HE HAD WORRIED he might not recognize the gate, one among many, but a loop of yellow police tape hung helpfully from the top bar. He wheeled his bike into the field and leaned it against the hedge. The bales were still there, mysteriously larger. The oak tree looked the same, dark and burly. No swallows today—had they already left?—but two magpies strutting across the stubble, tails jerking. On the grass near the gate lay a gray stick, abandoned by some hiker.
He carried the stick over to where he remembered the boy lying and began to circle it. All day he had imagined finding something significant: a key, a pair of spectacles, a business card reading John Smith, Assailant. In the books he read, there were always clues. His father had told him the word “clue” came from the Anglo-Saxon for thread, and that was what he was looking for, a thread that would lead him from something small, something everyone else had overlooked, to another thing and another, each a step closer to finding the assailant. Scrutinizing the ground, he saw only grass, knobbly soil, straw, pebbles, rabbit droppings.
The month before, on a picnic, his mother had lost her wedding ring. One moment the five of them were talking and laughing. The next they were crawling around, searching. Nothing. Nothing. Then Zoe had exclaimed “Here it is,” and they were all laughing again, the gap between disaster and happiness instantly closed. He picked a few blades of grass and slipped them into his shirt pocket. When he got home, he would write the date on an envelope and seal the grass inside. He pictured men in uniform on their hands and knees, with magnifying glasses and metal detectors. If there were anything to find, wouldn’t they have found it? To his left he saw a flash of black and white: the magpies taking flight. The air shifted, and the first drops of rain fell.
Near the hedge he discovered an empty beer bottle, coated with mud, a crumpled page from a comic Zoe used to read, and the dull blue rectangle of a local bus ticket. The last he put into his pocket, beside the blades of grass. He was walking back to the gate, the soil already darkening with rain, when he remembered the stick. Turning to retrieve it, he caught a glint of silver. There, beside a tuft of grass, lay the boy’s silver chain. It must have fallen, unnoticed, as the paramedics carried him to the gate. When he picked it up, he saw that the chain held a medallion the size of a ten-pence coin: a man fording a river with a small haloed figure on his shoulder.
AT HOME HE HEADED TO Zoe’s room, eager to show the St. Christopher. She was at her desk, doing homework; Duncan was lying on her bed, drawing. “Hi,” they both said without looking up. One of Matthew’s earliest memories was of the day his parents had brought home a tiny being with silky hair and perfect hands. His new brother had gazed, waveringly, at some distant view. Then his brown eyes had found Matthew and settled on him with a look of deep attention. Now, watching Duncan’s pencil move across the page, he could not remember the last time his brother had visited his room. Had he been curt? Preoccupied? As he zigzagged through the clutter on Zoe’s floor, he vowed to make amends. He picked up the dictionary on the window seat, and sat down.
Duncan’s pencil paused. “What does ‘raped’ mean?” he said.
Christ, thought Matthew. How to explain? He opened the dictionary, searching for the Rs, but Zoe was already offering her definition.
“One person,” she said, “usually a man, forces another person, usually a woman, to do it, but it’s not really doing it.”
“You do it”—Duncan started to draw again—“ but you don’t?”
She walked over to the bed. “Give me your hand.”
Matthew watched as she began to squeeze, at first gently, then more and more tightly until Duncan cried “Stop.”
“Like that. Something that can be good becomes bad because only one person wants it. Do you think”—she twirled so that her hair flew around her shoulders—“ the man would have stopped to give me a lift?”
Last spring, when she and Matthew missed the bus, she had been the one to hold out her arm and smile at the invisible motorists rushing by. Barely a dozen cars passed before a woman pulled over. As she accelerated back onto the road, she had asked if their parents knew what they were doing. “Yes,” Zoe had said, so quickly that all Matthew could do was nod.
“Zoe,” he said now, “you’re mad. Whoever did this was seriously messed up. He would have driven right past you.”
“Because I’m not pretty enough? Old enough?”
Looking at her bright top, her faded jeans, he recalled his father’s admonition. She had changed so much in the last year, and in the few days since they knelt in the field, she had changed again. Perhaps something had traveled from Karel’s arm into her outstretched hand. He knew of several boys at school who liked her. Would they stop liking the new Zoe? Or like her even more? He suspected the latter.
“Because,” he said, getting to his feet, “no one would want to hurt you.” Somehow the moment to show the St. Christopher had passed.
“WAS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU wanted to tell me?” the detective said. They were in his office in the police station on St. Aldate’s, the St. Christopher lying on the desk between them. As he spoke, the telephone rang. Matthew waited for him to answer, and after half a dozen rings, realized he wasn’t going to. No one had ever not answered a phone for him. Hugh Price was more like a TV detective than he had at first seemed. On the wall above his desk hung a black-and-white photograph of a row of cottages next to a snowy field. The ringing stopped.
“How is Karel?” Matthew said.
“He’s home from the hospital. He’s very grateful to the three of you.”
“Did he describe the person who attacked him?”
“Caucasian man, brown hair, clean shaven, blue eyes, reddish cheeks, thirtyish, medium build, wearing a suit. West Country accent. Walk down any street in Oxford, at any time of day, and you’ll see ten men who fit that description. If he has no prior convictions, which is often the case with a crime of passion, we’re going to have to get lucky. Did you find anything else in the field?”
Don’t you have any clues, Matthew wanted to say. “An empty beer bottle. And a bus ticket.”
The latter was still in his pocket, and he handed it over. Hugh Price thanked him and asked if they might take his fingerprints. In another room a woman rolled his thumbs and fingers one by one on a pad of ink and pressed them to a piece of paper, divided into ten rectangles.
“If you were planning a life of crime,” the detective said, “I’m afraid this will make it harder.”
Walking back to the bus station, Matthew counted nine men who fitted the description; on the bus were two more brown-haired, thirtyish, white men. None wore a suit. He sat down next to a girl in school uniform, a book open on her lap. As she read, she gently whisked the end of her braid back and forth across the page: stroking the words? keeping herself company? There were several girls at school who behaved like this, treating their hair as if it were a silent, always available pet. Rachel, happily, was not among them.
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HE WAS AT the piano, playing “Greensleeves,” when the doorbell rang. Zoe and Matthew were out with friends, his mother was walking with her hiking group. He paused, listening for his father’s footsteps, and hearing them, started to play again. A minute later came a rap on the door. “Duncan, can you come and say hello?”
In the kitchen a man with beautiful golden eyebrows and fiercely blue eyes was standing beside the table. Crooked in one arm, he held a bunch of crimson dahlias. The color was so pure, Duncan wanted to steal a flower and press the petals onto a page. It reminded him of another painting of Zeus his art teacher had shown him, one in which the god was not a bull but a swan. He was embracing a woman, wrapping his wings around her, and beneath their radiantly white bodies, one feathered, one not, lay a cloth the color of the dahlias.
“This is Frank Lustig,” his father said. “Frank, my younger son, Duncan.”
He was so used to the hastily concealed double take most people did on meeting him—his dark skin, his dark eyes—that he barely noticed it, but he did notice Frank’s lack of hesitation as he set aside the dahlias and offered his hand. Did Karel’s eyes have the same dark rim and flaring blue iris?
“Thank you for finding my younger son.”
His voice was different, Duncan thought, each word bitten off, precisely. “Zoe, my sister, was the one who saw something through the hedge.”
“And I want to thank her too. I am here on behalf of myself and my wife and, of course, Karel. I hope you will understand that he cannot come himself. He sends his gratitude.” As he spoke, an earwig skittered out of a dahlia and came to a stop, tiny horns motionless, on the edge of the table. Another followed. Neither Frank nor his father noticed.
While his father made mugs of tea, Frank explained that he had grown up in a small town near Prague and moved to England eight years before with the help of his wife’s family; two of her uncles had come to England in the 1930s. He ran a small building company with his cousin. Duncan offered his finger to the earwig. The earwig refused.
“Does Karel remember what happened?” his father asked.
“Yes, but we are not allowed to talk about it.” At the hospital, Frank said, Karel had been about to tell them when his brother came into the room. “Karel started screaming. We didn’t know he and Tomas had quarreled. Later he talked to the police, but to us, silence. Now he’s home, there is this huge thing that none of us mentions.”
He means the elephant in the room, Duncan thought.
“But he gave a description of the man?” his father said.
Frank nodded. “A police artist came to the hospital. Karel told him eyes like this, ears like that.”
Duncan filed the information away to examine later: the police used artists.
Every night, Frank went on, Karel made him check the windows and doors. Ten minutes later, he checked them himself. “I’ve never hit another person in my life,” Frank said, “but when we find this man, who made my son afraid, I will do my best to knock him down.”
Duncan remembered that night when he had gone from window to window. He wanted to ask, Was Karel different in other ways too? Did he like different things to eat? How did he feel about the color red? About grass? Did he have bad dreams? Did he remember the bales? The swallows? Had he ever read The Little Mermaid? But his father was offering chocolate biscuits and saying he’d made a banister for a house Frank had built. While they talked about work, Duncan captured the first earwig under a glass and carried it outside. Bravely it darted away between towering blades of grass. Back inside, the second earwig was nowhere to be seen.
AT SUPPER MATTHEW WAS STILL out. Duncan watched Zoe’s plump lower lip push forward as his father described Frank’s visit. When he finished, she said, “May I be excused?,” and without waiting for a response stood up, carried her plate over to the dishwasher, and left the room. His parents exchanged a glance.
“My Greek class is going on a tour of the Ashmolean on Saturday,” said his mother. “Would you like to come?”
“Yes, please.” He was already planning to visit his favorite statues in the museum.
His father focused on his carrots and said he had to do an estimate for a pergola.
After supper, Duncan stopped outside Zoe’s room. She had found the boy; Frank should have spoken to her, but no one was to blame. Before he could knock, she called out “Go away.” He went to his room, wrote a note—You are not an accident—and, trusting her to understand, slid it under the door. One day, when the three of them were arguing, Zoe had said, “At least you know Mum and Dad chose you. Matthew and I are just accidents.” Both Matthew and he had disagreed. Matthew said accidents mostly happened to unmarried people. He had said that if anyone was an accident, it was him. His parents didn’t have a clue who they were choosing.
As he lay in bed, he could feel Zoe’s dark mood swirling through the house. Perhaps that was why, when he finally slept, he had a vivid dream. He was downstairs, walking from room to room. Everything was the same, the sitting room, the parlor, but then, as he left the kitchen, there on his left was a door he had never seen before. He opened it and stepped into a beautiful, high-ceilinged room, filled with pearly light. The furnishings were simple: a long wooden table with chairs. On the walls hung several pictures, reproductions of paintings he loved. He sat down at the table. A heavy sheet of paper was waiting for him, and four perfectly sharpened pencils. Nearby sat a woman. He could not quite make out her features, but her skin was dark, like his; she too was waiting for him.
A cat, wailing in the garden, woke him. From the dark rectangle of his window he guessed that it was very early morning. He went downstairs and made his way from room to room, turning on lights, opening all the doors, even the cupboards. But none led to the beautiful room. Back in bed, he tried to reenter it through the only available doorway: sleep.