A gift for the deep winter festival from the Pilgrim’s travels in the cold hills . . .
The noise thrilled Grizhilda. Drumming on scrap metal, dull clanking of bells, claws on snowcrust – all rising up the valley. The other village children ran inside eager to be smartened up. Their eyes were on the stately man in gold and white robes and his deep sack. Mothers made curls behave, polished best boots, brought out embroidered pinafores and waistcoats from pine-scented chests.
But that was not for Grizhilda. She stayed outside, capering and cartwheeling to the wild rhythms. Her hair slithered loose from its plaits. Old Anna tutted at her.
‘The boys will see your legs behaving like that. Show some modesty – or the perchten will have you.’
Grizhilda tumbled over the edge of a snow mound so she she couldn’t be seen or told off. Too late. Old Anna went and told Mother. Jakob came – and dragged her home.
Scrape, scrape went the comb over her scalp. Sisters and nieces forced her into starched petticoats. Cold water and rough towelling made her face shine. Grizhilda scowled. Mother pulled her chin around to face her.
‘The demons take naughty children away. I won’t have that happen to my daughter.’ She didn’t pause in fastening the narrow glossy Sunday shoes so tight they pinched.
‘I wish they would.’
The cacophony stopped beside their house, the last in the village before the St Nicholas pass. Boys first, Mother sent the children out to bow or curtsey for the Bishop. She forced Grizhilda down by her shoulders in a semblance of politeness. She bobbed up and evaded Mother to stare at the perchten, the demons. Their horns, fangs and beards, and the huge bells on their leather belts.
One by one small packages came out of the Bishop’s sack. Grateful children unwrapped bagged nuts and oranges, chocolates in glimmering wrappers and painted wooden toys. Grizhilda loosened her shoes. Then Mother caught Grizhilda and pushed her forward.
A fur-sleeved demon proffered a lump of coal. Grizhilda laughed. She put her left thumb to her nose and waggled her fingers. Mother and the other villagers gasped. One of the demons tilted its head. Its eyes glinted beneath heavy black brows. Grizhilda added her right hand to the cheeky signal. The rest of the family shrank back. The Bishop stepped to one side.
The demon grinned. Its great red tongue lolled past its pointed chin. As fast as a winter rat after corn, it darted forward and seized her. Another came and turned its back to her. Up she went into a basket on its broad shoulders. The willow creaked. The rough music started again and they left the village.
Grizhilda grabbed at the swaying horns of her carrier. They felt smooth and pleasing in her palms. The first demon leered at her. Breathless and elated, she grinned. It stuck out its tongue, waggling the twin tips. She stuck out her own tongue and pretend-scowled back. It flung back its mane of coarse hair and its shoulders heaved up and down.
The laughter disturbed the clattering rhythm from the metal on its belt, starting off a new pattern. Its neighbout copied, and then the next, and a new beat led the march up into the darkening mountains.
Her arms ached, every part of her jolted and the noise deafened even her thoughts. But it was wonderful. It made the blood inside her heart dance with a fierce delight. The perchten weren’t evil, they were fun. Much more fun than the timid villagers.
Up and up they went, on the rough mountain trail to St Nicholas Pass.She took one hand from the edge of the basket and twisted round to look back. They were higher than even her father dared go. Snow slid from needles as they passed. The sweet smell of pine filled her lungs. Pride filled her heart – but nothing filled her belly.
The sun began to dip below the peaks. In a moment, it would be twilight. The Bishop crunched the end of his crozier into the hard snow and the mad raucous march stopped. Alll but her carrier-demon scattered. They hooked down damaged branches and collected fallen wood to stuff into their baskets. Her demon knelt and the Bishop lifted the basket from its back.
Her ears rang with the din. It was as well the Bishop didn’t speak to her. He strode off towards a tiny chapel in the trees and she got herself out the basket. Her limbs juddered and wouldn’t behave. The demon rose and flicked its claw towards the chapel. She should follow the Bishop.
The old chapel was cold and bare. The Bishop headed for the stove. Grizhilda ran in front.
‘Let me. Such beautiful robes shouldn’t get ash on them – someone spent hours making them.’
She found for a dustpan and brush. There wasn’t much debris to clear. In a blast of cold air, her carrier-demon came in, istbasket laden with wood. Together they banked up a fire. One click of its black nails and there was spark.
The rest of the perchten came in. They left the only chair for the Bishop to sit on, but he steered Grizhilda to it . He dug down into his sack and held out a package. Coal most likely – though useful enough in the stove
She took it. Scents of orange peel, cinnamon and star anise rose. Her teeth ran with saliva.
Inside the rich red paper, a gingerbread heart and a satsuma. Sweet, spicy, lovely food. The paper and the peel sparkled in the fire but she tucked the ribbon from the heart into the borrowed breeches below her petticoats.
Something moved outside the chapel. She ran to the nearest window and looked up St Nicholas Pass. Vast shapes roamed, deforming the trees and tipping lines of snow from the branches. She yelped then covered her mouth. Huge fiends with cold glittering eyes strode down towards the chapel.
Their faces, as hard as cliffs, looked hungrily towards the vllage. These were the true demons – the sort who snatched away hearts and left chewed lumps of gneiss. Or sucked out kindly thoughts to leave skulls full of cogs and wheels and deception. Or whispered through sharp teeth that the answer lay in the bottle, that someone deserved a beating, that foreigners could never be trusted . . .
They were terrifying.
The Bishop took a gentle hold of her shoulders.
‘You are a fine lookout. Come, child, and help us fight them.’
He showed her a quick way to make torches from the resinous branches. They created a small stockpile and then lit one for each of the perchten. The Bishop walked to the doors of the chapel. He blessed the furry, horned, noisy marchers then flung the doors open. In rush of horns, shrieks and smoke, they ran out into the snow.
‘We must keep the fires going, mustn’t we?’ she asked, though she knew the answer. Together they made scores of torches from twigs and dry moss and fungus. The dancing demons fought on, dashing into collect new flames through the night.
When the first sunlight reached the bottom of St Nicholas Pass, the snow lay dented and strewn with ash. Trees sprawled broken and ripped. Yet not one mark from the scaley fiends spoiled the way down to the village past the chapel.
Grizhilda slept on the way back home. The perchten walked back in silence. Mother ‘s screech woke her in the swaying basket..
‘Aaarch! Where have you been, filthy, wretched girl?’
Grizhilda clambered out of her basket and thanked her carrier. Mother ran forward, fists ready to box her ears.
‘What trouble and shame you have caused.’
The Bishop’s crozier came between them.
‘I have something for your brave daughter,’ he said. He stretched down to the bottom of his bag and pulled out a bell. Ugly, square and roughly made, it clanked loudly.
‘Ring that if you see them again. You can hang it on your ribbon.’
Mother frowned, fists on hips.
‘You can’t give a perchten glocke to her. She’s-‘
‘-an excellent lookout.’ The Bishop cut across Mother’s words. ‘Till next time, Grizhilda.’
He lifted his crozier and then he and the perchten left in a joyous racket.
Image courtesy of Eamonn Maguire @antarcticdesign via Unsplash