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by Jeremy Wenisch
Before the sleigh bells, there was the quiet. But Erica knew that quiet was not the same as silence. When she stopped to listen now, as her dad taught her (You can’t hear if you don’t listen! And if you wait until you can see, it’s too late), she did hear more than silence: an occasional breeze rustling some fallen leaves, a rushed squirrel making last-minute preparations, a rutting buck sawing away at the bark of a tree deeper in the woods.
Erica loved to come outside, even in the cold months. She liked to play with her big toy trucks in the dirt, making up stories with each as a different character. Sometimes she would set up the trucks in a jagged line along the driveway and race her tricycle through them (she asked for a big kid bike for her birthday, but didn’t get it), twisting back and forth on the gravel until dark.
Since turning seven this summer, she’d expanded her play area into the forest. It was only a few steps at first, just to get a peek inside. Not so far that she couldn’t still feel warm sunlight on her back. Don’t go in the forest! her dad would say to her when she was younger. It’s dangerous in there! her mom would say. Nowhere for a little girl to be! But slowly her dad let up. It’s not so bad if you stay near the house, he began to say. Never, ever lose sight of the house. He’d look at her with his blue eyes, a cold blue that always made her think of her one visit to Lake Superior, until she nodded in understanding. It’s a very old forest, he’d explained to her many times before, older than any person she knew; older than all of her ancestors who lived in this sliver of northern Minnesota before her; a forest that stood before Leif Erikson so much as considered sailing west, even before the Dakota first found game beneath its needled canopy.
So her dad said.
Erica didn’t see how that could be true, but she respected the forest nonetheless. She turned now in its quiet to look behind her and saw that her house was a little smaller than she expected, which put her at unease. But there it was. She was safe with the house in view. Wood smoke tumbled up into the sky from the chimney. She touched her nose with the skin of her wrist just below her mitten, and thought a sit by the fire might be nice soon.
In the next moment, there in the quiet of the old forest, Erica heard sleigh bells. They sang: Jingle, jangle, jingle, jangle.
“I saw Santa Claus!”
“What? What are you talking about, honey?”
Erica stamped her feet on the mat inside the front door, ostensibly to knock the dirt off her boots, then caught her breath and repeated: “I saw Santa Claus! In the woods!”
Her mom stared at her over her glasses from the kitchen off to the left of the entryway, grater in one hand and a block of cheddar in the other. “It can’t be Santa Claus, Halloween was just last week.” She resumed grating.
Her dad’s blue eyes flashed when he turned in the worn easy chair in the living room straight ahead. “There was a strange man in the woods? You didn’t talk to him, did you?”
Erica assured him that she did not. She took her boots off, let her long brown hair fall out from her stocking cap, and sat on the couch near the more interested parent, who had put down his newspaper. “I heard sleigh bells,” she said. “I looked into the woods and saw an old man. I think he had a long beard, and some kind of big coat or robe or something.”
“Was he looking at you?”
“No,” Erica said quickly. Then: “I don’t know. I don’t think so. He had a big hat, and I couldn’t see his eyes.
“But you’re sure it was a man?”
“All strangers are dangerous, but—”
“But be especially careful of men, since I’m a girl.”
“You’ll know when you’re older. Just remember. Don’t go—”
“With strange men, I know.”
“No matter how nice they seem.”
“That’s right,” he said, and wouldn’t move his stern, deep-lake eyes from Erica. “And if you ever get in trouble—”
“Run away and come get you,” she said, and glanced toward the door at the back of the room, the door that opened to her dad’s hunting closet. Not that I relish the thought of killing a man, he’d said several times before, but I’ll do what I have to do to protect my family. When she looked back at her dad, his eyes turned overcast and sad before he looked away. They’d looked that way a lot since he closed his shop where he had fixed cars. Erica didn’t understand everything that happened, only that her dad’s friend, Bruce, turned out to be a Bad Man. He took so much money from her dad while working for him that he couldn’t keep his shop open. She’d stopped getting a candy bar and movie on Friday nights since then, and last Christmas her presents under the tree were all clothes and all unwrapped.
“You don’t go too far into the woods, do you?”
“No, Dad. I can always see the house.”
“Good. If you see Santa again, maybe you can ask him for a Nintendo,” he said, and winked. But his eyes remained cast in clouds.
Erica told her friends about her last trip into the forest during lunch at school.
“Shut up, you didn’t see Santa Claus. He doesn’t just walk around the woods in November.”
“You shut up, Jake,” Becky Knutsen said. She was Erica’s best friend. “Did he have presents?”
“It was probably Old Man Olmstad,” Jake said, and laughed with a few others. He gave himself a high five.
“Shut up,” Becky said. “What was he wearing?”
“A big hat and a big coat—”
“Was it red?” Becky asked.
“Hey, that’s the old forest along 82, isn’t it?” Linnette asked. She was the smallest of the group, sitting at the end of the table and wearing a pair of blonde braids.
“Yeah,” Erica said. “I live out past Brandon.” Brandon Olsen looked around with wide eyes, not saying anything. Quiet Brandon. Erica thought his dimples were cute, and every day on the bus wished he’d say something to her.
“Remember Chaz Larsen?” Linnette said. Everybody nodded. Chaz was older, but they all remembered him; he was in all the papers. He disappeared two years ago, when he was a sixth-grader, in the same forest, if the stories were right. “Maybe you saw the guy who took Chaz.” Linnette went back to her sandwich like she had just shared the weather forecast.
“Whatever,” Becky said, and gave Erica’s shoulders a brisk shake. “I think you were right the first time. It was Santa Claus.”
“Yeah, sure,” Jake said. “He’s here to bring the Vikings a Super Bowl.”
While everybody laughed, even Becky, Erica thought about Chaz Larsen, and lost interest in the rest of her lunch.
Two days later, Erica was in the forest again. Its trees towered up above her against a typical Minnesota November sky: endless gray, as though snow clouds had been smeared over the entire canvas. It wasn’t curiosity about the strange man with sleigh bells that brought her back, but the same playfulness that brought her in before. Two days can empty a lot from a seven-year-old’s mind.
She had been playing Thanksgiving Day parade with her trucks, and imagined that leading them into the forest would be just like leading them through the skyscrapers in New York City. Yet the forest floor, with its layers of dead plant life, did not provide a very drivable surface for her trucks, and she soon abandoned the game.
She was once again drawn in by the quiet of the forest. Her footsteps were very noisy in her ears; she stopped frequently to listen and was privy to the sounds of a chittering chipmunk and a distant owl. Whether distant far away or high above, she wasn’t sure. Besides the quiet, Erica noticed the darkness of the forest. She looked back frequently to make sure she was keeping the house in sight, but whenever she looked fully into the forest, away from her home, she was overwhelmed by the darkness. When her eyes would settle in, she would register that plenty of light actually made it down to the floor, reflecting off of damp leaves and scraped bark. It was alluring, the quiet and the dark: she could imagine all kinds of things happening in the forest, but also knew that all kinds of things that she wasn’t imagining were happening. And so she was drawn in deeper and deeper. Then she would turn back, see the gray sky outside the forest, note her house. Turn around again, see the darkness, wait for her eyes to adjust, move in deeper.
She was watching two squirrels chase each other round and round a massive oak tree, up and down, down and up, somehow nearly silent in their frantic clambering, when she heard sleigh bells again. They sang:
Jingle, jangle, jingle, jangle.
She turned to her left. That’s definitely an old man, she thought. He’s closer this time. Yes, a big coat and a big hat. No, not red, but maybe it once was. Now it was faded to a yellowed beige with the faintest rose tint. His beard was nearly the same color as his coat, but dusty and long, like this man had lain under a bed for a hundred years.
Erica’s spine caught cold at the thought, and she twisted inside her coat. The sleigh bells stopped, and the old man turned in her direction. His hat covered his eyes, but she knew he was looking at her. She realized she was holding her breath, just like she did when a deer came into the yard while she was playing and stopped to stare at her. She let the air out slowly.
She paused before drawing her next breath, and realized that the quiet of the forest had become real silence.
The sleigh bells chimed their brassy music again, and she gasped; in the instant before she turned toward home and ran, she swore she saw a smile spread beneath the old man’s beard.
“Erica, your soup is going to get cold.”
Erica looked at her mom, then down at a red disc in the bowl set before her, and tucked her hair behind her ears before it would graze the surface. They seemed to have tomato soup a lot lately. Saltines tonight again, too; no grilled cheese. “It’s okay,” she said.
“No way, young lady,” her dad said. “You’re not letting that food go to waste.”
Erica pierced the skin with her spoon and took a small sip.
“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”
“She hasn’t eaten!” her dad nearly barked. “That’s what’s wrong. She’s even paler than usual.”
“Dear?” Erica’s mom looked at her with a concern that only a mother could muster. “You look a million miles away.”
Erica placed her spoon beside her bowl and looked at the hole she had made in the surface. “I saw Santa Claus again,” she said. “Only I don’t think he’s really Santa Claus. He smiled at me, but he wasn’t…jolly.” She looked up and eyed each of her parents, one on either side of her at the table.
Her mom looked concerned, but held silent. Her dad looked ready to run to his hunting closet. “What did you do?” he asked.
“Well,” he said, settling back into his seat. “That’s a good girl. That’s exactly what you should have done. Only you should have let me know right away when you got home. When did this happen?”
“Just a little while ago, before supper.”
“What else did he do? Did he try to get you?”
“No, he wasn’t very close.”
“Good.” Her dad was thinking. He always stroked his chin as though he had a beard, but he’d never had facial hair so long as Erica had known him.
“Well jeez, who in the heck is this man?” her mom exhaled with a pop, as if she’d been waiting to say it all her life.
“Maybe it’s Old Man Olmstad,” her dad said.
“What?” Erica shrieked. “That’s what Jake said.” She wrinkled her nose. She didn’t like one bit her dad saying the same thing as Jake Paulson.
Her dad looked at her with his blue eyes placid and patient. “Mr. Olmstad isn’t the monster you kids make him out to be.” He stroked his chin again. “He is mischievous, though, and I wouldn’t put it past him to be pranking around in the forest, playing up the myths that kids have about him.”
“The old man with the sleigh bells had a long, long beard,” Erica said.
“Maybe Olmstad put on a fake one.”
Erica watched her mom give her dad a long look across the table. He turned back to Erica again.
“The good news, sweetheart,” he said, “is that deer season opens tomorrow. So you’re not allowed into the forest anyway, because it’s going to be crawling with hunters for the next few weeks.” Erica pictured giant ants and spiders crawling through the forest with rifles and shotguns slung over their backs, snickered, looked down at her congealing soup, and wrinkled her nose again. Her dad was stroking his chin. “Who knows,” he said. “Maybe one of us will bag that fake Santa for you. What a feast!” he laughed.
Erica and her parents spent Thanksgiving day and night at her aunt and uncle’s house in Ely. She ate much more than she was used to eating, and marveled at the expensive-looking gadgets and electronic devices that dominated most every room in the house. Her family got back to their creaking home at the forest’s edge on Friday evening, just minutes ahead of a snow squall that dropped a glowing three inches upon their world.
Deer season had ended the Sunday before, and Erica wondered often whether any of the gunshots she heard while playing in the yard were aimed at the old man in the forest. She never heard any yelling. Or jingling.
On Saturday, she found herself in the forest again. She had been playing safari in the yard: nestling her trucks here and there in the snow, sitting in her sled, and pushing herself around with her hands, taking pretend pictures of the truck-animals in their wild habitat. She was observing the tracks of the firetruck and taking notes on an imaginary pad when she noticed tracks of a real animal—most likely a squirrel or a raccoon, but she hoped for something much bigger—and pursued them until they ended at the base of a girthy pine tree. That’s when she realized she was several yards into the forest.
She looked behind her, saw the house sitting snug and very large, and decided she was just fine. It was darker in here, but cozier; the wind didn’t burn at her face. She walked in deeper amongst the wrinkled cedars and oaks, looking for more tracks to follow. The snow was much shallower here, barely even visible in some places. Erica’s mind wandered as she walked, thinking about her aunt and uncle, wondering why they couldn’t help her parents, wondering if they would be having her family for Christmas this year too, and if so what she might find under their tree. This last thought was inspired by the bushy evergreen before her. Erica looked up as she walked past it, craning her neck and looking for a star at the top. Watch your feet! she could hear her dad say, and she looked down in time to avoid a root that would have given her a nasty tumble.
You can’t hear if you don’t listen!
Erica stopped walking and listened. She couldn’t hear much. Some rodents chatting somewhere, clambering somewhere else. A jay squawking somewhere far off. And then, much louder than she’d heard them before: sleigh bells. They sang: Jingle, JANGLE, jingle, JANGLE.
The first thing Erica did was spin on her heels and look behind her. Never, ever lose sight of the house. She could see the house. It was much smaller than the last time she looked, but it was there, pummeling smoke into the gray sky, maybe ten minutes if she ran as fast as she could and didn’t wipe out in the snow somewhere.
The second thing she did was look to her right, in the direction she heard the bells. The old man was standing with his long arms at his sides, perhaps three yards from Erica. The sleigh bells were on a thick length of black leather that was somehow affixed to his belt. He was wearing the same sickly rose-colored coat (or was it a robe? she wondered), and the same large hat of the same color, which rested on his knobbed nose. He was smiling again. His mouth moved as if he were chewing something, but Erica didn’t think he was. His long, dirty-gray beard shook.
Run away and come get me, her dad said in her mind. He was stern.
She couldn’t see the old man’s eyes beneath his hat, but even so something about his smile seemed genuinely kind to her. She assured her dad it was okay. Just for now.
“Are you Santa Claus?”
“No.” His voice was deep, ancient, like it was crawling all around her in the dead leaves.
“Why do you have those bells?”
“Come with me,” he said. He gestured with one hand back and to his right.
Erica looked behind her for a moment at her small house. “I really shouldn’t,” she said. “My dad says strangers are dangerous. Especially men. And he says if I’m ever in trouble with one I should run and get him. He has a hunting closet, and I’ve seen it, and it’s got lots of guns in there.”
The old man’s face never changed. His kind smile never wavered.
“I understand,” he said. “Do what you will. I’ll always be here.” He turned from her and started walking; his back was bent, but his legs seemed powerful.
Erica started to turn away as well, ready to go home as quickly as she could without running (I shouldn’t be rude, she thought), when she heard the sleigh bells. They sang: Jingle, jangle, jingle, jangle. She called after him: “I’ll come with!”
The next time that Erica looked behind her, she couldn’t see the sky in any direction, couldn’t see her house anywhere.
When they came to a cluster of tree stumps, the old man stopped and gestured at the stumps. He sat on one, then Erica sat on another. She had to pull herself up first, climbing like she had to climb into her dad’s pickup truck. The surface of the stump was as big as her bed. It wouldn’t be very soft, though, she thought. The trees were so large and tall this deep into the forest that they seemed to scream at her when she concentrated on one. But when she pulled her attention away, she found the place soft, quiet.
The old man looked at her from eyes that she assumed existed somewhere under his hat. The hat looked like a droopy mushroom top to her. He was quiet for a long time, no longer smiling, seeming to relish being off of his feet. His beard twitched once before he began to speak.
“There was a man who lived in this forest hundreds of years ago—did you know this forest is much older even than that?”
Erica knew because her dad had told her so, but she shook her head nonetheless.
“Not many people know about this forest, other than those who live on the edge of it where you do, and not even many of them. It slipped unseen through surveys by the forest service and timber industry. That’s why these trees are so big; nobody has stopped them from growing.”
“Except these,” Erica said, slapping her stump with a thup! muffled by her mitten.
The old man smiled. “Yes. Cut a few, and the forest lives; cut them all, and the forest dies. This man who lived here long ago—a pioneer from Norway, much like your own ancestors, I’m sure—he likely cut down at least a few of these. For firewood, for furniture, for tools. He was furious one day because a man—a fellow explorer—had stolen from him. He was stalking these woods, trying to think of a way to get back at the other man. He heard sleigh bells.”
In her mind’s ear, Erica could hear them well. They sang: Jingle, jangle, jingle, jangle.
He continued: “An old man appeared. He probably looked quite a bit like me.”
Erica’s eyes widened, and she shifted uncomfortably on the hard wood surface. She placed her padded palms flat on the stump.
The old man met her eyes. “But he wasn’t me,” he said with a slant of smile. Erica exhaled slowly while he continued: “That old man offered to fulfill the pioneer’s wish of revenge. He told the pioneer that he only had to reach out and take the sleigh bells from him. The pioneer, still seething at the thought of the man who had stolen from him, agreed to the deal.” The old man paused, worked his hands in his lap, as if they needed to calm each other.
“The old man unhitched the sleigh bells from his belt and held them out to the pioneer. At that same moment, a tree fell on the thief’s house, killing him and freeing his stolen bounty. The pioneer took the cord of sleigh bells from the old man, who became a young man right before the pioneer’s eyes, and then was gone, never to be seen by the pioneer again.” Erica’s breath caught. “The pioneer himself, sleigh bells in hand, aged and aged and aged in an instant. He realized that a curse must have been transferred to him. He was trapped as an old man walking this forest for all time.”
The old man’s mouth worked wordlessly for a moment, shaking his dusty beard. Then he said, “At least, until he could find someone else to take the bells.”
“...Did he?” Erica’s voice was small in the large and ancient space.
“Oh, of course,” said the old man. She felt his voice right up through the grain of the tree beneath her. “And the next person did as well, and the next, and the next, many times over.”
Erica didn’t know how much time passed. She was lost in thoughts of her dad, of her family, of tomato soup, of her aunt and uncle’s house of wonders, and of Bruce, her dad’s employee who stole from him. When her focus came back to reality, to the forest and the light snow and the tree stumps, she looked up and saw that the old man held the sleigh bells in his hands, resting them in his lap. He was looking at her.
“You could have anything,” he said.
She nodded. She thought of all the men before her who had taken the bells. Maybe it didn’t work on a girl? She shifted on the tree stump. Or maybe, even, she could have her wish fulfilled but break the curse for good. As she considered, the old man did not seem impatient at all. Her nose was cold, and her toes were very cold. She thought about sliding down off of the tree stump and making the long walk back to her house, and imagined sitting in her home with the picture of the cluster of tree stumps in her mind, the old man and the sleigh bells, and all that could have been.
“I want my dad to get back what the Bad Man stole from him,” she said.
They got off of the stumps and stepped closer to one another. The old man extended his hands and Erica took the sleigh bells in hers. He lost his age faster than she had expected, but before he left her sight, she thought that she saw the young face of Chaz Larsen.
Erica’s dad pulled up to the house and got out of his pickup. His hands ached, and he was pleased about it. He was pleased to be falling asleep much more quickly at night, his mind less busy prioritizing bills, his body tired from a busy day of work. He whistled as he walked to the front door. The smell of his wife’s apple cinnamon pork chops—the stuff of culinary legend in these parts—carried from the open kitchen window to his nose. He was thinking about what a warm April it had been, and how he’d likely need to mow the yard soon, when he tripped, stumbled, and nearly fell.
“Erica, pick up—”
But then he remembered and winced. He looked down at the big toy firetruck parked in the walkway that led to the front door, and swallowed hard. He looked around the yard, allowing himself a moment of hope before returning to puzzlement. Had it rolled out from somewhere?
On a hunch, he walked around to the back of the house. The air out here was especially fragrant with the scents of pork and salt and spice and fruit. And here he found three more trucks. One was on its side, and the two others were next to its underside, as though inspecting it. Or, maybe, repairing it.
He composed himself, made his way to the back door, and grasped the handle. Joining the chirping springtime birds in a surprising chorus, he heard the jostle of sleigh bells behind him. They sang:
Jingle, jangle, jingle, jangle.
He spun around, and thought maybe he saw a figure in the forest, but the more he stared into the dim shadows, the less convinced he was. He’d chased into the forest the first couple of times he’d heard the bells, and found nothing but a stitch in his side. He had talked to Old Man Olmstad several times, and left convinced every time that he’d never pulled pranks in the old forest. He stared until his eyes stung. “Erica—” he said hoarsely into the empty air, but then no other words would form.
Letting those syllables come out seemed to be enough. He nodded at the trucks in the yard and went into the house.
“I hear sleigh bells in the forest behind my house.”
Jenny looked at Alex Lindholm, the boy she’d had a crush on since the beginning of the school year, despite his disgusting rattail. “Like Santa Claus?” she asked.
The rest of the second-graders at their lunch table were looking at him now, too. “Sounds like it, yeah. But it’s not. I heard them a couple of times when I was out looking for deer last week. My dad says I can go hunting with him this year. The last time I heard them I saw someone standing deeper in the woods. It looked like an old woman, all hunched over.”
“Oh my God, Alex,” Jenny said. She wanted to reach out and touch his arm, but not with everyone looking, and probably not even if they weren’t. “That’s—”
“It was the Forest Witch!” Ted Lucas blurted through a mouthful of corndog.
“What?” Alex said. “That’s a little kiddies’ story.” Jenny could see the man she would marry someday.
“Nuh-uh,” Teddy said. “All the third- and fourth-graders talk about it. The Forest Witch haunts that old forest. They say she uses the sleigh bells to lure in little kids and then eats them to stay alive forever. She’s like 200 years old. Probably older.”
Some of the kids at the table looked at Teddy with wide eyes in awe and fear; others scoffed and kept eating their lunches. Jenny looked to Alex before reacting herself. She thought he looked scared, maybe, but he was hiding it well. His back remained straight, his shoulders square. “They’re just trying to scare us,” Alex said.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Jenny said.
“I’d just be careful, that’s all,” Teddy said. He set his corndog down. “Remember that girl Erica, that ran away a couple years ago?”
“Yeah,” Jenny said. “Her dad’s shop opened up again right around the same time. My dad always says that was queer.” Everyone giggled. Jenny’s face flushed.
“She didn’t run away,” Teddy said. He looked scared himself now. “Her house is up there on Route 82, right along the old forest like your place, Alex. She heard the sleigh bells, and then the witch got her. That’s what happened. I’d watch out if I were you, that’s all I’m saying.”
Jenny looked at Alex, who looked down at his tray. He didn’t look hungry anymore. And he looked to Jenny even older than he did before. Too old, she thought.