We May Have Forgotten The Jealous Old Gods But Today I Learned They Have Not Forgotten Us

via Flickr - Timo Waltari
via Flickr – Timo Waltari

Before you read my story, I think I should start with an explanation, some context. My people are from Croatia and they are superstitious. It doesn’t rule our lives, but we do knock on wood three times after saying something that could be unlucky. Still, I would say we have our feet on the ground and are quite pragmatic, though we do not like to provoke the things we don’t understand. I, for example, am an agnostic, but before I travel I make sure to whisper a “May God protect us.” I know this makes no sense. I don’t believe there’s a God that will save me if I ask for protection. But I also know that if I say the words that the plane won’t crash if I do. This pretty much sums up my people’s belief – practical yet superstitious.

When I was little my grandmother told me that it was good to be careful about these things. People have forgotten that there are other forces out there, but these forces have not forgotten them.

But my story isn’t about my grandmother, though there would be plenty of good ones to tell. My story is about my mother, the biggest skeptic in our family. Whenever one of my aunts or cousins would tell a story about how they saw a ghost or how they visited a witch doctor (we don’t really call them witch doctors, this is just for lack of better term), my mom would scoff at them. If I told her a story that I heard from some family member she would scold me and tell me not to believe everything I heard.

My father was different. He was like me. He didn’t believe everything but he knew better than to say there was nothing to the stories. He said there was always a little kernel of truth in every story.

When my aunt told us that my grandfather had called her, exactly 40 days after his death (it is believed that the soul wanders the earth for 40 days after they die) as my mother rolled her eyes and my aunt swore that it was his voice (which she knew as well as her own), my father said, that maybe she had just wanted it to be her father really badly and that’s why she heard his voice, that he wanted her to know he was okay now.

When I finally experienced something mysterious, something I could neither understand nor explain, I did not expect my mother to understand or to believe me. I wanted to wait to tell the story until my father was at home so he could explain what happened to me. But when I came home, my father was not there and my mother was sitting on the balcony drinking her Turkish coffee brewed in a special coffee pot she inherited from my grandmother, and she looked at me and just knew something was wrong. So she asked me, what had happened. And I was too scared to wait, so I told her.

My friends Lana, Mark, and I were in the woods not far from where we lived that night. They were not endless woods, where people could easily get lost. It was a small patch of forest that primary school kids would visit to play hide and seek in, while us older kids we would visit to hang out and drink.
I was sixteen years old, and this wasn’t my first time in the woods, but it was my first time after dark. Mark had organized the whole thing, made sure everyone brought some meat and some snacks and of course something to drink. I wasn’t drunk though. I still had the one can of beer that I hadn’t even finished yet in my hand when it happened.

***

My father was different. He was like me. He didn’t believe everything but he knew better than to say there was nothing to the stories. He said there was always a little kernel of truth in every story.

***

I was the first to see it, the necklace. It was stuck on a tree branch, so close to where we were sitting. I had a sip of my beer and was looking around, when suddenly I saw a flash of light up in the branch. Being curious I got up and went closer and that’s when I saw it. I remember thinking how odd it was to see a necklace stuck on a tree branch. It looked out of place. It was a simple silver necklace with a small stone welded in a silver circle. The stone was light blue, but not clear, it was cloudy. It looked old, like jewelry in a museum. I had never seen anything like that before. It was beautiful and it looked like it could be very valuable. Who would lose such a thing in the woods?

I reached for it, but it suddenly moved. It didn’t fly away or anything like that, it simply moved a little bit further away, as if pulled by a string. Only there was no string. I was confused and thought maybe someone was playing a prank on us.  I called my two friends over to show them and after laughing at me, they followed me to the necklace, which was now two steps further away on another low hanging branch. Lana reached out to grab it and, just like before, it moved. We flinched of course and my friends started laughing and after a second I joined in. It was a little silly after all. Mark stepped forward and said that someone was probably pranking us.

“It looks like it’s worth a lot of money.” He said.

“But what is it doing in the woods? Who would wear a fancy necklace to the woods?” I asked and both of them shrugged.

Mark reached for the necklace and it moved again, a little further away this time, deeper into the woods. We followed it again. My friends were still laughing but I wasn’t. There was no string, how could it be moving? I looked around and couldn’t stop thinking how strange this was. Who would leave an old valuable necklace in the woods? Who would try to prank a bunch of teenagers like this? Why did the woods suddenly seem darker than before?
I followed my friends, the two of them still joking around, but every time we were in touching distance, the necklace moved again. Always a little bit further, always a little bit deeper into the woods that did not seem so harmless anymore. Though we still followed it, now intent on finding out what this was about. I admit I was curious too. Still, I could not shake the feeling of dread. I felt that something was wrong. It’s just a necklace- I kept telling myself. Why are you so scared?

I turned around to look back at how far we’d gone and the fire looked really small in the distance. That could not be good.

I grabbed both of my friends by the shoulder and insisted we turn back. They teased me for being scared and a chicken, but they did not know what I knew. Their people did not believe in the world being more than we see. 

“It’s luring us deeper into the woods.” I said.

“Come on, you can’t be scared? You know there’s nothing here, we’ve been playing in them for years.” Lana said.

“And I want to find out what this is about. Look, it’s so close.” Mark said. “I really wanna have it. It looks valuable.”

“How is it being pulled away, Mark?” I asked and he shrugged. “Something must be pulling it. And who or what would want to lure a bunch of teenagers into the woods?”

“Who cares?”

I looked at the necklace. It was just sitting there, seemingly unmoving now that we were not chasing it. Was I being ridiculous?

“I think she’s right.” Lana said, suddenly changing her mind. She looked serious now as well, and I could see a little fear in her eyes. “There’s something fishy about this. We should go back.”

Both Lana and I turned around but Mark didn’t want to. He laughed at us and called us little girls.

He said, “Aren’t you curious? It’s just a necklace. How bad can it be?”

I looked back at him standing there and my gaze hit the necklace, still in the same place. Maybe we were being ridiculous. But then I looked at that strange cloudy stone again, at the darkness behind it, and I couldn’t stop the shivers running down my spine. It was a necklace, but that was not all it was. It was a trap.

I pleaded with Mark to come back to the fire with us but he didn’t want to.

“I’ll get to the bottom of this. You guys go ahead and leave if you’re so scared” he said and turned around.

He reached for the necklace and again it moved further away. I watched Mark follow it now laughing as if he was having the time of his life.

“I’ll sell it and keep all the money for myself,” he yelled at us before he disappeared from our view.

Lana and I walked back to the fire without talking. We sat down, the beers and the food untouched and waited. Lana was hugging herself.

“Do you think he’s okay?” She asked.

“I’m sure he’s fine. He’s probably the one that’s playing the prank on us. You’ll see he’ll come back in a bit and tease us for being scared.” I smiled, but the smile felt all wrong. I didn’t believe Mark would come back. He had walked right into whatever trap the necklace was supposed to lure us to.

We waited for two hours, keeping the fire alive but Mark did no return. We debated going and looking for him and we ventured into the forest though only superficially, as we were now more afraid than before of whatever was in there. We called for Mark until our voices were hoarse. Then finally we packed up, put out the fire and went to the police. We told them what happened and that our friend hadn’t come back. They did not take us seriously I think, not that night. They thought we were just a bunch of drunk teenagers.

“Don’t you worry girls; he’s probably just playing a trick on you.” The old police offers told us before he shooed us out of the station.

We walked to the main tram station and called Mark’s house from one of the pay phones. Nobody picked up, which meant his mother was probably working the night shift at the hospital again. We were now really freaked out, but we still held onto the hope that he was just pranking us.
Lana and I said goodbye and I walked home, shivering and thinking of that necklace.

When I finished, my mother was as pale as a sheet. She said nothing, but got up instead and got two little shot glasses that she filled with my uncle’s homemade brew of alcohol.

She drank hers in one gulp which shocked me just as much as the expression on her face. My mother sometimes had a glass of wine and occasionally she would take a sip from some liquor. I had never seen her down anything in my life before.

She looked at my glass and said. “Drink up.”

So I did. The burning sensation spread from my throat to my limbs until it was a pleasant warm feeling. My mother was still quiet. I wanted to ask her why she was acting so strange, but I was scared of what she would say. We were sitting in silence, listening to the crickets. The only light on the balcony came from two lampions, solar-powered, that my mother had hung up in the beginning of summer for ambience.

When she started talking suddenly I couldn’t stop myself from flinching. I was still scared.

“I never told anyone this story before. I told myself it was because I had grown out of believing it, but I know that isn’t true. I was afraid that by telling it, I would give it power. Things gain more power over us if we talk about them, I am sure. That is why I don’t want your relatives talking about things we don’t understand.” She sighed and took my hand.

***

When I finished, my mother was as pale as a sheet. She said nothing, but got up instead and got two little shot glasses that she filled with my uncle’s homemade brew of alcohol.

***

“When I was a child, back in our homeland I saw the same necklace you just described. I know it sounds unbelievable, but it is true. I was thirteen years old, but I remember the necklace clearer than the face of your grandfather. You remember the house I grew up in, the one on the hill?”

I nodded. My grandmother didn’t live there anymore, as she had moved to their apartment in the city during the war, because it was safer. The house my mother was born in, my mother grew up in, was still standing. Though nobody had lived there for decades now.

“We were playing outside. It was summer, so we always stayed out late. We stayed in the backyard, close to the house because our parents had warned us about the woods. You could wander in and get lost, which was something that had happened before. We all knew the family that lost their oldest son like this. Our backyard was huge, there wasn’t a fence so there was more than enough space for us to play.

The moon was already up and that’s why I saw it. It shone brightly in the moonlight. Such a pretty necklace, just lying there in the grass, I thought. The necklace was a little bit off the path but still close enough. I was about to reach for it, when one of the girls, she is long gone now, dead after the war, saw me and called the others over. I showed them the necklace, disappointed now that it wasn’t mine. I knew I still had most of the right to keep it, because I had been the first to see it, but I was sure there would be an argument. Before any of my friends could say something I tried to grab the necklace, but it moved. It slid along the grass as if pulled by an invisible thread.

We giggled and thought it was funny and exciting. It became a game and soon we were following the necklace, trying to finally get it. Just as you described though, whenever we got close enough to touch it, it moved away again – further away from the path and closer to the woods. We didn’t realize it, you see. We were playing with someone we didn’t see yet, it was fun and not dangerous.

Just as the necklace slid onto the edge of the woods, we heard my grandmother – your great grandmother — call my name. She sounded far away, as if she was not here with us. We almost didn’t pay attention to her, after all we knew she came to tell us it was time for bed. But the look on her face was pure panic and there was so much fear in her voice.

We stopped following the necklace and ran to her. She grabbed us, tears streaming down her face and started leading us back to the house.

“Get away from that thing.” She said.

I looked back, I had to, and the necklace was gone.

When we got to our front garden, she made us sit down and gave us some water to drink.

“Don’t ever play near the woods again.” She said in the stern voice of a grown-up giving a child an order. “If you ever see the necklace, don’t follow it. It’s not just a necklace. It’s a trap.”

I flinched at these words, as they had been my exact thoughts. Did I somehow know this because of my grandmother? Some strange genetic inheritance of caution?

My mother continued without noticing, she was now engrossed in her story. “She told us the necklace would lure us into the woods and we would never come back.

I asked why and she answered: “There are ancient things living in the woods, evil things. They are angry that we have forgotten them and we do not worship them anymore, that we do not give them sacrifices anymore. They like children better than anything. They eat their souls, because they are innocent.”

“We all got a little worked up and a little scared, but she told us not to worry. The things could not get us as long as we did not follow the necklace,” she said.

My mother continued, “The other children left and I went to bed, dreaming about twisted shadows in the darkness of the woods with red glowing eyes and giant fangs, lurking just waiting for me.”

“The next morning,” my mother said, “I went to my grandmother and I asked her how she knew the things she told us. After all we were used to stories of witches riding on bone carts or gypsies stealing children from adults, which we knew were not true. We knew they were just supposed to scare us. So how could I know that this was different?”

“She told me that she had seen the necklace too, when she was a child and that her sister had followed it into the woods despite her protest. She had never come back. No body had ever been found. She had simply vanished. People had searched for days, but they had found nothing.”

At this point my mother had tears in her eyes. “She told me that children have been disappearing into the woods for centuries. She had heard stories from her mother who heard it from her mother and so on. She made me swear never to go back.”

“I did go back, though, the next evening, as the moon was rising, and the necklace was there in the exact same spot I had seen it the first time. Simply lying there like it was nothing more than a necklace. I did not go close to it. After that I never saw it again, ever.”

***

“There are ancient things living in the woods, evil things. They are angry that we have forgotten them and we do not worship them anymore, that we do not give them sacrifices anymore.”

***

“For a while I asked around to see if other people had seen the necklace. Many of my grandmother’s and mother’s generation had. They had the same cautionary tales about not following it. Some had lost their sons, some had lost their mothers, and some had lost siblings. People had been disappearing in the woods for a very long time. I don’t know if all of them saw the necklace, but there are enough stories to confirm that many of them did. Many were with other people before they disappeared, other people that did not follow it. You could go back to our hometown now and I am sure that people will know someone or other that has lost their daughter or their brother to it…”

“My mother told me to stop talking about the necklace. She said I was giving it more power, so I buried the story and made sure to never mention it. I thought ‘if I don’t speak about it, it didn’t happen.’ I thought it was just a tale that had scared me as a child, like the stories of the witch or the gypsies. I thought if I never speak of it, I could protect people. But now I wish I had told you all of this before.”

As she finished her story, my mother smiled sadly and squeezed my hand.

“Are you sure it was the same necklace? I mean it was another country and over 40 years ago.”

She nodded. I felt tears sting my eyes

“Mark’s not coming back, is he?” I whispered as tears streaming down my face. I knew the answer, but I hoped I was wrong. That my mother would now tell me that some people had come back.

“No, he isn’t.” She said with a finality that broke my heart.

I called Mark’s house again the next day and his mother picked up. He was not at home. I told her what had happened the night before, the part where he hadn’t come back from the woods. I knew she wouldn’t believe the other part. Still, that scared her enough to go to the police.

This time they took it seriously and even organized a search party with volunteers. I went with them and searched through the woods. But I knew we wouldn’t find anything.

I don’t know what happened to Mark. I don’t know who or what was pulling that necklace. I don’t know if there really are evil things lurking in the woods. But I do know that if you see a silver necklace with a cloudy blue stone in a place it should not be, don’t try to grab it. And whatever you do, don’t follow it into the woods. You will never come back if you do. TC mark

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