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The Sacrifice

Joyce Carol Oates
Fourth Estate


From The Mother


Seen my girl? My baby? She came like a procession of voices though she was but a singular voice. She came along Camden Avenue in the Red Rock neighborhood of inner-city Pascayne, twelve tight-compressed blocks between the New Jersey Turnpike and the Passaic River. In the sinister shadow of the high-looming Pitcairn Memorial Bridge she came. Like an Old Testament mother she came seeking her lost child. On foot she came, a careening figure, clumsy with urgency, a crim­son scarf tied about her head in evident haste and her clothing loose about her fleshy waistless body. On Depp, Washburn, Barnegat, and Crater streets she was variously sighted by people who recognized her face but could not have said her name as by people who knew her as Ednetta—Ednetta Frye—who was one of Anis Schutt's women, but most of them could not have said whether Anis Schutt was living with this middle-aged woman any longer, or if he'd ever been living with her. She was sighted by strangers who knew nothing of Ednetta

Frye or Anis Schutt but were brought to a dead stop by the yearning in the woman's face, the pleading in her eyes and her low throaty qua­vering voice—Any of you seen my girl S'b'lla?

It was midmorning of a white-glaring overcast day smelling of the Passaic River—a sweetly chemical odor with a harsh acidity of rot beneath. It was midmorning following a night of hammering rain, everywhere on broken pavement puddles lay glittering like foil.

My girl S'b'lla—anybody seen her?

The anxious mother had photographs to show the (startled, mostly sympathetic) individuals to whom she spoke by what appeared to be purest chance: pictures of a dark-skinned girl, bright-eyed, a slight cast to her left eye, with a childish gat-toothed smile. In some of the photos the girl might have been as young as eleven or twelve, in the more recent she appeared to be about fourteen. The girl's dark hair was thick and stiff and springy, lifting from her puckered forehead and tied with a bright-colored scarf. Her eyes were shiny-dark and thick-lashed, almond-shaped like her mother's.

S'b'lla young for her age, and trustin—she smile at just about any­body.

In Jubilee Hair Salon, in Ruby's Nails, in Jax Rib Joint, and the Korean grocery; in Liberty Bail 8C Bond, in Scully's Pawn Shop, in Pascayne Veterans Thrift Shop, in Passaic County Family Services and in the crowded cafeteria of the James J. Polk Memorial Medi­cal Clinic as in windswept Hicks Square and several graffiti-defaced bus-stop shelters on Camden there came Ednetta Frye breathless and eager to ask if anyone had seen her daughter and to show the photographs spread in her shaky fingers like playing cards—You seen S'b'lla? Yes maybe? No?

She grasped at arms, to steady herself. She appeared dazed, dis­oriented. Her clothes were disheveled. The scarf tying back her stiff-oiled hair was askew. On her feet, waterstained sneakers beginning to fray at each outermost small toe with a quaint symmetry.

Since Thu'sday she been missin. Day and a night and a nother day and a night and most this time I was thinkin she be with her cousin Martine on Ninth Street comin there after school like she do sometimes and she forgot to call me, so I—J was just thinkin—that's where she was. But now they sayin she ain't there and at her school they sayin she never showed up Thu'sday and there be other times she'd cut since September when the school started that wasn't known to me and now don't nobody seem to know where my baby is. Anybody see S'b'lla, please call me—Ednetta Frye. My telephone is. . .

Her beautiful eyes mute with suffering and veined with broken capillaries. Her skin the dark-warm-burnished hue of mahogany. There was an oily sheen to her face, that glared in the whitely over­cast air. From a short distance Ednetta appeared heavyset with large drooping breasts like water-sacks, wide hips and thighs, yet she wasn't fat but rather stout and rubbery-solid, strong, resistant and even defi­ant; of an indeterminate age beyond forty with a girl's plaintive face inside the puffy face of the aggrieved middle-aged woman.

Please—you sayin you seen her? Ohhh but—when? Since Thu'sday? That's two days ago and two nights she been missin ...

Along wide windy Trenton Avenue there came Ednetta Frye lurching into the Diamond Cafe, and into the Wig-a-Do Shop, and into AMC Loans & Bail-Bond, and into storefront Goodwill where the manager offered to call 911 for her to report her daughter miss­ing and Ednetta said with a little scream drawing back with a look of anguish No! No po-lice! How'd I know the Pascayne police ain't the ones taken my girl!

Exiting Goodwill stumbling in the doorway murmuring to her­self O God O God don't let my baby be hurt O God have mercy.