We should have listened. But we didn’t.
Even during the search, I kept thinking that. It was so surreal. To be out in those woods looking for my son, and in the midst of every other panicked thought screaming through my head, that one, eerily calm idea kept surfacing.
We should have listened. But we didn’t.
I wanted to believe we’d find Leland. I held my daughter’s face in my hands and assured her we’d bring her brother home. I clung to my husband and we whispered to each other that he’d be ok. I walked beside my mom, starting at the door of her Maine house, down the tangled path, into the marshy woods, while we took turns reminding one another that Leland was only lost.
But I knew. I always knew.
It was the first time we’d gone to my parents’ new summer house. Leland was six and fiercely independent (as long as Pawpaw was in sight). He set off to explore almost immediately with my dad trailing behind. Virginia was less adventurous. She preferred sitting on the back porch overlooking the lake, a book opened in her lap.
The dense woodland that surrounded us seemed peaceful.
We had a bonfire that night. My parents’ only neighbors, a couple from a few miles down the road, drove over to join us. Leland had never seen a man with long hair outside of Lord of the Rings before and he was fascinated by Jim’s dark braid. He sat on the older man’s knee and kept running his small fingers over the woven strands. I apologized, but Jim laughed it off. He explained that he was Native American, of the Penobscot nation, and that many men tended to wear their hair longer than their white counterparts. Leland decided he wanted to be Native American, too, so he could have hair like Jim.
I was embarrassed by Leland’s behavior, but Jim and his wife, Sandra, were gracious.
After we’d put the kids to bed, we sat around the fire with a few beers. It was relaxed for a while, until Jim set his can down.
“There haven’t been kids up in these parts for a long time now,” he said.
His tone wasn’t entirely conversational. There was a weight to it, and it made the rest of us pause. Sandra was frowning. She put a hand on his arm and started to whisper something, but Jim kept going.
“You keep your little ones out of the woods. Especially down by the swamps. Too many kids have gone missing down there.”
“They aren’t allowed out without one of us,” I told him with a comforting smile.
I thought he’d had a bit too much to drink, but his eyes were clear and intense when they settled on me.
“It won’t matter what you told them if they hear her.”
“Jim,” Sandra said softly.
“Her?” My husband, Ben, asked at the same time.
My parents traded uncertain, side-eye glances and Dad slapped the top of his knees. “Well, it’s getting late…”
“Wait, who’s…whatever that name was?” Ben asked.
“It’s just a legend,” Sandra began, but Jim hushed her.
“Pskegdemus. The swamp woman. She wanders the swamp, weeping and waiting. Men and children are drawn to her and she keeps them. It’s easier for adults to ignore her if they know to do so, but the kids…they go in to find her, they don’t come out again.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Mom said.
“We’ve been to here a couple weeks now, haven’t heard a thing,” Dad chuckled, trying to relieve the tension.
Jim nodded and stood. “She’s been quiet since the children left. But she’s still there, and if a man or child hears her and goes out into those swamps, they don’t come back.”
“We should get going,” Sandra said, nudging Jim along. She bobbed her head apologetically behind his back. “Don’t mind him, he’s just a superstitious sort. There have been a lot of accidents over the years with kids getting lost and drowning around here.”
“Don’t talk like I can’t hear you,” Jim snipped. “They weren’t accidents. It was Pskegdemus.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Ben said charitably.
We watched their tail lights disappear into the dark, until Mom suggested we move inside to unwind before bed.
A floorboard creaked beside my bed. I jumped, instantly awake, and rolled over to see Leland out of his cot, standing at the window. He had his face pressed against the screen.
“Baby?” I whispered.
“Do you hear her, Mama?” He asked his sleepy little voice.
“I dunno. A lady.”
I slid out from under the covers and joined him. The night was sticky and still even beside the open window. I looked down into my parents’ garden, where moonlight cast long shadows across the ground.
“I don’t hear anything, Lee. Let’s go back to bed.”
“There was a lady,” he repeated. “She was crying.”
Jim’s warning from earlier in the evening reared up and slithered across my shoulders in a shiver. I suppressed it, not wanting to upset Leland, and carried him back to bed.
“Maybe you were having a bad dream,” I said.
“No,” he yawned as I tucked his covers around him. “I heard her. Like I heard you and Daddy and the man when you were out there.”
“You heard us?”
That explained it. He had overheard Jim’s tale and it was giving him nightmares. I smoothed his hair back and kissed the tip of his nose.
“Go back to sleep, sweetie.”
I got back into my bed and settled down beside Ben. I lay awake for a while, listening, but it was only the cicadas’ songs that lulled me back to sleep.
Sandra came back the next day, alone this time. Mom and Dad had taken Ben and the kids down to the lake while I enjoyed some quiet alone time. I invited her to take the vacant seat beside me and she perched on the edge of it, uncomfortable and fidgety.
“I came to apologize about last night,” she said.
I brushed it off, but she insisted.
“Jim and I had a son.” Her gaze had dropped to the ground. “He was seven when we lost him. He’d gone down to the swamp to play with friends. When he didn’t come home for dinner, we got worried. We looked for a long time. We never found him. His friends said he’d gone off on his own to find a woman they heard crying. Pskegdemus is a Penobscot legend. Just a boogeyman meant to keep kids from wandering off into the swamp. Jim wasn’t much of a believer in anything before, but after Cody disappeared…well, you saw.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
Sandra responded with a watery smile. “It’s how he copes. He thinks he’s protecting others.”
She didn’t stick around long after that. My heart ached for her and Jim, still grieving their loss, and I hugged Leland and Virginia extra tight when they came back to the house.
Leland shook me awake that night, his eyes wide and his face pale.
“The lady! She’s back!”
I pushed myself up on to my elbows and blinked the sleep away. “We talked about this, Lee.”
“I saw her,” he leaned in urgently. “She was crying and covered in the green, fuzzy stuff on trees!”
“Green, fuzzy…you mean moss?”
“Yeah! She saw me looking and waved. Can I go out and play with her?”
“Of course not!” I said more sharply than I meant to.
I crossed the room to the window and looked toward the dark woods. Leland was adamant that the crying, moss-covered lady had just been there. I made him go back to bed despite his protests and sat with him until he was asleep again. I stayed awake, crammed between my son and the wall in his small, roll-away cot, and I strained my ears.
Every so often, I was sure I heard the faintest sound of a woman sobbing.
I woke, sore and stiff, still in Leland’s cot. My son wasn’t with me.
I shot upright, calling his name, and scrambled for the bedroom door. The air was thick with the scent of eggs and bacon and I could hear Mom and Ben talking quietly from downstairs. The door to Virginia’s room was still shut. I raced down the steps and practically leapt into the kitchen, startling both my mother and husband.
“Where’s Lee?” I demanded, near tears.
“Your dad took him down to the lake to fish,” Ben said, his brow creased with concern. “Is everything ok?”
I took a trembling breath and let the weight that had settled so quickly on my chest fall away. Maybe I was being paranoid, but after two nights of Leland’s strange behavior, I just wanted to keep my little boy within arm’s reach. When he got back, I decided I wasn’t going to let him out of my sight again.
Virginia came down and the four of us sat around the table for breakfast. While they chatted, my eyes kept drifting to the window. I was waiting to see Dad and Leland strolling up the path, their fishing poles draped lazily over their shoulders and a bucket of their fresh catches held between them.
But the morning faded into a hot afternoon, and there was still no sign of either of them.
Just after one, Ben went down to the lake to look for them. I poked around in the woods near the house, walked the length of the driveway, and called for them.
No one answered.
Ben came back alone.
He’d found their poles sitting on the small dock Dad liked to use. Their shoes were there, too, and a cooler of drinks that they’d brought down. The tall grass off to one side had been bent and damaged, as if it had been walked through, and we found a few footprint leading off into the trees.
They were going toward the marshes.
Ben was screaming our son’s name, and then my dad’s. I stood there mutely, caught in an icy wave of terror. My husband’s voice sounded shrill, the buzzing insects too loud! And the distant sound of a woman’s sob all too clear.
We should have listened. But we didn’t.
Jim and Sandra joined in the search. Every day for a month, we combed the swamp, the lake, the woods. We had divers and dogs, volunteers from all over. But it didn’t help.
The police believed that Leland had run off as little kids sometimes do and Dad had given chase. They’d gotten lost or hurt and couldn’t make it back. Another suggestion was that Dad might have kidnapped Leland, but there was no evidence to support it. They were both named missing persons in the reports. Underneath, in smaller letters, as if that might make it hurt less, they’d added, “Presumed dead”.
Ben returned home first. Virginia had to go back to school. There was work to think of. Life kept going, even if every day was agony to get through. I remained at my parents’ house, desperately continuing the search. Most gave up after the first month, more after the second, until only Jim and Sandra continued to look with me on a daily basis.
Jim never said it, but I saw it in his eyes all the same.
You should have listened. But you didn’t.
I left Maine without our son six months after he disappeared. Mom came with me. She left the house in the hands of a realtor. I gave Jim and Sandra my contact information in case they ever came across anything.
They never did.
We kept in touch, from time to time, until Sandra passed away from a heart attack at sixty-five. Jim only sent one more email, about a week after her death. It was a single line with an attachment.
I’m going to be with my son.
The file was a short audio clip. It was quiet and difficult to hear. I had to turn the volume all the way up.
The crunch of leaves and twigs under foot.
And, from somewhere in the distance, the muffled sound of a woman crying.