We were at my grandma´s and had to get some chopped wood from the shed behind the house, so that my granny could put another log on the fire. The fire-place in the living room was always alight these days as the grey winter was screeching with its cold fingers on the outside of the house. But inside it was snug and warm. Going outside was unwelcome and we hurried to put our jackets on. As granny opened the kitchen door for us, she reminded us once more: “Do not go away from the house. Do not go into the forest!” We have heard this warning since we were little children, but the most insistent tone of granny´s voice made us always keep a safe distance to the forest. We ran to the shed and my brother and I grabbed as many logs as our little arms could carry. With an anxious glance to the fog arising from the nearby forest, we scurried back to the house. Granny let us back in and we felt the warmth from the inside of the house hugging us tightly. Being outside the house was a weird, eerie feeling and we didn´t really like being outside very much when it was this dark and there was fog in the forest, crawling silently into the garden. While we were piling the wood in the little wood box in the kitchen, my brother turned his head to me and said: “Do you know what is in the forest?” His little voice was trembling with fear and curiosity. “I don´t know”, I replied. “But it must be something really horrifying, if Granny doesn´t want us to go in the forest. Or even near it.”
“Well”, my grandma said behind us and we both froze in shock by her unheard apparition next to us. “I think you are old enough to hear the story now”, she said. As I turned to look at her, her face looked old and haggard and for a moment there I thought that she might not want to tell the story of the mystery of the forest at all. She seemed to be afraid of the mystery herself. But as she turned to get herself a cup of tea, the kitchen light fell on her face and the dark shadow disappeared and had me believe it to be a mistake.
With a steaming hot cup of tea in hand she went into the living room and sat down in her rocking chair which squealed a little under her weight. As she shifted back and forth and the creaking of the chair was the only sound in the room, my brother and I sat down on pillows near her feet. Granny took her time. Once more, I thought that she might not tell the story at all. Wind was howling around the house as my brother and I looked at each other. We both wanted to hear the story of the forest, be both wanted to know the mystery. Granny took a sip from her cup and then put it aside on the little table next to her chair.
“See, children”, she said, “this is a very old story. A story that has been told many, many times before. But I must warn you. It is not a story for little children. This is why I hesitated for so long to tell you anything about the mystery of the forest.” She sighed and looked into the crackling fire. For many ticking seconds, she stared at the flames as if to remember the words to the story.
“Please, Grandma”, I said, my voice hoarse. “Please tell us the story.”
She looked at me and her glance was warm and pleasant. “I must”, she said. “For you must know the mystery.” Then she looked at my brother and he looked at me and I looked at her and suddenly, we all felt tension in the room.
“Once upon a time”, my grandma began, “many, many years ago – centuries even – there was a young man, very much like your father. He was strong and handsome, fearless and always seeking adventures. He was a good horseman, probably the best in all the land. His parents were rich and loved him very much. He had two younger sisters that adored him. He loved his family very much. But since the country was at war and all young, healthy men were needed for combat, the young man enrolled in the army. A week later, his battalion was to leave the city. His mother cried all week, his father was in despair, his sisters didn´t want him to leave. But the young men pushed all doubts and fears aside, because he had to do it. For his country. And for his love. He was in love with a beautiful girl who lived at the other end of the city. She was very pretty with her fair long hair and her beautiful dresses. She had the most beautiful smile. And she was a very good girl. She went to church every Sunday and she loved her family as much as she loved the young man. They were engaged to be married. And since her father was a war hero, he wanted to go into battle and prove to her that he is as good a man as her father. She had promised him that should he get back from war, she would marry him the very same day. So he enrolled and a week later, his battalion left the city.”
The wind was now howling loudly and rain was hailing against the window. But inside the living room, we sat on the pillows with the fire warming our backs. Our glances were fixed on our grandma, who now leaned over to get her cup of tea. She took another sip and then put the cup back on the table. As she leaned back, the chair creaked once more.
“The war was nothing like he had anticipated. It was brutal when it came to the battle, bloody, messy and most of the time very cold. He was freezing at night, shivering at day. The only thing that kept him alive and sane were the thoughts of his family and his love awaiting him at home. He wrote to her in any spare time he had. He said no word of the war and of the men he had killed for his country, he only spoke of the love he felt for her and that he could not wait to get back to her and hold her once more. But the war was long-lasting and he was on the ropes. His strength was shattered, his mind numb, his heart silent. He still wrote a letter every day, but he did not hear back from his family or his love. Letters were lost, mail carriers killed, the army postal service unreliable. He needed to hear from his family badly. He needed to hear the soothing words of his love so that he could gather his remaining strength and endure the insufferableness of war. But no letter reached him and soon he was tired of life, tired of fighting, and tired of killing. So it happened that during battle he was hit with a sword. The enemy cut his throat open from one side to the other and hot blood was running down his clothes. As he fell to the ground, he wondered how his blood could be so warm, when his insides felt so cold.”
“He woke weeks later in the military hospital. A nurse was at his side ad she smiled at him gently as he opened his eyes. She told him that they had sent letters to his family to tell them that he was dying. He asked her why and she replied that it was a near escape from death and that he had been announced dead twice. His full recovery was a mystery to them. But the young man knew that it was because his family had prayed for him and that they had sent all their love. He recovered soon and was sent home. As he arrived home, his family welcomed him back happily and they took care of his still healing wounds and once more saved his life. But all the young man wanted to do was to see his love again. So he told his sisters that he wanted to go and see her, but they were suddenly very shy and backed away. So he turned to his mother and told her that he had to see her, but she started crying and left the room. Finally, he turned to his father. His father, a now aged man with grey hair, walked over to the bed he was lying in and put his hand on his son´s arm. ‘My dear son’, he said, his face sad. ‘She is no longer with us.’ As the young man could not believe his fathers´ words, he left the bed and slowly walked over to her house at the other side of the town. All the while, his thoughts were racing through his mind. He could not believe she was gone. He tried to ignore his aching heart. But as he arrived at her house, her father came out the door as he had seen him coming down the road. He told him that she had grieved for a very long time after receiving notice from his family that he had fallen in battle. As the grief became too much to bear, she had drowned herself in the river that goes through the forest. The young man felt his heart break at once. So he left the town and went into the forest. He didn´t have to go far. He reached the river within minutes and looked at the bubbly water as it sprinkled over twitches and stones and sand and fallen leaves. He felt that he was right at the place where his love had taken her life out of grief. His mind went numb again as it had during battle. He had nothing to exist for anymore. So he unsheathed his sword. With one last glance at the blue sky and with the dripping and sprinkling of the river´s water in his ears, he severed through his neck, right where his enemy´s cut was yet unhealed.”
“His family mourned for a very long time after his death. He had survived a long-lasting battle. He had killed many strong men for his country. He had fought death more than once. But the one thing that had killed him in the end, was the impossible love to a dead woman who had killed herself to be united with him. Some say they truly were united in death. Some say their dead souls wander through the forest at night, in frantic search for one another. But all agree that the young men can be seen riding through the forest carrying a sword in one and his beheaded head in the other hand. Whenever there´s fog in the forest like tonight, he rides through the forest in search for his love´s soul that surely cannot be found there. The Dullahan is restless. But whenever he stops, a person nearby is sure to die. So I warn you to keep out of the forest in foggy nights like tonight. For you would not want to see the Dullahan ride past you. And you surely do not want him to stop near you.”
That night, as we were in bed, I listened to the storm outside. My brother was sleeping in his bed and I could hear him breathing steadily. But I couldn´t close my eyes without seeing the Dullahan riding through the forest with a sword in one and his head in the other hand. And as the storm was howling and the rain was drumming fiercely against my window, I was certain to have heard a horse neighing outside.