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What might have been for the toddler in the suitcase



Behind scrub on an otherwise nondescript South Australian highway lay a battered grey suitcase. It had been abandoned and largely forgotten, yet its presence was incongruous enough in this vast, unforgiving landscape that it was noticed by at least several motorists, some who'd even stopped to 'poke around'.

Last month, one passer-by was so disturbed by what he found after peering inside that he contacted police. What this anonymous man realised — and perhaps what the others did not — was that just off the Karoonda Highway in Wynarka, in South Australia's Murray Mallee region, a terrible secret had lain in wait.

Inside that suitcase were the remains of a young child. A vigorous post-mortem found that the child was female, most likely Caucasian, aged between two and four and she had died as far back as 2007. Toddler clothing and a distinct baby blanket were also found with the remains, yet police remained baffled as to the child's identity.

So far sightings of a neatly dressed elderly man holding a similar suitcase a month before the discovery have unearthed only speculation and conjecture.

Days turned into weeks and I slowly realised that something elementary about the case wouldn't let me go. Was it a general melancholic curiosity or was it more profound? I didn't know, but there I was, staring at my laptop often late into the night, embarking on my own lone, desperate search for answers.

In the absence of any real evidence or leads I, too, found myself grasping at the intangible. Who was this little girl? As a parent, I simply couldn't accept that she'd never been loved with the unguarded, fierce imposition of new motherhood.

What had happened in the intervening months and years as the little girl grew into a curious and undoubtedly challenging toddler — a period in any child's life where pushing boundaries and a parent's sanity are par for the course — I couldn't say. Let alone dare to imagine.  

Perhaps the worst of it was the overwhelming silence. She had most likely disappeared around 2007, eight long years ago. So why had no-one reported her missing? Why hadn't a parent or guardian come forward to claim her? Why hadn't they faced the cameras, clawed at their chests, implored the heavens?

Didn't they know that staying mute simply reinforced the unfathomable notion that this once living, breathing, beautiful child never existed?

But she did exist.

She still exists, not only in the DNA of those tiny bones and strands of fine, blond silky hair, but also in the photos of clothing released by police. Here they are, soiled and damaged, yes, but a clue to her sunny disposition. A pair of dusky pink flared pants, a retro fake fur coat, a tutu, two pairs of summer pyjama pants, one pair with teddy bears on it. One black T-shirt with the words in pink: 'Me. Smile'.

To date there have been 511 reports made to Crime Stoppers. The officer in charge of the South Australian crime investigation branch, Detective Superintendent Des Bray, said that more than 40 children have been eliminated as potential victims, including Madeleine McCann, the three-year-old British girl who went missing during a family holiday in Praia da Luz, Portugal, in 2007.

I well remember 2007. And not just because of the perplexing McCann case. In May that year I gave birth to my first child. On my first Mother's Day, and still recovering from a difficult birth, I woke to a photo in the daily papers of a newborn dubbed 'Catherine' who had been left outside a Melbourne hospital. In that same year, another baby girl 'Joan' had been left on the doorstep of a Sydney church.

A few months later both Catherine and Joan appeared in a piece I penned for the Good Weekend in which I wrote about trying to make sense of the world, as well as my burgeoning hormones, while still in the fug of new parenthood. The truth was, though, I was at the mercy of an invisible thread which drew me to mother the motherless.

I guess that's what I'm doing now. Eight years down the track I know that an individual has her limits, and that realistically this little girl no longer desperately needs a mother. Yet I can't help imagining her as she would be today; a lively, moody 10- or 12-year-old, preoccupied with all the trappings of a social-media world.

Yes, it's only a virtual life created by one mother's sad musing, and this little girl deserved more; so much more. But for a moment she has nothing to do with that suitcase, and that's something, isn't it?

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, missing girl, Murray Mallee, Madeleine McCann



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Existing comments

Our love and sympathy are quite naturally drawn to these vulnerable children who have been abandoned or left to endure untold suffering. My heart breaks for them. As a single parent, I have to say my love and concern also turns toward those mothers who have been driven by extreme circumstances to do unimaginable things. The isolation and lack of adequate support to struggling mothers can and will lead to despair. And despair can lead to the unthinkable. Until we are prepared to embrace and support vulnerable parents, we will not be able to protect their vulnerable children. None of these children were motherless. They had the misfortune to have mothers who lacked the kind of care and support networks so many of us assume and take for granted. I pray for them all.

Lisa | 06 August 2015  

Jen, this is a beautiful piece of writing. Missing children , people lost in crashed planes, earthquakes ,mudslides, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, those languishing in refugee camps , jails. The invisible pall of unresolved grief hangs over all of us and half the time we don't recognize it for what it is. Thank you for helping us articulate these latent ,communal feelings. Only by peering through the "fog " can we get a glimpse of where we are at as a world family . Many thanks.

Celia | 07 August 2015  

These are the most difficult stories to read - in a newspaper or other media. Your reaction, Jen, is shared by so many. It makes me think about my own children and grandchildren. How precious they are to me and my incomprehension of anyone being capable of emotional or physical abandonment of a child. If any of us lose that incomprehension our world becomes a little bleaker.

Pam | 07 August 2015  

Beautiful, thanks. To the lost..... Vale.

Peter Goers | 07 August 2015  

Very haunting and poignant, Jen.

SMK | 07 August 2015  

How sad! And yet how provocative of speculation! I imagined a desperate father taking the little girl away for a weekend. Perhaps a fortnightly access in a divorce settlement. And then something went terribly wrong. The little girl died. The father couldn't face the consequences. He would be accused of neglect, even infanticide, so he fled - carrying his daughter in her little suitcase. For seven years he wandered in the Australian outback - alone and yet not alone. At last after seven years of desolation he let her go. No one checked when she first disappeared, will anyone care seven years later? Well some people do and I thank Jen Vuk for sharing her musings with us.

Uncle Pat | 08 August 2015  

Dear Jen, Thank God for people like you, who are "at the mercy of an invisible thread which [draws them] to mother the motherless". It articulates perfectly the emotion of helpless grief felt by many on hearing of inexplicable disappearances, or the discovery of evidence of untimely ends. Thank you for this reflective essay which speaks so eloquently for so many.

Jena Woodhouse | 08 August 2015  

I think anger is an appropriate emotion, too. Who put this child in the suitcase? Why have they escaped detection? How can they still be in the community undetected? I'm a bit suspicious of arguments that equate being a mother with having a special ability to empathise. Each mother is different. Interesting article.

Penelope | 11 August 2015  

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