Last year, a woman was on a bus tour in Iceland when one of the members of her tour group failed to return to the bus after a stop at Eldgja canyon. This woman dutifully joined the efforts to find the missing tourist along with the other members of her group, police and official search parties. The missing person was described as an Asian woman, about 160 centimetres tall, who spoke English well. The woman failed to realise from this description, as anyone might, that the woman they were all searching for was, in fact, her. At the stop the woman had changed her clothes and freshened up in the bathrooms a little, which was enough to render her unrecognisable to her fellow passengers. I laugh when I read about this, feeling relieved to find any disappearance story with a happy, even ridiculous ending. Then I think: how many missing non-white women might have been found if only white people could remember what the fuck they actually looked like?
After a few too many mysterious disappearance stories, I begin to see the appeal of conspiracy theories. UFOs and sleeper agents and CIA witness protection programs. All stories of the disappeared coax our imagination into action: we must picture the disappeared person somewhere. And I prefer to imagine a new life, a distant planet, an assumed identity. I comfort myself, selfishly, by picturing only the gentler fates: she ran away, she got amnesia, she was secretly a spy, she just… slipped sideways though the world somehow, invisible certainly, but not truly lost. Denise, who vanished recently on the Camino de Santiago, walks on westward towards the Atlantic, squinting into the sun. Maud, the first female attorney in the city of Camden, Akansas, who disappeared from her home in 1957, still takes cases with an ironical smile, at the admittedly well-advanced age of 124. Sweet-faced Virginia is bent over her books, studying to become a medical technician at last, though she disappeared on her first night on campus in 1948, and never had the chance to enrol.
It’s a bad idea to read too many stories about people who have disappeared. It leaves you feeling queasy and frightened, your pace quickens, cars seem slow as they pass you on the street. The world becomes an unfamiliar place when you understand that you might suddenly vanish out of it. Though, of course, no-one truly disappears. The desperate chant of the left-behind—but they have to be somewhere!—is banal but profoundly true. The substance of a body cannot simply vanish, no matter what destruction is visited upon it. If only we knew where to look, how to look, then we could at least know. The other sacred refrain of the left-behind is true as well: it’s the never knowing…
I’m sitting on the couch watching TV when my mother arrives home from work. It must be winter because it’s already dark outside though the news hasn’t come on yet. I devote my attention to the TV with the ferocious intensity only a 6-year-old can muster, staring unblinking, slack jawed, at the screen. When the program ends, I look up and realise that the house has become oddly quiet. My mother, who should by now be preparing dinner, probably by steaming broccoli into a yellowish soup of its constituent atoms, is not in the kitchen. I walk slowly from room to room, calling out, though our house isn’t large. She is not there. I complete a loop and return to the living room, where I am met by my own shocked expression in the mirror beside the back door. My mother, I now know, has disappeared. My mother is missing. I begin to howl.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #27. Get your copy now.
Zora Sanders is a writer and editor who edited Meanjin, Australia’s second-oldest literary journal, from 2013–2015.