There’s a story I don’t know how to tell.
My friend says, Grief keeps you reaching back. She tells me to look for the pieces. Cluster them.
We never knew the body contained language. The alphabet imprinted in the lines on a thumb.
Long before humans wrote the symbols, our language was rooted first in the body.
Let me begin here:
I don’t know Nina Athanassiades.
But the story sounded true.
Two men had forced my mother into her Dodge Colt and abducted her from the Shepherd Mall parking lot in 1986. We had gotten DNA from evidence in her car. We had been frustrated by the backlog. In fact, way back in 1999, in an article in The Oklahoman, a woman from the OSBI described the backlog of 150 cases, just waiting to be entered into the federal database. But they weren’t only cases that were waiting; hundreds of victims and families were too. My brother Dawson, an assistant district attorney at the time, had told the journalist: “We were pretty patient, and we are just starting to run out of patience.”
The truth rests in the body. In language. The alphabet.
CODIS. Combined DNA Index System.
But I don’t know Nina Athanassiades.
Five years after the article in the paper, Dawson called to tell me the OSBI had finally recoded the evidence for the 16 points of reference needed for CODIS, the federal database. Like with the local database before it, CODIS returned no matches.
We had been talking about the TV show Lost before he told me about CODIS, and when I asked questions about the evidence, it was as if we were still talking about the show’s plotline. That’s how indifferent I had become to conversations like these. I remember being in grade school and telling the story of my mother’s death to a classmate. After I finished, she said, “You must not have loved your mom. If it was my mom and I were talking about how she died, I’d be crying right now.”
But by the end of the conversation, Dawson’s voice had grown scratchy. I could hear exhaustion in it, his body relenting after years of calling the police. After I hung up, I buried my head in my knees, and when my husband Jerry asked me what was wrong, I could barely say, “It’s over.”
For years I had been telling people the case was “basically over,” but I hadn’t realized the hope I still felt until Dawson revealed the detectives had done all they could do and still came up empty. I thought, there’s nothing more. We’ll never have justice. We’ll never know who killed her. I’ll be walking the streets for the rest of my life, wondering if the man who bumps into me is the one who hit her on the back of the head. But another part of me felt relieved, wanting the phone calls from Dawson to end, wanting to let the story rest rather than constantly adding new details to it, like sperm cells, like a beer bottle.
I remember thinking, as Jerry held me and tried to steady my shaking body, I failed you Mom. I’m sorry. As if I, and not the detectives or the people in forensics, had done something wrong.
But I hadn’t done anything at all.
Maybe that’s where I felt like I had failed. Dawson, after all, was the one who always called the journalists and detectives while I did nothing but tell stories.
Some stories I’ve told again and again.
Like how the detectives stood in our kitchen, the table piled high with tackle boxes and plastic bags. I was eight then, and they pulled strands of hair from our scalps and held our fingers in their gloved hands. How tiny the arcs of my fingerprints must have been, each one placed in a square on the card, their lines like cresting waves. I remember holding it up to the light above our kitchen table, as if it were a map of some kind, but I never thought to look for letters or for symbols.
But other stories are unsayable. I’ve tried to write about Nina Athanassiades again and again, but the language fails me each time. I tell myself to write around it. To cluster those pieces. But they are simply too beautiful to touch.
* * *
In the summer of 2008, it was my father who called. I was folding laundry at the kitchen table when he said, “They have a DNA match. His name is Kyle Richard Eckardt.”
I wrote his name on the refrigerator wipeboard.
“He’s in prison at Stringtown for aggravated assault and battery of a Tulsa woman.”
I wrote down Stringtown and agg assault and Tulsa.
Years of planning for this moment, of building narratives in my head, and instead of screaming, fainting, or collapsing, I took notes.
Then I sat down on the couch in silence, shaking my head every few seconds, as I listened to Dad tell me how the detectives had been by the house to ask him about the Salems and the Marlboro Lights and the Dodge Colt, because the DNA match had originated from cigarette butts in the car. He told me Eckardt was 21 years old at the time. A fucking kid. I had always imagined the men were in their 40s, not boys like my students. It seems like this type of violence would take time to propagate and grow within a man.
I stared at the wipeboard on the fridge, Kyle Richard Eckardt now part of my home.
I kept staring at his name, written in messy blue marker.
His initials. KE.
Like mine. Like Mom’s.
Later I’d see a picture of him from the Tulsa paper and read the affidavits from his arrests.
Later I’d see a picture of him from the Tulsa paper and read the affidavits from his arrests. In one mugshot, he has a long beard, dark gray for the mustache, white on his chin, his hair in a mullet cut. In another, his head and face are shaved, the images so different except for the eyes and the bags under them, his black arching eyebrows. In one, he looks smug; in another, indifferent. He looked like he was in his 60s, much older than 43. Three years older than my mother when she died. He’s big, 6’1″, and almost twice mine in weight.
I felt a rush then, all the hate I’ve ever known coming into focus, narrowed to a man with a mullet. I wanted to put a stiletto to his throat or to cut him, a little at a time, over a period of days.
Then I noticed his birthdate. April 10, 1965.
April 10. The same birthday as my mother.
* * *
In February 2009, six months after the DNA match, things weren’t going well with our case. They had my mother’s DNA from the cigarette butts of her Salems and from her blood and from a stain on the rear seat of her car. They had Eckardt’s DNA from the butts of his Camels and from a bottle of Pepsi, which held his fingerprint too. But no evidence linked them together. Eckardt could easily tell a story of how he entered the Dodge Colt after her body had been dumped.
I was living in Houston then, working on my Ph.D. and writing about my mother, though I didn’t yet know the story I can’t tell, when a man named L. from the OSBI emailed me
My name is L. I am the supervisor of a previous acquaintance of yours, Nina Athanassiades. I have a very unusual request that I would like to ask of you.
A little history here first. A few years ago, Nina was at a social gathering in Dallas Texas. Nina tells me that a girl named Kristine was also at the gathering and struck up a conversation with her. Kristine began to tell the story of how her mother had been tragically killed when she was a girl. Kristine went on to say that there was DNA evidence in the case that had not matched to anyone yet, but since the DNA was in a CODIS database, hopefully one day there would be a match. If I am correct, the Kristine she is referring to is you. According to Nina, it was this conversation that convinced her to go into forensics, which eventually brought her to the OSBI working in the CODIS database unit.
Nina is receiving a recognition for 4 years of service at the OSBI. She is the person who processes ~95% of all CODIS DNA database samples, and has a passion for the work she does. Whether you knew it or not, your conversation sparked a passion in Nina that has benefitted the lives of many. For that I thank you.
Here is my request. Instead of me presenting Nina’s award, I would like to have you do it instead. I know this would mean a lot to Nina, and I know she would enjoy seeing you again. If this is something you may be interested in, can you please let me know.
Thank you for your time.
I don’t know Nina Athanassiades.
But the story sounded true.
That’s what I told L. when I replied to his email. I don’t remember a social gathering in Texas, where I met a girl named Nina. I’ll need more information, I said. A picture perhaps. But even if I’m not the person she’s thinking of, I’d be honored to present her with the award, so that I, on behalf of victims’ families, can say, Thank you. Your work matters. Your work offers hope.
The power is in the alphabet. A body of text. The text that is a body.
“Even if you do not remember the meeting with her, you should know that your conversation changed her life.”
He responded, “Even if you do not remember the meeting with her, you should know that your conversation changed her life.” He told me her name had not changed. He attached her employee picture, where she stands in front of an American flag and wears a black suit. Her hair is red and shoulder-length, its ends flipped out. He said he’d been snooping around and discovered the social gathering had been a bachelorette party. Then he wrote, “If you are able to make it to town, I would also like to give you and your family a tour of our forensic laboratory. We have a picture of your mother in our hallway as a reminder of why we are here.”
My mother is in a hallway. She watches them as they pass.
The language fails me every time.
I remembered a bachelorette party in Dallas, for a friend of mine named Sara. We had dinner at The Cheesecake Factory, where she opened boxes of lingerie. We sucked on penis-shaped lollipops in the hotel room before heading to a piano bar. I remembered everyone at the party. No one named Nina. I searched through the photographs. No one who looked like her was there.
But the story sounded true.
I wanted to say, I admire you for the work that you do.
L. and I made plans for the presentation, which would take place during the summer when I was out of school. It was right before Jerry and I traveled to Oklahoma to present the award that we were told the OSBI lab had extracted a mixture sample on the bottle cap and finally crossed the timeline.
Something keeps me searching for meaning, in the chance that a man randomly kills a woman with the same initials and birthday. I discover the odds of this occurring are over 1 in 5 billion. That’s nearly the population of the world.
But I did not know Nina Athanassiades.
L. emailed the speech he had prepared. In it, he talked about the conversation I had with Nina, how it impacted her life, and about all the work she has done since joining the lab. Since 2007, he wrote, Nina has performed DNA analysis on over 12,000 offender database samples” and “she has eliminated the backlog of the offender samples at the OSBI three different times, enabling the unit to process samples as they come in the door. . . . Years later, one of the routine offender database samples Nina was processing hit to an unsolved case. Investigators now have DNA evidence that links an individual to the murder of Kathy Sue Engle. The conversation Nina had with Kristine nearly 8 years ago has come full circle.”
I read his speech and thought, The story cannot possibly be true.
In March 2008, Eckardt’s DNA was collected when he was convicted for assaulting the woman in Tulsa.
A year and a half later, Eckardt was set to be released from prison for good behavior.
The backlog was two years long.
Without Nina Athanassiades’ clearing the backlog, he would have been released months before his DNA matched to my mother’s murder.
And it was Nina Athanassiades who got the hit.
There is no language that can reach this.
Cluster the pieces, she says.
* * *
The morning of the presentation, as Jerry, Dad, and I headed to the OSBI, I sat in the backseat of the car and listened to Chuck Mangione’s “Bellavia,” the flugelhorn starting so mellow and soft and then rising to a wail—that sound the transformation of grief into hope.
I stared at the flat Oklahoma horizon and the flat brick homes and hoped the story was true. What if Nina Athanassiades looked at me, then at L., then back at me, confused? Who the hell is this? she would say.
It isn’t just the alphabet they have found in the lines on thumbs. A dog print. A smiley face. A snowman. The symbols in our bodies.
The OSBI building was new, with pristine flags and landscaped trees with thin trunks outside of it. Dawson met us in the parking lot, and we all walked into a grand atrium of off-white stone. So much light in that space. Like a cathedral.
L. greeted us with handshakes before he whisked us away to a conference room. Dad hobbled and tried to keep up, knowing the whole point was to keep us a secret.
“I’ve already thrown up in the bathroom,” L. said, as we all sat down at the table. “And I doubt I’ll get through my speech because I’m a crier.”
“I understand what you mean,” Dawson said.
L. left the room to attend the ceremony.
Then the four of us stood in a hallway and listened to a woman’s voice give L.’s speech. Because the story was too beautiful for him to speak.
But I didn’t know Nina Athanassiades.
When we heard the woman say, “Nina, the work you do every day is valuable, it is necessary, and has an impact on the lives of others in ways that can best be described by people like Kristine,” we walked into a deep room with long tables on two sides of an aisle, a person in every chair, the floor inclining up toward the back, where a crowd stood against the wall. I was overwhelmed by the number of people, and there, at the front with L., stood Nina Athanassiades, who turned to me and said, “Oh my God,” before she broke down in tears. She hugged me then, her head just under my chin, her hair a dark brown, not the red of her picture.
I still didn’t recognize her.
She seemed familiar, something about her mouth and her freckles, but I couldn’t picture her at the piano bar or around the circular table while we all ate cheesecake and tried to figure out a clasp on a bustier. But she clearly knew me, as she stood, shaking, beside me, a piece of paper fluttering in her hands.
What is it that I said?
I know I began by confessing that when L. first emailed me, I didn’t recognize the name or the story but that I still wanted to present the award. I said I wasn’t there to take credit for a story but to say thank you. To Nina for clearing the backlog and giving me my mother’s murderer—we were now one step closer to justice because of her. And to every person in that room, working each day to give hope to victims and their families, I said, I admire you for the work that you do.
I have never felt so honored to speak.
L. asked my father if he wanted to say anything.
Dad kept his hands tucked behind him, as he leaned against a wall. “There’s no way I can follow that up,” he said, his voice breaking.
Then Dawson, through sputtering sobs, said, “For so many years, I felt it was my responsibility, and I had given up.” He turned to Nina, his face contorted and red, his voice barely above a whisper as he pointed to her and said, “But you never did, you never did.”
The room clapped when she hugged me again. I hugged her back, this woman in a pantsuit who came up to my chin.
She pulled back and laughed and said, “You remember me now, right?”
“Of course,” I said.
She must have been at the piano bar that night, where we stood watching Sara dance on the stage, her candy necklace, half-eaten and tight around her neck. It’s the only time I was in Dallas for a bachelorette party.
We walked the building together, L., Nina, and my family, and there, in one long hallway with a glass wall, hung the framed photograph of Mom, the one from our family portrait, where she wears a light gray-blue shirt dress, her hair curled under with a large curling iron, her lips a rose pink. But she was surrounded by text—an argument for obtaining DNA upon arrest, even for misdemeanors—and a timeline marking each of Eckardt’s prior arrests.
See how the Tulsa woman could have been saved, if only his DNA had been taken earlier, it said.
The picture of Mom wasn’t the only one there, as I had imagined. Next to her was another high-profile victim, then another, then another, a long line of victims and stories and agendas on the wall. It made me think of all the stories that aren’t hanging there, the names that never make the news.
I didn’t like Mom’s death attached to an agenda. Her death is ours, I wanted to say.
But the day was about Nina Athanassiades, so I said nothing, as we walked the sterile white labs with computers and tubes and microscopes and swabs, listening to L. explain to us junk DNA and why we don’t need to fear Big Brother. Then he explained epithelial cells and how DNA technology traces only the maternal line.
I thought about the power of this.
Of violence as being coded and passed down through mothers.
As if violence had its own markers.
We stood in a small lab of swabs and storage tubes, me wondering if my eight-year-old self’s fingerprints were stored in one of the rooms, L. showing Jerry the reference points used for CODIS, when Dawson asked Nina Athanassiades, “So how do you and Kristine know one another?”
“We were both in Angie’s wedding,” she said.
Yes I told her about Mom and DNA and the hopes of finding her killer one day. How could I have forgotten that?
And then it came flooding back—Yes, Angie’s wedding, Nina was a bridesmaid with me, she had such a beautiful singing voice, and yes, she had told me I didn’t have to take communion but I should still kneel as I moved across the altar, and yes, we had danced for hours at the reception, laughing and drinking champagne, and yes, we had eaten at IHOP after the reception, still in our full-length satin dresses, and yes, the bachelorette party in Dallas, we went bowling and drank beer, and yes, I met Nina first at someone’s house, before bowling, and we stood in the kitchen, sunlight streaming in from a patio door, finger food on the counter, and, yes I told her about Mom and DNA and the hopes of finding her killer one day. How could I have forgotten that? I had marveled at Nina’s laugh, so genuine and loud, as we stood in that kitchen of light.
“She has the most amazing voice,” I told Dawson, as if to say, I remember.
The story was true.
I did know Nina.
I had told her Mom’s story. My story.
She had gone to graduate school for forensics, then to work for the OSBI, then she cleared the backlog and got the hit.
It’s too perfect to believe. Too perfect to be told.
We walked more hallways, more labs, until we stopped at posters on a wall that showed many different thumbprints, gathered from the latent print unit and submitted to the databases. The prints were magnified, each one with a different shape in its core—a number, a Santa Claus, anything but a typical arc or whorl. One person’s thumbprint contains a J. Another a face. At the top of the poster, it spelled out OSBI in thumbs.
My family held our thumbs to the light.
Cluster the pieces, she says.
I stood there, Nina with her singing voice, explaining the most common shapes in thumbprints, and I thought, I don’t know what to do with this—this stuff of make-believe. Dawson, with his years of keeping in contact with detectives, needing to find Mom’s killers, using the tools he knew to get the DNA testing done. And then me, coping with the loss through the only tools I have ever known—letters, symbols, stories—which led Nina to forensics and to the match.
It’s too beautiful—the fingerprints with the alphabet in their cores, text and body and text, Dawson fighting through the law, me fighting through my words, my mother’s killer found through the power of language and grief.
This essay is excerpted from a memoir—A Rabbit’s Heart, by Kristine S. Ervin—currently on submission, represented by Mary Krienke at Sterling Lord Literistic.