She let me in, as she knew she had to; but other than instructing me to remove my shoes, she said nothing as she led me through the lobby, past the stairs, and into a kitchen fragrant with spices. A sandwich lay half-assembled on the counter, lettuce and egg salad exposed on a slice of white bread, and she set a second piece of bread on top, sliced the result diagonally, and then sealed it inside a plastic container. Next, she turned to the fridge and withdrew a juice box, a container of pudding, and bag of baby carrots. When it became clear she wasn’t going to interrupt this routine for me, I settled into a chair at the table and waited. Neither of us was in a rush, and surely she knew that I wasn’t going to leave until I asked my questions and she answered them; this charade existed only for her to exert some measure of control. From what I knew of her life to date, I figured she’d had little enough of that; and so I sat down at the table, my bag beside me, and I waited.
She stacked the containers, the sandwich and juice and carrots and pudding, one on top of one another, into the canvas bag beside them, and set the lunch in the fridge. Next she turned back to the stove and strained the contents of a saucepan into a mug. My eye lingered on a chaotic array of papers affixed to the refrigerator door with magnets: a typed notice, probably a school newsletter, and two pictures. The first, rendered in crayon, depicted a spiked creature, which a set of lopsided capital letters identified as STEGASORUS BY GARY. The second was more abstract, a burst of primary colours interrupted by handprints. The artist’s name had been signed by an adult’s steadier hand, but in the same medium, a blended black and green smudge: Daniel.
I looked up as she settled into the seat across from me, cupping her mug with both hands. She took a few sips, her eyes on mine. She had removed her contact lenses, and her eyes were amber again, the dark line on the left iris dominating her face.
It was a full minute before she addressed me. “What do you want to know?” She spoke with the quiet composure of someone who knew she had nothing to fear.
“There’s a lot I want to know.” I found myself speaking slowly, quietly, all my confrontational instincts neutralized. Unbidden, the voice of facilitator from the workshop that had indirectly led to the car accident surfaced in my memory: Build trust by matching the mannerisms and demeanour of your partner. A bleak chuckle died in my throat. “Most of all,” I continued, only slightly louder than before, “I want to know what happened to Anoushka.”
“I am Anoushka.” There was nothing defiant in her voice, and I nodded in understanding. She was merely stating a fact, one that would be readily verified by documentation and by several of her acquaintances.
But not all. “Julia Clark believes that her friend Anoushka escaped her abusive husband with her children,” I said. “The police verified that and she is satisfied. But it wouldn’t take much to make her wonder what really happened.”
The hard amber eyes peered at me from above the rim of the mug, and she waited.
“But it wouldn’t help anyone if I said anything, would it?” I asked.
She lowered the mug. “It would not.”
“And it would hurt many.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone. But I want to know.”
She nodded again, and closed her eyes. It was a minute before she spoke, as quietly and as slowly as before. “What do you know?”
I looked off to the side, to the fridge with the newsletter and the crayon drawing and the finger-painted picture, and I put the words in careful order. “I know you came to Canada a long time ago,” I began. She was staring right at me again, and she didn’t agree or argue or nod or shake her head, so I continued. “I know there were others. I don’t know where you or any of the others lived before, or why you left, but I know that it was bad, bad enough that you wouldn’t complain about anything that happened here.”
I took a deep breath. “I know that all of you worked for money you never saw. I know you had no legal standing here, that your passport was taken as soon as you arrived. And I know that one day, another woman joined you, but this one was different.”
She didn’t move.
“This one came separately. She didn’t come with the same rules and instructions. She was brought to live with you by a woman, not a man. By Anoushka.”
I paused, forcing my breaths to come steadily, forcing my tremors to remain below the surface. “I know that Anoushka is dead.”
She didn’t react to this either, didn’t jump up to argue, and I felt my throat close, my gut twist, the room sway in and out of focus; and it struck me that I hadn’t known it after all, not fully.
“The man who…who handled you and the others, he was an expert. I knew him as Manny Thomas, but I doubt that’s his name now. He knows how to stay hidden. But the new – the new woman who moved in, she was handled by someone who made mistakes. And you found them.”
She didn’t break my gaze.
“You traced the new woman to Anoushka. And you found out that she was connected, but only sort of connected, to the man who ran the whole thing. You found out that she was as afraid of him as you were, that she was trying to leave him, and that gave you a plan. You threatened to reveal what she had done unless she helped you escape.”
At this she finally spoke, still calm and quiet: “I did not threaten her. I told her we would help. All of us. We would help her become free and she would help us become free.”
“We, meaning you and the…the other women you lived with.”
“You would keep her secret, and before she left, she would turn the passports and the fake IDs over to you.”
“But he got to her first. And somehow you got your passport back anyway. All of you did: Manny Thomas closed his front business. He sold his home. He gave you his wife’s identity – his wife’s entire life, including their children – because that was the cost of not being exposed not only as a trafficker and a fraud, but as a murderer.”
She was staring past me now.
“He killed her because he found out she was going to leave. But he’d gotten away with so much before, and he would have gotten away with this. But you had something on him, didn’t you?”
A tiny nod, almost imperceptible. “She left the children with us that evening and returned to her home to pick up her bags and take the passports to us. Two hours later, she had not returned. I went to her home. She was on the floor. He had choked her. He did not mean to kill her, he said, only to frighten her. She struck him and he fought back, and he was stronger.”
She struck him. Melanie from Gary’s school in Calgary, Louise from my building: He had his left arm in a brace – one of his arms was hanging by his side, like it was injured – “She broke his arm.”
“And you –” I had it. My next words rushed out as they came to me: “You arrived at the home and found her dead, him injured. Her body was right there, and a houseful of immigrant women would inform the police if you didn’t return. They were scared of the police, but it didn’t matter, because it wouldn’t come to that. He had more to fear than they did. With a broken arm, one body is hard enough to contend with, never mind two.”
She was gazing downward now, into her mug of tea.
“You helped move the body.”
“You made a deal with him. You’d help him move the body in exchange for all the passports, just like Anoushka had promised. But instead of getting yours, you’d get one that came with a bank account and a steady source of income.” And, I was about to add, with two young children, at least one of whom had the words to describe what he knew but not the judgment to know when to speak and what to say; a liability for anyone trying to keep a low profile. But that meant it could have been either of them, Manny or her, who had made the decision that she take them; and although the end result was the same, the uncertainty stirred dizzily inside me.
I squeezed my eyes shut, and when that didn’t keep the uneasiness at bay, I opened them again and continued: “And so if any of the few people who’d gotten to know Anoushka noticed her missing, it would be a simple matter to convince them she was alive and well.”
“It does not matter who is convinced,” she said. The voice was steady, the amber eyes cold, unblinking. “It matters only what is said.”
I nodded in understanding, and waited as she took another sip of tea. “Where is she?” I whispered.
“We put her in a freezer.” Her voice hadn’t changed, but she was looking past me now. “He had one in the garage, and we cleared it of food and put her inside, and we put the food back on top. Then when it was time, we moved it to a locker, one with privacy and a place inside to plug it in.”
“A storage locker, one you rent out by the month.”
“You will not find it. We used the name of another one of us, another who left and did not return.”
I closed my eyes against the nausea that was gripping me. If I’d asked myself what I’d expected to hear, I would not have imagined anything less horrible; but what I’d have come up with would have been limited by my imagination, and I saw now what insulation that provided. “You put her in a freezer,” I continued, my thoughts and words forming in tandem, “you, a small woman, and a man with a broken arm, and you moved the freezer to into a storage locker.”
“Not us alone. It was not difficult to find others who would help.”
I gripped the sides of the chair as the room with the canvas lunch bag and the drawings on the fridge and the saucepan of tea swam out of focus, and as the dark woman with the amber eyes took another sip from her mug.
I barely heard the footsteps behind me, quick and light; I saw the woman crane her neck and move to stand before I saw the object of her focus. Beside me, the younger boy skidded to a stop in pyjama feet, and addressed her directly. “Auntie, I need to –”
He stopped abruptly as he saw me, and at once he shrank back and his dark eyes widened. He turned to look at the woman, and then back to me, and then lifted his chin. “Mummy,” he amended, his eyes fixed on me, as though daring me to correct him. I kept my face neutral, and he continued. “Mummy,” he repeated, this time more boldly, “I need to make a pee.”
She rose, and placed a hand on his back. “Shh, come,” she said, and she led him around the corner and out of my sight.
I remained in my seat as I waited. I waited as I heard her singing softly, and as I heard the trickle of liquid, and as she carried him back upstairs.
I waited for several minutes as she remained upstairs, and I didn’t see or hear her singing the boy a lullaby, covering him with the blanket, assuring him he didn’t need to be afraid. I didn’t need to.
I have a bank of memories of myself at that age and slightly older: the former of me with both of my parents; the latter with only my father. Some are as vivid and certain as ones I’d formed in adulthood, and these ones have the smallest of details intact: the torn ear of a teddy bear, the texture of a carpet, a smudge on a wall. Others feel almost like episodes from someone else’s life, and these ones I remember as though watching myself from a distance; in moments of doubt I wonder if they represent events that really occurred, or if they were forged over time to furnish the biography of the adult I was to become. But I don’t wonder about that very often, because in the end, it hardly matters.
There’s a cloudiness to those memories, people and settings reduced to shadows. A child on an adult’s lap. Where did Mommy go?
Oh, sweetie. Mommy had to go away.
The child, twisting around. Where? And instead of an answer, the adult holding the child more tightly, which is different too. As though the adult is turning to the child for comfort, rather than the other way around. When’s Mommy coming back?
Sweetie, I’m so sorry. Mommy’s never coming back.
And the child, not crying, because Mommy’s never coming back isn’t scary, isn’t even sad, because it isn’t real enough to be either of those things. What does that even mean, Mommy’s never coming back? Mommy always comes back. The child, trying to figure this out.
The adult, again: So it’s just going to be us now.
Are you going to go away?
And then, the adult squeezing even tighter, and then, and this is the scariest part: the adult crying. What was there to do when things were so bad that even grown-ups cried? But soon the crying is over, and the adult turns the child around and the two are looking directly at one another. Sweetie, I promise you, I will never, ever go away.
She had returned to the kitchen, had picked up the mug of tea, poured its contents into the sink. The saucepan was still simmering on the stove, and she strained its contents into her mug, turned off the burner, and carried the steaming cup back to the table. “It is getting late,” she said, “and now you know what you came to learn.”
There was no disagreeing with that, but something kept me in the chair. “What did you leave?” I heard myself asking. “What did you leave, that was so bad that you left it all behind, that going back was worse than staying?”
She cupped her mug with both hands, and stared down into it, and remained in that posture for so long that I wondered if she was ever going to speak. “I was twenty years old,” she said at last. Her voice was quieter than before, and the edge was gone. “And I was to wed. The man was older, almost as old as my mother, and he had a family, three children. He had a wife, too, once, but she died. She was not old, and she was not sick, and she died.”
She looked up at me then, and I nodded to show that I understood.
“He was a respected man. He had money and he had friends who were politicians and police. I would wed him or I would bring shame to my family. And then I saw I could come to Canada, to work. So I came. I came because I could not stay. I came, eight years ago, with no thought for anyone other than myself, and I left three children with their father, their father who had a wife who was not old and who was not sick and who died, their father who was a respected man.”
She closed her eyes, kept them closed for nearly a minute, and when she opened them she was crying.
I could have left then. I could have walked out the door, closing it behind me, and I could have gotten back into my car as she watched me through the curtain; I could have returned to Vancouver, satisfied if unsettled by what I’d learned. I could have resigned myself to the knowledge that I would reveal nothing, that revealing anything would cause only harm and that enough harm had been caused; and I could have told myself that it therefore made no difference if I left with a few unanswered questions, a few suspicions that churned in my gut.
But instead I paused, my hand on the doorknob, and I said, “He worked during the day.”
She said nothing, and I turned to face her, and I gripped the doorknob harder.
“Where did he keep the passports?”
“You said you would leave.”
“You agreed to keep her secret in exchange for her helping you. You’re too smart to have done that without a guarantee that she’d be able to help. Proof that she could get to the ID she’d turn over to you. When I met you you had only Harsha’s licence, which Anoushka carried on her. Where did he keep the other IDs?”
A pause, an instant too long. “In his desk.”
“At the home? In a place where she could get to them? He held her ID too, that’s why she had to steal someone else’s, but he kept them in a place in the home, that she knew about?”
“She wouldn’t have left her children with you.” The words tumbled out, one on top of the other, as the rest of the picture settled into focus. “This was a woman who lived in terror of an abusive man. He controlled every aspect of her life. For a long time she wouldn’t even let her son play at a friend’s house, and when she did it was a secret she kept from her husband and from her other son. She had a babysitter look after the younger boy, but only when he was sleeping. She was that frightened. Only by being very careful for almost a year did she manage to keep secret her plan to escape him. She knew where he would be every minute of the day and made sure to never to give him any additional reason to suspect her. Gary was in school and his brother napped during the day. Why didn’t she give you the passports while her husband was gone and leave before he returned? If they were at home there would have been no reason for her to get them during the evening and leave her children with you.”
I fell silent, and she stood in front of me, waiting. It does not matter who is convinced. It matters only what is said.
“Her husband didn’t kill her,” I whispered. “You did.”
She was standing in front of me now, her breaths as stable as mine were halting, and when she spoke she was even quieter than before. “So much concern,” she mused, “for a woman who kept another as a slave.”
“She never offered to help you. She couldn’t. She didn’t even know where the passports were. You went over during the day, when Gary was at school and his brother was napping, and you killed her. And when Manny returned, you broke his arm, and helped hide Anoushka’s body in exchange for her ID and your silence.”
She continued as though I had not spoken. “For eight years, I lived with others, and some of the others left to go home. That is what we were told: they went home. We never heard from them again, and no one came to our door to look for them. But you, you came to my door today, to look not for them, but for a woman who would keep them as slaves.”
“You killed her.”
“Oh, no, no,” she said. “I did not kill her. How could I? When a woman who is beaten dies, who other than the man who hurt her would have killed her? Certainly not a woman who does not exist. Perhaps, though, a woman who was paid a large sum of money would do it. It would be simple for a key to the locker to appear in this woman’s possession; in a locker or a safe deposit box under her name. She may have a story about her identity being stolen, but who will believe her, when she took the money and said nothing?”
It does not matter who is convinced. I nodded because I understood, because I understood fully now, and I turned back to the door, and I could have left then too.
But with my back turned, I asked one more question, one so inconsequential that I don’t know why I even thought to ask it: “How did you find where she lived?”
“She came, in her car, to where we stayed. I wrote down the number on the licence plate.”
“And how did you –”
“One of the men I did work for –” Her voice was hard now, the words men and work clipped beyond what her accent furnished by itself – “one the men, he was a police officer.”
It matters only what is said.
I nodded, and then I left, closing the door behind me.