I have run today's and tomorrow's columns every year for seven years, and will continue to do so until the problem goes away (or I do). If you are new, I ask that you read with an open mind. If you have read it before, I ask that you read it again. And I ask humbly ask everyone to please share today's column (and tomorrow's follow-up piece) with people. I am not looking for credit; I am looking for change.


There is a town; just like the one you grew up in. In this town—quiet, unassuming—there is a neighborhood; just like your old neighborhood. Elm trees line the paths. Children ride bikes and skip rope. Every afternoon at 4:06 those faint sweet notes can be heard right on cue that every child knows: the ice cream man. In this neighborhood is a street; it's just like your street. Lawns are kept mostly mowed, there are a couple of gossips, and there is only one house that the children avoid. (It’s that one on the corner where the mean old man lives.) Idyllic and safe as can be. And on that gently winding street is a house; just like yours.

The house is old, but well-built; not beautiful, but with a certain charm. The outer walls are not connected directly to the inner walls. There is a little space that runs between them, made to let the house “breathe.” It is to this little space that Jemmah often goes when she hears the footsteps.

About Jemmah: she is 12 now, with beautiful curly hair. She is smart as a whip and will read anything put in front of her. She likes puzzles and games, and all types of riddles, and hates Brussels sprouts (which she secretly feeds to the dog). She also hates secrets. Jemmah is friendly, but doesn’t really have many friends. She used to play with Connie and Annie, but they didn’t understand why they could never come over to Jemmah’s house. They didn’t understand the secret.

Mostly, Jemmah plays by herself, which is fine with her. She loves to do her puzzles, read books, or make-believe that she’s a princess or a warrior, somewhere magical and far, far away. At night Jemmah will talk to Wall, her one true friend.

About Wall: it occupies one half of the crawl space behind Jemmah’s room. You get to Wall behind the radiator through a hidden opening. As soon as you crawl through you notice the pillows, blanket, and night-light Jemmah has placed there (she often stays all night), as well as the new puzzle she’s working on and a favorite book.

Wall has been there for several little girls when they journeyed back there over the years, including Jemmah’s own sister. Wall has listened sympathetically as each girl discovered the door and crawled through; huddled and frightened as they listened for footsteps. These girls would sometimes talk with Wall; share their feelings, if only to have someone to talk to. Their stories made Wall sad.

When Jemmah’s sister left home and Jemmah moved into the room, her sister showed her the hidden door to Wall. “If you need it.” her sister said.

“What would I need it for?” she asked. Jemmah’s sister looked at her for a long time without saying anything, and then walked out of the room, and out of the house.

That was when Jemmah was almost seven. By 8 ½, Jemmah knew exactly what the door was for: to hide. Jemmah first went to Wall the Night After. She heard the footsteps, and desperately looked for a place to conceal herself. Then she remembered what her sister had said. She spent the whole night shaking and crying; terrified. Wall was the only one who got her through it.

Wall listened to every one of those little girls who came there, but Jemmah was the first one to expect Wall to talk back. So, it did. Wall and Jemmah would talk about almost everything: what happened in school, a new puzzle Jemmah was working on, a grand adventure they could pretend to go on together. There was only one thing they never mentioned: the reason Jemmah was there.

One night Jemmah started talking about it. She had kept it all hidden deep down inside for so long, and she felt like she would burst. Jemmah told Wall, “I don’t know how much more I can take.” Wall would comfort Jemmah the best it could, and sing her to sleep.

Jemmah learned the hard way, and sometimes she wasn’t fast enough. When that happened she imagined she was far away, in one of those fantasies she created. Jemmah adapted, learned to sleep right on the edge of wakefulness; discerning every sound, knowing which ones meant danger. The nights got harder. The evasions, the excuses, the tricks more difficult to pull off. Wall could see the fight slowly draining out of Jemmah. Its planks ached with sorrow for this little girl, and Wall yearned to ease her pain and make her feel safe. Then it got an idea.

“Jemmah,” Wall said one night, “I have some riddles for you.” Jemmah perked up immediately; she loved riddles. “What are they?” she asked, sniffling away the last few tears.

“I’m going to give you two riddles,” said Wall. “When you get the first one right, I’ll tell you a story. When you get the second one, I’ll grant you a wish.”

This made Jemmah forget all about what waited on the other side. Her face became animated and a smile split her lips; all too rare a sight on Jemmah the last few years. Wall already felt better.

“Do I get any hints?” asked Jemmah.

“Yes,” said Wall. “The riddles have something to do with you.”

“I’m ready,” said Jemmah, a look of concentration on her tear-stained face. Wall started with the first Riddle:

“May be cold, or may be hot!
Sometimes glitters, but often not;
Ever changing though the eye can't measure,
Concealed within are many a treasure.
Some find safety beneath its gate,
While others are crushed beneath its weight!
Old and broken, it brings forth life.”

This was a hard riddle. Jemmah worked on it for three days, thinking of and discarding various answers that didn’t quite fit. Finally she figured it out. She couldn’t wait for that night, to talk to Wall.

“It’s a rock!” she said excitedly.

“That’s right!” said Wall, impressed at how quick Jemmah was. Wall was just congratulating itself when Jemmah spoke up again.

“How am I old and broken, and how do I crush things beneath my weight?” She asked suspiciously.

“Uh…” said Wall, who hadn’t thought that part of the Riddle through. Changing the subject, Wall said, “Are you ready for your story?” Jemmah nodded. Wall started in:

There is a fox and a hedgehog. They say that the fox knows many small things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing.

One day the hedgehog comes out of its burrow, in the side of the hill, and goes down to the bottom of the hill to get a drink out of the stream. The fox approaches and says, “I’m going to eat you, Hedgehog.” The hedgehog replies, “You can’t eat me or you’ll never find out how water runs uphill.”

“I know many things,” says the fox, “and I know that water does not run uphill.”

“I may only be a hedgehog,” says the hedgehog, “and only know one thing, but I know that water runs uphill.”

The fox is hungry, but he’s also curious. He gets a crafty look in his eye. “Show me how water runs uphill,” says the fox, “and I won’t eat you.”

“Observe:” says the hedgehog, as it takes a long drink from the stream. “The water is now inside me. Watch closely.” The hedgehog runs up the hill.

“And thus,” says the hedgehog,” water runs uphill.”

The fox is very angry; he’s been tricked. But before he can do anything, the hedgehog (who is now halfway up the hill by its home) runs into its burrow; safe from the fox.

So, even though the hedgehog knows only one thing, it knows the right thing: that it is smarter than the fox.

Jemmah clapped her hands softly in delight. “That was just lovely,” she said. Jemmah fell asleep that night curled up against Wall happier than she had been in some time.

The next night she was ready for more. “Tell me the next riddle.” Jemmah said.

“Okay,” said Wall. “Here goes:

“With no wings, I fly.
With no eyes, I see.
With no arms, I climb.
More powerful than any beast,
Smarter than all enemies who fear me,
I am cunning, resourceful, and tall;
in the end, I rule all.”

Jemmah had to think about this one for a long time. Each day as she played she would try to guess; what was more powerful than any beast? Oh, to be that strong. What could be so smart that your enemies would fear you? Jemmah wished her enemies would fear her. She thought of her Princess, and her Warrior, but they didn’t quite fit. Then, in a flash, she figured it out.

“The answer is imagination,” she said triumphantly to Wall that night; her eyes shining.

“You are so right,” said Wall, very proud of her. Jemmah was thinking what she should wish for when she heard the footsteps. She and Wall went instantly still. The handle jiggled and the door creaked open. Jemmah held her breath and trembled in the darkness, and Wall wished it could do more to help her.

When the footsteps finally retreated Jemmah became resolute. “I wish,” she began fiercely, “that I could feel safe again. I wish that everyone like me could feel safe; knowing that they were protected.”

It broke Wall’s heart to hear such anger, although it understood. “Your wish is granted.” said Wall.

One bright March morning, over 4% of the world’s population disappeared. When the day dawned they just Were. Not. There. With census figures already suspect in many less developed countries, officials have never been able to confidently give a final tally of The Vanishing (as the press almost immediately began calling it), but the best guess of the United Nations is that on the day 273,000,000 people (±4,000,000) were simply gone.

273 million anything doesn’t just disappear. People were frightened, but there was very little violence, as most were too stunned, and feared they might be next. Every country in the world lost people. Black, white, brown; across the board. Some were in prison, some poor and middle class, and some were CEOs and Captains of Industry. At first a few religious groups tried to claim it was the Rapture, because several religious leaders were gone, but there were plenty of True Believers left, so that didn’t add up.

All segments of the work force were hit. Police, Fire, Doctors, Plumbers, Teachers, Clergy, Lawyers, Athletes, Accountants. Government officials (some quite high up), as well as judges; the list went on an on. The major stock markets in New York, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo remained closed for days as officials tried to assess the damage. It was like a world-wide earthquake had hit, but instead of buildings it hit people.

Martial law was declared in most countries. Talk radio and cable news had round-the-clock coverage (once they replaced a few of their own who were missing,) discussing The Vanishing in minute detail; offering and debating every theory under the sun as to how this could have happened.

Several weeks later, once order had been restored, a Blue Ribbon International Commission was put together; experts from all over the world trying to get to the bottom of this. The numbers were too vast, over too wide an area for any one person to have master-minded it. Suspicion naturally fell to terrorism, but Intelligence sources reported that terrorists were just as hard-hit.

Since no one had a clue how it happened, inquiry focused more on who disappeared, and what connection they might have. Patterns were maddeningly hard to come by. Most of the vanished were men, but a sizable number were women. Some were considered “unsavory characters,” but many were well respected in their communities. Most were adults, but some were as young as 12, or as old as 108.

From the streets there started to be rumblings of a new name. They didn’t use “The Vanishing.” They called it “The Purge.” “The Purge of what?” many reporters asked. No one was talking.
At least, not to reporters, or Blue Ribbon Commissions. People were talking, though. They would gather quietly, in homes and talk in hushed tones. The vast majority of these people were family members of the now departed. Governments the world over got wind of this, and tried to pry the secrets out. They sent out tens of thousands of undercover agents, but they didn’t learn anything of note. The governments even tried interrogation and the threat of prosecution, but that didn’t go very well with the general public. These “surviving” family members were bereaved, and generated a lot of sympathy and good will.

As a group, they didn’t seem as grief-stricken as one might expect. This occurred to more than one investigator, but the observation was never passed up the chain of command.

Maybe those investigators figured it out, and didn’t want to ruin it. But while the families went through all the proper stages of mourning (and insurance forms; what a nightmare for that industry), many of them could not hide a small quiet smile. When asked, most would say they found solace and peace in God and spiritual things.

Jemmah’s eyes opened slowly, and she smiled; sharing the private joy of these families. “Was that real?” Jemmah asked Wall after a few minutes, as the image slowly faded, like a dream.

“What do you think, Jemmah?” She thought about it for some time.

Finally, Jemmah said, “I think that happened because I wished it. I didn’t want to hurt anybody; I just wanted those who have been through what I have to feel safe. Nobody; not boys or girls—not even adults—should be afraid of those footsteps in the dark. To live life freely: without that pit of dread in the back of your throat; what a gift to be given.”

Jemmah started crying softly, but she didn’t let that stop her. “I want to feel safe. I want to know that no one will ever make me do anything horrible again. I’m just not sure how.”

Wall had never felt happier in its whole life. To every girl who had come here, Wall had tried to whisper this idea in their minds. Jemmah was the first to get it.

Wall told Jemmah, “You are exactly right. You understand.”

“What do I understand?” asked Jemmah. It’s all so horrible.”

Wall looked lovingly at Jemmah, knowing she was ready. “Jemmah, I told you that story and those riddles were like you. You recognize that people want to feel safe and free from harm. Jemmah, you have the power to help make that happen.” Jemmah’s eyes shone with unshed tears, but she said nothing; not wanting to break the magic of Wall’s words. Wall went on.

“First you must tell. You must tell everyone, until they listen. And you must keep telling as long as you have to. But Jemmah, you are special, and you can do even more than that. You can grow up to help create a world where people can feel safe. No one should have to go to bed at night, fearfully listening for footsteps; wondering what’s around every corner.” Jemmah was now silently sobbing, not in agony, but relief that someone was showing her the way.

Wall continued: “Jemmah, you can make a difference. You can share your story, and help others share theirs. You can break these walls of silence.” Jemmah laughed at Wall saying that. Wall did too. “You know what I mean. You can reach people, and help them, because you understand.”

Jemmah felt honored, but afraid. “How can I do that?” she asked Wall. “I’m just one girl.”

“You can do it, Jemmah. It won’t be easy,” Wall went on, in a more serious tone. “People will attack you, call you a liar, and maybe even abandon you. But you, Jemmah, you are that rock; strong and steadfast. You can withstand the pressure and outlast them all.

“It may even be dangerous. We both know there are foxes out there. But you, Jemmah, you are the hedgehog. You may not have the sharp teeth or claws, but you’re smarter than all the foxes, and can figure out ways to outwit them.

“Lastly, Jemmah, you have the imagination. It is this weapon that has saved your life, as you have been able to take your mind far away when you needed to. More than that, though: you see the world as it could be, as it should be. That vision you saw earlier didn’t mean you wanted to get rid of people, because you can’t get rid of all the bad people out there who hurt others. What it meant was that you want to see a world where people feel safe in their homes. You can be one to make the world more safe; because you, Jemmah, you get it. You see the world as it should be, and I know you’ll make it happen.

Never had anyone believed her, or believed in her. Never had anyone thought she could make a difference. Inside Jemmah’s heart, fear began to ebb, and new feelings came in. Jemmah felt pride, a sense of purpose, and confidence. There was anger there now, building as a driving force, which she would use to make a change. It would be difficult, but she could and would do it. Jemmah would tell everyone she had to; what was happening must stop. But she wouldn’t stop. Jemmah would continue on, and help others, so that no little girl or boy, no man or woman would ever have to face this alone. She was the rock. She was the hedgehog. She had the imagination. Jemmah would help break down these walls of silence, because Jemmah had a Wall of her own.

May 30, 2004

Note - I wrote a poem for my 31 Days of Poetry to go with this story.  You can check it out if you want - "She was a Princess too"

It wasn't your fault, Jemmah

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