Figure in the mist
Mist is a constant in my region. In winter, we can go months without seeing the sun, either because of thick low cloud cover or because of mist hovering above the ground. It rains often here with spectacular spontaneous lightning storms in the hotter months, and flooding in the spring and autumn. In the colder months we get heavy snow fall and dense ice, so water features heavily in our daily lives. Because of this, rivers spill over their banks and roads become impassable, sometimes even washed away. The ground is often muddy, save for a couple of months in the summer when it is parched and dry due to the incredible heat. Driving, especially on the unmarked country roads, can be scary as dense, yellowish fog envelops you and you have to rely on your wits to guess when the next bend – or oncoming vehicle – will appear.
But the Carpathians wouldn’t be the Carpathians without the mist and fog. The sheer amount of forest guarantees the production of water vapour, and often it appears that the forest itself is breathing. Or crying. It adds a mystical, sometimes creepy gravitas to the stunning scenery. Inside the woods, the ground is usually damp and slippery, and fungi of all types and description are abundant. Fallen trees and last year’s leaves lie rotting all around.
And the mist hides a thousand unknowns.
A few years ago, I’d been working regularly in a fairly large town some 2 hours drive from where I live. Three times a week, I’d finish at 7 or 8pm and drive back on tiny, remote bush roads through the most incredible countryside. I’d generally spend the drive either speaking into a Dictaphone to make notes for a new book I was writing, or I’d listen to audiobooks on the car stereo. There was a long stretch of the road with no habitation, about 20-odd miles of it. This was the most beautiful part of the journey as the road followed the length of Lake D and then passed directly through a large forest at the base of the hill which holds the ruins of the Blood Countess, Alzbeta Bathory’s first castle. It’s mostly a beech forest and the trees have grown thick, immensely tall and straight.
It was late spring time and the forest was carpeted in the luscious green of wild garlic, and the scent was all-pervasive. On the way to work I’d been mesmerised by the smell and the stark contrast of the green to the still skeletal trees, as they hadn’t yet leaved after winter. Winter is hardcore out here and drags on and on, so the little signs of spring – the wild garlic, the marigolds, the return of the cuckoo and stork – really lighten the mood and help shake off the universally felt depression that hangs over everyone after 5 months of a bleak, cold and dark season. As such, I was looking forward to my drive home and was hoping to take photographs of the sunset over the lake if I didn’t reach it too late.
I hadn’t factored in the fog. Whether due to inversion or the still snow-sodden ground evaporating as the Carpathians began to warm up, I quickly found myself driving through a thick, tainted, wall of off-white. For the first few miles I could still manage a decent speed but by the time I’d entered the forest road I was down to a crawl. I switched off my stereo and heater and wound down my window. I couldn’t rely on my eyes for navigation or to predict problems – I needed to hear what might be ahead. A few hundred metres in and I was literally down to a couple of miles an hour. My headlights were just reflecting back at me and I could see little more than a couple of feet of road. I wanted to stop and pull over but didn’t dare risk another vehicle coming from behind smashing into me, so I kept on driving. Time dragged and my heart was racing. I couldn’t see anything. I could smell the wild garlic strongly and my face was damp from the mist which had penetrated my car.
And then I saw it.
I have no idea how I hadn’t noticed it before. An immense wild boar was trotting next to my driver’s side window. Steam rose from its matted, dirty, spiky back hair. Its stench intermingled with that of the garlic. I kept on driving and it matched me. I was petrified. It was huge. My major concern was that it would suddenly decide to charge or leap at my car. I was trying to keep my eyes on the non-existent road in front whilst simultaneously monitoring this prehistoric beast running shotgun.
The whole scene was just unthinkable. My brain couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t accelerate, I couldn’t stop. I seriously didn’t want to scare the boar as I’ve seen what damage they can do. My old Bullmastiff still bears the deep battle scars across its rear legs and hindquarters from a run in with one whilst guarding cattle. I really didn’t want to be in a wrecked car in thick fog on a windy bush road on a steep hill in a forest in the arse end of nowhere. It was just one of those situations which I’d never even considered so I had no Plan B.
And then it vanished.
I took my eyes off of the boar for a moment to make sure my car wasn’t heading towards a gulley or a tree, and it ceased to be. After quickly checking it wasn’t in front of me, I let out an extremely long sigh of relief. I hadn’t realised I’d been holding my breath. I kept driving slowly, more puzzled than anything, until I eventually reached the end of the forest and the fog began to lift. Tendrils and swathes of mist still clung to the road and the vegetation, giving the area an otherworldy feel, but it was good enough to drive through.
I was in half a mind to stop the car, get out and just take a breather but I decided to press on and speed up a little, still hoping to catch the sunset, although that wasn’t looking likely as twilight had already begun to take hold. The next stretch of road was long and straight and was bordered on both sides by meadows filled with long spring grass and colourful flowers. There was a village a few miles up ahead.
My brain was still processing the boar incident and the panic I’d felt in the fog when I saw something which really, truly couldn’t exist. What’s more, it saw me.
At first I thought it was an animal. It broke through the tall grass on the left hand side of the road a hundred feet or so in front of me and made a dash to cross the road towards the right. I slammed on my brakes as I had no wish to hit whatever it was. And again, my brain just couldn’t process what it was seeing.
It was a little black man, sprinting on two legs. As my car came to a full stop, the smell of tyre rubber filling the air, the creature reached the middle of the road and stopped too. It faced me, its body square on. Its stance looked angry, defiant. I could see its upper body moving up and down as though it were panting or breathing deeply. Its miniscule legs were spaced shoulder width apart, its knees were slightly bent and its arms hung bent down by its sides as though clenching its fists. And then it bolted back in the direction from which it had come, back to the left, where it disappeared in amongst the tall grass.
I sat there, with the engine running, stumped. My eyes were telling me what I’d seen but my brain was telling me that it was an impossibility. The creature was, at most, a foot tall. It was blacker than any shadow yet was definitely physical and tangible. Its skin had reflected the water on the road and the meagre light. I hadn’t made out any features but it had definitely been the shape of a tiny, well-proportioned man. It hadn’t been wearing clothes and was uniformly black all over. I say ‘man’ but only because of its physicality, not because of anything else obvious about it.
Over the years I’ve heard many tales of the little people, in several countries I’ve visited. However, what I saw was just too dark to easily fit into the myths… I’ve seen things while out in the forest – little holes in the base of trees which look like they’re taken care of, as though they were a home rather than a burrow; I’ve seen logs which have sections that resembled miniature furniture. And, on occasion, I’ve heard what sound like tiny whispers. That… creature, though…. I’ve no idea to which branch of legend it belonged. Our encounter shocked it just as much as me. Maybe its place isn’t above ground, but far below it.
Whether it was because of the mist or because it was the right time of year, the boundary between our world, and another, much older, one opened that evening, and gave me a glimpse of what lies beyond. Every time I pass that stretch of road I slow down in expectation. Maybe someday I will see it again. I just know that there is a very, very old belief that it’s better not to see things because then they notice you. And they remember…