Memory. It’s such a strange thing. We never truly forget, it’s only the connections that erode and eventually vanish. Yet, if we’re able to restore the connections, then we also get back the memory, we thought lost.
The process can be triggered by returning to places of significance. We might revisit our childhood home or an old school and flooding back come those precious first memories.
This happened to me not too long ago when I visited my Aunt Maria.
She never married and still lives in the same house she was born in, my grandparents’. It’s a huge, old farmhouse in the center of a tiny village.
I grew up a city child, but I spent many of my summers there.
My grandma died when I was only two years old, so I never got to know her. What I lack in memories about her though, were made up by the ones about my grandpa. A life of farming and taking care of livestock had made him into a sturdy, but happy old man. When I remember the time I spent with him, I always have to smile.
There was one thing I always found strange. I never remembered what happened to him. One day, out of nowhere, he was just gone. Sure, I remember his funeral and his grave is right next to my grandma’s. But there’s this nagging feeling that I’m missing something.
During my latest visit at what was now Aunt Maria’s home, I stumbled into grandpa’s old workshop. The place had always been in pristine condition when he was still alive, but now it was coated by a heavy layer of dust.
Smiling I stepped inside.
Right in front of me was his big, sturdy workbench. To the right was the little hatched he’d used to cut firewood. And over to the left should be his old, rawhide boots.
Yet, I found the spot empty.
When I wondered if Aunt Maria had gotten rid of them, the memories of a particular summer day returned to me.
I was sitting in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons and munching a sandwich.
When grandpa stepped into the room asking if I wanted to go mushroom hunting with him, I jumped right off my chair. Spiderman and breakfast were forgotten.
“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 first. I’m not as fast as you anymore.”
When we were both ready, grandpa sat me down for a moment.
“Now Simon, where should we hunt for mushrooms today? The meadows around the village, or do you want to go to Richter’s Forest?”
My eyes grew wide.
“Richter’s Forest, grandpa? But mom and Aunt Maria said-“
“What they said is humbug, Simon!”
“But, I’m not allowed to go there and if they find out then-“
“Then it’ll be our little secret,” he said in a whisper giving me a wink. Then he beamed at me.
“Well? Where do you want to go?”
“The forest! The forest!” I exclaimed in a loud, booming voice.
Richter’s forest was a vast and sprawling mess of huge, old trees a bit further away from the village. It derives its name from the family that used to own it back in the day.
There are many strange tales about the old forest. It’s stories of people getting lost after straying off the paths or seeing strange things between those old, gnarly trees.
There’s one tale in particular that stands out between all the rest. It’s about a local boy, Johannes, who up and vanished in the forest more than a decade ago. He was never found again, and no one knows what happened to him.
Mom and Aunt Maria, gave me a long, stern lecture about never going there. It didn’t matter if I was alone or with friends, Richter’s forest was off-limits.
When grandpa told me we’d go there, I was surprised, excited, but also a tad bit anxious.
“Isn’t it going to be dangerous?”
“Now don’t you worry about a thing, Simon! This old man here’s been to the forest countless times, and he’s still around, isn’t he? Danger? Pah!”
I smiled and nodded. If grandpa said it was all right, then it had to be true.
It was not even nine in the morning when we went on our way and half an hour we’d arrived at Richter’s Forest.
I was about to hurry inside, but grandpa sat down on a faded, old bench that was placed at the edge of the forest. He motioned for me to sit down next to him.
“You know Simon, your grandma Ursula loved this spot here. We used to sit here and talk for hours when we were young,” he said in a reminiscing voice.
I didn’t know what to say, so instead, I looked out at the vast meadows and the distant, tiny village.
“All alone like this…” I heard grandpa mumble to himself next to me.
We sat there quietly, but after five long minutes, I protested.
“Let’s go already, grandpa! This is boring!”
Grandpa looked up and laughed.
“Now aren’t you an eager little one,” he said patting me on the head.
I sulked and bit my lip when he did this.
“I’m not little anymore! I’m already seven!” I protested.
As soon as we followed the path into the forest, my good mood was restored.
“Now let’s find some mushrooms! You must help this old man out, my eyes aren’t what they used to anymore.”
I beamed at grandpa and started to search the area in front of us right away. I scanned the ground and made my way through the underbrush next to the path. When I was about to rush deeper into the forest, grandpa was quick to stop me.
“We’d better stick to the path. We don’t want to get lost in here, do we?”
I nodded and from then on followed grandpa’s lead as we ventured deeper into the forest. The forest floors around us was covered in various mushrooms. We found boletus, chanterelle, and many other common ones. As time passed, our backpacks filled up.
After a while, I noticed that the underbrush seemed to be different. When we’d entered, it had only comprised a few lonely bushes here and there, but by now it had become thick and heavy. I stopped searching for mushrooms for a moment and looked around. The surrounding forest had become thicker too. Before I’d seen the blue sky and the sun’s rays had illuminated the forest ground. Now, everything was hidden by the heavy canopy above us and the forest was much, much darker.
“Grandpa? Can we go back?” I asked, scared.
For a moment he stayed quiet and his eyes darted around. He too had noticed the changes. After a few seconds, he noticed me staring at him and a bright smile showed on his face.
“Well, I guess we’ve got more than enough mushrooms anyway,” he said and shook his now heavy backpack a little.
Even as a seven-year-old boy, I noticed the alarm in his voice. Soon his smile was replaced by a concentrated look as he scanned the forest.
“Let’s go,” he pressed out, took my hand and we started back the way we’d come from.
With every step we took, the surrounding forest grew darker. Soon enough grandpa stopped and turned in a different direction. A mixture of fear, confusion, and something else I couldn’t quite place contorted his face.
As he dragged me on, I noticed how quiet the surrounding forest had become. Before there had been the rustling of the trees, the chirping of birds and the noises of other small animals. Now everything was quiet, unnervingly quiet. The only sounds that remained were our own, muffled footsteps. Each step, each breaking twig echoed endlessly between the surrounding trees.
Suddenly grandpa stopped again and cursed to himself. I didn’t know what was happening and opened my mouth to say something, but then I saw that the path ahead of us had vanished. Where it should lead on was now nothing but an entangled, grown together mess of bushes and shrubs. Even the trees around seemed to have closed in on us, almost as if they tried to suffocate us with their presence.
Right then, I thought I saw something moving nearby. I jerked back a step and my hand slipped from grandpas. In an instant, he turned towards me and gripped my hand again with such force that I winced.
“Don’t you dare!” he yelled at me, furious.
It was the first time I’d ever heard him like that and his loud voice echoed through the dark, quiet forest. I choked back my tears and nodded.
Grandpa’s eyes were darting left and right as he held my tiny hand, desperately searching for the path. As I stood next to him, I noticed something between the trees again. I told myself it was the heavy branches, but then I saw them. The many dark, twisted shades that slithered from tree to tree only to vanish again.
I pushed myself against grandpa and told myself there was nothing there. What I’d seen was the shadows of the trees, nothing else.
When I saw another one out of the corner of my eyes, I quickly closed them and told myself it wasn’t real. I pressed grandpa’s hand, then pulled on it, but he didn’t react to me.
“Grandpa, I’m scared!” I whined at him but got no reply.
He was staring at the thick forest ahead of us with wide eyes.
At that moment reality shimmered and for a moment I could make out a clearing in front of us. When I blinked, it was gone again, replaced by nothing but trees. Then I saw it again, but I also saw the trees. It was almost as if the clearing was there, but at the same time, it wasn’t.
“Grandpa!” I yelled at him again, but he still didn’t react.
“You came…” I heard him whisper.
I wanted to call out to him again, but right at that moment, I saw one of the many dark shades between the trees ahead of us.
“Ursel, it is you,” I heard grandpa gasp.
At first, I didn’t understand what he was saying. Then I remembered that my grandma’s name was Ursula, or as he used to call her, Ursel. But she’d died years ago, hadn’t she?
“Ursel,” he said again, smiling. Then he took the first step into towards the not-clearing in front of us.
“No, grandpa, it’s,” I tried, but he ignored me.
“Oh, I missed you so much,” he mumbled. Tears were streaming from his eyes now.
I yelled at grandpa again and again. I tried to pull him back, but there was nothing I could do. For a few steps, he dragged me along before my hand slid off and I fell to the ground. Grandpa didn’t even turn back to me.
For a moment the shade vanished and an elderly woman stood in its place. At the same time though, I saw the formless, shadowy abomination. Long feelers stretched out towards grandpa while the illusion of my grandma motioned for him to come closer.
The moment grandpa stepped into the clearing it was gone, and grandpa with it. Nothing but trees and underbrush remained and all hints of the clearing had vanished. The same was true for grandpa.
I yelled and called out for him as the tears started streaming hot from my eyes, but there was no answer. No, there was no sound at all except for that of my voice.
The trees had grown even closer now. They were pushing against and twisting around each other, forming an almost impenetrable wall. As I looked up, there was no end to them. They stretched further and further into the sky endlessly. The entire forest seemed to have become one, cohesive entity.
The clearing I remembered. If I’d find it, I’ll find grandpa. I rushed forward to the underbrush ahead of me and tried desperately to make my way through it. I ripped away twigs, broke off branches, but it was futile. It had become too thick.
Finally, I fell to the ground, sobbing and exhausted, my hands covered in cuts.
Right at that moment, I heard a warm, caring voice.
“Oh Simon, my poor, poor boy. You must be so scared.”
When I turned around, I saw my mom standing on the path behind me. The tears stopped in an instant. I was saved! She smiled at me and motioned for me to get closer.
All my fears were blown away as I took the first step into her direction.
“Hey, I’m talking to you, kid!” I heard someone scream at me.
Suddenly everything around me was different. The forest was normal again. The trees were as scarce as when we’d entered and the underbrush comprised nothing but small brushes.
“Goddamnit, are you deaf?!”
Finally, I noticed a man on a moped ahead of me. I stared at him in confusion and watched as he leaned his moped against a tree and stomped towards me. When he reached me and noticed the state I was in, his face changed from anger to worry.
“Hey, what’s wrong, kid? What are you even doing out here?”
“My mom,” I started, “she’s right at-“ but I broke up. Wasn’t mom at home in the city? She couldn’t be here. And what about grandpa?
“Grandpa? Where are you?” I called out again and scanned the surrounding forest.
In the end, the man on the moped drove me home. I’d tried to tell him what had happened, but I was too exhausted and irritated to form a cohesive story.
When Aunt Maria heard when the man had found me, she was furious. She reiterated her warning, but then noticed the look on my face and the many cuts on my hands. Her anger went away and instead, she hugged me and told me everything would be all right.
“Do you know where grandpa is, Simon?” she asked when I’d calmed down. Right away the tears streamed from my eyes again.
I told her everything, but I could tell she didn’t believe my bizarre tale. When the sun set and her father still hadn’t returned, she got worried.
She tried her best to hide it from me, telling me that grandpa was still out in the forest, carrying all those mushrooms we’d gathered. Before I knew it, he’d be home again. Of course, I believed her. By then, I’d already half-forgotten about the weird events of the day.
As I lay in bed, I heard Aunt Maria on the phone. I didn’t understand what she was saying or who she was talking to, but I noticed how serious her voice was.
In the days to come a search for grandpa was organized. By that time I was already back home, at my parents’ place in the city. Each day I hoped for news about grandpa. I hoped for Aunt Maria to call and to tell me he’d gotten lost or had forgotten the time and was back.
Days became weeks, but my hope never wavered. The call, however, never came.
Grandpa had vanished in the old, sprawling woods that were Richter’s Forest.
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