The Reindeer Conundrum written by Mark Zubro and illlustrated by W.S. Reed is a Christmas story with a message from the very heart of the holiday. It appears in the anthology Shifting Through the Snow from MLRpress. These are shifter stories connected with the holidays. We'll be serializing it in our online editions for the next five weeks. Beginning December 8, it will be available on line as an ebook and a paperback.
The Reindeer Conundrum part five.
December 23 3:30 P.M.
Rudolph clattered down the wide grand staircase to the library doors. It was half a level below the main structure out the back. The stairs and entranceway were covered in a glass dome. It was always night in winter at the Pole. He could see high above wisps of stars glittering among curls of swirling snow.
The interior side of the outer walls of the library had built-in, floor to ceiling wooden bookcases, filled with tomes from around the world in every language imaginable, some no longer spoken, a few forgotten.
The vast central area had innumerable reading nooks, with comfortable chairs centered around cozy lamps all surrounded by more bookcases.
Not a creature stirred.
To the immediate right, a few feet off the entry was a passage that led to a huge cold storage room with the 'nice' files filled with obedience. That spot always made Rudolph uncomfortable, as if someone obeyed rules simply because they might get rewarded. Instead of being good for goodness sake, they dabbled in obedience to get a new toy or some such reward. This always caused Rudolph to shake his antlers in sadness. He knew doing right wasn't easy, but some reward and punishment formula? Very un-Santa like, he thought.
In the center of the main area stretched the endless ranks of kindness files. This section of the huge room was perfect for sitting in individual nooks, around innumerable tiny cozy fires, with more bookcases, an almost infinite number, extending to the distance filled with rows of leather bound books recounting acts of generosity, hope, and kindness.
Santa could be found here any time of the year, his eyes misty, reading about the kindness of relatives and strangers, the kindness of countries writ loud of peace and joy, or individuals in silence rewarded by their simple goodness.
One special nook was for the records of kindness between enemies. This was Santa's favorite.
All the books with the kindness records were great musty volumes with solid covers and stiff pages, like photo albums of old.
Yes, all the records had been digitized, both naughty and nice. And most days of the year the vast central room, and these special spots for the records, bustled with workers updating records, but not this time of year. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was usually deserted. The elves and the reindeer had far too much to do to get ready for Christmas.
Rudolph liked to come down and spread the old books out and read. He could smile and laugh and weep, as the stories touched the deepest chords of his gentle reindeer heart, but tonight the vast, vast room was silent. Rudolph felt its emptiness at the door. He saw no glow of lights near or far. He flicked the switch for the main lights.
It was as if every nook with soft lighting and cushy chairs in every library and every den on Earth had been gathered and replicated here into unseen distances filled with the stories of an eternity of kindliness. These were records Santa treasured most.
Rudolph thought of the digitized naughty and nice records in their cold storage room that was more like the largest gym ever built and crammed with steel bookcases and computer disks and metal folding chairs. It was rarely visited.
Rudolph spent time walking the vast aisles of the library. He stopped at the enemies-kindness nook, now more than several hundred square feet. He sighed. He wished he had time to browse through these records.
He caught sight of an open book on top of a small stack in a central nook. It was opened to a picture of a golden wolf, legs akimbo in front of a wounded reindeer. The golden wolf was holding off his fellows. As far as Rudolph knew, this was more of a legend than a true tale. He knew of no wolf who would show such kindness, but Santa loved to read the legend. Supposedly, the Golden Wolf lived in an enormous Golden Cave somewhere in the deep woods. Rudolph thought of it as a mythical fable.
Rudolph glanced over it. Was this the last story Santa had been reading? Was it recently or days or weeks ago? He had no idea.
What he did know after more than an hour's search was that Santa wasn't there.
Rudolph trudged back to the entrance, gave a last wistful look back, shut off the lights, and clumped up to Santa's office.
It was quite late in the afternoon by now. Checking the library had taken some time.
Rudolph opened the door to Santa's office. Cushy chairs, a thick rug, a fireplace, lamps that glowed softly when switched on. Rudolph saw the only holiday decoration that Santa ever put up. A crèche. A simple scene, all creatures, critters, furniture, background carved from deep oak, long ago, by a frightened, lonely woodcarver who was grateful to Santa for some forgotten kindness.
The room was neat and pristine. Someone must dust every day. Rudolph sat back in the immense chair behind Santa's desk. It was one of the most comfortable in the world. A small pin spotlight shown down on the manger scene. Rudolph smiled at the simplicity, a few animals, a few shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and the child in the manger. A few wisps above the scene suggested angels or clouds. Above them a bright star shone down. He sighed.
Then he noted in the background of the scene, out of the light, a dog. Rudolph didn't remember a dog from the Christmas story. From a distance and in the dimness, he thought this might be a large golden retriever. He got up and moved to that side of the room in front of the crèche.
Rudolph peered closely. He wished he could shift the light. When his nose was several inches from the creature, his breath caught in his throat. It wasn't a dog. It was a golden wolf. Rudolph drew back in alarm as any depiction of a wolf living or dead caused fear in any reindeer.
Why had Santa put him here? He was no part of the story in any land.
The door to the office swung open. Alfir and Grandcandaus stood in the doorway. The two of them were puffing and drawing deep breaths. They hustled forward.
"We know where he is," Grandcandaus said.
Alfir almost shouted, "We figured it out."
The two wise old creatures looked at each other.
Grandcandaus said, "He's in the lair of the golden wolf."
"You're not surprised?" Alfir said.
Rudolph explained about the last open book in the library and the creature he'd just spotted at the very back of the manger scene.
"That confirms what we've got," Grandcandaus said.
Rudolph spoke his doubt and wonderment. "The Hall of the Golden Wolf is only a legend."
"Only because that's what you've been told."
"How do you know that's where he is?"
Alfir said, "Wolf packs communicate from each to each around the north. A kind of canine telepathy I've never understood. It's connected with dogs being able to relate to humans so well." He shrugged. "At any rate, among them word has gone out that Santa is there. We caught the rumor of a great disturbance in their consciousness."
"You can read minds?"
"We can pick up threads of universal consciousness."
Most thought this theory was reindeer-waste and there was no such thing.
The Hall of the Golden Wolf was supposedly the residence of a great wolf with fur that shone like burnished gold.
"Can't he just shift himself out of there?"
Grandcandaus said, "Or we could shift in, rescue him, and shift out before the wolves know we were there."
Rudolph said, "We wouldn't be able to fool the wolves long."
Alfir added, "Would Santa be expecting a rescue? He must know how dangerous it would be."
Grandcandaus said, "It's as safe for one or a thousand."
"Can wolves shift?" Rudolph asked.
Alfir said, "Other than that wolfman legend, not that we know of. And anyway, it's not the full moon."
"Maybe he doesn't want to be rescued," Grandcandaus said.
"I'll shift myself in," Rudolph said. "If it's our only hope of Christmas, I'll do it."
Alfir said, "Just before I left the office, I checked my search party reports. Nothing. I'm sorry."
Rudolph said, "If I'm going to do this, I want to get started and get it over with. Let's go over possibilities and then let's do it."
Alfir said, "You could shift, and you might have seconds to shift back before they devour you."
"There's no way to get to where he exactly is?"
"No, the place is completely unknown to us."
Rudolph repeated Grandcandaus's thought. "If he's there, maybe he doesn't want to be found."
"Maybe. If you're lucky, you'll talk to the golden wolf himself."
"Better lucky than devoured."
"Why wouldn't they all just lunge for me?"
"Did Aslan just devour everybody in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?"
"So there you are."
"Yeah, dead and devoured because they haven't read the book?"
Alfir said, "Have a little faith, and be ready to shift and transport in an instant."
Grandcandaus asked, "Are your shifting and transporting skills up to it? You're not getting any younger."
Rudolph said, "They'll have to be." He pushed aside any doubts about his abilities. This was too important.
"It will be dangerous," Grandcandaus said then reiterated, "be ready to shift and transport out immediately."
"I shall do my best."
Alfir said, "We have something else. It's probably related. The question we asked ourselves was who told the young elf, my nephew, it was okay to do adorn walls with anti-Santa graffiti?"
Grandcandaus couldn't control himself. He blurted out, "Pulks!"
"No!" Rudolph was shocked.
Rudolph shook his antlers and sighed. "I don't know why I'm surprised. I already suspected Pulks was up to no good."
Alfir said, "I'm having my sources check right now. I've had my suspicions. And if Pulks is behind it, you know Tarandus has to be up to his antlers in the conspiracy."
Grandcandaus said, "They wouldn't. Why would they? It goes beyond being naughty. If Santa knew all this, and he was depressed already, it would make things worse, I think."
Rudolph said, "I'll just have to see what's going on when I get there. If he doesn't come back or won't come back, what then?"
Alfir said, "You'll do your best. I have confidence in your goodness and kindness."
"I hope it's enough."
"It's all we have."
Rudolph gulped, shut his eyes, shifted, and transported. He opened his eyes in a Golden Hall. A great wolf with golden fur stood ten feet in front of him. He was gnawing on what Rudolph thought might be a reindeer bone. The golden wolf lifted his eyes and considered the interloper. Rudolph saw that he had dark brown eyes. All that suppressed violence and collective reindeer hatred in them were the last thing he expected to see while he still breathed.
The Golden Wolf raised his shaggy head. Rudolph glanced around for an instant. A pack of howling wolves surrounded him. He was in the middle of a slavering circle of death. Their shrieks and screams unnerved him. Rudolph lowered his antlers and prepared to shift back.
The Golden Wolf took one step and said, "Rudolph?"
Rudolph looked up.
In another second, he would be gone, but the Golden Wolf caught Rudolph's eyes. His growl halted. Silence fell.
The Golden Wolf dropped his head so his nose was less than an inch from the floor. Then to Rudolph's great astonishment and immense relief, the golden wolf knelt as if bowing to a reindeer deity. After a few seconds, the wolf raised his head, gave a great howl, then spoke in a most deep and pleasant voice, "Rudolph. It is true. Your nose does glow."
Rudolph found himself blushing.
The Golden Wolf continued, "Forgive me for my rudeness and forwardness. To one who saved Christmas, attention must be paid, praise given to the praiseworthy." He bowed again then lifted his head.
Rudolph felt inadequate. He nodded to the wolf and murmured, "Thank you."
The Golden Wolf was larger than any wolf he'd ever imagined. His teeth looked sharp and definitely large enough to snap a reindeer's neck in an instant.
The creature said, "You are the only reindeer with a red nose. I have heard rumors of you as has everyone. You saved Christmas. Since early this morning, we've been trying to get a message to your kind. We didn't know how. We can't shift, and we dare not go so far to the North Pole. You have undoubtedly come to speak with Santa."
"He is here?"
"Is he okay?"
"That you'll have to see for yourself. We have not harmed him." The Great Golden Wolf looked around at all the other wolves, some gray, some black, or a mixture, a few all white. He said, "Safe passage is granted Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer."
All the other wolves bowed their heads and then lay down on the ground.
"Where is he?"
"I will bring you to him." Rudolph was led through the two rows of reclining wolves. "How did you know to come here?"
"Alfir, the old elf, said they'd picked up rumors in your packs."
"Ah, the elves are less harsh to us than many species."
"You're pretty hard on the rest of us."
"I'm afraid you're right, but be assured you have safe passage."
"Why did he come here?" Rudolph asked.
"You don't know the story?"
Rudolph shook his head.
"When I first became leader of the pack, a long time ago, I was young and foolish, too proud of my own skills. I struck out on my own. It led to a disaster. I thought I was on the trail of easy prey. It was a polar bear cub. I'd seen no evidence of the mother. I attacked. From downwind she came, a tornado of white fury. I might have run and escaped, but at the last second, I was caught in a human trap. The cub bawled all the way to between its mother's hind legs. She stood up and roared fiercely.
"I snarled and snapped, but it was useless. I was outmatched and couldn't run." He shook his head. "For whatever reason, Santa was in the forest that day. I'd strayed too far north, he'd come farther south than he planned. Perhaps it was fate."
The Golden Wolf sighed. "We wolves know all the stories about Santa. That day he stood between me and the great white bear. I thought this would be the end for Santa and me. Santa didn't even blink.
"The baby bear stopped bawling. The mother bear lowered herself. The wind became calm. Not a leaf moved. A great silence fell on the North. I think I could have heard a snowflake land. All the trees stood upright. Finally, the mother bear snuffled once or twice and then shuffled away.
"Santa then turned and looked down at me. I whimpered, lowered my head, turned on my back, and presented him my belly. I'd never assumed a submissive position before.
"Santa knelt in the snow and undid the trap. I tried to stand, but I couldn't even limp, but Santa put something on my leg, some kind of ointment, and in a few minutes, I felt good enough to stand. I owe everything to him. After that day, we became dear friends. He visits when he can."
"You're grateful to Santa. You believe in Christmas?"
"But you still eat reindeer."
"Yes, I recognize Christmas. I also understand hunger. Wolf's gotta eat, but I've tried to repay his kindness many times forward, and I've tried to teach his kindliness to wolves. Like most animals, we have our flaws."
"I understand that." Rudolph paused then asked, "Do you know what's wrong? Why he's here?"
"He's said very little since he arrived. You'll have to speak with him yourself."
They came to a cave door. Rudolph was let into a comfortable room that smelt of wolf and pine. Santa sat by a small fire. He held a wolf cub in his arms. The cub had golden fur. It was asleep. Santa looked up at them and smiled.
"Rudolph," he said.
"Santa," was all Rudolph could say.
Santa turned to the great golden wolf. He said, "Thank you, Arnie."
Rudolph couldn't stop himself from blinking at the name. He guessed wolves had to have names among themselves.
The great golden wolf bowed his head. The cub woke up, hopped-shuffled on his short legs to Rudolph and sniffed the reindeer's left front hoof. Then he scrambled to Arnie. They left together.
Rudolph said, "I'm so glad I found you."
"It was very brave of you to come here."
"Did I really have a choice?"
"How did you figure it out?"
"Alfir and Grandcandaus were the ones really, but I saw the open book in the library and the wolf at your manger scene."
Santa indicated a chair and Rudolph sat. He looked at the old elf, no longer jolly, and said, "Why, Santa?"
"I'm tired of fighting."
"You don't have to fight. Just be yourself."
"It's too commercial!"
"There's too much hate."
"There's always been hate."
"Rampant vileness, encouraged across the entire globe."
"That's not new."
"Families have fights especially this time of the year."
"Too many too often."
"Too many hungry and homeless, and now swarms of refugees again roam the planet and aren't taken care of. And those that do take care of them should be praised and honored, not ignored, or worse, vilified. Those people and the ones who take care of them should be honored the most."
Rudolph added, "Every single kind act deserves high praise. I agree. People really do want to give and be kind. You've seen it more than most."
"This year it was just too much. So, I came here."
Rudolph said, "They've found out who's behind the anti-Santa graffiti."
"Pulks and Tarandus. I know."
"You haven't done anything about it?"
"You mean I haven't punished them or exiled them?"
"You know that's not my way. There is good in both of them, although you're right, the next round of appointments might reflect a slightly different group. I'm not worried about it."
"I'm Santa. This whole thing is more about belief than anything else."
"Grandcandaus said somewhat the same thing."
"A wise old reindeer."
Rudolph felt the moment slipping away. He said, "All the good, warm, and happy Christmases in people's hearts, that's got to be worth something that no one can ever put a price on. The joy of parents giving and the glee of children receiving." Rudolph ruminated for a moment. He spoke again in his voice's softest thrum. "The glow of light from a star, just one star, on a lonely face. A bit of icicled tinsel that gleams on the most barren tree or in the most hardened heart. One light is all it takes to break the darkness, just one. You know that."
Santa sat up, his knees on his elbows. He said, "You've always been a good friend, Rudolph. I don't have the power to stop all this hate."
"You have more power than all of them."
"What power is that?"
"You already know, deep in your heart. The power to make children happy. To make them laugh and be at least a little kinder to each other. Great power doesn't guarantee great victory. You know that. You've got the power of joy, happiness, and forgiveness one day of the year. Who else has that?"
Santa's eyes shown. He stood up.
Santa cupped his ears and seemed to strain to listen. "Hark, the herald angels are singing on high." He sighed. "Like they do every year."
Rudolph raised his head and listened with all his might. He whispered, "The mountains are replying."
Santa's eyes twinkled. His smile was merry.
They made one quick stop. They met the Golden Wolf in his great hall. All the other wolves stood aside.
Santa said to the wolf, "I'm going back."
Arnie said, "It was good to have you. I'm glad you felt comfortable enough to come here. Any time. But I'm glad there's going to be a Christmas."
Santa smiled. "Thank you." He turned to Rudolph. "Back we go." He put his finger aside his nose.
Rudolph shut his eyes.
They reappeared into a mad whirl of a frenzy about twenty feet from the sleigh. At the sight of Santa, there was a wild outburst of warmth and cheering, followed by a mad crush of questions, decisions, and directives. Santa soon had everyone dashing about purposefully, as elves and animals smiled and shouted, rushing from frantic despair to the swift reverse of hopes fulfilled.
They were back at the heart of the North Pole at the Santa complex. It was just hours before he was to leave. A million last minute things needed to be done just like every year in the final moments before departure.
This year's elite eight reindeer pranced, danced, and chomped at the bit. They ate extra feed and drank extra water. It would be a long and arduous twenty-four hours.
Alfir and Grandcandaus smiled at them both.
Pulks and Tarandus were there. There wasn't time now to deal with them and their perfidy. Rudolph suspected when Santa rose the day after Christmas being chagrined about their behavior would be the least of their worries.
"Where's Blitzen?" Rudolph asked. Alfir said, "Cactus Flats, Arizona, a few miles west of Tucson. Good riddance."
Mrs. Claus hurried forward. She and Santa embraced for a long moment. She whispered, "There's not much time, dear."
Santa dashed into his dressing room and came back in his brightest red costume. Mrs. Claus gave him a peck on his rosy cheek.
And then in a final twinkling, all was in readiness.
At the last instant, before leaping onto the sleigh, he motioned for Rudolph who inched toward him through the milling, happy throng.
They met a few feet from the driver's side of the sleigh.
Santa's eyes danced as he leaned toward Rudolph. He patted Rudolph on his head. Their noses touched briefly.
Santa whispered, "Thank you, my friend. To someone who has saved Christmas twice, there is barely enough praise at the Pole. Thank you! This will give the angels something to sing about."
Santa looked Rudolph in the eyes and smiled, then hopped into the sleigh, waved to the assembled elves and reindeer, and shouted, "Now dash away all."
Bells jingling, the sleigh rose and flew off to its appointed rounds. Just before it drove out of sight, they heard Santa call, "Happy Christmas to all."
Standing next to Rudolph, Rangifer asked, "How does he get every kid's gift into that sleigh?"
Rudolph smiled. "The magic of Christmas."
Alfir, Grandcandaus, and Mrs. Claus hurried up to him. The others gathered around.
"You saved Christmas," Mrs. Claus gushed.
"Just doing my job."
She added, "I love your red nose, and all the rest of you."
They snuggled against each other, patted each other on the back, rubbed noses where appropriate. Rudolph sighed contentedly.
It was warm and safe in Rudolph's manger that night.