March 29, 2017
The lost daughter collective gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city. The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone. Along with the roomful of fathers, there is weak tea and a healthy supply of biscuits neither sweet nor tart. A rich store of tissues is hidden in nooks throughout the large, single-room loft that composes the thirty-third floor, out of sight so as not to invite tears. Despite this, crying often ensues, though most of the men use their sleeves.
The fathers categorize their lost daughters in two ways: dead or missing. A dead daughter is deemed a Dorothy, a missing one an Alice. Qualifying their lost girls in this way is a silently endorsed coping mechanism. When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life. The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait. Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.
Today one father—the plumber—has discovered his daughter is no longer an Alice, but a Dorothy. This is perhaps one of the hardest days for the father of an Alice, next to the day he learns she’s become one and Daughter’s Day.
The men take their seats, and the sound of folding-chair legs on the cement floor echoes through the empty loft. The chairs are arranged in a circle and the men change seats every week. Because they lead a life in which permanence reigns—a life where pink comforters lie disheveled in dusty bedrooms, where yellow hair ribbons and fruit-scented shampoo sit dormant on bathtub rims, where finger paintings of rainbows hang perpetually on refrigerator doors—they are only shyly acquainted with change and adopt it in meager kernels.
The leader of this troupe—the librarian—raises his eyes from his scuffed loafers to regard the plumber.
Do you want to start today?
The plumber looks out the window and scans the gray cityscape. Fatherhood is an industry and a daughter is a beach, he says, and a wave of gentle nods moves through the group. But what binds them is cycle and scope. You can put the contracts in your suitcase—you can put the shells in your pocket—but you can’t bring home the business or the shore. All the men in the room look at the walls or their shoes.
In other words, it won’t be easy to learn how to father a Dorothy, is that right? the librarian says, and the plumber purses his lips and makes a single jerk of his head such that his chin touches his chest, which they all read to mean yes. All the men who father an Alice breathe in deeply and sit back in their chairs, aware that they have lost one of their own, and aware that they too could become the father of a Dorothy. It is a possibility that, when it enters the father psyche, men everywhere carefully displace.
After the story is told, the plumber rises and the rest of the group follows, stretching and wiping their faces of tear, rubbing their temples and avoiding each other’s gaze.
Because they know the night’s work has only just begun, some men take advantage of the break. Are the biscuits different this week? the real estate agent asks the landscaper, who shakes his head. Must be my taste is returning, the real estate agent says.
How long has it been? asks the bus driver.
Three years next Tuesday.
That’s about right, the bus driver says and takes a swig of his tea. Just know not to bother yourself with sweets.
Sweets? the real estate agent asks.
Some cruel trick of the tongue, he says, and runs his hand over his white crew cut.
The men listen to each other’s stories, a round robin arrangement where each gets the floor for twelve minutes. In those minutes, they share their cataloged tales of daughter-exit, here on the thirty-third floor of the abandoned umbrella factory—but too, across town in the attic of a church, the top floor of a library, the penthouse of a hotel. And too, across state lines and beyond the ends of the territory and even past the zones that designate time. And the stories travel across the weeks and months, across the years and beyond, carried and shared by voices to which the stories do not belong. In this way, the archive of daughter-exit is not shelved neatly, but rather casts a web over region and era, growing at an exponential rate. That the stories develop thus means both that the men have histories with which to anchor themselves, but also that girls exit every day, getting lost even now.
Each man holds the floor for twelve minutes to commemorate the age at which a girl-child becomes a young woman, a momentous event.
The narratives are told in several voices, by clans of men everywhere, simultaneously, until they become synchronized myth.
This is one attempt to share their story.
The Butcher and His Dorothy
The Butcher would come home late, apron stained red and pink. His daughter would welcome him at the door. She would study the spatters while he carefully untied his boots in the mudroom. She would help him disrobe, and he taught her to safely roll the apron for storage before the next day’s wash. They would then head to the sink and wash their hands together, she in front of him, standing on the stepstool he built for her, and he behind, his massive frame hovering over her so that he could smell the sweet and sweaty girlness in her hair. The Butcher would wrap his arms around her bony figure and they would share the water, passing the cake of soap back and forth, scrubbing their four palms and wrists, their nineteen fingers together in a tangle of nail and knuckle to confirm their cleanliness. Then they would dry their hands on fresh towels and he would carry her to bed.
He had lost his left ring finger in a botched chop during his first year at the slaughterhouse. This was before his daughter’s birth, which meant she never knew that finger, understood it only as a gaping void in the grandeur of his hairy, calloused hand. She would ask him where the finger now lived and he would offer a series of conflicting stories: in a vast field of ice up north; riding waves in the warm ocean currents in the west; in a zeppelin ever-hovering over islands no one knew were there; in the eye of a storm that twisted and coiled far above them but never touched the earth.
After her death, he was ashamed to say he found great solace in the dark layers of meat at the slaughterhouse. The way that inside there exists a standardized order, one that follows the laws of wind-blown grain or cream in coffee, those swirling rows of tendon, the delicate layers of muscle curling and curving, the way music might look if we could see it. In a world where everything changed, he was comforted to know, when he broke open the body of a steer, the patterns of the beast persisted unadulterated. The night they found her, she was carried away before he could see the pile of gore that was his girl. Still, he lets himself think that had the someone who took her broke his daughter open the way he splits a steer, she would follow these same patterns, where an invisible code offers guide for the meat of all beasts. He is comforted to know that when he admires those muscles’ delicate waves, he is not so far from her.
The Miller and his Dorothy
The Miller’s daughter was a girl of promise. She often wandered through the streets all day to conjure playful tales. At night, she would relay them to her father and he would listen, in awe of her gift for telling, always wondering from where, in the forms of her mother and himself, the source of the gift derived. The Miller’s daughter told him these tales from her bed as he sat on a chair in the corner in the dark, a position he took because she insisted. When he had been closer, where she could see his face, it somehow influenced her telling, changing the trajectory of the tales as they escaped her. And so the father sat alone in the corner, his face kept hidden from his daughter, whose narratives filled the room.
One night, she told him the beginning of a tale so haunting that it shook him to the core. And just as he was finding himself unable to stop his body from shaking, right there in the middle of the tale, his daughter told him that she would be concluding the narrative for the night, leaving her audience hovering above the end. The father asked—in a voice that lingered on the edge of pleading—if she would finish the tale, please finish the tale tonight, for he could not survive the suspense for even one day. The daughter giggled, then said she was sorry, that she could not tell him the end because of a very simple fact: she did not yet know it. When The Miller asked in a whisper if she could invent it, please, my darling, just this once and for tonight, the daughter smiled. Dear father, she told him, do you not know the first rule of story? Endings are not invented; they are discovered.
He praised her tale and bid her good evening, though he could not bring himself to kiss her forehead as he always did. And when he took himself to bed, lying next to the woman his daughter called mother, he struggled to find sleep. Through the night, he was left in the twilight space on the border of waking, the tale a vortex in which he found himself consumed. His fear was two-fold: both that the story’s conclusion might be more horrific than the tale so far, and that the story’s origin lived somewhere inside the body he’d co-produced.
The next day at the mill, weary-eyed, groggy, and expended by the tale, The Miller struggled to work. He found himself making minor mistakes. As he left the mill for fresh air, he forgot to firmly fasten the door. Meanwhile, his daughter had spent the morning wandering the streets in order to find the story’s ending, and just as The Miller left, she entered the site of his work, so excited to share with him the conclusion that she could not keep her body still. Her exhilaration made her form unfamiliar to her—she tried to control it but she continued to fail, tripping on the stone path from the town’s center, losing her footing again as she half ran to the mill. And so, when she reached it, she accidentally fell into the complex machination that—until that moment—had practiced annihilation only in an effort to produce.
In the years to come, The Miller would tell no one the story of his lost girl. For what haunts The Miller is why he’s haunted: not because his daughter’s gone, but because he has been left for eternity ever-hovering in the horror of the story she left undone.
The Angler and The Wainwright and Their Alice
Because love is a complex system of overlapping greetings and departures, the places where love ends and begins is often obscured. While popular belief maintains that the body is the conduit for love, it is in the mind where love buds and breaks open and apart. And because the mind is a mysterious arena that is enveloped in comings and goings that intersect and knot like a dense web, it induces a variety of dread. This is why there are no Scholars of Love.
The Angler had met a woman for whom he cared. When she said she wanted a child, he felt giving her one would be a very kind gift. He would leave for weeks out to sea to lead his girls toward a proper life. Soon after the child arrived, he left for too many moons, and on his return he was not welcomed at the door because the woman had become mind-sick and then became gone. This is how the woman thanked him for his gift: she gave it back.
The Angler could not pursue his fishing ventures with the tiny girl at home, so he went to the village to see about more grounded work. On the way through the center of the village, his daughter holding his hand, The Angler spotted The Wainwright working on a wagon in distress. As they came closer, his daughter squeezed her father’s hand, because tucked into the place where his shirt met his neck was a flower of a very rare shade. It was a shade living on the precipice between the colors that she knew. It was a shade that collapsed those more familiar colors, that was even somehow missing from the magic in the sky that bloomed in the aftermath of storm.
And when the daughter and The Angler approached The Wainwright, he knew without looking up what they were there for and untethered the flower from his neck, handed it to the girl. Then he looked at The Angler with a smile that was also an invitation.
The Wainwright came to The Angler’s home that evening and The Angler told him all: about the woman and the gift and the disgrace he experienced at the peace of her release. And how wrong she always felt. And his shame at feeling most at home in the middle of the sea. And with the thin bone carcasses of emptied fish still left on the table, The Wainwright kissed The Angler’s forehead and then moved slowly toward The Angler’s lips. Then he took The Angler’s hand and led him to the bed.
Their Alice would watch The Wainwright mend wagons, and for every day The Angler was on a ship and the duo at home would be overcome with sadness at his being gone, they would make a notch in the door, so that when The Angler returned he could see how much they missed him. And The Wainwright would take the girl on long trips in the carts he fixed and she would see what lingered far beyond the village. And when The Wainwright would tuck her in at night, the girl would tell him that when she became old she would spend all her days searching for the mystical color that marked The Wainwright that very first day.
It was a year after the girl had begun to call The Wainwright Other Father and it was during a storm. The Angler returned to shore because he could read the sky and knew far worse was coming. When his home was in view, he saw The Wainwright approaching through heavy sheets of rain. From far away, their embrace looked gentle, but up close the truth was revealed: The Wainwright was keeping The Angler from falling to his knees.
It stormed for three days and they spent the whole time searching the wood, asking around the village, retracing every parcel of land they had ever let the girl traverse. They did not eat or sleep. They spent the storm apart.
They were cradling each other in bed when The Angler looked out the window to see the mystical shade that had marked The Wainwright that first day was smeared across the sky. He shuddered then and rose to close the curtain.
LINDSEY DRAGER is the author of The Sorrow Proper (Dzanc, 2015), winner of the 2016 Binghamton University / John Gardner Fiction Prize and recipient of silver in Forward Review’s 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Originally from Michigan, she is an assistant professor of creative writing at the College of Charleston, where she teaches in the MFA program in fiction.
Adapted from The Lost Daughter Collective, by Lindsey Drager Copyright © 2017 by Lindsey Drager. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.