At first John had gone with one of the search parties, walking across the open fields dense with dried stalks. The men marched in a great straggled line, an arm’s length separating them, setting each foot deliberately. It was still dark and it was usual to delay the search until first light, but the autumn had turned winter suddenly. They were afraid: she was such a frail child.
The men near him were silent, unlike those at the far end of the line who joked and had ribald ideas of better places to be. Those near him were constrained. They yearned to find the little girl, yet each was terrified that it might be his foot that kicked the inert body.
Of course there was hope. But she had been gone since before noon and now it was three o’clock in the morning. No one had really missed her until five; then it took hours to round up enough men to make the search. They started just after midnight; there was no moon.
John left the line and it filled in around him. The men were on the second leg now and planned to go about half a mile, but John kept lurching ahead, losing his place. She was his third child, the youngest and the only girl.
Lucille looked up from among the other women when he entered the cabin. She reached out her hand so that he would come over to the window where she watched. He kissed her carefully on the forehead. One of the ladies bustled off to bring him some tea.
“Put out the lights,” Lucille said. “I want to watch them.”
One of the women clucked to her and said, “It’ll be all right, Mrs. Bronson. They’ll find her. We’ll bring you both some tea and perhaps, by the time you’ve drunk it. . . .”
“Please put out the lights,” repeated Lucille.
John sat down beside her as the lights went out and took her hand. It was cold and her nails pressed into his palm. “She’s OK, sweetheart,” he said. “She is OK.”
The lights went on again and Lucille swivelled about. “Put out the goddamn lights,” she said.
The women looked at each other and one of them snapped the light switch.
It was warm in the cabin. Lucille’s breath frosted the window. He reached across her shoulder and rubbed at the cloud with his handkerchief. He put his head next to hers but there was nothing to see; it was too dark. There was nothing to see at all, except far away a flashlight glistened for a moment, then went out. The long line took a step, he knew, swished a foot carefully and brought the other up even. They would move step by step through the dried cornfield until they reached the edge of the pine woods.
“That’s where she’ll be,” he told Lucille. “Remember I showed her how to make a bed of pine cones and use the needles as cushioning? She’s just a few yards past the clearing, sleeping.”
Lucille didn’t answer.
“Probably she’s some distance in the forest,” he said. It was an interpretation of her silence. “That’s why she didn’t come home when the lights went on at supper. She’s just a little lost.”
“A little lost?” Lucille’s voice rose. “A little lost? I wish I had your thick skin.”
The women brought them their tea, groping across the room. He took his and drank some at once, but she waved the cup away. The window fogged again. When John gently pushed her back to wipe it, she said, “I wish I could be so unfeeling.”
“Oh, dammit, Lucille, cut it out. I feel the same way you do. She’s my kid, too, you know.”
“She’s your favorite,” she said. “She’s your favorite child. That’s why I find your hardness so peculiar now.”
“Dammit, Lucille, I’m not hard.”
“Dammit yourself,” she said. “You don’t know how a mother feels . . . or a woman, either. You never did.”
“Not so loud,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder.
“I don’t care about them,” she said. “What do I care about them? My baby’s freezing out there, dead probably.” She turned to him and even in the darkness her teeth flashed and her eyes glared. “I don’t want her to suffer. I hope she’s dead!”
One of the women came over quickly. “She’s hysterical,” she said to John. “She’s just talking. She doesn’t mean anything.” It was just a little lighter now. The woman’s hand made a quick religious transit. “God will forgive her.”
“But I won’t forgive Him,” said Lucille.
“Easy,” said her husband. “Take it easy. They’ll find her.”
“Why aren’t you out there? Why are you here, with the women? Why are you in the warmth, inside?” She paused and rubbed the window again. Her eyes were against it, peering.
He was still patient. “Tell me when she left,” he said. His voice was soothing.
“Why? What good will it do?”
“Tell me,” he persisted.
“I’m damned if I will.”
“Why did she go?”
Lucille was silent.
He asked again, “Why did she go?”
She spun away from the window and faced him. “Why do you want to know?”
“Why?” he said, his voice finally rising. “Why did she run away? She did run away, didn’t she?”
Lucille shrugged away from him and stared out the big picture window. It was definitely lighter out but the line was not visible; they had probably entered the forest.
His voice was low, so that the women wouldn’t hear. They were listening, of course, for the room was without movement.
“She did, didn’t she?”
Lucille turned to him with a wail. “I slapped her,” she cried. “I slapped her and sent her out. I sent her out. I slapped her face with my hand, twice.” She began to cry wildly and turned to put her head against his chest.
He heard a long rebuking sigh from one of the women and moved away from his wife. His hand came halfway up to comfort her and fell back.
So engrossed were they in their conflict that they failed to see the sudden brilliance of a dozen flashlights, clustered just inside the edge of the woods, or hear the exultant whooping of the long, careful male line.