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.