I was six years old the first time I disappeared.
My father was working on a magic act for the annual Christmas show at the senior center, and his assistant, the receptionist who had a real gold tooth and false eyelashes as thick as spiders, got the flu. I was fully prepared to beg my father to be part of the act, but he asked, as if I were the one who would be doing him a favor.
Like I said, I was six, and I still believed that my father truly could pull coins out of my ear and find a bouquet of flowers in the folds of Mrs. Kleban’s chenille housecoat and make Mr. van Looen’s false teeth disappear. He did these little tricks all the time for the elderly folks who came to play bingo or do chair aerobics or watch old black-and-white movies with soundtracks that crackled like flame. I knew some parts of the act were fake—his fiddlehead mustache, for example, and the quarter with two heads—but I was one hundred percent sure that his magic wand had the ability to transport me into some limbo zone, until he saw fit to call me back.
On the night of the Christmas show, the residents of three different assisted-living communities in our town braved the cold and the snow to be bused to the senior center. They sat in a semicircle watching my father while I waited backstage. When he announced me—the Amazing Cordelia!—I stepped out wearing the sequined leotard I usually kept in my dress-up bin.
I learned a lot that night. For example, that part of being the magician’s assistant means coming face-to-face with illusion. That invisibility is really just knotting your body in a certain way and letting the black curtain fall over you. That people don’t vanish into thin air; that when you can’t find someone, it’s because you’ve been misdirected to look elsewhere.
I think it is a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.
You can’t exist in this world without leaving a piece of yourself behind. There are concrete paths, like credit card receipts and appointment calendars and promises you’ve made to others. There are microscopic clues, like fingerprints, that stay invisible unless you know how to look for them. But even in the absence of any of this, there’s scent. We live in a cloud that moves with us as we check e-mail and jog and carpool. The whole time, we shed skin cells—forty thousand per minute—that rise on currents up our legs and under our chins.
Today, I’m running behind Greta, who picks up the pace just as we hit the twisted growth at the base of the mountain. I’m soaked to the thighs with muck and slush, although it doesn’t seem to be bothering my bloodhound any. The awful conditions that make it so hard to navigate are the same conditions that have preserved this trail.
The officer from the Carroll, New Hampshire, Police Department who is supposed to be accompanying me has fallen behind. He takes one look at the terrain Greta is bulldozing and shakes his head. “Forget it,” he says. “There’s no way a four-year-old would have made it through this mess.”
The truth is, he’s probably right. At this time of the afternoon, as the ground cools down under a setting sun, air currents run downslope, which means that although the girl probably walked through flatter area some distance away, Greta is picking up the scent trail where it’s drifted. “Greta disagrees,” I say.
In my line of work, I can’t afford not to trust my partner. Fifty percent of a dog’s nose is devoted to the sense of smell, compared to only one square inch of mine. So if Greta says that Holly Gardiner wandered out of the playground at Sticks & Stones Day Care and climbed to the top of Mount Deception, I’m going to hike right up there to find her.
Greta yanks on the end of the fifteen-foot leash and hustles at a clip for a few hundred feet. A beautiful bloodhound, she has a black widow’s peak, a brown velvet coat, and the gawky body of the girl who watches the dancers from the bleachers. She circles a smooth, bald rock twice; then glances up at me, the folds of her long face deepening. Scent will pool, like the ripples when a stone’s thrown into a pond. This is where the child stopped to rest.
“Find her,” I order. Greta casts around to pick up the scent again, and then starts to run. I sprint after the dog, wincing as a branch snaps back against my face and opens a cut over my left eye. We tear through a snarl of vines and burst onto a narrow footpath that opens up into a clearing.
The little girl is sitting on the wet ground, shivering, arms lashed tight over her knees. Just like always, for a moment her face is Sophie’s, and I have to keep myself from grabbing her and scaring her half to death. Greta bounds over and jumps up, which is how she knows to identify the person whose scent she took from a fleece hat at the day-care center and followed six miles to this spot.
The girl blinks up at us, slowly pecking her way through a shell of fear. “I bet you’re Holly,” I say, crouching beside her. I shrug off my jacket, ripe with body heat, and settle it over her clothespin shoulders. “My name is Delia.” I whistle, and the dog comes trotting close. “This is Greta.”
I slip off the harness she wears while she’s working. Greta wags her tail so hard that it makes her body a metronome. As the little girl reaches up to pat the dog, I do a quick visual assessment. “Are you hurt?”
She shakes her head and glances at the cut over my eye. “You are.”
Just then the Carroll police officer bursts into the clearing, panting. “I’ll be damned,” he wheezes. “You actually found her.”
I always do. But it isn’t my track record that keeps me in this business. It’s not the adrenaline rush; it’s not even the potential happy ending. It’s because, when you get down to it, I’m the one who’s lost.
I watch the reunion between mother and daughter from a distance—how Holly melts into her mother’s arms, how relief binds them like a seam. Even if she’d been a different race or dressed like a gypsy, I would have been able to pick this woman out of a crowd: She is the one who seems unraveled, half of a whole.
I can’t imagine anything more terrifying than losing Sophie. When you’re pregnant, you can think of nothing but having your own body to yourself again; yet after giving birth you realize that the biggest part of you is now somehow external, subject to all sorts of dangers and disappearance, so you spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how to keep her close enough for comfort. That’s the strange thing about being a mother: Until you have a baby, you don’t even realize how much you were missing one.