The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
“Naomi imagined a five-year-old girl, lost and shivering, wandering in what must have seemed like an endless forest. Madison Culver had been missing for three years. She would be eight years old by now—if she had survived.”
“Where are you, Madison Culver? Flying with the angels, a silver speck on a wing? Are you dreaming, buried under the snow? Or is it possible, after three years missing, you are still alive?”
“You were born of the snow, her mind told her. Born of the beauty.”
It was the contradiction of her life, Naomi knew, that she was suspicious and trusting, afraid and fearless—and, most importantly, often at the same time.
Her entire life she had been running from terrifying shadows she could no longer see—and in escape she ran straight into life. In the years since, she had discovered the sacrament of life did not demand memory. Like a leaf that drank from the morning dew, you didn’t question the morning sunrise or the sweet taste on your mouth.
You just drank.
The snow girl knew about fairy tales. In those tales children ate poison apples and fell asleep for years; they rubbed stones and made wishes and turned into beasts; they drank tea and became small; they fell down tunnels and woke in lands ruled by mad hatters and benevolent kings. There were children who were created from mud, rolled from dough—or born of ice. Maybe, snow girl thought, she had fallen down a magic tunnel and arrived in this place. Maybe she was freshly created herself, rolled of snow and made of wishes.
In this time of great awakening, the snow girl learned much about herself, and the world. She learned the world was a lonely place, because when you cried no one came. She learned the world was an uncertain place, because one moment you were one person and the next you landed on your head all goofy and woke up in a dream. She learned the world was a wild place, full of imagination, because that was the only possible explanation for what had happened.
Mr. B knew everything there was to know about animals. He knew how to find tiny tracks under the brush. He could read the flight of the hawks over the places where the animals hid. He knew where the snow was pockmarked with delightful holes under which he would find warm carcasses of meat and blood.
The girl learned that the trap lines he set followed the lives of the animals, not just from season to season but along with weather. She learned to recognize the soft cunning fox, the sleek marten, the ever-present skunk, the sharp coyote, and the distant, howling wolf. She learned to identify the yellowing marks of telltale urine, the soft dimpled snow over a dug burrow. The heat of scat as it buries itself, the clue of a few hairs caught in a branch, the musky smell of an animal in the far distance.
You are missing out, Naomi, he thought, sitting at the bedside. You are finding your children, but you are not finding yourself. You are not sitting at the bedside.
He didn’t blame Naomi. He admired her strength, her spirit. But he saw Naomi as the wind traveling over the field, always searching, never stopping, and never knowing that true peace is when you curl around one little piece of something. One little fern. One little frond. One person to love.
One sleepy Sunday a woman came into the battered women’s shelter, distraught about her missing daughter. That was the day Naomi discovered what she was meant to do. Within a few years she was working nonstop. She sought out trainings along the way, from records gathering to crime scene analysis, and became licensed as a private investigator. She met other investigators, discovering they specialized in everything from cheating spouses to white-collar crime to insurance fraud, all the way up to murder cases and exonerating the innocent. Naomi was the only one she knew about who specialized in finding missing children. Soon people began calling her the child finder.
Over the years she had taken classes run by retired police; had completed an intensive course with a Filipino street fighter; and, in her favorite experience, had flown to Mexico to train with a professional boxer retired to glory after a life of dirty fighting.