Archive for December 18th, 2009

The Moonfairy, the Angel and the Puca

December 18, 2009

by

Nishida C.

He fell. He knew not for how long or how far. Worlds slipped past him: the human world, blind to magic, focused only on what it could see and hear and touch. The fairy realms, steeped in magic and moving to their own rhythms, so different from those of mortal men. He fell until the sun faded and the five golden rings over Aurolwyn shimmered, bright against the distant stars.

He was not sure when he finally hit the ground. He felt neither warm, nor cold. Nor could he feel the rain. On some days, the blinding sun shone on his face. His only companions were the birds that perched on his wings. At night, the wolves came out with the waxing moon. He lost track of time. How long had he lay there, broken, unnoticed, a silent figure of stone? All he could do was watch and wait.

He had no choice.

__

“Come on, L’ree, we’re late!”

The little Moonfairy sat upright in bed, rubbing her eyes. “Oh, nettles!” she said, when she saw the sunshine streaming through her windows. “We’re late. Why didn’t you wake me up on time?” She shook her head at the dozing cricket in the corner of the room.

She quickly pulled on her new clothes, dusted her wings and ran to her mother, Mila, who was busy in the kitchen.

“No time for breakfast,” said her mother. “We’ll eat something once we get there. Here, make yourself useful. Will you carry these for me? And please do something about your hair. It’s all over the place!”

L’ree tied the two little bags to her belt, and meekly stood by her mother.

“Right, that’s it. Let’s go.” Mila hoisted two large rucksacks onto her shoulders and nudged L’ree ahead of her out the door.

“Wow, that’s a lot of people,” said L’ree. Hundreds of fairies spilled out onto the woodland paths and fluttered to the skies. The forest shimmered in their wake.

It was the Annual Winter Solstice Harvest Fair. Magic creatures from all over the world came to set up their trades there, in time for the festive season. L’ree was going for the first time. She had been too young before. Strange people came to these fairs, including certain dangerous folk who would bewitch little children and spirit them away. So, the younger ones were not allowed to visit the fair. They could go only when their wings were as long as they were tall.

L’ree waved at an enchanted carriage that hurtled by, filled with chattering StarSprites. She and her mother walked together towards Everglade at the Northern edge of the woods, where the fair was happening.

“Remember what I told you, L’ree?” her mother said, fussing with L’ree’s hair. “You must stay close to me. Don’t wander off on your own, be polite-”

“-and don’t talk to strangers. I know, I know.” said L’ree, “I can take care of myself, Ma.”

“That’s what I am afraid of,” sighed her mother. She gave her daughter’s raven hair an affectionate tug as she finished braiding it.

It was the end of autumn, but not yet winter and the forest was lush and alive. The trees were green and gold, their branches hung heavy with fragrant blossoms and ripe fruit. They sang songs only the Dryads could understand, but L’ree felt the soft music fill her with a deep contentment.

The fair was bustling with throngs of families. People were laughing, talking and bargaining, all at once, and the commotion was terrific. Merchants shouted their wares above the din. Street performers and musicians entertained at every corner.

“Step right up for a bottle of Star Dust! Make your eyes sparkle like diamonds! See in the night! Get your Star Dust!” shouted a wee Bottle Elf from a stall.

“Freshly pickled eyelash of Newt! Salve of Salamander! Dragon tooth! For weak chests and the faint of heart!”

“Meteor Showers, just the thing! Make your skin glow & shine! Want a bottle, little girl?” asked a wrinkled hag, looking pointedly at L’ree. L’ree held her mother’s hand tighter, alarmed.

“Enchanted Lilies,” sang a chorus of tinkling voices, “Shake a little, wave a little and they sing and dance for you!” They were Kalla elves, tall and graceful. They were selling white Kalla lilies that looked like miniature ballerinas, in glass bubbles, that danced to the rhythm of their song.

L’ree stopped to watch, fascinated, but her mother tugged her hand again. “We’ll come back later, dear, to see them. We have work to do first.” They walked quickly through the maze of stalls and finally stopped outside a very morose looking tent. A sign on one side said “Barter Office – Trade your magic for money”. Another board displayed all the latest rates for starlight, moonbeams and more.

“We’re here, L’ree. I’ll just pop in and exchange all of our moonbeams for coins.” Her mother made her sit on one of the toadstools outside the tent. “See? There are other children waiting here too. Remember, this place is not like home. It can be dangerous. Don’t wander off. Don’t even get off this stool. Do you understand?”

L’ree nodded distractedly. A little red haired Imp on another toadstool stuck his tongue out at her.

“I will be back soon and then we’ll find something to eat. Stay where you are, alright?” Her mother took the little bags from her and went inside the tent. L’ree leaned back on the soft toadstools and waited, swinging her little legs impatiently. She desperately tried to ignore the imp who had progressed from making grotesque faces to rude noises.

All of a sudden, her skin started to prickle, as if someone was watching her. She looked around but she did not see anything. The Imp felt that it was an appropriate time to let out a long burp, frightening two young pixies nearby.

“Eww, disgusting!” she said, and jumped off the stool to look at the stall closest to her. Suddenly, L’ree saw an orange flash out of the corner of her eye. Half prepared to make a run for it, she turned around. She was startled to see a small, dark haired fox with bright orange eyes looking at her. It had a curious expression on its face. It had been standing half hidden behind a corner of an Alchemist’s stall. Then, in a poof of dust, it disappeared. She tentatively took a step forward, wondering if she was under a spell. The fox reappeared – and beckoned. She blinked and gave herself a little shake. Whoever heard of a fox that could beckon?

She jumped when a voice sounded in her head. “None to fear, as long as I am near, follow me close, dear, around this corner here.” The little fox winked and nodded at her, reassuringly. “Am I not handsome, am I not fine? Follow me, lass, for a meeting divine!” the voice swirled through her head. Images, alien to her, flooded her mind and she was hypnotized. Hardly realizing what she was doing, she followed the fox as it led her along. With its song in her head, she followed blindly, forgetting her mother’s warnings.

When L’ree came to, she was far away from the bustle of the fair. She was lying in front of a decrepit marble fountain. Beside her was a broken statue of a tall fairy. The figure lay on its side, its right arm was broken off and the wings were chipped.  Vines twirled around its limbs and neck. Strange runes were etched into its body. L’ree saw that it had the most beautiful face of any being she knew, but also the saddest. Somehow, she felt comforted just by looking at its face.

She looked around her to see where she was. It was a deserted garden that had been left untended for a long time. The little fox was up in a tree, flicking its tail lazily. It smiled at her and nodded. L’ree smiled back. She leaned forward to clear a vine from the statue’s face. To her shock, the eyes of the statue opened.

“Oh my flying nettles!” she cried, terrified. She stood up, wondering whether to make run for it. The fox did not miss a beat. In a flash, he had jumped down from the tree and turned into a huge, dark horse. He stood in front of her, blocking her escape. His orange eyes glowed menacingly. L’ree stumbled backwards over rocks and vines. “No, please, don’t hurt me. Wh-What do you want from me? Why have you brought me here? Please, take me back to the fair. My mother will be worried. Don’t hurt me. I – I just want to go home!” L’ree sat down and began to sob.

It was a heartbreaking sight to see a fairy weep, and even more so, when it was a child. A single tear ran down the statue’s porcelain face. L’ree, astonished, forgot to cry when she saw that.

All he wants is to go home too,” said the voice in her head. “Will you help him?

The next moment, the horse had turned into a charming hobgoblin. “I promise, by the Keepers of Faerie, that neither will I hurt you nor let any harm come to you. This, I solemnly swear or let my life be forfeit. We only seek your help. Will you help us, little Moonfairy?” He spoke with his own voice now, not to her mind.

“What or who is that and why is it crying? Is it alive? What or who are you? Why have you brought me here?” L’ree had calmed down, despite her confusion, for no one could invoke the names of the Keepers in vain. Nevertheless, she wanted answers.

“Ah, wee lass, I apologize for my rudeness, but there was no other way to get you here, was there? Would you have followed me of your own accord? But first, promise that you will help us, for it is a task only you can do.”

“But, why me? I am just a child. I cannot do much of anything.”

“You are a fairy that harvests moonbeams from the light of the full moon. It is a task only a Moonfairy can do. Moreover, you were the only one we could find. Will you help us? Will you help him?”

The statue looked at her with his eyes, beseeching. She felt sorry for him. “I cannot promise,” she said softly, “for I am small, but I will try my best.”

“That’s good enough for us. You are brave and kind,” said the creature, bowing low. “I will answer your questions now. The name’s Keegan and I am a Puca, a shapeshifter. I can take on the forms of a horse, a fox or a rabbit, but most of the time, I am a Hobgoblin, as you see me now. As for the statue, his name is Ahron. His kind live on Aureus, the tallest mountain in Aurolwyn, in the city touched by the five rings.

“An Aurean! From the Golden city!” said L’ree, “I have heard stories of them. Celestial beings, they are. I thought they never come down among us. How did he get here?”

“I cannot speak of how he came to be this way, for it is not my story to tell. I can only say this much, that I am bound to him as long as he is alive. Yes, he is alive, but trapped and broken. It took me many years to find him here, after he disappeared. We talk to each other through our minds. Now that you are here, you must help release him from his curse.”

“You still haven’t told me what it is that you need me for. Is it dangerous?” said L’ree, a little dismayed at being called brave. What was she getting herself into?

“Tonight,” the Puca said, “a very special moon rises. The path of the moon across the sky will cross the five golden rings. The moonlight that reaches us will have passed through the rings and will contain golden ring dust. We must gather the light where it falls and bring it back here before the morning light. For that, you must show us where you harvest moonbeams. Could you do that, little one?”

L’ree beamed. “Oh, that’s easy! We grow meadows of Solunae flowers on Azure Mountain, where the Crystal Falls are. But-” she hesitated, “you can’t go there. It is too difficult for anyone but a fairy to reach the mountaintop. Even if you do, you will not be able to see the moonbeams, let alone harvest them. That is a gift that only we have….”

“That’s why you must do it, Moonfairy. I will come with you. We would not ask you to do this alone.” Keegan said.

“Feathers and flying nettles!” L’ree exclaimed. “You want me to come with you? Tonight? I can’t possibly do that!”

“Why do you worry? What do you fear?” said Keegan, looking concerned.

“My mother! What ever will I tell her? She will have a fit. In fact, she will probably have one right now when she sees that I am missing!”

“Your mother? Is that all?” Keegan began to laugh.

“Don’t laugh!” said L’ree, looking distressed.

“My apologies, lass. We are most indebted to you for your kindness. Now, hop on,” Keegan said, changing into a horse. “I will take you back to your mother now.

L’ree turned to look at the statue. It seemed for a moment that he smiled.

The dark horse raced wildly through the streets with L’ree on his back, clutching his sleek black mane. Before she could even blink, they were back at the fair. L’ree fluttered down. She stroked the Puca’s black coat as he changed back into a fox.

Be ready as the sun sets,” he said, “I will come to your house when the woods have fallen asleep. You will know it, when the owl flies. Do not fret; your mother will hardly know that you’re gone.

“But, wait, you don’t know where my home is!” she said. The fox winked at her and disappeared.

She returned to her spot on the toadstool. The Imp was there still, frightening the pixies. It was as if she had never left. Her mother came out and they explored the fair. However, L’ree was too preoccupied with the bizarre events of that morning to enjoy anything. Thoughts of the broken statue, the telepathic Puca and their unusual request filled her mind. Her mother brought her a dancing lily for being so good, but L’ree took no interest in it.

Back home, L’ree prepared for the night ahead. She packed her rucksack with a little fairy food and dew in a bottle to drink. She also took a few crystal tubes to store the moonbeams. At dusk, when she looked outside her window, she saw the fox up in a tree. She wrapped her fairy cloak around her and gently crept down the stairs.

Keegan was waiting for her at gate.

“Hello Keegan,” L’ree smiled at him bashfully, for he was quite a charming looking Puca, despite his orange eyes.

“We do not have much time, wee fairy. The moon has already begun its travel across the sky.” Keegan said, gesturing towards the rising full moon. “I hope you have everything you need to collect the moonbeams?” He motioned for her to start walking.

L’ree took out one of the crystal tubes and held it up. “It takes us fairies more than half a day to get to the Azure Mountains. We fly with the wind. How will we get there now?” she asked, as she walked beside him. She returned the tube to her bag.

“Ah, that is the easiest part of this lark. I have a shortcut,” said Keegan. They soon reached a clearing in the woods. He took out a transparent gem filled with stardust and threw it in the air. The gem caught a ray of starlight and burst into a million sparks. They realigned to form a narrow ribbon that settled down on the forest floor, weaving a glittery path through the trees. L’ree gasped.

“Aye, a pretty sight, isn’t it? Jump on up and sit tight!” Keegan said, transforming into the dark horse. He took off at a wild gallop down the road of stars as soon as L’ree climbed on. She held on for dear life, her wings flat on her back. The wind whipped at her face, and the trees were a blur as they rushed past. On they ran and soon they left the woods far behind. They galloped across fields, brooks and streams, never stopping for a break. The mountains loomed closer. The golden rings arched across the night sky. Keegan came to a halt at the base of the mountain near the Crystal Waterfalls. She got off and he changed into his two-legged form.

“The meadows are up there,” L’ree said. “I can fly. Will you wait for me here? I will collect the moonbeams and come back.”

“You go on ahead. I will join you. There seems to be a way up.” said Keegan. He was looking at the ribbon of starlight snaking up the side of the mountain.

“You are going to climb the mountain? But it is high and far too dangerous. That path is too close to the waterfall. What if you slip and fall?”

“Don’t you worry about me. I cannot let you go alone. But we must not waste any more time. At any rate, I cannot grow wings and you cannot carry me. Therefore, I must climb. Fly up and wait for me. Keep an eye on the moon. Go now.” He said.

L’ree shook her head and flew up alongside the waterfall. She fluttered and landed on the soft grass when she reached the top. On either side of the river were meadows of Solunae flowers. They were special flowers made to store moonbeams, created by the fairies from evening primroses. They bloomed when it was time to gather the falling moonlight, and stored the light until harvest time.

The moon drew closer to the golden rings. L’ree stood near the edge of the waterfall, taking in the beautiful sight. Suddenly, she heard a yell. It was Keegan. She looked over the side of the precipice and saw him hurtling down towards the pool of water.

“No,” L’ree said. Without stopping to think, she flew after Keegan as he fell.

“Keegan! Hold out your hand!” She screamed against the wind as she strained to reach closer. “Turn around and give me your hand or you’ll crash!” Keegan twisted around in midair and reached out for her.

Just as L’ree closed her hand around his, he hit the water. She realized too late that he was too heavy for her. She had only managed to slow his fall. L’ree was pulled under the swirl of rushing water as Keegan crashed in. But she did not let go. She struggled, swallowing mouthfuls of water. Keegan had sunk like deadweight with the shock of impact. The combined weight of him and his wet clothes dragged her under. She took a deep breath at the surface and plunged into the pool to get a better hold of him. Wrapping both her arms under his, she hauled him back up with every bit of strength she had. Soon he came to and released himself from her hold.

“I can swim,” he gasped.

L’ree too exhausted to speak, nodded and released her hold. They floundered onto the grassy bank, panting and sputtering.

“Are you alright, L’ree?” Keegan was the first to speak.

L’ree was sitting up, catching her breath.

“I am fine, she said softly, “Just a little startled. You?”

“A little shaken really, I hate heights. But no harm done. Thank you for saving my life. I owe you-”

“Oh, nettles and thimblegums,” L’ree interrupted him. She felt awkward and could not think of anything appropriate to say. “It’s no big deal. But we need to go now. The moon has almost reached the rings. Now, how will you come?” She shook the water off her wings.

“Sometimes, I don’t think when it is required of me. I am heavy for you as horse or a hobgoblin, but I might be quite manageable as a rabbit. Easier to carry, don’t you think?” Keegan said, changing into a black bunny rabbit.

L’ree smiled and held her arms out for the little puca. He was soft and light. She held him close as she flew up again and set him down among the flowers, where he changed back.

They were just in time. The moon touched the rim of the first of the five rings and a narrow beam traveled down to the ground. It was like a sliver of gold falling from the sky. L’ree watched as the thousands of Solunae flowers that had been soaking in the moonlight began to close and go back to sleep.

“They are not supposed to do that,” she said, confused. “We have to harvest the falling moonbeams from them. What do we do now?”

Keegan, who could not see the moonbeams, shrugged his shoulders. “We wait and watch. They might open up again?”

The first flower hit by the moonbeam began to grow and transform itself. As the moon crossed each of the rings, the golden rays falling down grew more numerous and brighter. The flower turned a deep yellow gold, shining brilliantly as it drank in the golden rays. The moon crossed the fifth and final ring. The golden light slowly faded away. The Solunae began to bloom again, soaking in the silver moonlight. The Golden flower stopped shining and pulled its petals shut. It was all over in a matter of seconds.

L’ree touched the drooping yellow flower and exclaimed “Why, it is gold! Solid gold!”

“Well, there you have it,” Keegan said, breathless with excitement.

She held a crystal tube to the mouth of the bud to collect the Moonbeams. Nothing happened. It was solid and closed tight. The next moment, the stem snapped and the flower fell to the ground.

“Take the flower with you,” said Keegan, “We don’t have time to spare.”

L’ree placed the cold yellow flower in her bag and took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

Keegan galloped like the wind on the return journey. L’ree dozed off on his back, as it was late and she was still a little fairy who had stayed up past her bedtime.

When they finally reached the deserted garden in Everglade, the moon hung low in the sky. Keegan realized that he had a fairy child fast asleep on his back. He lowered her gently onto a soft patch of grass in the alcove and covered her with her cloak. He took the Golden flower from her bag and placed it on the statue’s chest. He did not have to wait long. Keegan held his breath as the flower began to throw delicate golden vines around the statue. It sank thin roots, like rivulets of gold, into the ground and sent thousands of wisps into the air, rippling and pulsating. A burst of fiery yellow light surged through the garden, and for moment all was as bright as day.

__

An owl hooted close by. L’ree opened her eyes and found herself wrapped in her cloak. A roaring fire danced merrily against the night sky.

As she rubbed her eyes, she saw two figures on the other side. One was the familiar figure of Keegan. The other – L’ree sat up, speechless. The Aurean sat there, whole, unbroken, and alive. Wrapped in a cloak and drinking from a cup, he smiled at the Puca. When he realized that she was awake, he came and sat next to her. His eyes were the same, beautiful and sad. He took her hand and pressed it to his lips.

“My child, I greet you. Will you accept these words of gratitude?” he said, softly “I am Ahron of the Golden City, yet I find myself too poor to repay one who has saved me. Thank you for releasing me from my miserable fate. I am in your debt for as long as I live.”

L’ree, overcome with emotion, could not bear to meet his piercing gaze. She just shook her head.

Keegan came around and sat next to her. He said, “There was a story that was not mine to tell.”

“Ah, the curse of the broken statue,” said Ahron “Will you listen to my story then?”

“Yes, I will,” said she.

“Then I must start from the beginning.” Ahron lay down on the grass and stared at the skies. “As you already know, I come from Aureus, The Golden City.

“The Aureans are a strong race, peace loving, but proud and just. It is a beautiful city, so named for the golden sheen that bathes it. The celestial rings are so close that if you climbed to the highest point in our city, you could touch them. The colour of the city comes from the dust that falls from those rings. This dust runs through our veins and permeates our skin. It is what keeps us alive.

There is a world outside of our fairy realm, hidden to us. It is called Earth and their people are called Humans. They are lot like us. They do not possess our magic or our camaraderie with nature, but they are resourceful and inventive. The most powerful among them seek to bend nature to their whims and turn it into monstrous things of utility or terrific objects of beauty. They once possessed the gift of magic, but they did not use it wisely. In their quest for dominion over nature, they lost that gift.

What I have told you now is a closely guarded secret. Only a select few of the wisest Fairy folk know this. They are called the Chosen and I was one of them. We are bound by a common oath. We are the guardians of the Arcane Knowledge and the protectors of our realms. We keep the barrier between the realms intact and stop people from crossing over. If they do chance upon a meeting, we remove all traces of it from their memories. The basis for these restrictions is explained in our history. You only need to look at the volumes describing the wars fought between Faeries and the Humans, eons ago.

We walked freely in the human world, as long as we remained invisible to them. But that was the beginning of my downfall, for I fell in love with one of them. Her name was Beth. She was human but was possessed of an ethereal grace. I was drawn to her from the moment I saw her, I could not keep away. She was a Healer in their society. I would sneak out just to watch her work with the wounded and the broken. However, she was not wholly accepted by her people. She believed in treating their sad souls and broken hearts, not just the visible injuries. For this, she was shunned and disrespected. In my eyes, their behaviour was an injustice. I decided to help her, by using healing magic from our land. She only had to touch a person and he would walk away healed – heart, body and soul. It was something she could not do before. She could not see who helped her, of course, nor did she understand it. And everyday, I fell more deeply in love.

I pined for her, I longed to know how it would feel if she loved me too. If there had been a way to shed these wings and become human, I would have done so. It is forbidden for us to reveal ourselves to any human. But I was foolish and my love was blind, insane and selfish.

The day I showed myself to her, I still cannot forget. She smiled the moment she saw me. She told me she knew I was there, all along, that I had appeared in her dreams once. She called me her “Angel”. She asked me the reason why I had waited so long to reveal myself to her. She had been hoping desperately, for a sign, a reason to believe, to know that I was real and not just a part of her imagination.

We cherished our time together for we knew it was not going to last. In the end, I was betrayed by one of my own. Although, I realize now that it was I who had betrayed them, by defying every rule that we had sworn to keep. He was correct in doing his duty. I was sentenced to be stripped of my position in the Chosen and all my memories of her were to be obliterated. She would be charmed to forget me, led to believe that it was all a dream. But I refused to forget her. For my refusal, I was sentenced to an eternity in this stone prison. I was cast off from Mount Aureus, broken in body, heart and spirit.

Until Keegan came in search of me, I believed I was alone in my suffering. You ask how he came to be with me. I saved his life once, and from that moment on, we were bound to each other. It was an unbreakable magical contract. Years want by and he remained alive, even after everyone he knew had died. That was when he realized that I was still alive. It took him many centuries before he discovered my stone self fallen here. Once he found me, he set about looking for ways to break this curse.

The answer was simple. Aureus, my home, pulsates with the Dust from the five golden rings. I was born of the golden dust, and only the golden dust could release me. The flower that you brought me had imbibed the dust and its life force. That was what broke the curse and set me free.

You ask what became of her. I wish I knew. It has been so long now. She would have passed on like the rest of her short-lived kind. I only hope the Chosen were kind enough to make her forget me before she died.

Now I am free, I am forgiven and I can go home.”

He kissed L’ree gently on her forehead.

“Goodbye, my angel” said he, and he flew away into the sky. L’ree and Keegan watched as he disappeared.

“Where will you go now, Keegan?” said L’ree.

“You saved my life today. I am indebted to you. From now on, I am bound to you as I am bound to him. I will remain your faithful friend, for as long as we live.”

L’ree laughed, so did the Puca. They walked back home, hand in hand.

BIO:  Nishida C. – Poet, writer, thinker, recluse, perfectionist.  I am @CafeNirvana on Twitter

“I love anything to do with art, literature and science, especially astronomy. I dream of writing science fiction and fantasy books for children and hope to see a few well-worn books of mine on a library shelf one day.”

The inspiration for this story was from the lovely and immensely talented novelist Teresa Frohock [@teresafrohock] who tweeted the idea of a stone angel that came to life. I could not have written any of this without the expert penmanship of my partner in crime, Angie Capozello [@techtigger] and my parents who were my test audience. Much thanks to Alison Wells [@alisonwells] for picking out the title and to Jim Wisneski for being the most patient man in the world.  We all wish to be published and ridiculously famous in the near future, so wish us good luck.

Five Golden Rings

December 18, 2009

by

David C. Sobkowiak

            The team was pushing themselves hard that year.  The trip over Greenland was brutal.  Blizzard conditions battered not only the team, but the sleigh itself, tossing me back and forth like one of the dolls that was safely tucked away in the giant sack fastened to the rail behind me.  I had lost toys before, usually having them end up landing in empty fields, found by farmers or their children.  It was a small price to pay knowing that they still brought happiness to those that found them.

            Crossing over the Hudson Bay, the storm was just too strong and I made a decision to skirt the outside and follow the frontal system along the eastern coast of the United States,  Rudolph was still the youngest, but even he was getting on in reindeer years and his nose just wasn’t as bright as it had been in year’s past.  Soon it would be necessary to find a new team lead, a task I knew would be all the more difficult given the way Rudolph made the team. We swooped and slid across the night sky, making stops at all the houses. Despite the stories, I don’t give coal any more.  Kids these days have so much going against them that I think it’s just too low a blow to deliver to any child, naughty or nice, to be excluded on Christmas.  I’m not saying that giving an etch-a-sketch to a gang banger is going to stop gang violence, but gang-bangers aren’t really kids anymore are they? 

            Preparing to leave Manhattan, I headed across Central Park. The lights of the city were beautiful that night.  That’s one of the things that I really enjoy about my flight every year. I get to visit everywhere in the world and see everything that has changed over the year. You’d be surprised at just how much can change in one year’s time.  Enjoying the park’s ambiance, I slowed our progress and let the team fly low, skimming over the Jackie O reservoir. They love to do that, brushing their hooves on the surface of the water like a child holding their hand out an open window, allowing the wind to rush over it like a mini airplane. Riding the wind.  Free.  Freedom is one of the most precious gifts anyone can receive, and unfortunately, not one I can give to everyone.  I’ve helped people out of tough situations over the years, to be sure, and I’ve recently set all my reindeer free during the off season.  There’s no reason to keep them penned in the barn.  Those that want to can come and go as they please.  Those that don’t, stay around and get the same attention they always have.  Comet is one of those. Choosing to be pampered and brushed.  I don’t blame him. He’s a good friend and a valued member of the team.  He’s earned his rest and relaxation during the year.  Coming up on West 86th, I started to pull the team back up. It was then that everything went south for us that night.

            The storm had come up on the city quickly. We were keeping just ahead of it the whole time, but with the short dalliance over the water, we were caught in the first gusts that were to hammer the city under a blanket of ice and snow.

            One of the things you need to understand about the team is that they are all harnessed together as a single unit, by five rings.  Five Golden Rings.  These rings bind the team together linking harness sets at a midpoint between each set of reindeer. I wasn’t worried that the rings would give way, they were forged with elven magic.  What I worried about was the sounds I was hearing coming from the harnesses.  Stretching and straining under the pressure of the gale and the combined effort of the team and me trying to stay on track proved to be too much for the aged leather straps.  One by one I head them pop like guitar strings being plucked too hard after being tightened too much.  Freedom is a wonderful thing until you’re free to fall straight into a grove of pine trees are one hundred plus miles an hour.

            The impact was hard. Harder than any other I can remember over the years.  The layer of ice covering the last snowfall was thicken by recent rain, and one of the rails flew from the sleigh and lodged deep in to a mound of ice and dirt some forty feet away from where we came to rest.  Rudolph was the first to return to the sleigh, prancing gently through the gusting wind as if it were only a breeze.  One by one the others returned as well and I thought we’d be underway in just a short time. The elves were already on their way I knew, the emergency beacon installed in the sleigh allowed them to track our progress anywhere in the world, and also enabled them to find us in situations just like this. There had only been a handful of accidents over the years. No serious injuries, no broken bones, but the elves were always trying to get me in to a new fangled sleigh. One model reminded me too much of the Pope-mobile, and I finally put an end to the development team’s efforts to find a new age replacement for my relic of a conveyance.  I got them to upgrade some systems on board like the emergency beacon, as well as something I liked to call the Elven On-Star which gave me access to a support team anytime, anywhere. 

            I set about gathering the presents which had been tossed about in the snow and ice to make the time go by while I waited for the elves to arrive. Once finished, I began to round up the team.  Dasher made his way to the sleigh with a bit of a wobble in his walk, but it didn’t appear serious enough to need attention.  I pulled an extra set of reins from the sleigh, bracing myself against a strong gust and ambled over to where the team had huddled together, beside a grove of trees.  Working with these reindeer all their lives has been a blessing. They are truly wonderful creatures.  They aren’t pets, don’t get m wrong. They are headstrong, determined animals who don’t do anything they don’t want to, but they want this yearly ride, almost as much as I do.  We are of the same mind that way.

            Seeing me approach, they began to settle in to a rough formation.  I began swapping out their broken reigns for the newer pair.  Two by two by two I made my way up the line from the rear of the group until all that was left was Rudolph and then to reconnect the team together and wait for the elves. I can’t do this sort of work with my mittens on, so by the time I finished unfastening and refitting all of the team, my hands were raw, numb and stiff.  Arthritis isn’t something I’ve had to deal with much over the years, but the sheer strength of the storm and the bite of the air gnawed at my joints and chilled me to the core.  All those years at the North Pole, you’d think I’d be immune to these sorts of things, but some things affect everyone the same.  A human is a human, mythological or not.

            From a distance I heard the familiar jingling bells of the S.N.O.W. The Santa’s Next Option Wagon.  I waved to them as they made their approach and slowly made my way to their sleigh, which was much larger than mine, and offered shelter from the cruelest of elements.  I was greeted by Timothy, the lead elf of the S.N.O.W team.  As I informed him of the damage and circumstances of the crash, his team set to work straight away.  The Reindeer lined up immediately at the approach of several S.N.O.W. elves, and waited for their final bridle adjustments while other team members began the rapid repair work on my sleigh. It’s really an amazing site to behold.  Little blow torches sparking in the night air, hammers pounding out the dents.  By the time they were finished the feeling had returned to my hands, I had spoke with Mrs. Claus over the Sat phone, and I was ready to hit the skies again.  As I left the comfort of the sleigh, Timothy approached me with grave intent written across his boyish brow.

            Santa he said. We have a problem.

            Making my way back to the team, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  All of them were missing. All five of the golden rings which bound the team together were gone.  The S.N.O.W. elves began a rapid fire list of options for the completion of the night’s run, but I knew that without the rings to hold the team together, any solution offered would only be a temporary fix, requiring the S.N.O.W. team to return for more repairs in a matter of hours. Those five rings, forged of elven magic centuries ago, were the lynch pin to the entire flight.  They didn’t give the Reindeer their ability to fly. They didn’t provide extra lift to the overloaded sleigh.  They only served one purpose and one purpose alone.  They hold us all together.  They make the flight possible through their strength and their symbolism, something even the Reindeer seemed to understand. Each ring worked in unison with the others, and each one had a specific place in the team’s configuration.  There were more back at the North Pole, but given the storm, the distance and the fleeting time, that wasn’t our best option.

            After a brief consult, the S.N.O.W. Team split up to search for the rings. Time was of the essence, and the situation was growing dire.  Even in the heart of Central Park, in the middle of the night, on Christmas Eve, someone would be about.  It was only a matter of time before we were seen.  Occasional glimpses aren’t a big deal, especially by children. I rather enjoy the the astonishment and beauty that lights up their face when they realize who they’ve just seen.  Adults are a little trickier, but most of them keep the sighting to themselves or their immediate families.  Being found, broken down and grounded in New York City was just a problem I didn’t want to try to work my way out of.  It’s not that I don’t like the city. I love it there.  I just don’t want a news team rolling up on me in a situation like that.

            I began to review the brief meeting in my head as the others made their way out to begin the search.  Somehow the rings had broken loose from their mounts on the sleigh and the reigns, and had scattered through out the park on our way down.  The team had mapped out the likeliest trajectories based on storm strength, angle of decent and my approximate position at the time.  All quite an amazing thing to complete in the back of an over sized sleigh, even one that was a marvel of technology.  I placed another call to Mrs. Claus to explain the situation and assure her that everything would be alright, but for the first time in nearly a century, I was beginning to doubt that even good old Santa could pull this one off.  I stepped back in to the frigid night air which bit at my face and stung at my eyes and tried to see what direction I could go in that would prove to be the most helpful.  Normally in situations like this, the elves and the S.N.O.W. team in particular would rather that I just stay out of the way.  While I’m nimble on a rooftop, and spry popping up and down a chimney, my size, age and general dexterity do prove to be somewhat cumbersome at times like this.

            I knew that we had to make quick work of the search.  I heard screeching coming from the direction of West 86th and winced while I waited for the sound of impact. Nothing came but the typical cheerful New York greeting of a friendly cabbie wishing some member of the S.N.O.W. team a Merry Christmas in his own way.  I was hopeful that the team had recovered one or more of the rings.  They have a rule about not allowing people to see them, unless there’s some urgent situation.  This was a pretty serious situation, and the cheering from the group reassured me that we were making progress.  As the cabbie drove off to a symphony of horns and shouts, I thought to myself that it’s good that adults don’t generally receive presents from me.  There’d be a lot of disappointed people on Christmas morning.  A few minutes later another cheer broke through the muffling wind from the direction of the Turtle Pond. We might just have the situation under control after all.  There’s a lot of luck to being Santa, and I was beginning to chastise myself for ever doubting the strength of the Christmas spirit.

            After another hour of search however, even the typically jovial S.N.O.W. elves were showing their concern openly on their faces.  Four of the rings had been recovered and mounted back on the team, secured by elven tinsel.  The really good kind.  Timothy had sent out another search party to search in a grid pattern, but we knew that things were becoming desperate.  Without the final ring, the ring mounted to the sleigh itself, there was no easy way to control the team, and no possible way to complete the ride.  To keep from showing my distress to the others, I sung a happy holiday tune and rallied the group as best I could.  Afterward, I decided to go for a walk near Belvedere Castle.  The area was searched pretty thoroughly, so I wasn’t expecting to get anything more from it than a clearer mind for the next decision to be made.  The final decision came down to me of course, and though I was the man in charge, I dreaded what delaying our flight for another two or more hours would mean for the children of the world.  I’ve cut it close in the past. Skimmed over the horizon as the sun began it’s morning climb, but with time flying by, and our options dwindling, there wasn’t much hope in hitting every house in every country without making a spectacle of myself.

            I sat down for a moment on the granite steps to try to fathom how to best handle the situation when a noise caught my attention from an outcropping of trees just to my left.  I shuffled to my feet, and dusted myself off, looking and feeling foolish for the effort and came face to face with a small, waif of a girl. No more than eight, she was bundled up in a Hodge-podge of winter and summer clothing, most too big for her slight frame.  Despite her shivering, her eyes were wide and the most precious smile lit her face. She was a beauty to behold and I opened my arms to her and she ran to me, embracing me with a hug so strong it forced the air from my lungs and had me staggering back to the railing for support.  Through her gasps, I heard her crying.  Joy, surprise, disbelief? All of them I supposed as I gently pushed her back a few steps to get a better look at her.  While I made it my business to know every child, everywhere, I regularly relied on technology to keep everyone straight in my mind these days. I was pulling multiple petabytes of storage these days to keep the “List” in order, but my mind was blank and she could read it in my expression. It broke my heart to see her so crestfallen at that moment.  I removed my coat and draped it across her shoulders to help hold back the wind, if only a little.

            “I’m sorry my dear. Even Santa can be caught off guard.”

            She shrugged her shoulders at that and simply held my hand.

            “Where is your family tonight? Why are you out on such a night as this? Surely you aren’t here alone.”

            “My family lives in the trees just over there” she began pointing toward the grove from which she emerged.  “My daddy lost his job and now we don’t have anywhere to live.”  She began to cry again and I pulled her close to me. 

            Holding her, my memory cleared and her name, and her family flooded back to me.

            “I understand Anastasia.  Sometimes things can be so difficult, especially for someone so young as yourself.  Let’s get you back to your family and see if there isn’t something I can do to help.”

            She brightened at this and began to pull me along behind her.  I noticed Timothy watching me from the stairs as I was led away.  I held my hand up to him in a reassuring gesture and he nodded. I knew he would be close behind me, no matter where this little girl led.  AS we made our way through the trees, I recognized the shape of a make-shift lean-to, providing minimal shelter to a small yellow tent which was crusted with snow. The flap was open and I could hear noise coming from inside.  Her parents had noticed her missing and were afraid for her well being.

            As we approached the tent, her father, Jacob, stepped from the opening holding a baseball bat.  One look at me, and then to his daughter caused him to falter in his resolve.  I took that time to reacquaint myself with him.

            “Jacob, my old friend. I’m glad i have a chance to see you again after all these years.  I’m sorry it’s under such unpleasant circumstances, but it would appear that your daughter, has a knack for catching me off guard as you did several times as a boy.  We never had a chance to properly talk back then, but I know that you were a good boy, and I expect you’re an excellent father.”  

            He stood, baffled by my somewhat rapid introduction.

            “How, who, What?”

            “It’s Santa Daddy!” little Anastasia nearly yelled to him. “It’s really him!”

            “Go on back to the tent now Anastasia.  Check on your mother and your little brother.  Zachary, isn’t it?” I asked to Jacob, who still stood transfixed by my mere presence.  The sweet girl didn’t want to let go, but with a gentle push I wished her a Merry Christmas and watched her reenter the tent to be smothered in hugs and kisses and tears from her frightened mother.

            “We have some things to discuss Jacob.  Let’s start by getting a warm coat on you.”  Timothy appeared at my side with a parka for him, and stepped back to my side.

            “Any luck with the final ring lad?” I inquired.

            “No sir. I’m sorry.  We just can’t locate the final ring.”

            “That’s fine Timothy.  I’m going to stay here and have a talk with Jacob to see if there is anything we can do to help him and his family out tonight.  You go on back to the team and get ready to set off for a replacement ring.  I’ll make due for now and head off for Chicago when I’m done here, and you can meet up with me along the way.”

            Timothy didn’t argue, and didn’t protest, though I could see in his eyes he was still weary of the Louisville Slugger in Jacob’s hands, even though it was resting on the ground for the time being.  After he was gone, I spoke with Jacob about his present situation and if there what the outlook was for him.  I knew I could give him a warm place for the night and a bright and cheery Christmas morning, but even the best of gifts can’t completely wipe away the sting of reality after the presents have been opened and the carols sung.  He told me of his woes. He cried and I held him as I had years ago as a boy.  He didn’t ask me for anything, not even for a hotel for his family and it broke my heart.  So many families are homeless, in the midst of so much wealth. It was something I just couldn’t understand about humanity, and something I knew would have to change someday.

            As I passed him a gift box the size of a wallet, and a pass key to the Excelsior, he broke down and hugged me again.  There wasn’t much in the way of cash in the wallet, but there were a few gift cards to local restaurants, and a credit card with a sizable limit to hold them over for several weeks.  I also gave him a business card of a local merchant who I regularly did business with.  Give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day, but teach a man how to fish…it was the least I could do for the moment.

            I helped him gather their meager belongings in to their bags and helped his sweet wife Laura with baby Zachary when Anastasia tugged on my coat.

            “What is it little one?” I asked, gazing down in to her deep blue eyes.  So much life and love it was held in her gaze that it filled me with Christmas Spirit anew.

            “Santa. I heard you talking to my daddy before. I want to thank you for everything, but I was wondering.” she trailed off and stared at the ground for a moment.

            “What is it dear. You can ask me.”

            “You talked with the other man, about a ring.  What does it look like?”

            “My darling child.  It’s a great Golden Ring that sits a top my sleigh. I lost it tonight in the storm, and my elves were searching for it in the park, but you need not worry about it. There is another like it back at the North Pole.”

            She smiled then and bounced away back in to the tent to help her mother or so I assumed.  As I was loading up their belongings on to a small skid my elves had brought by for me, I felt her tugging at my coat again, and I heard her giggling.

            “Yes my dear. what can Santa do for…” I stopped in mid sentence, for in her hand she held the final ring.  The great golden sleigh ring we had spent so long searching for was right here. A tear ran down my face and I knew that everything would be alright. Not only for my ride tonight, but for this family as well.  She told me of how it fell to the snow as she was getting up to search the skies for me, and had thought this might be her Christmas gift, though she couldn’t imagine what it was for. I gave her a great hug and a kiss on the cheek and told her that if she would give it to me, I’d make sure there was something special under the tree for her in the morning.  She only smiled when she handed it to me and said Merry Christmas.

            With that, a group of the S.N.O.W. elves led them away toward their new lives, and I made my way quickly back to the team.  The S.N.O.W. sleigh was preparing to leave for the North Pole but I was able to catch them in time.  Within minutes the ring was mounted and secured and I was ready to leave.

            As we made our ascent out of the park, I watched as the little family made their way across Central Park West.  Anastasia was looking to the sky and waving and I found myself crying and waving in return. Such a small gift from such a young child reminded me again of what the season is truly about. 

            A Child is born in Bethlehem…

BIO:  David Sobkowiak is an audio producer and script writer for an online production company with writing and production credits for several audio adaptations and original works.  He is presently finishing his first novel. He resides in Central Virginia. Contact Mr. Sobkowiak by emailing him at dsobkowiak@gmail.com.

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