I swept the sand from the hallway. We had tried, in the past, to vacuum it up. A strange thing about the Sunshine Coast that summer was the cyclone season from up north encroaching in new ways: coming further south, and earlier than usual. The beaches near us were wild, with signs from the lifesavers closing them more often than they were open.
Up on tiptoes, I reached for a bottle of cheap merlot and gulped a few mouthfuls from a tumbler. I opened my laptop to the news, then clicked on a story about cyclones. A few clicks later, I was reading an article about a mother orca whose baby whale had died within an hour of birth. For seventeen days, the mother pushed the baby along the west coast of the United States, nudging it and balancing it on her head. I took my laptop from the kitchen and headquartered myself in bed. Frederic knew to find me there, upset but regal against the pillows. I read the rest and wept. I saw the calf’s snub beak and its throat, slightly peachy. I felt an ache, my heart stretched thin.
Frederic appeared in the doorway. Another man might try to prise the laptop from me, but he reached for the covers and climbed into bed too. We searched for pictures of the whale mother together.
The next morning, I interrupted him in the garden. He was watering the heavy grey pots lined up beside the shed. He nosed the spout of the watering can into his basil, into the tomatoes, the radishes that I’d told him were a silly thing to buy but he’d coaxed life from.
He didn’t know what was coming, so he still held the green can. In his other hand was a clump of mulch. I knew he would remember these ghoulish props. I took a breath, glanced around at the heaps of dry brown grass, at what my husband was trying to do with our garden. I rarely came out here.
I said, ‘You asked me to tell you when I couldn’t do this anymore.’
He didn’t move, except to nod. I could feel his heart from where I stood. I felt its twang and its throb. The skipping it was doing, the plummeting.
He made a joke: ‘Yep. You tell me when it happens!’
‘I mean that I can’t do—’
He put the watering can on the grass and let the mulch drop.
‘I know,’ he said, turning to show me half his face. Pink flushed. A too-big smile. ‘I know.’
I clipped the leash onto the dog’s collar and moved the water bowl close to her face with the tip of my running shoe. Frederic waved from the front door and I took off for the beach two streets away, the dunes always bringing to mind a little village buried underneath. At school, I’d played touch football. I was never going to be captain, but I liked to yell at everyone anyway. I was fast and good at geeing up my teammates. I often spoke this way to the dog, telling her she could do it, telling her to hustle. She was a white Maltese terrier whose puzzled face—I thought, anyway—suggested she often forgot who I was, had no idea how she’d ended up living in our house at all. I yelled because I loved her.
I didn’t have a lot of friends. My workmates tried hard, but they disappointed me. I knew they met up on weekends without me. They insisted it was kiddie-park stuff, noisy playgrounds, barely time to chat at all. But I was no one’s first thought. Frederic loved me, adored me so much it was embarrassing. He thought I was bright and sharp and hard. I thought that my cynicism let his kindness come through even clearer. What could be more cynical than that?
Enough, I thought as we strode towards the beach. No more. I felt as light as a biscuit. No more. All of it: a blooming belly underneath specially bought dresses, a crib, feathery muslin wraps, a car seat. A baby’s bald head beneath my palm. I felt it all peeling away.
Days before, at an appointment with our fertility doctor, I’d listened to Will go on and on. I watched his mouth open and close, his hopeful face lean towards us, the framed certificates above his head, while on the other side of his desk I nodded, saying in my head, Okay, alright, it isn’t going to happen. It was a release like a knife in me. I’d made up my mind. The universe didn’t care if I could ever have children. It wouldn’t care if I decided to stop trying. But maybe it could feel my relief at this; perhaps the universe lets up when we give up, and we slip through a small zip in the fabric, the universe accepting us, finally, because we are demanding one less thing from it.
The melaleucas that lined the edge of the footpath were throwing themselves sideways. A searing, sandy wind had picked up and the whole place looked like it was swirling. The dog must have felt the wind in her mouth and she barked as if to get it out. The beach was empty. The dog skittered, nose first, down the sand, and that’s how I found the baby. She was on her back, mewling, where the sand met the water.
I scooped her up and held her tight against the wind. She was completely drenched. There were trails of sand and seaweed around her fat little legs that I pictured kicking furiously in the water—the baby was missing a sock. I laid her on the ground while her crying strengthened as I took off my jumper to wrap her up. Not knowing what else to do, I headed for the path. The dog wagged her tail and snapped at the wind.
Then I saw it: bolted to a tree beside the boardwalk was a sign—the size of a postcard, weathered timber, painted white—that I’d never noticed before. Its message:
Lost on the beach? Found on the beach? Call 0491 570 110.
I took a photo of it on my phone and ran home with the baby in my arms. The dog raced ahead, her leash snaking behind.
Hours later, I sat on our bed. The phone was tight in my hand. I couldn’t stop watching Frederic cuddle the baby. He bobbed up and down. The two of them were dangerously close already.
‘Sweetheart?’ he said. ‘You’d better make the call.’
It rang and rang. As I was about to hang up, a voice clicked in.
‘Good afternoon, Department of Reunification and Wilderness Finds.’
I had never heard of this department. But it was true I’d forgotten to vote in the previous state election, so there could very well be entire departments I’d never heard of.
‘I found a baby, a girl, just now, a few hours ago, on the beach near my house. And I saw this number on a sign. She’s very small.’
‘Are you seeking to keep her?’ the man asked. I heard background office noises and the tack tack of a keyboard.
‘Are you in a position to keep the baby?’
I stared at Frederic. He kept returning to the mirror in the hallway, his face seeming to reflect a disbelief in this good fortune.
‘Then I will now take you through a series of questions designed to assess your eligibility to keep any babies you find in the wilderness.’
‘This was a beach.’
‘Is a beach not wilderness?’
Pure poetry. From a bureaucrat. I wondered if he ever wrote things in a notebook at night before turning out the light like I did. This was the man who would decide our fate.
‘Well, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘The beaches up our way are pretty wild.’
‘That’s fine,’ the man said. ‘Let’s begin. First question: Do you have any children?’
How many people had asked me that before?
‘No,’ I answered.
‘Have you suffered fewer than or greater than five miscarriages?’
I knew that Frederic, if he could hear this, would baulk at the question, but something in the man’s voice made me trust him.
‘Greater than,’ I whispered.
‘Has your extended family mourned with you on three occasions or more? Or fewer than three occasions.’
‘More than three,’ I answered.
‘Have you listened to their good wishes, their condolences, listened to them say words to the effect of I do not know what to say, collected flowers off your front step, and told them almost everything about your body, including but not limited to its uterine lining?’
‘Do you strongly suspect that your trauma is making it hard for friends and family to parent their own children, to paint the house, to check for fresh vegetables in the crisper, to choose which colour socks to wear?’
‘I do. Absolutely.’
The clap and vapour, the bells and pipes of the department’s hold music will always remind me of that tiny creature. Down the hall, Frederic and the baby resembled a pendulum. They were rocking to their own rhythm. It was just me with the phone to my ear and I hated the sound of my voice, alone, echoed back to me. Then the line clicked back in.
The baby was closer to me now, Frederic having bobbed his way over to me on the edge of the bed where I lay on my side. The baby reached out and tried to take my cheek in her mouth. Her brown eyes shone and looked away to the left, like she was searching for predators. She had found my cheek and wanted it for herself.
‘Yes?’ I repeated. My whole being was a question mark curled up on the bed.
‘I can confirm that you are eligible to keep the baby you found in the wilderness.’
‘Oh my god.’
‘Please name the baby—nothing ridiculous, but that’s my personal opinion, not the position of the department—and register yourselves as the baby’s new legal guardians within thirty days using the paperwork I’ll send you shortly.’ He paused. ‘Keep her safe.’
‘Congratulations,’ he said, clearing his throat. ‘All clear?’
My heart doubled.
‘Thank you, yes.’
The line clicked out again and the man was gone.
Without saying a word about it, we took the baby into the spare room that we’d never filled with much and laid her on the bed. Her arms and legs arced gently like she was making an angel in the snow. We looked down upon her.
Everything looked different now that we were frightened.
We spent the next day at home, taking turns to race to the shops for a cot and clothes and all manner of things. Frederic suggested a name for her, but it was so soon, and I needed to know her just a little better. The baby slept, and then she didn’t, and then she did, and by nightfall my body was an ocean of exhaustion. The day after that, I took the lead and suggested a trip to the park. Frederic scurried around packing a nappy, then two more, then another one into a laptop bag. We conferred about sunscreen, not knowing if this baby (was she four months old? Five?) could yet have it applied to her delicate skin. We laid her on the rug and Googled sunscreen babies rash prohibited? Google was confusing. Between us we decided to water down a small amount of sunscreen with kettle-boiled water, gently rubbing it on her nose and cheeks. She looked from me to Frederic.
‘Have you seen her cheeks?’ Frederic traced her pudgy jaw with his finger, catching a drop of cream before it fell.
‘They’re extraordinary. They’re like marble.’
Forty minutes later and we had not yet left the house. Frederic strapped our new baby carrier around his body. He reached out his arms to the baby who spat up and then the dog vomited on the top step so we turned and went back inside, Frederic saying ‘Our first outing!’ very loudly. Dear Frederic. Is it possible I loved him even more? That was when I still thought love was finite, when I didn’t yet know how it could expand to fit any vessel. I assumed that Frederic conferring love onto the baby meant a bit less for me, a conviction that actually filled me with joy. I’d taken up enough of him for too long. Here was a baby who would truly appreciate him. That made me feel lighter. In the hallway, heading back inside, I took him by the arm.
I said, ‘You’re right about her name.’ The baby glanced down, stuck one small fist in her mouth. ‘That’s her name.’
Frederic worked from home. He vowed to look at his days anew, to map the full twenty-four hours, to get his ten hours of work done at whatever time of the day, however it spread itself out around Lillian.
I didn’t tell my work colleagues at the library about her. I took one day off, then another, citing nothing specific because my boss didn’t care and I never took time off. When I finally returned to work, it was a Wednesday. I lifted the box of animal puppets out of the cupboard with new vigour. I offered to run the morning music program for toddlers. I felt my interest in each of these children grow. They pushed away their mothers’ hands and stood up on fat legs. They wobbled over to pluck the puppets off my fingers.
Afterwards, a mother with a small child came over to borrow Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry. I wanted to warn her it might be too traumatic. For people with children—and that is what I was now—it was tempting but also very dangerous to indulge in catastrophic thinking. To picture the specific and relentless calamities that might rain down or sweep them away. Contaminate the air where our children breathed. But in the interests of doing my job, I scanned the woman’s card and handed over the book. I thought of Lillian.
The next weekend, Frederic and I cancelled our plans. On Friday night, we tucked her into bed, filled two big glasses with wine and sat side by side at the kitchen table. We answered the paperwork the man from the department had sent, imagining Lillian’s pleasing name settling on the ears of some jaded bureaucrat—or, if we were lucky, another poet bureaucrat—and filling that person with a happy idea of who Lillian might be, and the parents who loved her. Their approval was something I needed to know about. But beyond that, I needed to know that these pieces of paper would be filed away and then forgotten. That we had slipped through that zip in the universe one final time, with no one coming after us.
I no longer cared what the women at work did with their spare time, or whether I was invited. There hadn’t been talk of a group birthday dinner for months and the thought of anything other than heading straight home filled me with anxiety. When I saw that I’d missed a call from Will, the fertility doctor, I texted back, ‘We’ve adopted!’ and blocked his number.
To my work colleagues one morning while we sat with our packed lunches, I repeated, ‘We’ve adopted!’
These people weren’t fools. They knew this sort of stuff took a long time.
‘There’s a new department,’ I said. ‘It’s very high up. It’s all about fast-tracking.’
They were delighted for us. They wanted to know her name, and how well she slept. I told them Lillian’s age, coming down definitively on five months. They made me promise to bring her in to the library as soon as possible, though I knew it was unlikely. Afterwards, I raced home. I unlocked our letterbox and lying inside was an envelope from the department. I froze and called out to Frederic who plucked it from me and eased it open, while I lifted Lillian to my face and took one of her fat cheeks gently between my lips. She recognised me, this woman whose mouth was on her skin, always.
‘Shit,’ I said. ‘Please.’ I used to be a believer, but no more. Not for years. Still: ‘Please,’ I said aloud, towards the sky. What would it take, this time around?
Sweet and docile Frederic was taking too long so I grabbed the envelope back. My fingers scrabbled at it. A single sheet of paper fell to the ground. Frederic picked it up and turned it around to show me. A departmental birth certificate and Lillian’s beautiful name embossed in something close to gold.
Two weeks later, Lillian was still safely with us and it grew hot. I put her down for a nap with the fan in her room on low. In the bathroom, I took out some old strips of cloth from the medicine cabinet, steeped them in water then set them in the freezer. Afterwards, I tied them around my wrists and my neck. I lay on the floor in our kitchen and pushed all thoughts of Lillian’s mother away. I remembered my colleagues at the library, the women I worked with, and the way they tended to each other’s fears about the fates of their families, how they propagated them.
When I heard my daughter cry, I undid the strips of cloth and went to her room. Inside her cot, Lillian was on her back, her pink legs kicking up and out. When I found her on the beach, she was as pale as driftwood.
The next day, I came home and couldn’t see Lillian or Frederic in the house. The dog followed me from room to room, getting tangled in my legs when I backed into her. I pushed out through the laundry and into the backyard where I spotted the pair of them seated along the fence beneath the frangipani tree. I could almost see the secrets flowing between them. Tears welled behind my eyes, a feeling like gauze. It was smoky outside. There was no wind, but the sky was hazy and I had to squint against the glare. I watched them on the wooden bench. They were holding something between them. I took a few steps closer and saw that it was a long blade of grass, Frederic holding one end, Lillian pawing at the other. It was hard to believe they’d not spent their whole lives in this way: a diptych in the garden, leaning into each other like saints.
I barrelled over, propelled by my body’s untightening.
‘I didn’t know where you were!’
I saw that I’d frightened her. Her face reddened and she cried at the loss of the grass, of the moment of peace with her dad.
‘It’s okay,’ Frederic said to both of us. ‘She’s here.’ He nodded, watching me closely.
‘I was calling out. How did you not hear me?’
His eyes took in the back lawn and the short distance from the house.
‘She’s alright, aren’t you? Everything’s fine.’
We’d found our baby in the wilderness, and the beach was a wilderness, and we’d go for walks on the beach every single day—whatever it took—her feet safely off the ground, her body tucked into the carrier against my chest.
She disappeared on a Sunday.
Sheets of rain elbowed the heat out of the day, showering the hot suburban street where we lived. It was a regular day for Lillian, ending in a late-afternoon nap. After an hour of silence, I looked in her crib and saw it empty. I couldn’t have been more surprised if there’d been a shark lying there.
But underneath that was the thought: Of course she’s gone. I laid my hand on the sheet, touching something gritty. When I brought my palm to my face I saw that it was sand.
It was raining outside. I looked for her under the cot, under the couch. I called her name. I checked in the bath. She hadn’t started crawling, but maybe she had magicked herself beneath the clothesline, or onto the low shelf in the pantry. Through the rain I felt my body fizzing and spitting. I was the hot bitumen. I was the scorched earth. Robotic, or at least trying to be, I put the strips of cloth in the freezer and stood, waiting for them to be ready, looking at the fridge, at the phone number for the department we had stuck there. This was not a police matter, I could feel that in my bones. We had kidnapped that baby, but we’d forbidden ourselves to ever say that word.
I tied the strips to my wrists and I lay on the floor. When I turned my head, I saw a soft plastic bath toy in the shape of a boat, upright beside the dishwasher. I started to cry. Frederic would be home soon and the confluence of him returning and the cold bandages would surely calm me. One of us would know what to do.
Frederic knew as soon as he saw my face. When I enlisted him to help, he came with me from room to room, watching as I turned over the doona and pushed aside toiletries beneath the bathroom sink. He observed me carefully, like I was explosive. He told me that everything would work out. The dog was in a fit, running circles around Frederic’s feet.
‘Sit!’ I cried. ‘Dumb dog.’ But she was barking at something, out beyond the front door. I opened it and watched the rain fall. ‘See? Nothing.’ Frederic reached for my hand.
A voice from the darkness.
It was a man, his face streaked with rain, coming tentatively up the path to our door.
‘Who is it?’ I noticed the swell in my voice, my panic accelerating.
‘I’m from the department,’ he called out. ‘Though they don’t know I’m here. We spoke on the phone the night you found her.’
The bureaucrat. The poet.
‘Do you know where she is?’ Frederic asked. He gathered the dog in his arms. She was soggy and cold, but I understood my husband’s need for her shivering, confused comfort.
‘I can’t tell you,’ the poet replied.
‘Yes, you can,’ I said, pushing further out beyond the patio roof. The rain splattered my head, but I felt myself growing, like a plant. ‘We won’t say how we found out.’
‘You told us we were in the clear.’ I sobbed. I’d sobbed before, in moments of loss like this, but that hadn’t been for months.
He smiled. ‘Ah. But, you see, you told me you’d keep her safe.’ The water had drenched his shirt, which was white and turned up at the cuffs. His tie hung loose. I suspected he’d ditched a jacket somewhere. In my head went the thud: Lillian Lillian Lillian. Her name was a sound drawn through trees, a bow across a violin.
‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘they have reclassified the definition of wilderness.’
‘Wilderness?’ Frederic said. Maybe he had given this word not a second thought. But I’d kept it as close as my spine.
‘It used to include beaches. Babies found on beaches. Now perhaps it doesn’t.’
‘How can they just change it like that?’ I shrieked. But of course they could do what they liked. The tide came in and the tide went out. And our little Lillian, she was pure alchemy, washing up on the sand. ‘That’s beyond cruel.’
He wiped away what I was saying with his hand.
‘It’s not for me to assess. These decisions come from high up. We get no warning. She’ll be safe with the department.’
The floodlight above the path cast a shadow over the bureaucrat’s face like clouds on a flat and pale ocean.
‘She was ours,’ I said.
‘Sir, please,’ Frederic said. He grappled with the dog, held her as tightly as he could, while her eyes sharpened from one of us to the other. If we let the dog go now out in the rain could she put her snout to the sodden ground before the clues washed away? Or had the dog already lost the scent?
The bureaucrat-poet seemed to be backing away. The day was turning. Darkness thickened, and with it all this heavy rain and unknown strangers’ hands upon my baby who was out in the naked night. Something in me unfastened. Not strange at all how that whale kept her calf with her while she churned through the Pacific: two points, nose to nose. As if you’d ever let go.
‘Why did you come?’ I yelled.
He stopped and took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his face, ran it through his hands.
‘You wanted a baby,’ he said softly. ‘Something must have gone wrong. A loss like this is usually the cause of an internal investigation. But that’s all classified. I don’t know why she was taken. I know—’
‘Yes?’ Frederic said.
He had said too much. He shut up like a clam. Then: ‘Did you know that Ben Jonson lost his daughter, then his first son, then his next son, too. He wrote: “Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy.”’
I felt an enormous slink of fear.
‘We’ll do anything,’ I said. I had forgotten how to exist and who I was before Lillian. I hated the house behind me. I would never go back inside. Frederic and I had done this together. We shared Lillian and, for the first time properly, we shared each other. It was alchemy, too, how we had gone from one thing to another. I needed to appeal to the poet in this man.
‘We… Do you know why we named her Lillian?’
He shook his head and I saw sympathy there. I saw that he himself was probably a father. He certainly looked weary.
‘It was the name of the boat,’ I told him. ‘Lillian. Painted on the side. And it was under her.’
I nodded. ‘She was sort of on a piece of wood. The one that had her name on it. Frederic went back out to find it, but it was gone.’
‘Wait.’ The poet moved closer up the path, one of his hands held up in query. ‘She was on the water?’
‘On the piece of wood,’ Frederic said, sounding strange. ‘Right at the water’s edge.’
Something in Frederic’s voice was seeking something in the man. Under the surface, a small tidal pull was emerging.
The bureaucrat glanced towards the street behind him.
‘I spy a little bit of hope.’
I couldn’t breathe. ‘Yes?’
‘Would you like me to drive you?’
His car was a ten-year-old sedan, a dull, muted silver with half a dozen faded bumper stickers on the back window. The Beach Boys were playing. The windscreen wipers thudded a contrary rhythm to the song. Frederic, usually so talkative and animated as a passenger, was silent.
We drove without stopping. The man took roundabouts gently as we headed north out of our estate and up along the coast. All the traffic lights were green. To our right, the ocean shattered on the dark beach.
Finally, Frederic asked, ‘Where are you taking us?’
The poet cleared his throat.
‘You see, our department is small. We are overworked. We make judgements based on the information given. You must understand, a beach is a wilderness,’ he said, lifting a hand off the steering wheel and pointing towards the coast, ‘but a vessel is thalassic. That the child arrived by boat—that comes under the purview of a different department. Someone must have worked out she was not a Wilderness Find and passed it on. I know where we’ll find her.’
He turned the car into a road—we’d been the only vehicle for kilometres—that became a complicated network of roundabouts and dead ends in an industrial estate I’d never been to. I thought of returning to our empty house, empty-handed. The horror prowled inside me. The poet slowed when he reached the end of a street, pulled a card from the glovebox and swiped it on a reader out the window. He turned off the engine and I saw we were in the car park of a three-storey brick building lit by the floodlights we had triggered.
‘They’ll be very pleased you’re here.’
Whatever was inside that building was invisible to me in the night-time behind two glass doors, and I felt myself start to shiver, and then I couldn’t stop. Frederic put his arm around me. My arms ached to hold her.
We went inside. A small foyer, a sign, a woman, a desk—almost empty; just a single folder and pen. The woman stood up and came round to us. She was tiny, bird-like in a grey dress and heels. She had small, black eyes and she smiled when she spoke, her eyes crinkling at the edges. She introduced herself as a retired ship’s captain, now a senior public servant in the Department of Maritime Affairs.
‘So, you are responsible for the child?’
‘Yes,’ Frederic and I said together. We hadn’t let each other go.
‘Come with me.’
She led the poet first, then the two of us down a corridor that smelt like a hospital, with lights along the skirting boards. The sound of her heels clicking, our bureaucrat loping beside her, one step to her two.
‘Here,’ the Captain said, stopping before a doorway. ‘But I must warn you.’ And she explained the shipwreck, and how Lillian had been its sole survivor. I must have gotten a look in my eyes because Frederic put his face close to mine and gave me a gentle shake, and I understood that to faint right now would be a bad idea.
And then we passed the room where the bodies were laid out on tables. Six long mounds covered in plastic. Frederic reached for my hand. One of those bodies had held Lillian in the ocean of her belly. Cells dividing and dividing, that alchemy again in a quiet and unknown space. I paused to stare at the bodies for only as long as it took to remind myself that in this department I would take what was mine. For years, I had been friendless because I was selfish. And, here, I would do it again. Here, my selfishness had grown—my world was three people now. Into that sorrowful room, I sent a prayer and a promise. I would put their baby above everything else. My heart quickened. I was learning all sorts of things about myself.
We came to the next room. I stood longer, waiting to see what the objects from the boat spelt out for me in a way I’d never allow the bodies to. A table stood inside the door with things arranged on it—lovingly, I thought, watching the bird-woman’s back as she trotted off ahead, wondering if this, too, was part of her job. There was a diamond-shaped plate as white as bone, shards of glass and also one perfect tumbler, waiting for a refill, gold and silver coins, bright-yellow rubber thongs, a backpack pummelled thin, a hat shaped, curiously, like a boat. And at the centre I saw the piece of timber that delivered Lillian to us, her name curled across it in ribbon blue.
I heard footsteps. I turned. And then she was there, quite suddenly, in the arms of the Captain.
Our Lillian, a round and bright creature, fighting to liberate a hand from the white cloth that bound her. Half a day older. Mere hours after the silly dog hadn’t warned me there was a retired Captain roaming our house. Yet different. Somehow more like me, looking even more like she was ours.
The Captain motioned to the rooms that held the bodies and the dinner plates picked clean by salt and sand.
‘You’ve seen that the child’s parents have perished. We have processed her, and the orphan is yours.’ And then she handed her to us.
Smiling, the poet and the Captain hugged their clipboards close, but I felt very far away from them both.
I found Lillian’s eyes and brushed her brow with my fingers. She wriggled against my chest.
‘Lillian,’ I said.
Frederic covered his eyes, beginning to cry. When he lifted his hands, we watched each other as the joy poured over us like steam.