Legend had it that two children went into the forest and never came back. Florence Agnor was familiar with the story from her books, but she didn’t like the tale being told on the streets or in the shops of Whitefish, as she clung to her mother’s hand, eyeing the rock candy jar.
The De Smit family owned a wheat farm next to the Agnors’ sheep ranch in Flathead County, Montana. In April of ’52, two of the De Smit children disappeared into the forest, on an errand to pick bearberries, and never returned.
Part of the De Smit and Agnor land lay in a thin valley beneath a range of mountains, next to a forest, wherein a small river curled among the spruces and firs. The two children had wandered away from the house at mid-morning after chores of washing breakfast dishes, sweeping the front stoop, gathering eggs, and milking the cow. The De Smit parents weren’t alarmed that the children were gone for hours, they often disappeared to explore the hillside, ice-skate on the river or fish in it, build forts or pick fruit from neighbor’s trees. It wasn’t until that afternoon when the flash flood rose from the banks of the river, crawled beside the roots of trees through the forest, toward the wheatfields and sheep pastures that panic rose among the De Smits and they contacted the police to help them find the children.
In tall waders and rain coats, holding lanterns, the police, De Smits, and neighbors, including Florence’s parents, entered the forest and sloshed through the wet ground and water, calling the children’s names, hoping they would materialize among the firs, climbing out of the darkness and water as the light from the lanterns flung across their path. They did this for weeks, the searches becoming more and more extensive, covering more land, following maps of the forest and adjoining land.
Early on in the search they did find one of Martin’s shoes and Aniek’s red wool scarf. It had been a scarf the Agnors gave her for Christmas one year. It was an odd part of the case, the pieces of clothing. Almost as if they had been leaving a trail by which they could be found. In October of ’52 the assumption was that the children had died in the wilderness, from the flood, the elements, an accident, or an animal. With winter approaching it was certain the children would not survive if still in the forest, and the case was left to rest. The De Smits sold their farm a year later and moved into Whitefish.
Martin was six years old, same as Florence’s age, and Aniek was two years older. The children had often played together. But she could not remember very much about the day they disappeared. She did remember staring out the window in the upstairs bedroom, next to her sister in the cradle, while her mother made preparations to drive them to town and her father helped the De Smits look for Martin and Aniek. She remembered the water rising along the roots of the spruces along the forest’s edge, crouching and inching forward, hunting her, watching her, the water cold as teeth, a kind of water wolf that followed her out of the forest. She found it chilling to think of the children, imagining them being erased, the way water can swallow a thing, hiding it in its depths until it decides to return it.
Twenty-nine years later, in 1981, Florence was opening her bakery shop, setting up the register, arranging the pies baked from the night before, when the bell connected to the door rang, and Esther De Smit stepped inside. She was a large woman with a mass of blonde curls about her face and she tightened the belt of her blue wool coat as she stepped up to the counter.
“Mrs. De Smit!” Florence said. “It’s good to see you again.” Even though Whitefish was small, Florence and Mrs. De Smit didn’t run into one another often.
Esther muttered a good day and glanced around the empty shop. “I have something to ask you.”
Even though no one was in the shop she leaned forward, over the counter and lowered her voice. She told Florence that a woman had appeared in Whitefish, claiming to be her daughter, Aniek.
“She’s asked to see you,” Mrs. De Smit went on, hurriedly. “She is troubled. She is having trouble remembering everything. She wants to talk with an old friend.”
Florence took a deep breath and raised her eyebrows. “Are you serious?” she asked. Mrs. De Smit avoided her eye contact and played with a little bowl of sugar on the counter, tipping it on its side, watching the tiny grains shift.
“Have the police positively identified this woman as Aniek?” Florence asked.