The Red LightI am fairly certain that many of you have not heard this Y Camp, campfire story. But it was a staple of my time at camp. We had four campfires down at the campfire sight which was where the â€˜Mud Hockey Fieldâ€™ is now. The first Wednesday we heard the Vandiver Man and this was always the story we heard the second Wednesday. Usually, we heard The Foxfire Man as the third story and I canâ€™t remember what else. Some of you in my generation will remember it. I donâ€™t know when it started, but it was one of our favorites. It was good even after you heard it a dozen times. Good stories only get better in the retelling.
THE RED LIGHT
For as long as his memory held, it had been there. Out the window of their cottage it hung low on the northern horizon, glowing reddish gold. Certainly it was not a star; it was the wrong color for a star and unlike the stars it never moved. Of course the star of the north never moved but it was the only fixed one in the night sky. There could not be two of that and it did not shine like a star. It just sat there, unmoving its reddish eye fixed on the boyâ€¦ beckoning with some unknown purpose. It was his fateful star, thought the boy, it looked at him and him alone.
Well, that is what he thought as a boy; but boys grow up and dreams of dragons and castles fade. And the red light receded into the depths of his memoryâ€¦ still there but ever fainter. And then one day it faded completely from his dreams and another took its place. It was the day he saw the girl ride by on horseback. She was young and golden and beautiful. Alas, she was as distant for him as his red light. She was the daughter of the local noble and he was a journeymanâ€™s son. True, he was not a peasant, tied to the medieval soil. But he was only a little better. His father was the village blacksmith and the girl was as unreachable as the red light.
But as he despaired it seemed there would be one chance. It was tied to the fabled beauty of the girl and her fatherâ€™s profligacy. This noble had not been wise with his heritage. He had lost most of his fortune from sloth and ill use. His beautiful daughter was to be bait for a new fortune. It was announced in the village and throughout the land that the girl would be given in marriage to the young man boasting the greatest fortune. She would be sold to the highest bidder to put it coarsely. But coarse fate is also opportunity. The boyâ€™s romantic imagination told him that he could be that young man; that a fortune was out there somewhere, to be won by one who was ingenious and bold.
Not knowing exactly why, he packed his meager belongings, said good by to father and mother and began a journey of discovery. He would go toward the light of his fate; he would find it; and there he knew would be his fortune. And so like a moth, irresistibly drawn to a dangerous flame, the boy began to move toward the mystery in the north.
But this was Germany of the middle age. And so it would not be a quick or easy trip. It would be a long, lonely trek by foot. The boy would be walking alone into the most dense and mysterious forest in all of Europe, the legendary Black Forest. He would not be traveling in an armed party, the usual mode of traversing that forest; he would venture in alone. He carried only a pack for his food and sleeping blanket and a small wooden flute which he played as he walked to occupy his mind in the dark foreboding wood.
In order to move in the proper direction the boy needed to travel by night. Otherwise he would not see the star. He moved northward by dead reckoning for he had no compass to help. When he found high ground he would climb the hill and then climb a tree in order to see the star and know that he was traveling, more or less, in a line to the north. He could only know if he were moving in the right direction by the height of the light. If the light had climbed up from the horizon since his last sighting, then he was moving toward it. The young man understood that closer he came to the light, the more it would naturally rise up in the sky. By this rather ordinary reckoning, the boy made his way closer and closer to his objective. But then the boy came to a stretch of the journey where the land flattened and there were no longer any hills. At this point, however, the light had risen so far above the horizon that he no longer needed a hill to see it and to know he was coming closer. If this light was situated on a tower, then the tower that held it truly must have been of gigantic proportions for the light to have been visible from so far away as his home on the edge of the forest. And now, even though he was close, he sensed that he had a few days left to walk and that light seemed to hover almost directly over head. Whatever the light rested upon, the boy knew it would be a wondrous structure.
Finally, after traveling for nearly three months ever deeper into the woods the boy came to a small village early one morning. He went immediately to the village smith and asked to be allowed to work for his food that day and for a place to stay the night. The black smith, after briefly observing the boyâ€™s work, knew immediately that he had a bargain, for the boy understood the forge and was industrious in its use. The two of them labored together for most of the day, doing three times the work the blacksmith normally did in a day.
That night the smith brought the boy home to meet his wife and children. After a wonderful meal, the best the boy had had since he began his journey, the family settled before the fire to hear the young manâ€™s story. He told them of life in southern Germany and of his family and his ill fated love. He finished by telling the story of his ill fated love of the noblemanâ€™s daughter and the marriage proposal the noble offered to all the young men in the surrounding country. Then he spoke of his attraction to the strange red light to the north and his intuition that that far away light held the answer to his problem. He related that he had been slowly making his way for months, closer and closer to the light. Now that he was close to it, he felt that these local people might be able to shed their light on his quest.
At that the family became very quiet. They tried to change the subject, asking him questions to divert him from his quest. But he would not be dissuaded. He continued to ask until the blacksmith reluctantly began to tell the story of the Red Light:
Long ago, this forest did not rule the landscape as it does not. The trees were plentiful and beautiful, But they were not so thick as now. Today the trees and vines have taken over and rule this land with an iron fist. Now it is difficult, even dangerous for men to live here, for who knows what lurks in these woods? But it was not always so. In days past there were many prosperous villages with wide connecting roads between them, and the farms were spacious and rich. It was a productive land overseen by a benevolent Prince. But things changed when the Princeâ€™s son was born. It was rumored that the child was cursed, But no-one knew for sure what was the matter, Because the child was never seen after it began to grow up. It was rumored that the boy was dwarfish and deformed. But this was only told by the few servants with access to the royal familyâ€™s quarters; no-one could say for sure. And if anyone dared speak, that one would disappear. At the young Princeâ€™s 21st birthday a bride was brought for him from a neighboring state. It would be a grand alliance of noble families, one from which all would benefit. There were hopes that the darkness would now be lifted from the kingdom, but it was not to be so. On the day of their marriage the princess was brought to meet her groom. She left those private rooms deathly white. She rejoined her family and the left the palace immediately, Never to be seen again in this kingdom. Without another word, the wedding guests were ordered to leave and the palace was shut, never to be opened again. No-one knows what happened that day or what the princess saw in that room. Neither she nor her family ever spoke of it in public. Later, she was married to the prince of another kingdom and thus ends the story. Oh yes, the old Prince died and was buried by the Bishop in the local cathedral; later his wife also. But of the young prince, no-one ever heard. Shortly after the wife died, a light appeared in the high tower. The tower is one thousand feet tall, the highest in Germany. And that reddish gold light burns from the topmost windows of that tower, night and day and has for fifty years. It is rumored that there his a huge treasure of gold in the castle, but that is only speculation. Many men have tried to find that treasure. Many have entered the castle for entering is easy. Escape, however, seems impossible for no-one who entered has ever returned.
Of course, what followed the story were the usual pleas, asking the young man to turn back while he had a chance, to not go into the castle. And of course, like every other young man, this one believed that he would be the one to solve the riddle and beat the odds. He was firmly resolved, that having come this long way, he would not turn back at the last moment, now that he was so close to realizing his dream.
The next day the entire village turned out to escort the young man to the bridge over the moat that led to the gate of the castle. The castle itself was the largest man made structure that the young man had ever seen, but itâ€™s immensity was dwarfed by the height of that tower. It was fair to say that this was not a â€˜castle with a high tower; rather, this was â€˜a stupendous tower with a castle attachedâ€™. Standing at the edge of the moat, the young man could no longer see the light because the top of the tower was shrouded in morning mist. The tower alone must have taken many years to construct.
As customary for castles of that age, there was a moat surrounding it, with only one drawbridge that led to the main gate. The bridge was lowered, but the gate was locked from the inside. However, there was a small door in the gate itself; and while the gate was firmly shut, the door appeared to be open. Understanding that the young man was determined to enter the castle, the blacksmith exacted one last pledge. The boy promised that he would blow his flute every hour, on the hour to let the people of the village know that he was still alive. If the flute did not sound on the hour, then the villagers would decide what to do.
Turning his back on the townsfolk, the young man began his trek across the bridge, which was surprisingly strong for having been in disuse for years. The door on the other end was open and it swung inward easily without a creakâ€¦ as if it had only been used yesterday. The courtyard was very large with shops, stables, a forge, and in the center a very large well. Though there was no-one there, no activity what so ever, the courtyard looked as if it might have been used only yesterday. As the boy made his way to the castle keep, itself; he stopped and played his flute as promised. The gate to the castleâ€™s interior was immense, though not so large as the fortress gate. There was no small door this time, but the gate was unlocked and easily swung inward.
The young man now found himself in a large banquet hall. It was decorated as if for a party, a wedding reception? The tables were covered with food that looked recently prepared. Being hungry, the boy picked up a fork and knife and carved from a huge roast. The meat was tender and moist and well cooked; he ate and drank until he was full; however he left the huge cake in the center of the main table untouched. There were lengths to which even he dared not go.
From the main hall the boy moved inward toward the place in the center where he imagined he would find the door to the tower. He passed music room, decorated for the party, a large and well supplied library. In those days before printing press, the books in that room alone amounted to a â€˜kingâ€™s ransomâ€™. Being able to read a little the boy could see that most of the books were Greek and Roman classics of incomparable worth. But he didnâ€™t stop long, for he was drawn to the center of the building and the tower.
And suddenly, there at the end of a long hallway was a door that must be it. The door lay open and beyond he could see a upwardly winding staircase that was attached to a rounded wall. As he entered the room, he could see that it was very large and indeed it was round. Its principle use seemed to be as a meeting hall. There was a very large table surrounded by chairs with various family logos carved in the backs. There was a great fireplace on one side and shields hung on the walls. But the main feature of the room was a staircase that was attached to the wall that moved upward in a semi-circle to the ceiling. In the ceiling was a trapdoor. The boy went straight to the steps and began to climb. The roomâ€™s height must have been fifty feet and so the view from the top stair was breathtaking, since there was no banister.
The boy entered the next level and there were living quarters for the family of the Prince, many large rooms with open doors. Almost all were bedrooms and only one door was shut and it was firmly locked as well. The boy found the stairs, again attached to the wall and climbed in an upward semi circle again. The trap door, this time, opened into the main part of the tower which was narrower at this level. From here the stairs wound up as far as the eye could see into the darknessâ€¦ and the boy began to climb.
He lost count at 1000 steps and still he climbed: up and up and up. Finally, after what seemed an eternity he reached another ceiling. Looking down he could see the floor below and the view was dizzying to the point that the boy sat down and forced himself not to look again. He got up, finally, pushed open the trap door and emerged into a much smaller room with no more step. There were windows about five feet from the floor evenly spaced around the circular room. The rest of the room was lined with a reflective metallic substance that served as mirrors. In the center of the room was a small table upon which rested a lamp. It was an oil lamp of some type with wick glowed reddish gold. It was glass encased with no openings.
This was obviously the origin of the red light that could be seen all over the Black Forest and even beyond. The boy took up the lamp and tried to blow on the wick, seeing if he could extinguish the light, but it was encased in glass with no opening and so he could not put it out in this way. Next he turned it upside down, but it continued to burn unabated. He tried moving the lamp to various places in the room but the mirrors caught the light and reflected through the windows no matter where the lamp was placed. It was in the midst of the machinations that he heard itâ€¦
Down below, far down below, beneath the stairs of the tower, footsteps; faint but growing louder. Immediately, the boy put the lamp back on the table, like a misbehaving child who did not want to be caught. Then he made for the trap door and started down. But as quickly as he sped, he was only half way to the bottom when he heard the trap door to the living quarters open and shut. Next he heard the footsteps at the base of the tower stair. Too late; he could not get down past whatever was coming up. And so he turned and fled back up the stairs to the tower room and waited.
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clopâ€¦ up and up came the steps getting louder and louder; untilâ€¦ the feet paused at the head of the stair. The young man held his breath and slowly, ever slowly, the trapdoor began to rise: creeeaak. And when it was fully open a head appeared slowly rising up from the trapdoor. The head was hairless and wrinkled, as if very old. And then the head turned and face the boy. The forehead and the dome of the head were very large and bulbous, the eyes were large and unblinking, the white shone all around the lids; they were bloodshot and the iris were of the palest, watery blueâ€¦ the pupils were dilated as if from being always in dark places. The head was huge, causing the young man to expect a giant to emerge from below the door. But the body was slight and dwarfish, not more than three and a half feet from shoulder to feet.
The body was weak and powerless; the boy could easily have smashed this demon thing and fled. The body was weak, but the eyes were powerful and hypnotic. Once the eyes fixed on the young man, he could not move; he stood transfixed and motionless; held by that horrid stare. The mouth was thin and pursed, almost without lips. When it opened, it revealed teeth that seem to have been filed to sharpness, as if this thing possessed only canine teeth. The face, the position of the body were devoid of emotion, almost as if this thing had no interest in the boy standing before him. The eyes bored right straight through him, and the voice said, â€˜Follow me, folloooow me!â€™ It was a high voice that quavered with a tremolo. It was not unpleasant to hear, but it, too, was devoid of feeling: â€˜Follow me,â€™ and a long bony arm extended from the body and a hand unfurled like a rolled carpet and one long bony index finger extended, curling and uncurling in a beckoning motion; and the voice said again, â€˜Follow me.â€™
And with that the strange dwarfish figure began to back its way through the trapdoor, never taking eyes from the young man. Every fiber of his body screamed to him, â€˜Donâ€™t go,â€™ but his body as if possessing its own opinion, meekly moved to the door, through it, and down to the steps. Meanwhile this thing, never taking eyes from him, began to back down the steep and perilous steps never once looking down for orientation. It simply backed down with eyes focused on eyes and finger curling, uncurling, â€˜Follow me.â€™ And down they climbed, as thousand steps and more without stopping until they were standing again in the living quarters.
The dwarfish thing led the boy into the bedroom of the Duke himself and to a table with a large chest perched atop. The fingers motioned the boy to open the chest, which revealed a mountain of identical gold coins. â€˜You must divide these evenly between us,â€™ sang the demonic voice. And so he began: â€˜One for me, one for youâ€¦ one for me, one for youâ€¦ and it was an hour or more in the counting, but finally the chest had but a few coins. The boy tried to count them, but could not quite manage, was it ten or nine, six or fiveâ€¦ and now it was three: â€˜One for me, one for youâ€¦â€™ and with a sinking feeling the boy realized it was not an even division. With that the dwarf seemed to grow larger by a bit and even seemed to smile creepily. The boy asked, â€˜Is this all there is?â€™ But the demon did not answer; he said, â€˜Follow me.â€™ And so the boy remembered to put the remaining coin in his pocket and he followed those eyes into the conference room below.
There was on the main table an even larger chest. The imp climbed from a chair onto the table, never taking eyes from the boy: â€˜Follow me.â€™ And so the boy climbed up on the table; and knowing already what to do, he took the coin out of his pocket and said, â€˜One for me,â€™ opened the chest and said, â€˜And one for youâ€¦â€™ and the count began again. And just like before, the bottom of the chest revealed one coin to many for the boyâ€¦ one coin to few for the thing staring him down. â€˜Are there no more coins in the castle?â€™ Pled the boy; but the monster laughed and seemed to grow another foot tall (by now he was larger than the boy); and he boomed, â€˜Follow me!â€™
Back they went, across the courtyard and over to a trapdoor beside the well. Its opening revealed a circular hole that ran parallel to the well for as far as the boy could see. The monster took up an torch that was in the wall at the beginning of the opening, and never taking eyes from the boy, beckoned, Follow me.â€™ And down and down and down they went a thousand stairs and more in the opposite direction. The dungeon must be as deep as the tower was tall. Near the bottom was a subfloor and a door led off to the side of that dark and murky hall. When the monster opened that door the boy could see in the dimness of the few torches on the wall that it was a torture chamber. Chained to the walls were young men about his age and they were enduring all manner of torture. They were being split by racks; the pain was excruciating but none of them seemed to die. There was one youth chained to the wall with water slowly dripping on his forehead. Over time the steady dripping had bored a hole through his head and was splashing on brain, and though the boy was obviously in pain, he was not dead as he should be. What was this? Was it a sort of Hell, a place of eternal torture for those who failed their quest? And what now lay ahead for him.
He wanted to run but the eyes impaled him like a butterfly on a board; and so he followed. And there at the end of that torture chamber was a room with an immense chest, the final test. And the boy opened it, took the coin out of his pocket and said, â€˜One for me,â€™ reached in the chest and said, â€˜One for youâ€¦â€™ and began all over to divide the fortune between them. And he counted for what seemed like days, â€˜One for me and one for youâ€¦â€™ â€˜One for me and one for youâ€¦â€™ until finally he was down to a handful of coins. He scooped them out, placed them on the table and began again, â€˜One for me and one for youâ€¦â€™
Nine, seven, five, threeâ€¦ â€˜One for meâ€¦ and one for you,â€™ and there it lay on the table between them. And the demon began to laugh hysterically and he began to grow to enormous proportions until he seemed to fill the room. He seized the boy by the throat and began to shout, â€˜Now you are mine!â€™ But with tremendous effort of will, the boy shook free and in the instant before the beast came at him againâ€¦ took out his hunting knife, sliced the last coin in half and shouted, â€˜One for me and one for you!â€™
To him it seemed as if time froze for an instant. He stood there facing the giant who suddenly began to shriek. The monster grasped hands to head and began to spin as if caught in some diabolical vortex and as he spun he shrunk until he was as he began and he spun faster and faster until he was not even visible in the whirl and it seemed as if the room began to spin and it was filled with dust and then all was quiet. And before the boy on the floor were the clothes of the demon atop a pile of dust.
And when the boy reentered the torture room, the giants who had been torturing the boys there were rendered to dust as well. And the boys were restored. Together they made their way up the stairs, carrying the chest of gold. And upon entering the courtyard, it was as if everything had aged 100 years; all was broken in the dust. The banquet hall was in a state of dishevelment and filled with 100 years of grime and decay; the food was dust and the furniture was fallen in.
The young men retrieved the rest of the gold and made for the main gate. When the opened the gate and prepared to cross the moat, before them there were a thousand men from the surrounding countryside. It seems that when the boy forgot to play his flute the blacksmith gathered every man from every village within fifty miles to assail the cursed castle and bring out whoever might be inside. But all was accomplished except a happy reunion party. They staged that several nights later. Each boy was given a portion of the treasure, with the champion receiving the lionâ€™s share. His part was still enough to buy a kingdom. But he need not since the villagers declared that he would be their new prince and live in the castle which he had earned.
Already the land promised new life; the forest seemed to recede before their eyes. There was great hope that this kingdom would be restored to its former glory. And indeed they were convinced that their new prince could accomplish all this for them. Needless to say, the boy got the girl; for what nobleman could refuse the wishes of his prince. It was a joyous marriage and a festive celebratory journey back to the castleâ€¦ And they all lived happily ever after.