The Yule Guest and the Tinkers
by Dennis Echternach
Once upon a time, there lived two brothers. They were tinkers by trade, and lived together in a modest little cottage in the thick of the black forest. One of the brothers, while of average skill, was an honest and hospitable man, giving honest work for honest payment and generally treating the local villagers well and fair in all of his dealings with them.
But the other brother, the most masterful of craftsmen, of unequalled skill even among the greatest smiths, was nonetheless, an incomparable scoundrel, sly as a fox and ruthless as a wild boar. He cheated people whenever he got the chance and always took advantage of them to the fullest extent of his abilities.
Famine and pestilence had struck the countryside, leaving the people with little resources with which to hire tinkers, and left the brothers mercilessly poor with little to eat, barely any clothes on their back, and scarcely any firewood to make it through the long, cold winter. Winter had come early this year, and by the time the Yule season came round, snow had completely blanketed the land, and the icy winds had already long blown the last breath of life out of the most stubborn of thorn and thistle. The eve of the winter solstice was the coldest and most unforgiving the brothers could scarcely remember. As they huddled by their meager fire, disillusioned by the spirits of this holy night, who seemed to have abandoned the land altogether, a humble, lonely stranger appeared at their door, begging for their compassion, the slightest morsel of food, and a brief moment by their fire.
He was a ragged, tired looking old man in a tattered and soiled blue cloak, pale and worn from an eternity in the wind and cold. He had lost one of his eyes, and his sole orb appeared immeasurably sullen and withdrawn, as if from some unimaginable loss and pain incurred during his multitude of years. Yet, the scope of his gaze seemed equally unfathomable as he looked toward the brothers during his pleas for their hospitality.
He brought with him a haggard looking horse, dragging a rickety old sleigh, barely held together with cord and makeshift repairs. The skis were dull and rusted almost through, leaving one to wonder how it could still glide through the thick and heavy snow.
His horse was but barely a skeleton upon which was hung a dismal carcass of starvation and neglect. The pitiful creature seemed to bear death itself on his back. He seemed barely strong enough to stand aright, much less to pull a rickety sleigh.
As the brothers stood staring in awe at this sorry looking pair, the scoundrel noticed a pair of greedy looking ravens perched upon a nearby tree as the wind carried the howl of wolves on their nightly hunt into his brother’s timid ears.
“Surely the wolves will make short work of this humble pair if left out in the wild tonight”, said the hospitable brother.
“But I don’t like the look of those ravens in the tree”, said the other.
“They are likely expecting an easy meal, after the wolves leave their remnants”, said the hospitable brother.
“Or perhaps they are an omen of the pestilence and famine that this man wreaks of”, piped the scoundrel.
“Nonetheless, it will bode equally unwell for us in the eyes of fate if we do not offer them our hospitality and kindness”, said the hospitable brother as he opened the door and allowed the stranger to pass through.
…But the scoundrel had ideas of his own.
The hospitable brother offered to sharpen the skis on the stranger’s sleigh as soon as morning arrived. But, the scoundrel tore the poor contraption apart for extra firewood to keep warm through the night. But when he lit the wood, it became cinders as soon as it was lit. The hospitable brother offered the stranger’s horse the few scraps left of their cabbage. But the scoundrel slaughtered the horse and cooked what he could scrounge as meat from its tired bones and cooked them by the fire. He placed the meat on the table and greedily wielded his knife and fork. But, when he put the meat to his lips, it turned foul and spoiled.
Enraged, the scoundrel overcame the stranger and bound him by the fire and began to whip him with a broom handle. But the broom handle became a branch of thorns and pricked the scoundrel’s hands as he made contact with the stranger’s frail and tired frame.
As the bitter cold began to creep its way into their hut, the scoundrel then stole the stranger’s tattered shoes right from his feet. But, as he tried to put them on his own, they shrank to where he could just barely get his toes inside them. He cast them in the fire, where they hauntingly flared and hissed as they burned.
Heeding his pleas for mercy and kindness, the hospitable brother placed his stockings on the stranger’s feet to offer him some warmth and gave the stranger the better share of his only dinner; a humble soup made with pine needles and marrow scraped from the bones of a long eaten boar cooked at the beginning of the autumn frost. He begged for the stranger’s forgiveness for his brother’s actions and his own inability to thwart the wicked whims of his much stronger sibling. He knew that there was something special about their guest.
As the cold night wore on, the brothers grew weary and gradually drifted off into an unsteady slumber. The hospitable tinker was haunted in his dreams by the manner in which his brother had treated their humble guest. He was startled awake by the clamorous beating of hoofs on the rooftop. He looked toward the fireplace. The stranger had vanished! His bindings had burst to shreds and lay useless on the earthen floor! The tinker searched the abode for his brother. But, he had vanished too! He rushed to the door and was awestruck at the spectacle he beheld in the evening sky!
The stranger revealed his true form as the father of the cosmos. His cloak stretched and danced across the horizon creating a myriad of mystic shadows of indigo and violet and appeared as if it were hemmed in twilight. It engulfed the clouds and the wind and grew ever darker and deeper as it wrapped itself further upward around his majestic silhouette. Its fabric was speckled with all of the stars and eternity. The moon hung across his breast as if it was but a broach to pin his cloak upon his mighty shoulders and his single eye pierced the darkness with the crispness and steadfastness of Polaris.
His steed was the most powerful and magnificent looking the poor tinker could have ever imagined. His coat was blacker than the darkest night of the longest winter and the muscles on his frame pulsated like a thousand storm clouds, releasing their fury. Sparks and frost alike both burst from his nostrils as he snorted. He had a full eight legs which seemed but a blur as he carried his master across the sky, leading their host of wandering souls on their frantic journey to where only he knows. The stranger glanced down but once and gave a final nod and wink at the tinker as he lead his ghostly train beyond the horizon.
The tinker turned back inside and before him was laid the most bountiful of feasts with, turkey, boar, and venison; wine and ale; cheese and pastries. The fire was roaring and by it was laid enough wood to last three winters. By the mantel, his stockings were overflowing with gold. The hospitable tinker never had to worry again.
As for his brother, the stranger whisked him up and took him along on his journey through the night skies, leading his train of dark souls through eternity. The stranger had been in need of the best of smiths and tinkers to shoe his steed.
To this day, they say, on the most windy of winter evenings, you can still hear the clamor of the tinker’s hammer on the hooves of the stranger’s mystic steed and his wailing as he is kicked by the others while the steed is still running. For the wild hunt stops for no one, but upon the whims of the master of the evening skies.