Young Claire looked out of the window of her parents’ car as they drove into the village where her grandparents lived. The sign on the way in read, You Are Now Entering Christmas. A village that is wrong 364 days of the year, she thought.
She wiped the condensation away with her sleeve.
There was a man raking the driveway of his cottage. He was laughing at the leaves.
She had never seen anything like it before. She began to smile and then stopped. It was like the leaves had told the man a joke, but a terrible one. No, a terrifying one. For, although he laughed wildly, there was fear in his eyes.
She looked at her parents to see if they had seen the man but they were busy debating whether it was the next left, or the one after that. It had been a while since they last visited.
When she looked back at the man he was lying on the ground. She could only see the soles of his boots. The rest of him was covered in leaves.
The tyres crunched on gravel and they came to a stop.
Her grandparents were standing on their doorstep waving. Even though it was cold, the scene couldn’t have been warmer. Claire could see the tree in the window, all decorated and twinkling with lights, and there was the flicker of burning logs in the fireplace. She looked up and saw the smoke rising gently from the chimney. She smiled. She hadn’t felt festive at all so far this year. She figured she was just getting too old for it. But there it was, that happy jingle that made her heart swell. It was like stepping into the picture on the Quality Street tin.
“Aw, they’re so adorable,” said Mum, as Dad turned off the engine.
“And one day we’ll be just as cute,” said Dad.
“Sure,” said Claire, trying and failing to imagine her parents as anything other than the work orientated homework henchmen that they were.
They got out of the car.
A single snowflake drifted down from the empty sky and Claire happened to look up just as it reached her. It alighted on her eye and melted. She blinked.
“Ah, something went in my eye,” she said, rubbing at it with the palm of her hand.
“What is it? Does it hurt?” said Mum.
She opened her eyes wide and looked around.
“I think it was a snowflake,” said Claire. “I’m okay.”
“Let me take your coat sweetheart, oh look how much you’ve grown,” said Gran.
“Hi Gran, look how much you’ve shrunk,” smiled Claire, shrugging off her coat.
“Oh bless, you got your grandfather’s sense of humour. It’s a terrible family illness. One no treatment can cure. I haven’t managed to find one anyway,” said Gran.
“What’s that? She sick?” said Grandad, slightly deaf, and definitely not the funny one of the two.
“Come on in, let me close that door and keep the cold out.”
Walking into the lounge was like walking into a grotto. Claire’s eyes were wide as she entered. There were cups of hot chocolate waiting for them and Gran gave them out. They always drank hot chocolate together at Christmas. It was a tradition.
She let the cup warm her hands and looked around at the decorations on the walls. Real wreaths made of holly with red berries in them. Mistletoe hung from wall lights. Stockings that Gran had made hung at the ends of the fireplace. There was one for each of them. The tree was so tall the tip bent at the ceiling. The angel, made by Claire when she was six out of a cone of cardboard, some glitter, and a polystyrene ball for a head (with a smile drawn on with a felt tip pen), looked down at a crooked angle.
Something caught Claire’s eye outside and she looked out of the window past the tree, to the cottage across the road. There was- what was it?
She moved closer and stopped next to the tree. She took a sip of her hot chocolate and made a quizzical face. The neighbour’s boy ran out of the front door and threw the turkey clear over the hedge. His parents came out after him, the dad holding a rolling pin and the mother a carving knife.
“Err, mum,” said Claire, turning to get the attention of her parents.
The lounge was empty.
“We’re in the dining room honey, come in when you’ve finished your drink. We’ll be carving soon,” said Mum.
Something twisted around Claire’s arm and she looked down to see a branch of pine needles snaking around her. She stepped away, would have screamed, but the reflection in a bauble took her to another place.
It was dark. A forest full of tree stumps. Felled Christmas trees. Thousands of them. Men dragging them to pick-up trucks like dead bodies.
She pulled her arm away, dropping the mug of hot chocolate, stepping back. She looked down. The presents under the tree were wet with blood. It was pouring out of the axe wound that had severed the tree from its roots.
She turned and looked around at the wreaths and mistletoe and suddenly it was more like a hunter’s cabin than a festive cottage. Wreaths nailed to the walls like the heads of animals.
She ran into the dining room.
Where normality and kindness was.
She looked back. Just a lounge. Just a tree.
She sat down. Her mind was racing. Time had passed. Or it felt like it had. The aroma of the place had changed. The scent of mulled wine had replaced the chocolate smell. And the delicious taste of hot food and gravy was in the air.
“Are you okay, Claire?” said Mum, putting a steaming turkey in the centre of the table.
Claire nodded. Of course she wasn’t. But what could she say? “No mum, I just witnessed the memory of a murdered tree and I think we are all in danger.”
There was enough food to feed all of them twice and twice more. There was the bird, and gammon, there were bowls of sprouts, and broccoli, and parsnips, and stuffing, and potatoes, and so much more. A feast.
The food, the decorations, all once living things. We’re in the middle of a festival of death, thought Claire.
Everybody was seated, apart from Dad. He was ready to carve.
Mum was holding a cup of mulled wine in a porcelain teacup. Usually the kind of cup reserved only for tea. The fairy lights that had been put up around the window reflected in her wedding ring, making the diamond change colour as the lights did. Claire stared at it. She fixated on it. Trying to put whatever had just happened out of her mind.
“I hope you’re hungry, kid,” said Dad, looking at Claire.
She glanced up at him.
He stabbed the knife into the turkey.
Her dad stepped back, leaving the knife there.
“What was that?” said Mum.
“I don’t know.”
The roasted bird seemed to yawn where its head once had been. Its bent plucked wings gyrated awkwardly. Its feetless legs started to buck. The bowls of vegetables began to fill with blood, it was pulsing out of the sprouts, leaking out of the parsnips, dripping from the juicy gammon.
“What, what is this?” said Mum.
Grandad stood up and stepped back, knocking the chair over as he did. A wreath that had been hanging on the mirror fell and landed over his head. He grabbed at it and the holly bit into his hands. He screamed, low and deep, as the wreath constricted around his mouth and cut into his cheeks.
Dad was at his side. He took the wreath in both hands, ignoring the pain in his palms, and lifted it free. As it came away it took the skin off Grandad’s face.
Dad stood there holding the bloody wreath, and there was Grandad; a red skull on a cardiganed body, eyes that wanted to blink but couldn’t. He fell to his knees and collapsed forwards, hitting the edge of the table on his way down. His skull cracked open and the wet insides poured out like a crimson yoke.
Mum and Gran started screaming. Dad looked at the wreath in his hands. On top of it was the hair and skin from Grandad’s head. He dropped it.
“Jesu- wha- what the hell is-” said Dad, trailing off.
He took a step back. He looked at Claire and then at Mum and Gran. “We need to go. We need to get out of here.”
Mum and Gran were unable to follow his order. Their minds were unable to make sense of what had just happened. Gran fell to her husband’s side and put her hands to the exposed muscles of his cheeks. Mum found some kind of sanity and took her by the elbow. “Come on.”
“What happened?” said Gran.
“We’ll call an ambulance,” said Mum. “Let’s go.”
“No, I’m not going anywhere,” said Gran.
Claire felt something move around her feet and looked down. There was a sea of pine needles washing in around them. She looked back at the tree, which was now just bare branches.
“Mum, Dad, we have to go, now!”
They looked down, saw what Claire saw.
Mum tried to pull Gran to her feet but the needles had already found their way into her body. She turned towards them and they saw her face. She was already dead. Pine needles had travelled up under her skin and out of her eyes and ears and mouth. Her insides had been completely shredded. She slumped to the ground like a bag of loose hay. She split open and blood gushed out. It reminded Claire of an awful video she had once seen of a dead beached whale being cut open and so much red mess pouring out.
It was time to run.
Dad climbed onto the table, grabbed Claire under the arms, and pulled her up. He jumped off, ran through the lounge, opened the front door, and got Claire out of there.
“Run,” he said.
“Mum?” said Claire.
Dad ran back in. Claire had time to see him clasp her mum’s hand and start back towards her. Claire turned and sprinted down the drive.
The car tyres were shredded. Pine needles blew around them like debris in an eddy. The car seats were torn with holly.
She carried on and stopped in the middle of the road. There were people, whole families, crawling out of their homes. The boy who had thrown the turkey lay beaten to death by his parents, turned mad by things they couldn’t explain. They too lay dead, choked to death by mistletoe.
She looked up to the top of the hill where the village church had been holding Christmas Mass. It had been full of contented families, lost in prayer and warm with the spirit of the community. The church hall had been decorated with trees and wreaths. All prayers had ceased. The doors burst open and a river of blood erupted from within. It flooded down the street towards Claire. The blood was thick with pine needles.
Claire turned and ran.
Feet are no match for running liquid and soon the red river was with her, it drenched her shoes and flowed past her. Her feet splashed as she ran.
She reached the corner and turned.
Something impossible was blocking the street. A sleigh the size of a lorry. She collided with the ornate yet gnarled bough and collapsed backwards, landing hard on her elbows.
Way up high, on the seat of the thing, was a large hooded figure in a green coat.
Santa Clause? She thought.
He looked down at her, his features in shadow, the sun peeking over the edge of his shoulder. A hand reached down out of a thick sleeve and she took it.
It was coarse to the touch. Her heart curled up inside her. Santa leaned forwards and his face came into view. It was not Santa Clause. He did not have kind eyes. There was no white beard. Its face was jagged bark and its eyes were dark holes that wept sap. His coat was made of moss.
She tried to pull away but it tightened its grip and she felt the bones snap in her fingers. She screamed and grabbed the wrist below her broken hand, trying to break free of its grasp.
He lifted her off the ground, turning her pain into something white and hot, making her nauseous and on the verge of blacking out. He placed her in his leather sack (a sack that was detailed with the occasional tattoo and lash-lined oval slit).
From that vantage she watched the stream pass. Body parts bobbed here and there. Something white caught her eye. A glint with it. It was a tea cup with a part of a hand still holding on to it. A ring on one of the dainty fingers.
She watched it float past and burst into tears.
Father Nature adjusted the reins and the sleigh took to the sky like a leaf to a breeze.
He sailed the sky to the next place on his list and the village known as Christmas paid for centuries of death.