Fiction: The Carnival of Father Christmas

It's day of twenty of 25 Christmas Eves. Just five more stories to go after this one. Today, I thought I'd try my hand at steampunk. Hope it meets your expectations.

By: Erin L. Snyder

“Attention! Tonight’s Father Christmas March has been called off due to weather! Christmas Eve is cancelled! Once again, the March and carnival have been cancelled!” The man yelled his news through a bullhorn from the back of a steel carriage, which puttered slowly past what remained of the Tildrick Thread Factory, condemned after a fire six years prior. From the roof, a young girl ran along a path of board and boxes which marked areas unlikely to collapse. A patchwork of holes on either side demonstrated the importance of this precaution. The path ended at the largest hole, where a ladder had been propped up against the edge. She grabbed hold and started down.

There were a half dozen kids near the bottom, most about her age. She ignored them and darted towards the far wall, where she found her older sister.

“Casset,” she said, out of breath from sprinting. “Men outside... they said... it’s off. They said... no Christmas....”

Casset hugged her sister. “I heard, Gael. I heard, but you have to understand, they say that every year. I’m sorry. They just want us to lower our guard, make us easy pickings for the Krampmen.”

The joy on Gael’s face disappeared, and she clung to her sister. “Will we be safe here?”

“No,” Casset said. “No, I don’t think we will.” She’d hoped the factory’s frightening exterior would keep the Krampmen away another year, but she’d caught sight of young men with clipboards outside the building at odd hours. She’d been thinking it over and was now all but sure the building would be raided. “We need to move.”

“Should we tell the others?”

Casset didn’t hesitate. “No.” It was cold-hearted, but it was necessary. The other children would follow them, and they’d draw attention if they tried to move together. “Meet me in back in fifteen minutes. If anyone asks, you’re going for water.”

Gael nodded and wandered away. Casset went to gather her few possessions of value: a handful of coins she’d been collecting, a wrench, and a single earring - the last of her mother’s things she’d managed to keep after her parents’ death. She left behind bedding, pots, and other essentials. It felt awkward abandoning items they’d need, but these would be easy enough to replace if they couldn’t come back. There was about to be a surplus of such things all over the city.

Casset met her sister in the alley behind the abandoned factory. They started off without speaking and stayed close together. A man on the ground eyed both of them, but they hurried by. Once they were aways from the factory, Gael asked why they hadn’t warned the others. Casset tried to explain, but her sister didn’t seem to understand. In the end, she simply said, “It’s safer this way.”

It was mid-afternoon by the time they reached Westgate. Casset had hoped they’d be able to sneak by and find someplace to wait out the night in the countryside, but at a glance she could see the exit was too well guarded. She might have been able to get herself past, but she’d never manage with her sister: they’d be arrested and sent to the orphanage for sure.

Instead, they headed back into town, turning south towards the river docks, where Casset used to gather shellfish that fell off the carts while being wheeled off the ships. There were other kids around gathering what they could before running to whatever homes they had. Casset was desperate enough to ask a few if they had a place they could stay, but everyone dismissed her. After a while, she began asking another question instead: “Do you know Club?”

Club had been an orphan like Casset and Gael, but he was fourteen, old enough to not have to worry about Christmas Eve or the Krampmen. Casset had known him back when he was Winston Hadleigh. But the rule in the South End is you take a new name when you kill a man to throw off the law. Casset doubted Club had really killed anyone: more likely, he’d taken the name to impress people.

Most of the kids said they’d never heard of Club. Casset knew they were lying: everyone by the docks knew Club, regardless of what they thought of him, but she didn’t press anyone. Eventually, a boy directed them down an alley without an outlet. There was no one down there, but when they turned, they found Club blocking the way out.

He was an attractive boy, and like most, had an inflated opinion of himself. But to his credit, he’d avoided or outfought the police long enough that it was no longer a crime for him to live outside the orphanage.

“I hear you were looking for me,” Club said. He had a perpetual smirk on his face, which Casset had always found off-putting. “One question first: who sent you?”

Casset rolled her eyes. “No one sent us,” she said. “I need a favor.”

“On Christmas Eve? Good luck getting it,” Club said.

“Fine then. We need a place to last the night, and we’ll pay.”

“Well then. What have you got?”

“I’ve got some money,” Casset replied. “Do you have a safe spot?”

“How much?”

“Do you have a spot?” Casset said again, this time louder.

“Not one of my own,” Club said. “Might have some friends who can help you, though, long as the money’s good.”

“Who are these friends?”

“Oh, I’ve got lots of friends. Which ones I introduce you to depends on how much you got. Some of my friends have more expensive lodgings than others.”

“I have a little more than three pounds,” Casset said.

“That’s not so much,” Club said.

“Damn it! Can you put us somewhere safe or not? You know what tonight is!”

Club’s smirk widened. “Might just know a few lads who can help. Just let me hold the money.”

“You can have it when we’re safe. Whatever’s left over after you arrange it with our host.”

“You’re putting me in an awkward position here, Cass. Might be you don’t have what you’re saying. Might leave me looking bad in front of my friends.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you,” Casset said. “Besides, what would I gain? I’d just lose the time it takes, and you know damn well I can’t afford that.”

Club considered this and nodded. “Alright, Cass. I’ve got some friends who can look after you and your sister.” He led them through brick streets and past the railyard. They took a long bridge over the trains, which disgorged soot, smoke, and steam beneath them.

Gael coughed as they passed through the vapors, and Casset patted her shoulder. “It’s okay,” Casset said, “We’re close now.” She looked up at Club, who glanced back with a smile and a nod.

It was getting late, though: in a few hours, the Krampmen would appear and begin the annual roundup. The police would always arrest runaways and orphans whenever they could, but Christmas Eve was something else. They deputized thousands of young men and paid a stipend for each child caught. It was a dangerous night to be on the street.

They reached where they were going soon after. It was a small room in a worn down complex. Club pounded on the door, while Casset held back. After a moment, the door opened, and someone several years older than Club looked out.

“Berke said you guys could take in strays if they were friends of mine,” Club said, motioning to Casset and Gael. “I’ll vouch for them. They’ll mind their manners and not take anything. Just looking for a place to avoid the Krampmen; that’s all.”

The man in the door looked at the two girls and shrugged. “If you’re friends of Club’s come on in.”

They approached slowly. They’d almost reached the doorway when Casset froze: no one had asked for money, and that wasn’t how the world worked. She grabbed Gael and started to turn, but she was too slow. The man in the door grabbed them both and started pulling.

Casset kicked at him, but he held on. “Club!” she cried. But Club just stood there smiling.

A few seconds later, two more men appeared and helped the first. Soon after, they were all in the room, one of the men blocking the door. They told the girls to wait in the corner while they handed Club a couple notes. It wasn’t much, but it made Casset’s three pounds seem like a joke. “You see anymore, you bring ‘em here,” the older man said. “But be quick about it: they only come by once. After that, they’re useless to us.”

“What’s going on?” Gael asked softly.

Casset hugged her. “They’re going to sell us to the Krampmen,” she said. “Probably for ten times what they’re giving Club.”

Club shrugged, “The costs of running a business.”

Casset glared at him. “I’ll kill you for this.”

Club turned to look at her. “Say hi to Father Christmas for me,” he said with his usual smirk. Then he left the way they’d come in.

The men kept an eye on the girls, but mostly left them alone. There was nothing in the room they could use as a weapon - there was nothing much in the room, at all, beyond a couple of chairs the men sat in.

When the sun went down, the noise started. They could hear people outside yelling and hooting. Every now and then, something would break. One of the men looked out the only window in the room.

“I see them,” he said to the others. “Keep a watch on those two. I’ll be back.”

When he disappeared, Casset whispered instructions to her sister. Then she got up and approached the man who wasn’t guarding the door. He stood up to meet her. “What do you want?” he asked.

Casset screamed and leapt at him. She dug her fingernails into his cheek and began kicking him repeatedly in the shins. She spat on him and tried to bite him, but he stepped back, almost tripping on the chair.

He yelled and pushed her backward. Then he struck her, sending her flailing to the ground. “You little--”

The man guarding the door was laughing. “Got to watch them, Berke,” he said.

Casset ignored him and said, “I’ll tear out their eyes. You hear me? You hand me to a Krampus, and I’ll tear out his eyes.”

Berke shook his head and raised his hand, as if he was going to hit her again. But he didn’t approach. “Go ahead and try,” he said. “Krampmen aren’t as gentle as my brother and I.” He wiped his cheek and looked at the blood on his palm. Then he backed over to the door to wait.

After a few moments, there was a knock on the door. Before either of the men could turn to open it, Casset charged forward. Berke struck her again and grabbed her, turning her around so he was behind her. She elbowed and struggled until the door slid open. As soon as the Krampus stepped in, she froze.

He was a large man, but not an old one. Like all the others outside, he was dressed in old clothes and had painted his face red. He also wore a pair of false horns strapped to his head. In one hand, he carried rope and a number of small sacks; in the other, he had a club. An odor of alcohol permeated the room when he entered.

Still holding Casset, Berke said “You’ll want to knock this one out before taken her in. She’s a fighter.”

Casset went mostly limp and looked the Krampus in the eyes. “Please,” she whimpered, “My name is Susan Goldman, and I live at 641 Goldman Street. These men grabbed me and my sister and covered us in dirt. Please, our mother’s going to be so worried.”

The Krampus stared Berke in the eye. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. “Pinn said you had strays.”

“These are strays,” Berke said. “I mean, I think they are. We got them from Club. You know Club, right?”

“He’s lying,” Casset said. “He grabbed us this afternoon off the street himself. I don’t know any ‘Cub.’”

“Shut up!” Berke said, pushing her down.

Casset fell hard and crawled toward the Krampus. “Please. Can you help us?”

The Krampus wasn’t paying any attention to Casset. He approached Berke and jabbed a finger into his chest. “They don’t pay for strays if they aren’t strays,” he said. “In fact, a man can find trouble bringing in kids who have a home.”

“Back off,” Berke said, trying to act tough. It wasn’t easy: the Krampus towered over him. “Look, if they won’t take the girl, come back and I’ll return our cut.”

“I heard them say they were leaving tonight,” Casset shouted.

“Shut up!” One of the men by the door bent down to strike her.

Casset covered her face and cowered. “Please!” she cried. “Help!”

“So that’s it,” the Krampus said. “You were gonna take the money and run. Maybe we should all go down to the Christmas Celebration together.”

“You know we can’t go there. Police might recognize us.”

“Then maybe I’d better hold on to my money and the girls. Once I’ve got my reward, I’ll be back.”

“Thank you!” Casset said. “Thank you! They’ll give you a reward when they arrest them!”

Berke eyed Casset and squinted. He knew what she was doing. “No,” he said. “If you don’t want to do business, just go and we’ll find someone else.”

“Don’t think I can do that,” the Krampus said. “I think I’m owed something for my time.”

“The girl’s a stray! She’s lying! I wasn’t even the one who found her!”

“Why would she lie about who grabbed her?” The Krampus asked. “I think I’d better take the girls and go. Like I said, if they’re strays, I’ll be back with your money. If not, I’ll tell the police where I got them.”

Berke jumped him. “Get his money!” The others abandoned the door and attacked the Krampus, who freed his arm and started wailing on Berke with club.

Casset looked at her sister, who darted to her. They ran for the door together. If anyone saw them, they were too entwined to do anything. Just as they ran out, Casset said, “Come on! We’ve to meet up with Club!” When she’d told Club she would kill him, it had been a hollow threat, but now she wondered if she’d managed just that..

They ran away from the apartment, hurrying through a few small streets, and headed for an alley. Casset looked behind her: no one was coming after them. The girls stopped to catch their breath. They’d escaped, but were now outside on Christmas Eve. They could hear gangs of Krampmen running through nearby streets shouting and searching for stray children.

“Are you okay?” Gael asked.

Casset was bleeding from where the men had hit her. She felt sore, but she could move, which was all that was important. “I’m fine,” she said. “Out in the farming villages, this is all that happens on Christmas Eve. The Krampmen come and beat the children who are bad, then they leave them alone.”

“That’s all?” Gael said.

“That’s all. All the children have homes out there. If your parents die, someone else takes you in. It’s just how it is.” Casset leaned against a building. “Give me a second, and then we’ll press on.”

“Where are we going to go?”

“I don’t know,” Casset replied. “We’ll think of something.” In the distance, they heard dogs barking, and Casset stood up. “We need to go,” she said. They continued through the alley, not daring to return the way they’d come. By now, the fight would have ended and someone would be looking for them.

They were in the Rail District, though they weren’t particularly close to the trains. There were worse spots of the city to be, but Casset was mostly unfamiliar with the area. There were a lot of factories here, mostly assembling parts for the ever-expanding train system. Between the smoke pouring out of the factory towers and the concoction of steam and soot billowing in from the rail yard, the air was thick. You could feel a powder build in your lungs and in the back of your throat.

They stopped in the shadows at the end of an alley to wait for a gang of Krampmen to pass by with their prizes. The group was dressed like the man they’d escaped earlier: tattered rags, face paint, and horns. Some even had fake tails pinned to the back of their pants.

Half of the Krampmen walked; the others rode with their prisoners in a wagon partially powered by a coal engine that spewed out a black cloud. To supplement the coal, they’d hitched a pair of donkeys to the front. The larger prisoners were bound and wearing sacks over their heads. There were larger sacks beside them fully containing the smaller prisoners. As they passed, the Krampmen sang their Christmas songs, hollered, and drank from jugs of cheap wine, beer, and mead.

Once they were almost out of sight, Casset and Gael darted silently across the street into the next alley. They breathed a sigh of relief, then almost jumped when they realized they weren’t alone.

It was a homeless woman. They’d almost tripped over her, but saw her at the last second. Casset raised a finger to her mouth to plead for silence.

The old woman smiled. Then she called out, “Strays! There’s strays here! Come get them!”

Casset kicked her in the leg as hard as she and started running with her sister. Behind them, the woman who’d betrayed them cursed and called out for the Krampmen.

The two girls tore through the alley blindly. Behind them, they could hear people in pursuit. They heard a boy’s laughter. They heard another howl. And a third: “Come out, strays! Come out for Christmas!”

Casset kept one hand on Gael as she ran, and she steered her sister in the maze of small streets and alleys. As soon as they lost the group after them, another spotted them crossing a street, and the chase was on again.

Fortunately, the girls were fast. They were exhausted, but they’d spent their lives in conditions like these. Eventually, they lost the men after them, but they no longer knew where they were. They’s moved out of the Rail District into one of the central neighborhoods, but Cassset didn’t know which. They’d turned so many times, she didn’t even know which direction they’d gone in.

No sooner did they stop then they heard a glass bottle break far behind them. Casset grabbed her sister’s hand and pulled her on. They could hear Christmas songs behind them. The Krampmen weren’t on the hunt, but that would certainly change if they realized there were strays close by.

The girls hurried ahead, focusing on stealth as much as speed. Soon, they realized there was noise in front of them, too. It was loud, almost like a market, though it was far too late for that. Nevertheless, there was no going back and nowhere to hide, so Casset pushed on.

When she reached the end of the alley, her breathing froze. A cold sweat formed on her face, and she stopped, unable to move. “Not here,” she whispered.

They’d stumbled across the Christmas Carnival.

There must have been five hundred Krampmen in the square, along with several times that many shopkeepers, fishmongers, and clerks there in the hopes of repaying an old score. Then there were the spectators come to watch: men, women, and even entire families from all walks of life had come out to enjoy the festivities.

Entire families.

Casset grabbed her sister’s shoulders and knelt beside her. She spoke frantically. “Listen to me, Gael. Listen. Those boys are getting close, and if they catch us... that’s it. So we can’t go back, and there’s no place to hide. We got to go on. We have to go the Carnival.” As she spoke, she ran her fingers through her sisters hair and wiped the dirt from her face. “You need to listen to me. There’s so many people there, no one can tell what’s going on or who’s with who. Stay close to me, but you have to smile. No matter what, you need to look like you’re having the time of your life.”

She didn’t wait for her sister to answer: there was no time for that. So she grabbed her hand and pulled her into the light. She made for the busiest crowded spot of families she could see. She skipped, laughed, and pretended to be excited. She pointed at the center, at Father Christmas, sitting on the stage in front of the parade of orphans.

Father Christmas. As was tradition, it was the chief of police, dressed in flowing red robes. He was supposed to be wearing a fake beard, but he’d pulled that off, and it sat instead on his desk weighed down by a stone.

As the children passed in front, Father Christmas bellowed, “Tell us your name, child!” And the unfortunate boy or girl was forced to do so by one of the officers. Most of the children were bruised from their treatment by the Krampmen and all were terrified. Then Father Christmas would address the crowd, “Does anyone know this boy? Has anyone a grievance?”

As a general rule, no one spoke up for the younger ones. Even if the child had stolen from them, they let it go. It was considered bad form; besides, if anyone had spoken out, Father Christmas would have ignored them.

“I see you’ve been a good lad,” Father Christmas said in such cases, “and so I’ll send you to a good home.” Then he’d jot a note and order the officers to put the child with the others headed towards the orphanages. Casset had never understood how the orphanage could be mistaken for a “good home,” though it was better than the alternative. The children judged harshly were drafted into the military and sent to help in the colonies.

Either way, there was a loud cheer after each proclamation. Then another hood was pulled off another child, and they were sent onto the stage.

Casset felt her sister tugging her sleeve. She leaned over, and her sister whispered, “I know her.” Casset shushed her and reminded her to keep smiling, but when she looked up she discovered she knew the girl on stage, as well.

They’d known her as Eliny, though she was introduced as Elinore Roserie. A single shopkeeper claimed she’d stolen from him on multiple occasions, but Father Christmas glared at him and asked if he was certain. The man took the hint and said, on further reflection he might be mistaken, so Father Christmas announced the girl had been good and would receive her just reward. Apparently he’d decided the crowd would be happier with a happy ending for this child. The next few weren’t so lucky.

Casset pulled on Gael’s hand, leading her through the crowd. People were moving all around them. Without warning, they found themselves in the midst of a pack of Krampmen smelling of alcohol. Most looked like they’d been fighting, either with stray kids or with other Krampmen over their prey.

The nearest Krampus looked down at the girls and tilted his head. He squinted, as if thinking. Casset didn’t give him time to finish. “Sir,” she whispered. “My mother’s wearing a black hat with a pin of a flower in the middle. She was just here, but... but we can’t find her. Can you help us?”

The Krampus sneered. “Get lost, kid, before I sell you to Father Christmas and tell him you’re a stray!” Casset gasped, grabbed her sister, and hurried away, while the Krampmen laughed.

The girls reached the edge and Casset waited for an opportunity. When she saw a pair of families heading off together in the same direction, she pulled her sister along, keeping them directly between the two groups. At a glance, no one would be able to tell which they were supposed to be part of.

They hovered between the two families as they headed down the street, passing gangs of Krampmen towing found children behind them. When one of the families split off, it was time for them to do the same. Fortunately, they were a ways from the thick of the Carnival, and there were more options for hiding places. They went down the smallest, darkest alley they came across, and found hollowed out crevice in the corner of a crumbling brick building. A few hours ago, they’d never have had a chance here, but Casset figured the Krampmen wouldn’t waste their time searching this close to the Carnival: by now, they’d figure all the strays in the area had been captured.

The two girls huddled together for warmth. They heard gangs of Krampmen and police go by (after midnight, the Krampmen’s authority officially expired, and the police took an interest in their increasingly rowdy behavior). Even with the Krampmen no longer employed by the police, they were still dangerous; perhaps even more than before. There were almost always a few strays found dead the morning after, so the girls kept to their spot. At one point, a pair of Krampmen stumbled into the alley to throw up, but they were far too drunk and far too distracted to notice the girls.

Casset didn’t trust it was safe until the sun came up. The girls were sore, tired, hungry and dehydrated. They weren’t sure whether the things they’d left behind had been dragged into the street and burned. Even if not, they weren’t sure whether the kids who’d lasted would let them return: some might even suspect they’d sold them out to the Krampmen.

But all that could wait. Because the girls were still together, still a family. And, for what little it was worth, it was Christmas morning.