“Beware the Grobmann, for he watches us all,” the old man said, leaning over the bar, peering into his stein of ale.
“Pardon?” Hans asked, looking away from his laughing friends. The old man looked up from his drink and stared at Hans, his own eyes empty and tired. He swallowed a lump in his throat and blinked back a few tears threatening to overwhelm his wrinkled features.
“The Grobmann… the tall one,” the old man said. “He stalks the woods nearby at night, seeking the children responsible for its death.”
“The Grobmann?” Hans asked again. “Is he some kind of zombie?”.
The old man shook his head. “No, he’s something more. He was once a great man, tall and proud. But they suspected him of witchcraft, and the townspeople hung him from a tree after dislocating his arms and legs, weighing him down with stones.”
“Was he a witch?” Hans asked, now engrossed in the story.
“Who knows? I was but a child when he was executed, and I remember hearing his last words being a curse upon any village near the Bleak Forest.”
“A curse?” Hans repeated, looking over at his friends as they cheered and ordered another round of drinks. He accepted his happily and took a few deep swigs.
“Yes, a curse. He supposedly claimed he would collect the children of the villages and keep them in his secret lair within the woods. That he would live on, drawing strength from them as he slowly consumed their very souls.”
“Was a secret lair ever found?” Hans asked, setting his drink down.
The old man shook his head. “I remember my father joined in the search, a search that lasted months. He was buried at a crossroads between here and Angleton, facedown with rocks piled over his body.”
“Why?” Hans asked.
“Because people believed that he would come forth for their children,” the old man replied, looking down in his ale again. “And they were right.”
“They were?” Hans asked, somewhat shocked.
“Yes,” the old man nodded solemnly, “my sister and I were playing in a field one summer day when dusk lasted for hours. She stopped and investigated the woods near where we were playing. She said she could hear a violin playing from within the forest. I heard nothing.”
“A violin?” Hans asked.
The old man shrugged. “Many children have reported hearing a violin coming from the woods and have been warned to ignore it. For my sister, we didn’t know any better.”
“What happened?” Hans asked.
“She dawdled to the edge of the woods, stopping at the forests cusp. She looked back at me and said something in a voice not her own.” The old man said with a shudder, taking a swig of his ale to calm himself.
“What do you mean?” Hans asked.
“Her voice, normally light and cheery, was a deep baritone and raspy.” The old man said, setting his empty mug down in front of him.
“What’d she say?” Hans asked.
“Buy me an ale and I’ll tell you,” the man said, his somber tone taking away any kind of humor that would normally accompany such a statement.
Hans pulled out a few coins, placing them down on the counter before pointing at the old man. The bartender, a bald man with a single dangling earring, the fang of a wolf, smiled and took the old man’s mug and filled it with more amber ale before setting it in front of him.
“What brings you and your friends out here?” The old man asked, taking a sip from his foaming ale.
Confused, Hans looked back at his friends. Two other men, both blondes, and a young woman, black hair with purple highlights, all laughing and smiling as they enjoyed their drinks. Hans turned back and smiled.
“We’re backpacking across Europe,” Hans said. “We’re from America.”
“Ah,” the old man said with a dry chuckle. “You chose a poor area to backpack through.”
Hans frowned, deciding to change the subject back to the matter at hand. “So what did your sister say when she stood at the edge of the woods?”
“Go away child, I have no desire for you,” the old man replied in a hollow voice. “After she said that, she walked into the underbrush, stalking through the undergrowth without another word.
“What did you do?” Hans asked.
“I did what any child would do… I followed her.” The old man said with a tone of reluctance.
The old man paused long enough to take a swig, his voice dropping even lower, the noise of the crowded tavern forcing Hans to lean forward to listen. “She walked for what seemed like hours, climbing over rocks and fallen logs, sometimes doubling back or moving in great circles. I couldn’t explain it, but I somehow think it was because I was following her. The Grobmann didn’t want me… he wanted her.”
“So what happened?” Hans asked.
“Night descended over the forest, the vast shadows of the setting sun cutting across the green grass and berry bushes she pushed through. I followed close behind, even calling her name every few minutes. She never responded.”
The old man reached into his tattered jacket and withdrew a pipe, taking a moment to pack it with tobacco and light it with a strike of a match across his unshaven face. Hans winced, impressed the man was durable enough to ignite a match in such a way. The old man puffed a few times on the pipe before taking a sip of ale. Then he continued.
“She finally stopped at a grotto, a silvery pool of calm water sitting inside a ring of stones. And squatting atop one of the tallest stones was the Grobmann…” the old man shuddered at the memory.
“What did he look like?” Hans asked.
“Tall and lanky, with tight, pinstriped clothes that fit his body like a glove. His face was devoid of anything resembling a human, merely a blank expanse of blue veins with a simple pentagram set where our nose would be, while his hands ended in long fingers, like the legs of a spider. He was kneeling, his knees past his ears, one hand tracing patterns in the water some eight feet below the rock he squatted on.”
“He was that tall?” Hans asked, amazed.
The old man nodded. “I think he could be taller if he wanted, but suddenly he was gone. My sister turned to me, and in the same baritone voice told me to leave, to go home.”
“What d'you do?” Hans asked.
“I reached out for her to grab her by the hand, just as the Grobmann’s hand captured my wrist. How he’d gotten so close without me hearing him, I can’t say. In the woods, you can hear things moving around, what with the twigs and grass scattered about. But this lanky giant moved without making a noise.”
“And he grabbed you?” Hans asked.
The old man held up an arm, pulling his sleeve back to reveal a nasty burn scar on his wrist, some six inches wide. “His touch was like molten iron, his grip like a steel manacle. I turned and stared where his eyes should have been, and all I could hear were violins screeching out a horrid melody! The pentagram bled and my vision swirled, pain lancing through my eyes like iron spikes. My ears bled and my body trembled. The Grobmann, now the only thing in the bleak void that encompassed the world, held me aloft like I weighed nothing at all. The screeching violins reached a crescendo, a climax.”
“What happened then?” Hans asked, sitting at the edge of his stool.
“I passed out,” the old man replied. “I woke up in my bed at home, my parents telling me they found me at the edge of the woods unconscious, and that my sister was missing.”
“Did you tell them what had happened?” Hans asked.
The old man shook his head with a shrug. “Who would believe a young boy about some malevolent spirit?”
“But what happened to your sister?” Hans asked.
“Can’t say for sure. Some summer nights, when I lay in the gutter, I can hear that violin music wafting from the forest, her voice singing along wordlessly to the melody. One time I saw her standing across the street from me, but she vanished when a milk truck passed. Whatever happened, there’s a reason she still haunts me.”
“What do you think the reason was?”
Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes. “I don’t know. Because I left her, maybe? To warn me of something, or ask for help? Who can say?”
Hans watched as the old man folded over onto the bar, covering his face with his arms as he cried into his drink. Feeling a little awkward, Hans tapped his friend Adam on the shoulder and told him he was stepping outside for some air.
“Sure man,” Adam replied, too interested in getting Lacey drunk to care where Hans was.
Hans weaved his way through the undulating wave that was the crowd, his hand holding his beer up high so as not to spill a drop. Pushing open the door, the stifling heat and stale air of the tavern gave way to the cool air of the night, the scent of flowers on the wind. Sipping his beer, Hans reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, checking his instant messages from the various people he’d met while backpacking. That was when he heard it.
A sweet, low string solo of a violin wafting off the breeze, coming from the woods, the sound all but pleading for him to come and see for himself what it to have in the forest. Looking out over the field between the tavern and the edge of the woods, he could just make out the form of a small child; long hair and a tattered white dress, a young girl with straw-colored hair stood staring at him.
Hans quickly chugged his beer and stepped back into the bar, enjoying the dull roar that just barely drowned out the sound of the violin as it continued to play a solo just for him.