The Lost Children
It began on a Sunday; it began with a nursemaid, turning around for a moment to retrieve the mail – and it was then, only a moment as she leaned in to give the blushing mailman a kiss, when it happened.
In the end, it began with a baby – and by the time the nursemaid turned around, it was already gone.
It was the summer of the worst drought since ’13; it was the summer of the worst poverty of the Great Depression. All around the country, those who could rushed to jobs and office buildings in tattered suits, while those who could not sat on doorsteps and the doorways of abandoned buildings, staring out windows at the rising lines of heat.
And, within the scorching heat and the worrying poverty of the small apartment complex, the children began to vanish.
When the mother returned home and found her child gone and the pretty nursemaid trembling, shaking and babbling about how it must have been kidnappers, it must have been, because what else could it have been? and they must tell the neighbors, must warn them – she, admirably enough, did not panic. Instead, she sat the young nursemaid down, brewed a cup of tea she forced the girl to drink, and then – after the girl had calmed down enough to give a report – gently escorted her out, stuffing a last handful of coins into her hands as she closed the door.
And then, when the girl was gone and the house quiet, she called the police.
They asked her questions. She answered them. They nodded, gave her numbers and assurances that it will be alright, ma’am, it will all be alright.
The nursemaid was a primary suspect, and so they investigated her first – researched her history, searched the house and stripped the walls to the bones – but, in the end, they found nothing. It must have been someone else, they told the thin-lipped mother; they were still investigating, though they were not sure if they would turn anything up –
Whereupon the mother, face white with silent rage, closed the door in their faces.
They investigated for a few days more. Decided, in the end, that it was an isolated incident – a pity, of course, but it was a large city, and these things did happen.
And so they put the matter out of their minds, thought no more of the quietly furious mother or the mysteriously vanished child –
Until more children began disappearing.
It happened a week after the first child had disappeared, a week after his distraught nursemaid had been fired and moved out of the building – a week, to the hour, to the minute. It was another mother this time, young, bright thing who had put her infant daughter down to wave at the neighbors next door – and who, returning, had found her gone.
She had screamed then, screamed as the neighbors had stared, screamed and was still screaming when the police arrived.
And after that, another week later, it was another child, another mother inconsolable. And after that, a few days later, another. And so it was.
And so it went.
The newspapers picked up on it fairly quickly, after the second report. It was a great bit of luck – children vanishing without a trace! The mothers inconsolable! And all within one building, too! It was like something out of a movie; it was like elections come early, the scandal of the disappearances a much-needed story in the deadening pressure of the times. It was, in short, a miracle.
At the peak of it, they held an investigation. Police scanned the building, dusted the doorways and guarded the doors to prevent any criminals from coming in; scientists camped out in the halls, connected wires and beeping devices to the children of frantic mothers. Priest of all denominations and faiths came, blessed the building in the name of the holy father and the sacred mother. Journalists rejoiced.
But through it all, the children continued disappearing.
In the end, some families moved out. Those who could afford it sent their children away, boarding schools or richer relatives – sent them away even though the missing children had always been infants or near-infants, far too young to leave or be sent away. Most, however, stayed – locked their doors and poured holy water every corner of the house, but stayed, superstitious enough to be wary but still skeptical enough to be convinced that it would not, could not happen to them. And sometimes, they were lucky; sometimes, they were right.
Other times, they were not.
Rumors flew then, in the flimsy newspaper sheets dancing through the streets and in the doorways of newly deserted apartments, idle men tapping cigarettes as they tried to make sense of it. Some said it was because of the Depression, that the children had gone back to wherever they had come from because they were hungry and unhappy. Others said no, it was the ghost in the building, he was taking them – had they not heard the tale, did they not know that the building was haunted? And others said, no, it was the Depression, only the children were vanishing because they were being taken, stolen by starving men or hungry Jews and boiled for their fresh, tender flesh –
And there were other rumors, too, tales of grief-struck nursemaids and angry mothers, but those were forgotten, left unbelieved in favor of ghosts and Jews.
And there were riots in those days, riots because of the poverty and the heat and the hunger – and many a man went missing during them, many a kohen or a pariah disappeared in the dusty heat.
And during all this, the children continued vanishing.
Ah, and this is the part where I tell you, is it not? This is the part where you ask me where did they go, where did the children disappear to, o you who are walls and bricks and all, o you who see all? To which I would give the same answer the tabloids reported, the same one hysterical mothers gave the police: into thin air.
For that was what happened, exactly what would happen: one moment, the child would be there, and the moment the mother or nurse turned her back, the child would be gone. There were no angels, no vengeful ghosts, no hungry homeless or nefarious Jews – only the children, one moment there and gone the next. That it is. That was all. In the end, there was not even a kidnapping ring to explain it – and the only ghost there was on the fourteenth floor, silently floating above and silently watching it all.
August came, the hottest days of the summer and the hardest days of the Depression arriving as one whirlwind of sickening, sapping heat. On the streets, men huddled under storefronts as they shook out cans for coins; on the balconies, men shared cigarettes in place of food, passing them over until the butts burnt weathered fingers; in the parks, on the few golf courses left, barefoot children chased the paths of sprinklers, hissing as their feet pattered across concrete.
Inside homes, mothers closed their windows, the hungry eyes outside fearful to bear; inside homes, children bit down their hunger, drank cup after cup of tap water when it was a sibling’s turn to eat. And all this time, inside a small apartment complex in the middle of the city, the babies continued to disappear.
By this time, most of the families had moved out; not wanting to risk chances, had ran to less perilous housing. Some of them, however, stayed: the grieving mothers, the helpless fathers, the families who had already lost their children and so could lose nothing else. Lingering in hallways, they greeted each other by name – hello Mary, hello Laura, hello Tom – bound by a link of mutual pain. And in the scorching heat and whispering despair, some families actually moved in – gaunt mothers, sunken-eyed fathers, hearing the rumors of the vanishing children and so desperate they would leave their babies to fate or ghosts rather than hunger.
And it was around this time, the days of fear and hunger and the dull heat, when she returned.
The nursemaid was thinner than when she had left (they all were; it was a sign of the years, the times), hair wilder and eyes brighter, clothes shabbier as she walked, humming cheerfully, into the dusty building.
She told no one when she returned, but she did not need to – in the stale, dull air of the old building, news spread quickly, and within a week, they all knew, all stared silently after her as she hummed and moved through the doors. Bringing in furniture, bringing in books, trunks full of clothes and cracked perfume bottles, a line of eyes following her as she did. They watched her, warily, as she set up the beds and folded out clothes, watched her through windows and cracked doors – watched her, gazes hard, cold, as she walked down the halls, brought in laundry and took in mail. They never said anything, but the words were there, as audible as if they had been spoken: incredible. Disgraceful. How dare she, did she have no conscience, absolutely no sense of shame –
When she found out, the first mother – the one who had lost her child first, who had both fired the nursemaid and accepted her child’s loss with unwavering calm – closed her windows, refused to say anything or speak to anyone.
No one spoke to her when she passed, but in the evenings (when she left as she did every night, made-up and stinking of perfume, gone without warning or explanation and for God knows what), they whispered, gave word to every thought kept silent during the day. How dare she. How could she.
No one spoke to her and no one did anything to her, but as time went on, the whispering became louder, accusations no longer silent when she came by, hair wild and eyes over-bright – and as time went on, things began to bend, to splinter, to crack. Someone wrote murderer on a wall one night, smeared the words with feces and animal blood; it was gone by morning, but its afterimages remained, lingered in the brazenness of cold, hard stares. It would not be long now. It would not be –
Then one day – the hottest day of the year, when the heat crackled the sidewalks and dogs whimpered in the streets – she came back at night, long, long past when the last hungry children have fallen asleep, and she was smiling.
She had two bags with her, sagging under the weight of hidden cargo, but she did not seem to mind their weight as she carried them up and up until she was on the roof, where she finally set them down.
Then, in the oppressive heat of the air, she stripped her clothes off, stood there naked in the suffocating night air – stood there, and waited.
It took until morning – morning, when the sun rose and the inhabitants reluctantly opened their eyes, tossed away sweat-sodden clothes as they prepared for the day – morning, and then a little after before anyone really noticed, the power of ritual and schedule too strong for most people to even glance up as they hurried out of the house. But after the first woman spotted it, called her neighbors and pointed up with wide eyes, soon they all knew, and soon they were all there.
On top of the roof, the young nursemaid closed her eyes, smiling as she stood there, naked and swaying in the summer heat. Next to her, several cartons of gasoline swayed in the wind; next to her, the bags she brought with her blew across the gravel rooftop, crackled in the dry air.
She said nothing as she stood there, and the crowd below her – for long, long moments – did not, either. Could not, for some reason: all the gossip and malice of the past few weeks lost in this hypnotism of presence, this spell of her fact.
Moving slowly, leisurely, she bent down, took something from the ground. It was a matchbox; she took a match from it, gently struck the head against the box. It lit immediately, small light blue-red-orange warming in her hands.
The crowd watched, stayed as still and silent as if enchanted.
And smiling, she took the match, and touched it to her body.
This was the time they should have stopped her; this was the time someone should have stepped forward, shouted, or even just screamed at the horror of it –
But they didn’t. Nobody moved, no one stepped forward to stop her – only stood there, watching as in front of them, a girl turned into fire and flame and, eventually, ash.
And when it was over, in the place where the bones and ashes should have been, were several swaddled, sleeping infants.
September came, and slowly, the summer heat went; September came, and slowly, the New Deal took effect, bringing bread and soup into a country still convalescing from the crash and the drought. September came, and the people began returning – the old tenants, the ones who knew the streets and buildings, who had lived here before the hazy heat of the summer air.
September came, and the children stopped vanishing.
When they talked about the girl (in closed kitchens, in dusty hallways), they did so in whispers. Some said it was the proof of her guilt, that she had been the leader of the group kidnapping their children. Some said that she was a witch, that she had been taking all the children for some awful spell only to have a change of heart at the last moment; some said that she was stealing them to sell, trading babies on the black market to hungry mothers with nowhere else to turn – some said that. Made up stories like that, outlandish tales that no one believed but which were easier than the truth – easier than trying to explain what had happened before their eyes, that they had let happen.
One, however, refused to participate in the gossip: the first mother, the level-headed tabloid figure whose child had disappeared first. She, out of all who had lost their children, refused to discuss it, to speculate on the events of the summer prior and the dead girl at the heart of it.
But every week, when the sun had set and all the neighbors had long since pulled down their shades, she climbed the stairs to the top of the building – and there, on the roof still marred by scorch marks, she sat, and she stayed.
Cynthia Zhang is an aspiring writer and academic, currently based in Chicago. Asian-American, amateur book critic, amateur crafter, amateur zine collector, professional dog-lover.
Image: Flickr / Henning Mühlinghaus