“Oh good grief,” whispered Jennifer to husband Jason, “it’s Uncle Frank.”
The waft came first, steaming feather meal and river mud, followed by the man. He was a walking tree stump, swathed in a dark trench coat and battered black boots. His face was knotted and inflamed, and chiselled into a forest of greying hair and silver beard, as if the bowels of a great ape had been slit to expose the crimson innards within.
“Niece,” said the hardened voice, by way of greeting. “And spousal unit no.1.”
Jennifer quickly shut the door to where her guests were enjoying a Christmas feast. Then, fighting off her repulsion, she stepped in front of him.
“Frank,” she said.
He stopped and surveyed her. One glassy eye swung in its socket without focus, the surviving orb pierced her soul.
“I understand, love,” said the man. “You don’t want me here.”
He picked at something in his mouth, inspected it and then reinserted it and chewed for a moment. Then he swallowed. “I’ve got a present for the boy.”
“Nicky is fine for presents,” said Jennifer.
“Not from his grand uncle he’s not.” The tree stump blinked and let his mouth open a little, to show off the eel like appendage that was his tongue. Jennifer fingered the rim of her champagne flute.
“Every year you insult us with your presence,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Yeah,” said the old man with a repellent exhaust of breath. “I need to check up on the young fella.”
“He doesn’t need your checking up,” said Jennifer.
“I’m his sort of godfather,” said the old man.
“He has a godfather,” said Jennifer. “A real one, guiding him on life.”
“What, your stock broker mate with the second wife and third mistress? I’ve seen his guidance,” said the man.
“He knows how money works,” said Jennifer, “and cares for Nicky.”
The old man leaned forward with a frosty glare.
“He knows nothing. He has no connection.”
Jennifer took a step back.
“And just what do you know?” she said. “Last year you gave him a potato!”
The man’s laugh was as weathered as moonscape and particles of some former meal shot from his mouth like meteors. Jennifer winced.
“That was no potato,” said the old man. “That was a flipping asteroid!”
Again the laugh, foetid as a sluice. He flung his arms out wide, and at each cuff five cracked fingers appeared like broken feathers.
“We are the stuff that stars are made of!” he said, as more mouth shrapnel soiled the air. “And some of us live as big as stars!” A great coughing fit followed, a billowing rasping sound that rocked the man’s body and catapulted wads of green and viscous phlegm on to the floor.
“Oh, gross!” said Jennifer, and her husband ran to the cupboard to get cleaning products.
The man righted himself wheezily, and wiped his moistened lips on the sleeve of his coat. He stood breathing heavily for a moment, and his fish like tongue rimmed his lips as if searching for food. Jason knelt on the floor frantically swabbing where the man’s excretions had landed. Jennifer, horrified, picked off the mouth bits that had soiled her dress.
The man extracted a grey lump from his coat pocket.
“You put it in the compost, didn’t you?” he said, and held up the potato shaped object in front of husband and wife. “It’s been a year in there. You’d think it’d have rotted by now.”
Jennifer stared at him, dumbfounded.
“Did you really open up the compost bin and fish that out?”
The man smirked and said,
“When there’s great things to be done, be prepared to get your hands dirty.”
He turned to the punch bowl on the kitchen bench that Jennifer and Jason had just replenished for their guests. He pulled out the ladle and raised it to his lips, liquid sloshing over the bench as he did so. Jason grasped the ladle before the lips touched it.
“Let me get you a glass,” he said, and poured the man a glass of punch.
The old man sipped, and swilled it round his mouth before swallowing.
“You’ve done the kitchen,” he said, and ran a stained finger along the pristine marble surface.
“Yes,” said Jason. Jennifer watched the man warily as he surveyed the room – the crisp bench, the patterned backsplash and induction stove top, the double silver fridge door.
“Nice,” he said, and dug in his ear for a moment. He inspected whatever came out and wiped it on his coat.
“We like it,” said Jason.
The man placed the lump he had taken from the compost bin on to the marble bench. Jason quickly tore off a piece of paper towel.
“Let me get that for you,” he said as he wrapped the object up and wiped down the bench. Then he said, “It’s surprisingly heavy for a … a potato”.
The man’s good eye stared at him from behind the punch glass as he drank. “You be careful now,” he said.
Jennifer said “Are we done here?”
The man turned slowly and fixed her with the solid eye.
“How is young Nick?” he said.
“We’re extremely proud of him,” said Jason.
“He’s a good lad, eh?” said the man.
“He’s more than good. He topped his year in geography and maths, and is streets ahead of his class mates. His teachers reckon he should consider early final exams he’s doing so well. They haven’t seen anything like it they said.”
“And excelling there too. He took out the national cross country tournament this year, in the open division. Against boys much older than he is,” said Jason.
“So he’s very precious to us,” said Jennifer.
“I’m sure he is,” said the old man.
“And that’s why we’d like to keep him safe,” said Jennifer defiantly.
The old man sniffed.
“My gift,” he said. “It is Christmas after all.” A sardonic grin clipped the edges of his mouth.
“I’ll be frank with you,” said Jennifer, “I have ten guests in the next room who are all enjoying a generous Christmas feast that Jason and I have prepared for them. I don’t want you interfering in that, and would prefer it if you left. By the same back door you just came in.”
The man nodded pensively.
“I’ll just give the lad my present and be off then,” he said.
“You can give it to me and I’ll be sure to pass it on to him,” said Jennifer.
The man stroked his beard and let out a retching cough. He took a couple of wheezing breaths.
“No deal,” he said. “I have to give it him myself.”
Jennifer glanced at Jason for support. He nodded. “I’ll get him,” he said, and left the room. Jennifer said,” Wait here til Nicky comes.”
The old man sat on a stool and said, “I’ll have a refill of that fruity punch.”
Jennifer took the glass he proffered and refilled it, making sure the ladle did not touch the rim which his lips had rimed with a fusty mucus. The old man held the glass up and said, “Here’s to Christmas,” and downed its contents in one go. Strains of liquid spilled down his chin on to his beard; the rest was swallowed noisily. This sent him into another bitter coughing fit, and he clung on to the bench as his back shook with each cough. Punch came back up, and spilled on to the floor beneath him.
Jennifer sighed and bent to clean it up as the man wheezed to a stop and wiped his mouth on his coat.
The door opened and Jason entered, closely followed by a lanky youth in jeans and t-shirt. He had an unruly mop of dark hair above shining dark eyes. Jason stood close to his son with his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
The old man leapt off his seat and gazed at the youth.
“Nicholas,” he said, and a broad grin spread across his weathered face.
“Uncle Frank,” said the boy in a confident tone.
“My goodness look at you,” said the old man. He turned to Jason and Jennifer who stood guard over their son. “What a fantastic job you’ve done. He is so tall, and healthy and intelligent. I can see it in your eyes, Nicholas.”
Neither parent responded. Nicky stood looking at the old man, who turned and retrieved the object from the kitchen bench. He handed it to Nicky, who peeled back the paper towel to expose the grey surface.
“The asteroid potato,” said the young man. “I wondered where that went.”
“Your parents mistakenly put it in the compost,” said the old man. Nicky tossed it into the air where it seemed to float momentarily before descending to his waiting hands. “Still solid,” he said.
The old man stood erect, and regarded the teenager in front of him. He smiled and reached into his pocket, then stood with something small in his fist. Then he said, sombrely,
“You know, don’t you.”
“Know what?” said Jennifer, but her son just nodded, and said, “Yes.”
“And you are ready,” said the man.
The boy nodded. “I am.”
The old man held out his closed fist.
“Can someone tell me what is going on here?” said Jennifer. “Nicky?”
The youth took the old man’s hand in his, and the room was filled with sudden light. A vast explosion of crystalline and blue-white brilliance transformed the small kitchen, as if there was not room enough to hold it. It was an air of absolute clarity, the atmosphere of arctic worlds unsullied by human presence, an effulgence so striking that it stunned Nicky’s parents and sent them reeling to the kitchen bench. The blue air swirled about them in rare and lustrous winds, and was joined by other emergent colours. Serpentine greens and golds appeared as magnificent as the aurora, reds and oranges flared on the horizon and hints of lavender and mauve were swept into the lustrous blue of the space that had engorged their presence. Sounds of breaking ice echoed in the background, crashing walls of ice floats and the waves on sparkling floes adrift in blue-green seas. The room was gone. In its stead burst the thunderthrust of collapsing glaciers, blue whorls of white water spinning in the pure sky, a light so stark and pristine no shadow or vice survived.
Jennifer felt for her husband’s hand. She found it and they grasped each other in tight fear. She looked to where the old man had been standing. He was still there, in his grimy coat and black boots. But despite these – or because of them – he held a bearing of exceptional nobility and portent. He was no longer bent over. His hair and beard had whitened, and flew with the wind that encircled them. His eyes shone, both now clear and clean, repaired in the luminous world that had opened before them. He seemed part man, part god, a creature unknown to her simple vision, a demi-god perhaps, so dignified that it could be foreign to the normal world.
And in his hand, were the hands of her son. He was a man now, his hair long and the splendour of a young beard on his cheeks. He stood with a posture that was straight, formed and full of grace. Her heart swelled with the sight of him. She admired his powerful body, felt the intelligence in his eyes, and basked in the radiance of his features. He was nobler than the old man, grander, full of greater promise. He bore a gentle mien and a benign outlook that encompassed both the air around the man whose hands he held, and the man himself. Shocked though Jennifer was by what she was seeing, she felt a security in the vast world that had appeared, caught in a strange and magnificent glare of purity and grandeur. She sensed the older man was passing to her boy some sacred baton, a calling perhaps, or a right or status, but she really did not know what.
Understanding so little, she kept her gaze upon her son as she sank to her knees in wonder. The light expanded further, the wind whistled about them and the sky began to turn. Vast and towering beams of light engulfed them, growing whiter and whiter as its radiance increased. It dissolved substance from individual form and then form to spirit. They were shadows now, memories of light and being as the great realms of light encompassed them. Turning, dancing in the breeze, the light swung, in effulgent yellows, blues, golds, whites, in a vortex of unspeakable grandeur.
And then above them all appeared a massive elk, a mighty stag whose immense antlers seemed to cover the earth. The stag raised its head and emitted a deafening and vagrant cry from deep within its enormous hide. The sound caught the light in a round clarion of sight and sound and waves of hit luminescence shattered the thinness of the air. The world spun and the waves of light grew shrill and brittle, until like warm falling rain the scene gradually began to crumble. Shards of light tumbled earthwards, in streaks of grey and blue, in twirling scraps of gold and white. Still the elk called, not ceasing until the world grew plain again, the old man appeared, the light fell, and her son stood in his summer clothes. The elk was gone, an echo in the mind, a chimera, a glimpse of what could have been.
As soon as the kitchen reappeared the old man started coughing. Ruthless hacking wracked his pitiable body, and he spat and wheezed and gasped for breath. Despite her inner turmoil at what she had witnessed, Jennifer held him to soften the blows and steady his feet in case he fell. She smelt the odour of his garb and turned her head away, but held him strong as he retched and hacked away. It took minutes, but eventually he slowed, and pulled himself as upright as his feeble chest would allow.
He paused a moment, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“Pardon me,” he said. He looked at Nicky. “You good, young fella?”
The boy nodded back “All good.”
The old man turned to Jason and Jennifer. “I’m sorry,” he said. Jason held a glass of water out to him. “No need to apologise,” he said. The old man took it and drank. It provoked another round of coughing, but less vigorous this time. He sat on the stool and wheezed, his coat rising and falling with each ardent breath.
“Time has turned me a bit sour,” he said, “but there is a new man on the job.”
“What was that?” said Jennifer. “What did we just see?
The old man took a deep breath.
“These transitions can be hard,” he said. He sipped a bit of water. “Especially for the uninitiated.”
“Transitions? What do you mean, transitions?” said Jason.
The old man took a few breaths before answering.
“The gods aren’t gods,” he said. “Mortality binds us all. Even the immortals. The ancients gave the gods homes in the stars, but even stars die, and the gods with them. Some last for a while but fade – the virgin birth, Prometheus on his rock, the aurora of Viking shields. Others are seasonal, and come and go, like orbiting asteroids – Persephone in the underworld, or one that is prevalent today, the Claus myth. But these too will pass, either soon, or slowly, as sure as the moon is fleeing earth.”
He sat upright and emitted a slow belch. “Pardon,” he said, and tapped his chest. He took another sip of water. His breathing was wheezy and laboured.
“I almost didn’t make it,” he said.
“Make what?’ said Jennifer.
“Here,” he said. “That would’ve been a debacle.”
“I don’t understand,” said Jennifer.
“Myths, and the gods they carry, are more than just mind,” he said, and paused for breath. “Each myth is carried by a mythman. As long as a mythman carries his myth the myth will survive. Without the mythman, the myth dies. Think of the myth as a kind parasite and we’re the carriers. Now here’s the thing, mythmen live longer than mortals. We’re a kind of cross over, half way between gods and mortals. We’re supermortal if you like, but not immortal. We have to be, to help a myth endure across generations. No-one is immortal though. No person, no mythman, no god, no myth.”
He paused for breath again. His breath was heavy, with each large gulp in followed by a sag of quick exhalation.
“The thing is, sometimes the demand for a myth, is so strong it exceeds, the lifespan of the mythman. When that happens, the mythman has to find someone, to take his place, just to carry on the myth. Then the mythman can die, confident his replacement, will keep the myth alive. Is that making sense?”
“No,” said Jennifer.
“I’m sorry,” said the old man.
“Well it’s all new,” said Jennifer.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said again.
“Why?” said Jennifer. She felt a pang of concern and looked to Jason.
The old man held out his arm towards their son. Nicky walked over to him and he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said. “Your boy Nicky here, is a mythman, for the Claus myth.”
Jennifer looked at him, speechless. The old man heaving in slow breaths, his head now rising and falling with his chest, her young son standing proud and elegant beside him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Nicky, come away,” said Jennifer.
“It’s okay, mum,” said Nicky. ‘I’m okay.”
“You’re not okay,” said Jennifer. “Come here.”
Nicky did not move.
“Sorry mum,” he said.
“Nicky,” she said as fear rose in her throat. “Jason, do something.”
Jason stepped around the kitchen counter.
“Son- ” he said, but Nicky raised his hand.
“It’s okay, Dad,” he said. “Do you remember the other day, we were talking about the future and I said I can see myself leaving home and you said you’d support me?”
“Yes, but that was in the future,” said Jason.
“It’s all future until it’s now,” said his son.
“No, Nicky, you’re not old enough!” said Jennifer. “It’s Christmas. You can’t, you’re our boy.”
They were distracted as the old man gagged. They saw him raise his hand a little and mumble something incomprehensible, and then he collapsed. Jason leapt to catch him, but he did not fall. He dissolved instead. He simply crumbled like a falling house of cards. He fell away, and his coat and filthy clothes fell to the floor. Jennifer screamed. Jason floundered forward to the stool the old man had been sitting in, and waved his hands over it, as if trying to touch the disappeared man.
“He’s disappeared,” he said. He’s just bloody disappeared!”
“Dad,” said Nicky. “He’s gone. He was very old. Older than you will ever get to.”
“Nicky,” said Jennifer, as she walked over to him. She pulled him forward to her and held him close to her chest. She started to cry. Nicky held her. Jason drew close. After a while Nicky pulled away.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll have a very full life. It’s not the life you predicted for me, but better in fact. I’ll live longer, do many many things. The Claus myth is huge now. It’s much much more than the one idea of an old man delivering annual gifts with reindeers and a sleigh. The ice is disappearing, Mum. The home of the myth is under fire. The world there is vanishing under our very eyes. The ice, the wildlife, the glaciers. Uncle Frank knew that, I know that. Look -” He held out his open hand. “This is what he gave me.”
Jennifer stared at his empty palm.
“What?” she said.
“An ice cube,” said Nicky. “It’s melted. There is ice on the tails of comets, there is ice in the arctic. Our home is planetary, ice and fire, and love and death. This is the gift we have been given.”
The two adults stared at their son. Jennifer broke into tears again. Jason held her in his arms and looked blankly at his son.
“What about school?” he said. “How will I explain your departure to them?”
“It’s all been taken care of,” said Nicky. “We’ve got all that done.”
“But what will you live on? Who’s going to support you?”
“Dad,” he said, “I’ll be okay. I have to do this, or there’ll be no Christmas.”
He stepped forward and put his arms about his parents. Tears burst from his father’s eyes, and his mother sobbed. She wrapped her arms about him and hugged him close and tight.
They stood that way for some minutes, not talking, but feeling and wanting and not wanting.
Eventually he broke away.
Through her tears his mother said, “You need to pack. You’ll catch cold.”
“Mum,” said Nicholas. “I’ll be fine. I’ll use this.” He picked up Frank’s old coat.
“You can’t do that, it stinks,” said his mother.
“It’s reversible,” he said. He turned the coat inside out, to reveal a bright red jacket bordered with clean white cuffs. “Smell it,” he said.
Jennifer put her nose to it and sniffed. She pushed her face into it and breathed in.
“It’s fresh,” she said, “I don’t understand.”
“It’s the transition, Mum,” said her son, putting on the black boots the old man had left behind. They shone in the kitchen light.
“Really comfy,” he said.
His parents stood and stared open-mouthed at him.
“It’s all so sudden,” said Jennifer. “Here, take something to eat. There’s some left over ham, or a mince tart,” she said. And when he shook his head she said, “Well at least let me fill you a drink bottle, in case you get thirsty.”
Nicky chuckled lightly. “Thanks, Mum, really. I can melt plenty of these wherever I go.” And he held out the palm of his hand to reveal a crisp and square and clear cut ice cube.
“I’m a mythman, Mum. You’ll see me. Every year you’ll see me. And in between too, whenever I can. Don’t worry about me.”
He put on the coat. “I’m sorry it’s been so sudden, but you saw, Uncle Frank was on his last legs. I’ve got the baton now.”
He hugged them both one last time. “Thank you both for all you have done. I love you both. I always will.”
He turned stepped out into the rear yard, the red coat billowing behind him, and then was gone.