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November 2009

The Lost Boy of the Ozarks

After three decades of silence, a reporter reveals the story he was afraid to write.
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Goodnight Hollow, Missouri – A boy walked into the woods and no one worried. In those days, 5-year-olds skinned squirrels and giggled and a child could open a sow’s throat with a single steady swipe. Before they were taught figures, daughters learned how to season steaming possum meat. Sons of slaves plowed the rocky soil and mothers bled to death in childbirth and if a little girl cut her finger, and the cut oozed green and the finger swelled, then her father measured the child and he started nailing together a tidy box of pine.

In the hidden hollows of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, which is where the boy lived, times were hard. It was 1903 and the boy had just turned 8, but there was game to hunt, hogs to butcher, and there was no pine box or preacher or slab of limestone to mark the boy’s passing, because there was no boy. The woods had claimed him. Adults paid respect in private, on sagging elm porches, late at night, over lonely, guttering flames. They remembered the child’s pale green eyes, the coonskin cap he always wore. They remarked that his stutter must have made his short childhood more difficult than most. Wives murmured to husbands that the missing boy was surely in a happier place, but what they remembered was that their own children had avoided the boy the way pack animals avoid the diseased and the crippled; that ever since the boy was born, he had carried in his downcast gaze something ghostly and damned.

Time passed, and when visitors from nearby Abesville and Reeds Spring and Chestnut Ridge found themselves walking in the woods where the boy had disappeared, they remembered beatings they had suffered when they were young and–worse–they suddenly recalled the welts they had left on their own children’s flesh. They conjured visions of their little boys’ and girls’ quivering lips. Mothers looked up through the thick, fetid canopy toward a sunny and benign forgiveness they longed for but which the woods made them doubt, and they blinked back tears. Fathers heard the wind make ghastly, forlorn noises in the trees and the men felt cold, and then the strangers hurried out of the woods and after awhile, very few walked in those woods at all, though no one could explain exactly why. More time passed, and then the only reminder of what had happened was the way some of the stooped, white-haired waitresses at Gus’s Diner, hard on State Highway 176, would squeeze their lips together whenever a family with a little boy with brown hair and pale green eyes would sit down at a table. And sometimes if the boy giggled, one of the ancient waitresses would have to take a cigarette break, and tourists would see her outside, sitting on a pine bench, her shoulders silently convulsing.

Then even the old waitresses died off and mountains of Oklahoma dust swirled over the land and noontime turned to night. The Great Depression came and engineers built Bagnell Dam and, later, developers carved Branson out of the state’s blood-soaked red soil. Midwestern millionaires started flocking to The Lake of the Ozarks, and amidst violin-playing Japanese and joke-telling Russians and cigarette-shaped speedboats that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, people forgot about the little boy who walked into the woods and never came out.

Time passed, and men stood on the moon and a peanut farmer was elected President, and life wasn’t as hard anymore, and a family from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, just across Missouri’s southern border, drove north toward St. Louis to visit relatives. After an hour on the road, the father pulled over at a shady spot and announced to his wife and two children that The Gateway to the West could wait a couple of days, because they were going on a little adventure first. The kids groaned and the man’s wife smiled a hidden smile–she was in on the plan and she loved her husband’s belief in the healing properties of the outdoors.

The little girl, 5 years old, had long red hair and freckles and wore sandals with sunflowers separating her big and second toes. The brown-haired, green-eyed boy was wearing blue shorts and a blue T-shirt and blue sneakers. He had just turned 8. They were bareheaded, so mom slathered their faces with sunscreen while dad pulled backpacks and sleeping bags from the trunk.

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