I recently read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, and, as such I’ve been thinking a lot about absence, abduction. What does it mean to live with both the fear of going missing, and the uncertainty and lack of resolution when a loved one does go missing? In particular, given that the novel is written from the perspective of a 5 year-old boy, I’ve also been thinking about how children might understand this issue. This poem is a reflection on my own childhood experiences/understandings of disappearance and violence. Michael Dunahee and I were born only a half-year apart, and his abduction in 1991 had a significant impact on my young psyche, as I know it likely did for many others.
This poem discusses themes of abduction and violence. May trigger.
Missing Is A Place
I am four years old in 1991, when Michael Wayne Dunahee goes missing. He’s four years old, too.
Tousled blond hair, bright blue eyes, a wry smile: that’s the photograph in the poster.
I see that photograph for years, in the hallway to the bathroom of the fruit stand that my family and I visit every summer, when we’re driving through Keremeos. I don’t pay attention to it, I guess, because I’m always excited about summer holidays, and besides, I’m usually a little car-sick, three hours’ drive away from home.
The poster’s already a little faded after that first year.
They added an extra thumbtack to keep it in place.
I think I’m probably five when I overhear some little kid ask: “Where is Missing?”
I sneer, because I’m old enough to know that missing isn’t a place, stupid kid. If Michael Dunahee is somewhere, it’s probably a city like Winnipeg or Calgary. Maybe whoever took him dyed his hair or changed his name. This is what they say on the news, anyway.
At school, when I’m six, they teach us about good touch, bad touch, and that you’re not supposed to take candy from strangers. I find the candy-taking exception of Hallowe’en to be very confusing, but there are exceptions to lots of things, like i before e except after c and I guess I’m not supposed to question adults too much.
I’m seven when I call my mom from the school office. They keep giving us posters to take home to warn our parents whenever there’s some creep who might attack kids. I already know about no candy and no talking to strangers but they say you always have to be aware and stay safe. I’m crying on the phone and I wail, “Mom, what is a Caucasian?!” because I don’t know what that is and I want to make sure that I know exactly what to look out for. Eagle-eyes.
My mom gives me a key to my house when I’m eight, and it’s my job to walk down the street from my elementary school to my sister’s junior high school so we can go home together. By then, I am twice as old as Michael Dunahee was when he was missing, so I figure I’m strong enough to fight back or to be able to yell loud enough if some bearded guy in a white panel van starts following me. But I know never to walk on the side of the street with the bushes, just in case, because that year I also learned what rape is.
We still go to the fruit stand in Keremeos every year.
The poster’s taken down by the time I realize that I’ve grown up, and the boy in the photograph maybe hasn’t.