Home > The Weight of Silence(8)

The Weight of Silence(8)
Heather Gudenkauf

One terrible day, when I was twelve, I returned from the library after shirking my farm responsibilities and my father was leaning against the wooden fence at the edge of the hog house, awaiting my return. His normally placid face was set in anger and his arms were crossed across his wide chest. He watched my approach with an unwavering gaze and I had the urge to drop my books and run away. I did not. I continued my walk to the spot where he was standing and looked down at my church shoes, smeared with dust and dirt.

"Martin," he said in a grave voice I did not recognize. "Martin, look at me."

I raised my eyes and I looked up into his and felt the weight of his disappointment in me. I thought I could smell the blood from butchering on him. "Martin, we're a family. And our family business happens to be hog farming. I know you are ashamed of that--"

I shook my head quickly. That was not what I thought, but I didn't know how to make him understand. He continued.

"I know that the filth of what I do shames you, and that I don't have your same schoolin' shames you, too. But this is who I am, a hog farmer. And it's who you are, too. At least for now. I can't read your big fancy books and understand some of those big words you use, but what I do puts food on our table and those shoes on your feet. To do that, I need the help of my family. You're the oldest, you got to help. You find the way that you can help, Martin, and you tell me what that is, but you got to do your share. You can't be runnin' off into town when there's work to be done. Understand?"

I nodded, the heat of my own shame rising off my face.

"You think on it, Martin, tonight. You think on it and tell me in the mornin' what your part is gonna be." Then he walked away from me, his head hanging low, his hands stuffed into the back of his work pants.

I slept little that night, trying to find a way that I could be useful to my family. I did not want to mind my younger brothers and sisters, and I was not very handy with building or fixing things. What was I good at? I wondered that night. I was a good reader and I was good at mathematics. Those were my strengths. I pondered on these the entire night and when my father awoke the next morning I was waiting for him at our kitchen table.

"I think I know how I can help, Daddy," I said shyly, and he rewarded me with his familiar lopsided grin.

"I knew you would, Martin," he replied and sat down next to me.

I laid it all out for him, the financial records of the farm, noting in as kind a way as possible the sloppiness and inaccuracies that they contained. I could help, I told him, by keeping track of the money. I would find ways of saving and ways of making the farm more efficient. He was pleased with my plan, and I was appreciative of his faith in me. We never flourished as a family farm, but our quality of life improved. We were able to update our utilities and install a telephone; we could afford shoes for each of the children all year-round, though I was still the only one who chose to wear them in the summer. One winter day when I was sixteen, soon before my father's birthday, I took the farm truck into town to the only department store, which sold everything from groceries to appliances. I spent two and a half hours looking at the two models of television sets they had available, weighing the pros and cons of each. I finally decided upon the twelve-inch version with rabbit ear antennae. I settled it carefully in the cab of the truck next to me wrapped in blankets to cushion any jostling that would occur on the winding dirt roads, and returned to the farm.

When my father came in that evening, after taking care of the hogs, we were gathered in the living room, all nine of us, blocking the view of my father's birthday present.

"What's going on here?" he asked, as it was rare that we were all congregated in one place that was not the supper table.

My mother began to sing "Happy Birthday" to my father and we all joined in. At the end of the song we parted to reveal the tiny television set that rested upon an old bookshelf.

"What's this?" my father asked in disbelief. "What did you go and do?"

We were all grinning up at him and my little sister, Lottie, who was seven, squealed, "Turn it on, Daddy, turn it on!"

My father stepped forward and turned the knob to On and after a moment the black-and-white image of a variety show filled the screen. We all laughed in delight and crowded around the television to listen. My father fiddled with the volume button until we were satisfied with the noise level and we all watched in rapt attention. Later, my father pulled me aside and thanked me. He rested his hand on the back of my neck and looked into my eyes; we were nearly the same height now. "My boy," he whispered. Those were just about the sweetest words I have ever heard--until, that is, Petra uttered "Da Da" for the first time.

Holding Petra for the first time after Fielda's long labor was a miracle to me. I had worked for years, trying to shed my farm boy roots, to rid myself of any twang of an accent, to present myself as a cultured, intelligent man, not the son of an uneducated hog farmer. I was dumbfounded at the perfection that I held in my arms, the long, dark eyelashes, the wild mass of dark hair on top of her cone-shaped head, the soft fold of skin beneath her neck, the earnest sucking motion she made with her tiny lips. To me, all amazing.

On top of the engine, I place my face in my dirty hands. I cannot find her and I cannot bear the disgrace of returning home to Fielda without our daughter. I am shamed again. I have once again shirked my duties, this time as a father, and I imagine, again, the disappointment on my own father's face.


On my way over to the Gregory house, I contact our sheriff, Harold Motts. I need to update Harold as to what is going on. Let him know I have a bad feeling about this, that I don't think this is merely a case of two girls wandering off to play.

"What evidence do you have?" Motts questions me.

I have to admit that I have none. Nothing physical, anyway. There are no signs of a break-in, no sign of a struggle in either of the girls' rooms. Just a bad feeling. But Motts trusts me, we've known each other a long time.

"You thinking FPF, Louis?" he asks me.

FPF means Foul Play Feared in the police world. Just by uttering these three letters, a whole chain of events can unfurl. State police and the Division of Criminal Investigation will show up, the press and complications. I measure my words before I speak them.

"Something's not right here. I'd feel a lot better if you called in one of the state guys, just to check things out. Besides, once we call them in they foot the bill, right? Our department can't handle or afford a full-scale search and investigation on our own."

"I'll call DCI right now," Motts says to my relief. "Do we need a crime scene unit?"

"Not yet. Hopefully not at all, but we just might. I'm heading back over to the houses. Better call the reservists," I say. I am glad that Motts will have to be the one who wakes up our off-duty officers and the reservists, take them away from their families and their jobs. Willow Creek has a population of about eight thousand people, though it grows by about twelve hundred each fall due to the college. Our department is small; we have ten officers in all, three to a shift. Not near enough help when looking for two missing seven-year-olds. We'd need the reservists to help canvas the neighborhoods and question people.

"Louis," Motts says, "do you think this is anything like the McIntire case?"

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