Brenda Heist vanished over ten years ago. Despite a huge search she was never found, and was finally presumed (and even legally declared) dead.
Brenda and her husband had been on the brink of divorce, and he remarried. Her two children, 8 and 12 at the time of her disappearance, grew up to be fine people. But the mystery haunted them all and was never cleared up—until now, when Heist has resurfaced.
Did I say “cleared up”? In one sense it has been, because Heist is alive and able to tell some sort of coherent story. But the story is merely descriptive and lacks explanation, and in some ways the mystery is deeper than ever:
Last week, Heist reappeared, a thin specter seemingly risen from the dead to family and police who never stopped searching for or thinking of her.
Heist surfaced in Florida, where she has been living under bridges and in tents, working day jobs, panhandling and eating food discarded from fast-food restaurants for more than a decade.
As for the “why” of the story, your guess is as good as hers. In the middle of a supposedly amicable divorce, feeling the financial pinch of wondering how she’d be able to survive economically, Heist went to a local park, sat down on a bench, and cried.
And then some people happened by:
Two men and a woman approached her and struck up a conversation.
“They said they were homeless, and leaving right then to go down to southern Florida,” he said. “This was Feb. 8. It was a cold time. They said, ‘You’re more than welcome to come with us, if you want.’
“She said she made a split-second decision. … She doesn’t know why she did it. She just left.”
Several theories come to mind. Was she mentally ill, despite no reports of such a history? Was/is she a sociopath, despite having been described as a good mother prior to her disappearance? Neither drugs nor alcohol seem to have been involved. She was in her early 40s at the time, not a young and irresponsible teen. And it’s unclear as well what made her finally identify herself to authorities and come back.
The story gave me a cold chill, and I almost immediately thought of a song I learned as a child which had attracted me because I found it both beautiful and mysterious, and yet simultaneously repellent because of the cold heart of the woman it described: “The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies O” (sometimes spelled “raggle”). You may know it too; it’s pretty famous.
In the song the lady is wealthy, unlike Heist. And gypsies at least sound (or sounded to me as a child) a lot more romantic than homeless people in Florida. But the parallels are clear—it’s even three gypsies who come to the lady’s door to entice her away, like the three people who approached Heist on the bench.
In the version of the song I knew as a very young child (learned from a large book of folk songs from which a talented piano-playing friend of mine used to sight-read while we both sang; that’s why a lot of old folk songs still sometimes rattle around in my head), my shiver was engendered by the repetition of the phrase “what care I?” from the lady—her utter absence of remorse or explanation or sense of loyalty, her ability to throw away everything for a life that seemed aimless and harsh and yet magnetic, at least to her.
My recollection is that there was also a verse in the version I knew about leaving some children behind, as in Heist’s case. That would have amplified the chill for me. But I can’t seem to find a lyric about that, although the Wiki entry mentions a variant in which her husband, on finding her, asks, “Would you forsake your husband and child?”
The tune is haunting, as befits the subject, and YouTube has many versions. Here are two I like very much that differ greatly from each other in tone and style. The first has a beautiful violin solo, and the second features a singer who does all the voices himself: