The pounding wings of Take Life As It Comes sound like great drums across the wintry plain. The roc’s terrible beak drips with dirt and ice. Its cruel talons tuck up by its sides.
It is dark.
She can barely see.
She weaves around the mound where is buried the Christmas of 1872. She shudders at the blank-orbed wooden gaze of the eidolons of the mound. She throws herself flat, tongue swelling in her mouth with fear, as the bird sweeps past.
Her breath comes in great gasps.
Her clothes are ragged.
She is not far from the forest. It is not far now.
She makes herself stand. She wobbles. She runs. A great wind rises behind her. She is almost there.
The impact of the bird’s foot on her back flows through her and out her chest. She gags as the talons close around.
It is picking her up.
It is dragging her to the sky.
She hammers at its toes with her fists. The bird croaks, a dismal croak like an angry wind. She works one hand down to the sheath at her belt. She draws the knife Laughing-at-Sorrows.
A high wailing shriek comes from her lips.
The blade cuts in. Black blood splashes her. The bird drops her. She falls amidst the trees and lands hard on pine needles and cold dirt.
She cannot breathe.
She is aware only of a whistling urgency rising in her, a chest-accordion sensation as her lungs struggle to remember their nature as her lungs.
The breeze brings a flicker of warmth. Panic pounds loudly in her ears. There is only one warmth in the Forest Next to Christmas, which is the Last Light and the First Light of the Sun; and that which it touches is devoured and is not seen again.
She kicks something. It resolves into her leg.
She staggers up.
Limping, she runs.
The trees before her brush aside. They’re swept from her path like grass bowing in the wind. She catches a glimpse of bone before the head of a great creature rises.
It is the reindeer Looking Forward and Looking Back. Its forward head is as tall as she is. She cannot grasp the immensity of the rest. She remembers its legend: one head’s gaze always fixed forward and welcoming of what comes, one head always looking backwards in acceptance of what has been.
Its head is elegant like a soap sculpture and its eyes are deep.
“A human girl,” says Looking Forward.
“I’d like to meet her,” laughs Looking Back.
It’s a raucous and terrible joke.
Then the reindeer dances upwards and its hooves are coming down on the earth, thump, tump, tamp.
She dives under its feet. She reasons that it cannot see what is beneath it. But it does not need to: its dance is lethal, and once, twice, thrice she is nearly crushed.
For a moment, it is past her.
“There!” roars Looking Back.
And the creature pivots until it faces her and she is crying, stagging, crawling away.
Its foot comes down.
She twists in desperation. She catches hold as it strikes her. She digs her knife into the foot where it joins the hoof and Looking Forward makes a shrill noise with its nose, which spurts with red.
The world wobbles crazily, up and down, up and down.
To the left she catches sight of a thicker stand of trees. Her body is everywhere warm. She lets go and she flies or drifts—to her it is as if she is floating, like a leaf—
And impact and a staggering, dazed scramble into the trees.
“Too slow!” cries Looking Forward, and it plunges its head after her, and its great teeth grasp her shoe; and she drags herself back to sit against a tree and pant as it struggles to push in.
“Too big, reindeer head,” she says, between her gasps.
The creature begins to wriggle backwards. But then it stops.
“Why have you stopped?” asks Looking Forward.
And taut with fear comes the voice of Looking Back: “Behind us is the Last Light of the Sun.”
So Elaine drags herself to her feet and she slips further in to the Forest Next to Christmas, and she does not listen to the piteous screams that rise behind her.
She staggers into Christmas, then.
Great white-beard kettle-belly Father Christmas roars at the head of the Christmas table. He waves his mug with one hand and his axe with the other. When his bleary eyes see her, he says, “What’s this, a human girl?”
And Mr. Make-Do squints down at her with his great big eyes and flutters his damp and pale hands. The Snowman whirls and chills and flurries. Hanging from a tree above the chair of Father Christmas is a mesh sack containing the coals of the Christmas fire.
Elaine bows to Father Christmas and she tries to keep from him the knocking of her knees.
“Don’t you know,” roars Father Christmas, “that this is not for such as you?”
She licks her lips.
She says, “The table of Christmas is not so small as that. Can’t I come in from the storm?”
“Ho, ho, ho,” booms Father Christmas, and his stomach shakes, and winds blow wildly around the world.
“Well, you’ll do that,” he says.
But he thumbs over his shoulder to the Christmas pole. It’s hung with the heads of the human children who’ve died on Christmas Day, with their staring eyes and their warm red hats, and it’s carved with ancient symbols the meaning of which even Father Christmas does not know.
“But tomorrow,” he says, “if your head’s up there, then you can’t blame me!”
So she leaps three times until she catches hold of the crossbeam of a Christmas chair, and she climbs the leg to catch its seat, and she sits there and she drinks the plum brandy until her head is heavy with it; and now and again she dances on the table, flirting with the chestnuts and the crumbs.
She listens to the boasting of great deeds.
Father Christmas says, “I slew the Demon of Despairing Nights, his eyes like raisins and his skin like pudding; through all the night we fought, until the dawn took the skin from him.”
“I made a person from odds and ends,” says Mr. Make-Do. “Nothing but odds and ends.”
“That Prester John!” laughs Father Christmas, remembering. “Ho, ho, ho.”
“I drowned the Moon in bitter cold,” says the Snowman. “Its people could not stand to me!”
And Elaine clears her throat and speaks as loudly as she can, “I wasn’t good all year. Not even once.”
“Not even once?” says Father Christmas. “Ho, ho, ho! Then you’ll get a whipping and a coal!”
His voice chokes off.
He goes paler than Snowman. Even his beard looks grey against the paleness of his skin.
“I’ve had the first,” says Elaine. “So I’ll take the second.”
The Snowman shifts uneasily, and Mr. Make-Do scowls.
Elaine walks, wobbling, down the table. She climbs up to the Christmas fire. She takes a coal. It smokes most terribly in her hands.
Then she drops down to the ground, her leg buckling horribly, and she begins to limp away.
“I’ll let you leave,” says Father Christmas in the stillness.
And Mr. Make-Do nods.
“But you won’t get far,” he says, “and Jack Frost will find you, and I’ll have your head, little human, for my pole.”
“Come take it,” says Elaine.
Now, sooner or later he must’ve, since it’s hanging from his pole; so some people say that that’s his victory. But others say that he never caught her, and Mr. Make-Do must’ve made a head just like hers from odds and ends, scrips and scraps, and hung it from that pole.
It doesn’t seem to anyone like it’s very likely that she just up and died on Christmas.
But she did.
She lived for many years, and then she died. And every day and every night she lived was Christmas, for she’d brought the fire of Christmas to the world.