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My family visited my grandparents’ farm every summer, where my mother and my aunt Bernadette grew up when they were children. It was roughly a four-hour drive from the city we lived in, and we would pass other small villages, crop fields, paddocks with cattle grazing, and birch and pine forests until we reached their small village. My big sister and I would usually stay at the farm for up to three weeks at a time. There were no other children living in or visiting the small village we could play with, so we would spend the days walking with our grandparents to the nearby forests to pick wild berries or mushrooms depending on the season, play with the dog and other animals, and do little chores around the property when we were especially bored. On Saturday morning we would walk to the only shop in the village to buy fresh bread, and our grandparents would sometimes buy us strawberry-flavoured chewing gum or sweet lemonade if we behaved. On Sundays we would visit the small local church for the 9 am service, and would sometimes walk to the nearby cemetery afterwards to leave flowers at the graves of my grandfathers’ parents who were buried there a long time ago.
My parents would often leave my big sister and me with my grandparents and drive back home the same day to continue working. They both owned a small business that needed constant attention, so having time off was rarely an option for them, and we hardly spend any holidays together. My sister and I slept in the same room in the attic of the house that my parents and grandparents had renovated and turned into living spaces for when we came over. There was a big apple tree outside our window and we used it to climb up and down as a shortcut to our bedroom. This way we were not told off when we did not take our shoes off before entering the house, and we loved to secretly stay outside in bad weather, often hiding from the rain with the animals in the barn, although we were not allowed to leave the house. Our grandparent objected to us climbing the tree – they thought it was a dangerous thing to do but we would never listen. Last summer they gave up telling us off for climbing the tree and instead installed a sturdy rope ladder to one of the thick branches adjacent to our window so it was at least saver for us to climb up and down. My sister was thirteen and I was ten years old at the time and always up for mischief. They understood they could not keep us from doing it anyway as they were unable to watch us all the time while also maintaining the farm.
Aunt Bernadette, whom my sister and I called Auntie, lived in the nearby town and worked for the local library. She had never married but adored children that came to visit the library. We would sometimes take the bus to drive to her village and spend the entire day in the library, and she often found time to read to us and other children visiting. She was always very nice and pleasant to us children, and would often seem very sad when we had to leave.
When Auntie suddenly died of a blood clot in her lungs only a few days before our next summer holidays would start we were shattered by the loss. We drove to the farm immediately, attended the funeral, and planned to stay for another three weeks to comfort our grandparents. Our parents had to leave the day after the funeral to return to work.
Shortly after our parents left, my sisters’ behaviour started to change. We used to play on the farm during the day, chasing chickens and ducks and running around the paddocks with the dog. But she seemed to have less energy and we did not play as we used to. Within a few days she had troubles getting up in the mornings. My grandparents were too occupied with the loss of their daughter to notice anything. After feeding the animals and preparing breakfast for us children that they left on the kitchen table, they left early in the mornings on most days to take the bus to the next village. They had to take care of Auntie Bernadette’s apartment and belongings as it needed to be sold. My grandparents send their elderly neighbour to look after us in the meantime, but he would usually just sit in the armchair having a nap until our grandparents came back.
When I asked my sister what was going on with her, if she was so sad and depressed because of Auntie Bernadette, she did not reply. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and found that the room was unusually cold. A few more days went by and my sister grew more tired and tired every day. Then one night I woke up and saw her standing at the window looking over to the small birch forest that bordered the farm house to the North. She noticed me and quickly returned to bed.
The next night I was so worried I could not fall asleep. Then, it must have been just after midnight, I heard my sister slowly getting up and walking to the window. I opened my eyes only a little bit and kept breathing deeply as if I was deeply asleep. My sister was not suspicious and kept staring out of the window, transfixed by what she saw. Suddenly she nodded and opened the window just a little bit. Her lips started to move, whispering words I could not understand. She seemed talking to someone outside the window. She nodded again and then carefully opened the window completely and climbed out. I was so scared that I was unable to move and hoped this was only a dream. Although it was summer the nights were still cold, and due to the open window it was getting very cold in the room. It took all my strength to finally get up and walk to the window to see where my sister was. I desperately wanted to close the window but did not want to lock her out. I saw my sister standing just next to the big apple tree and facing the birch forest. She seemed talking to someone I could not see and she was shaking her head frequently. She did not seem scared but she was unhappy about something. I returned to my bed without closing the window, freezing. Only a few minutes later I heard my sister climbing back up the apple tree.
This continued over the next three nights. I would often wake up in the middle of the night to find her missing, then I would walk up to the window and see her standing outside the farm house. Every night she seemed to walk closer and closer to the birch forest, and she would take longer to return to the house. Then, in the mornings she would smell of damp soil and forest, and I would find pine needles and dry leaves in her bed in the morning while she got dressed for Sunday mass. I then knew she must have walked to the pine forest that lay behind the birch trees the previous night. It stretched for many kilometres and we children were forbidden to go there by ourselves as it was easy to get lost among the many trees. I could not understand how she could walk so far in the cold, but then I found her thick winter jacket and a pair of boots wrapped around the base of the rope ladder the next morning. I cleaned up her bed when she was in the shower and did not tell my grandparents so they would not have to also worry about her. This turned out to be a big mistake.
Our grandparents soon found out that the elderly neighbour would often sleep while they were away instead of watching us, so they thought it was better to have us come with them. We took the early morning bus to the next town and went straight to the library Auntie used to work at. I immediately started to cry when I saw the armchairs in the corner of the library where we would sit with our aunt while she read to us the stories of Peter Pan, Hansel and Gretel, or the Jungle Book. My grandparents were talking to the staff for a few minutes, told us they would leave us for a couple of hours, and then left. I spend most of the two hours sitting in the corner and reading my favourite stories to keep me occupied. As my eyes were still teary and red it became too hard for me to concentrate on reading and I fell asleep on the armchair. My sister was roaming across the many sections of the library by herself and did not seem to be sad at all. When my grandparents picked us up, I noticed that her backpack that she brought with her looked heavier than it used to. I still did not say anything as my sister gave me one of the books she took as a keepsake to remind me of Auntie Bernadette in exchange for keeping quiet.
I woke up that night from the noise my sister made when she tried to climb down the tree with the backpack heavy from the books she stole from the library. When I heard her walking across to the forest I watched her carefully wondering what she intended to do with the books. I went back to bed not able to sleep. Just before sunrise my sister came back. I was so angry at her for causing me so much distress that I finally confronted her. I asked “How can you read the books at night in the forest?” She hesitated, carefully thinking what to say to me. Then she replied quietly: “Auntie is reading them to me. But don’t tell grandma and grandpa or she will not let me go back home.” I got angry at her as she worried me and asked “How can she be in the forest? We buried her two weeks ago!” My sister replied, again with a low voice “She wants to be closer to us. She wants to read to us every night. I will show you soon.” I did as she told me and kept quiet about it. I did not want anything to happen to my big sister.
Then came the day I dreaded the most – my sister did not return home. Although I did not tell anything to our grandparents, I woke up freezing in the morning as the window was left open all night and my sister was not in her bed. The jacket and the boots that were usually tied to the rope ladder were gone, as was her backpack. I was questioned first by my grandparents, and then by the local police at the police station. I was so worried about my sister that I finally told the police and my grandparents about her stealing the books from the library and walking to the forest on her own at night. Despite the search party looking for her all day until nightfall, but she was not found. My parents, worried and upset, arrived late the same night and prepared to join the search party in the morning.
I insisted to sleep by myself that night up in the attic. I left the window open in the hope that my sister would be in her bed the next morning when I woke up as usual and our lives would return to normal. In the middle of the night I woke up from a sudden noise outside the window. My heart was beating fast, my mouth went dry, and I started to feel panic. Shaking across my whole body I reached the window and looked out. But instead of my sister I saw my Auntie Bernadette. She was standing at the edge of the birch forest waving at me. Her skin was glowing in the moonlight and her face was without expression, but I was sure it must be her. Her long black curl hung lifeless around her head, her eyes so hollow I could see it from a distance. Scared to the bones I quickly shut the window and returned to bed. I was never going after her into the woods in darkness, although I desperately wanted my sister back. I lay for an hour or so unable to sleep thinking if I should go to sleep with my parents when I suddenly heard something thrown against the bedroom window. I looked up when I saw pine cones being thrown against it. Heart beating harder as before against my chest, I got up and crawled on all four to the window and peeked out. Auntie, or whatever was left of her, was standing right under the window, looking directly at me. She kept waving her hand more urgently, telling me to follow her into the forest. She was covered with dirty leaves, her naked feet heavy with mud, her hair full of pine needles, her face uttering words without making a sounds. I yelled at her “Go away! Leave me alone! I won’t follow you!” She began to start climbing the tree. This was when I felt my chest exploding from fear, and passed out.
One of the search parties found my sisters’ clothes deep in the forest next to a creek, covered in mud. They searched for many hours in the area until they found the old hut deep in the forest that was used decades ago for hunters, but was abandoned for many years when deer populations declined and hunting was prohibited. The old hunting hut was partly collapsed, the roof tilted and the walls rotten and covered in moss. Inside they found children’s books scattered around, and in one corner a backpack and burned-out candles. But no trace of my sister. I know for sure they will never find her – I am sitting with my little sister up on a thick branch of one of the nearby trees in the darkness watching them. As I could not leave the forest without getting lost, my Auntie went back to the farm house night after night. Last night my little sister finally listened to Auntie and followed her deep into the woods. She will not find her way back home without getting lost too, just like me. Now the three of us are holding each other tight, not speaking a word, our naked dirt-covered feet dangling from the branch. We are sitting here waiting, watching them clearing out the hut, taking our beloved books, carrying our two little grey bodies out. Once they leave, when night falls, we will return to the hut. Auntie Bernadette says she will not need the books as she knows the stories by heart. She is so happy to have both of us finally back.
Credit: Lefty Northpaw