As kids we often miss the obvious. It is often only as adults that we really catch on to certain events in our childhood. It was the same for me and a specific summer vacation in my childhood. Only now do I realize what really was going on.
Mind you this whole story took place in Germany more than a decade ago. I am doing my best to translate the events that took place into English.
At the time of this story I was twelve years old. I was a city kid, but my parents would spend the summer in their holiday home.
It was not as fancy as it might sound. It wasn't much more than a small cabin, located in a small town. I loved the wild plains, the forests, the farms and many other rural things.
At times I played soccer or other games with the local kids, at others I went on little adventures. What I enjoyed the most though, was to ride my bike for hours on end. I'd often follow the many dirt roads and paths that led here and there to simply see where I'd end up.
One day, during another long bike ride, I met a friendly old couple.
They seemed to be hiking along the dirt road into my direction. As soon as the old woman noticed me she gave me a warm greeting. They reminded me of my grandparents so I happily waved to them.
As soon as I had passed them and was going to ride on, the old woman called out to me.
"Oh my, you can't go any further little boy," she started, "you'll end up in the swamps. Better turn around now."
I looked ahead and could really see that the dirt road seemed to soon become muddy. So I nodded towards the old lady and thanked her for a warning.
I turned my bike around, drove back towards them and soon enough ended up talking with them for a bit.
They'd been hiking and berry picking in the forest nearby and were on their way back home. Their house was out here, near the edge of the forest just a bit ahead. They said they preferred it out here, away from the bustle of town.
When they asked me about myself I told them too where I was from and that I as only here on vacation for some weeks.
It wasn't long before we arrived at a big old house, nested perfectly into the trees that made up the edge of the forest.
As we continued on, the old lady asked me if I'd come with them and if I might want something to drink or a snack.
I thanked her but shook my head. It was getting late and the sun would be setting soon. If I'd be late again, I'd be in trouble with my mom.
When I got home my parents already waited for me to get dinner ready. I don't really know why, but I never told them about the old couple I met or I simply forgot to mention them.
It was only a few days later, that I found myself on the same dirt road as before. I hesitated for a moment, but then I thought I might as well pay them a visit.
As I approached the house I saw that they were sitting outside in a Hollywood swing in front of the house. I waved and greeted them.
As soon as she recognized me the old lady seemed to be truly happy to see me, got up and walked towards me.
"My oh my, guess who has come back, Herbert!" she exclaimed to her husband who hadn't moved from the swing.
"What brings you back here to us boring old folks?" he asked me laughing.
I was a little shy as a kid and they both spoke to me so openly I couldn't help but cast my eyes down and answer in a quiet voice, that I was nearby and thought it was the proper thing to say hello.
"Now aren't you a well-mannered young boy." the old lady said, giving me a bright smile.
"Now then, you want to sit down for a bit, boy?" Herbert asked me and motioned towards the now empty spot on the swing.
After leaning my bike against a tree, I went over and sat down right next to him. His wife, who I found was named Elsa, watched us for a bit, but then nodding and smiling happily went inside the house.
It wasn't long before my small talk with Herbert turned to birds and forest animals. It had been a live long interest of his ever since he was a little boy. After some time he asked me if I had ever seen any forest animals for real, like a badger, a deer, a fox, or even just a rabbit. I guess he remembered I was from the city.
I told him that I had, but only from afar or in one of the animal parks.
Herbert laughed and said I was in for a treat. With that he got up and motioned for me to come along.
He led me into the house, up the stairs and opened the door to a big room. As I stepped inside after my eyes grew wide. The room was filled with all sorts of forest animals and birds. For a moment I cringed back, but soon I noticed that none of them were moving.
Herbert explained that I needn't be afraid. Those were all stuffed, or better, preserved animals. In younger years he had earned a living by doing this thing. He had been a taxidermist.
I remember that it felt a little weird to stay in a room, surrounded by all these dead animals. Herbert let me look around for a moment and then started to tell me a bit about each of the different animals. Soon enough my uneasiness at their sight vanished as I listened to his explanations.
We'd gone through almost all the animals, when the old man and I heard Elsa call out from downstairs. I could notice Herbert’s expression change and growing dark for a moment.
"Well, better look what she did this time. Shouldn't take too long."
With that he went out the door.
I looked around some more and here and there touched the preserved animals and their fur, if only to make sure that they truly weren't alive.
Most imposing of all animals was a male deer with a huge pair of antlers on his head. At first I only stared at the imposing animal, but soon I reached out for the antlers.
It wasn't long before Herbert came back and saw me near the deer and told me all about this specific animal. Looking back I think that old Herbert was truly happy that I was interested in his preserved animals.
In time though, he led me back out of the room and outside, telling with a laugh that we'd spend so much time up in the animal room that it was already getting late. I said goodbye to Herbert and after waving to Elsa I was on my way back home.
That night it took me a long time to fall asleep. My thoughts and dreams revolved all around the forest animals Herbert had shown me and told me about.
The next day, right after lunch I went out with my bike and drove over straight to their house again.
As I arrived, it was only Elsa who was there. She was sitting on the swing and busying herself with a bouquet of flowers. Her face lit up almost instantly when she saw me and waved me over.
She told me Herbert wasn't around and had gone on one of his solitary walks through the forest. After listening to her for a bit, I asked her shyly if I could see the preserved animals again.
"Oh of course you can my dear little boy." she answered, grabbed my hand and let me inside.
I felt weird holding hands with her, but again I was too shy to say anything. As she led me up the stairs and into the room she babbled on and on endlessly. Even after we entered the room, she kept talking about herself and how happy she was, that I was back. Finally she asked me if I wanted to see something else.
Without even waiting for an answer, she happily told that it was the old playroom of their kids and that I was sure to enjoy it. A little annoyed, but also a bit curious I followed her along.
What Elsa led me to was a room that was almost as big as Herbert's animal room.
Elsa was right, a playroom it was. There were toys everywhere. I was taken aback at the sheer number.
The room was filled to the brim with wooden blocks, puppets, dolls, teddy bears, toy cars and trains and much, much more.
"It is fine, go head, you can play with anything you want."
I looked at her for a moment and then went forward into the room awkwardly looking around. I was already twelve years old and most of the toys here seemed to be for younger kids. I couldn't bring myself to say anything to Else though.
As I walked further into the room, she told me she'd be back in a while and I should just enjoy myself.
Soon after Elsa was gone, I left the playroom too. It was just boring, I thought.
As I walked back into the direction of the animal room, I saw that one of the other doors in the hallway was slightly ajar. I first only peeked inside, but didn't see anything, since it was almost pitch-black in the room. A quick glance around showed me that I was alone and so I opened the door a little more.
I was finally able to see that the room was filled with a variety of cribs and beds. The only window of the room was covered by a big black curtain. I had never seen anyone else here, but I remembered Elsa talking about kids before. So I thought it was just an old nursery.
As I stepped inside, I noticed something, or better someone sitting in one of the beds. I jumped back and almost screamed, my first thought that someone was sleeping in one of the beds. Soon enough I realized whatever it was wasn’t moving at all.
I laughed a little as I realized my mistake and came to the decision that what was sitting in the bed must simply be a puppet or big doll. Only moments later I noticed in the half-shade of the room that there were more of them. A whole assortment of these dolls was sitting or lying in the beds and cribs all around.
Each of the cribs and beds had a name plate put to its front end. Here was Sam, followed by Peter and Marcel, then Tom and on it went.
I moved toward the bed with the name Sam on it to have a closer look. As I touched its arm it felt weird. The skin was almost too soft and didn't feel like cloth.
I was a little weirded out but soon my thoughts went from the doll to a little box sitting at the foot end of the bed. As I picked it up, I realized it was wooden. The name 'Sam' was written on it in fine letters, same as on the name plate.
In the dark of the room it took me a bit, but soon I found the lid and tried opening it.
Right at that moment I heard Elsa's voice calling out to me from the stairs. I quickly left the room and only when I was on my way towards the stairs did I realize that I was still holding the box. Not knowing what to do and hearing Elsa's footsteps coming up the stairs, I put it in my backpack, telling myself I'd put it back later.
I met up with Elsa who led me to the downstairs kitchen. She had prepared a glass of fresh lemonade and a little bowl of fruits.
"You must be thirsty, aren't you?" she asked as she got the glass for me.
It was then that Herbert, still wearing a pair of heavy hiking boots entered the room.
"Well that's-" he started but broke up when he saw me and Elsa with the glass of lemonade. His gaze rested on me for a moment, then he went forward to Elsa with a sad expression on his face.
"Elsa, your diabetes, the doctor" he began saying.
"Oh Herbert, no, it is for the boy, he is-"
"Elsa no. You know you can't keep doing this. It is no good."
With that he went closer towards his old wife, who still holding the glass and the bowl of snacks looked first at him, then at me, then at him again, before the tears started streaming from her eyes.
"It's alright, Elsa." he said.
I didn't understand what was going on at all. Finally Herbert turned to me and told me that today wasn't a good day. I nodded and went to go, wondering what exactly had just happened and what was wrong with Elsa.
I spent the rest of the day in town with some of my local friends and soon I had completely forgotten what had happened.
In the evening, as I was getting ready for bed, my mom found the wooden box that was still in my backpack.
"Now who is this Sam?" she asked me with a little smile on her face.
"Oh no, I forgot to put it back!" I exclaimed in shock when I saw it.
Soon I found myself explaining to my mom how I had come into possession of the box. I told her quickly about the nice old couple I had gotten to know, where I had met them, about Herbert's preserved animals and where I had found the box.
I remembered that her face turned serious as she listened to me. Then I was sent to bed.
That night I was woken up by people arguing.
As I left the small bedroom I found my mom in tears and my dad talking to a number of other people. When he noticed me he sent me back to bed right away and assured me that everything was alright.
The next day though, they told me we had to go back home.
I never found out what actually had been going on that night. To tell you the truth I had mostly forgotten about the whole thing.
I found out about the truth from an old newspaper clipping, while I went through the library's archive for a university project.
Going through year after year, something caught my eye.
The Case of the Bassinet Children - Old couple found guilty in missing children case
The article talked about a bizarre and gruesome discovery at the home of an elderly couple. I started to skim the article out of sheer boredom, but soon I read the names Herbert and Elsa. It took a while, but then I remembered the old couple from my summer vacation. The date of the story was from about a decade ago, the same summer I had met them.
At first I told myself it was a coincidence, but soon I couldn't deny the truth anymore.
The article talked about how the couple, in the course of decades, had killed at least twelve children of varying age. The proof was found right in their house, where they uncovered the mostly preserved bodies of the twelve victims. As I read the word taxidermist it clicked.
Right then I realized what the room I snuck in must have been. I remembered how wrong the doll had felt. I shivered as I realized that back then, I had been in a room surrounded by the preserved corpses of all these children.
I called my mom soon after. At first she vehemently feigned ignorance, but then she told me what she and my dad had found in the box that same night.
It had been filled with small memorabilia and a number of photographs. At first it was just photos of a kid outside, either alone or with a lady that must have been in her fifties. The photos were normal at first. Soon enough though, there were photos of the boy unconscious and naked. She said the rest of the pictures was too much for her.
She said they had called the police then and there. The couple was arrested that same night without any resistance. Herbert simply gave himself up and Elsa, who was obviously suffering from an early state of dementia didn’t really understand what was going on.
In a later article I found the Herbert's testimony.
They never had children, he said. Medical issues. His wife never got over the fact.
She loved children over everything, but as she couldn't have her own, this love soon became an obsession. Elsa would often invite kids to her house, play with them and give them snacks.
One day though she went further and drugged a little boy. He never woke up again.
Elsa pleaded to not take her baby away, to never take him off of her. Herbert said, seeing and hearing his wife like that, knowing something must be done about the body, he did a thing he should never have done.
That was only the first one. He knew she was sick, but there was nothing else he could do to protect her and he'd never report her.
I stopped reading there. The whole story made me too sick to continue digging into it.
There is just one thing I am wondering these days, shivering. How close was I to becoming one of these kids? How did I get away? Was I just lucky? At these times I often think about Herbert's behavior and what he told his wife that afternoon.
I can't help but think that it was all thanks to the old man that I am still alive today.