Here We Come A-wassailing
A Story by Dev Jarrett
From his recliner in the living room, Ed heard the Bittermans’ dog going apeshit. Not just barking—the damned mutt was howling to wake the dead. He picked up his phone from the coffee table.
“One of these days, Jack, somebody’s going to call Animal Control on your dog. I know he’s not mean, but he’s so goddamned loud. What is he even yapping about?”
“Carolers,” Jack answered. “They’re on the front lawn singing, and holding up a sign asking for donations. Don’t worry, as soon as they’re gone, Elvis will calm down.”
Ed sighed. “It’s okay, man. He’s not really bothering me, but I know Butt-Lick’s probably already calling the Homeowners’ Association about it. You know, Wahh, they’re violating the covenants, and I’m a little brat.”
Butt-Lick, the mutual next-door neighbor between Ed and Jack, was a real piece of work. His actual name was Gene Snavely, but they’d both called him Butt-Lick since the Independence Day Block Party five years ago.
Ed and Jack had been talking about an upcoming fishing trip when a woman near the cornhole boards screamed. Gene, a retired car salesman, lurched into action, dropping his paper plate of potato salad and barbecued ribs onto the grass.
A kid was choking. She had apparently taken a huge bite of a bratwurst and tried to swallow too quickly. Her face was turning purple, and before anyone else could react, Gene grabbed her around the belly.
He used the Heimlich Maneuver on the kid. After the offending chunk of brat had popped out, Gene had looked around with a huge barbecue sauce-smeared grin on his face and said Yep, that Hind-lick Maneuver works ever’ time! Ed had snickered and whispered his thoughts to Jack, and from that moment forward, Gene’s new name between the two of them was Butt-Lick.
Butt-Lick could be considered heroic by his quick thinking and saving that kid, but he more than made up for it with everything else. He was truly the worst kind of neighbor to have. He constantly gave unsolicited advice on everything from killing weeds in the front lawn to investment banking, whether he knew anything on the subject or not. Also, every time he saw something on the street that he didn’t like, he’d file a complaint with the Homeowners’ Association instead of stepping across the lawn and simply suggesting that the guy next door put away his empty trash cans or move the car parked in front of his mailbox.
Ed was a widower and spent most of his time at work, and as a result had relatively few encounters with Butt-Lick. On the other side, though, Jack Bitterman was young and married, with two happy kids and an obnoxiously friendly Golden Retriever. Somehow, Butt-Lick always managed to see every move the Bittermans made, and he always found something to bitch about. Dog barking, dog poop, toys in the yard, trash cans left out, anything was fair game.
“You’re probably right,” Jack said now. “That guy is such a knob. Anyway, thanks. And if I don’t see you between now and Tuesday, Merry Christmas!”
“You, too, Jack—” Ed began, but Jack started speaking away from the phone.
“Lindsay, honey, don’t open the door, we don’t know those people. Lindsay, stop! Hey, excuse me, please back out of my house. What do you think you’re doing? Out! Get out! Right now, before I call the cops! You—”
The line disconnected.
Lindsay was Jack’s daughter, seven years old last month.
Ed took the phone away from his ear and cleared the call, then lay the phone on the coffee table. He went to the front door and opened it. Standing on his front porch, his breath fogging with each exhale, he could see the line of young pine trees Butt-Lick had planted along the property line in an effort to get some privacy from the Bittermans’ lives, but he couldn’t see anything beyond the trees clearly. The front porch light shone on the driveway and the lawn, but the furtive movement he saw was mostly obscured by pine boughs. He heard high-pitched snatches of a Christmas carol on the chill breeze, but couldn’t identify the song.
Elvis’s yapping grew more frantic, then abruptly cut off with a yelp. A child’s giggle filled the silence.
That doesn’t sound good. Frigging creepy, actually.
His first instinct was to call 911, but he wanted to make sure he wasn’t overreacting. He knew Butt-Lick had called the police on Jack’s kids before because of a misthrown football breaking a window. Ed grabbed a flannel shirt to throw on over his t-shirt and shoved his feet into a pair of slippers, then stepped out into the evening darkness.
The December night was chilly, but not cold. Maybe upper forties, but Ed was getting to that age when he’d rather be sweating his balls off in heat than spending even a moment in actual cold. He’d had a few real White Christmases as a kid when he’d lived further north, but he wasn’t expecting one here in South Carolina anytime soon. Still, the wind went through the flannel like it was nothing, and the chill grabbed hold of his spine in a grip that he knew would ache the rest of the night.
Ed stepped off of his driveway and into Butt-Lick’s yard, psychically daring that halfwit to start griping about him trespassing. The dry, dormant Bermuda grass crunched beneath his slippers as he shuffled forward. He saw no movement of the front window curtains, and the old bastard’s porch light didn’t flare to life.
Ed found himself standing before the line of pine trees, trying to find a clear line of sight into Jack’s family’s yard. Butt-Lick had been thorough, though, and Ed only got glimpses. The carolers wore mixed colors of clothing, but all seemed to be wearing red stocking caps. The song he heard was clear enough now, sung by a small group just beyond the trees. It was The Wassail Song, but the lyrics sounded off. The song wound down and ended, and in the new silence, Ed heard a muffled scream from inside the house.
That’s it. I’m calling the cops.
Behind him, a sound softly rang out. A single person, slowly whistling the opening bars of The Wassail Song. The sound was haunting, almost echoing in the sudden stillness of the night. Ed jumped, turning with a jerk.
The man standing before him was tall and thin. In the dimness, Ed couldn’t make out much of the man’s facial features, except for the shiny, dark spatters on his cheek. The spatters looked black in the darkness, but they could only be blood. The man’s mouth changed from a whistling pucker into a grin. A crisp voice spoke from beneath the knitted red stocking cap.
“Come along, my friend. Well met.”
Ed jerked backward, but too late. A hand closed like a vise over his arm, and propelled him with wiry strength around the stand of pine trees as the carolers began singing again where the whistler left off. The carolers, adults and children, looked gaunt, almost feral, despite their cheesily matching red stocking caps. Their full smiles looked sharp, hungry and expectant.
“Here we come a-wassailing, with knives so keen and bright,” they began.
Those are not the words, Ed thought as the man yanked him helplessly up the front steps and through the door into the Bitterman household. Ed thought he heard crying, deeper inside the house, but the voices of the carolers intruded.
“We’ve come to take your sacrifice, to join our sacred rite.” Then the singers launched into the chorus, which in itself sounded like the lyrics Ed knew.
The front hall of the house was a shambles. Jack and Tara’s efforts at interior decoration were a complete wreck. Picture frames were on the floor, their glass kicked in and the pictures torn. Fans of blood were sprayed onto the wall instead. The table by the door was nothing more than varnished kindling and silver shards of shattered mirror. The wiry man dragging Ed into the house yanked him forward into the living room and threw him into an overstuffed chair. Ed saw Jack’s cell lying on the floor, its dead black screen a thousand-faceted mosaic.
“Hey! Stop!” he said when he finally found his voice.
“Keep the axe on him,” said a huge, round, baritone voice, and Ed turned to the fireplace as an axe head thumped heavily onto his left shoulder. Ed reflexively turned toward it, and felt the cold, sharp edge of the blade press into his neck. He imagined the thin one holding the other end of the axe handle. Shuddering, Ed refocused on the large figure before the fireplace.
A huge man, practically a giant, stood before him, his arm resting on the mantlepiece. The man’s shoulders were broad, and behind him, over the mantle, Ed could barely see Jack’s wall-mounted television playing A Christmas Story. The man wore a knitted red cap like the others, but his was different, floppy cloth over a tighter headband, with a jaunty puffball on top. A tam o’shanter, and at the front one side of it slouched over the big man’s face, obscuring his left eye.
“What is this? What have you done to this family?”
The man erupted in hearty laughter, dramatically gesturing with outstretched arms. “Ah, good neighbor, have you not heard our song? We’ve come a-wassailing.” He paused, then smiled good-naturedly. “Forgive me. Allow me to explain. You do know where the tradition of caroling originated, don’t you?”
Ed didn’t answer this crazy man. He shifted, shrugging the bruised shoulder that held the cold weight of the axe head.
“The turn of the seasons depends on sacrifice,” the giant said matter-of-factly. “It began with the Wild Hunt, a beautiful spectacle. My hunters and I rode through the winter solstice night, hunting souls for sacrifice. We grease the wheel of seasons and keep it turning, so that Winter may pass and life may return in Spring.”
Sacrifice? What the hell is he talking about?
“Yes, those were heady days. Riding Sleipnir across the night sky and stirring up storms as we hunted souls. Ah, such glorious times. But we found we didn’t need to harvest souls to turn the seasons. We only needed the willingness of mortals to sacrifice of themselves.”
Ed gripped the arms of the chair. He had to get away from here and call the police. He slowly shifted his body infinitesimally to the right, away from the axe. The axe head didn’t move.
“In time, the Wild Hunt became wassailing, where groups of the devoted went from house to house chanting and asking for offerings. In return for an offering, the households were blessed. Those who did not give, naturally, were cursed. The faithful did the work, and I was allowed to rest.”
Outside, the song ended. After a silent moment, the thin man behind Ed began his slow, melancholy whistle of the song’s first few bars, then the singers outside began to sing again.
“Here we come a-wassailing,
To take your pound of flesh,
We’ve come to take your sacrifice,
Your soul from body thresh…”
The big man smiled again. “Mortals continued to give to the wassailers, and eventually the threat of a curse was no longer needed. The wassailers eventually became modern carolers. You have probably even seen in your lifetime when carolers came around and sang, many people offered them snacks, or warm beverages, or even—” he winked his visible eye “—a tipple of spirits.”
Ed did remember carolers coming to the house when he was a child, and his mother always gave the singers a cup of hot chocolate to send them on their way. She’d said it was just the right thing to do, to give them something for their musical entertainment. Ed didn’t see things like that these days, though. People were too scared to open their doors to anyone, and with good reason.
If this crazy person was to be believed, Mom had been more right than she’d known.
“Sadly,” the man in the tam said, “that time has passed, and I must again take my place at the head of the Wild Hunt. The seasons must change for the earth to live, and the turn of the seasons demands sacrifice.”
Ed shifted again, slightly. If he kept his movements small, maybe he could eventually lunge away and get clear of the axe resting on his shoulder. Beyond that, he had no idea. Escape through the kitchen, out the back door, maybe. He needed time to stall.
“But, ahh,” he said, “this family didn’t have extra to give. They’re both schoolteachers.”
“Friend, look around yourself. This house, this neighborhood, this very quality of life?” He turned and smashed a fist through the TV screen, sending sparks flying. Ralphie, dressed in a pink bunny suit and glasses too big for his face, stuttered, blinked, then disappeared. A wisp of smoke rose from a crack in the screen. “The way they—and you—live is obscene, profligate! This family has plenty, they give nothing, and the universe demands their sacrifice. Theirs, and yours, and many others. You know this is the truth.”
He leaned forward, putting his large shaggy head level with Ed’s. “And believe me, I know about sacrifice.” He lifted the fold of tam o’shanter from the left side of his face, smiling as he revealed a wet, empty socket where his eye should be. “I’m sure you’ve heard the story. A long time ago I gouged out my own eye and dropped it into the well in order to gain wisdom.” Ed shuddered.
“But why are you here?” Ed strained to lean back, away from the big man.
“We go wherever the hunt takes us next.”
The back door crashed open, and a small figure backed into the kitchen, bent over and dragging something heavy.
It was a small girl in a dark brown coat, the red knit cap askew on her head. She turned to the big man.
“What about this one, Father Odin?” she asked. Her mouth and chin was smeared with blood and her eyes were bright silver coins. She dropped Elvis’s limp forelegs onto the floor, and the dog didn’t move. The crest of the little girl’s ears were long and pointed through her hair.
Odin? An elf? Ed thought he must be going crazy. These were creatures from myth. The story of the eye and the Wild Hunt? No way.
“An excellent start, child.”
The elf girl beamed at the praise.
The back door was blocked now, by the Bittermans’ dead golden retriever and the elf child.
There was one other way out. Ed knew that Jack and his wife had a door onto the back deck from their bedroom. He could get out that way and get to his house, where he could call 911.
The thin man behind him whistled the first few bars of the song, and Ed took his chance. He ducked to the right, at the same time shoving the axe head away from his neck with his left hand. He tumbled from the chair and went in the only available direction, the hallway toward the bedrooms.
“Ha!” the rich voice of Odin roared behind him, laughing triumphantly. “Just like the old days!”
Outside, the carolers sang louder.
“Good master and good mistress,
While we cleave from you your life,
The earth shall drink your blood
From ev’ry dripping hunter’s knife…”
Ed raced into the master bedroom, then stopped. Jack, Tara, and both of the kids had been killed and gutted and tossed onto the bed. Their bodies made a bloody, lifeless heap on the quilted bedspread.
OH GOD! his mind screamed. They’d been slaughtered, butchered.
The back door was on the far side of the bed. Ed ran around the foot of the bed, avoiding looking at the ropes of viscera piled on top of the bodies. He tried and failed to ignore the thick smell of all the spilled blood. He reached for the door.
From the hallway, the axe came spinning out of the darkness. It chopped through Ed’s outstretched hand and buried its head in the doorframe. Ed’s fingers fell to the floor as his hand began to jet blood onto the wall.
Ed shrieked, looking down at his twitching fingers on the carpet. He reversed direction from the door to the window, on the side of the house. He yanked the curtains out of the way, bringing down the rods and drapes together.
“Yes!” Odin sang out joyfully behind him. “The Wild Hunt rides tonight!”
Ed slammed his fist against the glass, but it didn’t break. Across the side yard, he saw Butt-Lick peering disapprovingly out the window, looking directly at him.
“HELP!” he screamed.
Butt-Lick raised a stern eyebrow at him, his frown unmistakable even at this distance. He shook his head and picked up his phone. Ed watched helplessly as his neighbor dialed and put the receiver to his ear. He pointed to Ed, and then, meaningfully, to his phone. He was no doubt either reporting to the Homeowner’s Association, or calling to make a noise complaint to the police.
From out front, the singers continued through the chorus, their voices in perfect harmony. They stopped again at the end of the song.
“GENE! STOP! HELP ME!” Ed shrieked again, smearing blood over the master bedroom window as he scrabbled at the glass. Butt-Lick disappeared from the facing window, and the light in that room winked out.
Behind Ed, the thin man began to slowly, softly whistle the opening bars of The Wassail Song.
Dev Jarrett is a writer, a father of five, a husband, and one of those guys the US Army trained too much. He speaks Arabic, he can break ciphers in his sleep, and can still break down and reassemble an M4 rifle and an M9 pistol while blindfolded.
He’s visited many different countries in the past quarter century, and can’t talk about most of the adventures he’s had. On the other hand, it’s public record that he’s received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, so make what you will of that.