What Was I Thinking ...
Popular music includes a recurring instance of the Christmas song that is less about the holiday than the sad and sometimes ironic light it casts on personal relationships. The example covered by the most artists must be "Hallelujah", by Leonard Cohen. "Fairytale of New York", by the Pogues fits. Perhaps so too does "Merry Christmas, Darling", by the Carpenters.
This not a song, but my embrace of a sparse hybrid genre.
Everybody knows Santa Claus. The task is to write a new story about one of the most familiar characters in this culture. I started with the assumption that Santa, deep down, is as human as any of us. Suppose he had a brother. They could be close, or they could be rivals. I chose the conflict.
That got me most of six hundred words, including the first seven paragraphs and the head-on encounter between Kris and Simon. I was satisfied with what I had, but it was too short. I felt I had too little build-up for the payoff. The ending felt unearned.
I put it out of my mind overnight. It came back at me with the reversal on the Pied Piper. That nearly doubled the word count.
The story's eighth paragraph, in which Simon shuts down a mile of every Main Street in America I wrote last. After that, I started tweaking and smoothing the rough spots -- those that I recognized.
There is only one Santa. Yet, he shows up in nearly thirty-six thousand cities and towns apparently all at once. Potential plot-breaker. I tried to show the answer in microcosm. Santa must pick different children in every town center. I played with that idea. Two of the children are from the life, two are established fictional characters and four are recognizable generic takes on the work of familiar writers. Two of the towns are fictional and two are the childhood homes of writers, one obscure and the other a benchmark in literature.
That stacks the bones of the piece. I had some fun with the paradigm and more with the language. I rolled in a few Easter eggs. The footnoted version below breaks a few of those eggs.
I did my homework, too. Last week, I knew very little about Pandora because half of what I "knew" was wrong.
Simon's story lacks depth. This leaves room. Maybe by way of a flashback ... or two ...
n the last hour of December the 24th, Once Upon a Time, Simon Kringle descended the chimney of the Clement Moore household1. He left a spinning hoop for the boy, a dolly for the girl and a jack-in-the-box for the toddling baby. The hoop was made of tissue and thin glue, the doll was a medusa figure and the jack was made to pop up with a scream. The kerchief2 he left for Ma was spotted with mildew, and the cap for Pa was knitted from boar's hair.
He rucked up a shovelful of embers from the fireplace and flung them onto the tinderous tree. Then he fled up the chimney, leaving only the echo of his scornful guffaws.
In the next moment, Santa Claus arrived and set everything to rights.
The bitter Uncle Yule visited seventeen3, willful yet not truly mean. He left them shallow boxes with faces of dark glass, each one packed with distractions and temptations and deceptions.
The joyous Father Christmas visited the homes of three billion or so good children and seventeen who had been sort of bad. The delinquents received slates, the frames engraved with the words I will not ..., and boxes of chalk in one dozen colors. He topped off every furnace bin in Newcastle4.
The ill-tempered beasts roped to the shackles of Simon Kringle's cloud-gouging dray5 shed their boarscat at random on the roofs and playgrounds of the many innocent and the few who had strayed.
The Claus dispatched his idled elven cohort to scour away the filth.
The Anti-Claus drove his feral porcine team along Main Streets thirty-five thousand eight hundred seventy-nine6 miles. Destruction spread in his wake.
Thence upon a time ...
"It's so beautiful, Kris."
He stood with Jessica and Simon at the head of Santa Claus Way, the heart of Christmas Town. Petite and warm, lovely and glowing from within, his betrothed nestled under his left arm. His brother stood one pace to his right, bouncing on the balls of his small feet.
"I could never have done it without you, my love," he rumbled. "Not without you and Simon." He began to reach out his free hand.
Simon shifted, a nearly imperceptible tenth of a pace, to the right. Behind his fixed smile, a bitter thought took form. She could have been mine.
Full night fallen over Chelsea, Kris entertained his last random thought before midnight in Greenwich. Give him time. He'll figure it out. He touched the silken reins. "Now, Dasher ..."
And a heart-rending cry arose from every Main Street, and the fingers of Saint Nicholas were quick upon the silken reins. He alighted in all of those places in darkness. The words of the fathers were lost in alarm. The words of the children were lost in tears. And the words of the women were these. "Came a great angry wind, Father Christmas! The whirling blast swept away the lights, sucked away the wreaths, shattered the baubles and withered the mistletoe. How were all the tokens and offerings of our celebration ripped away, Saint Nick?I"
"It matters not," consoled the Avatar of the Season, "it matters not. All will be made right. Let the fathers and the mothers and every man and woman grown stand cordon on the length and the breadth of the thoroughfare. Let all of the children gather near to me7." This was done.
In Fort Repose8, Santa chose an orphan son and his little sister. "Take one pipe and pass the rest along." He turned to his right.
In Lake Wobegon, Santa chose a redheaded stepdaughter and her twin brother. He instructed them and turned to his right.
In Hannibal9, Santa chose a boy and his pup, Rex, and a girl and her kitten, Patches. He enlisted them and turned to his right.
In Blythe10, Santa chose a gallant young woman and a petulant young man. He enrolled them and turned ...
... to walk among the youth as he spoke. "Close your eyes, children, close your eyes and remember. Think back to the twilight, and the enfolding of night. Recollect, now, one spark of light, one glass ball, one woven wreath. Raise to your lips the crystal tabor11 in your fingers. Sound but one note, and make it your best."
Fluting music rippled throughout the mob. All of the dingy and brassy storefronts, all of the posts and columns and the fountains of the city center circles were lighted in many colors sparking off of blown glass.
"Again, children!" The storefronts and columns were draped in tinsel and festooned with those sprigs of nature which enjoy their greatest vigor in the cold climes and the frigid times.
"Once again!" The sculpted heroes of the fountains were graced about their shoulders with wreaths, and also the necks of their rearing mounts. And all about the windows and the streetlights, a fine fog of icy vapor and the rime of its settling softened the flare of workaday light. For such is the ideal in the mind of a child.
"Now, children, open your eyes. The miracle of your labors is complete!"
A wave of cheers and cries of delight rolled through the whole of the people. A song of celebration took rise from every throat.
"Merry Christmas, yes, a joyful merry Christmas! And now we must dash away all12, I and mine. I've one with whom to reckon, and his hour is upon me. Fare well, and share all. I wish you all farewell!"
The Anti-Claus crashed the hearth at the Van Allsburgh13 home and stomped cinders into the rug. He found his brother ensconced in the author's chair. A ceramic chest15 rested between the shimmering toes of the elder's nightshade boots.
Kris nodded to the plate of chocolate biscuits on the side table. "Have a cookie, Simon. They're good."
"No saltines, no sardines, no sour cheeses. Can I get a lager, at least?"
Kris rolled his eyes and sketched a sign in the air. "One draft of the thin and bitter."
"Just the way I like it." Simon picked up the stein and drained it half away. "Good. Your private stock?"
"The wife." Shrug. "Summertime. Elves."
"So, that explains everything?"
"I don't need to explain anything, not any more than you. Not any more than you can stop me."
"I didn't come here to stop you."
"Sure. What, then?"
"I come bearing a gift."
"There is nothing that you might have --"
"It is not a thing of mine."
"Just make sense, will you?"
Kris gestured to the kiln-cured vault. "Open it."
Simon glared. "You don't scare me, brother." He lowered his angry gaze to the lid.
The elder watched his sibling's hands, noted their trembles.
The younger elf knelt, gripped the lid from either side and raised it slowly.
A golden glow from within, mellow as the light of first dawn, touched his twisted mouth. Simon released the lid. It continued to rise on its own, then floated to rest on the rug. The chest laid fully open. Healing radiance bathed his clenched features. Gradually, the raging tension in his face melted and evaporated.
"You said --" He choked, swallowed. "You say this doesn't come from you."
"It comes from a sad young woman. She feels you need it more than she does."
"Damn me. Say her name, Kris."
"She who sends up gifts."14
Simon puzzled out the Greek word. "Anesidora?"
1. "... Clement Moore household ..." -- Clement Clark Moore, author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".
2. "... kerchief he left for Mama ...";"... cap for Papa ..." -- first lift from "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". Not literal.
3. "... seventeen, /willful /yet not /really mean." -- The missing word is, of course "children". I went for the little internal rhyme, parsed in line with the inserted slashes.
4. "... coal bin in Newcastle." -- He's got to do something with all of that old kid coal.
5. "... dray ..." -- designed for heavy loads, e.g. a beer wagon.
6. "... thirty-five thousand eight hundred seventy-nine ..." -- According to the 2012 Census of Governments, the total of cities and towns in the US.
7. "... children gather near ..." -- Pied Piper gag?
8. "... Fort Repose ..." -- children of the late Col. Mark Bragg, ref, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank.
9. "... Hannibal ..." -- childhood home of Samuel Clemens.
10. "... Blythe ..." -- author cameo. "Trudy Twice Saves the Show" is set at Blythe JHS.
11. "Raise to your lips the crystal pipe ..." -- Reverse Pied Piper gag!
12. "... dash away all ..." -- second lift from "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". Literal, this time.
13. "... Van Allsburgh home ..." -- Chris Van Allsburgh, author of The Polar Express.
14. "She who sends up gifts." -- This reference and the next two are taken from the Wikipedia article titled "Pandora".
15. "... ceramic chest ..." -- splitting the difference between pithos and pykos; also see "Pandora".