In December 2016 I decided to treat myself for Christmas: I got myself a new camera. I spent the festive period in my childhood home, in Cracow, and invested every spare moment into toying with my new precious. Among other things, A., Gabriela, and I wandered through an old armored fort for a good few freezing hours. I’d suggested that we bring a thermos with some hot beverage, but obviously none of us remembered to do it.

There are still forty forts in the city that make up the Cracow Fortress. When I was a kid I loved to play there. They were so dark, desolate, dangerous – I had to adore them. As the brave one I always won the competitions based on who would venture the farthest down the murky, moldy corridors. In our imaginations, creatures of thousand eyes lurked there.

Older siblings of the kiddos from my gang would tell stories about black masses believed to take place in the forts at night. We lapped up the stories dripping from their mouths and begged for more. We were even moreso fascinated as it was all supposed to occur right next to us. The Satanists were bound to pass by our houses and summon dark spirits in the very places where we played…

Later, after a few years, we discovered that the forts were a perfect spot for nighttime bonfires. We lay on the grass, baked bread, and more often than not someone would tell a scary tale back from our childhoods.

The childhood story that I most strongly remember tells the tale of a dark forest situated nearby. Of times when only fire or lightning may illuminate the night. If you want to travel, you mount a horse or change your mind. Distances we’re used to covering within hours took days back then. Everything seemed larger and more inconceivable.

There was a small village right at the edge of the forest. It had probably been built hastily and without enough thought. The settlers noticed it while building the very first houses. Things, eerie and unsettling, were happening by the forest. When you crossed the tree line, you could sense evil. The wiser of the bunch would remark it had to be caused by a creature that inhabited the forest. They’d say it must have lived there ages before first humans even set their feet in the area. Either way, they carried on with the construction and the few huts, chaotically strewn about, were soon transformed into a village.

A beautiful, although seemingly mute girl lived at its very edge. She was believed to have fallen silent because of her abusive stepfather. One night she was seen fleeing her hut towards the tree line. There, she disappeared in the darkness. The event caused the girl’s old mother to finally see the light; she wept and kicked her daughter’s tormentor out. She also called for the unwilling village men, who set out to look for her at the break of dawn. They were soon back, empty-handed, and said there was no trace of the girl. She must have fallen off a cliff or got caught by a beast, they said. In absolute despair, the mother didn’t believe them. She knew they were afraid of the evil lurking in the forest and most likely didn’t even dare to venture into its depths. However, old and ailing, she could do nothing herself.

She soon began having dreams that suggested something did indeed dwell in the forest. She reckoned it was her daughter. Every evening she approached the tree line and placed a bowl filled with food on the periphery. She would do this every day, and the food would disappear each time. The villagers proclaimed her crazy, but left her alone. In the meanwhile, the girl’s persecutor, her stepfather, began to behave bizarrely. He drank like a fish and, by night, shouted apologies towards his lost stepdaughter. One day, his body was found in a valley by the forest. His head was utterly smashed and on his crushed face there was a fearful grimace. The men who had once gone to the forest in search of the lost girl were now increasingly often seen silently staring into the distance. Some of them went completely insane. They were seen coming back from the forest with animal carcasses. At last, the villagers became anxious and banished them from the settlement.

A few years later, a group of children dared to play by the forest. Suddenly, everyone noticed one of the girls was gone. No one could saw her disappear. Her parents begged, but the villagers refused to help in the search. Her father took to comb through the forest on his own. When three days passed, he came back, wounded, powerless, and numb. The girl was already believed to be gone for good, but after seven more days she came out of the forest. She confided to the villagers that in the darkest thicket she encountered a beautiful, three-eyed woman who asked her: “Do you prefer to stay here?” The girl replied that she loved her family and thus preferred to return to the village. “Then, I went back”, she finished the story. Ever since the story has repeated itself a few times. Each time, it was enough to truthfully claim to love your family. However, no one knows what would have happened had that claim been a lie.

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