We never dared to venture into the woods when it was dark. The closest we ever got was to the fence. We would turn our backs to the trees, then close our eyes and play a game of chicken – who was the bravest? We were only eight years old, with unlimited imaginations and an enthusiasm to create a competitive game out of anything our small village could present to us. For us, standing next to the woods in the dark was the ultimate test.
It was the golden age of innocence, we were too young to believe there existed real evil in the world, so we invented our own monsters. The woods, located behind our primary school, was the perfect environment to act out our wild fantasies and discuss its possible inhabitants – swamp monsters, giant dogs, huge earthworms and, of course, witches. It was the most mysterious and dangerous place in the village.
We had been in the woods several times before with our teacher during school hours. Dense, leafy bushes and towering, ominous trees mixed with nettles and other weeds. There was a small, murky pond in the middle, covered by algae and waterlilies. It was nothing special, nor was it even that big, yet there would always be the distant crack of a twig or rustle of a bush which led us to believe we were being watched. But we had always felt safe because the teacher was there and obviously, in our minds, nothing dangerous could happen with an adult around.
Twenty seconds. That’s how long I had lasted that night before I sprinted away from the fence in a frenzied state. It had been a personal record, but I still hadn’t beaten my best friend, Jack, who was still there when I had finally felt safe enough to turn around. I remember shouting: “You’ve won again, Jack. Come on, let’s go home.” But then the bushes below the trees had rustled and out of them had come a man. Jack had screamed, while I had frozen in terror. As quickly as he had appeared, the man had left, carrying my friend back with him into the woods, vanishing into the darkness.
Jack was gone. The man in the woods had been real all along.