The news of your birth disturbed and excited the city. For weeks afterward, the grainy surveillance featured on local and national news broadcasts. A still from the footage appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail and on posters displayed in post offices, subway stations and grocery stores. The chief of police stood for the cameras before a blue velvet curtain and asked the public to come forward with any information regarding the identity of the woman in the video. “Or the baby she bore and left in Union Station,” he mistakenly reported.
According to reports, the last person to see your mother was a VIA Rail ticket agent who, arriving early to his morning shift, came upon a woman standing at the foot of a stairwell as she dropped you, face down, onto the cement floor. At first the agent mistook you for a toy doll because you were small and naked and soundless. When blood began streaming out of your nose, the guard called out for help in the empty corridor and the woman ran up the staircase. When asked to give a description of the woman, the ticket agent said, “It was dark so I couldn’t make her out all that well.” Then added, “She moved like she was either young or scared.”
You were rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital where nurses cleaned the blood from your nose and wrapped you in a yellow blanket. While no other bruises or scrapes were found on your body, the nurses surmised you were approximately four months old, despite your tiny frame. They grimly remarked on your murky features, your deep-set eyes and mournful face, and how whenever any of them walked out of the room you erupted into a low, meandering howl. The Children’s Aid Society released a photo in the hopes a family member would recognize you. The photograph showed a happy, smiling, and well-fed child—the haunted expression that bothered so many of the nurses was gone. When no one came forward, you were placed in a foster home west of the city.
At 18 months you were adopted. Your new parents decided not to baptize you because they had stopped being religious after the sudden death of their infant daughter two years prior. During the first few months, your new mother stood over your crib and searched your face for any sign of distress while you slept. Your new father stayed in bed trying to shake off the painful familiarity of this routine.
All through your first winter, your new mother and father quarrelled. “Find a book on it,” your father would say, angry or pleading. His cure for everything was research. He would press articles and books about adoption on your mother and she wouldn’t read them.
“I can’t handle it,” she would say. “I’m tired. No, no, no.”
Years passed, mostly happily. You were a curious child. Sitting at the kitchen table, you squirmed in your high chair like a fish caught in a net. You cocked your head at every curse word uttered by your father during an argument. When your mother cried, you became still, captivated, as when she traced words and shapes across the centre of your back.
You liked to play hide-and-seek, you frequently wandered off in department stores, and ran away whenever the front door was left unlocked. Your father would catch up with you and you wriggled to escape when he scooped you up and carried you back home. As you grew older, wearier, you got into the habit of
staring, sometimes for hours at a time, at your reflection in the mirror. Your parents feared it was an autistic tendency and discouraged it whenever possible, even going so far as to remove the mirror from your bedroom. What they didn’t know was that the image you were looking at was not really your own. When you looked into the mirror, you studied your face for what might have been hers. The thick brow that arched across your forehead like a caterpillar, the small gold flecks that glinted in your left eye, your small, sutured lips drawn in a frown above your pointed chin. And you thought that if you stared long enough you would recognize her face one day at a busy intersection, in a bustling crowd while Christmas shopping at the mall. She would not be able to hide from you, you imagined, or anywhere on earth.
When she eventually told you the story, your mother was emotional and you were too young to understand. “Memories, keepsakes, that sort of thing,” she said. “A history of things that came before, okay?” She drummed her red lacquered nails against the thick cardboard pages of the scrapbook she had created: a catalogue of newspaper articles, papers from the Children’s Aid Society, adoption records, and medical reports—on the last page, a cut-out from a newspaper: the ash-tinted snapshot of you captured on the surveillance footage. “Your mother,” she said. “Before you came to live with us. She loved you but she couldn’t take care of you.”
“Where is she?” you asked.
“She’s there,” she said, misunderstanding. The nail of her index finger tapped against the cellophane. “The picture’s just fuzzy.”
Your mother’s eyes reddened when you pressed for more details and then she said, “Don’t make me talk about it.” And so you didn’t because you didn’t want to make her cry more than she already was. But you saw her place the scrapbook in the bottom drawer of her bedside table so you knew where to find it later when you were ready.
And you did. You searched through the pages frequently for information over the years, your knees burned from kneeling on the bedroom carpet too long. By the time you were 13 you had read over the articles multiple times and understood enough to piece together the details of your history. But it was the photo on the last page that captivated you. You pushed your nose against the picture and squinted, transformed the pixels into chromosomes. You hoped you might see yourself in the image staring back, but with each viewing the shadows in the small photo changed: their edges blurred, bled into one another; morphed into squares, triangulated, and amalgamated to form a crooked S-shape. It disturbed you how the arrangement of light rendered the photo in perpetual motion, how it fragmented its subject into many different versions of a woman in mid-flight, caught in the act of evading scrutiny: she was a reclusive artist, with the line of her jaw obscured by an upturned collar; a famous actress, her face turned away, her expression serious, her hair done in the popular style of the mid-1980s. Sometimes the image appeared less optimistic: she was a prostitute, with her hair falling behind her shoulders, a sullen girl in a long black coat and high boots; a spider, spreading her eight arms wide, scuttling away up the staircase.
The image fascinated rather than repulsed you, and throughout your adolescence you sat alone in your room trying to draw her many faces in a sketchbook. You discovered you liked drawing her as a monster because it allowed you the freedom of not having to draw realistically and you found it easier to draw something without worrying about correct proportions.
When you were 15 you asked your mother to let you draw a mural across your bedroom wall. “Sure,” she agreed, “nothing you create could be bad.”
Your father looked on as you painted a monster by your door. It stood six feet tall and had horns, demonic eyes, talons, and sharp pointy teeth. Your father grumbled, “At least keep inside the lines,” disappointed your only display of talent was an artistic one.
You named the monster Gretal—although it was male, not female. He was a kind soul who ripped to shreds anyone that tried to hurt you.
A year later, your parents sold the house. “Get rid of it,” your father said as he walked by your bedroom soon after. You used two coats of primer and two coats of paint, but the monster still kept bleeding through. When you walked out of your bedroom for the last time you thought it was funny that some kid was going to wake up each morning and see the faint outline of Gretal staring back at them.
You, your mother, and your father moved to a neighbourhood just north of the city, where the front yards were bigger and there was room for a parking space. When you arrived with the moving truck, you stood alone on the sidewalk across from the house and looked at it furtively. It was a house identical to the others on the street, semi-detached and two-storied, with a sheltered porch and a wrought-iron railing. The aluminum siding was painted a light grey and the bricks and shingles were brown. You saw white curtains in all the windows, and a narrow path of concrete extending from the sidewalk to the front door. The door had two small half-moon windows near the top, and they too were curtained. In the front yard, you saw a row of blossoming shrubs and a bird feeder that hung from a nail hammered into a maple tree. You tried to imagine your life there, in this quiet house, on the quiet street, but you could imagine nothing, nothing at all.
As you walked through the house, you passed by the family room and then the kitchen, where your mother was polishing the hefty oak table she inherited when her grandmother died. You shuffled up the staircase that led to the hall that ended in your bedroom door.
The room was filled with pale, blue light. Though it was the size of a postage stamp, you were relieved with the layout of your new bedroom. The closet looked dark and roomy and the window faced south, which made the neon pallor of the city skyline visible. Still there, you thought. You unpacked your pencil crayons and paints and sketchbooks and stood at the window and studied the landscape. In your drawing, the condos and office buildings knotted along the horizon looked like the rocky spine of a dinosaur.
Your mother found you sitting up in bed, sketching in your notebook with a blue Sharpie pen. She stood in your doorway, looked around, and said, “It’s 2:45 a.m. on a school night.” She crossed toward you and sat on the edge of your mattress to look at your current work-in-progress.
Though she flinched when she connected the thick black strokes that composed the many heads and legs and arms of the latest monster drawings, it was your writing, a neat, delicate lettering, that surprised her. She was able to read a paragraph written beneath a recent sketch of Gretal, the monster, depicted as a skyscraper-straddling colossus that loomed over the downtown core.
The woman cries to get out. But who could escape the beast? He bears so many teeth. Were she to get through, Gretal would catch her and turn her upside down and squeeze her ’til her eyes were white.
“Who is ‘the woman’?” “I don’t know,” you replied. “Do you want to talk about her?” You sat silently in your bed, your face expressionless.
Your mother let out a thin, whispery sigh, which frightened you. “Sometimes,” you said, looking at the drawing, “I get a feeling she’s out there.”
“My real mother,” you said. You worried how cruelly the words spilled out of your mouth. “It’s just, you know, like she’s out there and then, I dunno, maybe she’s not.”
Your mother whimpered, as if bracing herself against a hurricane. “Hmm.”
“It’s nothing, it’s late,” you said. You wanted to say more, but could see your mother had heard enough. You felt obligated to appease the thrall of guilt, sadness, and curiosity that consumed her.
Your eyes stung, your mouth felt dry. Your mother stood up and walked limply toward the doorway. She looked back at you and said, “We can talk some more another time,” and she switched off the light and the door clicked shut behind her.
You were daydreaming, designing the impenetrable musculature of a new planet-eating Gretalcreature. You watched a passing plane fly by and imagined the passengers, the pilot, the stewardesses, all of them sucked into the foaming cumulus mouth of your monster.
At that moment, you were hit in the nose with a soccer ball. Your gym teacher had barked that you weren’t paying attention and kicked the ball at your head with all his adult strength. When it struck you, the blow knocked you to the floor and you saw a sparking flash of a pale afterimage of a face.
Your gym teacher bellowed for one of the boys to run to Home Ec to get some frozen hamburger for your nose, which swelled and bled profusely. Your gym teacher propped you up in his meaty arms and asked you questions—what year, your name, your mother’s name—to see if you had a concussion. After he cleaned your nose with the hem of your T-shirt, you told him you thought you were going to throw up and you were sent to the nurse’s office.
As you headed out of the gym and turned down the hallway, you noticed the front doors at the far end of the school were propped open, letting in the warm spring air. You stopped at your locker and grabbed your knapsack, hesitated for a moment, then hurried past the nurse’s station and escaped outside. You bolted across the length of the football field, hurried past the bus stop, and walked toward the end of the street.
A sense of nervousness crept up as you entered the subway station at Finch, flared in your gut as you used your lunch money to pay the fare, grew tight as you made your way down to Bloor, and overtook you completely when you exited the train at Union. By the time you arrived at the staircase—the scene of the crime, your birthplace—you were trembling and sopping with sweat. You circled the area a few times and though your nose ached with pain you did not want to sit down on the steps. You stood in front of them for what felt like hours. Eventually, the unflinching gaze of the security camera positioned above you stared back intrusively, as if to say, You’ve had your look, now go. You fumbled through your knapsack and removed a page from your sketchbook, turned it over and over, ran your fingers across the torn edges, and then let it drop. You no longer held on to it, it just lay there on the concrete ground. The words written on the page circled in your head: Squeeze her ’til her eyes were white, squeeze her ’til her eyes were white.
You rummaged through your mind for the images of her banked in your memory. You unravelled each one and deleted them until she became a blurred photograph, a woman without features or a history that resembled yours. She was a ghost caught on videotape, wraithlike, emerging from the darkest corner of the frame, a trick of the eye, rising up with shadows, floating away.