CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Many Deaths of Paula Jean Welden
Erin Kate Ryan
On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden put on a bright-red parka, left her dorm for a hike on the Long Trail, and vanished into the thin mountain air of the trailhead.
On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden put on a bright-red parka, left her dorm for a hike on the Long Trail, and was kidnapped by a man with a long black car and a history of violence against women.
On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden put on a bright-red parka and left her dorm to meet her unkind boyfriend, who carted her to Fall River, blew through her cash, then ditched her for a moment in a diner, where she leaned over the counter and whispered to the waitress how had it come to this.
On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden put on a bright-red parka and left her dorm to take a cab to the bus station, where she set off for Raleigh, and the impossible idea of being a brand-new girl.
On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden put on a bright-red parka, left her dorm, and met her botany teacher; after a quarrel over their relationship (a pregnancy, a secret) he bludgeoned her in a damp clearing at the foot of a covered bridge.
On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden put on a bright-red parka, left her dorm, and spent the night straddling laps at a tavern in Barre, before hitching to Boston where she applied for a job at the first Thai place in the state.
On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden put on a bright-red parka and left her dorm to meet her roommate in a shed near the campus edge; after a quarrel over their relationship (shameful, unrepentant) her roommate strangled her and buried her under the floor.
On December 1, 1946, Paula Jean Welden (a whisper of a person with no destiny of her own) put on a bright-red parka, left her dorm, and began to exist by disappearing. The National Guard arrived for the search, as did her father, the Boy Scouts, the FBI. Psychics dreamt of her: bridge, cabin, long black car, balled-up map. The hole she left somehow bigger than the space she had filled.
We who are left behind try to paint her absence: building in from the edges with the colors of the room, the shadows of the woods, the richly realized red of the floor, encroaching upon the outlines of her form with the blunt tip of our brush. We leave the canvas bare in the shape of our ideas, edging around a girl with a secret, a girl with a shame, a girl whose absence matters more to us than her life.
Once upon a time:
Orpheus, a demigod, makes music so rich it can rearrange the world; he falls in love with a woman called Eurydice. At their wedding feast, Orpheus sits with his lyre and draws out song after song, his voice ringing into the night. Eurydice, unneeded, overwhelmed by the music, walks out of the room. She drifts away to a thin patch of forest to drop her head back and look up at the swirling sky. She does not see the viper’s nest or feel the bite that kills her.
Or so we say. We do not know. We know nothing of Eurydice but that she died.
In her absence, Orpheus’s music weeps, and swirls around the place Eurydice might have stood. A single keening chord swirling into a skirt, swirling into a dress, spinning into a cloak of grief draped around a girl who isn’t there at all.
Orpheus, plucking his own strings, composing the twelfth ballad about his feelings of grief and loss, glimpses a girl-shaped mist at the edge of the woods. The mist crooks a finger; with no words at all, the mist beckons him into Hades. Orpheus, voice of his own, hero of his own story, stands to leave his rock and step into the spongy soil of the underworld, where trees drip stones and music bends steel, but the only voice ever heard is his. Eurydice remains unsung. She remains unmade, unpainted. A girl-shaped spot of bare canvas in the woods, a girl-shaped silence in the song.
Eurydice, like the missing girls who follow, is a temptress into the shadow world. Unlike the masculine hero of myth, the missing girl will not arrive in the foreign terrain to find that she is the Chosen One. Instead: She is the totem to which the hero cleaves. The instigating event that draws the hero into a realm that splinters expectations of the real. A prism world of underbelly where familiar rules don’t apply. The boundary of dream blurs; the margins of self are obscured. Time accordions.
Latter-day Orpheus, we lace up our boots and step hard into the early winter slush that fell overnight, chasing misty visions of Paula Jean in a cabin, Paula Jean on a bridge. Paula Jean with a mouthful of mud. Paula Jean hiking, Paula Jean in Fall River, Paula Jean choking on gasoline and grit—symbol of what happens to girls who go bad, girls who are curious, girls who are—
—here in the underworld, music melts steel but the missing girl never appears. She is not rescued, she does not return, and even her absence dissolves as our story finds its focus—on us and our idea of what it means to be real.
Like a Polaroid brightening into view, Paula Jean Welden appears in her bright-red parka among the skinny ash trees in the forest at the edge of campus and she crooks her finger at us. Coaxes us from the place where reasons and edges exist, into a world of speculation and uncertainty. Here, in the shadows and the damp, the Girl in the Red Parka reminds us of the possibility that truth remains unseen.
Eurydice’s voice trills out for the first time in memory, vibrating up from her underworld home, rich enough to rearrange your dreams. And as it rises, her song becomes a ribbon, swirling through those skinny ash trees and weaving among ancient constellations. Dressed in a cloak made of someone else’s music, Eurydice sings a secret ballad that says: For there to be symphony, there must also be silence, and what is real is a braid of them both.
Once upon a time: A girl left a room.
Once upon a time: A woman didn’t come home.
Once upon a time: A girl was defined by her death.
Once upon a time: A woman walked into the woods.
And no one noticed until the sun rose high and the light hit the space that she had left behind.
Here is the perverse paradox of the missing girl: She cannot be anyone until she is gone. She is forever trapped in prelude; she will never the hero of her own story.
Rather, she lives on as ever-shifting chimera, cobbled together from supposition and wild-eyed fable.
Paula Jean Welden will never be a young woman who walked into the woods for her own quiet reasons. Paula Jean Welden is only and altogether a missing girl who put on a bright-red parka and left her dorm room; a missing girl playing grown-up at a tavern out of town; a missing girl wandering off as the music got too loud; a missing girl gargling hard against a hand as she was crushed; a missing girl crying out for her mother in her last mo—
who regretted venturing into the dark
who took the job at the Thai place and married the owner’s son
who stumbled into a nest of vipers
whose nightgown hem is rags upon the moors
who is a crinoline doll dressed in paper and ink
who is a symphony made of silence rising up from beneath our feet
The missing girl is everything that everyone thought that she was, because it was those ideas that brought her to life. This is a story about the supposed disappearance of a supposed girl—but let’s not pretend that any of this is for her.
The very act of storytelling makes this about the story, and about us.
Erin Kate Ryan’s work has appeared in Glimmer Train and A cappella Zoo, and she was a 2014 Fellow at the Edward Albee Foundation and Hambidge Creative Center residency programs. “Many Deaths” is the afterword to a two-month-long experiential fiction that employed traditional text, social media, image, signage, fine art, puzzle, rumor, and chance to tell the story of a missing girl, and that concluded in June 2014. Paula Jean Welden, the missing girl at the center of the project, disappeared from Bennington College on December 1, 1946. She has never been found.