They left April to find help, knowing she was alone in the storm, the snow filling in her tracks, the wind scattering her cries. Hours passed before a rescue team was mobilized and on the mountain. By nightfall, when the searchers finally agreed on a plan, the wind chill had dropped to two below zero. That whole night, Kathleen could think only that April’s hot pink wool gloves were worn thin on the fingertips because her hands had inexplicably begun to lengthen this year, that they should have stopped at the Target on the highway for a new pair but hadn’t because her boys were so eager to get to the slope.
Since Kathleen lost her daughter, she has had and finally dismissed other thoughts. That a bear came out of hibernation to take April to its den and is looking after her. That another person on the mountain with them has taken her for a ransom and will contact them soon. That Jim has abducted and hidden her and only pretends to grieve. When the search has ended, he will leave the boys and her to start a new life in an exotic place like Tasmania or Tahiti. He loves April more than the rest of us, doesn’t he? Kathleen thinks. Like her father, April is cautious and deliberate, obsessively concerned about other people — traits that make her father a good pediatrician. The boys are reckless and self-absorbed. Like me.
By the time Kathleen reaches the top of the hill, she’s heaving and stops to catch her breath, to survey the terrain again. She sees Jim below talking to the sheriff, pointing angrily into the woods at the base of the slope. This gesturing is as uncharacteristic as the screaming argument they had six nights ago. He accused her of losing sight of April and having maternal eyes for only Todd and Matt. His madness so upset the boys that they fled to April’s room, where Kathleen later found them fingering their sister’s ruffled pink bedspread, stroking her dolls’ hair.
Their perpetual laughter has died. Now their eyes are flat and dark, not glimmering with mischief. They haven’t gone back to school. They don’t speak directly to Kathleen. She is ashamed of herself for what this ordeal has made of them. Dull mannequins. Vacant and disengaged. Simply there.
While April is not there.
Kathleen imagines April in the snow, a mantle of glistening whiteness draped about her thin shoulders, finally the center of her mother’s attention. Kathleen stumbles and grabs a tree limb to steady herself. Suddenly, April’s quietness is vastly significant. Without April, how can Matt and Todd be her boys? How can Kathleen adore their boisterousness yet crave her daughter’s serenity? April’s expressiveness was not in words or actions, as with Todd and Matt, but in her silence. Hers was a subtle spirit.
The desperation of not knowing lifts, the shroud about her loosens and falls away.
“April,” Kathleen says softly.
The wind calms to a pleasant breeze; the sun warms her face a bit. From far beyond the forest, Kathleen hears the music again. With complete joy, she recognizes the sonatina, perfectly executed, gently expressed. How natural the music was for April. How brilliant a performer she would have become. Kathleen closes her eyes, listens, and watches. The music changes, and Kathleen sees April. She is grown and sitting at a baby grand piano in a concert hall. Her hair, swept up expertly for the performance, shines under the lights. Her shimmery pale pink gown defines a lithe figure. Her graceful fingers caress the keys with a gentle firmness. The piece she plays is more difficult than the Clementi — a Mozart sonata, perhaps. The music ends, and she allows herself a confident, radiant smile. She scans the audience, on its feet in approbation. She finds her mother’s face and nods, acknowledging, loving.
Kathleen opens her eyes and ventures into the sparkling woods, though where she walks the snow has been packed by legions of boots. If she pushes herself beyond the bootprints, if she continues to seek April where she has not yet looked, in impossibly obvious but hidden places, Kathleen knows she will finally find her.