2. Santa’s First Lie
Anya’s knitting lay limp upon her lap. Resting her elbows on the curved arms of her rocker, she halted for a moment its mindless movement.
Outside her sewing room window, freshly fallen snow glinted like shattered glass where the sunlight splashed across it. At the edge of the woods, clusters of elves were at play. Some built elaborate snow creatures. Some flung themselves down and made angels. Others leaped and whirled, singly or in pairs, on the skating pond.
It was their day off. The final gift had winked from the workshop shelves, the last home had been graced with a nocturnal visit from Santa Claus, and he was winging his way home. One day each year, this day, his helpers got to frolic and cavort to their heart’s content. Santa would enjoy a private Christmas celebration with Anya in the morning, followed by the afternoon festivities in and around the elves’ quarters. Then it was back to the industrious joy of creating playthings for the world’s children.
Anya winced. Pain took a bite out of her left thigh. “Damned sciatica,” she muttered, shifting in the rocker and readjusting her skirts.
A face popped up at the window.
Anya started, then she relaxed into a smile.
It was Fritz, her favorite elf: red-haired, gap-toothed, and ageless. Just yesterday he had run up to her, panicked, cradling a squirrel with a broken and bloody leg. It lay still in her hands as she healed its hurts with her tongue. Then it licked her cheek once in gratitude, leaped out of her grasp, and bounded off good as new into the woods. Now Fritz, rapping sharply on the glass, shouted something incomprehensible and beckoned to her. Shaking her head in a play of sadness, she held up her half-finished sweater. Fritz gave her a little-boy grimace and dashed off to join the rest, his cap jouncing this way and that like a buffeted leaf.
Such exuberance, such energy these little men showed. One would hardly guess that they were centuries old. Anya sighed.
Kindhearted though she was, she resented it sometimes that God had waited to grant her immortality until she had grown white-haired, bespectacled, and well past sixty. On those rare occasions when she opened herself to bitterness and regret, it struck Anya as grossly unfair that no rollback clause had been written into the bargain—no divine afflatus that would pull the skin tight over her bones, blow away her aches and pains, and breathe the buoyant winds of rejuvenation through her limbs.
It didn’t help matters, she thought, to live with a man whose energies never flagged, who sacrificed sleep for toymaking, often disappearing for days into his workshop and emerging brimful of vitality, a sly hint of marital urgency lighting his eye.
It pained her to remove, night after night, Santa’s speculative hand from her flannel thigh. But menopause had claimed Anya way back in the fourth century when they dwelt in Myra and had not yet become immortal. Since then, her carnal urges, never very strong even at their zenith, had dwindled to nearly nothing. It was a banner year if they made love a handful of times between one Christmas and the next.
He was a good man, Claus; the best of men. Sometimes it was a trial being married to him, feeling the need to prove herself worthy of his goodness. Among his many fine qualities, she counted his saint’s measure of patience with her; the way he treated his helpers, paternal yet not patronizing; his wholehearted dedication to the children.
In the distance, a silent ruckus began. Flurries of snowballs flew in wide white arcs between two impromptu armies.
“Land sakes, where do they get all that energy?” With a shake of her head and a cluck of her tongue, she resumed her knitting and lost herself once more in the rhythm of the rocking and the clicking of the needles.
Fritz dashed across the commons toward the skating pond, kicking up powdered snow as he went. He wished, just once, that Mrs. Claus would leave the cozy confines of her cottage and join in the festivities.
“Fritz! Look out!”
Knecht Rupert’s high-pitched shout rang out too late. The whoosh of a snowball—the smack of it against his forehead like the blow of a frost giant’s fist—came out of nowhere. Down he tumbled, backward into the snow, and the gleeful taunts of the others washed over him.
He felt his face redden. Johann the Elder and Gustav, Rupert’s perennial sidekicks, gave Fritz resounding backslaps of encouragement and bent to the business of turning the gifts of nature into weapons. Then Rupert’s strong arms helped him up and the battle was joined.
His allies loped about him, scooping up handfuls of snow and packing them tight, then letting fly toward the porcelain doll contingent which swooped in on the right. So many years had the dollmakers worked together at their specialty that they were almost identical sextuplets. Though their faces were blunt as bulls and they sported long black beards, their lips were bowed like the painted lips of the dolls they made and their voices strained high and tight in their throats.
Everyone called them Heinrich. It was the name they all answered to, and none of them had ever tried in any way to distinguish himself from the others.
Heinrich, then, a twelve-armed wonder, lobbed his battery of snowballs into Fritz’s beleaguered group, downing Gustav and smacking Fritz on the ear. Fritz raised his fists to the skies, howling. He stooped and threw like a madman, shaming the restraint of Knecht Rupert and his companions. After an initial flurry of misses, Fritz’s canny arm remembered trajectory, adjusting for wind speed, anticipating moving targets. The ensuing barrage turned Heinrich’s unstoppable onslaught into first a standoff and then a rout.
“After them!” shouted Fritz, heading for the woods. But as he and his comrades-in-arms pounded closer to the snow-laden firs, reinforcements for Heinrich popped up from behind a great outcropping of rock. Fritz identified the two instigators of this new assault as his bunkmates: Karlheinz, he of the rolling-thunder snore, and Max, whose occasional bedwetting had consigned him, by a two-to-one vote, to the lower bunk. These turncoats descended upon him, flanked by elves from the rocking horse contingent, tubby little men with arms that flailed as they ran and wide eyes that flashed fire.
Now it was Fritz’s turn to feel the brunt of attack everywhere on his body. First on face, chest, and arms. Then, as he fled, against his shoulders, hard upon his back, and dripping slow and cold down his neck. Elves swooped in from all directions to gang up on him and his cohorts.
At his heels, Gustav shouted, “For the love of God, Fritz, can’t you run any faster?”
No time to answer. The attackers drew closer, their volley of snowballs filling the air like some giant ski shushing to a stop.
Ahead, Mrs. Claus bent to her knitting, framed by the wide rectangle of her sewing room window. How lovely she was. So kind and gentle a woman. The sort Fritz would be glad to spend his life with in holy matrimony, if God had intended elves to marry or entertain thoughts of intimacy.
It occurred to him, as his legs carried him toward Santa’s cottage, that many centuries past there had been wild times indeed, intimacies as commonplace as they were scandalous. But memories of those days—before God had conjured them out of nothing to work with Santa—were so hard to dredge up, and so evanescent when you succeeded, that it was scarcely worth the effort.
Another volley of blows hammered against his back. Snowballs whistling overhead fell just short of Santa’s cottage. The huge one that finally hit swept rudely past his right ear and boomed against the sewing room window, blotting out Mrs. Claus’s matronly bosom.
It came straight out of the blue. One moment, the rhythmic ticking of cuckoo clocks above the low, steady swing of their grandfather clock’s gold pendulum; the next, a sudden whump, the heart-clenching report of balled snow smacking glass. Anya rose sharply, threw her knitting into the rocking chair, and glared out at the halted hordes of helpers.
Dear God, how many times must she warn them not to play so close to the cottage? At least once more, that was clear. She made her way out of the sewing room to the front door, muttering all the way.
Outside, two score elves stood chastened in the snow, eyes downcast, shoulders slumped. Some held their caps over their crotches or let them hang listlessly from their hands. Bald pates glistened in the sun. Karlheinz moped forward and made a shamefaced confession.
In her kindest voice, Anya said, “It hardly matters who threw the snowball, does it?”
They shook their heads.
“I’m old. My system doesn’t take kindly to shocks. It’s fine to let loose on your day off. But please. Not so close to the cottage. You’ve got that whole expanse out there to play in.” She pulled her shawl about her shoulders and gestured to the commons and beyond. Her hand, she noticed, was frail and arthritic, its dexterity lost in the passage of years.
It was cold out here. Her cheeks tingled. Her ears rang with the faint whine of fresh snow in still air.
But no. The sounds she heard came and went. Not the steady throb of winter but high discrete pulses, like the tremolo of distant violins, like zephyrs wafting over harpstrings.
She lifted her eyes. Out past the skating pond, out beyond the elves’ quarters, above the tops of the tallest trees that tickled the sky’s underbelly, a black dot hung in the distance, growing imperceptibly larger.
Love swelled warm within her.
As effortlessly as a morning glory opens to the sun, Anya smiled.
Fritz raised his eyes to Mrs. Claus. Her left hand gripped the porch railing. Her right froze in mid-gesture as she gazed into the sky.
He was the first to notice her radiance, the first to divine the reason for it. But the others quickly caught fire. Bright green caps, buoyed by whoops and shouts, pancaked into the air. Fritz endured with good humor the sixfold embrace of Heinrich the dollmaker. On all sides, his bearded brethren leaped and hopped about or attempted cartwheels in the snow. Mostly, they jumped for joy, pointing ecstatically to the heavens and rolling out shouts of welcome for their returning master.
Fritz turned about and looked up at the long brown insect struggling through the sky. Santa’s whip was an eyelash, his team the third part of a centipede, himself not much larger than a ladybug rearing on her hind legs.
The elf’s eyes brimmed with joy.
Santa felt soiled.
Coursing across the arctic sky, brutal winds above, frozen tundra below, he marveled how these two feelings, so violently opposed, could take root and thrive in his breast, entwined like old friends. Not-Santa had butted his way in, and the Santa Claus he had been before—pure goodness, all giving—stood there in shock, incapable of tossing the intruder out.
He felt deep shame.
Shame for betraying his wife, for reveling in the flesh of another woman. Shame for having befouled the bed of little Rachel Townsend while the darling girl dozed innocently beside them. Shame for the desecration he had visited upon one dwelling after another thereafter, his mind fixated on copulations past and to come, while it ought to have been fully on the task at hand.
But he also felt delight.
More precisely, the not-Santa, that vile intruder lured out of his depths by the Tooth Fairy—this creature felt delight. Delight in the hot savagery of his lover’s supple body, in the way she opened herself to his hunger. Santa was shocked to realize that the perverse divinity of their coupling inspired in this not-Santa a feeling that could only be called reverence.
Ahead, a glow on the horizon.
The mild bubble of winter God had given him and his little community so many centuries before.
“Almost there, my lovelies,” Santa bellowed into the deafening wind. “Straight on between Lucifer’s antlers. There await warm elfin hands to rub you down, young aspen shoots and willow buds and berries in abundance to satisfy your hunger, and a cozy stall to rest yourselves in.”
Santa grimaced. There await the purest beings God had the good grace to set upon this gentle earth, and the purest of them all—my dear sweet wife Anya.
He longed to be with Anya.
Yet, God help him, he dreaded it.
Would she sense the change in him? Would she catch the musky aroma of the Tooth Fairy on his clothes, in his whiskers, hanging thick about his sex?
The bubble arched up bit by bit, stretching wider along the horizon and taking on a thin bristle of trees.
He shifted in his seat, eager to entrust the sleigh to Gregor and his brothers for a wax and polish, a new paint job, careful storage until next year. What a relief it would be to roam the woods again after being gone so long, to cast a benign eye upon his elves’ labors, to sit by the fire, of an evening, puffing on his pipe and watching Anya knit and rock, rock and knit.
God grant it be so.
Now the tree stubble took on stature, rising majestic from the snow-clad wilds ahead. The sub-zero temperatures of the polar icecap abruptly yielded to the milder weather within. Ahead, like miniatures in a model train set, he saw the tiny workshop and stables, the mica shine of the skating pond, and dead on, his and Anya’s cottage, green with touches of red and white. He wept to see their home, floating upon a sea of snow, smoke skirling up from its chimneytop.
And waiting on the porch, his darling Anya.
But fear tainted his joy. Fear that she would slip away, turn her back on his betrayal and vanish forever.
One thing was clear. His unwelcome guest must be locked away, given no chance to show himself before the polar community.
As he began the slow descent, Santa did his best to put on his prelapsarian face.
He was beautiful up there, her man. If anything could rekindle the fires of her infrequent passion, it was watching him sail in over the treetops, cherry-red and rotund, a radiant smile playing upon his lips. The sight always made her stand taller, breathe deeper, go as moist as a lusty young bride.
He urged his team onward, sweeping in ever narrowing circles overhead. The insistent jingle of sleighbells slapping at the haunches of the reindeer made her feel all saucy inside. Part of her wanted him right then in mid-descent with all the elves watching. But the rest of her was more than content to prolong the wait, to savor every moment that stretched from right now to the delicious suspension of time beneath their blankets after the day’s festivities were done.
She couldn’t be sure, afterward, when she had first begun to feel unsettled. Without question, the feeling was heavy in her by the time hoof and runner touched snow. Before that, its stages were impossible to define. It seemed much more an accretion of small noticings: the way he held back his descent, the angle at which he cocked his head, a hint of tension in his upraised arm, an unsettling disharmony in the team, the unmistakable impression that he was at once avoiding her eyes and forcing himself to smile in her direction.
The elves appeared to notice nothing. They swarmed over him as always, lifted him high on their shoulders, carried him (according to tradition) once, twice, thrice around the sleigh, then wrestled him to the snow and fell to tickling him and mauling him until, through the boom and roll of his laughter, he begged for mercy. When at last they calmed down, the elves set Santa back on his feet, brushed him off, and led him up to the porch where his wife stood waiting.
Without knowing why, Anya felt sick inside.
No, that wasn’t true. She knew this feeling well. She understood precisely what was going on. A name flashed inside her head. Pitys. Spoken in a voice that belonged and did not belong to Santa, thick with crushed grape and guile and eternal boyishness. Then the voice and the name it had spoken were gone, and all that remained were a hard knot in her stomach and a wife’s unerring instinct for betrayal.
Shiny black boots crunched the snow on the steps to the porch. An alien face loomed over her. A chill white beard brushed soft and swirly against her cheek. Around her body, bearish arms wrapped an embrace.
She watched herself return a kiss, heard the roar of the elves, felt the fire’s warmth reaching out to claim her as they stepped inside and closed the door.
As Santa stood beside Anya at the fireplace, the crackling flames seemed neither as bright nor as warm as memory claimed they should be. Home didn’t feel like home. It felt like some painted replica, a stage set waiting to be struck at the ringing down of some final curtain.
(That’s cuz we don’t belong here, Santa old buddy. This place is too perfect, not enough blemish, no room for passion, you catch my drift?)
Oh fine, thought Santa. Now his intruder had found a voice. Raspy as a hacksaw, biting as a freshly opened can of shellac, as dark as three coats of walnut stain.
“I must have snow in my ears, Anya dear,” he joked. “Couldn’t quite hear what you said.”
She grimaced. “I said it’s good to have you home.” Tension lined her face.
(Sexless bitch is on to us. Best we should—)
I won’t have her talked about that way.
“Is . . . is something wrong?” Santa gasped out. His scalp beaded with sweat. A fist clenched deep in his gut, down where truths hide unspoken. Her unwavering gaze unnerved him, and unworthy thoughts—seeds of resentment toward his wife—came upon him. Looking away, he fished for his pipe, his pouch, busying himself with them.
(That’s it, chum. Evasive action’s always good. And we’ve got lots of evading to do, all that fine humping—)
She took his face in her hands, searched his eyes for oddity. “Something happened to you out there, didn’t it? Something you’re keeping from me.”
(Oooh doggies, we’re in for it now, fat boy!)
Santa froze. How could he just blurt out the truth? It felt so bitter on his tongue, this blunt admission of adultery. Yet even if he were successful in putting her off with vague denials, his unspoken misdeed would stand there solid but invisible between them. Better to lay it before her, he thought, come what may.
(Hold it right there, chubbynums. This situation calls for a bit of good old husbandly deception. I—)
That’s enough. I’m telling her.
(Heh-heh-heh. Guess some folks gotta learn the hard way. It’s your funeral, bub.)
Santa sat beside Anya on the couch by the fire, looking down at the plush throw rug and holding her hands. And as the grandfather clock’s great pendulum knocked aside every other second, he began to tell her what had happened, leaving nothing out.
Fritz loved the reindeer so. While Gregor and his brothers led them to the stables, Fritz walked beside his beloved Cupid, smoothing his chestnut pelt and fondling the intricate branchwork of his antlers. But as Gregor decoupled team and sleigh, Fritz’s enthusiasm made him more hindrance than help. After two unheeded warnings Gregor dismissed him, telling him to come back the next morning when Cupid and the others were rested.
On his way across the commons, heading for the elves’ quarters, Fritz heard voices raised and the slamming of doors inside Santa’s cottage.
His pale blue shadow stretched across the drifts as he strained to distinguish words. Elusive shapes moved from room to room. The muffle of window and wallboard stripped away all consonants, leaving only naked vowels that traced the unfamiliar sounds of marital strife.
A chill slipped into Fritz’s bones and held. He raised his hands against the sights and sounds. When he put a finger to his lips, they were dry, hard, tight, the painted lips of a ventriloquist’s dummy. He faced about then and ran, kicking up snowy waves of panic and denial as he closed the distance between himself and the dormitory.
Midway through Santa’s narrative, Anya startled him with a mangled cry. Santa looked at her for the first time since he had begun. Her rage hit him before he could piece together the face it flared from. She slapped him, hard and stinging. Then she bolted from the couch.
“Anya, wait!” he shouted, his jaw awkward and gangly from being struck. He took off after her, deflecting doors slammed at his nose, begging her to be reasonable, to hear him out. At last he found himself kneeling beside their bed. Her steamed spectacles she protected by propping herself up on her elbows and bending her forehead to the pillow.
“Bastard!” she hissed. Tears curved along her lenses and hit the pillowcase. “Didn’t you for one moment stop to think how I’d feel?”
“Anya, she seduced me,” protested Santa. “She came up to me and started rubbing against me. Not that it’s her fault, that’s not what I mean. You don’t know what that does to a man, to have a beautiful barely-clad woman drool all over him. I know, I know. I’m as much to blame as she is.”
She fisted the pillow and glared up at him. “How dare you make excuses for that fairy slut. Just look at yourself. Big saintly man, brimful of love and presents for the little ones. Ah but put down the pack, strip off the red suit? You’re nothing but a rutting animal, just another overweight hog with a twinkle in his eye, sniffing at the hindquarters of any sow that trots across his path.”
“Don’t you touch me!” she screamed. “You touched her with those hands, didn’t you? I know your way. Get a woman all fired up under those incredible hands of yours. Dear God, I’m going to—”
She bolted for the bathroom and slammed the door. Santa heard the sharp report of the toilet lid striking the tank, then the sudden uprush of vomit and a splash as of diarrhea into the bowl.
He went to the door and called her name.
“Don’t you come in here!” she threatened. He heard her spit into the water, wad up lengths of toilet paper, flush them away. The water ran as she rinsed her mouth.
Then, eyes watery, white strands of hair gone astray, Anya walked past him and collapsed on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She had left her glasses in the bathroom. Without them she looked older.
Santa, weak-willed as a dreamer, felt the mattress yield to his weight as he sat upon the edge of the bed, careful to avoid all contact with his wife. Words came into his mouth, words not of his own choosing, the wily intruder’s words. Powerless to stop them, not even sure he’d want to if he could, he heard them fall from his lips.
“Dearest Anya,” they began, “I never wanted to hurt you. Far better to sink into the earth than hurt you, my perfect mate, my beloved friend. As much love as God has given me for the boys and girls of this world, never have I loved any of them with one scintilla of the love I hold in my heart for you.”
It sounded so stilted to him, this speech. It amazed and appalled him. The sentiments were undeniably true, but the words felt absolutely false in the speaking—as they must, he thought, in the hearing.
“You’re the only woman for me, Anya,” he assured her, blinking back tears, fighting against the raw hurt in his throat. “That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way it will always be.”
Santa dug into his pockets for a handkerchief. Just as his right hand found one, the fingers of his left hand closed on silk. Red silk.
(Ah, that’s it, now you’ve laid hold of a piece of reality, the good stuff, a sweet reminder of the breached gates of heaven.)
Enough. No more. Leave me alone.
Clutching the panties, he felt the tingle of flesh-memory woven into them and became aware of his manhood’s demand for stiffening blood. Later, he thought, he would discard them, toss them into the fire while Anya slept.
(Oooh, don’t even joke about such a thing. Lord o’ mercy, you gonna make me keel over and die with talk like that. You keep those babies around, hear me, Santa?)
Yes . . . yes I think I must. It made him ill to picture the red silk falling upon the fire, catching slowly at first, then quicker, seething into oblivion. They were too precious for that; an icon, a totem. He could never bring himself to destroy them.
“Please believe me, my beloved,” Santa’s false voice continued, “the Tooth Fairy means nothing to me, nothing at all. It was a mistake, a terrible mistake. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused you. If you could see your way clear to trust me, I give you my word it will never happen again.”
He was sobbing now, but only partially in repentance. The rest were tears of rage, tears shed for what he seemed to have become. For he knew, even as the words reeled out and honestly begged Anya’s forgiveness, that any promise he made to stay away from the luscious body of the Tooth Fairy was an empty one.
The lies lay like spoiled meat in his mouth.
And yet (heaven help him, was he going mad?) he felt good about lying to Anya, liberated somehow, reveling in hidden guile, tasting the fruits of a newfound freedom. Or was it new? At the fringes of his memory, forgotten images, tantalizing and elusive, teased his senses—forest smells, the thick richness of moss beneath his back, the feel of nymph tongue on genital.
“If she appears again next Christmas, I swear to God I’ll stand strong against her wiles. I’ll send her packing.” Anya lay there looking at the ceiling, but her breathing had slowed. “I know that the memory of this terrible time will never fade entirely, not for either of us.” The tingle of silk made visions of nudity dance in Santa’s head. “But I want to try to get through this with you in a way that, hard as it may seem now, strengthens our love for each other.”
Anya had calmed considerably. She looked at him. “All right, Claus. Let’s see how things go. I believe we’re strong enough to weather this. But don’t expect me to want to . . . to engage in intimacies any time soon. It’s going to take some time, some adjustment.”
Santa nodded. “Take all the time you need.”
“I don’t know about you,” said Anya, attempting a half-smile, “but I’m exhausted.” She touched a hand to his knee. “The elves are probably wondering what’s keeping us. Go take your shower and let’s do what we can to survive the rest of today. We’ll start fresh in the morning.”
Thank God, he thought, I haven’t destroyed it. Not yet.
But in the depths of his coat pocket, Santa’s left hand luxuriated in lust.
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