A Story by JG Faherty
Originally published in Appalachian Winter Hauntings, 2009
Excitement hovered over the town of Fox Run in much the same way the snow-filled clouds had done all week. The day seemed ordinary enough, but children and adults alike knew differently.
Tonight would be special.
All day long, women bustled about in kitchens, grandmothers and mothers and daughters, cooking and baking the feasts for that night. The savory, grease-laden scents of fried ham, roast lamb, and hamborgarhyryggur – smoked pork rack – competed with the heavenly aromas of fresh-baked breads and desserts. For those with a sweet tooth, plates stacked high with jelly-covered pancakes and twisted fried dough – lummer and kleinur – sat on tables and counters, wherever there was room.
It was the traditional Yule feast, part of the celebration of the winter solstice.
The longest night of the year.
The night when ghosts ride the winds and the Yule Cat roams in search of lazy humans to eat.
“Aw, Grandpa, that’s just a silly old tale to scare little kids,” Jacob Anders said, as his grandfather finished his annual telling of the Yule story.
“Don’t talk to your Farfar like that,” Grandma Anders said, her thin face pulled tight in one of her mock-serious scowls. She worked hard to keep up her brusque appearance to the rest of the family, only occasionally letting her old-country veneer slip, as she’d done earlier when she let Jacob and his older sister Erika lick the spoons after she iced the traditional Yule cake.
Like most of Fox Run’s residents, the Anders had emigrated from Scandinavia, eventually settling in Western Pennsylvania, where the Appalachians provided the same backdrop as the Kölen of their homeland.
Although they’d celebrated Yule at their grandparents’ since before they could remember, this year was the first year Jacob and Erika’s parents weren’t with them. They’d dropped the children off the day before, with kisses and hugs and promises to return in four days loaded with gifts from their cruise.
For Jacob and Erika, the four days loomed over them in much the same way as the mountains loomed over Fox Run. Their grandparents’ house wasn’t exactly child friendly. They had no cable TV, no video games, and cell phone service was spotty on the best of days.
His temper frayed by boredom, Jacob, who’d always been overly energetic, even for a nine-year-old, made a face. “It’s the same old boring story every year. Why can’t we go into town and do something? Maybe see a movie?”
“Because Yule is for being with family.” Grandma Anders shook a bony finger at him. “Children today have forgotten the old ways. They think only of themselves.”
“Ja.” Grandpa Anders sucked on his empty pipe. He’d given up tobacco years before, but never the habit of clenching the pipe between his teeth while sitting by the fire. “And those are the ones who get no presents from Jule-nissen later tonight.”
“Grandpa, we don’t believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny. What makes you think we’re gonna believe in an elf who rides a talking goat and leaves gifts for children?” Jacob laughed, but his grandparents didn’t smile.
“Ah. No talking to children today.” Grandpa Anders got up and shook his head. “Goodnight, then. If you think the tales of your ancestors are such…foof…” he said, waving his hand at them, “perhaps you should stay up and watch for the Jule-nissen yourself.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Jacob, hush.” Erika gave her brother a poke. Normally she wouldn’t care, but with her parents gone she felt responsible for her brother, and she didn’t want him being rude.
“I think perhaps bed is a good idea for all of us,” Grandma Anders said, taking her tea cup into the kitchen.
“No way! It’s not even nine o’clock yet. We never go to bed this early at home.”
“You’re not at home, young man.” Grandma Anders glared at him, giving him what the children secretly called her ‘stink eye.’ It meant she’d reached the point where she’d put up with no more nonsense. “So off to bed. Now!” She clapped her hands twice, the sudden sound like branches snapping under the weight of too much ice.
“C’mon, Jacob. I think you had too much sugar tonight.” Erika grabbed him by the arm.
“Lemme go!” He yanked himself from her grasp and stormed down the hall to the guest bedroom they were sharing.
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” Erika said.
Grandma Anders patted her shoulder and planted a soft, whiskery kiss on her cheek. “Don’t fret, child. Someday he will learn the truth.”
Jacob and Erika lay awake in their room. Upstairs, the grumbling, wheezing sounds emanating from their grandparents’ bedroom told them Mormor and Farfar Anders were fast asleep.
“I’m hungry,” Jakob whispered.
“No, you’re not. You had two plates for dinner, and at least three desserts, plus the one I saw you sneak while everyone was sitting by the fire.”
“Fine. Then I’m thirsty.”
Erika sighed. “What you are is bored and a brat. Go to sleep.” She wished she could do the same. She’d been trying to doze off for over an hour. But too much sugar and a day of doing nothing but helping in the kitchen had her wide awake.
“Did you hear that?” Jakob asked.
“All I hear is you talking.”
She started to scold him for being such a pain, and then stopped.
Because she did hear it.
A low, distant moaning, winter-cold and ethereal as the wind. A dozen voices; a hundred. A thousand, perhaps, all sighing at once, all lamenting a sadness older than time but not forgotten.
Jacob climbed out of bed and went to the window. His body was a gray shadow among all the others in the room. When he pulled the white lace curtain aside, he revealed a scene that was almost alien, as the snow, so white it almost glowed, hid the ordinary beneath weird mounds and featureless plains.
“Don’t!” Erika couldn’t explain it, but she felt something deep in her bones.
Danger waited outside.
As usual, Jacob didn’t listen. He pressed his face to the glass and peered out.
“I don’t see anything,” he whispered.
Against her better judgment, Erika joined him at the window, barely noticing the chill of the floor against her bare feet.
Jacob’s breath left twin ovals of fog on the frigid glass as he pushed closer to look up and down the street.
Shaped like a heart, Erika thought, and that scared her just as much as the distant susserations of grief.
Outside, nothing seemed different than any other night. The houses were dark. Like the hard-working towns around it, Fox Run rose early and went to bed early.
Just when Erika thought her chattering teeth might wake her grandparents, new sounds joined the mourning dirge. A triumphant cry, accompanied by the bellow of a horn and the baying of hounds.
“Something’s happening!” Before Erika could stop him, Jacob dashed from room. For a moment she stood frozen by indecision. Then she heard the slam of the back door and the spell holding her in place broke like an ice dagger snapping from the gutter.
Pausing just long enough to put on boots and grab her coat from the hook by the back door, she hurried outside and spotted Jacob already running down the road.
“Jacob, stop! Come back!” He didn’t, so despite the glacial air that threatened to freeze her blood and stop her heart, Erika ran after him.
It took three blocks to catch up with Jacob, and by the time she did, her face burned and tiny icicles of snot crusted her nose and upper lip.
“I’m gonna kill you when we get back,” she said, grabbing a fistful of his coat.
“Quiet!” He put a finger to his lips. “It’s almost here.”
Since the sounds were no louder, Erika wanted to ask him how he knew, but then she understood. He felt it, and she could, too.
A heartbeat later, the source of the supernatural noise appeared. Swirling towers of mist, so many she couldn’t count them, appeared out of nowhere and sailed down the road as fast as racing cars. As they swept past, she glimpsed faces, twisted and horrible. The moaning of the apparitions vibrated her teeth like a dentist’s drill. Next to her, Jacob pressed his hands over his ears.
The line of spirits – for she knew that’s what they were – seemed to go on forever, but it was only seconds before they were past, and the reason for their wailing became apparent.
Behind them came more ghosts, mounted on ephemeral horses and surrounded by massive hounds with glowing red eyes. Leading the pack was a giant of a man wearing the antlered skull of a colossal deer as a helmet. It was his exultant war cries that had the other spirits fleeing, as he led his phantom troop in pursuit.
Ten heartbeats later, the streets lay empty again.
“Did you see that?” Jacob asked. “What were they?”
“I don’t know.” Erika pulled at him. “Let’s go home before we freeze to death.”
“’Tis not the cold you should be worrying about.”
Erika screamed and Jacob gasped at the unknown voice behind them. Turning, they found themselves face to face with a goat wearing a green jacket. On its back perched a tiny man with a long, pointed beard. Like the goat, the man’s yellow eyes had horizontal pupils, and he wore green clothes as well.
“Jule-nissen.” Jacob’s eyes were wide. “You’re real!”
The elf shook his head. “Yes, but you’ll be nothing but a memory if the Cat gets you.”
“The cat? What cat?”
“The Yule Cat, sonny-boy. He’s been stalking you since you left your house.”
“I didn’t see any–”
“There!” The elf pointed down the street.
Between two houses, a shadow, darker than the sky and impossibly huge, slid across the snow. Before Erika could think of anything to say, a giant tabby cat, taller than a lion and twice as broad, stalked into view, yellowish-green eyes glowing and a hungry smile on its face.
Jacob moaned, and the Cat, even from a hundred yards away, heard. Its ears twitched and it crouched down in the middle of the street, tail whipping back and forth behind it.
“Run,” Erika said.
Jacob stood still, frozen in fear.
“Run!” This time she shouted it. At the same time, the cat sprang forward.
“This way,” the elf called to them, as the goat carried him down a side street.
Jacob and Erika followed. Each step took them further from their grandparents’ house, but they didn’t care. All that mattered was eluding the impossible feline sprinting down the road after them.
The goat led them around a corner and Erika felt a rush of relief as the Cat skidded on the slippery road and missed the turn. Then her relief turned to horror as the Cat sprang out from behind a house and swung a massive paw that sent the goat and its elvin rider tumbling across the icy blacktop. It swung again and Jacob cried out as a white cloud exploded from his chest. Erika screamed, sure the cat had disemboweled her brother and she was watching the air from his lungs freeze as it escaped. Then she saw it was just the front of his down jacket torn open and gushing feathers into the night.
“Get up!” Erika grabbed Jacob and pulled as he kicked his legs in a frantic attempt to get his feet under himself.
The Yule cat took a half-swing at them and hot liquid ran down her legs. She remembered how Mittens, the cat they’d had when she was younger, used to play with field mice and birds the same way, toying with them until it was ready to bite their heads off.
Now she knew how they felt.
“Ho, Yule Cat! Train your eyes this way!”
Erika jumped at the Jule-nissen’s shout. In her worry for Jacob, she’d forgotten about the elf and his goat. She watched in amazement as the diminutive man waved his arms while the goat jumped and danced on its hind legs.
“What are you doing?”
“Saving your lazy hides,” the elf said. “This is your chance. Return to your house. We’ll be fine.”
Erika didn’t argue. Hand in hand, she and Jacob ran as fast as they could, the December air burning their lungs, hearts pounding in time with their feet. They ran without looking back, deathly afraid the Cat might be only a whisker’s length away.
Suddenly Jacob cut sharply to the right. Erika started to shout at him and then realized they’d reached their grandparents’ house. They pounded up the front steps and flung open the door so hard it hit the wall and sent knick-knacks clattering to the floor.
“Who’s there? What’s going on?” Josef Anders appeared at the top of the stairs, his wife close behind him.
“Grandma! Grandpa! It’s after us! The Yule Cat!”
Erika slammed the door shut and twisted the lock. Grandma Anders said something, but Erika couldn’t hear over the sounds of her and Jacob gasping for air.
“Into the living room! Hurry!” Grandpa Anders hurried down the stairs and tugged at their sleeves.
“But we’re safe now. The goat–” The rest of Jacob’s words disappeared in a crash of breaking glass as a pumpkin-sized paw came through the window next to the door.
“There’s no hiding from the Cat,” Grandma Anders shouted. “Only one thing can save you. Come!”
Erika and Jacob followed their grandparents into the living room, where the sweet scent of pine still decorated the air from the Yule log smoldering in the fireplace. Behind them, the Cat let out a fierce yowl at being denied its prey yet again.
Grandma Anders grabbed two small boxes from beneath the Christmas tree. “Here, open these. Quickly now.”
“What?” Erika took the box but could only stare at it. With everything that had happened, the merry green and red wrapping paper seemed unreal.
“Do as your Mormor says.” Grandpa Anders threw an angry scowl at them as he pulled the drapes shut. With his head turned away, he never saw the movement outside the window, never knew the Yule Cat was there until it burst through the glass and knocked him sideways into a bookcase. Shaking shards from its fur, the Cat let out a roar.
“Grandpa!” Jacob cried.
Erika turned to run but her grandmother stopped her by slapping her across the face. “Open the fordømt box!”
Hoping box contained some kind of magic weapon, Erika tore at the paper and cardboard. When she saw what was inside, her hands went limp and the box fell to the floor.
“A shirt?” She sank to her knees, knowing there was no hope left. Hot, fetid breath blew past her face, carrying the stench of rotten meat. Tears ran down Erika’s face as she closed her eyes and waited for the end.
The carrion stink grew stronger and a whimper escaped her throat as something cold and wet bumped ever so lightly against her neck. Then it was gone.
“That’s right, one for the girl and one for the boy, too. Now be gone.”
Erika heard her grandmother’s voice but the words didn’t make sense. She opened her eyes and risked turning her head, just in time to see the Yule Cat climb out through the shattered picture window. Grandpa Anders was leaning against the bookcase, a cut on his forehead dripping blood. Jacob stood near him, his half-opened box in his hands.
Eyes still on the departing feline, Erika asked, “What happened?”
“I can answer that, young miss.”
Erika turned and saw the Jule-nissen atop his goat, right next to Grandma Anders, who didn’t seem at all surprised by their presence.
“’Twas the gifts. A shirt for each of you.”
“On Yule Eve, the Jule-nissen leaves a gift of clothing for all the children,” Jacob said in a soft voice, “except for the lazy ones.”
“And for them?” the elf asked.
“The Yule Cat eats them.”
“So, you did listen to my stories.” Grandpa Anders put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“You really brought us gifts?” Jacob asked.
The goat snorted and the Jule-nissen shook his head. “Not me. You haven’t done anything to deserve them, in my eyes. But lucky for you, someone thought different, and to the Cat, a gift’s a gift.” The elf snapped his fingers and he and his goat disappeared in a burst of golden sparkles.
“Then who…?” Jacob looked confused, but Erika knew exactly where the gifts had come from.
“You knew the tales were true,” she said to her grandmother. “You did it to protect us.”
Grandma Anders gave them the briefest of smiles. “We follow tradition, even if you do not. All families make sure to keep gifts handy in case the Yule Cat appears.”
“You have to be careful on Yule,” Grandpa Anders said.
Jacob nodded. “’Cause of the Yule Cat.”
“Yes, but not just the Cat. ‘Tis also the night of the Hunt, when the spirits of the Oak King arise to drive away the spirits of the Holly King, and put an end to nights growing longer. Get in their way and you’ll become like them, doomed to Hunt forever.”
“The Hunt,” Erika whispered. She shivered, remembering the wailings of the Holly King’s spirits as the Oak King banished them until June.
Grandma Anders noticed her reaction. “Go put on dry clothes. I’ll make hot cocoa.”
After the children left the room, Grandma Anders went into the kitchen, where her husband was already filling a pot with milk.
“Well?” he asked.
“I think from now on they’ll listen when you tell your stories.”
So distant they wouldn’t have heard it if not for the broken window, a child’s voice screamed in pain.
Josef Anders nodded. “Ja. Let us hope so. For their sakes.”
A life-long resident of New York’s haunted Hudson Valley, JG Faherty has been a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award (The Cure, Ghosts in Coronado Bay) and ITW Thriller Award (The Burning Time), and he is the author of 7 novels, 10 novellas, and more than 75 short stories. His next novel, Hellrider, comes out from Flame Tree Press in August of 2019. He grew up enthralled with the horror movies and books of the 60s, 75, 70s, and 80s. Which explains a lot.