As kids, we often miss the obvious. It is only as adults that we catch on to certain events in our childhood. It was the same for me during a specific summer vacation in my childhood. Only now do I realize what happened back then.
Mind you this whole story took place in Germany more than a decade ago. I am doing my best to translate the events into English.
At the time of this story, I was twelve years old. I was a city kid, but my parents would spend the summer at their holiday home.
It was not as fancy as it might sound. It wasn’t much more than a small cabin, located near town. I loved the wild plains, the forests, the farms and many other rural things.
At times I played soccer or other games with the local kids, at others I went on little adventures. What I enjoyed the most, was to ride my bike for hours on end. I’d often follow the many dirt roads and paths that led here and there to see where I’d end up.
One day, during another long bike ride, I met a friendly old couple.
They seemed to be hiking along the dirt road in my direction. As soon as the old woman noticed me, she gave me a warm greeting. They reminded me of my grandparents, so I smiled and waved to them.
When I had passed them and was going to ride on, the old woman called out to me.
“Oh my, you can’t go any further little boy,” she started, “you’ll end up in the swamps. Better turn around.”
I looked ahead and could already see that the dirt road seemed to become muddy. I nodded towards the old lady and thanked her for the warning.
I turned my bike around, drove back towards them and soon enough ended up talking with them for a bit.
They’d been hiking and berry-picking in the area nearby and were on their way back home. Their house was out here, near the edge of the forest and not too far ahead. They said they preferred it out here, away from the bustle of town.
When they asked me about myself, I told too them where I was from and that I was only here on vacation for some weeks.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at a big old house, nestled perfectly into the trees that made up the edge of the forest.
As we continued on, the old lady asked me if I’d come with them and if I wanted something to drink or maybe a snack.
I thanked her but shook my head. The sun would be setting soon. If I’d be late again, I’d be in trouble with my mom.
When I got home, my parents were already waiting for me to get dinner ready. I don’t know why, but I never told them about the old couple I met, or I just forgot to mention them.
It was a few days later that I found myself on the same dirt road as before. I hesitated for a moment, but then I thought I might as well pay them a visit.
As I approached the house, I saw that they were sitting outside in a Hollywood swing. I waved and greeted them.
As soon as she recognized me the old lady was ecstatic to see me, got up and walked towards me.
“My oh my, guess who has come back, Herbert!” she exclaimed to her husband who hadn’t moved from the swing.
“What brings you back here to us boring old folks?” he asked me laughing.
I was a little shy as a kid. So when they both spoke to me so openly, I couldn’t help but cast my eyes down. I answered in a quiet voice that I was nearby and thought it was the proper thing to say hello.
“Now aren’t you a well-mannered young boy.” the old lady said, giving me a bright smile.
“Now then, you want to sit down for a bit, boy?” Herbert asked me and motioned towards the now empty spot on the swing.
After leaning my bike against a tree, I went over and sat down right next to him. His wife, whose name was Elsa, watched us for a bit. Then nodding and beaming, she went inside.
It wasn’t long before my small talk with Herbert turned to birds and forest animals. It had been a life-long interest of his ever since he was a little boy. After some time he asked me if I had ever seen any forest animals for real, like a badger, a deer, a fox, or even just a rabbit. I guess he remembered I was from the city.
I told him that I had, but only from afar or in one of the animal parks.
Herbert laughed and said I was in for a treat. With that, he got up and motioned for me to come along.
He led me into the house, up the stairs and opened the door to a big room. As I stepped inside after him, my eyes grew wide. The room was filled with all sorts of forest animals and birds. For a moment I cringed back, but soon I noticed that none of them were moving.
Herbert explained that I needn’t be afraid. Those were all stuffed, or better, preserved animals. In younger years he had earned a living by doing this thing. He had been a taxidermist.
I remember that it felt a little weird to stay in a room, surrounded by all these dead animals. Herbert let me look around for a moment and then started to tell me a bit about each of the different animals. Soon enough my uneasiness at their sight vanished as I listened to his explanations.
We’d gone through almost all the animals when the old man and I heard Elsa call out from downstairs. I could see how Herbert’s expression changed and grew dark for a moment.
“Well, better look what she did this time. Shouldn’t take too long.”
With that, he went out the door.
I looked around some more and here and there touched the preserved animals and their fur. If only to make sure that they really weren’t alive.
Most imposing of all animals was a male deer with a huge pair of antlers on his head. At first, I only stared at the majestic animal, but soon I reached out for the antlers.
It wasn’t long before Herbert came back and saw me near the deer and told me all about this specific animal. Looking back I think that old Herbert was happy that I was so interested in his preserved animals.
In time, he led me back outside. With a laugh, he told me that we’d spend so much time up in the animal room that it was already getting late. I said goodbye to Herbert and after waving to Elsa, I was on my way back home.
That night it took me a long time to fall asleep. My thoughts and dreams revolved all around the forest animals Herbert had shown me and told me about.
The next day, right after lunch I went out with my bike and drove straight to their house again.
As I arrived, it was only Elsa who was there. She was sitting on the swing and busying herself with a bouquet of flowers. Her face lit up in an instant when she saw me and waved me over.
She told me Herbert wasn’t around and had gone on one of his solitary walks through the forest. After listening to her for a bit, I asked her with downcast eyes if I could see the preserved animals again.
“Oh, of course, you can, my dear little boy,” she answered, grabbing my hand and leading me inside.
It felt weird holding hands with her, but again I was too shy to say anything. As she led me up the stairs and into the room, she babbled on and on without end. Even after we entered the room, she kept talking about herself and how happy she was, that I was back. Finally, she asked me if I wanted to see something else.
Without even waiting for an answer, she told me with a big smile on her face that it was the old playroom of their kids. I was sure to enjoy it. A little annoyed, but also a bit curious I followed her along.
What Elsa led me to was a room that was almost as big as Herbert’s animal room.
Elsa was right, a playroom it was. There were toys everywhere. I was taken aback at the sheer number.
The room was filled to the brim with wooden blocks, puppets, dolls, teddy bears, toy cars, trains and much, much more.
“It is fine, go ahead, you can play with anything you want.”
I looked at her for a moment, then stepped into the room and looked around awkwardly. I was already twelve years old and most of the toys here seemed to be for younger kids. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to Else though.
As I walked further into the room, she told me she’d be back in a while and I should enjoy myself for the time being.
Soon after Elsa was gone, I left the playroom too. It was so boring, I thought.
As I walked back into the direction of the animal room, I saw that one of the other doors in the hallway was slightly ajar. First only peeked inside but didn’t see anything, since it was almost pitch-black in the room. A quick glance around showed me that I was alone and so I opened the door a little more.
I was finally able to see that a variety of cribs and beds filled the room. A big black curtain covered the only window. I had never seen anyone else here, but I remembered Elsa talking about kids before. So I thought it was their old nursery.
As I stepped inside, I noticed something, or better someone sitting in one of the beds. I jumped back and almost screamed. My first thought was that someone was sleeping in one of the beds. Soon enough I realized whatever it was wasn’t moving at all.
I laughed a little as I realized my mistake. What was sitting in the bed must be a puppet or big doll. Only moments later I noticed in the half-shade of the room that there were more of them. A whole assortment of these dolls was sitting or lying in the beds and cribs all around.
Each of the cribs and beds had a nameplate put to its front end. Here was Sam, followed by Peter and Marcel, then Tom and on it went.
I moved toward the bed with the name Sam on it to have a closer look. As I touched its arm, it felt weird. The skin was almost too soft and didn’t feel like cloth.
I was a little weirded out, but soon my thoughts went from the doll to a little box sitting at the foot end of the bed. As I picked it up, I realized it was wooden. The name ‘Sam’ was written on it in fine letters, same as on the nameplate.
In the dark of the room it took me a bit, but soon I found the lid and tried opening it.
Right at that moment, I heard Elsa’s voice calling out to me from the stairs. I rushed out of the room and only when I was on my way did I realize that I was still holding the box. Not knowing what to do and hearing Elsa’s footsteps coming up the stairs, I put it in my backpack. I told myself I’d return it later.
I met up with Elsa who led me to the downstairs kitchen. She had prepared a glass of fresh lemonade and a little bowl of fruits.
“You must be thirsty, aren’t you?” she asked as she got the glass for me.
It was then that Herbert, still wearing a pair of stout hiking boots entered the room.
“Well that’s-” he started but broke up when he saw Elsa and me with the glass of lemonade. His gaze rested on me for a moment, then he went forward to Elsa with a sad expression on his face.
“Elsa, your diabetes, the doctor-” he began, but was cut off by his wife.
“Oh Herbert, no, it is for the boy, he is-”
“Elsa no. You know you can’t keep doing this. It is no good.”
With that, he went closer towards his old wife, who was still holding the glass and the bowl of snacks. She looked first at him, then at me, then at him again, before the tears started streaming from her eyes.
“It’s alright, Elsa,” he said.
I didn’t understand what was going on at all. Finally, Herbert turned to me and told me that today wasn’t a good day. I nodded and went to go, wondering what exactly had just happened and what was wrong with Elsa.
I spent the rest of the day in town with some of my local friends and soon I had completely forgotten what had happened.
In the evening, as I was getting ready for bed, my mom found the wooden box that was still in my backpack.
“Now who is this Sam?” she asked me with a little smile on her face.
“Oh no, I forgot to put it back!” I exclaimed in shock when I saw it.
Soon I found myself explaining to my mom how I had come into possession of the box. I told her about the sweet old couple I had gotten to know and where I had met them. Then I rambled on about Herbert’s preserved animals. Lastly, I told her where I had found the box.
I remembered that her face turned serious as she listened to me. Then she sent me to bed.
That night I woke up by people arguing.
As I left the small bedroom, I found my mom in tears and my dad talking to many other people. When he noticed me, he sent me back to bed right away and assured me that everything was alright.
The next day though, they told me we had to go back home.
I never found out what actually had been going on that night. To tell you the truth I had almost completely forgotten about the whole thing.
I found out the truth by accident. I was going through the library’s archive for a university project. There I stumbled upon an old newspaper clipping.
Going through year after year, something had caught my eye.
‘The Case of the Bassinet Children – Old couple found guilty in missing children case.’
The article talked about a bizarre and gruesome discovery at the home of an elderly couple. I started to skim it out of sheer boredom, but soon I read the names, Herbert and Elsa. It took a while, but then I remembered the old couple from my summer vacation. The date of the story was from about a decade ago, the same summer I had met them.
At first, I told myself it was a coincidence, but soon I couldn’t deny the truth anymore.
Through the decades, the old couple had killed at least twelve children of varying age. The police found the proof right in their house. It was the mostly preserved bodies of their twelve victims. As I read the word taxidermist, it clicked.
Right then I realized what the room I snuck in must have been. I remembered how wrong the doll had felt. I shivered as I realized where I’d been back then: In a room filled with the preserved corpses of all these children.
I called my mom soon after. At first, she vehemently feigned ignorance, but then she told me what she and my dad had found in the box that same night.
Inside they had found pieces of memorabilia and a number of photographs. At first, it was just photos of a kid outside, either alone or with a lady that must have been in her fifties. They were normal enough at first. Soon enough though, there were photos of the boy unconscious and naked. She said the rest of the pictures was too much for her.
She said they had called the police then and there. The couple was arrested that same night without any resistance. Herbert gave himself up. Elsa didn’t understand what was going on. It was attributed to her suffering from an early stage of dementia.
In a later article, I found Herbert’s testimony.
They never had children, he said. Medical issues. His wife never got over the fact.
She loved children over everything. Since she couldn’t have her own, this love soon became an obsession. Elsa would often invite kids to her house, play with them and give them snacks.
One day though she went further and drugged a little boy. He never woke up again.
Elsa pleaded to not take her baby away, to never take him off of her. Herbert said, seeing and hearing his wife like that, he knew something had to be done about the body. Shaking his head, he admitted to a thing he should never have done.
That was only the first one. Herbert knew she was sick, but there was nothing else he could do to protect her and he’d never report her.
I stopped reading there. The whole story made me too sick to continue digging into it.
There is one thing I am wondering about these days. How close was I to becoming one of these kids? How did I get away? Was I lucky? At these times I think about Herbert’s behavior and what he told his wife that afternoon.
I can’t help but think that it was all thanks to the old man that I am still alive today.