In my town, there is a park where women disappear.
I always thought Watershed Park to be lovely, with large oak trees that dripped leaves into a pond lit by oil lamps from a time long ago. My mother would take me there, holding my hand as I tried to run through the woods. It’s a confusing place, she said, one could easily be lost beneath the canopy of trees.
When I grew older, I realized that it was not me who should have heeded my mother’s warning. On the night before I became a woman, she left to take a stroll through Watershed. It was an odd time to walk—the sun had long been swallowed by the horizon and clouds had subsumed even the brightest stars in the sky. My mother was a brave woman, and a little darkness was not enough to scare her. We were accustomed to this weather in our town, but the inky black of that night was not even punctured by a breeze.
Still, she left.
I watched my mother go, the door to our home closing shut behind her. I remember her hair was tied in a loose knot at the base of her neck, a few strands out of place. A small purple flower was tucked into the knot, and I found myself transfixed by this small detail. This should have struck me as a sign, for my mother was not allowed to be unkempt. But I was young and disturbed by my mother leaving for what I now know was the first and last time.
The next morning, my father and I found her hair pins by the pond in Watershed Park but not her body. I suppose he raged and screamed and threw the pins into the water to teach her a lesson, but I was the only one who was learning.
The years passed on slowly after my mother’s disappearance. More women followed after her, and I discovered that she was not the first one to vanish, nor the last. It was always in the night when women would leave. Sometimes accompanied by a storm so as to mask the latching of the door behind them, sometimes in easy skies, when their husbands slept off the alcohol from the previous hours.
The days after the women would leave were the worst. Their husbands’ anger would ignite, the sparks singeing anyone who came too close. The walls would splinter beneath their pounding fists, food would go rotten, and babies left unfed. Life would eventually continue with the daughters and sons filling the role their mothers left. But soon the sons would leave too.
It was just me and my father, alone in the house after my mother left, and I was no longer permitted to walk through Watershed Park. If I tried, the sky would not be the only thing to darken.
Yet I still found myself drawn to Watershed. Drawn to the golden glow of its lamps, to the way the rain pooled on paths through the trees. When I walked the perimeter of the park, the only child with enough curiosity to do so, I saw not the wilting wildflowers that dotted our town but flowers in bloom, fresh and colorful. It struck me as beautiful that the lilies and fireweed could thrive in Watershed when there was so little light everywhere else in our town. But my favorite flower was one we called Farewell-To-Spring.
It was an elegant purple color, with bits of red floating around the edges of the petals. The Farewell-To-Spring was the flower my mother had worn in her hair the night she left us, and I always looked for it when I visited the park. I found it growing near the wrought-iron fence that had been erected by the husbands of our town to keep their daughters and wives out of Watershed.
The flower’s petals poked through the bars, and I loved to admire the flashes of red that danced across its purple surface. I imagined that my mother loved the Farewell-To-Spring too. That she was also drawn to the flecks of red on the flower, that she saw something inside herself reflected in that color.
By the time I was a woman, my father was eager to be rid of me. There was to be a marriage between me and a man of another town. The man was twenty-two years my senior with twenty-two times our savings.
As the day of the union approached, I found myself wandering often to Watershed. The man I was to marry had looked at me with greed, and this frightened me as I was not a woman with wealth.
On the night before my wedding, the sky was still and dark. There was no moon and no stars. As I lay in my bed, I could hear the sounds of my father with his friends, hollering into the night and tempting the Devil to come out and play. But I also heard something else: the creak of an iron gate opening, beckoning. I untied my hair from its plait while I walked to Watershed. I plucked a Farewell-To-Spring from the fence before I entered the park and tucked its stem behind my ear. Its petals tickled my face, and I smiled wide and true. There was a clang that sounded through the night, and I knew the gate had locked behind me.
I pretended that my mother was with me once again as I walked through Watershed, holding my hand as we picked a path through the trees. Careful, she told me, one should easily be lost beneath the canopy of trees. The lights of the lamps flickered as I moved through the wood. Soon the pond came into view.
I sat at its bank and picked the petals from the Farewell-To-Spring, throwing them into the water one by one. My mother’s voice sang a quiet song from the depths.
It called to me, if only softly.
Sophia Carlisle is an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona. She enjoys wistful stories of all kinds and has a particular soft spot for the ghosts we let linger.
photo by Johnny Briggs (via unsplash)