By Duncan Molloy
The old man rubbed the back of his head and checked the clock. They were running slightly behind. It didn’t matter. He had a good team here, they could make up the time. He’d take a shorter break, it didn’t matter. He had a promise to keep.
He walked through the stables, checking everything as he went. The animals grunted, snorted their nostrils. They were tired, their muscles strained. It was halfway through the rounds, they were working hard. He gave each one a quick rub and whispered encouragement into their ear. The newest he took special care of, scratched him under the ear, made sure he knew he was appreciated. Taking them by their reigns, he gently brought them with him.
He moved on, past the workshops, carefully down the well crunched path in the snow towards the room that housed the great machine. It was a huge thing of copper and bronze, an elegy in clockwork and cut glass. His was an old tradition, started long, long ago. He would remind people to love one another, to smile and to share, even in the darkest days of the year, by looking after the youngest among them. It was a harsh, and often cruel world. People needed a reminder that they could make it better. And so, the best men and women of his day had come together to create the machine. Two among them would dedicate their lives to its use, the rest to its upkeep. They would bend time, repeating the darkest day of the year over and over, to get the chance to visit every home, every single one, to spread their message. One had a message of love and hope, the other one of fear. The good would be rewarded, the bad severely punished.
That first year was harrowing. Who could have known there were so many homes in the world, so many faces to be rewarded, so many children showered with love. So many terrified by Krampus, his accomplice, shuddering in their parent’s arms. Over the years Krampus grew more and more monstrous, began to take too much pleasure in his work. Before long the bad children would start to disappear. Was this what they had worked so hard for? Was it for this that he gave over so much of his life to the great machine? Clearly another sacrifice had to be made.
The old man ran his hands along the cogs of the machine as he reminisced. Things has changed over the years. The machine wasn’t perfectly calibrated, so they were out by a day or two, but no matter. There was still a darkest time of year. There were still children to love. A great many more children than before, true, but each deserved his attention. He looked to his assistants. The cogs began to turn. The bronze began to spin. With a hitch of his belt and a pull at the animals, the man stepped into the machine. And stepped out. And stepped out. And stepped out.
Three hundred and sixty four times he stepped out, and every time it was a new day for him. Every time it was the same day for everyone else. The assistants were ready with that day’s zone and list of names and off he would fly.
He had known that theirs was too big an idea to let die; that it would be passed down from generation to generation, that word of mouth and passage of time could be a destructive force, as ideas become distorted and corrupted. His people would need a guiding hand, just as they provided one for the world at large. They would need first hand experience. And so he proposed to them his idea. They were shocked at first, appalled. Most of them understood. Some of them cried, protested. There was a woman…
Everyone agreed, whether or not they were happy about it. He made a promise. He would give up the rest of his days, living only on this one day a year. He would now live for several thousand years, rather than several thousand days. The families of the group would tend the system, assisting his task from generation to generation. The machine was expanded. The decision was made. Two of them would carry on.
He saw the child’s chest rise and fall as he slept and smiled. The beast Krampus had lived long enough, he was glad it was a thing of the past. Children were for caring for; for guiding, and teaching, not condemning for their sins. Finally, gloriously, quietly, he returned home, his task completed.
There was a hiss in the air that rose above the howl of the wind, like the rustle of ten thousand pages, like the creaking of a score of ships, like the return of three hundred and sixty four sleds. Teams gathered, taking sleds, providing encouragement. He guided his deer back into the machine as it spun. Just the once, they stepped out. He thanked the deer individually, and rubbed them down, before handing them off. Stepping back into the snow he returned, past the workshops, through the stables, to his home. He found his usual chair and sagged, exhausted. The smell of food wafted in from the kitchen, warming him more than the fire could. His wife looked through the doorway and smiled at him.
There had been an arrangement. The best of their day would construct a machine to care for humanity. The best of them, would sacrifice his days to care for their idea. And another would sacrifice her days to care for him. The decision was made. Two of them would carry on. And so, for one day, on Christmas day, the old man rested. There would be another year soon.