No one in town wanted to accept the free tickets.
And now he knew why.
They’d inherited this huge and gloomy house from her grandfather, and decided to move in. Actually, the will specified that before they could sell it, they had to live there for two years, as caretakers. For what, or who, wasn’t specified, but it certainly was empty when they arrived. Unfortunately, there were no funds for maintenance of the Victorian style mansion, and it definitely needed repairs. Mark and Maria had well paying jobs, but they couldn’t afford to commute eighty miles to the city. As for their savings, they only had enough to fix the broken roof. The leaky plumbing, faulty wiring, and ancient furnace would all have to wait.
“Not to worry,” said Maria. “We’ll throw a big pre-Christmas party for the whole town and ask for donations. This place is a landmark. I’ve friends in a band that are between tours, and you have that caterer that owed you a favour.”
Mark had reluctantly agreed, but at least wanted to have free tickets, just to get an idea of numbers. No takers, though, not a one. It was the local mayor and town gossip, Gladys, who said people were afraid of the place.
“I really shouldn’t say anything, my dears, but there are rumours about this place, have been for decades, ever since your grandfather bought it. Especially at this time of year. Mysterious lights in the windows, shadows in the dusk, and a hairy monster that terrorizes some of the local kids. Silly, isn't it? But it didn’t help that the old dear never denied the stories either, just telling people that it was important we all kept our old beliefs, our culture.”
Mark and Maria were ready to discount it all as idle gossip, until an envelope arrived from their lawyer, containing an apology and a letter. He’d been cleaning out her grandfather’s files when he’d come across an envelope, addressed to Maria, to be delivered after his death.
The letter revealed a shocking secret.
Maria had stumbled at first with the unfamiliar words. “Sorry, Mark. I can read German, but my Opa was actually from Austria, and used a dialect from there. It starts with something about having to leave their home and belongings in a hurry, after ‘the troubles’, bringing with them little than more their culture and beliefs. Hmm, more about the trip and finding this place, in a German community. Oh, and—shit—Kranpus.”
“Krampus?” said Mark. “What’s that? Sounds like a bunch of old grampa’s.”
Maria shivered and put the letter down. “No, very definitely not that.” She paused and took a deep breath. “In the old country, we have the feast Saint Nicholas on December the sixth, and the night before is for Krampus. The Saint is the good part, the gifts, while Krampus is the opposite. Then people shifted the celebration to later in the month, and created Christmas Eve. With a Santa that looks after both the naughty and the nice parts.”
“So this Krampus looks after the lumps of coal?”
“Worse,” she said. “He’s depicted as a great hairy monster, with long claws and teeth, that searches out bad children so it can beat them with a birch switch. The really bad ones get stuffed in a sack and carried off to hell.”
Mark stared at her. “Wow, pretty harsh. But that’s all we have here, an old wives tale abut something called a Krampus? That’s crazy.”
“Well, that’s what they think,” she said. “The description fits, from what Gladys told us.”
“We’ll just deny it all,” he said. We’ll tell people the part invite includes a house tour, top to bottom, and prove it’s all fake.”
She shook her head, and picked up the letter. “Not just a story. This part is quite clear. We don’t have a story about the Krampus. We actually have one. That’s what we are caretakers for, apparently.”
Mark laughed. “What, locked up in our dungeon? Are you serious? Okay, let’s go and find this fairy tale. Maybe he has a pot of gold to help fix the house.”
He was beginning to regret his offer as they crept down the last set of basement stairs. Maria consulted the letter again, and then approached the wall of old stones, fitted seamlessly together. She counted over, and then pushed one. There was a click, and a portion of the wall slid back.
“Voila,” she said. “Unlocked.”
Mark shone his flashlight over her shoulder, into the gloom. “Well, I’ll be damned.” He crept in a few steps, lifted up the small pot, then stepped back behind her. “Looks like gold to me.”
“Supposedly our payment for looking after it,” she said. She raised her hand. “Wait, what’s that?”
There was a rustling in the dark, then a hot breeze blew toward them. She turned. “Mark?” But he was already gone. Chicken-shit. She backed up quickly and pushed at the key stone several times “Come on. Close.” It did, but not before several rats scurried through. “Damn, I hate rats.” She ran away quickly, hoping none would follow.
She made it upstairs and found Mark at the front door, hand on the latch, looking back at the stairs.
“Thanks a lot,” she said. “The letter says it won’t hurt us. All we have to do is let it out December fifth to do its part to scare local kids, and that is it.”
“Sorry,” said Mark. “I panicked. But beat them? Stuff them in a sack?”
“No, Mark. Not stuff them in a sack. Or at least rarely. And just the occasional swipe with a stick. But we can never admit to it being more than a story, even in front of those from the old country.”
Mark had to admit she was right. He knew if he told them the truth, they would turn against him.
And so it was on the afternoon of December fifth, that Maria, flashlight in one hand, a stout stick in the other—for the rats—crept down the stairs to the home of the Krampus. As the secret door swung open, she called out in a loud voice, in German, that she was the new owner, and it was released. Then she ran up the stairs as fast as she could.
That night, as they were sitting down for supper, they heard a shuffling step come up the basement stair, and cross the hallway. There was a hot breath of wind, with a musty smell to it, then the front door slammed. They both sat quietly for a moment.
“Well, it’s gone,” he said. “Off to scare the local children. And beat them.”
“Only the really bad ones,” she said. “And just a few blows with its switch.”
“We could lock the door, I suppose,” he said. “I mean the one in the basement. Maybe it would go away.”
“There is that gold,” she said. “We could fix up a lot around here. Go to the Caribbean in January. Get a nice big wide screen TV.”
They decided to leave the door unlocked in case it showed up.