In a sparsely-populated German settlement, the Becker family earned their living raising and slaughtering cattle. At that time, those who called the hilly, oak and maple-dotted valley home found quality meat hard to come by. But Markus Becker and his wife Lena, along with their three sons – Lukas, Steffen, and Robert – never disappointed their customers. Year after year their fertile, rolling hills produced the largest cattle for miles around. Their delicious beef was the talk of the town each week following the Sunday farmer’s markets. The Beckers had been self-sufficient since Markus first set a plow to his many acres. One September evening in the late 1950s, however, all of that changed.
That night, the autumn air seemed thicker and cooler than usual. As the Becker children finished tending the cattle in their fields, an unseasonably cold breeze drifted over the red and yellow foliage that bordered their vast pastures. A fog rolled in with it that made the boys shudder. They instinctively crossed and rubbed their arms. The sudden drop in temperature made the cattle restless as well, so the children attempted to calm them. Moments later, Lukas, the oldest of the Becker boys, expectedly put a hand to his forehead and fell to his knees.
“Oh,” Lukas groaned, rubbing his eyes. “I’ve got the most terrible headache, just now.”
“Oh, come now, Lukas,” Steffen chided him. “We cannot finish our work without you. Now get to it.”
Lukas groaned again. He stumbled back to his feet and set himself to settling the cattle. He had just begun to help warm a few of the cattle when severe nausea overtook him. He felt his surroundings spin, and fell prostrate to the ground.
“All right, that’s enough!” Steffen said. He pulled his older brother to his feet with a jerk and shook him thusly. “What is the matter with you, Lukas?”
Lukas’s head rolled listlessly from side to side. His eyes rolled back as one long dead. Concerned, Robert stepped over and raised his older brother’s face to his own.
“Speak to me, Lukas,” Robert said. “What has come over you?”
Another gust of unpleasantly cold air swept over the trees and through the valley. Steffen and Robert trembled. At that time, Lukas’s senses returned momentarily, and he looked Robert in the eye. Then, suddenly, he fell into convulsions. The two younger brothers were terrified. They had not the slightest idea what to do.
“Steffen!” Robert shouted. “Do something!” The youngest boy prayed for relief. He could not bear the sight of his oldest brother in such a condition.
Thinking quickly, Steffen lifted Lukas into their hay wagon. He and Robert got aboard and spurred their horses home. They thought that if they rode quickly, there may be time enough to call for a doctor. Or maybe father will know what to do, Steffen imagined. Maybe he has seen this before. Robert prayed and prayed.
By the time they had reached their quaint, red-brick farmhouse, the sun had set, and Lukas was pale. The oldest boy was no longer having convulsions, but his condition had not improved. He felt cold to the touch. Beads of unnaturally frigid sweat ran from his brow to his lips before settling on his chattering teeth. Swiftly, Steffen and Robert ran to fetch their father. As swiftly as possible, they told him their tale. In a moment Markus and Lena were at Lukas’s side.
“My lord!” Markus cried when he saw the extent of his first born son’s condition. “There’s no time to fetch a doctor! Get him to bed this instant! To bed! To bed!”
Lukas and his family shared very tight living quarters. His mother and father shared a bed against the far wall of their diminutive bedroom. The children occupied a three-level bunk bed to its right. The oldest son – as was the tradition in their family – occupied the uppermost bunk. This, of course, was Lukas. Someday, when he married and set out on his own, Lukas would give up his bunk to Steffen. But tonight, since it was the easiest to reach, Lena tucked Lukas into Robert’s bed instead. Robert, of course, was not pleased.
“What if I catch what Lukas has?” Robert cried.
“This is no time to be selfish, boy!” his father replied. “Now fetch us some cool water to help with your brother’s fever!”
Robert was troubled, but always did what his father asked. So off he went.
“Steffen!” Markus cried. He pointed to an old, yellowing chair in the far corner of the bedroom. “Bring me that chair so that I might sit beside your brother. Then go to bed. There is nothing you can do now.” Steffen nodded and returned with the chair in hand. Setting it beside the bottom bunk, Markus took a seat and held his son’s hand.
As the night wore on, Markus and Lena took their turn in the decrepit old chair beside their ailing son. With each hour, Lukas’s temperature rose. His convulsions came on stronger than before. Then he began to complain of intense stomach pains. Markus and Lena held him and prayed. They wet his towel and changed his pillows. Nothing helped. Steffen and Robert, meanwhile, lay awake in the upper two bunks. They stared wide-eyed and clenched their teeth as Lukas cried and shrieked in agony.
Lukas died just before dawn. By mid-morning, Markus and his sons finished his burial. Markus then insisted that no one speak of the previous night again, and get on with their work. Steffen and Robert were still mourning when they went out to bring the cows back from the pasture that evening.
That night, the air again seemed unusually cool and thick, and as before, almost at the moment the sun sunk down over the distant hills, a chill gust swept into the valley. The cows again grew restless. They swished their tails as if doing so might fend off the sudden cold. Steffen and Robert clutched their arms and shivered. The work that night had been hard enough without their brother Lukas, and the wind had not made it any easier. Yet as they finished reining in the last of the cattle, they were comforted in knowing that they would soon be warm in their beds.
As the boys finished loading their supplies into their wagon, however, Steffen collapsed. Within moments he began shaking wildly. Robert staggered back in shock.
“Steffen!” he screamed. “Answer me!”
Steffen struggled to breathe. He appeared to be choking. Robert put a hand to his brother’s head. Steffen was burning up.
“Steffen!” he screamed again. No answer; just gasping, ragged breaths. Then their eyes met. Robert saw a look of utter confusion and horror on Steffen’s face. Robert shook his head and sobbed.
“Steffen!” he said again. “Please, answer me!”
Steffen slowly raised his gaze to meet Robert’s eyes. Then, as a breeze puts out a match, Steffen was gone. Robert was incredulous. The entire incident took place in less than two minutes. Robert watched as Steffen’s body relaxed and his expressions softened. His older brother’s unseeing eyes stared widely to the sky; his hands remained around his throat. Robert looked up from the corpse and screamed.
When Robert finally returned to the farmhouse with Steffen’s body, the hour was late. He found his parents outside anxiously awaiting their return. At first Markus and Lena were thrilled to see their sons return. Then they noticed Robert was alone. As he approached they saw his tear-streaked face – and a sheet-wrapped corpse in the rear of the wagon. Their hearts sank. For a moment, Lena thoughtfully put her hand to her mouth. Then she burst into tears.
The next morning, the remaining three members of the Becker family buried Steffen beside his brother. Robert pitched a final shovel-full of soil onto Steffen’s grave and looked to Markus.
“Father,” he asked. “What is happening to us? How will the farm survive?”
There was a moment of awkward silence.
“We will do the best we can,” Markus said. “Tonight I will help rein in the cattle. Perhaps tomorrow we will hire some help.”
That night, true to his word, Markus rode out to the pastures with his remaining son and helped corral the cattle. The work was arduous, but father and son finished before dusk. They rode home and stabled the horses. But something was amiss – Lena did not meet them at the door. She’s fixing supper, no doubt, Markus thought.
The two stepped inside – and found the house silent. There was no dinner cooking. Robert and Markus did not see Lena anywhere. Robert was concerned.
“Mother!” he shouted. For a moment, there was no reply. Then, someone called from the bedroom.
“Roooooobert….” it called slowly. “Maaaaaaaaarkus…”
Robert shivered. “Mother?” he shouted again.
Again, the voice called.
“Rooooooooobert…” it moaned. “Maaaaaaaaaaaarkus…”
Robert thought it sounded like his mother, but the way it said their names scared him. Something was wrong. He knew it.
Robert and Markus darted to the bedroom. On their way, the voice called again.
“Roooooooooooobert…” it cried, drawing out their names. “Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaarkus…”
When they arrived in the bedroom, Markus and Robert did not see anyone at first. Then, they noticed a pale, limp arm protruding from under the covers in the bottom bunk. As they approached, it quivered.
“Mother?” Robert asked. “Is that you?”
There was no reply. Slowly, Markus pulled back the covers – and both father and son cried out. It was indeed Lena under the covers, but she looked nothing like when they had left.
The woman before them was skeletal and pale. Sweat matted her hair; her eyes were dark and sunken. Markus put a hand to his wife’s forehead – and pulled it back immediately! Her skin was so hot it threatened to burn him. He looked down at her. As she gasped to breathe, she held out a crucifix necklace. They immediately recognized it as Steffen’s.
“Mother, where did you get this?” Robert asked.
“From the bed,” she rasped. “I lay here…to pray for him.”
She coughed into her hand. When she pulled it back, she found it coated in blood. Then she too, like her sons before her, went into convulsions.
Markus clutched her hands and wept. “My wife! My wife!” he cried.
All night long, Markus and Robert sat up, taking turns sitting in the dilapidated, rusty chair beside the bottom bunk. They brought Lena food and water, raised her feet, and fanned her – but she would not drink and could not eat. With each hour, Robert and Markus watched her health deteriorate. They heard her moan and gasp for air; heard her gurgle and choke as she struggled to swallow. The whole time, they sat in the yellowing chair, listening helplessly to the horrid, horrid sounds. Then, in the early morning hours, Lena died as her sons did before her.
Markus refused to speak from that moment on. After he and Robert buried Lena, he laid in bed for days, gripping one of his wife’s dresses and muttering nonsense. On many occasions, Robert pleaded with his father to rise and help with the cattle. Markus ignored him.
“We should burn their clothing and the sheets!” Robert begged his father. “What if we become sick from touching their things?” Markus ignored him.
In a matter of days, the work on the farm became too much for Robert to handle. He was not as strong as Lukas or as clever as Steffen. He could not cook like his mother or bridle horses like his father. So Robert asked his father for some money, so that he might ride to town to hire some help. Markus ignored him. He just lay still, clenching Lena’s green sundress in his fists, mumbling and gibbering.
The next morning, Robert, concerned for his father, set out to town on his own. While there, he purchased supplies and sought a doctor. He found one man willing to ride the twenty miles to the farm that evening to examine Markus. The doctor also told Robert he was fit and healthy, news he was glad to hear. He thanked the man for his help, tipped his hat, and rode back to the farm.
Robert prepared supper the best he could and offered some to his father. As usual, Markus ignored him. So Robert bathed and ate alone. When he was finished eating, he returned to the bedroom and sat on the old chair again. He implored his father to speak to him.
“A doctor is coming, father,” he said. “Everything is going to be all right.” Hours passed. In that time, Robert somehow managed to fall asleep, uncomfortable as the chair was.
Later that night – just after dark – the doctor arrived. He was later than expected on account of his getting lost on the way. The ride to the farm was long, and as darkness set in, he could not tell one fork in the road from another. But he was there now, that was all that mattered.
The doctor strode to the front door of the farmhouse and knocked. There was no answer. Peeking through a window, he could see an oil lamp aglow in the back of the home. He knocked a second time. Again, no one answered. He tried the door. Finding it unlocked, he opened it and stepped inside.
“Is anyone home?” he called. His voice echoed in the empty kitchen. Silence. He slowly made his way back to the bedroom. As he went, he felt a mounting sense of dread. The oil lamp in the bedroom, visible from the hall, flickered suddenly, as if from a gust of wind. He took another step. The lamp flickered again – and its flame went out. In a moment the doctor could not see a thing. In fact, he did not see the bunk beds even as he walked into them. The impact startled him.
Then, he felt something brush his leg. Something cold and clammy. He stumbled back. Nervously, he clutched the pocket of his overcoat and reached within. Finding a pipe and a light, he struck a match.
A large man was sprawled across the bed, on his back, clutching a green sundress. His hair was wild; his mouth was agape and contorted as if he screamed while he died.
The doctor stumbled back and bumped again into something else, also dreadfully cold. He turned around, and he screamed.
Seated in the rusty, yellow chair beside the bed, was a young man. His body arched over the back of the chair as if in agony. His mouth was wide open. On the floor beside his left arm, which hung lifelessly at his side, was a crucifix necklace.
The doctor trembled with fear.
Then, suddenly, he felt a chill in the room. His pipe flickered, as if from a gust of wind. He took a step back. The pipe flickered again – and it went out.