There are sometimes tales that you can’t believe really happened.
It was on a mild Saturday afternoon that I heard one such tale.
My dad had tasked me to mow the lawn and to clean up the old shack next to our house. It had taken me most of the morning and a good part of the afternoon.
When I finally closed the door of the shack, I noticed our neighbor, Mister Kunze. The old man was sitting outside on a bench in front of his house. He was reading from what I assumed to be his bible.
He had always been very religious and a devoted Christian. In the last years though, he’d been drawn more and more to the Holy Scripture. I often wondered if it was because of his old age and if death was an ever-present, impending shadow.
I’d always liked the old man. When I was younger, he’d often watch over me when my parents weren’t around. I had spent so many afternoons talking with him. He was one of the nicest people I knew. So, of course, I went over to greet him.
When I was there, I found him trembling.
“Mister Kunze, is everything alright?”
When I saw the tears running down his cheeks, I asked again, this time louder, more alarmed.
It took the old man a few more moments to realize that I was there, but then he smiled and shook his head.
“It’s nothing, Martin.”
“But you were crying!” I protested.
“Everything is fine. I am just an old man and I remembered something.”
He gave me another weak smile, but I could see that he was still shaking.
“Nothing is fine, you are shaking! What did you remember? Was it something bad?”
The old man looked at me while clutching the Bible and pressing it to his body.
“It’s something that happened a long time ago, in my home village. It was back when I was still a boy.”
“Isn’t this your home? I thought you told me you grew up and lived here your whole life?”
The old man laughed a little and started to cough right away. When it was over, he continued talking.
“No Martin, I didn’t grow up here. I was born in a Catholic village in southern Bavaria. It was a small, remote place, up in the mountains. Never told anyone about it.”
“Why didn’t you?”
The old man didn’t answer my question. He was quiet for a while, reminiscing before he continued talking. This is the story he told me:
When I was a young boy, there were lots of strange local myths and legends in my home village. I guess it was due to the remoteness.
There were stories about beings who entered a person’s house via the chimney to steal valuables. Others talked about mischievous fairies or tiny creatures that lived in the forest. One of them was about the so-called Changeling.
A Changeling is a child that starts acting strange and shows inconspicuous behavior. They overeat, break things or tire out their parents by screaming all the time. Simply said, they behave much, much worse than other children.
They are the child’s of witches, left behind instead of the real, human child, to create mischief.
Stories like that were frequent back in the day. I can imagine that in some remote regions they are even now.
When a young boy in the village began to act strange, gossip started. I don’t remember how old he was, but I am sure he wasn’t even ten yet.
He had moved to the village with his mother about half a year ago. They lived in one of the cabins near the edge of the forest. They led a somewhat secluded lifestyle and the woman and her son were rarely seen in the village.
After the first months though, the boy appeared more often and he behaved strangely. It seemed he didn’t like to talk to people or wasn’t able to do so. He was shy and hid or ran away whenever someone tried to approach him.
Of course, rumors about the boy soon started to make the rounds. It didn’t help that the mother stayed blissfully ignorant of the situation.
It was mainly the older people who talked about it. They were always waiting for something like this to happen. It wasn’t long before the rest of the village joined in with their gossip and for the word Changeling to be mentioned.
Soon everyone referred to the little boy as nothing but the Changeling. It took no more than a week for him to become the village’s main topic.
New stories about his shenanigans were told every week. He was seen in the village at night, sneaking around the buildings or spying on people. The old women said he made the milk turn sour or the food go bad. Other stories include him playing tricks on the people and stealing their belongings. Even if anything broke, the blame was put on the little boy.
One day a hunter spread stories about the boy talking to the wild animals and the forest spirits. He was in league with them, the hunter said. Soon the boy would send out the foxes to get the chickens and worse things to kill the other livestock.
I am sure now that many, if not all, of these accounts were fictitious. I have to admit though, that back then, even I started to believe the talk. It is not too surprising, considering how the boy acted.
There were some who said the he was harmless, odd or feeble-minded. Overall though, the situation and the mood in the village kept changing for the worse.
It wasn’t long before animals started to vanish. At first, it was only a cat, which is nothing out of the ordinary in a village. When more cats disappeared though, the villagers were convinced that it must be the doing of the boy.
One night he was even seen outside, holding a dead cat to his chest, running away as fast as he could.
At the same time, people’s chickens started to be taken at night. In the morning they’d find the doors of the chicken crops to be broken down.
It was clear who was responsible for all of it. Something had to be done! The boy, or better his mother, had to be questioned.
Soon after things cooled down though. It seemed as if the boy had done enough and even he tired of his antics. For a few weeks, nothing at all happened. The people started to believe that his shenanigans were a thing of the past.
That was until Frank Schmidt’s daughter vanished. She was a young, twelve-year-old girl.
Her parents had been worried when she didn’t return home from playing with friends. They started to ask the neighbors if anyone had seen her, but no one knew a thing.
It wasn’t long before a search was started. Maybe the girl had gotten in an accident or had gotten herself lost in the woods. These things had happened before.
The whole search went on for hours. It was already dark when the girl was found. The tiny, white body was hidden in the underbrush at the edges of the woods. Her body was covered in bruises and small wounds. Strangulation marks showed on her neck. She was without a doubt dead.
The mother of the girl fell to her knees, crying, screaming and hugging her child’s body. The father looked on only for a few moments before he exploded into a fit of rage.
“It was the damned boy,” he screamed. “The Changeling, he’s back. It must’ve been him!”
Frank Schmidt had always been a brusque man, but now he was out of it.
As he screamed in rage, other voices joined in with his:
“We have to find him. Punish him! Chase him away! Beat him!”
It was a cacophony of voices that rose into the night. More than a hundred people were here, but they all were saying the same thing: Find and kill the Changeling.
I was shocked at what I was hearing, but soon I was carried away by the mood. Mob mentality is a scary thing. I didn’t know what was going on, I just followed along with the rest.
People started to spread out to find the boy. One group headed for his home, the cabin near the woods. By sheer coincidence, I found myself right in the middle of this group. The mother was at fault people said. She’d brought the devil child here and did nothing to stop him. It was her fault!
As soon as we reached the cabin, the screaming started anew, followed by loud thumps against their door.
After a short while, the boy’s mother opened. She was shaken and visibly confused. Her eyes went from one person to the next. She didn’t understand what was going on it seemed. She looked scruffy, her cloth dirty and tattered.
“Where is the boy,” Frank Schmidt asked her in loud, angry voices.
The woman winced and took a step back in fear.
“I don’t know where he is,” she answered them, “hasn’t been home in days…”
Some people went forward, screaming at her, accusing her of hiding him inside. Some were already reaching out for her to hold her down.
“Why I’d be hiding this… this thing!?” she suddenly screamed.
“He’s not my boy anymore! He’s something different… demolished the whole house, attacked me, even bit me!”
And to prove it she revealed the long cuts and scars on her arms.
“That thing is a Changeling,” she finally spat out, her eyes wide with fear.
“I just want my boy back,” she added in a weak voice, shaking her head.
The only person who still stepped forward was Frank Schmidt. The mad father pushed the woman aside to step into the building, not listening to a word she’d said.
He had only taken a few first steps inside when other voices were heard: The boy had been seen in the village.
Without a second’s thought, the father turned away from the house and began running towards the village. Other people followed him, reassured by the mother’s words. I was with them again. While I hurried along, I had a strange feeling on my mind that I couldn’t put anywhere. It was only for a moment though.
When we were back in the village, it didn’t take long for the boy to be caught. A small kid can only run and hide for so long.
The boy didn’t react to any questions. He was crying and trembling. He started to strike out at anyone who got close to him, scratched and bit them. It took only one hit to break his resistance. Devil’s child I heard the people around me say.
When I reached the village square, I could finally see the insanity that had taken hold of our small village.
It was a crude wooden construction. I first mistook it as a sort of wooden box, something to trap the child in. Only when I saw the torches did things dawn on me. No, they couldn’t mean to. This was wrong. I took a step forward but noticed the gaze of the people around me. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I stopped right in my tracks.
“By God, he’s just a boy,” I heard someone yell and saw Old Peter, our village’s only teacher.
The eyes of Frank Schmidt rested on the older man. They were bloodshot and wide.
“Just a boy Peter? That boy killed my little girl!” he screamed.
He raised his hands and I saw Old Peter inched back a step, afraid he’d get hit.
Then Frank Schmidt only said one more thing:
Tit for tat.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They couldn’t possibly mean to…
I wanted to say something, just something. I wanted to run towards them and stop them, but I did nothing. I watched on motionless as they bound the boy to the wood.
He tried to fight back but to no avail. Once he couldn’t move anymore, Frank Schmidt threw one of the torches on the wood.
This couldn’t be real I told myself. It was a nightmare. I looked at the people around me. Those were people I’d know all my life, but now I couldn’t recognize them. Their eyes were wide, as they looked on in fascination at the nightmare in front of them.
For a moment I saw the boy’s mother. She was standing between the rest of them, watching on as they did.
As the flames started to rise, I told myself to look away and close my eyes. I didn’t want to see what was happening. In the end though, I stood right between all those lunatics and watched on as they did.
It didn’t take long for the flames to finally devour all of the wood and eventually the boy. First came the screams, the screams of a little boy. Then the disgusting smell of human flesh. I still have it in my nose. After all those years I can still smell it.
The screams lasted only for a short while. At first, it sounded similar to a child’s weeping. Then, moments later, it rose to something that should never come from the mouth of a little kid.
I don’t know how long the fire lasted, but I watched it all. It might have been minutes, but it felt like an hour.
Once the fire had faded, I was finally able to look away. The many people around me looked as confused and shocked as I must have been. Only now did they realize what had happened. And only now did they realize that they could never undo it.
It took me a while to realize the tears in my eyes. Others too were crying. It seemed the whole crowd was now murmuring and coming to their senses.
“Where did she go?” I heard someone demand of the people next to me.
I could see it was Old Peter again. I had no idea what was going on.
“The mother of the boy,” I heard him yell at some people.
Only a few of them answered. Most of them were still in shock, not yet understanding what had happened. I saw the eyes of other boys, many of them younger than me. They too had seen everything.
Finally, someone told Old Peter that they had seen her run away, while the fire was still burning.
Even if she thought the boy was a Changeling or he had changed, it was still her child, at least in looks. Seeing her little boy die like this…
It wasn’t long before a new search began. This time far fewer people participated. I still remember the repulsion I felt for this whole damned village. When it was about hunting down and killing a little boy, they all joined in. When it was about finding the mother of that same boy, they did nothing.
Our search efforts started almost at random. We looked here and there, went up and down the village until I finally remembered the cabin near the forest.
“Her home, the cabin,” I screamed to the rest of the people.
It was only a few minutes later that we arrived at her door.
Our calls were left unanswered, after a few seconds, I opened the door. First I only peered inside, then I pulled it open and entered the place.
The hut was in complete chaos. The woman had been right. I called out once more, but it was evident that no one was here. We almost left to continue the search somewhere else, but then Old Peter found the door to the basement.
As he opened the door, we saw a light from downstairs. She must be down there, I thought. Yet another call got no answer. I rushed down the stairs, taking two steps at a time.
When I reached the last step, I froze. What I saw couldn’t be real. I shook my head, closed my eyes and then took another look.
A Changeling is a witch’s kid left to human parents. Then what do you call a real kid whose mother turned into a witch?
That was what came to my mind. What I saw in front of me was a witch’s kitchen precisely like it was described in the stories.
There were glass jars filled with strange liquids in all colors. The shelves were filled with old books, various herbs, roots and much weirder things. There was even an experimenting table. There were dead animals. Cats and chickens.
Cats and chickens, I thought. At that moment everything made sense.
Now I knew what that strange feeling had been. There had been something wrong with the boy’s mother, with her eyes. It hadn’t been the eyes of a confused or scared woman, no it had been the eyes of a lunatic.
“Oh dear lord,” I heard someone whisper behind me. Another person crossed herself.
It all made sense now. How could a small kid break down the doors of chicken crops? How could such a little boy kill a girl much older than him?
No, the boy must have been acting strangely out of fear for his mother. He had been hiding from her in the village. That’s why he’d always been there, even at night. He must have been abused, maybe even tortured.
He must have been just an ordinary boy.
“And then we burned this innocent little boy,” ended the old man with a shaking voice. He didn’t even realize I was still sitting next to him on the bench.
He pressed the bible even harder against his chest now.
“Mister Kunze, it is alright, it is not like you did it,” I said.
The old man finally looked at me.
“I did nothing at all,” he said, “if someone would have just…”
He broke up. He didn’t need to finish the sentence. I knew what he was trying to say.
“So what happened afterward?”
I took the old man some more time to calm down before he answered me.
“No one talked about it the next day. No one talked about it for some time. They buried the boy on the cemetery and pretended he’d been sick. Pretended that terrible night had never happened. Soon after though, people started to move away. At first, it was only one person, then a family, then another. My family, too. We moved here about two months after that horrible night. I am sure that by now, the village is all but gone.”
“So they left because they-”
“Because they wanted to forget! To pretend nothing ever happened! That’s the only reason anyone left. Even my parents told me to never tell anyone about that night, and to do what they did, to just-”
He broke up again with tears running from his eyes.
“I didn’t forget. I will never forget what happened during that night. Not until the end of my life. Even if that is all, I can ever do.”