The rumours began yesterday. The villagers always think they can predict which door William has chosen to come next.
“He picks the fire around this time.”
“No, it’ll be the lake.”
“Are you kidding? It’s far too early. It’s going to be the bedtime one.”
“He does that one nearer to Christmas Day.”
“Not true. Five years ago he did it on the ninth.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.”
On and on and on it went. The library is a hub for idle gossip in Morkwod, particularly with the older members of the community. They can often be found milling around the romance or history sections, speaking far too loudly about things I didn’t want to have to listen to.
Mabel Lundt, a horrendous blabbermouth, even tried to get me to join in.
“I reckon Margaret knows,” Mabel said, nudging her friend Junie in the ribs.
I held my hand out so I could stamp her copy of Lord of Scoundrels, but she held it close to her chest, goading me to speak.
I relented. “Why would I know which door is next?”
“The quiet ones always know more than they let on,” Junie butted in excitedly, no doubt parroting words she had heard coming out of Mabel’s mouth.
I sighed. “I don’t know anything. Now, are you going to let me stamp your book, or are you going to stand here all day wasting my time?”
The truth is, there is a discernible pattern to the paintings William chooses, insofar as he does everything possible to subvert expectations. Sometimes the activity will be the opposite of what the villagers expect to see, and other times he does exactly what is expected, because no one will be expecting that. It’s an endless mind game.
I tried not to drive myself to distraction by thinking about the Advent House all day, but it’s difficult not to. And it’s exactly what William wants.
As the door was being opened at five o’clock, I decided to go to bed early last night and wake up around four, but I was unable to sleep. I had to keep reminding myself to relax my jaw, unfurl my balled fists and stop taking note of every little noise in the house.
When I finally fell asleep, I was woken less than an hour later by the shrill beeping of my alarm clock. Bewildered and completely disoriented, I arrived at the Advent House with barely seconds to spare.
“You’re pushing it,” Aunt Iris said as I stumbled up beside her. “You know what happens if anyone is late. And what if you had missed it? Jesus, I dare not think about that…”
“But I didn’t miss it, did I?” I said, trying to catch my breath. “I’m here.”
“Only just. It’s not worth the risk, is all I’m saying.”
But as it turned out, I didn’t really need to be there. Today’s painting was of a small, half-built wooden structure, with men dotted around the outside carrying axes, hammers and small planks of wood.
“All women and children to go home immediately,” William said, sticking his chest out as if it were swollen with his own self-importance. “All the men to make their way to the village hall.”
On the first year of the Advent House, this painting instigated the creation of the Morkwood village hall. All the men in the village had to build it together, and they worked around the clock to get it finished in time for Christmas. Every year since then, whenever the painting is revealed, the men of Morkwood have to spend time on repairs and improvements.
The hall is where all major social gatherings happen, such as birthday parties, wedding receptions and wakes. It’s also where everyone gathers to eat lunch on Christmas Day.
There was a sense of disappointment from the crowd, especially from the children, but I was more than happy to turn around and walk straight back home.
Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about that damned Advent House. Every painting within it has a double meaning, there must be more to it than that.
And then I remembered – just two weeks ago, William had hired workmen from outside of Morkwood to retile the toilet in the village hall.
And earlier in the year, at the beginning of January, more outsiders were hired to repaint the interior walls.
Why would William hire people to do the sort of jobs that the Morkwood men could be doing over Christmas?
When I reached my doorstep, I knew I had to find out. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t.
I waited by my window, watching all of the women and children return to their homes. I then waited a little longer before turning off all the lights and quietly creeping out.
It was still quite dark, so I hoped no one would be able to see me as I made my way towards the village hall. I used memory and the faint early morning light to guide me there.
I approached the hall from the rear in case any of the men were still outside, but the coast was clear.
The village hall windows are quite high, but luckily there was a mop and bucket propped against the back door. I upturned the bucket and placed it beneath one of the windows – I’d still have to stand on tiptoe to see, but I only needed a brief look.
Clinging to the wall for support, I peaked inside. All the men of the village were casually chatting with one another in the hall, and as the windows were so poorly fitted I could hear almost every word they were saying – although there was nothing of note.
William was standing on the stage, of course, waiting for the perfect time to take control of proceedings. And it wasn’t long before he opened his mouth to bellow out commands.
“All right, all right, gents. It’s time. You know what to do.”
I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I almost fell off the bucket when all the men began unzipping their coats, pulling their jumpers over their heads and kicking off their shoes.
One by one they got completely naked, and then piled their clothes near the entrance of the hall.
William remained clothed. He waited until every single man was naked, and then went to fetch a couple of large shopping bags from behind the stage.
“Pass these around, will you?” he said to Terry, who was standing at the foot of the stage.
I tried not to look too closely at Terry’s scrawny body as he took the bags and placed them on the floor in front of him. He then pulled out an armful of what looked like small planks of wood – some with sticks glued to top of them, others without.
The men came forward and, one by one, took a piece of wood from Terry. It took a long while for everyone to get one, but there was more than enough to go around.
“Do you all have one?” William asked. I noticed he hadn’t taken one for himself.
“Okay, now put them on.”
That’s when I realised what they were. Small, wooden masks. Some of them had stag-like horns attached to the top, others did not. There seemed to be no reason why some had horns and others didn’t.
My exhaustion numbed me to the sheer ridiculousness of the sight before me. Here were all the men of Morkwood, standing naked in the village hall wearing masks. And then there was William at the front like an insane conductor.
“All right, gentlemen,” he said. “Arms up.”
They all raised their arms above their head, as if they were on a rollercoaster.
Suddenly one of my feet slipped off the bucket. I managed to grip onto the wall to retain my balance.
And then I looked up.
William was looking straight at me.
I jumped off the bucket and crouched down low, breathing heavily, trying to work out where to run. If William came out the back, I would have to go into the woods. If he came out the front, I could try and make it home. But there was no sense in moving until I knew for sure which door he would come out of.
Maybe he didn’t see me. Maybe the light was reflecting against the glass and it obscured me from view. Maybe I was mistaken.
But what if he had seen me?
I ran straight back to my house.
I didn’t sleep at all last night. I was just second guessing myself as to whether William had actually seen me or not. Surely he would have come out of the village hall immediately to reprimand me? Or at the very least knocked on my door at some point yesterday?
He didn’t, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know that I saw… whatever it was that I saw.
I was thinking about it all day yesterday. The wooden masks looked like something a child would have made. And why were they all naked, with their arms raised? Was it a sexual thing? I can’t imagine Terry or Lawrence or Victor – or even William come to think of it – would allow anything sordid to take place in Morkwood, even if it was a tradition.
When I arrived at the Advent House this morning, I decided it was easier to not look or speak to anyone. Not yet. I had to talk to Aunt Iris first. Maybe she knew what they had been doing?
I was so focused on not looking at anyone that I didn’t realise William had already opened the door.
Everyone began to moan about whatever it was, but I couldn’t see anything. I had to push Mary aside and reluctantly asked Kenneth to crouch down, trying not to let my imagination get the better of me.
The painting was of a dead, grey fish.
“Line up, ladies and gents!” William shouted.
There was a lot of confused toing and froing while everyone tried to organise themselves into a straight line.
“You all know the rules,” William said as the commotion died down. “No moving. Not even a smile. Are you ready? Three…two…one…freeze!”
I willed my body not to tremble in the cold, or react to the thoughts bombarding my mind.
William began walking slowly from one end of the line to the other, studying each of us individually from head to toe. I held my breath.
When he was just a few feet away, Carla’s baby kicked out, forcing Carla to tighten her grip on him.
My heart sank for her, but at the same time I was relieved it wasn’t me.
Just as I was about to offer to hold the baby for her, William marched up to me.
“Margaret Trellers!” he bellowed.
I don’t remember what I said, but I know it was cowardly. I think I started stuttering about Carla, trying to get William to believe me that it was her who had moved first, not me. But he ignored my pleas.
“Wait here,” he said, smirking. “I’ll go get your ‘prize’.”
William disappeared down the side of the Advent House, and came back with a coolbox.
“It wasn’t me,” I said as he put it down in front of me. “It wasn’t me. Why won’t you listen?”
He put a hand up to shush me. “You know the rules. The first person to move has to eat it. All of it.”
“But I didn’t…”
William lifted the lid off the coolbox and pulled out a plastic bag from inside. He held it up for everyone to see.
Slumped at the bottom of the bag was a dead, uncooked fish coated in jelly.
“I didn’t move first,” I said. “You know that.”
I had intended my voice to sound accusatory, or even stern, but it came out as more of a whine. It didn’t matter either way. He had chosen me. Because of what I had seen.
William opened the bag and immediately turned his head to the side, grimacing at the smell. He then thrust the thing into my arms.
The smell spread outwards like a cloud, getting stronger and stronger as I held the open bag. The people either side of me took a few steps back, spluttering as the stench of rotten flesh filled the air.
The Advent Fish is left for a few weeks to ferment before being coated in a jelly made of animal fat and fish guts. Traditionally, the Advent Fish was a prize for whoever managed to stay still the longest, but the rules changed when modern tastes depicted the prize to be more of a punishment.
“I can’t,” I said.
I felt all the eyes of Morkwood on me. I knew what they were all thinking – I would have thought the same thing too if it was someone else holding the bag: just eat it. Get it over with. It will be so much worse if you don’t.
I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and put my hand in the bag, wrapping my fingers around the cold, slippery head of the fish. I felt my fingers sink deeper into the jelly as I slowly pulled it out.
Closing my eyes, I put the head in between my teeth and bit down.
The jelly exterior was fishy and salty, but it wasn’t until my teeth touched the scales that I began to gag. I kept swallowing the jelly to try and calm down the retching, but the cold blubber just kept coming back up into my mouth as my stomach lurched uncontrollably.
I swallowed hard, forcing it all back down.
Just a few minutes and it would all be over with. Just a few minutes.
It was best to go as quickly as possible. I started taking huge bites out of the fish, chewing as fast as I could, feeling the tiny bones splintering and crunching and imbedding into my teeth. The skin was chewy and hard to rip off and break down, but it was the eyes that were by far the worst. Each one popped in my mouth, spilling thick, bitter liquid into my cheeks.
I tried to avoid identifying the specific parts I was eating – the fins, the lungs, the bowels – but my tongue inadvertently touched them.
I made the mistake of opening my eyes as I neared the end, and I looked at the gnawed mess in my hand. The thing that I was eating, mushed grey and red and purple, and the texture – the smell. I looked up at the sky, begging my body to hold it all in.
And then, finally, it was all over.
I didn’t wipe my face on the sleeve of my coat, clean my hands on my trousers, or even think about how sick I felt. Not yet. I just turned and started walking back to my house, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
I heard a few laughs and some cheers behind me, but I couldn’t think about them. I couldn’t imagine what they were about to say about me. Or what they were going to say to me tomorrow. I just had to get home.
The second my front door was closed behind me, warmed, churned jelly spewed from my mouth and onto the floor, followed by whole chunks of flesh and shattered bone.
When the retching had finally stopped, there was no question about what I had to do.
I had to ruin Christmas.
Read the last episode of The Festivities of Morkwood.