Up until the age of four, when my parents separated, I lived in a wooden house on the border of a nature reserve. In front of the house was a canal. Behind the back yard the nature reserve stretched out. Woods, and swamps, and heath. Birches. Peat. Our back yard was big and we had lots of room to play in. We had chickens and cats. No dogs. My father was terrified of dogs. I was a little afraid to get too close to the woods. Too dark.
In the summer of 2009 I went back to the house to shoot some film of the nature reserve. I needed images of a lake in early morning with fog hovering over the water. A time-lapse. Although I had visited the house many times after we moved away, as my aunt and uncle still live there, I hadn’t spent the night there since I was four. I went there with a friend, and we stayed in the wooden trailer at the back of the garden. Close to the woods.
As the evening progressed we drank red wine and my uncle, who’s a blacksmith, told me stories about the house: how it was built by a rich family for hunters to stay in. When my parents moved in, my mother would be woken up early in the morning by fishermen opening the cabinet in the living room. That’s where the fishing permits used to be kept by the previous owners.
We started talking about my father who died when I was seventeen. The circumstances under which he died were somewhat suspicious. He’d died of a heart attack on a farm he’d converted into a huge studio. He needed all that space as he made large works of art. Machines. It was only much later that I heard he’d been harrassed by teenagers the night he had died. They came to his farm and provoked him. We never found out why, or whether he’d died because of that. It’s still a mystery. My uncle had some theories I didn’t want to hear. All speculations, which were too far-fetched for me.
My uncle then told me my father had been really afraid of the garden behind our old house. He would go in, he said, but would always return within two minutes, feeling very ill at ease. There was something about the place he was afraid of.
Then came a story I’d never heard before. During World War II the churches in the nearby villages were all taken over by the Germans. As the people in the area were Catholic and still wanted to have their mass on Sunday they’d turned sheds behind the farms in the area into illegal churches. One day, on a Sunday, a razzia was carried out in all the sheds converted into churches. All men from the age of seventeen to sixty five were driven into a garden behind a wooden house along the canal.
The house I would later live in with my parents.
The razzia was an act of revenge. People from the resistance had hijacked a train with people en route to the camps. As the Germans couldn’t find the people who actually had done this, they took the men from the area to teach them a lesson. As the men were lying there in the garden, face down, hands behind their heads, held at gunpoint, terrified, thinking they were going to die, they heard a deafening bang. The bridge in front of the house was blown up.
Next the men were driven out of the garden and put onto transport to Germany to work in weapons factories. The circumstances under which they lived and worked were very poor. Many died.
That night I tried to fall asleep in the trailer close to the woods. I wanted to get up early to catch the fog over the lake. I only slept for two hours, my mind buzzing with all the stories and the old fear of being close to the woods. Then I had a dream.
In my dream I was in the trailer. The wall was transparent. Out of the woods came the men. They were grey figures, almost transparent. They stopped in front of the trailer, trying to look in. Then they’d walk away, through the garden, passing the house and disappearing to the road along the canal. Every time some left, new ones came from behind the trailer. I tried to hide, hoping they couldn’t see me. They seemed to be looking for something. Solace, maybe. A reason why. They seemed to think I had an answer. I didn’t know whether they were dead or alive. They didn’t seem to know whether they were dead or alive. There were many of them. All angry, sad and scared. They were there, and at the same time they weren’t. Timeless, or maybe caught in time. There was nothing I could do.
The next day I woke up and walked to the lake. I’d overslept: the fog was gone. We shot the time-lapse anyway. The sun was shining. I lay in the grass waiting for my camera to shoot the time-lapse. Every few seconds the camera clicked. Click, click. Clouds came and were blown away by the wind again. I was exhausted from the night before and thankful for the sunshine. I just lay there, enjoying the sounds of the world around me. The ghosts were gone. The garden of my childhood had changed.