Silent (but Deadly) Night
Five Days before Christmas Eve
THIS IS A STORY that starts at dusk on the last Sunday in Advent.
Snow lay thick over Norway, especially over Oslo, especially, especially over Cannon Avenue, and especially, especially, especially over the peculiar, crooked blue house at the very end of the street,
where pretty soon someone was going to have to suck it up and shovel the front walkway, past the snow-laden pear tree and all the way out to the gate. Didn’t anybody live there? Oh yes, someone did. There were footsteps, both small and large, from the gate to the front steps. There were candles burning inside the frozen windowpanes, and smoke was rising from the chimney.
And in the kitchen a neighbor girl named Lisa was sitting at the table staring dreamily into space while she listened to Juliette, the cheerful woman stirring a pot on the stove and telling a romantic Christmas story about two lovers who were together, lost each other, and then found each other again on Christmas Eve.
“I loooove romantic stories that are sad in the middle,” Lisa sighed rapturously. “Especially if they’re a little spooky, too.”
Juliette Margarine laughed and poured more
milk into the casserole pan. “That, mademoiselle Lisa, is because you’re sitting in a warm, cozy house and aren’t out there”—she gestured toward the window—“with those creepy, nasty invisible beings who sneak around before Christmas.”
Just then the door hinges in the front hallway squeaked and a cold gust of wind blew into the kitchen. They looked at each other. Someone—or something—had just entered the house. They heard footsteps creaking on the wood floor in the hallway.
“Wh-wh-who’s there?” Juliette asked, her voice trembling. No answer.
“Who . . . ?” Juliette began, but put her hand over her mouth in fright.
Something terrifying had appeared in the hallway door: a stack of firewood, a stack of cut, split birch logs hovering about eight inches off the ground.
“Oh no, a pile of hovering firewood!” whimpered Juliette. “What do you want with us? We’re only two innocent, defenseless women.”
“Eat!” the stack of firewood said.
“Mon Dieu!” Juliette said, because she’s French and mon Dieu is French for “my God”! “Are you going to eat us both, or will eating the smaller one be enough? Are you going to eat the whole house or eat . . . ?”
“Eat rice porridge!” the firewood said.
“Oh, then come sit over here by the woodstove,” Juliette said, and went back to stirring the pot.
The stack of wood floated over to the crackling woodstove and tumbled into the firewood basket with a clatter. From behind the woodpile that had
seemed like it was floating, an unusually small boy came into view. He had an even smaller upturned nose and the tiniest freckles you’ve ever seen. He brushed the snow off his sweater and picked a few birch chips out of his bright red hair and teeny-tiny ears.
“Hungry, Nilly?” Lisa asked.
“Am I hungry?” the minuscule boy asked, and then wiped his nose on his sweater sleeve. “Let me explain . . . .”
“Oh no,” Lisa mumbled.
“When I set out on that polar expedition, I put my own life on the line with one goal in mind.” He raised an unbelievably short index finger. “To save women and children . . . well, mostly women . . . from cold and hunger. With rudimentary tools, no means of communication or navigational instruments, and completely alone, I wrestled my way through that inferno of snow, which threated to inundate me
multiple times. But I did not give up, because I’m Nilly, and Nilly never gives up. Nilly—”
“Nilly, you just went to the garage for more firewood,” Lisa said, pointing out the kitchen window to where the moon shone on the rickety wooden structure over by the gate.
“Exactly!” the boy said. “And now the emaciated, famished Nilly is a teensy bit disappointed that those selfsame women and children—mostly women—that he risked his young life for haven’t made it just the slightest bit further along in preparing the”—Nilly played dead, rolling his eyes and then slumping to the floor—“rice porridge.”
“Nilly, you were gone for only five minutes.”
“And it’s going to be another only five minutes until it’s ready,” Juliette said with a smile. “Especially if you’ll get up and set the table, Nilly.”
Nilly popped up, leaped up onto the kitchen counter, opened the cupboard, and got out some bowls.
Just then there was a bang from beneath the floorboards. “What was that?” Lisa cried.
“Oh, probably just Victor inventing something.”
They heard shuffling footsteps coming up the stairs from the basement, and a moment later an unusually tall, skinny man entered the kitchen. He had big, bushy hair, a wispy beard, and a beaming smile and wore a blue inventor’s lab coat and a pair of sunglasses that upon closer inspection turned out to be swim goggles.
“Sweetheart! Friends!” he declared, and gave Juliette a loud kiss on the cheek. “Eureka!”
“That means ‘I have found it,’ ” Lisa whispered to Nilly, who had crawled up next to her on the wooden bench at the table.
“Nilly is aware of that, silly friend,” Nilly said. “What did you invent, Doctor Proctor?”
“I will tell you, my friends. I have improved Raspa’s time soap so that you no longer need a special
time-traveling bathtub to travel through time and space.” He held up a small shampoo bottle containing a small amount of raspberry-red liquid. “You pour the soap into any old bathtub, bucket, or pool and stir until bubbles form. Then you just dive down, think of somewhere far away and a date sometime in the past, and when you stand up, then—tada!—there you are!”
“Mon amour, you’re a genius!” Juliette said, and gave Professor Proctor such an enthusiastic hug that he turned a little red in the face.
“You’ll probably get a medal from the National Endowment of the Farts for this one!” said Nilly, who was now standing on the bench. “You can sell time soap to the whole world. You’ll be rich!”
“Unfortunately, probably not,” Doctor Proctor said with a smile. “Turns out these are the last few drops of Raspa’s time soap remaining, and now that Raspa’s gone, no one has the formula for how to make more.”
“But what we can make more of is rice porridge!” said Juliette, and set the casserole pan in the middle of the table. “Have at it. Let’s see if we can finish all this!”
With that they lunged for Juliette’s rice porridge. Because there’s only one thing Lisa and Nilly like better than Juliette’s rice porridge, and that’s Doctor Proctor’s Jell-O. Unfortunately, Nilly had yet to find a way to make other foods that he liked less well taste like rice porridge or Jell-O. Fortunately, he had come up with a workaround. Nilly happened to love anything that tasted like caramel, so he always kept a bottle of caramel sauce in his pocket. His mother wasn’t exactly a master chef, so when he and his sister ate dinner, Nilly had learned to distract their mother (for example by yelling, “Look! A seven-legged spider!”) and then super quickly giving his food a little squirt of caramel sauce. Even though it must be said that fish sticks with caramel sauce taste
a little weird, and pea soup with caramel sauce even weirder.
Luckily, now they were in Juliette and Doctor Proctor’s kitchen. And while they slurped and gulped and mmmmed, Juliette Margarine told them a story about how her wealthy family back in France used to celebrate Christmas in a big, cold castle, with duck for dinner and gifts before bed on Christmas Eve. They always had plenty of servants, but no friends or relatives.
“With my family it was the opposite,” Doctor Proctor said, getting up to turn on the radio. “My parents had a teeny-weenie, warm little house with no servants, but tons of relatives on Christmas Eve. There were so many of us the house was practically bursting. We oozed out the windows and doors.”
He found the radio station that was playing requests, where contacts, coworkers, classmates, colleagues, cousins, and companions could dedicate
songs to each other and include a brief Christmas greeting.
“We were all inventors,” Doctor Proctor continued, “and everyone would talk over each other, describing their latest inventions. For Christmas Eve dinner we would eat something new that my mother and grandmother had invented and then give each other Christmas presents we’d invented ourselves.”
“Like what?” Nilly asked in between mouthfuls.
“Oh, maybe muscle gloves that let you shovel tons of snow without getting tired or skis that made it impossible for you to fall down. But usually just things that exploded in fun ways. And then there was that year Aunt Inga invented a box of candy where all the pieces talked when you opened the box. They were all babbling over each other about how delicious they were, right up until they all finally started squeaking in unison: ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ ”
“Ho, ho, ho!” Nilly chuckled. “And did you guys have Santa Claus?”
Doctor Proctor stared into space for a minute before answering. “I suppose we did the typical Norwegian thing. After dinner on Christmas Eve my dad would go out. He always said he had to help Santa. And then a while later Santa would stop by with some presents. Then he would say he had a lot of people to visit and disappear as quickly as he’d come.”
“That is exactly what happens at our house!” Lisa said. “Only I can tell from Santa’s shoes that he’s really just my dad, dressed up.”
“What about you, Victor?” Juliette asked. “Could you tell if Santa was actually your father, just dressed up? Did your dad come back again right after Santa left?”
“No,” Doctor Proctor said, sounding distant and staring vacantly out the window. “My dad never came home until really late. I mean, I think helping Santa was a big and important job for him.”
“Ha-ha-ha,” Nilly said sarcastically.
“Well, your Christmas Eve definitely sounds like more fun than at my house,” Lisa said. “In my family we always give each other sensible presents—new backpacks for school and money to participate in band and things like that. My dad makes sure we do all the traditional Norwegian stuff. We join hands and walk around the Christmas tree, always in the correct direction. And when we open our presents, my mom collects the wrapping paper and ribbons so we can use them again the following year. And she
saves all the cards and writes estimates on them of what she thinks the presents cost so the following year we can give them a present that costs about the same amount.”
“You have a very thorough mother,” Doctor Proctor said.
Lisa laughed. “Last year,” she said, “I got a little present wrapped in regular writing paper, which was actually used. I mean, there was writing on it. The card just said ‘from Santa.’ It was a snow globe—you know, one of those glass balls that you shake and then it snows inside.”
“Yes, of course. I know about those,” Doctor Proctor said. “In fact, my great-great-grandfather invented them.”
“Anyway,” Lisa continued, “my mom was really annoyed that it just said ‘from Santa’ because now she has no idea who we have to give an equivalent present to this year! And I didn’t want to tell her that
obviously we only know one person who would think to wrap a present that way!”
Juliette and Lisa looked over at the little redheaded fellow, who didn’t seem to be paying any attention. Instead he was playing air trumpet while whistling the trumpet solo in “Silent Night” on the radio.
“Did he say it was from him?” Doctor Proctor asked, glancing at Nilly. Lisa shook her head.
“Well, then you can’t rule out that it might actually have come from Santa,” Doctor Proctor said, scratching his beard thoughtfully.
“Um, hello?” Lisa groaned. “Santa, really?”
“You don’t believe in Santa Claus?” Doctor Proctor asked in surprise.
“Uh, no! Do you?”
“Noooooo,” Doctor Proctor said, dragging it out. “I don’t believe in Santa Claus. I actually know—”
Juliette loudly cleared her throat. “What do you know?” Lisa asked.
“I . . . uh, know . . . ,” Doctor Proctor said, and then glanced over at Juliette, who gave him a cautionary look.
“Let me put it this way,” Doctor Proctor said. “I know that in recent years fewer and fewer people believe in Santa because he’s getting lost in all the present buying we do. People nowadays believe more in the Christmas sales at Mr. Thrane’s department store than they do in Santa Claus. Every Christmas that goes by, Mr. Thrane gets richer and richer, while Santa, poor guy . . . Well, no one needs him and his simple little gifts anymore.”
“You just made it sound like Santa Claus exists,” Lisa said with a laugh.
“I—” Doctor Proctor began, but Juliette cut him short with a determined throat clearing.
“What does your family usually do for Christmas?” Juliette asked Nilly in order to change the subject.
Nilly made a few strangely smothered, gurgling
sounds before he managed to swallow enough rice porridge to be able to speak.
“It always depended on whether or not my mom was dating anyone. If she was, my sister and I would go spend it with my grandfather, when he was alive. And he would read to us.”
“The Christmas story, you mean?” Juliette asked.
“No,” Nilly said, helping himself to more porridge. “Animals You Wish Didn’t Exist.”
“Hmm, sounds festive.”
“Super festive,” Nilly said, shoveling food into his mouth. “For example, do you know why people in New York City started building skyscrapers with stores on the first couple floors and then residential space farther up?”
The others just looked at him.
“Vampire giraffes,” Nilly said.
“Nooo,” Juliette said, and leaned farther over the table. “Do tell!”
“There’s not much to tell,” Nilly said. “Just that vampire giraffes have these really ghastly fangs that they bite with, and then they suck blood and beer like this . . . .” He loudly slurped rice porridge from his spoon.
“Yuck!” Lisa said.
“But, luckily, they only come out at night,” Nilly said. “Then they stagger around the dark city streets on their long, skinny giraffe legs. They’re so tall and their legs are so skinny that the cars just drive right underneath them and most of the motorists don’t even notice them. And the vampire giraffe doesn’t care about cars; of course it’s just looking for beer and blood. Which is why it’s so great that it has such a long giraffe neck. Well, great for it, really, not great for us, because with those legs and that neck, it can reach the fourth floor, at least. So if you like to sleep with your window open”—Nilly waved his spoon around, causing a little porridge shower—“then
you’d better not have your bedroom or your refrigerator lower than the fifth floor.”
“Mon Dieu!” Juliette whispered as Doctor Proctor chuckled beside her.
“But people in Australia’s Northern Territory have it even worse,” Nilly said, his eyes wide. “The scariest, most remote place on this earth . . .”
“Nilly!” Lisa cried.
Juliette raised one eyebrow and looked at her. “He’s just making this stuff up!” Lisa groaned.
“So what?” Juliette said. “Continue, mon ami.”
“Flying dogs,” Nilly said, stretching his arms out to both sides. “Huuuuuge doggies with bat wings. At dusk they come flying out of their caves in clouds so big they darken the entire sky. A hundred years ago they started encroaching on more densely populated areas, and according to my grandfather, it became the worst infestation since tsetse elephants ravaged the African continent.”
Juliette put her hand over her mouth in horror and then said, “Mais non! And these flying dogs sucked blood from humans?”
“Blood?” Nilly asked, cocking his head. “Why in the world would they do that? We’re talking about dogs. They pooed!”
“Uh . . . pooed?” Juliette asked, turning to Doctor Proctor. “What is that in French, Victor?”
“I’ll explain later, my dear.”
“It just tumbled down,” Nilly said, putting his hands on his head. “People got it in their hair, on their hats, on their bald heads, in their yards, on the roofs, patios, and swimming pools. And these were no little dogs on leashes with owners that have those little plastic bags to clean up after them. The poop was several feet deep in some places, runny brown muck that people slipped on, waded through, and sometimes drowned in. Oh, and
the smell! Hey, does anyone else want more rice porridge?”
“No, thank you,” the other three all answered simultaneously, watching as Nilly scooped the rest of the runny, white muck into his bowl.
“So they put a bounty on the flying dogs,” Nilly said. “There were quite simply too many of them. I mean, the Australians are really fond of their backyard barbecues. So right around sunset they’d fire up their grills, shoot straight up into the air and—thump!—a fresh dog-steak would land smack on the grill. They liked to eat them with bread and mustard and ketchup, and according to my grandfather, that’s actually where the term ‘hot dog’ came from. Now, speaking of ketchup . . .” Nilly pulled the bottle of caramel sauce out of his pocket and looked at the porridge in his bowl.
“Totally unnecessary,” Lisa said, shaking her head.
“Agreed,” Nilly said, and stuffed the bottle of caramel sauce back in his pocket. “Anyway, my grandfather went to Australia to write about the flying dogs in AYWDE.”
“AYWDE?” Juliette asked.
“Animals You Wish Didn’t Exist,” Lisa and Doctor Proctor responded in unison.
“And then one night when my grandfather was at a barbecue at someone’s house, something else tumbled onto the grill,” Nilly said. “They had shot down some kind of flying billy goat, antlers and all!”
Lisa slapped her hand to her forehead. “Nilly, you’re lying!”
“Am not!” Nilly said.
“Are too!” Lisa put her hands on her hips. “Can you go home, get your grandfather’s book, and show me the flying goat, then?”
“Of course not.”
“Ha! You see? Because you’re lying!”
“Now, now, kids,” Doctor Proctor said, but Nilly had already leaped onto the table.
“It’s not in the book because a goat with meat that tender is not an animal you wish didn’t exist,” Nilly declared, standing on the table. “Quite the contrary, it’s an animal you’re glad exists because you can’t imagine a more mouthwatering Sunday roast.”
“Well put, Nilly,” Doctor Proctor said. “So well put that, as a reward, you have permission to do the dishes.”
“The dishes . . . ? Reward?”
“Yes, and you’re certainly welcome to ask your best friend if she wants to help you dry.”
Nilly moaned and closed his eyes. His red-haired head and his short arms drooped. Then he raised his head again, opened one eye, and looked at Lisa.
“Heeeeey, Liiiiisa . . . ?”
“Fine!” she said, pulling the napkin off her lap in annoyance. “I’ll help you.” She started gathering up the dishes.
“Oh, Lisa, you’re so nice!” Nilly jumped down beside her and flung his arms around his best friend.
“Yes, and you always manage to take advantage of that!” she said, and gave him a little swat on the head, although not that hard, and it’s possible she might have been smiling a bit, too. Because if Lisa was to be honest—and she almost always was—there were actually a couple of things she loved even more than Jell-O, and one of them was Nilly.
Nilly and Lisa did the dishes while Juliette and Doctor Proctor drank coffee at the kitchen table and hummed along to the Christmas music on the radio’s call-in show. Lisa told them that what she wanted for Christmas was a kinder world where things were a little better for poor children. She didn’t see Nilly, who was standing behind her making faces and yawning as loudly as he could. And Nilly explained that he wanted a little time soap so he could go back to the Moulin Rouge in
Paris in 1922 and watch the dancers dancing the cancan onstage.
“I looove cancan dancers,” Nilly said with his eyes closed, so he didn’t see Lisa, who was making faces and rabbit ears behind his back. And then all four of them suddenly froze because the voice on the radio had just said Doctor Proctor’s name.
“ . . . Victor Proctor would like to dedicate this song to his girlfriend, Juliette Margarine, and wishes everyone on Cannon Avenue, including Lisa and Nilly, a very merry Christmas!”
And then an accordion started playing and a woman began singing in French. “Édith Piaf!” Juliette said with a smile.
“What’s she singing about?” Lisa asked.
“Something romantic that’s a little sad in the middle,” Juliette said. “But listen. Now it gets cheerful!”
And then Doctor Proctor danced with Juliette, and Lisa asked if Nilly wanted to dance too, and he
said sure, but only if they danced the cancan. So Lisa and Nilly stood next to each other, put their hands on their hips, and kicked their legs into the air as high as they could while yelling, “Cancan!”
“THIS IS AN EXTRA NEWS BULLETIN! THIS JUST IN! TODAY THE KING SOLD CHRISTMAS TO MR. THRANE!”
The voice on the radio had spoken so abruptly and what it said was so shocking that Doctor Proctor and
Juliette slipped in the middle of a pirouette and Nilly and Lisa tipped over backward, each with one foot up in the air.
“MR. THRANE ANNOUNCED THAT FROM THIS POINT FORWARD CHRISTMAS COULD ONLY BE CELEBRATED BY PEOPLE WHO HAD PURCHASED AT LEAST TEN THOUSAND CROWNS’ WORTH OF PRESENTS FROM ONE OF THRANE’S DEPARTMENT STORES.”