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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM JON WILSON
Krampus’s Christmas Wish
It began with a bang, and then a whimper, and then the slap of bare feet along the hallway. By then I’d managed to shrug off the faint vestiges of sleep I, aided by a second cup of mulled wine, had gathered warmly around me, and propped myself up on an elbow to glance toward the open door.
A figure appeared there, something under four feet tall, with a slightly oversized head rendered even more disproportionate due to its disheveled hair. It paused momentarily on the threshold, barely discernible from the deeper darkness of the hallway, as if to survey the terrain or, more likely, hoping for an invitation. I was, from past experience, hesitant to comply with that last, and so instead merely asked, “What is it?”
Apparently, even that gentle query was sufficient, because the figure started forward again, moving around the foot of the bed and up along my side nearly to within reach. Small hands came out and clutched the blanket, tugging plaintively. A hushed voice told me, “I think he’s here.”
The round head pivoted to glance toward the door and then turned back toward me, inclining and explaining gravely, “Saint Nicholas.”
Tom, on the bed beside me, his back to us, had stopped his quiet snoring so I wasn’t the least bit fooled he might still be asleep. But he was naturally hesitant to join the conversation, rendering my urge to kick him soundly on the backside nearly irresistible. He had insisted on reading my daughter Moore’s Ode to Illegal Trespass while putting her to bed, and had already paid the price of having to accompany her through the house to ensure that all of our flumes were tightly secured.
I let my head fall back atop my pillow. “You’d better get back to bed then, before he realizes you’re up.”
That backfired immediately, as she gasped in terror, scrambled up onto the bed, over my legs and along the valley of quilt between Tom and me. Finding the top of the bedclothes, she pulled them back and slipped quickly underneath.
“Abigail Anne!” I slid angrily aside—what was the use of resisting?—while Tom, for his part, abandoned his pretense of continued slumber and struck a match.
“Is it morning already?” He applied the tip of his match to the wick of a candle on his bedside table and then dropped the match into the tray, picking up a shiny silver cigarette case, engraved “TJ JT” and presented to him just an hour or so before by me as a Christmas gift. He sat back, propping himself up against the headboard.
I was preparing to explain that it was in fact not morning, that morning was still some ways off, and that, given my druthers, I might like nothing more than to cancel morning altogether, when the situation went from bad to worse—or at least from crowded to untenable. There was a rapid-fire tap-tapping on the floor and then a grunt and then Marabel, our large (Tom says fat) Labrador retriever bounded up onto the bed to sprawl across our feet. That stopped my rant before it started and I glared at her instead, while she gazed back, her eyes alight with her own special brand of embarrassment and joy. Her tail thumped loudly against the bed.
Tom dug a cigarello out of his case, placed it between his lips and ignited the end of it off his candle. “What’d I miss?”
“It’s Saint Nicholas!” Abigail continued to employ the same breathless tones. My daughter is nothing if not dramatic.
Tom’s skepticism showed plainly on his face. “I thought we discussed how if Saint Nicholas was to come his magic is such that you wouldn’t wake to hear him at all.”
I let go of an audible groan, thinking he was simply making matters worse. To begin with—the very idea of some fat, voyeuristic elf coming into children’s rooms while they slept struck me as an insane notion to peddle—especially by parents who ever hoped to get a sound night’s sleep themselves. But, of course, I’d been raised in the circus by a slight-of-hand magician who considered all such fables useless folderol fit only for fools and marks and had never indulged me in any sort of childish fantasies of my own.
“But I did hear him, Tom,” Abigail said. “Marabel did too.”
At mention of her name, the dog banged her tail again, nodding as if to confirm the facts of Abigail’s story.
“It was the furnace,” I growled, not for the first time.
We were in a new house—new to us, anyway, Abigail and I having relocated from our rooms above my general store in early November. Unlike our previous residence, which had been heated mainly by a Franklin stove in the central kitchen, this place, two stories tall (not counting the attic and basement) was heated by a brand-spanking new, coal-burning cast-iron furnace. It had been purchased by Tom, who had bought the house so that the three of us (four with Marabel, who can not be excluded) could live together. (Briefly: he and I had met and fallen in love as young men, but parted ways and remained apart for more than eight years, during which I had gained and raised a child, before Tom and I reunited just a few months prior to that Christmas…all of which is a long story better suited to another time.*) Tom, not being one for cold, and Colorado winters often being just that, had insisted the furnace was required. I, myself, was admittedly amenable to the idea. However, that was because I had never heard the racket the things could raise. Iron pipes, apparently, dislike being heated and cooled too rapidly and can complain loudly about the fact. Also, the vents demand regular burping or they tend to develop extreme cases of the hiccups. Not to mention the fact that shoveling coal can prove a dirty business and usually falls to me.
Anyway, we were in a new house, with an assortment of new sounds and new shapes and shadows, all of which had caused my eight year old daughter a certain level of distress. There was also a new man in her life, Tom Jude, who, despite the obvious affection they had already developed for one another, represented a marked change in her daily routine. All of those facts are the reason I was forcing myself to be more patient with her than I might otherwise have been—including wiggling aside to make room for her between Tom and me in bed.
“I tended to the furnace before we went to bed,” Tom told me.
“Not helping,” I said.
“It wasn’t the furnace I heard,” Abigail explained.
I sighed and slid back down into a more horizontal position, turning on my side with my back to them. “Well, let’s all just lay here and listen.” Apparently, my twisting under the covers disturbed the dog, because she sighed too, exasperated, or else like she was trying to mock me, and then rose, walked in a small circle, collapsing again with her head resting atop my ankles.
There followed a few moments of blissful silence, or near silence—I could hear Tom’s irregular draws on his cigarello as well as his sighing exhales, and also the wind blowing in the trees outside—but there was no more discussion, nor any sound from the furnace two floors below. I was just beginning to think I might drift off again, when I felt Abigail’s elbow in my back.
“You listening, pa?”
Something about my tone of voice must have alerted Tom that this might be one of those instances when his asserting himself as a partner and second parent might be welcome (not to mention the fact that I had opposed exposing Abigail to Moore’s poem, while he insisted). He was, naturally, hesitant to oversteps his bounds—in large part because none of us knew quite where the boundaries lay—though, gradually, he’d been accepting increased responsibility for Abigail’s upbringing. For instance, he had assigned himself as the family cook (admittedly this might have had more to do with his fondness—or lack thereof—of my own culinary skills) and taken an interest in her wardrobe I myself had never managed to muster. He also, very occasionally, put her to bed, including bedtime reading—which that particular night had led to the problem at hand.
“You know,” I heard him tell her, “you’ve cancelled out your Christmas wish? Now that I lit this other candle.”
She didn’t respond verbally, but, from the way her elbow dug along my spine, I assumed she shrugged.
“What did you wish for?”
“I thought you said I wasn’t supposed to tell.”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
She drew a deep breath, considering. “I wished that Mr. Thompson would come back.”
“You mean the cat, I hope.”
I nearly laughed.
Mr. Thompson had been the previous owner of the house (as well, as Abigail’s schoolteacher) before passing away the previous winter. However, when we moved in, we’d discovered a cat already in residence. Abigail had decided, based on some unfathomable logic, to call the cat Mr. Thompson, and Tom, not quite so unfathomably, had decided it might be amusing to encourage her—so the name stuck. I wasn’t particularly pleased to have inherited another pet, and have never been overly partial to cats. But just a week before Christmas, the animal had vanished without a trace. None of which is what had me nearly laughing there in bed.
It was the tone of Tom’s voice when he said he hoped she was referring to the cat. As nonchalant and worldly as he endeavored to portray himself—he was, in actuality, quite superstitious. In fact, part of his reasoning behind reading Abigail the Moore poem rather than, say, Dickens, was that he didn’t think it prudent to christen our first Christmas in a brand new home with ghost stories.
Abigail wanted to know: “So, now Mr. Thompson ain’t coming back?”
There were sounds that I interpreted as Tom extinguishing his smoke, then some more small movements, before Tom said, “Well, we could try again with this candle here.” I imagined he pulled the candlestick off his bedside table and held it between them. “Now, wish real hard, and on three we’ll blow. One…”
“Don’t you wanna make a Christmas wish, pa?”
“For what?” I asked. “A bigger bed?”
“Oh, pay him no never mind,” Tom said. “One, two, three—blow!” And then they blew, loudly, neither ever subject to any particular urge toward subtlety.
Peeking cautiously out from under my eyelids a moment later I saw that darkness had indeed fallen once more, and after various arrangements of bodies mostly behind but occasionally extending into my back, they settled. I sighed—letting them hear me (sometimes even I can disdain subtlety)—and then, for a few blissful moments, all was silent.
“What did you wish for Tom?” Abigail asked.
“I can’t say without spoiling it.”
“No, I mean the first time.”
“Oh.” He chuckled. “I wished that your pa wouldn’t be such a grumpus this Christmas. Clearly, that didn’t come true.”
They laughed, and I wish I could say I took it good-naturedly and Happy Christmas to All and to All a Goodnight. But no. I said: “It’s not Grumpus. It’s Krampus. And no doubt he’s who you heard downstairs, Abs. Ol’ Krampus come instead of Saint Nicholas.”
Tom said, “Jack, don’t.”
But Abigail said, “Who’s Krampus?”
I rolled over onto my back, posting myself up slightly on my pillow. “You mean I haven’t yet told you about ol’ Krampus?”
Tom tried again. “I don’t think this is the time.”
And Abigail, simultaneously, breathed, “No, pa, who is he?”
I settled in, joining my hands atop my chest and frowning knowledgeably, even though, I suppose, they couldn’t quite see me in the dark. “It all started back when Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra. About that time there was a terrible famine throughout the land. And a wicked butcher, who’s business was of course suffering, he kidnapped three small boys. And he took them and chopped—” At which point even I could see the danger of telling the tale unabridged, so I considered a moment and then explained, “He chopped down a cherry tree to make a special barrel that he could pickle the boys in brine and then later…possibly…if the famine didn’t ease up…He could sell them as pickled pork.
“Naturally, Saint Nick, learning of this, rescued the boys before such a horrible fate could befall them, and he cursed the butcher, transforming him into a beastly creature with fur all over his body and long sharp fangs and even longer sharp claws—great long claws that earned him his name—Krampus—which I believe might be some sort of European way of saying ‘Great long wicked claws’. He also has glowing red eyes and a long forked tongue like the dev—”
Tom nearly shouted, “That is quite enough!” He seemed to gather himself back up, tugging on the blankets as he readjusted himself in the bed. “Really, Jack, I believe you’ve lost your wits.”
I nearly laughed again, though I knew I was being terribly wicked. Of course, Abigail wasn’t the only one adjusting not just to a new home, but a new way of life. And, I admit I had spent a good many hours over the last several weeks begrudging a certain fellow his free way with money. Tom wasn’t incredibly wealthy, but he had grown up never having to worry about his financial well-being and had developed, not surprisingly, a lack of frugality I will never manage to match. And, this being his first Christmas with Abigail and me, he had spared no expense in trying to make it memorable. That had earned him—not just at home, but all around our small town of Bodey, Colorado—a certain reputation as our very own Father Christmas. Which, in turn, had occasionally had me feeling not unlike a certain cursed butcher.
“But, pa! Why would that evil butcher come here?”
“Well, he follows Saint Nicholas around now, doesn’t he? You see, as angry as Saint Nick was, a curse is a terrible thing, and he felt responsible for this poor wretched creature he’d loosed on the world, so he bound the Krampus to himself, and when he began his job of bringing presents and treats to the good children of the world, he put ol’ Krampus in charge of punishing the bad children.”
At which my darling daughter gasped, experiencing an epiphany.
“I am going to whip the tar out of you,” Tom told me.
I responded with a heartfelt raspberry aimed in his direction, which is when we heard it—the sound from downstairs that was clearly not the furnace.
“Oh, pa,” Abigail practically cried, apparently attempting to burrow into the mattress beneath me. “Don’t let him pickle me!”
“I hope you’re happy,” Tom said.
I did laugh, trying not to fall off the side of the bed as Abigail continued to push against me. “Oh, you ninnies. It’s just the wind. Someone left a shutter unlatched.”
“You don’t say?” Tom was beginning to sound quite smug. “Then be a good fellow and go down and see to it.”
I frowned again, deeper, though, I suppose, they still couldn’t see me. “Fine.” I threw the covers back and swung my bare feet over onto the cold floor. “Give me that candle.”
“And spoil our Christmas wishes again? I think not. You’ll be fine. It’s doubtless just the wind.”
I blew him another raspberry and stumbled toward the door. I should confess it was not quite as black as pitch. The ground outside was covered in snow and the sky was relatively clear, the moon nearly full, all of which combined to bathe the scene, now that my eyes had adjusted, in a pale blue light that was more than sufficient to navigate by. I will also confess that when I reached the bottom of the stairs, I took Tom’s umbrella, with it’s heavy oak handle, from the repository by the door. Just in case.
I tested the front door. Securely locked. Off the foyer, double doors opened to the parlor. They were nearly always thrown wide, and that night was no exception. But an errant breeze, knocking them against the wall, could have caused the sound we’d heard. However, they were both propped tightly behind chairs. I crossed to the big picture window overlooking the front lawn, peering out to see if the shutters might be loose, but quickly discerned that appeared not to be the case. I was enjoying the placid wintry landscape, feeling a certain tenseness I had not acknowledged draining from my shoulders, when the noise—a shuffling as much as a knocking—sounded again behind me.
I didn’t dash but admit I wasted no time reaching the mantle, striking a match and lighting a candle. Christmas wishes be damned.
The sound had seemed to come from the corner behind the bookcase, but on closer inspection, I found nothing there. Positioned nearer the source, however, I could discern that the sound was not so much intermittent, we had merely only heard the louder bursts before. As I listened I gathered that something was indeed moving behind the wall.
I proceeded back to the foyer and then down the hall beside the staircase. A set of closets—for outside wear, linens and miscellaneous storage, respectively—lined the wall adjacent to the parlor. I peeked in each, moving my candle slowly around—and holding Tom’s umbrella at the ready—saw nothing, but decided the sound was originating from the back of the storage closet, even though, when I stepped in, the sound stopped completely.
Merging two households—with more of Tom’s belongings still trickling in from Baltimore—our home was littered with various half-filled boxes and crates tucked here and there. I put the candle and the umbrella down to begin pushing things aside, burrowing into the darkness. And then I saw it—a great furry face with glowing eyes and a long red tongue—staring out at me.
“Krampus,” I said.
“Meow,” said Krampus.
I lured the cat out—who knew how long he’d been trapped in there (or what I’d find after a more thorough inspection by the light of day)—and carried him to the kitchen. I scooped some cream into a bowl and placed it on the floor for him, then sat in a chair to watch and catch my breath. Krampus lapped loudly, ignoring me.
On the table was a very intricate (and, needless to say, ridiculously expensive) windup carousel that Tom had bought for Abigail. (Again, as an aside, let me point out that he claimed to her the gift was from both of us, but it wasn’t. I got her a monkey, hand-sewn from old stuffed socks by my store clerk’s mother.) Abigail was rather keen on all things involving circuses and carnivals since learning recently that I had grown up as part of a travelling one, so Tom had gone to Denver for the carousel. Of course, the carousel that traveled with my circus bore about as much resemblance to that exquisite piece of artwork on the table as a weathered old barn bears to a princess dollhouse, but Abigail was suitably wowed. (As a final aside, let me point out that both Tom and I were undone in the gift-giving department by my store clerk himself, fifteen year old Davey Marsters, who knew my daughter well enough to have bestowed upon her her most favorite gift of the year—a slingshot.)
A horse with a pole jutting from its back lay on its side and I picked it up and twirled it in my hands. Like most beautiful and intricate (and ridiculously expensive) toys, the carousel had busted after a few minutes of play and was residing on the table until Tom or I could get it pieced together again. And I suppose it was the fact that it was broken that enabled that object, which otherwise symbolized nothing about my childhood, to send my thoughts traveling back to those long ago years.
I did not hate growing up in the circus; for most of my childhood I did not really comprehend any other way of life. It wasn’t until I turned ten—two years older than Abigail is now—that I first realized my life was very different than the lives lived by most other children.
My father had a sister, somewhat older than himself, who lived in Baltimore. She had (unbeknownst to me until I was much older) for several years been after my father to send me to live with her. My own mother had, I had been told, been thrown out, sold, or murdered by my father (his story changed depending on his mood—the truth being she simply abandoned us not long after I was born), and my aunt thought a boy should grow up settled, with regular access to church and school. Finally, the year I turned ten, father sent me to her for the Christmas holiday.
It was my first Christmas really—at least of the sort described by Dickens and Moore, where people are merry and generous and subject to a bit of magic. Caught up in emotions, I set aside my disbelief and made my one and only Christmas wish—that every subsequent Christmas might be as magical and filled with love as that one. But what I got instead was my father never allowing me to visit his sister again.
You might think a magician’s son’s life would be filled with magic. But, in fact, you couldn’t be more wrong. A magician’s son has been made to peer beneath the cape far too often. He knows the tricks tucked up sleeves; he knows the secrets hidden under hats. I never believed in Saint Nicholas. Or the baby Jesus. Or Krampus.
I’ve never believed in magic or Christmas wishes.
Leaving the cat, I blew out the candle and climbed the stairs in the pale blue darkness. To my surprise, Tom and Abigail had both dropped off to sleep. Even Marabel was quietly snoring. I shook my head—knowing they couldn’t see me, but nevertheless amazed. Climbing back under the covers, I pushed Abigail’s splayed arm gently back down to her side. I edged my freezing feet slowly under Marabel’s big, heavy head. Rolling onto my side, facing my family this time, I extended my arm across Abigail to rest a hand atop Tom’s smoothly rising and falling chest.
Just as I was drifting off, I felt a tremulous pressure on my pillow. Then a warm furry body settled against the top of my head.
Krampus began to purr.
* Those interested in the story of Tom and Jack’s reunion might like to read “A Hundred Little Lies” available from Cheyenne Publishing
Growing up, Jon Wilson wanted to be a stunt man, a professional wrestler or a rodeo clown. After breaking his neck in 2001, he decided writing might be safer.He was wrong.He is the author of three novels:A Hundred Little Lies and A Shiny Tin Star, both from Cheyenne Publishing, and The Obsidian Man, from Queerteen Press.
Learn more at:http://jonwilsonauthor.blogspot.com/
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