There are sometimes tales that you can’t believe ever really happened. It was on a nice Saturday afternoon that I heard one such tale.
I’d been tasked by dad to mow the lawn and to clean up the old shack next to our house. It had taken me most of the morning and a good part of the afternoon.
As I finally closed the doors of the shack I noticed our next door neighbor, Mister Kunze, sitting outside on a bench in front of his house. He was reading from what I assumed to be his bible.
The old man had always been very religious and a devoted Christian, but it seemed that in the last years he’d been drawn more and more to the Holy Scripture. I often wondered if it was because of his old age and if death was an ever present, impending shadow.
I always liked the old man. When I was younger, he’d often watched out for me when my parents weren’t around and I had spent many afternoons just talking with him. He was one of the nicest people I knew. So of course, when I saw him outside, I went over to greet him.
When I got over, I found him trembling.
“Mister Kunze, is everything alright?”
When I saw the tears running down his cheeks I asked again, this time louder, more alarmed.
It took the old man a few more moments to realize that I was there, but then he smiled and shook his head.
“It is nothing Martin.”
“But you were crying!” I protested.
“Everything is fine. I am just an old man and I remembered something.”
He gave me another weak smile, but I could still he was still shaking.
“Nothing is fine, you are still shaking! What did you remembering?”
The old man, clutching the bible and pressing it to his body, looked at me.
“It is something that happened a long time ago, in my home village. It was back when I was still a boy.”
“Isn’t this your home? I thought you told me you grew up and lived here your whole life?”
The old man laughed a little and started to cough right away. When it was over he continued talking.
“No Martin, I didn’t grow up here. I was born in a catholic village in southern Bavaria. It was a small remote place, up in the mountains. I’ve never told anyone about it.”
“Why didn’t you?”
The old man didn’t answer my question, instead he was quiet for a while, and then he simply continued talking. This is the tale he told me:
When I was young boy, there were lots of strange local myths and legends in my home village. I guess it was because of its remoteness.
There were stories of creatures that would enter a person’s house and escape via the chimney, stealing their valuables. Other stories talked about mischievous fairies or tiny creatures that lived in the forests that would steal little kids away. We had many such tales. One of them was about the so called changeling.
A changeling is a kid starts acting strange and shows inconspicuous behavior. They eat too much, break things, tire out their parents by screaming all the time, or simply put they behave differently and much worse than other children.
They are the kids of witches, who are left behind instead of the real, human child, to create mischief.
Rumors like that were common back then and I can imagine they still are to this day in certain remote areas.
When a young boy in the village began to act strangely, gossip started. I don’t remember how old he was, but he was not even ten yet.
He had moved to the village with his mother about half a year ago and lived with her in one of the cabins near the edge of the forest. They led a rather secluded lifestyle and the woman and her boy were rarely seen in the village.
After the first months though, the boy was seen quite often, but he behaved strangely. It seemed he didn’t like to talk to people or wasn’t able to do so. He seemed shy and hid or simply ran away whenever someone tried approaching him.
Of course rumors about the boy started to make the rounds soon enough. It didn’t help that the mother seemed to ignore the situation. Especially the older people talked about it. They had just been waiting for something to happen. It wasn’t long though, before the rest of the village started talking about it too.
It didn’t take long for the word changeling to be mentioned and before long the little boy, now often just referred as ‘the changeling’ became the village’s main topic.
New stories about his shenanigans were told every week. He was seen in the village at night, sneaking around the buildings or spying on people. The old women said he made the milk turn sour or the food to go bad. Other stories included him playing tricks on the people and stealing their belongings. If anything broke, the blame was put on the little boy as well.
I am sure now that many of these accounts were fictitious, but I have to admit that back then, even I started to believe the talk.
One day a hunter spread stories about the boy talking to and being league with the wild animals and the forest spirits. He’d send out the foxes to get the chickens and worse things, to get the other livestock.
Looking back, it is not surprising, considering that the boy was indeed acting strange and nothing like the other children. Some other people said the kid was harmless and just odd or feeble-minded.
Still though, the situation and the mood in the village kept changing for the worse.
It wasn’t long before animals started to vanish. At first it was only a cat, which is nothing out of the ordinary in a village. When more cats vanished though, the villagers realized that it must be the doing of the boy.
One night he was even seen outside, holding a dead cat to his chest, running away as quickly as he could when he was seen.
At the same time the chicken of people started to vanish and to be taken at night. In the morning they found the doors of the chicken crops broken down, with no sign of the animals remaining.
It was clear that it must all the doing of the boy. It was clear that something had to be done. The boy or his mother needed to be questioned.
Soon after things cooled down though. It seemed as if the boy had done enough and even he tired of his own antics. For a few weeks, nothing happened and people started to believe that his shenanigans were a thing of the past.
That was until Frank Schmidt’s daughter vanished. She was a young, twelve year old girl.
Her parents hand been troubled when she didn’t return home from playing with friends. They started to ask the neighbors if anyone had seen her, but no one knew a thing.
It wasn’t long before a search was conducted. Maybe she had an accident or had gotten herself lost in the woods. These things had happened often enough before.
The whole search went on for hours. It was already dark when the girl was found. The tiny, white body was hidden in the underbrush at the edges of the woods. Her body was covered in bruises and little wounds and showed strangulation marks around her neck. She was unmistakably dead.
The mother of the girl fell to her knees, crying and screaming, hugging her child’s body. The father looked on only for a few moments, before he exploded into a fit of rage.
It was the damned boy, he screamed. The changeling! It must be his doing. He is back! He was always a brusque man, but now he was out of it. As he screamed in rage, I heard other voices join in with his. He must really be back, they agreed. We have to find him. Punish him! Chase him away! Beat him! Kill him!
It was a cacophony of voices that rose into the night. More than a hundred people were here, but they all were saying the same thing: Find and kill the changeling.
I was shocked at what I was hearing, but soon I was carried away by the mood. Mob mentality is a scary thing. I didn’t really know what was happening at the time, I just followed along with the rest.
People started to spread out to find the boy. One group headed to his home, the cabin near the woods. By sheer coincidence I found myself right in the middle of this group. The mother was at fault people said. She brought the devil child here and did nothing to stop him. It was her fault!
As soon as we reached the cabin, the screaming started anew, followed by loud bumps against the door.
After a short while the boy’s mother opened the door. She was shaken and visibly confused. Her yes went from one person to the next. She didn’t understand what was going on. She looked scruffy, her cloth dirty and tattered.
Where is the boy, people asked her in loud, angry voices. The woman winced and took a step back in fear. She answered them that she had no idea where the boy was. He hadn’t been home in days, there was no sign of him.
Some people went forward, screaming at her, accusing her of hiding him inside and already reaching out to hold her down.
She screamed at them, why she’d be hiding the boy? That thing was not her child anymore, it was something different. The boy had demolished the whole house, had attacked her, bitten her and much worse. And as to prove it she revealed the long scars and cuts on her arms.
That thing was a changeling, she finally spat out, her eyes glowing with something that could only be fear. It was not her boy anymore she added weakly, shaking her head.
The only person who still stepped forward was Frank Schmidt. The mad father pushed her aside to step into the tiny building, not listening to a word she had said.
He had only taken his first few steps inside, when other voices were heard: The boy had been seen in the village.
Without a second’s thought the father turned away from the house and started running towards the village. Other people followed him, reassured by the mother’s words. I was with them again. While I hurried along, I had a strange feeling on my mind that I couldn’t put anywhere. It was only for a moment though.
When we were back at the village it didn’t take long for the boy to be caught. A small kid can only run and hide for so long.
The boy didn’t react to any questions. He was crying and trembling. He started to strike out at anyone who got close to him, scratched and bit at them. It took only one hit to break this resistance. Devil’s child I heard the people around me say.
When I reached the village square I could finally see the insanity that had taken hold of our small village.
It was a crude wooden construction. I first mistook it as a sort of wooden box, something to trap the child in. Only when I saw the torches did things dawn on me. No, they couldn’t mean to. This was wrong. I took a step forward but noticed the gazes of the people around me and I am embarrassed to say, I stopped right in my tracks.
By god he is just a boy, I heard someone yell and then saw Old Peter, our village’s only teacher. The eyes of Frank Schmidt rested on the older man. His eyes were bloodshot and wide. Just a boy Peter? This boy killed my little girl, he screamed. He raised his hands and for a moment Old Peter inched back a step, afraid he’d get hit.
Then Frank Schmidt only said one more thing:
An eye for an eye.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They couldn’t possibly mean to…
I wanted to say something. I wanted to run towards them and stop them, but I did nothing. I watched on motionless as they bound the little boy to the wood. He tried to fight back again, but to no avail. Once he couldn’t move anymore, Frank Schmidt threw one of the torches on the wood.
This couldn’t be real I told myself. It was a nightmare. I looked at the people around me. Those were people I had known all my life, but now I couldn’t recognize them anymore. Their eyes were wide, as they looked on in fascination at the nightmare in front of them.
For a moment I saw the mother of the boy. She too was standing between the rest, watching as they did.
As the flames started to rise I told myself to look away, to close my eyes, to just do something so I wouldn’t have to see what was happening. In the end I stood right between all those lunatics and watched as they did.
It didn’t take long for the flames to finally devour all of the wood and finally the boy as well. First came the screams. The screams of a little boy. Then the smell. The disgusting smell of human flesh. I still have it in my nose. After all those years I can still smell it.
The screams lasted only for a short while. At first it was similar to a child’s weeping, but then it rose to something that should never come from the mouth of a little kid.
I don’t know how long the fire lasted, but I watched it all. It might have been minutes, but could also have been an hour.
Once the fire had faded, I was finally able to look away again. The many people around me were looking as confused and shocked as I must have. Only now did they seem to realize what had just happened. And only now did they realize that they could never undo it.
It took me a while to realize the tears in my eyes. Others too were crying. It seemed the whole crowed was now murmuring and coming to their senses again.
Where did she go, I heard someone demand of the people next to me. I could see it was Old Peter, again. I had no idea what was going on. The mother of the boy, I heard him shout at some people. Only a few of them answered. Most people were still in shock, not yet clearly understanding what had happened. I saw the eyes of other boys, many of them younger than me. They too had seen everything.
Finally someone told Peter, that they had seen her run away, while the fire was still burning.
Even if she thought the boy was a changeling or something had happened to him. He was still her child, at least in looks. And seeing the boy die like this…
It wasn’t long before a new search began. This time with far less participants than before. I still remember the repulsion I felt for this whole damned village. When it was about hunting down and killing a little boy, they all joined. If it was to find the mother of that same boy, they did nothing.
Our search efforts were done almost randomly. We looked here and there, went up and down the village, until I finally remembered the cabin near the forest.
Her home, the cabin, I screamed to the rest of the people. It was only a few minutes later that we arrived at the door. Our calls were left unanswered. After a few seconds I opened the door. First I only carefully peered inside, then I pulled it open and entered the place.
The hut was in complete chaos. The woman had been right. I called out once more, but it was obvious that no one was here. We almost left to continue the search somewhere else, but then Old Peter found the door to the basement.
As he opened the door we saw light from downstairs. She must be down there, I thought. Yet another call got no answer. I rushed down the stairs, taking two steps at a time.
When I reached the last step, I froze. What I saw couldn’t be real. I shook my head, closed my eyes and then took another look.
A changeling is a witch’s kid left to human parents. Then what do you call a real kid whose mother turned into a witch?
That was the first thing that came to my mind. What I saw in front of me was a witch’s kitchen exactly like it was described in the stories.
There were glass jars filled with strange liquids in all colors. The shelves were filled with old books, various herbs, roots and much weirder things. There was even an experimenting table. And there were dead animals. Cats and chickens.
Cats and chickens I thought, and in this moment everything made sense. Now I knew what that strange feeling had been. There had been something wrong with the mother, with her eyes. It hadn’t been the eyes of a confused or scared woman, no it had been the eyes of a lunatic.
Oh dear lord, I heard someone whisper behind me. Another person crossed herself.
It all made sense now. How could a small kid break open the chicken crops? How could such a little boy kill a girl much older than him?
No, the boy must have been acting strange out of fear for his mother. He had been hiding from her in the village. That’s why he’d always been there, even at night. He’d been acting strange, because he must have been abused, maybe even tortured. He must have been just a normal boy.
“And then we burned this innocent little boy.” ended the old man with a shaking voice, not even realizing I was still sitting next to him on the bench.
He pressed the bible even harder against his chest now.
“Mister Kunze, it is alright, it is not like you did it.” I said.
The old man finally looked at me.
“I did nothing at all,” he said, “if someone would have just…”
He broke up. He didn’t need to finish the sentence. I knew what he was trying to say.
“So what happened afterwards?”
It took the old man some more time to calm down before he answered me.
“No one talked about it the next day. No one talked about for some time. They buried the boy’s remains and everyone pretended he had just been sick and that this night never happened. Soon after though, people started to move away. At first it was just one person, then a family, then another. My family too. We moved here about two month after that horrible night. I am sure that by now, the village is all but gone.”
“So they left because they”
“Because they wanted to forget! To pretend nothing ever happened! That’s the only reason anyone left. Even my parents told me to never tell anyone about that night, and to do what they did, to just”
He broke up with the tears running down his eyes.
“I didn’t forget. I will never forget what happened that night. Not until the end of my life. Even if that is all I can do.”
Author: R. Rehn (Rakushasu)
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