The Trees Swallow People: Part 2
Over the weeks, two things continued to catch my attention. First, there was a sudden increased in the number of people going missing. Upon first impressions, one would say they had little in common. For instance, one was Michelle O’Reilly, a grandmother who emigrated and returned at least twice, known locally as a music teacher who muttered swears whenever she had a particularly untalented student, reported missing by her adult daughter. Another was Anthony Winkleman, a newly married husband from the states, working in the docklands as an engagement engineer; essentially, his job was to make social media users into social media abusers.
The disappearances, at first, seemed few and far between. Rumours of strangers skulking the village circulated, taking an unnerving turn as people started recognising them as reported missing themselves on the news. Stranger still, they weren’t from the village. When you count for gossip in the village shared in pubs and hairdressers with the official reports across the country, you easily realise people were going missing daily.
Secondly, it didn’t take long for gardaí to be seen patrolling more often than usual. The only real times you’d see them outside of the local station were to chase kids with fireworks on Halloween or the odd fight after a few drinks and poorly chosen words. People walking alone were regularly stopped and questioned; where are you from, are you local, how’s the home life? The expression “a guard wouldn’t ask me that” quickly lost all meaning.
The news reported on “redoubling efforts” and “locations of interest” announced by the Garda Commissioner. I imagine the hope was conservative admission that something was happening, but being handled, was an alternative to remaining silent and fuelling speculation. Perhaps if they were still here today, the Commissioner would reconsider their strategy, given how things panned out.
From news reports, I learning the woman I had spotted crossing the field and entering the woods that night was Claire Donaldson, an emergency operator from Belfast, last seen by her room mate. They, according to a post made by the room mate, were talking over breakfast when, abruptly, Claire she needed to leave. Assuming Claire was late for work, she thought nothing of it until she hadn’t returned that evening nor by the following morning, not responding to calls or texts. I hadn’t reported my sighting, despite being sure it was her now, until I saw the next person to enter the woods.
I was walking with Diva. While I had avoided the pitch and the woods for a few days, spooked by that night, I decided it was long enough to return and chalk the experience to a funny yet strange encounter. Maybe my assertion was right, I thought; maybe they were dogging. I’d be lying if I said a part of me returning wasn’t in the hope of seeing a fleeting glimpse of something. I watched the horizon of trees come into view as I turned off the path and approached them, my ears and eyes searching for signs of life amongst the withering, bare branches and the almost scaly trunks, coarse and aged. The trees, with their promise of forbidden voyeurism, didn’t hold my attention for long.
As we walked parallel to the wall, ignoring the decaying deciduous leaves cast aside and lying on the sloping trench the met the wall, focused on the top plate, debating if I could lift myself up enough to look within, it was Diva, stopping that attracted my attention. It wasn’t like her to suddenly stop. I looked down at her and followed her line of sight just in time to see another woman, this time much younger, making her way to the wall.
Her hair hung in one sheet, so dark it threatened to swallow the moonlight highlighting her. Petite yet stretched, taller than me for sure. This was Emma McNair. The only reason I knew this I had seen reports of her disappearance before that night. She was from Sligo, barely eighteen, and I knew, from the blotchy faced sobs of her mother appealing for her return on the news, she was deeply missed.
Until I announced myself, I might as well have been invisible. She was less than four feet in front of me as she crossed my path, making no effort to avoid nor waiting for me to pass. She was determined to finish what she had started. I had joined Diva in halting, so shocked to see her, feeling as though I had just watched a fictional character enter my world, that I nearly allowed her to enter the woods without speaking. I just shouted. Not in anger, but still inaudible, unable to decide between “hey” and “oy”, splitting the difference in the end. The effect was the same. She slowed down, stopped, looked over her shoulder, and into my soul.
Do you know that feeling when you see past someone’s defences for a second? When you see the sorrow behind the hate, the fear behind the insults, the loneliness behind the bitterness? I shared this moment with Emma. I saw, for one fleeting nanosecond, an innocent soul pleading to be stopped, to be rescued from a horrible part of itself that wants to die. Like a flickering match, that soul was snuffed out, pulled back into the depths of those black, hungry pupils. The eyes, though looking straight at me, became unfocused and inanimate; the eyes of a mind eating itself.
Without a word, she turned back to the wall, approached, and climbed over it, feeding whatever laid within. I didn’t investigate. I stood there for some time, along with Diva, frozen in the guilt of knowing even if I tried stopping her, it would prove useless compared to whatever was dragging her from her home, as it had done with the others, as it would do with all of us, except those unlucky enough to be left as silenced witnesses.