8FOLD/ACRA: Journey Into... Annual # 1 (b/b)
milos_parker at yahoo.com
Tue Nov 14 21:15:05 PST 2006
[Eagle-- could you archive these as one file? Thanks! ==Tom]
THE BREATHS OF GHOSTS
One day in August, the reindeer return, dust gathering into sinew
and muscle and something that isn't quite as rigid or real as bone.
The eight stand before Santa's palace in perfect symmetrical formation,
apparently waiting for the reins to be attached.
Rachel runs in to tell her mother, and Arielle, not wanting to
disturb her husband (another bad headache), pulls on her heavy gray
coat. Rachel is impatient: she doesn't need a coat and is impervious
to cold temperatures (once, however, Charlie Cooker tried to boil her
alive). She never really understood the idea of cold or the need for a
Arielle follows her daughter outside: the wind digs into her face,
and she blushes red along the tight shallow creases of her wrinkles.
She puts her bony fingers on Donder's muzzle and begins, slowly,
carefully, and ponderously, to ask him why he is here.
The language of the reindeer is a difficult one, for it only has two
noises, both harsh and slippery consonants. Even Santa, after hundreds
of years, still makes the occasional boner, often giving offense when
he meant to give a compliment; Donder, easily the most prickly of the
eight, often became difficult.
But Arielle and Donder have always shared a link, something
invisible between them that has always smoothed his temper: he has
never given her a problem, not even the time when she succeeded in
insulting his mother's breeding habits.
Once she has finished what she hopes to be the proper question, she
waits for him to respond, putting her ear close to his muzzle and
concentrating. But no answer comes. She begins again.
"Here, let me try," offers Rachel, cautiously approaching the deer.
Donder snarls and beats his hooves: for some reason, he's never much
cared for Rachel. (And, for some reason, Rachel keeps trying.)
Arielle strokes the side of Donder's face, trying to calm him down.
She asks him again why they are here. It's not yet time, she says,
it's still months away.
Donder lowers his head in what Arielle assumes to be a nod of
understanding; he makes no other answer.
She makes a few more attempts, but they neither move nor answer.
Arielle throws up her hands. "Rachel, get your father. But quietly."
Rachel nods and heads inside. Elbowsong stops her in the great
"What're the deer doing here in August?" he asks. "They only come
on Christmas Eve."
"I don't know," says Rachel. "They're not answering, either."
He follows her to her father's darkened room. She opens the door
and, seeing that he is asleep, slowly steps inside. She holds her hand
over his face, and lets a couple drops drip from her fingertips,
splashing between his eyebrows. He wakes gently.
"We got a problem," says Rachel. "The reindeer are here."
"Hmmph," says Santa.
Rachel and Elbowsong help Santa to his feet. He puts his cap on his
head and tightens his belt.
"Alright, then," says Santa. "Let's see what's the matter."
He squints his eyes as they head through the palace.
"Another migraine, dad?"
Santa's head jerks slightly up-and-down; a full-out nod would jostle
his head and slosh his brain about too much. Once they've reached the
end of the great hall, Elbowsong and Rachel throw open the doors.
Santa puts his arm around his wife's shoulder, hugging her quickly
and efficiently; every year, there is less and less of her to hug.
"Well, Donder," he says in English, "let's see what your problem is
today." He begins to speak in the language of the reindeer, and even
Arielle can tell that he's screwing it up.
But Donder takes no umbrage. He simply crouches down onto his
knees, and the other deer follow suit, waiting for the reins and sleigh
to be attached.
"I think they do understand," says Arielle. "I think they know that
it's not yet time. But they still want the reins on."
"Then I suppose we have no choice," says Santa. "Elbowsong, go get
their reins. Have a few others bring the sleigh around. Oh, and my
magic bag. For luck."
"But where are you going?" says Arielle.
"I'm not sure," says Santa. "But I suspect that they know."
"Is it safe to go out in the daylight like this?" asks Arielle. "If
too many people see you..."
Santa waves at her dismissively. "I'm sure it'll be fine."
"But your headache..." says Arielle.
"... will be bothering me whether I'm inside, outside, in the air,
or upside down," says Santa. "Besides, I'm about due for another
"An adventure!" says Rachel, clapping her hands with a wet, squishy
sound. "May I come along?"
"No," says her mother sharply. "No one can ride with your father."
"That's on Christmas Eve," says Santa. "I don't see why you all
can't come along."
"Does that include me, sir?" says Elbowsong, entering with the
"I suppose so, if you like."
"Oh, I would," says Elbowsong. "I would be most-pleased to
accompany Father Christmas and his family!"
"There isn't likely to be any snow-berries there, wherever we're
going," says Rachel.
"But there might be," grins Elbowsong.
"What if there's some kind of danger?" says Arielle. "What if we're
"Well," says Santa, "I suppose that'd put a bit of a damper on
things. Ah! There's the sleigh!"
Santa calls them by their names, the ancient sacred names that have
grown friendly and fat in years of casual irrelevance and misuse in the
hands of poets, filmmakers, and giddy children: and not even Santa,
with his deep and sonorous ho-ho-ho, can restore a speckle of their
former dust-born glory; they still kick off the ground, galloping into
the air before easing into a cool and graceful glide, obediently
leading the way to who-knows-where with their four passengers in tow:
dash away, dash away, dash away all!!!
Their journey would pass in silence if not for the fact that
Elbowsong lives in dread and mortal fear of it: and so every few miles,
he pipes up with, I wonder where we're going?, Boy we're awfully high
up, and, I wish I had some snow-berries. For the most part, he's
provided with affirmative nods and hums. As time wears on, Rachel and
her mother respond with tired, barely-suppressed sighs.
Santa wonders silently the thoughts that Elbowsong makes vocal,
actual, and real: where are the deer taking us? Do even they know?
Have they, perhaps, fallen under some kind of spell?
He pulls his wife close to confide in her: "First we flew over
Africa, then China, now the States. And it looks like they're bearing
down towards Africa again."
All she can say is, "Hmmm."
Santa exhales deeply, his brow knotted, as he peers over the side of
the sleigh again. He gasps. "What the--!"
"What's wrong?" says Arielle, drawing close.
"I don't know where we are."
"Over the ocean, I suspect...?"
"No. There's land, and lots of it. A whole continent. But quite
unlike any continent I've ever seen!" He holds his frail wife close as
she leans over to peek.
"It's shaped like a man," says Arielle. "And covered in fog."
"Not fog," says Elbowsong, whose big nose hangs over the other side
of the sleigh. All eyes turn on the little elf; he pulls his nose back
into the sleigh and pivots towards his eager audience.
"Not fog," he says again, "but breaths." He sniffs the air.
And no one has to ask what he means. Santa knows, and because he
knows, he has told Arielle; Arielle knows, and because she knows,
Rachel knew it upon awakening. Elf-sight sees deeper and better than
human-sight, and they can see the dark wisps of the soul that push out
of the nostrils with their dying breath.
And that's what this fog is: the last breaths of millions: the
breaths of the dead.
"Where are we, then?" says Arielle in short stark jerky
"I'm not yet sure," says Santa.
The sleigh bears down, and death envelopes them like wind. At once
suddenly and slowly, all four of these mortal souls sleep.
The sleigh hits the ground with a thud, and the impact is sufficient
to jerk them all awake. Before their eyes stretches a black landscape,
murky silhouettes and shadows covered in shadow-air.
Black leafless trees sprout from black soil along with black grass
and black flowers. Black mountains obscure a black sunset, and a small
black town can be seen in the distance, about a mile, maybe two.
"As I feared," says Santa, stepping out of the sleigh. He hoists
the magic bag over his shoulder, like he has a million times before.
"The land of the dead."
"But we're not dead," says Arielle as Santa helps her down, "are
"Of course not, milady," says Elbowsong, brimming with pride. "I
would have seen your last breath."
"Thanks," says Arielle wearily.
"Most-pleased," says Elbowsong with a slight bow.
Santa touches Donder on his muzzle, and the deer jerks back from the
black glove of his master. "Why are we here, old friend?" Santa asks
in English, before struggling to come up with the proper translation.
Donder lifts his front right hoof and pivots it forward, pointing
towards the town. The other seven reindeer do the same: then they
disappear into sparkling dust, commingling with the heavy breaths of
ghosts. The reins slowly fall slack, as if they are melting in the
Santa bends down and holds one of the reins in his hand, as if that
gesture somehow will bring the deer back.
"Well." He stands up. "To the town, then. Everyone keep close."
They see a little boy, sitting on a dried stump at the outskirts of
town. He is translucent, made of white smoke and steam: it swirls
around and billows inside him, like it is contained by an invisible,
The little boy reminds Rachel of herself, but, fearing that her
mother does not share her affinity with him, she does not speak,
instead pushing the thought and the uncomfortable feeling it engenders
down to the bottom of her ocean.
Santa tries to speak to the boy, to get his attention. For a
moment, it appears that they have made eye contact. But the boy does
not respond to any of the languages Santa speaks. And, what's more,
his face is so still and tranquil, despite its swirling mass, that
Santa wonders if he can hear him at all.
Arielle tries, with the same results. The party decides to press on
towards the town.
"He's following us," says Rachel. "Is that a good thing, or a bad
"I don't know," says Arielle. "But it scares me."
It doesn't scare Rachel, at least not exactly: there's something
comforting about the little smoke-boy. But because it scares her
mother and does not scare her, Rachel is scared.
Santa says nothing, and soon, they are in the town.
Dozens of white smoke bodies slowly glide across the street, pacing
back and forth, unmindful of their compatriots and the new arrivals,
wrapped up in their own little trance. Santa tries, briefly, to engage
them in conversation. But it is futile.
"No, they won't talk to you, Father Christmas," says a voice up
ahead. Several of the smoke bodies, brought together for a moment in a
cluster of slow-motion, part like water: at the end of the street
stands the tallest of the smoke-people. He wears a crown of light upon
his head. The party had grown so accustomed to the dark here that the
light hurts their eyes.
"They're scared of you," says this crowned figure, this king. "And,
truth be told, they hate you a little."
"But why?" says Santa. "I've done nothing to them."
"But surely you know the one day that the dead cannot walk the
earth," says the king of the ghosts. "The one day we dare not walk the
earth: Christmas Eve."
Suddenly, a deep loud hiss fills theirs ears. They whirl around,
expecting the ghosts to be hissing and snarling at them. In fact, it
is the sound of their steam, their souls, their bodies escaping their
It's just as unnerving. "Why did you bring us here?" Santa demands.
"Some kind of revenge scheme?"
"Revenge?" scoffs the king. "Whatever for? You can't help being
Father Christmas, anymore than we can help being ghosts. It's still
not fair, though."
"I can't change that," says Santa. "I don't make the rules. I
can't break them. They are older even than I, as old as the deer."
"You misunderstand," says the king. "We don't want to roam the
earth. Some men may say that we are impossible, but we do not make
"Then what do you want then?" says Santa, his famed patience growing
"Presents," says the king.
"Not to be immodest," says the king, "but I think we're fairly nice.
We're certainly not naughty. And so we'd like some presents. For
Christmas. I know you can't bring them on Christmas, but it's the
thought that counts, more than the time of year." The king smiles
hopefully, his confidence no longer so resolute.
Santa smiles back and, for the first time in a long time, lets loose
one of his famous, infectious laughs! "Ho, ho, ho!" he beams, his
entire body quaking with the joy. The ghosts, collecting themselves
back into human shapes, begin laughing as well. And then the king of
the ghosts himself, and Arielle, and little Rachel after her, until all
are laughing, save poor snow-berryless Elbowsong, who is quite confused
by the display.
Santa swings his bag down and reaches in, pulling presents from the
bag. It takes two hours to pass out the presents to all the ghosts
gathered here in this unholy place. But his joy never wavers, his
laugh never quiets.
It's been a long time since their first Christmas Eve together,
muses Arielle: and even then, he wasn't nearly as happy as he is now.
There's something pure about his happiness, something new: it's a kind
of happiness, she suspects, that he hasn't felt in six hundred years.
Now the ghosts are friendly and chatty, and as they open their
presents, their grim visages take on a lighter aspect: almost
child-like. Santa sneezes and one of the ghosts offers him a hunk of
flesh that serves as a handkerchief. Santa pretends to wipe his nose
with it and, as he passes the rotting scrap of skin back to the ghost,
clandestinely wipes his snot onto his red, red sleeve.
Usually, Arielle gets after him for doing this, and when he picks
his nose in general (habits are hard to break after the first century).
But this time, she'll let it pass.
A great banquet table is prepared even though the ghosts, having no
substance, consume no food. Air and shadow condense into sides of beef
and turkey, green (black?) beans with garlic, mashed potatoes,
appetizers, gelatin molds, and, yes, snow-berry pie: but nothing has
any real form. As soon as the forks and knives bite into it, it loses
its shape and dissolves. Those few bites that are successfully
shoveled into hungry, salivating mouths have no taste or weight,
dissolving teasingly on their pendulous tongues. (Elbowsong especially
Santa quietly looks at each member of his family, bullying them into
courtesy and reminding them that they'll be home soon enough. As soon
as the deer return...
"So, how did the deer know to take us here?" says Santa, covering
his red round nose as another sneeze ejaculates forth into his fine
velvet black glove.
"They happened upon us, quite by accident," says the king. "It took
some persuading, but they agreed to bring you to us. And so I sent out
the call for all good ghosts to nestle here and await your presents."
He hugs his own-- a toy duck-- proudly. "I suspect your deer will
return in the morning."
Santa looks around, squinting into the dark inky blots that populate
the landscape like misshapen rabbits. "Ah-- and what time is it now,
"Dusk," says the king. "You see there, on the horizon? That's the
sun setting in the east."
He points into the dark and unknowable mountains. Santa just nods
his head dumbly. He sneezes again.
"Ah, must be the approaching night," says the king. "The air is
"Must be," says Santa.
"So," says Arielle, "you speak the language of the reindeer?"
"That barbarous tongue?" scoffs the king. "No. We speak the
language of the ghosts."
"In addition to English?" says Arielle.
"No," says the king. "The language of the ghosts is a magic tongue:
its meaning becomes perfectly understandable in the language that you
speak. And so, the deer hear perfect deer, and you perfect English."
"I wouldn't mind learning such a tongue," says Santa, thinking of
all the times Donder has kicked him.
"Unfortunately, I would not be able to teach it to you," says the
king. "For anything I say will sound like English. No man may ever
learn the tongue of the ghosts. At least, not as long as he is alive."
Santa sneezes again, and it is butterfly'd into a nasty cough. He
clutches at his chest and covers his mouth, his body rocking back and
forth, shaking as violently as it did with his laughter.
He falls back and is very, very still.
Arielle rushes to his side, trying to rouse him. He coughs and
mutters, but does not open his eyes.
"You!" screams Arielle at the king. "You did this to him!"
"No," says the king, clutching the duck for fear it may be revoked.
"We didn't do anything! Why would we harm Father Christmas? It
profits us nothing to anger the magic!"
"What's wrong with him?" says Arielle. "Santa! What's wrong with
you?" She shakes her husband, but to no avail.
"He's allergic," says Elbowsong.
"Father Christmas is allergic to ghosts, to death," says Elbowsong.
"That's why no ghosts walk the earth on Christmas Eve."
"That's a fine theory, Elbowsong," says Arielle. "We've got to get
Santa back home."
"It's not a theory," says the elf. "Every elf knows that Father
Christmas is allergic to ghosts. And now it's killing him."
"Why didn't you say something before?" says Rachel.
"No one asked," says Elbowsong. "And I thought Father Christmas
"Then we have done this to him," says the king. "I only hope the
magic forgives us."
"Don't ask for forgiveness yet," says Arielle. At the top of her
lungs, she calls for the deer: for the first time, her pronunciation is
"Go meet them, help them put on the reins," she says to Elbowsong
"But if they do not appear?" says Elbowsong. "What if they didn't
"Go!" says Arielle. She doesn't have to tell them again. They rush
off to the sleigh. She holds her husband. "They must come."
Exactly six minutes later, the deer come galloping up, pulling
Elbowsong and Rachel inside it. Elbowsong seems not to appreciate the
gravity of the situation, and is quite enjoying the ride.
Rachel helps her mother and the king to lift her father's massive
body into the sleigh.
"I'm quite sorry," says the king. It almost sounds sincere. "Um.
I don't suppose he can come again?"
Arielle glares at him. The king rapidly dissolves away.
"Suppose not," says his voice as it bears the duck back into the
town. "Still. Tell him thank-you. We shall always remember this
Arielle exhales sharply before taking the reins.
"Milady," says Elbowsong, "have you ever driven the sleigh before?"
"I've never even driven a car before," says Arielle. "But all
things must happen the first time first." She takes a deep breath,
pulling her frail voice together into a bellow that might rival her
"On Dasher! On Dancer! On Prancer! On Vixen! On Cupid! On
Comet! On Donder! On Blitzen!
"Dash away, dash away, dash away all-- and I mean it, damn it!"
The deer kick off, quick-quick, climbing a steep mountain of sky,
rocketing up with incredible, increasing speed. After a handful of
seconds, it becomes apparent that they're not slowing up in their
Arielle tugs at the reins, but it's no use.
"They're going too fast!" cries Rachel. "The air's going to get too
thin to breathe!"
"I don't like that at all, milady," says Elbowsong, tugging
desperately at Arielle's cloak. "I like breathing!"
"I'm trying," says Arielle, tugging desperately again at the reins.
C'mon, Donder!, she thinks: we got to head down and level off!
At that moment, the sleigh reaches the mountain's apex, and the deer
begin dashing down its other slope. Arielle's hood balloons in the
wind. It reminds her of a roller-coaster she once went on as a child.
(It reminds Rachel of that roller-coaster, too.)
Again, she tugs on the reins but again, there is no noticeable
Slow down, thinks Arielle, and the deer slow down. Level off,
thinks Arielle, and the deer touch down on a plateau of air a few
thousand feet up.
Home, thinks Arielle, and the deer quickly but safely bear the
They lift Santa out of the sleigh. He's still for the most part
unconscious, but he is mumbling and the North Pole air seems to have
done him some good. Arielle sends Elbowsong ahead to fetch the other
She and Rachel carry Santa in.
Arielle keeps watch over her husband, the same way she kept watch
over Rachel, the same way he's kept watch over Arielle.
Morning comes, and Santa awakes, good as new. He's surprised to
hear that he's allergic, but understands that it makes sense.
"Maybe I can take an adrenaline shot with me," suggests Santa.
"No," says Arielle.
"Maybe I can send the presents down with little parachutes, just fly
above the place," says Santa.
"You could go," says Santa, "or Rachel."
"No," says Arielle, firmly.
"But it's not fair to the ghosts," says Santa. "It's just not
Coming in Spring 2007
from Jamie Rosen...
_=_______________________-_ "My name is Judas Iscariot. I
=< ' | ====== |______________| kill people for money. Always
\| | ======== |______________| have, probably always will."
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<<>> <<<>>> >> << >> >><<
ALL A YEAR IN A SINGLE BREATH
Arielle's hand looks tight and gnarled, the skin taut against her
veins, the fingers long knotted ropes. But when Santa holds her tiny
dried-up hand in his own, he is surprised by how soft it is, like warm
butter, like there's no bones in her hand at all.
He listens for her sparse, intermittent wheeze. It's the only sound
she makes. She stopped groaning hours ago, stopped talking hours
before that. Despite this silence, he knows she is still in a great
deal of pain: the tight intricate wood-grain lines of her face twitch
in tiny mute squeals. He cannot bear to look at her face, her
beautiful, beautiful face.
She is a hundred years old this Christmas Eve, and looks so frail in
Rachel (still a child after all these years) stands on the other
side of the bed, but does not touch her mother. The elves fill up the
room like carpeting, and pour into the hallway like water. Elbowsong
tugs at Santa's bare hand.
"Her last breath," he says somberly, pointing at the tiny, weathered
arch of her nose. Santa looks up at her face.
She exhales, a last pathetic gust of breath bruising its way past
her nostrils. It begins, and then it stops. Her head does not slump
forward in relief, but remains tilted back in pain. Frozen.
Frozen in time, before her last breath could escape.
"What are you doing?" sobs Rachel. "What are you doing to her?"
"It's Christmas Eve," says Santa. "I have to deliver presents. I
can't... can't watch her die, and then do that. But I can't blow off
the world, either. I have a responsibility."
He touches his wife's face before pulling on his black gloves. "I
can't let her go. Not yet. Just let her live, this Christmas Eve."
"She's in pain," says Rachel. "She's hurting!"
"Not now, she's not," says Santa. "When I... when I bring her back
out of it, it'll be as if no time had passed at all." He wipes the
tears from his eyes and swallows, a soft mucousy swallow. "I'll come
back early. So that I can... I can let her go..."
He turns and wades his way through the elves, who move around the
great man like water, filling up the spaces as he leaves them.
"Someone get my bag," he says, quiet and drained.
Rachel stares at her mother's frozen face in horror.
He touches Donder on the muzzle. The deer does not snarl as is his
custom, but simply looks at Santa, neither accepting the affection or
rejecting it. Santa tosses his bag in the sleigh and hops inside.
He calls them by their names, their sacred ancient names, but they
do not seem to respond, they do not budge. He calls a second time and
they take off. He chalks it up to something being off in his voice the
As the sleigh ascends into the night, he snow flakes freeze into
place like tiny drops of paint on the sky's black canvas. The only
thing moving, thinking, breathing, living in this moment is Santa and
his reindeer. Santa and his reindeer alone.
And he freezes them for a moment, so that the sleigh hangs in the
air. So that he is the only thing existing here and now.
He wonders what would happen if he fell to the icy waters below.
Would he break their surface, or would they be unyielding and hard?
Would the impact kill him either way, or would he prove as resilient as
he ever was?
Little boys and little girls are waiting for him. He can't
What if he froze himself? Would the entire world remain frozen, the
entire universe, in one permanent tableau? Nothing would ever end, no
one would ever die.
And, of course, nothing would ever grow. What kind of life is it,
being blissfully asleep? No life at all.
He unfreezes the deer.
This used to be her home, this is where he met Arielle, over forty
Christmases ago. The first three years saw two different families.
Then, a family moved in for a long haul. Thirty years he watched
newlyweds become parents, become young grand-parents, a brief snapshot
captured each year, a single moment stolen from time and secretly
observed. He made a game of it that last year, trying to match the
grand-child to their parent, their in-laws to their child. The next
year, they were gone.
He paid attention in the cities nearby, looking for any sign of
them. He found none. They couldn't have just disappeared. Then he
thought, perhaps he did see them pop up elsewhere. But without this
house to tie them to, their faces became lost to him.
He never had the greatest memory, and he saw millions of people each
year. That's why he needed a list. That's why he had to check it
These last few years, an elderly couple have taken residence in this
home where he courted Arielle and taught her all he knew. Most years,
they are asleep. But this year, they are frozen in front of a
television. Their eyes are small and beady, crinkled not by anger but
by a strange, mellow kind of smile. Her hand rests on his thigh, and
out of the corner of his eye, imperceptible if he hadn't been frozen,
he steals a glance at her. His mouth is open, teeth parted.
Santa wonders what he's going to say.
They seem so very happy, having grown old together. He suspects
that when one passes, the one will follow soon after.
Santa places the presents under the tree and, ageless in his seven
centuries of life, picks up his magic bag again and moves on to the
The night passes like it always does, slow and lingering, until it
"Merry Christmas to all," says Santa, bearing his sleigh home an
hour before dawn.
"Good-bye, my friends," he says to the deer once they have touched
ground. They dissolve into light and dust, save for Donder.
He steps forward, his body dissolving around the reins and reforming
itself once he is free from its grasp. He beats his hoof into the snow
"Go on," says Santa. "I'll see you next year, Donder."
But Donder will not be persuaded. Santa shrugs and heads inside his
palace. Hoofs in the snow.
Santa turns around. Donder is following him. "Go on," says Santa.
Donder slowly shakes his head from one side to the other, beating
his hoof again.
"Then it must be important," says Santa. "Come on in, then."
They head inside, and up to Arielle.
Rachel finds Elbowsong near her mother's door.
"Well?" she says.
Elbowsong tries his best to whisper: it doesn't come naturally to
elves. "Father Christmas has been sitting with milady for a long time.
But she is still frozen."
"Dad," says Rachel, peering into the room.
Santa looks at her. His eyes sink into heavy kangaroo pockets.
"Why is Donder here?" she says suddenly, noticing the reindeer.
Donder, for his part, snorts at the teardrop girl.
"I don't know," says Santa.
"It's nearly dawn," says Rachel gently. "You've only a few
"You have to let her go," says Rachel.
"I will," says Santa, turning back towards her. He rubs his gloved
hand along the folds of Arielle's cheeks.
"You have to do it now, Dad," says Rachel. "Otherwise, she'll be
frozen like this to next Christmas Eve!"
"She's in pain!" says Rachel, rushing into the room. She grabs
ahold of his arm and shakes him. "Let her go, Dad! Let her go!
Please. Please. Let her go!"
She shakes him even more violently. He does not respond nor is he
ousted from his chair.
"Let her go!"
"I will," says Santa desperately. "I will. I just want to have her
for another moment."
"We haven't got time! It's almost dawn!"
"Just another moment," says Santa. "Then I'll let her go. I just
Donder makes a terrible noise, and Santa turns towards him.
Donder climbs up on his hind legs and kicks the air with his front
feet, snorting. The hooves come crashing down into the floor with
terrific violence. "Let her go," says Donder, in eerie, guttural
"I will," says Santa.
"Now!" says Rachel. The first light of day begins to spread over
the arctic. "It's your last chance! It's dawn! Now! Please! Now!"
"I can't," says Santa. "It's too late. I'm sorry. My powers are
gone for another year."
Donder gives another snort, garnering the old man's attention once
"I'm sorry," says Santa. "I just love her so much, and..."
Donder explodes in angry, anguished light.
"... and... I just can't live without her. It's not fair."
Rachel puts her hand on her father's shoulder. "Dad. What have you
done to her?"
Elves have no concept of or need for secrecy, and so, this morning's
dramatic events are not transcribed in hushed asides or hurried
whispers, but loudly, blatantly, and within earshot of Rachel and her
But not even this, easily the most scandalous and divisive thing
that's happened in the hundred years since the treachery of the Dark
Elf Whistletuft, can deter the elves from spending this Christmas Day
the same way they always do: recovering from their exhaustive
all-nighter, stretched out in their clay beds, a quilt of crumpled
autumn pulled up to their noses. They are marathon sleepers.
Most of them will be up and at 'em in a few days, ready to get
started on next year's toys or, more likely, eager to search for fresh
ripening snow-berries. Some, like old Handlemaze, will sleep into the
new year (once, he didn't wake until July!).
If the elves dream at all, it is the same dream, one designed so as
not to offend even one of them. And so it cannot be a dream that
causes Handlemaze to awaken on the seventh of January, a mere
fort-night later, a catnap! He does not know what has disturbed his
slumber, but he has lived enough millennia that he knows better than to
ignore it or to paw it off as chance.
With deceptive sprightliness, he rolls out of bed, catapults up the
stairs, and dashes through the workroom, paying no mind to his fellows
peacefully at work at the conveyer belts. He only comes to a stop
when, stumbling, he enters the great hall and comes face-to-face with
"What are you doing here?" he demands gruffly, grabbing the evil
eight-year-old by his arm. "How dare you defile this place?"
"I was invited, you clod," sneers Cooker, pulling his arm away.
"But I did not come to be manhandled."
"Leave him alone, Handlemaze." It's Santa, entering at the far end
of the hall.
"Then it's true?" says the elf. "You invited him? After all the
times he's tried to kill you, to dissect you like an animal, you
invited him here, into your home?"
"That's about the half of it," says Cooker.
"Come on, Charlie," says Santa, stretching out his hand. Cooker
walks down the hall. Handlemaze watches, dumb-founded, as the two foes
exit the great hall, side-by-side.
Elbowsong appears at Handlemaze's side, stuffing his face with
snow-berry pie but otherwise ready to provide an explanation. "He
thinks Cooker can cure milady."
"Cure her?" snorts Handlemaze. "Of what? Death?"
"Here she is," says Santa. "Frozen at the moment of her last
"How do you know?" says Cooker.
"The elves told me," says Santa. "They can see a person's last
"Right," says Cooker sarcastically. "So, what do you want from me?
You've saved her already."
"This," says Santa, pointing at her with his palm, "this isn't life!
She's neither alive nor dead. Cannot think, cannot feel..."
"But her flesh is still warm," says Charlie. "She's still alive."
"You, too, are frozen in time," says Santa. "On your eighth
birthday, you discovered the secret of immortality. Please, Cooker.
Charlie. I beg of you. Save my wife."
"First off, there's nothing in it for me, and I take it you have
nothing to offer but your sniveling.
"Secondly, despite my best efforts, I've never been able to recreate
the experiment. An attempt could result in her death.
"And finally," says Cooker, "even if I did succeed, she would stop
aging from this point on. The cancer that's killing her would still be
there. Her bones would still be old and bitter and frail. She would
still be dying, only she would never die, never have any relief. It
wouldn't be much different, I suspect, from what she's doing now."
"She's not thinking now," says Santa. "She's not in pain."
"Then I suppose you had better leave well enough alone," says Cooker
with a shrug. "Though, aren't you immortal? You claim to have lived
for over six hundred years." He doesn't mean this as a suggestion, but
rather as challenge.
"I exist outside of time," says Santa.
"And now, so does she," says Cooker callously. "A pity. Hmm.
Don't suppose you'll let me stay for dinner?"
Santa heaves a deep sigh.
"Hmm, I supposed not. Probably worried I'll double-cross you or
"You've done it in the past," says Handlemaze, standing in the
"Only when I had a plan," says Cooker. "Only when it is to my
advantage. To improvise when Santa has all the cards? That would be
"You suggesting Santa would lure you here into some kind of trap?"
"It wouldn't be consistent with his weak character," says Cooker.
"But neither was the invitation."
"His wife is dead!" says Handlemaze. "He is grieving!"
"She's not dead!" says Santa. "Not yet!"
"I'll... I'll show Mister Cooker out," says Handlemaze.
"No need," says Charlie. "I can quite find my way." He brushes his
way past the elf.
Handlemaze hesitantly steps into the room. "Sir? Santa, is there
anything I can do for you?"
"No," says Santa. Then he stops. "Yes. Get my reins and my
Charlie Cooker prepares to inject the virus into the strange beasts
that inhabit Santa's zoo. "With this virus," he muses aloud, a habit
that's become increasingly disconcerting as of late, "these animals
will be transformed into hideous, violent beasts! And Santa could
never bring himself to hurt them, because they are poor, unthinking
"Drop it." It's Rachel.
"I don't suppose I can talk my way out of this one," says Cooker,
pocketing the syringe.
"No," says Rachel. "Keep your hands where I can see them, Cooker."
"What, am I under arrest?" says Cooker. "Better read me my rights
while you're at it, Officer Puddle."
"I don't want any of your lip," says Rachel.
"Keep telling yourself that, sweet-heart."
She slaps him across the face.
He puts his hand to his cheek. "Just as I suspected." He smirks
darkly. "I dare say you're wet."
"You're a nasty little boy," says Rachel. She moves to slap him
He grabs her wrist, causing her hand to splash outwards before
"No one slaps Charlie Cooker," he says.
"Don't you touch me again!" says Rachel. "I said, keep your hands
up, and I meant it. I'm taking you to my father."
Charlie sighs and lifts his hands up over his head. "Lead on, you
"The sleigh's all set," says Handlemaze. "And the reins. But what
are you going to do with them in the middle of January?"
"I'll go to the land of the dead," says Santa.
"But Father Christmas! You're allergic to ghosts!" says Elbowsong.
"But they might know a way to save Arielle," says Santa.
"But you've no reindeer," says Handlemaze.
"We'll see about that," says Santa. And, at the top of his lungs,
he calls for them, almost the same way he does at the start of every
Christmas Eve. The difference is the pain and urgency in his voice.
Elbowsong is just coming in when Rachel and Cooker enter the great
"Elbowsong," says Rachel, "where's my father?"
"He's out there, calling the reindeer. He wants to go to the land
of the dead, to try and save Mrs. Claus!"
"Oh, no," says Rachel. "He can't!"
"I tried to stop him," says Elbowsong.
"You don't want your mother saved?" inquires Cooker with casual
She ignores the question. "My father can't go to the land of the
dead. He's allergic to ghosts. It'll kill him!"
"I tried to stop him," says Elbowsong again.
"There's no such thing as ghosts," scoffs Cooker.
"You say the same thing about my father, and yet, there he is."
Cooker gives no answer to that.
"Rachel," says Elbowsong, tugging on her dress, "I did try to stop
him. I was very good." He looks at her expectantly.
She waves him off in disgust. "Go get your pie, Elbowsong."
"He's a greedy little bastard," observes Cooker, lowering his arms
as he watches Elbowsong skip off to the kitchen.
"Keep your hands up," says Rachel sharply. She adds, "Elves don't
know any better. They're like children. They can't help who they are.
But you, Charlie...! You know better. You still choose to be petty
and nasty and selfish."
"Self-interest is healthy," says Cooker. "It implies personality,
it implies self. Identity. The supreme anti-good is anything that
takes individuality away. Anyone takes 'you' away from you, and you
belong to them. You're imprisoned. Nothing more than part of them.
Elves, they're all the same. You can talk about them in general
terms." He smiles. "But me? I'm Charlie Cooker, and there's nobody
quite like me in the world."
"Stop talking," says Rachel, wearily. His words grate on her, not
because they are repugnant, but because they make sense. She reminds
herself who Charlie Cooker is and what he was trying to do. "Keep your
hands up," she says.
"I didn't move them," whines Cooker.
Rachel reaches into his pocket and pulls out the syringe. "You're
sick, you know that?" She looks at the syringe again. "Sick."
It's then that Santa enters, exhausted and stumbling. Rachel rushes
towards her father, and Cooker takes this opportunity to lower his
"No use," says Santa in a low, thin voice. "They're not coming."
He looks to Cooker. "Charlie, I don't suppose I can borrow your
"What's in it for me?" says Cooker. He's not looking at Santa.
He's looking at Rachel.
The Teardrop Princess steps to the side and discreetly drops the
syringe in a waste-basket. Charlie notes this.
Santa is oblivious to this little scene, and his face sags
"Alright, alright," says Charlie, "only don't mope, you optimistic
fraud. I, for one, would like to see this so-called land of the dead,
if only so that I might debunk it."
There's a gleam in his eye, and it's a gleam that Rachel doesn't
much like. She certainly doesn't want her father traveling with his
archenemy to the one place in the world that can kill him.
"I'm coming along," says Rachel.
"Someone has to watch over your mother," says Santa.
"What's going to happen to her between now and next Christmas?" says
Rachel sharply. "No arguments. I'm going with."
While her father pilots the plane (actually, a large six-room
hovercraft), Rachel keeps herself focused on Charlie. She knows that
she can't let him out of her sight, and that she certainly can't leave
him alone with her father. Not in his weakened emotional state.
"You don't seem to know where you're going," offers Cooker.
"I'm not quite sure how to the get there," says Santa. "I think
it's quite similar to the North Pole. You can only find it when you're
not looking for it."
"Not that hogwash again," says Cooker, maintaining as always that
the magnetic pole at the north upset machinery and made it difficult to
navigate. He rolls his eyes in disgust, and notices that Rachel is
staring at him again.
"I'm going to my library," he announces loudly. "To spend time with
minds I can respect."
To his consternation, Rachel soon follows him in.
"What do you want?" he sneers.
"I like to read," says Rachel.
"I'm a serious reader," contends Charlie. "No smiles and nursery
rhymes for me!"
"That's fine," says Rachel evenly. "I just like to read."
Cooker throws up his hand with another sneer. She goes to his west
shelf. Four rows of eight are devoted to the works of someone named
"Is she one of your favourites?" she asks.
He bristles at the sound of her voice. "You could say that. Now
stop asking questions. You want to read, than read."
She grabs one of the Rand books from the shelf.
The hovercraft begins to descend. Rachel looks up from her book to
find that Charlie has already left the room. Oh no! Stupid girl!
She rushes into the cockpit. Her father is slumped over the
controls. Charlie frantically tries to move him.
"What did you do to him?" she shrieks.
"He was like this when I found him," says Charlie, taking the
controls. "The craft suddenly began plummeting. It still is. Can't
see through this damn fog!"
"It's not fog," says Rachel. "We're here. The land of the dead."
"You've got water in your brain," says Charlie.
The craft lands with a thud.
Rachel feels her father's sweating face. "He's starting to have a
reaction already. Breaking into a fever. I knew this was a bad idea."
"Don't blame me for it," says Charlie. "His own damn fault. Only a
fool risks his life for another."
"You're hideous," says Rachel.
"What, you're telling me if it's between your life and your
mother's, you'd choose to die?"
"Sometimes, they're not your only choices," says Rachel.
"Yeah, if you know what you're doing," says Charlie. "And the old
man obviously doesn't."
"There's the king of the ghosts," says Rachel. "Let's see if he can
help my mother, and then let's get out of here."
She starts towards the hatch. Charlie isn't following her. She
turns and scowls at him. "Well?"
"If you think I'm going to trust you with my father, you're insane."
"Well," he says, smiling brightly, "at least one member of your
family has brains."
They head outside. "Even if you can be fooled by this pitiful
excuse for a apparition."
"Welcome, Rachel," says the king, either unmindful of Charlie or
ignoring him deliberately. "What brings you here?"
"My mother is dying," says Rachel. "Dying of cancer, and of old
age. My father froze her at the last moment. He's hoping that you can
save her, that you know some trick or secret."
"I'm afraid not," says the king. "There is no way to beat death, to
beat the wind itself. I am very sorry," he says, not quite meaning it.
"Would you like to stay for dinner?"
"No," says Rachel. "We've got to get going. My father..."
"Of course," says the king.
"What a monumental farce," snorts Cooker. "What an obvious fraud.
You know why it's so dark here, don't you?"
"Because it's the land of the dead," says Rachel.
"No," says Cooker. "It's because they're trying to hide the
shoddiness of their special effects work. Probably those amateurs, the
Director's Guild of Anarchy. They..." He stops cold, his mouth agape,
It's the little smoke-boy, the one that held Rachel's interest on
their first visit.
The little smoke-boy waves at Charlie, and a sickness overcomes the
Rachel helps him into the hovercraft, and they take off.
On the ride home, he says very little. She thinks she catches him
crying, but can't be sure.
Her father starts to recover. As Charlie pilots them back to the
North Pole, Rachel explains what the king of the ghosts had to say.
Santa, too, falls quiet.
Charlie Cooker finds the North Pole with considerable ease. He
lends Rachel a few books.
Santa and Rachel exit the hovercraft, and Charlie takes off.
"He seemed strange," says Santa. "What happened back there?"
"He saw a ghost," says Rachel with a shrug.
The elves are very happy to see both of them, and hold a great feast
in their honour. So as not to leave it empty and remind everyone of
the cloud hanging o'er them, Rachel sits in her mother's chair.
After dinner, she tells them a long story and even Santa can
appreciate how good she's gotten at telling a story. How much like her
Whenever he is the room with Arielle, Santa breaks down crying. He
begins visiting her less and less, and spending more time in the
workshop, or with Rachel. Now when he visits her, he doesn't cry at
all. Instead, he spends a few quiet moments with her motionless body.
He misses her, and yet he doesn't. Sexual relations between them
had ceased shortly before her ninety-fifth birthday, and, truth be
told, Santa never had much of a libido anyway. He loved her deeply,
but most of all he valued her companionship and their bond.
He liked to teach her things, to show her a world. Now he teaches
Rachel, continuing the education her mother was giving her. Arielle
had been a quick student; Rachel is quicker, if only because she knows
everything her mother knew already.
She is so much like her mother, muses Santa. Of course, why
wouldn't she be? She is her mother, in a body that will live forever,
never age, never die. Just like Santa will never age and never die.
Rachel is someone to teach and someone to talk to, someone to argue
with, someone to bake him pies and mend his suits. They play board
games sometimes, especially word games, just like he used to play them
with Mrs. Claus. (And she makes all the same mistakes in those games
as her mother did, too!)
And then, sometimes, suddenly and with a great crushing weight, it
returns: he misses her so badly, he hugs her cold still body, he kisses
her frozen, horrific face, he begs forgiveness and he begs her never to
go. Sometimes it seems like he'll have no trouble unfreezing her come
Christmas Eve, other times, he feels that he can never do it.
But I have Rachel, he says to himself, it's just like having Arielle
here with me. I can let her go, because I have a perfect copy.
And so he goes, back-and-forth, occasionally dashing off again to
some corner of the world in a borrowed rocket, trying to find a cure
and knowing that there is none. Until he stops trying.
Until he stops crying. And he feels something cold inside of him,
and wonders if he's a human being at all.
And he forces himself to cry again, if only to deny these uneasy
Until, at long last, a week before Christmas, Rachel announces that
"What do you mean, you're leaving?" asks Santa.
"I want to leave," says Rachel.
"Because I want to," says Rachel. "I just want to leave. I still
love you, dad. But I don't want to live here anymore."
"Where will you go?"
"I don't know," says Rachel.
"Well, if you don't have a place or a reason..."
"I want to go because I want to," says Rachel. "And I want to go
wherever it is I want to go. I want to be in charge of myself."
"You are in charge of yourself."
"And yet you don't want me to leave," says Rachel.
"You're being selfish," says Santa. "What about the elves? They
"I want to be myself," says Rachel. "I'm tired of being my mother
and doing the things my mother did and thinking the things my mother
thought. If you want to call that selfish, then, fine. Call that
selfish. But let me go, and let me be Rachel."
"You'll come back," says Santa hopefully.
"Maybe, probably, I don't know."
"Okay," says Santa. "Go if you must. But, try to keep in touch?"
"Of course. I love you, daddy."
"I love you too," says Santa, kissing her salty forehead. "You'll
want to say good-bye to your mother before you go."
"No, that's okay," says Rachel. "I said good-bye to her almost a
year ago. You've got to say good-bye too, daddy. You've got to let
her go. Oh, and one more thing." She hands him a stack of books.
"The next time Charlie Cooker tries to kill you, give him these back
from me. They really helped a lot."
He nods. She gives him one last kiss before her body, tissue dress
and all, evaporates into a swirling mass of steam. It floats down the
great hall, out the door, and into the world.
He touches her face with his bare hands, feeling her breath fall
quick and hot against his palm. Her head slumps forward, chin digging
into her neck. "I'm sorry," he says, pulling her exhausted shell
close. "I'm so sorry I was so selfish for so long."
He relinquishes the hug, letting her slender body settle into the
groove it has made in her bedsheets over the last year. She sinks into
it, like it is white earth. Like snow.
The reins are laid out and attached to the sleigh. Santa, magic bag
slung over his shoulder, calls for the reindeer. It is to no avail.
"My own fault," says Santa. "Ah well. They'll come next year."
"And if they don't?" says Handlemaze.
"Then they won't," says Santa.
"But what about Christmas Eve?" says Elbowsong. "What about all the
little boys and girls, and their presents?"
Santa laughs. "Ho, ho, ho! Why, Elbowsong, I still have my magic
bag, don't I? And I'm still Santa Claus, aren't I?
"And, most important of all, there's still little boys and little
girls who believe in Santa Claus. And as long as that's so, there will
always be Christmas, and there will always be presents!"
He snaps his fingers, and the furious blizzard comes to a mid-air
And then he treks out into the long winter night.
(C) COPYRIGHT 2006 TOM RUSSELL.
ADVERTISEMENTS (C) SAXON BRENTON, TOM RUSSELL, AND JAMIE ROSEN.
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