Benjy and the Belsnickel
The Belsnickel is coming…
Dressed in black from head to toe.
Porcupine quills in his hat. A whip in hand.
And bells that jingle with every step.
Benjy, a lovable eleven-year-old in the 1930s, just can’t seem to help himself from pulling pranks and letting people down. His target is most often Miss Nettie, the schoolmarm at the one-room schoolhouse where he gets into more trouble than she’s willing to tolerate. Maybe he’s pulled one too many practical jokes…because everyone keeps telling him he’s going to get a visit from the Belsnickel.
Although Benjy believes the Belsnickel is just an old Pennsylvanian folktale told to scare kids into better behavior, deep down he fears the grim legend is real.
When the Belsnickel comes knocking, Benjy quickly learns he is no fable.
Pennsylvania Dutch Town of Landisburg
This is gonna be so good to watch. Benjy Clemmons crept along the outside wall of the red brick schoolhouse and poked his head around the back corner. He clamped his hand tightly over his mouth. A volcano of laughter bubbled inside him at the sight of Miss Nettie, the schoolmarm, striding across the schoolyard. She sure looked funny with that squiggly pink pig’s tail dangling from the back of her long black sweater.
Benjy smiled. The school year was just getting started, and already he’d managed to pull a prank on Miss Nettie. He had sneaked into her coat closet early that morning before the start of school, when Miss Nettie wasn’t watching. He’d pinned a pig’s tail right on the back of her sweater then dashed out of the closet. He hadn’t pulled a trick better than that one in all his eleven years.
Minutes later Miss Nettie emerged from the schoolhouse and started her daily walk around the schoolyard, greeting the children with a pleasant good morning. Giggles and chuckles filled the schoolyard’s playground. A few fingers pointed Miss Nettie’s way. She tried to look over her shoulder, turning this way and that.
Some of the children were playing Anti-One-Over, their favorite game involving two teams. One team member would throw a ball over the woodshed where a student on the other team would catch it. The one who caught the ball would then try to tag someone on the first team.
All too soon, Miss Nettie climbed the porch steps and rang the bell, starting the school day for the twenty-three students in grades one through six. Hearing the bell, the children scurried up the steps and into the classroom. Benjy joined the tail end of the group and thought about the summer that had just passed. I missed playing with my friends but am glad I got to see them in church.
“Hi, Benjy!” Frankie said. “Guess what I saw this summer?”
“We went to visit Aunt Louise for a whole week in the city and I saw a whole bunch of cars. I even got to see a fancy 1933 Packard Town Car.”
“Oh boy,” Benjy said. “I wish I could have seen it. We don’t see many cars around here, do we? I’d be happy with just a bicycle. Pop said if I earn the money I can get my very own.”
Reaching the door, Frankie said, “We can talk some more at recess.”
“See you then,” Benjy said, following Frankie inside.
Inside, at the front of the classroom, stood Miss Nettie’s big desk. A large chalkboard lined the wall behind. In one corner hung the American flag that they saluted every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the Lord’s Prayer and a short Bible reading. Beside the flag stood an old black upright piano where Miss Nettie played music for them. In the middle of the room sat a woodstove, the only source of heat in the cold months. When the days turned frigid, the boys took turns carrying wood from the woodshed so everyone could huddle around the stove while Miss Nettie taught her lessons.
The children rushed into the cloakroom, hung their jackets on hooks, and lined their metal lunch boxes and pails on the shelf above. Of course, Miss Nettie had her own closet. No one dared to open that door—no one else, anyway.
Benjy watched Miss Nettie remove her sweater and hang it in her closet. She took no notice of the pig’s tail. Once again, Benjy felt smug—he hadn’t been caught.
Miss Nettie began the day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the morning prayer session. She then began to assign the day’s lessons.
“Quiet please. Grade one, practice the alphabet. Grades two through five, practice writing your spelling words. Grade six, begin math on page twenty-four.”
“Oh no. Arithmetic again,” Benjy mumbled under his breath. It’s only day one, and I’m already tired of multiplying and dividing. Bored out of his mind, Benjy began daydreaming about pirate ships. The potbellied woodstove in the middle of the room became an enemy pirate vessel heading toward his ship, ready for an attack.
Shiver me timbers! Those seafarin’ scoundrels won’t get me treasure.
Benjy jumped out of his seat.
Everyone turned and looked at Benjy. Oh shucks, I got caught daydreaming again.
Benjy swallowed, but the lump in his throat stayed. “Yes, Miss Nettie?”
“I asked if you could give us the answer to number seven?”
“No, Miss Nettie.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Your constant daydreaming has got to stop. You are here to learn. Come to the front of the class and take a seat on the stool in the corner.”
Benjy dragged his feet, taking much more time than needed to reach the stool. Miss Nettie placed the pointed paper hat marked with a capital D on his head. The D stood for dunce.
“The dunce hat! Just for daydreaming?” Benjy moaned. Miss Nettie must have also seen me in her closet.
Roars of laughter echoed in Benjy’s ears. He remembered his own hoots and howls earlier that morning. Suddenly his prank didn’t seem quite so funny. His cheeks burned, and he knew from experience that his fair, freckled skin was turning bright red.
This dunce hat is feeling hotter and hotter. Benjy adjusted the hat on his head but refused to swipe at the beads of sweat pouring out of his forehead.
The day dragged on for Benjy as he watched the clock’s hands move as slow as a turtle in mud. Finally Miss Nettie cast Benjy one last stern look just before she rang the dismissal bell.
“Benjy, you may remove the hat and place it on the stool. Take a seat at your desk, but remain after school.”
Hearing the bell, children spilled out the door like prisoners released to freedom.
Silence filled the room except for the clicking of Miss Nettie’s shoes as she returned to her desk.
With a glance his way, she said, “Come here please.”
He squirmed out of his seat and shuffled to her desk.
“Benjamin, it is only Monday, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why you waste so much time daydreaming and pulling pranks when you’re here to learn.”
Benjy shook his head. “Don’t know, Miss Nettie.”
“Someday, young man, your behavior is bound to catch up with you. With Christmas only a few months away, I’d beware of a visit from the Belsnickel if I were you.”
An image flew through Benjy’s mind of a creature all smothered in ashes leering at him. He’d heard tales of the Belsnickel all his life. Wearing a funny hat with bells and quills, the Belsnickel terrorized children who misbehaved. Goosebumps ran up and down his arms.
All the kids around here knew about the Belsnickel and his Christmas visits. Benjy even heard that the Belsnickel carried a small horse whip in one hand.
With thoughts of his prank fresh in his mind, shivers of fear ran up his spine.
Miss Nettie handed Benjy a sealed note. “Here, deliver this to your parents. I’ll be by later to discuss it with them.”
Benjy’s hand quivered as he grabbed the note. “Miss Nettie. May I go?”
She waved her hand toward the door. Benjy turned and ran. He grabbed his jacket and lunch pail and made a mad dash toward the door, dodging desks along the way.
Benjy stood outside in the schoolyard. Did she know it was me? He kicked the dirt,
muttering, “It’s hard to fool Miss Nettie. Boy, am I gonna get it. Ma and Pop sure ain’t gonna like this. Dear God, I know Ma and Pop are going to be plenty mad. I’ve lost count of the times Miss Nettie sent home a note, but please don’t let me get a whooping.”
Benjy looked at the note and was tempted to open it. Instead, he stuffed it in his pocket and headed for the shortcut through Sherwood Forest. Of course, it wasn’t really Sherwood Forest. But after he’d read a story of Robin Hood he started pretending to be one of Robin’s Merry Men, escaping that evil Sheriff of Nottingham, rather than plain ol’ Benjy. As he walked, he thought about Miss Nettie’s silly remark about the Belsnickel and ducked just in time to avoid a brush with a low maple branch.
Who does she think she is trying to scare me with that Belsnickel stuff anyway? Benjy picked up a stick and snapped it in two. Everyone knows that’s old folklore stuff. He ain’t gonna get me.
“Wie geht’s?” Old Albert shouted in the Pennsylvania-Dutch dialect.
“Good day to you too,” Benjy said.
Benjy had been so caught up in his thoughts about the Belsnickel he didn’t realize he was already at his favorite fishing hole, a small pond just off the path near his family’s farm.
“How are you today, Benjy?”
“Ain’t doing that good,” Benjy answered with a heavy heart. “Catching anything?”
“Sure enough.” Old Albert, a whiskery man, sat along the pond’s small bank holding up his stringer of five large-mouthed bass. “Got me an extra pole over yonder. You’re welcome to join me.”
Benjy hesitated, his mind wandering…scheming. He tapped the note in his pocket. How would Miss Nettie know if he stopped off for a little fishing? Besides, he’d have to face Ma and Pop soon enough. No doubt I won’t be doing any more fishing for a while after Pop’s done reading that note.
Benjy dropped his lunch pail and grabbed the extra pole that lay nearby.
“I’ll catch me a big one.” Benjy plopped down beside Old Albert and began jabbing a brown, wiggly worm onto the hook.
Plunk! The line hit the water.
Benjy and Old Albert waited a long time in silence. “Just my luck, it looks like the fish quit biting for the day. They’re not even jumping. The water is so still,” said Benjy.
“Getting a lot of learning at that there school of yours?” Old Albert asked.
“Getting in trouble is more like it.” Benjy pulled in his line, and his thoughts drifted to that silly dunce hat. “Why do you suppose I have so much trouble behaving?”
“Hard to say, but you at least think about trying to do right. Deep down you’re a good lad.”
“You really think so, Old Albert? Because sometimes I really wonder.”
“Sure I do.” Old Albert nudged Benjy and gave him a big smile. “But you better take care or you’ll be getting a visit from the Belsnickel come Christmastime.”
Shudders raced down Benjy’s spine again. Why’d he have to say that? That makes two warnings about the Belsnickel in one day.
“We best be getting home now.” Old Albert struggled to his feet. “This sitting makes my bones stiffen up. I’m getting to be an old man, Benjy.”
“You ain’t old. You got a ton of fishing left in you. You’re my best fishing pal.” Benjy stood and handed Old Albert the pole. “See you later.”
“So long, Benjy. See you next time.”
Heading for his family’s farm, Benjy soon rounded the last bend. Putting one foot in front of the other, he was drawn to the neighbor’s rows and rows of apple trees. Big red apples hung from the trees. He snatched one off a low limb and sank his teeth into it as he walked up a small hill toward his house.
At the crest of the hill, Benjy gazed down at his white clapboard house and weather-beaten barn. Pop got himself a mighty fine farm. He cupped his hand over his brows, shading his eyes against the sun’s late afternoon glare.
“Oh no!” Benjy’s heart jumped out of his chest. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Even at such a distance, he recognized that short, plump, unmistakable figure. Miss Nettie! Just leaving his house.
Looks like I’m in a
big heap of trouble now.