In our little forest outpost, just South of the bend in Osterlee River, there are only a few ways to get the news. Our settlement is pretty far out there, at the boundaries of the Fringe Lands, so the big stories from Wyndmoor City don’t exactly travel to us quickly. So we rely on the heavy traders and caravans who occasionally visit our settlement for information. We ply them with food and drink, comfort and camaraderie, and they entertain us with stories from around the lands. It is the way of things, being as isolated as we are, and it works. But if it is news of a more local nature you seek, the internal gossiping of an isolated frontier town, then we have plenty.
I like to rise early; in the pre-dawn hours when the world is still silent and the sister moons; Ussa and Bethu hang low in the morning sky. I throw on my heavy boots, grab my flannel jacket and make my way down to The Hog and Armor, our outposts country store. They have a table there in the back, rounded and worn, set close beside the roaring hearth. That’s where I like to sit. I pour myself a steaming cup from the dented coffee pot and Mrs. Whithold offers me one of her freshly baked skillet cakes. My mouth waters as I watch the pat of freshly churned butter melt into the delicate nooks of the spongy cake and it takes all my resolve not to cram it wholly into my open mouth.
On most visits I am not the only one at the table. There are usually seven or eight of us early risers sitting there, knights of our own round table, and the conversations travel where they may. No topic is off limits and the discussions are varied, from the status of the Unified Forces in Capital City to who’s been sleeping off last night’s drunk in Constable Nunway’s jail cell. The chaps usually break off into small groups of two or three and the banter is begun, a quiet, close talk whispering of sluggish men not yet awake. Eventually, over time the conversations merge, each one melting into the other until finally a consensus subject appears.
More coffee is poured and the conversation is off. Oftentimes the more wizened and elder attendants add a healthy shot of something brown and stiff distilled from the Misty Highlands to their drink, a kick start for their slowly fading vigor. Me, I’m not quite there yet, finding the vitality of my mid-forties still blazing and my outlook on the nature of things not so sullen. But things change. Quickly. Especially in these harsh lands, so I’m not blind to the fact that that could one day be me.
The other morning the conversations at The Hog and Armor began in their usual way. Heads nodding in unspoken greetings. Handshakes and pats on the back for old acquaintances. The simultaneous creaking of tired bones and aging chairs as the men paired off and took their places around the table. But this time I could sense something was in the air. Something was different.
Several of the older gentlemen, strong, well-built specimens, showing every bit of their hard-earned years, had yet to sit down beside the fire. They were huddled close together–by the sacks of flour and amaranth stacked against the wall–and as they stood there they looked anxiously to the door, as if expecting someone to come through. One of the older men had what appeared to be a colorful wool stocking in his hands, dressed with a red ribbon and overfilled with cookies and sweets and he was showing it to the other men, speaking animatedly and gesturing wildly to the mantleplace above the hearth. I leaned in slightly, trying to catch a hint of their conversation and was treated to a most unusal dialog.
“It doesn’t make any sense.” The owner of the wool stocking was explaining. “No one here knows about this tradition, it is a thing from our past, a relic. Who else could have filled this stocking up and hung it from my chimney but him?” The other men just stared at the stocking and then at its owner, running thier bent and crooked fingers through thier gray thinning hair, shaking their heads in disbelief. “It has to be him!” The man insisted nervously. “It has to be!”
Attending to the last remaining morsels of my buttery cake, I began to wonder what would cause these men–who had been some of the first ones to settle this planet–such concern. They were the type of hardened and resourceful individuals that you needed to establish a new colony like ours and they didn’t agitate easily. For them hard work was fun. Strain and exertion was their pastime and slog and drudgery was their vice. It wasn’t normal to see them anxious like this and their unease spread quickly throughout the store.
Suddenly the The Hog and Armor’s door was flung forcefully open, a blast of frigid morning air following close behind. The brass bell that signaled the entry of a new customer echoed loudly across the store, piercing the silence and startling several of the older gentlemen, causing them to flinch in panicky anticipation. All at once, twelve pairs of nervous eyes, mine included, focused intently upon the visitor, shrouded in shadows and standing just inside the doorway.
He was tall and round, like a large potato outfitted with limbs and his presence dominated the stores entryway. He had small, deep set eyes of the warmest blue and they burned like the flickering of an evening fire. As he removed his pointed leather cap, a full head of long, snow-white hair emerged, tumbling down upon his wide-set shoulders. His once snowy beard, matted and unkempt, was stained in colorful hues of amber and brown, matching the dirt and grime splattered across his once red overcoat and trousers. On his feet he wore coal-black boots, dull and matte from his travels and outfitted with brushed silver grommets at the laces.
Over his shoulder was slung an enormous emerald-green bag, its velvet fabric shimmering in the firelight and bulging with the suggestions of parcels and bundles. Grunting, he set the bag down before him and it landed with a heavy sounding thud, the noise vibrating throughout the floorboards and up into our feet. The visitor, rosy cheeked and smiling ear to ear, then took in the crowd, his eyes alighting on each individual but lingering longer on the older men, as if in recognition.
“Well fellas!” The visitor boomed. “I finally found you!” He said, patting his rotund belly with his hands as he stared intently at the older gentlemen huddled against the sacks of grain. “It wasn’t easy you know, and it took me longer than I expected but I finally made it here.” He continued, beaming with personal satisfaction. He stepped further into the store, advancing on the back room and the younger men and I had to stand up quickly to make room for him in the stores cramped space.
“I must have visited a dozen planets and twice as many moons looking for you boys.” The visitor spoke. “And I always seemed to be just one step behind you, one minute too soon or one second too late.” He continued excitedly. “But I found you now and that’s what’s important!” He paused here, letting his words sink in, lingering on the moment, and as he did so his face grew stern, serious, as if he was preparing to lecture an unruly child.
“It’s been a while, hmmmm gentlemen?” He continued, pointing with his leather gloved finger at each of older men in the store. “What? Sixty-five, seventy years perhaps? Since way back when, all those years ago when you were wide-eyed children boarding the first colony ships leaving Earth, bound for bold new worlds and spreading humanity amongst the stars.”
“It was hard, I have to admit.” He continued, head down, pacing back and forth before the fire, a rosy-cheeked general lecturing his troops. “It was a challenge coming up with a way to reach all the children now that some were living out their lives on other planets. No longer could I make the trip in just one night, delivering joy and good-wishes to every deserving girl and boy on Christmas Eve. No, I had to adapt, come-up with a new means of travel, trade-in my 12 trusty reindeer for a single sub-light rocket. But I did it fellas. Well, we did it actually, the Elves and I, and with a healthy dose of encouragement from Mrs. Claus sprinkled in too. We had to retool all our factories up in the North Pole! Can you believe that? It was a crazy time up there for awhile, before we finally figured it all out.”
The end of his story reached, the visitor paused, turning in mid-step to face the older men, his back to the hearth, its dancing flames throwing strange shadows across the buildings walls. He lifted his soft, kind eyes to the older men and you could tell by their look that he was melting their frozen hearts. The older men appeared on the verge of tears, holding on to each other for support, memories of lost innocence and forgotten youth pouring out from their expressions like water from a faucet.
“So step forward boys, your toys await!” He roared, gesturing to the velvet sack before him with his mammoth hands. “There’s seventy years worth of Christmas presents in here for each and every one of you! One for every year that you were nice. God knows you fellas have more than earned it out here.” He said, chuckling as he spoke the words.
The older gentlemen, the glint of childhood twinkling brightly in their watery eyes, rushed forward, going up to the visitor one by one and giving him a great big hug, drawing on all the strength their aged bodies could muster. Tears of joy filled thier tired wrinkled eyes, spilling down thier cheeks in great salty torrents. As the visitor got down on his knees, some of the men buried their wrinkled faces in the soft folds of his velvet jacket, drying their tear-stained eyes on its soft red fabric. Others whispered softly into his ear, releasing their cache’s of secrets accumulated from a lifetime of sacrifice. When the greetings and salutations were over and the tears of pleasure were no more, the visitor stood, taking in the happy smiles of the older men.
“Christmas isn’t dead yet my children.” He said. “Humanity’s just spread out a bit thinner now, a bit farther apart, but I’m working on it…you hear me. It’ll get back to the old ways soon enough, I promise lads. In fact I’ve an entire workshop full of Elves right now working on a Christmas Warp drive as we speak. And someday…well, someday I’ll be able to visit the entire galaxy in a night!”
And with this he turned and left The Hog and Armor, the ringing of the overhead brass bell signalling his departure. The older men ran to the storefront windows, faces pressed against the glass, and were just in time to see the orange glow of a rockets flame disappearing into the morning sky. They raised their hands with childlike abandon and waved to the morning sky. “Goodbye!” They cheered. “Godspeed” They cried. “Thank you Santa!” They yelled.
Walking up to one of the cheering men, I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him firmly aside. “Who the hell was that?” I asked, utterly baffled by what had just happened.
“That?” The man answered, a long off look in his eyes. “That my good man was Saint Nicholas and I do hope that we’ll be seeing him again!”