On April 16, 1981, at approximately three P.M., little Peter Möhlendorf, whom everyone called der schwarze Peter, “black Peter,” went home from the village school. His house was on the eastern edge of Sterberode, a town of some five thousand inhabitants outside the East German town of Magdeburg whose main economic activity is farming—asparagus, mostly. His father, who was in the basement of the house when little Möhlendorf arrived, would later say that he heard him come in and then could infer from the sounds in the kitchen, which was above the basement, what he was doing: he flung his backpack beneath the staircase landing, went to the kitchen, took a carton of milk out of the refrigerator, and poured himself a glass, which he drank standing; then he put the carton back in the refrigerator and went out into the backyard. Anyway, that was what he did every day when he came home from school and it could be that his father hadn’t really heard the noises he later would say he heard but rather had heard Peter come home and from that had guessed the rest of the series of actions. However, what his father did not know, as he listened or thought he listened to the noises his son was making above his head, was that little Peter was not going to return home that night or the nights that would follow, and that something incomprehensible and frightening was going to open up before him and the rest of the townspeople, and it would swallow everything up.
Peter Möhlendorf was twelve years old and had brown hair. He was shy and didn’t usually play with the other children. In fact, he seemed actively to avoid them. The only exception he seemed to allow himself was when the children played soccer. He would go to the field behind the remains of the medieval wall, which were later leveled by the authorities of the so-called Democratic Republic of Germany to build a highway that was never built because the government of the so-called Democratic Republic of Germany fell two months after construction began; the management of ruins is the only thing that government really seemed to have devoted itself to, from its creation to its collapse on October 3, 1990. Peter used to stand near the field, waiting for one of the players to get tired or injured so that the others would let him play in his place. Usually, before that could happen, the owner of the ball would kick some player off his team and signal to little Peter to join the game, because Peter was good.
When Peter didn’t come home on the evening of April 16, his father went out to look for him. Möhlendorf walked to the field and questioned the players there, of which there were very few at that hour, but they all said that they hadn’t seen him that day. Möhlendorf searched the streets that led to the school, but the building’s caretaker told him that Peter had left with the rest of the kids and that the building was empty. Möhlendorf went by the homes of some of the children in his son’s class but he wasn’t there or anywhere else.
Night had already fallen when Möhlendorf gathered some neighbors together beneath a street lamp and explained the situation. His opinion—expressed nervously and immediately dismissed by the other parents—was that little Peter had gotten lost. It was hard to believe that a boy could get lost in such a town, a town so small that there wasn’t enough traffic to cause an accident. Some time later, when events began to happen very quickly and the hours of searching had to be filled up with talk, each parent remembered what they had thought at that moment: Martin Stracke, who was tall and redheaded and repaired electrical appliances, said that he had thought little Peter was playing a joke and that he’d come home as soon as it started to get cold; Michael Göde, who was blond and a gym teacher at the town high school, had thought that little Peter had had an accident, probably in the forest, which was the only place that held any potential for danger in or near the town. For my part, I hadn’t thought of anything except my own son, but later, when I heard the other parents’ confessions, I lied and said that that night I thought that Peter had gotten lost in the woods. My lie was taken for the truth, which may explain the events of the night of April 16, since, after discussing Peter’s disappearance beneath the street lamp for a while, we all went to our homes to look for jackets and flashlights and then we went out to search for Peter in the woods. I’ll never know why we did that, because no one that night suggested the idea that Peter had gotten lost there; my later invention justified our actions and that was why everybody had accepted it. It gave meaning where there had been none.
The woods are on the outskirts of Sterberode and continue until they are silhouetted against the Harz mountain range, dividing the region in two. They are dense and dark, the kind of woods that inspire legends told lightly by those who live in cities and in the mountains, but that those who live near the woods fear and respect. That night we scoured the woods like madmen, without mapping out a route or spreading ourselves usefully through the area. Time and time again my flashlight drew a circle in the darkness and in it I found Martin Stracke’s red head of hair. On other occasions I was the one who fell into the cone lit up by someone else’s flashlight. Michael Göde was the first to quit, because he had to teach the next day. The next was Stracke. At one point my flashlight illuminated Möhlendorf’s face and his flashlight illuminated mine and we remained that way for a little while, like two rabbits dazzled on the highway, about to be run over by something we couldn’t even sense. Then we returned to town without saying a word.
The next morning we continued the search, helping the two policemen from the local garrison of the Volkspolizei, whom Möhlendorf had apprised of the case. We didn’t find anything, but when we left the forest that evening, we saw little Peter’s mother running along the road that comes from town. Her lips were moving but we couldn’t understand anything because the woods absorbed all the sounds and pushed them toward the tops of the trees, where only the birds could hear them. When she was close enough, the woman told her husband that she had seen Peter crouched on the hill behind their yard. She had called to him but Peter seemed not to hear her and hadn’t come into the house. When she approached him, Peter ran away.
Like those nights when one upsetting dream is followed by another that brings relief only until we find that it, often no more than a reflection or prolongation of the first dream, is much more upsetting, the news from Möhlendorf’s wife was at first a relief to us. After all, Peter was still alive. But at the same time it raised new questions about why he had ignored his mother’s call, where he had spent the night, and why he hadn’t come home.
When we arrived back in town, two boys from Peter’s class came out to meet us and told us that they had seen him around the field, but he was no longer there. That night I heard Möhlendorf’s wife, who lived right next door, crying for hours.
The next day Frank Kaiser, the town tailor, visited Möhlendorf to tell him that he had seen Peter that morning with the eldest of the Schulz children running into the forest. A few hours later Martin Schulz, an asparagus gatherer who always wore his shirt sleeves rolled up, no matter how cold it was, told us that his son had disappeared.
In the following days other children disappeared: Robert Havemann, twelve years old; Rainer Eppelmann, six; Karsten Pauer, twelve; and Micha Kobs, seven. One of the Pauers, who was present when his brother left home, said that he was in his room studying and watching his brother play in the yard when he saw Peter and the other children appear among the trees of a neighboring property; he said that no one spoke, that his brother was squatting, scratching at the ground with a spoon, and then he lifted his head and saw the others, threw the spoon to one side, walked toward them, and then they all ran off together.
Our fears from that point on shifted: we were no longer worried about Peter’s disappearance, but rather the way he seemed to have gained influence over the other children in the town and was dragging them along with him. Added to the anguish of the parents whose children had left them was the anguish of those who feared their children would be next. Many stopped sending their kids to school and there were those—but this was only known later—who locked them in their rooms to keep them from escaping, but the children always managed to get out anyway, imbued with an intelligence and a strength whose source was unbeknownst to us and that emerged as soon as Peter and the other children appeared on the horizon, slightly crouching in wait.
The authorities of the so-called Democratic Republic of Germany sent policemen with two dogs and some soldiers of the Volksarmee to search through the woods for the children, but they never found them. While the police, soldiers, and parents searched through the forest hearing only the whining of the dogs, telling ourselves what we said we remembered thinking the night that little Peter had disappeared, Peter struck our homes and more children joined up with him: Jana Schlosser, seven years old; Cornelia Schleime, thirteen; Katharina Gajdukowa, nine. His growing influence with the rest of the children, his ability to vanish in a small town in a relatively accessible region—with the exception of the woods, which were and are still today tangled and dark—and his ability to go without food and shelter were surprising and disheartening to us but they also introduced a parenthesis in our more or less common and miserable lives, and this parenthesis seemed to offer a new normality comprised of disappearances that, in their proliferation, we feared would eventually make us indifferent to them.
One afternoon I was at home fixing a pigeon cage I had. The pigeons flew over my head and the head of my son, who disinterestedly handed me the tools I asked for. My son was telling me the plot of a film he said he had seen: in it, a woman believed that her son was dead; the viewer believed what the woman was saying until learning that the woman’s husband thought she was crazy and that they had never had any kids. The woman then ran away from her husband and met up with a man she remembered who had memories of her son; then the viewer changes his mind for the third time and thinks that the woman really did have a son. I asked my son how the movie ended. He said that he didn’t remember, but that he thought that the woman finally understood that her husband was right and that she was crazy and that it was just a coincidence that she had found another crazy person who believed the same thing she did. She had never had any children, said my son, and that was the correct ending for the film because, more or less, all kids, imaginary or not, were just an idea of their parents and, like ideas, could be forgotten or set aside when another better idea arrived.
I was about to say something in response, or ask him why he made up these stories—I knew the state channels and I knew that, even if such a movie did exist, they would never have shown it—but then my son paused while handing me a tool and the tool fell to the floor. On the hill at the back of our yard, in the yellow glow of the dusk, I saw the silhouettes of Peter Möhlendorf and the other children; they were crouching like animals. My son looked at them, and they, stock-still, looked at him; I thought they would say something, that they would call to him, but they didn’t speak a word. My son took a step toward them and I said something or just wanted to say it but the sound of the pigeons as they flew in circles around their cage was so loud no one could hear anything. In that moment the pigeons all plummeted from the sky until they hit the bars of the cage and the sound of their feet scratching the metal made me think of rain, an unexpected rain that had fallen on us all. And I thought of the film that my son had told me about and I said to myself: He too is just an idea. We are all ideas thought up by our parents, and we vanish before or after them. A small bell, which my wife had hung up that day, rang as the wind moved it. A car passed slowly in front of the house and didn’t stop. My son then did something I wasn’t expecting: he looked at the ground and took me by the arm, as if I were the one who was going to run away and join up with the other children—if indeed they still were children—and distance myself from him. Then I saw that Peter had stood up somewhat on the hill and his clothes seemed to become transparent when the setting sun hit him. I couldn’t see his face because he was in the shadows, and yet I think I remember—but it could just have been an illusion—that he smiled and that his smile didn’t explain anything, not a thing. Then he disappeared behind the hill. My son trembled furiously beside me and the pigeons slipped on the metal as if it were ice.
A couple of days later, when the disappearance of the children had become just another of so many inconveniences that we could say nothing about and that were a substantial and incomprehensible part of life in the so-called Democratic Republic of Germany, little Peter Möhlendorf came back home. His father, who was sitting in the kitchen in front of a topographical map of Sterberode and the woods, lifted his head and saw him pass by on the way to his room. A moment later Peter came back into the kitchen with new clothes on, took a carton of milk out of the fridge and poured some into a glass, drank it standing up, then put the carton back in the fridge and didn’t go out to the backyard; he just stood there looking at his father in silence.
That night or the next the rest of the children returned to their homes. None of them seemed to be hurt; none of them seemed to be unusually hungry, or cold, or sick. None of them ever spoke about their disappearance or what they had done during that time away. Little Peter Möhlendorf never explained to anyone what had made him flee his house for those days and perhaps he never was able to explain it to himself. He was an outstanding student in high school and his classmates remember him as someone applied but accessible, who perhaps smoked too much. Peter Möhlendorf studied engineering at the University of Rostock and now lives in Frankfurt an der Oder. He has two children.
—Translated from Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem
Love what you've read? Subscribe to The Paris Review.
Carsten René Nielsen, House Inspections
Cathy Park Hong, Abecedarian Western
Jessica Fordham Kidd, Biggest Fish I Will Ever See
Alison D. Moncrief, Prologue
James Schuyler, Six Poems
Maggie Smith, Apologue