Ivan Kratchev sat on the cottage roof, mending tiles in the heat of the August sun. His back ached. He could see his daughter enjoying the garden shade, leaning against the warm bark of the old apple tree and playing her guitar. She paused to write down the music she was composing, and he experienced a surge of irritation.
“Julia, have you noticed me working whilst you do nothing?”
She pushed her shaggy black hair away from her face. Her classical features could have graced a Greek vase but were spoiled by anger at his interruption. “How couldn’t I notice, when you’re making so much noise? You can see me trying to work too.”
Ivan shook his head disbelievingly and was about to raise his voice in angry response when an owl called, its quavering cry unnatural in the bright sunlight. Another replied from close by. He scanned the surrounding forest, using a large hand to shield his eyes from the sun, wondering what could have awakened them. A faint memory stirred, and with it came the first twinge of fear. In the distance, the roofs and spires of St Austell shimmered sleepily in the heat haze until a barrage of heavy cloud slid across the sky, dimming the light a sickly green. The first hailstones exploded on the hot tiles. By the time he had entered the cottage the hail was torrential, coating the garden white.
Julia was putting on eye shadow in front of the tarnished mirror in the gloomy hall. She pointedly ignored him as he shook the hail from his clothes.
“Are you seeing that boy again?” Ivan rumbled, trying to sound neutral.
“Yes, if you must know. He’ll be here any moment. And his name’s David, by the way.”
Ivan counted to five. “Don’t be late back, all right? Before midnight. You are only seventeen.”
She looked at him, as if considering whether to make an issue of it. “Dad, he’s not going to rape me. We’re seeing friends. Stay cool.”
Later, when he had managed to achieve cool, Ivan sat reading his bible, soothed by solitude until an unwelcome sound intruded. Water running, somewhere upstairs. Another memory, another scalp tingle. He put down the book with a sigh and listened. Pattering footsteps. The scratch of nails on wood – perhaps a squirrel in the room above. He grunted irritably and heaved himself to his feet.
He entered the bathroom and shook his head. One of the bath taps was running. Ivan turned it off tightly and opened the bedroom door cautiously. He could not find the source of the noise, and so he closed the windows. He also shut the airing cupboard door before descending. The air had become chill, and owls were calling incessantly. He felt tense and his head ached. Before Julia returned, Ivan had to turn off the same tap twice more. Each time, the airing cupboard door was open, the brass door knob icy cold. He knew then that it had returned.
When she entered, he had to tell her. “Julia – listen, we need to leave here. It is not safe. Pack your things.”
She tossed her head defiantly, reminding him of her mother. “You can’t order me around like that. Tell me what’s going on.”
He raised his arms then let them fall. “Cannot you do anything you are told? I will not explain why to you, Julia. Do as I say – for once.” His accent thickened with his anger.
She jutted her lip. “Basically, no way. You can hurt me like you hurt mum, but I’m not going anywhere. I’ll tell the police if you try to make me.” Her voice rose until she was shouting.
Ivan looked around, put a finger to his lips, and then whispered, “For God’s sake, do not shout. I never hurt her – I loved her. Why won’t you believe me?”
She clenched her fists. “Because no one else could have done it. I saw the bruises, when she came down to breakfast each morning…I hate you.” She hissed the words at him.
He sat down wearily by the simple pine table. “Listen, she left us to stay alive. It would have killed her if she had stayed, like it killed my mother.” He regretted the words as soon as they were spoken.
“It? What happened to your mother?”
“I do not want to talk about her. It was a long time ago.”
“Whatever. I’m not leaving this house.”
His heavy brow creased. “As you wish. We will talk tomorrow when you are calm. It is time you knew the truth. It will not be easy.”
Ivan slept fitfully, haunted by images from his childhood. His family had travelled along the mountains from one country to another before settling in Slovenia, and his grandmother Petra lived as a recluse. However, on his tenth birthday she had been unusually friendly, and invited him to her tiny cottage for tea and cake. Once inside, her mood changed.
“Ivan, I have to tell you something important.” She spoke in a hoarse whisper, interrupted by wheezes.
He was not sure he wanted to know.
“Now eat up, boy. We must go to the church. It is not safe to talk here.”
It was harvest, the warm still air pooled within the ring of mountains that encircled his village. He followed the gnarled figure across the sun-baked square into the dim, musty church. To his surprise, she locked the heavy doors behind her and dragged him to a pew and the small boy shivered in the blood-red light of the stained-glass window. It depicted a priest defying a demon. The creature was small but terrifying, surrounded by a halo of black flame, and it seemed to stare at the boy. Petra sat next to him and whispered in his ear about the krampus.
Half demon, half goat, shaggy and horned with a long tongue, the krampus beat naughty children and even took them to hell, or devoured them. How it gained in size by feeding on fear, sometimes a tiny imp, other times a monster. How it masqueraded as other spirits, appearing as Santa Claus or boggarts. The way it persecuted generations in search of something inexplicable.
When she finished, he ran home and cried in his room, birthday forgotten. By November, Petra’s tale had come to life – bruises started to appear on his mother’s arms and face until they were a mass of blue and purple wheals. After Krampusnacht, she lost her sight and could no longer work, and the other villagers shunned her. She spent her last months in the nunnery, dying mysteriously in her sleep, quickly buried. Even now, Ivan still dreamed of the demon in the church window. He saw the krampus opening his bedroom door in a mist of darkness – a bent, crooked thing dragging chains and holding a hammer in its clawed hand.
Ivan must have dozed, because he awoke with a start. He could hear a clicking noise, like a fishing reel being slowly turned. He arose and peered at the moonlit garden through the veil of frost and saw nothing, but the feeling of malevolence was almost tangible. At 3 a.m., Julia came in, clutching blankets about her.
“I heard something scraping on the window – it sounded like fingernails…” She shivered. “God, why’s it so cold? I’m freezing.”
He stroked her hair, ignoring the blasphemy. “It’s all right. You heard the branches in the wind. Now, I will sleep in that big chair in your room.”
When Julia awoke in the morning, Ivan had already left to work on a house in the town, and so after breakfast, she settled in the garden to work on her music. The mix of emotion and melody absorbed her until a harsh scream made her jump. A tawny owl landed in the apple tree and stared straight at her with glowing eyes, but something else was also watching.
A malignant presence was in the darkness under the rhododendrons and she could hear a low clicking, like a Geiger Counter. Fighting the urge to run, she peered closer, and froze. An earth-brown face, ancient and cruel was staring at her, framed by the leaves. It was gone in an instant, but she caught a glimpse of pointed ears and discoloured teeth. She was so frightened she could barely breathe and a powerful instinct made her grab her guitar and run for the house.
When Ivan returned, the door was locked and Julia was organising her sheet music distractedly. She hugged him tightly. “Something’s in the garden. It was horrible. It was listening to me singing.”
To her surprise he took her hands. “Look at your arms.”
She gasped at the numerous small wheals, as if they had been beaten. “They look like Mum’s. I don’t know what caused it, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t do anything.” The significance of it brought tears to her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Dad.”
Ivan shook his head. ” It is the krampus.”
His voice was low. “It has found us, the last of the Kratchevs. They never give up, never.”
She gripped his hand. “Is it dangerous?”
“It is very dangerous, despite its size. The krampuses are jealous and they feed on anger, but it makes them angry too.”
She felt sick. “That scraping at the window- it was trying to get into my room.”
Ivan went upstairs, his daughter close behind. He opened the window and showed her the deep scratches cut into the wood.
“See, it has a long nail on each hand, sharp like a knife and if it attacks, it goes for the eyes – first.” He hooked his forefingers. Outside, the wind was rising and thunder grumbled.
“Have you seen – a krampus?”
He shook his head. “No. Old Petra told me that they carry a weapon, a hammer or an axe, I think, and a bag of clay they use to blind with. You cannot catch them or hurt them and no one would try, because their vengeance would be terrible. She told me that they are always freezing cold. They love music, warm places and the sound of running water. They see through the eyes of owls.”
“So what do we do?”
“It will leave only when given the perfect gift – something it wants very much, but if it does not like the offering, beware.”
Julia frowned. “So what does it want from us?”
“I don’t know. Before, we offered everything we had but it only became more violent. We must think again. Meanwhile, no raised voices and no bad tempers.”
“That’s why it hurt me, because I was angry with you,” she said to herself, rubbing her arms. “I have the gift, it’s me. It wants me. I know what to do.”
“No!” he roared. “We go, now. Pack your bags.”
“It’s your turn to trust me,” she begged, squeezing his rough hand. “Please let me try.”
Julia spent much of the next two days in her bedroom. Ivan heard her singing and playing, the music gradually taking shape, a sculpture of sound. As she composed, the weather grew wilder and sleet rattled on the windows. From time to time, Ivan patrolled the house fearfully, and he left the outside tap running in the hope that the krampus would stay in the garden but when darkness fell, the owls seemed to be hooting down the chimneys and Ivan knew it was somewhere in the house, listening to her.
The next morning, no birds dared sing under the leaden sky. The leaves had started to turn russet even though it was mid-summer. Julia walked across the lawn and settled under the apple tree with her guitar whilst Ivan stood on the patio, watching fearfully. Then she began to play, and her voice joined in, its soft richness expressing deep sadness and joy. The song pulled at his heart.
It came. The light shrank away so that the krampus was shrouded in darkness and it clicked angrily. It was no longer small, but a huge, shadowy figure. Without thinking, Ivan shouted in Slovenian, “Leave her alone – you have no right…”
Ivan did not see the krampus move, but it was in front of him instantly. An immense weight seemed to bear down on his neck, forcing him to his hands and knees, staring at the cloven hooves of the thing. He felt nauseous, as if tumbling over and over, unaware of the ice glazing his skin or the two long daggers of bone pricking at his eyelids. But Julia’s voice cut through his senses, growing in emotion, singing for his life and the krampus turned away from him, loping back to her. Ivan’s head swam and he blacked out.
He regained consciousness moments later and knew instantly that the krampus had gone, but Julia was still sitting under the tree, pale and unmoving. Ivan staggered across the frosty grass to her, shouting her name.
“Dear God, please be all right,” he prayed, and she opened her eyes. He knelt beside her, ashamed of his cowardice, as warm sunlight broke through the clouds and a blackbird began to sing.
“It’s returned to wherever it came from,” she said. “It wanted to hear love. That was all.”