[This is the fifth of seven short installments of the story Crone: a Fairy Tale]
I was just on the point of beginning the awkward process of extricating myself from this unpromising entanglement and be about more serious business when Grendel spoke up.
“Let me give you an example from our own times.” His stubby fingers made a row of neat sugary mounds on the table. “An example of a folktale that is as modern as it is ancient.”
Although I was suspicious in general about folklore as a proper subject for serious investigation, I found my curiosity piqued. It was, after all, still a gelid day outside. I would delay my departure.
“A wealthy woman is frantic,” he begins, accelerating us medias in res. “A child is missing. Has the child run away? Has she been abducted? Is she lying dead of a drug overdose in some alley? Or — worse — is she working some boulevard somewhere to keep body and soul together?
“There is no message from the girl. No telephone calls, no postcards, no telegrams. The police do not call. Private detectives report only dead ends, faded leads, unconvincing excuses.
“What would a mother do? Can she simply sit at home waiting to hear from the girl, or whoever finds her, dead or alive?
“It is more than a mother’s heart could bear.”
In spite of myself I am strangely drawn into the emerging world of this tale. I see that Gildersleeve and Schädling are concentrating on Grendel’s face intently. For us, the background noise of the Nasse has faded into a gentle susurrus, scarcely noticeable.
“The woman dresses down.
“But if she goes looking, who would pay any attention to an old woman? Everybody would take her for a street person, one of the legions of deranged who eke out lives of unending despondence on back street and in dangerous parks. People would simply ignore her importunate badgering. How could she engage anyone long enough to elicit useful information about a missing child?
“Yet, she cannot afford even a remote chance that she might be recognized. Her mind is made up.
“She takes a Greyhound to San Francisco.
“She qualifies for a bed and locker in a woman’s shelter near the old Ferry Building by the Embarcadero Hyatt. Here she sleeps during the day.
“At night, into the early morning, she haunts Market and Mission. She becomes a familiar figure, part of the human detritus littering the streets: the crazy one searching for a child. The pimps and pushers leave her alone, for their antennae, sensitized by years of hustling and hugging the edges, tell them she is not what she seems. She could be vice in drag.
“In and out of cheap bars and sorry ‘live’ shows she goes. Past the sad glitz of Chinese electronics wholesalers and all night doughnut shops run by marginal Laotians. Up and down stairs of stinking flop-houses and abandoned warehouses. She queries hookers the right age, but soon they learn to avoid her approach — her appearance interferes with business. She stumbles on stuporous drunks under cardboard homes, and on the skittish deals of shooters securing a night’s supply.”