When Josephine Small went missing, there was some small uproar in the east neighbourhoods, but it soon settled down. There was, after all, nothing to be made of it. We who had lived here our entire lives knew – Josephine Small wasn’t simply missing: she had vanished, pink-ribboned pigtails and all.
The town authorities shrugged it off. After all, Josephine Small was not the first child to disappear from Coronado; in fact, nearly twenty had disappeared in the past fifteen years. None of their bodies had ever been recovered, and no possible suspects had ever popped up on the police radar. Among the children, it was a popular myth that there were witches in the woods around Coronado, witches who stole you from your bed if you didn’t turn your homework in on time, or forgot to brush your teeth before you went to bed.
The Smalls, though, were newcomers to the town, only moved in three years ago. They didn’t know that the authorities couldn’t do anything about the disappearing children. There was a cursory search of the surroundings, of course, but after a week the search parties dwindled away, officers were reassigned, and little Josephine Small’s folder was quietly filed away. Outraged and indignant, the Smalls took their case to the courts. The judge, a Coronadan native, denied their appeal.
“It is not in the town’s best interest to concentrate the efforts of its policing force on an apparently futile cause,” she intoned, banging her gavel twice before removing herself from the room.
“This is ridiculous,” Mr. Small was said to say afterwards. “We moved here because we wanted a place where we could raise our family in safety. Now our little girl is missing and not even the town wants to help us.”
The Smalls continued to hold their own search parties, against our warnings. They never found Josephine. No funeral was held, but life quickly resumed its normal pace, and children played in the streets after dark again, catching the last dregs of good weather before winter settled its icy grip.
The Smalls were a respectable family, which appealed to us in the first days of their arrival. Mrs. Small was a dentist at the town’s health centre, Mr. Small worked for the local grocer during the weekdays and tried his hand at inventing on the weekends, and little Josephine, before she vanished, was a good child, who (it was fearfully whispered among the children) always had her homework completed on time.
When they had first moved in, the entire town turned out to greet them. The women brought with them cakes and casseroles, insisting that no woman should have to worry about meals after moving three thousand kilometres overland. The men and children, dragged along by their wives and mothers, turned up also; the men said to each other that the house could use some fixing up, and the children swarmed around little Josephine, introducing her to their new way of playing hopscotch.
Mrs. Small was quite overwhelmed.
“Really, I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said, when another full meal was forced on her. “We’ve only bought a small refrigerator, and it’s already – no, really, I’m very sorry, but I’ve got no room – well, perhaps it can squeeze between here, and – oh, thank you, and I’m sure that I can – but surely there must be some way to repay-”
For several weeks, the Small household was abuzz with activity. Every day, some of the ladies came over with an offering of food, or an invitation to a town event, or simply with a decent amount of town gossip in their arsenal, and Mrs. Small, flustered at first, graciously invited them in, but gradually, and eventually, she learned to politely decline, and the newest household to Coronado settled down.
We had hoped that the Mrs. Small would return the favours that had been so generously bestowed on her arrival, but time passed, and she didn’t. Perhaps she will, we said to each other, in a grand gesture that obviously took much time to prepare. But months turned into years, and Mrs. Small never showed any sign of gratitude.
When Josephine disappeared, we feigned our concern for the Smalls’ well-being.
The woods around Coronado, to any adult, at least, were not particularly intimidating. A multilane freeway, the town’s high-speed connection to the rest of the world, sliced through the trees, lighting up the entire stretch with powerful lamps for driver safety. Nobody would ever go into the woods alone at night, of course, but the woods were not particularly intimidating.
The following summer was a lazy one, when adults stayed inside to escape the heat and children played in dirty rivers and puddles or lay in fields or under the shade of open buildings in an attempt to cool off. By noon, Coronado was a dead town.
But even on the days when it was so scorching hot that your collar drooped by ten in the morning and your line-dried linens were completely dried out in an hour, the Smalls continued their searches for Josephine. We said that there was no hope. They’ll never find her, we whispered; Josephine is dead and gone, and nothing will bring her back. But we smiled politely and inquired from time to time how their searches were going.
“We’ve started going deeper into the forest,” Mrs. Small said. “John” – that was her husband’s name – “said he’s found traces of a trail. I’m pretty sure it’s just a deer track, but it just might be what we’re looking for.”
“Good luck,” we told her kindly. “You’ll find her soon. Watch out for the wolves.”
The last was always a joke.
A week later, someone screamed in the woods. There was a moment of silence, and then the birds started cheeping again. We said to each other, probably Mrs. Small had found a dead raccoon. It would not have been the first time.
Later, when it was evening, and the air was cooler, and neither of the Smalls had returned, we went to investigate. We trod through the woods, silently, holding high our candles and flashlights, staying close to each other, and looked for the Smalls.
Mrs. Small was easy to find, in her new floral dress, now stained black and brown, with her bare feet jutting out at odd angles from beneath her. Mr. Small was found hanging from a tree branch. His shoes were also missing.
The tree whose branch from which Mr. Small was hanging was a large one, probably well over a hundred years old, and we marveled at it, and the door we found at the base of its trunk. One of the ladies opened the door, and we went in, following one another into the darkness.
In the garish light of flashlight bulbs and flickering candles, skulls lined the room, peering eerily at us through eyeless sockets. Under each was a piece of paper and a few lines scrawled in chicken scratch.
The last skull gleamed, and pink ribbons were delicately placed on top, like a crown. Underneath, the makeshift plaque read, “Josephine Small. Goes well with rosemary & chives.”
Francesca Leung enjoys reading webcomics, is a fan of Queen, and finds knitting to be rather therapeutic.
© 2009, Francesca Leung