It needed not be much of a breeze to cut through the heavy winter jacket I was wearing. A sharp breeze came up between the trees as I approached the edge of the clearing. It made up my mind the breeze was worse. Much worse.
The tracks of a dozen or more winter animals greeted me when I reached the tree line. To my right, I saw the remains of a trail leading into the woods, but what was to my left got my full attention. The signpost with three old pine boards nailed to the top of it caught my attention first. Plowing the knee-deep snow, I got close enough to read the names hand-painted on the boards. They were difficult to make out, but I thought the top one said “Armrest” and the middle one said “Devon” or something like it. I couldn’t read the bottom one at all. The names weren’t familiar to me, and judging by rot on the post, the faded paint, and wind-worn edges of the boards, I figured that they had been here for more years than I’d been alive. I made a note of the names and the directions they pointed.
Looking around, I spied the old log cabin. More knee-plowing through the deep snow allowed me to reach the cabin, which appeared to be as old as the signpost. Leaning against the old logs, I took a little shelter from the breeze that had picked up. The door placed on the side was protected from the wind, and the snowdrift was manageable.
Pushing through, I got to the door. Leaning on the solid planks, I pushed as hard as I could. The door gave way easily, to my surprise. Slipping inside, I wasted no time in closing the door behind me.
Leaning against the door, I let my breathing slow down and felt my pulse start to steady. I closed my eyes and tried to fight the cold gnawing at my bones. Even in the heaviest snow pants and the boots, and several layers of sweaters and an extra coat under my outer winter coat, I remained chilled to the bone. Shivering, I managed to remove my gloves. My hands were cold and stiff despite being covered by thick wool and leather. I rubbed my hands together while I looked around the sparsely furnished cabin—the table near the fireplace was rickety and the chair was worn and wobbly. I sat down anyway. The sound of the wood protesting as I gently lowered my weight into it echoed in the small room. I leaned back and closed my eyes. Sleep came.
I hadn’t planned on falling asleep, but this was the first time I’d been out of the cold and wind in several days. Waking up sometime later, I realized I wasn’t cold. I was warm, almost hot. Looking around, I gasped, startled to see the gentle orange glow of a fire in the fireplace. Nothing else had changed since I drifted off to sleep, but the cabin was now brighter and warmer. The fire had been going for some time to warm up the old logs and take the winter chill off the small room.
The cheerful voice came from out of my range of vision. Turning my head, I straightened up in the chair, which miraculously had not collapsed under my weight. As I sat upright, I realized for the first time my fingers and toes didn’t hurt anymore—now warm pink flesh came out of my jacket sleeves.
Taking my eyes off the fire, I looked around more closely, taking stock of the cabin in the light of the roaring fire, logs popping as sparks flew. The walls were solid logs hewed together, packed with mud that had dried solidly like concrete. A long wall held several windows boarded up from the inside, and a bed sat along the short wall near the fireplace. The source of the voice came from the bed.
His long silver beard made it impossible to guess his age. The flicker of flames and shadows made his beard seem almost alive. He shifted around and sat upright, then rose from the bed. I could tell he was short and maybe fat. It was hard to tell how big he was with the heavy clothes he wore.
“Coffee?” the bearded man asked, and he reached for the pot that hung near the fireplace on a makeshift rack. All I could do was slightly nod yes.
“Don’t get much company out here these days. Especially this time of year.”
He handed me an old mug with a chipped rim and a cracked handle. I took it with both hands. The warmth of the coffee seeped through the mug into my fingers.
The smell of fresh coffee helped to thaw the cobwebs in my brain and awaken the rest of my senses.
I lightly blew over the top of the mug, watching the surface of the coffee ripple with the slight movement of air. I watched it for a second as I still had no idea what to say.
“Thank you,” were the only words that came out of my mouth. I didn’t remember saying them, but they reminded me of how my voice sounded.
It had been that long since I’d seen another person, much less talked to them.
I continued to use the cooling coffee as an excuse not to speak while I considered what to say.
He spoke first. “You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure. I haven’t had company here in reindeer’s years.”
I looked up at him sharply. “Reindeer years?”
“Oh, I forgot you’re not from around here. We use the term reindeer instead of donkey’s years. It’s a local thing.”
I knew there was more to it than that. But I didn’t question it anymore. I got the point. The coffee had cooled down enough, so I took a sip.
“How is it? I haven’t made much in a long time.” He had a mug and sat again on the edge of the bed where he’d been sleeping.
Taking a second sip, I confirmed with a nodded yes, as it was good. Indeed, it was, but at the moment, I wasn’t sure if it was the coffee or the fact it was warm that I liked so much. At this point, it didn’t matter. As it cooled down, I drank more.
Feeling the warmth of the liquid working its way down my throat into my stomach made me instantly feel warmer—and relaxed. We drank in silence.
Startled, I looked up from my mug. I suppose the look on my face told him I was indeed hungry. He rose and wandered over to the small cupboard that sat in the far corner of the room, out of my immediate view. Turning in my chair, I watched as he opened the cupboard and retrieved several boxes from the top shelf. Laying them on the table, he took a large knife from a drawer, cut open a box, and handed me a thick slice of bread.
I took it and bit off a corner. It was delicious. Chewing the thick, coarse bread, I realized I was beginning to feel less hungry. By the time I had half-eaten the slice, I was starting to feel full.
The old man returned to sit on the edge of the bed, shifting a bit and passing his mug back and forth between his hands. He glanced at me several times.
“Robert…” he spoke quietly. Then slipped off the bed and tossed a large log he retrieved from a pile next to the hearth onto the fire. We watched for a minute as it snapped and cracked as the fire sought new fuel. The room lit up more as the flames eagerly found their way around the bottom edges of the new wood.
I looked at him carefully in the bright light of the renewed fire. He did seem to look familiar—not familiar like a person I knew but like a picture that I’d seen. The long beard and an almost bald head that shined in the light of the fire seemed so familiar. It began to dawn on me that the clothes he was wearing were mostly red.
NO. It can’t be.
I must have said that out loud as he turned to face me.
“Yes, Robert. I am Santa Claus or St. Nick as some call me in other countries, and I am old—very old and tired. It’s time for me to pass the mantle of Santa Claus to a new generation.”
“But you’re not real. It’s a myth made up to explain to little kids where presents under the tree come from on Christmas morning.”
“Yes, in some counties, I’m not real. But in some places and the hearts of the world, I’m very real.” He sat on the edge of the bed. Watching him more closely, I could tell he was tired.
“Robert, the year you were born, your parents had no money to buy presents for you, but they were happy. They had you. Do you remember your tenth Christmas?”
No one remembers their tenth Christmas. No one remembers that. Closing my eyes, I tried to remember that far back, but only fragments of scenes came back. Not enough to clearly remember anything. I shook my head.
“I didn’t expect you would. What’s the first Christmas you remember clearly?”
“I don’t know, maybe sixteen or seventeen, probably not even sure about that.”
He nodded. “Okay, try this. Do you remember the year you got your first car?”
I nodded. “Yes, it was a Christmas present from my folks.” Now that he mentioned it, I did remember it had been a surprise. I’d been saving for an entire year to get a car but never had quite enough. They had surprised me with the car I’d been saving to buy. They never would say how they managed it, only handed me the keys. To this day, I didn’t know how they had gotten it for me. I knew they barely had two bits to rub together.
“I’ve always wondered how they managed to get that car for me. They never would tell me.” I sat up in my chair and looked at him more closely. “They’re both passed now.”
“Yes, yes they are.”
“Robert, they both did extra jobs at their factories. They worked extra hours and even did private work to get the money for your car. They knew how much you needed that car and how important it was to you and them. Because you had the car, you were able to help them.”
The next few years came back to me. It was true. I had been able to help them, take them places, and get the things they needed because I had the car. As they got sicker, I had done more. I realized I couldn’t have done any of it if I hadn’t had that old wreck of a car. The fire cracked loudly again, bringing me back to the present.
“Robert. It’s your time.”
“My time?” I stood up and walked around the small cabin, stretching my legs, trying to think of what to say next.
“I don’t know. You were chosen as I was.”
“Chosen?” I stood in the middle of the room, looking at an old, tired man. I pulled my chair closer to him and sat facing him. Again, the chair protested at my additional weight, but I ignored it.
"Okay, say I believe in all this. How does it work?” Looking into his eyes, I leaned closer to him. That close, I could see the toll the years had taken.
He handed me a bag he retrieved from behind the bed.
“Tonight, you come with me. I will show you how I make the world a slightly better place. This is my last year. I can’t do it anymore.”
He handed me the big red bag and stood, the familiar red coat and hat appearing from nowhere. As he put them on, his beard began to lengthen and thicken up. Santa nodded at me and pointed to the bag.
I stood up and opened the bag, which contained a suit exactly like the one he was wearing.
“Go on, put it on,” he prodded.
Shrugging, I pulled the pants on over the clothes I was wearing. They stretched and formed themselves around my body. Pulling on the big red overcoat over my winter coat, I felt it mold itself around my body. He pointed to the hat. Putting it on, I felt it snug itself up tight around my head as the bottom seemed to extend down over my ears. It was then I noticed a small, cracked mirror in the corner. Seeing myself dressed as Santa Claus, I felt younger and more alive.
The next few hours flew by. I was never cold or hot, and I saw the world in ways I’d never seen before. The next thing I knew, we were back at the cabin. The fire was still popping along merrily.
Santa lay back down on the bed. As I took off my suit, I felt a tug at my heart.
I knew he had done as much as he could. Snoring gave in to the quiet as I fed the fire and learned my way around the cabin.
Slowly I realized he wasn’t moving at all. I touched his cold face. No slow breathing, no twitching of his beard as he turned or tossed in his sleep. Santa Claus was gone.
But he wasn’t.
Every year for the rest of my life, I found myself back in the small cabin wearing a bright red suit that seemed to fit me better every time, and I felt younger every year.