The Abduction of Europa
Helen was born one year before me, to the day. I don’t know why or how my parents decided to have us so close together—if it was even a decision—but we were almost twins. We lived in an apartment on Riverside Drive and 140th Street—or “one-four-oh” as per the uptown argot—about halfway between Grant’s Tomb and the George Washington Bridge. We could see the bridge from our living room window, stretching across the Hudson to New Jersey.
Helen was quicker and more observant than me. Whenever we went to the park, she was always the first to point out our favorite birds. “Gus—look—a cardinal!” she would say, raising her arm, as if conjuring up the flickering spot in the dappled leaves.
Shortly after my fourth birthday and her fifth—on a sultry afternoon, much like today—my mother took us to a small playground on Riverside Drive, where Helen and I played with jacks and marbles while my mother read a book. At some point, I followed Helen’s eyes to a man who stood watching us from beyond the iron fencing. Tall and bony with yellow-brown skin, he had a broad, hairy chest—he wore no shirt—and the long face of a pterodactyl. He waved at Helen, who for some reason waved back. My mother, who did not—or could not—see the man, remained lost in her reading. Helen beckoned for me to follow, and I, having never seen the wild part of the park, was happy to tag along. We didn’t pick up our marbles, though I kept my shooter in my pocket.
Helen ran to the edge of a ravine, where we stood for a few seconds as she hummed in her small but tuneful voice. She picked out a route leading down the embankment, while I followed behind, my feet scraping and sliding. At the bottom, where a bank of silver mist wound through the trees, she pulled me along as the contours of a stream became defined, twisting around boulders, stone ruins, and the carcasses of abandoned cars. We crossed over a fallen tree trunk, slippery with moss and decaying wood, and stopped at a sandy peninsula. As Helen washed her hands in the water, I broke some twigs in half and dropped them into the current, which whisked them away toward the fading light.
I wanted to go back to our mother, but Helen pointed across the stream, where I saw the same strange man from before. Behind him, stalks of yellow bamboo stood under a cloud of rustling green leaves. Whether an effect of the sun or something else, the man’s arms and chest—maybe even his face—were radiating light. It wasn’t harsh or effulgent but a soft, pulsating glow, something that in my memories would remind me of a firefly or a jellyfish.
Helen waded into the stream, which rushed white around her ankles. On the other side, she turned around and held up her arm, as if we were playing “Simon Says.” I wanted to stop her but my tongue—like my legs—was paralyzed with fright and the certainty that this stranger wanted Helen, not me.
With a final skip, she reached the man, who bent down and picked her up before he ran into the trees, crossing the terrain quickly in his jerky gait. As Helen wrapped her arms around his long neck, she looked at me one last time, her eyes shining like a doll’s.
I shook myself out of my stupor and staggered away from the scarlet horizon, retracing my route through scratching branches. At the playground, my mother gripped me by the shoulders and demanded to know where Helen was. Between sobs, I managed to tell her that we had followed a man into the forest and he had taken Helen away. My mother had warned us so many times not to do this very thing and we had done it anyway. It was horrible to see her so distraught.
The police soon arrived. A group of officers and dogs rushed into the park, while a uniformed woman patiently explained the importance of these first few minutes, which helped to stanch the tears. As the officer teased information from me, her partner radioed the team below. What was immediately odd and disconcerting, both to the police and to me, was that very little of what I told them about the landscape below conformed to what they found combing the woods. It was almost completely dark but they had floodlights. They crossed small hills and ridges, but saw no deep gorge or ravine, much less the yellow bamboo I so vividly recalled. I couldn’t bring myself to mention that the man they sought had been glowing or that he had seemed to gallop through the trees. I knew they wouldn’t believe what I could not fathom myself.
My mother knelt down so her eyes were level with mine. “Gustav,” she said through trembling lips, “you need to tell this lady officer everything you saw. You’re not in trouble—we just want to find Helen.”
With my mother’s assent, I led a different group of officers into the forest, but was now flummoxed by the night and my mutating memories. The officers returned me to my mother and tried to reassure her: children were lost all the time in the city, even by the most vigilant parents. In almost every case, they were soon found and brought home safely. The most important thing, they said, was not to give up hope.
But they didn’t find Helen, not that night, and not over the weeks and months and years that followed. The leads gradually tailed off, but my parents never stopped hoping. My mother made a point—usually around our birthday—to pull some fading pictures out of the drawer so that we could remember Helen and pray for her return. It was a ritual that, along with the unending search, became a faith in a God whose power I couldn’t quite define.
I also never completely gave up, although the death of my parents some two decades later made the likelihood of finding Helen seem increasingly remote. I found it difficult to maintain a religion of one. But sometimes, as she had done today, my sister would appear with such startling clarity that I would be filled with a sense of omnipotence, as if I—or the God whose guidance I craved—were resurrecting her.
Photographs © Matthew Gallaway.