A Christmas Carol
A Story by Christa Carmen
An eight-foot demon with curving horns and hooves the size of dinner plates clomped down Fair Street to thunderous applause. Following in the creature’s wake were smaller, goatish imps, their muzzles stretched into lecherous sneers, the tips of their teeth tinged red with blood.
Annie Pichler turned to Chiao Chin and made devil horns atop her own head, the tips of her crimson fingernails reflecting the nearby streetlights. “This is nuts,” she shouted over the din. “What enlightened city official thought a Krampus parade was a good idea? The bars are going to be full of assholes in goat masks tonight asking intoxicated women if they’ve been naughty or nice.”
Chiao pursed her lips and shook her head. “Can you stop overanalyzing everything? This is supposed to be fun. At the very least, in no time at all, we can be two of those intoxicated women getting hit on in bars.” She laughed and smacked Annie lightly in the shoulder.
Annie’s expression turned sly. “Why wait?” She fished a flask from the depths of her purse, which she tipped toward Chiao in an understated toast. She took a generous swig, and then another, until Chiao looked nervously to where two on-duty officers stood, watching the parade.
“Maybe because there are signs all over, declaring this a dry event.”
“Booze is a great cure for paranoia,” Annie said, holding the flask out to her friend.
She frowned. “What’s in it?”
“Obstler,” Annie said.
Chiao scrunched up her face.
“Austrian schnapps,” Annie clarified. “My grandmother sends me two bottles a year, one for Christmas, one for my birthday. It doesn’t matter that those two occasions are six days apart, she sends them as reliably as the phases of the moon. Subsequently, each December, the ‘fruit-brandy-from-the-Old-Country’ section of my liquor cabinet undergoes ample restoration.”
A Krampus costume that took two people to man stomped past. Chiao watched with interest, then suppressed a shriek as a demonic elf lunged at her from beside a giant, mutilated teddy bear. The elf cackled and skipped gleefully on his way, rubbing his hands and scanning the crowd for his next unsuspecting victim.
Chiao shuddered and wrapped her arms around her peacoat-clad torso. “Okay, so, Grandma Pichler’s idea of love is to outfit you with Austrian liquor. Still, it’s a Thursday night, and you’re not normally a pregamer, so which is it? Trouble in paradise, or trouble at the Lilith Center?”
Annie pulled a cigarette from the pack in the front pocket of her bag and lit it. She took two long drags before answering, the smoke unfurling from her nostrils like steam from a departing train. “Things with Lionel are fine.” She took another drag. “Great, even. And Lilith Center is good. I acquired several new housing locations, and Lionel said our director’s pleased with the progress I’ve made.”
Chiao watched the parade participants go by another moment then turned to Annie and held out her hand. “Give me some of that,” she said.
Annie raised an eyebrow but handed it to her, amused. Chiao took a tentative swig, then a bolder, longer one, her face contorting at the apricot taste, struggling to get the spirit down. A moment later, she handed the flask to Annie, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“So, you decided getting drunk now is a good idea after all?” Annie asked with a smirk.
Chiao blinked watering eyes. “More like every time we talk about your job, I’m overcome by an intense urge to consume the nearest alcoholic beverage. I don’t know how you do it. And, no offense, Annie, but I don’t know how you do it. You, of all people. If someone told me, or any of the Alpha Delta Pi sisters back in college, that you’d end up working for an organization that funnels women out of sex trafficking rings and into safe houses across the country, I don’t think any of us would have believed it.”
Annie gave her a stony look. “Shit, Chiao, tell me how you really feel.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the rising blare of demented Christmas music. A maniacally decorated parade float featuring a white-furred, grinning Krampus paused before their section of the crowd. Krampus’ antics were supplemented by an intoxicated Santa Claus dancing wildly and throwing middle fingers at the reindeer flanking the float below.
Chiao refocused her attention on Annie. “I’m not saying we don’t think you’re a good person,” she continued, “I’m just saying… well, I’d have been a hell of a lot less surprised if you’d ended up partner at a big-time firm. You went to the one of the best law schools in the country and graduated summa cum laude, for Christ’s sake. I just hope you didn’t take this job to make Lionel happy. If you guys broke up, would you wake up one morning feeling that your entire career had been derailed?”
Chiao looked like she expected Annie to be further offended by this confession, but Annie merely narrowed her eyes and cocked her head. “Of course, Lionel has something to do with it. I wouldn’t have even known about Lilith Center if we hadn’t started dating. But I’m not doing this work because of him. I’m doing it because I’m good at it. I’m good at juggling the moving parts, at getting the victims out of shitty situations and into new, better ones.”
“Of course, you’re good at it,” Chiao proclaimed, “but you would have been good at anything you tried.” Her features softened. “As long as you’re happy, your friends are happy. Just don’t lose sight of your long-term career goals, that’s all.”
A demonic Nutcracker weaving its way through the crowd snapped the teeth of its wooden mask shut behind Chiao’s ear. Chiao let out a little scream. “Jesus,” she said, moving closer to Annie, keen to change the subject, “they’re really committed to bringing these creepy-ass legends to life.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” Annie said. “They’re the same bozos we see each morning on the subway, but ballsier because they’re in costume.”
Chiao wasn’t convinced. “They’re figures rooted in centuries’-old beliefs. There’s a reason they’ve persisted for so long.” Without warning, she squealed and grabbed Annie’s arm. “Jesus Christ, what the hell are those?”
Annie craned her head, squinting against her mounting drunkenness and the glare of floodlights. When she finally caught a glimpse of the approaching Yuletide creatures, a chill ran up her spine. “I have no idea,” she said tonelessly. “They look like… plague doctors, or something, with masks like the skeletons of birds.” The float inched closer, halting when it drew even with the medical building, the awning of which Annie and Chiao stood beneath.
There were five of them in total, dressed more-or-less the same. They wore long, flowing skirts in a variety of colors, sweaters, and grandmotherly kerchiefs, with strange straw slippers on their feet and mittens covering their hands. The skirts were of the coarsest fabric, and several of them were patched, and the kerchiefs wrapped around their heads draped generously down their backs. But it was the masks that drew Annie’s eye the most, far simpler than any they’d seen, long, white beaks of hoary linen, featureless yet harsh. As the creatures moved about the float, the masks opened and closed like gasping fish, and with each closing of those awful beaks, Annie felt the resulting clap in her bones.
The creatures carried wicker baskets on their backs; from several of these baskets protruded the mangled limbs of dolls. Three of the creatures held grossly oversized tools in their hands, prompting Annie to want to check the side of her flask for the words ‘DRINK ME.’ The tallest, huddled in the front left corner, wore a violet skirt and dishwater-grey sweater. Its slippers were mismatched—one red, one navy—and its kerchief, mustard yellow. It did not menace the crowd with its large, sharp clippers so much as it mimed shearing some unseen thing. Annie was reminded of the glinting clippers her mother had used to trim the hedges, a memory she had not recalled in years.
The second creature handling a tool wore a patchwork skirt of random patterns. Its sweater was mauve with large white buttons and its scarf was vibrant red. This creature’s scarf was tied further back on its head than the others, making it all the more obvious the creature had no facial features of which to speak. It held in its mittened hands a broom made of twigs and swept invisible debris onto the street.
The final creature to wield a weapon—for that’s how Annie had begun to think of the trio’s tools—wore a floral skirt and an olive-green sweater. Its massive wooden scissors slashed at the air like a dangerous bird, and once, the creature turned so quickly, a dangling leg from its basket lodged between the scissors’ blades.
The hollow claps of the masks weren’t the only noises the creatures made. At first, Annie thought she was too far away to make out their words, thought them to be singing or chanting some Christmas carol or poem. But when the din of the crowd ebbed, Annie could discern what it was they said, a single syllable, meaningless—at least to her ears—repetitive, unnerving:
“Ga…Ga… Ga… Ga…,” they intoned, over and over again, not in any sort of pattern or in unison; there was no method to the chant. The creatures croaked their respective ‘Ga’s’ at their own discretion, resulting in an eerie cacophony, an otherworldly chorus.
Annie felt the skin beneath her sweater rise in gooseflesh at the sound. She tipped the flask to her lips but was dismayed to find it empty. “Hey,” she called to Chiao, who’d somehow moved several feet away from her as they’d watched the bird-masked crones. She held the flask upside down and shook it for good measure. “What do you say we get out of here? Lionel’s probably out already, and I’ve seen enough of these stupid costumes.”
Chiao looked about to protest, then shrugged. “Sure, let’s go.”
They moved quickly through the still-rapt crowd and headed down Washington Street, the welcoming glow of the bars ahead like a beacon in the night.
Annie had never been to the Bockshorn prior to getting together with Lionel, but since they’d started dating one year ago, it had quickly become their spot. Granted, it was Lionel’s spot with everyone else he knew as well, so Annie was not surprised, upon entering, to see him surrounded by hangers-on.
“I’ll get us some drinks,” Annie said to Chiao when the other woman pointed toward the restroom. At the bar, she ordered a glass of schnapps—no sense diverging from what worked—and a dry martini for Chiao, then made her way to a table at the other side of the room and waited to catch Lionel’s eye.
When he saw her after a moment’s time, his expression shifted from merriment to fear. A tall blond man strode up and handed Lionel a shot, which he downed without hesitation. “Be right back, Steve,” he said, pushing the blond man aside, “I’ve got to say hello to my girl.”
Annie stood in preparation for his approach, and Lionel kissed her on the cheek. “Where’s Chiao?” he asked, scanning the bar over Annie’s head.
“She’s in the bathroom. We only have a minute.”
Lionel led her past a bank of pool tables at the back, and Annie tried to walk casually, her gaze on the jukebox ahead. When they’d situated themselves as far back in the dark corner as the room would allow, Lionel leaned down and kissed her hard, first with passion, then rather desperately.
Annie allowed the kiss to go on for several moments then pulled away and blotted her lips. “We don’t have time for this. Tell me now, Lionel, what did Jonathan say?”
Lionel’s eyebrows furrowed, clouding his handsome face. “He still thinks it was some sort of unfortunate mix-up, some miscommunication or wires that were crossed. But he’s trying to get the women you sent there returned, and if that happens, we might not be able to cover our tracks.”
Anger rose like a wave in a tempest and Annie scowled and gripped Lionel’s hands. “I don’t understand. The new houses are foolproof. The managers know how to document false intakes. If it was the hotel we sent them to that brought attention to the rerouting, it’s your crisis to fix, not mine.”
“All right, all right, come down, Annie, like I said, for now Jonathan still thinks it was a mistake. To be honest, I’m a bit more worried about the two hundred other women we’ve rerouted than the two in some hotel in Texas.”
Annie was about to respond, about to say she was pretty goddamn certain that their past and present indiscretions were equally vital to keep hidden, when she heard Chiao calling her name.
“Over here,” Annie called, then dug her nails into the palms of Lionel’s hands. “It’s almost New Year’s,” she growled. “Do whatever you have to do to fix this.” Then she spun to face Chiao, straightened the hem of her sweater, and affected a lightheartedness she did not feel.
“Sorry,” she sing-songed. “We were just on our way back over. The drinks are on that table there. I got you the usual, a dry martini, but if you want it drier, I’ll get you some more olive juice.”
“I’m terrible,” Chiao cried, “barging in on your reunion. I’m so sorry, Lionel, what a way to say hello.”
“Hello yourself, Chiao, and you’re quite forgiven.” He put an arm around each woman as they walked to the table Annie had secured. As was always the case, Lionel’s entourage soon flocked to his side. Annie went to work drowning her worries, and found that by her fourth glass of schnapps, she was able to relax, even enjoy herself a little.
“How was the Krampus Crawl?” one of Lionel’s friends asked. Annie thought his name might be Todd. “We wanted to go, but Washington Street was already closed, so we decided to get annihilated instead.”
Annie sipped her drink and smiled a lazy, crooked smile, before remembering the clap of the creatures’ beaks. In her hesitation, Chiao slid forward in her seat and enthusiastically addressed the maybe-Todd. “It was so creepy,” she slurred.
So much for it being a Thursday night. Chiao was as drunk as she was.
“The costumes were insane,” Chiao continued. “Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Furry Krampuses, maniac Santas, Abominable Snowmen, animal-faced demons, and trolls.”
“The worst were the beaked things,” Annie said, before realizing she’d spoken at all. When the collective eye of the group fixed her in its sight, she wished she could take back her words, or better yet, disappear. “I mean, it was stupid, really. Idiot frat boys in costumes. An excuse to get out and about in the dead of December, I guess.”
“The beaked things,” a woman Annie had never seen before said, “were they dressed like old women, featureless, said only, ‘Ga?’ ”
Annie shivered, remembering the giant wooden scissors. “Yes, those were them.” She observed the woman more closely: tall boots, jacket trimmed in fur, long auburn hair and dangling earrings. “You were at the parade as well?”
“No, but I know the creatures of which you speak. My grandmother was from Gastein and when I was a little girl, she’d frighten me and my sister into doing our chores for fear of the Schnabelperchten.”
“Schnabel-what?” Chiao said disbelievingly.
“The Schnabelperchten,” the woman repeated. “Offshoots of the witch goddess Perchta. Perchta, like Krampus, makes her rounds on winter nights to reward and punish accordingly. The Perchten, or, Schnabelperchten, specifically, are a horde of birdlike creatures who enforce Perchta’s interest in tidy housekeeping. They move in groups of four or five, chanting their ‘Ga, Ga, Ga’s.’ Their beaks are inspired by Perchta’s prominent nose and are usually made of linen and twigs.”
“Yes,” Chiao said, her hair falling in front of her face as she nodded, “the noises their beaks made gave me the creeps.” She paused and pushed her hair back, thinking. “What’s with those packs on their backs? And the giant tools?”
The woman’s eyes moved from Chiao to Annie, and Annie couldn’t help feeling as if her gaze lingered too long. “The Schnabelperchten inspect homes for tidiness, though sometimes make ‘accidental’ messes themselves. They sweep and clip and trim and tidy, and the packs on their backs are to remind children that, like Krampus, the Schnabelperchten may abduct those who fail in their duties.
“Worse, however, than the possibility of abduction, the Schnabelperchten are known to employ Perchta’s favorite method of punishment. They use scissors to slit open and gut their victims, while the shears and broom remove ropes of intestines from the open cavity.”
“Jesus,” Lionel said, sounding more disgusted than engrossed. “It’s Christmas, not Halloween. Why would anyone pass along such a horrible legend? Why are you sharing this story at all?”
“Then what?” Chiao asked, morbid curiosity getting the better of her. Lionel shot her a look that went unnoticed.
“They fill the hole with tow and shavings, straw, dirt, pebbles, and any other assorted garbage they can find. Then the whole grisly mess is sewn up with a needle made of iron, and the Schnabelperchten move along to their next house.”
Annie couldn’t listen to this drivel another minute. “I don’t know who the hell you are,” she said, concentrating hard on every word, “but my grandmother was Austrian too. She never filled her grandchildren’s heads with such nonsense. Disembowelment and death because of a dirty house? A little extreme, don’t you think?”
The woman stared as if she could see into Annie’s very soul, and Annie forced herself not to squirm.
“There is more to being dirty than keeping a dirty house,” the woman said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, her eyes, unblinking.
Annie stood and placed a hand on Lionel’s shoulder. “I’m getting a drink. Chiao, Lionel, care to join?”
She stormed from the table without waiting for a response, but halfway to the bar, realized how drunk she really was. Lionel’s detailing of their situation, of the fact that the women in Texas might still be viewed as a mistake, echoed in her mind. She needed to be on her toes tomorrow, attentive and alert. Going into the office dehydrated and fuzzyheaded .
“Another schnapps?” the bartender asked.
“Actually, I’d like to square up.”
As she was paying her tab, Chiao appeared by her side. “Annie, are you okay? That woman was such a weirdo, she just disappeared after you left. I asked Lionel if he knew who she was, and when we looked up, she was gone.”
“She’s as crazy as those bird people chanting ‘Ga’ at the parade. Who gets off on scaring innocent people like that? Anyway, Chiao, I’m heading out. Tell Lionel for me, okay?”
“Tell Lionel what?” Lionel asked, sidling up to Chiao. Annie swallowed a sigh. Lionel would try to escort her home, and she wanted to be alone. “It’s been a long night,” she said with as much finality as she could muster, “I have… a lot to deal with at work tomorrow.”
To her surprise, Lionel nodded. “I understand. Text me when you get up in the morning, okay?”
Annie agreed, kissed him goodbye, and favored Chiao with a quick embrace.
“You sure you don’t want to stay a little longer,” Chiao asked. “We can share an Uber home.” Annie’s phone buzzed in her hand. “Can’t,” she said, and headed for the door, “My Uber’s already here.”
The ride to her apartment was cold but quick, and she tipped the driver accordingly for skimping on the heat. At the door of her apartment, a swish sounded from somewhere behind her on the street, but when Annie spun around, there was nothing but shadows and the first fat drops of rain. She turned her key in the lock and pushed her way inside, wanting nothing more than to wash her face and slip between the sheets.
She’d changed into sweats and, with a water bottle in each hand, was preparing to make her exodus down the hall, when the muted swish reached her ears again, this time from the other side of her door.
A spike of adrenaline shot through her veins. “Is someone there?” Annie called. A prolonged swiiiiiish was her response. “Who is it?” she choked out, her voice quavering in the empty house. Annie took a shaky breath and held it.
She was chiding herself for her foolishness and stepping again toward the hall when an answer to her question came from behind the door. “Ga…”
Annie’s blood turned to ice, then exploded with heat, her righteous anger at Lionel’s nerve creating tunnel vision. She flew to the door and pulled it open without checking the sidelight window; as she regarded what stood before her, she’d never hated herself more for her impetuousness.
The Schnabelperchten from the parade were huddled on her porch, their sharp beaks like pointing fingers. The three with tools were at the forefront of the grouping, and with a single jab of the scissors, forced their way inside.
Before Annie could speak, before she could react, before she could think of where she’d left her phone, the Schnabelperchten began their feverish inspection, spreading over her home like bats filling a cave.
“You can’t be in here,” Annie said, not recognizing the shrillness of her voice. “If you don’t get out of my house right now, I’m calling the police.”
None of the five paid her any mind, moving methodically, delving into every crook and crack. Food was swept from refrigerator shelves, mail pulled from its slot, bottles of schnapps were tossed to the floor, reduced to shards of glass glinting from liquid amber pools. In what couldn’t have been more than a minute, Annie’s perfect home was destroyed, the effort employed by the creatures to achieve this result as little as elbowing a dollhouse off its ledge.
Annie tried to protest, to demand they stop, to threaten them again with the police. It took a moment to realize her words were being drowned out, that the chorus of ‘Ga’s’ had become all-consuming. One of the Schnabelperchten must have slipped upstairs unnoticed, for she saw it reappear on the landing. It held in its mittened hands a nondescript folder; Annie’s protests turned to ash in her mouth.
They formed a circle at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for the more industrious of their group to proceed. When the creature with Annie’s folder reached the ground, they turned and approached Annie with the synchronism of dancers.
“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…” Their chant fell in time with their slippers.
“Please,” Annie said, tears springing from her eyes. “Please, my house was clean. You were the ones that made it dirty. You were the ones that made the mess.”
The Schnabelperchten with the folder was ushered to the front, where it removed a document despite its mittens. It held the typewritten letter up, but Annie vehemently shook her head. “No,” she said, “you don’t understand. That was a joke, a onetime thing.” Blindly, she stepped back, but collided with the wall, and her tears fell faster still.
“It wasn’t my idea, you don’t understand. The whole thing was Lionel’s fault.” This entreaty, too, was met with only ‘Ga’s,’ and another page extracted from the folder. This time, the Schnabelperchten offered the paper to Annie, indicating it wanted her to read it.
She didn’t have to. Annie knew what it was. A list of all the nonexistent safe houses she’d established, phony destinations to send the foreign, victimized women she was supposed to help. Women who believed they were being rescued, liberated, from months—or years—of hell.
The second page of that document would be a list of businesses, private homes, inns, and hotels, entities that would buy the trafficked women for a price that Annie and Lionel split. It’d been Annie’s idea to make a profit off the women rather than sending them on to secure homes. She reasoned that working—regardless of the jobs being less than minimum wage, or in some cases, nothing but room and board—as hotel maids or personal cleaners was a far cry from drug running and prostitution and had gotten Lionel to buy into her plan with little more than this rationale.
Annie had only used one of her charges to clean her own home on a single occasion, informing the exhausted, non-English speaking woman of her intention via a letter she’d composed using Google Translate. This was the first document the Schnabelperchten had confronted her with, another file she’d been too careless to erase. Sure, Annie had led the woman to believe it was a job interview of sorts, then sold her to an offshoot of Hyatt Hotels. She’d only discovered months later she’d sent the woman to a separate state than that in which her children resided, but what was done was done; there was nothing Annie could do.
Annie felt the night’s unending schnapps roiling in her stomach and placed both hands against the wall to steady herself. “We already got caught,” she pleaded. “My boyfriend told me tonight. We’re going to be confronted tomorrow, we’ll have to own up to it all, and I’ll be forced to bring the operation to an end. If you leave, I’ll clean up everything, the house, the center, my life. I’ll make it like it never happened. I’ll make everything okay.”
“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…” The creatures advanced on her several steps.
“This isn’t happening,” Annie whispered. Then louder, angrier, accusatorily, “You aren’t real. You’re characters from a children’s storybook. Someone sent you into scaring me straight.”
The Schnabelperchten with the scissors moved so swiftly, Annie didn’t have time to flinch let alone move away. The blades met in the middle, slicing through muscle and flesh, so smoothly she felt no pain. As she watched, helpless, the creature with the mustard yellow scarf approached, its clippers aimed at those insides already cascading to the floor.
The Schnabelperchten with the broom crumbled up the evidence of her misdeeds, fluffing it into worthy stuffing. Her last coherent thought before darkness pressed on the edges of her vision was the unfairness of being found with proof of her guilt inside her mangled body.
“Please, she croaked, “she said you’d fill me up with sticks and stones. Please take those damning pages with you.”
The Schnabelperchten removed a needle of iron from its pack, and carefully prepared the incriminating document with its thread.
Annie summoned every last ounce of her strength: “Please!”
She should have expected their response:
“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…”
To Annie, it sounded like ‘God.’
Christa Carmen’s work has been featured in anthologies, ezines, and podcasts such as Fireside Fiction, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Outpost 28, and Tales to Terrify. Her debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, is available now from Unnerving, and won the 2018 Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection. Christa lives in Rhode Island with her husband and their bluetick beagle. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, a master’s degree from Boston College in counseling psychology, and is an MFA candidate at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program, of the University of Southern Maine. You can find her online at her website.