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On the Dark Path

Author: MOE GEB EL RC Team

14. On the Dark Path

Only now, entering the woods on the footpath, did Annemarie realize how cold the dawn was. She had watched and helped, earlier, as the others donned sweaters, jackets and coat, and she had peered into the night, following them with her eyes, as they moved off silently, bulky in their garments, blankets in their arms.

But she wore only a light sweater over her cotton dress. Though the October day, later, would be warned by sunlight, now it was gray, chilly and damp. She shivered.

The path curved, and she could no longer look behind her and see the clearing with the farmhouse outlined against the pale sky and the lightening meadow beyond. Now there were only the dark woods ahead; underfoot, the path, latticed with thick roots hidden under the fallen leaves, was invisible. She felt her way with her feet, trying not to stumble.

The handle of the straw basket scratched her arm through her sweater. She shifted it and tried to run.

She thought of a story she had often told Kirsti as they cuddled in bed at night.

“Once upon a time there was a little girl,” she told herself silently, “who had a beautiful cloak. Her mother had made it for her. She wore it so often that everyone called her Little Red Riding-Hood.”

Kirsti would always interrupt there. “Why was it called a red riding hood?
Kirsti would ask. “Why didn’t they just call her Little Red-Cloak?”

“Well, it had a hood that covered her hed. She had beautiful curls, like you, Kirsti. Maybe someday Mama will make you a coat with a hood to cover your curls and keep you warm.”

“But why,” Kirsti would ask, “was it a riding hood? Was she riding a horse?”

“Maybe she had a horse that she rode sometimes. But not in this story. Now stop interrupting every minute.”

Annemarie smiled, feeling her way through the dark, remembering how Kirsti always interrupted stories to ask questions. Often she just wanted to make the story last longer.

The story continued. “One day, the little girl’s mother said, ‘I want you to take a basket of food to your grandmother. She is sick in bed. Come, let me tie your red cloak.’

“The grandmother lived deep in the woods, didn’t she?” Kirsti would ask. “In the dangerous woods, where wolves lived.”

Annemarie heard a small noise – a squirrel perhaps, or a rabbit, scampering nearby. She paused, stood still on the path, and smiled again. Kirsti would have been frightened. She would have grabbed Annemarie’s hand and said, “A wolf!” But Annemarie knew that these woods were not like the woods in the story. There were no wolves or bears or tigers, none of the beasts that populated Kirsti’s vivid imagination. She hurried on.

Still, they were very dark, these woods. Annemarie had never followed this path in the dark before. She had told her mother she would run. And she tried.

Here the path turned. She knew the turning well, though it seemed different in the dark. If she turned to the left, it would take her to the road, out where it could be lighter, wider, more travelled. But more dangerous, too. Someone could see her on the road. At this time of the dawn, other fishermen would be on the road, hurrying to their boats for the long day at sea. And there might be soldiers.

She turned to the right and headed deeper into the woods. It was why Mama and Peter had needed to guide those who were strangers here – the Rosens and the others. A wrong turn would have taken them into danger.

“So little Red Riding-Hood carried the basket of food and hurried along through the woods. It was a lovely morning, and birds were singing. Little Red Riding-Hood sang too, as she walked.”

Sometimes she changed that part of the story, telling Kirsti. Sometimes it was raining, or even snowing, in the woods. Sometimes it was evening, with long, frightening shadows, so that Kirsti, listening, would snuggle closer and wrap her arms around Annemarie. But now, telling it to herself, she wanted sunlight and bird song.

Here the path widened and flattened; it was the place where the woods opened on one side and the path curved beside a meadow at the edge of the sea. Here she could run, and she did. Here, in daylight, there would be cows in the meadow, and on warm afternoons Annemarie would always stop by the fence and hold out handfuls of grass, which the curious cows would take with their rough tongues.

Here, her mother had told her, Mama would always stop, too, as a child walking to school. Her dog, Trofast, would wriggle under the fence and run about the meadow, barking excitedly, trying to chase the cows, who always ignored him.

The meadows was empty now, and colourless in the half light. She could hear the churning sea beyond, and see the wash of daylight to the east, over Sweden. She ran as fast as she could, searching with her eyes for the place ahead where the path would re-enter the wood in its final segment, which led to town.

Here. The bushes were overgrown and it was difficult to see the path here. But she found the entrance, beside the high blueberry bushes – how often she had stopped here, in late summer, to pick a handful of the sweet berries! Her hands and mouth would be blue afterward; Mama always laughed when she came home.

Now it was dark again, as the trees and bushes closed around her, and she had to move slowly, though she still tried to run.

Annemarie thought of Mama, her ankle so swollen, and her face so pained. She hoped Mama had called the doctor by now. The local doctor was an old man, brusque and businesslike, though with kind eyes. He had come to the farmhouse several times during the summers of the past, his battered car noisy on the dirt road; he had come once when Kirsti, a tiny baby then, had been sick and wailing with an earache. And he had come when Lise had spilled hot grease cooking breakfast, and burned her hand.

Annemarie turned again as the path divided once more. The left fork would take her directly to the village; it was the way they had come from the train, and the way Mama had walked to school as a girl. But Annemarie turned to the right, heading now to the harborside, where the fishing boats lay at anchor. She had often come this way before, too, sometimes at the end of the afternoon, to pick out the Ingeborg, Uncle Henrik’s boa, from the many returning, and to watch him and his helpers unload the day’s catch of slippery shimmering herrings still flopping in their containers.

Even now, with the boats in the harbor empty of fish, preparing to leave for the day’s fishing, she could smell the oily, salty scent of herring, which always remained in the air here.

It wasn’t far now, and it was getting lighter. She ran as fast as she had run at school, in the Friday footraces. Almost as fast as she had run down the Copenhagen sidewalk on the day that the soldier had stopped her with his call of “Halte!”

Annemarie continued the story in her head, “Suddenly as Little Red Riding-Hood walked through the woods, she heard a noise. She heard a rustling in the bushes.”

“A wolf!” Kirsti would always say, shivering with fearful delight. “I know it’s going to be the wolf!”

Annemarie always tried to prolong this part, to build up the suspense and tantalize her sister. “She didn’t know what it was. She stopped on the path and listened. Something was following her, in the bushes. Little Red Riding-Hood was very, very, very frightened.”

She would stop, would stay silent for a moment, and beside her in the bed she could feel Kirsti holding her breath.

“Then,” Annemarie would go on, in a low, dread-filled voice, “she heard a growl.”

Annemarie stopped, suddenly, and stood still on the path. There was a turn immediately ahead. Beyond it, she knew, as soon as she rounded the turn, she would see the landscape open to the sea, The woods would be behind her there, and ahead of her would be the harbor, the docks, and the countless fishing boats. Very soon it would be noisy there, with engines starting, fishermen calling to one another, and gulls crying.

But she had heard something else. She heard bushes rustling ahead. She heard footsteps. And she was certain it was not her imagination she heard a low growl.

Cautiously, she took a step forward. And another. She approached the turn in the path, and the noises continued.

Then they were there, in front of her. Four armed soldiers. With them, straining at taut leashes, were two large dogs, their eyes glittering, their lips curled.

DMU Timestamp: November 29, 2023 17:24

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