The ground is now more piss and excrement than snow, and he ceases his mantra and begins to listen more carefully to the wailing that is not of the wind, attuning himself to its polyphonic rise and fall. He thinks of that question always asked by the children: How can he visit every house in the whole world in just one night? “Magic,” is his usual answer, but a more precise explanation would be: through the exquisite yearlong torture of those beautiful, delicate, intelligent, and vicious creatures, the shalin.
Once, he had to break the leg of a shalin whose fury had accelerated too quickly, too far ahead of its companions’. If he had done nothing, it would have died right there in its pen, and possibly a few others, too, drawn into the downswirl of its throes. As it was, he slightly miscalculated. The crippling did delay the peaking of the creature’s desire just long enough, but the leg did not quite heal in time, and the entire train – and he, too, in harness with the rest – felt the grinding pain of it all through their night’s passage that was both instantaneous and endless.
This year has gone well, though. The yearning of the shalin, immobilized in their pens, has mounted steadily and in unison. Only once, three weeks ago, did he have to reach carefully up into the flurry of one creature’s antler-like antennae, and snap off one small, nerve-laden tip to put it back into balance with the rest.
About a week ago, the shrieking began. Psychic screams, for the vocal cords of the shalin have also been bound absolutely, and yet audible on the plain air of this world. (He made a recording of them once, using a balky mini-cassette recorder he was not going to be able to gift to anyone that year, just to be sure they didn’t sound entirely in his mind.) How this can be, he does not know, and it worries him. If the cries of the shalin can somehow escape the barriers he has placed around them, those barriers might fail in other ways, too, some day. Still, the phenomenon is useful as a measure of the creatures’ fury, and its emergence one week before Christmas was just about right.
The screams alter as the shalin sense his approach, not so much intensifying as diversifying. Numerous complex patterns arise and contend with one another. To another ear, no change might be perceived; many of the patterns would be too complex to discern, and they combine at any rate into a monolithic chaos not apparently different from the usual cacophony of the beasts. Except to him. He can hear the difference, though he does not know exactly what they are expressing through it.
Sometimes he thinks it must be love.
He walks among them, each standing in its place within a little smudge of no-light. He often presses his face into that darkness, just far enough to see the wild blur of the creature within, moving faster than light in every direction and yet held utterly rigid. However, he knows better than to introduce potentially disruptive stimuli so close to the moment of their loosing. They are perfectly in step right now, with one another and the season, and he will have them all in his full sight soon enough, unbound amidst the burning stars.
Then, too, there is the slight risk to his own person every time he enters the penned space of a shalin. Once, though it was impossible, one managed to tear off one finger of his left hand. The others, theoretically isolated from one another, went crazy in response. (Whether in empathy for him or anger or solidarity with the creature that bit him, or in simple animal bloodlust, he can only guess.) He was hard pressed to determine how to reshape this new kind of fury, or to be sure what aspects of it, if any, even needed toning down.
He almost had to cancel Christmas that year.
He holds that hand out toward each of the shalin as he passes, tracing in the air the shapes of their curved necks.
“Tonight, we fly,” he whispers.
* * *
He stands before the entrance to the Workshop, eyes shut, slowing his breathing and quieting his mind. The wild silhouettes of the shalin fade from his consciousness, replaced by the darkness of subterranean spaces and the faint mental pressure of the Helpers who move through them, only just discernable from the surrounding stone and silence. Slowly, his awareness penetrates the depths, where he finds no Helpers anywhere near the entrance. Picking up his sack, he enters.
Though he brings a light, he will use it only to examine the toys he collects. He moves swiftly through the dark tunnels he knows so well. Today will be a brief foray only, a quick loop in and out. He does not need many more items to fill his sack, and there isn’t time in any case for a longer expedition like those he often mounts through the long stretch of the year, ranging miles through the labyrinthine passages, initially ignoring all the finds he encounters, but constructing a map of their positions, and the positions and movements of all nearby Helpers, in his mind. What enormous harvests he reaps when he finally winds his way back into the light, both avoiding and herding the Helpers as he passes by them claiming their handiwork!
Sometimes, he contrives to leave them all in the same positions they began from, just to add interest to the endeavor. For a few years, he tried arranging them in a way that would optimize the layout of their creations for gathering on the next trip through, but he found that nothing he did affected this in the least. Evidently, a Helper might wander randomly for an unpredictable length of time before settling down again to its work. Whatever pattern he might leave them in, the next time he entered the workshop, he would find both the Helpers and their creations distributed as evenly and randomly as always throughout the vast space.
He senses a crackling in the darkness before him: his first find! He moves cautiously over to it, extending his mind outward for a moment with extra concentration to be sure there are no Helpers dangerously close. His light reveals a DVD player, a good start. He switches off the light and waits a moment to allow his mind to readjust to the darkness, then tosses the thing quickly into his sack.
The rock around him seems to transform into something alive itself, as the Helpers in proximity within it lurch into motion. The DVD player, though not as rare or large or expensive as many other items, is fairly high on the scale of technological complexity, and this is what seems to most affect the Helpers’ responses. A number of them are now converging, from disparate directions and distances, and at differing speeds, on the spot where he stands. He takes a moment to get a feel for his situation, then moves off at a medium pace, selecting passages that branch down and to the left. Soon, he has passed through the incoming wave of Helpers, who continue closing on the spot where the find was situated for a while, and then laboriously turn to follow the new track. He increases his pace, veering back slowly to the right now, feeling the pursuit slacken in his wake.
Soon, he makes another find, a trifling thing that rouses almost no response, and then another, almost too close to a loitering Helper, but the surrounding area is clear enough that he grabs it and runs. The next find is big – a used Honda Civic that will be the perfect first car for some teen who’s been especially good this year – and its removal draws quite an onslaught of Helpers, including a few from the DVD player that had given up the chase and now lucked back into it. He leads them swiftly to the next find, then uses it to brush them off his trail, moving away from the spot where it lay quickly enough that, by the time the Helpers converge on it, he is too far gone for them to pick up his trail.
Surveying the vicinity, he senses a find apparently still being created or birthed or excreted – he has no idea how the Helpers do it – and gives it a wide berth, noting its position for a future trip. He has never tried to approach a Helper in this state. For that matter, he has only ever seen a Helper with his eyes once, and it was enough to teach him to never get that close again.
He works his way through the short route he planned, into the depths just a little bit and then out, but as he approaches the door of the workshop, he encounters a find like none he has ever known. He senses it a long way off, glittering so strongly in his mind that it obscures all other perceptions. He doesn’t understand how he didn’t sense it on his way in. Could something of this magnitude have been created so quickly? He probes the surrounding darkness, mentally squinting past the glare of the new object, and sensing no Helpers anywhere within his range, moves quickly over to the find and activates his light.
It’s only a hand mirror. A pretty one, to be sure, and, he is quite certain, of an utterly unique design, which is a rare thing in these caverns, but still, not a thing that could possibly have created the sensation that he experienced.
He looks hopefully into it, but sees only his own face, perhaps slightly magnified. It’s an unusually vivid likeness. He can see the merriment in those twinkling eyes as if it cast a light of its own, and understands in that moment more deeply than ever that he is himself the great Enjoyer of all the good of the world. No mortal delight in a perfect gift or miraculous salvation could ever exceed his own, for his delight encompasses both his and theirs.
It’s just a pity that this particular toy has fallen so short of his initial hopes. (What could be causing the powerful impression it still makes on his mind?) For all the joy he takes in the toys that pass through his hands, he longs to see just one genuinely new thing, just one gift of a kind never given before. Oh, there are technological advances and changing fashions, but the essential purposes of the gifts form an unvarying procession: the Entertainment, the Useful Tool, the Decoration, etc. After all the long centuries...
He does a double take, looking intently into the glass again. The face it frames is exactly as it was just moments ago – the plump cheeks, the snowy beard – only now, the soul that stares back at him is that of a tired old man! It is, of course, another true aspect of him, but he never realized just how true. The man in the mirror is ready to die, is longing for the comfort of oblivion. Can this be true? Is this really him?
It is, absolutely. He only comes to know it for sure that very moment, looking into those eyes.
What is this thing he’s found?
He experiments with it for a long time, discovering countless aspects of himself, some of which he was already aware of to some extent and others that are complete revelations. (Such as the bloated, needy infant consuming the world, which cheers him considerably.) He finds, further, that he can see himself from other points of view: a child’s for example, or even a shalin’s. He is moved to tears by a brief immersion into the former, and into a ventilating terror by his brush against the latter. He tries a nearby Helper, and then another, but senses nothing. Are they really such mental ciphers, then, or does the mirror just not work with them?
Probing further, he discovers other tricks that can be played: with time, for example, or distance. He can even glimpse alternate selves that might have arisen had some action or moral resolution from the past played out differently. The possibilities are endless. He marvels at the little thing, but it is clearly not a gift he can dispense to some mortal.
Should he, could he, keep it for himself? He has never kept anything for himself. However, the mirror seems made for him, who knows everything about every person in the world, but no more about himself than the dullest of them. Now he has a way.
He wonders if it would even work for anyone else. This is often the case with such devices. Perhaps it was even made specifically for him.
With that thought, he grasps the truth of it: it is a gift to him, from the Helpers! Is it possible? Do they even have the mental capacity for such a gesture?
He is the Giver. No one has ever given him a gift, much less a gift so perfectly suited to his delight. He looks into the mirror again, seeking his reflection in the eyes of the many Helpers now gathered around him...
And bolts to his feet in alarm!
There are Helpers all around him, blocking the way to the exit from the workshop, blocking all the ways back into the depths. He has let this toy distract him, and now he is surrounded!
Stowing the treacherous thing away in his sack, he calms himself, probing the darkness for a way out. He has been in tighter encirclements before; it’s just a question of shaking it loose by small feints this way and that. The Helpers are driven by extremely rudimentary instincts, and it is easy enough to manipulate them into opening up ways through which he can escape. He tries a few moves, monitoring their responses, but is soon dismayed at what he finds.
The inner ring of the encirclement, already more perfect a sphere than he would have thought possible, does not respond at all to any of his movements. However, the Helpers outside the sphere do, not by moving directly at him, but by sweeping around the sphere toward the point he seems to be making for, as if to reinforce that part of the siege against his apparent attempt to break through. This is not blind instinct, but intelligence he never suspected. Then it hits him truly: The mirror was placed here on purpose, to trap him! He didn’t miss sensing it when entering the workshop, nor was it created on the spot so impossibly quickly. It was created elsewhere – the work begun who knows how long ago – and then set in place when the time was right. They had lain in wait, just outside the range of his senses, and had converged on him, in a coordinated effort, as he took the bait. For a moment, his immediate danger is dwarfed in his mind by the implications for the future. How will he continue to do his work, faced with this new cunning?
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” he cries. Then, to the Helpers, “Come then! Come on!”
He cannot imagine what will happen when they finally come and tear him. Will he die? If so, what will death be for him? Will he simply cease to exist, his consciousness simply – cease?
“Damn you!” he shouts. (To them or to himself he is not sure.) He follows this with imprecations in every mortal language, dropping to his knees and pounding his fists bloody against the rock floor, and, finally, with curses more terrible than any of these, in a language known to only to him.
* * *
Hours go by, and he still sits on the spot he where he found the mirror, surrounded by Helpers who have him at their mercy but have made no move to finish him. Outside the cave, it must be nearly midnight. (At the very least, there will be no Christmas this year, unless he can immediately escape.) Could it be that they don’t really intend him any harm?
He pulls out the mirror and makes one more attempt to experience their view of him. This time, he succeeds, and confirms that their intentions toward the Plunderer are chillingly murderous. Why, then, don’t they attack?
Concentrating more closely on their movements, he sees that there is a kind of restless minute jostling in the inner ring of the encirclement, as if the closest Helpers were trying to advance on him, but were held back by some mysterious force, and he realizes what that something might be: Instinct, after all! No matter how rational a creature is, there will still be some level at which it will continue to obey instinct. He himself, for example, has often had sex with mortals unable to sleep the night before Christmas, despite the risk it brought to his mission, despite the terrible vengeance Mrs. Claus was capable of exacting should she find out. Instinct overruled both knowledge and intention on those occasions.
He has always been aware that the Helpers will not come too close to one another, and it could be this that is preserving his life so far. They’re trying to close on him, but are victims of their own new intelligence. The perfection of the sphere they have formed around him, combined with the force that repels them from one another, is keeping them at bay, in a precarious equilibrium.
They are not, then, infallible. They have not understood that they can simply break their encirclement slightly: not enough to let him slip though, but enough to slowly tighten it, or allow other Helpers to enter and hunt him down within it. For that matter, they also seem to be unaware that for him, rock is not the same as the passages through it. Otherwise, they could simply advance on him through the passages, and he would have no escape. For now, he is safe, but at any moment, their random jostling could accidentally open a way through for one or more of them. He must think of a way out, and soon.
Instinct remains the key. What other instinct can he tap to move the Helpers from their positions? Fear, perhaps? Pain? He has no power in himself to inflict either on them, but there might be a suitable toy. He rummages through his sack and emerges with a smile on his face and a live grenade in his hand.
The man it was intended for will just have to do without this year. He was marginally Bad anyway, and got an AK-47 only two Christmases before.
He pulls the pin out of the grenade and hurls it down a long passage that leads almost to the edge of the encirclement. It clatters to the floor at the far end, and he counts down, “three, two, one...”
The explosion rocks him, flooding his vision with searing light and his mind with numbing, thunderous static for long minutes. He panics, knowing that his chance to escape could be unfolding right now before him – or the Helpers rushing down the passage at him – and he is immobilized, blinded and helpless.
“Idiot!” he cries. “Fool!”
However, when the blindness clears, he finds everything as it was before the explosion. The Helpers have not been affected at all!
He calms himself. At least he hasn’t hurt his position. Now he can try thinking of something else. Then, he notices that there is some new movement near the end of the passage.
Helpers are slowly converging on the spot, and the jostling of the inner ring of Helpers is more restless than before. They seem to be drawn to the remnants of the exploded grenade. A few fragments landed outside the encirclement, and large clumps of Helpers gather around them. A few minutes later, those fragments disappear.
They’re consuming the raw materials, he realizes. Hunger is the key!
Before he can exult in the discovery, however, he notes that their agitation is continuing to grow. Most of the grenade ended up inside their circle, and they are continuing to press toward it. The circle buckles momentarily and he lets out a cry of alarm, and then it breaks!
Helpers pour through the perimeter, swarming over the patch of shrapnel. The circle begins to collapse...and then – by what stroke of pure luck? – reestablishes itself, about five yards closer in every direction. The death cry dies in his throat.
The grenade debris is now entirely outside the new, smaller encirclement, and it is quickly consumed. The Helpers calm down; the circle stabilizes. He sits to think.
He has a way to affect them now, but a small effect will do more harm than good. He must offer them something so big that they will all forget about him and rush headlong to the feast. There will be no way to experiment when one wrong choice can kill him, so he will have to start right off with the biggest item he has. He spends several minutes thinking it over. Though there is one obvious choice, he’s made so many mistakes today that he no longer trusts his own judgment.
After he has checked and rechecked his inventory, he pulls out the small tropical island that was to have been the gift of a well-known billionaire to his third wife. He extends his awareness as far as he can in every direction, readies himself to run, and then hurls it down the passage.
The enormous chunks of the island that fall outside the circle are absorbed by nearby Helpers as casually and quickly as if they were crumbs on a table, and the vast bulk of the wrecked island inside the circle doesn’t seem to attract them at all. What did he get wrong this time?
He recalls that when he first picked up the island, it didn’t raise much of a response from the Helpers then, either, and realizes that the same principle of technological complexity must apply now.
Well, he thinks. I have plenty of high tech toys. But which contains the highest tech?
He’s got more computers in his sack than a small corporation, but is not sure how to judge which of them is the most complex. He also has a yacht loaded with electronic equipment. None of it is as complex as most of the computers, probably, but mightn’t bulk count for something?
Then he realizes what the true answer is.
“No!” he cries. “No! It’s mine! It’s perfect! It’s just what I always wanted!”
It’s the only gift he has ever been given.
“I won’t do it!” he whimpers. “I won’t. I’ll die first!”
Nevertheless, he slowly opens his sack and pulls out the Mirror.
He looks into it once more, thinking, “Why do I do this? What does it matter?”
No version of himself returns his gaze; the glass reflects only a void.
With one last cry of anguish, he flings it down the passage with all his strength. A broken line of sparks erupts as it grazes the sides of the tunnel in passing, then a great burst of light as it shatters against the far wall. The Helpers, every one of them, explode into motion, stampeding toward the scattered shards of the thing, moving faster than he ever dreamed they could. He is deafened by their soundless roar, and struggles to keep his footing, as if the rock floor itself trembled. Though Helpers come so close to entering the space he’s in that he can see the wall it skirts shimmer like a mirage, an opening appears in the tumult and he leaps into it, racing through a side passage, barely aware of a something that turns back against itself to bite or claw at him in passing. He gains the short rise to the door of the workshop, scrambles desperately up its steep incline, and bursts into the open.
* * *
In the light of a bright half moon, he stands bent over, swallowing great drafts of cuttingly cold air. He turns back to the entrance of the workshop, half expecting Helpers to come hauling out after him at any moment, but all is quiet in that direction. Extending his mind into the caves, he senses only a knot of them around the spot the mirror was smashed, slowly unraveling with their usual blind Brownian motion.
By the position of the moon, he sees it is now about an hour past midnight, and he races back down to the pens. Though there will still be plenty of time to complete the night’s work, it is perilous to delay the loosing of the shalin by even a minute, and he half expects to find them all dead. They seem fine, though, when he reaches them, still at an unspoiled peak of desire. He quickly loads the sled and with a sweep of an arm shatters the pens, binds the shalin to the sled and himself to both, and all at once, he is in flight.
If that is the word for it.
If “flight” could describe the rapture of omnipresence that overtakes him.
It is. It does. It is the perfect word – flight! flight! flight! – for the sensation of velocity he experiences in this state, though strictly speaking, he does not actually cross any distance. Instead, in this moment, he simply is everywhere at once. In every land, in every city, in every house in the world. Is the house; is the congealed slather of its foundation, the electricity jittering behind its walls, the stockings hung by the fire and their invested care. Is the mansion on the hill, and the bombed out crater that used to be a home; the suburban ranch-style and the nomad’s tent.
And he knows.
The cat considering where to set down the next paw. The surface of the puddle on the brink of freezing. From the dreams of the galaxies adrift in the littered void, to the smallest sub-atomic particle, its every quantum flickering.
Each of us, too, is known, utterly. You and me, and everyone we know: our somnombulances and awakenings, our cruelties and benevolences, the penned and frenzied desires of our hearts.