My name is Nicholas. I know by now people may have already forgotten about me, but I used to be addressed as "Father Christmas" and "Santa Claus" among many other names. I suppose that I might be merely dismissed as a myth nowadays. I daresay it has been hundreds of years since I last brought treasures to a kind soul. Ah, but I have lost track of the ages in this wretched oubliette. There is not even a tinge of sunlight to indicate the passage of day.
I cannot fathom how I could have possibly deserved such a fate. Everyday, my stomach burns of hunger, and yet I cannot die of starvation. Simply stated, I cannot die.
I never imagined that I would detest my existence. The year was 1717 and I was the happiest man in the world. As far as occupations came, mine was a most fortunate one. Riding a sleigh harnessed to flying reindeer and delivering happiness to children on the Nice List was a pursuit I did not wish to barter, not even for a tempting sundrenched holiday.
Oh, but Fate! Fate is a cruel adversary. It does not relish in the fact that one is happy. It has to come, capriciously, and take away all that means anything to you. To me, it came as a blue-eyed little girl in a snow-covered cape.
There was a harsh blizzard that evening, and the elves and I were hard at work at the Factory designating presents to children. We were drowning out the gusty sounds with exuberant singing when we heard the echo of a knock coming from the main door.
Most of us fell silent.
"Did you hear that, Master?" asked Philius, a round little thing whose beard was as white as mine. He was my right-hand man, and he tended to speak before any other elf did.
"Yes," I replied thoughtfully. "I wonder who it could be in such grisly weather."
The knock came again.
"Dimmsie, would you please go and see who it is?" I requested of the tiniest and most hairless elf.
"Yes, Sir," he declared with a salute, and scampered towards the foyer.
We returned to work uneasily for the next minute or two until Dimmsie came scurrying back, trailed by a blushing little girl. She was about a foot taller than Dimmsie and her face was as rose-colored as her woolen cape. She ducked her head shyly as she entered the room, apparently more abashed than stunned at the sight of a bellied stranger and his company of hairy little men.
"Dimmsie," I addressed the anxious little elf. "Please go and fetch this girl a nice warm cup of cocoa. And a warm coat as well."
Dimmsie gave a bow and scuttled towards the kitchen.
"Why, hello there Little Miss," I greeted the little girl with cheer, trying not to flout my jolly reputation. "What name do you go by?"
"Emerald," she breathed in a small melodic voice, and her face grew redder still.
"Such a lovely name for such a pretty child." I smiled at her with as much warmth as I could muster. "Tell me, how were you able to come upon our little factory?"
A pair of sky-blue eyes stared at me with strange innocence and cherry-like lips quivered before they spoke. "I don't know
" she answered. Her gaze gradually surveyed the Sorting Room until it was affixed on a stack of gifts luminously wrapped in shades of red, green and silver. At that moment, I could have sworn her eyes flashed golden.
"I was walking in the park with Mummy," she continued, relinquishing her shyness, "and then here I was in the middle of a snow storm."
"Oh, poor child! Did you brave the storm until finding your way here?"
She nodded, and I took her in my arms benignly. She did not fidget in my grip. In fact, she even returned my embrace. "Don't worry, Emerald," I assured her. "I will bring you home."
A few minutes later we were sitting in my office, Emerald in a new red dressing gown with a cup of hot chocolate between her fingers and me relaxing on my reliable old recliner. At first, she gave the chocolate a hesitant sip, and then larger, hurried gulps followed.
"Yes, it's delicious, isn't it?" I never entertained as many guests as I pleased, being in a secluded and snowy region, and this rare presence delighted me.
She smiled at me with perfect gleaming teeth.
I explained to her how I couldn't bring her home just yet. I could not yet leave the Factory, but I swore that come Christmas Eve, she could sit next to me on my sleigh whilst giving me directions to her abode. I assured her that Christmas Eve was only two days away.
She didn't seem at all defiant. In fact, she was even beaming as she moved her head up and down. The idea of exploring Santa's Factory appealed more to her than the thought of returning home early. I gathered that this was an exceptional opportunity for her.
"The elves have set up a room for you down the corridor," I told her. "You can rest there tonight and tomorrow night as well. Tomorrow you can wander about the Factory. I'm sure you'll find many things that will thrill your little heart."
She yawned and placed the empty cup down on the coffee table. "Thank you very much, Santa," she said politely. "Goodnight." And she skipped out of my office.
I fell asleep on the recliner that night, but Philius disrupted my dreams.
"Sir, Sir!" he said, shaking me with two trembling hands.
"What is it, Philius?" I was still half-asleep, my voice perhaps sounding more like a snore.
"That girl is not on the List!" he exclaimed.
"What on earth are you talking about?" I was almost awake now, trying to discern what he was saying.
"There is no Emerald Mace on the List!"
"So she is naughty," I grumbled. I was mildly irritated for being disturbed over such a petty detail. Hordes of children were naughty. Misbehavior was a part of childhood. Almost every child had made the Naughty List at least once.
"No, Sir, the problem is that she is not on either List!" His voice was jittery.
"But that's impossible." I was fully aware of everything now. The memory of sleep had been completely erased. I scratched the back of my neck. "Look again."
"I did, Sir! Hundreds of times!" Panic was beginning to dawn on his wrinkled face. "Sir, you don't think there might be something wrong with this child? First of all, we don't know how she got here when no other human has found this place. And second, her name does not appear on the List."
"Ah, but she's a child, Philius! Perhaps Emerald Mace is an imagined nickname. You know how children are with their unique thoughts."
"But sir," he pleaded. "The elves are all afraid of her." I surmised that he, too, was frightened, possibly more frightened than all the other elves were.
I should have listened to him. Instead I merely glared at him and said, "Nonsense!"
When Emerald woke, we had breakfast together and she excitedly tore down the tower of pancakes as we ate. I watched her adoringly as if she were my own child. Maybe I felt a twinge of sadness then, for the first time in the centuries of my existence. I wondered what it would be like to have a family, a wife and children, instead of a pack of restless toy-making elves, to have a traditional country home instead of a factory that mimicked the appearance of a giant red boot, and to ride a horse-drawn carriage instead of a flying sleigh.
I shook my head and shrugged off all those thoughts.
As Emerald satiated her hunger, I observed how warily the elves served her. They moved cautiously as they picked up empty plates and poured juice into her glass. In their eyes, their terror was visible.
Ridiculous, I thought, and I resumed enjoying my oatmeal as well as Emerald's company.
"What do want for Christmas, Em?" I asked her.
"I'm not really sure yet," she replied, toying with the last piece of pancake on her plate before drowning it in syrup.
I smiled. "Well, you can look around our Gallery, dear one, and you can come and tell me what you like."
"Really?" Her blue eyes seemed to flash golden again in wonderment.
I was in the Ribbon Room supervising the final step in the Gift-Wrapping process when I heard a raucous scream coming from the Elfin Quarters. "What was that?" I cried. The other elves glanced at each other in alarm.
I rushed towards the Quarters and the sight I witnessed was most grotesque. Blood was splattered all over the ceramic flooring and the linen bed covers. In the middle of the room lay Dimmsie, pale and blank-eyed, seeped of all life. Over him stood Philius, his white beard tainted with red, flowing down to his garments and dripping off the point of the jagged knife he held in his grip. His expression was inscrutable.
We all froze in shock at the scene in front of us, me and the elves behind me. None of us had ever seen this much blood before. A flurry of unfamiliar negative emotions diffused throughout the room.
"Philius! What have you done?" I demanded when I finally regained composure.
Philius seemed to jolt awake when he heard his name and he stared at us in confusion. When he looked to his feet it was with horror at the sight of Dimmsie's lifeless form and the blade in his hand.
"No!" he screeched. "Dimmsie! No! This is not what you think! I did not do this to him!"
"Oh, Philius," I mouthed painfully.
"Take him to the lowest room," I commanded the other elves. Hesitantly, they grappled Philius, who did not even flinch to struggle, and took him down to the underground chambers.
I also instructed the remaining elves to build a nice casket for poor Dimmsie so that we may bury him after Christmas.
"Master, please believe me
" he beckoned as they held him. I turned away from my troubled comrade and returned to the Ribbon Room. I could still hear his pleas and his sobs as they dragged him downstairs.
"What happened?" Emerald asked after seeing what must have been such a flustered look on my face.
"It is not for you to know, dear," I sighed. "Do not try to insist upon it."
"Oh," she said vacuously, and she went down the corridor to the direction of the Gallery.
I wept in my office. I did not know what was happening. How could Philius have done such a monstrosity of an act? He was my most trusted friend. I could not, for the life of me, comprehend what could have driven him to commit such a dreadful crime. I rested on my couch and let sleep loom over me, so I could shun reality for even just a moment. Tomorrow night I would be delivering happiness to the world, but there was no one to deliver happiness to me.
When I awoke, Emerald was sitting on my recliner, facing me. She returned to her rose-colored attire and her hood was worn over her head. In that moment, the sight of her gave me a grave chill. Her face no longer blushed pink. Instead, it was as pale as snow. And her eyes were pure gold.
"Emerald?" I was not sure if I was dreaming or not.
"Nicholas," she said in an entirely different voice. It sounded more adult and less musical.
"Emerald, what is it?"
"I know what I want for Christmas." She smiled, and even her smile was less childlike now. "But it isn't something you could give me." A tone of mock sorrow.
"Why not, dear?"
"Because it's something I have to take for myself." She snapped her fingers and the door of my office swished open. My elves entered one by one in odd synchrony. Their faces were similar to that of Philius when we caught him; they were all identical in their impassiveness.
"What is this?" The panic in my voice was more than palpable.
About fifteen elves lunged at me and I did all that I could to break free from their firm grasps. Small as they were, they were immensely strong creatures. In my panicked frenzy, I fought against them, forgetting that I was striking at my own beloved companions. They clawed at me and drove their teeth into my skin so that blood gushed out from different places. In return, I thrashed them about, strangled their little necks and tossed them with all my strength so that collided onto walls, objects and even each other with a loud smack.
As all this was happening, Emerald stood just outside the doorway, her lips curled into an innocent smile, watching.
It wasn't long before my strength left me, and I fell to my knees. It felt like my heart was being crushed by a thick stone hand, which gave one final squeeze before everything became dark. When I woke up, it was still to darkness. This time, it was the darkness of the underground chamber. I have not seen the light of day since, not even just one drop of snow to remind me of the being I once was.
I thought of all the children who wouldn't be receiving gifts that year, and possibly, even the years to follow. Generations upon generations have passed and I can sense that they no longer believe I ever slid down chimneys to slip presents under a tree. Perhaps the ones who do believe have lost faith in me. Even I have lost faith in myself.
I do not know what kind of creature Emerald is, but she is up there, controlling my elves. I always hear her voice, sweet and melodic, resonating throughout the halls. I imagine her capering around, playing with the toys in the Gallery that is now hers and drinking a sinister cup of hot chocolate.
There is no escaping this cold, damp place. Someday I might go mad here. Philius did. But Philius was fortunate enough to die of hunger. For me, there is only waiting. The best I can do is sit here, in this dejected prison with Philius's corpse rotting in a corner, and wait until time ends.