Authors: Angela Slatter
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In Irish lore, when children go under the hill, they don't come out again.
When children go under the hill, they stay where they're put.
When children go under the hill, parents, though they pray and search, don't truly think to see them anymore.
In Finnegan's Field, South Australia (POP. 15,000), the inhabitants had more than enough Irish left in their souls that, despite a century and a half since emigration, they bore these losses with sorrow, yes, but also with more than a little acceptance. A sort of shrug that said,
Well, it was bound to happen, wasn't it?
Eire's soft green sadness with its inherited expectation of grief ran in their veins so they did little more than acquiesce, and they certainly did not seek explanations.
Until Madrigal Barker came home.
And when she did, three years after she'd disappeared, there was great rejoicing and wonderment, and not a little resentment from those adults whose offspring remained lost. A good many questions were asked and terrible few answered, and eventually everyone except Madrigal's mother took her return as a happy miracle.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The child wasn't the same.
Anne Barker had loved her daughter as a good mother should, with an irrational bias about her talents and perfections, but she knew Madrigal had not returned as she'd left. Out in the back garden, the girl played with D-fer; the dog acted as though it was only yesterday since his two-legged friend had been throwing the rubber bone for him to chase. As if he'd not aged in her absence, as if no grey and white had grown at the roots of his fur and around his whiskers, as if he didn't trip on every third step as his hip gave way. If the dog didn't notice, then why did Anne?
“Does she look different to you?” she asked her husband. Brian sat in the lounge in front of the huge television he'd insisted on buying to watch the football. It was too big for the cosy room, too big for the house, really. And he wasn't even paying attention to the game, the violent coloured flashes of meat that tore from one side of the screen to the other, nor had he been for some time. His fondest gaze had been diverted through the glass sliding doors to the girl and canine, capering together with shouts and barks of glee. To the child who'd been born long after their first, long after they thought they were done.
Brian shook his head. “She's a little taller. I'd have thought she'd have grown a few more inches, but perhaps she didn't eat well while she was away.”
While she was away
. It struck Anne that they were discussing their daughter's absence as if she'd been at a holiday camp or boarding school or staying with a relative. Not acknowledging the fact that she'd been
for thirty-six months. That there'd been no trace of her at all and their hearts had been daily broken with neither signs nor hints to give them hope. No clues, no evidence, as if she'd simply evaporated surely as dew on a flower petal when the sun hits.
And they'd not talked about it, her homecoming, except for the
But where has she been
the day Aidan Hanrahan calledâon his mobile, no less, an instrument he'd used precisely four times in six years, for he didn't like wasting moneyâto say he'd found her wandering his paddocks, not far from Deadman's Mount. That he was taking her straight to the hospital but wanted them to know they had their marvel.
Arriving at Emergency, they saw her grubby as an urchin, hair knotty and matted with dirt and leaves and twigs, mud smeared over face and arms and legs as if she'd endured a long crawl through a puddle. But, aesthetics aside, she'd looked the way a nine-year-old girl should. More importantly, with her night-coloured hair and pale blue eyes, faded freckles, pert little nose, and the rosebud pout Anne so loved, she looked the way
nine-year-old girl should; as if she'd not aged a day.
But Madrigal wasn't right, after she came home, though Anne couldn't quite put her finger on why.
“Just her size? That's all?” she asked, digging but not too hard, afraid he might begin to question her sanity. Afraid of the avalanche such small pebbles might start. If her husband was honest, he knew it too, that their youngest wasn't as she'd been, but Brian wasn't honest, at least not in his heart.
It was why he'd stayed married to her long after he'd stopped loving her; Anne knew it and he didn't. She thought it probably meant he was kind. It was all equal to her: with him there, the bills got paid, with enough left over to put some savings by; he'd kept Jason fed and cared for when she couldn't bear to get out of bed; and there was a warm body beside her at night when she needed it. After the loss of Madrigal, so much had changed in their lives that these small things were what she clung to when she felt most adrift, on the days when her imagination went hyper and she saw all manner of terrible acts being repeatedly visited on her daughter. Acts that made her long for the child to be dead, killed outright, and not kept alive to suffer the deeds Anne conceived.
Time had passed; Jason left home for university. She and Brian shuffled the cards of their lives, papered over the great gaping hole. Just when she thought that some scar tissue might grow, that they might move on, Madrigal came back.
“Can't you just be happy, Annie?” Brian's eyes were sad. “Can't you just accept we were given a tremendous gift, and we should be grateful?”
Anne nodded slowly, let him think he was right. “Of course, love. I just meantÂ â¦ I don't know what I meant. I'm getting used to seeing her; that's all. I can't stop watching because I think she'll be taken away again.”
“No, Annie. She's here to stay. God gave her back to us.”
She smiled, though his religious belief riled, and when she peered through the kitchen window once more, every single thing she spotted was something that was
. Something about the way the girl moved; if Anne squinted, she seemed to see a ghostly outline around her daughter. A shadow-shape that was slightly larger than Madrigal and a split second slower, as if just out of synch so that when she swung about, ran, jumped, and skipped, there was the blur like a butterfly's wing in her wake, but only for the slenderest of moments. The hair seemed too dark, sucking in light but not sending it back, and it didn't matter how often Anne washed the girl's locks, they still came up oily. And the little girl's smile seemed simultaneously too quick and too slow, as if it also carried its own spectre, leaving a short-lived smear as it slid into place.
But Anne knew she couldn't tell anyone that. Madrigal looked like the child they'd lost, the child whose face had appeared on the flyers they'd pasted to poles and sticky-taped in shop windows, the face that had graced the front pages of a dozen newspapers ever so briefly, and flashed even more briefly across television screens while the tragedy was fresh. And the child was fine, seemed fine, but for the few times Anne had found her by the front door in the middle of the night, sleepwalking. She didn't wake when shepherded back to bed, and didn't remember the episode in the morning, just laughed and made a joke about how lucky she was that her mother kept such a good watch over her. That hurt, a tiny bit. Anne felt it stab at the raw ball of guilt which had surfaced when Madrigal first disappeared, the reminder that she'd not kept her daughter safe. But she could discern no intent in the comment, no sharp edge to the grin, nor cruel gleam in the eyes. It was just a child's throwaway line, nothing meant to cut a maternal heart.
Yet something was gone from her little girl, and a piece of cold had taken up residence inside Madrigal though she still chattered and chuckled, hugged her family, talked to the cat and dog just as she used to. Soon, they'd arrange for her to go back to schoolâthe social worker said they had to, couldn't keep her locked in for the rest of her life;
hadn't she had enough of that
? But Anne wanted to say that she didn't know; that no one did, for Madrigal hadn't told where she'd been or who'd taken her. Whether she couldn't or wouldn't was a matter for some debate, but the psychologist seemed to think it would be drawn out with time and understanding. It would surface if they kept giving her the anti-anxiety meds and taking her to the therapy sessions where she got to talk about her feelings and memories (
were parentheses, the lacuna in the middle what she could not remember or would not discuss), whether she had dreams (yes) or nightmares (sometimes), and how it felt to be home again (good).
Anne went along too, and the psychologist asked about
memories. Anne smiled, although the expression always felt thin on her face, and said she was happy and relieved to have her daughter restored. That she tried not to think of the day when Madrigal was taken, for it made her feel very sad and anxious.
were her most-used words. Sometimes, she wanted to shake both the psychologist and Madrigal; they were so calm, kept so much hidden, and Anne had had enough of hidden things.
She pushed the window open into the summer dusk and called, “Maddie? Come in for tea.”
Anne had waited for three years, after all; what was a little longer?
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“You've got to let it go, Mum.” Jason's tone held all the bored superiority of a child gone off to university to attain a qualification neither of his parents had.
The house was quiet around her, the only sound the young man's voice on the other end of the phone with its slight long-distance buzz. Brian had taken Maddie to the psychologist today because it was his turn to
, though she doubted he would. He'd locked his feelings away ever since their girl had returned, determined to forget the pain and torment. As if asking no questions would mean he'd be rewarded for his faith like some modern-day Job; as if silence might ensure God's baleful eye would not be drawn to the Barkers again.