Forest, Snow, Memory, By Patricia Scott
Editor's note: For our final winning work, Patricia creates a Krampus myth, complete with how he came to be with St. Nicholas. Every character like Krampus needs a mythology and Patricia provides a lyrical, detailed framework.
I was powerful once. I was a God to them. They feared me as much as they worshiped me, the ancient diety of their deep, mysterious forests. In the darkest reaches of the wildest over-growths I was rumored to dwell, waiting to slake my unending thirst on those unwary and foolish enough to risk my displeasure by forgetting to do me proper honor.
They would bring their offerings as far into the forests as they dared. Creeping as silently as they could, they would come upon a clearing in the forest that was still. Such were my altars, those quiet places where sunlight barely intruded. Standing in the center of those clearings where not even the sounds of the birds reached there would be a stump, black and gnarled, remnants of branches reaching unevenly to the obscured sky. Always, upon such stumps would be a perfectly level place, a single, unnatural shelf that had been carved by no man.
Then, they all knew such places were my cathedrals and they were awed. What match were spires of stone, created painstakingly by grunting, sweating men over the course of years when my groves seemed to have always been there. For all they knew, those clearings moved every night, the paths through the forest twisting in upon themselves in knots. People got lost in my forests all the time. People that they knew who had lived there and traveled them their entire lives.
Even as it grows, the forest consumes itself. That is the way of things. The old growth weakens and topples to the leaf-littered floor where it feeds the new shoots just emerging from the dirt. Everything happens in its time. The cycles build upon each other and continue ever onward.
As their new God rose up, he proved himself to be jealous, unwilling to share worshippers with any of those still dwelling amongst the peasants. While those who still wished to seek me dwindled, they never quite disappeared. They still had need to travel through my forests and, so, they found themselves with daily reminders of their old customs. Superstitions reign fiercely in isolation and dark. Away from the pretty colored glass and the golden embroidery of priestly robes, they believed more firmly in the dark mysteries surrounding them and less in that kind, benevolent God who wanted only their devotion.
Then, science came forth, chasing away those shadows as man sought dominion over nature. Mathematics and chemistry showed them enough of the ways of the cosmos to make them shed their belief like so much overused clothing. No longer did they come to my groves as supplicants. Science informed them that I, and so many of my brethren did not exist, that we never had, and that Fate and Grand Design could be explained in terms of simple processes. Men felt themselves as Gods as they pushed themselves to unlock the very secrets of the Universe.
As with all Gods whose devotees begin to flag, I began to weaken. Where once I could inspire obedience through the felling of a tree with a single thought, instead I could only snap twigs already lying on the forest floor. No longer did they fear, instead convincing themselves that what they heard was a deer or rabbit, perhaps a fox passing through the forest on their own way home.
The ancient, gnarled stumps became nothing more than curiosities, never more to inspire that crawling sense of fear and awe. They were as quickly bypassed as the sunlit margins of the woods. Prayers were not offered, tithes were not made. Trees were harvested with little thought to replacements being grown. I starved, growing less substantial with every passing season.
Then, one day, a man with hair and beard as white as snow came to one of my altars. He wore fur-trimmed robes and carried his wisdom as easily as the bit of bread and cheese he carried with him for his meal. I waited, far back in the undergrowth, to see what he wished.
“I know you're there,” he said, not loudly, but clearly enough to carry.
“What do you want, Nicholas?” for I knew him to be one of the men of that jealous, singular God.
“I have come to make you an offer,” Nicholas declared.
“An offer of what, pray tell? For years you have been encouraging my followers to desert me. Do you bring me death, then? Some small mercy to an already wounded and dying animal?” I could not help but ask.
“No. No. I do not believe that you are so far gone just yet. I offer you a way to save some bit of your strength. Belief in you will remain and you shall not perish from this existence.”
“And why, Nicholas, would you offer me such opportunity? Has your church weakened so with its demands of money from peasants?"
“The notions that fly into your minds, you devils,” Nicholas laughed, “No, no. God is good and the church thrives. The people need it. As for why, well, I believe that with your help, I can remake the world or, at least, this corner of it. As this new generation of children grow, they need reminded of what awaits them should they stray from the path of good. And that is where you come in.”
“I? What can I do to help your God take over a world he already owns?”
“Come with me on the eve of the Christ Child's birth. I mean to distribute some of the wealth of our church to the villages around us. They are in need of food and clothing and I shall journey forth to give them these. If you accompany me and frighten the children who behave poorly then, perhaps, they shall be better behaved in the future. I know what you are. You feed on fear and worry. I offer you a chance to feast again.”
“Feast? You offer to allow me to follow in your wake, groveling for mere scraps. Once, Nicholas, I had mighty feasts and nothing passed through these trees that I did not know. There was little that happened in my forests that I could not affect. I could fell them where they stood for setting foot in my forest and they all knew it,” I snarled.
“Yes. Once. You were a force to be reckoned with. No longer. Come then. Once a year, feast and be mighty again. Strike fear into the hearts of those who are blasphemous and unworthy and bring them back to my church. Remind them of the face of God and all that is holy.”
I wanted to turn my back on him. Desire coursed through me to simply walk away and trust in the length of memory to ensure my continued existence. Instead, I looked at my forest. Contours that had once been lush and green were beginning to wither and fade. My groves were no longer safe. While the heart of the earth beat beneath my hooves, the song of its life was growing fainter. My heart grew heavy as I thought, surrounded by the waning remnants of once perpetually verdant splendor. Finally, I turned to him.
“Let us strike your bargain, Nicholas,” I spat, “and we shall see how your feast suits me.”
Thus, I found myself trotted out every year at Yuletide to be displayed as a dark figure as much ridiculed as he was feared. Never did I truly steal naughty children, though they were snatched up and pushed into the wicker basket strapped to my back, carried out into the snow to be striped once or twice for their insolence. Their fear tasted sweet, but it was no feast, not compared to what had been so long ago.
Nicholas began venturing farther afield to other villages. Word spread around us. Words became stories. Stories became legend. Soon, parents cautioned their children that if they misbehaved I would come knocking at the door and take them away. My forests faded from the story's memory, lost to the imaginings of dank and dismal caverns where I would work naughty children to their deaths. I grew stronger, though never quite strong enough to break the pact I had made with Nicholas in that grove all those ages ago.
The story of Nicholas spread. His generosity became kindness. His kindness became benevolence. The benevolence translated into jolliness. As their belief in him and his tradition of Yuletide gifts grew, the legend surrounding him became ever more fantastic. He became a saint, this man who struck deals with a forest devil. He began to live in the North Pole. He gained a workshop and a wife. Elves were gainfully employed in the arts of manufacture in order to ensure that demand was met.
I, with my dark skin and cloven hooves and horns atop my head, did not fit this new image of Christmas. Nicholas did not have need of me as he became the one to determine if a child received a gift or not. It seemed that the absence of the gift was punishment enough. Soon, they forgot to tell my part of the story at all and, once again, I began to fade.
The dusty tomes of historians and the fragile memories of antiquarians became my domain. I was relegated to the footnotes of histories, a curiosity to be considered quaint, though never charming. I became nothing more than a bit of trivia to be paraded about for the purposes of impressing those less well-informed or woefully under-read. There was nothing left of Nicholas's bargain but this lingering malaise. Science grew ever stronger and I feared that my only presence in the world would be brief mentions in text here or there in print nearly too small to see.
Recent years, however, have begun to prove otherwise. A strange fascination has arisen, spurred on by artists and writers. It seems that the old stories have begun to take root again. A stray image here, a tiny phrase mentioned in passing, a bit of half-heard song, and a spark takes hold. Suddenly, they are gripped by inspiration and they create. Oh, such things they create!
Where references cannot be found, they invent. My image draws them as it never did before and they have begun to remake me. As they are driven to tell my story and share my image, so does belief in me grow. They are building me as strongly as ever did my followers in the dim recesses of time. With each new piece, I feel power surge through me and I become more with each passing day.
An ancient, languishing God can still hope, and hope, I surely do. Creative works have a way of spreading and I have begun to reach those who would never have heard even the barest whisper of me in the past. So, I let them write and draw and paint. I draw nourishment from them as surely as they answer their own drives. And, someday, I will once again return to my forests. There, I shall wait in the deepest, darkest, most silent part, in the groves where sunlight barely penetrates. If you are brave enough to come looking, then, perhaps, you shall find me there.
Patricia Scott lives in the Midwest with a collection of dragons and what normal people insist is "too many books". She writes a bi-monthly column, "Geek Girl Navigating the World" for boomtron.com and doesn't believe there is such a thing as too many books.