The story of the one missing and four hanged boys. Everyone from our small Coloradan town remembers where they were the day they first heard about it. Me? I was there.
I’d like to say I went on that camping trip because of my passion for the outdoors or my lust for mother nature. That’s the story I always planned on telling Liam, but in reality, it was a process of elimination. Which dad was the least opposed to taking a group of five cub scouts on their first two-night camping trip? I remember my first camping trip in these very mountains: it was also a cub scout trip with my Dad. And now that I think about it, I wonder if he got roped into it the same way I did.
After almost a full two minutes of searching behind the distracting chatter of odorous third graders relying on my directions, I found the blue rectangle on a tree trunk I was looking for. I turned around and told the kids, “It’s up to the left about a quarter mile to a half mile now.”
Jake groaned from the back of the group. “Ugh, I’m tired Mr. Danton. Why can’t we just stop here?”
I didn’t have a decent answer for him. I wanted to stop too. “Come on guys, it’s just a little further. When we get there we can set up, explore, roast some marshmallows.”
Timothy started hopping like a jackrabbit. “S’mores! I can’t wait.” Liam smiled at his jumping – never a fervent fan of marshmallows himself, but Timothy’s enthusiasm was contagious.
“But before we continue, we’re going to stop and do a quick headcount,” I said.
“To make sure the Baba Yaga didn’t eat anyone yet?” Brendan asked.
I wrapped a hand around each strap of my backpack, took a deep breath, then shivered. “Brendan, for the last time. The Baba Yaga doesn’t exist.” And for all I knew she didn’t. But something deep inside me screamed for attention – something that knew the truth. It was a memory hiding under three decades of repressed regret, sadness, loss, and most of all: horror. I just didn’t know it at the time.
“She’s real,” Brendan protested. “You remember that kid that went missing here five years ago? That was the Baba Yaga. Some say her hut is only a mile from the campsite. She comes in her black robes and picks up a kid every night with her long sharp nails and takes them back to her hut to eat them!”
“Eat them?” Liam asked in a high voice.
Zachary took a stride back from the group and tucked his head between his shoulders. “Scaredy cat!” Jake jeered.
“I’m not scared,” Zachary said in a shaking voice. “The Baba Yaga isn’t real. Right, Mr. Danton?”
“Promise?” Liam asked. “Promise, Daddy?”
And then I looked my son directly in the eyes, and with a straight face I said, “Yes.”
“See? There’s nothing to be afraid of. Brendan is a liar,” Timothy vindictively declared.
“Okay, guys. Let’s take that headcount.” They all fell silent as I’d asked. I stepped back and stood tall over them and began counting. Directly in front of me was Timothy, then Brendan next to him, then Liam just behind them. That’s three. Then Jake in the back, then – where was Zachary? I counted again. One, two, three, four. I whipped back, then forwards again. He was nowhere to be seen. “Zachary?” I called out.
Brendan bowed his head and his lips turned to a devious smile. In a forced deep and crackling voice, he said, “The Baba Yaga.”
“Daddy?” Liam said.
“Zachary?” I called louder. Then a rustling came from behind a tree. It shook the leaves on an adjacent bush and turned into a slow shuffling noise.
Jake turned towards the tree and jumped in something of shock or fear. He pointed at the ground behind the tree and for a moment my heart stopped until he said, “Frog!”
From behind the bush, Zachary stood up, entranced by the hopping green critter in his hands. “Look what I found,” he said.
“Zachary, put that down,” I commanded.
He didn’t listen. “Cool,” the other boys chimed in as they crowded around Zachary.
“Put it down,” I boomed. A robin took off, tweeting from a shaking branch and the kids went silent again. “We have to take our headcounts seriously. You all need to learn the rules of hiking if you ever want to do this again.”
Liam raised an index finger and counted out the group. “Six. We’re all here.”
I nodded once, still unsatisfied. “Thanks, Liam. Good.”
A half mile later, we arrived at the campsite and set up our tents. Well, the kids mostly sat around complaining or having sword fights with the tent poles while I wrestled with the wobbly contraptions. After setting up the first tent I turned to the group and said, “Doesn’t anyone want to learn how to build a tent? Don’t you want to impress the other dads on the next trip?”
“Timothy’s dad always builds our tents,” Jake said.
I looked to Liam for at least a hint of support, but received none. “Yeah,” he confirmed. “He does.”
I shook my head and continued unassisted until all the makeshift swords were planted in their rightful places. But about halfway through setting up the fourth and final tent, a foul stench overcame the campsite. At first, I thought it was just me who smelled it. Then Timothy puffed out his cheeks and covered his nose. “Ew,” he said in a congested voice. “What’s that smell?”
Also pinching his nose, Brendan said, “It’s the Baba Yaga.”
Then I looked down to see my hands shaking. They went cold. I didn’t cover my nose and instead took in all of it: that smell of sulfur, rotting cabbage and roadkill mixed into one. I’d smelled it before. My memories began churning. That smell taunted my mind, pushing at the repressed incident harder. It tried to escape, but I wouldn’t let it.
But then the stench dissipated just as quickly as it had arrived. “Is it gone?” Timothy said with a scowl on his face.
I nodded. “Yeah, it’s gone. Probably just a skunk.”
Brendan looked to me with a sort of doubtful inquisition – like he had been there all those years ago. I broke our brief eye contact and finished assembling that last tent.
That evening we had a great deal of success finding dry sticks for the campfire since it hadn’t rained in about a week. As the sun was setting, I grabbed some dried leaves and shoved them into the teepee of sticks for kindling, then started the fire with my lighter. Jake stared intently at the two stones he was rubbing together, awaiting a spark that would never come.
“Who wants s’mores?” I said.
“Yay, s’mores!” Timothy said, breaking into dance once more. They all grabbed a long stick and pushed a couple marshmallows on one end and began roasting. Some were more patient than others. Timothy and Liam delicately churned their sticks like they were roasting a pig, in search of that golden-brown perfection. Meanwhile, the other three kids dipped their sticks low into the flame until they lit their desserts into a charred tiki torch and bobbed it above their heads. “Burn!” Zachary declared. “Burn! Burn!”
I frantically stood from the rock and tried to steady my quaking legs. That wasn’t just Zachary. A much deeper, raspy voice had joined in. Brendan craned his neck and looked up to me, ignoring his smore as it began to whip into a scorching frenzy in the middle of the campfire. I tried to ignore him, but struggled. He knew something. I don’t know what, but he knew something.
The voice had stopped. It only uttered that one word: burn. I can’t say for sure, but I think I heard a low, labored breathing from just beyond the campsite. I tried to work it out of my mind. It isn’t there, I told myself. It isn’t there. Perhaps denial wasn’t the best strategy in the company of the Baba Yaga. I glanced back to Brendan and then his stick to see the final remnants of a burned marshmallow drooping from the glowing red end of his stick.
After s’mores, I told the kids, “We need to hang our food bag from a tree so the bears and racoons can’t get to it.”
Jake intervened. “Actually, Timothy’s dad always –”
“I don’t care what Timothy’s dad does. I’m here now, and you’re going to do some learning on this trip.”
“Ugh,” Zachary groaned.
“You can thank me later,” I said.
And that’s what we did. I taught them all how to pick the best branch: not too weak to snap from the food, but not too sturdy for an agile bear. I taught them how to tie a strong slipknot around the tree trunk. Liam did it best, so I used his knot as an example. Then I taught them how to toss the bag over that branch, which I did myself. But when I tossed it over and the branch hissed and waved as the bag of food swung, I couldn’t help but shiver. It swayed and struggled and suffocated and – no. Just a misplaced memory.
“Alright,” I told them. “We have to be up bright and early tomorrow so we can hike to the next campsite.”
“How much further?” Jake moaned.
“Only another three miles,” I said. I lied. It was more like five or six. But this distinction didn’t seem to help, as the kids collectively groaned regardless.
We all went back to our respective tents: Jake and Liam to theirs, Zachary and Timothy to theirs, and then Brendan to his, and me to my own. The night started off fine. The kids murmured amongst themselves and shined flashlights at the tent walls. Everyone giggled and wrestled and then whined in defeat until each fell into a sound sleep. Everyone except for me. I tossed and turned, focusing on my breathing, then my thirst, then a rock jabbing into my lower back, and then…her.
It started with that reeking odor wafting into my nose again. I wanted to gag, but I held it in with muted coughs and puffed cheeks. It’s just a skunk, I told myself.
But then came the shuffling. The leaves pushed out under the footfalls of something large. Sticks snapped and dirt rustled and it all only grew louder. It’s just a bear, I told myself. A very smelly bear.
Then came the breathing. Each breath was long and labored. It crackled and rolled out of what I hoped was an animal, then was sucked back in with the withering strength of something quite old – or someone.
The breathing grew louder and the sticks snapped closer and soon I could see it: the shadow of the Baba Yaga standing outside my tent. I tucked the cold sleeping bag over my shoulders and tried to control my shuddering breath. The shadow was short and bipedal, hunched and robed, and soon reaching out toward my tent. It wasn’t its hand that touched my tent first: it was its nails. Those lengthy, curling monstrosities stroked the polyester siding, pushing it in with her four thin digits. I inched away to the opposite side in my sleeping bag like a worm. I was petrified – at a total loss for action.
Then her long nails retracted from the tent and her shadow soon disappeared. She’d quickly lost interest, but it wasn’t ever me she was after. The shuffling continued and I hoped and prayed that she’d venture back into the forest. She didn’t. The crackling breathing continued. The shuffling and rustling of leaves went on. And I sat there hopelessly terrified. Deep within, I knew what she was planning. But I did nothing. The Baba Yaga soon stopped again, this time in front of a different tent. I heard her fingernails graze over the outside of the tent’s wall while a single boy whimpered from inside. The sounds of the door’s zipper slowly splitting open rang throughout the campgrounds. There was a final yelp from the child and then…nothing.
The next morning, I hoped it was all just a nightmare. I unzipped the tent door, still drenched in denial. The dew glistened on my tarp and an animal scampered off to the sounds of my zipper. Despite it being the summer, I remember there was a distinct chilling wind over the grounds that morning. First, I checked the food bag, which still hung intact from the tree branch. Then I checked the kids’ tents, and that’s when I finally faced it. That’s when I knew. A hot flash overcame my face and I realized the reality of my night of paralyzing fear. The short gusts of wind whistled against the flapping open door of Brendan’s tent. I gulped and didn’t bother to look inside. I didn’t need to.
Once the kids woke up, they began asking questions. Where’s Brendan? What was that smell last night? “Daddy, I’m scared,” Liam told me.
But there was no reason to be afraid anymore. For our second night, I had a plan. See, when the open tent door flapped and I realized Brendan was gone, I finally remembered that camping trip I’d so long repressed. If hanging our food in the tree stopped the bears, then we had our answer. I handed each child a rope and taught them their next survival lesson – a new type of knot. They were even less enthusiastic this time. Instead of the usual whining and complaining they wept and coughed until…well, until they didn’t anymore. And it worked like a charm. I slept soundly that night and the Baba Yaga came and left unsatisfied, as its food hung from the tree.