LISE K. RAGBIR
Under the word ”MISSING” your photo has a weird flatness. It is not the same flatness that comes with photos of people who aren’t missing—those whose flatness is rounded by experience, or by other photos. No, your ‘missing’ photo tries, but fails, to convey all that you are. Or were. Or are.
There were those who had to decide—which photo is the best depiction of all that you are? Or were. Or are. And everything about you has been reduced to that static glimpse of a brown-skin woman with loose curls cropped at the nape of her neck, and a daring smile. In this photo, one can’t know of the joke that made you smile for the camera, nor how your smile never comes (came?) easy. In this photo, we can’t see how the slightest turn of your neck could reveal the full expanse of your cheek, or the hard edge of your nose—or that this pose preceded an eye-roll as you turned to collect the breakfast plate from the table. We can’t know of your pride as a mother, or your tenderness as a grandmother, or your prodding as an aunt, or your willfulness as a sister, or your faithfulness as a wife, or your fierceness as a bridge partner. We can’t gauge the distance between your face and the lace curtains behind it—or discern what rests in the garden beyond the window. But I know, through that window, orchids grow and over ripe mangoes fall from trees, and desert roses roast in the sun. I know, at one time, those eyes—the flattened eyes that look at the world with specks of white, hopeful, reflections in each iris—also looked out at what moved, and what kept still, in that garden.
But this photo tells us you are missing.
Under the word ”MISSING”, in this flattened version of you, the roundness of all that you are, or were, or are, is reduced to something worse than hollow. The best parts are missing, and hope fills the gaps.
Here, far from “MISSING” posters and desert roses, the sun hides and rain slaps the window, and roof and pavement, waking me from what I thought I knew. In a dream, I’d solved the mystery. It wasn’t foul play. It was fair play—a game of hide and seek. In a dream, a woman could choose to conceal herself from her friends and family and the world, of her own accord. For herself, she could choose not to be her husband’s wife, or her bridge partner’s bridge-partner, or her grandchildren’s grandmother, or my father’s sister. And while police make public statements in front of flashing cameras, while your face rode social media waves, while we cried—you ignored the world and the pleas for your safe return to us. While I slept, you smiled when you trailed your fingers along a wrought-iron rail of spiral staircase as you climbed. And on those stairs, with each step, your expression softened into something close to peace. And far from where you climbed, I trusted you were unharmed, and unburdened and oblivious to squandered worry.
While I slept, I solved what wasn’t a mystery. You were simply hiding. Who doesn’t want to hide?
And the sun hid, leaving only the too-loud rain.
And I woke from what I thought I knew.
I built the wall. Tall. Strong. Impassable. A wall to surround and protect the unflattened version of you. To protect the you that was ever vulnerable. To protect the you that walked with bare feet in the garden—a wall even to protect the garden, and its secrets, itself. And while, on one side of the wall, your ‘missing’ photo does all the work, on the other side, you remain you.
I also built the wall to protect me from the ‘missing’ you. Through necessity (I said) I built the wall to keep from falling. To stop from crying. To prevent myself from imagining the worse. To let myself have lunch with friends or ask thoughtful questions in staff meetings. And it is a good wall, until I want to bring my imagination to the brink and roll around in all that you were. Or are. Or were. It is a good wall, until I want to remember the way you walk quickly with stooped shoulders, or the way your hair doesn’t curl in the humidity, or the way your back straightens and your hands excitedly stir the air in front of your face when you talk about the people you love—and the people you love less. It is a good wall until I want to remember the lilt and exasperation in your voice when you say, “I don’t know why your father doesn’t listen to me,” or the way you glanced over your shoulder when you trod through rows of trained orchids. It is a good wall until I want to remember silences we shared — when the torn leaves on the fig trees at the back of the house flapped in the sea breeze — when dish towel-flicks chased lizards under the kitchen counter while you pour the morning’s guava juice—when we hung our heads out the window to avoid getting sick — our faces turned to the coral walls that lined narrow, winding roads, when we all drove to the sea.
But I built a wall with no door. And when I want to feel something, I only feel flat. Caught on this side of the wall, far from you.
The you I remember, is not the same as the you that is gone—two separate truths, too disparate to connect. The you I remember asked sharp questions and sometimes laughed at, and sometimes with, me. The you that is gone remains caught in the depths of what remains unimaginable. And the wall? Replaced by what is tender enough to hold you gently, yet strong enough to prevent the truth of who you were, and the truth of who you are, from colliding. A veil, perhaps, to protect my memories of you. Through where it is thin, I glimpse the worst of the unknowns before the membrane thickens and I return to the you I knew. A delicate, yet resilient, protector —steadfastly separating you from the person that is shared with the media — Found — Rah-vine — each click moving us further away from the shade tree. Moving us further from the edge of the sea. Moving us further from the mango grove to turn me and face me into a void, where there is nothing but pain to latch onto. This veil might protect me. We all wish we could’ve protected you.
Marcelle Smith was born and raised in Trinidad and died in Barbados. Her death is an ongoing criminal case.
Lise K. Ragbir’s essays about immigration, race, parenting, gun-violence, arts and culture, have been published by Elle, the Guardian, Time Magazine, USA Today, Psychology Today, and Hyperallergic, among others. Her short story, All That Would Be, appeared in Pree in 2020.