The Linguist’s Guide to Eternity

Love is pain

A stuffed giraffe

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It was explainable to an extent, how I lost my daughter. I can name the exact day, and all the events surrounding it. Lake Galveston in August. Trees droning with the movement of swift birds and the hissing of unseen bugs. I watched her splash in the shoals with other children. A sandbar with barely an inch of water over it made them all appear to be walking on the brilliant surface. Light writhed electrically everywhere.

My cellphone rang then and I answered. Given what happened next, how can I say with certainty who was on the line? Because as I spoke, I stared directly at my daughter — the mismatched floaties on her arms, water like rivulets in the air around her, the endless din of children like a distant kitten’s meow — I never took my eyes off her. But as soon as I hung up, she disappeared.

Long moments passed in a blur as I grasped at people, clutching their arms like a madwoman, hanging on as though I may collapse. It felt like being in an earthquake. Not a solid place to step in all the world.

“Have you seen my daughter? Have you seen her? She was right here.”

I screamed her name, “Macey! Macey!

A crowd gathered, then dispersed just as fast with everyone fanning out in a frantic search. Bodies like moving shadows in the sun-streaked water, bodies in the trees, bodies up and down the sand. A lifeguard cleared the water with a whistle. Police arrived, their lights flashing silently.

And somehow through it all, I heard a little girl. Just one word, “Mom?”

It was not my daughter’s voice, yet some animalistic thing in me reverberated with recognition. When I looked to the toddler scampering toward me, it was not my daughter. It was not Macey. Nevertheless, I put my arms around her, stroked her hair, calmed her, whispered into her ear words that I myself wanted to hear.

“It’s all right. You’re all right. Everything is fine.”

This was, of course, the ending everyone wanted. The tense scrum of people scattered with a collective sigh. Beachgoers returned to their towels, their sandcastles, their canted umbrellas. After a brief conversation with the police, I found myself strapping the child into Macey’s car seat and driving home. What else could I do? No one claimed this child as their own. No one called me out. No one said anything. In fact, the whole scene suggested the opposite, as if everyone there, everyone in the world even, everything in the universe, was trying to convince me otherwise. A little voice not my own whispered, “This is your daughter. Take her.” And another voice, even fainter, said that I was making a horrible mistake.

And so I took the child home — this little stranger. I made her dinner. I watched TV on the couch with her. I let her clutch Macey’s stuffed giraffe. All the while, the girl called me Mom. She said all the things that Macey would say, but in a manner that never quashed my doubt.

I felt as though a seed had sprouted from the black loam of my life, a weed, an invasive species. And it would be there for a long time. Nothing could be done.

* * *

The language of possibility is pharmakon, wherein the cure and ailment are one and the same.

* * *

The language of clouds: horseman, mallard, pirate ship, lute. Lending clouds likenesses does not guarantee their perpetual existence. For example, if a little girl were to give a cloud her own name, know that this cloud will change its semblance due to the language of physics. Though the components remain for its potential reconstruction, the probability of it returning in a similar form is next to zero.

* * *

Macey did not have a father. She’d never had a father as far as I was concerned. He was a nameless man, either a one-night stand or someone I’d known for years, married even, and divorced shortly after her birth. It didn’t matter to me what he was, so it doesn’t matter here. Simply put, he was not in my life now. Thus he was not in Macey’s life either. He was a stranger to me, just like the daughter he’d created. Perhaps there was a connection there, but it did not seem important to me to find it, to find him. He was an answerless man. Always had been.

And so I was alone in this and years passed with this stranger in my midst, this stranger that I alone was responsible for. I would have understood a slight change in the girl: a new tetchiness, for example, or a slew of snappy phrases, or just a jaded glint in her eye that might come from nowhere, like a smudge appearing on a rarely used mirror. Like the one in the hall that I would hold Macey up to in those years when she grew and grew. Like a proverbial weed. How we’d make funny faces and take selfies on our way out the door or just check ourselves, me and her, the way women do. How I’d squint into her semblance there, hoping the reflection showed me something that reality could not, hoping recognition came like an epiphany. But I failed to properly see my daughter through while everyone else her life — her grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, friends — saw who she was: the daughter I gave birth to, this girl I’d lost. They saw Macey. And because of this, I grew certain that I myself had been transformed. It was not unfathomable. Though it did not make it any more comforting, especially since it had little impact on my life outside of my relationship with this girl (now a young woman). That is, I continued to do my due diligence at work, earning higher profile cases in my law office, building connections with judges and prosecutors. I kept in touch with law-school friends. I went to happy hours. I lived my regular life. And the more normal things seemed, the guiltier I felt, because deep down I knew nothing could be normal after losing a child, even one who comes home each day angry and exhausted, whom you do not recognize in the slightest but who still relies on you for their every waking need, who still shuns you, screams at you, laughs at you, and slams doors in your face daily, all while calling you Mom and saying (albeit with diminishing regularity) that she loves you.

* * *

The language of darkness is impossible. We cannot know what anyone would want with someone else’s child. There is no cave filled with hieroglyphs, no illuminated manuscript, no satellite carrying a gold record with the language of darkness etched in its face.

* * *

A muted TV on Macey’s dresser showed a California wildfire burning along a suburban neighborhood where, in the perfectly square yards, bands of white sprinkler water shot this way and that across the green grass — long swords fending off the flames.

At that moment, I heard my own sprinklers kick on outside, little jagged whispers.

In my hands: a driver’s license belonging to Lara Mathis of 1511 Terrence Circle, an address in the west exurbs that I’d never once visited. I found it in Macey’s nightstand, hidden in a book. Lara was 21 years old, 5-foot-11, 118 pounds, an organ donor, and she looked exactly like a girl I knew named Macey. In fact, I knew the exact day the photo on the license was taken because I had paid for it at the Walgreens not two blocks from my house. There, Macey and I had received three unsmiling portraits that were intended for our passports. We were supposed to go to Spain at the end of the year, just me and her — a graduation present.

My hands shook holding the license. Meanwhile, that stuffed giraffe stared at me from his spot on Macey’s bed.

I was beginning to learn something about time, how it has more in common with distance and speed than is at first evident. For example, a train can appear stock still from the right distance, and yet it can be bounding down the tracks with enough momentum to slice a tractor trailer in half — a fact that’s made apparent with only a small shortening of vantage. Time, too, moves in illusory ways, but with devastating force. The fake I.D. was a testament to this. As was the new tattoo on Macey’s 17-year-old clavicle.

Love is pain.

Those were the words a turgid man etched into her body, calling her Lara all the while, asking her how life was in the exurbs.

Thus, therapy. For Macey, and, to a certain extent, for me as well.

Dr. Tulane was a brown woman of stunning beauty, her afro pulled tight against her skull, wadded at the back into a perfect ball of a bun.

“Love is pain,” she said to me. We were alone together, having dismissed Macey so that we could chat.

“Can you believe that?” I asked.

“What do you make of it?”

“She is like a black hole in my life,” I said. “She sucks all the light out of everything.”

The words just spilled from me. Only after I uttered them did I know what I said, how callous it sounded.

“You will outgrow this,” Dr. Tulane said. “It just takes time.”

I was taken aback.

I will outgrow this? Me? What about Macey?”

I looked hard into the doctor’s eyes.

“Love is pain,” she said again.

“She doesn’t believe that,” I said. “And even if she does, she won’t believe it forever.”

“I’m going to get street with you a minute,” Dr. Tulane said. This was a phrase she used when she was about to deliver a perception that would be hard for me to swallow. It was a technique she’d mastered, one that made her relatable yet stern. “There’s going to come a time — tomorrow, next year, a decade from now — when that girls sees that thing on her collarbone and thinks of you. She may already, you know what I’m saying. So just be prepared. Be vigilant.”

She sat back with a supercilious air about her, convinced that we’d come to a breakthrough. But I knew the truth, and it was a truth I could not tell any doctor, no matter how badly I wanted to wipe the smug smile from her face. I did not know my daughter, neither in a profound way nor on a superficial level either. I had not known her for a long, long time. And so yes, she was right to an extent, the problem was in me. But for reasons unexplainable and devastating. After all, even the basest animals still recognize their own young.

* * *

The language of motherhood is learned in utero. When a mother feels her fetus’s heartbeat, she feels that of her own mother from decades prior. Were she to lose the child, she would speak only one language: that of darkness.

* * *

The language of loss is winter, as in: “In winter, days grow shorter and lose their light.” Or, more accurately, “Look into my eyes and you will see the winter.”

* * *

The trip to Spain never happened.

I disguised it as a punishment for Macey’s behavior. In reality, it was work-related. My boss asked me to second-chair a high-profile murder case that would consume me for months. I couldn’t turn it down. I had cut my teeth on child-support enforcement, then graduated to domestic-violence cases. The majority of my clients were men, men like Macey’s father, men I talked with for hours, sometimes alone in a locked room at the jail, a guard nearby but always too far away. I molded their excuses into something like a defense. It felt like eating watery soup with a fork: all work and no sustenance. We lost, always. Sometimes they got reduced sentences. That was a win in my eyes, though one I never celebrated. It was my job, after all, and it was their rights I was upholding, not them personally. And so all that work paid off in more work, but it was different now, more important somehow. This was the life of a linguist turned lawyer — a woman who languished in the opaque language of dead structuralists only to find herself defending men who couldn’t read above a third-grade level.

It’s true that I was really the sole reason we did not go, and Macey, smart as she was, picked up on this. As a result, we fought nightly for months. Macey called me names I’d never been called by anyone. She hurled accusations first, objects second: TV remotes, empty vessels, magazines, and once an ornamental ball from a display in the dining room. It weighed more than a cueball and left a perfect O in the sheetrock behind me. We’d fought tirelessly over the years, but never like this. These arguments grew personal. Macey attacked what I did for a living, which meant she attacked everything I believed in, everything that made me who I was.

“But he’s a fucking murderer!” Macey said. “How can you defend that?”

“Because, sweetie.”

“I’m not your fucking sweetie — !”

“Listen, Macey, it’s my job. I know it’s hard to understand but — .”

“Quit condescending to me. It’s easy for me to get it. I mean, I understand it perfectly well. He’s a monster and you’d rather be with him than me. I get it.”

“It’s not like that,” I said. “He has no one, and if people like me don’t help him then how many people like him will rot in prison for committing even lesser crimes? He’s facing the death penalty. I mean, just try to wrap your mind around that.”

“He strangled his wife and kids and buried them in the woods like dogs,” Macey said. “So I hope he does lose. I hope you lose.”

And I did lose, for the most part. No death penalty, though. Which was a win, but one, again, I could not celebrate. We did not go to Spain, not then, not ever. We never went anywhere. Macey drove to college instead, out of state. She took her giraffe with her.

After that, February did not follow January. March came between November and December somehow, months and years impossibly arranged themselves. Sometimes the moon seemed full for days and days, its dull yellow glow like that of an old marquee. Then I wouldn’t see it in the sky for a year. Death, meanwhile, remained a theme in my life.

* * *

The language of loss rings in everything: the leaves that need hosed off the driveway, the bed that needs made, the car that needs fuel, the meals that need cooked, words that need written. The language of loss screams through these things, inaudible pleas. Everything in undoing. Each day reveals a new tongue. In the quietest moments, these languages are most deafening. Some people must move through the world hearing nothing.

* *

All cultures, of course, are familiar with the language of moth. Wings beating hopelessly against a porch-light, etc.

* * *

My father, who’d been cooped up in the Alzheimer’s wing of the local nursing home for years, passed (finally) in his sleep. The best way. His funeral was the first time I saw Macey since our falling out. A small silver ball jutted from her lower lip. A ring in her eyebrow. Pink hair. More tattoos creeping down her shoulders, her arms. A black tendril of ink poked out from the shirtsleeve of her lacy mourning garb, her true identity making itself known.

And to my surprise, she was crying. Weeping, in fact, as the two of us stood at the casket staring at my father. His face resembled a melted candle. I could see him in that face, however, even though it looked nothing like him now. And it seemed horrifyingly unfair that when I looked at my daughter, I still saw nothing but a stranger.

Nevertheless, I put a hand on her back and moved closer. Macey shuttered but did not pull away.

“He loved you,” I said. “He loved you very much.”

My own mother had withered but was her chipper self. She stood nearby in a milling scrum of black-clad women, a frail thing with dyed hair and dentures. An aloof and sardonic woman, she could devastate anyone with one biting remark merely with the words she emphasized.

“You wore that?”

“Not someone your age.”

Another scoop of ice cream?”

At funerals, we trade tragedies for flowers and food. People brought countless meals to my mother’s home in the following days. It was too much for someone her size. So we agreed to a picnic that week, just me and her.

We went, of all places, to Lake Galveston. She wore a pair of oversized sunglasses that lent her a bug-like look. August again now, that buzzing heat, the painful light. Sad little sandwiches cut into perfect triangles, a plate of brownies, Tupperware full of mayo-heavy salads, a six-pack of premixed margaritas. I could stomach none of it.

I turned to the lake, surprised at how small it really was. The far shoreline seemed shockingly close, and the two coves cut from the promontories on the eastern and western edges — once these great escarpments in my mind — were now nothing more than drainage ditches carrying runoff from nearby cornfields. The tiny sliver of sand could hardly be called a beach. Families were crammed onto it like castaways on a cartoonishly small island.

When someone speaks the language of truth, it is horrifying how silent the world can grow.

Example:

“Have you been here since?” my mother asked.

Since when? I thought, but did not say.

“No. I haven’t.”

“But it was finally time,” she said.

“Sure.”

She always wanted to make more of that which was obviously nothing.

“She used to call me, you know,” my mother said. “She used to call me crying in the middle of the night. Poor girl.”

I’d heard this story countless times, but I never stopped my mother from telling it.

“She couldn’t sleep. Such an anxious girl for being so young. She just wanted to hear my voice, I think. I’d tell her to imagine she was here, at Lake Galveston, laying down in a canoe, floating on the water. ‘Just let the canoe carrying you around the water.’ That’s what I used to tell her. Sometimes she fell asleep with me still on the line. She was so worried about you finding out for some reason. She thought she’d be in big trouble if you found out she was talking to Grandma in the middle of the night.”

“I never knew that,” I said.

Another lie, like all those years, throwing things about my house. The tattoo on my shoulder. The hole I put in the drywall. The canceled trip to Spain. The murderer I saved from death. A driver’s license I never returned, the one I found on the street with a picture of a girl who could have been my daughter. And all those years with Dr. Tulane. Who had I really been talking about other than myself — a woman haunted by a wraith, a ghost-girl who taunted me, tortured me? And yet I’d have killed to have the real hellion I imagined in my midst. Is it wrong to long for a broken home in lieu of an empty one? Is it so wrong to avoid the truth when the lies are just as painful?

“I still visit her once a month,” my mother said. “Someone left a little giraffe by her stone.”

* * *

The language of grass belies what is buried beneath it. Tall grass in an untended cemetery still hisses when windblown, irreverently gossiping. Conversely, grass beneath a body of water cannot know wind, only currents. Thus it screams. Yet, it is not removed from language. For example, “The little girl swims through the grass like wind.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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