Do you know any of the songs of Shendag Bertec? Some of them must have made it here, surely. They came drifting in on the wind, through the old tunnels and up and out. That’s what they said, but we weren’t so sure. We thought they just made them all up to cover up what was happening, back in what they called the real world. We didn’t know that Shendag Bertec was a real place itself, then. We thought it was all some kind of nightmare. Don’t you know any of those old songs?
When the shadows come a-calling
There’s nothing you can do
When darkness starts a-falling
They’re coming after you
You think you can stay hidden
Wrapped up far from harm
But safety’s been forbidden
When they silence the alarm
Silence the alarm, oh,
Silence the alarm
No one hears you calling
When they silence the alarm
Never heard that one? I can’t even remember who taught it to me. We were all singing it then. It seemed like a nightmare we were all sharing, dreaming it at the same time. But it took us a long time to wake up. Except for Isa. She stayed awake the whole time.
Isa Raichenhall: resident of the beautiful Bavarian village of Berchtesgaden. Have you ever seen Berchtesgaden?
In the days before the fall, this place let you see its beauty around every corner. The lakes and forests, the mountains and the fields: Berchtesgaden was free and fearless and home, back in those quiet days.
But these days were quiet no longer. The village had been taken by a great sickness, marching in brown across those mild meadows, dripping bent crosses in black and red from every building.
In the days before the fall, they found the time to smile, to dance, to count the days of summer before them like rosary beads, like the green pearls of Leoni’s necklace.
But summer could not last. It died in one great thunderstorm and washed those smiles away.
The next morning, looking in the river, the surface was rippled with lost smiles, sneering and smirking and swept away.
Isa saw Leoni’s smile there too, but could not name it.
And when she came home from the baker’s, a bag of morning bread in her hand, there was nothing but an empty silence and a feeling of cold changes. Then Isa noticed, under the door, a note, in a scrawl that spoke panic, but was definitely in Leoni’s hand:
Leoni was gone.
How can you find a shadow in a world of darkness? Where do they hide? Where are they taken?
In this place, the words had been silenced, along with the alarms. If anyone had seen Leoni as she was taken away – for surely she had not gone of her own free will – how could they find the courage to speak of it? Speak out and maybe you would be the next to disappear.
Holding the panic down, Isa took to the streets of Berchtesgaden to find Leoni. She asked Frau Engedey in the bakery and Herr Gmain, the butcher; she asked Evi at the guesthouse and Michi at the post office; she asked Herr Schneider, the strange tailor; she even asked her stern old teacher, Herr Dietrich.
No one had seen her. Not a trace.
She did not ask the soldiers. She did not ask the police.
With no answers, Isa needed to look for clues. Her feet took her all around the village. She walked the pavements and paths; she looked in windows, through church doors, behind the town hall and the castle. Leoni was nowhere.
She walked through the meadows and by the bottomless lakes. Leoni was nowhere.
She climbed the hills, the better to see; she crossed the scree valleys, turning over stones. Leoni was nowhere.
Then she walked through the forests, and with the sadness pulling her eyes to the ground, she saw something at her foot. She had kicked against it, like a little stone, and sent it off ahead of her down the path.
But it was not a stone.
It was a single green pearl.
Just like the green pearls from the string around Leoni’s neck.
Isa picked it up and held it. Leoni had been here!
Following this pearl path, Isa found herself at an abandoned entrance to the old salt mine. The machinery was locked in time, frozen in orange and powdered brown.
Isa dared to break the silence. “Leoni! Are you there?”
Someone heard her call. Someone who was not Leoni.
There! There, another green pearl!
Isa did not hear the soft footsteps behind her as she grabbed at the fallen jewel and placed it safe with its companion, in her pocket. Instead, she picked up an old lamp and thought herself Aladdin, rubbing the glass clean and wishing and hoping.
No genie came, but Isa did see a box of matches there. The green pearls in her pocket warmed and made her bold: she did not question who might have left those matches. She struck a light and gave life to the old lamp. Isa was going into the mine.
The footsteps behind her waited.
She had not noticed how bright the day had been until she entered the darkness.
The light bent against the walls and shone old cobwebs into lace. Isa found her voice quiet here.
“Leoni! Are you there?” Her words were scarcely more than a whisper, but they pushed at the dust and sent it off in waves through the old air, caught by her lamp. The uneasy feeling that someone else was in there with her made Isa turn suddenly, the lamp swinging and flickering and almost dying. She saw no one.
But seeing is not always enough.
Letting the flame settle, Isa walked forwards, deeper and deeper into the mine. The pathway sloped, but only a little. Behind her, the light of day was only slightly fading. She touched the green pearls in her pocket and took a long, cool breath. I will find you, Leoni, she said, inside her head. She said it over and over again, in a slow rhythm to match her footsteps, walking away from the light.
The tunnel took a turn to the right and so it was that the last of the daylight disappeared.
I will find you, Leoni. I will find you, Leoni. I will find you, Leoni. I will find-
Isa stopped. She had expected the darkness. She had not expected new light. New red light.
The walls of the mine were glowing, pulsing, even. Pulsing blood red light. Isa held her lamp up and saw hundreds of mushrooms clinging to the bare rock, phosphorescing in crimson. If she had turned around then, she might have seen the shimmer in the eyes of the one who watched her. But she did not turn around. She touched against the pearls once more and walked on.
The kingdom of plants needs light. The kingdom of animals needs movement. Mushrooms do not belong in either of these realms, but form their own, third kingdom.
Isa walked through this domain, her words a mantra to keep the fear at bay:
I will find you Leoni. I will find you Leoni. I will find you Leoni.
She remembered, in the eerie red half-light, how Leoni had found her, back then.
How those breathless days had ended in the calm of her soft hand.
“Ah, Isa, my little songbird,” she had said, “sing the blackbird song again for me…”
But there was no time for singing now.
I will find you Leoni. I will find you Leoni.
“I will find you Leoni,” she said, out loud, to the mushrooms, to the mine, to the heavy tunnel she walked through, to the solid ground beneath her feet. To the listening ears behind her.
Isa felt a hand at her back.
The solid ground beneath her feet disappeared.
Falling is a third kingdom too. Neither above nor fully below, but the space in between. Beyond control of life or death, but a waiting to find out.
As she fell, the lamp left her hand and illuminated her descent. Everything was slow and still. Through her plummeting, Isa saw Leoni’s face, smiling at her, the green pearl necklace visible. She tapped against her pocket and felt the pearls there, a connection between them.
Then, with a muffled thud, her light went out.
Is it not so, that it is not the falling but the landing which shapes our stories?
And Isa had not died.
The shock of the fall had caused some kind of faint, but her landing had been secured by a thick bed of mushroom and moss. She knew it was mushroom and moss because she could see it, not by the light of the old lamp, for it was now extinguished, nor by the haze of the red mushrooms, for they were far above her now; but because light was coming in from another entrance.
She knew she needed to find a way out of this place because there was someone who had pushed her down this hole and when that someone found out that she was still alive, who knows what they might do next?
It was too dangerous to let herself think thoughts like these. She needed to move on, quickly.
Checking to see if was injured in any way – miraculously she was not – Isa rose to her feet. She would not let herself look back up the mineshaft she had fallen through; she would not let herself see any eyes watching her. She had to move forwards, she had to move out, towards this new light. Putting her hand in her pocket, she held the two green pearls there. If I have survived, she thought, then Leoni has survived. She pushed the pearls to the safe depths of the pocket and her doubts and fears as far to the back of her mind as she could. There were no sounds of people around her: she told herself she was alone.
Moss feathers in her hair, Isa clambered through a rocky tunnel, upwards, to the light.
Old mines probably have many, many openings, she thought, an uneasy feeling coming over her, I’m probably on the other side of the village somewhere, she thought, already knowing it a lie.
We can make ourselves believe what we know to be lies, if we want it to be the truth. We find signs to prove these falsehoods true, so that we may rest a little longer in the comfort of self-deceit.
And as Isa emerged into the light, she found one such sign, huge across her new horizon. The great mountain she saw there looked so very familiar: just like that mountain she had known all her life, the Watzmann that towered over Berchtesgaden. Almost exactly like it. Almost exactly the same.
But nothing else was the same at all.
Isa had seen her home vanish once before. Clouds had gathered over it – acid clouds to dissolve peace and safety. She knew already that nothing was certain; nothing could be taken for granted. Yet the streets and the buildings of Berchtesgaden did still look more or less as they had before, but for the flags and the fear.
This new place made no sense at all.
Looking out across the valley, she saw a path – an empty path – leading down to a forest. Isa turned back to look into the tunnel entrance she had just left and knew there was no way back. What was there for her there? Without Leoni there was nothing, nothing but secret hands that would push a stranger to their death down a lost mineshaft.
Isa took to the empty path and left her old life behind her.
There was barely a note of birdsong as she walked down to the woods below. The quiet weighed over the valley like a storm that refused to break.
Isa glanced back over her shoulder as the cave faded into the distance, no footsteps following her. By the side of the path, weird constructions like giant beehives stood on stilts, but there was no buzzing, no sound at all. No one passed her on her way – not a cowherd, not a bee-keeper, not a soul. None of the buildings she knew were there, the farms and barns, the alms and the woodsheds; there was nothing of home at all, save for this curious image of her own dear Watzmann mountain.
She half-stumbled as she reached the edge of the forest. The trees grew thick and dark and tall, beech and spruce and pine. Looking back one last time to the tunnel opening, Isa tapped against the pearls and stepped into the shadows.
Less than twenty paces in, she heard a rustling among the low branches and froze in her step. Was it a bird or an animal? Was it human footsteps through the undergrowth? Isa held her breath.
There, peering from behind a tree, was a pine marten.
Just a pine marten – nothing more than that – just the same kind of animal she had seen countless times at home, in the forests of Berchtesgaden. If anything, it was a little small.
Pine martens aren’t green.
Illustrations by Cordula Marks Venters