Unfortunately, Pista was also a weedy kid. He was poor, wore ragged second-hand clothes, had sallow skin like a Romani, had no parents, and lived in the orphanage on Rubik Utca in the eighth district. Each of these alone was reason enough to make him a target. But, unfortunately, Pista was also a weedy kid. That made him the prime target. He was a head shorter than the majority of the other thirteen-year-old boys he went to school with, and skinny like a homeless dog, which, those other boys informed him daily, he was. The other orphan kids went to a school just down the street from their institutional home, but Pista had a clever little streak that earned him a place in the academy across the invisible district border in Elizabeth Town. Every weekday morning he stepped over it and became the target, when the bell rang at three that line marked sanctuary. He ran fast, but taller boys had longer legs.
Orosz Vilmos, by virtue of having the wealthiest daddy and broadest shoulders, was the ringleader of Pista’s regular bullies – a triad of clean-cut Buda Hills preppies turning psycho from lack of oversight, parental indifference, and a string of nannies that fostered them but couldn’t love them or ground them, and who sold them weed and liquor. They sympathised with the African American gangster rappers they listened to without any sense of irony (their sole reason for paying attention in English). Vilmos clouted Pista across the mouth, bursting his lip. “Want more, Oliver Twist?” They all cackled at the joke, though his buddies, Feri and Bartal, didn’t really get it. Vilmos gave him some more. Pista’s right eyebrow split.
“Shit, Vilmos, he got blood on your shirt,” Feri said.
Vilmos shifted his tie to get a closer look at the small but bright red splatter – as if flicked from a paint brush – across the chest of his crisp white shirt. “Fuck!”
“Blood doesn’t come out,” Bartal said. “You’ll be in trouble with Mummy.”
“Shut the fuck up. That bitch won’t say shit.” The swearwords were still being tried on, didn’t sound quite natural yet. He kicked Pista in the stomach. “You owe me a shirt, dickhead. How are you gonna buy me a new shirt, huh? How? Tell me?” He punctuated with more kicks. “You got no money. You got nothing to sell, Gypo. You got nothing, you hear me?”
“He could suck dick for money, like everyone else in Józsefvàros,” Bartal said.
“How much would you give him, Barty?” Vilmos asked.
“The whole family fortune,” Feri answered, and he and Vilmos laughed.
“Fuck off, homos. Sucking my dick is a privilege, he should be paying me.”
“ – Hey!” While they had been bantering, Pista had scraped himself off the concrete and was running full-tilt down the street towards sanctuary. He left his schoolbag behind. They gave a half-hearted chase, stopping short at Rákóczi út, the border of district eight, and satisfied themselves by emptying the contents out of his bag and tearing pages from his notebooks and breaking their backs, leaving it all scattered in the brown, slushy snow that filled the gutters.
Pista slowed down. His chest burned from swallowing the frigid late-November air. It hung in a great pall around him as he panted, catching his breath. It needled his injured lip and eyebrow, brought stinging tears to his eyes and cheeks. “Bastards!” Pista yelled to the darkening sky. “Motherfuckers!” A woman popped her head out of an apartment window to tell him off and he ran away, cheeks burning red, tears streaming.
The Christmas market glowed along the bank of the Danube. Pista was pulled towards the twinkling lights. The little German-style huts had been up since the start of the month, and Pista had detoured past them on his way home most days since. Steam hissed from cauldrons of goulash. The air itself was spiced with paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg and blue wood-smoke mixing with the acid tang of wine-breath and cigarettes smoked in the cold outdoors. Pista didn’t have money to spend on sweets or hot csokoládé, or any of the shining, hokey trinkets and shawls the tourists forked out for. But the smell of Christmas was free.
The Danube itself was frozen over, and cafés and bars had put out tables and seats on the ice where couples sat drinking red wine. In summer they flocked to the open-air ruin bars, in winter they took to the ice. For a second Pista wished to hear it crack, to hear them scream as they plunged into the turgid, sub-zero flow of the river beneath. Just for a second, then he checked himself. Pista was a clever boy, clever enough to get a scholarship to the private academy across from the opera house in Elizabeth Town, and he knew the envious twists of his own mind even at thirteen. He recognised it in the other abandoned kids too. It was normal. He left the market, wishing the merry-makers a happy Christmas. They probably deserved it. He also knew when he was being glib.
It was almost proper-dark when he got back to the home on Rubik utca. The street was named for the inventor of the children’s toy from the seventies. The institution had tried to commemorate this by painting each of its window frames a different colour. Garish and cheerily violent when it was fresh twenty years ago, it was now sun-bleached and cracked, looking as sad and unwanted as the toy itself – dozens of which littered the playroom and hid between couch cushions. Games consoles and mobile phones are what the kids want. Sleek, black plastic and cold glass.
“In trouble again, boy?” Mr Kramer, the janitor, was mopping the hall just inside the front door. Pista was a little scared of him, so just nodded. He was old the way Bible characters were old. His grey hair stood in a wild Einstein frizz over a face drooping from the weight of its exaggerated features – a great swollen nose riddled with burst blood vessels and blackheads and fleshy ears that grew curly and gnarled like mushrooms from the sides of his head. A single, stiff eyebrow marked the ridge over his deep eye sockets. His entire grizzled face was covered in a fine, grey stubble. “Other kids do that to you?”
Pista shrugged. Mr Kramer took a sip from the bottle on his cleaning trolley. It looked like pálinka but smelled like mouthwash.
“Kids are cruel. Naturally,” he said.
Pista wondered if he was supposed to have a reply to this, but Mr Kramer went back to his mopping. His back was crooked, so he bent low over his work. He would have been tall otherwise.
Pista wasn’t entirely sure how it happened, even afterwards. He learned early on to just keep his mouth shut. No matter what they said, never reply. The orphanage had taught him this, school reinforced it. So what happened?
They were in maths and Mrs Gulyás had left the room on some errand, probably to smoke. A discussion started up about Christmas presents. Playstation 4s, Xbox Ones, iPhones, iPods, iPads, Adidas Hirachis, hair straighteners, hair extensions… Vilmos turned to Pista, signalling for quiet and, smirking, asked loudly: “What are you getting for Christmas, Pista?” All the kids turned to face him. They were smirking too. He carried on pretending to read. “I guess even Krampus’s coal would be a good gift in the orphanage. Keep you from freezing to death over winter.” There was a titter of laughter. “Come on, what’s on your list to Szent Mikulás?”
Then, the words came out: “Your mother. Cheaper than coal and will keep me from freezing to death over winter.”
Pista’s classmates screeched with laughter. He began to laugh too, until he saw Vilmos’s face. It was a deep red. There was real hate in his eyes. Pista was their target simply because he was an easy target, but now he’d given them reason and purpose. If Mrs Gulyás hadn’t come back in at that moment, Vilmos would probably have beaten him right there.
As it was, they met him in the playground after school, as promised. Pista ran. They chased. They threw rocks and hurled insults. They didn’t stop at the border of the eighth district. Cars honked their horns as the bullies dashed out across Rákóczi út and into the narrow streets of south Pest. They caught up with him on Rubik utca, outside the gate of the orphanage. They put him on the ground and stomped on him with their white trainers. Vilmos jumped on his head with both feet. Pain exploded. Colours popped and faded. Sounds of yelling and swearing had the volume turned down. There was no laughing, no banter. Pista’s world was melting. He could feel snow on his face, but it was a dead, numb cold, not icy, not burny.
Then there was screaming, somewhere above and sounding far away. Pista saw a large figure looming over. Mr Kramer. He was swinging his mop. The boys were screaming and running from him. He looked very tall from Pista’s position on the ground. And there was something wrong with Pista’s eyes because what he saw was impossible. The janitor’s face looked hairy, hairier than usual. There was something coming out of the top of his head like horns, and when he bent over to look at Pista, a thick, black tongue like a tentacle lolled out of his mouth. Before Pista blacked out he saw something swish beyond Mr Kramer’s crouched knees: a tail.
Mr Kramer had cleaned the blood off the boy’s face with snow. He carried him inside and put him down on a folding camp bed by the boiler in the janitor’s room. “You hear me all right, lad?” Mr Kramer had a voice like a retired circus barker. He lit a cigarette. “Smoke?” Pista shook his head. “Quiet boy. Quiet children are boring.” Mr Kramer smiled. “Here, have this, then.” He took an empty tin from a shelf and poured a slug from his bottle into it, then forced it into Pista’s frozen hands. “Come on, drink. You’ll feel better.”
Pista’s vision had cleared, and his hearing was coming back. With it came the pain. His face and head throbbed. He could see the swollen bulge of his own eyebrow. He’d never been in the janitor’s room before. The walls were bare brick, pipes and ducts ran up and down the walls and across the ceiling which had a single fluorescent tube light across it, the bulb exposed. As well as cleaning supplies there were a great many chains hung on the walls. Tyre chains for the snow, Pista guessed, though the home’s bus hadn’t taken them anywhere as far as Pista could remember. It sat rusting oustide under an awning made from corrugated metal.
Pista regarded the clear liquid in the can. It smelled like mouthwash. “What is it?”
“A little bit will do you good. Down in one gulp.”
“Like medicine.” Pista threw his head back and swallowed. It set fire to the cuts on his lips first, then his bloody gums and chewed cheeks and tongue, then it continued to burn all the way down his throat and into his stomach and guts. He coughed. His eyes streamed.
“Thatta boy, thatta boy.”
“Thank you,” Pista wheezed out. Mr Kramer looked like Mr Kramer again, and not like anything else. No horns, no tail, no monstrous black tongue, his face grizzled with grey stubble and topped with a static frizz of grey hair and nothing else. No… fur. He was stooped again, his neck hooking out from hunched shoulders like a buzzard.
“Eyes are working, obviously,” he said. Pista stopped staring and dropped his gaze to the empty tin. “Give me that back, one is enough.” He snatched the tin from his fingers and opened the door. “You’re fine, now get going, I’ve got work to do.”
Pista gave the janitor one last look-over at the door. “Thank you again, Mr Kramer.”
“Stay out of trouble, boy.”
“I can’t.” Pista felt tears threatening.
“Just keep your head down. That’s what I do. Keep the head down, block it out.” He took a swig from his bottle.
The stalls by the river sold postcards for tourists. Pictures of the frozen Danube, the bridges covered with snow, the Christmas lights twinkling. There were cartoons of Santa and his reindeer. Pista fixated on a particular card. It featured an illustration of a child’s bedroom. The bed was empty, the covers thrown back. There were colourfully wrapped presents by the foot of the bedstead. Creeping out the open window into a flurry of snow was a monster with brown fur, goat’s legs, curving horns, a pointed tail and a black tongue lolling from its slathering jaws. He carried a sack over his shoulder, cinched with chains. A child’s arm – with the blue and white stripes of a pyjama sleeve visible – was sticking out from the top.
Krampus. Pista, like most kids, knew all about the old legend. Funny that Vilmos had even mentioned him that day… Krampus was Szent Mikulás’s patner, of sorts. On the sixth of December, Mikulás would give out toys to all the good boys and girls. But the night before belonged to Krampus: Krampusnacht. He dealt with all the bad ones. Some versions of the folktale said he kidnapped them and took them away, others that he beat them with a willow-branch, the goriest that he ate them, the meekest that he left them lumps of coal as a warning. In all of the tales he looked like the devil. In some, he enjoyed Peppermint Schnapps which could be left out (like milk and cookies) to appease him.
Pista slipped the postcard into his pocket without paying and ran away.
Mikulás, Krampus, the Christ Child. Kid stuff. Made up to coerce children to behave, be good, do this or you won’t get presents, do that and you’ll be given coal. Do that again and you’ll be eaten. Not true, any of it. Pista knew that things didn’t work that way. The Vilmoses and Bartals and Feris got Christmas presents; Pista got none. It wasn’t about good behaviour, it was about wealth. But Pista had seen something, hadn’t he? He heard them screaming, had the others seen it too? Or did they just run from a crotchety old man shaking a mop at them?
Pista dogged the janitor’s footsteps. He watched him work from doorways and corners and windows. He willed him to change, to grow horns or a tail or sprout mangy, wiry bristles. He noticed Mr Kramer’s severe stoop and the awkward way he moved in his huge work boots. He waited under the stairs and watched Mr Kramer mop up the snow-soaked hallway and wet boot-prints. When he finished he leaned on the handle of the mop and lifted the Schnapps bottle to his lips. It was empty. He peered into the bottom of it, then put it back to his lips. A thick, black tongue shot out into the bottle, licking the glass bottom and corners, and reeled back inside his mouth in a split second. Pista gasped and covered his mouth with his hand.
They laid off him for a few days after their encounter with Mr Kramer – it was December now, the school holidays coming up, Christmas just a few weeks away and the celebration of Szent Mikulás only a matter of days – but when Pista summoned up the courage to knock on the janitor’s door it was with a fresh bruise around his eye.
“Trouble again, quiet boy? Not so boring after all. Didn’t you take my advice?”
“With respect, sir,” Pista said, struggling to keep his voice from shaking, “it doesn’t work.”
“Sure it does, it works for me. So, what? You want another shot of Schnapps? That’s only for serious maladies, you know.”
“No, I want your help.” Pista held out the postcard with Krampus on it.
“What is this? Some stupid cartoon?” Mr Kramer took a quick look, flipped it over to the blank side, then shoved it back at Pista.
Mr Kramer smiled, it wasn’t a pretty smile. “I know I’m in need of a trim but –”
“That’s you. I saw it. I saw you transform. I saw your horns and your tail and your big, gross tongue.”
“Easy, kid, easy. I know I’m no prize but you’re really trying to hurt my feelings now.”
“Why don’t you punish the bad kids anymore?”
“This is enough craziness for today, too much Schnapps for you, you go and get out of here or I’ll lose my job.”
“Why don’t you punish the bad kids anymore? They deserve it! They deserve it and you do nothing!” Pista was starting to cry. He was ashamed of crying but he couldn’t help it. His words started to break up. “They get anything they w-want, because, because of their m-mums and dads. And what’s left for k-kids like me? What do I g-get? Nothing! Nothing, and I’m good, I try to be good! I get stood on, I get mud rubbed in m-my face! You’re him! You’re the real –”
“Quiet, now, quiet! Come in. Come in and shut up.”
Mr Kramer fumbled around among the spray bottles and cans of polish on his desk, looking for a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps. He poured two tins. Pista let the mint waft up his nose so it began to run but didn’t drink it. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.
“Look, kid, you’re right, it’s not fair. Life isn’t fair. You know that already, right?”
“But why does it have to be that way?”
“It just is. Things are the way they are and that’s it. Mikulás is venerated for spoiling the children with games and fancy clothes and magic boxes, and giving them diabetes from all the chocolates and sugary drinks. And what do I get for keeping them in line, eh? Horror stories. Well, enough was enough and I packed it in.”
“So, you like doing what you do now?”
Mr Kramer gave a deep sigh. “It’s a living. If you had parents, you’d understand that, maybe. As it is, you’ll learn when you get older.”
Pista put his tin down, undrunk, and tossed the Krampus card at the janitor’s large feet. Then he left without looking back.
It was the fifth of December. Tomorrow was Mikulás Day. That evening, Krampusnacht, the Oroszes were throwing a huge party at their Buda Hills mansion to celebrate. Vilmos had invited all the kids from class (even the ones he didn’t really like) except Pista. He was bragging loudly about the party to a crowd of kids in the playground, saying, “The servants will do whatever the fuck I tell them too. If I want a vodka they’ll get me a vodka, if I want a bottle of fucking Cristal opened, they’ll open it…” when Pista walked right up to him and said: “Why bother the servants? I heard your mum has a neat way of opening bottles all by herself.”
“Though she has be careful the cork doesn’t shoot up inside her and come out her mouth.”
Vilmos’s face turned that deep shade of red again. “What the fuck was that, Gypo?”
“I was actually thinking of asking her to do a DNA test, see if she’s my mum too. The other kids at the home are also interested.” Vilmos pushed him. Pista pushed back. “Finding the dads will be a lot harder. You ever played that game, Guess Who?” Vilmos pushed him again, and this time Pista replied with a swing. The punch glanced off Vilmos’s chin. He looked like he barely felt it, but it was enough.
They had to send Pista to the hospital this time.
It sounded like the clink of crystal glass and nobody thought anything of it. The Orosz home was up to the gills in bow ties and ball gowns. Even the children were dressed sharp and uncomfortably. The boys loosened their ties and undid their top buttons as soon as they were finished being shown off. Vilmos, Bartal and Feri, with a handful of others, sequestered themselves in Vilmos’s games room which featured a full-sized pool table as well as a projector and cinema-style seating for his Blu-rays and video games. There were no windows in the games room. It was lit by the fringed lamp above the pool table. It was the one room that wasn’t decorated for the season.
Vilmos had pinched a bottle of champagne from an ice bucket and they passed it around, taking slugs straight from the bottle. Still they heard the clink, like the musical rattling of crystal glasses. There was a knock at the door. “Go away!” Vilmos yelled. His friends snickered. The knock came again, louder. “I said go away!” He grabbed the champagne bottle and looked for somewhere to hide it.
The door came right off its hinges with a bang. Chains rattled. A large, stooped shadow stepped through, bent over. It straightened up to its full height. The horns on its head scraped the low ceiling of the basement room. It was covered in bristling black fur, grey at the roots, with legs like a goat and a pointed tail hovering behind it like a hypnotised cobra. It smelled of damp and decay, the kind of dog-piss smell of every alley in the eighth district. The chains were wrapped around each arm and dragged along behind it. When it spoke it revealed sharp yellow teeth and a tongue like a black eel.
“Happy Krampusnacht,” it growled.
The kids screamed.
The adults didn’t hear it. It was after midnight when Mr Borbás and his wife went looking through the mansion for their daughter so they could go home. Mrs Orosz led them down to the basement, where she guessed Vilmos would have taken his friends. The first odd thing was the quiet. When were teenagers ever quiet? The second thing was the door hanging from its splintered frame. The third was the smell that wafted out, like the one from cattle fields – when you drive past and you have to roll up the windows. Or an abattoir.
The kids weren’t there. Not all of them, anyway. Just pieces – something recognisable as having once been part of a hand lying in a dry red stain on the green felt of the pool table, a scrap of clothing on a hunk of meat that used to be a shin, an ankle bracelet and some toes, toenails painted glossy rose pink. The dark carpet was damp. It squelched under their feet. The light was too dim to see why, but they could guess. It was up the walls and splattered on the ceiling too. Great streaks of red sliced the blank projector screen. Metres of intestines were strung here and there like tinsel.
Pista woke up under the starchy white hospital sheets on Szent Mikulás Day. He hurt all over. His mouth was dry, his tongue glued to the roof. He reached out for the water pitcher on the bedside table. His hand found a postcard. He recognised it immediately. The child’s unmade bed, the presents, Krampus sneaking out the window the way he’d come in, the child’s arm sticking out the top of his bag, blue and white-striped pyjamas. The handwriting on the back was ornate:
Happy Mikulás Day! I hope you are feeling better. I’m sorry for not visiting today but I have been very busy, and will be even busier in preparation for next year. I am writing to thank you and to say goodbye. If we meet again, it will be on business, so keep your head down and hope that doesn’t happen. Stealing is wrong Pista, very bad behaviour, as is picking fights, but I’ll let it slide this time. Consider it my Christmas present to you. Don’t worry about returning the favour, you already have. I had forgotten my place, Pista, and worse than that, I had forgotten the joy of the season. (And my love of good food!)
P.S. Two things: quiet kids are boring, keep your head down.
Pista jumped out the bed and pulled on his layers of grubby, tattered clothes. The nurses didn’t notice him slip out. He ran two miles back to Józsefvàros. Before he reached Rubik utca a headline on a newsstand caught his eye: “The Christmas child massacre – eight teens dead in Buda Hills party horror”. He didn’t have any cash to buy it, and almost pinched it and ran before remembering the warning in Mr Kramer’s postcard. He felt giddy. He slipped on the snow, his boots soaking through from the torn soles. The streets felt tilted, the high Gothic buildings on either side looked ready to collapse.
There were flashing blue lights on the police cars outside the orphanage. He felt sick. What if they had arrested Mr Kramer? What if they had come to arrest him?
He walked through the door. The home director, Mrs Vida, spotted him and broke off from the two policemen she was speaking to. Her face was stained with tears. “Pista!” She ran forward and scooped him into a hug. Pista could smell her perfume, taste her hair in his mouth. He had never been so close to her, couldn’t remember the last time they’d spoken. “Pista, what are you doing back here? Did you walk home?”
One of the policemen moved between them. “Is this one of the missing kids?” he asked.
“No, no. Pista was taken into the hospital from school yesterday. He was in a sporting accident. Weren’t you?”
He nodded but said nothing.
“Pista has a scholarship for the academy in Ersébetváros. He’s a star pupil –”
“Did he know this Mr Kramer well?”
Pista shook his head. They eventually told him. Mr Kramer had gone missing, along with ten kids from the orphanage. There was blood on their bedsheets. A lot of blood, and no janitor to clean it up.
The remaining kids were put up in a hotel that night and for the rest of the month. Pista kept the postcard carefully hidden inside his pillow case. The hotel bed was a lot like the hospital bed, the sheets stiff and boiled threadbare. On Christmas Eve he listened out for the sound sleigh bells, and the sound of chains, and smiled.