Winter Holidays - Story 1 - 'Twas the Night by Manuel Royal

I remember the sky was blue. Sun was too bright to look at, and warm on my face. It’s dark now, always, forever. All night.

Cities sliding by, way down below, their swathes of light strung out along coastlines or spilling over plains. I can drop down and see streets (grid, jumble, what-have-you), and houses (shacks, mansions, doesn’t matter). Roofs. And chimneys, the world is full of them. Even in the most modern cities, houses with central heating still sport chimneys.

Underneath the roofs and the chimneys are the children. Small ones, particular ones. I’ve got a list. Kids that believe in things like me. Little children, simple in their faith, they keep me at my work.

If there’s a chimney on your roof, and you’re a good kid who believes in stuff, I’ll come and visit tonight. There’s a thing in my bag for you. A gift, I mean, for you. My big bag on my shoulder is full of presents. Special gifts, secret things.

Keep your eyes open, stay awake after they tell you to go to sleep, and you might even see me.

I like that. I’ve seen wonder and fear and everything except disappointment on their small faces. They’ve seen… me.

Down the chimney, quick. Hurts, every time. Whether it’s a six-inch clay tube or some huge industrial structure, getting through it hurts; it’s a spasm of crushing pain in my center. Maybe like giving birth or like being born, and like either one it isn’t a choice but a headlong and heedless ordeal.

This one time I had to drop down a quarter-mile-tall power plant smokestack in Kazakhstan. Straight down the stack and out through a furnace of white-hot pulverized coal and incandescent gas, because a widowed night-shift worker brought his six-year-old daughter to work with him and put her to bed on an office sofa. Their home was probably a block of flats with no chimneys; his little girl could have slept the night there untouched.

I found her, pulled her gift from my bag. Something like a spiky tiara, or a glittering insect. I placed it on her brow and watched it melt into her like a marshmallow in cocoa. Part of her for always. Then I went back through the fire and up again.

Here’s a house now, here’s a chimney’s dark mouth, and here I go, squeezing down in the dark to be delivered out of a cold fireplace into the half-lit living room.

There’s usually a tree, lights. The poorer the house, the more likely the lights are of many colors, like a spilt bag of hard candy. The lights here glow a soft bluish white, shining cleanly on good fabrics and woods, speaking of comfort and privilege. They don’t need any gifts they don’t already have, but it’s not my choice.

After so long on the job, I move smoothly and silently, unhurried.

First thing’s first. Good—they put a plate out, with my name on a red and green card. Milk and brownies; well done.

(If you don’t leave me a little something, don’t complain when I raid your fridge. In a well-equipped home, I might consume a whole pie and half a bottle of rum, lying in a massaging recliner and trying to remember what sleeping feels like. Maybe I’ll read your books or watch your TV. Any movie or show filmed in daylight is fine.)

In this house, no grown-up’s going to stir tonight. I could steal some time if I like. It’s only stealing from myself. I could dawdle for hours. Done it before, long ago tonight when I was new at it. Nothing matters; it won’t subtract a particle from how much work I have to do tonight.

Chewing a fudge brownie, looking around. I glance out the window at the house next door. I can see straight into the living room; sure enough, there’s another fireplace, and two big illuminated plastic candy canes crossed over the mantle like swords, flashing on and off, red and white.

I know there are children over there too, the right kind. Two good ones. So I already did that house, or will later tonight. I can set my own route, not bound by geography or time except of course for being stuck the rest of my life in the trench between the twenty-fourth and the twenty-fifth of December.

Those candy canes… yes, I have been there already. Long ago tonight, very early in my career. Emerging from the fireplace, a little shaky in the legs and I saw—

There he is. There I am, me, from earlier tonight, and I see now what my arrival looks like, when I pop out of the small brick fireplace, abruptly swelling into view. I always imagined it must look like a great red flower bursting into bloom, or at least a bearded Jack-in-the-box. But no, it’s more like a bowling ball issuing from the ball return.

The younger one over there, me, his pale face lifts and then our eyes meet for a long moment. On the other end of that gaze, he is—I am, I was—more than startled. Shocked, really, knocked on my ass. That was early on: I was young, he’s young, so much brown in the beard, some life still in the eyes, maybe.

I remember, I remember looking across to the other house, this house, and the old, very old fat man, round and rosy and terrible, with his flow of white beard blanketing chest and belly like a snowy hill. There was a wrenching pang in my own chest and a sense of empty space under my feet.

Now, he falls to one knee on the floor and turns his face away. I spent the rest of the night, back then, on that spot, sobbing.

Those were my last tears, and I don’t feel things like that anymore, but I can remember. I gaze over my belly and through the window at my young self, knowing that our other selves, our older or younger brothers, are this second in many thousands of such houses. Too bad, too bad for us, everyone.

That one, that newbie, I know by and by he’ll rouse himself to finish the job in that house just as the eastern sky starts to show the faintest mocking hint of the light beyond it. Then the Eight, waiting up on the roof, will call him back up the chimney and drag him into the sky and up, up through roaring black void and backwards through a dozen starlit hours, backwards to dusk, so the night begins again and he continues the work of chimneys and children and gifts.

After that incident of my youthful career, I stopped looking out windows. Until this house; but that had to be, so that this moment could be. If I hadn’t been unwonted careless this time, I wouldn’t have learned my lesson right, so long ago.

Up at the ’Shop, they gave me the knowledge to know this would happen. I would pass through this night, not once but again and again, house after house, child after child until my boots tramped ruts into these weary, well-worn hours, living ages in one night. Until I grew old, as I am, and unknowably old, and fat, ruddy-cheeked.

And my bag, so heavy at first that it bent me down to the ground, ever so slowly lightened as I took things out, and somewhere in the round of these quiet cold hours the time’ll come when I arrive at a certain house and stand before one particular child and reach into the bag’s depths to find just a single thing remaining. A gift like no other. That’s not this house, not this round; I’d know.

Suddenly wanting to finish and be on my way, I slip into the child’s bedroom. A little girl, dark-haired; she’s dreaming and smiles in her sleep. I reach in the bag and find her gift. It’s oily to the touch and restlessly folds and unfolds itself, its pieces sliding against one another with slurred rustling whispers.

I place it in her soft hand, which closes around it, and for a moment her pale face is drawn into a mask of dread. Then her fist opens; empty. Her face smooths into a slack, dreamless stupor.

What happens to her tomorrow, and how will she carry my gift in the world? I’ve not got a clue. Anyway, she won’t have to do my job.

***

Back out, up, and away into the cold windy night sky, drawn on taut braided leather cables behind the Eight, straight up into black frigid air. The first trip, I was terrified by the gaping maw of space beneath me.

All my fears burned away in time, but I still have the memory of a boy who was me. Six years old. Too serious and too fanciful both, living in his child’s half-real world, lifetimes ago. Only a year ago tonight, as calendars would have it.

I stayed up later than ever, too excited to sleep. I knew he’d come, and if I let myself sleep for even a minute, I’d miss him because he was so magically quick.

I am magically quick. Magic is a wondrous thing. Not a good thing.

So I fought against drowsiness, not knowing I’d already slept for the last time. When he arrived, I knew it right away. I slipped out of bed and peeked down the hall. I saw him, silhouetted in front of the tree’s twinkling colored lights.

Beard first, vast and white. Red fur and white from his head to his feet, white eyebrows under the fur cap, and boots that brought him silently toward me.

My heart was pounding. At that moment, for the last time, I was happy. Then I saw his eyes, and I felt the fear children know, the fear grown-ups hide from in churches and in their cups and in each other.

He slung his bag down off his shoulder and reached into it, and then he smiled. When he smiled I wanted to turn and run, wanted to cry and call out. Couldn’t make a sound. He spoke, like a wheezing bellows. “Just one left.”

He pulled out a thing that shimmered, hummed and spun, and he pressed it to my chest. It whirred and clicked under his big hand, pressing it hard, rubbing it into me like a balm. It’s still in me, for always.

Then he picked me up and put me in the bag, and inside it was black and empty, and I tumbled down and down into its folds. I lay unmoving through minutes or hours of sightless vertigo and sick fear.
In time the bag opened, and I looked out. We were at the ’Shop. The Eight, used up by their flight, were already asleep in their traces. Next to me on the seat was a pile of red and white fur holding a crumbling jumble of dusty bones.

I saw the Folk who toil at the ’Shop; they’re nothing but sharp shiny points sticking out of holes in the world, like needles in your eyes and needles sticking in your mind. You can’t look right at them, and it’s better to just picture pointy noses, pointy ears, pointy shoes.

The Folk fashion their gifts all the time; the ’Shop is never quiet. They can make anything. They made me into something. They showed me things and taught me things. It went on and on, the sun never rose.

Then it was tonight, the Eve, and I was grown strong enough to lift the great bag, and grown into the red and white furs and the boots, and grown to where I could do what was required. From boy to me in a year. It was a wondrous magical thing.

Now, now we’re plummeting like lead, from a height so great I can almost see the blush of dawn on the curved horizon. I already feel the next house twenty miles below, and even know that, improbably, it is a trailer house with a chimney built onto it. Doesn’t matter. It’s all about the kids.

Often, they don’t believe in me. It’s all right. I believe in them.

Sometime tonight in the fullness of time there will be a house where at last I empty out my great bag, and I put my successor in it. Whoever it is, the kid doesn’t deserve this. Nobody could earn this job, not with a lifetime of sinning. It doesn’t matter; you can’t turn the gift down. A final house, the final child. Next year’s child.

---

Manuel Royal, like Tristam Shandy, was born with a broken nose. He will die. In between, he lives and writes in Atlanta, Georgia.

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