Young Santa

For Nathaniel Hunt
Christmas, 1990

            Many years ago, when Santa Claus was a much younger man, with a big bushy red beard instead of a white one, and much smaller tummy (for not having yet eaten quite so many cookies left for him beside fireplaces), he returned home to the North Pole late one Christmas Eve.  He had just finished brining toys and presents to all of the good little boys and girls in the world.  He was a little tired and was looking forward to sitting in front of his toasty fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa and enjoying the satisfactions of a job well done.
            At that time, Santa’s sleigh was pulled across the snow by two old oxen with great black horns named Flan and Flow.  Santa led his loyal friends into their stall very slowly, for they were very tired.  There he fed them some nice fresh hay, then he started off toward his comfortable old wooden house.
            “That’s odd,” thought Santa, when he noticed that unlike any time before on his return on Christmas Eve, no candles burned in the windows with their red shutters, there was no smoke curling up from the chimney.  The house had a sad and empty look.
            Sensing something was wrong, Santa quickened his step and reached the front door in a wink, only to find it standing half open, the cold arctic air rushing into the front rooms like an uninvited guest.
            Santa dashed into the house and began to run from room to room, calling for his elves, “Jickjack, Pockles, Born-a-bud!  My little friends, where are you?”  But no one answered.  The house seemed as empty as a cave.
            Finally, Santa burst into the kitchen and found that not everyone had gone away.  Tied to a chair with her handkerchief tied around her mouth was Santa’s cook and housekeeper and the manager of all the elves, Berry.  Berry was very plump and pretty, just Santa’s age, with strawberry hair and a beautiful cherry-red smile.  Santa didn’t know it yet, but he was already in love with her, and he felt very badly to see her tied up.  He quickly set her free.
            “Oh, Santa!” she cried, “They’re all gone!  The elves!”
            “What happened, Berry?” asked Santa.
            “It was horrible!” Berry began, “First the moon blinked and went out.  Then a great cry rang out that all but splintered the beams of the roof.  All of the elves came running and we huddled here in the kitchen.  We didn’t know what it was.  Then it came in.  Or rather, it oozed in through the cracks in the windowpanes and underneath the door.  It looked just like black jelly!  And it smelled like fear.  Then a great roar filled the house and a voice said, ‘Tell Santa Claus that now Christmas is mine.  Tell him Christmas belongs to the Borgl!’  And then I fainted.  When I awoke, I found myself as you found me, and the elves were gone.  Oh, Santa, what are we to do?”
            “There, there,” said Santa, gently patting her shoulder for Santa was too shy to put his arms around her, “There’s nothing else to do.  I must follow this Borgl and bring back my elves.  And I must leave at once.”
            “Then I will go with you, Santa,” said Berry.
            “Oh, but it is much too dangerous.  You should wait here,” said Santa.
            “They’re my elves, too, Santa.  Besides, you may need my help.”
            “All right.  We’ll go together,” Santa agreed, secretly happy that she wanted to go with him.
            In a twinkling, Santa got Berry’s coat and hat from the front closet, helped her into them, and then bundled her into the great sleigh.  Though the two oxen, Flan and Flow, were very tired, when Santa told them what was the matter, they happily agreed to go.  With his nimble fingers, Santa had them hitched and ready to go in seconds.
            Santa settled into the front seat of the sleigh beside Berry, and picked up the reins and shouted, “Flan and Flow, let’s go!” to the two oxen.  Off they ran over the frozen snow like two comets yoked together.
            “Where are we going?” asked Berry, snuggling next to Santa.  You see, Berry was in love with Santa, too, only she was lucky enough to know it.
            “I know I’m guessing, Berry,” shouted Santa over the rushing wind, “but I have heard legends of a creature that for centuries has slowly been absorbing all of the evil in the world.  You see, every evil act leaves a dark film on the air surrounding it.  It is so very faint, most humans can’t see it, but it’s there.  They make it every time they commit even the tiniest sin.  And this creature has spent his life collecting this darkness, breathing it in, making it part of himself.  This monster is called many things, all of them unspeakable.  Borgl is the only one of his names one can use in polite company.”
            “Where shall we find it?”
            “At the other end of the world, my friend.”
            “The South Pole?” asked Berry.
            “Yes, Berry,” Santa replied.  “True evil is always at the opposite end of the world from me.”
            On and on the great oxen ran, their great hooves barely touching the hard-packed snow.  The stars rotated over their heads like a great sheet of light.  They wind blew by so fast it actually warmed Berry’s cheeks.
            Then, at the edge of great forest, the oxen stopped.
            “Flan! Flow!  We must not slow!” Santa shouted.  “Please don’t stop now, but go go go!”
            Berry understood immediately.
            “Santa, it is not their fault,” said Berry gently.  “They simply have nothing left to give.  We can hardly expect them to go around the world twice in one night.”
            “I know you’re right, Berry,” Santa replied.  “But what can we do?  My poor elves.”
            “Listen, Santa,” whispered Berry excitedly.
            The great evergreen forest brooded beside them like a sleeping giant on the edge of waking up.  The snow sparkled in the starlight all around the sleigh, but closer to the forest the sparkles dimmed and faded out all together under the eaves of the tall spiky trees.  At first, Santa heard nothing at all.  Perhaps the wind was still in his ears.  Then, gradually, he heard the faint sounds of bells, delicate and musical.
            “Who’s coming?” asked Santa, turning this way and that, for the sound seemed to come from all directions.
            “Who knows? Said Berry, laughing.  “Santa, call to the bells.  Perhaps it is someone else who can help us.”
            “Hello, you with the bells.  Whoever is ringing bells, come help us!  Come help us, please!” shouted Santa, then he stopped.  “Oh, this is useless.  We will simply have to wait until Flan and Flow are rested.”
            “But that takes days, Santa.  You know that.  Flan and Flow have slept as long as a week after Christmas Eve.”
            Indeed, both oxen were fast asleep on their feet, snoring softly.  Yet the sound of the bells, while fainter now, could still be heard.
            “Perhaps this will work,” said Berry, then she began to sing.  It was a sweet wordless melody she let drift out across the snow as lightly as the starlight.  Santa knew the song well, for Berry sang it many times each year, whenever the work went long and the workers grew weary, she sang the song and immediately the elves would laugh and dance and return to their work eagerly and happily, their spirits restored.
            Now her song produced an even more marvelous effect.  At first it seemed that the jingling of the bells took on a familiar rhythm as though the jinglers jingled in time to Berry’s song.  Then Santa thought he saw the branches move out from the edge of the forest.  Santa had to rub his eyes, because he couldn’t really be seeing eight tiny reindeer shyly stepping out of the woods.  And when he stopped rubbing, there they were, surrounding the sleigh.  Berry took some sweets from her pocket and fed the reindeer one by one.  Each animal had a perfect set of tiny antlers, a circlet of silver bells around its neck, and beautiful round brown eyes that looked a little bit sad.
            “Well, what do you think, Santa?” asked Berry, laughing.
            “They’re awfully tiny, but they’ll just have to do.” Santa replied, jumping down.  He quickly released Flan and Flow from their traces, led them aside and let them go back to sleep.  Then, waving the reindeer forward one by one, Santa hitched up the eight animals as though he’d done it a thousand times before.
            “Really,” said Santa as he climbed back into the sleigh, “I can’t imagine how these little fellows can pull us two feet toward . . .”
            But before he could finish the sentence, the sleigh lunged forward, tossing Santa back into his seat.  In seconds, the sleigh was moving every bit as fast as when Flan and Flow had pulled it, perhaps faster.
            “Oh, Santa!” cried Berry, pointing ahead.
            Santa hadn’t yet caught hold of the reins and the sleigh was aimed straight for the sea, which rose dark and choppy just up ahead.  Santa managed to grab the reins and pull back, but it was too late.
            “Help!” Berry cried as the sleigh plunged forward into the water.
            But no one got wet.  Instead, the sleigh gracefully rose above the water and up into the air and safely out over the sea toward the South Pole.
            “These reindeer seem to know the way,” said Santa, dazed with surprise.
            “Did you know they could fly, Santa?” asked Berry breathlessly.
            “Not at all,” Santa replied.  “Biggest surprise of my life.  But somehow things always seem to turn out all right.”  Then Santa sighed.  “All except for my elves, that is.”
            Berry hugged him in agreement as the sleigh sped past the full moon, cutting through clouds like a word through silence, the earth turning slowly beneath them, a great ball of water.
            Soon, as the world spun toward them, up the sea climbed a shelf of ice that stretched across the horizon, painting it a dull gray white in the moonlight, and they both knew that this was the Antarctic and that soon they would arrive.
            And then the moon blinked, as though someone had just slapped its face – then it went out.  Every star vanished like a forgotten thought, and the world was sunk in darkness.
            On the horizon, a purplish light glowed, the color of bags beneath tired eyes, and out of the light stuck something tall and slender, like a black finger.
            “What is that?” whispered Santa.
            “I think you know, Santa,” said Berry.
            Indeed, they both knew.  It was the Borgl’s castle.
            “But I don’t want to know it,” sighed Santa.
            “Santa, it’s okay to be afraid,” said Berry, squeezing his arm.
            “I’m just glad you’re here with me,” said Santa, giving the reins a shake to give courage to his reindeer, for they seemed to be slowing down.  “On, you reindeer, on!  We can’t stop now!”
            The dark castle grew like a sick feeling as they flew closer and closer.  A bad smell began to pierce the frigid air and both Santa and Berry began to feel queasy in their stomachs.
            “Oh, my poor elves,” whispered Santa.
            At last, the reindeer brought the sleigh lower and lower until its runners skidded on the bumpy ground.  Everywhere, torn and jagged chunks of ice had been tossed helter-skelter and blackened with soot.  Even the snow, all churned up and dirty, looked like someone had tried to hurt it.  The black tower of the Borgl’s Castle loomed above, dwarfing Santa and Berry and the reindeer, glowing coldly from within with a bruised, purplish light.
            “Why, it’s made of ice!” exclaimed Berry.
            “What else would serve to house such a frigid-hearted creature?” said Santa.
            Then things began to happen.  A laugh started, low and thin, a cackling, like a little devil with a sore throat. The most unhappy and hopeless laugh you ever heard.  The laugh grew louder and louder and soon shook the ground and rattled the reindeer’s teeth.  Then the light began to pulse, brighter and darker, brighter and darker, and with each pulse the brighter got brighter, the darker darker.  Soon the castle was a blazing purple mountain one second, and a monstrous black hole in space the next.  When the pulsing reached a pitch of craziness so that Santa feared the castle might explode, destroying them all, the laughing stopped.  The castle froze in its nauseating brightness to reveal dozens of little men, frozen solid, high and low, throughout the purple ice.
            Santa and Berry shouted, “Jickjack!  Pockles!  Born-a-bud!”
            “BE QUIET!” shouted a deafening, but rather thin little voice that shook the castle.
            “Who is there?”  Santa shouted back.  “Release my elves this instant!”
            “BE QUIET, I SAY!” the big little voice repeated.
            “That sounds, “Santa whispered to Berry, “so horrible, and yet so familiar?”
            “Where is it coming from?” asked Berry.
            For the sake of their friends, the elves, Santa and Berry obeyed.
            “What a windbag,” whispered Berry.
This was too much for Santa.
“Borgl, that’s quite enough,” Santa shouted, standing up in his great sleigh.  “Stop with these nasty threats and show yourself this instant.”
‘FOOLISH POTBELLY, I’M STANDING RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!” shrieked the Borgl with laughter that seemed to echo off the darkened sky.
            But all Santa and Berry could see was the great purplish castle and their poor friends inside, each one with a sad little grin on his face inside the ice.
            “I’LL GIVE YOU A HINT!” added the Borgl.
            The ground began to rumble and shake.  The reindeer’s little hooves slipped out from under them and some fell down.  Berry clutched Santa even tighter as the sleigh rocked back and forth.  The castle started to tremble and then to pitch from side to side.  Both Santa and Berry cried out, as the castle, with a tremendous heave, pulled itself up out of the ground and stood on two legs!
            “DO YOU SEE ME NOW?  YOU HOPELESS CREATURES!” cackled the Borgl.
            The effect was not quite what the Borgl had expected.
            Berry began to laugh.  “Look at those legs, Santa!”
            “Ho, ho, ho!” Santa chuckled, “who would have thought?”
            Try to picture the tallest man you can imagine, with a chest like a huge barrel and wide black face with glowing purple eyes and teeth, all of him standing on two short, spindly little legs, no bigger than a small child’s.  Santa and Berry were beside themselves with laughter.  The reindeer whinnied, too, and even the elves all seemed to have grown big smiles.
            “If you’ll pardon my saying so, Borgl,” giggled Berry, “you were a lot scarier sitting down.”
            “YOU BE QUIET, YOU, YOU . . . .” stuttered the Borgl, waving his arms, which were thin and spindly also, just like a little girl’s.
            Everyone’s laughter doubled.
            The Borgl, speechless with embarrassment, sat back down with a thump, closed his eyes and mouth, and became a castle again, silent and brooding.
            “We’re not out of this yet,” whispered Santa.
            “You’re right,” Berry replied, “he’s still much more powerful than we are, especially if he decides to melt and come after us as a glob of jelly, just like he came after the elves!”
            Both of them shuddered at the thought.
            “Still, there’s something very familiar about him,” said Santa, “I can’t remember, but it’s like I know him.  Like I’ve known him all of my life.”
            “He’s like a little boy, actually,” said Berry, “look at him, sulking like a naughty little boy who’s been caught.”
            “That’s it!” Santa cried, still keeping it down to a whisper.  “Remember, I told you that he roams the world absorbing all the dark little smudges on the air left by the sins of man. But, when you think about it, he’s just like a little child out  in the woods collecting flowers or frogs, only it’s late and he’s gotten lost and he’s afraid, so he keeps collecting to take his mind off being lost, until all he can think about is collecting, but deep down inside he’s lonely and frightened and all he really wants to do is go home to his mother.  That’s what this Borgl reminds me of, all the lost little boys and girls in the world who just want to be good and go home where it’s safe and warm and there are people who love you.”
            “Borgl, Borgl,” Berry repeated, thinking hard, “Borgl.  Boy, Girl?  That’s it, Santa!  BoyGirl! It’s Borgl!”
            Santa was so happy and excited that for the first time ever, he conquered his shyness and gave Berry a big hug and a peck on the cheek.
            She blushed prettily and said, “And I know just how to deal with a little lost child.”
            Then Berry began to sing.  She sang the same beautiful, wordless little tune she sang for the elves and for the reindeer.  She let it drift out over the ice and snow like a warm Spring wind.  Then she added words to the melody:
Little lost child, come home with me,
Come home where it’s safe and warm.
Come home with me and you will see
That no one will cause you harm.

Little lost child, come home with us,
Come home where love is for free,
We won’t scold you or make a fuss,
We just want to make you happy.

            And as the words came sweetly from Berry’s pretty throat, the castle changed almost immediately.  Its hard, icy edges began to go round and soft.  It’s purplishnss turned to a soft pink glow.  Berry sang louder, with a sweetness that made each word bloom like a little flower on the cold and bitter air.  The Borgl became to tremble.  You couldn’t tell if he was beginning to melt or if those were tears dripping down the walls.  The castle began to shrink.  It grew smaller and smaller and as it shrank, one by one, the elves jumped out of the ice and made a mad dash for Santa’s sleigh, where they all climbed into the back seat and huddled, still fearful of the Borgl.  Berry sang on until the moon popped out of the sky, and the stars reappeared like a long lost memory, and every elf was free.  The last one to jump into the sleigh whispered to Santa, “Let’s fly, Santa, now, before it’s too late.”
            “Hush, Born-a-bud!” whispered Santa, wiping a tear from his eye, “hush and watch.”
            Berry still sang on.  The castle now was no more than a little mound of slush, quickly melting and pooling out across the ground.  Then a sad little e cry was heard.  Santa grabbed one of his big empty bags, which he used to carry presents, and sprang from the sleigh.  He ran to the pile of slush and stooped over and wrapped something in the plush, red bag.  Then he returned to the sleigh, clutching a naked little boy no more than three, who was crying and reaching out for Berry.  She took him into her arms and held him tight and caressed him and kissed him on his cheek, as Santa and the elves looked on, smiling and proud.
            As Santa settled into the sleigh next to Berry, he turned and looked at the elves, all of whom were winking and waving him on with encouragement, as though they could read his mind.  Santa took a deep breath and turned to Berry and said, “Berry, I just this minute realized that I love you.  Berry, will you marry me?”
            “Yes, of course I will, Santa,” Berry replied and leaned over to kiss him.  And after the kiss they looked at the little boy in Berry’s arms.  He was smiling and very happy.
            And that is the end of the story. The reindeer took Santa and Berry, the elves and the little boy home to the North Pole (stopping, of course, to pick up the well-rested Flan and Flow along the way).  They celebrated Christmas that day in the time-honored fashion, with presents and with a great feast of thanksgiving that everyone helped to prepare.  Soon after that, Santa and Berry were married.  Together they raised the little boy, who turned out to be a very good and beautiful little boy after all.  They named him Mel (short for Melody) in honor of the song that saved him, the son that brought Berry and young Santa together.