Yuletide greetings, my little festive fiends…
I believe it was Richelle E. Goodrich that said, “Christmas is like candy; it slowly melts in your mouth sweetening every taste bud, making you wish it could last forever.” The same sentiment for gooey chocolatey things can be attributed to stories – the immense rich prose of short narratives melting into your brain like a Tobelerone bar left out on a hot day, or the emotional momentum of characters sweetening your synapses…and at this time of year what better way is there to spend the festive break, than in front of an open crackling fire, reading a good story whilst the ferocious wind and rain pelts the windows? So step closer, my little fervent partridge in a pear tree. Uncle Mallum has a Christmas treat in his stocking for you. I feel that you have a predilection for the macabre and that is why you’ve clicked on the link for Kendall Reviews – because your inherent curiosity for the uncanny has brought you and I together.
Have you been good this year?
I hope not.
Now, listen to the wood knots popping in the fire…sip on that long-stemmed wine glass and listen to my baritone voice as I relay a cautionary tale based in the town of Shallow Creek. You’re looking at a tableau of reality, things of substance, of physical material: Jack’s Tavern, late at night. An open fire, a whiskey bottle half consumed at Christmas Eve. These things exist and have dimension. Now this is Henry Willoughby, age fifty-six, who also is real. He has flesh and blood, muscle and mind. But in just a moment we will see how thin a line separates that which we assume to be real, with that manufactured in a town that lies on the outskirts of infinity. I call this, ‘Belsnickel.’
– Mallum Colt
– Owner and Proprietor of ‘Colt’s Curiosity Corner’
It was around eleven thirty when the door burst open at Jack’s Tavern and the man staggered through like a snow-covered zombie.
It was the terrible crashing sound that made me jump at first. Almost as if the panelling of the door popped like a colossal knot in a fire. It wasn’t until later that I would discover Jack had locked the door, so the guy must have used an awful lot of weight or strength to cause it to smash open like it did. My natural instinct was to go for the .45 Remington stuffed inside the pocket of my Parka, something I always carried with me on Christmas Eve. The man mumbled something, grabbing at the air as if he was trying to find purchase and then crashed to the floor like a puppet that had its strings cut.
It was only Jack and I in the tavern at the time, because on this day no one in town ventured further than Jack’s after dark. Staying with Jack until midnight had become something of a tradition.
“Christ,” Jack growled, “get the door, Henry.”
His wife passed away several years ago, so I’d turn up occasionally to see how the old dog was getting along. He’d never admit it, but there was a blanket of loneliness that befell all us old timers that twisted into a thick, warm duvet around our necks this time of year. He always gave me a hard time when I’d turn up shovel in hand, grunting that he didn’t need any company, or that I was wasting my time doing trivial tasks, but after the driveway had been cleared and the first drink went down the initial spikiness would slowly thaw and we’d turn to other topics of conversation. What we’d been watching on the box…sports…the usual shit. There was a level of respect we had for one another that not many of the other residents understood. We never spoke of it, but we knew it was there. The age of a person doesn’t mean a thing – the best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles. That’s what my Peggy always told me, at any rate. We’d never talk about the war though. I’ve spent countless evenings in Jack’s Tavern, and every time the last drop of whiskey had been poured, we could see our eyes got glassy and reminiscent for the past. That last, lingering note of a bawdy Irish rebel song. That was the time to be careful.
So after shovelling snow and feeling the wind-chill rob me of what little heat I had in this old carapace of mine, I came in and we’d started sharing a bottle of Jack’s finest scotch. We’d been having a good night of it too – almost forgetting all about Belsnickel. Almost.
With the door open, the wind billowed in a snow sheet, swirling like a white murmuration of starling birds, hypnotising in its own cosmic way. The blizzard outside reminded me that I’d have to shovel again before the patrons arrived tomorrow for the customary Christmas Day shindig.
I kicked the door hard with my heel and grabbed the man by the legs, dragging him towards the open fieldstone hearth. He looked like an out-of-towner. He wore classy, expensive looking shoes. Not boots. Tight, thin leather gloves, with small holes on the dorsum – the type fancy people wear for driving. Far from home, I thought wearily. I turned him over, noting the tell-tell signs of frostbite on his face. Like bruises, but greyer. Seen it once on an expedition in my youth. Nasty stuff. His teeth were chattering and he seemed insensible.
“How far do you reckon he’s been walking in this?” I asked.
Jack was by us now, kneeling down with the bottle of scotch. “Prop him up here,” he said, ignoring my question. Jack slapped his face lightly. The man was half conscious, muttering gibberish as his bloodshot eyes rolled around in their sockets.
“Get this down you.”
We carefully levered the bottle to his lips and he greedily sucked at it. Once the second mouthful went down the gullet I could see colour returning to his cheeks. I’d been holding in my breath until now, so stood up and fumbled in my pockets for some tobacco while Jack attempted to revive the fellow. Peggy had asked me to quit years ago, but once an addict, always an addict I guess. Said it’d be the death of me. She never smoked and drank little. So I was surprised when she died before me. Suppose that’s something else I share with Jack. I gave up smoking for a week, stupidly thinking that a lifetime routine could be interrupted by bereavement. That had been a record. The fire felt warm by my legs and I could hear the wind outside, low and howling. With a blizzard like this, the snow hits the window like sharpened salt. I couldn’t imagine how long this guy had been stumbling around out there, in the darkness.
“My wife…the twins…”
“Easy now,” Jack said. “Just you take it easy, hear me?”
The man struggled to sit up, coughing and spluttering. I imagine that was more to do with the scotch than anything else. “I have to…I have to get back…they’re in the car…”
Two candles were placed on the mantelpiece above the hearth. They were red, placed in glass containers and were supposed to give off a faint aroma of strawberries. I thought they looked festive enough, so I’d bought them for Jack last year, but it seemed like he hadn’t gotten around to ever lighting them. I took the moment in between the stranger’s sobs and spluttering to light them. Anything to keep my hands busy and occupied. Otherwise they would be shaking. In the pit of my stomach, I already knew where the car had broken down. I put my head near to the candles. I couldn’t smell strawberries.
Jack took a swig from the bottle. “You’ve broken down.” It wasn’t a question.
“Y-yeah…at a place called –”
“Devil’s Gorge,” I interjected. I turned and looked at Jack. His eyes were cast down to the floor.
“That’s…it. GPS…said to detour. Thought it was weird at the time. Whole thing went haywire…then the tire blew” He put his hand to his mouth and coughed, a chesty, mucus-filled sputter. “They’ve been there…in the car…for over two hours. They should be okay with the heating on, but I was low on petrol…then this blizzard…”
Petrol. The guy was English. Through his half choked rattle, I hadn’t placed the accent. That bad feeling in the pit of my stomach lurched forward and up to my throat. I went to the bar and poured myself a shot. I didn’t bother looking for a brand; I picked up whatever bottle was closet to me.
In the changing glow of the fire Jack’s face looked waxy and yellow. “Listen fella, we’re going to call the Sheriff and get someone up there to find your wife and kids.”
The stranger seemed to perk up at this. He tried to stand, wincing in discomfort. Jack helped him up. “But there’s something you need to know about Devil’s Gorge.”
I gave Jack a sharp look.
“How about we try the Sheriff, Jack?” I barked, louder than intended. Perhaps I’d drunk more than I thought. “What’s your name, stranger?”
The man seemed to be more with it now. His eyes were still bloodshot, and his skin still white as a sheet, but he looked like he had his faculties about him now. “Peter. Peter Delacroix.”
Something jarred in the recess of my mind. Like when you’ve been to the dentist and you have a tooth removed, the way your tongue runs over the empty gap. It was like that, but in my brain. A memory that wished to be released, but something was shuttering it away.
“Well Pete, the phone is over there by that booth just yonder.”
Peter ambled over to the old-fashioned wall telephone. A little touch of the old days, Jack liked to say. Both he and I detested modern technology. Cell phones, tablets and the like…all brain suckers. I took Jack by the arm, glancing over at the Englishman as he looked quizzically at the rotary device on the wall. “He doesn’t need to know about it,” I warned Jack. “Let’s just all of us have a drink, and see what the Sheriff finds out.”
Jack looked broken, then. Like a child that had received coal instead of a toy on Christmas morning. “You know it, as well as I do.” Jack leaned in to me then and whispered, “They’re already dead.”
“Hey!” Peter called, waving the phone above his head. “The line’s engaged.”
The blizzard. Sheriff Hamilton was probably up to his eyeballs this evening.
“What about Mr. Colt?” Jack asked me. “He’s more into this sort of thing…knows about the occult. He’s English too.”
“What?” Peter asked, looking at us now as if we’d just landed in his backyard and had emerged from our spaceship. “What are you guys on about? Occult?” His bewilderment changed quickly to concern. “What’s out there? Do I need to be worried about my kids?”
I waved a dismissive hand towards him. “No, no – nothing like that.” Then to Jack, “Colt’s out of the country promoting his new book, anyway.”
Jack broke free of my grasp. “You need to be worried, mister. There’s something you need to know about Shallow Creek. Something you need to know about Devil’s Gorge.”
Peter’s mouth opened slightly, as if he was trying to formulate the right words.
“Don’t listen to him,” I said, loud. “He’s just a drunk old fool.”
Jack dashed the bottle to the floor. The abruptness of the movement made me recoil, like a gunshot had gone off. For a slight moment I was back in the Jungle. The bottle smashed instantly, with what little whiskey remaining pooling in the gaps of the poorly pegged floorboards. “Fool!” Jack cried, “I’m the fool? He needs to know about Belsnickel.”
“What’s a Belsnickel?” Peter said faintly.
“Jack…” I said, holding my hands up in a placating gesture. For a second there was no sound, no movement at all. Even the wind from outside seemed to quell for dramatic effect. I saw all the years upon Jack’s face in that instant, the changes etched upon him over the years: silver traceries in his dishevelled hair, those sagging cheek bones and terribly narrow face. Those deep, sunken eyes. I let my hands drop; he needed to get this out. Too many secrets and memories buried that were trying to grab purchase and escape.
“What’s a Belsnickel?” Peter demanded.
Jack sighed heavily. “Around this time of the year…especially on Christmas Eve…people go missing, see? It’s been going on for a long time now in The Creek. A trucker takes a wrong route, a courier never gets to where they’re going, that sort of thing.” He nodded deferentially towards Peter, “A family break down in a car. Whatever the case may be, the source of these missing people always stems from Devil’s Gorge. A body will be discovered in the New Year…bones found, y’know? We’re just small town folk and a lot of the people here are old. They get easily spooked, so it wasn’t long before all kinds of superstitious stories were made up to justify what they didn’t understand.”
Jack shuffled over to the bar and took a seat on one of the stools. Peter watched him as he reached over the counter and picked up a bottle of wine. He started pouring three drinks as he continued. “Over time people stopped going out on Christmas Eve. They don’t dare go any further than Silverpine Forest. The story goes that every year, a guy wanders around Devil’s Gorge, dancing in the snow. If you get a look at him, I mean a real good look – if you stare into his eyes…you go crazy. Fries your brain like an omelette. People call him Belsnickel.”
Peter looked at Jack. Then he looked at me. “Like a fucked up Santa Claus? But instead of giving presents he makes you go insane?”
Jack passed out the drinks. Then took a deep gulp of the red liquid.
“Hard to believe, right?”
“But then a couple of years ago,” I chimed in, “We’re sitting here, like we do every year…and the door opens, just like it did when you sauntered in…Only this time, the guy that comes into the tavern…there’s something off with him. You could smell him before you saw him, you see what I’m saying? He just looked…wrong.”
Jack shakes his head, as if replaying the memory.
“His clothes are all torn up, eyes bloodshot to hell. And he’s white. Like a pure, brilliant shade of porcelain. Well, we think he’s had one too many, on account of the season…so we go over to the door there, to make sure he’s okay. And what happens when we get close to him?”
Peter slowly blinks.
“Guy starts tearing at his eyes, screaming something over and over again…what was it Jack?”
“Infinity. Guy was screaming that he’d seen infinity.”
“Yeah…that was it. Before we could stop him, he’d gouged out his eyes. Right over there.”
Peter looked over at the door where he’d fallen twenty minutes ago. He slowly looked at us again, before starting to make for the door.
“Where’s the sheriff’s office? I’ll go there myself. I don’t know what your scam is, but I’ve got a family to get to.”
I glanced over at Jack. He sighed, running a hand through his hair.
“Look, son. You’ll get all of ten minutes wandering around out there and you’ll drop, just like you did before.” He finished his wine, standing up.
“I’ve got a truck. I’ll take you out there.”
My eyes went wide. “Jack, no.”
Peter turned, with an exasperated look on his face. “Why didn’t you say something before? Come on then, let’s get going!” He opened the door and went out.
I grabbed his arm. Jack stared at me with dull recognition. I knew that look. Hadn’t seen it for more than forty years, but I knew it.
“It’s the only way, Henry.”
“Listen,” I said finally, “You stay here. Man the phones. I’ll take the truck and take Mr. Delacroix out to Devil’s Gorge. We’ll be quick.”
Jack’s jaw tensed. He knew I was giving him an out – but I could see the conflict in his eyes, fighting between his stubbornness and notion of duty against his fear. “Besides,” I patted the pocket of my coat, “I’ve got protection. Do you?”
Jack lowered his head.
That settled that.
Driving in a blizzard isn’t fun.
I had the high beams on, but that only reflected the pure brilliance of the snow back at me, so I finally switched to the low beams, craning my head forward so that it was almost touching the windshield. I couldn’t see much of the road in front, gripping the steering wheel tight every time I felt the tires sliding out from beneath me.
Peter Delacroix was murmuring platitudes to himself under his breath, his fingers nimbly tapping his legs. I could tell he was impatient and wanted us to go faster, so I had to remind myself that he only wanted to get back to his family. The incessant drumming irritated me none the less. The silence between us wasn’t particularly companionable, but my mind was on several different things. I wanted to be in the warmth, staring at a crackling fire. The heater had only just been turned on, and was blasting out room temperature air. The radio in the truck had been broken when Jack slammed his fist into it several years ago, so there wasn’t even the distraction of music to fill the stifled quietness.
“What are you doing, driving around at this time of night on Christmas Eve, anyway?” I asked brusquely, after the patter of his fingers gnawed away the final resolution of my patience.
“Visiting family,” he said absently, staring out the window. We passed the river, leading towards Silverpine forest. The road started to get narrower, and I could tell this was where the snow ploughs had diverted, fearing going any further into the gaping maw of the forest. The dread that had been lingering with me since getting into the truck intensified as we rattled below overarching trees. The branches curved high above our heads, like the exposed ribcage of a capsized rowboat. The road turned into a single pathway and I couldn’t help but imagine that the brushwood scraping along the side paneling were like witches fingers, trying to lull me outside.
“Did you know in the Netherlands they have a character called Black Pete?” I said, trying to break the oppressive silence. Peter turned his head, but I couldn’t see his eyes in the darkness. “Apparently the lore is that he helped out Santa, or as they call him, Sinterklaas. Something to do with the Wild Hunt of Odin. They’d ride the white horse Sleipnir, while Santa…or Sinterklaas would fly through the air as the leader of the Wild Hunt. Black Pete would be at the chimney, to tell Odin about the good and bad behavior of the mortals below.”
“So he was a messenger?”
“I guess. Although people black up and put on afro wigs over there to celebrate him. Guess that’s not too PC these days. I just remembered that…on account of your name, and all.”
Peter made a noise in affirmation. “Before the engine died on us, I was telling the twins about Santa’s naughty or nice book. Why do you think we tell children these stories, Henry?”
I gripped the steering wheel. That sense of tonguing an empty gap in my mouth was back. “It’s like Belsnickel,” I said, mentally shooing the thought away. “These types of stories are passed down from generation to generation as warnings…or fables…especially with Santa, we tell children to be good so they’re rewarded for their behavior. We created a story around a guy so people would stay away from Devil’s Gorge.”
Peter seemed to think about this. “So…if this Belsnickel person existed, and he’s been taking people…or making them go mad, what do you think he would do if he knew that people were avoiding Devil’s Gorge?”
All of a sudden I felt cold. Cold all over.
“Is that your car?” I asked.
We were coming up on behind a Chevrolet. From my perspective, it looked like a saloon. The whole hood was buried in snowdrift. The tail lights were on and exhaust drifted out from the tailpipe. It was too dark and the snow was too fierce to see any people through the fogged up windows. I pulled up slowly behind.
Peter locked eyes with me. “You ready, Henry?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to knock the quaver from my voice. Peter got out and bent against the wind, started trudging towards the driver’s-side door. I was about to turn the handle of the door and get the slap of the cold when I saw him.
In the distance, atop a rise and drifting out of the dark shadows of a little copse of trees, a figure waded through the snow. It was the movement that caught my eye – it was the silhouette of a man, dancing. It was a strange dance, similar to a waltz, but he finished each cycle with an odd forward stride. His eyes were open wide and wild, head tilted back slightly, looking off at the sky. His mouth was formed in a painfully wide rictus cartoon of a smile. His tongue lolled out the side of his mouth and he seemed to be trying to catch the snow.
Something clicked inside me. It was as if that tooth gap had finally closed shut. Peter had said back in Jack’s Tavern that his tire had burst. But only a moment ago he said the engine had died. I glanced at the Chevrolet and he was standing there, staring in the driver’s-side window. Waiting.
Waiting for me.
What do you think he would do if he knew that people were avoiding Devil’s Gorge?
My hand retracted from the door handle and went for the .45 in my coat. Through the roaring wind I could only hear one thing. It was Peter.
“Infinity! You can see it too, Henry! Just come out here!”
I started the engine. I hadn’t noticed my heart thudding against my chest, but it felt like a jackhammer. I put the truck into reverse and glimpsed back at the dancing man. He was facing me but still looking skyward, smile still wide on his lips. He took enormous, exaggerated tip-toed steps, as if he were a cartoon character sneaking up on someone. Except he was moving very, very quickly.
“Infiiiiinity!” Peter screamed.
I made a low grunting noise of utter horror and reversed the truck back – all the way back through the forest without once looking in front of me. Because I knew if I looked forward, if I looked out of the windshield and saw the dancing man, his face would lower and he would see me and I would go insane.
The sheriff found no trace of the Chevrolet the next day. If tracks had been made, the snow had covered them up again. There was no Delacroix family that resided in Shallow Creek either, and Jack had his ideas of what Peter was. He said that he was an emissary of Belsnickel, sent out to lure unsuspecting folk to Devil’s Gorge. Perhaps the guy who gauged out his eyes the year previous had been a trial run. Whatever the case, I still have nightmares about that Christmas Eve. Of what could have been. Most nights I awake in a sweat, I see the dancing man still smiling his smile, still looking to the sky.
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