You hear them before you see them.
Here come their voices, harmonized as one and drifting out of the night in a whisper of moon: the Midnight Carolers. You’ve heard of them, as anyone has heard of a folktale, an urban legend passed between children’s ears to conjure up magic and mystery. They choose a different house each year, and every night for twelve nights prior to Christmas, they sing their carols.
Out the window, on the sleepy street, you see them, just barely, in the dark. Five figures cast into shadow by the streetlamp behind them, turning them into silhouettes. The dim yellow lamp makes the snow seem to glow.
It is eleven o’clock, and they are singing.
You’ve never cared for Christmas carols. Why should you? They are too cheerful, incongruous with the bleak world of winter, when everyone is so cold and worn down, frequently sick, and often depressed. They ring false, and you don’t like things that ring false. You don’t like the snappy voices on the radio or those car commercials where actors pretend to be impressed by awards, or the way the barista smiles at you when you order a black coffee, as if there is anything to be celebrated in the caffeinated liquid that keeps you going throughout the day. You don’t like retail rewards cards or Instagram, either. Why should you? It’s easy to be a cynic, in a world full of false promises.
The carolers start with “Silent Night,” which seems ironic because they’ve now disrupted the otherwise total quiet of the street with their singing. Speaking of false promises—how apropos. Their voices steal over blue drifts of snow and the streetlamp throws their long shapes against the ground. Soon they have transitioned to “Silver Bells,” which you almost do not hate, because there is something melancholy about it.
When they start “Deck the Halls,” however, you’ve had enough. It is after eleven o’clock. This is a quiet street, with large spread-out homes, and the neighbors are sleeping. You would like to be sleeping, too, but the singing has kept you awake. When you try to ignore them and go to sleep, it is as if their voices grow louder; when you pull a pillow over your head to block the sound, their voices cut through, they are in your ears, they are singing, singing.
Yes, you’ve had about enough.
When you open the window, letting in a rush of bitter air, and call out to them to be quiet, please, some of us are trying to sleep, and have work in the morning, you see—they ignore you. They never stop singing. You call out again, telling them to stop, to stop right now, but their voices, clear as ice, snake in through the window in smooth, ethereal tones, as if their voices are converging into one voice, but a voice capable of many notes and many harmonies at once.
It is too much. It is simply too much.
After slamming down the window to shut them out, you find that the glass only slightly muffles, but does not fully dampen, the sound. You lie down, but how can you sleep? They sing, and sing, and sing, until you think you will never get these tunes out of your head, and maybe that’s the worst part of it all, knowing that you’ll be going about your day tomorrow with a head full of Christmas jingles, repeating themselves merrily while you check emails, while you urinate, while you fill out spreadsheets, until the songs have become insane, and so have you.
At midnight, silence falls abruptly. You peer out the window into the cold blank night, the empty road. They have gone, for now.
Already your ears are ringing.
You supplement your day with coffee, disliking the brittle edges of the barista’s fake smile, for how could you sleep, even after it went quiet? The singing lingered in your mind. It echoes on the tile floor in each of your footfalls. Your coworkers look at you strangely as you pour coffee down your throat and twitch at every cough or ringing phone, because somewhere in that cough is “jingle bells” and somewhere in that ringing phone is “Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-ling.” You ask them, halfheartedly, if any carolers have stopped by their homes to sing in the middle of the night, but they shake their heads in wonderment and try to avoid your peevish temper.
It’s fine, you think.
But the carolers return the next night.
And the next. And the next.
And the next.
Each time, the singing commences at eleven o’clock, concluding precisely at midnight. At least they are punctual. Yet somehow, their precision of time is too terribly accurate, making your skin begin to crawl at 10:45, a visceral, Pavlovian reaction that you simply cannot help. And for the rest of the night you lie awake, with delirious half-dreams of their voices.
It is December 20th, and enough is enough. You call the cops.
“Yes, they’re out there right now,” you say. “Listen.” For a moment, you hold up the phone to the window, but when you finally bring it back to your ear the officer you are speaking with sounds uncomfortable, claiming that she did not hear anything, but what do you expect, it’s not like cell phones have the sound quality of a professional microphone. She asks if they are on your property, and you hesitate for a moment, looking out at where exactly they stand.
“Well, no. They’re in the street.”
They started out on the opposite side of the street, though. Little by little, each night, they seemed to have inched forward, until they were in the center of the street. Now they are closer to your side than to the opposite side, but still on that icy black pavement.
“Mmm. Street’s public property. Technically, they have every right to be there.” She sounds apologetic, but even her gentle voice cannot quell the trembling despair, the feeling of hopelessness, the sense that you cannot stop them, that you will have to listen to them singing forever. It isn’t fair. You’ve never tried to shove your beliefs down anyone else’s throat; never tried to get people to stop hiding Easter eggs around the neighborhood, never lectured anyone on the destructive force of capitalism, never forced anyone to purchase a firearm. You keep yourself to yourself; why can’t these people afford you the same courtesy?
“Can I at least make a noise complaint? It’s eleven-thirty, for crying out loud.”
“Sir,” she says, her patience wearing thin, her voice growing curt. That’s all she is, really: a voice on the phone. “Do you really want to be the guy who calls the cops on Christmas carolers? They’re just trying to spread some holiday cheer. Totally harmless. Let them be, and maybe try to enjoy it, won’t you?”
She leaves you gaping at your phone, at an utter loss, while the five shadowy carolers sing “Good King Wenceslas” outside.
You decide to turn on the television to try and drown out the singing. It creates a bit of a cacophony, but at least it distracts, somewhat—until, that is, your phone rings, some anonymous number, but you think perhaps it is a neighbor calling to ask about the carolers, so you answer.
On the line is the singing. Loud, joyful, demanding to be heard. Disgusted, you shout into the phone, “How did you get this number?” but your voice barely registers over the singing. You hang up and fling your phone across the room.
Who would fault you if you went insane, if you ran outside into the freezing night and slaughtered every last one of those carolers? If you got in your car and scattered them with your fender, or more likely, ran them over, since they seem so disinclined to budge from their place on the street?
You think these thoughts until the merciless quiet descends at midnight, and the echoes reverberate over and over in your mind until there are no thoughts left there but the music.
The next night, you decide to sit beside the window and watch for them. Where are they coming from? If you can pick out the direction, maybe you can figure out who they are.
But you must have dozed off, for in the breath of a blink, they are suddenly there, on the asphalt, perhaps two feet closer to your side of the street, at precisely eleven o’clock. As soon as they are there, they are already singing. There is no warm-up, no prep. It is like a switch flipped on.
You do not move from your spot, and you keep your eyes trained out the window. The more intently you listen, the eerier, the stranger, their voices seem to become. How they hypnotize you into thoughtlessness, until your mind is like ice. Their voices pull at you, gently, like the tug of a frosty breeze. They pull you to the front door of your house, which you suddenly realize you have unlocked and opened, admitting the holy night. The wind blows flurries of snow around your bare ankles, and the sensation is so cold it shocks you out of your stupor, shocks you into bright clear wakefulness, where you balance on the precipice of your doorstep.
Should you step out into that world—and yes, you have one foot lifted, ready to step outside—everything will change. It isn’t just that you will likely get frostbite, walking barefoot through the snow; it is something else. Something different in the air.
You have the strange and sudden sensation, now that you are looking out the open doorway and not just through a window, that this street is not your street. These darkened houses are not your neighbors’ houses. Something of the night is uncanny, and you dare not go out onto the porch, not simply because it is cold, but because you are worried you will step out into somewhere entirely different.
These stars are not your stars.
It is almost midnight.
Now the carolers are singing their songs, but the songs are wrong, somehow; and now the caroler’s eyes are shining from the shadow, like little yellow stars. In each silhouette, you can see no facial features, no details within the flat black shape, but you can see their eyes shining with that unnatural glimmer like Christmas lights, and it is this sight that makes you close and lock the door.
You decide to watch from your bedroom window, where it is safe.
It is safe.
It is midnight.
Midnight, and barely a whisper of moon in the frozen sky.
The carolers have disappeared.
No one is walking away down the street. There is no moment wherein they stop singing, nod at one another, and move on. They simply vanish. They are just not there anymore, as if they were never there to begin with.
It is December twenty-third. The exhaustion is nearly debilitating.
You haven’t slept in more than a week. How is this possible? Isn’t that the point at which people begin to hallucinate, to go crazy from lack of sleep? Or die?
Is that their plan?
You’ve tried your best to ignore the carolers, but it is impossible. And now you won’t even have work to distract you, to keep your mind, at least in the daytime, somewhere else, because the office won’t be open again until after the holidays. You are all alone, and with no distractions, you’ve had time to think about the singing. To analyze it.
And there’s something you’ve figured out, which feels like a terrible realization:
They are not actually singing Christmas carols.
How can this be?
At first, you listened for the odd resonance beneath the singing, those other tones that were barely noticeable just below the audible ones. Once you heard them, you couldn’t un-hear them, the way you can’t not notice a new word you’ve just learned suddenly being used all around you.
Then you realized that the carols are only what we humans hear, a glamour, a façade—that they are singing a different song, underneath.
You can almost make it out.
You can almost hear what the real song is, the one beneath the carols. The song of winter, of the dark, of the sky. Of old, primeval things once worshipped as humans froze or starved in the unforgiving December. The truth about this time of year, the truth that resonates throughout the universe.
Something that we have forgotten. Something that we have covered over with our bright wrapping paper, with our jolly songs, with our forced cheer—painted with such frightened desperation over the terrible truth, because if we stopped smiling, we might be screaming instead.
The carolers stare up at you with their pinprick yellow eyes like holes in the shadow of the world, and they sing, and they sing, and they sing.
They are closer to the house, tonight.
It is Christmas Eve. Listen.
At last, the end of it all approaches. The clock marches on above the mantle as the clouds move across the night, and all else is still.
After tonight, the carolers will be gone for good, and perhaps this will all have been a bad dream, although how can one dream when…
When was the last time you slept?
Tonight, children will lie awake in their beds, too excited to sleep, waiting for Santa and his reindeer, waiting for magic. You will lie awake, too, but for different reasons. There is an uneasiness in the quiet mystery of the dark, in the unsettled way the world has opened itself to magic on this night.
A winter wind rattles the windowpanes like the dead asking admittance from the cold. We shall knock down this construction of wood and brick, the wind with its voice of the dead seems to say. We shall fling open this door if you do not obey us.
It is almost eleven o’clock. Almost the hour when the dead creep out of their graves and make their way through the snow. Christmas is full of the dead.
Listen. Listen. You sit in silence for you cannot help but listen to every moan of the wind and think it a dead man’s moan, and every creak of the house and think it a devil drawing near, every distant clatter, every tap, and think it a shrouded figure knocking at the door.
At eleven o’clock, they come.
They are nearly at the door.
How did they get so close?
They sing “O Holy Night.” The melody is perfect. Their voices ring out like silver bells, like great shards of ice in the vacuum of space. But they only get halfway through the song before their voices stick and repeat like a skipping record. They sing, “The stars are brightly shining,” and they do not move on. They sing the line again, and they do not move on. Now they sing it on repeat.
The carol is breaking down. They know that you have heard the truth beneath it, and they cannot sustain the illusion any longer.
Their eyes gleam unnaturally from their shadowed forms.
The stars are brightly shining. The stars are brightly shining.
They repeat the line so many times that you begin laughing, unable to stop. And you look up into the night sky, where the clouds have parted to reveal a scatter of stars in unfamiliar shapes. These stars are not your stars, but they are shining, they are shining.
They are not even stars, in fact. They are eyes! They are staring down at you, they can see you, they are the eyes of the great old terrible things of winter, who have sent their avatars down to sing their otherworldly songs, to remind us—
Midnight. It is Christmas, now,
and the carolers stop singing.
But they do not disappear.
They remain where they stand. The silence rings in your ears, and you cannot even conjure up the ghost of their singing, anymore, which has so haunted you. It is gone, and it has left nothing in its wake. Nothing, you realize, nothing at all; you cannot hear a thing—not the groan of the house settling, or your frightened breath, in and out. Upon the world has descended a silence like the pall of death. Pure and total, the way a deaf person must experience the world.
There is only the silence, and the white, and the stars. Shining. And the carolers, watching.
“No,” you shout, but you cannot hear yourself, and, for the sake of maintaining some semblance of your self-respect, let us not describe in detail how you scream, how you cry, how you trash the bedroom, how you thrash about, trying to break through your prison of silence. How the terror gives way to desperation gives way to despair. The thing is, you have heard voices beyond the frequency of the world, and now the reality you thought you knew is broken, for the only real sounds there are, indeed, are the ones waiting for you on the other side of the carols.
And the carolers are waiting for you, too.
When you open the front door, your ears heavy with silence, you begin to wonder what your coworkers will say. He lived alone, they will say. You know how lonely Christmas can be without family. How the risk for suicide rises at this time of year. If only we had known, they will say.
And what will your neighbors say? No, we never heard any carolers. We never saw anyone standing out there on the street.
You step out into the alien winter world, where the stars are brighter and the snow reflects their glimmering gaze, into a world that is made of ice, and you make your way to the carolers, stepping into the shadows where they live.
As soon as you are among them, you begin to hear that low resonance that lurked just beneath the caroling. You hear it, and it fills you up with cold wonder, with dreadful ecstasy. You will sing with them—the real song, the only real song in existence. This song of ancient winter, a universal song of coldest night, for in the depths of reality, it is always winter. It has always been winter. And you will never stop singing it, because the song is reality. Everything else is just a façade. Not just the smiles of baristas and the enthusiasm of actors in commercials, but also, as you suspected all along, the office, the bridge you take to work, the birds that chirp in the morning, the air you breathe, the seven billion human bodies bumbling through the world, the trees and yule logs and the fire in your fireplace with its false warmth.
Next year, when the carolers pick a house, there will be six of them. Six shadows, with starry eyes, singing, singing eternally of the eternal night.
Oh night. Oh night divine.
Joanna Parypinski writes and teaches in the Los Angeles area with much encouragement from her husband and two cats. She also writes under the name Jo Kaplan. Her fiction has appeared in Fireside Quarterly, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Vastarien, Haunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton, and elsewhere. Her novel It Will Just Be Us (as Jo Kaplan) came out in September. She teaches English and creative writing at Glendale Community College.