The Sound of Reindeer |


Ada’s holiday trip to meet her girlfriend’s family becomes a bit more fraught than usual when she discovers the family’s unusual Christmas Eve tradition…



The first thing Ada Cirillo noticed on the way to her girlfriend’s family’s Christmas Eve party was the way Lil looked out the window. Usually Lil was the talkative type, the beak that broke through Ada’s shell and hurled her out to experience the world.

But as they drove through the limestone-blasted roadways of Missouri toward Saint Charles, where Lil’s parents resided, Lil was quiet. Distant. She didn’t rest her hand on Ada’s knee as Ada drove through the light crust of snow on the highway. Instead, both hands knotted together in her lap.

“We don’t have to do this,” Ada said. “I’ll drop you off and keep on to New York.” The original plan was to drive from University of Kansas, where they both worked, straight to New York. Ada’s mother lived in Brooklyn, where they’d planned to spend New Year’s Eve.

“Huh?” Lil shook her head. “Oh, that’s too long a drive to go alone, and my family will love you.”

“You’re awfully quiet about it,” Ada said, nodding toward the space on the passenger window that Lil had fogged with her breath.

Lil shrugged. “Traditions, you know.”

“My mom and her friends like to do robber bingo and eat baklava,” Ada said.

“Not those types of traditions,” Lil said, scowling at the window.

Ada shrugged it off; Lil often became waspish when she worried.

As they drove along the I-70, maneuvering around SUVs with artificial antlers above their car doors, passing Missouri towns along the highway, Ada wondered what type of tradition made someone contemplate the outside like tea leaves in a cup. Lil’s shoulders visibly trembled. Ada wasn’t sure what else to say.

There were infinite ways to spend the holidays. A week before Christmas, Lil and Ada’s best friend, Levi, had invited them to one of his family’s Hanukkah celebrations and they’d agreed to go. At the last minute, Lil received a call. Ada remembered it clearly, had catalogued it like other moments in their relationship: Ada saw Lil’s shoulders tense as they sat on the couch, saw Lil stare at the name on her phone—a Georgina Hill—and run to the bathroom of their small apartment.

Behind the bathroom door, Ada heard whispers, which turned into an adamant and repeated “Mom, no.” Then Lil’s voice grew shrill. Begging, followed by a prolonged silence.

Lil came out of the bathroom and announced they were visiting her family for Christmas Eve.

“One night,” she said. “Easy as pie.”

In hindsight, after what she eavesdropped on in the bathroom, Ada should have prodded more, sat Lil down to get to the meat of it. But Ada would be the first to admit herself a topical person—often too afraid of digging under her spray-tanned, white skin. That, and Ada was never one to shy away from surface curiosity; she was more than happy to meet the family Lil spoke of but rarely saw. The Hills.

A stereotypical Midwestern family from Saint Charles, Missouri, with a long history. Ada had taken an interest and Googled the old stories. Sons split between Confederacy and Union; a patriarch who hanged himself on a tree branch that jutted out over the nearby Missouri River; legend of an affair between a niece and the young housekeeper, which Ada had found especially juicy.

Lil begged her to stop. “My family history is not one of your antique books.”

Ada was finishing her degree in medieval studies with a focus on restoring and collecting illuminated manuscripts—particularly family trees—while Lil taught freshman English composition, working up the poor adjunct route with money sent from her parents.

Ada stopped researching the Hills, honoring Lil’s request. She had not reached Lil’s immediate family, having started from the past and moving forward in time.

Now, they had arrived at the present. Ada maneuvered the sedan through the historic streets of Saint Charles to the Hills’ house outside of downtown, an ornately painted brown and blue Victorian with a large porch and a porch swing that hung heavy on one side. Two additions jutted out on either side.

Before opening the car door, Lil shrugged out of her puffer coat and laid it across the dash. Then she reached out and placed a hand over Ada’s on the gear shift between them.

“There are some odd things about the house,” Lil said. “They’re all part of a story, and I know you like stories.”

“I do like stories,” Ada said, but Lil held up her hand.

“Remember that scene in Christmas Vacation, where they’re in bed with the sap on their fingers?”

Ada didn’t know where this was going, but they’d watched the movie together before, once or twice at parties. They both hated the movie.

“Ellen Griswold tells Clark Griswold that he builds events up in his mind,” Lil said. She waves her hand around the top of her head. “He sets expectations no one lives up to. That’s fucked up, right? Well, my Uncle Kurt was just like Clark Griswold. Believe me, Ada, you won’t like this story, but—please know that I love you, and that’s all that matters.”

What a speech, Ada was tempted to say, but that distant, fearful look in Lil’s eye stopped her.

“All right,” Ada said. “I love you, too.”


It took a moment for Ada to realize there were few Christmas decorations inside the Hill’s house, and nothing on the outside. No wreath on the front door. No lights bordering the beautiful front porch. They walked into a dark wood-paneled foyer restored to its original glory, down to the sconces on the wall that looked like oil lamps but ran on electricity. The air smelled of warm bread and salty meat, and something muskier, like wet fur.

Rather than wreaths or holly, leather straps curled up the banister of the staircase. A huge, hammered copper bucket of fresh, from-the-ground carrots sat next to a grandfather clock near the entrance to the parlor, where there were voices mixed with subtle, classic Christmas music. Bing Crosby. Eartha Kitt.

Lil seemed to gather herself, then nodded to the leather straps on the banister.

“They’re actual reins,” Lil said. She stomped her feet to loosen the snow on her boots and hung Ada’s coat on an iron hook bolted into a wall. There were no other coats.

“Reins?” Ada asked.

“For horses and stuff,” Lil said.

“Is that a local thing?” Ada asked.

Lil shook her head, opened her mouth to speak, but Georgina swept in from the parlor.

“Oh wonderful,” she said, her voice loud and carrying. Ada figured it was Lil’s mother, Georgina, by the large, gold G stamped on a gold medallion hanging from a thin leather cord around her neck. Her hair was dark like Lil’s, though rather than Lil’s uneven bob, Georgina wore her hair straight and unkempt to the waist, jetted with silvery streaks. Georgina looked winded. Cheeks flushed, nostrils shiny from a runny nose she kept wiping at with a cloth handkerchief in a pocket of her plaid skirt.

“You must be Ada,” Georgina said, sniffing and holding out her hand. “So glad you could join us. I hope you like red wine, because we loathe white.”

“Red is fine,” Ada said, holding out her own hand to shake Georgina’s. Her skin was ice cold, a slight tremble to it, like Lil had trembled in the car.

“Is everyone here?” Lil asked, voice low.

Georgina smiled, all perfect white teeth. “No one is ever late on Christmas Eve these past few years. Dinner is ready, so we’ll begin the festivities.”

“I’ll do it this year,” Lil said, snatching Georgina’s other wrist. “Please.”

Georgina shook her daughter off softly, smile faltering but steadfast.

“No,” she said. “The plan is the plan, as your Uncle Kurt used to say.”

Lil flinched as if slapped.

Ada felt she’d missed something vital, and while her hand was still held by Georgina, she reached out with her free hand to grip Lil’s.

“Can I help?” Ada asked.

Of course.” Georgina turned her smile back on, full-fledged and aligned. “But first, dinner. Get meat deep in your belly.”

Georgina turned heel and swept back into the parlor, Lil following behind, head bowed. Ada remained in the foyer, eyeing the reins on the banister, winding tightly up the stairs into darkness.


Dinner was a thick spiced stew with a dozen rolls of different bread to be passed and dipped. Ada sat in between Georgina and Lil at a long table in the dining room, paneled with wood as dark as the panels in the foyer. Also at the table was Lil’s Aunt Mindy—Georgina’s sister—who sat at the head. Lil’s cousins, Charlie and Butch, both looking in their early twenties, sat directly across from Ada, Lil, and Georgina, glancing at their mother, Mindy, and whispering in each other’s ears. At the other end was Lil’s Grandma Mabel, who gave hard looks to both her daughters that neither would meet head-on. Finally, Lil’s father, Patrick, sat at the foot. He was broad-shouldered, someone built like he used to be in amazing shape but now sagged at the corners. He had a thick head of gray hair that went every which way, reminding Ada of the classic pictures of Albert Einstein. He ate ravenously, scooping bits of meat out of the stew with bread that he had ripped apart. He had not said a word to Lil or Ada since they had arrived.

“It’s not you,” Lil had whispered, catching Ada staring. “He hates Christmas Eve. Soon he’ll dive into his private Scotch and drink until he falls asleep. Tomorrow, he’ll pretend it never happened.”

“That’s horrible,” Ada had whispered back.

Lil had shrugged.

Grandma Mabel had begun a droning speech, lamenting the old days of peace and duty, when Christmas was actually about Jesus instead of “stupid animals.” Ada nearly choked on the bread when she heard the last of it. She looked around the room, at Lil, wondering if someone besides her should ask what the fuck Grandma Mabel meant. Instead, everyone focused on their bread.

“Okay, Gramma,” Charlie said.

Butch leaned in from across the table and whispered, “She does this every year.”

Charlie nodded to Lil. “Staying the night?”

Lil’s own smile faded. “Ada is, too,” she said.

Charlie frowned at Ada. “Tough luck. My boyfriend came once. Never again.”

“What do you mean?” Ada asked.

Butch’s eyes widened. Brown like Lil’s. “You haven’t told her?”

As Grandma Mabel continued her speech, a loud thump sounded overhead, shaking the chandelier above them. The Hills paused, even Mabel, glancing up at the ceiling. It could not be a branch or acorns, as Ada used to hear those sounds often at her own home growing up in the forests of the Northeast.

This was heavier.

Another thump, and Mindy reached across the corner to grab Georgina’s wrist; Georgina shook it off, reaching across the table to grab another bread roll. She already had two untouched on her plate. Her hand hovered as another thump shook the house hard enough to rattle the wineglasses on the table.

“What is that?” Ada asked.

All eyes turned to Ada. Georgina’s eyes widened, then narrowed on Lil.

Lil opened her mouth, then closed it. She gave Ada a bewildered look she had not seen since they started dating a year back. In that moment, Ada realized their anniversary was on the 27th. They’d never discussed it.

Patrick cleared his throat, tugging his napkin from his collar and throwing it on the table.

“Patrick,” Georgina said.

“No, Georgie,” Patrick said, holding up both hands. “We’ve discussed this for five years. I stay, and you leave me be. I’m going to my study. Y’all made your bed.”

“Daddy,” Lil sobbed.

Patrick’s eyes fell on his daughter, and he frowned.

“Sorry, little scout.” His voice broke. For the first time, he laid eyes on Ada. “After the holidays, I will have the pleasure of meeting you officially, Ada Cirillo.”

Another thump sounded above, and Patrick Hill grimaced.

“Damn him,” he muttered and left.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The house shook. Ada felt it in her bones. Yet, she knew, above the dining room where they ate, there was nothing. A few trees leaning overhead. The dining room sat in one of the additions on the side of the original house.

Butch stood. “I’m out.”

“Me, too,” Charlie said, though he remained seating.

“Absolutely not,” Mindy said. “Patrick had nothing to do with it­—he was out of town—but you owe it to your father.”

Charlie snorted. “He never gave a shit about us, planning his goddamn tradition, and you all went along with it.”

“It killed him,” Butch said, holding his head in his hands. “He was obsessed with sleigh bells, Mom. Christ.”

“I’m going to my Gabe’s house,” Charlie mumbled, slipping from his chair and out of the house so quickly that Mindy still focused on Butch.

“You need to show respect,” Mindy said. Her voice trembled like birdsong.

Ada, for one, wanted to know what the fuck was going on. Butch glanced at her and must’ve seen in it in her eyes, because he pointed at her.

“Since y’all are so respectful, you’re having Ada do it?” Butch asked. “Let her shoulder the burden? Lil hasn’t fucking told her.”

Mindy’s head jerked so hard, Ada thought she heard it snap.

Lil shook her head back and forth, hair flying in front of her face. “I didn’t have time.”

“Bullshit,” Charlie said.

“Tell me what?” Ada asked.

Lil kept shaking her head like a toddler refusing to eat.

Georgina slapped the table with both hands, and Lil stopped, tears streaming down her face.

“We’ll do it now,” Georgina said. “Get it over with.” She turned to Ada. “Nothing will happen to you if you do this for us.”

“I’ll do it,” Lil blurted.

Georgina reached over and clutched Lil’s shoulder.

“You did it last year,” Georgina said. “That was enough.”

“But my girlfriend is fair game?” Lil asked.

Ada’s neck hurt from turning about the table, catching who was speaking and why. What did Lil mean by fair game? Ada wanted to push herself up and out, but Lil’s sobs made her hesitate.

This is a turning point, Ada thought.

If she left, she knew she’d leave without Lil. And like a child’s blanket, Lil had grown comforting and familiar in Ada’s heart. They shared an apartment. A bed. Space. The entire university where they studied and worked was sprinkled with memories of them falling in love, places where they’d made love. The drive to New York would be endless.

“We’re not using anyone,” Mindy said, then grinned sheepishly at Ada. “Lordy, it sounds like we’re doing a ritual sacrifice. It’s a Christmas tradition. That’s all.”

“You understand traditions,” Georgina said. “Like . . . church! You go to church on Christmas Eve?”

“We’re not religious, so no,” Ada said. Why was she whispering? “My mom hosts a party with friends from her Knit-and-Bitch club. We play play games, you know. Eat gyros and baklava?”

She said it like a question, afraid she’d get something wrong and make the whole situation worse. But Georgina only held up her forefinger as if Ada made her point.

“Still a tradition,” Georgina said.

Lil raked her fingers over her face.

“We’ll put you in a coat and some materials, and then you’ll go on the roof and . . . and thump like a reindeer,” Mindy said. Everyone seemed to wince at the word.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The dining table shook. A glass of wine fell onto an ornate rug, already stained. No one made a move to clean it up.

Butch threw up his hands and made a run for it.

“Butch Michael Hill,” Mindy yelled. The front door slammed. Coats, Ada thought idly. Mindy’s sons hadn’t worn coats.

“There’s already thumping,” Ada said numbly, pointing above her head.

Georgina and Mindy looked at each other across the table. Ada continued her attempt to unpeel everything she’d heard. Materials. Uncle Kurt. Stupid animals. Thump like a reindeer. On the other side of the house, a smash of glass and a loud curse.

Georgina waved it off. “Patrick.”


“We’re getting away from ourselves,” Mindy said. “Ada, follow Lil upstairs, and she’ll get you ready. There’s a window at the top of the stairs we’ve all used to go out on the roof.”

“What if I say no?” Ada said.

Grandma Mabel threw a roll of bread against the wall—pumpernickel—and covered her face in a wail.

“Then go,” Georgina said, sweeping her hand towards the door. Her long hair was as wild as Patrick’s now, a sheen of sweat on her brow.  “Follow Mindy’s deadbeat sons. Leave poor Lil to do it again. She almost lost a finger last year from the cold. That’s why she’s crying.”

Lil shook her head and muttered to herself. “I-can-do-it-I-can-do-it.”

Georgina was full of shit. Clearly Lil wasn’t fit to do it herself, and no one else was volunteering.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

“I’ll come, too,” Georgina added. “Fast and fun.”

As if this weren’t something so fucked up. So, Ada stood. She followed them out of the dining room and up along the rein-wrapped banister to the top of the stairs. They came to a window just to the right of the top of the stairs, a burlap sack resting beneath the sill. Robot-like, Lil started taking things out of the sack and handing them to Georgina. A brown camo coat that smelled like cigars. Sized a men’s large. Georgina unzipped it and held it up.

“Can I wear my own?” Ada asked, limbs beginning to tremble.

“Oh no,” Georgina said. “We have to use this coat. It’s Lil’s uncle’s. You probably won’t want to wear your own coat again after this, though.”

Before Ada had a chance to ask why, Georgina started talking, taking one of Ada’s arms and threading it through the sleeves, zipping it up to Ada’s neck as if she were a small child.

“Lil’s Uncle Kurt, Patrick’s brother, was really into the holidays,” she said. “He used to go upstairs each Christmas Eve, go out on the roof, and stomp around, mimicking reindeer. He was all about—what did he call it, Lil—oh, yes, the ‘authentic experience.’ Lil, Butch, and Charlie loved it as children, but they grew up, as kids do, and they lost interest. Kurt didn’t. In fact, he tried to make it more authentic, growing out a beard, dyeing his hair. He even bought real reindeer hooves.”

At the mention of the hooves, Lil took them out of the burlap sack. The smell hit Ada first. She wanted to throw up. It was two severed reindeer feet attached to sticks.

“You stomp these on the roof,” Georgina said.

“I’m so sorry,” Lil said. “Remember what I told you?”

“Stories,” Ada said, stunned, holding up the feet in her hands.

Brown and white hair covered the dried-up skin. Ada’s legs felt heavy as Georgina knelt to strap knee and elbow guards to her. Finally, Lil peeled the burlap sack off the bottom item, which was a helmet with two reindeer antlers attached. Ada leaned back, staggering, and nearly fell down the stairs.

“Now, now,” Georgina said, catching her by the forearms. “It’s not as heavy as it looks. These are female reindeer antlers—shorter and lighter than the males’. Did you know that? Both male and female reindeer have antlers?” She shook her head. “Kurt told us. He was so obsessed with reindeer he forgot all about Santa Claus. He found these on Etsy—you can find anything there.”

Ada realized, horribly, that Georgina and Lil were as scared as she was, if not more. The wind started howling outside, and the thumping continued. Ada glanced out the window out onto the sloped roof that covered the side addition to the house. A small layer of snow covered the shingles. There was nothing else there.

Thump. Thump.

Georgina babbled: Kurt had made the helmet himself. He prepared each year, all year, for this moment, to make the sound of reindeer.

“Eventually, we’d had enough,” Georgina said. She placed the helmet on Ada’s head, tucking her hair behind her ears. The entire costume pressed down on her. She smelled like wet fur and decay.

As Georgina fumbled with the helmet’s straps and adjusted them, Ada heard the rest.

“We let Kurt do as he pleased,” Georgina said. “But five years ago, we decided no more. He went up on the roof, thumping with these goddamn hooves. We put on the TV real loud. A marathon of Christmas movies, drinking cheap Moscato and gorging ourselves on ham and pumpkin pie. It was loads of fun. Kurt tried to yell over us, telling us we’d regret it if we broke his traditions. He went up and thumped on the roof, and we turned the TV up so loud we couldn’t hear a damn thing.”

Lil stood behind Georgina; a stream of cry-snot dripped down her lip that she kept wiping away.

Georgina sighed again. The helmet was snug. It wasn’t going anywhere. Ada held both hooves. Georgina stepped back and grasped Ada by the shoulders of that awful-smelling, camouflage coat.

“We forgot about him,” Georgina said. “We didn’t realize the window had closed behind him; the piece of leather he usually kept there as a failsafe had fallen. Or maybe one of us took it as a joke. Who’s to say?” Georgina laughed, glancing at the window. “Anyway, he died on that roof trying to open the window. He smashed it with his antlers and hooves, and it did good damage, but he cut himself on the glass and bled out.”

“Fuck,” Ada started whispering. “Fuck. Lil, why did you bring me here?

Lil covered her face and sobbed.

“Lil found him,” Georgina said plainly.

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” Ada said. “I want to take this off.”
“In a moment,” Georgina said, tapping Ada on the nose. “You’re going to go out that window, stomp a few times. Then you can come right back in. Easy as pie. Lil will wait for you, see? Do that, and the thumping stops. He won’t bother us again till next year.”

“Why can’t you just not do it?” Ada asked.

Georgina tilted her head. “You know, we tried that, but then the thumping never stopped. It got louder. We lasted until January seventh, and by then we’d almost lost our minds. Patrick threatened to open the gun safe, and my mother, Mabel, tried to leap out a window. Kurt was a stubborn bastard.”

Lil lifted up the window. A gust of cold air blew in. There was a thump that reverberated around the house. Then silence.

Ada held up the hooves like she was about to conduct a symphony. She smelled of cigar smoke and old, dead meat. She walked in front of the window and beheld the roof outside. It was two stories up, a flat, foot-long stretch that sloped downward at either side. If freezing didn’t kill her, the drop certainly might.

As if reading her thoughts, Lil leaned in, wiping at her nose.

“A few steps and then come right back in,” Lil said. “Then it’s done, we’re all done. I’m right here. I love you.”

“Can you tie a rope around me?” Ada whimpered.

Lil shook her head. She reached under the camouflage coat to Ada’s back jean pocket, where Lil knew Ada kept her phone. Lil slipped it out and put it in her own jean pocket.

“Don’t want that to break, right, honey?” she said, trying to smile.

Lil had never called her honey before. It sounded wrong. Deep and drawling. She blinked at Ada after saying the word, covering her mouth. Lil trembled and shut her eyes.

“That’s not— Oh god, I’m— I never wanted this,” Lil said.

It was an apology that was all-encompassing. Ada knew this was not just for this moment but for everything before, perhaps even as far back as when Lil was a child. Perhaps she never wanted Uncle Kurt to try so hard, even at first, even when it might have been magical. Ada also wondered if Lil meant she never wanted the moments leading up to it—their meeting, their lovemaking, and the choice to start sharing each other’s lives—and everything that would occur for them afterward. The phone call, the car ride, the dinner. New York might has well have been on the other side of the world.

Ada’s stomach roiled, and she wondered, wearing the coat, the guards, the helmet, what would happen if she threw up all over it.

Jesus Fucking Christ.

A mosaic snapped together in her mind: she bet it was old venison in the stew—overstocked and freezer burned in their garage or something. All visitors’ coats were likely stowed in their respective cars, because if they were brought in the house, they’d smell like Kurt’s—of old cigar smoke and dead meat.

Georgina blabbered on behind them, seemingly overcome. Her G medallion blinked against the dim light. Someone yelled downstairs, Mabel or Mindy. It could have been a “Hurry it up!” or “Fuck it up!” Ada couldn’t tell. With the window open, there was also laughter down the street, a car alarm, and the distant sound of bells.

Ada crouched and put her knee on the windowsill. She had to use her elbows to inch forward as she held the hooves. She gagged on the scent of them, the dried meat and blood around the sticks. Holy shit, she was doing this.

Her other knee came up, pushing her forward, and the snow seeped through to her skin even with the guards strapped to her. The helmet fell forward on her forehead, almost blocking her vision.

A couple of thumps. Sound like a reindeer.

“STOMP HARD,” a voice yelled right into her ear, and she jerked away, moaning as she tried to regain her balance. The voice was low and rough, a rhythmic rural Missouri accent.

She raised her right arm, clutching the reindeer hoof handles. An image jingled in her head: a body slumped through a shattered window, split flesh, blood on the floor, antlers puncturing glass.

“BUT MY HANDS STILL HELD THE HOOVES.” The voice in her ear again. Triumphant.

Ada brought her hand down hard onto the roof.



Someone clapped behind her.

Ada raised her left arm. Warmth began grow along her arms and wrap her torso. Her thighs tightened, balanced. A little bit more. A reindeer can pull up to three hundred pounds, after all, pull that much weight and still walk up to eight miles an hour.

The least she could do was make a good thump on the roof.

The very least she could do.



“The Sound of Reindeer” copyright © 2023 by Lyndsie Manusos
Art copyright © 2023 by


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