Mother Tongue excerpt


My name is Nella Pine and this is my life’s story, as new to me as it will be to you who reads it here for the first time.

I am the secret and the one who whispers the secret into your ear.

I am the crime and the narrator-sleuth.

I came upon the facts of my existence as one who returns to her home in the midst of a burglary: here is the shattered glass, the rifled drawers, the thief with the booty still cradled in her guilty arms.

When I was three days old, a nurse named Ruth Miller stole me from the obstetrics ward in Mercy Hospital and raised me as her own. This was May 7, 1968, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In Paris, ten thousand students rioted in the streets. Martin Luther King had been dead for a month, and Robert Kennedy’s killer struck in June. The war in Vietnam was at its peak. In the midst of these larger convulsions, a smaller one—deadly as napalm, precise as an assassin’s bullet—in the form of a nurse who kidnapped a child and vanished from sight. I was a healthy infant, with a head of dark hair and an iodine stain shaped like a butterfly in the center of my brow. During the futile search for me and my abductor, that marking would become famous for a while, the butterfly baby featured on news reports and front pages and missing-children flyers in post offices and community centers and supermarkets all over America. By the time the authorities abandoned their hunt, the iodine stain had faded away, my most distinguishing characteristic no longer there to identify me. And as often happens to babies born with a full head of hair, that too was gone. I looked so little like the photo snapped of me in the hours following my birth that Ruth herself could begin to believe that I was a different infant entirely, not the one she’d taken from a mother in Room 32B who slept through the deed in sedated post-partum oblivion.

At the end of her shift, Ruth lifted me from my crib in the newborn nursery, settled me into a sling she wore beneath her raincoat, and walked out undetected into the balmy Pittsburgh dusk. Smoke from the steel mills still turned the air rancid then, and yielded sunsets of exquisite and memorable radiance. If I had not been stolen away, if I had been able to witness again and again the evening sky of my birthplace, I would have learned early the lesson I am struggling now to accept: beauty resides in blight, and blight in beauty—each holds the other like a seed in its hand.

We travelled by taxi to the airport. Ruth retrieved the suitcase and diaper bag from the locker room where she’d stowed them the day before. In the Ladies’ Restroom, she fed me a bottle, changed me, dressed me in a flowered fleece gown and matching knit cap large enough to pull down over the stain she’d already doctored with pancake make-up, the kind models use to achieve the look of false perfection.

Ruth herself exchanged her nurse’s uniform for a gray pleated skirt, a pink blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and a gray cardigan—a uniform of sorts of the conventional woman, though of course she was anything but. Did she touch up her own make-up, there in the mirror over the sink, in view of other passengers about to leave Pittsburgh for unknown parts? Did somebody notice how pretty Ruth was—her shiny short black hair, her solemn green eyes, her mouth upturned slightly in what always seemed like a subtle smile even when she was sad or angry or embarking on a terrible crime? Did somebody notice, and smile back into the mirror, one reflection acknowledging another, reversal greeting reversal, a little wink as if to say: Nothing is as it seems?

In the suitcase, a passport bearing her new identity: Eve Gilbert, her late father’s first name taken as her last, and Eve a promise of paradise, of course, new beginnings, and signifying darkness, too, a shadowland where one can hide, hide out, hide away and from, vanish from Time itself.

And a false birth certificate, which recorded my fabricated father whom she called Philip. Her own alias. The one she invented for me: Nella, which I now see resembles null, the condition of non-existence. And the notary’s raised stamp, which even a blind person could verify by touch, nothing but a fraud.





Nella Gilbert: to learn that this was not my name was as much a shock to me as the one I would have suffered if I had discovered that the body I inhabit was not my own, my reflection in the mirror nothing but a sham, a canny deceit, an optical illusion I had mistaken for the reliable truth.

In the airport, I slept peacefully against my kidnapper’s heart. Soon we would board a flight to Los Angeles, transferring there to Honolulu, then on to Sydney, my abduction carried out and completed in thirty-six fateful hours.

And if her confession, forty years later, left me knowing less than before she admitted her deed, if questions rattled my sleep like spilled coins from a purloined purse, what could I do but investigate further?