I have scoured my memory for her. At first I scrubbed at the surface of my mind, but this is the wrong approach. Too much dirt falls away as you discard unwanted clumps — dirt which might hold clues. The way to do it is brush, brush, brush, sweep away the rubble — schools, foster homes, detentions — until a speck of reality shines through.
When you see it, you want to clutch it, hug it to you, admire it again and again. But a memory from when you’re five years old wears thin, like a gold coin hammered into leaf.
I have just a few coins. The fabric of her skirt. Her dark hair, tied back in the heat. Her first name; her surname, like mine, is too common to be any use. Her real name: Mama.
That was all I had when the men in gray shirts carried me away. Their sweaty arms squeezed out my screams. A shriek trailed a thread from my throat to hers on the other side of the chainlink fence. Then she was gone. My brain whited-out under the floodlights’ glare. I knew nothing. I didn’t even know my address, only the apartment number.
One time I ran away from the care home to trawl the streets with the net of my memory, thinking I would recognize my old apartment block. I imagined finding a clue, some unread mail, or a neighbour who could tell me my history. I thought I could find some word to feed into Google’s mouth and make it bring up my mother’s location.
Only later — in trouble again — did I understand: it wasn’t even the right city. The gray arms had dragged me far from anything I knew.
I grew. I put my oldest photo on a free-to-create website, and listed everything I could remember and everything I had uncovered so far. I searched for others like me, and found not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands. Nine Years Motherless was my site. I also went by I Am Not An Orphan. I was fourteen years old.
The Press made their own name for us: The Lost Generation. But we weren’t lost, we were imprisoned. When the gray men unlocked our cages, it was into the prison of foster care and bad schools.
I grew. I read about crowdfunding. How a kid had published a game. I didn’t want a game. I wanted a movement, a pot of cash to let any of us look for our parents. Lots of kids had been separated as babies. They didn’t even know their own names. Nobody wrote it down.
Their section on my website I called, Guards without Pens, because why else would you not even write down the name of the child you’re carrying, wailing, away from its mother?
Some older kids on the other side of the country joined in with blogs and campaigns of their own. Some adults too. We arranged to meet, and journalists came too. The adults kept crying, which made them basically a liability. We kids were tougher than that. What’s to sob about? You have to fight.
People on TV tried to stop us. People called us activists, political agitators. The insults meant nothing. I just wanted to find my mother.
After eleven years, a prim woman came to my foster home. “You have to stop,” she said. “We’re dealing with hundreds of enquiries every week. People saying they’ll adopt you. People saying they’re your parents.”
She was wearing gray, a sweater the colour of ash.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I said. I was ready to punch her. I imagined my mother, sobbing as she was turned away by this woman’s administrative department: we’re too busy, you’re causing too much paperwork, we still don’t have a pen. My mother was weak, she would not fight. I would bite the guard’s arm off before I let them take my child. But my mother had grown up in hope, and was a sweeter person for it. I don’t blame her for that.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked the woman again, and I was trying to stay nice, to stay out of jail.
“We can’t afford to DNA test them all,” she said, and after I smacked her, after the police came — again — I knew I had the answer to my problem.
Test of Truth got more crowdfunding in one week than any previous charitable cause. Men with white hair flew in private jets to give money on TV. Women in community kitchens put up posters.
We tested every child and every parent. We reunited eight thousand kids with their families, so far. Politicians either hate us, or love us. The ones that love us gave me some prize or other. I shoved it under my bed.
I want to expand what we do. I want to help other kids here, and kids in other countries. We’re not the only place where this happens. There are kids in plastic boats out on the ocean, kids walking in a long dusty line towards what they hope is a safe country. There are kids in the backs of white vans.
People on TV call me an ambassador.
That’s fine, but at night in my one-room apartment, while I try to sleep through the noise of this city — my original city, or so they tell me — I cast all of that away.
I forget the present and travel to the memory trench. I take out my trowel and brush, and I excavate.
One day, my brush will reveal a shining coin, a fragile sliver of gold, buried in fine dirt all these years. It will be notched and creased and trodden, and it will bear my mother’s face.