Written by Sophie Ramshaw
Grizzly the friendly hobo was just that – a friendly hobo… Not much else to say about him really. He was in his mid 70’s, enjoyed a good club sandwich (when he could get it) and often found himself in situations he'd be more comfortable away from. Because of Grizzly's pale, bushy beard and child-like mind, people tended to give him a wide birth, and, because of his homeless status, would assume terrible, slanderous things about him.
And that wasn't nice.
It didn't matter how timid and friendly Grizzly was, how often he cleaned the sidewalks of rubbish and debris, or how much he smiled and waved at passers-by, urging them to have a happy and healthy afternoon; people would see his rugged clothes and wiry whiskers and dart in the other direction, careful not to make eye contact with the strange old man.
It made Grizzly cry on more than one occasion.
One Tuesday evening, Grizzly had just finished scraping gunk off the park benches and rearranging the Marguerite daisies in a more homely manner, when his stomach started to bark at him and he realised he hadn't eaten in over 18 hours. Across the street he spotted an inviting café that looked to be closing up its doors for the day. A few of the tables outside had yet to be cleared and Grizzly squinted at what appeared to be the almost untouched leftovers of an American-style hamburger.
His belly roared upon seeing the dish and he patted it comfortingly.
'Well we can have that!' he said to his stomach. 'It just gon' get thrown away otherwise! Ain't no harm in it, ain't no harm at all.'
Apparently there was harm in it.
A bus boy by the name of Lars stampeded from the café as Grizzly got close, shooing him away with a damp dish cloth and urging him to 'Get! Get!'
Grizzly didn't like being yelled at. Especially when he believed he hadn't done anything wrong. He jumped with fear as Lars brandished the towel and he quickly bolted away with his dishevelled backpack tightly clasped around his moth-eaten overcoat.
'I ain't done nothin' wrong! I ain't done nothin' wrong!' he cried as he ran.
When he believed he had gotten far enough away from the threatening teenage boy and his café of meanness, Grizzly hunkered down on the edge of a forest path and hugged his knees as close to his chest as his old age would let him. He gazed up into the pale night sky that was quickly getting greyer and greyer with every passing moment. The darkness of winter drowned out all forms of warmth. Heavy clouds began to accumulate in front of the crescent moon.
Tears swelled in Grizzly's eyes as he darted his gaze from different sections in the grass beneath him – promising himself he wouldn't cry. His shoulders shook and his hands were clammy and cold. Winters were harsh in this part of Europe and Grizzly was well acquainted with the horrifying sensation of bone chill and hypothermia, and he didn't want to know them any better.
As he looked back up he noticed something beyond the distant hill he couldn't recall seeing before. The silhouetted protrusion of a gothic-style steeple jutted out from the tips of the alder trees. He cocked his head at it, trying to remember if he had ever ventured that far in his travels before.
He fished around in his coat pocket for a little toy nutcracker and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger. 'Who d'you suppose lives in that there castle?' he asked the toy, sniffling between words. 'Maybe they'd be kindly folk?' He stared down at the worn face of the nutcracker with his brow heavy with sadness. 'You're right Sebastian, they could well be meanly folk too…'
The sky erupted with a blinding flash of white and purple as lighting whipped across the stars followed by a monstrous explosion of thunder. Fear made Grizzly's heart jump and he clutched the nutcracker close to his chest. Tears threatened to appear again. With no hobble to call home, food to comfort him or blankets to keep him warm, our friendly hobo had no choice but to take his chances and venture to this castle for himself.
'I bet the thing's abandoned anyways!' he assured himself. 'No harm stayin' the night if ain't no one there to mind!'
He picked himself off the squeaky grass and gently stuffed Sebastian back into his breast pocket, pulling his hobo pants high up his hips with a new-found purpose. He nodded at the silhouetted steeple and began his adventure through the forest.
He waded through the mud and cobwebs, desperate to find his way to this mysterious castle. As he carefully followed the faint remnants of a forgotten footpath, he told himself over and over again that if this place did indeed turn out to be abandoned, then surely, surely it was okay for him to stay the night. And maybe a few nights after that. Possibly the weekend too. Just until it got a little warmer outside.
The determination on his face was evident as he snapped passed branches in his way, shuffling boisterously through the moist underbrush. Our friendly hobo was so determined in fact, that he failed to notice the myriad of brittle, wooden signs that sporadically lined the forest's dull and desolate landscape.
“COME IN” a lot of the signs read. “LORD ALPHEZ WELCOMES YOU INSIDE”, “DON'T BE FRIGHTENED”, “FREE CANDY” and all sorts of similar, creepy nonsense.
If Grizzly had managed to make out any of these signs, it may have swayed his prospects just a little – possibly even causing him to faint slightly. But no, he continued to walk and strut, quickly getting out of breath and beginning to feel his knees ache.
The sky was now pitch black with not even a single star visible from beneath the swelling clouds. Rain began to fall again and spit through open sections in the Forest's shrubbery. Each droplet of rain felt like a bullet made of ice on Grizzly's age-spotted skin. He tightened his overcoat, rubbed his fingerless gloves together, and stomped his feet as he walked in an attempt to heat his body from the toes up.
Grizzly started to think that maybe this had been a bad idea. How far did he have left to go? Would it just be easier to turn back and try his luck sleeping at the local park's public toilets? But he knew people would get scared if they found him there in the middle of the night – and he didn't like frightening people. He began to cry silently to himself, the tears cascading down his face one after the other in a solid, steady stream.
These tears ain't helping matters, he thought, looking up momentarily at the rain.
The brief distraction proved almost fatal. The dense bush around him suddenly stopped and opened into a dirt clearing. Since Grizzly was busy staring up at the clouds, he didn't see the sneaky tree root popping out from under the cold ground. His wet loafers jammed underneath it and he came crashing down with a terrified shriek, smashing his elbows against several more hidden roots, and hearing what sounded like his knees braking upon impact with the icy soil.
He blinked hard, the pain behind his eyelids pulsating with each and every movement. He lifted his chin and saw a huge stone monument inches from his face. If he had been that tad bit taller, he'd most certainly have a broken neck and caved-in skull. He shrieked and shuffled backwards. There were numerous rips in his swede trousers and blood was trickling down his shins. But he brushed his tears away and panned his gaze up the front of the monument. His face contorted into a fearful expression and an overwhelming sadness gripped him.
A beautiful woman carved of stone stood atop a thick slab. She had a calmness in her face but something not quite human exuded from her appearance and gave Grizzly a fearful scowl.
Then he noticed an inscription carved neatly on the surface of the stone. It read:
Here lies Mona Mikkael. Staked to death on the 6th of July 1769. May her soul
forever roam these grounds and keep me company from the loneliness I feel
Grizzly gulped hard as he read “staked in the heart” and looked again at the face of the lady. Despite his fear, he felt sorry for her and for the person who wrote the inscription. Because no one deserves to lose a loved one, as he knew all too well. He picked himself off the ground and brushed the dirt from his knees and torso, wincing at the pain he felt from the scrapes all over his body.
Just behind the tombstone was a long set of stairs that reached up towards a beautiful ancient mansion that clung to the side of a steep hill. It was riddled with moss and winding thickets and appeared more or less empty. Which was perfect. Although a slight tinge of disappointment poked at Grizzly's chest. He could always do with company.
He braved each step honourably and tried not to wince at the flashes of pain that exploded through his legs with each bend to the knees. He had tied a strip of his shirt around each thigh and prayed the wounds wouldn't get infected from the cold. He reached the top with much exhaustion and effort, then breathed in deeply, thrust out his big chest, and knocked daintily on the castle's wooden doors. He heard the echoes of his knocks bounce around inside the stone walls, but no answer came.
So he knocked again. This time a little louder.
Still no response.
'Evenin'... anyone?' he called out.
It was at this moment he realised the doors had creaked open slightly and a pleasant, homely aroma wafted through the lobby. Grizzly gulped hard. Despite the sweet smell a voice in his head told him danger lurked inside. But he had come this far, it would be an embarrassment to turn back now.
He pushed open the doors as gently as he could and softly stepped inside.
A comforting warmth washed over Grizzly's poor skin and he melted with it. Candles lined the walls and illuminated the castle with a sombre glow. The room he had found himself in was large and elegant. A red carpet ran across the floor at his feet and twisted in the direction of several different doors and ascended up a large spiral staircase. The place looked immaculate! Recently dusted, polished to perfection, and not a piece of furniture out of place.
Someone had to be living here.
'I'm so sorry for bargin' in!' Grizzly shouted cautiously. 'I ain't no burglar and I ain't mean no harm!'
From the darkness of the stone walls, a bright colour popped out from the side of his vision. He turned and saw an arrow painted across the wall, pointing at a particular set of doors. The arrow was made of a dark crimson and a candle was lit above it. Grizzly stepped towards it and eyed the arrow carefully. A sinking feeling quickly plunged down his chest as he looked down at the blood dripping from his knees and back at the arrow. They looked the same colour.
The entrance doors slammed shut behind him. From the aggressive wind outside? Maybe. But Grizzly believed they hadn't shut on their own. And it scared him. There was a sign above the arrowed doors that read: “COOKERY”. Grizzly's stomach growled and he patted it again, each time it made a quiet, hollow sound. Despite his better judgement, he twisted open the set of doors and began to follow a hallway made of stone and bright red carpeting.
It was too cold outside, Grizzly decided. He had better luck convincing someone of his good intentions than he did with the unforgiving weather.