I live in Finland. My grandparents have a cabin at the edge of the woods that they pretty much live in during the summer. It’s surrounded by farmland on three sides and the forest starts at the fourth. It’s a neat, sparse forest with the only foliage being blueberries and lingonberries — very easy to navigate and full of little paths leading to where you might want to go. A typical forest for the area. There are railroad tracks that run through the forest a little less than a kilometre from where the cabin stands. Trains still go through from time to time, but it’s quite safe to cross and I have been playing in the forest since I was a little kid.
As you can probably imagine, animals are plenty there. It’s mostly hedgehogs, squirrels, and many, many different birds, though once a bear was reported to be roaming around. My father is a bit of an amateur ornithologist though, so the birds always drew our attention. Most of their names I don’t know in English, but they’re lovely to watch.
When I was 17 years old, I was there for… pretty much the whole summer. It was my summer job, in essence: helping my grandparents with the garden and just keeping them company to keep them from driving each other insane. It was simple and sometimes excruciatingly boring, but it was good for me. I think.
The summer was a warm one, with less mosquitoes than we usually get, and thus I amused myself by roaming the forest. When I was younger I was not allowed there unsupervised, so I liked to be able to decide where to go and being just with me, myself, and I for a while. I’ve always been a loner.
Eventually, mouth and fingers purple from eating too many blueberries, I found myself passing the train tracks, too lazy to find the crossing so I just clambered up the ledge and hopped over to the other side. I never went far with my family, so now I was eager to see what lay beyond that point. The furthest I’d ever gotten was a couple hundred metres away from the railroad. The forest was a bit wetter there and mushrooms grew wonderfully in the autumn.
I’d walked a good five hundred metres away when I heard a sound I’d never heard before. It was almost like a child was screaming or crying behind me.
My first reaction, silly as it may be, was to jump around as though someone was going to attack me right then and there. Of course, there was nobody there, and I soon understood the reason.
It was a woodpecker. There is a sub-species of woodpeckers in Finland that makes a sound just like a woman’s scream. It’s very rare and I was excited just by the thought of seeing this elusive bird. It is quite gorgeous: big and almost completely black, just with a red spot on its head.
The scream sounded again. It was hard to tell where exactly it was coming from: it sure sounded like it was on the ground, lower than I. But the forest can be tricky with the way sound travels. I decided it was probably back towards the cabin and took out my phone to snap a picture for my dad.
I listened to the scream that was growing in volume as I neared it. My grand aunt had told me a story of how God had turned a rude woman into this bird, cursing her to roam the forests crying and apologizing for her sins. It of course was just an explanation to why a bird would sound so much like a human being.
Still. The closer I got, the less convinced I was that it was a bird and not an actual child. The problem was, it sounded too much like a child to be a bird and too much like a bird to be a child. I tried to shut out the mounting anxiety I was feeling, but couldn’t. I’ve stated I am a loner — at that age I was also a terrible over-thinker. I really started to understand why the ancient Finns had started coming up with stories to explain the sound.
Another thing that disturbed me was that the pauses between the screams were becoming shorter and shorter so that soon it was pretty much screaming non-stop. And still, underneath that I was hearing a faint sound of the train approaching.
I doubled my pace. If it really was a bird the train would no doubt scare it away. I doubted a child would be on the tracks, even by themselves.
When I cleared the forest the sound of the train was quite close. The crossing was there in front of me, and there sat a three or four years old child.
She was naked, smack in the middle of the tracks, and screaming her bright red face off while tears were running down her cheeks. She didn’t sound sad — she sounded quite angry, actually. In the middle of a temper tantrum, maybe.
I was utterly frozen for a second, heart sinking down to my knees. Then I of course started forward with a yell and the intention of getting her off the darn tracks before the train crushed her. But she stopped me in my tracks with the next thing she did.
She quit crying suddenly, with no hiccups or anything like that, and stood up on shaky legs. She looked like she was going to bolt, probably down the tracks.
I learned it that day: when disaster strikes, I am one of those unfortunates who do nothing. Who need to be given exact orders on how to react to every frigging thing. Because I suddenly could not move, even though I knew that she was going to die if I didn’t. There was something so weird about her.
I could see the train coming fast. They must not have seen her: there was no attempt to slow down or stop. She fixed me with an absolutely furious look.
“Give me a name!” she screamed right before the train hit her and she… disappeared.
The train breezed past and I was left standing there, stunned and afraid.
There is a creature in Finnish folklore called liekkiö. It’s the soul of a baby birthed in secret and slain by its mother. They are said to wander the forests and scream, and occasionally lead people into danger like will-o-the-wisps. The way to get rid of them is to give them a name, or to dig up their little bodies and bury them properly. I used to think it’s yet another story to explain that stupid woodpecker, but now I’m not too sure anymore. I don’t know for sure, but I think the creature was trying to lure me in front of that train.
This encounter haunts me more than I care to admit. I don’t go to the tracks anymore and children in traffic give me unreasonable amounts of anxiety. It bothers me that if the kid had been just a kid, I would’ve let her die — it bothers me that had I tried to save her, I might be dead. I do my best not to dwell on it.