This story originally appeared in the anthology Mistletoes and Mayhem, a collection of Christmas-y themed stories which generally end more grimly than It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol. There is a link to purchase the anthology on its Goodreads page.
Maria listened to the insistent tapping at the front door, while irritation replaced the instinctive fear born out of waking to an unexpected noise at one in the morning. She felt foolish, knowing the sound must simply be Hans returning at last. The fear would not quite settle, even as she roundly cursed herself for feeling it, hating the weakness of giving into such a stereotype; a woman left to care for her child while her husband carouses, given a tremor by strange noises. She snorted at the thought. Irritation took the upper hand as her feet hit the cold planks of the floor.
She cursed Hans, too, for being such a fool as to join the Wilden Klausen troupe, and for compounding his foolishness by losing his keys. There was a better than even chance he was drunk in the bargain. In he would crash, chilled to the bone, full of fumbling lechery, stealing the heat out of the bed without bringing any into it, and like as not drifting into sodden sleep before either of them found satisfaction.
If she let him in at all.
She glanced quickly into Sigi’s room, hoping that the sounds had not roused him, and pleased to find him lying quiet in his little bed. That small relief began to modify the anger she felt toward her husband. If he would only stop knocking, she might be able to let it go entirely.
Maria switched on the hall light when she reached the bottom of the stairs, and the rapping finally stopped. She left the foyer light off as she switched on the one over the door, and Hans became visible, a hulking silhouette in the six little panes of pebbled glass set into the door’s upper half. She shook her head, wondering what possessed him to keep the ridiculous costume on.
“Hans?” she called in a stage whisper.
“Let me in,” came the muffled response, at a similar volume.
“Let yourself in,” she said, still low but with a sharpness to let him know how things stood.
“I do not have the key,” the voice outside said. “It’s cold. Please let me in.”
“Lost your key, eh?”
“Serves you right, prancing around out there in the snow, drunk as a lord.” She kept her arms crossed, not even glancing at the latch.
“I am not drunk.”
She cocked her head. He did not sound drunk. He did not, she considered, sound like much of anything; there was none of the petulance nor the defensiveness she might have expected, particularly if he was being unjustly accused. She felt her anger deflating. They were both tired, he no doubt cold and tired after slogging around the hills for hours on a winter night. He may even have learned a lesson about trying too hard to fit in, too. With any luck, his first year with the Wilden Klausen would also be his last.
“Please let me in,” he said again, less breaking in on her thoughts than giving them conclusion. Maria was pleased to think of herself as a proper modern wife, a true partner with her husband, and not some stereotype “old lady” who strove with her man for dominance in the household. He had come to the home they were making together, looking for comfort. They were a family. When family asked to be let in, you let them in.
She twisted the latch and opened the door.
Eight weeks earlier:
Peter handed Hans the clipboard, and with his usual grin said, “Time to sign your life away!”
Hans signed the acknowledgement for the latest load of flour, sugar and eggs. He worked to smile at Peter’s attempt to be light, but the reminder of how far in debt he had gone to become his own boss still stung. When he handed the board back, he saw that Peter was looking more serious.
“Hans…,” he said, making eye contact, “I was wondering if you would perhaps like to join a club I’m in. Something to help you fit in here.”
Hans didn’t say what he immediately thought, how tired he was of being the outsider, or that the people of Hohenweisendorf admirably lived up to big-city expectations of being insular without meaning to do any injury. Peter was the only person in town who seemed to know his name, and if he was willing to open the way, Hans was happy to accept the invitation. But there were limits.
“What kind of club?”
Peter’s smile returned. “A stupid one. A Wilden Klausen troupe.”
Hans raised an eyebrow. “Wilden… like, the Christmas monsters? Isn’t that a bachelor thing?”
“Not in Hohenwiesendorf. Every town is different, right? Here, it’s just twelve idiots willing to make the walk around the town, and who can stand each other’s company at about five meetings in the month before St. Nicholas eve. Then, we meet in town square, scare away any evil spirits,” he waggled his fingers on either side of his face, “light a fire, and get slightly pissed before it’s done for another year. We’ve got an opening, since old Fischer left. Hell, it might turn into a tradition that the baker has to do it!”
Hans had agreed that it sounded like a good idea. That night Peter took him to the back room of the bar. The ten other men there called a cacophony of different greetings. One, an older fellow with a beard seemingly meant to compensate for a bare head, said, “Aren’t you the new baker?”
Hans agreed that he was, without wincing at the title he had hoped five months in business would have erased.
“Excellent,” said the bearded man. “Your rye is better than old Fischer’s, at any rate.” He raised his mug in Hans’s direction, then drained about half its contents.
Once chairs were rearranged to make room for Peter and Hans, the former introduced the rest of the Wilden Klausen of Hohenwiesendorf. Hans said hello to each in turn, almost immediately forgetting the names of all but Willi, the bearded rye-fancier. He was better at faces and expected he would pick up the others’ names during practices.
“So,” Willi said, “what makes you want to join the troupe?”
Hans avoided the truth again. “Back in Graz, I always wanted to get involved in the Krampus parade, but somehow it just never happened.” As he took a breath, he saw the hardening of the others’ faces, and hurried on. “Of course, it’s not the same thing; just the kind of traditional cultural activity I’d like to be part of.”
He thought he had saved the moment. A couple of the men looked sullen, but they had not exactly beamed at him ahead of the gaff. The others seemed content, and both Peter and Willi were downright cheerful. When Hans stood his round, all frowns were banished. Leaving the bar at the end of the night, he revelled in the sense that he had finally gotten some networking accomplished in this little town he’d dragged his family into.
Sabine made her way slowly to the kitchen, leaning more on the wall than her cane. She sometimes fought the insomnia that had grown with her age, but this morning the damp air was making her bad hip throb and sleep was definitely at an end. It was only a couple of hours before she normally rose in any event. She decided to make use of extra time fruitfully, which would begin with a large hot tea to sip at while she composed her shopping list.
Looking out the kitchen window, Sabine was reminded that a stop at the bakery should be on her list. It was so pleasant having it right across the street, not only convenient but filling her house with the smell of the fresh bread most days. Not so this morning, though. The association of thoughts brought about comparisons between the new baker and old Fischer. She wondered if the new lad would ever make a decent loaf of rye, and if his wife would ever stop doing that silly thing with her hair.
She saw a movement on the street and took her hand away from the light switch which she had yet to throw. “Well, speak of the devil and she appears.”
Out in the cold pre-dawn mist, there was the baker’s wife, just walking away from the door. Sabine moved closer to the window, craning to see where the young woman was going. By the time she got there, the angle was almost too steep to make anything out, but she got a glimpse of the wife walking down the street with her husband, each holding a hand of their little boy, who trotted along between them. All three became mere shadows in the fog before she lost sight of them.
As she went to put the light and the kettle on, Sabine pondered why the baker was still wearing his Wilde Klaus outfit. Perhaps he had misunderstood how the festival ran, but she resolved not to mention it to him. She did not want to embarrass him in his ignorance; she wasn’t like some people in town, after all, who delighted in teasing Austrians.
One month earlier:
Sigi had quieted at last. Maria went up to the box room, where Hans had retreated at the start of the howling. He did not meet her eyes when she came in.
“I thought he’d laugh at it,” he said.
Maria looked at the large carton the costume had arrived in. The mask was on top, a huge helmet of fur with two dark eye-holes in a blank shaggy white face, its top festooned with six jutting goat horns. It was ludicrous, but after an hour of comforting Sigi she was not able to see the humour. It was also disturbing, even to adult eyes, with its inhuman size and shape.
“Well, you’re the one who gets up tonight if he has nightmares,” she said, in a tone which did not invite discussion. Hans nodded.
Later, getting ready for bed, she asked, “Do you think this Wilden Klausen thing is working?”
“I think so,” he said, after a considering pause. “Sales have gone up a little. A few more people use my name when I pass them in the street, not just, ‘Hey, baker’. Don’t you find people a little friendlier?”
Maria was silent for several seconds. Hans was so anxious to make a success of this opportunity and had worked so hard before and since they had taken over this bakery. She did not want to burden him by adding her worries to his. There was no need to tell him of the constant sensation of judgement that had hung about her since their arrival. There were questions about her clothes and makeup which seemed shot through with derision. That very day, she had been asked by four different people if she had chosen a barber for Sigi. There were a few women in town she knew to talk to, but no friends. She very much felt alone in this new town in a different country, with no one she could just drop in on, just knock on the door and know she would be welcomed in.
“Yes,” she said. “A little friendlier.”
The bell over the door of the cheese shop jingled just as Sabine was making her order, and old Hartmann asked her to repeat it. As he moved a wheel to his cutting board, the new arrival called out, “Hey, Hartmann; any idea what’s up with the baker?”
Sabine knew the face of the woman, but her name would not come. While she pondered, Hartmann said, “No. Isn’t he open yet?”
“No.” The woman did not look put out, and the mildness of her expression gave Sabine’s memory the shove it needed: Karin Wolf. “The closed sign is up, but there’s no note saying why they’d be shut today.”
“They aren’t back yet?” Sabine said.
“Back?” Hartmann and Wolf said it together. Sabine was not a habitual gossip, but she could savour a momentary advantage of knowledge.
“Yes. I saw all three of them walking up the street this morning when I got up. That was… oh, it was well before six o’clock.”
“All three?” Hartmann said, frowning. “Even the little boy?”
“They could hardly leave him by himself,” Sabine replied, amused. Hartmann did not smile back at her.
“Did you try knocking, Frau Wolf?” Sabine had not expected Hartmann to be so concerned, but as he asked the question she saw the man had never lost the trick of being a worried father.
“No. Well, just once. There are no lights on in the shop.”
Hartmann laid down his big cheese knife and came around the counter. “Frau Vogel,” he said to Sabine, “excuse the delay. I… have misgivings.”
Sabine nodded as he went to the door. Her amusement had gone, subsumed by her own sense of something gone wrong. That sense coloured her memory of the three figures in the fog. The little boy, usually so lively, she now pictured as trudging, almost dragged along by the adults. The idiotic costume the father had worn took on an air of menace. She and Wolf both followed Hartmann next door.
He cupped his hands around his face to peer through the dark bakery window. After a few seconds, he grunted and stepped back. He turned his head, and as Sabine followed his movement she saw the door next along, the one that let into the baker’s home. The light above it was burning pointlessly, the pre-dawn gloom having given way to a brilliant sun which had struck the frost from the trees.
Hartmann walked to the door. He raised a finger to the bell button, then looked at the women. Both made gestures of encouragement.
The sound of the bell came to them more clearly than any expected. Hartmann touched the door, which creaked open, off its latch. He looked at the others again but did not wait for their assent before stepping inside.
The night before:
“Christ, how does anyone see in this thing?” Hans turned his head from side to side, then repeated the gesture with his shoulders when the vast shaggy mask failed to move.
“That’s why we wear these,” Willi said, shaking the cowbell attached to his broad belt. “So everyone gets out of our way.” There was muffled laughter from some of the other Wilden Klausen.
“Anyway,” said another, anonymous in his own fur helmet, “we’re almost done. See? Just past the school, then up to the high pasture.”
“Then we light the bonfire and break out the schnapps!” Peter’s voice, near to Hans, was distinctive despite its confinement. Hans shook his head, an unseen gesture. This was nothing like the Krampus parade. The start at town hall had been too late for most of the kids in town to watch, and the route was more around the edge of town than through it.
Also, the practice walk last week had not been with the costume. Hans was stifling from the armpits up, freezing from the waist down. As the rest of the loose pack rounded the edge of the school, he lagged behind, reaching under the mask to free it. He resumed his march, holding the headgear like an ungainly bucket, his hand inside it to grip the straps. It was awkward to walk with such a burden, but he could breathe. Reducing the difference between top and bottom somehow made his feet feel less cold, too.
He trudged along behind the others, up the final slope to one of the flat meadows which gave the town its name. The line of men in their hideous costumes broke about the pile of wood which had been heaped there earlier in the day. Willi, looping around, caught sight of Hans as he was catching up.
“You aren’t supposed to take off your head until after we ring the bells,” he shouted, not angry but simply making himself heard outside his own mask. Hans bowed his head, but did not put the contraption back on.
Once the Wilden Klausen were in a rough circle around the bonfire, Willi applied a lighter to some paper sticking out at the bottom. In moments, the fire blazed up. He said, “All right, boys. One, two, three!”
The Wilden Klausen rattled their cowbells. Hans put his mask down to keep it from interfering with his right-hand neighbour. After a few seconds of the harsh, unmusical clatter, they stopped, turning to face outward from the fire. With imperfect unison, they chanted the traditional boast for the evening:
We are here!
We are here!
No more room in this town!
We are here!
We are here!
This town has fiends enough!
As they spoke, they all waved their arms in the air, sending weird shadows across the meadow and onto the trees around it. Then they all turned in to face the fire once more, muffled chuckling passing among them.
“That’s it, lads,” Willi said, reaching up inside his mask to untie it. “Hohenwiesendorf is safe for another year.” Hans reached inside his shaggy vest to find the schnapps he had been told by every member of the troupe was his responsibility as the new man to bring. When his right-hand neighbour stood revealed as Peter, head steaming in the winter night, Hans handed him the bottle.
It may have been the new man’s duty, but Hans was not the only one to have brought a bottle. Presently Peter handed him one that was counter-rotating. As he took it, he nodded toward the trees at the edge of the meadow, just beside the path they had taken.
“Who’s that?” he asked Peter.
Peter turned to look. Several dark figures were visible, even to fire-dazzled eyes. The postures and gestures suggested animated conversation. Two or three of them repeatedly pointed at the men around the fire, or rather at Hans.
“There’s not two troupes in town, are there?” asked Hans. The huge furred heads, replete with horns, were unmistakeable.
The police came to Hohenwiesendorf. Hartmann’s call, a nebulous tale of missing people and drops of blood in a foyer, would have drawn an investigator by day’s end. It was the call from the schoolmaster that drew them in numbers and quickly. He had gone to check on what some of students, wild with terror, told him they had seen in the meadow above the school. That story was all too concrete.
In the end, all twelve members of the Wilden Klausen troupe were accounted for, shattered bones sifted from bonfire’s remains to be placed with the disjointed limbs found scattered as far as the treeline. The scene was so trampled that no distinct impression of the attackers was ever formed, simply that they had been numerous, strong, and armed with a variety of cutting implements. One of the technicians pointed out the difficulty of sorting out useful trace evidence when the victims had been covered in fur themselves.
Unaccounted for were the missing wife and child of Hans Seidel. The same, as the day wore on and more absences were discovered, was true for the families of all the other members of the troupe, a total of twenty-nine women and children. It seemed that all had, sometime in the night, opened their door to admit someone stained with blood from the meadow and then left the house with that someone. They were simply not in the town anymore, and what eventually became a search spanning the whole of the EU failed to produce any sign of them.
Sabine Vogel, the only witness to any of the departures, told the police all she knew. Her story was too vague to be of any real help, and the investigators doubted it anyway. They knew that by the time she claimed to have seen the Seidels, Hans had been dead at least two hours, and all the costumes had been destroyed in the frenzy which took their wearers.
Eight months later:
It was a debate that no one in Hohenweisendorf was eager for, but it had to come. A town meeting was held, and the point under discussion was the propriety of holding another Wilden Klausen march on the next eve of St. Nicholas. There were two principle viewpoints, which their parties argued with such passion that the meeting seemed to be at the very edge of becoming a riot.
Those against held that it would be a cruel reminder to the friends and extended families of the victims. It would invite a renewal of despair.
Those in favour urged the value of maintaining tradition, although they appeared almost embarrassed to explain what that value might be. It seemed simply that they feared the result of closing the door on centuries of practice.
“Wilden Klausen” ©2020 Dirck de Lint.