Hermann liked to play in the back garden. The house shielded it from the sun and allowed long vines to grow; sometimes he could find frogs hiding under the leaves. Often he would sit in the garden until the sun sunk below the trees and his mother called him in for dinner; he would sit and study the greenery, or work on his schoolwork-sometimes he could even convince Karla to play with him, even though she was ten now and thought she was much too grown up for Hermann’s games.
It was different, after his mother started staying at the hospital. The garden wasn’t as fun when he couldn’t see her watching over him; when she wasn’t there to pat his head as he came in for tea. His father always scolded him when he got grass stains on his knees or the seat of his trousers, and she wasn’t there anymore to wink at him over his shoulder.
Worst of all were the vines. Sometimes they seemed to move, slithering up the side of the house or wrapping around Hermann’s feet-they always got stuck in his leg braces. He thought he could hear them whispering to each other, hissing conspiratorially across the garden. The forest on the edge of their property seemed to loom over him now, no matter how far it really was. He knew something had changed.
Hermann was walking home from school the first time it happened. He was trailing behind Karla and Dietrich as they talked about something. He’d been listening before, but he couldn’t remember what they’d said. The whole day his head had felt heavy-like he’d been stuffed full with cotton. He hoped he wasn’t catching a chill; his legs had been feeling more stiff than usual.
They turned down the dirt road that would lead them to their long, winding driveway. Karla laughed at something Dietrich said, and Hermann glanced across the road, into the trees, and saw something. He stopped walking, cocking his head to one side. He squinted at the treeline, searching for the shape.
“Hermann? What are you doing, silly schnecke?” Karla called. She and Dietrich were much farther ahead than Hermann thought, both turned to look back at him curiously. He tightened his hold on the straps of his bag and shifted nervously.
“I saw something.”
“What do you mean you ‘saw something’?” Dietrich asked, cocking his head the same way Hermann had. He wasn’t being cruel, but Hermann flinched anyway.
“What was it? Something cool?” Karla asked. She started walking back up the road, kicking up dirt. Father would scold her for dirtying her skirts and staining her socks, and the next day she’d do it again. Karla was much braver than Hermann.
“I don’t know,” Hermann said, quieter this time. He looked back at the trees, but he couldn’t find the shape again. “I couldn’t see it well. It wasn’t cool.”
“Well how do you know it wasn’t cool if you couldn’t see it well?” Karla finally planted herself at his side; clapped him on the shoulder. “Why don’t we go check it out Hermann, huh? That’ll be fun.”
“Father will want us home Karla,” Dietrich called. Hermann wasn’t sure why; they both knew she didn’t care.
“It won’t take long,” she scoffed, tossing one long braid over her shoulder. She was already squinting up the street, checking for oncoming cars; like she’d already made up her mind.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea spatzi,” Hermann said, shaking his head. He eyed the forest warily now, though he wasn’t sure why. He shivered as a chill ran through him.
“Come on Hermann. Don’t you want to know what it was?”
“No,” Hermann said firmly. His knuckles were white around the straps of his bag. “It’s bad.”
“But how do you know that?” Karla asked, exasperated. Hermann hated to frustrate her, but he was certain he didn’t want to go anywhere near that shape, or the trees it hid in. He started backing up, almost stumbling over his feet. The trees seemed closer than they had before. It seemed darker too, like the sun was rapidly setting, though Hermann knew it wouldn’t set for hours.
“Hermann?” Dietrich’s voice appeared at Hermann’s side, startling him. “Are you alright schnecke? You’re pale.” He spoke quietly; in that special soft voice he used when Hermann was in pain. Hermann heard a snap and turned so quickly to look across the road that he nearly toppled to the ground. Dietrich and Karla both reached to steady him, but he couldn’t feel their hands.
There was a face in the trees, long and distorted, and it was smiling at him. It made him want to scream, but all sound was trapped in his throat-held down by the cotton. The trees were even closer, enveloping the road. It was dark, darker than night, and the creatures eyes glowed a hateful blue. Noise was rushing all around him, whispers-like the ones from the garden-and murmurs, more snaps and cracks , and a horrible hissing, like the sound the kettle made just before it started to scream.
“Stop it!” Hermann cried, feeling tears well up in his eyes. He stumbled backwards, until his bag pressed into the fence and he slid to the ground. The face was getting closer, bobbing in the air like it was attached to some great creature that towered over Hermann-he had to crane his neck to keep his eyes on it-but he couldn’t see anything past its chin, only illuminated by its awful eyes.
He felt the vines crawling up his legs, and he thrashed, trying to tear them off. He scratched and pulled but there were too many, and more kept coming; slithering up his sides and squeezing at his wrists. The tears spilled down his cheeks and he gasped for breath, feeling the vines wrapping around his chest. The creature leaned down and brought its horrid face so near to Hermann’s that the details blurred. Its breath fanned across his face; the smell made Hermann gag. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that it would disappear-that he was having a horrible dream. The creature screamed, and the sound made Hermann’s teeth rattle. It pierced him to his core and made his ears ring, and he still heard it as he opened his eyes and saw his father’s terrified face looking down at him.
It was still light and Hermann was lying on the side of the dirt road that would lead them to their driveway. His father-a cold and disinterested man who kept his emotions carefully hidden away-was clutching Hermann to his chest with wide eyes. He was flushed with exertion, and, Hermann realized, looked worried. Scared and worried. Hermann blinked slowly. He could feel the tears drying on his cheeks.
“Father?” he asked, his voice hoarse. He coughed roughly, bringing a hand up to cover his mouth. When he moved, he saw scratches on his arms and his legs; there was blood under his fingernails. He hadn’t been dreaming.
“Hermann,” Karla cried, her tear-stained face appearing over their father’s shoulder. “Mein Gott, I thought you were dying!”
“Did you see it?” he gasped. A bottle of water was pressed into his hand; he looked to his right and saw Dietrich, wild-eyed and flushed. “The darkness, and that creature?”
“What creature?” his father asked. His expression was schooled into neutrality, but his grip on Hermann tightened.
“It had eyes like ice, and it took all the light away, and turned the darkness heavy. A-and the vines, they held me, they were hurting. And its scream-” Hermann broke off; he realized he was crying again. “Vatti I can still hear it.”
“There were no vines, Hermann, there was no creature,” Karla said. Her brows knitted together; she looked like she might cry again too. “You froze, looking at those trees, and you fell to the ground, and you thrashed and shrieked.” She covered her mouth, her voice breaking. “I tried to hold you like normal, but you screamed. You clawed at your skin and you cried and we didn’t know what to do.”
“No,” Hermann said quietly. “There was a creature,” he insisted, “the darkness swallowed you up.”
“I ran home,” Dietrich said, smoothing his hand down Hermann’s back. “I got father and brought him here. We thought we’d have to take you to the hospital Hermann.” Hermann suddenly felt very small. It was the same feeling he felt when he couldn’t do things like the other children, because of his braces or his fits or his father. He frowned; fisted his free hand in the front of his polo.
“I don’t remember screaming,” he said. “It took my voice. Everything was so loud.”
“It was just us Hermann,” Karla said.
“You’re filthy,” their father said flatly. “You were rolling in the dirt.”
“No,” Hermann insisted, “I sat at the fence.” He pointed at the spot he’d been frozen, staring up at the monster. “Right there.”
“No,” his father said firmly. “You had another one of your fits, and you thought you saw something.”
“I want mutti,” Hermann cried, pushing at his father’s chest. “It wasn’t!”
“Well she’s not here,” his father said coldly. He let Hermann go, and Hermann scrambled to his feet, leaning heavily against the fence. He dropped the water bottle, and the sound it made when it hit the ground made him flinch.
“It was there,” he said, voice trembling, as he pointed at the forest. “I saw it.”
His shoes were blurry when he looked at them, and he realized he was crying again. His whole body shook, and he wailed. He cried hard; fat tears fell to the ground and wet the dirt, his nose ran; sad, broken sounds escaped his throat. He cried so hard it made him wretch. That’s when Karla wrapped him in her arms; pressed him to her chest. Her breathing was ragged-she was crying too.
“It hurts,” Hermann whimpered. “I hurt.”
“I know, schnecke,” she said, voice wet. Her hold on him was crushing.
“No,” Hermann shook his head and pulled away. “No.”
Dietrich carried him home. Karla wrapped him in their mother’s quilt, and brought him hot tea, and stayed glued to his side next to the fireplace. Their father disappeared into the parlor and talked on the phone for ages, his voice hushed. After a long time of staring into the fire, Karla spoke, barely a whisper.
“What did it look like?” He didn’t have to ask what she meant. He took a steadying breath, holding his tea cup close to his chest. He stared into it as he spoke.
“I couldn’t see it well. It brought the darkness, and I could only see its face.”
“What did its face look like then?” Karla asked, just as quietly. She was looking into the fire. Its light flickered on her face, bathing her in warm colors.
“Do you believe me Karla?” Hermann whispered. Karla set her jaw.
“Tell me what it looked like.”
“Ghastly. Long, white and sunken and peeling, and underneath it was so red it looked black. The red was moving.” Hermann’s voice shook. He could still see it when he closed his eyes. “Its eyes were glowing blue, so bright, but they weren’t like normal eyes at all. And its smile.”
“It was smiling?” Karla was trying to keep her voice even, but it wavered. Hermann knew she was scared. She still wouldn’t look at him.
“It never stopped,” he said. “It didn’t have teeth or gums, but it was grinning a white grin. The light from its eyes made the white look stained with mud.”
“It wasn’t mud.”
“I know,” Hermann said in a quiet voice. He put his tea cup on its saucer and pulled the quilt tighter around himself. He looked into the fire with Karla. He wondered what she saw in it. The parlor was quiet now. “Father is coming,” he murmured. Karla turned around in time to see their father appear in the doorway to the sitting room.
“It’s time for bed,” he said.
“Father-” Hermann started, also turning to look at him, his face screwed up. Their father raised a hand and Hermann snapped his mouth shut.
“The doctor will see you just after the sun rises Hermann. No whinging. Bed.”
“Why am I seeing the doctor?” Hermann asked, just to see what his father would say.
“You need help that I can’t give you. Off you go.” Karla got to her feet and disappeared into the kitchen with the tea cup and saucer. Hermann used the couch to pull himself up, then rearranged the quilt around his shoulders. It dragged behind him as he approached the stairs.
“Can I stay in Karla’s room?” he asked quietly. Karla came back into the hall and stood on the bottom step. Hermann knew that no matter what their father said, she would pull him into her bed. Their father’s eyes softened.
“Yes, you may,” he said quietly. He patted Hermann on the shoulder, then nudged him toward the stairs. “We’ll visit your mother tomorrow as well, since we’ll be in the city.” Hermann smiled slightly. He darted over and hugged his father around the middle before he rushed to follow Karla up the stairs. She grabbed his hand as they ascended; squeezed it three times. Hermann squeezed back.
Hermann didn’t sleep. He hadn’t expected to. He’d asked to stay with Karla because he knew she needed him close. But the creature’s scream still in his ears would’ve kept him up even if its horrendous face didn’t sit behind his eyelids. He spent the night staring wide-eyed over Karla’s shoulder, clutching her pajamas. Occasionally he would press his ear to her chest to listen to her breathing and heartbeat. The sound soothed him-reminded him of their mother, who used to press Hermann’s head to her chest and sing when the pain kept him from sleep. But he would quickly look over her shoulder again, worried he would see something in the sliver of darkness in the corner, where the light from the hall didn’t quite reach.
When morning came, they ate breakfast in tense, muted silence. Their father had them dress and put them in the car, buckling Hermann’s child seat with extra care. He left Bastien with their sitter, and they started the long drive to the city. Normally when he was in the car, Hermann would watch the trees go by, fascinated by their blurry shapes and colors. Today he stared resolutely down at his hands, at where he was worrying his shirt between his fingers. His father had let him wear one of his large t-shirts; a hand-me-down from Dietrich that was worn and soft-the texture soothed him.
His father kept glancing at the rearview mirror, which he’d angled toward Hermann’s seat. It made Hermann feel strange. His father normally paid very little attention to him, at least that Hermann noticed. He worried that there might really be something wrong with him.
The doctor they went to wasn’t any of Hermann’s normal doctors. He didn’t recognize the building as they pulled up, and he didn’t recognize the receptionist, and he didn’t recognize any of the nurses. Hermann squeezed Karla’s hand tight as their father led them through the building. They went into a waiting room that was very similar to all the other waiting rooms Hermann had been in before. He assumed the doctor was for children, because there were brightly colored toys on the floor; colorful magazines haphazardly strewn across the end tables; a bucket of crayons and a stack of crisp white paper on the coffee table. His father talked to the receptionist in his professor voice. Karla sat down at the coffee table, so Hermann followed suit.
He drew pictures while they waited. He had always liked drawing pictures-he and his mother used to do it together before Bastien was born, when he was very small. The pictures they drew were simple and happy; because his mother liked happy things. The pictures Hermann liked to draw were more sad. He didn’t think they were so sad, but his mother always got this far-off look in her eyes when he brought them to her, and she would smile that sad smile of hers that made Hermann feel small.
The pictures he drew in the waiting room were all of the creature. He used the blue crayon to scribble its eyes, but they didn’t look right, so he grabbed a new sheet of paper. This time he started with the face, what he saw of it. He could feel Karla and Dietrich watching him as he started coloring the darkness. The black of the crayon didn’t look right either, so he pressed harder to make it darker. He kept pressing harder until the crayon snapped in half in his hand. He held it tight for another moment before he let it roll away.
On the next new sheet of paper, Hermann drew his legs. He drew his shoes, and his socks, and his knobby knees, and the bottoms of his shorts. Then he drew the vines, everywhere he had felt them. He used one green crayon, and then another, and then a yellow, and a blue; trying to make them look like the vines behind the garden. He was going to try to draw the creature again, but a man in a white coat called his name and his father grabbed his hand and tugged him down the hall. Hermann turned his head to watch his siblings follow; Karla scooped up his drawings before she hurried after them. She held them against her chest protectively. Hermann didn’t understand why-they weren’t very good drawings.
The man in the white coat led them all to an office that looked much like his father’s office at home in their big farmhouse. It had bookshelves and calligraphed documents in picture frames on the walls and a big stuffy chair behind a big wood desk. Another man sat in the chair, and he smiled when they all filed into the room. He was wearing skinny glasses on the end of his nose, and a suit and tie. Hermann didn’t like him, but he didn’t know why.
“Welcome Herr Gottlieb,” the man said, speaking directly to Hermann-looking at him over his tiny glasses. “How are you this morning?” Hermann hid behind his father’s leg, clutching at his pressed slacks.
“Don’t be rude Hermann,” his father said. “You were asked a question.”
“I’m tired,” Hermann said in a tiny voice. Karla glared at their father; Hermann could see her in the corner of his eye. The man laughed.
“I can imagine so. Why don’t you sit down?” He gestured at the plush chairs on their side of the desk. Dietrich helped Hermann climb into the one directly in front of the doctor. “I heard you had a very scary experience yesterday, is that right?”
“Yes,” Hermann said quietly. He was staring at his feet, dangling far off the ground. His sneakers were still caked with dirt.
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about that?”
“I suppose I don’t have a choice.” The doctor laughed again; Hermann didn’t know what was so funny.
“Your father told me a bit about what you said, but I’d like to hear it from you.” That wasn’t a question, but Hermann thought he shouldn’t mention it-he didn’t want his father to chastise him for being rude again. He picked at his fingers in his lap.
“We were walking home from school-” he started, but the doctor interrupted.
“Who was?” he asked.
“Me and Karla and Dietrich.” Hermann pointed at each of his siblings. “We always walk together, unless one of us is ill.” The doctor nodded; made a note. Hermann shifted uncomfortably. He glanced up at his father, who was watching the doctor write impassively.
“Go on,” the doctor said after a moment. He gestured a little with his hand.
“And we passed the little forest.” Hermann stopped. He thought, ridiculously, that talking about the forest would bring it to him, and he would have to see the creature again. The doctor shifted, leaned a little closer.
“You’re familiar with the forest?” he prompted.
“We pass it every day, both ways. Sometimes more than once. It’s right outside our property.”
“Alright.” The doctor made another note. “Continue.” Hermann fidgeted.
“I thought I saw something, so I stopped to look. Then Karla wanted to go look closer at it, but I didn’t want to.” Another note. “And then I saw it again,” Hermann murmured.
“What did you see?” the doctor asked, leaning forward; pen poised against paper. Hermann’s shoulders inched up to his ears.
“Something,” he mumbled. “A creature.”
“What was it Hermann?”
“I don’t know.”
The man asked a lot of questions-many about the creature, but also about Hermann; his interests, his schooling, his mother-and then he sent Hermann and Karla and Deiterich back to the waiting room so he could talk to their father. As he sat on one of the stiff armchairs, Hermann sighed miserably. He knew the doctor didn’t believe him. He was probably telling his father that he was lying, trying to get attention-that was always what adults said.
His father and the doctor appeared in the doorway after some time. They shook hands like grownups did; Hermann narrowed his eyes.
“I don’t like that man,” he whispered to Karla.
“I don’t either,” she agreed, holding his hand a little tighter. Hermann rarely liked his doctors, though he had many-but if Karla didn’t like him it was okay for Hermann to not like him. Their father didn’t look at him as they got in the car, though he still buckled Hermann in. Hermann watched the back of his father’s seat the entire drive to the hospital in silence. When they got there, Hermann climbed out on his own.
The hospital Hermann’s mother was staying at was very small for a hospital. Her room was on the top floor-where long-term patients stayed-two lefts and a right from the elevator bank. Hermann didn’t like hospitals-something about the lights, and the smell, and the way the staff looked at him; it made him feel small. His father knocked on the room’s door even though it was half open, and Hermann got to hear his mother’s voice without the static of the telephone ruining it.
“Come in,” she said. Hermann almost tripped over his feet rushing to her bedside.
“Mutti!” he cried, stretching up on his toes to wrap his arms around her middle.
“There are my babies,” she said softly, looking up to smile at Dietrich and Karla. She started carding her fingers through Hermann’s hair. He pressed his nose into her belly, squeezing just a little bit tighter. “Hello schnecke,” she whispered, just for him, leaning down a bit so her hair created a curtain. “I heard you had a hard time yesterday.”
“Missed you,” Hermann mumbled into her shirt. He felt tears pricking at his eyes. “Wanted you there.”
“I know liebchen. I’m sorry.” She was making that sad face again; Hermann frowned, his lip wobbling. She moved to pull Hermann up onto the bed with her, but Dietrich beat her to it, stepping forward to scoop Hermann into his arms and deposit him in her lap. “Thank you bärchen,” she said, smiling up at him. She reached up and stroked his cheek. “You’re very big now. Have you grown so much in so little time?” Dietrich chuckled, turning his face into her palm.
“Spatzi,” Hermann said, reaching out one hand. Karla smiled, stepping forward to kiss Hermann, and then their mother, on the cheek.
“There’s my girl,” their mother said. She gently grabbed one of Karla’s braids, let it run over her fingers. “You’re getting very good at these.”
“Thank you mutti,” Karla said, ducking her head to hide her grin.
“And I heard you both were very brave yesterday,” their mother said, tapping first Karla, then Dietrich, on the belly. “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank us mutti,” Karla said, stretching up on her toes and then rocking back on her heels.
“I know. But I want to.” Their mother smiled an enigmatic smile-the kind that always made Hermann smile as well. This time he just clutched at her shirt, burying his face in her shoulder. His mother never smelled like the hospital; she was warm and soft and she had her hand resting on Hermann’s back, big and comforting. He felt like if he stayed there he could fall asleep-the creature couldn’t get him. He closed his eyes, sighing quietly.
“Sleepy?” his mother asked. He nodded, making a tiny noise. “You can sleep schnecke. You must be exhausted. I’m here, my baby.”
When Hermann woke up, he kept his eyes closed. He didn’t want to wake up yet; wanted to sleep while the creature was away. His mother was talking quietly, the rumble of her chest as comforting as her heartbeat. When he was awake enough to understand what she was saying, he recognized what she was reading.
“Menschenlos,” he said quietly. She reached up to stroke his hair gently.
“Did I wake you Hermann?” she asked in a quiet murmur.
“No.” He finally opened his eyes, blinking slowly. He could see Karla and Dietrich sitting in the uncomfortable chairs next to the bed. Their mother must have been reading to them-she loved to do that. He wondered how much time had passed, but couldn’t find the words to ask. His mother looked down at him with that sad look again.
“I think it’s time for you to go home schnecke.”
“I don’t want to,” he mumbled, pressing his face into her shoulder.
“I know my darling.” She placed her hand on the back of his neck and kissed his forehead gently. “But it’s time.” Hermann frowned, but he let his father help him off the bed. His legs felt wobbly now, and he gripped the sheets to steady himself.
“I love you mutti.”
“I love you too Hermann.”
The drive home from the hospital was soporific. Hermann could tell that Karla and Dietrich were exhausted. He wondered what had happened while he slept, but he didn’t want to ask. He was heavy with sleep, but couldn’t close his eyes; the trees still frightened him. He watched Karla start to nod off in the seat next to him.
The sun was just beginning to set when they turned onto their long driveway. Dietrich helped Hermann out of his seat; gave him a little pat on the shoulder. Hermann stared up at their house from the driveway, looking at the way the sunlight reflected off the windows. He thought that he might see something in the windows if he kept looking, so he darted inside.
Dinner was Hermann’s favorite, which made him suspicious. Their father made it from scratch; their mother’s recipe. He didn’t even chastise Hermann when he held his fork strangely. They ate in silence again, and Hermann worried. Maybe there was something really wrong with him. Maybe he’d have to start staying at the hospital too. He hoped if he did, he could have a room close to his mother.
Their father tucked Hermann in when it was time for bed. He let Hermann pull his stuffed lamb under the covers with him without comment-usually he said Hermann was too old, and he’d have to learn to sleep without it. Tonight he even gave Hermann a kiss on the forehead.
“You know I worry about you Hermann,” he said quietly, smoothing Hermann’s hair down.
“Yes vatti,” Hermann replied, just as quiet. He held his lamb a little tighter.
“I just want what’s best for you. For all of you.”
Hermann stared up at his bedroom ceiling for hours that night. He watched the light of day start to filter into the room, his eyelids drooping. But each time he closed his eyes, even to blink, he saw the creature. He knew sleep wouldn’t come again-he missed his mother’s embrace, and the safety it brought with it. He remembered overhearing a story one of his classmates had told, about a man who didn’t sleep and went mad. Hermann wondered if that would happen to him.