By Jess Charle
“I thought I heard you in here.” My grandpa says to the room. Christmases have been rough since grandmother died.
As a young child, I always looked forward to Christmas at my grandparents’ house. The warm smells that floated in the air: cinnamon, pumpkin, and ginger mixing together into a shapeless cloud around me. Just a hint of mint tinging the air with a crispness that made the warmth all that much more pleasurable. The small home was cozy and comfortable, the polished wood worn with use, brown with age, cracked and creaking from the weight of our lives. My grandpa made sure to always have a fire roaring in the cast iron fireplace, the yellow glow playing across our faces, making the presents gleen under the tree, begging to be opened, the bright green and red metallic wrapping paper pleading to be ripped by our hands. The warmth of the flames ate at my skin, dancing expertly along the line of pleasant heat and burning pain.
My mother and grandmother would cook and bake together. They’d make pies and turkey, cranberry compote and pumpkin cookies, mountains of mashed potatoes sweetened with fresh butter and thick cream, homemade caramel and green beans with shallots, mushroom gravy and sweet potatoes with coconut, coffee crumb cake and mulled wine. The air would alight with the scents of their cooking and my stomach would kick and growl with anticipation. Grandmother would slip me a cookie or a candy cane, the sweet treat accompanied with a small innocent wink. I’d eat it slowly, savoring each small bite as I eyed the rest of the meal that grew, almost organically, on the counter before me, the sights and smells tickling my nostrils. Dinner time would not come soon enough, but until then, it was a sight I hungrily devoured, my eyes full, my tastebuds lacking.
My father would read me stories, epic tales of fantasy worlds where mythical beings lived in the ground and the trees. He’d change his voice with each character and gesticulate wildly with his arms, the line of vision from his eyes to the words on the page teetering with each arching movement, each brave dwarf, each cackling witch, each billowing wizard. He’d create a magical world so believable, so engrossing, that I would become utterly entranced. The smells and sounds of the house heightening my absorption, blending my mind’s eye with what was directly in front of my face, making the fake world as tangible as the real one, the real world as intangible as the one my father was creating with his voice. My grandfather would add his own power to the Christmas cheer by playing songs on the old piano in the living room. The cabin would fill to the brim with both his fast and cheerful melodies as well as the slow and brooding songs that seemed more of a warning than a celebration. The heavy ivory keys creaking as the hammer hit the tightened string, a crystal note rising quickly to the air, only to dissipate instantly above me, showering me with sound.
And every night, as I lay awake in my grandpa’s office, the cushioned cot beneath my small frame, I’d pull my favorite of grandmother’s quilts, the red and white one that smelt of pine and lilacs, up to my chin to protect me from the drafts and groans of the old house. And every night, Nana would come visit me. She’d share secrets with me, stories of Santa and his reindeer, of the elves and their toys, the North Pole and how, even on the chilliest of days, no one there ever gets cold.
“No one shivers at the North Pole.” Her cobwebbed throat would strain with the words. Like opening the cover of an old and forgotten book, the binding cracking, the pages falling with a thud instead of a rustle, her voice would rise with a cloud of dust. “There’s magic in the air,” she’d whisper, “magic that keeps everyone warm, all the time. No one ages. There are no wars, no famines. It’s a magical winter paradise.” She’d lean close to my face, so close that only her bright eyes filled my vision. “And you can be Queen.” She’d wink at me, a slow wink, as if her eyelids were heavy, heavier than they should be.
I’d smile, “I can be Mrs. Claus?”
Nana would nod, a slow and calm nod, as her thin lips turned up into a small, tight smile.
I would fall asleep with images of the North Pole in my mind, the voice of Nana flitting about my subconscious like a lost butterfly.
“I thought I heard you in here.” My grandpa says to the room.
“Who do you think is there, dad?” Mom asks.
Grandpa turns to her, blinking his eyes as if adjusting to a great brightness, confusion etched on his lined face. “I thought… I thought I heard your mother.”
Shushing him like one would a child, my mom escorts him out of the office, one hand firmly, but gently, grasping the side of his upper arm, the other hand on his back, guiding him away from the ghost of his dead wife.
We still visit my grandpa every Christmas. Since grandma died, he’s been really lonely. My mom, dad, and I always make the trek up to his cabin. My parent’s old station wagon slowly dragging us up the mountain, tracing the snowy winding roads. Even with my thick winter coat and the dry heat from the dashboard, the cold crept through the car’s windows and bit into my skin like a snake.
The smells of Christmas are fainter now than they were when I was young, the rooms slightly cooler, the house less comfortable. Sometimes I’ll sit in my grandma’s old rocking chair and a shiver will suddenly break over my body, running from the top of my head through my neck and deep into the bottom of my spine. Whether from cold, loss, fear, or all three, I do not know.
It is now my job to stoke the fires. Grandpa is too old, too lost in the archaic crevices of his mind. He stares out the windows for too long, his eyes no longer seeing, the cold begging him to give in. Mom still cooks and bakes, but each year there is less and less food. Each year our holiday feast morphs more into a simple dinner. Instead of reading to me, dad plays Sudoku on his smartphone, the blue glow illuminating his face, scrunched in calculated concentration.
I like to think back to my younger years often. The warmth of the cabin an enveloping hug, holding me close, protecting me from the outside, from the snow. Nana sitting on the edge of my bed, whispering to me, her voice barely audible, almost too quiet to carry through the air. Each word would rise and fall with the indiscernible movements of the draft in the chilly office. Her voice was light, like a broken feather, fluttering towards me, landing lightly on my skin, tracing my features as it crawled from every direction, sliding slowly into my ears.
Images of a great man, strong and ancient, standing proudly over his workers filled my mind. His long grey beard flowing gracefully down like a waterfall, stopping in a wispy curl against the dirt ground, packed hard from years of toiling, years of heavy boots and sharp bone hooves. His mass filling the room, the space glowing red as his body reflects in the polished stone surrounding him on all sides. Stone flat and tall like walls but bigger, higher, stretching endlessly into the black cloudless sky.
“You can barely breath at the North Pole, for he encompasses all, even the molecules of air your lungs need and the blood in your veins craves.”
“But Nana, won’t I die if I can’t breath?”
Nana’s chuckle was low and each strained sound was cut short, like a cough deep in someone’s throat, muffled and painful as they try hard not to let it escape. “No, child. You won’t die at the North Pole.” She brought her dry, crusty lips closer to my face, “you’ll live forever.” Her breath, a strange mix of peppermint and mud, kissed the tip of my nose delicately, like a ballerina, weighing almost nothing, as close to air as a human could ever be
She told me stories of the different types of elves that live at the North Pole: the ones that carry long leathery whips, stained a deep rust color that flaked, the whip strong while the stains fragile, only permanent through repeated application. The elves that had dark metal spears, the points of which were so small, they dissolved into atoms.
“The tip is so fine, one poke, and you don’t even realize you’ve been pierced.” Her voice, so impossibly rough and strained.
Images danced across my mind. Pictures of elves with cutting, blood-stained knifes, elves with red hot matches. Elves with heavy chains, with chisels meant to flay skin, hooks to pierce and pull at flesh, pliers, boiling water, pins and needles and thread. Elves created to pierce, burn, tear, cut, and break the bodies of the sinners. Sinners no longer in the hands of an angry god, but instead in the claws of a loving demon, so infatuated with every inch of their skin, the softness of their lips, the moistness of their groins, that it wants to lick and suck and eat every sweet morsel. Again and again it will have them. A lover never satisfied, an executioner never done.
Reindeers with teeth that snarl at their prisoners, drool forming and flowing from between each deadly fang, their eyes gleaming a menacing red that matches the blood stains on their coarse and wiry fur. Reindeers that beat the ground with their hooves and kick at the bodies in front of them, that step on heads and hands alike, not stopping when the bodies break or pop beneath their powerful weight.
There is an awkwardness in the air as my grandpa shuffles into his office, and tells the empty, silent air, “I thought I heard you in here.”
My mom and dad ask grandpa if he needs anything, maybe a nice cup of chamomile tea to calm his aging nerves, and mom leads him out of the office, my bedroom for the week, and into the kitchen.
Only I realize that it’s not my grandmother that grandpa hears. It is the dry, dusty voice of Nana. I can see the shadows of her hands underneath the cot, her bright orange eyes reflecting in the twinkling white Christmas lights hanging around the door frame. Her long, crooked fingernail, black with age or earth, possibly both, or probably something beyond either, beckons for me to come, to join her.
Maybe this is the year I do. Maybe it’s finally time for me to follow Nana to the enchanted North Pole. To take my promised place as Queen.