Literary Hub

A Brief History of the Women Who Disappeared

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath…”

­–Herman Melville

*

I barely said two words to Jade in high school. What I knew of her was largely secondhand­—rumors with no basis in reality, spurred on by how spooky the kids at my school perceived her to be. I knew there were rumors told about me too, that I was promiscuous, that I was into casting spells.

Did you know that Jade lost her virginity on a headstone in a cemetery? a classmate told me.

Our small Florida town meant a small school where everyone knew each other’s names even as we kept to our own stereotypical groups—the jocks with the cheerleaders, the weirdos with the stoners, the academically gifted with the shunned. Jade had long, wispy hair, rimmed her eyes with thick, dark liner, and typically paired floor-sweeping black skirts with band t-shirts. I listened to music some of my friends considered “depressing”—The Cure being a particular obsession—and wore Dr. Martens with murky-hued clothes I hoped would conceal my presence. Jade and I didn’t have any classes together, at least that I remember. We ran within our own subsets of outcasts, so although it strikes me as strange now, we weren’t friends. We orbited each other: the same acquaintances, the same local haunts (not that there were many to choose from), the same boyfriend (eventually). We heard the same stories that obscured the truth of who we were.

I often passed by Jade’s house when driving around with my best friend, who sometimes spoke of his family’s interactions with her family—everyday neighborly stuff that made Jade less mysterious, more like everyone else struggling in a broke-down Space Coast town where the only consolation was an at-most ten-minute drive to the ocean: a place to watch space shuttles launch into the sky, to hear the sonic booms pierce the sound of the sea churning, before space shuttles became lifeless exhibits to ogle in museums.

I think I told him to fuck off. It was too much, too fantastical, too dark, too much like the rumors I had heard about Jade in high school.

One night, in our senior year, I ended up at a gathering where Jade and a group of about ten other kids were engaged in a role-playing game called Vampire—an activity that seemed foreign and slightly silly to me, as my best friend and I had swallowed a few white crosses earlier that night and spent most of our time pressing the tops of each other’s heads and discussing the finer points of how static-y our scalps felt. I was confused about the roles they played, didn’t know who was supposed to be good or evil, but I remember Jade and I exchanging “heys”—as in: hey I know you, kinda, hey I am acknowledging your existence—marking the beginning and ending of our first interaction.

A few years after high school, I moved an hour away to another town, one locals call a “city”—though this is a generous designation. One night, I ended up in a stranger’s home with my roommates. It was late and I was tired of listening to the stranger tell us how he was a misunderstood musical genius, so I walked out into a garden behind his apartment where I found Jade smoking a cigarette. She said hello, and then she said my name. I sat on a bench facing her and we talked, the only real conversation we ever had. We talked about how odd it was that we hadn’t spoken much in high school, how people passed on stories about us both but neither of us had ever believed them. We talked with the ease that time and distance bestows on the muddled mess of teenage years. Before departing, we agreed that it was so good to finally talk.

Years later, when I was living on a military base in Tokyo—married and a young parent—my best friend called me.

Jade’s dead. Her boyfriend slit her throat with a sword.

I think I told him to fuck off. It was too much, too fantastical, too dark, too much like the rumors I had heard about Jade in high school.

Why the hell would I lie about something like that? he said.

*

In a strait in northwest Scotland live the “blue men of the Minch”—creatures that float just below calm seas, but with the power to cause raging storms. Though they are blue and swim much like dolphins, they resemble humans in shape and size. They are said to sometimes approach ships and call out lines of poetry, demanding ship captains answer by completing the verse correctly. If a captain fails, the blue men up-end and capsize the vessels. It is said that the blue men of the Minch laugh as they douse the ships with water and drown the poor souls into the sea.

The legend of the blue men has been passed down by locals for generations, but it is not widely known. The folklore that spread was twisted into another body. But I know better now. When I look at the ocean, I imagine men floating beneath the waves, blending in, waiting to strike.

*

Kathy sat at the desk in front of me in one of our classes—I want to say it was English lit, but when I try to figure out the details, her long, wavy brown hair gets in the way. Her hair was a lot like mine before I chopped it off, dyed it red, then purple, then blue, before eventually shaving it clean. Kathy was quiet and focused and I loved getting her to smile, to break her stoic poise when I murmured stupid comments.

Though I loved reading and writing, and I got the sense that Kathy did too, I was bored studying texts authored almost exclusively by stuffy, long-departed men, and I had long since given up on the perfect little student schtick I had adopted years prior. Our teacher, well-meaning but not exactly self-aware, pontificated on literature as something greater than the audience before him and in doing so made himself an easy target. If I was on a roll, Kathy would turn around and shhh me with a finger to her lips, trying to shut me up as much as trying to contain her laughter at whatever idiotic thing I had said or my crude impression of a Very Important Man of Letters. If I could ask her now, I wouldn’t be surprised if she said I irritated the hell out of her.

Kathy didn’t seem to belong to one “scene,” and maybe that’s why I struggle to remember which classes we shared or how many times we spoke. She was just always there, another body wading through a torrent of teenagers from one class to the next. Everyone described her as “nice” because it was genuinely true. She was someone everyone felt they could talk to.

I had to move away, she said. I can’t say where or why but I want you to know that I’m okay.

When I arrived at school one morning early in our junior year, I was immediately approached by several classmates: Did you hear about Kathy? She’s dead. Somebody killed her.

The cops found a bloody knife, evidence linking to a suspect: a 20-year-old man who worked in the bakery at the supermarket where I worked. He killed himself days later, shortly after police questioned him. People who knew him were quoted in articles describing him as a “good kid.”

Don’t talk to the press, my boss told me when I started my shift after the news broke. It was all he ever said about the matter.

*

The blue men of the Minch are sometimes associated with Kelpies, water spirits that dwell in the lochs of Scotland. Though they are usually described as water horses, they have the ability to shape-shift to human forms, most often male. Kelpies are evil spirits, whisking innocents into the water, where the victims are then consumed, their entrails tossed along the water’s edge. Some narratives involving Kelpies are used to warn young ladies to beware of unfamiliar men. The most famous depictions of Kelpies were made by the artists Thomas Millie Dow and Herbert James Draper, who chose to paint Kelpies as naked women.

When I look at the paintings I can imagine the figures as models in a magazine spread, the pages dogeared and tucked under a young man’s mattress.

*

Emma graduated the year before me. I didn’t know her well then. She would sometimes accompany her friend to my workplace because he had a crush on me, and she would try to initiate a conversation between the three of us. It didn’t go as intended. I usually just talked to her.

After high school, I ran into Emma while she was working at a beauty supply store. She was tall, slim, and had a bright boyish pixie cut I envied. I know you! she said with the enthusiasm of long-lost friends seeing each other after years of separation. She had the kind of energy that draws people in, always joking, always laughing, referring to everything as “awesome”—a song, a movie, a car accident that could have landed her in the hospital. We exchanged numbers and within a few days we were driving along the coastline day after day for no other reason than to spend time together and tell our stories.

Emma introduced me to her boyfriend, with whom she shared an apartment. He appeared agreeable enough but had a tendency to leer in a way that made me uncomfortable. One night, when I was getting ready to meet up with Emma to see a friend make his drag show debut at a dive bar, Emma called to suddenly cancel. Her voice was low, her words few—like she was sinking and the weight of language would submerge her fully if she wasn’t careful. When I asked her why she changed her mind—she was looking forward to the show all week—she said her boyfriend’s name and trailed off.

Emma, I said, are you okay? I mean, really okay? Do you need help? Because I’ll help you. I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

No, no. Please don’t. I’m fine. We’re just arguing. I’m fine.

Once upon a time, men drifted below the thin line between water and sky, their mouths cresting to whisper myths that warned their brothers—stories of evil apparitions, lies in the shape of women’s bodies.

I saw Emma less and less after that. She never wanted to talk about what had happened, or what might have continued happening, leaving me to imagine terrible scenarios that I somehow still pushed back against with hope. I got the sense that her boyfriend didn’t like me or how much time Emma and I spent together. By the time I moved to the “city,” I didn’t hear from Emma anymore at all, but a few weeks after moving into my new place I got a phone call.

It was Emma. I had to move away, she said. I can’t say where or why but I want you to know that I’m okay.

*

Growing up, I didn’t know about the blue men of the Minch or Kelpies, but I read myths about sirens who lured sailors toward rocks with their irresistible songs. Sirens were originally depicted as male as well as female in art before the fifth century BC, though this shifted over time to predominantly female renderings. Some believe sirens led mariners to their deaths because they wanted the sailors’ possessions, or they were cannibals who craved flesh. Others believe they serve as a warning to men to beware of beautiful women.

I think of deep waters as “wine-dark” like Homer described the sea in “The Odyssey” because “blue” didn’t exist in his world. I imagine the blood of countless women filling up oceans, changing color back to its violent truth.

*

I could tell you my best friend was simply passing on another rumor, that I ran into Jade in Florida when I was visiting friends. I could tell you I saw her at the coffee shop/independent movie rental place downtown and she told me about the successful graphic design company she owned. I could tell you she was in a loving relationship with I guy who supported her when things were rough, stuck by her to get her company off the ground. I could tell you she seemed happy.

I could tell you that the story we heard about Kathy in high school was merely a short-lived, local urban legend, that she was taken ill, temporarily, had missed some school, and returned unharmed. I could tell you I talked to Kathy when I skipped school just before graduation to spend a day at the beach. I could tell you that I saw her sitting by the dunes, looking out toward the waves lapping edges of sand. I could tell you we talked about new beginnings, where she would go to college to study music, and how it would feel to finally leave that town behind. I could tell you that she looked like a lot like Ione Skye in the movie Say Anything when I watched her walk across the stage to receive her diploma.

I could tell you that Emma managed to find me years later, that I picked up the phone one night and was, once again, shocked to hear her voice on the other end. I could tell you that, this time, she told me where she was, that she would be visiting where I now live in D.C. and she would love to meet up for coffee. I could tell you that, when I finally saw her, when I knew she had survived, she explained how she had left her boyfriend in Florida before she was engulfed by his rage, that she had a great support system, family that kept her safe. I could tell you that she is now living without fear, that she is thriving.

I could tell you all these stories, these shiny narrative ribbons that tie up and conceal the horror with double-knots so the pain can’t escape. I could tell you these happy endings, but they would be lies.

*

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Jade who was murdered by a man, her boyfriend, when she said something he didn’t like. He stabbed her with a knife, and when she didn’t die fast enough for him, when she was bleeding out in their shared apartment, when he could still hear her, he used a longsword to slit her throat because, as he said, he “didn’t want her to suffer.” She was 28 years old.

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Kathy who was pursued by a man who wouldn’t take no for answer, a man who called her out from her home in the middle of the night, and cut her into pieces—stabbed her more than 50 times—her mutilated body left for a neighbor to find in the morning. She was 16.

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Emma who fled from a man and that which she could not speak of, away from the people she loved, to disappear into a darkness that was, at least, better than death. I don’t know where Emma is or if she is still alive.

Once upon a time, men drifted below the thin line between water and sky, their mouths cresting to whisper myths that warned their brothers—stories of evil apparitions, lies in the shape of women’s bodies. They called to men steering ships, to men listening along shores, and sang songs that swelled through the ears of generations, songs as dangerous and deep as the clouded, maroon sea.

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