The girls began drowning in June.
By the summer there were twelve of them. Twelve-moon faced Ophelias, their hair shades of chocolate and corn silk, eyelashes grazing the tops of freckled and sunburnt cheeks. Youth evident in the bird-bone fragility of their wrists and ankles, the lingering baby-faced roundness of their features. All of them wading barefoot into murky lake water and slipping away. We spent a long half-year keeping our daughters inside so they wouldn’t wander down to the water and join them.
We said nothing to our sons. Believing them still the innocent little boys, cherubim. We had missed the parts where they became men.
We would sit in the gaping light of our televisions every evening and watch the news bulletin, stare at the cycling collection of their identical porcelain doll faces. Listening eagerly to grim-voiced officers and teary-eyed mothers, pleas for a safe return. While the ads rolled, we leaned back in our chairs and muttered to each other what a shame, poor girls, terrible business.
On Sunday mornings we’d pray, a minute longer for each new girl. All of our eyes on their families crowded into the front pews, their pictures framed and glinting on the lectern. Afterwards the congregation would file past and press warm, comforting palms to shoulders and cheeks. We left casseroles and flowers on front porch steps and tried to convince ourselves we were helping. Turned a blind eye when the offerings were left to the weather and went rotten.
And when we all whispered, hands over mouth so as not to be heard, we called them good girls, kind girls. Everyone had a story of their gentle gestures and warm smiles; memories of fleeting grocery store encounters became precious and plentiful. And when they found used condoms, marijuana, panties that weren’t their own in the backs of cars and depths of purses, we all turned the other cheek. Kept our speculation to private dining table discussions behind closed doors. Still gazing at their smiling angel portraits and gauzy, white debutante photos. Assuring ourselves again that they were good, kind.
Months wore on without real news. We hosted fundraisers on courtyard lawns and vigils by the lake edge all of us wary of the water. We all tried to pretend we weren’t losing interest at first, becoming exhausted by their faces, their features slowly blurring together. When their families stopped attending Sunday service we barely noticed, and when they packed up and moved away, their houses sat vacant and hollow-eyed for months.
As quickly as they had enraptured us, the girls became solitary ghosts in our white suburbia memories. Lingering myths. And when, eventually, they dredged them up from the sediment, bloated and dull, we all looked away. Disgusted, uninterested.
We never remembered their names.
Grace Harvey is a third-year creative writing student and Meanjin (Brisbane) based fiction writer. Their work can be found at ScratchThat, Glass Magazine, and most places online @graceharveywrites.
Artist: Willow Ward
Editors: Willow Ward and Hannah Vesey