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THEY ARE LOOKING for someone with blond or dark brown or black hair.
Someone with blue or maybe brown or green eyes. She could be five foot six or five-eight. Her hair could also be red, could be an unnatural color like pink or white.
It is likely she weighs between 110 and 140 pounds and may have a scar or bruise on her throat.
She would be working somewhere unseen. Working as a waitress or secretary or laborer. She could be a student. There is a strong possibility she would have a nontraditional job. That she’s transient, works agriculture or construction or second shift.
She has physical strength and is articulate. Could be speaking English or Spanish or French. Could be in New York or Illinois or Tennessee. Canada or Mexico. Places where it rains all day or places where the grass has burnt to yellow. Could be among hollows between road and field, trails where the creek bed has dried. Could be anywhere.
She could be hitchhiking or taking public transportation, could be walking. She could be named Jamie, or Catherine, or Liz. Alexandra, Annie, Maria. Any name at all.
She may be aloof. She may be sensitive and drawn to helping people.
She is on her own and likely broke, and might be reliant on those she doesn’t know.
Searches peaked in the spring and summer months, and they are looking for her still.
As we are well aware, it is easy for a woman who fits this description to just disappear.
© 2011 Cara Hoffman
ALL THREE OF us walked in our sleep.
Later, when I would think about what happened, I would tell myself she was sleepwalking. Acting out a nightmare. Sleepwalking ran in our family. Dreaming while walking. Dreaming while talking. I know this is not an answer. The real answer is too simple.
Did she have health problems? Was she low–birth weight? Did she have headaches? Self-destructive behavior? Sudden changes in grades or friends? No.
Alice was a remarkably consistent soul. Healthy and athletic like her father. At home wherever she was. Happy at school and happy with all the things outside of school. Gymnastics and trapeze. And later, swimming, building, archery, shooting.
Her focus was so joyful, so intense. Like her happiness, when she was little, about swimming in the river, about building the cardboard forest or the paper Taj Mahal. Once she made a mobile of hundreds of origami frogs, locusts, paper dolls, and butterflies.
She was never bored. Had the same friends at sixteen as she’d had at four. Her teachers talked about how she was a “leader.” It was a word they used often, and this is certainly part of the problem. “A Leader.” But they also talked about how she was sensitive to other children, always so caring.
I am not trying to justify a thing. I am not trying to make excuses for my daughter. I am describing it as it was.
Before April 14, the words “I am Alice Piper’s mother” meant very little to anyone but me. Now those words are a riddle, a koan. A thing I have to understand even though nothing will change, even though the phrase “nothing will change” is something we fought against our entire lives.
The years in which we raised her were marked by diminishing returns for our diminishing expectations. But it hadn’t always been that way.
Things were different in the city. We moved because of Constant’s uncle. Because of Gene’s dreams about land and air and autonomy. But also because of me. Because of traffic and noise and sewer smells and the seventy hours a week I worked at the city’s Comprehensive Free Clinic for the Uninsured on First Avenue.
Prior to moving upstate, Gene and I lived on Saint Mark’s and First Avenue. Then later in a two-bedroom apartment on First and Seventh, with Constant and Michelle Mann, who were also done with their residencies and, like Gene and I, planned on working for Doctors Without Borders. We moved to First and Seventh because of the rooftop, so Gene could have space to plant. In those days everyone but Gene was exhausted—sometimes punch-drunk on three hours of sleep a night, nodding off on the subway coming home from Lenox Hill or staggering bleary-eyed in clogs and scrubs from Beth Israel or CFC. We all felt like the walking dead, knew we were in bad shape, envying Gene, especially later, when he was home all day with the baby. In the end, moving to Haeden was all we wanted.
When we drove out to the house and barn through that wet and green countryside, we were excited. We would finally have a place of our own. The apparent beauty and possibility of it all was overwhelming, something we had tried and failed to build for ourselves the last six years in New York.
Even the double-wides and sloping farmhouses with their black POW and American flags seemed oddly majestic with so much land around them, the tiniest trailers close to creeks or ponds.
As we drove in, I was thinking about Michelle when we worked in the clinic together, saying the responsibility of every intelligent person is to pay attention to the obvious. How had we missed the obvious benefit of all this land? A whole house and acreage for the cost of one room on the Lower East Side. I was thinking how, the second we got out of the car and brought our boxes inside and wrote Uncle Ross his rent check, this whole thing would start. In those days I could not wait for it to start.
Alice was two then, and we walked inside and put our boxes down and sat on the kitchen floor, nervous and tired from the drive, eating some blueberries we had bought on the way. She had just woken up and her face was placid and her hair was tangled and she leaned against me eating blueberries, her body warm and gentle from sleep. Then evening came in from the fields and lit the place with sound and stars. Peepers called up from the river, and crickets played below the windows in the grass. It was the first time Alice had heard crickets, and we went out on the porch together, Gene and I, watched her listen, quiet and alert and hunkered down, her whole body taking in the sound. Her blue-stained lips parted and her eyes shining.
It was Alice’s happiness, her joy in those moments, that allowed me to stay even years after, when paying attention to the obvious became a horror.
And for a long time we did not regret our singular vision. Our attempt to strip the irony from the slogans we’d come to live by. Phrases that buoyed us and embarrassed us at the same time. “Demand the Impossible,” “Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach,” anarchist sentiments we first took up in the city as a joke, then ultimately to comfort one another, to remind ourselves that we were different from our cohorts. Those words seemed—with all the incessant construction, and the destruction of the natural world, and Gene becoming fixated on “living the solution” and bringing down corporate agribusiness—more poignant at that time than when real revolutionaries scrawled them on the Paris streets in 1968. We might not have been burning cars and shutting down a city, but we were living in the sterile and violent future they had imagined, and we were certainly committed to destroying one culture by cultivating another.
This sensibility was one more way we were sleepwalking, dreaming. We did not stick with our plan. Though all four of us had passed the initial screening process for Doctors Without Borders, only one of us left on assignment. Gene and I were graced with Alice; Constant became plagued by an American concept of freedom, liquidity, mobility. These changes did not seem pivotal at the time, seemed instead the best possible outcome, exciting, a release. And how could we not admit that what we had been looking for by joining Doctors Without Borders was a release. Absolution from the lifestyle our postresidency careers seemed to necessitate, a lifestyle that was making the four of us—and not our colleagues—sick.
Those early years in Haeden were restful. Literally. Luxurious eight- and ten-hour nights. Waking up to quiet and birds instead of traffic. No six a.m. meetings at the clinic. Each season with its own particular beauty.
Bright, quiet winters snowed in and baking bread together, sitting around the woodstove, each of us silently reading. Summers resonant with the hum and staggered harmony of insects. The meadow in front of our house growing tall and strange from the warm rain. Swimming in the river and tending our vegetable garden. Alice could talk pretty well when we moved, and she loved the sounds, imitated them. Never herself, she was a frog, a mermaid, a bird. Radiant fall spent roasting and canning peppers with the smell of wood smoke on the cool air. And spring: Alice’s favorite time in the world, when everything comes back to life and it’s warm, with patches of snow, and we would wear shorts and big rubber boots and celebrate the first snowbells and crocuses. The air was lush and still cold and smelled like mud. Alice loved to run along the mowed path all the way to the river. In those early summers she was no taller than the goldenrod, just a head above the jack-in-the-pulpit that flanked the trails between the barn and woods. She loved to climb in the exposed roots of trees along the pebbled riverbank and collect stones and dried skeletons of crayfish. She was fearless.
We expected after a few years our friends would come, build, plant. Once Constant had made the money he wanted, once Michelle had finished her assignment, we would get back to the land, we would live and drink and work by the ideals we’d always had. Mutual Aid, No Boredom.
We expected, when Alice was bigger, we’d have enough money to have a real farm and for me to go back to some kind of practice. But these things never happened, and paying attention to the darker aspects of the obvious became a bad way to live if we wanted to stay happy and make friends.
Sleep had won out at last. We moved through our days in Haeden in a somnolent kind of daze, blithe when our senses called for panic, blind to our deepest fear, even as it lay, naked among the tall weeds, waiting.
© 2011 Cara Hoffman