THE SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR
“Daddy,” five-year old Vijay whimpered to Raj, “will the days ever get longer again?”
If not for his son’s earnestness, the science teacher would’ve laughed. Four previous winter solstices, but this year’s was the one that frightened him. Every year his first, except when it came to Santa Claus, hmmph, he sticks around. Better off if the boy begged for Hanuman to come every year, or Sun Wukong, really, any monkey god over that obese polar plantation owner. An absolute terrible example against the candy cutback Raj wanted for his son.
“Of course. Until it’s light at nine o’clock in July.” A sigh. “And too hot.”
The boy nodded but still looked troubled.
Raj’s wife Radha, always an early riser, always enforcer of the same, had lit candles amidst all the lamps and lights, “Too dark for morning,” she’d said. Blindingly bright now, Raj grumbled inside. As a child, Raj huddled on the couch all day when this date came around, with lights out, his only illumination the cartoons on television. His parents hadn’t liked it, but they respected the mores of winter vacation. In the darkness, under the blankets’ warmth with hot cocoa by his side, he felt as if he’d returned to the womb. If snow reclined on the ground, he could fashion an ice castle for all the snow nymphs to rule in. They never seemed to build their own.
But Radha understood none of that, so she batted the shadows away. Their son would stay afraid of the dark, would still keep his nightlight on, no unknowns confronted. Completely unhealthy.
“My eyes hurt,” Raj said, and he massaged the bags underneath them for emphasis.
His wife never even faced him. “There’s some aspirin in the bathroom cabinet.”
Yes, he knew where the aspirin was already. “I think the candles are the cause.”
“If it’s dim in here, then it’ll be my eyes that hurt. And I have a lot of work to do.”
Fair. But he still felt suffocated by glimmer. The Christmas tree ornaments reflected the television, turned to an obnoxiously loud children’s show afraid of cartoons or even costumes. Vijay watched it dutifully. His mother called it “educational.” Droll.
“I want to walk Vijay to the park,” Raj said.
“We’ll bundle up.”
“He’ll catch a cough.”
“It’ll only be for half an hour,” he lied.
She bit her lip, glancing nervously at her computer. He knew she didn’t have time to argue with him, and counted on it. Manipulative, but necessary. Some things, she couldn’t understand. Not brought up the same way, hadn’t seen the same sights.
She rolled her eyes, then glared at him, lips zipped. He kept his face impassive, as if his request was simple, an inquiry on whether he should check the mail.
“If he gets sick,” she said, relenting, “then I’ll skin you alive.”
“And break your Hippocratic Oath?”
“I’m serious, Raj.”
The sky curled with murky blue aura, a stew of chilled air and brooding clouds. Even this sliver of day only acted as a preamble for night. Wind nipped away, like a dog test chewing a new toy, but Vijay shivered nonetheless, his mouth puckering ready for complaint.
“Look at the sky, Vijay.” Raj wished he could coo, but knew from his students playing back to him recordings of his lectures that the best he could do was yip. He never calmed infant Vijay very well either, always his wife’s job. You don’t have the touch, Raj. And he worked with less than twenty-four hours to get this right, this all-important point.
Vijay only groaned and whinnied.
“For the rest of the year,” Raj said, “you won’t get skies that stay this dark. They turn normal all too soon. Don’t have enough magic.”
The word “magic” failed to brighten the boy’s eyes. Just as well, since Raj knew explosions caught more oohs and ahs than mysticism did these days. Perhaps the Santa mythos carried some unbeknownst explosive element, perhaps that was how the overgrown elf enraptured Vijay, who even knew.
“We’ll walk over to the gas station and get some warm hot dogs. Would you like that?” Raj knew he’d only get grumbles back, so he plowed through. “And we’ll walk around in old downtown, looking at all the,” inward groan, “Christmas decorations.”
A notable pep-up. “Christmas decorations?”
The family lived in a fairly fashionable quarter by a tourist trap, and the park participated in that, a machine of appeal and entreaty, a cycle of messages, “Buy things,” “Feel insecure,” “Find superiority over others,” etc. No simple quests, no dragons to conquer, no, the dragon instead told you, “Sure, you beat me, but wouldn’t it be better to strike my heart with something nicer than that rusty rapier? Like, say, with this exclusive diamond-encrusted broadsword, crafted in 1831, and not only that, but one accompanied by this mithril helm,” and so on, to the point where even the snowmen stood fake and plastic.
But Vijay grinned and grinned and grinned, even through the cold.
First, however, the gas station. Bright fluorescents, enough for Raj to wince as they poured boiling water on his eyes. Vijay though gazed worshipfully at a Santa cutout standing next to the counter.
The attendant, a girl in her mid-twenties, cocked her head as Raj approached with his hot dogs. “Hey,” she said, “you’re a doctor, right?”
Heat pinched Raj’s cheeks. “No,” he said, not amending that his wife was.
The girl tugged down the right side collar of her shirt, showing a patch of red on her collar bone. “I’ve dealt with this rash since Thanksgiving. Do you know anyone who could diagnose what it is?”
“I’d just like the hot dogs, please.”
She shrugged and rang him up. The leprechaun sitting on the cigarette shelf behind her winked at Raj before disappearing. Raj blinked, unsure if his imagination wasn’t getting away from him. Too soon for such appearances, wasn’t it?
“Maybe,” he said, sprinkling some warmth on his still-nervous tone, “You should ask the fairy queen about your rash.”
“I doubt she’d do much good.” She sighed and rubbed the offending spot. “Rather just see a doctor. That’ll be five bucks even.”
“You’re very pretty,” Vijay said to her. His hand tightened in Raj’s grasp.
“Aw.” A tooth was missing in her grin. “Aren’t you too cute. What’s Santa getting you for Christmas?”
Well, the boy couldn’t possibly know, Raj groused inside. Unless he was precognitive. Vijay seemed to think he was and chirped, “A remote-controlled toy truck! Vroom, vroom!”
Raj swiped his credit card. “Why not a magic truck, Vijay? One not controlled by remote?”
The attendant snickered. “Everyone knows Santa doesn’t give magic gifts. Just stuff you can find at Toys ‘R Us.”
“Daddy, can we go to Toys ‘R Us?”
Preferably not. “Let’s check out the Christmas lights first, okay?”
They could’ve toured the Main Street, but Raj’s nerves could only endure so much. An avenue two blocks away held its share of sleepy shops with sparser displays. Enough, though, to garner Vijay’s sparkle-eyed wonder. His fingers pressed against each glass pane, leaving smudges once pulled away, prints indistinguishable from all the other ones the window had accrued this winter.
Seeing that grin pushed Raj a step back in his mind. Maybe therein lied Santa’s appeal – his commonality. Every mall carried one, so every child could return to school in January and reminisce together about the joys of his cotton beard and plastic buckle. A snapshot of a Santa in Duluth could spark recognition in Schenectady.
Raj still hated it. Cherishing a memory you didn’t own, a public utility, the porta potty of sentiments. No, his son deserved more than that.
And there, maybe summoned by his thoughts, stood a White Stag across the street, in between two dead topiary bushes, its antlers sparkling with flicks of gems, its eternally combed tail
“Uh-huh,” the boy said, not looking away from a clock repair shop’s light-covered timekeepers.
His son tossed a glance, his eyes locking on the creature and just as quickly releasing, targeting again the greens and reds. “Pretty.”
“You didn’t even look.”
“Well met, sons of men,” the stag said, his baritone booming across the road, the tone of royal decree.
“Vijay, he talks!”
“Uh-huh.” But the boy kept focus on the storefront.
With a bow, the stag trotted away, through an alley, likely its last steps into the human world until the next winter solstice.
Raj let out an unavoidable sob before clamming up, but his son didn’t notice. Anger for a moment crossed into the father but dropped away. All of this hardly resembled, say, Vijay refusing to eat his peas. Reproach failed to remedy this, a fall away from the grace of the fairy kind, the forest folk, the celestial beings and lost spirits, the glimpse into the clandestine fabric carrying the weight of the regular realm’s motley sheets. What discipline could he muster? Two weeks without dessert for failing to commune with the arcane?
“It’s the shortest day of the year, Vijay.”
“Not just another day in December.” Terse. Not with Vijay, though. No. With an entire culture.
A whimper. “I want the sun to come back.”
Raj put on a smile he didn’t feel. “Of course you do.”
“Can we go home now?”
“Let’s spend just a little time at the park.”
Dot-sized sprites flittered near the ground, hovering next to rock walls, whispering to each other. On the overhanging branches of a frostbitten tree, a kind–hearted goblin chatted with a kinder-hearted eagle totem that flapped its wooden wings with each chuckle. A nymph danced in a sprinkler that she’d magicked into action, the water never freezing thanks to her spell.
“Look, Daddy! Frosty!” Indeed, there stood a cardboard cutout of a snow husk the two could mold in their backyard.
“Yes,” Raj nodded, “very good. And look at that.” He pointed out a deathly pale man in an ancient black Oriental robe, his tall tasseled hat flapping a slip of paper with exotic writing over his fanged face. “A jiangshi, a hopping vampire. Normally very dangerous, but tonight, and only this night of the year-“
“Does he know Santa?”
Probably not, in fact, probably predated Santa. “He might, he might.”
“Is Santa here?”
“Why not? Whyyyyy?”
“He can’t be everywhere.”
“Yes he can. His reindeer can take him anywhere.”
“A jiangshi can also go anywhere. You see that paper hanging from its hat? It-“
“Santa!” And indeed, over the crest of a hill, the telltale ball attached to the cap. The boy dashed off, and when Raj finally caught up with him, he already had crawled halfway up Santa’s leg.
After a couple huffs, Raj got out, “That’s a statue.”
“But he’s not alive. Just stone and paint.”
“Look, he has a beard! And a hat!”
“And convenient latter rungs so you can climb to his shoulders.” Eight-foot high shoulders, and Raj considered citing safety concerns to keep the boy off them, but that’d smack of hypocrisy considering he’d dragged both of them through this chill. “Is he icy?”
With sarcasm, “A solstice miracle.”
Vijay shied away from the shoulders anyway, opting to climb up and down and up again, sometimes hanging from only one hand and foot, which Raj chastised him for, but he would pull it off on occasion again anyway in casual defiance.
“Hello, sons of men,” came a quiet bass tone.
Raj turned around and saw the tree walking towards him, roots rippling through the frozen earth like tentacles, limbs twisting in a strange dance of greeting.
“How goes your night?” The gravelly rumble emanated from a hollow near its bottom.
“My son is doing just great.” A sigh. “But good luck drawing his attention.” Indeed, a checkup showed the boy staring up at the Santa face in awe again.
“The child climbs well.”
“I suppose he does.” Better than his chubby frame would suggest.
“I sense disappointment in you.”
“A parent can never be disappointed with their child. Ever.” A rub of his nose bridge. “But I want so much more for him.”
“More than what?”
“That which society offers.”
“And he contents himself with it?”
“With the plastic and lights and parades, yes. I just wish he’d appreciate the magic. The mystery of all this night covering the earth.” A deep breath, refreshing his whole body.
“And he does not?”
“Then try to kill him.”
The whispers of nighttime breeze. The knock of Vijay’s feet against the ladder.
“If he survives and escapes, he will understand the unpredictability of life, the savage wonder of the unknown. If not, then the world succors one less ruiner of our secret forests and dasher of our fairy circles.”
Far off, the hiss of the sprinklers and the shrill tee-hees of the nymph. A branch rattling from a gust, its own shiver.
The screech of Vijay’s shoes slipping off a rung, and the flop of his body on the wood chips below. His eyes widened, as big as moons, before his mouth did the same, letting loose a throaty howl that reddened his entire face like an cherry, the tear ducts fountaining out their wares.
Raj bolted toward him, holding Vijay’s wetted cheeks to his chest before spotting the twitch of the boy’s right ankle. A peel back of the sock showed a magenta overlay of bruising. Raj massaged it, dumbfounded on what to do next, when the bawling intensified. The boy had turned his sights up to the grinning leer of the Santa, and fear quaked his entire frame.
“Shhh,” Raj said. “Look at me.” But the child faced over to past the father’s shoulders, towards where the tree-thing no doubt silently judged them. “No,” the man entreated, “look at me.” He cupped Vijay’s chin and turned it his way. “I’m here for you, son. Always.”
“I know. Painful and cold.” Harder rubs on the joint. “But this too will pass. We have each other. Moonshine, sunshine, we have each other.” He pulled the child closer. The kneading continued.
“I don’t like Santa no more.”
“Well, okay. You were right about one thing, though. It’s easy to get sick of the dark.” The skin didn’t swell beneath his fingers, at least.
Minutes passed, Raj silent, enduring the occasional sob, hands aching in the chill, but a pain he could easily endure.
“I think I can walk,” Vijay murmured.
“Are you sure?”
A somber nod.
They stood, but doing so raised a deep cough out of Raj. He felt his throat, its scratchy pain. A groan. “Your daddy is getting sick.”
As if in higher pitched refrain, an eruption of hacking from Vijay, a, “Hyuh-hyuh-hyuh,” simultaneously adorable and worrying.
“You too, hmm?” the father said.
A nod from Vijay, and curiously, a grin.
“Mommy will be very angry at us,” Raj said.
“Both of us!” And Vijay buried himself into his father’s coat. The nymph went unheard, and the park’s spectacle flickered out, leaving them in a silent darkness that nonetheless failed to intimidate them.
About the Author
Blaise Marcoux writes weird fiction, probably because of some subconsciously repressed abduction by aliens or something. His fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Title Goes Here, Comma, Splice, and through Short Story Press. His website is www.betterlivingthroughlowselfesteem.
Logjammed by Blaise Marcoux / History & Fiction have rating 2.3 out of 5 / Based on34 votes