The Lost Children
Josephine Russing owned 387 pairs of gloves. She had them in wool and cotton and silk. She had them in plaid and paisley and print. She even had a pair that had been made from the fur of an albino sloth.
Josephine, her gloves, and her father, Leopold Russing, lived in a big empty farmhouse miles and miles away from the nearest neighbor or trading post. Josephine had no friends to speak of, but even if she had, she would never have invited them to visit her home. Other children might expect her father to say hello, to ask their names, or to serve them iced lemonade. And when he didn’t, they might learn Josephine’s most
unspoken secret. Her father ignored her completely.
Mr. Russing skulked around their house in silence,
reading, cooking meals, or washing clothes, occasionally glancing at Josephine as if she were a neighbor’s cat who’d sneaked in the window. Since her mother had died, Josephine’s only indication that her father remembered she existed was that each week he brought her a new pair of gloves. He never said anything about them, or acknowledged when she wore them, but every Friday evening when Josephine checked her chest of drawers, there would be a brand-new pair of gloves inside. Josephine would have preferred a conversation or the occasional “How was school today?” but she wore the gloves dutifully, accepting each new pair as some minute sign that her father actually cared for her.
But it was hard to believe that Mr. Russing cared for anything. He was an imposing presence, tall with salt-and-pepper hair that he slicked back, exposing an intimidating widow’s peak. His brown eyes were inscrutable and never seemed to rest on anything for long. Josephine was fairly certain he couldn’t name her eye color (amber) or her age (twelve). He wore expensive suits that were always perfectly pressed, along with his own special pair of gray silk gloves.
He was extremely unpopular in the town, and it wasn’t just because he was strangely quiet and wore the expression of someone who’d just smelled sour milk. People hated him because he was responsible for the most outrageous
law ever to be passed in the town’s history: Every
citizen was required to wear gloves at all
This might be fine if one was a banker or an accountant or something of that sort, but imagine what it was like for the farmers and carpenters and bakers, who worked with their hands. They hated
the law, but if they were caught not wearing gloves, they were fined.
How did this silly law get passed in the first place? It happened one night many years ago when Mr. Russing was in the middle of a heated game of five-card stud with the city mayor. Mayor Supton had four jacks and was feeling a bit cocky. But Leo Russing had a straight flush, and when he won, he decided to forgo his monetary winnings and demand that the mayor pass a new law on his behalf. The mayor quickly acquiesced, happy to escape with his wallet intact.
Mr. Russing was the only man who manufactured gloves in the town, so one can imagine how much this law improved his business. He had three factories lined up in a row like ducks—that is to say, they were actually shaped like ducks (Josephine’s father had bought the buildings from a man in the bathtub toy business who was down on his luck). In one building the gloves were designed. In another they were cut and pinned. And in the third they were sewn, by hand, by women who’d been shipped over from an island across the
ocean and who didn’t mind sewing gloves . . . while wearing gloves.
He was the wealthiest man in town. And people hated him, for his money and for his stupid law. And the children hated Josephine. As they sat in the classroom, hands sweating and itching from their gloves, they would glare at her and whisper mean things. But she was too shy to defend herself, to try to explain that she had nothing to do with the gloves and that she hated wearing them too.
Josephine barely remembered her mother, and the recollection was less of a picture and more of a sensation, an ethereal feeling that Josephine couldn’t pinpoint but that most children know very well. It was a sense of safety and love. For Josephine this feeling was elusive, as if she were sopping wet and couldn’t remember what it was to be dry.
Surprisingly, the vision from her early childhood that haunted Josephine the most was not of her mother, but of her father. She could recollect him standing on the front lawn, his hair a rich brown, smiling and waving to her mother inside the house. He was, as always, wearing a crisp suit and the gray gloves, but he was smiling and—Josephine was just sure of it—he was happy. It was very difficult to reconcile the joyful man on the lawn with the father she now lived with. But she clung to the memory
desperately, only letting it out at night when she could sink into it like a warm duvet.
Josephine had always gone to school of her own accord. Her father didn’t notice if she went or not, which many children might imagine as an ideal situation, but not Josephine. She loved books. And school was the only place where she could get her hands on more, so she attended regularly and worked diligently. She felt confident when she was reading. She imagined that because she was able to admire and understand the characters in the stories, the characters (had they been real) would have liked and understood her in return. Sometimes when she neared the end of a story, she would force herself to read very, very
slowly, because she dreaded the moment when it was all over, when she would have to look up and remember her own dull life. So she always read the last paragraph twice before turning the page, detesting that brutally blank final sheet.
Josephine had a delicate heart-shaped face, a button nose, and long eyelashes that made her eyes wide and bright. Not that anyone saw her eyes, since she always walked around with a curly mop of hair obscuring her face. She was lean and gangly, and she hated her spindly legs.
While the children would have nothing to do with Josephine, she intrigued the schoolteacher, Ms. Kirdle.
Josephine possessed an almost frightening ability to remember lectures word for word, and unlike the other children, Josephine never talked to her neighbors, or giggled when Ms. Kirdle’s new shoes squeaked, or pointed if she saw a dog out the window. She always sat still and captivated at the back of the classroom, chewing on her frizzy locks.
And she got perfect marks.
Ms. Kirdle, a kind woman with mannish eyebrows, worried about Josephine’s apparent lack of friends. When she told the children to form groups, no one wanted to include Josephine. Ms. Kirdle only had to look down at her own gloved hands to understand their resentment, but she still thought they were being unfair. She sometimes managed to slip Josephine extra books when no one was watching.
Every afternoon school ended with Ms. Kirdle reading aloud from a story, and this was Josephine’s favorite part of the day. She would close her eyes and listen to Ms. Kirdle’s dulcet voice, temporarily forgetting that eventually she would have to gather her books and papers and return to her unbearably quiet house.
But that callous bell would always ring, jolting Josephine out of her reverie, and the room would fill with the sharp scratchings of chairs on the wood floor as the other children hurried to escape. And Josephine
would watch out the window as mothers came to gather their broods, retie unlaced shoes, and patiently listen to the ceaseless list of wonders and complaints that school always produced. Only after the other children and mothers had walked away would Josephine leave the building. She preferred not to hear the whispering her presence seemed to provoke among adults.
This was Josephine’s life—school, books, and a weekly pair of new gloves—until one spring day when a small boy named Fargus arrived in her garden.
The Lost Children
It was a hot, humid day, and as Josephine walked the dusty three miles home, she was in a bit of a snit. Ms. Kirdle had been lecturing all week about horticulture and had ordered all of the students to go home and plant tomatoes. Josephine was annoyed because when she got home, she’d been planning to finish a delightful book about a giant who falls in love with a barn. And now she would have to deal with these vexing tomatoes instead.
She wearily walked in her front door and hung her schoolbag on a peg in the hall closet. She took off her gloves, a purple pair with feathers at the cuffs (sometimes she walked around bare-handed before her father got home). She removed a small sack of seeds from her pocket and carefully read the directions. She saw there were certain tools she was going to need for the job.
She sighed, for the tools were located in Josephine’s least favorite place in the entire world.
Old and rickety, the toolshed at the back of their property seemed to be held together by its abundant cobwebs, and whenever Josephine was required to go inside it, she had the distinct feeling that something had just ended, that moments before her hand had landed on the door latch, there had been a party of rats, a meeting of roaches, or a small union of spiders conspiring to land in her hair.
She shuddered at the thought and begrudgingly put on her mud boots, an old pair that had once belonged to her father, and went out the back door to the patio. She awkwardly plodded in the oversize shoes across the vast lawn to the small shed at the back. Josephine’s house had been built just after she was born, but this shed had been around for generations. It belonged to a time that Josephine couldn’t even picture, and if she tried to imagine the people who had lived then or the many people who may have stood in front of the shed just as she did now, it made her teeth hurt (Josephine’s molars frequently ached when she tried to process difficult or abstract information).
She lifted and pulled at the squeaky door until it relented with a burst of stale air. Even in the afternoon sun, the shed was dark and cool, like a mausoleum. She
entered slowly and instinctively ran her hand through her curls, searching for spiders. As soon as Josephine’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness, she could see the small shovel and watering can she needed. She snatched them up and darted out of the shed. As the door swung shut behind her, she almost thought she heard an exhale, as if the shed were relieved to see her go.
Back in the daylight, she surveyed the backyard for an appropriately sunny place for her tomatoes. She saw a dirt patch that was near enough to the house that she could spot it from the kitchen window but far enough away not to annoy her father.
She walked briskly across the lawn toward the chosen sight and heard a crunch beneath her foot. She lifted her shoe and saw that she had stepped on a snail. Her heart sank as she thought of his long, deliberate journey across her yard, and she imagined the mama snail and baby snail who would be waiting for him to return. But he never would, thanks to her thoughtlessness. She wistfully cleaned off her boot and reminded herself to watch her step.
She was soon hacking at soil with the little shovel, turning the earth as Ms. Kirdle had shown them. She reviewed the teacher’s lecture in her mind. “The tomato is a ‘perennial,’ which means it grows year-round. The plant grows as a series of branching stems, with buds at the tips that do the actual growing. It needs plenty of water and six hours of sunlight a day.”
Josephine opened her little packet of seeds and poured them into the fresh hole.
She wished the teacher had asked them to grow something more interesting, like maybe a nice cactus. A cactus was a succulent
, which was a word Josephine liked a lot, and she said it out loud now: “Ssssucculent.” It had something called a taproot that grew underground and stored energy for the cactus to use if there was a drought. Some of them could go as long as two years
without water. And just in case her father should decide he didn’t want anything growing in his lawn, a cactus had needles to protect itself. A tomato was just silly and squashy and completely helpless.
She covered her tomato seeds with plenty of water, as Ms. Kirdle had instructed. As she packed the soil back into the hole, she began to converse out loud. Josephine had been talking to herself for years but often didn’t realize it. Most of the time, since she had no one else to talk to, she would tell her father about her day.
“Johnny Baskin’s been wearing the same socks to school for weeks and he’s starting to smell. Nelly Wipshill likes Brian Union but Brian likes Fiona Valley.”
She would imagine him nodding his head and
laughing, as he had done that day when her mother had still been alive.
A twig snapped to Josephine’s right. She looked over, expecting to see a robin or a squirrel. But what she saw made her cry out. A small, barefoot boy with a suitcase in his hand was standing on the lawn, staring at her. He was an intense boy with hard brown eyes and small lips. Josephine caught her breath.
“You scared me to death!” she scolded him.
He continued to stare at her without answering.
“What are you doing here?” Josephine asked, squinting at him from behind her tangle of hair. There was something very strange about this boy.
He took a step toward her and put the suitcase down on the ground. He was a few years younger than Josephine. She couldn’t imagine why he would be wandering around alone all the way out here. “Are you lost?” She tried a smile.
He twisted his face and opened his mouth as if to respond, but no words emerged. Just air.
“I’m Josephine. What’s your name?” she demanded. But still nothing.
Josephine stood up, brushed herself off, and walked past the boy to the front of the house. He followed her like a loyal puppy. She looked up and down the dirt road, expecting to see his mother or father. But the road
was empty. The next house was miles away. Was he some sort of runaway? She’d never seen him in school or anywhere else in town. She didn’t know what to do. She turned back toward the boy and for the first time noticed that he wasn’t wearing gloves. Definitely not local,
she thought. He was scrawny and pale and looked as if he hadn’t had a good meal in a long while.
“Do you want some food?” she tried.
He smiled and nodded, so Josephine led him back to the house. They entered the kitchen and Josephine took off her mud boots. She pointed to a chair at the table. It was the one she usually used. Somehow she felt that if the boy sat in her father’s chair, her father would know about it immediately. Almost as if he had read her thoughts, the boy put down his suitcase and used it
for a chair.
Josephine retrieved some leftover oatmeal from the refrigerator and began to reheat it on the stove. She added plenty of brown sugar and milk, the way she liked it herself, and set it down in front of the boy. He stared at it for a long moment and then stuck his nose deep into the bowl for a sniff. When he brought his head back up, he had oatmeal on his nose. Josephine giggled and the boy self-consciously wiped his nose on his sleeve and went back to staring at the oatmeal.
Finally, as if a switch had been thrown, he grabbed the spoon and began wolfing down his food, shoving
it in so fast that Josephine was afraid he would choke. He finished the oatmeal in seconds and then used his fingers to gather the sugar that was left on the sides of the bowl. He licked them, ecstatic, as though he’d never tasted anything sweet before.
“You were hungry, huh?” Josephine asked.
He looked at her, more alert now, eyes shining. He nodded.
“How did you get here?”
The boy looked away from her, at the ceiling and then the floor.
Sensing his anxiety, she added, “I won’t tell anyone. I promise.” She looked intently at him and he stared back, long and hard. It seemed to Josephine that he was trying to make up his mind about something. Then, in one motion, he got up from his suitcase and walked out the back door.
“Hey!” She rushed after him onto the patio. He was standing there, pointing, as tense as a rabbit near a wolf. She followed his finger, and when she saw what he was pointing at, she sucked in her breath.
“That’s where you come from?”
The boy nodded solemnly.
Josephine suddenly felt cold despite the sweltering sun. The boy was pointing at the shed.