“Tell me how to say it again,” Archie Vinpipe pleaded, mostly to distract from the rattling of the dark carriage. Nothing but a pair of lanterns illuminated the surrounding forest. The moon was hidden by dark clouds that continued to pour snow as they had for nearly two days. Their driver was only able to press forward because of the trail left by the other guests and the excellent breeding stock of the four reindeer pulling the vehicle. The way the driver told it, they were no more than nine generations from Prancer himself and could, when properly motivated, run several inches off the ground.
“Bayerischer wald,” his wife said slowly. Her name was Renate; she was an adorable chubby woman who had been immediately drawn to the equally plump Archie after she had helped defuse an argument between him and a drunk German fellow at a dinner they were both attending. The word ‘argument’ perhaps gave Archie too much credit, for he was actually sweating bullets into his short blonde beard and leaning backwards as he struggled to understand what the fellow was mad about. Renate, who was German herself, calmed the man by explaining Archie was clearly not the friend he had come with and could do nothing about his missing cufflinks. They got to talking and in just nine months’ time they were wed; that was just four months ago. Renate had moved to America and was missing Germany terribly, which was why she was overjoyed when the surprise invitation arrived and insisted, rain, shine, snow, or even more snow, that they would be attending.
“Bi-risher vald?” Archie tried to repeat.
“You are this close,” she said with a smile and held up two fingers a hair’s breadth apart.
“And even though it sounds like a V, it’s spelled with a W?”
“And how many of them will laugh at me if I forget that?”
“I would have to know how many people will be there,” she giggled. “Do not worry Archie. Now that you can say ‘Bavarian forest’ in German, you’ll be completely immune to embarrassment.” Her own accent was still thick, but Archie had demanded she keep it as best she could. Of course, he had hoped it would serve as the only souvenir of home she ever needed. Archie was not one for travel. He worked for a publishing company that printed and sold scientific literature, with a focus on illustrated nature journals. He worked and dined with the men and women who galloped and sailed across the globe to lay eyes on ferocious beasts, and was perfectly happy to get only secondhand accounts of their thigh-sized tusks or their suction cups that could pull the blood out from under your skin.
Kacrick! A twig snapped somewhere outside the carriage. Archie stared out the window, intently, only to fog it with his breath. He wiped it away furiously with his sleeve. Renate reached over and stopped him, complaining he would get his beautiful jacket all wet before they were even in the door. Even so, she could not resist teasing her timid husband.
“What do you think is out there?” she asked mischievously. “A wolf? A vicious German bear ready to rip the bollenhut from a poor village maiden?”
“It could be any number of things,” Archie insisted, trying to justify his nerves. He picked up the nature journal he’d brought with him. He knew it wasn’t the most fascinating thing to bring to a solstice party, but he wanted to show his old friend what he did for a living. He flipped to page thirty of Perilous Scoutings of Europe and Asia. He turned the book around to show his wife an illustration of the snowshoe lynx. The cat was sneaking up on a wounded fawn and wore a stretched smile like a court jester’s, its prominent whiskers curled like a cap and bells. “This could be out there.”
He flipped to page thirty-eight and presented her with a Black Forest boar, mid-charge, with its tusks dug into the side of a hapless hunting dog. “Or this.” Renate was not impressed. Archie decided to bring out the crown jewel of the journal by flipping to the dreaded page seventy-one. Then he forced her to gaze upon the monumental blubbery bulk and spiraling spear of the Neptune narwhal. The picture showed it flopping back into the ocean after a leap and crushing a merchant vessel to splinters. Renate squinted; she saw the whale clearly staring at the beleaguered captain as he was tossed into the sea.
“I don’t think a whale is going to attack our carriage… their faces are always so funny,” she noticed. “I do not believe half of them exist. These explorers go out into the jungle, find a mouse in their boots, and never stop talking about it. By the time they get back to England or America it’s been exaggerated into a creature the size of a barn, covered in spikes, and drooling green poison. Really, how can you trust they saw these things at all?”
“It’s not a science based around crying wolf,” he said pathetically and hugged the journal to his chest. “Are you saying that if I tried to tell you about a monster like that, you wouldn’t believe me?”
“You would have to go where the monsters live first,” she said. Archie clammed up and turned his eyes back to the window. He rubbed his left thumb on the smooth black stone of the silver ring on his right hand. He thought about monsters walking about in their home, sniffing at their belongings and licking their walls while they were away.
The driver tapped on the glass, startling Archie. They were nearly there. They’d been invited to stay a few nights, so Archie was able to tuck the journal into his luggage. Renate fluffed her short curls as best she could while the carriage slowed to a stop. The driver dismounted, came around the side, and opened the door for them.
“I’ll be taking your luggage around the back so the servants can take it up to your room,” he said with a tone that suggested he’d said the same thing ten times already that day. The haggard man brushed some snowflakes off his thick black mustache like they were horseflies.
“That would be excellent, thank you,” Archie said. He helped Renate down the step and admired her dark red dress and its puffy sleeves. With her warm smile she looked like a bit of campfire given legs and taught manners. “You look splendid Renate,” he said and kissed her on her cold cheek. She suppressed a shiver and turned it into an excited little dance when she saw the front of the house. She squealed and snorted with excitement and shook her husband’s arm. He too stared up at the massive mansion, his cloudy breath failing to obscure its grandeur.
It was perhaps the biggest private home he’d ever seen. Just from the front he could spot four chimneys rising out of the roof like candles on a cake. The smoke from them still had a few orange sparks from what had to be the truly roaring hearths inside. Pillowy rolls of blue-white snow hung over the eaves like icing. Every window was decorated with a wreath as big around as Archie was tall. Many of them dangled bundles of pinecones, each cone big as a syrup jug. Colorful fluffy birds with tiny beaks nested in the wreaths and chirped a rather popular solstice tune. Renate remarked that they must have been trained and certainly were not native to Bavaria. A dozen other carriages rested out front and several servants were busy escorting the horses and reindeer that drove them to the mansion’s stables.
“Erythrim lives here?” he uttered, dumbstruck. It was a far cry from the two bedroom farmhouse his childhood friend had leapt out from on those perfect grasshopper-catching days nearly twenty years ago.
“You said he made a name for himself, but this house looks like all of Europe knows his name!” Renate cried. “How big is this solstice party? Did you see all of those carriages?”
“I never thought of him as much of a showman,” Archie said. “His invitation implied it would be a more intimate affair… just family and old friends.”
“Maybe he has a very big family. What if he has ten wives in there?”
“No, not Erythrim,” Archie mumbled. He started to question the clarity of his memories. The red-haired boy he remembered shied away from attention and would never fight with other children… he wouldn’t even fight the wild turkey that had taken over his backyard and forced them to play out in the fields and the woods beyond his father’s farm. Could money have changed him so much? Or did he change to get the money?
“You two had better hurry inside,” their driver said as he hauled their luggage out of the carriage. “You might miss the fireworks.”
“Fireworks… inside?” Archie asked, aghast.
“I was told to mention them to all the guests,” the driver offered as explanation. “They’re completely safe and a better show than any you’ve ever seen.”
“That’s what the invitation said, remember Archie?” Renate reminded. “It said ‘a night like you’ve never seen’. Let’s get in there! I want to start seeing it!” She grabbed Archie’s arm and dragged him up the snow-covered stairs. They heard a wave of laughter force its way out between the cracks of the door. The doors were twice as tall as Archie; the polished knockers were in the shape of two women holding the sides of a basket overflowing with root vegetables. Renate lifted the silver handle of the basket and prepared to knock. Suddenly she stopped and then lowered the handle back down gently so it made no sound. “Archie quickly! Tell me everything I need to know about Erythrim. I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of the other guests. For all I know it could wind up in the papers!”
“Alright,” he said. “He should be the one with the reddest hair. You could always see it even across a field. He was shy, but not around the girls. We went to school together and had races to see who could finish reading our favorite books first. He won with The Clutch of Caravan Gems, but I beat him through both Isles of the Pagan Sirens and Commander Shodhelm.”
“What’s he like now Archie?” she clarified. “We’re not playing stickball with him.”
“I don’t really know! That’s why we’re here, to catch up with an old friend. We haven’t shared so much as a letter in ten years. I know he’s in the fuel industry now. I think he sells equipment used to drill for oil. Or maybe it’s the metal used to make the equipment that drills for oil… He’s an industrial salesman. Leave it at that.”
“Here we go,” she whispered enthusiastically. Archie tried to match her enthusiasm but just ended up coughing. Renate lifted the basket handle and brought it down three times. Tunk tunk tunk. The door swung open. The sounds of the party washed over them like choir music. Laughter. The clinking of glasses and popping of corks. Violins. More than a hundred people turned to look at them. The servant who opened the door asked for their invitation. Archie dug into his pocket, realized it was the wrong one, and dug into the other. He pulled out the folded invitation and handed it to the man. He unfolded it and read the outside.
“Presenting Mr. Archibald Vinpipe and his wife Renate Vinpipe.” Applause. Wild applause for two people who had only previously been clapped for on their wedding day. They smiled and waved to the crowd. When the polite praise was over the guests turned back to their distractions. The servant closed the door behind them to once again lock out the cold.
“Archie look!” Renate dragged him over to a table that was longer than their carriage and all the reindeer that pulled it. Laid out before them was the most impressive and luxurious spread of delectables they’d ever seen. Even though the celebration was in full swing, the table was still close to overflowing thanks to the stream of cooks and servers coming out of the doors behind the table and replenishing any dish that was more than a third gone. Skewers of roasted goose and cubed pig hearts wrapped in thyme dripped golden juices into a silver tray beneath them that rang like a bell with every drop. Stacks of dark bread waited for a huge dollop of the nearby artichoke spread. French and German pastries competed for the eye with surfaces of candied honey and mint green icing. That was only the first third of the table, as the rest of it was blocked by the indulging guests. Renate grabbed a bonbon decorated with a caramel swirl and popped it in her mouth. Her grip on Archie’s arm tightened. “Iff vu betht shoclit uv effer ad!” she moaned.
Archie took the candy she handed him and placed it in his mouth. He raised his tongue against the roof of his mouth, cracking the chocolate shell. Peanut mousse oozed out and mixed with the dusting of dark cocoa powder. It almost made him forget how nervous he was. He didn’t even have time to swallow before Renate pulled him over to the next spectacle.
They silently observed the garb of several guests who might have been royalty. They were wearing illumination clothing, the current and perhaps permanent trend in fashion inspired by the Irish calligraphy technique in the Book of Kells. The side of a man’s hat depicted a ship sailing towards the rising sun. Archie swore he could see the foam on the waves beneath it undulating, breaking up and reforming. The rays of the sun appeared to spin.
Renate watched a scene play out on the train of a very tall woman’s dress. Fabric trees grew before her eyes and dropped nuts into the baskets of waiting pickers. The scene happened over and over again, its colors sparkling and fluctuating but never blurring. The motion sped up whenever the wearer of the dress took a step to the side.
“I’ve got to find out how to put that in our journals,” Archie muttered. “I’d be the toast of the publishing world.”
“We mustn’t stare too long,” Renate said as she continued to stare. Eventually she pulled herself and Archie away from the clothing of the people who were a handful of castes above them. “What are we doing here?” she gasped with sudden worry. “These people are not the same as us.”
“I agree, they’re much better,” Archie said. Renate slapped his shoulder.
“We just need to find the guests like us,” she suggested. “Where are the old friends? The people who remember when dinner was porridge and your best friends were your mudding boots?”
“I don’t know where they would be.”
“What about them over by the window? Their clothes are nearly as humble as ours.”
“Your dress was very expensive Renate.”
“I know that Archie and I love it very much. I think the people by the window will love it too.” Archie started to wonder if his arm was going to pop off before the evening ended when his wife dragged him away yet again.
They joined a cluster of people quietly arguing with each other in various languages. Archie heard English, German, and French. He turned to his wife who, in addition to her German and English, had smatterings of French and Polish lessons in her youth.
“I saw it right there,” an intoxicated Englishman said and tapped the window. His fingertip left a little smudge on the foggy glass. “Right behind that bush. Just staring inside. I think maybe it was cold. It must be jealous of these warm drinks.” He took a gulp from his goblet and was about to take another when the woman with him separated him and the brass cup.
“She says nobody brought a dog with them,” Renate whispered after another woman scoffed in French.
“You saw a dog?” Archie asked the man, who turned and looked at the publisher like he was some sort of coat rack that had just sprung to life. The Englishman had flecks of cheese and cherry juice in his wiry mutton chop whiskers.
“No, my good man. I saw a wolf out there in the dead of night!”
“Well that’s impossible,” Archie said with a smirk. The clustered guests turned to him. He coughed. “Not that he’s lying… it’s just that the last known wolf in Bavaria was killed some years ago. Their kind is vanishing all across the world thanks to defensive livestock owners and destruction of their forests.”
“Haven’t you heard?” the French woman said in English. “This is Erythrim’s forest.” She flashed a smile full of gray teeth and everyone laughed.
“Where is the man of the hour?” Renate asked.
“He has been giving tours of this house all evening! I’ve only seen him for a few moments. This place is so large that the tours take more than half an hour. I haven’t even gotten a turn yet,” a short woman in a purple dress whined. She whipped out an equally purple fan and fanned the unfairness of the situation away as best she could. Renate introduced herself and Archie to the group. A few of the men were nice enough to shake Archie’s hand and kiss Renate’s. A jowly German fellow in a coat better suited to hunting than dining turned Archie’s hand in his and examined the American’s black ring.
“That’s an unusual stone,” the man said. He lowered his face until he could see his reflection in its surface. “Onyx? Obsidian? Jet? Oh I can already tell none of my guesses are right. My brother is a jeweler. He’d string me up if he knew I couldn’t get this.” Archie started to stutter a response, but Renate saved him.
“I’m afraid my husband likes to keep it secret, even from me believe it or not! It’s a little game he plays. He works with explorers, publishing images of their encounters with dangerous animals! He’s given me the hint that it came to him from an exotic creature, but he won’t say which one. My guess is that it’s the polished beak of an arctic squid.”
“Oh that does sound fun,” the jowly man said and chuckled along with Renate. “I do wonder if we need to solve the mystery of what Sir Glennby saw out the window first.”
“I already told you,” Sir Glennby said as his escort plucked the food from his whiskers and wiped his cheeks with a damp kerchief. “It was a wolf! I don’t care what this one says. No wolves left. Bah. People told me there were no invitations left for this party, but I managed to get one didn’t I? Perhaps our wolf friend was invited as well. Maybe he makes his home in the Russian mountains but decided to appear for this special occasion.”
“He’s a knight,” Renate whispered to Archie. “He’s a knight and he had trouble getting an invitation. If anyone asks, we have servants. Two of them. No three. Three and a scullery maid for when we have guests.”
“Well Mr. Vinpipe could perhaps tell us what it was, barring the possibility of the big bad wolf,” someone suggested.
“Ah… uhuhm… well…” Archie stammered. He tapped his pockets and remembered he no longer had the visual aid of the journal with him. “There are a host of furry creatures in the Bayerischer wald,” he said, only barely butchering the German expression. “It could be a domestic hound of some kind.”
“No, we’ve already asked everybody! Nobody brought any dogs.”
“Yes… I should’ve remembered. Well there are the local cervids.”
“What did he say?”
“He said scorpids. That’s how Erythrim got this lot for a song; it’s infested with giant woodland scorpions!”
“A-a-actually I said cervids,” Archie corrected. “It refers to the deer and moose species of the world.”
“It had fangs,” Sir Glennby countered. “I’ve never seen a deer with fangs before.”
“Then you’ve never seen the defensive tusks of the musk deer,” Archie argued, but his point was lost on a crowd that, apart from purchasing birds with exotically-colored plumage, never saw anything more exotic than a particularly plump pig.
“He likes his mead, but he never mistakes dogs for deer,” the woman with the knight alleged.
“There must be something else in this forest like a wolf. Eh Mr. Vinpipe?”
“There are possibilities,” Archie admitted, hoping they would not make him say it.
“Spit it out man. What are the fanged creatures the servants out there should be keeping their eyes open for?”
“Yes, tell us.”
“We’re brave enough; we can handle your descriptions of dripping tongues and curling claws.” Archie opened his mouth. He could taste his own breath and feel it being slightly fouled by the very name he was about to expel. A name that could curdle the cream in all the desserts from ten feet away. A name that would make all the images in the illuminated clothing around them stand as still as the hands of a broken clock.
“Oh, it’s Erythrim!” the French woman said, unwittingly saving him from the embarrassment. The entire room turned to hail the return of their host. A man the same age as Archie but with a much thinner frame and a younger face descended the carpeted stairs with a pair of polished boots laced up to his knees and decorated with red and gold bows. He held out the smooth palms of his hands and dismissed the group of guests behind him. They slowly dripped past his sides and onto the floor like droplets of colored oil. Archie would have been able to pick him out of the crowd even if he had been scrubbing the floors. The same red hair from so long ago… maybe even redder now. Archie stupidly waved to him, forgetting the man had a house full of dignitaries and aristocrats to occupy his time. Renate pulled his hand down.
“Is it possible we were invited by mistake?” his wife asked him, genuine concern written across her paling cheeks. “Maybe one of his servants found your name in one of his documents and got mixed up.”
“Have some faith in me,” Archie begged. “I’m not a knight, but I know I was more important to Erythrim than any knight is to his queen. We were the best of friends. Thick as thieves that never actually stole anything.” This time Archie grabbed his wife’s arm and pulled her. They waded through the crowd toward their host, Archie just barely avoiding a woman’s train, a shoeprint that might have been serious enough to cause trade sanctions between nations. They were feet from Erythrim, ready to grab his attention, when they suddenly became the front row of an audience. A servant wheeled a brass table to the base of the stairs. Erythrim stood just behind it, on the last stair. He rested his palms on the edge of the table and leaned forward, drinking in the admiration.
The table had a large box on it about twice the size of a hatbox. Its panels were enameled almost as vibrantly as the illumination clothing. Across its sides all four seasons played out in panoramic view: flowers to the hunt to pumpkins to an ice skating pond. Everyday things were portrayed in inappropriately brilliant colors: tortoiseshell for the coat of an alley cat and abalone for icicles. Erythrim reached over the top and gently grabbed the lid. He pulled it open. The box responded immediately, unfolding an incredible metal bird with nearly a thousand moving parts. The crowd gasped giddily and clapped.
The bird’s plate feathers were green and gold. No one doubted for a second the gold was genuine; the bird wore it far too proudly for it to be a bluff. Its puffed chest sparkled like the reflection of a crystal chandelier in another crystal chandelier. Its wings flapped gracefully, with none of the mechanical squeaking one might expect. It was no simple up and down motion like a child’s pull-toy either; the joints of the arm extended, the feather separated, and then the tips of them touched together just enough to ring like a tiny school bell. The designer had sought to outdo creation itself by mixing and matching the parts of the prettiest birds in existence. Its tail was dotted with iridescent eyes like a peacock’s, and it fanned opened and closed on a completely separate mechanism from the wings, granting it a pattern of movement so organic that you might expect it to turn its head when you called its name.
Its head had the sharp silver bill of a woodpecker and was topped with a crest of white fur and paper-thin blades of creamy golden hornbill ivory. Its neck moved in and out like a swan’s, strips of hanging cloth swelling and contracting to mimic breath. Machines small enough to power prairie dog pocket watches moved its metal pupils back and forth slowly, setting the rhythm for its heavenly song. The bird sang not like a machine, but like a parrot hatched from its shell by an opera prodigy’s highest note. It sang like it had been raised on music, fed a diet of shredded Mozart topped with chopped Chopin and seasoned with Salieri. It sang like it had more of a life than half the people in the room who had worked so hard to ornament themselves with baubles that couldn’t compare to the simple elegance of the bird’s outline.
“This is its winter solstice song,” Erythrim nearly whispered. “This creature of the modern age has one hundred songs to sing, many of which I may not even get to hear. It is the child of the brilliant Swiss designer Suzanne Vallotton, hatched in her workshop just in time to put on this show for all of you. Where are you my Suzanne? You cannot hide at my party. Show your face. Come up here.” A young woman with silver spectacles and hair white as snow was practically shoved up to Erythrim’s side. He put his hand around her shoulder and kissed her cheeks. “Thank you so much my dear. I will cherish this automaton forever. I will live forever just so I can cherish it that long. Only a true genius could create such a wonder, such a treasure, such a soul-cracking boîte á oiseau chanteur.”
The crowd roared its approval. Three different people tried to hand Erythrim drinks and start toasts, but their attempts to garner attention could not compete with Erythrim. He ignored them and ran halfway up the stairs. He shouted to all his guests. “This singing bird box exists to mark this occasion. From now on the world may not want to celebrate the solstice on this day; too much attention will be drawn to the anniversary of this party: the day I declared the world ours. The day we had more fun than anyone thought possible. The day I bought the holiday and got it for a song!” The bird trilled rapturously; its feathers vibrated and rang like a hundred tiny wind chimes. “And now! The playful pyres of my palace!”
Servants appeared at every door, dressed like jesters. Two of them descended the stairs. They all wore thick shoulder-length gloves so they could handle the heat of the metal cylinders they carried out in front of them like precious vases. Sparking reeds of light fired from the canisters and towards the ceiling. They popped into brilliant clouds of color and glittering flakes. If the crowd was rambunctious before, they were a gutter full of leaping crickets now. Archie was pushed out towards the base of the stairs. Renate’s face disappeared into the crowd. Archie reached for her arm, but then that sunk into the tangle of elbows and jewelry as well.
“Renate!” he shouted as if she’d gone overboard.
“I’m alright Archie!” he barely heard her cry over the excited hollering. “I think I’m going to have a dance! Go catch up with Erythrim!”
“A-alright,” Archie stammered, unsure if his wife heard him from the center of the whirlpool of dancing and applause. Fshooooo… paup! Shaaafoooo… Crack! More miniature fireworks exploded overhead. Archie put his hands on his hair as if dynamite was being thrown over the stair rails. Someone grabbed his hand and pulled him behind the table of food, inches from the kitchen doors as they opened and closed to admit empty plates and expel more delicacies. At first he thought it was Renate, but when he rubbed the yellow shadows of the exploding candles out of his eyes he was met with the impish grin of Erythrim.
“Aren’t they wondrous Archie?” he asked. “Their beauty is unparalleled because their craftsmanship is unparalleled. They can only go off inside thanks to the miniaturization, and the miniaturization is thanks to the tiny fingers of the artistic children who construct them.” His words sped out of his mouth like grapes tumbling into the stomping tub. He was nearly manic with giddiness, a cherub jumping rope with an angel holding one end and a demon the other. “The children are told to take their drawings and to distill those images, those playful swollen oblong depictions of their parents, their siblings, their pets, and their toys, down to even more basic dabs of color. Then they place those pellets of ignitable color inside the paper tubes in the same order they would put them on the page. The result… well the result is this! This giggling cluster of colors and noise! This is a second childhood for everyone here! A second childhood for you and me my dear friend!”
“Hello,” was all Archie had to say in response. He desperately hoped that look in Erythrim’s eyes, like a fox rubbing the blood of the henhouse off on the siding and licking its lips, would go away. “It… it is good to see you Erythrim.”
“Archie,” Erythrim said with a confused grin, “why are you saying hello now? We’re past that. The fireworks Archie!”
“We’ve only just got here,” Archie explained, just as perplexed. “You’ve said more about Swiss geniuses and child artists in the last few minutes than you’ve said to me or my wife.”
“Have I? I could have sworn you and I have been laughing and slapping each other’s backs all evening.”
“You did intend to invite us, didn’t you Erythrim?”
“Of course! Of course of course, of course, of course, of course you were the first invitation I made out. I wanted you to see this most of all! I wanted you to know what became of your friend and I wanted to know what became of mine. I wanted to meet his wife. Your wife! Oh Archie she’s gorgeous!”
“I haven’t introduced you yet.”
“It couldn’t matter less! You’re a golden soul Archie. You always made me look tarnished by comparison. I know whoever you married must be just as golden. She could be a fat sow or a withered thistle and I would still see the gold inside her that you fell in love with. I will make time to complete the formality of viewing her, but for now we must enjoy the show!”
Archie was about to ask Erythrim if he’d been getting enough sleep, on account of him acting like he’d never slept in his life, but something interrupted him. A white blur tumbled out of the kitchen door and slammed into the food table. Small plates on the other side crashed to the floor and shattered. The blob of plumage and open guffawing mouths that was the party barely took notice. The white blur was a chef. She had a look of panic on her face that overpowered the shock of hitting the table. Her cheeks were red and her black hair was plastered to her face by tears. She sobbed and crawled under the table, smearing icing and sauces all over her apron and knees. When she got to her feet she fled down the side of the chamber and out the front door. There was nowhere to go but the rest of the frigid mountain, but for her that was better than staying.
“Sue! Sue, get back here! The crème brûlée! Come on Archie.” Erythrim grabbed his arm and dragged him into the kitchen. “I don’t know what’s gotten into her. We’ve got a very tight schedule to keep with the food. Good lord of undergarments!”
The stench hit them both like pepper-dusted hornets buzzing up their nostrils. Erythrim leaned on the stove, next to a giant bubbling pot of solstice soup, while Archie doubled over on the counter. Don’t vomit, he thought repeatedly. Don’t vomit in your rich friend’s kitchen. Your vomit isn’t good enough for this tile. Don’t vomit. Don’t vomit. The smell was a heady mixture of saliva pregnant with tobacco, marsh grass, and tubers rotting underground. There was a hint of meat to it as well. Meat so old it was gray. Archie realized he recognized the smell. He’d only smelled it once before, but there was nothing about that night he would ever forget. He looked at the black stone on his ring to make sure it wasn’t shaking, cracking, or threatening to explode.
“Erythrim, your hands!” he exclaimed when he saw his friend leaning on the stove. He thought for sure his friend was burning himself to a crisp. Erythrim noticed for the first time where he’d put his hands and lifted them off the stove. They were unburned.
“That was close,” he said. “Thank you Archie. Now what is that smell? It must be some kind of culinary disaster! Two ingredients that are never supposed to be touched! Help me find it.” Erythrim scoured the counters for the source of the smell. As he slid stacks of washed vegetables to the side and looked under meat pies he failed to notice the entire kitchen staff, aside from the woman they’d seen, had gone out the back door.
“It’s not the food,” Archie said. He could barely speak. The smell hugged his tongue, making his words feel fat and drunk.
“Nonsense Archie. You have no idea what’s in this kitchen. I had them bring in tortoise meat from the Isle of red sand.” He stuck his nose in every bubbling pot down the line of stoves, sniffing chowder, stew, noodles, slipper lobsters still struggling against the heat, and melted chocolate. “There’s supposed to be a roast rhea in one of these ovens.” He opened and closed the oven doors, each one squeaking aggressively in protest of the interruption. “I’ve already got a theory. They forgot to pluck it entirely and we’re smelling the burning feathers.”
“Erythrim that’s not it. It’s a beast. A vicious… well, judgemental…”
“By the lead pipes of Rome!” Erythrim exclaimed. He moved to one of the counters where they both saw a giant pile of pulpy carnage. They gasped at the sight of broken bones, puddles of red ooze, and shredded brain tissue. Whatever had come through the kitchen had sucked the marrowbones dry, toppled the cranberry sauce, and devoured most of the lamb’s brains before the butter sauce was even drizzled over top. “This is the next course! It’s ruined! I’ll have the head of whoever did this. It’ll go on a silver platter and replace the meal they just destroyed! Margaret! David!” He bellowed for cooks that were no longer in the building. They were already a quarter of a mile away, bounding through the dark snow to escape the creature that wasn’t following them.
It’s come back for me, Archie thought, petrified. Why after all these years? What have I done this time? I was a good boy. Oh Saint Nicholas I swear I was a good boy.
“Archie? Archie are you crying? Do not worry my friend. It will be alright. They didn’t touch the Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte!”
“The what?” Archie sniveled.
“The Black Forest gâteau!”
“The cake Archie! Honestly, were you frozen in your backyard from the time I left to the time the postman put the invitation in your icicled hand! The cake is the keystone of all the food. If the cake is good, all else will be forgiven. It’s the messiah dessert that will wash away the rest of my social sins in a wave of cherry juice! Grab the platter. Help me take it out there.”
“Archie I need you now more than ever!”
Archie did as he was told. He supposed he could hyperventilate just as easily outside the kitchen and away from its lingering rancid breath. He grabbed one end of the cake’s metal platter and helped Erythrim lift it off the counter. It was so heavy he nearly dropped it. Familiarity with cake had blinded him to the size of it. Cake was cake. It fit on a normal table. A knife could cut through it without your wrist being buried in chocolate shavings. Not so with this cake. It was as big around as a barrel. The syrupy cherries ringing the top layer of whipped cream jiggled as Archie struggled to keep it steady. He heaved and tried to look at Erythrim. The tall cake hid most of his face. His eyes were replaced by two fiery red cherries. They backed out the kitchen door.
“Everyone!” Erythrim shouted as the door swung in and out behind them. “It’s time for cake. Somebody help us with this! Come now! Earn yourself a future invitation. Take this from me.” Several of the people from the windowsill, less secure in their return to Erythrim manor, fought for the chance to grab the cake platter. A team of three pulled it away from Archie and placed it on the table, squishing a layer of weaker pastries beneath it. It leaned only slightly to the side. “Are the fireworks finished?” Erythrim asked. He checked the ceiling. A bit of colored smoke hung around, but the tiny explosions were indeed finished. He pulled out a long flat cake knife that may have been specially made for the evening. “Ah, good. Now who is ready to cut to the heart of this beautiful dessert?”
Clufump! The sound preempted the roar of the crowd. They all stood with their mouths open, fearing they’d interrupted another surprise. Clufump! The sound was coming from the roof. Clufump! The iron chandelier shook at the end of its chain. The flames on its candles flickered. Hot wax dripped to the floor below. Clufump!
“Someone is on the roof,” a face in the crowd said.
“It’s Saint Nicholas!” a woman giggled. She clapped her hands idiotically. “Oh Erythrim, you didn’t tell us you knew the Saint!”
“I would have invited him if I had an address,” Erythrim said. He stared at the ceiling. Clufump! They heard birds scatter.
“Saint Nick doesn’t have cloven hooves and rotten breath,” Archie said. Clufump!
“Don’t you start again,” Sir Glennby barked. “He told me I saw a deer earlier when I know I saw a wolf.” The knight nearly fell over in his gesturing, so he leaned back on the windowsill. Clufump!
“I hope you’ve all been good this year,” the idiot teased. Archie forced his way into the crowd so he could find Renate. He needed to apologize to her. She was going to see something terrible and he just needed to apologize to her first: both for getting eaten in front of her and for ruining the fanciest party of her life. He called her name but she didn’t answer. Clufump! Clufump! Clufump! The sound stopped. “He’s gone down the chimney! Quickly, put the fires out!”
“Ol’ Nick is fireproof,” Sir Glennby said. “I doubt it’s him anyway. Everyone at this party is naughtier than…” The window behind him shattered. A hideous arm covered in matted dangling brown hair reached in and grabbed the inebriated knight by the chin. Its fingers were long and had fat knuckles like burls of wood. Its claws were aquiline and white; they punctured his puffy cheek; blood dripped onto his collar. He dropped his goblet and screamed. His mouth twisted as the arm pulled him up off his feet. His legs kicked wildly. He grabbed at the arm and pulled its dangling tendrils of fur. With a final pull it broke the rest of the glass. Sir Glennby’s body was yanked out the window and into the dark cold outside. His screams lasted only a second longer before they were replaced by the sounds of crunching bone and burbling blood. Snow blew in through the hole.
“Werewolf!” someone shrieked. They had seen the clawed furry hand of a beastly man and drawn the only logical conclusion. The party returned to a state of clamor, this time charged with the sweat of fear. Their breath became ragged and shallow as the crowd went into labor. It would take only a moment to become its inevitable offspring: a mob. The pushing started. People were knocked to the floor. The illumination clothing, painstakingly woven over thousands of hours, was shredded as quickly as if the beast was already among them. Archie was buffeted back and forth as the cluster of people separated and sought safety in Erythrim’s labyrinthine homestead.
Twenty people were forced into the kitchen. They barricaded themselves in with the overturned banquet table, the doors cemented shut by the whipped cream of the Black Forest cake. Thirty more pushed their way up the stairs before splitting down the halls to the left and right. A few stragglers rolled back down, caught up in their own clothes and crying. Another group stampeded into the parlor and started throwing furniture against the door.
This is all pointless, Archie thought as he was forced up the stairs by those around him. It just wants me. I should never have come. This place is too decadent. It is greed that made me think I could belong in a place like this. Greed that the beast smelled on me. He heard a crunch and twisted his head to look towards the front door. Even as he stood backward the others pulled him away from it. The doors burst open. Wind and snow poured inside. Most of the candles were blown out in an instant. Darkness crept in through the hole, hiding everything but the beast’s muzzle as it sniffed the entrance to the gilded chamber. Its nostrils flared and spewed steam. Its lips curled. A bloody rope of drool stretched and broke. That was when Archie was pulled around the corner entirely. They forced him into the hunting room and started to barricade the door.
At first the hunting room was completely dark. Archie only knew it was the hunting room because he could smell the fur and the tanned hides of all the mounted animals. It couldn’t have been the fur of the monster now stalking the halls because it would’ve smelled far worse. The nine people in the room all crouched near or under whatever furniture they could find with their hands in the dark. Nobody dared speak when they heard the footsteps outside. Clufump! Clufump! The beast moved back and forth in front of the door. It went down the hallway and came back. They heard screams. Snarls. More stomping along with the patter of panicked human feet, like biscuits rolling down the stairs. Only when the sounds of the creature were very clearly coming from a floor below them did the whispers begin.
“It’s a werewolf!”
“What do we do? Is Erythrim in here?”
“No, I saw him go into the kitchen.”
“You’re daft, he went to the library.”
“Are we sure this isn’t part of the show?”
“The knight didn’t spill his own blood for our entertainment!”
“It could’ve been colored syrup. I saw a magician once who appeared to chop off his own head…”
“Oh shut up.”
“We need silver. You can only kill a werewolf with silver.”
“We could use wolf’s bane as well.”
“Yes, well I doubt there is any of that particular poisonous flower in his mansion or out in the blighted snow-covered wood!”
“We need light first. Someone find some matches.” Then came the sounds of eight people probing across the carpet and the walls with their fingers. It was only eight because Archie was too terrified to move. He berated his own body for needing to breathe. Every exhalation was a track the monster could follow back to him. Its sense of smell was beyond legendary. A monster such as this could smell the poison in an apple in a cottage in a fairytale being told a continent away. There was no way he was giving it the advantage of the distinct sound of his plump fingertips tapping on the floor. I should give myself up. I should accept my punishment. That’s the only way everyone else will be safe. It’s the only way I can save Renate. Thoughts of his wife finally made Archie join in the search for the matches. If that beast so much as touched her because of his childishness… He didn’t dare think what would happen.
“I’ve got one,” someone declared.
“I’ve got a candlestick. Bring it here.”
Krisht. A flickering flame appeared at the center of the room. It spread to the wick of the candlestick. Then another lit up. They had only three between them and one was missing its base, so the man holding the bare candle constantly switched hands to avoid the scalding wax. The weak light was just strong enough to reveal the furred faces mounted around them, but not strong enough to remove their demonic yellow pallor. Horned sheep with amber glass eyes decorated the wall to each side of a large globe. Someone gently spun the planetary sphere; its surface was marked with tiny red cattle skulls, drawn with single-hair paintbrushes, which marked the kill sites of the creatures in the room. Archie didn’t know if Erythrim had done all the hunting or if he had merely tagged along with someone more experienced and financed the excursions, but he guessed the latter. He couldn’t picture his friend with a rifle in his hands. He was always the one insisting they release the frogs they’d caught.
Archie was intimately familiar with the image of many of the animals. Taxidermy was like wildlife illustration in the dramatic flair they both shared. Every moment for a beast on the page was either its last or its most vicious, the same as when they are turned to trophies. The hunting room had a stuffed bear rearing up on its hind legs, prepared to swat the face off an unsuspecting picnicker. The head of a gorilla bared its teeth over the door. While the taxidermists did their best to curl the lips and furrow the brow, they couldn’t match the chilling human expressions illustrators often attached to everything from sharks to spiders descending down to a sleeping woman’s bed on a line of silk. Still, the candlelight transformed the heads into suitably fearsome exaggerations.
Archie stood with his back to the wall, next to the head of a black-armored alligator. He once again examined his ring. He was wondering if he could perhaps use the stone to his advantage, if there was possibly a shred of magic in it given its source, when one of the other guests interrupted his panicked rambling thoughts.
“The fellow! There,” someone with a French accent said and pointed at Archie. They all saw the glint of his ring’s base in the candlelight. “He has a silver ring.”
“Excellent.” A man in a red vest and a charcoal ruffled shirt approached Archie and held out his hand. “Give it here fellow. We’ll pool all the silver belongings and then decide on the best way to turn them against that fell thing.”
“You can’t have my ring,” Archie said. He stared at the man. He tried to look at the others, but the weak light made the real eyes into the same smudges in the dark as the glass ones on display. Voices and shapes moved in and out of his cone of perception, like hideous crustaceans scuttling in and out of the night surf. “I mean… You must trust me. This ring is only more likely to get you killed. That monster wants this ring and the hand that bears it in its stomach, melting away with the remains of the children it has consumed.”
“What are you talking about? It’s not the devil we’re fighting; it’s just a cursed man. My cousin killed a werewolf once. Their minds are as simple as dogs’ when they’re in moon form. Come now, the rest of us are donating our silver. Look.” Hands appeared out of the darkness and placed objects in the center of the mountain-lion-skin rug: a silver pocket watch, a silver belt buckle, the two silver candlesticks, and a pair of dentures with three silver teeth. They went about organizing the pile of polished armaments as best they could. The two bravest men took the candlesticks as they were the closest in shape to an actual weapon. A woman took up the pocket watch and swung it by the chain like a flail.
“Hand over the ring,” someone growled. Archie was about to protest again when they heard a banging on the door.
“Bitte lassen Sie mich ein,” an aged voice on the other side cried. “Das Untier ist hier! Lassen Sie mich ein, ich flehe dich an!”
“It’s the wolf,” the woman with the watch whispered. “He’s gone back to human form to fool us. Don’t open that door.” Archie saw an opportunity to draw attention away from his ring.
“Werewolves don’t choose when they transform,” he said, truthfully enough. “It’s just an old man.” He ran over to the door and started to pull the furniture barricade apart. One other set of hands in the dark helped him and once it was clear they opened the door just long enough for the old man to slip inside. They immediately put the wall back up. While he was stacking chairs Archie listened to the old man wheeze and ramble about what he had witnessed. Unfortunately he couldn’t make heads or tails of it on account of the German. If only Renate were here. Please Saint Nick, she’s been so good. She doesn’t deserve this.
“Das Untier hat mich direkt angesehen! Direkt in meinem Augen! Ich weiß nicht warum, aber es hat mich in Ruhe gelassen,” the old man rambled. When the man’s face was close enough Archie saw the fear in his eyes. He knew the old man had seen it up close. Maybe it’s not what I think it is, Archie hoped. Maybe it is a werewolf. Some kind of yule demon maybe. They live in snowy forests too. I have to know what he is saying.
“You saw it?” Archie asked the man.
“Sicherlich habe ich es gesehen,” he said. “Das Untier ist höher als meinem Vater hat zu mir ausgesehen, als ich ein kleiner Junge war. Die Augen sind gelb wie Krankheit. Die Zähne sind wie die Zähne von einem Haifisch. Auf dem Kopf sind großes Geweih; nicht schön wie bei einem Hirsch; sie sind gebogen und gebrochen; wie ein Baum, der vom Blitz getroffen war; geschwärzt und ausgehöhlt.”
Someone grabbed at Archie’s hand. He pulled back, colliding with the stack of furniture and undoing most of his work.
“Just give us the ring. We’re not stealing it; North Pole knows we’ve got far more valuable things than that to take around here. Do you see this shirt? This was so expensive I bet the lint in my pocket is worth more than that ring.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Archie warned. “You’ll draw it right to us with pride like that.” Someone else grabbed at his shoulder; he smacked the hand away. More hands came out of the dark and pawed at him. He would’ve shouted, but he feared the results of that noise much more. He reached behind and pulled the door open. Archie ran out into the hall. To his surprise, three of the silver wielders followed him. Those guests were so used to getting their way that even with the creature about they would not let Archie escape the punishment for disobedience. He was about to flee down the stairs when he heard the distinct clopping of the creature. He changed his mind and decided there were plenty of places to run upstairs.
The entitled guests chased poor Archie into the library, where they encountered another group from the party. The two factions stopped in their tracks and examined each other. The people in the library had similar ideas, and thus brandished all manner of silver items, including a large vase that still smelled like dried poinsettias. Seeing a chance to swell their ranks, Archie’s pursuers forgot all about him and embraced the other survivors. They traded whispers back and forth and formulated plans of escape. Someone from the library group grabbed Archie’s hand. He almost recoiled again when he recognized his wife’s perfect wrists. He pulled her into an embrace.
“Oh my Saint, Renate! I’m so happy you’re alive. I thought for sure…”
“One of the other guests took it upon themselves to continue giving tours while you and Erythrim were in the kitchen,” she explained. She rubbed his cheek to warm it. “I only heard the commotion. Someone was killed? They’re saying it was a werewolf?”
“It was no werewolf,” Archie said, swallowing hard. He didn’t have to tell her quite yet. She didn’t need to know until he was absolutely sure of the killer’s identity. “I need you to come with me Renate. There is something I must know. You can put down the silver; I promise you won’t need it.”
“Alright,” his wife said, carefully setting the tiny lemon fork she was wielding on the edge of a bookshelf. They shuffled around the other guests as they compared the weight of their weapons and then entered the more comfortable territory of complimenting the craftsmanship.
“I must meet Erythrim’s silversmith,” one of them gushed.
He led her out of the library and back towards the hunting room. They left just in time too, as the group of survivors was turning on one of their own. They noticed someone among them was not holding silver and that their clothes were somewhat tattered. To their fear-drenched minds that meant they’d ripped their clothes when transforming. Archie and Renate did their best to ignore the sounds of scrambling bodies as they left the library behind.
They heard the mechanical bird sing out the hour. Perhaps it sensed the dread whirling in the air like a blizzard; its music sounded more like funerary bells than it had before. Archie was glad for the noise cover as they tiptoed along the top of the stairs. Once he was back in the hunting room, Archie asked Renate to translate a conversation between him and the old man.
“Ask him if he saw the creature clearly,” Archie instructed her. She grabbed a candle and got the old man’s attention. She put one hand on his shoulder and addressed him in German.
“Entschuldigung mein Herr, Könnten Sie mir etwas erzählen? Mein Mann ist überzeugt… haben Sie das Tier klar gesehen?” she asked the old man.
“Es war kein Tier; es war ein Untier,” he answered. “Ich habe jeden Zentimeter des Dings gesehen.”
“He says he saw it,” Renate confirmed.
“Alright,” Archie whimpered. “Now ask him if it had antlers and cloven hooves.”
“Hatte es Hufe und Geweih wie einem Hirsch?” she asked him.
“Ja, aber das Gesicht war grausam. Jetzt erzählen Sie mir etwas…warum existiert solch ein Untier?”
“Yes, Archie it had those things,” Renate said. “Now tell me what’s going on. What do you know about it?”
“I can’t believe he’s come back,” he rambled. “Why? I’m all grown up now. I should be out of his jurisdiction. It should be Pitch who comes for me… if anybody comes at all. I thought I was a good man. I swear Renate; I thought I was a good man.”
“Who is Pitch?” she asked, not sure which question should come first.
“The devil dearest. Not a little devil, not an imp, not a man gone red, but Old Scratch himself. Lucifer. It doesn’t matter though because he’s not the one here.”
“Who is here?”
“The Krampus,” Archie said. The word fouled his breath. His heart skipped a beat.
“Archie I don’t understand.” Renate grabbed his hands and held them up to help him focus on her, but Archie couldn’t. His eyes just kept darting around to the heads on the wall. They seemed to be drawing closer. Opening their mouths. The sound of dripping candle wax became that of blood-tinged drool. “The Krampus is just a story.”
“Of course you would think that,” Archie mewled. “You’re such a good girl. You’d never have occasion to meet him. Never get to feel his claw tracing a circle around your heart. I have darling. I have. I was bad and he came for me. On the night of the solstice.” Archie took off his ring and held it up in the candlelight. “The night I got this accursed ring. I can’t believe I thought it would help me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have set it in silver. That was greedy. It should’ve been iron or wood or soap! Something humble!”
“No Renate, let me explain. I owe you that. Then we will go find it and I will turn myself over. I will let it take me and end this nightmare.”
Naughty Little Archie Vinpipe
It was the winter after Erythrim had moved out of the country with his mother. His father had stayed behind because he was too busy splashing about in a well of drunkenness. Their houses were less than a mile apart and Archie, aged eleven, blamed Erythrim’s father for the departure of his truest friend. The elements aligned and one night the good boy Archie couldn’t shake his anger, couldn’t hold it in his twisted blankets, and decided to sneak out through his window and taste vengeance.
The air was very cold and the snow was falling heavily, like it was trying to stop him from going through with it. Still Archie pressed on. He found his way in the utter blackness and the utter whiteness by locating the landmarks of their play, lining himself up with the next one he pretended to see in the distance, and checking his footprints in the snow to make sure he didn’t stray. His first stop was the stone next to the pond where they’d caught frogs. It was the stone where they’d scratched word games like hanging man. He brushed the powdery snow off the stone and saw some of the words that remained, warped into whitish claw marks by the skin of ice over them.
Archie remembered winning a game with the word equinox. Nobody ever guessed X. He remembered Erythrim saying that if X couldn’t learn to blend in with the other letters he should be banished. He was near the end of the alphabet and near the end of most of his words. The slouch letter should’ve been the one standing on the gallows instead of the poor stick man.
Emperor was Erythrim’s word. He was always saying it after they learned about the Orient at the schoolhouse. If he could just become emperor of the house then his dad might stop being such an X. He would have to do whatever Erythrim said because it wouldn’t be an opinion; it would be a decree. His daydream grew and grew. One day he was the emperor of the house and the next he was the emperor of the coast. Then it was the whole U.S. Then one day he casually mentioned, when he caught the crabapple they were throwing back and forth, that he’d decided to annex Europe.
From the stone Archie made a straight line to the tree house. Nobody had built it. It was really just a pile of old fence posts leaning against a leafless trunk. It created a wigwam full of holes that they would sit in. They raced each other through books but when they had to read a dull one for school they would sit in there and share the burden. The light would strike between the slats of wood and that was how they split it up. Archie read the words in the light and Erythrim read the words in the shadow. It was extremely inefficient and ended up taking much longer than normal. None of that mattered because the tree house was a place of enjoyment. Archie touched a fence post, turned, stared into blackness, and marched forward.
The last landmark before the lair of the X was the swing. The swing had been built, but not by either of their fathers. Erythrim’s mother made it. It was tied up with old ripped bedsheets. When Archie found it in the dark he sat down and ignored the wetness on the seat of his pants. He swung. One of the frozen sheets snapped and sent Archie to the ground. He smashed his pudgy fist into the snow and accidentally scraped it on a tree root. His blood provided the first splash of color he’d seen that night. It was bright against the snow and quickly melted a hole in it. He stood back up and pressed his scrape against his pants. He moved towards the house. For a second he could swear his pain was pointing him in the right direction, as if the wound was the devil’s compass. He paused outside the farmhouse only for a few minutes. The X was awake. There was flickering lamplight in the window. Archie heard him stumbling his way through a song on a wooden flute. He was also periodically stomping on a string of bells, crushing them with each note. Stomping out their cheer until they just rattled death.
The noise made convenient cover for Archie, who wasn’t exactly as sly as a raccoon. He used the only entrance he knew well, which was the window in Erythrim’s room. Once he was inside the warmth of the fireplace thawed his fear and all his other emotions. He was suddenly confused as to what he was doing and how he got there, but when he saw the state the farmhouse was in he managed to pack the melting snow that was his mission back into a formidable mound.
Erythrim’s room had several obvious mouse nests in it. It seemed his father had decided that it didn’t need to be cleaned since nobody lived in it anymore. Archie looked around for clues as to the form of his revenge. He was an eleven-year-old ball of dough, so challenging the X to a fistfight, even with him drunk, did not seem smart.
Gaglingle! Glalang! Gang! He heard the bells dying under the X’s foot. He pictured them as brass candy wrappers crinkling on the floor. Archie made it quick. He opened the closet and found a walking stick with a leather strap. It was nearly as tall as he was. You’re the new Erythrim, he silently told the walking stick. I’ll have to paint your head red, but otherwise you’re shipshape. Archie took his new wooden friend and snuck him back out the window. The stick bonked against the side of the frame loudly. Archie froze. He waited for any sign the X had heard him. He heard feet stomping across the wooden floor towards him. The breath froze in his mouth and burned his lungs… The footsteps marched back. He heard the corpse of the bells slide along the floor as the X kicked them under a table.
His partner in crime was excellent at erasing footprints. Archie followed his own trail by walking backwards, bending forwards, and pulling the walking stick along his trail, flattening it like a rolling pin. The cold bit at Archie’s lower back where his shirt rode up. He stopped every twenty feet to rub it back to feeling. During those moments, when the walking stick was posted in the snow, Archie told it some of Erythrim’s favorite jokes. It was being a bit of a stick about the whole affair, and didn’t laugh. It did lean towards him though. Definitely a sign of trust.
Archie and the stick found the broken swing. They hid from the wind in the fencepost wigwam for a minute. They moved right past the scratched stone. When Archie reached his own room he stashed the walking stick under his bed. There it stayed. After a few days Archie started to think maybe the stick wasn’t the best Erythrim replacement after all. If it had been he wouldn’t still be angry. He wouldn’t still be thinking about his friend stuck in Europe, stuck having to catch European frogs who probably couldn’t even jump that high.
He went back into the snow the next week. He snuck back into the farmhouse. The X was asleep this time, so he opened Erythrim’s door and moved into the kitchen. He took a fancy-looking knife with a carved antler handle. He didn’t even bother covering his tracks the second time.
The knife was too shiny to be the new Erythrim; its wit was a little too sharp. So he went back and took the X’s coat. Surely the X would notice that was missing, but if he did Archie could just ask him where his son was and make him understand he’d started thieving first.
X never came for his coat. He never came for his hat. He never came for his yule scriptures. When Archie stole his rake he heard the X crying. He was definitely upset. How much would he have to empty that wooden box before he got a reaction?
He was running out of room under his bed to stash his treasures when he finally heard what happened. The X hadn’t actually been sleeping soundly the last two times Archie pulled off a heist. He was dead at the bottom of their well. Archie overhead his mom say that he’d stumbled into the well looking for another drink.
There was nothing more Archie could take from him, but Archie found that he could not stop taking. It filled the time and while he was doing it Erythrim seemed to be right next to him. He would swear he could remember planning each heist with his red-headed friend. Archie took whatever he could wherever he could. When they went into town he stole candy from the drugstore. He didn’t even eat it; he just stored it under his bed with everything else until it was dry and stale.
He stole things from his teacher at the schoolhouse whenever she wasn’t looking. He stole from fruit stands and bookstores. His treasure hoard grew. The solstice came and went with no consequence. Saint Nick even left him presents. Archie took that as a sign that what he was doing was just. He could keep stealing as long as it made him feel better.
Another year passed. Another solstice came. Archie was asleep in his bed, curled over his treasure hoard like a dragon. He assumed in the morning he’d open a small pile of presents form the Saint, because he was a good boy. His mother said so… Of course she didn’t know about his sticky fingers.
Archie’s eyes fluttered open when he heard a tapping on his window. He sat up and clutched his pillow close to his chest. Oh boy! It’s Saint Nick! He’s letting me see! The window opened. A giant furry hand with wrinkled knuckles appeared out of the night and grabbed the windowsill. Archie hugged his pillow tighter. The hand started pulling the rest of its body through the frame. The monstrous thing had to squeeze like a rat under a door, but it managed. It shouldn’t have been able to do that, but whatever the Saint could do it could do. For every chimney the Saint had squeezed down there was a sewer pipe the Krampus had squeezed through.
When its massive bulk dropped onto his floor it cracked the boards. Archie thought for sure his mother would hear and come running. If the Saint could be silent, then so could the Krampus. The monster turned to him. A wave of rotten breath struck Archie. Suddenly his pillow smelled like mildew. His own hands smelled like dead crows sprouting maggots. It’s the Krampus, the boy’s petrified mind managed to realize. He’s real. I wasn’t good this year. The monster roared at him, a roar that could not be heard outside his room. It was just for him. The Krampus picked something pinkish out of its shark teeth and wiped it on the bedsheet. A piece of the last child it visited perhaps.
“I-I d-didn’t do a-anything,” Archie stammered. Tears rolled down his cheeks. The Krampus roared in response and smashed its fist on the side of the bed; Archie bounced into the air and screamed. The Krampus snarled and snorted. It dipped its head under the bed and started digging, tossing Archie’s ill-gotten treasures against the back wall. His teacher’s necklace smashed and broke. The walking stick splintered and rolled across the floor. The Krampus dug and dug until the entire hoard was in a pile behind it. It scratched at the floor and held its palms to its ears as if Archie’s lies gave him a splitting headache.
Hooooouuarrrk! Hooorrrrrruuck! The Krampus wheezed and coughed. Archie heard the gizzard stones inside the monster clicking against each other under the groan of its swollen stomach. The beast reached down its own throat. Its entire hand and forearm disappeared down its cavernous gullet. When the hand came back out it was holding something coated in its brown saliva. It reached across the bed and tried to hand the object to Archie. The little boy wet himself instead of taking it. The Krampus smelled the urine and flew into a rage. It banged on the floor. It howled. It scratched the walls.
The Krampus reached out again. It opened its fingers this time, brown mucus webbing up the space between. It held a lump of coal the size of Archie’s fist. It was strange coal, shiny and tough. It looked more fit to make into an arrowhead than to toss in the fire.
“Taaaaaaaaaaaaake iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” the Krampus growled. The words out of its mouth made it look smarter and angrier. Now it was a creature that could be insulted instead of simply irritated. Archie shook his head back and forth. The Krampus roared again and ripped a post from the bed. It smashed halfway through the door and got stuck. The bed collapsed. Archie struggled back against the wall, like a rat aboard a sinking ship. The Krampus whipped its tail and smashed the glass out of the window. It ripped the doors from the closet and smashed them to pieces. When it finally stopped it shoved its arm back toward Archie. The coal waited. Archie shook his head again.
“Taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaake!” the Krampus exploded. Archie refused. The beast’s mouth opened unnaturally wide. Its tongue sunk to the bottom of its jaw and saliva pooled across it. Its brown fleshy throat flexed and glistened. Archie saw a flicker of fire down its gullet and smelled sulphur. The legends offered several possibilities: the beast could eat Archie and melt his flesh with gastric acid, it could eat Archie and use the portal in its throat to send Archie to hell, or maybe the Krampus’ stomach and hell were just the same place. It moved towards Archie. Both sets of claws dug into the mattress. The tip of its tongue curled down and started flexing under the boy’s pale chubby legs.
Archie cried out and extended his hand. He closed his eyes. He was out of breath and he couldn’t bear to look at it anymore. He waited for the feeling of either coal on his palm or teeth raking across his arms.
The cold nugget of coal dropped into his hand. Archie squeezed it involuntarily. He clutched it close to his chest, Billy Bones accepting the black spot. It was a treasure compared to what was beyond the Krampus’ tongue. The monstrous thing patted Archie’s head until the boy opened his eyes. The beast’s mouth moved. It wasn’t a smile, but the Krampus was pleased.
“Beeeeeeeeee gooooooooooood booooooooooooy,” it growled. Then it pointed one curving claw down its throat. If Archie wasn’t good, it would be back next solstice without a present for the boy. The monster lumbered around and squeezed back through the window. It left him there in the cold, snow and wind rushing in to freeze the room.
The next morning Archie’s mother could not see the destruction. To her the bed looked normal. There was not a mass of broken wood and stolen goods strewn across the floor. There was no lump of shiny gem-coal that Archie clung to for dear life. The only thing she saw and smelled was the urine stains on his pajamas and sheets. She chastised him for being too old for such things and then continued when he started bawling for no reason.
Over the course of a week, solstice magic repaired his room. Splinters crawled back to the doors and bedposts and glued themselves back in place. The mattress returned to its old angle. Broken glass flowed back into the pane. Nothing moved while Archie watched, but by the end of the week the only reminder was the lump of coal. Archie clung to it like a life preserver. He would be fine as long as he had fuel that was too good for the fire… and as long as he was a good boy.
When Archie grew into a young man and struck out on his own he decided he could no longer carry the coal with him everywhere he went. It produced such a bulge in his jackets and pants pockets that people asked questions. When he tried to answer them he was either called a liar or ridiculed for crying. He took the gem-coal to a jeweler, an old woman who bragged she’d seen every stone the world had ever spat up. He asked her if she could cut the coal into a ring. She took the lump from him and examined it on the counter with a magnifying glass. Then she put a smaller magnifying glass in front of the other. What she was looking for, Archie had no idea.
“Beautiful anthracite,” she muttered. “I’ve seen these before, but I’ve never had the pleasure of cutting a devilheart diamond.”
“What did you call it?” Archie asked.
“Don’t worry yourself over the details,” the jeweler said. She dropped her magnifying glasses and stowed the coal under the counter. Archie reached out but then pulled his hand back.
“I should like it back as soon as possible,” he insisted. “I don’t mean to be rude or… strange about… but I’ve had it with me since I was a boy. It’s sort of a good luck charm.”
“I’m sure it is,” the jeweler said as she took him by the shoulder and showed him to the door. “This is a new experience for me and I love those, so there will be no charge.”
“That’s incredibly generous of you,” Archie said.
“Yes it is. Return in four days’ time to pick up your ring.” She shut the door behind him. Archie did as he was told and returned as soon as the shop was open on the fourth day. When she brought out the ring Archie examined what was left of his stone. It was smoother now. Its color was as black as the deepest well. Archie put it on. The calm it had brought him over the years returned, convincing him he hadn’t made a mistake. He breathed a sigh of relief. The jeweler seemed to understand what he felt.
“Once you sand through the pericardium the color and durability intensifies,” the jeweler said. “The piece I chose to set is the septum that divided the left and right ventricles.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Archie admitted.
“You don’t need to. I’m just reflecting. Thank you for the privilege young man. I’d prefer if you didn’t come back. You can’t really afford anything in my shop and I highly doubt you’ll encounter another one of those.”
Renate embraced Archie at the end of his story. She wiped away his tears and shielded him from the glares of the predatory heads around them.
“Please tell me you believe me,” he blubbered.
“I do,” she said. “You are wrong my husband. You are a good man. The Krampus has not returned for you. I believe this just as much. It is here for someone else.”
“It can’t be,” he said. “The Krampus only warns children, not men. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve him instead of the devil, but I must have done it. I don’t know… I tried so hard. I work so hard with the journals because I think just maybe they keep people safe. They teach them about the monsters that are out there. I can still serve as a warning… I must face the music.” They both heard a song start on the floor below them. They knew it came from Erythrim’s songbird; nothing else sounded like that. The song was mournful. They felt as if smashing the bird could not even stop those notes. “I guess that’s the music,” Archie said. He turned to Renate. “I love you.”
Archie bolted away from her and flung the door open. He ran out into the hall and headed for the stairs. Renate followed him, holding her dress up and calling his name. He did his best to ignore her. This was for the good of everyone at Erythrim manor. He was nearly there when…
Kfooom! A shot rang through the entire home. The birds on the roof scattered again. Archie stood at the top of the stairs, looking halfway down them at the source of shot. Erythrim was leaned against the railing holding an elephant gun. The firearm was so long and heavy that after he fired its barrel went straight into the carpet. It took him a moment to heft it back up. His fiery hair was a mess and sweat ran down his face. The ribbons on his boots were untied and trailing back up the stairs. He was aiming at a group of three of his terrified guests who cowered around the banister. A big chunk of wood was missing from the banister; a trail of smoke rose from it. Among his targets was Suzanne Vallotton, the designer of the bird.
The bird was not scared by Erythrim’s show of force. Its song continued unabated. It got louder without increasing in volume. Everyone’s ears felt icy. The bird rotated on its base to stare at Erythrim. Its beak opened wide and returned fire, blasting the song at Erythrim with such invisible force that his arms shook and he lost his breath. He looked around desperately and spotted Archie at the top of the stairs.
“Archie!” he cried out. “Wonderful Archie. My one true friend. Come and help. Hold the gun on them so I can go through their pockets.” Archie took a few steps toward him, but then he stopped.
“What’s in their pockets?” he asked.
“I’m not sure! Something to sabotage my bird. A tiny wrench. A clock key. I’ll check you first Suzanne. You’re the only augur here!” Suzanne threw her hands in front of her face before fainting.
“How do you know it was sabotaged?” Archie asked. He was starting to lose his determination to jump into the jaws of death. The strange conversation gave him a lifeline to dangle from so the Krampus’ teeth couldn’t reach him quite yet. Renate tried to pull him back up the stairs, but he held her back.
“You weren’t listening Archie!” Erythrim stressed. “The bird has a song for every occasion! That’s why it cost me as much as this house. Songs for rekindling old flames, songs for watching the leaves turn, songs for boring dinners that are dragging on a bit too long… but I’m not supposed to hear this song! This song only once! Upon my deathbed! Why does it play now? Who tampered with my bird?” Erythrim’s voice sounded like it was about to rip through the front of his chest.
Before Archie could calm him, the Krampus skidded through the kitchen door, smashed into the remains of the food table, and then reared up on its hind legs. It started to roar. Kfooom! Erythrim fired a second shot that struck the Krampus in the shoulder. The towering beast dropped back to its hind legs and smashed its chin on the floor. Archie felt an icicle go down his throat and strike his heart. Nobody should die for my wickedness. Not even it. He rushed down the stairs and put himself between the smoking iron barrel of Erythrim’s gun and the Krampus.
“Get out of the way!” Erythrim and Renate both shouted. Archie could not bear to see the fear in his wife’s eyes, but he had to be strong. If he was going to die, it wouldn’t be with his name on the wrong list. He turned to face the monster. The Krampus was gripping its bleeding shoulder and growling. Its face was an intelligent exaggeration, the exact face of the most fearsome beasts in every journal. He realized the beast looked very different from their last encounter. Its fur was white around the muzzle. The eyes were smaller and farther apart. There’s more than one, he realized. A whole pack could live in the Bayerischer wald. One of them just happened to smell me. My scent crossed their migration path. That’s all. I’ve been so bad that the temptation drove it mad and brought it here.
“Krampus. I know why you have come. I will not run anymore. I know your judgement is the judgement of the Saint. I do not begrudge you your duty and I accept my punishment,” Archie cried out. He dropped to his knees and held out his hands in prayer. “Dear Saint Nicholas, I tried to be good. I’m sorry I failed…”
The Krampus hobbled towards him on three legs. Erythrim and Renate continued to shout, but Archie was a stone. A hot, terrified, quivering stone. The beast loomed over him. Archie had his head down, so all he saw even as the cloying smell enveloped him was one claw. It slowly moved towards his hand and scratched all the way around the polished coal of his ring, leaving behind a scrimshaw-like mark. The Krampus’ snout stopped next to his ear.
“Goooooood booooooooy,” it growled. The monster shook off its injury and leapt twenty feet in the air, completely over Archie. Erythrim aimed up and pulled the trigger. Kich. He’d forgotten to reload. Five hundred pounds of muscle, fur, and hellfire dropped onto Erythrim and knocked the gun from his hand. It clattered to the bottom of the stairs, where Archie nearly tripped over it in his efforts to reach the beast. The Krampus raised its injured arm high over its head and brought it down on Erythrim like a hammer. Its claws plunged into his chest. He gasped as wide as the bird singing the death knell.
“Nooo!” Archie screamed. He charged up the stairs and assailed the monster’s hairy shoulder. It pushed him back. Renate took a step forward and the Krampus snarled at her. “Krampus why! What has he done? You’re here for me!”
The Krampus pulled its arm out. Erythrim’s chest exploded, spilling thick black oil all over his clothes and the stairs. The black fluid leaked out of his mouth and stained his lips. They all caught a glimpse of yule magic, as Erythrim still lived. He wasn’t breathing, but he stared in horror at the color of his own blood and the beating black object in the Krampus’ hand. Archie couldn’t believe his eyes as he saw Erythrim’s skin go from pale death to cherry red. Impish horns erupted from his old friend’s forehead.
The heartbeat pulled Archie’s eyes to the lump of living coal the Krampus had extracted. That shine. That black luster. My Saint. It’s a devilheart diamond! This is where they get them… grown in decadent chests… no… greedy chests. Archie ran up again, but instead of attacking the Krampus he grabbed Erythrim’s hand. Erythrim grabbed onto him like a life preserver.
“Archie. My one true friend,” he burbled. He shed a hot tear. Archie didn’t know what to do. He wanted to extract his own heart and fill the bubbling black well the Krampus had created.
“I don’t understand Erythrim. You’re… a devil. I… I could’ve helped you. I could’ve told you all this would do you no good. You may not have been a thief like I was, but this house… the bird, the guests… they’ve doomed you. They’ve given you horns! Why friend?” He stroked his beautiful red hair. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Erythrim stared into his eyes.
“I didn’t know…” Erythrim died in his arms. The bird’s song wound down to silence. Renate rushed to her husband and pulled him away from the body. She held him close and turned his head away from the Krampus. The beast was not concerned with them any longer. Sir Glennby had been very naughty; his smell had hidden Erythrim’s. Once the knight was gone it had tried to find Erythrim, but there was so much greed in the air. So much arrogance. Such a nest of naughtiness.
The Krampus had its prize now. The coal heart stilled. It opened its hellmouth wide and swallowed it. The beast licked its wounded shoulder and crawled out of the busted doors and back into the dark snowy night. There was a very naughty girl in India. She had one year to change her ways or she would be getting a visit from a monster not found in any field guide. She would be gifted an omen of her fate: a devilheart diamond.
Archie hugged Renate and held Erythrim’s hand as it went cold. One of the guests that had been cowering under the gun and then under the Krampus scurried forward. He dipped his finger in a pool of Erythrim’s black blood. He sniffed it and grinned like a theater mask meant to be seen from the back row.
“This is oil! I hope there’s more where he came from; they must be worth a fortune!”