I was only a child when I saw Krampus.
My family had just immigrated to this country. We had left our every earthly possession behind, but the memories and stories of our homeland followed us on our journey. Once we arrived, we immediately settled into the same ghetto that so many others from our Eastern European village had. A decrepit row of four-storied slums along an alleyway that was more sewer than street. Our father, during the few hours that he was home from the mill, said that we were better off here, but my sister and I missed the deep forests and high mountains that we had played in only a short time ago. Even when I tried to imagine myself back at home – my real home – the noise of the city always broke through my thoughts and brought me back to the alleyway.
My mother tried her best to remind us of our old life. Often, as my sister and I were crawling into the bed that we shared, she would tell us the stories. The same stories she said that her mother had told her. Some of the stories were exciting, other made us laugh, but a few terrified us. The most awful story told of an evil one who until the deepest part of winter to kidnap naughty children. We shuttered as she told us of how it would torment children just like us and sometimes we would even pretend to fall asleep in the desperate hope that she would stop, but she always finished the story. Our father would often tell her not to fill our heads with such horrible things; that some tales from our homeland should remain there. Mother though, would shake her head and quietly insist that it was dangerous to forget where we came from.
Our lives continued like this for the next several months. I had believed that I would eventually come to see our forgotten alleyway as home, but its sense of foreignness persisted. In fact, it felt as though hardly anything had changed since we arrived. Our lives had neither improved nor gotten worse and I still felt like an unwanted stranger in my own neighborhood. The only the thing that had changed was our behavior. My sister and I had recently begun getting into trouble more often. We never meant to hurt anyone. It was just that we had so little and sometimes we had to steal if we wanted to eat that day. Usually our misdeeds were my sister’s ideas and I followed along. I guess one always looks up to their older sibling. I never believed that our petty crimes would ever have serious consequences, but looking back now I can see that we were walking blindly down a dark path. I can even remember when things took an ominous turn.
Ever since All Saints’ Day our mother had been warning us to be good little girls. She pleaded with us to stop our bad behavior. I remember her crying a lot. Early in December, my sister got caught stealing a piece of fruit and I thought my mother’s heart would break. She began to shake and pulled her rosary beads from her pocket. For the rest of the night, she clutched the beads tightly and desperately repeated her prayers. When I finally asked her what was wrong, she paused just long enough to glance at the window and hissed, “He knows! He knows! It might be too late!” I didn’t know what she meant, but I was scared. My sister didn’t seem to care.
The days passed and the temperature dropped. It was the night before Christmas and snow had begun to fall. The heating had already gone out several times and the flickering lights threatened to go out as well. As we would be attending the sunrise mass the next morning, my father told my sister and I to go bathe. Suddenly my mother began shrieking for us not to be alone. I heard my father quickly move towards her and begin trying to comfort her with his deep, soft voice. She quieted down some, but still insisted that we not be alone. My father told us to take our baths quickly and then join them. As we headed down the hallway towards the washroom, my sister sprinted ahead of me and stood in the doorway.
“I’ll go first,” she said. “I won’t be long.” She laughed.
I stomped my foot, but said nothing as the door closed. On the best of days there was barely enough warm water for everyone in our family to bathe. With the heat going out, there was likely only enough warm water for a single bath. My sister knew this.
I bounced from one foot to the other as I stood outside the door trying to keep warm. I heard her draw the water and then begin singing softly to herself as she dipped into the water. After a few minutes, the singing had stopped and I began to fear that she had fallen asleep in the tub. Then I heard a noise. A sharp clacking noise, like someone was wearing wooden shoes. It was slow, but deliberate. Almost like it was sneaking up on something. I knocked on the door and the clacking stopped. No answer. I assumed my sister was just ignoring me or possibly trying to irritate me as she often did. Then the noise began again. This time even slower. I pressed my ear to the door and held my breath. The clicking noise had stopped, but I could now hear a light tinkling sound, like the chime of a hundred bells playing in the distance. I listened until I could hear my own heartbeat, then I heard a soft splash. She hadn’t fallen asleep. She was playing a game, waiting to see how long I would stand out in the cold hallway while she turned her fingers and toes into warm prunes. I knocked again, louder this time. Still no answer. I was quite frustrated and cold by this time and so, without another knock, I swung open the door and stepped inside.
As I did, the power in our building went out. The hallway behind me plunged into total darkness and I heard my mother give a cry of fright. I blinked my eyes a few times. The small heater in the corner of the washroom cast an eerie orange glow across the room. Feeling my way until my eyes adjusted, I stepped around the curtain at the end of the tub and began to scold my sister for taking to long.
Then I saw it.
It was standing beside the tub. Though it was hunched over, it must have stood nearly seven feet tall with its horns adding another foot or so. Course, black fur, like the pelt of a goat, covered its body. It had powerful legs that ended in hooves – the source of the clicking noise. A thick tail whipped through the air behind it like a cobra circling its prey. Heavy chains wrapped around its muscular shoulders and torso. As it inhaled and exhaled, the chains produced their bell-like chimes. Yellowed eyes that burned with a smoldering rage stared down from above its twisted nose. A wheezing, bubbling sort of breath passed between its fangs and incisors that extended so far from its mottled gums that I don’t believe it could have possibly closed its mouth completely. A long, pointed tongue hung down past its scarred and disfigured chin like some grotesque dog and thick globules of spittle collected at the corners of its mouth. One of these globules broke free and fell into the tub. I looked down and saw its hands, long and hairless. Each finger ended in a sharp nail and was wrapped in the same kind of corpulent skin as a vulture’s bald head – the result of too much exposure to rotting flesh. Then I noticed the thin wisps of hair floating up between its fingers. My sister’s hair.
The beast was holding her head under the water. I screamed. Only at this point did it look at me. It was not alarmed, but rather seemed almost whimsically bemused. As if I was asking it a riddle that it already knew the answer to. Looking directly at me, it stood up to its full height, its horns now brushing the ceiling. As it stood, it lifted my sister out of the water. My screams caught in my throat and I began to choke. It held her with a single hand, each of its five sharp nails having pierced completely through her body. Strangely, the only coherent thought that passed through my mind at that moment was the hope that my sister had already drowned and could not feel the pain. The beast took a step towards me and gave a dry, shrill laugh that sounded like an animal being strangled. It held my sister out, as if it were cruelly offering her body to me. Then we both heard the footsteps in the hallway. My parents were running to see what was the matter. The beast quickly wrapped its heavy chains around my sister’s lifeless body and cinched her to its back. Then, with surprising agility, it threw open the window and leapt onto the narrow ledge. It balanced there for a moment and then turned to look at me one last time. Our eyes met and in that moment it burned the full horror of itself into my very soul. Then it leapt from the ledge and disappeared.
My parents were already in the washroom before I realized that the beast was gone. They held me tight and began asking what was the matter. I could not speak, but only pointed towards the tub and then the window. My mother was the first to notice my sisters clothes laying beside the tub and instantly ran to the open window. I heard her scream curses in our old language at the darkness. Then she collapsed and my father ran to her, begging for someone to tell him what was going. My mother was near to fainting and could only point to the hoof-like print in the snow upon the ledge and speak a single word: “Krampus.”
I don’t remember much after that. Four days later, my sister’s body was found by a sewer grate. There was no investigation; no arrests made. To this society she was just another dead immigrant child. No different in their eyes than a drowned sewer rat. Not that it mattered much. No manhunt would ever turn up that creature which was not a man.
I am old now. Over the years I have seen all of my friends from that hellish ghetto die, some of them in horrible accidents, yet I have always found some measure of peace with every one of their deaths. I do realize that death is inevitable. But there is one fact that keeps me from finding peace with my sister’s death: When the police officer came to visit my family, he said that my sister had only been dead an hour before they had found her body.
by Ward Hocut