Memory is such a strange thing. We never forget. It is only the connections which erode and eventually vanish. If we restore these connections, we also gain back the memory.
This can be triggered when we visit places that were significant to us. We visit our childhood home, and those precious first memories come back to us.
This happened to me not long ago. I visited my aunt, Maria. She never married and still lives in the same house she was born in, my grandparent’s.
I was a city child and often spent many of my summer holidays there.
I never really got to know my grandma. She died when I was only two years old. The less I remember about her though, the more I remember about my grandpa. A life of farming and taking care of livestock had made him a sturdy, but happy old man. He often took me out on long walks through the village, where he told me many of the stories and legends of the area. What I liked most about him was, that he showed me many handy little tricks that could make your life a tad bit easier.
There was one thing that I always found strange: I never remembered what happened to him. Sure his grave is next to my grandma’s, and I remember a funeral, but that’s all. Whenever I ask how he died, I am told it was old age, but that story always felt wrong to me. Something was missing.
During this last visit at what was now Aunt Maria’s house, I stumbled into grandpa’s old workshop. I remembered the place as well kept and in prime condition. Now half of the old tools were missing, and a thick layer of dust covered everything. I smiled as I went forward to take a closer look.
Right in front of me was his old workbench. To the right, the little hatched he used to cut firewood. Over to the left should be his old rawhide work boots, I thought. The spot was empty though. It had been his favorites. On so many long walks he’d worn them, and I was a little sad to see them gone. Had Aunt Maria thrown them away? As I decided to ask her about it, the memories of a particular summer day came flooding back to me.
It was Saturday morning. I sat in front of the TV watching cartoons. Half absent I munched on the breakfast aunt Maria prepared for me before she was off to work.
When grandpa came into the room and asked me if I wanted to hunt mushrooms with him, I jumped right off my chair.
“Now, now, hold on, hold on.” he said laughing, while I’d already started to put on my shoes.
“Let this old man get his things together first. I am not as fast as you anymore.”
When we were both ready, grandpa sat me down for a moment. He asked me if I wanted to search for mushrooms in the meadows around the village or if I wanted to go into Richter’s forest.
My eyes grew wide.
“Richter’s forest grandpa? But mom and Aunt Maria said-”
“What they said is humbug, Simon.”
“You sure it’s fine? I am not allowed to go there and if they find out then-”
“Then it is going to be our little secret.” he said in a low voice, giving a wink. Then he beamed.
“Well? Where do you want to go?”
“The forest! The forest!” I exclaimed.
Richter’s forest is a vast, sprawling forest a little further away from the village. Its name is derived from the family that used to own it for more than a century.
It is off-limits for children, due to its supposed dangers. There are many tales about the place. Quite a few people had gotten hurt in there over the years when straying off the paths that lead through it.
People always mention one tale. It is of a local boy, Johannes, who up and vanished in the forest more than a decades ago. No one knows what happened to him.
Of course, my mom, as well as Aunt Maria, gave me long lectures to never go near it. It didn’t matter if I was alone or with friends. The place was off-limits.
When grandpa told me we would go there, I was surprised, excited but still a little anxious.
“Isn’t it going to be dangerous?”
“Now don’t you worry about a thing, Simon. Can’t count how often I was in that forest and yet this old man here is still around. Danger, pah!”
I smiled and nodded. If grandpa said it was alright, then it must be true.
It was not even nine in the morning when we made our way. After no more than half an hour we reached the forest.
Before we ventured inside, grandpa sat down on an old bench that was placed at the edge of the forest. He motioned me to sit down with him.
“You know Simon, your grandma Ursula used to love this place here. Use dot sit here with her a lot when we were younger.” he said in a reminiscing voice.
I didn’t know what to say, so instead, I looked out over the vast meadows and the village we’d just come from.
“All alone like this… “I heard grandpa murmur next to me as he inhaled sharply. Then we were both quiet.
After five minutes of sitting there, I started to protest.
“Let’s go already, grandpa! This is boring.”
Next to me grandpa looked up and started to laugh.
“Now aren’t you an eager little one.” he said patting me on the head.
I sulked because I didn’t like when he did that.
“I am not a little kid anymore! I am already nine!” I protested.
As soon as we went down the path into the forest though, my good mood was restored.
“Now let’s find some mushrooms! You’ll have to help this old man out. My eyes aren’t what they used to anymore.”
I smiled and right away started to scan the ground and the underbrush near the dirt path. When I wanted to rush off deeper into the forest, grandpa was quick to take my hand.
“We’d better stick to the path, for now. Don’t want to get lost, do we?”
From then on I kept close to grandpa and followed his lead. So many mushrooms covered the forest floor: Boletus, chanterelle and a couple of other common types. As time passed, our backpacks started to fill up.
After a while that the underbrush had become heavy and thick. First, it had only consisted of a few single bushes here and there, Just now, as I stopped searching for mushrooms and looked up, did I notice how dark the forest around us had become. The canopy above had changed too. I’d been able to see the blue sky and the sun’s rays had illuminated spots here and there. Now, all I could see were heavy branches.
I pushed myself against grandpa and looked up at him.
“Grandpa? Can we go back?”
For a moment he stayed quiet, and I noticed he was looking around. It seemed he too had seen the change. After a few seconds, he saw me and a bright smile showed on his face.
“Well, I guess we got more than enough mushrooms anyway.” he said and shook his now heavy backpack a little.
Even a nine-year-old like me could hear the alarm in his voice, and soon his smile was replaced by a concentrated look. Once more he scanned the forest.
“Let’s go.” he said, taking my hand and turning around to walk back the way we’d come from.
With every step we took, the forest seemed to grow darker. Many times grandpa stopped and turned around to walk in yet a different direction. It was futile. Grandpa’s face showed a mixture of fear, confusion and something else I couldn’t quite place.
As he dragged me on, I noticed that the sounds of the forest were gone. Sure we hadn’t seen many animals, but we’d heard them. Now everything was unnervingly quiet. The only sounds were those of our own muffled footsteps. Each step and each breaking twig echoed endlessly through the trees around us.
Suddenly grandpa stopped and cursed to himself. At first, I didn’t know what was going on, but then I saw that the path ahead of us had vanished. Where it should continue was now only an entangled grown together mess of bushes and shrubs. The trees around us too seemed to be closing in, suffocating us with their presence.
It was at this moment that I thought something else was moving in the forest around us. As I jerked around, my hand slipped from grandpa’s grip. I didn’t see if anything was there. In an instant, he turned towards me and gripped my hand again, his face furious.
“Don’t you dare!” he yelled at me.
It was the first time I’d ever heard him like that. His loud voice echoed through the dark, quiet forest. I chocked back my tears and nodded.
I could see he was looking around left and right, searching for a way back. As I stood next to him, I saw something moving between the trees again. At first, I thought it was the branches of the trees or an animal. Then I saw that it was dark, twisted shades. They made no noise as they slithered from tree to tree, before vanishing again.
I pushed myself closer to grandpa and told myself there was nothing there. It was the shadows of the trees, nothing else.
When I saw another one out of the corner of my eyes, I quickly closed them, telling me again it was only my imagination. I pressed grandpa’s hand, then pulled it, but he didn’t react.
“Grandpa, I am scared!” I whined at him but got no reply.
He was staring at the thick forest ahead of us. I had no idea what he was looking at. There were only the trees!
At that moment I saw a clearing ahead of us. Then, as I blinked, it was gone again. It somehow wasn’t there, but at the same time, it was. I didn’t understand and why was grandpa so focused on it?
“Grandpa!” I yelled at him, but again he didn’t react.
“You came…” I heard him whisper.
“I am right here grandpa!” I said in confusion.
I wanted to call out to him again, but then I saw a dark silhouette right in the middle of the clearing. It had come out of nowhere. Was it one of those mysterious shades I had seen before?
“Ursel… it really is you.” I heard grandpa go on.
At first, I had no idea what he was saying. Then I remembered that my grandma’s name was Ursula, or like my grandpa used to call her, Ursel. But she had died years ago, I thought.
“Ursel.” he said again smiling, and at that moment he made a step into the direction of the clearing.
“No grandpa, it is,” but I broke up as confusion replaced my fear. What was even going on?
“I missed you so much.” he murmured.
As he took yet another step forward, I saw the tears in his eyes.
I yelled at grandpa over and over again. I tried pulling him back, but there was nothing I could do. I wasn’t strong enough. For a few steps, he dragged me along with him, before my hand sled off and I fell to the ground crying. Grandpa didn’t even turn around.
For a moment I saw an elderly lady who smiled at him. At the same time though, I saw the formless, shadowy abomination in its place. Its long dark feelers stretched out towards grandpa, while the illusion of my grandma bid him to come closer.
As grandpa stepped into the clearing, it was gone. There was only trees and underbrush now. Nothing suggested that the clearing had ever been there at all. The same was true for grandpa.
I yelled and called out to him as hot tears streamed down my cheeks. I was pacing back and forth in this grim and dark forest but got no answer.
By now the trees had grown even closer to one another, twisting around each other. They formed an impenetrable wall. As I looked up, there was no end to them. They stretched further and further into the sky. The whole forest seemed to have become one, cohesive entity.
The clearing I thought, that’s where grandpa must still be. I tried desperately to make my way through the underbrush. I ripped twigs and branches away, pushed them away with my feet, but there was no hope. It had become too thick. I fell to the ground exhausted and sobbing, my hands covered in cuts.
Right then I heard a warm, caring voice.
“Oh Simon. My poor boy, you must be so scared.”
As I turned around, I saw my mother standing on the path behind me. The tears stopped almost in an instant. I was saved. I saw her smile at me, as she motioned for me to come closer.
All my fears were blown away as I took the first step in her direction. All I wanted was to be with my mom now.
“Hey, I am talking to you kid!” I heard someone scream at me.
Suddenly everything around me was different. The forest was normal again. The trees were scarce, there was almost no underbrush, and the sun was shining through the canopy.
“Goddamnit, you deaf?”
Finally, I saw a man on a moped ahead of me. As I stared at him in confusion, he leaned his moped against a tree and stomped towards me. When he reached me, his face changed from anger to worry.
“Hey, what’s wrong kid? What are you even doing here?”
“My mom,” I started, “she was right-” but then I stopped. Mom was at home in the city, right? She couldn’t be here. And where was grandpa?
“Grandpa! Where are you?” I started again and looked around.
In the end, it was this man who brought me home. I attempted telling him what had happened, but I wasn’t able to form a coherent story.
He finally dropped me off with Aunt Maria who became furious when she heard where he’d found me. She’d been worried sick about me since it was evening already. As she noticed the state I was in though, she hugged me and told me it was alright.
“Do you know where grandpa is, Simon?” she asked me after a while. Right then the tears started to pour down once more.
I told her everything, but I realized that she didn’t believe my bizarre tale. When her father didn’t return home though, she started to get worried.
When she put me to bed, she told me that grandpa must still be out in the forest, carrying all the mushrooms we had gathered. Before we knew it, he’d be home again. Of course, I believed her. By now, I had already half-forgotten the weird events of the day.
As I lay awake in my bed, I heard my aunt on the phone. I didn’t understand what she was saying or who she was talking to, but her voice was strained and serious.
In the days to come a search for grandpa was organized. By that time I was already home, at my parents’ place in the city. Each day I hoped for news about grandpa. I hoped Aunt Maria would call and tell me that he’d just gotten lost, forgotten the time or any other such scenario.
The call never came.
It is now, two decades later, that I can’t help but wonder why grandpa wanted to go to Richter’s forest? Was it really to pick mushrooms?
Did he know about the things that lurked deep in that forest? Was it really by accident that we went in so deep?