Grossmueti always told us if we misbehaved, she would feed us to the hogs.
She’d tilt her head back and smile with grey teeth, listening to the boar rub his prodigious sides against his pen and crow that he was hungry again. Michael and I would stay silent and stare at our plates, like the saints we were constantly pressed to be.
Misbehaving was a foreign state of being always threatened and assigned but never felt. Misbehaving could be the failure to complete a chore fast enough, or simply standing in the wrong place when Grossvati was in his cups.
There were always chores to do. Chopping wood. Weeding. Cleaning. Ironing clothes until your finger joints popped. We were always slothful, spiteful children. We did not need to say anything, for the retort, we were told, was written on our faces. Öhi spilled my wash bucket out and laughed at my fury, so well concealed beneath a bland expression I didn’t even feel it.
The only luxury we were allowed were bedtime whispers. We were given mean space in an old corn crib, with two straw ticks stuffed with summer grass and a guttering candle. We spoke not of the indignities we’d suffered that day, nor hope for the day our parents came to fetch us (for they were much the same) but of things we had observed during the day.
“I was out by the woodpile, getting whipped by Grossvati,” Michael would say, “and I saw a darling little Phoebe cock its head and give me a most intelligent glance. I think I shall bring it crumbs and become friends with it.”
I told him about how I noticed, while Grossmueti took the strop to my hands, what a brilliant shade of orange the sunset was. We spoke until drowsy, not given to nighttime perambulations. Other children might have snuck out to steal portions held back from meals, but our relatives cooked like they hated food. I’ve seen the pigs reject what they force us to choke down.
Their cruelty was rank, but their kindness was worse.
Grossvati would make us sit on his knees and blow sour mash breath into our face as he delighted in telling us tales probably meant to enchant but had the opposite effect.
“Sinterklaas,” he wheezed, “is a kind saint dressed all in red and gold, with a beard fine and white as lamb’s wool. He travels all through the night on Christmas Eve, bringing goodies and toys to especially well-behaved children.”
We feigned joy. The only toys we’d had growing up were the ones we’d made ourselves, out of stick and string and whatever else we had to hand. But now the old man’s face twisted devilish and he took a pinch of skin from beneath both our chins.
“But he carries with him a special passenger, the Krampus. If you are even one drop naughty, he will steal you away in his sack and beat you with blackthorns and visit terrible punishments on you.”
His enthusiasm was more grating that his thorny fists. Before we went to bed that night we were made to swallow castor medicine and told not to crack an eyelid before dawn. We had already pledged to sleep in; we knew there was nothing waiting for us.
I woke by Michael’s hand in the night.
“Greta! You must be silent,” he hissed, face showing white as tallow. I was too experienced to ask why.
There was an undisguised thumping beneath us, as if someone in clogs wanted to stomp the whole house awake.
Michael shook his head.
He was shaking so he could barely speak. “No, it is a visitor. I was naughty and peeked.”
I rose to one elbow and listened. The thumping was beginning to sound impatient.
“We should lie abed, pretend to sleep,” I told him, “we will be passed over anyway.”
Michael’s grip was cold iron on my arm. “No, you don’t understand! The man in red, and the Krampus! They are one and the same!”
Below, a thump on the bottom step.