"Whose mug is this?" Becky asked.
"No idea," I replied. "What are you talking about?"
"This mug right here," she said. I leaned back in my chair and craned my neck to see.
"I'm trying to watch this show," I said. "What's the big deal about a mug?"
"I've never seen it before," Becky said, getting that tone in her voice like I was about to be in trouble.
"So what? You collect cups and mugs like most people ... er, don't," I said. If I was going to be in trouble, I might as well go for broke.
"Well, look at it. It's weird. And I've never seen it before."
Becky shoved the mug at me, as if the mug was some particularly grievous offense for which I was to blame. The mug was tall, for a mug, made of a cracked and glazed ceramic that had yellowed with age. It looked like any of a dozen that we had in our over-stuffed cabinets, received as white-elephant Christmas gifts, on sale at Tuesday Morning, or otherwise somehow ending up being filled with coffee or tea or hot chocolate.
"It's a mug. I fail to recognize its relevance to the TV show that it is currently interrupting," I said.
Becky made a clicking sound with her tongue, and the I-Want crease between her eyebrows deepened. I was treading on thin ice. "Look at the painting on the side, jerk."
I sighed and put on my reading glasses. The scene on the side of the mug was a Norman Rockwell-style winter scene with capering animals and laughing children. "It's a Christmas mug," I said, and took my glasses off.
"That's not Christmas," Becky said, hands on her hips. "I know Christmas, and that's not it. Look closer, right there in the middle." She pointed at the central figure in the painting. I put my glasses on again, and looked. The middle of the painting showed what appeared to be a winged man standing in front of an oval pool of water, attended to by several smaller figures wearing red cloaks. This scene was bordered with elaborately decorated Christmas trees, garlanded and ornamented. A laughing child was standing by each tree. I then saw that what I had mistaken for animals were in fact elves or fairies, playing amongst running children.
"Ok, you're right. That's pretty weird. It's still a Christmas mug. Those are Christmas trees, and that's an Angel. The Christmas Angel," I said.
"Let me see it," Becky said. She had found a magnifying glass from somewhere. She peered into the magnifying glass at the mug. "I don't think those children are having a good time," she said. "Look here, at this tree. I thought this kid was wearing a belt, or funny clothes, but it looks like it goes around the trunk of the tree. Like the kid is tied to the tree."
"You're pranking me. You got this off the Internet, didn't you?"
Becky, holding the mug, opened her mouth to say something. Closed it. Put the mug down on the table. "No, Richard. I swear to you, I have never seen that thing in my life. It's not a joke." She turned and walked away, towards our bedroom, with the tight, clenched movements that loudly indicated that she was no longer speaking to me.
I picked up the mug from the table, and looked at it. She was right, it was pretty creepy. The little animal-elf creatures' painted eyes were narrow in a way that suggested slyness, or malice, and the children's expressions of laughter and glee could just as easily have been grimaces of fear and shrieks of pain. I shuddered, and realized I had been staring at the mug for several minutes. I stepped on the pedal of the waste bin, and dropped the mug into the trash with a satisfying clunk. "And that's that," I said, and went to my bedroom, hoping to grovel my way back into my wife's good graces.
The mug was back in the cabinet the next morning. "Did you fish this out of the trash?" I asked, as Becky stirred her eggs.
"What?" she asked.
"That damned mug from last night."
"No, I didn't know you threw it away. Maybe one of the kids found it."
I turned to the table, and cocked an eyebrow. The kids were busy eating cereal and fighting amongst themselves. Brent, the oldest, said, "Nope. Not me."
Richie, my younger son, said, "Eew! Why would anyone take stuff out of the trash? That's gross!"
Hanna, my daughter, began to chant "Gross!" at the top of her four-year-old lungs. Richie decided to copy her, and Brent tried to police them both.
"Maybe I'm mistaken," I said. "It's trash now, so I expect none of you to go rooting through the garbage for it." I took the mug out of the cabinet, and held it for a moment. The painting on the side seemed different, somehow. I couldn't quite put my finger on what was different. I stared at the central figure, hands raised as it stood near a dark pool, wings rising high above its head. I heard something then, a whisper, some word whose shape I could not quite discern. Something touched my arm then, and I jumped, defensively jabbing my elbow backwards. I heard a thin shriek from behind me. I turned to see Richie, clutching his nose, blood pouring down his face and shirt.
"Oh, crap, Richie! Are you ok?" I asked. Richie stood there in shock. "I swear I had no idea you were back there, honey. Let me take a look at it."
Becky declared nothing was broken, but allowed Richie to skip school for the day, much to Brent's dismay. Richie over-acted his injury, insisting that his mother bandage his head to the point that he looked like a mummy from an old movie. Hanna found this to be amazingly funny, and took every opportunity to try to insert tiny dolls into the bandages.
Our house is several miles from town, nestled in a sheltering cove. The property is relatively large, and mostly covered in pine and spruce. Becky and I chose the location for its remoteness and privacy, but we knew the kids missed not having any neighboring children for playmates, and in ten years we have had a total of two trick-or-treaters.
On the drive to work, I kept thinking about that damned mug. The large, straight trunks of age-old pine trees flickered past as I made my way down the dirt county road that we think of as our driveway, because ours was the only residence along it. I found myself going over details from the painting on the side, and in particular the little creatures with their red capes and hats and their sly expressions. In the flickers of dawn light streaming between the darkened pine trunks along the road, I imagined I could see red cloaks slipping behind trees just before I looked at them, and that I could hear them laughing and cavorting just on the other side of that tangle of undergrowth. I shook my head, and laughed to myself. Definitely trying to freak myself out.
I am a manager at a construction company that specializes in building houses in the Rockies. I say building, but we mostly prefab the houses at one of our two plants, load the pieces onto trucks, and assemble them at the house site. In most areas of the country, prefab houses are either looked down on as cheap, or are far more expensive than site-built houses. In the mountains, however, there is not a lot of room to move, and there is a severe shortage of construction labor.
It was a Friday in late October, so my work load was light. Snow is always a possibility this time of the year, and that plays havoc with most construction, so most of our projects had wrapped up. The small office was mostly vacant after noon. I walked to the break room to brew a fresh pot of coffee. I flipped on the light switch, and froze. The mug was sitting on the table, right in front of me. I stared at it for a moment, heart pounding. I took a step towards the table, and realized it was just an ordinary white coffee mug. I laughed, and gave myself a mental shake. It did not occur to me to wonder why, moments before, I was completely terrified of an old mug.
Snow began to fall around three, and had lightly dusted the near-empty parking lot when I left at five. Becky had texted me to pick up milk, bread, cereal, and other staples on my way home, in case the storm became as bad as the weather forecast predicted. By the time I turned onto the long mountain road to our house, it was past six, and full dark. The snow had lessened for an hour or so, but then blew in stronger than before. I have lived in these mountains for years, so my truck was well-equipped for those conditions, with snow tires, fog lights, and an extra light bar on the roof. I was lulled to a false sense of security by the blowing, fluttering snowflakes, when, in a flash of red and shadow, something darted in front of my truck. I felt a sickening thud, and heard a scream. I panic-braked, the truck slewing around on the icy road before skidding to a stop.
I shoved open my door, and jumped out onto the roadway, nearly slipping on the ice. "Hello!" I called out. I walked to the front of my truck, nausea creeping up my throat for what I knew could only be a scene from a nightmare. In the harsh glare of the headlamps and fog lights, there was nothing. Snowflakes ticked down onto the unmarred white of the road, and steamed against the headlamps. Frantically, I scrabbled for the large flashlight I keep next to my seat. I fumbled it on, and flashed it around underneath my truck. Nothing. I walked around the truck to the rear. Still nothing. Movement caught my eye, and I turned to look down the road to my right. There, on the snow-covered road, was a pool of blood, nearly black in the dim light. I took a step towards it, and the red pool moved. It moved a second time before I realized the red was a ragged swathe of cloth, wadded and partially frozen into the snow and ice on the road. I kicked at it with my boot, just to be sure, and it rolled limply away at my touch, flapping in the storm's stiff wind. I let out a breath that I had been holding for hours, passed a shaky hand across my forehead, and walked back to the truck.
I saw them moving amongst the trees the rest of the way home. In my mind, Every time a cloaked figure darted alongside the road, my pulse quickened and my hands clenched the wheel, until I drew close enough to see that the shape was only a bobbing tree limb or swirling snow. I cursed them under my breath anyway, knowing full well my mind was playing tricks on me.
Becky met me at the front door with a worried look. "You're over an hour late. What took so long?"
"Deer jumped out in front of me," I lied. "I thought I hit it, so I got out to look. I didn't see any damage, so I must have grazed it."
"Oh... dear," Becky said, with a serious look upon her face.
"Ha ha, you should take up a career in comedy."
Becky burst out laughing, and we went to the kitchen and sat down for dinner. The mood was light, and the children were excited about the snow. "Daddy, the weather man says it's gonna be a blizzard!" Brent said. I cast an inquiring eye at Becky.
"That's what the weather man says. Earliest blizzard in twenty years. Might be a long weekend," Becky said.
"Those weather guys can't predict yesterday's weather. It'll blow past tomorrow. You'll see. By Sunday, we'll all be outside in our swimming pool, complaining about the heat."
"We don't have a swimming pool, Daddy!" Richie said.
"We don't?" I asked, with a mock-serious expression on my face. "Did someone steal our swimming pool?" The children laughed. "Someone call the pool police!"
After dinner, the children rinsed their plates, and put them into the dishwasher. Brent pointed at my hands. "I thought you said that was trash, Dad." I looked down, and realized I had been holding the mug. Rubbing its sides with my fingers.
"Yeah, buddy. I need to throw this away. Again. Thanks." When I reached the trash can, I felt a small rattling vibration from the mug, as if there was something inside it. I shook the mug, and heard the rattle again. I peered into the mug — did it seem deeper now than earlier? — and saw something. I turned the mug, and shook a small white object into my hand. It was a tiny tooth. I looked at the tooth for a moment, then threw both the mug and the tooth into the trash.
The next morning, Brent was missing. Becky woke me, panicked. We checked the various hiding places within the house, but stopped when we saw the tracks leading through the snow.
"Maybe he just went out to play in the woods," I said.
"He never does that. Not without telling us. And not without his brother," Becky said.
"You stay here, in case he comes back. I'll go after him."
I shrugged into my heavy overcoat, and my waterproof boots, feeling the tendrils of a bad headache slip around my brainstem. If anything, the storm had strengthened during the night, and visibility was poor in the woods. Over thirty inches of snow had fallen in the night, and drifts were as high as five feet in some places. If he had fallen into a drift — but I couldn’t think about that. Not with Brent.
The tracks led deeper into a forest landscape made alien by the snow. The forest was alive with the crashing sounds of snow falling from trees, and the cracking of branches unable to bear the additional weight. It sounded, at times, like a low chuckling laughter. I crested a small rise, and saw a splash of red in a low clearing below me. For a moment, I thought it was one of the creatures from the mug. As I drew closer, I saw it was Brent's red toboggan.
"Brent!" I called. He moved, turning towards me. He was sitting on a small tree trunk, huddled against the cold.
"I hurt my ankle, Daddy," he said, face upturned to mine, lips purplish.
"Can you walk on it?" I asked, and he nodded. "Why in the world were you out here? You could have died, son!" I asked, as we slowly hobbled back to the house.
"They wanted to play, Daddy."
"Who wanted to play?" I asked, knowing, and dreading, the answer.
"There was a bunch of kids outside this morning. I saw them through my window. They waved at me. They asked me to come out and play, so I did. I followed them out to the woods, but I couldn't find them. They were just gone!" Brent started to cry. "I'm scared, Daddy. I got all the way out here and twisted my ankle, and when I sat down on that log, I looked around for them. They were there, but there's no tracks in the snow! How could that happen, Daddy?"
I stopped, just outside view of the house. "I don't know. Maybe you were still half-dreaming. Maybe they had on snow shoes. I do know one thing — don't tell your mom anything about this. Keep it between us. Tell her you just decided to go play in the snow. And don't go outside any more. Not alone, not with your brother or sister, unless I'm with you." Brent nodded his understanding.
Becky expressed her anger with Brent quietly when we arrived at the house. She checked Brent's ankle, declared it sprained, and sent him straight to his room with a firm grounding — no electronics, no books, sit on the bed and be bored. Brent shuffled meekly upstairs, and Becky glared at me, as if it were my fault. "He said he just went outside to play," I said.
"It's in the middle of a blizzard, Richard. He's old enough to know better. The weather guy says it's the worst early fall storm in ten years. I don't want them going outside at all. It's too dangerous. You can't see farther than your fingers out there." I nodded, but didn't share my own reasons for agreeing with her.
The power went out around noon. The lines to our house were buried, but some of the larger lines weren't, so power outages were an expected part of winter in the mountains. I had bought a nice diesel generator from a liquidation auction a few years ago, and had installed it in a shed behind the house. I keep a week's worth of diesel fuel in a tank near the shed. The property counts as a farm, and so long as I don't put the specially-dyed 'farm' diesel into my truck (and get caught), I pay about half what I would have to pay at a regular pump.
The switchover to generator power was manual, but not terribly difficult. After the lights had been off for an hour, Becky and I decided they weren't coming back on for a while, so I bundled up and trudged through the ever-deepening snow drifts to the shed. The generator coughed into life on the third try, and I winced as my head throbbed in time with the noise. I checked the fuel level, the exhaust vent, and the breaker panel. I turned to walk back to the house, but when I tried to push the shed door open, it wouldn't budge. I pushed harder, and the door opened slightly, letting in the dim white light of the blizzard. I heard a childish laugh, and saw Brent run past the slitted doorway. "Hey! Brent! Quit screwing around! I have to get the power on in the house!" More laughter. My headache roared into life, intensified by the racket of the diesel generator. I slammed my shoulder into the door, opening it by a few more inches. I reached my hand through the opening, and could feel a chunk of wood braced against the door, but I couldn't move it. I slammed the door with my shoulder again, and Brent laughed from the other side of the door. The door shuddered as he kicked it back at me, hitting me in the face. I pulled back in shock for a moment, and then the red fog of my temper overtook me.
I am not a violent man. This is due to years of patient, studied effort. When my temper does break, it breaks hard. I didn't control it as well when I was younger, which ultimately landed me in a jail cell for a night after a drunken brawl when I was in college. I have lost my temper with the children at times; they drive you to it, with their testing. But not like this. The cold, the headache, the worry, and ultimately the deep sense of unease sent me over the edge of control. I roared in my rage, and slammed my body against the door. Some part of the wood or hinges snapped, and the door swung open. I looked around, but saw no sign of Brent, but I did see his tracks in the snow, leading back to the house.
I kicked the shed door shut, and stomped up the path to the house. Once inside, I flung off my heavy coat, and climbed the stairs two at a time. When I reached Brent's room, I flung his door open so hard that it rebounded from the adjacent wall. "Brent!" The sneaky little turd was laying on his bed, pretending to be asleep. "What the hell were you playing at, Brent?"
"Wha-what?" Brent exclaimed, eyes wide, scrambling back away from me.
Crack! I slapped him, hard, across the mouth. "Outside! Locking me into the shed!"
Brent started to cry. Sissy. "Oh, suck it up, son. If you're going to dish it out, learn to take it."
"I didn't do anything!" he wailed. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
"I saw you out there! I heard you laughing!" I raised my hand, curled into a fist this time, ready to do some damage.
"RICHARD!" Becky shouted from behind me.
I stopped, the rage draining from me, leaving only the whirling daggers of the headache, stabbing into my skull. I lowered my arm. "He wedged the shed door shut. I saw him, Becky."
"I did not!" Brent shouted, still crying.
"Richard, he couldn't have. I was downstairs the whole time, and I never heard him go outside. And look, his clothes are dry," Becky said.
I blinked, and looked around. Brent's boots were on the floor, dry from when he had toweled them off earlier that morning. Brent cowered on the bed, knees drawn up to his chest, face reddened from the slap. That was bad. Worse was the look in Becky's eyes: anger, and concern, and a little bit of fear. Avoiding both of their gazes, I mumbled something in the way of an apology, and about getting the power back on, and fled the room.
Dinner was tense. Brent had lapsed into a pubescent teenager sullenness, and wouldn't look at me. Becky kept watching me as if I might fly into a homicidal rage any moment. Richie and Hanna were confused, both seeming to know that something was wrong, but not understanding what it was. I had shut off nearly half the breakers in the house, so as to make the generator fuel last longer. We ate quietly, in the sparse dim light. Afterwards, Becky suggested everyone go to bed early, and as a true sign of something being wrong, nobody complained.
I awoke with a start from some vague nightmare of something reaching towards me with terrible fingers, drenched with sweat and wrapped in layers of sheets and blankets. I lay there for a moment, pulse racing, trying to remember the dream. I rarely remember my dreams, and the last memorable nightmare I had was prior to Brent’s birth. I rolled over, and tried to go back to sleep, but realized I had to pee. I staggered to the dark bathroom by feel and memory. I made my way back to bed, and froze. Laughter, thin and childish, coming from upstairs.
I heard the laughter again, as I quietly climbed the stairs to the second floor. "Hannah, what are you doing up?" I asked my daughter, somehow knowing the answer, and dreading it. She giggled, and looked up from her spot on the floor.
"The little people's funny, Daddy!" she said, and smiled at me. In her outstretched hands was the mug.
"It's way too early to be up and playing, munchkin." I gingerly took the mug from her hands, and put it on her dresser. I picked her up and put her back in her bed, and kissed her forehead. "It's still sleepy time, so you be a good girl and go back to bed."
"Night-night, Daddy. I love you!" she said, as I closed her door. I carried the mug downstairs, opened the back door, and stepped out into the drifts of snow on the back deck. Murky, uncertain moonlight filtered through the low clouds, casting the forest into a chiaroscuro landscape of snow and shadows. The snow stung against my feet, melting into a slush that quickly soaked into my socks. I flung the mug as hard as I could into the nighttime forest, and waited for a few moments until I heard a distant thump that I imagined could be the mug landing in a snow drift, or perhaps shattering against the trunk of some lonely forgotten pine. The shadows clustered just outside the reach of the wan moonlight burst apart, each one resolving into a running, cloaked figure. There were hundreds.
I stepped back with an inhaled breath, and a fist involuntarily drawn back to my mouth. The figures stopped, and turned to me, each as still as stone, watching me in the darkness. The rage returned then, welling up like blood from a wound, old and unhealed. How dare they. This is my house. This is my land. How dare they. I shoved my feet into boots, and threw on my heavy overcoat and gloves. I grabbed my rifle, a long, heavy thing with enough power to take down a bear, and left the house. Snow crunched and squeaked as I made my way towards the forest's edge. The figures had dispersed, but I saw one moving away from me at the top of a rise. I tightened my grip on the rifle, and followed.
Minutes or hours passed. I cannot rightfully say how long I stumbled along those snowy paths in the darkness. At some point I realized that I should have brought a flash light, I should have told Becky, I should have stayed at home. Whenever those thoughts came to me, they were quickly banished by a cloaked figure, beckoning to me from behind a tree, and later, after I fell in a snowdrift, laughing at me, kicking me in the ribs and dancing just out of reach. When I reached the clearing, I was exhausted, soaked with sweat, and freezing. My vision blurred, two scenes superimposing themselves, until I admitted to myself what I was seeing: the clearing, and the pool, was the scene from the mug. An array of short conical spruce trees stood at the edge of the clearing. In front of, and between, stood ranks of small figures whose cloaks appeared black in the silvery moonlight. Yet I knew those cloaks were red, red as blood.
The dark figures standing at the edge of the pool did not frighten me as much as the pool itself. It was small, and appeared shallow, but its black waters should have long frozen at those temperatures. I trudged forward, using my rifle for support, past caring about the snow and dirt fouling the barrel. When I reached the pool's edge, and saw its dark waters slowly lapping at the edge, I realized that despite my fear, I was very, very thirsty. I looked to my left hand, where the white mug hung. I sighed, and sank to my knees. Sunk the mug, which was rattling again, into the gently moving waters. Filled the mug to the brim, brought it to my lips, and drank deeply. It was fantastically refreshing. I scooped more water from the pool, and drank again, and again. On my fourth drink, water dribbling from my chin and soaking my nightshirt, a chance break in the cloud cover allowed light from the gibbous moon a direct path into the pool, illuminating what lay beneath the surface. The twisted and hacked limbs looked blue in that light, dead eyes reflecting the moonlight almost as clearly as the surface of the pool itself.
I recoiled from the pool in horror, and began to notice the smell of the clearing. The low temperatures had greatly dampened the odor, but there it was, the green and dripping odor of rot and putrescence, the faintly fruity odor of decay. I tried desperately to expel the fouled water that I had ingested, but my throat and stomach rebelled. I shoved two cold-numbed fingers into my mouth, but small hands grabbed my arms, and pulled them back. Other hands shoved me back to the ground, kneeling on the snow, and yet others entwined themselves in my hair, pulling my head back so that I might see what resolved itself at the other end of the pool. The cold winter darkness stretched there, like the skin of the world was being pushed at by some wet thrashing thing trying to push its way through.
I awoke, or perhaps became aware of myself, some time later. I was sitting on my front porch, in the dark. I was very cold. I stood up, brushed the snow off of my pajama pants, and went inside. I took off my boots and overcoat, and turned to walk upstairs, when my foot clinked off of something on the floor. The mug sat on the floor, smooth and dry, glinting in the dim light from the kitchen.
I picked up the mug, and placed it on the kitchen counter. I found Becky's magnifying glass in a drawer, and looked closely at the figures on the side of the mug. Their crude lines flowed and circled as they danced and ran in the snowy woods, chasing and herding children into the central clearing. While they ran, they told me things, in their small voices. They told me of how great He was, and how powerful, and how the world would tremble at His power. They showed me the sacred ceremony, how the children were tied and bound to the trees, and how the children’s living organs garlanded the trees as an offering to His Majesty, to quicken His arrival.
I understood, finally. I was filled with awe at His might, and humbled that He and His children had chosen me to be His emissary, to be His Mid-Father that welcomed Him to the world once again. I understood what I had to do next. I was saddened, yet joyous. I chose the sharpest knife.
The mug must be filled.