The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood
Oliver Eberstark blamed Father Nicholas Bauer for putting him in this ridiculous position.
"Oliver, the more you fidget, the longer this is going to take," Gretchen Fritz said taking the silver straight pins out of her mouth and glaring up at him.
"Sorry," Oliver mumbled but he knew what he was sorry about was even being there in the first place.
Gretchen sighed and said, "Turn."
He took one small step to the right and she gave the long green robe he wore a sharp tug, then folded up the hem and secured it into place with one of the pins clamped between her lips.
"I'm sorry this is taking so long," she said, "but you're a much bigger Belsnickel than any we've ever had before. I'm certainly glad this robe could be let out."
"I feel like I'm in a strait jacket," he grumbled.
Gretchen sat back on her heels looking up at him. "Maybe I can let the shoulders out a bit more." She stood up and ran her hands over the smooth, velvety pile stretched taut across his back. "I could put a gusset down the back. It will be covered by your cape anyway."
"Cape?" Oliver growled. "Nobody told me I had to wear a cape."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, don't you remember Belsnickels when you were a kid? Belsnickel always wears a cape. It's over there on the sofa." She knelt back down and continued pinning up the hem. "If Father Nick had given me more warning I would have gotten the fabric to make you a new suit instead of making do with this old one."
"If Nick had given me more warning I would have stayed in the woods until December was over. I can't believe he's making me do this."
Gretchen sighed and said. "Turn."
He turned and was able to twist his head around enough to see a midnight blue hooded cape lined with white fur.
"I really don't want to wear that," he muttered. "If Nick's so gung-ho to have a real Belsnickel why doesn't he do it himself?"
"We tried that but it was a disaster. For one thing he's not big enough but even worse a lot of the children recognized him and parents were upset. You come into town so rarely that they don't know you, so you're perfect. Turn."
He shuffled a few steps more. "Kids are supposed to love Belsnickel," he said, "I'm not the lovable type."
She laughed nearly swallowing pins in the process. "There." She stood. "Take that off and I'll measure your chest." She removed the pin cushion attached to her wrist and rummaged on the big table covered with fabric, patterns, and all kinds of notions until she found a tape-measure.
He shrugged out of the heavy robe pulling it down over his thick arms with a tug.
"Careful," she snapped, "don't tear it."
He fixed her with a scowl. "Maybe when you let out the back you can make those sleeves a little wider too."
"I'll try," she said taking the garment from him and spreading it out on her worktable to begin the job of hemming it by hand. The hem had been taken up four inches in order to fit Father Nick but now she would need every bit of that to make the robe clear the top of Oliver's boots. "It's only for this year," she said. "I'll make you a new costume for next year. Lift your arms."
He scowled and held his arms over his head. She reached around him from behind and arranged the tape measure firmly in place.
"Forty-six inches, you are a big one." She jotted the number down on the pad and moved the tape-measure to measure the difference from the base of his neck to his waist. "I'm sure you'll do just fine."
"Belsnickel is very important to Father Nick. He was born on December sixth and was named after Saint Nicholas..."
"I know that."
"I know you do so can't you be a little more cooperative?" She turned away, slightly embarrassed by her criticism. From everything she knew about Oliver Eberstark she realized this was an unaccustomed effort for him. Oliver was as much of a recluse as anyone she had ever known. Even getting him to leave his home in the old Eberstark Sawmill that his great-grandfather had built was a coupe for Father Nick. If she managed to scare him off from the project Father Nick would never forgive her.
He was silent and when she glanced up at him the look in his light blue eyes was that of sheer panic.
"It's good you have a beard," she said. "It looks much better than the fake ones. We can powder it down a bit to make it white."
He glowered and reached for his red and black plaid jacket.
"Would you like some stew? I made a big pot of beef stew today. It's nice and hot."
He shook his head. "No thanks."
"Oliver." She placed a hand on his arm - she had to reach up to do it. "This is really very nice of you. We all appreciate it."
He looked down at her but said nothing. Gretchen thought for a moment about the Oliver Eberstark she had known when he was in high school. He had been a big, handsome, funny and charming boy back then. Captain of the football team and one of the town's heartthrobs - but that was a very long time ago and the man who filled up a lot of the space in her living room now bore little resemblance to that boy.
"G'night," he said and turned toward the door.
"Will you come back for one more fitting?"
His hand was on the door knob and he didn't turn around. "When?"
"How about Saturday?"
"I'm busy Saturday," he said without turning.
Of course, she thought. It was hunting season. He'd be out in the woods.
"How about Sunday? There's no hunting allowed on Sundays."
"Okay," he said and, before she could get in another word, he was out the door, pulling it shut behind him.
Gretchen sighed, picked up the phone on the work table and punched in the number of the rectory.
"St. Walburga's," Father Nick answered on the second ring.
"Well, he just left."
"How was he? Did he give you a rough time?"
"No," she said lowering herself into one of the over-stuffed arm chairs in her living room. "He didn't say hardly anything at all."
There was a long pause on the other end of the line and then Father Nick said, "Okay, thanks for letting me know."
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