Where All Roads Lead
Greta was following the orange light when she found him. It was a cold summer, full of rain and mud, a chill lingering in her bones as she walked across the field all alone. The sky was clear for once, and she could see vast constellations spreading out overhead.
The light came first, then the smell of smoke. Strong tobacco, sweet almost. It wafted toward her and filled her lungs with a peculiar nostalgia.
Then after the smoke, the silhouette. The trousers rolled around the ankles, the woolen cloak around the shoulders, the wide-brimmed hat resting delicately on one knee. The curvature of a spine full of elegance and youth. And most importantly, of course, the shadow of the long pipe flickering against the flames.
“I thought I might find you here,” he said as she took a seat next to him.
He moved the pipe away from his lips and fixed his large, doe-like eyes on her.
“I take it you know what I am, then?”
She nodded. Her hair was plaited down one shoulder, a few stubborn wisps sticking out here and there. The delicate colour, golden in the daylight, had been reduced to a burnt orange shadow in the light of the campfire. The flickering flame danced about, unconcerned with the silence that hung between its two companions. The patterns it dropped across their faces drew out each feature of skin and bone, turning both parties into rough and angular sketches.
The boy began to smoke once more. Greta sat motionless and watched as the barely visible clouds of grey left his thin-lipped mouth. They continued on like this, wordless, for many minutes, until finally the boy was finished. He set the pipe down and turned his doe eyes on her once more.
“Well, what have you come here for?”
Her hair hung around her eyes and ears as she bent over the pew, the melody of a sermon whose words she did not understand washing over her like ocean waves. This is what she had come for, she told herself. The primordial words, repeated for centuries, long before she was even an egg in the belly of her weak-eyed mother, and although she did not know this, long before her great-great-great-grandmother had ever set foot in this remote village. She wanted to connect to the idea of this place, what it meant to drink of the local mead and drop the worthless currency into the church’s collection box.
So far, she had been met with nothing but frustration.
The language was one thing. Greta’s grandmother had spoken it only sporadically in her early years, when she wanted to swear without the children’s knowing, or when she had a secret to whisper to her husband. As the years wore on and she grew more and more aware of the painful realities of American retirement, the comforts of her mother tongue drew her back to a time she could not remember remembering. By the time the old woman died, at 93, it was all she spoke.
Greta’s mother spoke only a bit. Not enough to pass onto her children. Just a few words splattered here and there, how bless you took a different sound and how sometimes the names of fruits and vegetables were twisted into the shape of the motherland. This is how Greta was raised.
But knowing how to say onion at the market helped her very little. Her time here had been marked by isolation. Kindly strangers’ eyes twinkled at her as they said hello. Greta would repeat it back with a heavy tongue, and they would ask her a question, and she would not respond. They would stare at each other awkwardly for several moments and then walk past each other, often bumping shoulders in the process.
Greta, Greta, lonely Greta. Most evenings were spent half-dressed in front of the TV with a glass of wine in one hand and pizza in the other. On this dismal screen, at least, they spoke English.
It had been a week since she had arrived. It had only taken her three days to grow tired of the tedious life people eked out for themselves here. The small boutiques where they sold ugly dresses only 70-year-old women would dare to wear back home; the butcher’s shop run by a man with round and unhappy-looking cheeks; the dog who would always bark as she rounded the corner to her house atop a rusty bike.
Greta stirred from her musings as she heard the balding clergyman at the front of the church say a familiar name.
More nonsense, and then an awkward gesture towards Greta, sitting at the back. She looked out towards the rest of the congregation with what she hoped was a friendly smile.
Right, this was the true reason she had come to this little town in the middle of nowhere. Andrea Horvath, her great-aunt, had died suddenly in the company of no one in the wooden house Greta now occupied. No husband, no children, no pets. A strange woman but well-liked, who needed someone to arrange her belongings before all signs of her former life were swallowed by time.
Greta had just been fired when she heard the news.
“I’ll do it, I’ll go,” she’d said to her mother over the phone.
She left the next morning with the fruit of her severance check lining her pockets and a hasty message copy-and-pasted to all of her friends and family.
The surprise was apparent in his voice.
They were drinking coffee now, small cups barely larger than espresso shots, the grinds bitter on the tongue. He had both hands wrapped around his vessel. It should have burnt his fingertips, the heat, freshly poured from a tin kettle held above the fire, but, as Greta noticed, the boy was unscathed.
“About two weeks ago now,” she said, and took a sip from her own cup. She winced. Just as she’d thought, too soon. Her tongue grew numb from the heat.
“I hadn’t realised her age,” said the boy. “I would have said goodbye.”
“Would you?” Greta asked. “What difference would it have made?”
“It would have given her comfort.” He took a sip of coffee. No reaction. “To know her mind was not playing tricks on her.”
It was long past midnight now. Soon a sleepy sun would be making its way across the horizon, stretching as it yawned good morning. They did not have very much time.
Finding the book had changed everything. It was the eighth day of her stay. Greta had sorted through the clothes that smelled of mothballs and outdated perfume, the carefully curated collection of painted crockery, the framed paintings and postcards. Now she turned her attention to the small bookshelf standing untouched in the corner of the living room.
It was the only picture book in her sparse collection. The cover was sun-damaged and the pages brittle, but the story was clear. The familiar figure of Greta’s childhood fairytales, a wooden flute in one hand and a colourful cape hanging from his shoulders, surrounded by children short and tall, blonde and black, fat and thin. They were all smiling, having a grand old time, a fresh twinkle in their eyes. But the figure’s smile was different from the rest–not merely cheerful, but knowing. His expression was not one of innocence. He was not a vision of innocence.
The last page of the book had been left blank in the original print. Great-aunt Andrea’s handwriting scribbled in the missing words:
It is thirty years since our children left.
The book was a collective trauma, although the smiling children sprawled across its pages would not tell you so.
Greta’s family’s town was not where this story came from, but it had stayed with her. It had stayed with them.
There were strange things said about Andrea and the doe-eyed boy of her youth. How they met was a mystery. One day, there was nothing, and the next, there he was.
She never introduced him to anybody but everyone knew who he was. If nothing else, they knew him as Andrea’s boy.
How the town admired him. How they stared at his lovely locks, like a golden waterfall around his shapely face, the strong brows and the blue eyes like a mountain lake. They said if you held a rose up to his blushing cheeks you could not tell one from the other.
The summer he visited was the most pleasant in anyone’s memory. The fruits were particularly sweet, the river’s waters particularly warm, the babies particularly strong and heavy. He was their good omen, and Andrea knew this, though she could not tell what any of that meant for her.
Andrea never felt the need to speak of him. What was there to say, anyways? The hours they spent together in the woods surrounding the village were theirs and theirs alone. She knew little about him, anyways. Only that he was a traveler from a distant land whose skin had been darkened by the sun and whose shoulders were always adorned with a tough cloak. A soft accent filtered his voice, but rather than making him sound foreign, Andrea thought it gave him the appearance of age and wisdom.
The season passed by in a haze. Each morning, Andrea would wake, indulge in some freshly picked berries, then run to the outskirts of town to meet her boy. He would greet her with a smile and an embrace, and always a new tale from his adventures around the world. He would lead her into the woods as he spoke, through that maze of oaks and stubborn weeds with a sure foot that promised it would not get lost. They would only emerge hours later, along the bank of the same river that flowed into town, but further up into the surrounding mountains. Here the two of them would free themselves of their modest garments and bathe their skin in the tepid waters. Rarely would they kiss, but when they did, his mouth was like cherries.
The boy had a special talent that he did not share with anyone other than Andrea. Only when they were deep into the wild, far from any curious ears, would he rummage through his weather-beaten rucksack and produce a hand-carved flute. The wood looked old and sturdy, and it was polished, smooth as marble to the touch. Here, in the middle of nowhere, he would lift the instrument to his lips and play from it an ancient melody. Andrea thought, perhaps, that she was imagining it, but she could have sworn that the entire forest stood still to listen to him play. The birds ceased their seductive songs and the insects their rustic chorus, passing deer and rabbits would halt in their tracks, and even the river itself seemed to grow to a mere murmur once the tune began. Andrea sat motionless as he told his wordless tale, and the rest of the world stood quiet by her side. When he finished, life was restored to the surroundings. The birds and the bees would carry on, the deer would trot off, the river would grow once more to its raging majesty. The boy would merely smile knowingly at Andrea, and she would fall deeper in love.
At the end of the summer, he left without a word said to her or to anyone else.
The next day, the first child died.
No one knew where it had come from. It was a sudden blow, a violent bomb that was dropped amidst the silence of the vale. Everywhere, dry coughs and whimpers, the wails of mothers who had lost their children and the sobs of children who had lost their mothers. They would find out years later that it had started in a country far to the west, a place whose heat spread as contagion from one person to the next. It was not just their village, of course. The disease was carried by God knows what into the most remote towns and islands, cascading into hot sweat adorning the necks of young and old alike. There were prayers said, sins begged to be forgiven. Crosses held to foreheads to no avail.
One morning, Andrea awoke to her mother shrieking at the top of her lungs. There was a fever, she said, in the youngest child’s cheeks. He was a boy, only five years old, a sweet child named Tomaš. Both Andrea and her sister were told to stay out of the house. They were vulnerable, you see, still young and growing, weak in the eyes of plague. Their parents wanted to shield them from their brother’s contagion.
While her sister stubbornly banged against the front door each day demanding to be let back in, Andrea went to the woods. She was searching for him, of course: the boy who had left without a trace.
He had taken her there every day in the summer. The trees had seemed young then, full of rich green leaves and sap, insects harmonising with one another across the mountains. Now the scene had changed. The leaves were old and brown, most of them already fallen and littering the forest floor. The bark had hardened in preparation for the coming winter, and the summertime orchestra of insects had given way to dead silence. She retraced the path of her summertime meanderings with the boy, but no trace of him. Even here memories were beginning to fade.
And then, the night her brother died.
Her parents were crying. Her sister was crying. Andrea was too tired to weep and she did not know what to do with her useless hands, her blank face, the growing guilt in her stomach. She left them there despite their angry and longing cries and she walked again into the woods.
This is where she found the orange light.
It was so faint at first she thought she was imagining it. But it did not move, it did not falter, and this is what made her run towards it. She ran and ran through the dark forest path after the only thing that was giving her hope in that moment. She chased till dawn, until finally, she had reached the top of the mountain overlooking her village, until finally, she saw the familiar outline of a cloaked traveler and his unfortunate company stepping out over a ledge.
“Wait!” she cried.
But she had been too late.
“Did she love again?”
This was not an easy question for Greta to answer. She had only met her great-aunt a handful of times before her death. But then, she remembered.
“Once, at least. A German during the war. He died, but I think he gave her a book.”
Greta rummaged through her bag and pulled out the copy of the fairytale. She had not spotted the inscription on the opening page until two days ago. Hermann Müller. A fine name, though no photograph had survived to tell whether or not the face earned it. She looked up at the boy with the pipe and he was smiling.
“Did he know about me, do you think?”
“I have no idea.”
He was flipping through the pages one by one, examining each illustration with care. His fingers ran along each curve of the children’s smiles, each lock of their shining hair.
“Would you mind if I kept this?” he asked. “It would mean very much to me.”
“Yes,” Greta said, “on one condition.” Dawn was creeping over the horizon now, and she stood. “I get to see her once more.”
The boy’s eyes were wide and unmoving.
“This is highly unusual. Perhaps it is not even allowed.”
“Well, it is what I came here for.”
The boy turned away. He stuffed his pipe into his pocket and the book in his rucksack, kicked dirt over the dying fire and killed it once and for all.
“Come,” he said, and without looking back at Greta, he began climbing the hill.
Greta had never understood why her grandmother told the story of the piper over and over again. Other children heard dozens, perhaps even hundreds of fairytales from their family, but in her household, only one. Although it was told to Greta and her siblings at bedtime, with age there grew in her a realisation that the story was a warning and not a comfort. The charming boy will lead you far from home, and it will be lovely, lovely indeed, but no one knows what lies on the other side.
Greta remembered only one of the times she had met her great-aunt Andrea with any sort of vividness. It had been the summer of fifteen, when her mother had decided that a visit to the motherland was long overdue. She had made Greta and her two brothers pack their suitcases to the brim, for a month-long stay in their great-aunt’s tiny house. Andrea had greeted them warmly, but she spoke very little English, and her bones were beginning to fail.
She communicated best through images. Gesturing to objects that she wanted cleaned, miming actions, and most beautifully, her artwork. The woman had made a living for herself selling paintings in her youth, paintings of her adolescence and its wars, its bloodshed, the trauma that masked the loss of her brother to an invisible killer. She had learned, you see, that the murderer with a face is easier to hate. It is one you can paint over and over again with the fruits of your sadness.
Now that she was an old woman, Andrea had contented herself with simple sketches. She would allow her great niece and nephews to flip through her books in search of any drawings that caught their eyes. Greta loved to examine the carefully-penciled shadows of hyacinths and the clear-cut lines of supporting beams on buildings, but above all else, the image that stood out to her was the face of a boy that appeared over and over again. On one page, leaning against a boulder with a book in hand. On another, floating on a still bed of water. And her favourite, with eyes closed, a flute held to his lips in the middle of an ancient forest.
“Who is he?” she had asked one day as she and Andrea sat over a pot of tea.
The old woman’s tired wrinkles morphed themselves into a faint smile as she replied.
“Comfort. Familiar. Knowing future. Beautiful like woods were before humans. He came before they died. He came and brought happy to them. He made happy. And he left when different places needed happy.”
Greta had not understood this response then. She thought, perhaps, that she understood now.
The hill was not steep, but Greta was tired from the night’s walk and struggled to keep up with the traveler’s lanky legs. The sun continued to reach for them, but it did not touch yet.
It was very late, or very early, depending on who you asked, when finally the top of the mountain showed its head. Greta could see a shadowy figure standing there, and her pace sped up without her knowing.
“No,” the boy said, still not looking back. “No further. You may see her, but you may not speak to her. She wants nothing to do with your kind anymore.”
Greta gulped and stood still. She was gasping for air, her cheeks hot and flushed. She watched silently as the boy ran the rest of the way up and greeted the figure with wide arms. The shadow, which at first had been shriveled and bent-backed, now grew, straightened, into the form of something much, much younger. The two embraced, and there were words said, but Greta could not hear them. She saw the boy reach into his rucksack and produce the book he had just taken from her. The figure next to him took it into her arms. From the shaking of her shoulders, Greta guessed that the figure was crying.
Of course, that is why he had wanted the book.
Greta was surprised when the boy waved back at her once before stepping over to the other side of the mountain. She waved back, but she knew he had not seen, and even if he had, he would not have cared. But it was enough. She had gotten what she wanted, and she smiled at the horizon where she had watched the two figures disappear.
The birds had begun singing by the time she reached the village. Her feet had been steady on the way down, a newfound sense of certainty guiding her path. The early morning light fell across her eyes and brought out the flecks of gold dotting blue. She was ready to go home now, she knew. But she also knew that she would be back here someday. For if she closed her eyes and listened very closely, she could almost hear the sound of a tune sung not through beaks but through puckered lips, the tune of a wooden flute played long, long ago.
Rita May is an undergraduate student studying Psychology, Philosophy, and Linguistics at the University of Oxford. She spent her childhood split between the United States and Japan, and she enjoys exploring diversity and identity through her pieces. Aside from writing, Rita enjoys cooking and yoga, and can often be found lounging in a park with a book in one hand and bubble tea in the other.