By Lesley Kelly
This is not a big town.
We have a market square with a fountain, two statues, and a church that is considered noteworthy by some historians, although largely ignored by the locals. Or, I should say, it was ignored until recent events got us racing down the aisles. Our square has an Aldi, several small newsagents, and a chemist shop. On the edge of town we have a large Netto, with parking for a hundred cars.
The houses here are wooden pointy-roofed affairs, designed to shirk off snow in winter, and soak up sun in summer. My house is no exception. I go to work, drive my ancient VW down the little dirt track to my home, drink some beer, and listen to heavy rock as loud as I want until I fall asleep. This doesn’t disturb anyone — Bettina Sauer and her sons are a good 500m away, and on the other side there is only forest. Aside from the music, I'm a good neighbour. I'm always amongst the first, come the snows, to set to with a spade to keep the road passable. And, when a tree blew down in Frau Schmidt's garden she was straight on the phone to me. She calls me her gentle giant — although she complains incessantly about my hair. Maybe she's right. At my age perhaps I should cut it short.
So, good shops, tolerant neighbours, this was my life until I became a good citizen. Now, since I did my civic duty, I have to drive 25 kilometres to the Karstadt in Dresden every time I want a litre of milk.
It was my misfortune to see the first pair in late September. I was chopping onions at the time, preparing my dinner with Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid' blasting out. I drew the back of my hand across my weeping eyes, and as I lowered it they were there, walking hand-in-hand past my kitchen window. I put down my knife and watched them. She was quite a big child, maybe around 11 or 12 years old; I laughed because she was half-a-head taller than her beau. They made a funny couple.
Without a glance in my direction, they were over the stile and into the woodland, quiet and solemn as little mice. When I look back, this is what strikes me as odd. When a young couple are walking towards the woods at twilight, you assume, don't you, that you know what they have on their minds. And yet, I didn't hear a single giggle from these two.
I suppose I wished him well, the little beggar, and opened a beer, and put on another record. Only later, when I heard that children were missing did I start to think about my strange young travellers. I visited the police station, a nice woman on reception made me a coffee, and a red-headed policeman took my statement. Apparently Bettina Sauer's eldest had also seen the children. It was all very civilised.
By the time I drove home, my track had been blocked off by the police. I stopped the engine and stood half-in, half-out of the car. Between me and the police cordon were a legion of photographers. As they heard the car approach they turned toward me, and the cameras flashed.
'Excuse me, sir, did you know the children?'
'Could you comment on the disappearance?'
I heard a banging sound. Frau Schmidt was at her window, her grey curls bouncing up and down as she waved. I abandoned my motor and escaped, gratefully, into her house.
'They've been here,' she said, as I climbed over the threshold. 'I don’t know what to say to them.'
It was a full week before the police finished sieving and scouring the forest. They found nothing — no graves, no clothes, not a single sign that the children had ever been there. The press decamped, disappointed, and life returned to normal.
Four, maybe five weeks later, I was liberating a beer from my fridge when a flash of colour caught my eye. A lass in a red coat was walking down the lane, followed by a youth. I nearly dropped the can in surprise. Were these kids stupid? They shouldn't be wandering around on their own after what happened, and they definitely shouldn't be here. I slammed the fridge door, and hammered on the window. The youngster stopped, one foot on top of the stile, and slowly turned in the direction of the noise. I waved, but he looked straight through me. His friend, a tubby little thing, pulled him by the hand and off they went. By the time I was out of my front door, they'd vanished.
So I made my second visit to the police station. The red-headed detective collected me from reception and ushered me into a meeting room. A colleague of his was waiting, a dark-haired man in a black suit. He was wearing a light dusting of dandruff, coating his shoulders like icing sugar.
'There's something there,' I said. 'I know it sounds crazy but something is …' I searched for a word that didn't sound over-dramatic. I failed to find one. 'Something is luring kids into the forest.'
On the opposite side of the desk, the detectives exchanged a glance. They thought I was nuts and I didn't blame them. The red-head placed a folder with my name on it on the table.
'You have a file on me?' I asked, confused by this.
He smiled grimly, opened the document and placed it in front of me. My stomach turned over as I looked down at a copy of a complaint about me by my ex. Why was this being dredged up?
'You were accused of trespass and harassment, Herr Herzmann.’
'Jesus!’ I said. 'I was twenty-four. She broke my heart. I was young, I behaved badly, I know.'
He leafed through the folder. 'And now you're forty-eight, Herr Herzmann, how is your behaviour?'
I sat back in my chair. 'Am I a suspect?'
There was a long silence.
'No, Sir, just a key witness.'
The dark-haired detective took me through my statements several times. As I left I saw his red-headed colleague leaning against the reception desk, deep in conversation with an adolescent, his spit-and-image. The talking stopped as I entered.
'Hans.' He pushed his child toward the door. 'Go straight home.'
Dragging his feet, the boy headed out. His father waited until the door slammed behind him before turning to me. He extended a freckled finger and poked my shoulder.
'Get a lawyer,' he said.
Get a lawyer? By the time the third pair of children went missing, I needed a lawyer, a social media consultant, a full-time security guard, and a therapist. Unfortunately I had none of these things. I had me, my car, and a 50-kilometre round trip to buy milk.
The press shredded my life. A Facebook page called Erich Herzmann is a Child Molester had 3,000 Likes before it was taken down. Pastor Fischer from the church in the market square gave a very unhelpful interview, saying that we never know when evil dwells among us. The police turned my house upside down, and hauled me back to the station for interview after interview.
'You have a lot of knives in your house.'
'I'm a chef. I like to cook.'
‘Except, Herzmann, you’re unemployed these days. The café manager said you were asked to leave.’
'Young girls these days — you know how it is.' I looked from one to the other, desperate for a sign of empathy. 'You can’t make a joke without them taking offence.'
I was still in custody when the fourth and fifth pairs went missing. At this point, I'm ashamed to say, I was more relieved that I was off the hook than concerned about the poor children. My comfort was short-lived. The police merely changed their line of questioning to asking me about my friends and acquaintances. They thought I had an accomplice.
Eventually, after I had named every person I had ever had a conversation with since the age of five, I was allowed to go. Icing Sugar and Ginger were in the reception area when I left.
I stopped, but didn’t turn round.
'There’s been an, eh, fire.'
The dandruff detective offered me a lift home. Maybe he felt sorry for me, or he was worried there would be a mob there waiting to tear his 'witness' limb from limb. I stared from the car-window, looking at every passer-by, wondering if they were my judge, jury and fire-starter. The car speeded up slightly as we approached a large crowd, and I realised with horror we were about to pass the primary school. The detective smirked at me.
'You might want to duck down.'
I buried my head in my hands.
A tiny grey-haired figure was standing outside my house. I climbed out of the car, jumped back as it nearly reversed over me, and waited for Frau Schmidt to start yelling at me. She looked me up and down.
'I brought you some food.'
She handed me a basket. My hands were trembling as I took it; her kindness made me want to sit on the road and bawl my eyes out with gratitude. I took a deep breath.
'Frau Schmidt, I have nothing to do with those children disappearing.'
She shushed me. 'Of course not, Erich. I've known you since you were a child yourself.'
We stood and stared at what remained of my home. My car was a burnt-out wreck. She touched my arm.
'Two hundred years ago, Erich, they would have been burning old women like me at the stake when children went missing.' She started to walk back down the track. 'But we don’t believe in witches anymore.'
No, I thought. But we don't believe in the innocence of middle-aged bachelors, either.
In the absence of any other offers, I moved back into my house. I lived mainly in the kitchen, it being the only room that still had all its ceiling intact. I pulled my bed, with its charred mattress, in front of the range, and fired up the last of the logs. Then I climbed under the blankets, and tried not to think what I would do when Frau Schmidt's food parcel ran out.
I'd lost my books, my record collection, and my television, which left the kitchen radio for entertainment. The local station talked about the disappearances round the clock. Parents were warned not to let their children out of sight. A debate was held about closing the primary school. The army was drafted in to stand around on street corners. The conspiracy theories moved on from lonely single men, through gypsies, slave traders, and satanic cults. Pastor Fischer was forced back onto the radio to deny that the church was involved in any such practices.
No-one came to apologise for my house.
And the children kept on disappearing, sliding under walls and slipping through key-holes, like cartoon characters.
I'm lying in my bed when I see a carrot-topped child walk past the window, a boy who is the very image of his father, dragging a small blonde-haired girl with him. I know her; her mother owns the chemist shop in the market square. Her name is Grete, or Gretchen, or some such name.
I leap out of bed, ignoring the fact that I am not dressed, and climbing out of the ruins of what was my living room, I chase after them.
'Hans! Grete! Wait!'
They do not look back.
© Lesley Kelly, unless we state otherwise
In January 2013, this story was shortlisted for the Hansel and Gretel adult creative writing competition organised by the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Ballet.