By Chef MCDexX
Two years ago I went on a lengthy holiday across a good chunk of central and eastern Europe. Having never been further east than Marseille, it was pretty exciting. My boyfriend Neil and I flew in to Hamburg, took the train up to Berlin, then doubled back and saw Austria and the Czech Republic. The final stop was Hungary, a country I had always wanted to visit for its natural beauty, its hot springs, its spicy food, its friendly people, and its wonderfully impossible language.
Our first couple of days were spent slacking off in the natural hot spring baths of Budapest. Seriously, it’s an amazing place, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
However, neither Neil or I are the sort of tourists who like to laze by the pool with a cocktail. We both like to get our hands dirty, see the real country, meet the real people. As such, we had booked ourselves a guided hiking tour through some of the roughest terrain Hungary has to offer – which, to be honest, isn’t that rough; Hungary is tucked into a relatively flat spot between the mountains of Austria, Romania, Slovakia, and Croatia. So yeah, it would be a fairly challenging walk, but we’re not talking about the Himalayas here.
We met with our group about lunchtime in a rustic, wood-paneled pub in Budapest. There was about a dozen of us, a mix of Aussies, Brits, and Canadians, and they were a really friendly bunch. Within ten minutes we were like old friends, laughing and drinking glasses of rich red wine over steaming bowls of chunky goulash.
We were soon met by our tour guide Ráhel (I had to ask her to write it down – that wonderful Hungarian pronunciation made it sound like “Ghrayshel” or something) who was a sturdy, sweet-natured woman of about 60. If any of you have read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and remember Nanny Ogg, well, that’s immediately who she reminded me of. Her face radiated health and happiness, and her only real wrinkles were along her heavily-used laugh lines. I liked her immediately.
Once lunch was finished, Ráhel loaded us into an old Volvo minibus, tossing our backpacks into the cargo space underneath and getting us seated inside. It was a 16-seater, so with Ráhel, her assistant, and the driver, it was fairly snug, but we were a cheerful group (thanks in part to that excellent red wine) and we were told it wouldn’t be a long drive.
We headed east, winding up into the foothills of a mountainous national park whose name I honestly had no hope of remembering. I was full of rich food and wine, cuddled up close to Neil, being lulled to sleep by the motion of the bus, and honestly, Hungarian place names seem engineered specifically to be impossible for foreigners to pronounce or remember.
I watched between heavy eyelids as the scenery slid past. Hungary is such a pretty country, made up primarily of gently rolling green hills and small forests, interspersed with neat little farms. I must have nodded off, hypnotised by the rocking of the old vehicle and the slow progression of the landscape outside the window, because in no time at all, our excited, chattering group was unloading into the gravel carpark of a trail-head camping area.
As we fetched our backpacks and got on sturdy hiking shoes, Ráhel explained our timetable. This was a two-night trip, and we were starting with an easy bit. From this spot, we would walk through the national park for three hours, arriving at a cabin complex in the late afternoon. Tomorrow would be a harder day, as we would start just after dawn, eat our lunch at a mountain-top waterfall, then start down the other side, spending one night in our tents at an open meadow high in the foothills. Finally, we would walk five more hours, and be picked up on the far side by Ráhel’s driver, who would return us to Budapest.
For the first day and night, that’s exactly what happened. It was early Autumn, and still summery warm, but the leaves on the trees had begun to turn gold, scarlet, and purple. I’ve never seen autumn leaves like them, and the whole hike was like walking through a fairy tale. The cabins were primitive, but comfortable and warm, and we were well protected from the evening chill.
The next day dawned clear and crisp, promising another day of warm sun once the cool night-time air had lifted. Eager to get moving, we all scarfed down a quick breakfast and got back onto the trail. We were slowly winding higher, and for the first time we began to see views that I would call mountains, rather than just hills. Even so, the trail was never too difficult. Despite what happened later, I still treasure this time as one of the best I have ever had.
After five hours of walking, with a handful of stops to take photos of the breathtaking scenery, we began to hear the telltale sigh of a waterfall, beginning as just a hint of white noise on the edge of our hearing, but slowly growing to a distinctive rushing sound. Finally, after half an hour of teasing, we rounded a bend and got our first look at the waterfall.
It was better than I could have imagined – a wide stream toppled over a steep overhang, resulting in a fifty metre plunge through the open air, into a wide bowl eroded into the mountainside. I have never seen anything like it – literally a falling column of water that you could walk around 360 degrees without getting wet – and I gasped aloud at the sight. I heard a chuckle beside me, and glanced over to see Ráhel beaming with pride. I had to smile with her; here was a woman fiercely proud of her homeland, and who loved to see visitors appreciating it too.
We were given an hour and a half to eat lunch at our own pace, and to explore the waterfall and its surrounding rocky slopes. The rush of water and twittering of birds was joined by that other common sound of the great outdoors: the inspective clicking of many camera shutters.
It was the overhang that was our undoing, I think. More than half the sky was hidden from our view as we marveled at the beauty inside this green-tinged rocky hollow, so there was no way to see the storm coming. Looking back, it seems almost supernatural how quickly it came upon us. We had hiked across the ridge barely an hour before, and the sky had been a radiant cobalt blue from edge to edge.
The first I knew of it was a rumble of thunder, barely audible under the constant hiss of falling water. Looking up, I was puzzled by what I saw: green trees with blue sky behind, but at the rocky edge of the cliff where the waterfall began, there was smudged grey. As I watched, I could see the grey band growing: the storm clouds were rushing over us from behind the mountain. Perfectly timed, a fat raindrop splashed onto my upturned face.
I turned to find Ráhel, but she was already looking up, and something in her face made me immediately worried. The laughter in her eyes was gone, and instead she wore a blank expression. I had only known her for a day, but it looked to me like somebody trying to hide their fear so that others won’t panic.
It had only been a matter of seconds since the raindrop had hit me and I had looked for Ráhel, but suddenly the heavens let go, and a deluge of rain fell into the hollow. It was shockingly sudden, frigidly cold, startling after the warmth of the morning. Around me, members of the group rushed to get their precious cameras into rain-proof camera bags.
I popped up the hood of my light hiking jacket and walked to Ráhel’s side. “Are you okay?” I asked. “You look worried.”
She blinked and gave me a half-hearted smile. “Sorry,” she said. “Sudden storm in Autumn, can be bad. Forecast say nothing about it. Very-“
She didn’t finish her sentence, but instead froze and stared deeper into the hollow, where other members of our group were sheltering from the rain.
“No!” she shouted, and I jumped with surprise. “Stay out!” A rumbling crack of thunder followed her shouts.
I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I turned my gaze back to where she was looking, and there it was. The rational parts of my brain tried to tell me I was wrong or that I hadn’t looked closely enough earlier, but in my gut I knew what I was seeing: a small cave had appeared in the cliff face. It had not been there before.
Several members of our tour group were eagerly approaching the mouth of the cave, happy to get out of the rain. One of them was Neil. I don’t know if it was some kind of intuition, or if it was just the fear in Ráhel’s voice, but a heavy block of ice formed in my guts, and I knew I had to stop Neil walking into that black, gaping mouth.
Not stopping to think, I ran across the slick rocks, skirting the edge of the plunging column of water and hopping nimbly across the stream that funnelled the falling water further down the mountain. “Neil!” I shouted. “Stop! Don’t go in there!” He seemed not to hear me, and began walking inside the cave.
I’m an experienced hiker, but the combination of waterfall, rain, loose rocks, and sheer blinding panic made me clumsy. My left foot shot out sideways, and I had one of those slow motion moments, when I knew I was going to fall, knew it was going to hurt like hell, and knew I couldn’t stop it. I crumpled onto the rocks and agony lanced through my right arm, from wrist to shoulder. I’m not too proud to admit that I screamed.
Pain kept my eyes clamped shut for a few seconds, but when I opened them the entire group was hurrying over to me. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I couldn’t tell if they were from the excruciating pain or from the relief of seeing Neil’s kind blue eyes looking down at me.
Ráhel, bless her heart, was a first aid wizard. She bustled around me, asking for help from other members of the group when needed, and got my wounded arm into a sling with a brisk efficiency. The verdict was about as good as I could have hoped: nothing was broken, as far as she could tell, but I had wrenched the shoulder hard and probably pinched a nerve. I’d also lost a fair bit of skin on the rocks.
Now, I ask you to lend me some trust and credulity one more time, because after my arm was bound and I was helped to my feet, I cast a worried glance to the back of the hollow. The cave was gone. There wasn’t even a crack or an alcove that I could have mistaken for a cave.
I wanted to believe that I had somehow imagined the whole thing, but I knew I had heard the fear in Ráhel’s voice, and I had seen Neil disappearing into its dark maw. A far more irrational and bizarre thought sat at the back of my mind: without intending to, I had distracted everyone, broken the spell. This might sound ridiculous, but I felt like I had cheated a predator out of its meal. Stupid, I know, but it felt true.
Miraculously, my arm was the only real casualty of my fall. My right knee had a small scrape on it, and my left hip was a little painful, probably from my sudden and accidental performance of the splits. I was tender, but I could walk just fine, and when Ráhel was convinced I was okay, we began our long walk down the mountain. Sure, I was in pain, but what other option did I have? Wait there for a medivac? Not a chance. There was no way on earth I was hanging around in that shadowed hollow under the mountain.
The storm was gone, vanishing as suddenly as it had arrived. The sun was out again, the birds were back in full voice, and apart from a carpet of freshly fallen leaves on the path, nothing seemed out of place. The sudden arrival and departure of the storm just added to the weirdness of the events by the waterfall.
Ráhel insisted on us keeping a slower than usual pace to allow for my injury, so we arrived at the camping ground just before twilight. Ráhel and her assistant talked in rapid-fire Hungarian as they rushed from place to place, getting our tents set up. She was like a chubby military officer, and I was surprised at how quickly the camp was assembled. The sky was still a soft mauve, with only a few early stars peeking from it, when we settled around a fresh fire.
After we ate (me having some difficulty eating left-handed) I quietly quizzed Neil on what he had been doing just before I fell. He gave me a puzzled look and cocked an eyebrow at me.
“Sheltering from the rain,” he said, simply.
I pressed him. “Is that all?”
He frowned, looking genuinely baffled. “I’m not sure what you mean. It was raining, and we were all just pressing ourselves against the back of the hollow, trying to stay out of it.”
I thought about my next words carefully, then decided to trust Neil. He had always been very kind to me, very empathic, so I decided to open up about what I had seen.
“There was a cave,” I began. “It was…” I stopped to take a deep breath. “This’ll sound nuts, but there was no cave, then it was there, and then it was gone again. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”
Neil’s eyes unfocused slightly, and he gazed vaguely into the darkness over my shoulder. “There was something,” he said softly. “I… I can’t really explain it. It was like… a voice, maybe? I remember… darkness… Then you screamed and I just forgot everything else.” He shook his head, like someone trying to shake off drowsiness. “Honestly, it just felt like a weird daydream. I hadn’t really thought about it until now.”
I couldn’t say anything, so I just gave him a one-armed hug and told him I loved him. He kissed my cheek, scratching me pleasantly with a week’s worth of stubble, and said he loved me too. I clung to him, and felt fresh tears in my eyes. I couldn’t explain it, but I felt like we had dodged a bullet, that I had almost lost him.
Predictably, I couldn’t sleep. Even back when I used to camp all the time, I still had immense difficulty getting comfortable on those self-inflating camping mattresses. On this night, though, I was in pain, and I could only sleep rolled onto my left side. I’d drift off to sleep, and at some point I’d roll over, hurt my shoulder, and wake myself up with the pain. Finally, I decided it wasn’t going to happen, so I kissed Neil’s cheek (fast asleep, of course – the man could sleep through an earthquake), slipped on my shoes, and crept out of the tent.
I was surprised to see that Ráhel was awake, sitting by the fire in one of her portable folding chairs. She didn’t see me at first, so I could see that she was just staring into the fire, like she was deep in thought. I couldn’t be sure, but I got the sense that she was remembering something sad. I felt like some kind of voyeur, so I exaggerated my footsteps a little as I walked over to her, making sure she heard me coming.
She turned and smiled at me, her face half-lit by the orange glow from the campfire, but I could tell the smile was forced; I was certain now that I had interrupted her in the middle of some melancholy reminiscence, but she was being the consummate professional and was not letting her sadness show.
“Please,” I said softly, aware that we were surrounded by tents full of sleeping people. “Don’t pretend to be happy for me. Why are you sad?”
A little frown creased her forehead, and I could see some kind of struggle taking place inside her head. She gave her head a small, unconvincing shake. “No, no,” she murmured. “I am happy.”
I plonked down into the empty chair to her right, and carefully settled my wounded arm into a supported position, taking the weight off my shoulder. I quickly assessed my conversational options, and decided to just ignore her denial. “You look like you’re thinking about sad memories.”
For a moment, her forced smile vanished entirely, and I saw genuine grief in her eyes. This wasn’t melancholy; this was something far worse. She sighed, then shrugged, and gave me a small, sad smile.
“I am old,” she said. Naturally I began to object, but she waved me off. “No flattery, you. I am old.” There was a genuine smile on her face then, but the sadness returned to her eyes when she turned her gaze back to the fire. “I never marry. Is good, and is bad. I know many boys. When I was girl, I was great beauty. The boys, they want me.” Once again, the sadness was pushed aside briefly, this time by a lascivious grin, but it soon crept back. “I am not great beauty now – no, shush, I am not – but now I think I would like husband. Sex is, ehh, not so much, now I am old. A companion, though, that would be nice.”
“Was there ever a special boy?” I asked. “Were you ever tempted to marry, back then?”
Just like that, the grief was back. Her round, pretty face aged a decade, with deep lines creasing the forehead, the cheeks, the chin. I reached out my left hand and rested it on her arm. “I’m sorry,” I said softly. “Is that who you were thinking about just now?”
For a moment I thought she might actually cry, but instead she stared intensely into the fire, and finally gave a small nod. I waited, gave her time to elaborate if she wanted to, and we were both silent for a while. After perhaps a minute, she spoke again, much more softly than before. She didn’t turn to face me, but kept her gaze fixed on the fire. I could see tiny dancing flames reflected in her eyes. At first I thought she had completely changed the subject, but as she went on, I felt goosebumps rising up my back and across my shoulders.
“This is not first time I see such thing,” Ráhel began. “Not there. Then there. Not there again. Today, I know when I see it. Same bad thing. Bad place. Took my Bandi.” She lapsed back into silence, and I stared.
I tried to ask a question, but my throat had gone dry. I worked my tongue in my mouth, trying to make some spit, but it seemed like the moisture had been sucked out of my body. I finally managed to moisten my throat, and croaked, “You mean the cave.”
She looked at me then, away from the fire. I was surprised now that the look in her eyes was now pity. “Poor little kisbaba,” she sighed. “I know why you fall. You see it, yes? The cave?”
All I could do was nod dumbly.
“You had much courage,” she said. “You save many people. You save your good man. That cave… Bad place.”
“It scared me,” I admitted. “It seemed… hungry. You know? Like a…” I searched for a good simile. “Do you know about venus fly traps? It is a plant that eats flies.”
She nodded and said something in Hungarian that sounded like “leggy chap o wah”, then held up her hands, palms upward and angled to each other, like an open jaw, then snapped them shut. “I know this flower, yes, and you are right, but sometimes… sometimes is different.”
I tried to remember the name she had said. “Bandi, was it?” When she nodded sadly, I pressed her. “A cave took him?”
Once again she stared into the fire. I thought she might have decided to keep her thoughts to herself, but then she started to speak, softly but quickly, like a long awaited confession. I won’t be able to reproduce exactly what she said – as you’ve read, her English was slightly stilted, and she occasionally dropped in a Hungarian word or two and I had to extrapolate what she meant – but I understood the kernel of it, and it scared the shit out of me.
This is what Ráhel told me.
You should be proud of what you did today. When I first saw a cave like that, I was not so quick-witted, not so wise, and Bandi was the one who suffered because of it.
This was long ago, in the early 1980s. I was born in Hungary and spent most of my life here, but for a few years around the ages of 19 and 20 I travelled a lot. As I said, I was a great beauty, and I was vain. I loved all of the attention I got from all the boys (and more than a couple of girls, too, truth be told). I hitch-hiked and walked through Austria and Slovakia, and places that now have different names, flitting from boy to boy like a butterfly between flowers. I don’t think I broke many hearts: the boys I liked most had free hearts like mine.
My last trip was in Romania. I was 20, and 21 was not far off. It seems comical now, but back then 21 seemed so old, and a terrible grown-up voice in my head was telling me I should be settling down. That voice was still quiet, though, and it didn’t slow me down too much.
It was late in the summer, but still very hot. Many parts of Europe was suffering great turmoil, including countries right on our borders – civil wars, bombings, and worse. A lot of people my age were trying to deny the horrors going on around us by having as good a time as possible. While I was officially travelling alone, I would often fall in with groups of other young travellers who happened to be going the same way as I was.
That’s how I met Bandi. I should have hated him – he was as beautiful as I was, and just as vain. He was the only boy I’d ever known who used cream in his hair, like the old American rock stars. I could tell he thought he was the new Elvis, with his combed-up hair and mirrored sunglasses and black leather jacket, and that half-smoked cigarette that just stuck there, magically, in the corner of his mouth. I should have hated him, but I didn’t. I loved him. I think he was the first boy I ever loved, really, the first one who made me think that maybe settling down with one man might be okay. The only one, really.
We only had two weeks together before I lost him. It was the best two weeks of my life. Maybe that’s why I never married – nobody ever made me feel that electric tingle in my stomach like Bandi did when he dipped his sunglasses and looked at me with his big brown eyes. God, I loved that boy.
He was Hungarian like me, and he had decided to head back to Budapest before the impending Autumn arrived, rather than finding somewhere to hole up in a cruel Romanian winter. Naturally, I decided that going back home for winter sounded like a great idea, and my head was filled with visions of he and I holed up in an apartment all winter, never leaving the bedroom except to buy food.
Bandi had heard that there was a beautiful valley that ran across the border into Hungary, an easy descent from the mountains of Romania. He suggested we stock up on a week or two’s worth of food and walk down through the valley. it wasn’t remote or anything – he said there were farms and a few small towns – but there would be a few days here and there of roughing it in the hills. A few of the others in our group decided to join us, so there were eight or nine of us who headed out.
We took a cheap local bus to the top of the valley, and it was as beautiful as Bandi had promised. High mountains marched into the distance on either side, but below us we could see the gentle rolling slopes of a green valley. We were happy as we stepped off that bus and began the long walk down those gentle slopes into Hungary.
Everything was fine for a few days, but the trouble began late in the afternoon on maybe the fourth day. We were picking our way carefully through a narrower part of the valley, where there were many rocks underfoot. Even though the sky had been perfect blue all day, a terrible storm came from nowhere, making the day turn as dark as midnight. Yes, I see you nodding. It was very much like the storm today. This is not the only thing that will sound familiar.
We had tents, of course, but with the sudden rain we had no chance to erect them. Instead, we just ran to find some cover. There were no trees in that area – I think the ground was too stony for them to send down roots – but there was a steep cliff on one side of the valley, and we ran towards it, thinking there might be an overhang to shelter under.
That was when we saw it. We thought we were lucky. What is the chance that we would happen to find a perfect little cave in the cliff face, just as the weather turned bad? I was not as wise as you. I did not feel any fear. I ran inside gladly, happy to be out of the rain.
The walls of the cave were rough stone, but the floor was flat, soft dirt, like a fine dusty sand. Bandi fished a big, chunky plastic torch out of his rucksack and clicked the button; in its light we could see that the cave ran into the cliff face a lot further. We had no reason to be afraid then, and we were young and inquisitive. Of course we explored it. I wish we hadn’t. I wish we’d run away, back out into the rain. Pneumonia would be better than what we found there. But we didn’t. We explored.
After about twenty metres, the cave opened up into a chamber. Bandi was excited when his torch lit up paintings on the wall. France and Spain were better known for their prehistoric cave paintings, but we knew that some had been found as close as Bulgaria. The chance that we had just stumbled onto undiscovered art seemed remote, but surely, if it had been discovered before, Bandi argued, there would have been a barrier or a sign at the mouth of the cave.
I had studied the Lascaux cave paintings in school only a few years before, so I had some idea what to expect, but these paintings… They were horrible. There were no buffalo or deer, nothing so benign. What we saw instead, spread across those cold stone walls, were scenes of horror.
The most common shapes were strange, hunched-over figures, painted all in black. They looked sort of like human shapes, but there was something animalistic about them – their shoulders were rounded and hunched, and their arms seemed too long. Also, I couldn’t tell if it was meant to be a hat or their hair, but they looked like that had a pair of little, stubby horns on their heads, and a little vestigial lump of a tail at the base of their spines. It was impossible to see expressions on these figures, because they had no faces – they were painting in solid black, without eyes or mouths, or indeed any other feature like clothing or jewellery. They were like devilish silhouettes.
Less commonly seen on the walls were figures that were recognisably human, and these were the worst of all. The horned figures were tormenting them horribly. Some scenes appeared to be hunting parties, with human quarry running from a mob of darker shapes. Others were the aftermath of the hunts, with humans being speared or clubbed with black weapons, throwing back their heads and screaming in fear and pain.
Perhaps the most horrible, though, were the feasts. Some scenes in the paintings showed the black figures sitting down to eat. Some would be eating the contents of a severed head, like some kind of perverse bowl, while another would be gnawing on a human leg like a chicken drumstick. There was more, but I had to force myself to stop looking; even though the paintings were crude, barely more than stick figures, I felt violently sick, and was in danger of throwing up.
Two of the other boys – Czech, I think – also had a light, and they called out that they’d found something in the middle of the chamber. Eager to get away from the paintings, I went to look. In the centre of the space, there was a kind of raised stone dais, very crudely made, perhaps two metres wide. In its centre was a depression where the stone appeared to be blackened from a fire. I looked closer, and sure enough there was some ash and charred wood.
Somebody else called out that they’d found a pile of firewood, and that struck me as being extremely strange. Someone had found this cave with its bizarre, ancient paintings, and had made a fire here, but hadn’t put up a fence or a sign or anything? I felt uneasy, thinking that this seemed wrong, but sadly it still wasn’t enough to send me running from the cave. If only I had.
The Czech boys dragged over some firewood and began to build a fire. I called out to Bandi, told him I was cold, suggested he might want to come and warm me up, but he just grunted in reply. He was fascinated by those horrible paintings, and kept exclaiming in surprise when he found some new horror in them. For my part, I didn’t want to spend another second looking at those awful things, so I began unrolling my sleeping bag. I had no mattress, but the dusty floor of the cave was soft enough. I lay there and watched as the fire was built.
Firelight should have made that chamber more tolerable, I thought. That warm light should have made that space feel more welcoming, but instead it made it worse. Weird shadows danced across the rough, uneven ceiling, and whenever somebody got up to walk around, they would cast their shadow on the painted walls. Their shadows reminded me too much of those squat, horned silhouettes, and I shivered, and became determined to stare into the fire until I fell asleep.
I felt better when Bandi finally stopped studying the paintings and came to join me. He wrapped me up in his strong arms, and for the first time since the storm had begun, I started to feel safe and content. That was how I fell asleep, and it was the last time I ever felt the gentle touch of my beautiful Bandi.
When I awoke, some unknown time had passed; the fire had died down to a bright pool of embers. I realised that Bandi’s arm was no longer draped across my body, and I rolled back, trying to find him. I was alone. Suddenly worried, I sat up and looked around. There was Bandi, standing with his back to me, on the other side of the fire. Even though the fire was low, he cast a black shadow on the wall, and I shivered.
I called out his name softly, not wanting to wake the others, but he didn’t respond. I was about to stand up and go to him, when I saw that something was terribly wrong. I still wonder what would have happened if I’d run to his side, pulled him back to bed, but I am ashamed to say that I froze. I couldn’t move, and I could hardly breathe.
There was a second shadow on the wall beside Bandi’s. My eyes darted from left to right, confirming what I already knew: nobody but Bandi was standing up. Everyone else was asleep. There was nobody in the room who could have cast that shadow.
I saw movement, and my stomach felt like it had dropped down into my feet. Nobody in our group was stirring, but a third shadow was rising up on the wall, this time on the other side of Bandi. This one was closer to me, and while the hazy embers did not allow for a sharp, clear shadow, I was sure that it had two small horns on top of its head.
I was desperate to scream, to call out Bandi’s name, to wake up our friends, but my breath was locked in my chest, my throat clenched shut like I was being strangled. I still don’t know if it was just fear, or if some terrible force kept me frozen. Some nights when I can’t sleep, I still wonder about that. If something was holding me there, then what happened to Bandi wasn’t my fault, right? I want that to be true, but I will never know.
Bandi’s head twitched from side to side, like he was afraid, perhaps could sense that something was wrong, but he didn’t move away. He just stood there, and I saw the two other figures turn to face him. I swear, one of them lifted its head and sniffed the air, just like a dog. It was smelling Bandi’s scent. I saw it take a step towards him, and that was when I knew that there was definitely a short, stumpy tail at the base of its spine.
That was when I finally broke free from my paralysis. Too late, I found my breath, and I screamed Bandi’s name. I saw his head whip around, but he never turned to face me. Instead, he let out a wordless, garbled cry of fear, and staggered. Both of the figures that flanked him were now facing towards him. They were hunched over, bestial, with their faces stuck out in front of them like hounds following a scent. They were hunting Bandi.
I screamed Bandi’s name again and again, and the others members of our group finally woke up. Several of them jumped to their feet, asking what was the matter. Their shadows were cast onto the walls, and I lost sight of the terrible hunched things that had been stalking my lover. I looked around, and I realised with horror that I couldn’t see Bandi either. I shrieked his name and jumped to my feet, running around to fire to where I’d seen him standing, but he was gone.
That was when the screaming began. Oh god, I have never heard anything like it, and I wish to never hear it again. It was high pitched and frenzied, but I could tell it was a man, and it was echoing around the chamber, impossible to locate. I caught a glimpse of movement, and I saw a shadow flit across an open section of wall. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought it was Bandi’s, even though Bandi himself was not there to cast a shadow. Moments later, several other shadows passed the same way. The horned figures, I am sure, but many more of them. A dozen, maybe more. Some of them were carrying things – spears, clubs, axes. I know, this is impossible, but I tell you that this is what I saw. The shadows were blurry, but I know I am telling you the truth.
Seconds later, they caught him. Bandi’s screams intensified for a few seconds, and then – terribly or mercifully, I still can’t decide – they were cut off with a sudden, abrupt gurgle. Bandi was dead. I was sure of it. The rest of our friends were calling out in confusion, trying to work out where the screams were coming from, who was missing, but I knew. Bandi was dead, and we would never find his body. Even while they searched, he was being butchered, prepared for the feast. It was all there in the paintings. We had been warned.
The next few hours were a blur. Several of the boys tried to find Bandi, but there was no trace. The cave ended at the chamber we had been sleeping in, so he couldn’t have gone deeper and gotten lost. He must have left, even though nobody saw him go. I knew the truth, but how could I tell them? I just had to say I didn’t know.
I wish that was the end of my story, but there is one more thing. One of the other Hungarian girls cried out in pain, saying she’d kicked something. I walked over numbly, and looked: it was Bandi’s big stupid torch, sitting in the dirt close to where I had last seen him. Without really knowing what I was doing, I clicked the button, and the circular beam of the torch lit up a patch of the wall. Some awful impulse made me crawl across the dirt on my hands and knees and look at the scene that had been illuminated.
The figures were simple and blocky, but I knew what I was seeing. A human figure was surrounded by the black shapes. Several of them had their taloned fingers buried in the human’s arms and torso, bringing forth a fountain of blood. Another was swinging what appeared to be a crude stone axe, cutting off the human figure’s head. It was horrific, but the worst thing was that I recognised the figure.
As I said, the paintings were simple, but there was no mistaking that black leather jacket.
It was an impossible story, but then and there, up in the mountains of Hungary, I believed every word of it.
Ráhel stared silently into the fire for a long time, then let out a long, deep sigh.
“We tell police, yes, and there was search.” She paused and shook her head, sadly.
“The cave,” I said. “Nobody ever found it, did they?”
“No,” she replied. “Valley not big, farmers live there many years. They say, there is no cave. Police search, find semmi.” She frowned, and added. “Sorry, nothing. They find nothing. Bandi…” She expanded her fingers in the air. “…gone, like smoke.”
We both stared into the fire for a while after that, but finally Ráhel excused herself, said it was time to sleep, and walked away toward the ring of tents. I watched her black shadow slide across the fabric of one of the tents, and I shivered, feeling cold despite the mild weather. Nursing my sore shoulder, I rose and made my way back to bed. I think I clung to Neil all night, refusing to let go of him even while I was deeply asleep.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. My shoulder wasn’t badly hurt, and we managed to enjoy the rest of our holiday. It was a good trip, actually, despite the mishap, and I mostly remember it fondly.
I’m not sure what moved me to write this story down after keeping it to myself for so long. I just found myself thinking about Ráhel today, that lovely woman and her long-lost lover, and I felt compelled to share.