Tuesday, December 24, 2013
The Importance of Santa Claus: A Story for Christmas
The boy ran through the streets of winter, his breath fogging in front of him like the ghosts that pursued him from behind, the white of the streets and the white arms of the trees and the white fog of the night sky embracing him in an unwanted hug. The boy hit a patch of ice, skidding for a moment robbed of breath, and then fell on his stomach. The ice scraped up his coat and his sweathshirt and his undershirt, raising long gashes along his stomach. The boy had nothing left: he began to cry.
From the sky a great belly-laugh. The boy did not look up. On the ice next to him something skidded, throwing up shards of ice which melted along his cheek. The ground shook. Something clattered on the ice, hard like hooves. The boy did not look up. He thought to himself that maybe there was a herd of deer rushing past him. He thought that maybe he would get crushed, stomped under hard hooves, ground to a bloody pulp. He wished for it.
There was silence. The night air cold on his cheek. The ice cold on his stomach. The blood leaking slowly from slowly congealing wounds. Strong arms wrapped him up, picked him up. The boy closed his eyes.
Something cold and firm under his back. Gentle, firm hands binding his wounds. Something at his lips: something crumbling into his mouth. The boy sat up, coughed, chewed, swallowed.
A voice spoke, a voice like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. “You’d better open your eyes, son. These old flasks don’t take well to angst.”
The boy opened his eyes. He was seated on the hard bench of what looked like a wagon, with a rack of horses harnessed to it—but not horses: their eyes were too big, and they were horned. The boy refused to believe.
The fat man raised a curved horn, handed it to the boy. The boy drank something that tasted like grapes and also like fire, lighting his belly in a way nothing else ever had. He coughed. The fat man took back the horn and drank himself. He lowered the horn, and regarded the boy.
“You have to go home,” he said.
“Hell no,” the boy said.
“Will you fly with me for a time?”
The boy nodded.
Impossibly, in a manner the boy still refused to believe, the sleigh rose off the ground and the houses receded into models and then into toys and then into mere two-dimensional drawings. Somehow he was without vertigo, sure that he would not fall, yet equally sure that he was on the verge of a world whose consequences could be much steeper than a mere miles-long fall.
“Where are we going?” the boy asked, as the world below him darkened from a patchwork of light and shadowy squares to a rolling land of treetops and eventually water, roiling and teeming with mysterious meaning.
“Back in time,” the fat man said.
“Why?” the boy asked.
“I’m taking you home,” the fat man said.
“No,” the boy said.
The sleigh set down on a hillside. The air was no longer cold; it was warm and seemed to be filled with moisture. There was a shack, a ramshackle place like the boy felt his heart to be. The boy knew, somehow, that all the people here were not here, in any real sense, and that they were here in the only sense that matter. There were masses, singing hymns, and they seemed to process through the shack’s open door, disappearing into a warm sort of glow that emanated from the doorway of the shack, where around a feeding trough a group of animals and a handful of people gathered. But the boy’s eye was caught by a young man, maybe twice his age, whose eyes were on his sheep, herding them and watching them even as, in the sky, a cacophany of angels sang, wheels within wheels in the light of the stars, even as the shepherd’s own chest seemed to fill with a light, unborrowed, uncreated, unreflected. The boy didn’t think the shepherd could see him, but as one of the sheep wandered past the shepherd glanced at him, just for a moment, and smiled.
“This is home,” the boy said, looking up at Santa.
After a few more minutes which may have been hours—time did not seem to pass in a normal manner, here—the boy turned and put his arms around Santa, who hugged him back.
“I have to go, don’t I?” the boy said.
“Yes,” the fat man replied. “But you’ll carry this place with you. It is yours, forever.”
The boy nodded, understanding for perhaps the only time in his life.
The boy stepped off the sleigh onto his front doorstep. Opening the door, he saw what he had been afraid of all evening, what he had known would happen: his father, drunk, swaying like a tree in a windstorm; his mother, curled into a corner, her face a mass of bruises. The boy’s father’s eyes widened as the boy opened the door and walked into the living room.
“Thought I tol’ you never to come back again.”
The boy ignored his father, walked to the phone, and called the police. His father watched, open-mouthed in shock. The boy put the phone down and walked to a place between his father and his mother, taking his father’s blows until the police arrived.
A single string of sad, wilting, half-burned-out white lights hanging above the long counter was the only concession the bar made to Christmas eve. Below the lights a long row of burned-out men and women huddled over their drinks, making conversation in low growls. The young man was at the end of the bar, four beers in, not talking to anyone.
All at once he made the wrong move: eye contact with the wrong man, a big burly A-shirted man with tattoos of dragons, or lizards, or worms encircling his biceps, a misplaced leer. In under a second the man was across the room, smashing his beer bottle on a table so it became a serrated edge of terror, stabbing the young man’s hand into the counter of the bar.
A big man in a red outfit clapped the tattooed man on the shoulder, spun him around, and decked him. The big tattooed man went down and stayed down. The red-outfitted man clapped the young man, who was too shocked to move, on the shoulder and steered him toward the door of the bar.
“Thanks,” the young man said, glancing for the first time at the other. His eyes bugged for a moment, and he refused to believe.
“If they have heard Moses and the prophets, but they still will not believe,” the big man said, as if to himself.
“Nothing,” said the big man. “I’ve got to go.”
The boy’s mother’s grip was tight, yanking the little boy along through the crowd. She was a tall woman, bristling with faux-fur, looking down at the boy with her wide upper lip curled in disgust. The line snaked across the dull grey tiled mall floor as insincere Christmas hymns floated down from the mall’s ceiling.
“Santa is ridiculous,” the boy’s mother said.
“I need to see Santa,” the boy said, looking at his feet.
“Why?” the woman said, her grip on the boy’s fingers tightening. “We’ve been here for half an hour, and we’ll be here for another half an hour before you get to sit on his lap for two whole minutes. I’ll buy you a candy bar if we can skip this.”
“I need to see Santa,” the boy said.
“Santa is important.”
The woman snorted. “You little shit. Santa is no more important than your imaginary friend Elmer.”
“Elmer is important too,” the boy said. “He and Santa are friends.”
The woman snorted, having nothing to say to this. She tightened her grip enough that the boy cried out.
The next child in line was a small six years old, the old man guessed. The old man sat on the wooden slab of Santa’s thrown, knowing he was an imposter, taking comfort in the fact that at least his beard was real. As the boy shuffled forward the mall Santa inspected him: the ghost of rings around his eyes, the way he kept his eyes on his shoes, the way his lip curled back a little as if in anticipation of being hit, told Santa that he had been abused many times in his life. To keep from crying out, Santa raised his hand—the one with the circular bruise—to rub at the ghost of a bruise behind his own right eye.
The boy sat on Santa’s lap and looked up, for just a moment, into Santa’s face. He reached his hand up; the tiny fingers hovered in front of Santa’s face for just a moment, then retreated.
“It’s okay,” said Santa. “You can touch my face. Pull on my beard even. It’s real, I promise.”
Tentatively, the boy did: he ran his hand over the lines on Santa’s face, and he pulled the old man’s beard, which hurt, a little. He turned his back to Santa, still sitting on the old man’s lap, and he picked up the old man’s big hand. Slowly his hand traced the ring on the back of Santa’s hand.
“Did that hurt?” the boy said.
“No,” Santa said. “Hey. What do you want for Christmas?”
The boy put his hand to his chin, considering a moment. Then swiftly he turned to hug Santa, burying his head in the old man’s beard.
“I love you, Santa,” the boy said.
“I love you,” Santa whispered, in full knowledge that he could be jailed for saying so. “Always,” Santa said. “And never forget it.”