Once upon a time, in the farmland…
There was a young girl named Emma Green, who some said had an overactive imagination. Always she was running through the front door and hollering about some new and amazing discovery she had located down by the pond, some creature out of fairy tale, out of dream, that was as real to her as the meat upon the table or the crops in the field.
It was not something Emma Green could control. From the youngest age, her mind would take whatever story she was told and turn it into skin and bone. After she learned of angels, she befriended half a dozen of them by the next Sunday service, and not even Father Ormund had been able to talk her clear.
Often she would steal her Pa’s newspaper and pour over the stories there, turning the black and white words to color, vivid color.
But today, the day of once upon a time, there was not much color for even Emma Green to find. Snow lay heavy on the wide expanse of land that belonged to her father, and had belonged to his father before him. Land that would assuredly pass to Emma Green’s brother Dan when he was older, while she was packaged up and married off to whatever lunkheaded hayseed curried the best favor with her father.
She knew they were already preparing for that eventuality. That’s why Ma and Gramma had taken to discouraging her usual imaginations, and the games that went with them. They told her it wasn’t right for a girl to wear dirty shoes, or wear pants ripped at the knees, or wear pants at all, really, wouldn’t she prefer a pretty skirt?
She wouldn’t. She saw plenty of the adult world, thank you very much. Things there were far too boring. What you saw was often all there was to see. No, if Emma Green had her own say, she would never grow up, and instead dwell happily forever in this child’s world that belonged to her and her brother Dan. There was magic there, and there Emma Green felt safe and felt herself.
Unfortunately, she did not have her own say. Trying to break free of that had resulted only in, well, in the punishment she and her brother Dan were now contending with.
Pa and Ma had gone off to market, departing in the antique car that moved in fits and starts and always with a wheezing cough. Gramma had gone with them, packed into the backseat like an old rug spattered with cigarette butts and so heavily used that all the original color had sapped out, leaving only bundles of cloth that didn’t know enough to break apart.
But Emma Green wasn’t thinking about her Pa or her Ma or Gramma. Not really. No, sitting up in the hayloft watching night creep in over the horizon like a burglar, Emma Green had thoughts only for the story Gramma had told her just before departing.
The trouble had started that morning, when Emma and her brother Dan had been rough-housing and carousing as children do. They couldn’t help it. It would soon be Christmas, and the boxes full of festive decorations had been fetched down from the attic. Ma and Pa said they had to be patient and wait until the end of the day to put them all up, but, well, the kids had just gotten so darn excited, and the thrill of the season had filled them with such energy, that they could not help but go digging through the forbidden boxes and pulling out all manner of tinsel and ornament and tree-topper, and soon brother and sister were hauling hard down hallways, caring nothing for the destruction that they left in their wake.
When Ma and Pa found out, they set to putting each and every bit of seasonal glammer back into their respective box. All the while, Emma Green sobbed and bawled, and all the while her brother Dan had clung to her arm and joined his voice to her mournful chorus.
But Ma and Pa hadn’t cared, not a little, not at all.
While Emma Green sulked in her room after, hide still hurting from the tanning delivered by her father, Gramma came in and sat on the edge of the bed.
“It’s not even Christmas anymore,” the girl complained. “They’ve ruined it.”
“You ruined it,” the old woman said back. “You could have listened to your parents, you could have done as you were told, but no, instead you made a terrible mess of everything. If this were the old country, I would half expect the Krampus to come and take you away.”
Emma Green gave her grandmother a quizzical look. “The Krampus?”
Gramma nodded, the flesh of her neck bunching and unbunching like windswept dunes. “He is the opposite and equal of St. Nicholas. Where Santa Claus gives toys and treats to good children, the Krampus punishes the wicked with his whip, and his burning irons, and his teeth. He announces himself with the rap-tap-tap of his cloven hooves upon the rooftop. And for children who have been especially naughty, as you have been, why, the Krampus will take them up body entire in his sack and carry them away to his lair.”
The girl was rapt. “What does he with them there?”
Gramma leaned in close, the dimming light rendering her eyes two clear, floating orbs, like twin totems out of a soothsayer’s sack. “He eats them up,” she said. “He eats them one piece of flesh at a time. A tiny sliver of flesh, every day, for all the days remaining in your life. And once the flesh has been stripped away, he will suck upon the bones until they are the gleaming white of stars in the heavens. That, my dear, is the Krampus.”
And then she left, leaving Emma Green alone with her brother Dan in a house that was all alone in the midst of a darkening world. Already the Krampus moved in her mind, muscles, and blood pumping beneath his thick hide. She could see him in color, vivid color.
As full dark set in, snow began to fall. There had been word that there might be snowfall before Christmas, but this was coming heavier and harder than anyone had forecasted. Emma Green went searching for her brother Dan. Gramma had stopped by his room as well. Emma found him under the porch, trying to build dirt piles over and around him that such that Krampus would pass him by. His trembling gave him away.
Emma Green brought her brother Dan inside, then set about shuttering all the doors and windows. She told herself she was taking the normal levels of precaution as she slid every lock into place. Krampus was just a story Gramma made up to make us so afraid we won’t act up, she assured her brother, reassured herself.
But little Dan, boy, he had that fear something awful and he couldn’t help but keep bringing it up and bringing it up and bringing it up and bringing it up, until finally Emma Green snapped and let the full fury of all her own worry out in his direction.
She saw his face pale, and felt her own heart break.
Dan fled from her, down the hall, and when she chased him there was nothing frivolous or sporting in it. Dan slammed his bedroom door on her just as she reached for him, the door drawing blood from her fingers.
Tired and angry and scared, Emma Green retreated to the family living room and threw herself on the couch. The house was barren and cold. Outside, the snow continued to fall. She could imagine, with such color, such vivid color, the dark mass of the Krampus slouching towards the house, his huge self distinct against the steady cascade of white powder. On his back hung the heavy pack and Emma Green could imagine, the pack’s hide distorted with the bodies of taken children pressed hard against its confines. Open mouths pressed against the burlap, desperate to make some noise. Hands scratching desperately for some flaw that might unravel the whole. The pack shuddering and twitching constantly against the Krampus’ back, as if the pack was itself a thing of flesh.
Emma Green lay and imagined it in color, vivid color, letting the dark flow around her.
A stalemate of silence ensued between the siblings.
And in that silence, they could both clearly hear the sound when it occurred above their heads. A sound that went like rap-tap-tap.
But let’s leave the children and back up a ways. Not long, just an hour or so. And not far, just to a hilltop a little away from the Green property. At that time, in that place, there was a man perched atop the hill watching the light of the Green farm like it was his own personal star of Bethlehem, and him the shepherd boy appointed to follow the divine path. Snow fell, but the man stood, as solid and immovable as stone.
He was The Drifter, and any other name or title that man had assigned him had fallen long by the wayside. He’d ridden the rails and ridden many a man upon those rails, until reputation got such that the other ‘bos would skulk to one corner of the train car and leave him the rest, all of them clustered together like cavemen clutching at shadow so it might mask them from the saber tooth sniffing around. He’d done a stint in the Army, ’til the Army got a good long look at what he was and what he did, and then they exiled him and prayed God that Him in his Holiness would forgive them what they empowered and unleashed. He took odd jobs and did them well, for he was good with his hands. The pretty ladies would come on their husbands’ arms, and blush would rise to their cheeks when they saw his thick arms, when they beheld his broad and sweaty shape, when he flashed them a pearly smile that was closer to that of a shark what has just got a whiff of blood loose in the water. At night, he would go to them as he knew they wished, give them what he knew they desired, even if the ladies dothed protest too much. After, the polite citizenry would come for him with their pipes and their guns and their blades, but he would already be gone, riding the eastern breeze to his next oasis.
He was The Drifter. He drifted.
On this cold night, he had drifted to the ass-end of nowhere, just rolling fields of blank white powder. In a few months’ time, these fields would be fit to bursting with every kind of goodness a man could imagine, paradise delivered unto earth. But today he was gifted only snow and cold for as far as his sharp eyes could see.
The nearest town wasn’t for miles.
So it struck him as being not unlike a miracle when he happened to catch, from just out the corner of his eye, a glimmer of light in the distance. Somewhere, somewhere close, there was a habitation onto which the parasite could latch.
The Drifter parked himself on that there hilltop and he fixed himself on that light. And when the candle finally sputtered out, as Emma Green was too lost in her own misery to re-light it, he took it for a sign.
The Drifter drifted towards the house.
Rap-tap-tap went the click of heels against the rooftop.
Emma Green and her brother Dan met each other midway down the hallway and clung to each other as if they were lost at sea and only the support of the other could keep them above the water that was rising and falling and rising.
Emma Green traced the sound to where it seemed to be coming from above her. As it moved, she moved with it, her brother Dan clutching at her arm. She tried to shake him off but that only led him to cling all the tighter and so she dragged him along in her wake.
The footfalls grew heavier as the owner gained confidence, finding stronger purchase on the snow-slick roof of the house.
And then the steps stopped.
Still looking up, Emma Green heard a new sound, a strange sort of rustling and clattering, like stones shifting beneath your feet.
She lowered her head and saw that she was back in the family living room. On the other side of the room, the fireplace sat, cold and barren.
A stone and a stick came a-clattering down to lay among the ashes on the hearth.
And now the rustling was growing stronger, and the clattering was growing louder, and they were joined by a long and drawn out scraping sound, the sound of a large and bulky mass forcing its way down the chimney and onto the hearth, into the house, upon the children.
Emma Green turned hard on her heel, still trailing her brother Dan on her hand.
As the children fled down the hallway, they heard the thump of the large and bulky mass striking the ashen floor of the fireplace hearth, and the low groan of the stones as whatever thing it was that was birthed whole from the chimney gripped the mantle and drew itself free and clear.
Emma Green could picture the cloud of ash that had no doubt been stirred up, could imagine with incredible vivid colors the way that grey cloud would part like a theater curtain to reveal the grinning fangs of the Krampus, come to collect.
She drew her brother Dan to and then in front of her and all but shoved him into her own bedroom in front of herself. She took him by the shoulders and hurled him under her bed and then climbed in under after him.
Dan pulled himself to the far edge of the bed, until his back was pressed hard against the wall and a crack of light from the gap between furniture and wall still lingered. Emma pushed herself until she was positioned directly in front of her brother Dan. She pressed so close that she could feel the pounding of his tiny, terrified heart against her back.
“Cover your mouth,” she whispered. “Cover your mouth so you won’t scream.”
He did so with one hand, while the other he wrapped around her neck. She dared not ask him to move it.
“It’s going to be OK,” she whispered. “He won’t find us. It’s going to OK.”
She wished she believed either statement, but the next thing she knew, the bedroom door was opening with a long, slow creaaaaaaaaaak.
Though the house was still dark, and though her view was fuzzy from the choking hand of her brother around her neck, Emma Green could still discern the dark shape hovering in her door frame. The shape shifted, and a patter of snow fell upon the carpet.
She knew that sound. She had loved that sound. Coming in after a long day of rushing and running through the tall snow drifts, the sound of snowfall against carpet meant the close of a long and satisfying day. It was the sound of a home’s happy warmth spreading up and in and through frozen fingers and toes, and of the pleasant blush on rosy cheeks. It was a sound that signaled the promise of hot cocoa brought over in steaming mugs, while marshmallows hung doggedly to the brim.
But of course the Krampus would take that from her. The Krampus was the death of all good things. He was the perversion of all that was wholesome and pure. He was the innocent turned carnal, the pleasant turned cruel. Of course he would take that which had been her joy and twist it into the first notes in the symphony of her doom.
Through foggy eyes, she saw glistening black feet stomp heavily into the room, black feet covered in snow and dirt and ash.
Emma Green could feel her brother Dan trembling against her. She could not see him, but she could picture, so vividly, his hand clamped so tight to his mouth that when, or if, he pulled the fingers away their mark would be scrawled across his jaw. She could picture his face turning pale as he rejected air, air that might with its inhalations betray their position and summon the Krampus down upon brother and sister both.
She didn’t think she would need to place her own hand to her mouth, but she felt the limb moving there of its own volition. It settled over.
The thing dropped a heavy sack on the floor.
Emma Green sank her teeth into the flesh of her hand. She felt the scream flow into the flesh, take root in her bones. The scream tunneled to her veins and flowed with her blood to every corner of her body until her whole body seemed to be vibrating with it, ringing with it.
Emma Green and her brother Dan pushed themselves even further against the wall, pushed so hard that it seemed not unlikely that the wall would open to accept them bodily into itself.
They imagined themselves invisible and prayed for mercy, and all the while the Krampus went about his work.
The Drifter was unimpressed. Usually these hayseed farmers had some valuable or other hidden somewhere. Some priceless heirloom or other that had been passed down through the generations and would remain in the family for generations more, at least until a bank payment was missed and the nearest pawnbroker could suddenly find a halfway decent price to foist upon the supposedly priceless item.
But this dump was proving to be a dump. Barebones.
‘They didn’t even put up any Christmas lights or anything,’ The Drifter thought.
He could feel the snow and ice that had gathered on his clothes and beard begin to thaw and drip and was grateful, at least, for the warmth of the interior.
‘Not even a wreath,’ he thought. ‘Losers.’
He should at least check around and get the most out of the house before the owners came back. Hell, if he was lucky, and The Drifter had long been covered by an almost preternatural cloak of good fortune to shield and guide him during his many wanderings, then perhaps the owners would be gone for a few days. This snow seemed likely to last the night and it was not uncommon for those among the locality to be stranded during even a simple run into town, leaving them to take shelter in whatever hotel or friendly neighbor’s abode they could find.
That still left the matter of the candle, but The Drifter was nonplussed about that.
He opened his coat up to let more of the warm air circulate. Since the coat was open, he took the opportunity to draw the long carving knife from out his belt. It glinted, dull but mean, in the dim light of the darkened house.
If there was someone here, they were almost certainly alone and posed no real threat.
The Drifter moved through the house, silent as your shadow as it stalks you on a moonless night. He went room to room, heavy bag resting on his shoulder. He didn’t see the point of letting it drop until he found something of interest to put inside.
Finally he came to the last unchecked room in the house. If someone was here, they would have to be in this room. Slowly, carefully, he opened the door.
It was a girl’s room through and through. He took a few steps in, his eyes, now adjusted to the darkened light of the dim house, scanning for anything that might even potentially be valuable. Or, hell, just shiny enough to pass off as expensive among the other ‘bos.
Like ravens, they were. Entranced by anything that glittered, even if it was only an empty foil wrapper floating on the noon-day breeze.
Aha! What was this? Atop the dresser sat a music box, its body gilded with wreaths of gold. Surely not real gold, not in a lean-to house like this, deep in farmland, but it was a pretty thing, yes, a very pretty thing, and could easily be traded for smokes or goods or mayhap even a blanket or extra pair of gloves.
The Drifter set the bag on the floor and bent to take up the music box. It was heavier than he had thought, or perhaps the cold and the climb to the roof had sapped more of his strength than he realized. He tossed the knife on the bed and used both hands to pick up the music box and place it in the bag.
Was that a floorboard squeaking? And did his eye spy some sort of motion beneath the bed? Something that shimmered in the dull glow of the snowfall outside the window? Something like an eye, spying?
The Drifter got down on all fours and looked under the bed.
She saw mean little eyes glowing with the dull hate of the last flares in coal before the charred remains faded out at last. She saw a dank beard fitted over a mouth that held yellow teeth that curled into a hungry leer. She saw a face that delighted in pain, that laughed at and with cruelty, a face that existed to lurk under bridges and loom out of alleyways.
She saw the Krampus.
The scream that had been all inside her flew out and was in the world, was the world, and Emma Green was squirming back but there was nowhere to go, only her brother Dan who was screaming too and squirming too and the hand of the Krampus was reaching for them, clutching at them, his yellow teeth parting and a sound like a lusting croak was leaking out his lips.
Emma Green seized hold of the edge of the bed and thrust with all her might, sending the other end of the bed frame bopping off the monster’s skull. He gave a shriek of pain and fell away, the bed following him as the resistance fell away.
Now Dan was scrambling up and over and his sister Emma Green was behind him, moving so desperate she didn’t feel as her fingers met and closed around the hilt of the knife and they were running now, screaming now, out the bedroom door and the Krampus was up and roaring in agony and Emma Green risked one look back and saw a line of blood running down the monster’s face.
She saw his fangs part in an animal-roar, saw his horns bend as he tilted his head back to sound the hunter’s cry.
He was after them now, he was screaming now, his body slamming off the walls as he lunged, wicked claws extended before him.
The children went down the hall, under the table.
He ripped the chairs up and dashed them against the walls and flipped the table.
But the children were up and going back down the hall to their parents’ room, the only room with a lock, and they threw themselves inside and threw the door closed and just as Emma Green was throwing the lock the Krampus threw his body against the door. The door split Emma Green’s forehead open right down the center.
Colors. Such vivid colors.
She was aware of a strange dark light above her that spun, and that rang with a strange siren’s song.
She was aware of her brother Dan in the corner of the room, screaming and crying.
She was aware of the dark mass of the Krampus above her, his face floating away from his head, his yellow grin extending even farther than the rest of his face. The grin floated down to her, teeth gnashing in gleeful hate.
“Merry Christmas,” came a voice from far away. “Merry Christmas to me.”
The monster crouched, a lion ready for his feast.
Her brother Dan was screaming.
And the body of the Krampus was above her, his face before her face, and the knife was in her hand and her hand was moving and the Krampus was smiling and the knife sang with delight as it found its way home and sank, sank like a ship conceding to the ocean and his face was before his face and his eyes were wide and stunned and he was getting up and the knife was out, was in her hand and he was leaking color, such vivid color and he was stumbling away from her back down the hall and Dan wasn’t screaming any more and she was standing when had she gotten to her feet but she was on her feet and walking towards him and he was on his knees in the hall and his hands were upraised and his eyes were pleading and she buried the carving knife into his right eye and the colors, my God, such vivid colors.
The Krampus sank to the floor and lay still.
She heard her brother Dan come to her side, though she did not lift her eyes from the prone body of the beast.
Her brother Dan was still sniffling back tears.
“Don’t worry,” Emma Green told him. “Don’t worry. He tried to take Christmas from us, but we’re going to take it back.” She nodded to the corpse. “And we’re going to use him to do it.”
Emma Green went to the body and drew the knife out.
And then the real work began.
It was well past noon the next day when Ma and Pa and Gramma made their way back to the farm.
They’d spent the whole night at the house of Ma’s cousin Dave and his wife Trudy, frantic that there were yet no roads to get back to Emma Green, and her brother Dan. As the night had worn on, all Ma and Pa had been able to feel was guilt for how harshly they had come down on the children for the crime of being children. As they worried and panicked, Gramma had nursed a cup of tea, almost as bitter as she, grousing about how soft parents were in this day and age.
Ma and Pa had both decided that as soon as they made sure the children were OK, they would bring the decorations back from exile and let no more unpleasantness spoil the holiday.
Gramma had continued in her grousing.
The car crawled and coughed through the snow, but at last they sighted the house and pulled in as close as they could. Ma jumped out of the car as soon as it slowed, and Pa only lingered to help Gramma out before he too hurried up the stairs.
Gramma’s mean little mind made the journey from car to stairs an epic quest without equal in the recent history of Western civilization, an inconvenience on a par with leaving the Jew lying naked and beaten upon the road for the Good Samaritan to find and aid. The stairs were an apocalyptic ascent, her legs screaming and her hand straining on the cold railing.
Oh, she thought, it was going to be weeks before they heard the end of this. Months. She would dog them with this until the end of her days, even if that end from a pillow they shoved over her mouth to cease her endless fount of meanness.
And the dumb sons of bitches hadn’t even gone inside the house! They were just standing there, right on the threshold, staring at something.
Snapping and complaining, Gramma shoved her way in and saw-
She saw the house all decorated for Christmas. There were red streamers hanging from the walls, and the table was laden with treats of all colors. Discolored snowflakes had been cut from some kind of leathery cloth and nailed to the wall.
On the floor, shoved into the corner, was a dirty, hollowed thing.
There came a happy giggling from down the hall, and the sound of something being dragged.
As they watched, Emma Green strode happily into sight, pulling a heavy bag behind her.
“Hi Ma! Hi Pa!” she cheered. She stood in the center of the room and released the bag. “We got most of the decorating done, but then Dan started acting pretty naughty.”
The split in her forehead still leaked.
From the bag, there came a low groan.
“But I didn’t let that stop me!” Emma Green went on. “I kept right on going, and now the house is all filled up with colors.” The young girl sighed and looked around at her work. She gave a single nod of proud contentment.
“Colors. Such vivid colors.”