Author:Joyce Carol Oates

    To Charlie Gross

    my husband and first reader


    A shortened version of chapter two appeared in Fighting Words, edited by Roddy Doyle, 2011.

    Thanks to former Marine Mariette Kalinowski, Sergeant, USMC (ret.), and to Martin Quinn for reading this manuscript with special care as Hertog Research Fellows at Hunter College, and thanks to Greg Johnson for his continued friendship, sharp eye and ear, and impeccable literary judgment.


    “Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again.”


    I don’t feel young now. I think I am old in my heart.



    July 2005


    Why I vanished. Nineteen years old. Tossed my life like dice!

    In this vast place—wilderness—pine trees repeated to infinity, steep slopes of the Adirondacks like a brain jammed full to bursting.

    The Nautauga State Forest Preserve is three hundred thousand acres of mountainous, boulder-strewn and densely wooded wilderness bounded at its northern edge by the St. Lawrence River and the Canadian border and at its southern edge by the Nautauga River, Beechum County. It was believed that I was “lost” here—wandering on foot—confused, or injured—or more likely, my body had been “dumped.” Much of the Preserve is remote, uninhabitable and unreachable except by the most intrepid hikers and mountain climbers. For most of three days in midsummer heat rescue workers and volunteers were searching in ever-widening concentric circles spiraling out from the dead end of an unpaved road that followed the northern bank of the Nautauga River three miles north of Wolf’s Head Lake, in the southern part of the Preserve. This was an area approximately eleven miles from my parents’ house in Carthage, New York.

    This was an area contiguous with Wolf’s Head Lake where at one of the old lakeside inns I’d been last seen by “witnesses” at midnight of the previous night in the company of the suspected agent of my vanishing.

    It was very hot. Insect-swarming heat following torrential rains in late June. Searchers were plagued by mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats. The most persistent were the gnats. That special panic of gnats in your eyelashes, gnats in your eyes, gnats in your mouth. That panic of having to breathe inside a swarm of gnats.

    Yet, you can’t cease breathing. If you try, your lungs will breathe for you. Despite you.

    Among experienced rescue workers there was qualified expectation of finding the missing girl alive after the first full day of the search, when rescue dogs had failed to pick up the girl’s scent. Law enforcement officers had even less expectation. But the younger park rangers and those volunteer searchers who knew the Mayfields were determined to find her alive. For the Mayfields were a well-known family in Carthage. For Zeno Mayfield was a man with a public reputation in Carthage and many of his friends, acquaintances and associates turned out to search for his missing daughter scarcely known to most of them by name.

    None of the searchers making their way through the underbrush of the Preserve, into ravines and gullies, scrambling up rocky hillsides and climbing, at times crawling across the mottled faces of enormous boulders brushing gnats from their faces, wanted to think that in the Adirondack heat which registered in the upper 90s Fahrenheit after sunset a girl’s lifeless body, possibly an unclothed body on or in the ground, sticky with blood, would begin to decompose quickly after death.

    None of the searchers would have wished to utter the crude thought (second nature to seasoned rescue workers) that they might smell the girl before they discovered her.

    Such a remark would be uttered grimly. Out of earshot of the frantic Zeno Mayfield.

    Shouting himself hoarse, sweat-soaked and exhausted—“Cressida! Honey! Can you hear me? Where are you?”

    He’d been a hiker, once. He’d been a man who’d needed to get away into the solitude of the mountains that had seemed to him once a place of refuge, consolation. But not for a long time now. And not now.

    In this hot humid insect-breeding midsummer of 2005 in which Zeno Mayfield’s younger daughter vanished into the Nautauga State Forest Preserve with the seeming ease of a snake writhing out of its desiccated and torn outer skin.

    PART I

    Lost Girl


    The Search

    July 10, 2005

    THAT GIRL THAT GOT lost in the Nautauga Preserve. Or, that girl that was killed somehow, and her body hid.

    Where Zeno Mayfield’s daughter had disappeared to, and whether there was much likelihood of her being found alive, or in any reasonable state between alive and dead, was a question to confound everyone in Beechum County.

    Everyone who knew the Mayfields, or even knew of them.

    And for those who knew the Kincaid boy—the war hero—the question was yet more confounding.

    Already by late morning of Sunday, July 10, news of the quickly organized search for the missing girl had been released into the rippling media-sea—“breaking news” on local Carthage radio and TV news programs, shortly then state-wide and AP syndicated news.

    Dozens of rescue workers, professional and volunteer, are searching for 19-year-old Cressida Mayfield of Carthage, N.Y., believed to be missing in the Nautauga State Forest Preserve since the previous night July 9.

    Corporal Brett Kincaid, 26, also of Carthage, identified by witnesses as having been in the company of the missing girl on the night of July 9, has been taken into custody by the Beechum County Sheriff’s Department for questioning.

    No arrest has been made. No official statement regarding Corporal Kincaid has been released by the Sheriff’s Department.

    Anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of Cressida Mayfield please contact . . .

    HE KNEW: she was alive.

    He knew: if he persevered, if he did not despair, he would find her.

    She was his younger child. She was the difficult child. She was the one to break his heart.

    There was a reason for that, he supposed.

    If she hated him. If she’d let herself be hurt, to hurt him.

    BUT HE HAD no doubt, she was alive.

    “I would know. I would feel it. If my daughter was gone from this earth—there would be an emptiness, unmistakably. I would feel it.”

    HE HATED THAT she was identified as missing.

    He’d insisted that she was lost.

    That is, probably lost.

    She’d wandered off, or run off. Somehow, she’d gotten lost in the Nautauga Preserve. The young man she’d been with—(this, the father didn’t understand: for the daughter had told her parents that she was going to spend the evening with other friends)—had insisted he didn’t know where she was, she’d left him.

    In the front seat of the young man’s Jeep Wrangler there were said to be bloodstains. A smear of blood on the inside of the windshield on the passenger’s side, as if a bleeding face, or head, had been struck against it with some force.

    Stray hairs, and a single clump of hair, dark in color as the hair of the missing girl, had been collected from the passenger’s seat and from the young man’s shirt.

    Outside the vehicle there were no footprints—the shoulder of Sandhill Road was grassy, and then rocky, declining steeply to the fast-rushing Nautauga River.

    The father didn’t (yet) know details. He knew that the young corporal had been taken into police custody having been found in a semiconscious alcoholic state inside his vehicle, haphazardly parked on a narrow unpaved road just inside the Nautauga Preserve, at about 8 A.M. of Sunday, July 10, 2005.

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