The Untaken One
by Sandra Crook
The lake is perfectly still today, not so much as a ripple disturbs the surface, dotted with lily-pads. If you wade more than a few feet out from the bank, the ground shelves steeply away into dark unfathomable depths, rich with secrets.
I still remember the day my sister was ‘taken’; the emotional scenes, endless policemen knocking at the door, television crews and reporters at the gate.
It seemed they’d never go away, but eventually the furore subsided. Tragedy and despair has only a limited novelty value after all. In the months that followed, Mother vacillated between abject, voluble grief and total inertia, spending hours at the window, as if Mattie might suddenly materialise in the garden. When she wasn’t at the window she could be found in my sister’s room, cuddling her teddy bears, and breaking down into episodes of ugly sobbing. My father hovered, watching helplessly before he immersed himself in his job.
And later in his secretary.
Perpetual grief descended on our home, and we three, the remaining mourners meandered through what remained of our lives. Occasionally there was a frisson of activity; another child went missing and a parallel was drawn. There’d be requests for interviews, as if the passage of time must have rendered us immune to grief, and therefore capable of verbalising what the newly-bereft parents could not.
A year later, my father left home, but my mother, wrapped in her despair, hardly noticed. I did though. There was yet another space round which I had to organise my world, but I managed. I was the survivor, the one who wasn’t taken, though sometimes I wished I had been.
Twelve years later my sister was found, living happily with a woman in a small town out east. She hadn’t, after all, been swallowed up by the icy waters of the lake. This woman, who’d snatched her from the park on the day that changed all our lives, discovered she was terminally ill and finally gave up her secret right at the end, so that her ‘daughter’, now sixteen years old, might not be left alone and unsupported in this world.
For my mother, this was a dream come true, a vindication of her behaviour and a corroboration of what she had always believed – that her daughter was still alive and hadn’t drowned in the lake. Even my father, now happily remarried and with children of his own, returned to the family scene to celebrate Mattie’s homecoming. Sometimes I wonder whether this wasn’t the first time my mother actually noticed he’d gone in the first place. Or if either of them realised that I’d been there all along.
There should be a happy ending here; you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But the silent stranger returned to us amidst such a blaze of publicity didn’t share in the joy of the reunion any more than I did. She was still mourning the loss of her ‘mother’ and tense scenes ensued whenever my mother dared to criticise the woman who had snatched her, all those years ago.
“You need to speak to her, Susie. Make her see that she belonged here, to us, and this mother”, she spat the word, “was evil, taking her like she did.”
Why would I speak to her? I, who’d spent the last twelve years of my life not belonging anywhere, missing my mother too.
The atmosphere, which had been silently morose for years, now fairly crackled with tension and animosity. Sometimes I thought I preferred things the way they had been. Indifference is not so taxing as resentment and conflict. And the overpowering ‘love’ that suffused the home was positively suffocating.
Mattie sensed the distance between she and I, and, isolated as she felt with this needy woman clinging to her every waking moment, tried to reach out to me, a less intense presence. Any port in a storm, they say.
Oh I’ve been polite, I’ve listened to the stories she’s told me of the woman who changed all our lives; how much she misses her. I’ve probably said all the right things too, maybe because I know, deep inside, what loss feels like.
Mattie remembers nothing of the day she was taken. It wouldn’t matter if she did, because nothing worse can come of what I did that day.
She doesn’t remember that I left her at the water’s edge, my four year old sister, and that I walked off towards the ice cream stand without looking back. I can scarcely remember myself what was in my mind, how far my eight year old reasoning had progressed, to lead me to that moment.
I know I’d resented her, from the moment she was born, but did I actually intend that she should stray into the lake? Had I reasoned that if she wasn’t around I would once more return to being the centre of my parents’ attention? Would I have been capable of rationalising in that way? I think I probably was.
The lake is perfectly still today; a tattered notice flutters on one of the oak trees nearby. A warning notice? Maybe a missing persons poster?
I remove my sandals and leave them at the water’s edge. It’s important they should know exactly what happened this time.
Sandra Crook writes fiction, non-fiction and occasional poetry as she cruises the French waterways with her husband. Links to her work and travels can be found at http://www.castelsarrasin.wordpress.com
Pieces Inspired by this Image
'No Man's Land'
'The Tree of Consequences'