“I just couldn’t take it any longer. You must understand, this isn’t an easy city to live in. The constant noise—especially traffic: you can’t go anywhere in the city and not hear traffic. Sirens, horns, thumping bass from car stereos, car alarms; not to mention construction noise. I’ve lived here two years and I’m still not used to it. You just hear everything.”
The detective wasn’t buying it. She wrote something in her notebook.
“I’m going to ask you again,” she said, “and if you could answer me directly this time. What were you doing by the river on the Drummond property yesterday when three-year-old Levi Drummond went missing?”
I’d been there before, that place by the river, by chance the first time. Early spring, nine months ago. I’d driven west out of the city. I don’t know why I didn’t head for the coast, but I wasn’t thinking clearly then either. A relationship had ended. Not one I care about now, but at the time when it was fresh and I was thrown back, single in a new city, I was raw. My anxiety was bad—I couldn’t breathe properly with the thought of it all.
I drove west, over those fucking plains that just stretch on and on. It must have been an hour or more. Anxiety turned to anger, turned to despair and held. Eventually I reached an idyllic rural landscape. Dazzling green fields, strange limestone rocks. A river, poplars. I pulled over, got out of the car and crossed a wire fence into a meadow. Private property, but I didn’t care. The sound of the wind through the emerging green drew me. I had never felt an urge stronger. I needed to get to the river where the wild flax grew, and the poplars stood like cathedral pillars along the banks.
I sat under the trees for the longest time, crying my heart out. I was a pathetic mess. In my sweaty hand I held a blue heart-shaped stone bought from a crystal shop just before I met the man who just dumped me. I was superstitious about this stone; it represented my perceived happiness with this person. I stood up and hurled it into the river. The trees roared with applause. “The future is not yet written,” said the trees, and I felt a sense of relief, of rebirth. I was no longer crying. The sound of the wind in the trees washed over me.
Later that afternoon, driving back to the city, I felt mystically recovered. Recharged.
This was why I returned to the place by the river yesterday, I told the detective. I needed to recapture the feeling, bottle its essence. I lay down and, as I dozed off, I recorded the sound of the wind in the trees—my own personalised white noise. A portal to transport me there, to emotional tranquillity at the tap of a screen, anywhere, anytime.
There was a knock on the door. The detective was required elsewhere.
“Can I have my phone back?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Your phone’s being held as evidence.”
The police interview room was small and spartan. Two chairs and a table. A video camera in a corner near the ceiling, and a rectangular one-way mirror window. Air conditioning made a low-frequency hum, but apart from that it was absolutely quiet. A chance to collect myself and get my story straight. I had once done a bad thing, but I was past the worst. I would tell the detective that I was okay now—not great, but making progress. The detective needed to know.
My sense of recovery had been short-lived upon my return to the city all those months ago. I’d come back to the human zoo, to the chaos and noise. I discovered I was pregnant by my recently departed. He told me he wasn’t interested, questioned if it was even his. I stabbed him in the eye with a blunt knife. The side of his face ran with hot red tar. He looked at me in disbelief, like he didn’t deserve it, and folded to his knees before flopping onto the floor.
So my recurring fantasy goes.
In fact the loser ghosted me. I was insane with fury. I forgot all about the soothing wisdom of the trees. I felt trapped inside myself like Russian dolls. A growth within a womb within a body within a shell. I couldn’t stand it. I decided to abort my unborn foetus. Yes, I made it disappear; I was guilty of that.
My depression found new lows. I stayed drunk on cheap gin—it seemed fitting. I rarely got out of bed. Couldn’t make it to my job so I gave it up for swimming in my boozy fishbowl of a unit. I was a unit. In those early days of summer I barely stepped outside, and when I did, I found it overwhelming. I felt like bait, some sort of fishy entrail waiting to be devoured by a hungry predator, and they were everywhere. Days were hot, and when the wind blew from the east, so did the pungent smell of burnt trash, rotten food and decomposing green waste. Exhaust streams of cloud poured overhead. A complete sensory buffet of hell.
The external noise compounded my internal turmoil. Even with the doors and windows shut the outside world was in my head. There was no way to block out the constant invasion. The never-ending throng of kinetic rubber friction on bitumen. Motorcycle exhausts blasting, engines idling, horns blaring, trucks reverse beeping. Clanging pipes of scaffolding, demolition hammers grinding, pile-drivers pounding—the soundtrack of urban intensification assaulting my eardrums.
I felt myself slipping, falling into retrograde motion. I saw a melting world—the liquid metal and rubber collapse of cars; shimmering dreams dripping off billboards against a neon sky. I heard the gravitational warp of night-time stars bleeding down, down, their hot little cries pulling on my sugar-syrup ears. For a while my delusions detracted from the noise and I sank deeper into comfortable despair.
New people rented the unit next to mine. A couple with a small child. I heard it before I saw it. Early in the morning and late at night it screamed and wailed in a language from before history. I heard these ancient sounds on the threshold of sleep. They entered my dreams and pulled me back to a half-life of fretful, exhausted wakefulness. Cochlea snails crawled out of my ears.
Venturing out during the day, I saw the child at the large front window, pressed flat against the glass, staring out. A little critter in a terrarium. Those round black eyes, tunnels of perception stretching back to the day it was born. It was pulled up on two limbs, grasping for support, negotiating its ability to balance. A young savage in the process of being broken in. So eager to move, to get out and run wild. I poked out my tongue and the poor thing grinned back. What sort of life is the city for human beings? I wanted to set that semi-domesticated creature free.
Looking away, I pushed my balled-up hands hard into my flat belly. Thank God that one-eyed ember got the flush. That prawn, that cauliflower ear. It would have been cruel to bring new life into a world this fucking hard to live in.
It came as a surprise to find that I’d stepped back from the brink. My temporary insanity and the worst of my anxiety had passed. A few weeks into the new year I had my shit together. I returned to work. The office was a ten- minute walk from where I lived. Donning the soft cupping hands of headphones, I was able to navigate the course there and home again each day. This was progress. I was still drinking every night to knock myself out, but I’d graduated from Mother’s Ruin to cheap red wine. I was functional. I could feign productivity, for a while at least.
Before midnight on Sunday, in my usual post-drunk-and-late-food stupor, close to passing out, I heard the toddler from the unit next door. The child wailed inconsolably, imitating the emergency service sirens screaming along the avenues. The cries seemed more intense than usual and went on and on. I thought to check if they needed help. I waited. It continued a while longer then stopped abruptly. I watched dark red shadows bleed across the ceiling. Dead silence. Not even the road was awake. I lay very still in my bed. Then the child started up again like a triggered alarm, screaming just as whole-heartedly as before. I was relieved to hear it and quickly caught a powerful wind of sleep.
The next morning I called in sick. I felt very sad and tired and drained of energy. I needed to switch off for a long time. The unwritten future had arrived: it was my baby’s due date. I was forced to confront the consequences of my actions all those months ago. The life I’d erased. I was lost, and still grieving a better version of myself.
That long day passed, and I survived. I slept hard, and the next day, yesterday, instead of being woken at 5am by traffic and 6am by rubbish trucks and 7am by construction, I slept until 9.30 and woke naturally.
An oppressive sheet of cloud was pitched over the city, but at its wavy outer edges I could see sunlight. Beyond the city limits was a wild blue bloom of sky. I knew what I had to do.
I sat on the riverbank breathing in the scent of nature and earthy damp, and pressed record on my phone. Leaves fell around me. They landed on the rippled water and drifted by like a living fabric, a slow-moving abstraction of autumn colour. The bright reflective surface was an upside-down mirror-world of trees and sky. An illusion. The river water was clear, and I could see beneath the picture the silent depths of underwater—the weeds and stones, the silty bed. I was lost in the detail and layers and complexity. A meditation—as close as I have ever been. I lay back and watched the stirring and drift of leaves. A bluebird sky. I heard the billow and warble of birdsong, and the fine lacework of insects at their industry. High above, the trees were whispering my mantra. ‘The future is not written,’ they said. It soothed me like a balm. This perfect moment. I was turning into waves of energy, blurring and dissolving into the immaculate soundscape.
“I don’t know how long I was like this,” I told her. “Everything had slowed right down. I was in a kind of trance.”
“What did you hear?”
“Just the trees and river and birds. I felt the sun warming me. I closed my eyes. I didn’t intend to sleep. I hadn’t felt that relaxed in a long time.”
“You claim you fell asleep?”
“Yes, I fell asleep.”
“And you have no recollection of seeing a child at this time?”
“It’s hard to say—no, not seeing—I heard a child crying. It was a fleeting intrusion.”
“When you say ‘intrusion’, did it make you feel annoyed, angry?”
“No, of course not. I thought I’d dreamed it. I woke up because the sun had moved behind the trees and I was getting cold. I felt refreshed, energised.”
“Go on,” said the detective.
“It was over two hours since I’d arrived and my phone was still recording. I didn’t leave straight away. I put on my jacket and ate a sandwich I’d packed. Then I walked to my car and drove back to the city.”
“And you drove straight home without stopping?”
“What did you do when you arrived home?” she asked.
“Nothing, really.” I looked at my reflection in the one-way mirror glass, trying to remember. “I had some leftovers from the night before, drank some wine. I got an early night. To be honest, I was keen to hear my recording and disappear back into the peace of the afternoon.”
“I was almost asleep when I heard it. I thought it was the kid from next door but it was so clear in the soundscape, I was startled. I was confused at how the sound had infiltrated my white noise. I turned it off and on again—it was definitely on the recording.”
The detective pressed play on my phone, bringing the moment back to life. Through the sounds of nature, a child in distress, bleating for its mamma like a lost lamb. I screwed my eyes shut. It lasted an excruciating few minutes before it faded, leaving only the sounds of rustling leaves and murmuring water. When I relaxed and reopened my eyes, I saw the detective studying me.
“Why did you wait until today to report it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I’m embarrassed I did that. I wasn’t thinking straight. I was tired, a little bit drunk. I wish I had. But I took a sleeping pill and that’s all I know.”
“Okay, so, in summary, you travelled over an hour from where you live to a rural private property where you trespassed. You fell asleep, heard a child crying, you thought it was a dream, woke up not long after—we know this because you stopped the recording there. You drove home, and that night you listened to the recording, actually heard the child again, but didn’t think it important enough to phone in.”
“Yes, but I didn’t know,” I said. “You’re making it sound worse than it is.”
“I’m merely relaying the facts. The sequence of events as you have told them.”
I scrambled to explain. “This morning I was scrolling the news on my phone when I saw the headline—Three-year-old missing in remote rural valley or something. There was a photo of the little boy. At first I didn’t make a connection, but as I read on, I realised it was the area I’d visited yesterday.”
“His name is Levi. Levi Drummond.”
Why was she pressing that point? I felt guilty enough.
“Levi,” I said. “In the photo he was smiling, holding up a fish on the end of a rod. I suddenly had this terrible feeling. I got dressed and came down here straight away. That’s the truth.’
The detective stood up and walked a lap of the small room.
“Levi went missing from the farmhouse on his parents’ property yesterday afternoon around 4pm.” She checked her watch. “It’s now 11.27am. That’s nearly twenty hours a three-year-old has been out there alone in the wilderness. Cold and scared—terrified. Possibly hurt. Or worse. Imagine the suffering of his parents. That sleepless night. The nightmare of losing your young child and not knowing.”
She returned to her seat and sat down, looked me dead in the eyes. ‘Do you understand the pain and anguish they must be going through?’
I felt my skin bur. “Of course I understand. I’m here, aren’t I? I’m helping the investigation!”
I understood, all right, that the measure of time is unequal in loss.
Unrepeatable, un-take-backable. I understood the agony of suspense and of losing time, beat by beat; the incremental count of seconds stabbing away at Levi’s mother’s heart. What if? What if? Is death worse than trauma? I didn’t know. Looking back, how much time would I take back if only I could?
“I’m going to ask you one more time on the record,” said the detective. “Did you engage in any way with Levi Drummond yesterday afternoon by the river?”
I shook my head. “No. I’ve told you everything I know.” A heavy stone of dread lodged in my gut. “I didn’t have anything to do with Levi going missing.’
“Thank you,” said the detective. “We have your statement. You’re free to go.”
Levi was found later that day, twenty-three hours after he went missing. I read about it online. The breaking news report said he had wandered off and become lost. He was hungry and mildly hypothermic but otherwise unharmed when searchers found him huddled under a flax bush. I wondered if Levi would remember the event of his disappearance when he was older.
The trauma of separation and loneliness, the threat to his safety. Would it leave a damaging mark on his innocent young life? I hoped not.
In my upstairs bedroom the low autumn sun cast rainbow swatches onto the walls through a crystal prism hanging in the window. Cars surged and boomed bass, and sirens screamed on the avenue. The banging drilling shuddering industry of progress marched on. The regular soundtrack of inner-city life.
I put on my headphones, closed my eyes and pictured myself rising upwards, into the diluted blue of late afternoon. Gliding away, across the jigsaw plains, an hour’s drive from the city. I pictured Levi cuddled breathless by his family. I heard the river water flow and the majestic poplars stirring.
A lemon-white sunset.
Taken with kind permission from the latest issue of New Zealand’s premier literary journal, Landfall 245: Autumn 2023 edited by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press), available in selected bookstores nationwide.