We were midway through the Wigilia dinner and all that was left of the carp were its whiskers. It was inconceivable that this stout, proud fish – which only a few hours ago had been nudging its way around Jozef’s bath – could have had any connection to the hair-sized bones which were now stacked like tiny cairns on the sides of our plates.
Nobody at the table had any inkling of the two small children in pyjamas as they scouted out on to the landing upstairs and peeped down longingly at the doorway of our dining room. We were as unsuspecting of these little spies as we were of any angels who might be watching over our feast. Perhaps if a stray bump reached our ears, we dismissed this in the knowledge that the rooms of a house often grow unsettled when left to themselves. Floors and walls bump from habit.
I had already eaten before coming to the dinner. I cannot dine and socialise at the same time, but I customarily ensure that there are a couple of rollmops or a herring on my plate, just as a prop. I had been seated next to a friend of the family’s: a spare, wiry woman in her late forties, a standard-issue secretary or librarian, who looked as sour as her dinner of kapusta. Aside from a brief conversational skirmish, in which I had successfully fended her off, we had not spoken.
Her name was Ingrid. She was clever – these women always are – but pointedly discontented, as if adamant that nothing – or more importantly nobody – could ever make her happy. I could tell from looking at her that she was incapable of doing anything other than complain, just as a duck can only quack in the same one note. She would drone on about how dark the city was at this time of year. She no doubt devoted her spare time to cooking and all her recipes were failures. She would be forever scolding her flatmates and neighbours about separating their recycling properly. When not speaking to our host, who sat on my right, I glared at my wine glass and chewed slowly in determined silence.
The latest thump to issue from upstairs was impossible to ignore. Jozef and Magda looked sheepish.
I could understand entirely. When meeting with old friends, it is natural to want to pretend that you are back in your youth, before your children existed. Magda confirmed that they did indeed have two small children but the table decided to be gracious and pardon her. Yes, why not invite them down for a short while. Children are fun in small doses.
The children were presented to us and we introduced ourselves to the children, like explorers who have captured two pigmies. The children did not have much to say. There was a five year old boy who was stuck-up and rather disagreeable, and a little sister who seemed to be twice as outgoing as her brother, though it appeared that she could speak only in loud, considered announcements.
“What is Father Christmas going to bring you?” Tori, my friend across the table, inquired with a smile.
The rag of a boy flushed and muttered something to himself in exasperation. The girl roared that she was going to get a puppy. Some of the less responsible amongst us cheered drunkenly.
“If you have been good, of course” Tori told them. “Santa can tell who is naughty and who nice.”
I flinched at the sound of Ingrid’s voice beside me. “If you have been bad the Krampus will get you!” Her voice was too hard and abrasive for talking with children, or for even being plausibly cheerful at all. Yet the table was suddenly focusing on Ingrid with a sceptical amusement and we all looked at the little girl to see how she would respond to the prospect of being “got.”
“What’s the Krampus?”
Ingrid chuckled. “He’s a big black man with horns. It’s an old story where I come from. Father Christmas rewards the good children and the Krampus punishes the bad.”
Someone asked what proportion of children were punished at Christmas in Ingrid’s country. She did not understand the joke.
“Why, if all of the children were given presents, they would never learn right from wrong. Children would not grow up properly.”
“He isn’t real!” the little girl squealed, as if Ingrid had been caught trying to tell the most outrageous lie.
“He’s as real as you are. I have seen him myself.”
I was like a fisherman who has been ripped from his afternoon doze by a tug from the river. My editor James has instructed me to keep an eye out for interesting stories for our website. Forgetting that I had not exchanged a word with Ingrid for the past two hours, I turned to her.
“My dear, you must tell us everything. I quite insist.”
Ingrid looked startled but the table had fallen silent in expectation.
“Very well,” she replied.
“The village where I grew up was in the east of the Tyrol. When I was a child, most of the people in my village were quite old. It was not the sort of place where a young man would stick around to raise a family. My father served as the village stationmaster when the railway operated in the summer. He also kept an inn which was considered to belong to the locals rather than being designated for the tourists. He had a finger in both pies.
“I was hardly spoiled for companions as a child, but there was an extremely nasty boy in our village and we were always careful to keep out of his way. I suppose that these days you would say that he had “special needs.” Back then, he was just seen as a boy who had not made the effort to fit in and be agreeable.
“Now I can see that he was much older than we thought he was. I don’t think they knew what to do with him, and so he was allowed to remain at our school indefinitely. When we were little girls, he sometimes frightened us by lurking around the edges of the village with no clothes on. I suppose he was the first boy that I had ever seen naked. At that age, it only made me feel nauseous. The schoolmaster always told us to run straight home after school and never to stop if the boy called to us. My father said that they should take that boy out into a field and shoot him. I still cannot tell whether he was joking.
“Once I was walking home from school by myself when the boy plunged out of the trees, only wearing just one grey sock. His willy was very red, as if he had been rubbing it for hours. I closed my eyes tightly and folded up inside myself, like a sheet of paper being scrunched into a ball. The boy was yelping loudly, but for some reason he did not dare to approach me. I stood there with my eyes closed for what seemed like forever, and when I opened them he was gone.
“When I told my father about this, he shook his head and said that I had to learn to fend for myself. I had to give as good as I got, otherwise boys would walk all over me. But my brother Tobias grew very grave. Tobias was not much older than me, but he would have been attending the bigger regional school by then. He left the house and shortly afterwards I saw him walking through the skirts of the forest with his friends Jurgen and Sigmund. Snow was falling steadily and the boys were as distant and soundless as deer. Sigmund’s girlfriend Ana was picking her way after them.
“It was not until years later that I heard how the mother had fought to protect her son. The boys had broken her jaw to put out of action. Sigmund had laughed that this would give her something to think about. Her son had been running about naked in the snow, as demented as a hare. They had held him down between them and in great swipes of my brother’s pocket knife they had gelded him. It would be nice to think that Ana had just watched, but I’m afraid that this would have been unlikely. Lying there gibbering to himself, the boy had bled to death, staining the snow. Within an hour, fresh snow had spread over his body as smooth as a blanket.
“Everybody knew what had happened but nobody was inclined to go and fish the boy’s body out of the snow. The mother had left the village, the mystery of her grief kept from us like a precious diamond.
“For days it snowed. I used to think that the great mountains in the sky were disintegrating into millions of tiny pieces. The angels were in a tremendous panic as everything they knew – their battlements and courtyards – were frittering away beneath their feet.
“Christmas was approaching and soon the school would break up for the holidays. Finally the father of Christmas could be discerned working by himself in the outskirts of the village. From our warm, snug schoolroom we watched him build a great fire over the course of the day, gathering the logs and chopping the wood. Soon the flames were dancing up to peck the sky. One by one, tradesman began to appear around the fire, vending hot mulled wine and spicy sausages.
“After school we trooped over in a great party to salute the father and he was very pleased to see us. He was a hearty looking man with the most magnificent white beard, his locks so thick and full. Our parents had followed us and they formed a crescent around the fire. The poor father was overcome, recognising so many whom he had once greeted as children.
“There was a heavy brown bottle hanging from the father’s neck, and he confided in us that it contained something hot which would warm us down to our toes and keep us toasty throughout the winter. Each of us stepped forward to sip from the father’s bottle. I can still remember the taste of it to this day – it was like a mixture of rich ancient wine and Turkish delight and your whole body seemed to shine like a ruby as you tasted it. As I was one of the younger children, the father presented me with a little wooden doll as well.
“I still cannot understand how the proceedings were choreographed, but after we had all drunk from the bottle, there was an almost imperceptible change in the mood, as if some silent music had been switched off. It was like when a cloud brushes the sun and a summer’s day loses its twinkle. I was suddenly looking around for my brother Tobias in panic and I could not see him. Yet I caught my father’s eye and he shook his head vehemently at me.
“We found ourselves retreating from Sigmund, Jurgen and Ana, who now stood in a sorry little knot at the edge of the fire. A tall sprightly-looking man was stepping out from amongst the trees, looking as striking as a dancer. I firstly registered the blade poised above the man’s head and only secondly the thin black hair which dangled from his sinewy limbs. There was the most terrible goatish hatred stamped across his face. The man was gazing at Sigmund with an intense interest and we all jumped as he wrapped himself around the boy in a single slithery movement. Professionally, like a butcher killing a pig, he slit the boy’s throat and then the boy flopped into the fire.
“The crowd gasped. The father of Christmas looked away, preoccupied with his pipe.
“The goatish man proceeded to Jurgen, who stood transfixed to the spot like somebody who has volunteered to take part in a magic trick. Jurgen’s throat was likewise slit and he too sagged into the fire. The father still refused to look at his companion and he stood smoking by himself, apparently very interested in the sight of the falling snow.
“None of us knew that Ana was pregnant – presumably with either Sigmund or Jurgen’s child. As she was consigned to the flames, there was a crack as her belly burst open in the heat and the foetus was expelled. The goatish man was scrambling to retrieve it, but with a furious stare the father warned him back. It was the only time that the father had ever looked at the goatish man. The foetus expired in the open air, its tiny limbs unbending in the snow.
“The stench of burning flesh around the fire was overwhelming and we were too distressed to notice the black man skip back into the forest. The father beamed at us, seemingly unconscious of the choking fumes and the sounds of our retching and gasping. “A merry holiday to all!” he declared grandly.
“The spell was broken. Everybody was running for the safety of their houses. My mother scooped me up and whispered in my ear, “Pray my darling! Pray for your poor damned brother!”
“The authorities had recovered from their astonishment and gathered together their wits. Three of the village’s young people had been murdered by a pair of psychopaths. A police contingent was summoned from Innsbrook, and it was requested that they bring live ammunition.
“My father had the devil in him. He prowled around our house with a knife and told us not to let anybody in. He had barricaded my brother in his bedroom since early in the morning, and he would now stand vigil at the door.
““The priest!” my mother hissed. “For God’s sake, call the priest here. That will help us more than a thousand policemen.
“My father disliked the priest but in these circumstances any ally would do. I was told to run for the priest and bring him back to the house. I found the poor man lying spread-eagled in supplication across the floorboards of his cupboard-sized church. After mastering his nerves, he agreed to return with me and as we reached the house, some policemen were being already shown in.
“My mother’s face had lit up with joy. “Thank heaven the police are here! Go and fetch your brother, Ingrid.”
““Policemen?” my father queried at the door of the bedroom. He glared suspiciously, before grunting assent. “Toby,” he called through the door. “Come down to speak with the police…”
“There was a long wild yell like a great ribbon unfurling beneath us. The priest had ducked into the living room to confer with the police, only to find that underneath their caps and uniforms, the first had a familiar white beard and the second was a hairy creature with a sour goatish face. The first had settled into an armchair and he was busying himself with a newspaper, refusing to look up at the second. The goatish man took a step towards the priest, puffing out with aggression.
“The priest waved his cross at the creature, but he was shaking so furiously that it jumped in his hands like a live fish. “By the p-p-power of C-c-c-hrist,” he stammered “I b-b-b-seech that you leave!”
“His cries had summoned my mother, who burst into the room brandishing her fists. The black man scowled at her. I had slipped in behind my mother, but my presence seemed to suddenly make the creature wary and it slunk back a little, keeping its eyes on me. The priest reached for our hands and he enjoined us to chant prayers at the creature. It was soon being bombarded with the Lord’s Prayer, which came as fast and steady as the snowfall outside our window.
“We stood planted in that sitting room throughout the whole of Christmas day, pleading and weeping, chanting prayers like madmen, whilst the creature watched us with a sore displeasure. Yet once the winter sun had finally set, the father of Christmas stood up from his armchair and quietly indicated to the creature that it was time to leave. The creature went berserk and it danced and screeched like a monkey, but his master bade him come. We continued to pray long after they had left.
“My brother was sent away to a seminary after that. He became a good little monk, more devout and roly-poly than Martin Luther. We spent the successive Christmases in prayer, but the Krampus never returned.”
What an awesome story, I congratulated myself.
Magda appeared at the door to glare at Ingrid. “I think you had better leave,” she said, the wine of her hospitality turned to vinegar. The children had been bundled off to bed halfway through the story, but they had been affected nonetheless by its dire tidings. Their crying could be still heard from upstairs – a lusty unbroken anthem, occasionally punctuated by fresh shrieking.
It was raining when Ingrid and I left the party, a cold downpour which quickly drenched us to the bone.
[Tychy previously wrote about the Wigilia feast here. Ed.]