On a pale, grey morning a young man sits pensively in the window seat of a bright blue plane. The weather outside is as it should be for a November morning in Central Germany; rain lurks ominously in imposing, irritated black clouds, thunder rumbles in the distance, and an angry wind howls and blows its way past the plane. The cerulean summer skies with their heat have long past, but they remain in the mind of the youngster. He is reminded of the heat because he is sitting on the plane with eight layers, or perhaps seven… but not nine. He has spent all his money, left it behind, squandered it on presents that will be laughed at today and forgotten tomorrow, and above all he does not want to incur an excess baggage charge. He is also stifled by the man on his right. He is large, too large, and sweat pours from his brow like one who sits in the sauna and then falls asleep in it. His largeness is emphasised all too much when he takes off his jacket, revealing a grotesque, hairy, unkempt abdomen which he sucks in, like one who, having been underwater for too long, pulls air desperately into the lungs. All around them there is German being spoken, prattled, gabbled, but the comprehension of it all is lost in the compressed, suffocating air of the aircraft.
Unfortunately, the words of his large companion are not muffled. He is loquacious, a master of the small talk, but the young man is oblivious to it. The four months he has spent abroad mean he know understands how this ritual will proceed:
‘How are things?’
‘Yes, can’t complain.’ PAUSE ‘What beer do you like?’
He also knows that he cannot win, since beer liking is of great regional importance, and if one doesn’t know the origin of the question master, then only a fortunate guess can save you. Worse still, the young man does not like beer, but to say this is for a guilty man to confess to murder just as another man is about to be arrested under a false lead. Absentmindedly, the young man blurts out the name of some obscure beer, which sparks the obese German off on a long rant with himself.
But he is oblivious to the reply, and simply stares out of the window at the bleak landscape. A great solitude burdens him, as though it were just him on the plane, without the screams, without the people, without the pilot. There is a whole world to speak to, but there is no-one he wants to speak with in the slightest, so he begins to think…
What thoughts cycle round his mind are numerous and complex, happy and sad, joyful and bittersweet. What is constant, however, is that the positive springs up, dances round, and is then removed ungracefully and violently by a morbid, negative enemy. He is going home to see his family, but he is ill. Well, he’s been told he’s ill, but he still believes firmly that he is in good health, perhaps even in better health than when he departed in the summer. He left his home overweight, and now he is thin. His family, when they met him just two weeks ago, paid special attention to how you could see his bones, that his ribs could all be felt, and the gaunt, pale look of his face. His mother told him later that she took one look at him then and felt that she had lost her happy young son. But he ignores her worries, for believes he is fit and healthy. Physically, at least. Nobody in Germany has commented on his weight, so it follows there can be no problem. His mother has forgotten his appearance, and has amplified the reality of his weight loss. Yes, she has forced him back home, she is clinging to him across borders. She is in a worse state than he, he thought. Thoughts like this have become very common recently.
One thought troubles him more than the anguish of his mother, however. The young man feels, for the first time in his life, alone. He has likened this feeling to a young father who, standing at the train station, watches his only son disappear into the mist to fight in some war that both know he may not return from. Even at the boarding school on the Bavarian border where he worked, even when he was surrounded by children who were just a year or two younger than he, sometimes even the same age, this sentiment gradually grew inside him. It was more painful when the children all left for the weekend. There would be noise, laughter, mirth all around at lunchtime, as hundreds of children, some even his friends, prepared to escape for the weekend. That is how they viewed the weekends there – a chance to flee. Then they would pile onto buses with their bags and smiles and depart. Those hours felt like millennia for the young man. The school was very remote, and the nearest village lay over ten miles away. There were no buses, no cars. Just a single, dusty track that ran into the forests beyond, a dark world that lured him, in his loneliness, in. The young man has learned, in these four months, that loneliness allows the mind to wander, to wander in its own dark wood of unexplored thoughts…
Gazing aimlessly out of the window at the thickening fog, the young man recalls his final adventure into those woods. His recollection is vivid, his memory unclouded. He is walking along a path that runs up the hill past the imposing, grand main school building, built around a central brick-red tower that stands tall above the trees and the houses. This stony path continues on up past the headmaster’s house, a giant, gruff, mesmerizing figure, and slowly the stone turns to dust and stone as it enters the wood. The young man turns round to check his position. He is already high up, the sun is beating powerfully down, and silence rings out around him. He wanders slowly into the wood, and the sun is instantly drowned out. He continues on, unaware of where he is going or why he is even venturing inside the wood. Darkness builds with each step he takes into the forest, and the young man’s curiosity grows. There is a rustle of leaves which terrifies him. A large red fox sprints through the undergrowth in pursuit of its prey. He runs after the creature, following it intently, desperate to seek it out. He continues on in, the rustling intensifies, the darkness grows, the path grows ever more obscure. But still he drives on, now completely lost. Then all noise, all rustles, stop. The young man, sweating from heat and fear, now realises with terror his position deep amidst the trees. The path has vanished altogether from his sight. Initially he thinks of calling for help, but then remembers he is alone. Frustrated, he picks up a loose branch and launches it into the unknown. It nudges some leaves before crashing into a huge fallen trunk. The young man notices something by the trunk that he has revealed by moving the leaves. He rushes over to it, careful not to trip over the other debris of branches. He kneels down and inhales sharply. Lying just inside the trunk, still half hidden in the foliage, is a thumb. Horrified but fascinated in equal measure, he moves the leaves more. He reveals another finger, and another, until eventually there is a whole human hand and forearm lying in front of his eyes. The skin, though dirty, is still fully intact, and the young man logically concludes that this must have ended up here within the past day or two, certainly no more than three days ago. He scrapes about, like a scavenger beside a corpse, in search of clues, looking for more. To his relief, and yet dismay, he finds nothing except leaves and twigs. He laughs, at first just to himself then quite uncontrollably, in the knowledge that this is the closest to a human companion he will have for the next forty eight hours. ‘Why have I found this? Was I lead into this wood by fate, even though I came here out of what I believed to be my own accord? What if this is a sign, as if I was meant to find this?’ Such questions, so loud in the silence, scamper round the youth’s frenzied head as he attempts to make sense of his grim discovery. The last question troubles him in particular, namely if this hand was predestined in some way to be uncovered by him and him alone. ‘But wait… what if I am not really alone? What if the murderer if watching me now, examining my every step, waiting for me to fall into his trap?’ But now he is troubled by an even stranger, darker thought: ‘Is there no other way out of here than death? What if I’m stuck in this prison until my final breath? No, it can’t be! I must fight against it, be strong No! It is all folly. I am confused, shocked, I’m not thinking straight. I have to get out of here and tell somebody… but there is no one to tell. And what if I confess, and am overheard by the murderer? What if I reveal my find to the murderer himself? He must surely be part of the school, there is nobody else for miles around. No… this is my secret. I must keep it that way. Nobody must ever discover this.’ In his disorientation, he hurriedly buries the arm under the leaves again, and runs frantically away. Terror grows in him. He looks round, and he sees a hooded figure, dressed in black, carrying in one hand a blade and in the other a rope, ghosting towards him. He screams, and turns to run. He is now running faster than he has ever run before, panting for air in the oppressive forest heat, scanning all around for the path back home. He stumbles, and now he can see the spectre scurrying behind him, closing in on him. Then suddenly, when he is about to give himself up to the forest, he sees a dirty track, and he sprints down the hill, jumping over the logs and plants. He dares not look back to see the spectre is still there, but he feels his hand on his shoulder, trying to draw him back in. Shaking him off, he somehow picks up his pace and runs down to the light, until he leaps out of the forest and onto the hard stone below. He gallops down the hill to the main building, and collapses, exhausted, on the front steps. He draws in a huge sigh of relief, and, for now, he is free.
When the young man awakens, it is dark, darker than the wood he was in some time ago. He rubs his eyes and tries to sit up, but his movement is impeded by something. Then he notices he is not alone and that people are talking, staring, questioning. He understands nothing, but he knows that they are worried. He attempts again to get up, and he is once more stopped. Turning sharply around, he feels a cold hand placed on his shoulder. The figure is back for me, he thinks! He looks up, and he sees a great, imposing, menacing figure. Dressed in an oversized grey suit, with a wrinkled face like that of a lion’s, he sees a huge moustache spread out across his face. He is a tall man, but from the young man’s position he appears huge, out of proportion and fantastical. He is staring up at the headmaster. He sees in those great eyes of his a fear that matches his own from the forest, but deeper in those eyes lies an anger, a dismay of sorts. But deeper still, right in the heart of the iris, there seems to the young man to be a pain, a regret, a sadness that he interprets as grief. Whenever the two met, in the yard, on the country road that lead out towards the next village, or inside the school itself, it was this that the young man tried intently to focus on so as to overcome his fear of this giant. Seeing this now, the young man struggles to his feet, unaware of the concerned blabber revolving around him. The crowd do not comprehend why the young man should be like this, nor do they know the cause of his dismay. It is this blissful and mutual ignorance that the young man continues to stare deep, deep into the eyes of the giant, slowly raising himself up on to his feet. Troubled, but trying not to show it, the headmaster barks an order out that is at once obeyed and ushers the young man forwards and down a flight of stairs into the darkness.
The first thing that strikes both is a rumbling, angry noise in this room. The young man feels the water on the floor as he progresses down the stairs, and as he turns the corner, he sees a corridor with a multitude of side rooms. In each room, three giant washing machines and dryers chug continually round with a fearsome racket. He stops for too long to gaze at these eccentric, enthralling contraptions and is pushed onwards by the giant. The room smells of detergent and yet reeks more of an uncleanliness and a neglected disuse. The irony strikes him that the corridor that contains the washing machines and tumble driers has itself not seen the sight of a mop nor felt the drops of cleansing water for a long time. Then the young man stops momentarily once more and asks to himself, now finally coming to his senses after his slumber: ‘Why am I here?’
The question flashes out of his mind as the pair reach a door. It is cold and metallic, and the young man feels a complicated range of locks before he is brushed aside by the headmaster. In a flash, and with great dexterity given his size and great haste given the lack of light, the door is opened by the headmaster. As it creaks hauntingly open and the giant switches on a light, the young man is astonished by the sight. The room is circular in shape, with red wallpaper and candles all round the walls. A huge chandelier drapes down from the ceiling, and there are portraits of various other portly giants around the room. In the centre of the room can be seen a mahogany table, with a chair at either end, and an old, wooden globe in the middle. Confusion fills the young man’s mind, and doubt nags at his soul. ‘What does he know about that? Does he even know that I’ve found that? Does he suspect me for what has happened, or is it still cloaked to all but me?’ In such a circumstance, the young man gazes at the floor, not wanting to look into the eyes of the giant.
But the giant clears his throat menacingly, and the young man is forced to look up at the monster. He inhales deeply, and indicates to him to sit down. The giant, however, remains standing, much like a storm cloud hanging over a beach, waiting to end the enjoyment of everybody. He positions himself level with the globe, and lays his hand on it, almost covering it completely.
‘Do you like… exploring, Michael?’ he asks, his voice deep and loud, even though there cannot be more than three feet between both persons. The young man starts to shake.
‘I…well, I came here from my home… to work, sir. But I… well, I guess so.’ The giant laughs loudly.
‘There is nothing to be afraid of, Michael, this is a very simple question. I ask it only since, given your appearance, you must’ve been doing quite a bit of exploring before we all returned this evening.’ (the young man looks at his trousers, which are caked in mud. His hands, too, are black, and there are cuts to both his arms. Blood. Is it his own, or…? Panic grips him).
‘I was… well, sir, I fell down the steps having gone out for a walk.’ (He curses himself. In trying to stay calm and invent a plausible cover up, he has inadvertedly contrived to make himself appear more guilty).
‘A walk, you say?’ The tone of his voice changes. It is now no longer friendly, rather troubled and perturbed. ‘Michael… you may wonder why I have brought you down here. You see, this is the safest place in this school, and thus the safest place for miles around. To walk alone around here is dangerous, especially to go into the forest unaccompanied. For there lurks danger in a multitude of forms – the lack of paths, broken branches, the darkness, it all adds to the confusion and the possibility of an accident. It seems you were seen today running through the forests by a man, himself out on a long walk. He reports you were running, screaming uncontrollably, as though being pursued! Naturally this seemed nonsensical, but as you are now, how to put it, one of our own, I had no choice but to bring everyone back early (he spun the globe in his hand). Michael, here you are vulnerable as a foreigner. You cannot cry for help like the others can when they are in danger. Thus you will understand why I cannot allow you to dive in to those forests. Nobody can cross the line alone, Michael. Wait… did you see it?’
‘Well, no… I don’t think so, sir.’
‘Very well. This is a good thing, for to have seen such a wonder in your delirious state would have been a great shame. You see, we head up to the resting place of our great school founder a week from now, to remember his legacy and to thank him for what he has built for us.’
Michael breathes in sharply – the hand! They will surely find that. And if they do, there will be no other explanation that to blame him for it!
‘Sir, I don’t think… I don’t think you should visit the grave. It’s dangerous… like you said!’ But his voice trembles almost uncontrollably and his body rotates between a paralysed stiffness and a shaking that he cannot master. He looks to the wall, so as not to stare at the monster in his current state. In the giant shadow, in this moment of weakness and terror, the image of his mother appears. Her eyes are wide and red from tears. She is clasping her mouth from shock, unable to bear the transformation of her son. She is shocked because she believes he is ill, and dangerously so. Michael shakes it off, desperate to ignore her grip on him. But then the shadow morphs once more, it grows in size and it grows ever darker. A hood appears, a scythe in the hand. The image rears its head, straightens its body up and, like a falcon sweeping down upon a rat, dives directly towards Michael. Michael runs from the room and slams the door. He has fled the image once more, and he slides along the soaking floor towards the steps that lead up to the outside world. He steps out, stands up tall and breathes deeply. Free.
But there is no freedom here. Lying no more than six feet in front of him is the hand, the limb of the forest. Pupils stand round it, some are crying, others cannot even look. Several teenage boys have their mobile phones out and are busy taking pictures of the discovery. And now, seeing it for the second time, the young man spots a long scar on the arm. There too, directly below the scar, is a mud-stained blue wristband. He watches in horror as an elderly female teacher scrapes off the grime from it and inhales sharply before turning to the assistant head and whispering:
Before anyone has a chance to respond, the old lady orders everyone to bed. But the young man stands motionless and in despair. Juliana was a girl of fourteen who came to him for extra help every Tuesday. Not because she wanted to, but because she was forced. And so, she did not come for extra help, but rather to push his limits, to test his patience, to force him to do something he would regret. Her atrocious, attention-seeking behaviour was well known by all, but she could not be removed from the school since her father was incredibly rich and paid almost triple the required amount to keep his daughter away from him.
‘What if they think that she pushed me into doing this? They will jump to that conclusion before any other. I have to go, tonight. But wait… if I leave now, will I not look more guilty? But if they think I’m guilty, I may never escape. No, I must go now, once everyone is asleep, hitchhike to the airport and get the first flight home. I will tell my mother they sent me home because I was ill, that she was right. I will settle her down, and then, I’ll leave home and go somewhere nobody can find me, and start anew. Yes.’ And so, in a drunken stupor of crazed excitement, the young man went to his room, lay down, and waited.
© Copyright 2016 Calum Watson. All rights reserved.
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