The ground was soft. That was the first thing I noticed when we arrived. The scout leader said it was okay, not a problem for us. He said it had always been that way, in all those years that the Redground campsite existed.
I was 11 back then and wore my red scarf with pride. We had hiked for nearly a whole day and the younger ones, I among them, would not not have been able to go on any longer.
There would be two more days of hiking until Hideout Canyon. We all knew that and I think I was not the only one that felt regret at having come along.
Even with my aching legs there was one thing I was still more scared of – the darkening sky. I always hated thunder and lightning, then as now, gave me weird visions not far different from nightmares. It was as if the flash of the lightning turned my brain into survival mode, it made my mind a mental cinema screen to play horror movies in.
It was then the thunder that usually woke me from the suffocating fear, only to shock me with a violent, painful wave of panic.
The scout leaders too were worried about the rain. They hurried us to set up the tents and told us to keep them on or at least near the higher and dry area in the center of the campground.
As usual I was unlucky. My two best friends and tentmates were kind enough to walk with me at the end of our procession – which meant that by the time we arrived all the good spots, those on hard ground, were taken.
There was a campfire. There were songs and hot food and drinks. Still I must have dozed off.I remember a moment of sitting with my head on somebody’s shoulder and my juice running over my foot. It must have been the juice that woke me up. The bright bolt that crashed into a nearby tree came seconds later.
In retrospect I think that my traumatic experience with lightning must have been some sort of mild epilepsy. But in the moment it certainly did not feel ‘mild.’
In that moment the juice on my leg formed into a cold hand; the bright sky turned into a wall of flames and the folksong turned into an orgy of screams. Maybe the screams were real but the images that flood my mind, the flame-throwing monsters and the brown creatures climbing through the mud from below, were certainly not.
That time it was Johnny that woke me, rather then the thunder. Just when a ball of flame flew in my direction he shook my shoulder and I was back at the campfire with juice on my foot and a half-filled plate between my legs.
Then the thunder cracked through the night. My whole body cramped and my scream turned into just a loud croaking sound.
When the first raindrops fell we were quickly handed bowls of fire-baked caramel cake and sent to our tents. There we sat and stuffed cake in our mouths while the rain played a drum solo on the tarp above our heads – or rather, Johnny and Simon sat while I hid in my sleeping bag, living through one episode of lightning-induced nightmare after the other.
At some point Johnny and Simon too climbed in their sleeping bags. They allowed me to lie in the middle. For a few minutes we played card games, then, despite the ongoing flashes and explosions in the sky, I must have fallen asleep.
The screams woke us up.
Somebody banged wood on metal or metal on metal.
We had experienced their nightly surprises before, but not like that, never like that. Not with that many screams. Not with the ground moving.
Outside were splashing sounds. Sucking sounds.
When we ripped the tent door open it looked as if the world was sinking. There were a few flash lights but even the light of the stars was enough to know that everything around us had turned to mud.
Other scouts were trudging, even crawling, through the deep sticky soil. Some were crying or calling for help and two or three adults were making their way between the camps, calling out and shaking the green plastic tarps.
Our tent was slowly sinking. We felt it, the ground giving in below us. Simon was the first to climb out; his body nearly disappeared completely in the mud. In the last second we pulled him back out.
Simon managed to get a few steps further, where the mud seemed not to be as deep. He pulled first Johnny over, then me. Our clothes were covered in wet sludge; our legs nearly wholy inside it. An adult walked past and said we should wait; that he would pull us out. He trudged on; disappeared behind another tent.
Others kept screaming to wake up; run; climb. Without a thought we kept going, moved through the sludge. Inside the mud I felt my feet stepping on old, slippery roots. Every time I slipped I sank deeper. Like quicksand pulled on our feet.
We held our hands but rather than helping each other it meant that each time one slipped the others were pulled deeper.
Right next to one of the larger tents Johnny slipped. He fell straight on me; pushed me into the sludge. My body sank into the brown and black mass, I felt the coldness on my face.
My body stopped moving. I wanted to flee, swim, paddle, climb, but all I could do was stay still.
A hand moved into the sludge. It grabbed my chin. It tried to pull me up. The person was too weak.
For a moment I thought I knew what death was like. Cold, wet and dark.
Then suddenly I was on something solid. The hand pulled me up and a second hand joined it. For a moment I thought something was also pushing me from below.
Then I was out, coughing mud. A larger hand grabbed my arm and pulled me further out. When I turned aroudn there was just Simon, half in the mud but with his hands stuck back into the ground. He screamed “Johnny” over and over again. Two adults rushed towards him while the camp leader pulled me towards the high ground.
Once the camp leader’s hand slipped. My arms flayed, then I felt that the ground was harder now, that I was safe. He pulled me up again. I felt something cracking under my feet with every step towards the safety of the island.
I will never forget standing on that island. Huddled together while the adults carefully checked one tent after the other. They counter us again and again and we just sat, some cried. It felt as if we were soldiers in a deadly war against the forces of nature.
And then the lightning flashed. Three times, quickly one after the other. Without a thunder.
The last scouts were just climbing on the island.
When the first bold struck some of us screamed. The second time all. The third time the screams didn’t stop.
We all saw the floating white objects. Some round, but most long and thin.
We were on that island for nearly a day before the help arrived. We watched as the dark sludge slowly moved downhill; slowly pushed more and more bones onto the island.
Some of ths skulls still had hair attached.
They said a dam broke. The water soaked into the sandy and already moist ground.
Most of the dead had been shot. A massacre. Probably white settlers eliminating a tribe.
The grave must always have been there; all those years right below the sleeping bodies of resting scouts.
That night only one scout went missing.
Simon said that Johnny sank together with me; that he tried to pull us both out but could only find me.
There were attempts at a search, a team even began digging near where he had disapperaed.
All they found were bones.
A week later Johnny returned from the dead. He walked into a village at the other side of the hills. He was thin and pale, his clothes caked in mud.
There were large, straight cut marks on hid back and chest.
Johnny said he didn’t remember a thing.
Not how he had escaped.
Not where he had been.
Not why he carried a skull around each of his hands.