By Jessica Mannion
I always hated the mural.
No, that’s not entirely true. I’ve been fascinated by it as much as I’ve hated it, a complicated combination. I have to admit, though, now that I know the truth about its origins, my feelings have changed. The mural is how I learned my best friend Annie had been lost, but it’s also how I found her again. I guess you could say I’ve come around.
But I need to back up.
The town I’m from, Sundew Pass, is really small and the mural is our one claim to fame. It’s impossible to ignore. You see it as soon as you crest the hill coming into town. It’s on the side of an old mining building next to an abandoned copper mine. The building is where they used to process the ore. It’s large, grey, and boxy, propped up by stilts and prayer, clinging to the rocky slope like lichen. The town was built around the mine and it was successful for a time, but, as soon as the mine stopped producing, the owners left. Now all that remains are some old buildings and the rocky lichen-covered slopes, drilled to fragility. Mine shafts, once strengthened by timber harvested from forests further down the mountain, collapsed in upon themselves, the supports having all rotted away. Nobody goes up there, not unless they want to get hurt. For years, parents have passed on this knowledge to their children with a creepy little rhyme, the origins of which no one can remember.
“The ground is made from honeycomb; those who wander won’t come home.”
Nobody goes to the mines. Not ever, because if they do, they disappear. Most people say it’s the cavity-filled earth that swallows people up without a trace. Others claim there’s a serial killer living deep in the mines and anyone who comes close enough to discover his secret is never seen again.
The buildings that still stand are gray, washed out by time and the elements, windows and doors all boarded up. They’re set apart from the town, halfway up the mountain between valley and sky on a barren, rocky slope that looks to be in perpetual danger of sliding off the mountain.
Besides the mural, the mountains are the only other notable thing about this town. As much as their copper veins provided for the town’s creation, they’re also the reason it’s so small and isolated. There’s peaks on all sides, so the sun rarely makes it down to the valley proper. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to live here, but a stubborn, tight-knit community of about 250 manage to get by.
The closest town, Snowshoe, is larger by at least two thousand people. It’s 20 miles away, and while it has access to the same fantastic peaks we do, it has the benefit of not being stuck at the end of a poorly maintained, pitted roadway full of switchbacks and hairpin turns. Snowshoe is in a sensible location, with mountains on only three sides; it’s not even a valley, it’s a pass. You can see the lights from their ski resort for miles. Snowshoe gets all the tourists who want to get away from it all. We just get the people who want to disappear.
Sundew Pass is a stupid name for a town. It’s not a pass; it’s a valley, and there’s nothing sunny or dewy about it. The town should have been named after something wintery like Snowshoe. Maybe if it had, we’d have our own ski resort now and it’d be a more fun place to live. You’d think at the very least with a name like Sundew the town would have a cheery vibe, but to me and Annie it feels like a dead end. We’re surrounded by slopes, sharp and steep, that block out the sky, leaving the town in a state of eternal twilight. Annie and I have been planning our escape for years.
Back to the mural. It’s on the largest of the abandoned mining buildings and it’s been there as long as anyone can remember. It’s not ugly; that’s not why I hated it. It’s the subject matter. It’s grim and, honestly, a little cliche. Everyone calls it “Those Who Are Lost” because it shows portraits of all the people who have gone missing in these mountains. It’s not like I didn’t care about the missing people. I did; I do. What kind of monster wouldn’t care? It just seemed kind of tacky. A lot of people disappear around here, especially women, but why advertise? The mural reminds me of those missing child photos they used to print on milk cartons. The thing about the mural, though, is if someone’s picture shows up there, you know they’ll never be seen again. At least there was some possibility that a few of those milk carton kids would be found.
The weirdest part of the whole thing? Nobody knows who painted it, who still paints it. There are so many theories. Is it a single person? Many? Is it a project passed down through a family tradition? People drive miles to see it, usually in the summer, because in the winter the roads are nearly impassable. We call them death tourists, though not to their faces. They bring money to our stagnating town, so we smile and tolerate them but every so often one of them will disappear, bringing the town even more attention. Lucky for us people have short attention spans.
People call the mural haunting, I think, because its mysterious origins give it a romantic air. Other people just call it creepy. It’s like if Banksy lived in the middle of nowhere and only did portraits. The work is never done. The piece changes constantly, the faces alter, almost seem to age, and the colors fade over time, blending into the turfy gray of the rocky, lichen-covered mountainside. Then overnight, without warning, a new portrait will appear, a new face, fresh and inscrutable as the Mona Lisa, drawing the eye like fall leaves. It’s magical, transient, and it means that person will never be seen again.
People love debating how it’s done, how the artist manages to create the portraits overnight. Some people think it’s a team effort; others think there’s a lot of prep work happening behind the scenes before it actually goes on the building, painting onto large pieces of thin paper that can be glued up like a poster. That would explain the fading, people say, how the paper pulling away from the surface of the building would lose color more quickly. There’s lots of theories, but nobody really knows and the people who live here know how quick it happens. It’s uncanny.
The biggest mystery, in my opinion, is the thing most people seem to ignore. It’s that often new faces show up on the wall before anyone has realized they’re missing. Sometimes a new face is the only indication that a search party is needed. Not that they ever find anything. The mountains are not kind. Hikers get injured all the time, they fall, they freeze to death, some get taken by mountain lions. There are warning signs everywhere, on all the trails, but everyone assumes it won’t happen to them. When people do explore around the buildings, they take great precautions. They wear harnesses and trail out long lengths of rope to prevent falls. Nothing ever comes of it and the explorers are never locals. People who live here don’t really seem to want to know because we’ve all realized that, whoever the artist is, he or she knows more than anyone has a right to about all those missing people.
It’s always been clear to Annie and I that this town was a dead end. We’ve been planning our escape our whole lives, saving money, choosing the same college. We were starting this fall. A lot of people stayed in town after graduating, a surprising number in my opinion. So when I noticed this morning there was a new face on the mural, it took me a long time to realize it was her. My mind would not accept it, but there was no mistaking that dimple in her chin, her dark brown eyes, the fringe of bangs that she wore so long she had to blow them out of her eyes. She was wearing her favorite shirt, a fuchsia v-neck. She’d let me borrow it once; it was very soft.
That night, I wrote a note for my mom and dad and left it on my pillow — just in case — because I had to look. I didn’t really expect to catch the artist, so many others had tried, but I also couldn’t do nothing. At the very least I could say goodbye.
The moon was full and very bright, so I didn’t need my flashlight. I’d worn dark colors, because blending in seemed like a wise decision. I figured if I was going to do something this stupid I should at least do it in a practical way.
The mural looked, if possible, more grim in the moonlight. Annie’s eyes seemed to follow me, but I figured it was just a trick of the light. I almost turned back several times, but something drew me on; I just had to know.
I kept a safe distance at first, a smart distance on the well-groomed gravel path that had been lined with split logs and liberally populated with signs warning hikers to stay on designated trails. I paced back and forth, trying to see it from multiple angles. In the moonlight it looked flat, washed out, even the fuchsia shirt looked gray, but there was something about viewing it in this light that made the images in the mural seem to move. It reminded me of those optical illusion cards where, depending on how you tilted the image, the figure seemed to move. I paced pack and forth, trying to see it from a good angle, trying to see all the way to the base of the building but I just couldn’t see enough.
I had to get closer. I needed to know. I left the path and picked my way carefully through the stunted scrubby bushes and lichen-covered rocks.
Finally, I was there. The building itself was larger than I’d initially thought. The wall stretched up more than twenty feet, maybe thirty, it was hard to tell. Annie’s face from this angle looked skewed, almost stretched. Behind and around her—behind the vines—I could see shadows of the faces of those who had been lost before, receding back into what I realized must be layers upon layers of paint. This painting had an astonishing amount of depth. Why had I never noticed? I wondered how long it had been here. Was it even possible there could be someone old enough to have kept this terrible project alive so long? The thought made me sick. Was it a family of killers, then? Was it father and son, mother and daughter, some sort of dark intergenerational trauma expressing itself through this tragic memorializing of those who are lost, those whose disappearances they may have been responsible for.
I couldn’t help but admire the skill of the artist. The attention to detail was astonishing; Annie’s eyes alone must have taken hours, each eyelash was distinct. I could see her pores. The vines that wound around and through the older faces were rendered in such exquisite detail that, in the moonlight, they seemed alive. I leaned closer and heard a rustle. I turned to peer into the darkness but saw nothing. I turned back to examine the vines more closely, admiring how they wove over and around each fading face, how vibrantly the flowers were rendered. I could practically smell them.
I was starting to feel a little loopy, the strangeness of the situation playing tricks on my brain. I had the ridiculous impulse to lean closer, to press my nose to those flowers to see if they smelled as good as they looked, to feel if those petals were as soft.
I leaned in, reaching to grasp a vine to draw the blooms near. The other part of my brain, the part that was still thinking, anticipated rough painted wood, but I never felt it. That was when I realized, when I reacted, but even as I pulled back I knew it was too late. The vines had me. Lightning fast they twined around my waist, my wrists, ankles, neck, insinuating themselves into my hair, my ears, my god — they pulled me in.
A little later, muzzy and drowsy as if I’d fallen asleep in the sun, I realized I was at some high vantage point over my little town. The ground seemed very far away, but I wasn’t afraid. My entire body felt warm, numb, and I was cradled in something pliable, light, and very, very strong. A small part of my mind still struggled, instincts are the last to go, but I caught another whiff of those intoxicating flowers and realized how comfortable I felt, how safe, and I relaxed into the inevitable embrace.
I admired the first blush of sunrise as it spilled across the mountains and felt a tremendous outpouring of affection for my little town. How could I have ever thought of leaving? My family is here, my community; this is where I’m supposed to be. Annie is here, too, and we are very happy. We love the sharp sweep of mountains that jut toward the sky, their ragged edges eclipsing nearly everything except the moon. We are together. We’re all here, years upon years upon years of us, trailing back to a past that no single living thing could possibly remember except us, but we remember because we are no longer one single living thing. We are part of something great, something greater than any one of us could have ever been. We are consumed, and yet we are not. We are the mural, a part of this tapestry, this tableau, and we wait. Now is the time for watching, for patience, biding our time until the next one draws near and we can welcome them home.
Jessica Mannion lives in Brooklyn, NY with one husband, two cats who enjoy staring into empty corners and meowing, and a few orchids she has managed to keep alive in spite of herself. They’re probably not trying to kill her, the orchids, but you can never be too sure. Her work can be found in Pank, The Rumpus, The Literary Review, Bullshit Lit, and The Write Launch.