Here is a teeny preview of Acts of Salvage, a fragment of text I’ve already read at the Draft Reading Series and the Little Red Umbrella Variety Spectacular. It sets some of the tone for the novel, which unspools around dumpster divers, feral cats, hoarders and a man who finds a mummified baby in the attic of a Toronto home he is restoring.
There are some deeply personal undercurrents to this story, although my own experiences do not closely resemble those recounted in the novel. For the moment I’ll say only that my daughter — the only child I’ll ever have — is the most lovely result of grace amid sorrow.
* * *
The baby lies between the joists of an old closet under the eaves. A muffled bundle, nearly shapeless in the shadows, it is a rough cocoon containing a narrow, sunken body and a head that seems improbably large atop the withered limbs. Dusty, silent, smelling faintly of leather and old wool, it provides mute testimony to the passage of time, the immanence of being, and the fragility of anything that may be loved or discarded.
James pulls out the bundle—wound loosely in a woollen shawl and yellow knitted blanket, both long discoloured and studded with grit—and lays it on the splintered wooden floorboards. He peels a corner of blanket away from the baby’s face; its skin like parchment, its flesh glowing in the muted attic light. With a forefinger he strokes the infant’s smooth skull, the closed and sunken eyelids and, with nearly breathless delicacy, the brittle fingertips. Then he pulls out his cellphone and dials the number nearest his heart.
“I found a baby,” he whispers in a gutted, hollow voice. “Under the eaves.”
There is a shocked, shuttered silence; then a single word: “Again?”
James knows, this time, that there is no need to call 911. There is no emergency here, and even the memory of what might once have been urgency, grief, desperation or rage has turned to dust nearly as completely as the frayed curtains flapping at the tiny peaked window above his head. There is no need for a crush of police cars, fire trucks, an ambulance crowding the narrow west-end street, drawing a throng of onlookers; some concerned, others curious and hoping just a little for blood. No need for the story to get out, the media arriving, someone telling them who he is and then the inevitable telephone call, later in the evening, from a reporter whose audio equipment is always on, asking him a little breathlessly if he finds any irony in finding a dead baby so soon after having lost one of his own.
James has always been good at finding things. Given the description of a lost object, he can trace its destination by divination. He has some internal instinct for the shape of things, an unspoken affinity that has always drawn him to the organic. As a teen he made money working for the local tree service, and became a valued member of its crew because he always knew which way the branches would break and which limbs could hold a hoist; could determine whether a tree was healthy or hollow merely by touching it. Later, as an electrician’s apprentice he listened to electrons singing in the wires, and thought of himself sitting inside a giant skeleton, his hands on the pulse of its body, the circuitry unspooling like synapses, neurons, ganglia. It seemed inevitable that he would end up working as a contractor, gutting and restoring old houses one at a time, sensing their songs, their secrets, and their beautiful bones.
After the first baby, which James had found tucked between attic joists in a nearly identical bay-and-gable house at the other end of the city, there had been a flurry of attention and speculation. A police investigation. Impromptu searches of property records, genealogies. Newspapers wrapped around the mummified remains had been used to date the discovery. Former neighbours described a single woman, then in her thirties, who had stayed in the house one summer all those decades ago and then disappeared. Given the names of relatives, a reporter traced the woman to a nursing home in Buffalo, and found her senile, addled and mute. Someone even wrote an operetta about the discovery, broadcast on CBC Radio: a sentimental tear-jerker with a sniff of scandal; perfect for a Saturday afternoon. Audiences had loved it. James heard the broadcast while driving in his truck and squelched the station, yanking the radio so hard he broke the dial.
The librettist had contacted James, asked for his input, his story, but he had refused, and so the writer had played to his audience. The scent of shame; the spectre of incest or at the very least illegitimacy, a terrible secret smothered with a blanket. Babies, the public believes—not really wanting them itself—are all too understandably thrown away by unwed mothers: left face-down in toilets or garbage bins outside of urban proms and in hotel restrooms on class trips. A few years ago a young American woman had deposited her squalling newborn in an abandoned trailer near her house and driven past it for days, she admitted to detectives, to see if it was still crying. A tiny corpse, discovered in an airplane washroom in Manila, the abandoning woman (one does not quite say mother) claiming to have been raped by a wealthy businessman. Even in Toronto a woman, charged with “improper disposal” in the case of an infant’s corpse frozen on her apartment balcony, was rumoured to have disposed of another child in the Humber River, its body wrapped in garbage bags.
Babies, especially newborns, occupy a liminal position between objects that might be discarded and living humans who too often become burdens. Their legal status is unclear; their very being precarious. Criminal charges hinge, so often, on whether the child had ever breathed air, a magic elixir pulling it across the invisible threshold between thing and being. A woman cannot be charged for having a miscarriage or even, in this country at least, a very late term abortion, although once, nearly two decades ago, an Ottawa woman had been arrested for shooting a pellet gun into her own uterus, injuring her near-term fetus. The charges were dismissed in a muddle of case law and psychiatric wrangling and the woman released into treatment, her child monitored for signs of harm.
But James knows only too well that there are reasons other than murder for someone to conceal a dead baby, to keep it so close to home, so nearly at arm’s reach. Something that, if it cannot, any longer, be a part of yourself, might remain nearby. He understands what it is like to hold something so precious so tightly that you cannot bear to let it go.