Why is the pale woman from the forest following him?
Liam’s perfect life is disrupted by bizarre occurances: An eerie apparition from the forest starts to hang around his house; the country’s media seems to have conspired against him; then his wife vanishes without a trace, and Liam, fearing a vast conspiracy against him, flees the country in the middle of the night, making his way deep into Eastern Europe. There, he has to face his own paranoia and an ancient myth seemingly come to life.
This is a story of isolation and paranoia. It explores our deepest, darkest fears of being mere pawns in a larger game and rattles the cage of our own perception of reality. Our own lives are so fragile. That’s what this book is about.
Prologue: A Paradigm Dissolves
Once upon a time, there was a boy who ran away. Both love and hatred drove him out, and when he finally returned to where all the madness began, everything had changed.
The man who shambled down Main Street now had grown old. His posture was bent, and with each consecutive step, the frayed soles of his combat boots scraped over the asphalt. His worn out black jeans were grey and muddy. They sagged. The belt was loose. The overcoat he was wearing was of a discolored brown on the verge of becoming a shade of dark red. Like old blood. It had many pockets, but they were all empty, except for a lighter, lint, and some old, crumpled cigarettes, but nothing more. His shaggy knapsack, however, rustled and swayed on his bent back. A strand of twine dangled from one of the pockets in the soothing wind and there was a dull tinny sound from the inside of the sack, most likely a cheap pot that clanked against a fork or a cup.
The wrinkles in his face were not mere wrinkles of age; they were deep trenches of war, initially dug out by fear and anger and sadness and manic laughter, later wrought by the passage of time, and finally tempered in the merciless forge of the great outdoors. In a sense, it wasn’t a face anymore, it was a battle-scarred leather parchment, a certificate of an extraordinary lifetime. Despite all that, he sported a gray mane of hair, bushy and unruly but somehow tamed into a toupee covered his scalp. It was complimented by gray stubble that sprouted from his chin, around his mouth and up to his ears. A thick, dark wart grew under his right eye and from a distance it almost looked like some ancient tattoo with which a jungle tribe would have marked their elders. And this shambling old man with the determined look on his face kept turning his head over his shoulder as if he expected someone to burst out of one of the doors and yell, “There you are! I haven’t seen you in ages! Come, townsfolk, gather around, the lost son has returned!”
But nobody burst out of any doors. In fact, the streets were deserted and devoid of people altogether. Ravaged Tudor-style houses with small windows and large, dark wooden doors lined the road. The windows were black rectangles. The sky was heavily overcast with a thick, grey, fluffy blanket. Behind him loomed the castle. In front of him, a carpet of dried and crumpled leaves, black smog particles, and an occasional cigarette bud near the sidewalk covered the street. A soft breeze caressed the red shingles on the rooftops and somewhere close a pinwheel rattled. The gaps between the houses were plastered with thick, dark green hedges. Some had thorns. Others were merely walls of leaves. A toy car was sitting on the front step of one of the houses, abandoned. Time had worn down the village, but he smiled grimly as he looked around. The old, fragile Audis and Alfas and Volkswagen had been replaced with updated models that fit the time and in return, the old houses’ plaster had started to decay and fall off the walls.
He passed a small side street and read the sign. He twisted his hardened face into a halfhearted but genuine smile when he read ‘Water Path’, just as he had expected. ‘Water Path’, the street that led down to the river. He raised his head and stretched his neck to see if the old chain-link fence was still in place at the end of the road, behind which the land sloped down toward the river. He thought about the time when he had bathed in that river with her. It should have been a nice memory, but his smile was pained. So close to his goal, he began to march faster. Now, a small boy – maybe of the age of 10 – emerged from one of the street corners on a slightly rusted aluminium scooter with squeaky wheels and rolled towards him. The old man raised his hand and saluted the young boy sloppily; there was little strength left in his arm. The boy rolled past him without changing his expression, never letting him out of his sight, and after he passed him, the old man was certain that the boy turned multiple times to observe this strange apparition again. He didn’t mind. He had been this young boy once. The street on the right side of Main Street from which the boy had come led to the General’s Plaza. In the old man’s youth, this was the place where the fresh produce from the nearby fields was sold during the week and his mother had gone and always purchased the same things: Three bundles of carrots, a bag of potatoes, onions, fennel and red beets, alongside three slices of deer for the Sunday afternoon roast. Somewhere, a crow screamed ominously and the old man looked up but saw nothing. Then, the place he was looking for all along came into sight. It was one of the older ones and three stone steps led down to the entrance. Above the door hung an old sign that said ‘The Fountain of Youth’. The name had not changed. Was this just an intricate mirage, or was it still there?
Cheerful bells chimed as he pushed open the heavy door, a sound entirely unexpected. In the silent emptiness that opened in front of him, the bells sounded like a solitary yell from a mountain top. He entered, and the door fell shut behind him, and he stood in the gloomy light of the old fountain, as they had called it. He found himself in front of the old, polished mahogany counter under which several taps offered an acceptable range of different beers and beverages – German, Czech, Belgian. Behind the counter, a large shelf divided the room, and it was filled with all kinds of bottles in various colors and shapes. Most of them had gathered dust, and the dim orange light of the two ceiling lamps reflected dully off them. The tavern was shaped like a ‘U’, and thus curved around the counter, which sat right in the middle of the room and was equipped with a range of – he quickly counted in pairs, two, four, six – eight bar stools. The room then went around the counter on both sides and opened into two larger caves where ancient looking tables and linoleum couches waited. In one of the corners, at least if that hadn’t changed in the fifty years he had been gone, there was an empty bathtub where old Theodor had sawed out one side and stuffed it with pillows so that it could function as a rudimentary sofa. The old pillows in there reeked of smoke and middle-aged men’s aftershave. Somewhere in the tavern but out of view, he could hear the faint sound of voices and music coming from a TV with the volume turned down. Yes, this was still the old ‘Fountain of Youth’ he knew and loved back in the days, but something was off, and the fact that he couldn’t point his finger straight to it made him feel uneasy. It felt like revisiting a friend after an eternity, but the friend had been replaced with an almost identical yet evil clone. The tavern seemed empty, but since the door was open for everyone to just walk in, the old man didn’t think about it. He knew that it was a sheer impossibility to walk through this door as through a time portal, revisiting the old days again, but some figment of his mind had had hope beyond hope. Why not, it had asked glumly, why would it be impossible? What do you know about time travel? Nothing, I tell you. Nothing. But the glum had come justified. Emptiness and the future surrounded him. Granted, it wasn’t dark yet, but in his days, that didn’t matter one bit. The men of the town gathered around the counter as soon as work was over, smoked their cigars or cigarettes and let the day evaporate slowly like the very smoke they in- and exhaled over the hours in a sauna of burnt tobacco and good times. Scenes and isolated afterimages danced and flickered across his inner eye before he slipped the knapsack off his shoulder and sat down. He folded his arms on the counter and looked around, breathing in the smell of bygone days in deep, rasping breaths. He started to whistle an old tune he remembered from somewhere without recalling where from exactly. Sweet little sixteen? It was off key. And it sounded strange; it sounded too clear. In his days, the thick fog dampened all noise down to cozy background chatter that surrounded him like the outer walls of a violent tornado circle the eye of the storm. In those days, this had been the purgatory of forbidden vices and the forlorn teen he had been, angst-ridden, romantic, idealistic, and hopelessly fallen deep into a chasm of reckless, burning love had ventured through these gates into the fiery pits. Everything was so much grander in those days, and it had tickled his mind with a delicate premonition that he would rise above and take the world by storm. He smelled the sweet smoke on his tongue, heard the roaring laughter of inebriated working class men.
Now there was a clanking sound from somewhere in the tavern. Someone is here, after all, he thought. Someone responded to my call! Seconds later, a man in his forties came around the counter, and his eyes opened with innocent delight. The visitor pushed his chair back a few centimeters and stared in surprise. This man looked like Theodor, and again he felt as if he had passed into a different realm of existence where close-to-perfect carbon copies or uncanny evil twins of everyone existed.
“Hello there!” said the Theodor clone. “Can I get you anything?”
“Hello there!” The old man answered.
“Why, you look like you’ve traveled!”
“Is that so?”
“Excuse me, but have we met? ” the bartender asked, this time sounding a little more cautious.
“I’m right to assume that you are not Theodor?”
The face of the bartender lit up like a Christmas tree and a smile spread from the center of his face. He chuckled openly and then said, “Ha, no! I’m his son. Aaron! Nice to meet you, Sir!”
“Nice to meet you, Aaron!” the visitor said and reached over the counter. Aaron returned the gesture with a smile, and the smile flinched slightly under the sudden painful squeeze. The face of the visitor remained nonchalantly friendly, however, and Aaron returned to his smile.
“Can I get you anything, um … what’s your name?”
“Yes. That’s what everyone called me when I left, and I’ll just stick with it!” He reached for a stack of cardboard beermats and shuffled them casually like a deck of cards.
“So you did come here before! I knew it! Wait, don’t say it! Let me guess your age, if I may. Seventy years? You were born around the end of the war. You knew my father, correct?”
Renner nodded without stating specifically if it was meant for Aaron’s assessment of his age or his connection to Aaron’s father, Theodor. Aaron accepted it as a ‘Yes’ for both and continued, “So if you were here when you were younger, I probably wasn’t born yet.”
Renner didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he reached into one of the pockets of his jacket and pulled out a crumpled red box of cigarettes. He slipped one of the remaining three – they looked crooked and the paper was ripped at the front side – between his lips and fumbled for a lighter in his pockets.
“I’ shmokin’ ohkay?” he murmured through his teeth and lit up.
“Knock yourself out, we do allow smoking. Dad would rather drop dead on the spot before they outlaw smoking in his tavern! Not here, he says. Never here.”
Renner exhaled a cloud of whirling and twisting strings of smoke that danced through the room like a silk dress floating under the surface of a lake. Then he cleared his throat and stared at Aaron.
“He is still alive? Theodor, I mean?”
“Ha, yes. He’s upstairs. Watching TV!”
“God, how old is he now? Is he still … you know? Does he still play with a full hand of cards?” Renner murmured.
“Should I call him? You can find out for yourself!” Aaron asked with this innocent smile. This is the smile of someone who hasn’t seen the world, he thought. This boy has probably never left this county. He called him ‘boy’, but in fact, he guessed that this man was at the end of his forties. Would he like to speak to old Theodor? He must be ninety plus by now.
“Fetch him if you like!” he said after another deep inhalation. The smoke which still lingered in his lungs as he spoke dulled his voice and made it sound deeper and pained. Aaron nodded rapidly.
“I’ll tell him. You’re Renner to him? Also, can I get you a drink?” he asked for the third time. This time, Renner replied.
“Thanks. Yes, I am. A cold beer. Something dark!”
“We have several types of Dunkel, how would you like for example a fine …” he started, but Renner interrupted him swiftly.
“Anything is fine!”
Aaron looked aimlessly around the room until he found his smile again as if it was a bird on his hand that had escaped his grasp for a second. Then he produced a large glass from under the counter and filled it to the brim with a sparkly, dark fluid. The foam bubbled and danced, and cold pearls of condensed water formed on the side of the glass. Until he saw the glass right in front of his eyes, he hadn’t understood how much he was starved for a cold drink. Aaron placed the now much heavier glass on the counter and looked at him in anticipation. A subtle scent of sweet malt and bitter yeast filled the room. Renner smiled, and Aaron found that it looked as if he tried to pull up his lower lip to the tip of his nose. Renner drank a third of the glass in one go. Then he sat it down, wiped the foam from his beard stubble, and leaned backward. He sighed.
“Very, very good. Thank you. You may fetch Theo now.”
Aaron nodded so deeply that it almost looked like a bow and then turned on the spot and disappeared again. He walked around the shelf and disappeared behind the door from which he had originally emerged. Renner heard him walk up a flight of stairs and then the silence returned. Renner ran his finger around the tip of the glass and then reached for another gulp. He sighed. This was good. Despite all the hardships and heartbreak, this was a good moment. And after all, wasn’t that what it was all about? In his time, he had accepted and understood that he couldn’t take anything with him. All the money in the world he could gather around him like a child’s pillow fort wouldn’t do him much good once it was his time to move into his new apartment six feet underground. At his age, fleeting moments of joy were more rewarding than long-term possessions. He drew on his cigarette again. Half of it was gone.
While Renner’s gaze jumped from one bottle on the shelf to the next, he tried to recall the image of Theo as he last saw him – a red-cheeked, cynical but cheerful bastard of a man who would laugh at him and punch his shoulder as a friendly gesture. A handsome man with dark, well-trimmed hair who had his way with the women as he served them their drinks. He noticed a painting on his right. It looked like an oil painting or something of the sort and showed the same reddish face he just imagined, almost as if he had mentally projected it onto the canvas. Renner slid down from his stool and shuffled across the room towards the painting. It was clearly Theo at the height of his career as a bartender. It was probably from after his exodus. He couldn’t recall any oil paintings from his time. Then again, he might have missed it through all the noise and smoke and dim lights. He buried his hands in his pockets and bent forwards as to read the tag on the bottom.
‘Theodor, the Mighty – Love, K.”
He didn’t know who hid behind ‘K.’, but he assumed a woman. In some sense, it scared him how little had changed, except the fact that the tavern was empty now. After a short but thorough inspection, he strolled back to his stool, sat down, and drank. Then, an old, jittery voice in an all too familiar manner of speaking suddenly reached across from the door behind the counter.
“What are you doing here, you fucking brat? I don’t fucking believe it! Couldn’t you at least have had the decency to stay dead like everyone else?”
Renner’s face lit up like a barn on fire. A wide grin stretched across his face and he almost laughed. That was Theodor now? Time had a cruel way with people. One glance at that oil painting and back, the whole reality of age came crashing down onto Renner. That bent little creature in front of him, hairless, full of liver spots and wrinkles, that was not Theodor. That was the memories of the man who once was Theodor, now inhabiting a beaten and scarred troglodyte.
“No way,” Renner said.
“Why did you have to climb out of your grave?” Theodor cried and pointed at him. “Have you no manners at all?”
“The thing is only that I never died.”
“Ugh. I don’t fucking believe you!”
“No? Well, here I am. Look at me with your own eyes.”
“I don’t care one little bit what my aging eyes wanna sell me today,” croaked Theodor – or whatever was left of this once so charming man. He waved his boney finger in front of him like an ancient wand. But no spell happened that made Renner disappear. The husk of Theodor grew even smaller. He leaned against the wall and pulled up his sagging pants at the belt.
“Then I give up,” he moaned. “Kill me, then, you ghastly spectre.”
Renner slammed his hand down onto the counter. “Theodor!”
“I am not a ghost, nor am I death. I am Renner. You sold me a bottle of beer once, one woman in each arm, and you brought your finger up to your lips, smiled, and made me swear not to tell father. I never told father. I returned because I of her. It was her who drove me away. And now she has come out of the underbrush again.”
Theodor squinted at him, then his expression changed into neutral. He looked down at his feet for a second. Then he looked up again.
“What was your name again, little man?”
“Renner,” Renner said and shook his head. “Get yourself a drink, old man, and I’ll tell you everything.”
Theodor waited for a moment, then grabbed a dusty bottle of Whiskey from the shelf next to him and shuffled towards Renner.
“Do what you must.”
“I certainly must,” Renner said. What followed was a tale of a life destroyed.