To Maja, the angry voices coming from her father’s barn were more terrifying than anything the darkness hid. It meant even more scared people from the village arguing over futures they could not imagine. Their presence lent legitimacy to the growing threat of war and to the possibility of everything she knew changing all at once. As she listened from her hiding place, she could hear the tones of their voices were lined with fear and desperation. It was the same tangible fear as the time the crops failed or when the boy Teodor went missing, but as bad as that night was, this was worse. At least with Teodor, they could blame the Bog Man. War was different. War had no face.
“We strike north,” Bruno said. “Towards the Baltic.”
“And beyond that? I suppose you believe the Germans are afraid of the water?” Her father asked.
“It’s better than sitting here waiting for them to knock on our doors,” Bruno said. “Towards the Baltic, I say, and then onwards.”
“We should stay and fight,” Another man said. Maja recognized the voice as belonging to Kasper, a single man who often helped out on their farm. “This is my home and I won’t surrender it so easily. We could fight back.”
“Who said anything about this would be easy?” Kasper asked. He hammered his knuckles against something solid. “I have a family to worry about and so should you.”
“Which is why we’re here,” Her father said. “We’re caught between a bear and a wolf and none of us can agree on the best way to avoid either.”
“If we stay, we die,” Bruno said. “The Germans are coming and won’t be stopped by a bunch of men with pitchforks. Whether you choose to face it or not, war is here. It’s on our doorstep.”
“We may die if we stay, but the same could be said if we leave,” Kasper countered.
It was all too frightening to imagine for even as Maja considered each opinion, she realized that no matter what they did their lives would be forever. She hadn’t known that would happen when she heard about the stranger who rode through town on a half-dead horse. Ariadna told her she saw him when he stopped and heard him telling everyone he was fleeing the Germans. Even he didn’t know where he was going, but he turned out to be just the beginning. Throughout the day, more people came. Each told the same story of bombed villages burned to cinders and ash, of family members gone missing and a desperate flight to somewhere safe. Unfortunately, everyone had different ideas of what was safe.
“South, to Budapest,” Istvan said, adding fuel to their argument.
The Germans were coming, she thought. War was here.
The conversation continued long into the night with nothing agreed upon. Of all the things discussed, only the fact that their country was now at war remained the truth. It was an uncomfortable new facet to her life, one that kept her awake until her papa returned home. When he did, it was to flashes of jagged light that blossomed at the edges of the world and distant peals of thunder.
“We must go,” He said pushing her by the shoulders. “Now.”
“But the storm?” Maja said, peering out into the sky. “Won’t we get wet?”
“That’s not thunder,” Her papa said, pushing her once more. “Grab what you can, but we have to leave immediately.”
As they gathered outside, papa set the animals free from their pens. Though the night was calm, there was a tension in the air that flowed across the landscape like an ill wind. The distant flashes had given way to an orange glow that filled the horizon and the stillness drew tight like a coiled snake. It seemed to Maja that Germans hid in every shadow and around every tree. She spared a single glance at what had been her home, wondering if she would ever see it again. A part of her felt like a great jagged hole was being forced from her chest and nothing would fill it again. Other families joined theirs and for a moment, she believed they had finally come to a decision to all leave together. More likely, she realized the bombs must’ve scared them too.
“Come, Maja,” Her father said.
They walked in silence towards the marshes, towards a place she never would’ve found herself on any other night without at least a pinch of salt to carry with her. h each distant flash and bang, a cry went up through their small group like a litter of mewling kittens. At least the light helped mark their way.
Her foot sunk up the ankle in the soft loam. She groaned and shook herself free as another thump sounded in the distance. It was closer this time. She focused instead on the marshes. She’d only been through here twice before; once with Ariadna and again with Teodor. With Ariadna, they’d rocketed across the landscape, propelled on wings of fear and exhilaration even in the full light of day. They threw salt each time they stopped and Maja carried with her a small jar full of fresh cream just in case. Though she felt eyes upon her everywhere they ran, they never saw the Bog Man.
She cocked her head, pulling her hand free from her fathers. The voice sounded like Ariadna. Had she decided to join them?
“Ari?” She called out, only to be shushed by an angry woman.
Maja, over here.
She stepped into the forest, feeling a familiar creeping terror dancing up her spine. The second time was the worst. Back then, it had been Teodor who’d taken up their game, chasing both girls through the woods. It had only been a game, but by the time they noticed he was no longer chasing them, it had been too late. She always thought that maybe he’d just stepped into a soft spot and sunk past his neck, but they never found his body to be sure. It had only been a game, but she’d never gone into the marsh since. Not until tonight.
“Ari?” She half whispered.
It wasn’t like her friend to wander off. Not since Teodor. If Maja had been scared, Ariadna had been terrified. She claimed to have seen it pulling Teo into the bog, but then again, she always claimed to see things no one else could. Now poor Teodor was trapped here with the Germans and the Bog Man. She wasn’t sure which she feared more.
She scrambled over a fallen tree, landing on her feet on the other side. She paused to listen, feeling foolish that she’d allowed herself to stray so far. As she was about to turn around, she caught sight of movement just ahead in a dark place between the trees.
“Ari, stop playing! We have to leave!” Maja hissed.
Maja. This time, the voice was right next to her.
She’d never seen the Bog Man before, but this one was just as Ariadna had described. Black mud covered every exposed part of its body while bits of twigs and leaves clung to the rest. She could see bugs twisting in and out of the ichor, seemingly enjoying the experience, but it was his face that terrified her the most. Where there should’ve been eyes were only two black pits, darker than the darkest of nights set below a row of pointed teeth that looked like they’d been carved of stone and tree bark.
“Maja,” It said to her through crude approximations of human lips.
She wanted to run, but she’d already been running away from the Germans and instead breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the Germans after all, but did this only make things worse? Somehow, she felt a twinge of recognition at seeing the Bog Man. It was a familiar evil unlike the faceless German she’d been hearing behind every tree.
“How foolish to be caught out so late in the night without even a pinch of salt to protect you. Do you not even carry a crust of bread or a bit of milk? Have you so strayed from the old ways, child?” It asked.
“We didn’t have time,” She said. Then a thought formed in her head. “Are you leaving too?”
“Leaving?” It finally asked. “And where would I go?”
“America, I guess, though papa says anywhere is better than here,” She sighed at the thought of leaving everything behind. “The Germans are coming you know.”
“Are you not scared of me child?” It asked quietly.
“I am,” Maja admitted, but that fear seemed small compared to everything else going on. “But I’m more scared of the Germans.”
“Curious,” The Bog Man sighed. When he did, the air seemed to let out of his body and he shrunk by degrees until it was only his head poking from the swamp. “I should like to meet these Germans.”
Maja glanced back to the flashes of light. “You won’t have to wait long.”
The Bog Man rose slightly, coming to its full height though she was never sure how much of it was left beneath the loam. It regarded her with its hollow eyes, as if deciding what it should do with her, before sinking once more. Its toothy smile grinned back at her and she felt like if she blinked, she’d lose sight of it for good.
“They’re monsters, you know,” Maja said. “Are you going to come with us?”
“Would you carry me in your pocket, girl?” The creature laughed, bubbles rising from the marsh. “Besides, they’re not the only monsters in this world, child.”
Maja hesitated. Was it letting her go? Would it let Ariadna go as well? Another thump sounded somewhere close by followed by the shriek of metal. She heard the whirring of aircraft overhead, wondering how they could’ve come so far in such a short time.
“Go, child,” the Bog Man said, “Your friend is looking for you.”
Maja began to run, then paused. “Will I see you again?”
“I won’t be long,” The Bog Man whispered. “Run.”
Maja ran. It was a strange feeling to know your world was coming to an end. She realized she’d even miss the Bog Man, but she promised herself that wherever she ended up, she’d bring his memory with her. He was familiar at least, and perhaps her last connection to this life. That would have to wait, though. The Germans were coming.
War was here.