Fiction by Jennifer Willis
Erlend dropped the spoon into his bowl and made a sour face. The Christmas porridge was ruined, though he’d watched Harold prepare the holiday treat with his own hands. The rice pudding was on the gloppy side, but Harold was generous with the cinnamon and sugar.
Alva took a taste and her lips puckered.
“Something must be done,” Erlend muttered into his thick beard. Alva shushed him, but Harold was already snoring away upstairs and nothing could be heard above that racket.
It was superstition, or family tradition—whatever Harold wanted to call it as long as Erlend got his Christmas porridge. Now it was Christmas Eve, and Erlend had been looking forward to the holidays in the new homestead—as much as a grumpy nisse could look forward to anything.
He’d worked hard to secure the newlyweds’ new home. In the few months since Harold and Marianne had settled in this small cherry orchard in Washington State, Erlend had confirmed that there were no magickal snakes in the dormant fruit trees, no jötnar hiding in the pantry, and no draugar lurking in the barn. He had also, under cover of darkness, repaired minor roof damage from a windstorm and fixed a leaky faucet. Erlend was a curmudgeon, but he took pride in his new homestead.
But a dark shadow hovered by the back stairs. It was gloomy and cold and made the hairs of Erlend’s white beard stand on end. So Erlend always used the front door or the bathroom window to enter and exit the house.
Erlend had watched over Harold since his birth and was determined to help him make a good start as a husband and farmer. But what did Harold know about cherries? Then there were the strange animals wandering about the paddock. Alpacas. Erlend didn’t like the look of them. He didn’t care how soft or valuable their wool was supposed to be.
Erlend was grumpy about the alpacas and the cherries and the bitter Christmas porridge, and about the other nisse in the house. Alva had come with Marianne from her family’s Wisconsin dairy farm. She was irritatingly cheerful and industrious, smelled of good cheese, and worse yet was a Green Bay Packers fan. But what troubled Erlend more was the cracked crockery holding Marianne’s gløgg, the toppled tree and scorched stockings by the great room hearth, and how the lussekatt dough wouldn’t rise.
Erlend glanced toward the back stairs and the gloomy shadow that lingered there. It was dark and scary and Erlend was sure it had spoiled his porridge. That was a step too far.
He climbed down from the chair, his eyes just about level with the human-sized table. He straightened his felted vest and made fists of his meaty hands, girding himself for action while also putting it off.
Alva prepared to stand with him. Erlend bit his tongue before he made a comment about the faded blue of her dress or about the Vikings having a superior defense; it was nearly Christmas, after all, and Erlend was afraid.
His first step was shaky, but having Alva at his side was precisely enough irritation to overcome his anxiety. He strode with purpose toward the back of the kitchen. He ignored the lurch in his gut when the dark figure flickered and started to take shape in the shadowy alcove. Erlend hoped it was trying to hide. But then its rough edges hardened and the blackness pushed away from the wall. The darkness gave way to ghostly grays as the face and body of a frightened child emerged, no taller than Erlend himself.
“You’re the one who ruined my porridge?” Erlend asked
“And toppled the tree,” Alva said in a small voice. “And spoiled the wine.”
Erlend rolled his shoulders back. “I don’t know what you’re about, but you have a lot to answer for.”
The ghost raised a pale hand and pointed toward the kitchen table. “You can’t have Christmas here!” His voice shook as his image wavered. “It’s not allowed.”
“Not allowed?!” Erlend guessed the ghost had been a boy in life; it was difficult to tell. He couldn’t place the boy’s clothing into any moment of time, but what did Erlend know about fashion? He’d been wearing the same flannel breeches since before Harold was born.
Alva laid a hand on Erlend’s shoulder and nodded toward the boy. Only then did Erlend see the deep gash above the child’s left eye and the bruising across his face. What he’d assumed to be tricks of the light were marks of a brutal beating.
Who had made a ghost of such a small child? Erlend had a sick feeling in his gut that had nothing to do with the porridge.
“What’s your name?” Alva’s voice was warm and kind, and Erlend felt ashamed for his impatience.
The ghost dipped his head in obedience. “Galen, ma’am.”
“And you live here?” Erlend didn’t like the hint of softness creeping into his own voice. He hoped Alva didn’t notice.
Galen nodded again. “Under the stairs.”
“With the vacuum cleaner and dust mops?” Alva replied. “That’s no place for a child.”
“No, ma’am. The back stairs.”
“Outside?” Erlend looked at the kitchen door. The frost on the stone steps was thicker every morning. Another glance to the marks on Galen’s face answered Erlend’s unasked question. Heat rose in his blood and he forgot about his porridge.
Galen slid to the floor, curled in on himself, and started sobbing. With some gentle prodding from Alva, the whole awful story came tumbling out. Alva could not stroke the boy’s incorporeal hair nor rest a hand on his shaking shoulder, but she comforted him with words as she and Erlend crouched beside him.
A hundred years had passed since Galen and his mother had lived in this house, and since his stepfather—jealous of the mother’s affections—had abused and tormented Galen and ultimately dispatched him to the dark space beneath the stairs. Between the boy’s stuttering sobs, Erlend gathered that Galen’s mother, believing him a runaway, pined for her son unto her own death. But where her spirit had found peace after her body was laid to rest, poor Galen had haunted the orchard house ever since. Christmas seemed a particularly sore subject for the ghost boy, perhaps the time when he had been happiest in life.
While Alva soothed the boy with compassionate words, Erlend went out into the winter night to inspect the back stairs. The stone steps were smooth and solid, if old. A century of living people had passed through since they were last disturbed.
“Stinking spitting donkeys,” Erlend grumbled. Ice crystals formed in his beard and he stamped his leather boots on the cold ground. None of his mischief had ever been for a good cause, but there was nothing to be done here but straight vandalism. He needed to be the sole master of may-hem on the property, and a restless ghost spoiled that. Though Erlend was loathe to admit it, he also wasn’t without a heart.
Erlend stormed toward the barn in search of a sledgehammer or crowbar or a heavy shovel. At least he would twist a few alpaca tails while he was at it.
At dawn on Christmas morning, Harold fell flat on his face on the broken back steps and bloodied his nose before he made the grisly discovery of Galen’s dusty bones beneath the stairs. Over the following days and weeks, the authorities and historians pieced together the basics of Galen’s life and death, and Marianne ensured the boy’s bones were interred next to his mother’s in the tiny old plot at the back of the orchard.
After that, the house was peaceful and quiet—when Erlend wasn’t up to his own hijinks. The alpacas kicked at each other when trying to strike him, but the gløgg warmed his stomach and the scent of baking lussekatt wafted through the kitchen. And the next year on Christmas Eve, after Harold and Marianne filled each other’s stockings and went to bed, Erlend sat at the kitchen table over a new bowl of porridge. Glistening butter melted on top, and Erlend breathed in the aroma of cinnamon and sugar. It was perfection.
But Erlend let Alva have the first spoonful, just to be sure.
This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.