“Did you hear that?”
I tensed up and listened.
I heard it. A howl, like a wolf or a wild dog. It came from our left and seemed to fill the trees like a blanket.
I looked back at him with frightened eyes.
“We should head back,” he said.
I nodded but just as we turned on the path I heard a child’s cry mixed in with the canine’s.
I stopped and pulled hard on Stäva’s hand as he tried to keep walking.
“Listen!” I whispered hoarsely.
“We can’t be out here with wolves!” he yelled back, struggling to keep his voice down. All Swedish children were likely to have been told tales of vicious wolves in the wild woods. I had heard mine from my mother. But the human sounds made this story different.
“There’s a girl out there!” I told him as I heard another whimper coming from the same direction. I wasn’t actually sure if it was a girl or not, but they were young like us and needed our help.
“I don’t hear anything, come on,” Stäva said pulling at me again.
“No!” I yelled and ripped my hand out of his sweaty grip. “Listen again, you can hear it.”
The wolf howled first. Then fierce, drooling growls swarmed us. And finally, the child’s cry.
“Daddy” I could hear the child yell.
But Stäva was immune.
“I don’t hear anyone but wolves. We have to get out of here.”
“You go!” I said and then I turned around and took off at a gallop into the darkening trees, toward the horrendous sound of snapping jaws.
I was aware of Stäva yelling behind me and perhaps for a bit he may have given chase. I certainly don’t blame him for letting me go, or if it was a case of him not being able to catch up. He was older but I was the same height as him and my legs were born to run. Within a few minutes of tireless scampering through the birch trees and overgrown roots and berry patches, I was alone.
Alone and cursing myself with the only bad words I knew.
I waited with my hands on my knees, my socks splattered with mud, breathing heavily. I had lost the path at some point, so it didn’t help that I was lost along with being completely alone.
Another howl and another human cry.
Of course I wasn’t completely alone.
“You’re an idiot, Pippa,” I said aloud, hoping maybe Stäva would hear me. Hoping the wolves wouldn’t. Just what was I thinking? I was tall but I was still nine and my survival skills consisted of picking berries and throwing stones. I was hardly a candidate for a rescue mission. And Stäva had never heard the child crying. Perhaps it was all in my head.
But now. There it was again.
“Someone help me!” the child cried and now I was certain it was a girl younger than me.
My fingers and toes ached with the cold that was steadily encroaching. Autumn in Sweden wasn’t very kind. It would be blissfully warm one day and then a frozen wasteland the next. Being in the dark woods overnight could possibly kill me. Yet the fact remained that I had chosen to come out here and with that lay my fate. Knowing was better than not knowing, even if I wound up dead.
I know such thoughts don’t make a lot of sense when you take into account how young I was. But there was a part of me that didn’t fear things the way I should have. Though I was still afraid, the concept of death was one that never had much weight with me. It had nothing to do with my father and his religious ways, instead it was a matter of having experienced death before. I knew I died in some way when I found the girl in the lake. I don’t know how I came back to life but I know that even though she was dead she still protected me. I felt safe knowing I could walk away from such a thing.
It was foolish of me to think that. I was young and, as I said to myself, an idiot. But that’s the way it was. I’m sure you might think it noble that I would risk death to save a stranger, but I don’t know if that’s how I saw it. It was more a matter of something I had to do, than something I should do.
So even though every part of my body was cold and screaming for me to yell for Stäva, to at least try and find my way back before the real darkness set in, I didn’t. I walked toward the noises like some child martyr, creeping silently as I could through the rough and dying foliage.
The darkness was dropping quickly and the forest began to take more ominous shapes. As the white bark of the birch gave way into rock and pine, my eyes played tricks on me. I saw shadows, shapes and faces everywhere I looked. It took all my nerve to keep it together and walk on.
Finally I came to a small clearing where the dying twilight penetrated enough for me to see.
I’ll never forget it and I would pray every night that I could.
In the clearing, trampling down the long, wild grass were three dogs. I say dogs because they didn’t look as sleek and lupine as wolves. They were bulkier, sloppier, and lacked any grace I would associate with them. Even while killing, wolves can look elegant. This was plain revolting.
The dogs were pulling at a young girl, maybe a few years younger than I. She had long brown hair that swung around her head as it lay limply to the side. One crocodile-toothed dog had one of her tiny feet in its mouth. Another had a hand and another the arm, teeth chomped down at the tender inside of the elbow.
They were tearing the girl apart and it took me a second to realize one of her legs was missing, ripped off somewhere underneath her bloodied skirt.
I froze, unable to move, to speak, to breathe. I don’t even know how I existed in that moment except to say that I saw it all.
The dogs never looked at me, they just continued to pull and tear until the one dog ripped the hand away at the wrist. With a wet, red tear she slumped unevenly to the ground as the remaining dogs played tug of war from opposite sides.
Then she lifted her head up and looked at me.
She was still alive. Her face was white as snow, her eyes pink and puffy.
“Why did he leave me?” she cried out, her voice barely heard above the dog’s snarls, their sick, chomping jaws.
I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t say anything. I was foolish. Helpless. Useless.
The girl kept her dark eyes on mine, almost oblivious to the horror which was happening.
“Why did he tell me to go?” she asked, expecting an answer from me. I could only shake my head slowly from side to side, not even sure if what I was watching was real, though I knew it was.
The dog at her foot gave a throaty growl and took a large bite near her knee. With one sickening solid chomp it tore it off. Not cleanly. It was messy, bloody, a gruesome mix of bone and stringy tendons.
The girl finally stopped looking at me. She closed her mouth. She closed her eyes.
In my head I heard her.
Go Pippa, run now!
I couldn’t explain how she was able to get inside me but she was. I didn’t waste any time either. The spell-like haze I was under lifted and pure panic filled my able joints.
I took off into the woods like a shot, not looking behind me once. Her cries had stopped but the snarls of the monsters carried on and followed me until I was coming out of the woods just outside of Stäva’s place. I ran until the warm lights of his house welcomed me home and I told his worried family what had happened. I left the part about the girl talking to me in case they didn’t believe it, but I told them everything else. At least Stäva could attest for the dogs being out there.
In my hysterical state I was driven home and sent to my bed with a strong cup of vodka and tea that mama made me drink in a few gulps. My parents were worried about me, how could they not when I saw what I did. But from the glances I caught between them, I knew they were worried about more than dogs. I just didn’t know what.
That had happened on a Friday, so I didn’t get a chance to see Stäva and his family until the weekend was over. I had spent my days inside, my mother terrified of another dog or wolf attack. When I finally got into Arstand’s car on Monday morning, he told me that a few hunters had scoured the woods over the last few days. They found evidence of wild dogs in the area, perhaps a pack that had been tormenting chickens the next town over and they found traces of girl’s clothing. But the clothing had been decaying and out in the woods for many, many years. Whatever the dogs were fighting over wasn’t a young girl.
But I knew what I saw. The fact that there had been clothing found only gave me the proof I needed. The girl I saw wasn’t alive, just as the girl in the lake wasn’t either. She was probably a victim of neglect. You see, in the old days when families had sick children or were unable to care for them, they would take them out to the woods and let them be eaten by wild animals. That practice had stopped a long time ago, but I believed I saw the remains of it. One last cry for help…directed at me.
I thought about that for many years to come. Thankfully nothing that terrible haunted me in the years following. I never saw any more wild dogs or girls in the garden or men of shadows. I concentrated on my acting now that I was taking part in the program at school (somewhat secretly) and tried to forge my way forward the best I could.
Only on some days would I stop and wonder, why me? Why did they choose me when they could have anyone else?
I still don’t really know.
When I said that nothing that terrible haunted me, I meant it. I was still haunted but by less terrible things.
There was the time I saw twin boys appear behind me when I was walking home from Stäva’s. They never said anything, they just stood there with their pale faces and stared at me. It made me uneasy, to put it mildly, and they followed me down the road. It was only near my house that they ceased to exist, literally shimmering away like the air above hot pavement.
Another time I was serving detention after English Language class. I can’t remember what for but I was a particularly rambunctious student and had a hard time sitting still. To my teacher we were alone however I was very much aware of an older boy in the corner of the room. At first he tried to get my attention by calling my name over and over again. The teacher never noticed so I had to assume he was a spirit of some kind. It helped that his eyes were bright purple with no pupils to mar the blank slate. Very unnatural.
When I continued to ignore him, he worked his way up to spitballs, flinging them in my hair. It was curious because the spitballs were real and stayed in my hair until I found some of them later that night. Finally, the boy gave up and left the room, a trail of shiny blood following him out the door. I watched my teacher carefully to see if he saw anything at all. He only shivered as the boy passed him by and didn’t even bat an eye when the door opened and the bloody nuisance stepped out.
Little incidents like this happened all the time and I went on ignoring them. I didn’t know what they wanted but when I was in public, it was wrong to ask them. Small town mentality existed back then and I did not want to be branded as the minister’s crazy daughter.
At any rate, I had the theatre to keep me company. I joined the tiny drama club with the aim of putting on A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream by the year end. With my perseverance I won the role of Helena and wouldn’t you know it but Stäva got the part of Demetrius. We were sixteen now and he had grown into quite the handsome young man, something I had never noticed until I was in the play with him. Surely I had noticed the way some of the girls my age would drool over him, but to me he was always the boy next door, the goat boy, my closest and dearest friend.
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