As I looked around at the jammed aisles full of determined shoppers, human and otherwise, I wondered what could have possessed me to sally forth the day after Thanksgiving to try and buy gifts for my nearest and dearest. And Scratch. The Fly Market, the largest open-air bazaar in Golgotham, was a buzzing honeycomb of cross-species commerce even on the best of days. But during the holiday season? Fugeddabouttit. With special emphasis on the ‘fug’.
“Excuse me, please—excuse me? Sorry—oof!” I grunted as I struggled through the tightly packed crowd like a salmon fighting its way upstream. Not only was the Fly Market packed with Kymerans out looking for Yule presents, but humans eager to score magical gifts for Christmas. As for me, I had my eye on a kiosk that sold charmed teddy bears that danced on command for my son, Tymm. But just as I reached my destination, the shopper next to me—a Kymeran woman with an aquamarine beehive hair-do—drove her elbow into my ribs and shot forward to snatch up the last available toy.
I was tempted to let loose with a string of invective, but held my tongue in case she decided to return the favor. Being cursed at by a Golgothamite is more than a string of dirty words, and the last thing I needed was to find myself cross-eyed or turned into a toad. Honestly, who has time for that during the holidays?
My luck was no better when it came to trying to snag presents for the rest of my gift list. No matter where I turned, I always seemed to be thirty seconds too late. I just didn’t have what it takes to claw my way over old ladies and small children to snatch the perfect gift from the grasping claws of my fellow shoppers. While everyone else seemed to be finding the right present at the perfect price, I was being confronted by shortages, outages, and prices that put me in sticker shock. Instead of finding the ideal present that made the perfect statement of how much I valued and appreciated the person I purchased it for, I ended up burdened with prettily wrapped gifts that said nothing more than: “I bought you something.”
When I finally had enough of being jostled and my toes trod upon, I retired to the plaza outside the Fly Market, where an orchard of Yule trees decorated the square. I found a bench amidst the grove of ornamented evergreens and collapsed onto it with a weary groan, setting my purchases about my aching feet. I may be the consort to the Heir Apparent to the Throne of Arum, but at that exact moment I looked like a bag lady, and felt like one too.
As I sat there, contemplating my less-than-ideal gifts for the most important people in my life, a shadow fell across me and a deep, pleasantly masculine voice asked: “Do you mind if I sit down?”
I looked up to find a very large man, nearly seven feet tall, with a curly fox-red beard and a matching shaggy mane that covered his broad shoulders, standing before me. He was dressed in a long, forest-green robe made of velvet, trimmed at the cuffs, throat and hem with white fur. On his brow sat a holly wreath into which candles had been woven that burned but did not seem to melt. In one huge hand he held a wassail goblet and in the other a length of rope tied to the belled collar of a goat with horns wrapped in red ribbons.
“No, I don’t mind,” I replied, gesturing to the empty side of the bench.
“You are most kind, young lady,” the red-bearded giant smiled. “I promise I will not let Puck nibble on your presents.” With that he sat down beside me, the goat kneeling at his feet like an obedient dog.
“Cool costume,” I said, eyeing his outfit. “Are you like the Santa Claus here?”
“You could say that,” he smiled.
“Listening to kids tell you what they want for Christmas—excuse me, Yule—must be exhausting.” As I spoke I glanced at him again from the corner of my eye. Although I could not place his face or voice, I had the nagging suspicion I had seen him somewhere before. “I don’t mean to be rude, mister, but–do I know you?”
“All in this world know me, Tate,” the bearded man smiled, “though they call me by many names.”
As I looked into his evergreen eyes I saw them twinkle like stars atop a Christmas tree and suddenly realized what sat beside me was not a Kymeran version of a dime store Santa. “Sooo, you’re a Christmas ghost?” I managed to squeak.
“No, my child,” he chuckled. “A ghost is a shadow of a mortal being. I am a spirit. I was never born and never died, as your kind knows these words. I dwell in the hearts, minds and eyes of those who would host me. And only they in whom I dwell can see me.”
“You mean everyone else walking around here thinks I’m talking to myself?”
“No—just the ones who are strangers to me,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You see, I exist in all things that make a place for me, but it is at this time of year that I am at my strongest. It is during Yuletide that I manifest and go out into the mortal world, so that others might know me, and to renew the bonds with those in danger of forgetting me—for it is very easy to do so nowadays. There are so many distractions, and those who would take what is pure and true and pervert it for their own benefit. I am in many places, at many times. But I am not here,” the spirit said, pointing to the shopping bags gathered at my feet. “Nor am I in there,” he continued, gesturing to the swarming porticos of the Fly Market. “I hope that helps you understand what the perfect gift truly is.”
“Yes,” I nodded. “It does.”
“Good,” the Yuletide spirit sighed as he stood back up. “Come along, Puck,” he said, giving the rope a gentle tug. The beribboned billy-goat got to its cloven feet, its collar jingling merrily as it clattered behind its master. “Our time here is short, and we still have places to go and people to see.” And with that the giant set off across the plaza, headed in the general direction of Wall Street, ignored on all sides by shoppers hot on the trail of bargains.
“Just what I wanted!” Hexe exclaimed as he unwrapped the burnished copper cauldron I’d made for him. “How did you guess?”
“A little catbird told me,” I replied, glancing at his familiar, Scratch, who was watching our son, Tymm, scoot across the floor in a cardboard box with a mixture of bafflement and contempt on his wrinkled, hairless face.
“Heiress to billions, and that’s all you give your first born son and heir to the Kymeran throne for Yule?” the winged cat sniffed.
You’re overlooking the play set I built for him in the back yard.”
“I still say you’re a cheapskate.”
“Well, if that’s how you feel about it,” I countered, “then I’ll just take back the present I got for you…”
“Don’t you dare!” the familiar squalled as I bent to pick up a gaily wrapped package sitting underneath the tree.
“Merry Christmas, Scratch,” I laughed. “And a happy Yule.” The familiar pounced on the gift and tore into the wrapping paper, revealing a calf’s head with a red bow tied about its tongue. “So—do I need to take it back to the butcher shop?”
“You did good, nump,” Scratch said, licking his chops. “Sometimes you surprise me.”
“He’s not the only one,” Hexe said, slipping an arm around my waist. “The swing set for Tymm, my cauldron, that astrolabe you fabricated for my mother… You really outdid yourself this season, Tate.”
“It’s like a friend of mine told me,” I said, as I rested my head on his shoulder and watched the colored lights twinkle on the tree. “The best presents don’t come in a box from a store—they come from the heart.”
“And the butcher shop,” Scratch added.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Dedicated to the memory of Del Close (1934-1999)