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The Reindeer Conundrum Part Three
by Mark Zubro; illustrated by W.S. Reed

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The Reindeer Conundrum written by Mark Zubro and illustrated 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 three.

December 23 9:02 A.M.

Rudolph hurried through the recently decked halls to the science part of the complex. The trees were all plastic evergreens, beautifully wrought by elves with loving hands, but artificial none-the-less. Santa had decreed that he was not going to be part of deforesting the woods around the globe. Rudolph thought the elves had done an excellent job with the new kind, and they were always fabulously decorated. Trees at every corner filled with tinsel, lights, and ornaments, and no two ornaments were the same. It was astounding. A day or two after Christmas, Rudolph often spent hours just strolling around looking at the variety and craftsmanship of the ornaments.

Technology had also crept more and more into the whole complex in the past few years. Most often things changed very slowly at the North Pole. They had replaced a lot of the old lights on the trees with strobe-ish, flashing blinkers. While he liked the effect they gave, especially when scattered amid the traditional one-color unmoving lights and the twinkling lights, these new ones gave Rudolph a headache.

Adding to Santa's and all of their worries was climate change. Plans had begun for options, which included a vast ark-like thing for them to float on when the Arctic Ocean thawed completely. Others were developing plans for moving the whole place to the northern tip of Greenland, or maybe to the top of a mountain in Antarctica. Rudolph shuddered. It was another worry to add to all their others. There were also some who had voted to give drum sets to all the children and grandchildren of every global-science-denier. So far, Santa had vetoed this last.

As he turned the last corner to the science section, Rudolph could smell spices and burnt sugar. He suspected that Grandcandaus, an aged reindeer in charge of Science and Product development, was experimenting with recipes for sugarplums. Last year, Grandcandaus had come up with one recipe that included cardamom and anise. Rudolph preferred the simple one-flavor, hard-candy-like ones, but he seldom ate any of those and never any from Grandcandaus's experiments. He liked Grandcandaus, but his efforts at improving sugarplums struck Rudolph as redundant as singing carols to a choir.

Grandcandaus was one of the few permanently bald reindeer. Rudolph had heard two different versions of why this was so. One was that it was a genetic condition. The other that is was the result of a shift that had gone bad, something like his red nose. He never had the nerve to ask for the real story. In the past few years as he'd gotten older, horns smaller than an inch had sprouted from Grandcandaus's head, but as soon as they started to grow every year, he had them shorn in a painful operation. He said he found with them gone he could think more clearly.

The elf secretary smiled at Rudolph. "He's in the first lab on the left."

Rudolph walked in to see the old reindeer staring at a computer screen. Grandcandaus looked up and shook his head. "It's not going to work."

Rudolph sat across from him. "What isn't?"

"We've been trying to figure out a way to turn the tables on wolves for non-shifting reindeer. You know how wolves chase us in relays?"


"So, we're trying to find a way to have the biggest, meanest, bull reindeer, or cows, we're not prejudiced, turn the tables. If those ten wolves had thirty or forty reindeer in teams chasing them, great big reindeer with nasty antlers and who can also inflict very painful hoof wounds, and tire the wolves out, since we're complete vegetarians and won't eat them, maybe do a little trampling instead. Teach them a lesson." He sighed. "Maybe they'd leave us alone. Shifters can, of course, shift and transport away, but we're trying to help the vast majority of reindeer."

"But it's not working out?"

"It should. It does in theory, sort of. The non-shifting reindeer are certainly herd-minded. Frankly, we shifters kind of go along with the crowd a lot too. I mean one year everybody got Santa ties for Christmas." He cleared his throat. "We've been pawning off the excess for years, but that's another story. At any rate, we can't find a way to get the big reindeer to act in concert long enough to be effective. Too often it's every reindeer for himself, and the old, halt, lame, and young die."

Rudolph nodded in sympathy. It was a perennial tragedy everyone doubted they'd find a solution to.

Grandcandaus was thought to be the oldest reindeer. Certainly, he was the wisest that Rudolph knew. He had snowy white fur and before he lost them, antlers almost as big as a moose's.

Grandcandaus peered at him. "But something's wrong."

Rudolph got straight to the point. "Santa's gone."

"Side trip? Vacation? Odd time of the year for that."

"No, gone as in poof gone. He shifted."

"He can't do that."

"Blitzen was there. Saw him do it."

"Blitzen is a moron. Why doesn't he go be a cactus in Arizona like he's been threatening to do for years? Or make life simpler for himself and all the rest of us by transferring to a petting zoo. He could play with the tourists. Little kids aren't that demanding."

Rudolph shook his antlers. "His kind never leaves."

Grandcandaus nodded. "You're right. No, they don't. Describe the scene as Blitzen says it happened."

Rudolph repeated the story.

Grandcandaus said, "You went to the Shifter Police."

"Yes, but they're used to chasing reindeer, or too busy catching them for breaking a flying rule."

Teaching the reindeer to fly was one department. Catching reindeer for breaking flying rules was another. Buzzing homes during the middle of the summer and trying to pass themselves off as UFOs had been a persistent problem every summer among the youngest reindeer. Mostly the enforcement police dealt with those and other minor infractions.

Rudolph said, "He claimed it wasn't his department's job to go chasing a shifting Santa. I asked him to do what he could."

Grandcandaus said, "Which means he might or might not do anything. We're sure Santa is nowhere around?"

Rudolph showed him the tracking device. "We have no way of knowing. Blitzen said his people searched discreetly and thoroughly. I trust his reindeer more than I trust him. Pulks said he is at least going to send out search parties. He claims discreetly."

"The news will get out sooner or later. Too soon and disastrously if he's not here in a few hours."

"I didn't take it seriously when he first told me. I mean, Blitzen is not the most reliable, and then I just couldn't believe it. It's starting to sink in, and I'm a little scared."

Grandcandaus said, "Santa shifting. It's not supposed to be able to happen. I talked to him about it numerous times. He's actually been trying for years."

"I didn't know that."

"I think he was a little envious of us. As far as we know, only reindeer can shift. Humans can't. Santa is an odd case, but he's more saint than human. Not that humans can't be saintly, but you know what I mean."

"No one knew about this?"

"I thought I was the only one. If he did it in front of Blitzen…" He shook his head. "Not the reindeer I would choose to put my faith in."

Rudolph shook his antlers. "I'm worried about getting him back and what state of mind he'll be in when he gets back. According to Blitzen, he was pretty down. I mean I've heard him be wistfully sad about the state of affairs around the globe, people being more awful than usual, but I didn't think it had gotten this bad."

"Don't forget, there's been rumblings up here at the Pole too."

Rudolph nodded. Anti-Santa graffiti had begun to appear with some regularity. A few of the artist's imitators had been caught, but the core group of perpetrators had not. It was unclear from the graffiti what their issues were or what it was that they wanted changed. He said, "Some of it's been pretty vicious in the last year. I know it bothered Santa."

Grandcandaus nodded. "I know he passed it off with a joke in public, but behind the scenes…"

Rudolph agreed, "He was stressed about it." They both thought for several moments until Rudolph said, "I wonder what kind of shift he did or if it matters."

"It might," Grandcandaus said. "Some have a hard time learning to control where they're going to wind up, although most often that's a concern for the young, or incompetent, or not too bright. You've got to be well trained. Some can shift but only go to a limited number of places. Some can shift and be anywhere. Or some can shift and only be in the same place. Depends on your powers, training, and genetics. Sometimes it's willpower, heart, and desire. Your parents could be yelling at you and poof, you shift yourself to the Amazon rainforest, but it often doesn't work that way. And at any event, it happens in the blink of an eye."

"What if you blink both eyes?" Rudolph asked. He'd occasionally wondered this over the years.

"Why don't you try it and see what happens?"

"I'd rather not. I'm sorry, for a second there I was trying to be funny. Didn't work."

"You're worried. You have a right to be. You know the lives of most reindeer: dull, boring, and tedious. Food today. A useless stampede tomorrow. The vast majority of reindeer whether in their herds or pulling a one-horse sleigh, are as clueless as a muggle."

Rudolph nodded.

"And those are good, happy lives, nothing wrong with them."

"I know." Rudolph asked the question that was nagging at him, "What are Santa's powers?"

"To make children happy. What greater power could there be or should there be? After that, I'm not certain about a lot. The shifting thing I know about for sure, because like I said, we talked about it."

"Are the rules on shifting immutable?"

"I'm not sure I know what you mean."

"Can the rules on shifting change?"

"According to what I've read, back when we began making order out of the chaos that was our lives, it was more we were writing down the limits of the nature of shifting. They were codified, tested, expanded. Long, long ago, heroic reindeer died so others would have knowledge. And the rules as we know them could apply to Santa." He sighed. "Or not."

"Where do I start to look?"

"I don't know whose rules he plays by. His own? Certainly. Or maybe in his tired state, he made a mistake. If Blitzen is telling the whole truth, maybe he just wanted a break. Maybe he'll be back in the next five minutes. Transporting is the most difficult part of shifting. He could be trying to shift back and not able to make it work. You could transport yourself and shift and wind up in the middle of a river filled with piranha. That's happened. Reindeer have lost their lives. It's why we have schools. But Santa…" Grandcandaus shook his head. "I don't know what he's capable of doing. Hell of a time of the year to be experimenting or take a break. He's not built for a Scrooge roll. Can we afford to overlook the idea that it might have been foul play?"

Rudolph said, "No." He rattled his antlers. "What we need are some tidings of great joy, but we may have to try to create the joy ourselves. We can't rely on the accidents of the universe."

"I agree."

"So what do we do?" Rudolph asked.

"We consult, we hunt, and we do the best we can."

"Consult with whom?"

Grandcandaus said, "Alfir, the oldest and wisest elf, and you've got to talk to Mrs. Claus. She should know her husband better than anyone else. Maybe he talked to her about it."

Rudolph shook his antlers in dismay. "I thought I was his friend. He never said a word to me."

"You two are close. Maybe he was afraid to tell you because he knew you would try to talk him out of it. Sometimes, we just don't know what's in a friend's head or heart." Grandcandaus shrugged.

"I know."

Grandcandaus sighed. "And you'll have to talk to Tarandus."

"He's on my list." Rudolph hesitated. "You don't think Tarandus and some of the others would deliberately take Santa, or harm him?"

"I don't want to even think any such thing of anyone here at the North Pole, but if something evil was afoot, I know I'd start with him or Pulks. Frankly, I think either or both of them might be behind the anti-Santa graffiti."

"I guess if it comes to it, we'll have to think the unthinkable. Although we aren't there yet."

"Time is getting short. And don't forget to check the library," Grandcandaus added.

"For sure, I'll do that. It's also on my list."

"Good. Meanwhile I'll try a few experiments myself. See if I can come up with anything. I wouldn't hold out much hope for science in this case. The whole Santa thing has a lot more to do with belief than I'd ever care to admit."

Rudolph said, "I think I prefer it that way."

"I'll get down to Blitzen's office myself. We can't count on Pulks. We must be able to get some idea. Unless Blitzen is covering up some moronic or horrific crime. I will do everything I can to find a trace of his shifting. We have all the work of ages here on reindeer shifting and the traces we leave. I'll go through it, and put a couple of my best and most discreet reindeer and elves on it."

It was well known that reindeer left some kind of trace behind. Young reindeer especially learned to defeat chips implanted in them. It seldom took them long to outwit each new technological advance.

The more adept at shifting, the lesser the trace. Without it there could be lost reindeer all around the Earth and all those fumbling kids and teenage-like reindeer could be lost forever. Use of the tailing technology was controversial, and itself subject to glitches and bugs. As head of this section, Rudolph knew better than most the risk of untrammeled shifting, and the resulting tragedies and disasters that could ensue, reindeer gone never to return.

Santa should have left a big trace, according to reindeer lore, but he wasn't a reindeer.

Grandcandaus said, "A long time ago, long before Santa came along, the whole shifting thing was out of control, but we've known the rules for so long. Maybe we've become complacent." He shook himself so his white fur shone. "This whole Santa thing is a special case. I'll get right on it. I wonder if he tried and came back before, but did it now because…" His voice trailed off.

Rudolph said, "Let's think about finding him first."

"Should I put all my staff on this?"

"Let's hold off on that for as long as we can. Santa going missing hours before he was to leave for his Christmas Eve rounds could set off a panic. We don't want that."

"You may have no choice."

Rudolph spoke in a low voice, "I know."

"Who's next on your list?"


Grandcandaus smiled. "That's an elf with a wisdom complex if I ever saw one, but he's a good person underneath the pretense."

Rudolph nodded. "I've gotten to know him over the years. I like him in a standoffish way."

"I don't envy you having to talk to Tarandus. I've managed to avoid him for years."

Rudolph shuddered. Tarandus was a vicious old reindeer, but he was in charge of Quality Control, plus all Christmas Eve flight plans and deliveries. He was always sticking his nose in where it wasn't wanted, claiming he was on government business. He worked closely with Santa, especially the last days and hours before Christmas Eve. If he didn't already know about Santa being gone, he probably would soon. He was a friend of Blitzen's.

"I'll see him after I talk to Alfir."

"Good luck."

11:00 A.M.

As he neared Alfir's office, he smelled roasting chestnuts. He knew Alfir was particularly fond of them.

When he was a few feet from the door, it opened and a young elf flanked by an adult male and female elf walked out. The young elf was in tears which was rare at the North Pole. Outside of heart-string-pulling Hollywood holiday movies, there wasn't a lot of weeping around the place. The office door clicked shut and the young elf began to sob. His mother and father crouched down and held him.

Between sobs, the young elf kept repeating, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Rudolph rang the bell to the door to Alfir's quarters. It played a few bars of the Hallelujah chorus. The door swung open. Alfir called from inside, "Come in, come in."

After a short hall, Rudolph came to an immense sitting room filled with cushy chairs and sofas. A fire was lit in the massive fireplace. To the side, he saw chestnuts roasting in their double rack. An already roasted mound of them sat in a bowl on a teak table.

Alfir appeared at a door that led farther inside. He smiled at seeing Rudolph. "Come in, come in my friend." He pointed to the earlier batch of chestnuts and said, "Enjoy. Would you like some eggnog?"

Rudolph said, "No thanks on the eggnog."

"Or a glass of wine?"

Rudolph smiled and said, "No, thank you." He nibbled at a chestnut and sat down. Rudolph considered learning to sit in cushy chairs second only to flying lessons as the best things he'd gotten out of school. The chestnut was delicious and a bit of a comfort in this trying time.

Alfir wore a sweater. Inside at the North Pole, it was temperature controlled. Wind power in winter, solar in summer. Alfir was old and sometimes complained of feeling cold in his bones. He wore flannel-lined corduroy pants, heavy construction worker work boots, a Santa hat, and a sweater with humans prancing on it alternating with a circle of fir trees. The humans were all woven of different colors. Rudolph wasn't sure if this was meant as a statement about the rainbow of colors humanity was, or the whim of the knitter. He didn't ask.

Rudolph said, "I saw the young elf just leaving. He was sobbing."

"Good. He was caught painting anti-Santa graffiti. He spray-painted 'Bah Humbug' and more vile things on part of an outside wall." Alfir sighed. "Worse, it was one of my grandnephews. One of my own! I asked him why. He didn't know. He said some of his buddies were doing it. We did get a few names so we may get to the bottom of this before the season is over."

"He didn't know why?"

"Said he didn't. He might have just been scared."

"Why was he crying?"

"I'm afraid my punishment was too much for him."

"What did you make him do?"

"Help with finishing wrapping presents for all the homeless kids on Earth. Hell of a task these last few hours."

"But kindly for all that."

"Yes, I don't think he expected mercy."

"You'll have to turn him over to Pulks and Tarandus."

"If his leads pan out to anything, probably yes. I'll wait until after the Eve to make any move."

They nibbled chestnuts and Alfir drank some eggnog. He looked at his friend from under his bushy white eyebrows and said, "This isn't just a casual visit to discuss what's going on in the hall outside my office. What's wrong?"

Part One: .

Part Two: .

Part Four: . .

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