It’s Christmas…here’s a short story
Magic of Change
By Brick Orrock
Pine stood at the edge. She knew one more step toward the south would take her from her home into the unknown. She didn’t know what stopped her from moving forward, but a force kept her grounded, her feet in the snow, and now that she was before the magical barrier she felt queasy and suddenly not at all like continuing away from her home. So many times she had stood in that very spot too afraid to steal another step. Even today her fear kept her feet in place, though, she thought that perhaps leaving wasn’t as scary as it was years ago.
She looked behind her at the untrodden snow. The path from her village should have been worn through the snow to dirt with how often she’d walked it, but like everything in her magical home, it went back to normal when left alone.
Tonight she had Jub with her. A friend. He was simple and for the most part not great for conversation, but he smiled often and always put up with what Pine wanted to do.
“It’s colder here,” Pine said, reaching her arms past where the magical barrier was.
Her skin hurt from the cold beyond and goose pimples grew on her arms. The cold outside the barrier seemed harsh, not at all like the comfort of her home. With a hopeful smile on her face she pulled her arms back to her body and hugged herself.
“Would you follow me if I left?” She asked and looked at Jub.
He was just as tall as Pine, which is to say not tall at all. They both came only halfway up the legs of the caribou that they kept in the stables. Their ears both came to points at the tops and their faces were angular, skin pale. The only difference, besides Jub being a boy and Pine being a girl, were their eyes. Jub had the typical pinwheel of color for his eyes, an even pie slice of distribution for the color of the iris around the pupil; blue, green, and brown. At first glance, Pine had sparkling green eyes, but she had slices of color too, just not the even distribution.
“Why would you leave?” Jub said staring back at her.
“I don’t know. For something different?”
Jub looked confused. “It’s impossible to leave.”
She shrugged and looked out to the black sky sprinkled with stars, blanketed with translucent steaks of green and pink hazes of light.
She wanted to step out into the real cold and live a different life, but she didn’t. In fact, she took a step back, and Jub took this as a sign that she was done. He put his head down and began heading the way they had come. Pine followed behind, keeping single file so to avoid the wind, hugging herself and rubbing at her arms thinking about the feeling from beyond the magic.
It was a long walk back to the village through the darkness. The wind blew cold and stung only for a moment against her exposed face and hands, but her body warmed with the magic of the land and the winter was of no hindrance.
Overhead, in the distance, a red light hung, approaching slow, but then whizzed over the top of them and disappeared into the night.
“He’s flying lower than usual,” Pine yelled at Jub’s back.
He stopped to look at her.
“Don’t quit walking,” she said.
He nodded and turned and continued.
“I’m just saying that he’s flying lower. It looked more aggressive, didn’t it?”
Jub stopped and turned toward her.
“Don’t stop,” she said again.
“Well how am I supposed to answer you?” His voice was raised over the wind.
“You just yell over your shoulder.”
He looked at her for a moment then turned to walk and looked to the side. “It didn’t seem aggressive to me.”
“But this is how it always happens. You see it in the caribou first.”
“I guess,” he yelled over his shoulder.
Pine had been through this more than Jub. She was nearly a century his elder, but perhaps it also had to do with the fact that Pine paid more attention to everything and she always saw it coming before anyone else. Pine’s family had always been a paranoid bunch, which is why they were a part of quality assurance at the factory. They had to make sure every toy or electronic worked properly and they just seemed to have a knack for looking where the problems would be.
The sound of crunching snow approached from Pine’s left, too far to see what was making the sound but close enough to discern that it was not the footsteps of someone from the village. Those from the village stepped quick and light and most often couldn’t be heard from a distance, unless one were running. No, the crunching in the snow was from hooves, and there was only one animal in the boundaries of the magic that would make that sound.
Pine gently picked up the doll from the slow moving conveyor. It more slid into her hands than was plucked from the coarse belt. All around her was the sound of singing, high and melodic, different groups in different areas of the warehouse all singing different songs, but in some odd and beautiful way, all seemed to go together.
She was on the fourth floor of the circular building. All of the levels wrapping around a humungous conifer tree which stretched all seven levels.
The doll which Pine held was a simple thing. It was made of a soft fabric with knotted wool hair tied to resemble braids.
Pine turned it over. Pulled on the arms. Pulled on the hair. No holes. Everything held. The color looked good, stitches perfect. She tossed the doll lightly into a small red bucket hanging just to the left behind her. As soon as the doll landed in the bucket, a golden string, taught and strong, pulled the bucket up.
Pine pulled the next doll from the line and distractedly, she looked around the room at the singing workers. All of them wore the same green button up shirts, green tights, green shoes, and green hats. None of them worked quickly. The environment was relaxed, all of the toy makers working carefully. All of the conveyor belts moved at a slow but consistent speed. Despite the tranquil work atmosphere, toys were always completed and deadlines met.
As she looked over the doll the ambiance of singing within the warehouse seemed to quiet. It was something she didn’t notice at first. She continued her work, turning over the doll examining as she always did, but as she began to come out of her concentration she noticed the only sound she could hear was the sound of the machines. She pulled on the arms of the doll.
It wasn’t until a foreign sound entered the warehouse that Pine was shaken from her work.
The sounds were screams.
Pine stood from her stool knocking it to the floor and hurried to the railing. She saw all the others pressed against the banister. Down below were three caribou, at least that’s what Pine thought they were. Their fur, instead of brown, was a deep black with a strip of ashen gray on their shoulders. Their antlers seemed to be sharpened to points and short fangs hung out of the side of their snouts. But the one thing that made Pine start, the thing that haunted her, were their eyes. No longer brown and the color of earth. They were glowing red and piercing.
The caribou moved further in and behind them walked a massive man wearing a red suit, tattered and grimy. The look on his face was mad and frantic. His long white beard was unkempt and his smile not jolly. He belted out a horrible chortle and the caribou began to run around the base of the giant tree. Slowly they gained altitude and began to spear onto different floors. The workers shrieked, Pine gripped the rail, and the man in the red suit laughed.
The crunching of the snow grew louder and soon Pine could see dark figures bouncing in the distance.
“We should move faster,” she yelled to Jub as the wind picked up.
“Why?” Jub yelled, clearly perfecting the walking and yelling technique.
A moment later the caribou were to them, circling and snorting out puffs of white air from their nostrils. Their brown fur shifted with the wind. Their antlers rounded and covered with fuzzy hair.
Jub stuck his hand out and began to pet one on the nose and the other stopped in front of Pine. It nudged at her shoulder and with reserve, she slowly reached up and touched the caribou’s soft nose. The name tag on its collar read Dunder and Pine recognized him as one of the anchors for the sleigh.
As she pet him she looked into its eyes and saw that the normal placid, innocent brown eyes were more of an amber. Just a little bit of red had begun to slip into the pigment of the iris.
“I love when they’re friendly,” Jub said.
Pine pulled her hand away and backed toward Jub.
“We need to get to the village,” she said.
Pine entered the village of small huts. They were brown like the color of graham cracker with roofs holding the perfect amount of white snow. Out front of every home was a small bin used for mail. Each bin held suspended from a tall arching pole of spiraling white and red colors.
She turned off and away from Jub and headed to the biggest home in the whole of the village, the northern most hut. It was bigger than most not in a gaudy way, but it was bigger in the way that adult homes are bigger than a kid’s playhouse. It was nearly identical in every way to the other huts except for that it was triple the height and girth. The door three times as wide and tall. The mailbox towering to Pine.
Pine walked quickly to the door, the bell on the toes of her shoes jangling as she did. She knocked to rhythm of Jingle Bells and waited patiently outside. She heard singing coming from many of the surrounding huts. Other than that the village was quiet. The wind never bothered the village.
There were footsteps inside accompanied by an abundance of grunting and mumbling. The door swung open and Pine saw a man nearly three times her size. His long beard touched his chest as he smiled at her, peaking over his small round glasses. His cheeks were as red as cherries.
“Ms. Pine,” he said in a pleasant baritone.
He stepped aside and gestured for her to enter his home.
She smiled back in kind. “Thank you, Nick,” she said and scuttled her way in.
The furniture inside mimicked the size of the outside, all of it bigger than what Pine was used to. Still, she hurried through the living room and hoisted herself onto a large gray couch. It was old and warn and comfortable. On the arm rest she noticed a little dust had begun to form.
The large man lumbered his way to a chair in the corner of the room and he sat with a loud exhale of breath. For a moment his breathing was labored and he stared at the ground, rubbing his hands together.
“The caribou’s eyes will soon be red,” Pine said, turning her attention to the wall. There were no pictures up. There used to be, years ago, but now Pine could understand why no one would want to have memories on the walls.
The large man gave a laugh. It began loud but quickly dwindled off.
“I’m sure it was just a trick of the light,” he said.
Pine snapped her head at him and saw that he was concentrating on his hands, rubbing them together. She slowly moved from the couch and across the room to his chair. Reaching out, she took his hands in hers.
His nails had gone black, rigid and long like claws. She ran a finger over one of them and felt the tip where the nail was sharp. She patted his hand and laid it back on his lap keeping her hand atop his.
Looking up at Nick she saw that his eyes were pink and tears had streaked down his face.
“When did your nails change?” She asked.
He went to speak but his voice cracked and he quit trying to talk. His shoulders shook and he cried silently for a moment and Pine let him, all the while never letting go of his hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I knew this was going to happen soon. What’s it been? Two years? The one before you only lasted two.” Though, Pine knew the elders on the council expected this Kringle to last longer.
“But, I’m trying to be good. To be happy.”
“I know.” She looked at his hands, but the limp, scared fingers of the large man suddenly gripped hers.
A low growl came from Nick and when she looked up at him his faced seemed to change. The cheery cherries gone from his cheeks. He had evil in his eye.
“How do you know what it’s been like?” He spat.
He grabbed her by the wrist.
“What could you know about it? I didn’t choose this. I don’t deserve to be treated this way. By any of you.”
He stood up bringing Pine with him. Her feet left the ground and he held her as though she were an unwanted doll.
“I don’t intend on letting any of you take this away from me.”
Pine brought her free hand in a fist to her mouth. She whispered one of her magical words and blew into her hand and shook her fist as though she were going to throw some lucky dice. It began to glow. She flung her hand open into Nick’s face and sparkles smacked in him on the forehead. He let go stumbling back and fell hard against the wall, catching him off-guard more than hurting him.
He cried again, his head in his hands. “I’m scared Pine,” he said over and over again.
Pine stayed away and watched Nick blubber for a moment. She felt sorry for him. She really did. But, there was nothing she could do. The magic was inevitable. Soon change would come.
She turned to exit the hut, but behind her she heard Nick say in a hauntingly hollow voice, “Pine?”
Pine continued to open the door and when she opened it she looked back.
“Don’t tell Jub,” he said.
Pine didn’t respond. She slinked through the door and closed it gently behind her.
Pine sat at the edge of a circular room. In the center was a large table and around that table were several filled chairs with very angry town’s people. And surrounding them was a sea of scared villagers all cramped into the small room. Their shouts were frantic and worried.
Amidst the shouting one stood onto the table. He had the same angular and young features as all the others of the village, but Pine recognized him as one of the eldest. His name was Num. He didn’t have to speak. He only paced back and forth and subtly the shouting ceased and soon the only sound was the jangling of the small bells on the tips of Num’s green shoes.
He stopped in the center of the table.
“Three times,” he said in a low voice and Pine noticed all of the others lean forward in their seats. Even those standing on the wall leaned in.
“Three times in the past 10 years. Three times he’s changed. Has lost his mind. Has killed our own. What once took old age has now changed into something terrible.”
Shouting began again. Some pushed forward and Pine was forced back against the wall.
“What’s happened to the magic?” One was shouting over and over.
Num heard it and silenced the frenzy with raised hands.
“Our friend here is right.” He pointed at the shouter. “The magic has changed. It’s not just the Kringle. It’s our land. Our home. I know you feel it.”
There was nodding around the crowd. Num nodded with them, but perhaps he stayed silent for too long.
“How did it change?” One yelled.
“Something changed it,” another yelled.
“Maybe someone left.”
Num raised his hands again, but the room had already been worked into a full panic. Pine stayed close to the wall while the others pushed forward, moving toward Num. She didn’t know what that would help, but the last few years had shown her just how others will act when chaos truly takes over.
Num held a fist to his mouth and shook his hand. It glowed green. With a little flourish he slapped his hands together and the sound was near deafening. Pine put her hands to her ears, as did most of the others and with that percussion the room as silent.
“It doesn’t matter,” Num said loudly, and with that he had the room’s attention. “The only thing that matters is what we do now. Like our grand-relatives we must adapt. The magic of the North gave them the first Kringle, and they created tradition.
What is it that we must do?”
Silence filled the room.
“We will have to kill him before he kills us. Before he changes.”
Pine hurried through the snow and rubbed at her arms. The change was coming. Sooner than anyone expected. Faster than any of the others. She had to tell one of the council members. They would start the…well, they would arrange what needed to be done. That wasn’t what was on her mind at the moment. She was thinking about Jub and what she would say to him.
Pine came to a small pub. It was shaped like all of the other huts except instead of a mailbox hanging from the red and white spiraled post there was a sign which read “Minty Froth,” and a small drawing next to it depicting an over-flowing mug.
Upon entering the soft golden glow of the quaint tavern she found Num playing cards with others of the council members. Num had grown somewhat self-important over the years. He’d stopped performing his duties at the factory completely.
She walked up to their table and stood for a moment while they finished their hand. Num stared at his cards and with a huff he collapsed them to the table.
“Yes, Ms. Pine?” He said without looking up at her. He smiled to one of the other council members and they giggled at Pine’s perceived unimportance.
“Caribous’ eyes are going red.”
Num turned toward Pine.
“And Nick’s nails have gone black.”
Num stood and motioned for the others to follow. He pulled back the sleeve of his shirt, displaying a large faced watch with several arms and colors flashing.
“That’s not anywhere near where we estimated,” Num said, but not in a way that he was concerned. He seemed excited. In fact, as he said it, a smile crept to the edge of his mouth.
“Interesting, no?” he asked the other council members. To which they replied with excited nods.
“Who’s the current Kringle?” He asked his council members.
They looked at one another, unsure of who exactly it was that took over the roll as Nick.
“It’s Joon,” Pine said quietly.
“Joon?” Num said the name as if he’d never heard of the person before. As though he hadn’t hand-picked her to become the leader. “Oh, yes. She has a brother, right?”
Pine nodded. “Jub.”
Num smiled. “Well there you have it fellas. It’s that easy. Our next Kringle will be Jub.” He turned to Pine. “Well done, Pine.”
Pine hurried out in the snow and found Jub at his hut. After pounding on the door he answered it with a smile and before he could say anything Pine hugged him. He hugged her back and for a moment everything was okay.
“They chose you, Jub.”
And with that question Pine moved away from him, suddenly realizing that she hadn’t told him about his sister and how she was changing.
“What did they choose me for?”
“To be the next Kringle.”
“Then that means that Joon,” Jub fell silent.
For a moment Pine thought that her friend might cry, but he didn’t. He stared into the night and took in a deep breath.
“You don’t have to do this, Jub. I won’t let you. We should leave. We should run and get away from all of this.”
He smiled at Pine with sad eyes. “It’s impossible to leave, Pine.”
She felt her throat tighten and she couldn’t say anything else.
“It’s okay,” Jub said. “This is how it’s supposed to be. I should be the one to do it.”
Afterwards everything seemed quiet. There was no fight this time. Nothing like a war. Only a couple of people in a room, standing around a dead body. Pine watched from outside the window. She wanted to see it for herself this time. It was strange. One moment Nick was pacing the room, talking to the others and when his back was turned Joon was up with a knife and was to him before he could ever turn around again.
There were others in the room. A couple of council members along with Joon, but there was also another boy there. He was younger than most in the village and upon seeing his sister change he ran out of the house.
Pine followed him and when the boy stopped she slowly sat next to him and looked in the direction he was looking. The boy cried and Pine let him. After a while he finally stopped and held a sheepish look on his face as though he were embarrassed of what he’d been doing.
“I didn’t know it would hit me like that,” he said. “I knew what was going to happen, but it’s different seeing it.”
Pine nodded and let him talk, and after a while the sadness seemed to leave him and there was a genuine smile on his face.
“I’m Jub,” he said.
“Pine,” she said extending her hand.
This year was different. Num arranged a spectacle for the change. A platform was rigged in the middle of town and for hours the villagers were crowding in trying to find a good place to stand.
A soft murmur filled the crowd and Pine looked desperately for her friend. She couldn’t find him. The murmuring grew louder and soon Pine could see Nick being led by Num to the platform. Nick walked up the stairs willingly and stood in the center, and through the bobbing heads and moving bodies Pine could make out Jub, standing just to the side of the platform.
He walked slowly onto the platform and once atop the stage Pine could see him holding a golden knife. Nick turned toward him and Jub stopped five steps away. Jub began to talk to him but he was too far away for Pine to hear. Nick’s shoulders were slumped and he looked toward the ground, but slowly, his back straightened and suddenly he let out an echoing chortle.
It was a moment later that there was a scream and Pine saw the caribou coming, flying through the sky with their fur dark, fangs sharp, and eyes red. The elves reacted quickly. All of them whispering into their fists and they all charged the platform with their glowing red and green fists in the air. Some formed translucent weapons out of their magic and others held the charge for a tremendous blow.
As the caribou dove and attacked the elves fought them off.
Pine hurried to the platform pushing and shoving her way through the chaos. Above everything was the horrendous laughter of Nick.
Some screamed and some fought and Pine ignored the caribou, trying to keep them out of her mind and only worrying about getting to Jub. She pushed through another line of frantic elves and fell to her knees, only able to see the bottom of the platform.
Pine stood quickly and hurried to the edge and there she saw Nick kick Jub and he went tumbling off the back of the platform. Nick followed with a couple of labored steps. Pine hurried around the platform.
“Jub! Jub, I’m coming!”
She rounded the platform and saw Nick on his back. Jub was standing over him with red on the golden knife. Tears streaked his face. Pine stopped just next to him.
“Oh, Jub,” she said holding back tears of her own.
He backed away and Pine’s eyes lingered on Nick. Little holes, the size of silver dollars, formed around Nick and out popped what Pine could only describe as gremlins. They were only six inches tall and shared much of her same features, but instead of pale pink skin, the creatures were a brown, the color of dirt. Their noses were hooked and on their backs were frail looking wings, which Pine found very suspicious since they had just crawled from the ground and not descended from the sky.
At first there were only tens of them but that quickly turned to hundreds and without a sound they began to work together, crawling under Nick and carried him away.
Pine turned to Jub to see if he was seeing the same thing, but she was startled to notice that Jub was no longer standing next to her. Instead there was a very large man, at least three times her height. He had a long white beard, crystal blue eyes, and cheeks the color of cherries. His red suit was thick and looked warm and his black boots looked freshly polished.
“Merry Christmas,” he said in a deep yet jolly baritone.
“It’s not Christmas for three months,” Pine found herself saying.
The man winked at her. “Oh, I know. I was just trying it out. It’s fun saying. Don’t you think?”
Pine didn’t answer.
“You can call me Kris, I think. Is that a good one to go by?”
Pine nodded as she looked at her friend that was no longer there, and she tried not to cry. She turned and began to run. She ran as fast as she could down the path she had taken so many times toward the barrier. She would leave this time she thought. She couldn’t stand living in the North any longer. The closer she got to the barrier the queasier she became.
Before she reached it her adrenaline had waned and she dropped to her knees, unable to move forward.
Pine hurried behind her parents. They huddled together against the wind, but Pine was left to herself, keeping her arms tight against herself.
Her parents walked with urgency, always checking behind looking over their shoulders. Pine didn’t do the same. She kept her eyes on them.
It was the middle of night, summer in most places. Not the time where one was up at all hours of the night trying to meet a deadline.
They reached the barrier of the magic. It had always made Pine feel a little queasy. That’s how she knew that it was there.
Her parents pulled away from each other, but kept a hold on each others’ hand. They turned to Pine.
“We’re leaving,” her father said, holding a smile on his face that made her question his sanity.
Pine immediately looked to her mother. She too was smiling, but it was a knowing smile. A confident one. Pine was going to say something, tried to say something, but it all seemed weak. She only shook her head.
Her mother puckered her lips in the way that she always did when she obviously felt sorry for Pine. It was the same way someone might look at their pet. They are cute, but stupid, and no matter how hard they try they will never understand. That’s how Pine felt. Like she would never understand.
“Why should we stay here?” Pine’s mother said as she placed a loving hand on Pine’s shoulder. “Every day is the same work. Every year the same goal. This place will never change. We want more. We want to see more. Experience more.”
Again, Pine only shook her head.
“We want you to come with us,” her father said.
“How?” Pine finally found her voice. “You can’t even go beyond the barrier.” She wasn’t sure her parents heard her. They looked at one another, turned around, and walked through the barrier. She saw them both shudder as they did.
Her father turned around with the same maniacal smile he was wearing before. “If you’re taught to believe something your whole life, why think differently? You’ll never know what is real unless you experience it yourself.”
He put his hand out, palm up, nearly begging for Pine to grab it, and she almost did. It would have been easy to leave with her parents. She did always want to see the outside world. But, something stopped her. She knew where she belonged in the North. She had a place, and admittedly, that felt good. But, she also had a place with her parents, and though their future would be unknown it had to still be a good one.
For whatever reason, instead of reaching for her father’s hand, Pine took a step back.
Their eyes locked. His lip quivered and eyes squinted. He pulled her mother tight to him and slowly he took his hand away. They turned and disappeared into a winter storm and her feet stayed frozen in the snow.