In the early days of one winter, when the snow fell thick and a certain someone was soon to go house to house, delivering gifts from a sleigh pulled by eight goats, Canja burned her little sister’s doll in the snow behind their house. The doll was made of strong oak wood and the fire took its time in spreading, but eventually its surface blackened in the snow and the smoke rose high beyond the trees.
Canja was soon caught by her mother and sister, once the doll was too ruined to be saved. “It watched me!” Canja cried.
“Your sister loved that doll!” her mother shouted, smacking the back of her eldest daughter’s head. “It was a simple toy. Why would it watch you?”
“It was made too much like a person,” Canja said. “The Yuletide King will bring Tanya a new, better one, you’ll see.”
“And what of you?” Mama grasped Canja by the wrist, dragging her away from where the charred wooden chunk lay in the snow. Tanya followed in tears. “The way I see, my daughter, he will bring your sister a doll of her liking, akin to the last one, and bring you nothing but the wrath of Krampus. Tomorrow, we will all go to the winter feast in the village below the mountain, but will both my daughters be there? Or will one have been taken into the woods for her mischief?”
Canja was shoved into the bedroom she shared with her sister and was left alone to think on her mother’s words. She had not worried over Krampus since she was Tanya’s age, for she did few ill deeds. The doll had to be dealt with, but at what cost?
When Canja was young, her mother told her of Krampus.
Illustrations by Darryl Fabia.The Yuletide King, who once visited houses by traipsing through the mountains on a giant, shaggy goat, found his domain had expanded as more good children wished for gifts in lands more and more distant from his home. He needed a faster way to travel.
So he slaughtered his great goat, offering him to the sun in hopes it would stave back the darkness of winter while the king went to speak with the fair folk. A deal was made, that eight of the most mischievous fairy-kin, often being goblins and the like, would change to a goat’s form and serve the Yuletide King for his most important of nights.
All seemed well, but when the Yuletide King returned home, he found that the sun had not accepted his offering. The brief darkness had filled the slaughtered goat, changing its carcass into something else, a shaggy, horned creature, twisted into a man’s shape and formed of claw and blood. Despite the sacrifice, the creature wanted to serve the Yuletide King still. His loyalty touched the king’s heart and he regretted his hasty offering, but while the great giver was generous and kingly, the creature was cold and wicked.
Yet the Yuletide King found a place for him. While there were many good children in the places he visited, so too were there bad children, or at least ones who had slipped from their good nature. He called the creature Krampus, instructed him to join the king on his sleigh, and while the Yuletide King tended to the good children, Krampus would tend to the others. The less troublesome children could seek repentance through punishment, but the worst children were taken away by Krampus, where none knew what became of them. Some said that when the Yuletide King’s goats revert to fairy form, they kept the bad children as slaves, or ate them up. Other said Krampus did the eating, and some even said that he simply tore the bad children to shreds and threw their flesh over his back, so that like the Yuletide King’s great goat, they too would become part of Krampus.
In the evening, Papa returned to the home nestled in the mountain above the village. He listened to Mama tell of Canja’s destruction of the doll, but like many men of their land, thought that handling the children was best left to the mother. He went to work around the house, splitting logs for firewood, while Mama prepared their part of the village’s winter feast, a roasted chicken, bowls of boiled turnips, and potatoes stuffed with herbs. Only Tanya came to see Canja in their bedroom.
“I wished to the Yuletide King that he would bring me a doll that won’t frighten you,” Canja’s younger sister said, and Canja at once felt all the worse for burning the old doll.
At night, both girls found themselves restless—Tanya was alive with excitement for the morning, while Canja dreaded the darkness. She pulled her blankets close each time the wind disturbed tree branches and sent them scratching at the house, or their shadows danced over the window pane, for she feared Krampus was afoot.
Sometime past midnight, Canja awoke to the sound of crunching snow. She hurried to the window, where she spotted a small torch vanish into the house below, and a voice muttered, “The smoke came from here.”
Canja clenched her teeth. “Krampus saw the smoke itself. He knows what I’ve done—he saw it himself.” She hurried to her sister’s bed and shook Tanya awake. “Sister, help me. Krampus has come.”
Tanya smiled up at Canja. “Then the Yuletide King is here?”
“I suppose. But that’s not important. I need you to forgive me, and then maybe Krampus will see there’s no need to punish me.”
“I forgive you.”
“Where he can see it!”
Tanya left her bed and headed downstairs to the den with Canja, more to see the Yuletide King than to forgive her sister. Canja squeezed her little sister’s hand, terrified of seeing Krampus’s bloodied hair, his sharp teeth, and fearing whether she’d get a merciful scolding, a vicious whipping, or whether she’d be torn asunder.
In the den, the girls did not find horned Krampus or a white-bearded king wearing white and green. They found two other men, wearing torn brown clothes, jagged knives on their belts, unkempt hair, and crooked teeth. One held a thin torch in his hand, the one Canja had seen from the window, and the other held a bulbous, scorched chunk of wood—Tanya’s burnt doll. Their eyes flickered with wicked firelight and they leered hungrily at the girls.
“Mama!” Tanya shrieked, turning on one heel. “Pa—”
The head of the burnt doll struck the back of her head like a club and the little girl fell to the floor. Canja knelt to her side and one man grabbed her arms, tying them with a scrap of thick cloth. “Be good,” he whispered, and Canja shuddered.
Papa and Mama hurried down the steps, and the doll hit Papa’s head more heavily than it had Tanya, while the torch-holding man stuck his knife close to Mama’s throat. Papa dropped to the floor, and the makeshift club struck his head and back twice more, while Mama fell to her knees. Their arms were tied, and their ankles too, and the men even bound Tanya, who could do little more than whimper. Papa seemed asleep entirely, and he didn’t move at all that Canja could see.
“I beg you,” Mama said. “Do not hurt my daughters.” The men said nothing, but they smirked to each other as they dragged Mama near to the front door, then Papa, and then Tanya and Canja. “Think of the time of year,” Mama pled on. “We could have been generous, had you only asked.”
“You’ll be generous,” one man said grimly, and both men snickered as they went to the kitchen. Canja cringed at the sounds of smacking lips and crunching bones as the vagrants dug their dirty hands into the potatoes, their grimy nails into the turnips, and their crooked teeth gnawed away pieces of roast chicken, like a pair of mangy dogs.
“How long?” one asked the other.
“A day, no more,” the other answered. “They’ll be missed.”
“Will we miss them?”
“No. Kill the man if he’s not dead already.”
“I want the woman.”
“Have her. I see another that’s more my kind.”
Mama began crying with Tanya then, while Canja was too afraid to make a sound. She listened intently to the men’s wordless chewing, her father’s shallow breathing, and her mother and sister’s sobs until the two cried themselves to sleep. The intruding men went on eating.
Canja felt too scared to try moving, too scared to think, and then she felt her legs sliding over the floor on their own, pulled backward through the front entrance to the house. Then they slid into the snow outside, where the wind bit at Canja’s skin through her nightgown, and the front door closed silently in front of her. Her body stopped moving, sunk into the snow, and she turned slowly to see who had dragged her from the nightmare of her home.
A man’s form towered over her, covered in shaggy red hair. Thick, bony claws stuck from the ends of the man’s arms. Black eyes glared down from a gray face that when still resembled a wooden mask of a goat, but when the man scowled, it more resembled flesh, soft and expressive.
Texture by Struckdumb.“You are Krampus,” Canja said in a daze.
The horned man nodded and bared his jagged teeth. “Are you sorry for your wrongs, child?” he asked in a throaty, grizzled voice.
“I am,” Canja said. “But something worse is happening now and I can’t be taken, or my mother will grieve.”
“What is happening now is part of your wrong,” Krampus said. “Burning your sister’s doll was a small evil, but the smoke led these creatures to your home, and the wrongs they do to your mother, father, and sister are yours as well. Will you repent for these evils?”
With tears in her eyes, squeezed from the guilt in her heart, Canja nodded.
Krampus smiled wryly. “Prove it.” From the darkness, he pulled a small, wooden wagon up next to Canja, and then sat inside it. “Pull this wagon to where the doll was burned and we will have shaved away a tiny part of your wrongs. Perhaps if your repentance is great enough, His Majesty will gift you with your life beyond this night.” A bundle of birch switches spun into Krampus’s hands and lashed at Canja’s back.
Canja’s skin stung at the fresh wound and she slid close to the wagon, grasping its handle with her bound hands behind her back. Then she shoved her legs against the snow, dragging the wagon a few inches for each lurch of her body. Every time she paused, the switches snapped again, nipping her ears and shoulders, cutting slits in the back of the nightgown and staining it red. “Is the Yuletide King near?” Canja asked.
“His Majesty has many good children to attend to, while I’ve not so many wicked ones this winter,” said Krampus. “But he will be along, should anyone here be alive to receive gifts.”
“Then those men mean to kill my family.”
“Once finished gorging on your food, yes.”
Canja struggled onward, but the wagon’s weight seemed great, and the weight of guilt in her heart seemed greater. “If I were forgiven, I would wish for my family to be saved.”
“That is a grand wish,” Krampus said, snickering and lashing at her with the switches again. “Much too great to be given for your simple punishment over the doll, for surely it felt as wronged as your mother, father, and sister.”
“Will you return me to them when this is done?”
Krampus laughed. “I would do so, for I had no intention of saving you once your repentance is done, unless the Yuletide King wishes it.”
“Then what must I do to save my family? I’ll do anything.”
Krampus lowered the birch switches. “To save three lives—indeed, that would be a generous gift of His Majesty, and would be fitting if coming from she who endangered them.” The horned man shuffled from the wagon and knelt behind Canja, his shaggy, clawed hands grasping her bound arms.
Pots clanged inside the house as the men rifled around for more food. If they couldn’t find any, Canja knew they would drift to her mother, her father, and her sister, to eat them instead, she supposed. One had already claimed Mama for his meal and made her cry. “Please let me repent,” Canja said, releasing the wagon handle. “Give them His Majesty’s gift.”
“Then let repentance begin.”
Canja’s breath ran shallow as the creature’s shaggy hair pressed her from behind.
A cloud of hot breath brushed her right hand. “Would you save your sister?” Krampus asked.
“Yes,” Canja said. Pointed teeth dug into the smallest finger of her right hand, squeezing and pinching until the finger was ripped away, replaced by screaming pain. Canja cried and wailed, and bones crunched behind her.
Then hot breath brushed the same agonizing hand. “Would you save your father?” Krampus asked.
This time Canja hesitated, knowing the price of repentance, but she couldn’t stop now. “Yes,” she said. Pointed teeth dug into the ring finger of her right hand, squeezing and pinching until the finger was yanked loose. Canja cried and wailed even harder, and bones crunched behind her.
Hot breath brushed her hand once more, though Canja could barely feel anything now besides the pain. “Would you save your mother?” Krampus asked.
Canja swallowed heavily. “Yes,” she whimpered. Pointed teeth dug into the middle finger of her right hand, squeezing and pinching until the finger was torn free. Canja’s throat was too dry for much more crying or wailing, and bones crunched behind her.
Hot breath brushed the bleeding hand. “Would you save yourself?” Krampus asked.
Canja sobbed, dragging the words from her mouth, when another voice answered for her.
“That is enough, my servant,” bellowed a voice as mighty as the sky. “See to bestowing my gifts.”
Krampus backed away from Canja, bowed deeply, and he and the wagon vanished into the darkness from which they’d come.
A white-haired, white-bearded man of great height and grand attire, his white and green robes fitted with holly and mistletoe, knelt next to Canja. His gentle fingers loosened her bindings at a touch and his hand led her injured one into the snow, where the cold numbed the pain. “You are quite brave,” said the Yuletide King. “You will survive the wounds of this night.”
“What about my family?” Canja managed to ask through her sobs.
“They will survive as well, though they will sleep while your gift is given.” The Yuletide King reached into a great leather pack on his back and retrieved a small box wrapped in brown paper and red string, which he laid next to Canja. “When the morning comes, you may open this. Be well, my child. All is forgiven.”
The king kissed Canja’s forehead and his whiskers tickled enough that she laughed like the pain was gone, as if her seven digits were still part of ten. Peacefulness and warmth overtook her for a time as the Yuletide King went on his way, and soon too did Krampus.
But first, Krampus did as his king instructed and went where his king had instructed, as if he was still a goat carrying the king’s person and presents. He emerged from the darkness in Canja’s kitchen, where the two vagrants remained, plundering cupboards and store-boxes alike, devouring all they touched like a cloud of locusts. Chicken skin, bread crumbs, and bits of turnip dribbled from their lips as their grubby fingers rummaged.
“Think I might have had my fill,” said one. “Might be a good time for fun.”
“Yes,” Krampus hissed.
The two men drew their daggers, because many men think a man’s weapons will protect him against forces of the wild. They dug into Krampus’s flesh as if he was still a goat, and his flesh ate the daggers in the way that darkness devours anything that isn’t light. Then Krampus’s teeth and claws and darkness dug into the men, rummaging through their bellies, where the family’s meal was found. At once, all was replaced in the cupboards and store-boxes, in dishes and on countertops, as if none of the food had ever been touched. Then the wounds the men had given to the family by club, rope, and fear were returned to them, stripped from Papa and Tanya’s heads and lashed onto the men’s now-bloody scalps.
Lastly, Krampus gave the men his gift of winter, for they were given nothing by the Yuletide King except the privilege of Krampus’s company. With shaggy claws clenching their throats, the men were dragged screaming into the darkness, where blood painted the once-white snow.
No one knows what became of them, whether they were eaten by fairies whom had briefly been goats, or eaten by Krampus who was once a goat. Or, perhaps their flesh became the flesh of Krampus, forced to accompany the Yuletide King and to visit children’s wrongs upon them, to punish them, to eat them, to threaten them with being stolen away forever … and sometimes, to give them a generous chance.