An essential piece of Christmas has been missing forever, almost as if it has hidden itself. In the story Once Gramps Had Come by Matthew Sawyer, that hidden piece comes out to perhaps breathe clean air, eat or maybe stretch its legs. Whatever is done, this short tale starts in a Nursing Home. A homely man who calls himself “Gramps” offers immortality and the holidays are coming up.
Once Gramps Had Come
Thursday, November 21, an ugly, old man comes to the Nursing Home. He is not the slightest seemly; not handsome like the weathering of a familiar leather jacket, nor noble like the bark of a gnarled oak. The man is ugly. Frightening, yet he looks a lot like that knotted tree and ragged hide coat. Presumably present for the terminal long-duration care and rehabilitation available here at Nueva Buena Vista, the terrible creature introduces himself to other residents. He calls himself, “Gramps.”
Mr. Breckell, who regularly assesses his own hearing, believes he has misheard the name. He shouts from his seat of padded linoleum. “What did you call yourself? Cramps?”
Mr. Breckell assumes and also asks, “Is that what’s wrong with you?”
The ugly old man lumbers near the only fellow whose spoken to him. This Gramps or cramps sits down on the stiff, yellow cushion next to Mr. Breckell. The new old man creaks and his joints crack when he bends his legs then he adjusts his seat. The racket is disquieting to everyone in the day-room. Mr. Breckell tells the creepy, wooden man next to him, “You sound like you’re going to break.”
“I do fear it,” Gramps answers.
Before he forgets, Mr. Breckell asks him again, “What did you call yourself?”
“Cramps,” Mr. Breckell swears he’s heard again.
He suggests to the badly weatherworn stranger, “Cramps, I would change that nickname. You could then go talk to someone else.”
“I think you are mispronouncing it,” Gramps tells him.
“Me? How about you?”
Gramps, or still possibly cramps, immediately interrupts the fresh argument. “Are you afraid of dying, Mister…”
“Breckell,” Mr. Breckell automatically replies.
“Sure,” he then insists. “Yeah-”
“I can help you live forever.”
Mr. Breckell finishes his thought. “But I get less fidgety the older I get.”
He then pauses, gazes into impossibly seeing and dense cataracts then tells cramps, “I don’t think you can help yourself. By the look of you…”
Mr. Breckell shakes his balding head.
“I know the worst of it,” Gramps promises his indignant comrade. “You can help me.”
The idea makes Mr. Breckell chuckle. “I will see what I can do.”
With yet no response, he asks the ugly stranger directly, “Who are you?”
“Everyone has forgotten me.”
Mr. Breckell tells him, “Welcome to Anonymous-Anonymous. The ladies across the room cry about the fact at weekly meetings.”
Gramps adds, “And any who do remember me, and if they still believe, they think I have gotten lazy over centuries.”
Mr. Breckell assures him. “That’s just how it feels.”
Pink light glows behind the opaque eyes of the stranger. “I’m telling you, Mr. Breckell, there is another way. You can live forever.”
Mr. Breckell laughs and the sound grows. He stops his guffaw when Gramps admits, “But there is a horrible exaction. There are crimes you must commit.”
“Go figure,” Mr. Breckell says entertained and newly curious. A meager rush of adrenaline reminds him of the shadow of being a young man and alive. Enthused that little bit, he grins and banters. “What evil things must I do. How many children do I need to eat?”
“The children are never eaten,” Gramps declares.
Mr. Breckell tells him, “Then that explains why you’re so scrawny. Tell me, mister, who are you?”
“I told you.”
“Oh, no you don’t. I am not about to wake up tomorrow and remember my name is Al Z’heimers. Who are you?”
The ugly stranger next to Mr. Breckell tells him, “The Krampus. The, the Krampus.”
“Huh?” Mr. Breckell grunts without purpose. His recollection is vague. He goes on and says, “Remind me who that is. Are we talking about Christmas? The elves and the magical Saint Nick, right? Not the Jesus and Christian Santa Claus, correct?”
“And not the American who drinks Coca Cola,” specifies the Krampus.
The name, or its shaded memory, fits the horrid personification here in the ugly stranger. The monster tells Mr. Breckell, “I am his nemesis, his companion and cohort. The folklore all across the world will tell you the same.”
The Krampus rants. “But I refuse to do his work. I won’t do it and I only want to pass away – and join our brothers. Somebody else can be remembered to be the Krampus. And he or she can be that until the end of time.”
“End of time, you say?” Mr. Breckell repeats. “That’s the part that includes living forever you were talking about?”
“If you do those things you must do.”
“And what does that mean? What do I got to do?”
The Krampus scowls when he says, “Make toys.”
Jokingly, Mr. Breckell answers, “Well, how do we get this operation done? I can live forever and do that.”
“Hell, what are all the toys for?”
The Krampus reveals in earnest, “They are the years of your life. Each toy is a day, you live one day for every toy you make. And you must keep them secret.”
Carried by high spirits, Mr. Breckell continues to play with the ugly man. “That can’t be bad. I suppose I can make seven toys in a day, or make fourteen or even seventy.”
“Saint Nicholas takes them away,” replies the Krampus. “And you will die if you do not have even one made and hidden away. Then, at least, you will live that single day. You can use that time and make a new toy that you can stash away.”
Having never truly stopped, Mr. Breckell laughs aloud once again. “Are you telling me Santa Claus steals your toys.”
The Krampus alludes, “A thief by any name… what would he do if he was ever successful and he murdered me?”
“You are telling me, you can die if Santa takes away all your toys.”
“You will die, Mr. Breckell,” declares the Krampus. “When you become me.”
“Hold on,” Mr. Breckell says and stunts the conversation. “You told me you wanted to retire. What did you say? Pass away. You can do that if you let Santa have all your toys.”
“There is something else you must do,” states the Krampus solemn and cold. “Someone must take your place. Someone else must always be the Krampus or we will never be at peace.”
Unswayed by any prospect this whole week has presented him, Mr. Breckell remains engaged in his lively discussion. “I don’t know about your offer, mister. I heard that Saint Nick character was one tough hombre. You know, burglary is his thing – creeping down chimneys and eating cookies and all.”
An idea occurs to Mr. Breckell. “Hey, I have never seen the jolly old man. I know for a fact my parents put all my presents under the tree. I never heard from you, either. Or were you part of all those pagan parties before the twentieth century? Before my time?”
“I was hidden,” answers the Krampus. “Me and my toys and my workshop have been hidden all your life and longer. Saint Nicholas had no toys to give to good girls and boys.”
Mr. Breckell rambles, “So Santa Claus canceled giving away presents because he couldn’t rip you off…”
“What about his little helpers? Where are his elves?”
The Krampus shakes his head, gasps then sighs. “I am so tired and I cannot bear the things I do. I can no longer bear my guilt.”
Mr. Breckell wonders aloud, “Why? What have you done? You make toys.”
“Listen,” musters the Krampus. He leers into Mr. Breckell’s face. “You can’t just take them – I never did. I gave them warnings. They get two?”
“What are they and who are them?” Mr. Breckell asks. He is not one bit interested in hearing any admonitions.
The Krampus tells him, “The first warning I give is a lump of coal. I put it in their stockings.”
“Are you talking about kids?” indicts Mr. Breckell. “I was just kidding when I mentioned earlier that I was hungry. Certainly no veal.”
The Krampus ignores the man’s comments and he continues speaking. “The second is a bundle of twigs bound together with reed. After that second year, I just come and take them.”
“Where – where to?”
“The North Pole. I hide my workshop there in a cave washed out by ocean waves.”
Certain who they are talking about, Mr. Breckell shouts, “Why?” Not one deaf head in the day-room turns.
The Krampus confesses, “Children can make your toys for you. That’s allowed if you keep them under your control.”
“I use a potion brewed from an extract of mistletoe. I mix it into their porridge of ice and snow.”
Mr. Breckell mumbles at a volume hardly overheard. “You brainwash children with poison.”
He then judges aloud the beast by his side. “Inhumane.”
“No, no, the potion makes them happy.”
The Krampus’ speech sounds scrambled.
“Don’t you see? Saint Nicholas has no workshop in the Arctic Circle. He doesn’t have any elves. All of that belongs to me. He takes away my toys and the children who are glad they help the Krampus stay alive.”
“What does Santa do with the kids?”
“I suppose he takes them home. I don’t know, I don’t know… I don’t care.”
Mr. Breckell says proud, “It’s good to know he is still a good man.”
“Is he?” cries the Krampus. “Is he, Mr. Breckell? The Sinter Klass hunts us, sir. He will not let our souls rest and he only wants to keep us desperate. We are forced to desperately make toys to stay alive.”
“Hold on,” Mr. Breckell states and mimes as if he physically pulls in an equine’s reins. “Who are you talking about when you mention ‘we’? Certainly not you and me.”
“There is only now you,” replies the Krampus.
“What do mean?”
The gnarled creature tells the man, “Mr. Breckell, you agreed to take my place.”
“No,” Mr. Breckell objects. He has stopped laughing. “How did that happen?”
“Because you spoke to me.”
The nursing home vanishes from all around Mr. Breckell. The Krampus goes, too. Rather, old Mr. Breckell has himself gone. The elderly man discovers he is alone atop snow and an iceberg larger than his poor eyesight might measure. He shivers only a little because the air and ground are both cold. Mr. Breckell does not already know it, him standing outside fully dressed overlain with his nursing home bathrobe, but for some inexplicable reason the man is lucky he is not shaking more. Foremost in his audible mind is, “I have been teleported to the North Pole.”
“The dirty scoundrel,” grumbles Mr. Breckell. “What am I going to do now?”
He recognizes a scraggy voice whispering from out of his own ears. The voice of the original Krampus tells him, “Watch out for Saint Nick. Your brothers are watching you.”
“Hey, get back here,” Mr. Breckell shouts. “Send me back! I didn’t agree to anything.”
As the voice falls further away, Mr. Breckell hears it say, “The souls of your brothers depend on you to keep our peace. Hide. Hide and make toys.”
“Wait a minute,” Mr. Breckell begs the voice before it is gone. After no answer except a frigid gust of wind, one that chills his limbs, he appeals to the overcast sky. “Where am I suppose to go?”
“He said he made a cave,” Mr. Breckell tells himself. As if he knows the direction, he marches toward the ocean side.
Along his solitary journey, he first asks himself, “Who are the brothers?” Further along, Mr. Breckell answers the question.
“I bet it’s you,” he says to himself, meaning the voice he recognized was the Krampus he met tonight in the day room at Nueva Buena Vista.
He chides the Krampus he knew while tramping downhill into deepening snow. “Some wretched fiend looked at you and found a fool to pass a curse onto.”
“That’s what this is, isn’t it?”
The question is rhetorical. The hypothetical answer is, too. “Some eternal life this is, I tell you.”
A gunshot makes his insane reality legitimate. A bullet immediately blows snow and steam from a hole made into a snow drift concealing most of his thin and aged body. Hidden so, he has avoided injury.
“I got you,” declares a hoarse old man with yet a jolly shout. “I found you. Where are your toys?”
Mr. Breckell says without hunting the horizon for the shooter, “Santa Claus, is that you?”
A skinny man wearing a long gray beard and longer, hairy, green coat shouts back. “I’m Ole Nick, to you. Ho.”
Ole Nick pauses and asks the rookie Krampus, “You’re a new Krampus aren’t you? ‘Course, I haven’t seen you for over a hundred years. And I’ve been looking. I promise you that. I guess I’m just lucky everybody hasn’t forgotten about me.”
The stretched elf laughs aloud. “Ho, ho, ho,” then he fires a shot into the air. An AK-47 then swings over his head once more and unleashes a burst that drowns speech.
Dropping the weapon, Ole Nick tells the new Krampus, “I said, Christmas is coming this year. Show me where you’ve hidden all your toys.”
“I don’t know,” pleads Mr. Breckell. Challenging the safety of his snowdrift, he raises his head and looks over his shoulder. Saint Nicholas comes up behind him, following his target’s fathom-deep foot prints.
“I am feeling charitable all of a sudden,” promises Santa Claus, “I’ll give your a break because you’re so brand new. Look at you – your wrinkles haven’t yet turned into bark. Give me all your toys and I’ll let you live this year – well, at least until Spring.”
“You’re going to kill me?” asks the unbelieving remnant of Mr. Breckell.
Ole Nick grows serious. “You, your kind and your undead hive mind are an abomination.” He spits. “Ptah, you all-in-one and everlasting…”
“The Krampus is a dreg of Creation, the root of jealous anxiety. You don’t feel it yet, but you will quick enough. I exist to clean you up.”
The human that yet survives claims, “This is crazy. Please, let me go. Take all my toys. Please, just allow me to make more.”
“Your type of immortality is a mad idea,” judges Santa Claus. “Well, I’m the balance. You must die – after Christmas this year is sorted out”
The Krampus stammers. “Just take my toys, leave me in peace.”
“I will rescue the kids, too,” Ole Saint Nick pledges.
“The ones you hypnotize and they make all your toys.”
The Mr. Breckell inside the Krampus tells Santa, “Take them. I’ll make my own toys.”
Ole Nick chuckles. “And just like all your brothers, you will be disappointed to find you can’t keep up.”
Mr. Breckell asks even though he sort of knows, “Who are my brothers?”
He is ignored. Instead, Ole Nick waves a rifle into his face and commands him, “Show me your toys.”
“Yes, yes,” replies the Krampus. He then takes Saint Nicholas to his lair.
The entrance to the ice cave is near. Truly, the two eternal spirits have almost always shuffled through snow over the length of saltwater carved caverns. Having arrived at the cave mouth, the Krampus points toward the dark hole. Uncertain of the intention of the man with the gun, he invites Saint Nicholas inside using only a nod and an arm gesture.
“There is candlelight inside,” promises the Krampus and Mr. Breckell knew.
“You go first,” Santa responds. “I’m right behind you and I’ve got an automatic weapon pointed at the center of your back.”
Before either spirit steps further toward the underground, gaunt and pale children fizz out of the hole as if they were bubbles jumped from a boiling cauldron. All of them smile. They shout in song, “The Krampus!” Apparently impervious to the freezing cold, the skinny kids banter with each other in the snow wearing only pajamas and slippers.
“He doesn’t look like the Krampus,” one boy observes.
A smaller girl tells him, “He smells like the Krampus.”
And the boy replies, “He doesn’t look like him.”
“He will look like one in a hundred years,” another child answers.
Boggled, Saint Nick wonders rhetorically, “What poison?”
Ashamed because of this evidence left by a guilty brother who had come before him, the one who had been Mr. Breckell claims, “I’m sorry – it wasn’t me.”
“You will commit this same crime one day soon. You always do,” Santa retorts. “I’ll be back and shoot you. You can join your brothers… and there will always be another one like you. There has always been.”
Although the children are reluctant, Saint Nicholas gathers them together and puts all the boys and girls the Krampus has kidnapped behind him. He tells the Krampus, “You can make as many toys as you want until then… enough for next Christmas, I expect.”
“You want the toys for Christmas?” reiterates the desperate Krampus. “But they are the days of my life… I’m sure we can work something out.”
The inconceivable notion brings another, “Ho, ho, ho,” from Ole Nick.
“Give me your toys,” Santa Claus orders the Krampus with no condition or exception.
“Please,” the Krampus begs Ole Nick while the children go directed back into the cave to haul out all the unwrapped Christmas presents.
Santa salutes the Krampus, “I loathe your kind – that is just the nature of Creation. Because of you, it has been a hundred years since the world has truly seen what Christmas was meant to be.”
The Krampus presents a feeble defense before the dangerous elf goes away. He says, “Is Christmas all about gifts? Toys that are better made to save the life of a man?”
“You are not a man,” answers Ole Nick.
Near sundown, after a day that seemed to last months, Saint Nicholas tells the Krampus, “I’ll be back before sundown to clear out the rest of your lair. Merry Christmas – you better be gone by then.”
Confused and having nothing sensible to say, the Krampus who had once been Mr. Breckell watches Ole Nick go. The tall, green elf presses the rear of his caravan of gift-bearing slave children. Establishing distance between them and their slaver, Santa Claus calls back to the Krampus from across tundra. “You’re going to die… I’ll kill you myself.”
You can’t hide forever. – you will come out and find another…”
“Even before that, you’ll start collecting slaves…”
“Then I will find you again.”
“You better get those toys made!”
After the once been Mr. Breckell finds the recipe for mistletoe poison, and he’s discovered a new lair for his toy workshop, the following news is broadcasted on Christmas day. While half of the United States still awaits dawn, WSIN television newswoman Sue Niam reports in an urgent voice,
“How do I describe it? These worldwide incidents of the opposite of breaking-and-entering are simply pandemic. Homes all over the globe – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and even Israel – everywhere – have seemingly been forcibly entered by persons who resemble the sixteenth century Father Christmas.”
“Father Christmas is the Jenny Craig Santa Claus who wears green instead of red. Viewers are probably most familiar with him as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol.”
Ms. Niam pauses on-air live and she asks an off-camera someone, “Is this a hoax?”
The preened television personality then continues describing, “Images and videos captured all over the world portray a single identical intruder in all these incidents – intruder is not the word for him – because he leaves wrapped presents then disappears”
Her cameraman is told, “Charlie, this is one man. How can one man appear at once in millions of homes?”
The response from the cameraman is loud enough to register on the recording. “I hate wrapping presents.”
“Hold on,” Ms. Niam tells Charlie and her viewing audience. “Reports are coming in saying the intruder carries an automatic military firearm. Our Santa Claus is shooting pets.”
After a moment spent quietly listening to her earphone, Sue Niam tells her audience, “Gunfire has been exchanged… witnesses have reported skirmishes between the intruder and armed homeowners”
Interrupting herself, she states, “We have a caller from Arizona.”
“Hello, Mister Rood? You said you exchanged gunfire with the man dressed as Father Christmas.”
“I sure did.”
Eager to curb the mania in her caller’s voice, Ms. Niam says, “We’re just now learning about the hundreds of incidents. These armed encounters seem focused in the Western half of the world.”
“America!” rallies Mr. Rood. “Damn, yeah.”
Ms. Niam cautions the man from Arizona. “Please, language, Mr. Rood. And it is Christmas Day.”
Mr. Rood grumbles, “Libtards.”
Refocusing the report, Ms. Niam asks her caller, “Can you tell us what happened to you this morning?”
“Yeah, sure,” Mr. Rood grants with heavy breaths. “I heard that sucker rattling my front door at four AM. I don’t go work at Walmart until six fifteen so I heard what was going on.”
The caller raises his voice.
“He come in my house with the ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and touting his rifle. Well, I brought mine.”
Interested in summarizing the witness, the television reporter asks, “How was the gunfire initiated?”
Yelling because of adrenaline, “I shot first – the man was in my home. He shot at me but I think I got him. All the authorities got to do is follow the blood trail. That’s red enough for Christmas for you all.”
– End –
If you liked my story, the least you can do for me is send me a Christmas card. You can do that by buying this story on Smashwords. Merry Holidays (how does that sound?).
– Matthew Sawyer