The Belsnickel

by Liz Zimmers 8 months ago in fiction

A Christmas Tale

The Belsnickel

1.

Mary Alice Sherwood disappeared on Halloween night. Every bit of her, right down to her crooked bunny ears and the powder puff tail pinned to her white coat, was swallowed by the chilly, bonfire-smoky dark of the Woodside suburb in which she lived. She was eight years old, trick-or-treating with her peers in her safe neighborhood under the admittedly relaxed supervision of a young sitter, and she was never seen again. The respectable, upwardly mobile households of Woodside shrank in upon themselves in shock and disbelief for a time, neighborhood watches became vigilant once again, and children were confined to their yards where parental eyes could fall upon them at any moment. Now, as Christmas approached, holiday furor and excitement displaced the sharpest spur of fear, and the Sherwoods’ tragedy had faded a bit from the forefront of neighborhood conversations. After all, no one really knew them very well. They kept to themselves, in the cul-de-sac of Hemlock Circle, where their only neighbor was an empty house for sale. The search continued for little Mary Alice, the police patrol car still made its rounds several times a day, and the residents of Woodside would have gathered in sympathy around the Sherwoods had they been welcome. They were not.

While the Sherwood household was reduced by one, the Ross household increased by the addition of great-grandma Ava Grüber who had arrived from Germany for a rare seasonal visit. Granny came with tantalizing gifts wrapped in simple brown paper trussed with twine, pockets full of exotic sweets, and a library’s worth of fabulous fairytales to delight six-year old Emma Ross. At first, Emma had thought Granny frightening, she was so tall and hard-looking. Granny was very old, and she walked with a slight limp, leaning upon a walking stick. The stumping of the walking stick upon the floor and Granny’s long, rangy shadow that seemed to have sharp-pointed ears where her hair sprang up in spiky swirls were frightening. Granny’s deep, accented voice held a growl inside it that was equally frightening, and her eyes were fogged with the rheum of age. The stories, though, won Emma’s heart. Granny was happy to spend hours with the child, sharing tales of her own long-ago girlhood.

“When I was a girl,” said Granny in her thick, Rhenish voice, “It was not St. Nicholas who kept tally of which children had been good and which had been bad. It was a spirit from the deep wild - a devil maybe, I don’t know - and we called it Belsnickel.”

She leered at her great-granddaughter in the firelight, her milky blue eyes glowing like moonstones. Her shriveled lips twisted upward into a pinched snarl of a grin over strong yellow teeth. As old as Granny was, and she had measured out nearly one hundred years, she still had most of her teeth, sharp and long as a winter night. Now she clamped the stem of her pipe between them and puffed on it in rumination, seeing once again the forests and rivers of her youth.

The strange word, Belsnickel, seemed to carry the ghostly echo of sleigh bells with it. It conjured up a vision of fairytale forests for little Emma. It drew her mother to the kitchen doorway with flour on her hands and a rosy flush on her cheeks from vigorous kneading.

Mama said, “I remember the belsnickels that came to the house at Christmas time, all dressed up in big fur coats and hats, with false beards and frightful masks like Halloween costumes. Do you remember them, Granny? They scared me half to death, they were so loud and drunk. They carried switches for the bad children, and we all swore we’d been very good.” She laughed and tossed her hair back from her eyes. “I remember one played the fiddle, and one had a flute of some kind, and another had a small drum. Granny, do you remember?”

Granny sighed. “Yes, dear. They were just folk from the neighborhood. It was an old tradition, to go house to house like that on the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas. There was always music and schnapps, and a little terror for the young ones.”

When Mama went back to her baking, humming carols to herself, Granny squinted at Emma and patted the girl’s auburn curls. “That is not the kind of mummery I am talking about, child. A true Belsnickel can, indeed, tell a bad person from a good one, and does not confine its judgement to children. Punishment and reward are its function, but birch switches are a thing the people tease one another about with laughter. The truth is too frightening and lives only in forgotten stories now. No, a real Belsnickel is a force of the natural world in supernatural form.”

“What does that mean, Granny? Is it a monster?”

Granny set her hickory chair to rocking, and her answer only caused Emma more puzzlement. “It is an old reckoning, rarely seen, and that can be monstrous.”

Beside her rocking chair, hanging from pegs on the fireplace mantle, were Christmas stockings, one for each member of the small household. Mama had knitted all but one. Each bore a decorative element meaningful to its owner. Mama’s stocking was trimmed with copper cookie cutters, and Papa’s had a tartan cuff. Emma’s stocking was white as the falling snow, adorned with pinecones, curls of birch bark, and ribbons. Granny’s stocking had not been knitted. It was old, nearly as old as the woman herself, made of lush fur seamed by a neat, rugged blanket stitch. Its cuff was the rough edge of the hide and dangling from it on leather thongs were three long, sharp teeth.

“They belonged to a wolf once,” Granny had told her. “Such a creature, huge and scarred from many battles. My own Papa killed it, and I helped him to skin it, and I took its fangs.”

Emma had been shocked. To her, a wolf was no different from Eskimo, the family dog. Granny had looked at her with those pale, cloudy eyes, seeing her true, and had nodded.

“No dog, that beast. But, still, there is a price to pay for every life taken. You are a good girl, Emma.”

Granny had caressed the teeth hanging from the stocking’s cuff, letting them fall back with the crisp clicking sound of a jaw snapping shut.

2.

Fragrant pipe smoke wreathed Granny’s white head, and her eyes had half closed. She was not sleeping, though. Emma knew that Granny was sharper in a semi-doze than many people who seemed fully awake.

“Will you tell me about the wolf, Granny?” she piped. There was no need to say more. For Granny, and for Emma, too, there was only one wolf in the world.

Granny puffed at her pipe, then gestured with the stem, describing frameworks in the air within which a story could be woven.

“In those days,” she said, “the snow would fall thick and deep across the forest, and all the little farms would become like islands. The roads would disappear, and quiet would wrap us up – quiet, and cold. On some still days, we could hear the smoke from the chimney rub against the sky. We could hear the night crack open at the first touch of dawn, so brittle was the air. The trees would talk, birches moaning and pines whispering, and beneath our feet the roots would roll in their sleep like uneasy dreamers. The call of a jay was like the clash of cymbals in an orchestra.

“The snow came early and hard that year. November was just ending. We strapped snowshoes to our boots to walk to the barn, to the chicken coop, or to go to the cutting for firewood. The only way to get any distance was in a sleigh, but there was nowhere we needed to be so badly, and so we stayed at home. I loved those days, swaddled away from every neighbor, and even from Sunday service at the village church. We were too deep in the forest to make the trip, and instead, Father read scripture to us in the great room by the red glow of the fire, with the early morning dark pressing its wild face against the windows. One Sunday morning, another face watched us. I saw it but held my tongue, for we were to be silent and observant of the Word, not gawping at the windows. It was a wolf, standing on its hind feet to look in at us, its forepaws on the snow-covered sill outside. I could see the steam of its breath on the glass, and the yellow flare of its eyes. It was a bad thing that it had come to the house, a terrible thing as it turned out. That morning, as the wolf and I stared at one another during my family’s little worship service, I only thought how strange we must look to it, this pagan thing from the depths of the forest. Almost as soon as our eyes met, it vanished. I might have thought it only a fancy, but later I found the prints of its feet on the sill, as big as a man’s hands.

“The minute Papa released us from our observances, I tumbled into my coat and scarf and boots, and raced outside. For me, the wolf’s visit was a great excitement, and one I enjoyed keeping secret from my sisters. You must understand, Mäuschen, there was almost nothing we did not share between the seven of us, and Mama had just had another babe a few weeks before. Much had been made of this baby, a boy. Papa had resigned himself to only daughters, and so my brother was a joyous surprise. Mama blushed and looked away at every sign of Papa’s pride. Where we were all dark, my brother was fair. Where we were solemn, my brother smiled. He was a golden, laughing angel, so unlike us that my eldest sisters whispered among themselves that he must be a fairy boy.

“In so large a brood, it was difficult to have a private thought, let alone to possess a belonging all one’s own. Since I alone had seen the wolf at the window, I took it for my own. With my woolen mittens, I swept its prints from the sill. With my boots, I stamped out those it had left on the porch. The falling snow had erased all other traces. The wolf was mine.”

3.

Emma, who had sat in rapt attention at Granny’s feet, now fidgeted. A perplexed frown creased her brow. “That doesn’t seem very nice, Granny,” she said. “Keeping secrets and not wanting to share isn’t nice.”

Granny produced a growling chuckle. “It is not nice. But I was not a nice little girl, not like you. I was full of jealousies and defiance. Often, I was punished, but it did little to teach me to mend my ways. No, Mäuschen. I was not a nice little girl, nor even a very good little girl, and the year the wolf came, so too did the Belsnickel.”

Emma’s ears perked up. “But it was a different belsnickel from the kind Mama told us about, right? It wasn’t someone dressed up in a fur coat and a mask, was it, Granny?”

Already, at six years old, Emma listened with the attentiveness of one who loved a well-told tale. There was no one who told tales better than Granny.

The girl’s interest went unrewarded. Granny set aside her pipe, drew her shawl about her, and leaned her head back as she rocked. The winter dark had come crowding against the windows, and though the pretty woodlot outside held birches and pines, it did not speak in the same voice as the forest of her childhood. Instead, with her sharp ears, Granny could hear the Christmas wishes of a hundred small children murmuring through the affluent neighborhood. With her keen nose, she could smell the sour musk of their myriad cruelties and acts of selfishness, and could mark, with unerring accuracy, each young offender. Among that riot of scents, one drew her interest as a thread of blood on the air draws a hungry beast. This particular scent was ripe with something more than mischief; it possessed a tang of darkness that brought up the saliva from Granny’s jaws. Her knobby fingers twitched, and her stomach gurgled.

Without opening her eyes, she said, “I think it is time for your bath, Emma dear. Run along. I will tell you more about the wolf tomorrow.”

4.

Emma slipped from the house into the grey, early morning light. The sun had barely got its fingers over the iron horizon, and the snow cracked under her boots like a thin pane of sugar glaze. She cast a glance over her shoulder at the house. Her parents still slumbered, enjoying the quiet calm of a Saturday morning, and Granny had been snoring as Emma crept past her bedroom door. The girl hurried down over the slight hill of the back yard, past the bird feeders and the white-shrouded evergreen shrubbery, to the shadowy woodlot. The two-acre plot that separated Emma’s lawn from that of her neighbor seemed like an entire forest to her, and it adjoined a wilderness preserve along its eastern boundary. The woodlot was thick with laurels that formed fortresses of green among the slender trunks of the birches.

The deer ventured from the true forest into the woodlot, making narrow trails through the undergrowth. Sometimes, they found little hollows under the laurels where they slept. Emma had found tufts of their fur in places, as well as birds’ feathers, snail shells of ivory swirled with periwinkle, and a stone with a fossil stamped in it like an indecipherable message from an older world. She liked these things because they were beautiful and fragile. They wore a mantle of poetry that she understood without the need to articulate it.

Taking her cue from the ephemeral deer, Emma had made for herself a cave beneath the laurels where she kept her treasures, and it was to this hidden spot she now went with a sense of anticipation. For the last few weeks, delightful additions to her collection had appeared from time to time at the entrance to her little cave, set ceremoniously on a slab of rock there. There was a strand of pearls, a seashell, a postcard depicting a unicorn, a tiny doll with shocking purple hair that erupted from its head like flame.

At first, Emma had thought it was the work of some sort of magic and had been charmed to think the woods loved her so much, but she soon learned the gifts came from a boy called Marty. He was a big boy, fourteen years old, tall and lanky with long, dark hair and grey eyes whose gaze skittered over the surfaces of things as though afraid to rest. He did not play basketball or ride his bike with the other big boys. His peers seemed to avoid him, and Marty, if he was seen at all, was always seen alone, slouching along with a sullen, inward-turning expression.

Emma did not know why Marty left his little gifts for her – he did not speak to her. If she went into her laurel cave at the right time of day, either very early or just before dark, Marty would materialize as silently as the deer. He would crouch down to stare in at her before placing the next offering on the rock.

“Thank you,” Emma would say with queenly gravity, and the boy would flash a quick, sharp smile before vanishing as stealthily as he had arrived.

If she said, ‘Thank you, Marty,’ he would look stern and put a finger to his lips before disappearing. From this, she deduced that his identity was to remain secret, and since she was not supposed to play in the woodlot, it was a secret in happy concurrence with her own.

She reached the laurel cave and climbed inside on hands and knees. Arranged along a flat bit of deadwood her treasures made a varied display against the green backdrop. There were colorful glass marbles in a small jar, a speckled bird’s egg, some red berries on a twig, a bit of antler, and the pink and white fluffiness of the most recent of Marty’s gifts. Emma settled the headband of the slightly soiled bunny ears over her curls and squatted down to wait. What would he bring this time? The mystery was delicious. She did not wait long. She could smell him on the cold, still air before he appeared, a mixture of wood smoke, unwashed clothing, and cigarettes. She wrinkled her nose but smiled at him when he ducked his head down to peer in at her. Today, he spoke.

“Your name is Emma,” he said, his voice hoarse and lifeless from disuse.

She nodded. Marty’s face, as usual, was an expressionless blank. His eyes flitted back and forth, but the rest of him was motionless. His long, ropy body seemed coiled like a spring, and Emma knew he would be gone in a blink if startled.

“I have something special for you today, Emma.” Marty’s restless eyes focused on her at last, and Emma was surprised to see the dancing light in them, chilly and bright as the glint of Papa’s razor when he honed it on the strop. “It was too big to bring in my pockets. I’ll have to show you where it is.”

Marty held out a hand to her, his fingers long and strong, but the razor-sharp glitter in his eyes made her hesitate. He hung a smile on his thin lips, but it only made him look as if he were baring his teeth at her. Emma wanted to be a good friend, and the promise of a special treasure intrigued her, yet she felt doubt bloom inside her. Before she could make up her mind what to do, a voice shattered the morning quiet.

“Emma Louise! Come here this instant!”

Granny’s deep, growling tones swirled down into the woodlot like a winter gale. Birds erupted in alarm from the branches overhead, and Marty sprang away into the shadows. Emma climbed out from her hideaway and scurried toward the house, sudden fear making her hair stand on end. When she reached the back deck, she found Granny standing at the rail enveloped in a great, silvery fur coat. Granny’s cloudy gaze was pinned to the woodlot, marking the progress of some furtive creature there, but she turned it upon Emma as the girl climbed the wooden stair.

“Are you hurt, Mäuschen? What is this thing you wear?” Granny plucked the bunny ears from her great-granddaughter and sniffed them. “Pffaugh! It stinks of decay.”

Emma shook her head, and with the precipitousness of a summer storm, the tears came. She flung herself against Granny’s legs, embracing fur and burying her face in it. “I’m sorry I was bad,” she sobbed.

“Now, child,” Granny said, stroking the girl’s hair. “All is well. Perhaps you will stay away from dark places where you are told not go, hmm?” She raised her nose to the frigid breeze and sniffed again. “What do they call that boy? He smells like visiting grief.”

Emma looked up at Granny’s seamed and chiseled face, and the secret fell from her mouth like a loose tooth. “His name is Marty. Marty Sherwood.”

5.

After a breakfast of French toast with cinnamon and real maple syrup, Emma settled by the fire with Granny, her fright and upset of earlier forgotten.

“Granny, will you tell me the rest of the story about the wolf now?”

Granny smiled, and Emma shivered, reminded just a bit of Marty’s unnerving expression in the woodlot. Granny lit her pipe and drew on it until smoke curled out like a ghostly finger drawing any listener closer.

“That wolf,” Granny rasped, “he was a crafty one. There was, of course, something he wanted very badly, or he would not have risked coming to the window as he did. A wolf alone is a strange creature, Mäuschen. He is meant to be a part of a pack, a society in which his place is secure. Outside of that boundary, he becomes a ruthless opportunist. Law, even the law of the wild, becomes meaningless. He becomes capable of things against his nature, an abomination. That wolf, he had a sly brain, too sly for me by half. And he tricked me into doing a terrible thing that has haunted me all my life.”

Emma listened with her plump little lips open and her eyes wide. Granny’s philosophy was lost on her, but the rolling tone of the old woman’s voice wove magic. The wolf sat with them by the fire, its long, scarlet tongue lolling. Its hot breath stirred the small hairs on the back of Emma’s neck.

“How did he trick you, Granny?” she whispered.

“Day after day, I saw the wolf in the shadows at the edge of the forest. He watched me as I went about my chores, as I played with my sisters in the snow. Not once did I give him away, not even when he stole a chicken from our coop. He dug through the frozen ground as though it were soft with Spring, the iron of his claws was so great. He thrust his massive head beneath the frame of the chicken house, his mighty shoulders, reaching inside with his long, grasping toes. A hen went down that red gullet, and nothing but a few feathers were left behind. I said nothing, for when our eyes met as he drifted through the woodsy thicket, I read kinship there. I read friendship.

“And was he not mine? My own deep secret? Each day, after my chores were done, I went closer to the forest. Each night, the wolf came to the house. He had learned which window opened into the bedroom I shared with my sisters. After they slept, always after they slept, he would come and stand upon his hind feet to look in. One night, I pushed the window open and plunged my hands into his thick fur. It was cold as moonlight at its tips, hot like an oven near his body, and deep as a January snow. I had never felt anything so crackling with energy. It lasted but a moment, and the wolf was gone.”

“After that, I slipped from my bed at night when the house was quiet, and my family wrapped in slumber, to meet my friend at the kitchen window. I fed him there, scraps I saved from my meals and bits stolen from my mother’s larder. Sometimes, he allowed me to touch him. Each time, he ate a little bit of my soul with his meal. I felt it flowing outward to the wild, and the winter cold filling the space where it had been. Much later in my life, I recognized the feeling as that of falling in love where love is not returned.” Granny made an impatient shrugging gesture and knocked the dottle from her pipe in the hearth.

Emma was not sure she liked the direction this story was taking, although she had known all along that it ended with the demise of the wolf and had tried to prepare herself.

“But Granny, the wolf must have loved you, too. He visited every day, and he let you pet him. He sounds like he was your friend.” Her voice cracked on a suppressed sob.

“You are a good, kind-hearted girl, Mäuschen. But I tell you, because I have lived long and have learned many hard things, that not all who make a show of friendship are sincere. Among us there are wolves like the one of which I speak who only make a pretense, and at their black hearts they are predators. Listen, and I will tell how it was …

“My new baby brother slept in a cradle in my parents’ bedroom. He was a fussy babe at night, and he woke them with his crying. Mama would carry him to the fire in the great room. There was a rocking chair there, much like this one, and she would rock him by the warmth of the low fire until he quieted. This happened so often that Mama made up a cot for herself by the fire and brought my brother’s cradle out, for it seemed the chill in the bedroom caused the baby’s distress. On my visits to the kitchen to feed the wolf, I crept like a thief by the sleeping pair.

“One night, my wolf was not at the window. As I waited with my apron of scraps, I heard a scratching upon the door and a low whine. Thinking that perhaps the wolf had been injured, I rushed to the door and drew the bolt, opening it a crack to look out into the dark. He was there, the great beast, and he pushed his way inside causing me to spill the contents of my apron. He stopped to gobble up the scraps, his long claws clicking and scrabbling on the floorboards, and his yellow eyes pinned me where I had fallen back in a frightened crouch. There was no friendship in them now. It was terrible to see him inside the house, far bigger than he had ever seemed before, the smell of him like long miles of frozen forest and the phantom of old blood on his breath. His gaze was like cruel laughter, and so his grinning jaws. I could not move or make a sound, and I waited for him to eat me up like the scraps from the floor.

“Instead, he sprang past me to the cradle set by the fire. Without hesitation, he snatched my brother from his blankets, turned, and fled past me into the night. In chorus, the baby’s wail, my mother’s shriek, and my own guilty cries roused the household. I ran out into the snow after the wolf. He had bounded through the cutting and disappeared into the pines while I floundered, my bare feet and legs numb with cold.”

Granny stopped. Outside, she could hear the scrape of snow shovels on pavement and Emma’s parents laughing together as they cleared away the snow. They were a happy family. The dark had not yet touched them, though it had crept close without their awareness. It would not touch them this season. Granny felt the tidal pull of the Solstice on her old bones, one final turn of the wheel, and she could sense more than ever before the familiar approach of the thing that had driven her since the night the wolf stole her brother. She was old and tired, and she sighed, but there was her great-granddaughter at her knee. This season, she would complete a long, long cycle. She would achieve atonement.

Emma tugged at Granny’s sleeve. Her blue eyes were round with horror.

“What happened to the baby, Granny?” she whispered. “Did the wolf … eat him?”

“Well, Mäuschen, we never found my brother. Not so much as a scrap of blanket or a bead of blood. He was simply gone into the winter night. It is not a happy tale, and I am sorry. Such things happened more frequently in the old days, in the old country, in the dark forests. They happen still, but now they happen in bright places that seem ordinary and safe. Places like your own back yard, or the wood lot where you are not to play alone.

“All that night, my family sat plunged in despair and grief. I crept into a dark corner, alone with my guilt. They did not understand my role in the tragedy, and I was not brave enough to confess. I lied and told them I had gone to the kitchen for a drink of buttermilk, that the wolf battered at the door until the bolt loosened, and that I had tried to hold him out. I lied, my dear Emma, and I shook with the chill that had come to me from struggling after the beast in the snow, but I shook more from the knowledge of my evil deed.

“Papa took his gun and tracked the wolf as best he could, even in the black of the night, and all the next day. At sunset, he came from the forest, dragging a wolf’s body behind him on a pine bough. It was a great silver brute with a scarred muzzle. It was not the wolf who stole my brother. Again, I lied, as though my tongue would not ally itself with truth. ‘Yes, Papa,’ I said, ‘that is the beast I saw. I recognize its scars and torn ear.’ And I shivered and shook until my teeth clacked in my head. I stayed in the barn with my Papa as he hung the wolf from a beam, and I helped him skin it. I took its teeth, and a scrap of the fur to make this stocking.” Granny touched the Christmas stocking that hung beside her from the mantle. It swayed and set the dangling teeth to nipping at the air. “We worked in grim silence, taking the hide and pegging it out to dry. We never talked of it again, and the hide hung in the barn until I grew old enough to leave home and make my own way in the world. Then, I took it down, and in the city I had it made into a coat. Papa was in his grave by then, and Mama never looked upon the hide, so its absence went unremarked.”

Emma had shrunk into herself, holding her knees against her chest, her curls falling forward until all that could be seen of her face was the glimmer of her wide eyes. This was not the Christmas story she had anticipated. It was not even like the old fairy tales Granny sometimes told her, the ones where scary things happened. Even those tales had endings that seemed right, if not exactly happy. The story of the wolf was all wrong, with no tidy ending. It left only questions, dark and gaping like cave entrances, and Emma felt the icy claw of real fear touch her. Firelight and shadow stripped Granny of her benign, old lady mask. In its place was a hard, feral face, the eyes burning like blue flame beneath fog, the long teeth flashing wickedly. Emma wanted to ask the questions that frightened her, but her voice would not obey her. Granny turned her terrible gaze upon her and read them on the air between them.

“Do you want to hear about the Belsnickel, my dear? I have been telling you of it all along. I have been telling you of how it smelled out a wrong and came to set it right. There was no appeal, no bargaining, no turning it from its task. That is the way of it, Mäuschen. It is a force without pity, made only for meting out justice, no matter how brutal. All the stories that we have spun around it only serve to soften and disguise its true nature. It does not come often, and only when many random things gather in just the right configuration. It is a dreadful magic. Perhaps it would not have visited my family if there had not been among us one whose heart was selfish and greedy. Mine.

“After we skinned the wolf that Papa killed, the Belsnickel returned once more, for its work among us was not done. It was the night of the Solstice, bright with a full moon and cold as iron. My sisters slept, but I no longer followed them into dreams. I sat awake night after night, staring at my window and waiting. That Solstice night it came, in form like a wolf but striding upon its hind legs like a man. It had hands like a man, though they were hairy and tipped with claws. It leaned upon a crooked staff, limping a bit with the effort of walking upright, and on its back was a long, empty sack hung with blackened sleigh bells. Their song was like the shiver of ice falling in the forest. The Belsnickel stopped under my window. It dropped the sack upon the ground and the bells shrilled as it opened there like a doorway to the underworld. The Belsnickel looked into my eyes. It held out its hands to me. I climbed onto the sill and toppled forward into its arms as it stepped into the sack. We fell together, its rough fur against my cheek, its frigid breath steaming into my lungs, and the dark filling me. The Ava Grüber I had been was torn away like a sheet of tissue paper, and in her place sprang up der uralte Wald, the ancient forest, where time begins and ends and begins again. I became its creature, and where my traitorous heart had been there was now a clock that awaited only the proper stimuli to set it going.

“I awoke in the morning, tucked into my warm bed, forever changed. Under my pillow was a single baby’s slipper, knit of white lamb’s wool. It had belonged to my brother. I dressed and hid the slipper in my apron. At the first opportunity, I burned it in the stove. Ten years passed before I was called to fulfill my purpose for the first time.” Granny smiled, reaching out to stroke Emma’s cheek with her long, curved nail. “Tonight, I will answer that call for the last time, Mäuschen. It is well. There is yet one more wrong to right, one more bad child to be punished. The forest beckons me, and I will go knowing that you are safe.”

6.

That night, Emma lay awake for a time staring at her window and wondering if a wolfish face would appear in its frosty panes. She listened to the purring breath of the house around her, straining her ears for any sound that did not belong, but all she heard was the sleepy, contented silence of a snowy evening. She had not understood all that Granny had told her that day. The story of the wolf and the story of the Belsnickel had spun together somehow, and she could not separate the two. There had been a warning in Granny’s tale, and sorrow, and a dire promise. Emma’s thoughts turned to Marty, slouching about in darkness and solitude, bearing gifts. There was something wrong there, she knew. She had felt the wrongness without being able to name it, and she knew Granny felt it, too. As sleep embraced her, Emma wondered what would become of Marty. Would the Belsnickel visit him? Would it tip him into its bottomless sack?

The faint radiance of the hallway night light drew a line under her door, and she thought once she might have seen the shadow of something large interrupt it. She might have heard it snuffle at the door before padding quietly on. She was already tumbling toward sleep, though, and the thought slipped from her grasp almost as soon as it appeared.

“Granny”, she murmured, as she crossed the boundary between waking and dreaming, “what soft paws you have.”

Merry Christmas

fiction
Liz Zimmers
Liz Zimmers
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Liz Zimmers

Liz is the author of two collections of dark fiction: Wilderness, A Collection of Dark Tales and Blackfern Girls. Visit her website at lizzimmers.com and her blog, The Palace of Night, at elizabethzimmers.wordpress.com

See all posts by Liz Zimmers