A little heart warming Christmas tale for the festive season - or is it?

Christmas Tree

The Hat That Got Left Behind

By Stacey Dighton

 

'Excuse me, sir. I'm afraid we're rather in need of some assistance. Do you know how my friend and I might get to the pole?'

            'Well that very much depends on which pole you're after.' The ferry-master cupped a gloved hand over the bowl of his pipe and touched the tip of a flaming match to the coarse strands of dried tobacco.

            'Well, the north, I suppose.'

            'You suppose? You suppose?' He puffed on the pipe's stem, his long, grey beard billowing in the blizzard. 'It's a long way to travel on the back of a suppose, sir.'

             Anders turned to his friend, Marskup, and they both shrugged, nonplussed. 'Then the north it is. We've travelled all the way from Munich and it's been a long and tiresome journey. We're looking for Saint Nicholas.'

            'You and the rest of the planet, sir, especially during the winter months. But I must say, you're a little later than most. Christmas day was last Sunday. We'll be welcoming a new year at first light.'

            Marskup heaved a bag from the deck of the enormous ice-breaker that both he and Anders had hitched aboard in Murmansk, his moustache white and speckled as if dipped in frosting. 'It's for little Jonas.'

            'Jonas?'

            Anders smiled. 'Yes, my son. He's just six years old, and he loves Christmas time.'

            The ferry-master hollered orders at two short looking gentlemen in red velvet hats and turned back to the pair of them. 'Well, that's good to know, sir, but hardly a surprise. Every child that age loves Christmas, do they not? Look, I'm really sorry but we're busy packing away before the worst of the storm hits. I must insist that you finish up your business here and be on your way.' His beard twitched, his moustache wriggled and he shot them a curious glance. 'Is there anything else?'

            Anders pointed to the dogs. 'Actually there is. How much for your sleigh?'

*

            Anders was delighted to learn that after Christmas day the price to hire a dog sled plummeted, and it had cost him little more than a week's wages and a cup of hot cocoa to appease the ferry-master. The dogs were strong and the sled was solid, the blades razor sharp, and they tore across the ice as if they were both passengers in a finely tuned race car. The sled came with its own Musher, name of Yutu. Yutu was almost entirely covered in thick, wind-proof clothing, his nose and eyes just visible beneath a lush, fur-lined hood.

            'You must really need to get to the North Pole, paying good money to ride out in a storm like this.'

            'Oh, we do. We have something to return.' Anders pointed to the bag that Marskup held on his lap.

            'To return?'

            'That's right.'

            'May I ask what? And to whom?'

            'Well, to Saint Nicholas of course.' Marskup grinned. 'He left it behind.'

            'Yes,' Anders confirmed. 'It was in my son's room. You see, on Christmas morning my boy -Jonas is his name - came racing downstairs. He was super excited as always to see my wife Erikka and I sitting there beside the tree with his many gifts, and yet he was carrying this strange looking sack in his arms. We were perplexed. It wasn't the bicycle he had asked for - that was beside the two of us after all - so we both knew something was odd.'

            Yutu turned to face them, his face crisp, his eyes gleaming from beneath his cowl. 'And? Tell me. What was this mysterious item that he brought you?'

            Marskup leaned forward with the bag held tightly in his hands and winked. He loosened the draw string and pulled the mouth of the sack open a little. A red glow washed over his cheeks and brow like spilt wine. Yutu gasped.

            'You have Santa's hat!'

 

*

 

            They disembarked from the sled at two large, ornate gates that looked as though they had been hued from enormous blocks of ice and waved Yutu farewell. He promised to return at first light. The snowstorm had abated a little but the wind was still fierce.

            'Well, here we are.' Anders placed an arm on Marskup's shoulders. 'You know, I really am glad you agreed to come with me on this quest. I don't think I could have made it on my own, what with the battle with the sea beast at Svalbard and that terrible mess with the pirates at Edge Island. I thought we were goners for sure.'

            Marskup laughed. 'Haha. Yeah, we certainly had a couple of close scrapes and rode our luck more than perhaps we should. But, you know, you promised Jonas that you would return Santa's hat and I knew that without a companion on such a treacherous journey you were likely to wind up dead or worse.'

            Anders nodded. 'Too true my friend.' He glanced at the bag. 'And that hat hasn't left your side since we boarded the train in Munchen.'

            Marskup adjusted his grip but his eyes never left Anders own gaze. 'I would guard this with my own life.'

            Two large polar bears greeted them at the estate's entrance.

            'Who goes there?'

            'Anders Weber of Frankfurt.' He puffed out his chest but he could feel his heart racing. The bears were large and muscular and their teeth were as long as hunting knives. 'I seek an audience with Saint Nicholas.'

            'Impossible!' The bear to their right roared, spittle flying from her lips.

            Anders swallowed his own frozen saliva and shuddered. 'We have travelled some many thousands of miles.'

            'Irrelevant. The Saint is resting and will not be taking visitors.'

            Anders peered between the two bears to a site some two hundred metres hence and spied a large, glistening dome like structure with three turrets around its perimeter, a large oval entranceway adorned with glimmering lights facing them. An impressive ice covered tree protruded from its centre, on top of which stood a glorious angel with golden dust swirling around her silken hair like a halo.

            'But we have something of his.'

            The bear to Anders' left took a step towards them. 'How so?'

            He turned to his companion who was now cowering behind him in the shadows, his face turned down to the ground, his shoulders slumped.

            'Don't be afraid Marskup. These beasts are not here to hurt us.' Anders looked up at the bear who was now towering over him, drool hanging from her snarling mouth. 'Are you?'

            'Show it to me!'

            'We would really - ,' Anders cleared his throat once more. 'We would really rather give it to him ourselves.'

            The second bear charged them at once, her claws thrust towards them like terrible arrows, her ferocious eyes full of rage and death. Just as she was about to descend upon them and, no doubt, tear them apart just as easily as she might devour a freshly caught seal, a voice boomed out from the crystal dome.

            'No Uki! Taktu!'

            The attacking bear froze in mid leap, the second bear falling to the ground as if someone had cut the strings holding her upright.

            'Let them pass!'

            The bears rolled onto their backs and closed their eyes as if sleeping. Suddenly a crystal bridge emerged from between their prone torsos. It crossed the wide expanse of the snow covered plane beneath them and finished at the dome's entranceway. The bridge had handrails made from candy cane and suspension struts made from liquorice. The paving slabs were made from freshly baked gingerbread and the mortar holding everything together was whisked from frozen buttercream.

            Anders turned to Marskup who was still trembling. 'Come on, old friend. I think this is the way in.'

 

*

The inside of the dome was radiant and bright. Everything shimmered and glistened like the very brightest of stars and the ground was smooth and shiny like clear mirrors. Little bearded creatures rushed around their feet like excited puppies, their voices as high pitched as cawing birds, their noses red and bulbous.

            'Come with us, come with us.'

            Anders and Marskup ascended the stairway leading to the centre of the dome which itself was built around the trunk of the tree they had seen jutting from the dome's apex. A red and white doorway awaited them which stood slightly ajar. A crimson glow seeped out from the room beyond, as did a beautiful, skipping and jittering melody.

            Marskup held the bag aloft, his typically stoic and confident demeanour returned once more. 

           Anders addressed him with a wide, radiant grin. 'I think this is it Marskup. I think we've made it. After all these miles and all of our adventures. Jonas will be overjoyed.'

            Marskup nodded and grunted his approval. His hat was sitting oddly askew as if something was trying to escape from beneath, his eyes suddenly ablaze and the corners of his mouth turned up as if grinning and sneering all at once.

            'Come to meet Santa. This way, this way. Come with us. He's waiting. He's waiting for you.'

            They reached the top of the staircase as if on an escalator. Anders reached his hand out to the bright red doorknob. He pushed.

            Beyond the door the walkway was covered in a red and white carpet that led from the threshold to a set of three wide steps. To the right of the steps sat a woman with a red cape, white scarf and long, billowing white hair. She had a warmth in her eyes that made Anders want to go to her. He smiled and she smiled back. To the left of the steps were three reindeer eating from a trough filled with cranberries and chocolate. They looked exhausted, as if they had been on the longest of journeys. Anders knew the feeling.

            His gaze followed the stairway upwards towards a large, comfy armchair, within which sat a man in a red and purple suit, his stomach hanging over a wide, black belt, his white and grey beard settled on his thick chest like the finest of lamb's wool. His eyes were smiling, his cheeks red, his nose glistening like a cherry drop.

            'You have something of mine?'

            'We do.' Anders found himself shaking. He couldn't believe he was standing in front of the great Saint Nicholas. He knew that Jonas would be thrilled. 'My son found it.'

            'And?'

            'And what?'

            Santa Claus leaned forward in his chair and chuckled.

            'This thing you have. What is it?'

            Anders collected himself. 'Of course. Sorry.' He turned to his friend but Marskup was nowhere to be seen.

            'Hurry up now boy. We've had a busy week and quite frankly I could do with a nap.'

            'My friend - '

            'Your who?'

            'My friend, Marskup. He was just here.'

            Santa looked at his wife and shrugged. 'My dear fellow, you came all this way on your own?'

            'No, I - ,' Anders peered around the wide expanse of the circular chamber but Marskup had truly vanished. 'He came with me. We travelled here together over snow covered mountains, deep green valleys and roaring seas. He has the sack with the - '

            'With the what?'

            'The hat.'

            'What hat?'

            'Your hat.'

            Santa Claus stood from his chair and laughed. 'Oh, I don't think so.' He reached into his pocket and pulled out a long, bright red object, adorned with white fur and a glimmering peak. 'I have my hat right here.'

            Anders mouth fell open. Santa's wife stood and approached him. She sighed.

            'I'm afraid you seem to have had a wasted trip mister - ?'

            'Weber. I mean, my name is Anders, but I - '

            'Coming all this way to return something that was never missing at all.'

            'I don't understand.'

            From behind her a large shadow loomed; curled horns atop a hairy scalp, long nails on muscular arms, thick fur pouring over broad shoulders, teeth like sharp stalactites, eyes as red as roaring infernos. Suddenly there was a scent like festering meat and a groan like a thousand mourning souls.

            'Marskup?'

            'Almost, my gullible friend.' A voice like the roar of a lion and the cackle of a pack of hyenas.

            'What has happened to you? You look - different.'

            Santa grunted and raised a gloved first. 'He's duped you, you fool.'

            The shadowy beast laughed. 'That's right Nicky, old boy. All I needed was someone to invite me along, and Anders here was all too willing to oblige. We met just a month ago in a sweet shop in Munich. His little boy was so excited for Santa to slide down his chimney and deliver him his precious little bicycle. And, of course, this fool and his wife had drummed into him over his six short years that Christmas was some sort of magical, mystical event, rather than just over commercialised nonsense.' The horned beast glared down at Anders. 'Jonas let me in you see. Into your house when you were in the kitchen prepping the fat duck and your wife was peeling the potatoes for the dumplings. That wasn't Jonas that told you about the hat, Anders. That was me.'

            'You? But we saw Jonas. That morning. He brought us the sack.' Anders noticed with a deepening dread that one of the reindeer lay slaughtered at the monster's feet, blood pooling around its still and lifeless body.

            'But not the hat. You never saw the hat did you?'

            Santa was shaking his head.

            'Well, no, but why did I need to? I trusted my son. If he said it was Santa's hat then I had no reason to doubt him.'

            'Except it wasn't Jonas at all.'

            'But, Marskup - ?'

            Santa grabbed his wife and pulled her towards him. 'Not Marskup, you imbecile.'

            Anders shook his head. 'Then who?'

            The creature with the thick horns and the claws dripping with fresh reindeer blood roared in triumph. 'I am Krampus!' He reached into the sack - the sack that they had carried all the way from Munich in a jam-packed train. The sack that they had sneaked through security onto the little two-prop, bone rattler of an aeroplane in Finland. The sack that they had stowed in the hull of the iron behemoth of a ship named 'The Yevgenia' in Murmansk, Russia.

            The thing that once was Marskup retrieved a dome-like object and hurled it towards Anders. It struck the ice and tumbled towards him, gloopy red strands sticking to the cold surface like sticky cranberry sauce and coming to rest on the plush carpet at his feet. Saint Nicholas yelled and his wife shrieked.

            There, staring up at Anders with a look of dumbfounded surprise on his unmoving lips, was the head of his young son. The head of Jonas. He was wearing a red, velvet hat.