by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
She ran into the alley, hair streaming in the cold and blowing snow. Her face would have been wet with tears except that they'd frozen in the bitter weather. Only when she reached the far back corner where no one would ever find her did she stop, sobbing.
She knew that now mommy was happy. Her lips quivered. She had to be brave. She couldn't let herself go back. Her mommy and the men her mommy brought home always fought over her. Some beat mommy instead of her, and she wanted so badly for mommy to be happy.
She knew that with herself gone, mommy would be happy. Mommy had said so over and over again. Mommy wouldn't have to scream or tear out mommy's hair anymore. Over and over again mommy had said that it was never mommy's fault, it was always her fault.
Now mommy would be happy.
The snow fell thicker, the wind blew harder and harder as the temperature fell. She had on only a thin dress and worn sandals and torn tights. Her hair was dirty and greasy but still the wind fought for it, yanking at it, whipping it around.
She curled in on herself, trying to ignore the cold biting into her. Shivers wracked her body, but she was used to them. She'd always been cold in the dark corner she slept in. The corner with the dripping water and the cracked window through which the wind always howled.
It wouldn't be long now she knew. It wouldn't be long and then she'd be gone and mommy would be happy for ever and ever.
Closing her eyes, blinking back the tears that froze beneath them, she knew she had to be brave. She had to be brave just a little longer. Mommy had told her that she was worthless, always afraid, no good. She'd show mommy.
Her lips quivered.
She'd show mommy that she would never be in the way again.
Somewhere in the distance the wind knocked over a garbage can and it rolled and rattled across the pavement before banging and clattering into a wall.
She wasn't as cold. She didn't need to shiver anymore. She was growing warm and that meant that she was doing the right thing. The right thing to help mommy.
She didn't see the two figures, if figures they were, move towards her through the wind. If she could she might have wondered how the wind seemed to blow through them. The two were indistinct, more shadow and potential than actuality. They left no foot prints, and they made no sound. They stopped in front of her and may have moved, it was hard to tell. A limb stretched out and something small and flat and round was held just above her forehead.
"Suzy... wake up..."
It'd been a dream. She'd chickened out again. Mommy was right.
Blinking her eyes open, she squinted through the blowing snow. And then her eyes shot upward, wide as wide can be.
"Suzy, do you want to come with me? I can't stay long. It's Christmas, I have presents to deliver."
It was Santa Claus!
Her eyes drunk down the rich red hat and coat, the white edging that seemed to blur into the blowing snow, and the shiny black boots. In the distance she could see a reindeer looking at her. He looked so warm. She seemed to fall into its eyes.
She was cold, very very cold, but she no longer needed to shiver. She never wanted to be cold again. Never!
"Are you coming Suzy?"
She'd forgotten all about Santa! Santa, who wanted her to come with him. Her! But she'd been so bad! Mommy had always said so.
Santa held out his gloved hand and slowly, like a wild bird that wanted to eat the seed from a boy's hand but was afraid, placed her hand in his.
His hand was big, gentle through the soft felt glove, and warm. So very warm. Her hand burned from his touch.
Gently he wrapped his hand around hers and carefully he helped her to her feet. The wind howled. It seemed distant somehow, not a part of her. She looked up into Santa's twinkling eyes and he smiled at her, his white teeth showing through the billowing white beard.
She realized that if she went with Santa she would never trouble her mommy again. Never!
And she'd be with Santa! On Christmas eve!
"Can I really go with you?" she asked.
"Of course Suzy. It's why I stopped here."
"But I've been a very bad girl. Mommy said so."
"You, a bad girl?" He laughed, his stomach jiggling like a bowl full of jelly. "Nonsense!"
"I'm here aren't I? I've come to take you to the North Pole to live with me. Far away from your mother. She'll never both you again."
"But it was all my--"
"Nonsense! Now come along little one, I have to hurry."
And with that Santa lifted her up, cradled her in one arm and touched his nose with his other. The world blurred and then they were both in the sleigh with the seemingly endless presents piled high behind them in a bright green sack. He lowered her down and wrapped her snugly in a thick fur blanket and she felt warm all over, except in her heart. Her heart was cold and she didn't know why. She'd never been warm, the house had always been cold, the window had always been broken. Mommy had said that it was her fault.
She snuggled into the blanket and looked up at Santa and smiled and he smiled back. Then he flicked the reins which slapped against the reindeer and with a lurch the sleigh moved. It rattled and groaned for a moment, and then it angled steeply upward and all was silent except for the tinkling of the bells on the reindeer pulling them.
Making sure not to lose her balance, mommy always said she was so clumsy, Suzy slid across the furred seat to the edge and looked over and down at the world spread far below.
It was aglow with light, twinkling with happiness and joy.
A small smile crept onto her lips hiding the chill that still gripped her heart.
The sleigh tilted and Santa grabbed her in his large warm hands and held her as the sleigh descended and then alighted on a roof. One runner was deep in the snow which creaked and groaned, the other hung in space so that the sleigh remained level. One of the reindeer turned and looked back at her, it's antlers massive and heavy. It winked.
That was when she realized that Santa was gone, and with him had gone some of the presents. And then he was back beside her, the reins in his hands.
"That takes care of Phil and Stephen. They've been good little boys."
And with that he again flicked the reins and the sled slid forward, the snow crackling under the runner, and again they were moving upward into the silence. Another short trip and then they landed again. Santa vanished and return and they slid forward.
Again and again and again.
Sometimes the time in the air was long, sometimes short, but Suzy wanted it to last forever. When Santa was gone she watched the reindeer. They were warm. Their breaths didn't mist in the cold crisp air like hers did. She wanted to be like them! Helping others, not being clumsy, not being the problem, and always been warm. She wanted to fly with them, fly beside them, and pull Santa on his merry way.
She lost track of the number of stops they'd made. The night seemed endless, far longer than it should have been. She began to yawn, tried to hide it but Santa noticed and looked at her. She flinched, expecting him to beat her like mommy always did but instead he just smiled.
"It's a long night and we have far to go," he said. "Sleep little one. Sleep the night away."
And with that his warm soft hands reached under the blanket he'd draped over her and she felt him pull a belt over her to strap her in. Like her daddy had done before he left her and mommy. Santa strapped her in like she'd seen in the commercials on the televisions behind the shop window. And when he was done he gently kissed her on her forehead, his lips warm and soft. She felt sleep take her as the sleigh flew into the air. Sleep and warmth and maybe a little joy. Except for the chill at the core of her heart.
The two indistinct figures watched as the girl grew colder and colder, paused longer and longer between breaths.
The next thing Suzy knew was Santa shaking her awake. With tiny fists she rubbed her eyes and looked around.
All around was snow, glistening in the moonlight. Here and there small and neat wooden buildings could be seen, many with dark smoke drifting out of tall chimneys. Figures were all around, small, unhooking the reindeer, pulling out the empty green sack. Above the sky shimmered in blues and greens and pale reds that curled and twisted across the distant heavens, barely visible beneath the bright moon.
But Suzy had eyes only for the reindeer. The warm happy cared for reindeer.
"Wake up little Suzy. We're home."
She looked around more, her eyes growing wider and wider. She was really here! If only it wasn't a dream.
"That's right little one. My workshop at the north pole."
She was cozy beneath the blanket, and when Santa reached under to undo the belt icy coldness followed his hands in. Suzy couldn't help but shiver. Santa wrapped her in the blanket and lifted her up and cradled her in his arms like her father used to.
"Let's get you inside and warm. The elves will make some clothes for you and--"
Twisting her head she turned and watched as the last of the reindeer was led away by one of the elves, the breath of the elf misting in the cold just like her and Santa's.
She twisted, struggled. She would NOT be a burden. Not to her mommy and not to Santa! "No!" she shouted, her voice loud in her ears.
Santa stopped, the elves stopped. The reindeer, the same one who had winked at her, stopped and twisted its long neck to look at her out of one eye.
"You can't stay out here," Santa said.
She wiggled her hand out from beneath the tangled blanket and pointed at the reindeer that was watching her. "He can stay out here."
Santa turned and laughed, and as he laughed she bounced up and down and she couldn't help but smile.
"Suzy, he's a reindeer and you're a little girl and--"
"I want to be a reindeer! I want to be warm for ever and ever!"
Santa looked about to frown, but then looked at her with a quirky smile. "Are you sure Suzy? A reindeer's life isn't easy."
Clenching her fist she answered, "YES!"
"You won't be human any more Suzy. You won't have hands. You'll never go to school and you'll never learn about the wonders of the world and--"
"But I'll be warm and I'll fly!"
"Suzy, flying is very hard. Even if you can be changed, only a very few ever learn to fly."
She started wiggling to get out of his grasp. "I'm going to fly and I'm going to pull your sleigh and help you. I'll never be a burden! Never!"
Gently Santa let her down until she was standing on the cold arctic snow. There was a thin layer of powder on top of a solid surface of packed snow and ice. The warmth of her skin melted the snow and she felt the frigid water squeeze between her toes and between her foot and the sandal. Each of her breaths poured out in a thick mist that billowed around her head before drifting away.
"Suzy, are you sure you want this?"
She looked at the reindeer who lowered its head and scratched at the snow with its hooves. Somehow she knew it was smiling at her, beckoning her.
"Make me a reindeer Santa. Please, oh please! I don't ever want to be a burden on you! Never!"
"Suzy, I'm... I'm sorry but I can't."
The coldness in Suzy's heart burst into her body, freezing the hope she'd so briefly had. For a golden moment she had known that she would never be a burden on anybody again. That she would never be cold again. But now she would, and soon Santa would yell and scream at her and it'd be the same as with mommy.
She looked down at the snow, turning away from the reindeer. Her body shook, not with cold, but with sadness and lost hope.
Gently Santa grasped her chin and slowly moved her face until her eyes were looking into his. His eyes were old, old and full of pain and happiness and horror and joy but overwhelmingly with kindness. He looked at her and Suzy couldn't look away.
"Suzy, little Suzy, my world is a land of magic and dreams. You can become a reindeer, but only if you really really want to. I can't do it though. You have to do it."
"You have to wish it, wish it with all your heart and soul and mind. You have to wish it and want it without regrets, without fear. And if you do that then your wish will be granted."
"Suzy, it has to be you. I wish I could, but I can't. It has to be you."
She looked around and over at the reindeer who flicked its ears and cocked its head, beckoning.
"Santa, what do I do?"
He sighed and after tucking the furred blanket around her shoulders turned away. As though to the world and not to her he said, "You have to wish it. You have to will it to happen with every fibre of your being. You have to want it and you have to have no regrets."
The reindeer took a step forward and looked at her and she looked at him, her eyes drowning in the blackness of his eyes.
"You have to need it to happen so badly that my world has no choice but to make it happen."
Suzy looked at the reindeer and the reindeer looked at her. Her mind fell deep into his gaze, deeper and deeper. Deep into his calm acceptance of the world, deep into his warmth and self-sufficiency. Suzy began to live his life, from the day he was born into the cold spring knowing only his mother, to his first steps, to his first swallow of milk. Time passed faster, she grew with him, alongside him, she his sister, he her brother. Her fur grew, thick and fine and insulating. Her legs grew hooves, wide hooves with whiffs of hair to sense the snow, strong hooves to move and stretch and walk on the surface instead of sinking into the depths. Her hands that her mommy had cursed as hopeless clenched and tightened and formed into two more hooves, each matching her others. Together she and the reindeer learned to run, to bound, to canter, to gallop. Side by side they ate and she felt gentle grains and green shoots crunching under her teeth. She felt the ripple of muscles in her chest and the rising sensation of blobs of food back up and into her mouth to be chewed again. She felt antlers grow upon her head, starting as small buds and then getting bigger and bigger and heavier and heavier. Together she and her brother grumbled about the itch of the velvet, and together they shared the relief as it was scraped off in bloody scraps. Side by side they sniffed the air, walked and ran and lived.
Deep inside her the coldness that was still wrapped around her heart fought back, calling her away from her dreams, back to reality. But she ignored it, pushed it back, fled further and further into the eyes of the reindeer, into the life they shared. She pushed the cold away and sought the warmth and simplicity of being a reindeer. With him she remembered the soft shush of the elves brushing their hides as they stood side by side. The gentle pressure at the base of her antlers as the elves rubbed and polished each tine. Standing side by side they chewed cud as the elves draped them in the heavy leather harness, the weight odd and unfamiliar, the bells sweet in their ears.
And when Santa asked, not commanded but asked, they leaned forward and began to move faster and faster, the sleigh sliding behind them. All of them, her brother, the other reindeer, all taking faster and faster steps and pulling the sleigh and the toys behind them. In front of her she watched as first the lead pair and then the next and then the next leapt into the air and kept going, trotting forward, yet standing on nothing.
And when it was their turn, she and her brother, they leapt upward and trotted on the sloping ground that was really air, curling the magic of Christmas around themselves and underfoot and beside and above to cocoon the sleigh and pull it and its gifts into the air behind them.
Something tore inside her, ripping away from her heart, a faint coldness that faded and was lost in the warmth of her hope and dreams. She opened her eyes, for the first time really feeling the weight of her antlers, really sensing the snow beneath her hooves. In front of her she could see the pale brown of her muzzle, the quivering of her nostrils as she breathed in and out without any clouds of mist. Twisting her long neck she turned and looked at her brother standing there beside the elves, two of them holding the leather harness that still smelled of his sweat.
Taking a step forward she looked up at the heavens, up at the shimmering ribbon of light. Her brother silently moved beside her and his breath rustled the thick fur around her neck. He was urging her on. He knew she could do it.
She took a step forward, and then another. New muscles flowed and she walked in a new and wondrous way. She moved faster, trotting now, and then bounding and leaping across the snow, her brother beside her. Both of them galloping for the joy of movement, for the freedom of their motion. She looked up at the ribbon of light and could see the path that beckoned.
Without losing stride she stepped up and into the air, galloping higher and higher, her brother following. Both of them running, flying, taking joy in the endless flow of motion. They were both free, happy, without obligations or burdens. Self-contained, not a burden on others.
The last of the coldness in her heart tore away as she galloped into the heavens, chasing after the glistening stars and flickering ribbon.
A tiny round plastic device gave a soft beep, and one figure pulled it away and gently put it in a pouch on his body. Around them the world was faded, insubstantial, an echo of a distant past they could visit only briefly and with great care.
"Are we doing the right thing?" the other figure asked. "Projecting ourselves here in the past, never touching, never changing, only taking copies of souls."
The first figure, his hand still in the pouch, gently rubbed the tiny device. "I don't know." He sighed. "I wish we could erase the horrors of the past but we can't." Turning, he looked at the small girl, her eyes open and echoing her final dream of flight. Her body cold and still and dead. The device generated ideas, enhanced dreams, but the barrier of time prevented anything else.
Finally he let go, removed his hand from the pouch and snapped the pouch shut.
"We take the lost and the dying and give them a moment of hope and joy. How can that be wrong?"
Giving no response, the other pressed a button on his belt and the two figures faded as they were recalled to their physical bodies in the distant future.
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org