‘You’ve heard?’ said Old Calum, ‘Angus and Sonia’s kid has disappeared now.’
I said nothing. I had heard, of course, but it was a familiar story; now, an old story. Only the names changed.
‘You know,’ Old Calum persisted, ‘Angus the glazier. Sonia taught in the nursery school until it had to shut. Kid was five – a girl, I think.’
Yes, a girl, Sarah. I’d baptised her.
‘Of course, you know what this means,’ Calum continued, glancing about himself as if trying to bring everyone else in the coffee shop into the conversation, ‘It means there are only two children left in the whole village. Hansel and Gretel, Jan’s kids; him from the sawmill.’
‘Karin’s children too,’ I said, ‘remember they have a stepmother.’
‘Oh,’ said Calum, ‘her…’
The other customers settled back into their own company. The hiss of the espresso machine drowned the muted murmur of conversation. There was a lot of quietness, now, in our forest community. After all, we were The Village where all the Children Vanish.
After the first few incidents, there had been a quiet, discreet police investigation. But then each succeeding case got national publicity on TV, in the papers, on the web. Was a serial killer on the loose? Were traffickers preying on our young people under the protection of the encircling forest? And then the reptile hissings of the extreme conspiracy theorists began online; were the parents selling their children to traffickers? Sacrificing them to old gods under the full moon at pagan forest shrines? Simply dumping them and leaving them to die in remote places because they could not afford to keep them in this grim age of economic austerity? There were even Twitter accusations of cannibalism.
The police investigation had continued until it seemed that there was only one suspect; the entire village, they had concluded, was complicit in whatever horrible crime had been committed. They weren’t looking for anyone else; they were here to catch us out. The politicians no longer tried to make capital out of the scandal; to them, we were merely a remote tribe of barbarians who didn’t have many votes.
These days the most obvious outsiders in the village were the scandal tourists, travellers in human misery who drove here from the cities, put up for a night at one of the inns and cruised around gawping at the ghouls who murdered or sold or perhaps even ate their own children. They marvelled at the silenced, joyless streets, the sad-faced bereaved parents and toured the empty schools and nurseries as if they were movie sets. And, of course, they lingered in cafes like this one, hoping to hear some of the latest speculative gossip.
The Corner Coffee Shop was where Calum and I usually met. He had accepted me as a fellow-member of his community of childless bachelorhood. I qualified as the local priest, while he was simply too oafish for any woman to ever consider marrying him. Either way, we were involved in the tragedies, yet somehow not at their heart; it could never be our children who vanished.
I finished my coffee and broke a long silence. ‘Jan phoned me this morning. I’m going to see him now. I don’t know what it’s about.’
‘Och, Father, you know exactly what it’ll be about.’
I set off on foot along the main street. Jan and Karin lived just at the edge of the village, near the sawmill, so there was no need to go and fetch my car.
Imagine a village with no laughter. Imagine a street with no family groups. Imagine a nursery school and a primary school empty and shuttered, their staff mostly redundant. Imagine a place that everyone wanted to leave, and from which many had already gone. Such was the stricken community through which I walked now.
When I met people I knew they nodded, but they didn’t smile; most didn’t even look up from the pavement. At the bus stance the little minibus that twice a day made the long trip to the nearest town – far outside the forest, on the railway line to the main cities – was filling up. It was usually full, nowadays, with local people who had no intention of returning. Some of them clutched the life-size dolls that had become fashion accessories for the bereaved and their friends – unearthly-looking things that blinked and laughed and cried and even wet their nappies. But they brought comfort, of a sort, to some.
There was shouting from the other side of the street. I looked and saw that it was young Simon Fraser braying at passers-by in his assumed baby-talk. ‘SWEETIES! WANT SWEETIES!’ he screamed. A carload of tourists stopped to bait him, so I ran over and sent them on their way and tried to calm Simon down. Poor lad, he’s about twenty but has lost a younger brother and sister to the forest and he has responded by reverting to childhood, taking the place of those who’ve gone. Outsiders would call it ‘survivor guilt’, I suppose.
And then another car drew up alongside me. A police car, with two fat, well-fed cops from outside the forest.
‘No, not really. Just some outsiders making fun of poor Simon Fraser. I sent them on their way.’
‘Simon the loony, eh?’ one of them laughed, but I said nothing.
‘Another child gone, Father,’ said the other one, ‘Angus and Sonia.’
‘I know,’ I said, ‘I visited them this morning.’
‘Oh, aye. To “comfort” them, eh? Let me tell you, Father, that whatever you and your people are up to, we’ll find out. You’re all suspects and I think you’re all guilty. Remember that.’ They drove off. Somewhere, Simon Fraser was cackling and making animal noises.
The roadside houses died out and I could see forested hills straight ahead. There was a sharp tang of pine and the sawmill appeared on the right. It was very quiet; the sawmill worked irregular hours now that so many of the workers had opted to leave the forest. Jan and Karin lived in a little cottage screened by pines a short distance further on. In the garden I could hear what for us was rarer than gold, more valuable than the brightest gems; the laughter of children.
Despite all their friends having vanished, Hansel and Gretel managed still to be full of life and fun; the resilience and adaptability of youth. I chatted lightly with them for a while, but there was no sense in shielding them from the truth; it couldn’t be done, anyway. I told them about Sarah.
‘Hansel’s had a great idea for if we get taken into the forest.’
‘Oh, really? Good for Hansel. Let’s hear it, then.’
Hansel smiled, shyly; he was a little embarrassed to be put on the spot by his sister. ‘We’ll leave a trail – of stones or grains or bits of paper or something – and you can all follow it and find us!’
‘He read it in an old book,’ said Gretel.
Jan, benign, bearded, but with the dry, gritty eyes of a sawmill worker, appeared from the house. He motioned me to follow him around the side of the house, so I said goodbye to the children and caught him up. ‘Better talk out here,’ he said, ‘Karin’s in a bit of a mood and, anyway, I have something to show you.’
‘What’s up with Karin?’
‘Oh, the police phoned this morning. They want to put the children into “protective custody” since they’re the only ones left, now.’ He still had a soft foreign accent though it was decades since he had come here. ‘Anyway, Karin says they’re ours to look after and they’re always at home anyway since the school closed down.’
We had by now clattered into Jan’s garden shed. ‘Here they are,’ he said, and pulled away a paint-spattered dustsheet.
I knew that Jan had been a gifted woodcarver in his home country, and that his skills were wasted in a sawmill, but I hadn’t been prepared for this. He had uncovered two carved figures, each perhaps two or three feet high; a boy and a girl. They were modelled on Hansel and Gretel, but there were differences, too. They were not specific children, yet they were not any children; they were, I think, intended to be every child. They smiled, a little apologetically and lifted their heads slightly in hope and trust. It was a work that employed craft and art, but which had been wrought in pain and sorrowing.
Jan was speaking. Until now I hadn’t really heard him. ‘…and I thought that until… all the children come back home we could keep them on show in the community centre or, if that’s all right, in the church. They could be everybody’s children. People could come and look at them and remember and hope.’
‘I think it’s a marvellous idea.’
I’m looking at the two figures now. We’ve set them up in the vestibule of the church where it’s well-lit and people can see them when they come in. And people do come; they look at them and lay hands on them, perhaps stroke a wooden lock of hair. The people smile, shed a tear and leave. Simon Fraser’s parents took him here and he crouched down so that he could look the carved children in the eye. He became quiet, thoughtful and, for perhaps the first time in months, contented-looking. And then his parents took him home.
I’ve come here because I’ve heard that it’s happened; Hansel and Gretel have gone. I’ve just phoned Jan and am about to go along and see him. I’m not sure if Karin is going to be there. But I’m spending a few minutes here, in the church vestibule, with Jan’s figures; the last place of hope in the village.
But I must go. I want to get to Jan before the police. And I hope that Hansel and Gretel have left a trail.
David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.