Savoury smells were wafting from the kitchen, hinting that lunch would soon be ready. In a corner of the room, the Christmas candy were beckoning. The tree was decked prettily, and all the neatly packaged gifts were spread out. Alva and Eskil were crawling around, turning them over, trying to guess what were in them.
Suddenly, the doors to the kitchen opened, where three generations of the Ekvalls had prepared all the traditional Christmas delicacies. Everyone marveled at how pretty they’d made the old country kitchen. The Christmas table cloth covered the table, the lights were on and the tableware with little Santas on was all set out. Everyone crowded around to get a good place at the table. Danny smiled tauntingly at Bjorn who had ended up over the crack between the tables.
Hedda hushed the children while she pulled the meatball dish closer, and helped herself to a generous portion. Richard did the same with the roast ham. Soon all you could hear were the sounds of munching, the clink of glasses and scraping of cutlery.
Agneta smiled contentedly over the spear ribs before she began to chew on the bones energetically. A tiny trickle of saliva and grease ran slowly down her chin, by way of the corner of her mouth.
Agneta broke off in the middle of a bite and let her eyes roam from wall to wall. Was someone – or – she hesitated – something – there? She let her hand fall down, dropping the spear ribs back onto her plate.
It must be the shadows, playing tricks on me, she thought.
Axel hastily dropped the fork with the piece of ham and let it fall back onto the plate. Was it some kind of joke? How had they got in?
Ulla glanced cautiously at her tablemates, almost forgetting to chew on the sausage out of which she’d just taken a hefty bite. Her mouth, half open, she let her eyes roam between her family and the others.
With their dark eyes, they followed her slightest move. Silently, accusingly. Your fault, they seemed to be saying.
Everyone seemed to have fallen silenty by now. There was no sound of chewing. Nometal clinking on pottery. They all glanced around anxiously, without saying anything. Silent like their wordless visitors. Richard leapt to his feet. The chair fell backwards. He ran towards the silent visitors, arms spread wide. His hands didn’t make contact with the soft fur he’d expected, just darkness. Self-consciously, he hurried back to his seat at the table. Had he imagined it all?
No one wanted cast their gaze towards the corners, where those others ones were, but their eyes were irresistibly drawn to the dark eyes, which in turn stared at the group of people in the middle of the kitchen. Alva held her meatball greasy fingers before her face so she wouldn’t have to see. There was a faint, but at the same time, numbing smell of manure in the clean and tidy country kitchen and the shadows crept closer and closer.
Hedda squeezed her eyes shut, trying to keep out the terrible things in the shadows. The smell was getting suffocating. She didn’t know if she was imagining it, but suddenly she felt something soft sweet past her cheek. Hedda’s first impulse was to scream out loud, but she just remained sitting, quietly, keeping her eyes firmly shut. She could tell, from the sound of Krister’s breathing that he was experiencing what she did. When at last she opened her eyes, they were gone. Just a faint whiff of manure lingered in the kitchen.
Afterwards, no one spoke about what had happened to them that Christmas. If someone asked them how the holidays had been, they just replied evasively that all Christmases are the same. But that Christmas had been different. More than they wanted to admit to changed for them from that day, not least inside themselves.
And now exactly one year had passed since it happened, and even if at first they’d hesitated to meet at the farm again, in the end, they’d decided to do it anyway.
The memory of what had happened that time was still sharp in their minds and their conversation did not flow as it used to. The Christmas candy table didn’t overflow as it once had and the presents under the tree were not as many.
What was it we used to say, Hedda thought. That presents weren’t what Christmas was about? This year, maybe it will actually be true. Agneta suddenly opened the door to the kitchen, announcing that this year’s Christmas lunch was served.
Everyone sat down in silence. Before they began to help themselves to the Christmas food, Agneta told them there was something she had to do before they could begin. She got up and snatched up a bag of vegetables and crackers and hurried off to the pigsty, poured the contents of the bag into the trough and petted the huge pig, before returning inside to her family.
When Agneta got back to the table everyone wished each other a merry christmas and tucked into the delicious food. Axel took a big portion of the swede au gratin. Hedda looked around for all the different cabbage types, took a little of each kind, and helped herself to a big slice of the roast örn and Danny, who preferred the chickpea balls hurriedly made sure they each got a big helping before anyone else had time to take any.
Hedda glanced around the kitchen. She almost expected to see them again this year, half hidden in the shadows, but this year the kitchen was just a kitchen. Even so, something made her look towards the hallway and there they were. Big, dark eyes meeting hers. Somehow, it didn’t feel as menacing anymore, and she nodded pensively at them, and began focusing on her dessert. It would be a Merry Christmas this year. A Merry Christmas for everyone.
© Maia Green (et al)