It's Christmas Eve, and Santa's unlikeliest helper has to take the reins.
|He frowned at the doll, and shook it. Its head bounced back and forth. Then something in the neck snapped, and its head fell and hung at an angle that made him gasp.
He'd broken it!
Gingerly, he pinched the top of the doll's head between his finger and thumb, and tried to force it back into position. But it drooped again when he let it go, and hung at an obscene angle.
He had! He'd broken it!
Desperately he squeezed the doll's stomach, and squeezed it again, trying to get it to make those funny noises like when he'd first lifted it and grinned at it and hugged it tightly to his chest. But it was silent and breathless now. Its limbs—which had waved and kicked happily when first he held it up—now hung limply. The eyes—which had shone with a new toy's love for its owner—were unfocused and glassy.
It was the best toy he'd ever had, and he'd broken it!
He slumped in the snow with a loud groan. Hot tears welled from his eyes, steamed on his cheeks, and froze.
Why did he always remember too late not to play so rough with his toys? They were delicate things, little miracles of craftsmanship. He hung his own head with shame and regret, and blinked stupidly into the dark, polar night.
But how could he not love them so much, and so roughly, when they were so perfect, so marvelous? It was such heart-splitting joy when he got a new one. So how could he not crow over them, and squeeze them, and smother their squeaky little songs with his own great, hearty music? How could he not dance with them, and toss them from hand to hand, and laugh with delight as their little googly eyes rolled about? How could he not, with escalating joy, fling them high in the air, and catch them, and fling them again, or scamper after them when they ran among the snow-covered rocks and trees of the frozen northern fields?
Sometimes, when he was at home, rolling on the floor with lazy happiness, he would put their heads in his mouth, and suck contentedly on them.
He peered now at the doll closely. It was strange that this one should break so easily. It was far and away the biggest toy he'd ever got, and it should have been the sturdiest. It was burly and padded all over.
Nonetheless, he had been very gentle with it. He hadn't rolled it about in the snow, or sat on it, pretending it was an egg and he was a chicken trying to keep it warm. Something about its heft and shape and size held him in check, speaking to him in a way he couldn't quite puzzle out.
Not until he'd cradled it in the crook of his arm, and noticed with a pang how naturally it fit there, did he recognize the feeling.
It fit in his arm like a child.
He cradled the broken thing now, supporting its lolling head against his shoulder. He rocked it and crooned to it softly, then held it out to peer into its face. But its expression was slack—whatever funny clay the toymakers used had lost its snap—and he groaned.
He was a great, bumbling oaf, that's what he was. When he wasn't breaking his toys by playing with them too hard, he was breaking them by loving them too much. Even now he pressed its face tightly to his breast. It felt so good there. When it was whole and new, the machinery in its chest had tickled and kicked against his own like a living thing, and he had squeezed its mechanical heart close to his own, as though to merge them.
So clutching it, he had drifted back in a dreamy way to his own childhood, to the days when he was little and his own father had cradled and crooned over him. It had been so warm in the crook of his father's arm, and he had felt so safe and so loved.
That is what he had wanted to give this toy. Safety and love.
But it hadn't proved as sturdy as it looked, and first the muffled voice had fallen silent, and then the limbs had stopped jerking, and then the tiny pistons in its chest had slowed and ceased to pump.
He examined it now, his great eyes piercing the gloomy Arctic night. Maybe it had too much stuffing inside it, and the gears had gotten jammed. (He had only a vague idea how his toys worked, having taken only a few of them apart over the years.) There was a great white wad of fuzz boiling up out of the doll's red tunic, obscuring the bottom of its face. He tugged at this stuffing, gently at first, then ripping it away. He winced at his mistake: the stuffing had been glued to the face with red paint.
He stood, and set his mouth grimly. Maybe the toymakers could repair it. They had to, for it was the best toy they'd ever made for him. He didn't understand, but he guessed they had made some arrangement with his father, for every year, on the morning of the shortest day of the year, his dad would present him with a new toy—such joy!—and his old dad's last gift, before he dove into the icy sea for his final swim, had been to show him the little castle where the toymakers lived.
And now, every year at this time, he remembered his father by making a trip there, to pick up one of the little dolls they always put out for him. This one they'd left standing near a funny little toy sleigh and matching set of reindeer.
He wondered what the toymakers looked like. He'd never so much as glimpsed them.
As he neared the castle, he slowed. There were voices ahead. He sank behind a snowdrift, not from fear—with teeth and claws like his, he feared nothing at the North Pole—but surprise, for he had never before heard the little blue- and green-suited toys talking in an intelligible way. He lifted his great ears, and listened.
"Ten minutes to takeoff, people. Time to break the emergency glass. If the Big Guy doesn't get back from whatever all-night eggnog joint he's wandered into, who's going to handle the reins?"
"We could draw straws."
"No, put Hermey on it, skipper! He's expendable!"
"No no no, people, it can't be just anyone!"
"I second the motion! Let the dentist make the slay ride! Ho ho hrrchkk!"
"Oh, for peppermint's sake, people! You should all be ashamed of yourselves for talking this way!"
"But it's a death mobile, skipper, you know that! You can't even get close to it without one of those kirottu kassi kirppuja in the traces trying to bite your face off!"
"Deathmobile or not, someone's got to drive it!"
"Yeah, and that someone should be Hermey!" Multiple voices broke out in a chant. "Her-mey! Her-mey! Her-mey!"
"Will you people shut up and listen! It can't be Hermey, not if he doesn't want to!"
"Which I don't! Besides, you all will have teeth to fix after I break them!"
"Right! Because it's not like you can just sit in the rumble seat and yell 'Yee-ha!' at the north side of a southbound reindeer. This isn't a tractor pull. Believe you me, I've been chief wrangler for eight hundred years—"
"And it doesn't feel like a day over nine hundred, skipper."
"—and I know what I'm— Shut up, Fezziwig!"
The voice grew quiet, but even so it swelled with such gravity and feeling that the words carried over the snowy breeze.
"Look, people, it's got to come from the heart. From the soul. You can't drive the sleigh unless you've got a need so strong it feels like you'll die if you don't. That's what the Big Guy told me it was like, when I asked him. You have to want to drive the sleigh, he told me. You must yearn to drive the sleigh. Dare I say it, said he, you've got to be driven to drive the sleigh!"
The wind whistled in the silence.
"Driven by what?"
"By the sacred urge to deliver toys, you numbskull! To spread happiness and cheer! That's the secret to the sleigh, not a bunch of magic corn kernels mixed into the reindeer feed! You must be sick with the need to deliver presents! It's that upswelling urge that gives the sleigh its lift! Without it, you'll just go jostling and bouncing over the ice pack until you pitch face first into Ellesmere Island!
"Think of it," the voice continued. "A morning without presents. Cheerless trees the world over, bereft of lights and ornaments and ropes of candy and popcorn. The eyes of the children brimming with tears, the lips quivering, the babes in their footie-jammies, burying themselves in the arms of their chopfallen parents. Someone has to take the sleigh up, and deliver the toys."
Another quick tendril of wind lashed the silent snowscape.
"Are you thinking of it, Hermey?" the voice asked gravely.
"No, I'm thinking that heights give me nosebleeds."
But he was thinking of it, and he raised his voice against that awful vision with a piteous yowl. He knew what it was to have no toys—they all broke so quickly—but at least he knew the joy of receiving them. He thought of his cold cave, of the dead tree within ... and of the greater chill and emptiness if there were no gift waiting on one magical morning each year.
He cried out again.
Yes, he always broke his toys, but what did it matter to break a toy, as compared to not getting one at all?
A racking sob nearly split his chest as he sprang over the snowdrift, and crossed the ground in a dozen strides. He grabbed at the toys that were standing about—he could decide later who to give them to—but they scattered at his approach, shrieking in their piping mechanical voices.
He dropped his broken doll in the snow—perhaps they would have fixed it when he returned—and leaped onto the tiny red sleigh. The toy reindeer burst into a honking scream and broke into a gallop, their flanks frothing as he lashed them with the reins.
They had gone only a dozen yards when the sleigh and its load of toys, lifted by an ardor that left its driver dizzy with pain, rose into the air.
"Great Hasbro's Ghost!" the chief toymaker cried. His little elfin eyes bulged as he stared at the red-suited figure that sprawled brokenly next to the sleigh tracks. It was easy to recognize, even with the white beard torn away. He fought down a wave of horrified nausea.
Footsteps crunched in the snow behind, and he whirled, blocking the other elves as they hurried back up. "Go get the Missus!" he said in a choking voice as they gasped and howled over the body. "No, wait! Get a blanket out here first! We have to clean things up before we show it to— to—" He gulped, and broke down weeping.
"What happened?" cried the little troublemaker who wanted to be a dentist. "Who could have done this?"
"Who do you think did it?" retorted the second-shift manager. He pointed skyward as a faint jingling sailed southward through the dark, snow-streaked night. "The same blankety-blank Bumble as just stole the sleigh!"