This is a short story composed in honor of this day, which I provide as a gift to my readers. Merry Christmas.
Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa ClausBy John C. Wright @ 2013
Her name was Ginny. She was six years old, and it was Christmas Eve.
Her eyelids trembled and slowly her eyes closed. With a painful effort, she tried to stay awake. For a moment, her face was utterly at peace. Then with a little sigh of effort, her eyelids fluttered open.
“Mommy…? Is it all right…?”
“Hush, now,” Her mother replied. “Everything is all right.”
“Mommy, is it all right if I stay up until Saint Nicholas comes? Just this once? I won’t ask again.”
Her mother’s name was also Virginia. She was bent over the bed, passing her hand over her daughter’s face, comforting, soothing.
“Yes … just this once … Stay awake. Stay awake for Santa Claus, baby…”
Virginia passed her hand over her daughter’s head as if to smooth to curly blonde hair; but Ginny had no hair any longer.
“… I hear the sleigh bells ….” Ginny said. “He’s coming … How will he fit…?”
“What was that?” Virginia bent close to her daughter’s barely-moving lips.
“No chimney. There is no chimney here. How will Saint Nicholas get in?”
There was no chimney in the terminal ward of the children’s hospital.
“He’ll think of something, baby. He’s Santa. Just have faith. Just hold on.”
One of the many blinking boxes connected to the little girl gave off an alarm which sounded like a bright, sharp ringing as if from small bells. Ginny smiled weakly at the noise, no doubt thinking it was sleigh bells, and said, “Will I see Saint Nicholas?”
“Yes, darling, O, yes my darling.” Virginia’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Santa Claus is coming. You will see him.”
The medical technicians and the nurses, voices tense but low, uttering precise commands as quickly and crisply as a priest conducting a well-known and long-beloved ritual, continued their desperate work as one alarm and then the next rang out. There was no room around the bed for Virginia to stand and hold her daughter’s hand.
The doctor told her not to worry. He gave Virginia some vague reassurance, as false but well-meant as telling a child to believe in Santa Claus.
The little girl’s eyelids trembled and slowly her eyes closed. She tried to stay awake.
After two hours and a half, as one alarm after another fell silent, and one monitor after another showed a flat line, they stopped their attempt to revive her. The doctor signed the certificate, showing the time of death as 11: 53. Seven minutes before Christmas Day.
She had lived to be six years old, and it was Christmas Eve. Her name had been Ginny.
* * *
Virginia could see, through blurring tears and through the Venetian blinds of the hospital room, how thickly the fresh snow was fallen outside, unmarked by footprint or tire tread, to make a scene as silent and perfect as a postcard.
Across the street was a store with window display, bright with holly wreaths, where little mechanical elves, tireless, went through the motions of making toys before a throne on which Santa sat.
For some reason, perhaps due to health concerns, the decorator had made this Santa thin and tall, and instead of a fur cap with white trim, adorned his head with a stern looking headdress that tapered to a point at front and back with a deep cleft between.
The store front display seemed particularly cruel to Virginia. Back when her daughter had been strong enough to get out of bed, she would stand before the window, wondering, delighted that Santa was so close, almost within reach. Mother and daughter would stand, hand in hand, trying to catch the cheerful notes of the toystore music over the noise of the traffic.
She held the cold body, the life she once had carried inside her own, delighting at every sensation of a kick or turning over. She held it until more than an hour went by. Virginia did not want them to cover the face, the sweet little face. All her daughter’s pain was gone, now. All her own pain would never end, now.
The doctor tried to say a few words to her, but there was nothing to say. Perhaps he wanted to rush Ginny to the morgue so he could go home to his family for Christmas. The unfairness of it sickened Virginia. A sensation of hot anger boiled in her throat, and tears dimmed her eyes. To get away from the man, she went to the visitor’s lounge, hoping to buy a hot coffee from the vending machine there. It was out of coffee, but there was hot chocolate. Ginny had loved hot chocolate: what child did not? Virginia did not have change, but borrowed some coins from an orderly, who had a kind face, and looked at her sympathetically.
Virginia’s anger was too great. She had the impulse to throw the hot chocolate into the orderly’s face. Virginia, to escape any more sympathy, stepped outside the glass doors leading to the emergency entrance. She did not bother going back for her coat; she merely shivered, enjoying the sting of the cold.
Out from her pocket she took her cellphone. Virginia remembered the salesman at the shop from over a year ago, back when she bought the phone. He had been very handsome and very young, and so she still remembered his face, and his breezy demeanor. He seemed too young for the job, and he had not known how to transfer phone numbers out of her old phone, or how to download a ringtone. But he had been was very charming, full of jokes. She remembered the salesman’s face like the face of a television actor: boyish, smooth, cheerful, full of sunny self-esteem. The salesman had been no older than eighteen.
That is how old Frank had been when they married, seven years ago, looking perfectly handsome with his crooked nose and long jaw and big ears in his splendid dress uniform. He and she had walked under the drawn swords of his fellow graduates on the wedding day. At eighteen, he was in charge of an APC, an armored vehicle that could level a town, wading rivers and crushing buildings, coating the rubble with napalm and trampling it flat beneath its treads. It was smaller than a tank, but Frank loved his squad and what they could do. He loved working with high explosives precisely because it required care and precision and knowing exactly what to do.
The salesman had told her that the phone could reach anywhere in the world instantly. Virginia flicked the speed dial for her husband’s number. There was no signal. Of course. He was in the forward operations theater. There were no phone calls allowed. Maybe the enemy could detect the signal. Maybe the commanding officers did not want the men distracted while their machines were trampling rubble.
He was not coming home for Christmas. Leaves had been cancelled. It was not even a real war against an enemy with a real name: they called it a police action, as if Frank and his men were beat cops stopping purse-snatchers in the park.
Virginia divided the world between pink and gray. Pink people were like the handsome cellphone salesman who had not known how to do his job, and had to stop and ask his manager all her questions. He was as pink as a bunny ear. The people of the pink world believed in themselves, and they lived nice lives, and they criticized other people for being less nice than they.
Grey people included men like Frank. Gray people were those who could repair the motor of a fire engine in motion, drive it through red lights to a burning house; they were the kind of people who ran inside the burning house to save a baby while civilians ran away; the kind who could put out a fire, saw lumber and rebuild a house, and paint it, while also sowing and reaping the field to bring in the harvest so that baby had enough to eat. Gray people did what had to be done because there was no one else around to do it. Frank was as gray as a gun barrel.
But even Frank and all his men and his fine armored carrier vehicle could not save the baby now, not this time. He was as pink and useless as that telephone salesman.
And she had no way to tell him the news. Merry Christmas! Your present this year is ….
Virginia threw the cup of hot chocolate into the snow, where it made a strange brown stain. The cup of warmth was gone. And the snow was falling, so soon even the stain would be covered over, and nothing to mark there had ever been a cup of hot chocolate there.
She looked across the street. The robot elves mocked her, with their hideous mechanical smiles of make-believe joy, their jerky motions.
Virginia crossed over to the store, looking for a rock or something to throw through the plate glass.
There was no traffic at all. Who would be out and about on Christmas Eve? Everyone was home snug in their beds, dreaming of sugarplums. The red and green streetlights glinted against the snow of the road, and glittered against the falling snow. Red and green were Christmas colors. She had never noticed that before.
The WALK sign chimed with the sound of bells, telling the nonexistent blind people on the snowy midnight street it was safe to cross.
Her fingers were numb, and her nose was running. The icy wind bit her. Why had she gone out without her coat? What did it matter whether she had her coat or not? What did it matter whether she lived or died? It was not as if the doctors could make anyone better, not when it really mattered.
Sticking out of a nearby trashcan, half buried in snow, was a hefty looking stick. It looked like the broken haft of a protestor’s sign, crumpled and tossed into the trash. Virginia was not sure who had been picketing the store or why. Someone protesting the commercialization of Christmas, perhaps; or someone protesting Christmas and demanding more commercialization. What did it matter? The signboard was wet and ripped in two, with only a few large angry letters visible, and many exclamation points.
She was not sure if the wooden stick that once held the protest sign was sturdy enough to break the plate glass window, but she took up the stick in both hands, held it over her shoulder, and stepped toward the Santa display.
“Batter up!” she said. Her voice sounded strange in her ears. The alarm telling the blind to cross the street had broken, and was ringing and ringing.
Virginia glared at the figure in the window on the throne. He really looked nothing like other storefront Santas. He was thin and stern, with a hard, craggy face. His shoulder length hair was white but flecked with black. His red robes were all wrong. They looked like something a Roman Senator would wear, and a rich one: An elbow-length cape, red as blood, richly decorated with crosses and trefoils, a second garment, green as emerald and worked with gold thread, reaching below the knee, and beneath that a long cassock falling to his jeweled slippers. Around his neck was a chain of office, with holly leaves dangling from the links, and a cross beneath. Who, these days, puts a cross in a Christmas display?
In his hand he held a shepherd’s staff whose spiral head was adorned all with gold. Obviously the store decorator had confused Santa with the Nativity display, and put one of the shepherd crooks into the wrong hands.
She hated Santa because he was pink. He was the epitome of the pink life, the nice promises of niceness, soft and weak and meaningless promises. He was the man who made grown ups lie to children.
She hated him because he had not come.
Her eyes were filling now with tears, blinding her. She blinked and blinked, rubbing her face in her elbow. The fabric of her sleeve was soaked through with snow.
When she opened her eyes again, Santa was gone.
There was the empty throne in the store display, surrounded by mechanical dolls in pointed hats and pointy shoes. But the tall figure was missing.
Virginia stood on tiptoes, peering through the glass. Had a clerk, working long after midnight, come by during the moment it took her to wipe her eyes, and removed the six foot tall manikin? It did not seem possible.
The ringing in the air continued. Virginia turned her head and looked down the street. She realized now that it was not the sound of the traffic light walk sign. It was a brighter, sharper sound, like the sound of bells one would hang on a sleigh to tell wanderers lost in the dark woods in the snow that someone was near.
At the same time a deeper, more solemn note sounded, and the echoes walked down the street, huge as ghosts. It was the bell from the steeple of the cathedral across the city park from the hospital. She could not see the steeple from here. Why was it ringing at this hour?
As she looked, not twelve feet from her, as if pulled open by an invisible doorman, the front door of the Department store opened.
Still clutching the stick, Virginia, step by step, approached the door. Silently it stood open. Perhaps it was an automatic door, and the electronic circuit had failed.
She crept still closer, suddenly frightened. What if there had been someone in the store, watching her? A night watchman or something? He had seen her about to break the window, and damage the display, and so he had removed the Santa manikin quickly. And now he was opening the door, in order to ….
But there was no one at the door. It merely stood open, and a few flakes of falling snow drifted in, onto the red carpet of the foyer.
Virginia shook her head. What did it matter? What did anything matter? The door had malfunctioned, and was open, and was letting the snow come it, and so she was supposed to go to close it up again, because there was no one else around to do it.
She walked closer. It was like an explosion, but entirely silent, when all the lights in the store came on. For a moment, she thought the store was on fire, it was so bright. Down the street, the churchbells rang and rang, a solemn noise of joy. The light was red and leaping, mingled with gold light and silver was from Christmas lights and artificial fireplaces and neon angels.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” Virginia said. “Someone in the store just turned on the lights, that’s all.”
A voice from the door answered.
The voice was deeper and more solemn than even the bell, and it echoed and reechoed in her ear.
“Come in, — come in! And know me better, child!”
Emotion raged up in her as if the blood of she-tigers boiled in her veins. Someone playing a trick on her? Now? Tonight, of all nights?
Virginia gripped the stick on one hand and stomped into the department store, her face slick with tears.
It felt warm in here, so very warm after the bitter chill outside. It was an old fashioned store, with décor that looked like something from the previous century: the aisles were carpeted in burgundy and red rather than with linoleum, and there was a staircase leading to the upper floor rather than an escalator, a stair like one might find in a Victorian mansion. One flight led to a large carpeted landing, and two flights led thence upward to the left and right.
The wooden counters and tall displays were covered with holly and with little bells, and chains of gold; and everywhere, thousands upon thousands, were candles burning.
The candles were on shelves, on banisters of the staircase as well as on the stairs, hanging on the branches of the pine trees, held in the hands of the manikins, and crowding the coping near the ceiling. They must have been scented candles, or else there was also incense burning near, because she felt the rich scent tickle the back of her throat.
Virginia noticed now that none of the candles had any wax dripping, none of them were half burnt, as if they had come out of the box just this second and been lit.
At the foot of the stair, for some reason, was a large wooden barrel, the bigness of a pickle barrel.
On the stairway was a feast spread, with plates and cups on each step, leaving only a narrow path between for the customers to walk. Here were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch. The meats steamed as if they just this moment had been carried out of roaring ovens by squads of cooks.
Wreathed about the banister of the stairs were ivy and holly and mistletoe all gleaming in the bright candle light. Vines of ivy ran across the stairs to the two huge Christmas trees which filled the landing. There were live birds in the trees, singing sweetly, unfrightened by the candles.
She tried to imagine how flocks of song birds could have been brought here in the small hours of the night from a nearby pet store, or loads of hot meat and cold fruit from restaurants and grocers. Virginian noticed that the trees blocked the way up the stairs.
Between the trees, on the landing, with his feet on the stairs, sat the thin and tall Santa in his thin and tall headgear. It looked like an arrowhead. She saw that the figure was also wearing a crown, a thin rim of gold just outside the brim the tall cap.
Virginia realized that the store decorator was insane. Who put a manikin in the middle of the stairs to block traffic, or trees, or vines? Who used live birds these days, or living candles?
She looked at the Santa manikin. She gave out a yelp of shock when the figure moved, raising his right hand, fingers toward her. It was alive!
“You have not seen the like of me before,” he said.
But she had. She recognized his headgear now: it was a miter, like a bishop might wear. The staff in his hand was a crosier. He raised his hand as if he expected her to approach and kiss his ring. It was such a simple and regal gesture, that it could not be something from the world she knew. It was from the Dark Ages, or earlier. It was an ancient gesture.
“I know you!” she said, her voice ringing with anger.
Gravely, the figure lowered his hand, saying nothing.
“I never liked you. It was Frank’s idea. He was the one who wanted to tell Ginny about Santa. He loved those stories about the jolly old elf and his magic sleigh!”
“Francis knows me. Do you know me?”
“Where is your pipe? You are supposed to be smoking a pipe!”
“I am older than the year when men first learned to put tobacco weed in pipes.”
Virginia raised her voice. “Do you know why I hate you? Gentle lies are even worse than lying lies, because they mean well. But they are false! False! No one ever comes on Christmas Eve. No one ever comes! No one ever answers any prayers! I wore my knees out! I cried my eyes out!”
He stood. “I am here now. Ginny called me. I came.”
“It is too late! She’s dead!” The word came out like a scream. “Why did God kill my child? My little baby? Can’t he save anybody? Doesn’t he listen?”
He pointed his crosier at the large wooden barrel at the foot of the stair. A sensation of dread came over her she could not explain. Her limbs began shaking.
“I am not going to look in there,” she said.
He continued to point.
She stepped over to the barrel, and put her hand on it. She could smell, very faintly, beneath the incense and the candlesmoke, the smell of blood, old blood.
She jerked her hand away. “I don’t need to look.”
But the lid of the barrel flew up. She grabbed it with her hand and forced it down, but not before she had seen three small and drab-white faces, their throats slit from ear to ear, brown bloodstains like bibs spread on their chests, their dead mouths open, their dead eyes staring, all surrounded with a stench.
He said, “Abim, Antonius, and, Alimus were three children were traveling on their way to Athens to study, carrying money their father had given them. In those days the Emperor Diocletian was strong and feared, and it was thought that even children carrying gold abroad were safe to travel. That thought was vain. These three stayed at the inn of a wicked innkeeper, who slew them foully by night, and hid them in a pickling tub. It so happened that my servants and I traveled the same route that night, and in my dream, I saw the murders and heard the screams. I woke and summoned the innkeeper, demanding of him the very truth. In fear upon his knees he begged for mercy. Upon my knees I prayed earnestly to the Lord Our God, and the next day, the children were revived to life and wholeness. They appeared at the chapel, still smelling of the pickle brine, and they went their way, praising God and singing His glory. The innkeeper was baptized that Eastertide.”
She lifted the barrel lid. The barrel was now empty, and a sweet smell, sweeter than the first wind of spring from a high mountain, issued from it.
Virginia slammed the lid back down. “You are Santa Claus. You sneak down chimneys and give presents away and eat cookies, you and your red-nosed reindeer. What are you doing with murdered children? What kind of story is that?”
“I am Nicholas of Myra, Bishop of the One, True, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church. Children and those who dare the dangers of the sea are in my special care and special love. Under Diocletian, torment I suffered, fulfilling what Christ left for me on the Cross; and was in bonds, and held in a house of darkness many months, and by my prayer brought my jailer, Simeon, to baptism. With the coming of Constantine, Imperator, I was set at liberty, and all the Holy Church was freed. At the Great Council of Nicaea where all the world was gathered, I smote the heresiarch Arius on the mouth for his impudent blasphemy, and earned the reprimand of the Imperator, to whom I owed obedience and love. When the Sultan stole a child of a man who much honored and revered me, I sent my shade to gather the boy up and return him in a twinkling, in the blink of an eye, from across the sea. Nothing is done by my own power, but by the grace of God which the merit of Christ has won for us, we fallen sons of Adam.”
Virginia looked left and right, as if seeking something to turn her gaze away from the impossible figure seated regally on the stairs above her. “What are all these candles doing here? It is a fire hazard. Why aren’t they being consumed?”
“The power which Moses saw in the burning bush sent up a sweet smoke to heaven, and yet was not consumed. That power has not ebbed since that day, since it is eternal. Do not wonder that these candlefires never diminish, for they are the prayers of the saints, and all of them pray for you. And there are many more you do not see, numberless as stars, for the world is not large enough not even if every drop of water in the sea were turned to flame, to show how many prayers are said for your soul.”
“This is a dream. I fell asleep in the waiting room.”
“No. But Earth is dream against the abundant life beyond life. You think we departed dead sleep in the ground. It is you who sleep. When you wake, your child shall live.”
Virginia said nothing, but scowled.
The bishop tilted his head, and frowned, and said. “Nothing is taken from an unwilling giver. Nothing is given to an unwilling taker, not even life eternal. The Father has too much love for you than that. He will not overthrow your liberty, because we are like Him in this.”
Virginia said, “How can I forgive you for not answering a little girl’s prayers?”
“They are answered. Here am I.”
“And what of all the other children in the world?”
“But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lazarus yet also died for all that he had been raised, when he was old and stricken in years, and likewise Dorcas, and likewise Eutychus, and likewise the widow of Nain’s son.”
“Are you going to grant me a miracle? What about those who pray and get no answer! Why did you wait? Why did this happen in the first place? What of this — look at what you have put me through!” These last words were shouted, and then she broke down and began to cry.
He rose and came down the stairs at a run, so swift it seemed as if he were falling, and not a platter nor cup of all the feast of food and drink along the stairs was disturbed. Perhaps his feet did not touch the steps at all.
Then he was next to her.
“Your daughter will live,” he said. And he put out his hand as if to embrace her.
She shoved him away. “At the Last Judgment! On the world’s last day. Is that what you mean? When I wake from this dream called life.”
“When you wake from the sin called death.”
“But that is not good enough! Even if this is a nightmare, why does a good God allow it? Why do children die? Why do the innocent suffer? Why does anyone die? Why can’t God fix it?”
“It is done. It is fixed. He makes all things new.”
“My little girl is in the morgue! All her hair fell out! Frank does not even know yet! All this suffering! The pain she went through — and I could do nothing!”
“Fast, pray, give alms.”
“My prayers were not answered! It is too late now! You cannot make the suffering Ginny suffered into something that never happened! Not even God can do that! Oh, and sometimes she was so brave. That was almost worse than when she sat and cried why and why, and wondered if it was her fault. You are such a liar! All of you! Why do you want kids to believe in Santa Claus?”
“Let them believe what is so because it is so. Saint Nicholas is real; I am he.”
“That is not what I meant.”
“Let the children practice their belief in a generous and jovial saint, if their minds are to be trained to the greater belief in a more generous and more joyful sovereign, one whose generosity and joy cannot be believed and cannot be measured. There are no words of men for the joys.”
“Why is there pain in the world? If I could bring God here, and find a judge to judge between us, and force him to answer — then I could punish him for all this pain!”
He raised his hand. “Touch the hem of my robe. Come, and see.”
Immediately they stood upon a gray desert where never water had been, and the sky above was black as pitch, and the sun an intolerable shriek of light. Craters, as if all the guns of all the wars of man had torn this land into leprosy, craters small and large were, in her view, all the way to the horizon, which was oddly near.
In the sky was a blue crescent.
“This is the Earth’s moon.” He pointed. In the middle distance was a tower. It was five-sided and rose to sharp point, and a row of small round windows ran down its length. “That tower was not builded by man, but by those who dwelled here in eons past. No astronaut of Earth, no astronomer, has yet seen this tower. Do you know who built it and why?”
She said, “How could I know that?”
The sky changed. Now they fell through endless space, and before them like a plate of jewels was galaxy seen face on, mighty spiral arms of light reaching through the universe. To one side was another galaxy, seen edge-on, and beyond it a third, but this third was an irregular galaxy, and streams of stars, thin and wandering like vapors of mist, reached from one to the next.
He said, “Here are three galaxies, each one ten times the size of your Milky Way or more, that recently suffered collision. Countless solar systems, each one containing one or two or five stars, most stars much larger than your own, and each solar system holding scores of habitable planets, or hundreds, was thrown into confusion for millions of your years as all the stars were disturbed in their orbits around their galactic cores. It is a disaster beyond all reckoning of any natural disaster, whirlwind or flood or hurricane your small world could ever know. Why was this permitted to happen?”
Before she could answer, the scene again changed, and now she saw the galaxies as small as tiny stars, gathered into crowds and swarms, and these swarms formed bands or belts of bright cloud reaching far to her left and right.
“Those three galaxies are part of an Abel cluster that makes up a macroscopic structure called the Great Wall. This wall is a collection of superclusters extending for one twentieth part of the length of the entire observable universe. It is a billion lightyears from Earth, and over a billion lightyears long. Why was it made? What purpose does it serve?”
Virginia said in a frightened voice, “No human being could know such a thing. It’s impossible to know.”
Suddenly they were standing in midair a mile above the sea. Storm clouds were gathered, and rain lashed the waves. The sun was low against the horizon, but whether it was the dawn or dusk she did not know. Below them was a fleet of sailing ships with slanted sails. A great whirlpool of froth reached from one horizon to the other. The waves were taller than mountains, thousands of feet of water rearing up, and as the great waves strode across the sea, the fleets of ships were flung up and thrown down, and many were capsized. A bulk as large as a continent rose up from the deep, and torrents sluiced from its horns and bony back. Seaweed and coral bed grew in the silt collected between the plates of its shell. The whole body beneath the shell was so large that all the ships were taken up upon it, and grounded and wrecked. As its limbs writhed, hills and mountains formed in the flesh, and rivers greater than the Mississippi were gathered in the crevasses of its wrinkles. In the far distance, above the storm clouds, there was a yellow orb like a full moon rising, but there was also a second next to it, equal in size to the first. In the flash of lighting created by the atmospheric friction of its neck, Virginia saw that these two moons were eyes within a vast reptilian face which bulked too large for her vision to hold.
It opened its mouth, and there was a hurricane of cloud between the upper and the nether jaws; and there was a thing like a sun in its throat and lights like the lights of lamps, and sparks of fire, issuing from the jaws and nostrils.
“Behold the one creature of all created things which fears no created thing else. Upon the earth there is not his like, who is made without fear. He beholds all high things with a firm heart. He is a king of all the children of pride. Can you put a hook through his nose, and draw him up to the surface? Can you play with him as with a songbird? Do you know who can?”
Virginian felt her sanity about to melt, and she put her fist in her mouth and bit her knuckle so that she would not scream and attract the monster’s attention.
Saint Nicholas said, “Fear not. This is a shadow of things to come. In your day, even your deepest submarine vessels have not yet discovered him. He cannot survive in the lesser pressures above the ocean’s most deep abyss. There hath he lain for ages and will lie, battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep, until the latter fire shall heat the deep; then once by men and angels to be seen. In roaring he shall rise — and on the surface die.”
The vastness threw back its hideous head, and at its roar the sun in its throat erupted into nova and spread across the sky.
Then they stood on the rocks and sand of a hilltop in the blazing heat of the tropical day. Below them were the brown squares of houses made of brick and clay of a walled city, from which a great smell of offal and sewerage rose. From every house and tower smoke trickled up, but from small holes or tents on the flat roofs, not from chimneys.
Virginia, her ears still ringing from the roar of the dying sea monster, thought she was deaf at first. But no, there was the sound of a celebration. Cheers and calls, like a crowd gathered for a football game.
Up the hill into view came a group moving slowly. In the front marched bored soldiers in bright helmets and leather coats, carrying octagonal shields and vicious-looking spears that were a yard of iron topping a yard of wood. Behind, garbed in rags or tunics or long, shapeless garments, came the jubilant crowd.
“What are they celebrating?” She took a deep breath, and smelled the smell of blood. “What is this place?”
“These are shadows of things past. It is called the Place of the Skull. Golgotha. Not far from here, on that peak yonder, Abraham was told to sacrifice his only true born son Isaac, and the archangel Tzadkiel stopped his hand.”
A man came into view with a heavy beam of wood across his shoulders, bent almost in two by the load. The man had been in some sort of accident, because his flesh was torn and dripping with many long parallel wounds scraping across his bruised and bleeding back, his chest and torso, his arms and legs. This man should have been on a stretcher, being rushed by ambulance to an emergency room. His face was a swollen mass of bruises and cuts, his whole face merely a lump that seemed hardly human. A second man was helping him carry the heavy wooden bar. When the wounded man stumbled and fell, the crowd cheered again, whooping, and children threw stones or horse turds, of which there were many along the road. A young woman pressed forward, and wiped the man’s face with a cloth, and helped him to his feet, before one of the bored soldiers, without looking up, struck her in the head with the butt of his spear.
Then a voice called out in fear. The crowd stopped laughing and calling. A woman no longer young in a plain white homespun robe stood on the rocky path, waiting for the crowd to approach. Those in the front of the crowd, as if they knew her, slowed and stopped, and the whole mob hesitated.
Even the soldiers stopped. The old woman stepped forward and put her face to the face of the condemned man. What she said, or what he said back, of even if they spoke at all, Virginia could not hear.
Virginia said, “Who is that woman?”
Saint Nicholas said, “Weep for her, for her loss is as yours. She too loses a child. She is the mother of that condemned man.”
“And who is he?”
“He is the one you wanted to see punished. That bar across his shoulders is the cross bar of his death. From it, he will hang naked on a tree for three hours and more, his arms and legs pierced through with spikes, and each breath be agony. The method of death causes strangulation by the failure of the chest muscles because all the weight is on the arms, which are pulled out of their sockets. The pressure on the ribcage makes breathing impossible. By straightening his legs to put his weight on the nail through his lower limbs, the condemned man can ease the pressure on his chest and draw breath, prolonging his own agony. Thus he is forced to make himself suffer more. Sometimes the condemned can gather enough breath to beg the soldiers to break their legs, so that the strangulation is swift and death is quick. Why do you turn your eyes away? This is he whom you blame. You wanted a judge between him and you to make your accusations. But the judge in this case has washed his hands, and the son of man will make no answer to your accusation, but go mildly to his death.”
“Why are they mocking him? His mother is right there! She knows he has done no wrong! He has done no wrong!”
“And yet this is He. He can put a hook through the nose of the beast of the sea and draw it to the surface, or put fear into the fearless monster heart.”
“Why? Why so much suffering?”
“Because the monster is not a beast, but an angel of the highest order, the brightest before he fell. He has no name in heaven, but he is very great, and this is the day of victory over him. And that is the man who defeats him. Behold the man.”
The beaten man fell for the third time. A low mutter of laughter started at one side of the mob and rippled to the other, as someone repeated a joke or witticism. The mob crowded forward now, and the old woman was lost to view, hidden in the shouting multitude.
Virginia could not stand the sight or the smells. She closed her eyes. “Spirit, or Saint, or Santa, or whatever you are. Take me home. I can see no more.”
Then it was cold. Her feet were on a hard floor. She could tell from the echoes of her breathing that she was in a close, windowless room. The smell of disinfectants and death was in her nose. She knew before opening her eyes where she was.
Virginia looked. she was the morgue. Beneath a low ceiling, lit only with a few dim and dusty neon tubes, was row upon row of metal plates set in the concrete wall. These were drawers.
One was open. The sheet had been turned down. There Ginny lay. She looked asleep. That was the cruelest thing about it. She just looked like she was sleeping.
Nicholas was still there. “Have you any more to say?”
She shook her head. “I have questions, but not — I am not angry. But I do not understand why all this happened to me. Or to him. Why was it needed?”
“The enemy is terrible, and there is no other way to defeat him. Man is lost, and there is no other path back to paradise.”
“Why did my daughter suffer?”
“For you. Out of love for you.”
“What? What does that mean?”
Nicholas said, “I am come in answer to her prayers, and with the news that she is granted more than she asked. She wanted to see me, Saint Nicholas. Instead, she now, right now, is in the presence of all the saints, myself and many of greater stature, and she is with the blessed Mother, and she is holding the Our Lord as an infant in her arms, as she — and many others — always secretly wish to do. (Do not ask how he can be a babe, when he is also bread and wine.) There is no sun and no moon in the place where she now dances, but the light of the perfect source of all being, the perfect love, which is beyond words. That joy enters her soul now, and she returns to this valley of mourning and weeping, to suffer many more pains and sorrows, and, when she is old and gray, and war and famine come, she will suffer losses, one upon another, which, had she not seen that light, she could not endure. She will forget all but the smallest sluver of all she now in fulness sees when she wakes, but that remembered sliver will be enough to sustain her in the dark years ahead.”
“And my prayers? Why where they not answered before all my pain?”
“Because you receive more than you think to ask.”
“What does that mean?”
“To a woman of faith, a saint can answer any question without answering, because she trusts in the Lord. To a woman of no faith, no answer is an answer, since it merely leads to more doubt, more perplexity, more desire to cross examine God. There is no cross examination of Him. You are at the bar, not He. Why do you scoff at Santa Claus? Here am I — I stand before you, Nicholas of Myra, a saint of the Lord and His servant. You call me a lie. Why?”
“Because you are not real.”
“No, woman. Because you are not real. You cannot pretend, even in play, to believe in a sweet dream like Santa Claus, who brings sweets to children, because you do not believe in sober truth in Saint Nicholas, or in the Lord I serve, who brings you the bread of heaven and the precious blood, that you may have sweet life, and life more abundantly.”
“It was Frank’s idea to tell Ginny that Santa was real.”
“And it was the idea of Francis, when you were married, that the two of you should be of one faith. Yet where is your faith? You see me, and still you do not believe. So why do you ask why we do not show ourselves to men for you to see? Those who know the saints do not need to see us to see our actions in their lives. I am come also because of the prayer of Francis.”
“My husband? He does not even know Ginny fell sick. I have not spoken to him for a year. Since last Christmas, in fact. What did he pray for?”
“For you. Do you know why Abim, Antonius, and Alimus died?”
“Who? Oh. The children in the pickle barrel. No. Why did they die?”
“To save the innkeeper, their murderer. I told you his fate. He was immersed in the water that drowns earthly life. The children died to save him. Your daughter died to save you. Now you shall live again, and so shall she.”
Nicholas turned away, and bent over Ginny. He took a small pot of oil from beneath his robe, and anointed her, saying “Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed by sight, by hearing, smell, taste, touch, walking…”
Music came into the room. Virginia jumped, she was so startled. Then she recognized it as the special ringtone set aside for only one number.
It was Frank.
Virginia held the phone to her ear with trembling hands. His voice was small and tinny and wonderful. “Honey! Great news. I’ll be home tomorrow. Or, actually, later today. I’ll be in time to see the tree. Don’t start unwrapping presents without me.”
She took a deep breath. Ginny had not opened her eyes yet. Could she be sure of a miracle, now? “I have good news too, Honey. Ginny was very sick, but she’s better now. She’s all better. This is the best Christmas ever.”
Saint Nicholas spread his hands wide, and the morgue melted like a dream. They were back in Ginny’s bedroom. Virginia had not put up any decorations that year, and her house had no colored lights on, but now there was a young pine tree in the room that had not been there before, and on its highest bough a silver candle that burned and had no wax dripping. And there were dozens of candles on every surface, on the dresser and on the window sill. The candles were the prayers of the saints.
Nicholas smiled, and said, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.”
He was gone.
Ginny opened her eyes. “Mom? I crossed a bridge made of light and held the baby Jesus. And I dreamed I saw Santa.”
“It was no dream, baby. I told you that you could stay up and see him, but just this once, and…”
And then it was all tears and laughter.