Read by Max Berendt
The presents arrived the way the leaves blew on the wind, when Santa Claus was young and just starting out; that's how easy the deliveries felt to him. Back then, way back then, he made his trip not on a certain hallowed day, but whenever he felt moved to hitch up the team and strike the whip. Sometimes famine made him more sympathetic, and he gifted twice in one winter.
Sometimes the stench of plague kept him away, and children cried out their desiccated eyes as their mothers, out of breath from sitting up, explained No, Santa did not come this year, with an expression on their faces that said, But I hear someone else knocking at our door.
He did not dwell on his inconsistencies, nor did he feel magnanimous because of the toys, which were made in a gruesome style. The elves made three: antlers they sharpened with their teeth, heavy flint rocks that they beat into sherds on each others' shoulder blades, and ghastly dolls that they peed upon in a certain game, Nablynudgie, that they liked to play because no one needed to keep track of points.
This Neanderthaline style was the result of the elves’ workshop, which was as comforting as a club with bark still on it. The stone slab floor was so cold that weaker elves froze from the feet up, the work benches were at a height that crinched their backs, and the fire pits were so ineffective that their faces peeled in the heat while the hair on the back of their heads shattered with cold. A huge chandelier hung above them, assembled from a jumblage of bones, some elven, some human, some reindeer, and some twisted with a strangeness that hinted at a lengthy creature with a toxic bite. The chandelier blazed continuously. Many of Santa's presents were splattered with its tallow wax, to the relief of malnourished children – if they received their presents before they had no appetite left at all.
Though he was not yet famous or bowl-full-of-jellied, Santa liked his job, just the way it was. The epoch was warm, compared with the previous ice age, so all was comfortable for this young bachelor in his reindeer skin robe (trimmed with wolf teeth and buttoned with elf knuckles) and in his bed in the reindeer paddock with warm fawns as pillows. The locals, still a day's run away by troika, learned to save a large share of akutuq for him. As long as he was thus fed, and as long as the menacing chandelier was always lit, and the sack of toys was consistently ready, Santa was content. He even stopped taking advantage of the akatuq-makers, leaving sharpened antlers and flint sherds and peed-upon dolls at each visit.
About this time, Santa was ruminating how elf hours plus antlers plus akutuq equaled up so nicely in his tummy. There’s something to that equation, he thought one night as he fell asleep, his wooly head on two curled up fawns, Something that equals more. There was a farther-away village that he liked to visit for their root tea. When he drank that gritty concoction, he felt like someone was threading a cleansing cold rope through his body, painfully yet beneficially. Its juices sank into his tail bone and bubbled out of his toe nails. One spring, as he circled in to Root Tea, he noticed that the village was different. The village was visibly bigger, and indeed that's what had happened to the little dorf – it had grown. Santa had been away longer than he realized, busy shoveling dead elves out of the workshop, or staring into the starry night sky, or draining the musk glands of his herd to because it made them kick harder.
Meanwhile, Drum Scramsto, one of the main tea brewers, had accomplished much in this same period of unrecorded time. He became the first merchant, by keeping account of his products and income. He was the first to name a drink, to mark it with his sign, and to name a price and hold it there. He built the first two-story wooden structure, which a few natives mistook for bedeviled trees. His neighbors and competitors, though, imitated him quickly, and the village grew, like a glacier flower blooming overnight, into a town with a market and wares and craftsmen. With the thrill of leadership and the newfound joy of profit, Scramsto did two more things: onto his proud house he had built a mammoth chimney, and with his third wife he had a daughter.
The three Scramsto wives did not live in the two story wooden house together, of course, because the first two had died, along with their root tea-soaked children: one of want and the other of dread, and the children of worms. But with the flued fireplace to warm her body and roast lambs for her nutrition, Scramsto’s daughter Lillef thrived. Early on she achieved a first herself – she was the primordial spoiled brat, the prototype of Naughty: she hogged the best cushiony seat at the fireplace; she bossed around her elders and youngers; she refused to share the not-pee-sticky dolls she sewed. When not pinching her chattel, Lillef spent hours (And she’s lazy too! people hissed) staring into the contained flames of the fireplace as if reading a book (but never stoking the fire, or moving out of the way for those who did.) Her black hair grew long, and as she reached womanhood, her expectations of the world became like the chimney – erect and thick-walled and conducting of airs, there in the centre of the town.
While seasons passed untold before Santa appeared again, Lillef drew fantastical new dolls and toy warriors and long, warm socks across the accounts in her father’s ledgers. Santa returned on a cold night soon after the winter solstice, with an urge for tea and company, and a large bag of the elves’ toys. The antlers were especially sharp this trip around.
On the outskirts of town, the old style huts were buried deep in snow. Santa tossed no presents their way, noting the lack of possibility for warm blooded life. At the first big house, he strained the door hinges as he barged in unannounced, and drank every cup of root tea already poured into their new set of clay mugs, in a room filled with kith and kin staying warm together. He left them one peed upon doll to fight over, which they handed to the dog, which dropped it outside in the snow.
Through the next front door, he found a small party bouncing on their hay bale seats and waiting for their new copper pots to come to boil for a muttony, parsnippy dinnertime. He handed around flint and antler, and on his way out, took a kiss from a young woman holding a tray full of aromatic treats that Santa had never seen before. Her lips held their spiced scent.
In the next house, the front door was open, and the room was filled. Slowed by the crowd at the threshhold, Santa noted the new floor of beautiful cherry wood. Across the room, a corpse was swaddled and laid out on the table, four glacier flowers placed on it from throat to groin. The scent of the flowers, like ice and vanilla condensed into tears, filled the room and masked the smell of rigor mortis. He threw the antlers at the feet of the mourners – toyng-ting-ktinnng! they stuck in the wooden floor – Not the new wooden floor! someone exclaimed. The men closest to Santa snarled and showed their teeth and unsheathed their knives, knives unlike Santa had seen. He picked up from their beautiful cherry floor the bud of a glacier flower, tucked it into his collar, and left.
Filled with the fortifying rope of so much root tea, Santa stalked through the winding streets of the town. As he marched, he could hear the sounds of people within, whiling away the winter night with pleasureful new noises. He imagined that they were squeezing little animals and birds to make those humming and thrumming and strumming sounds. The root tea was steaming from the skin of his exposed throat and hands when he came to the grandest house in the center with its grandest chimney, a mosaic of black stones that climbed to the sky. Enough people must be inside, Santa thought, to take all the rest of these toys, and then I’ll be done. He looked down the wall of the Scramsto palazzo, and didn’t see a door. He peered around the corner, down the other wall, and spotted only a tiny window. He looked back at the Mammoth First Chimney, and decided it was ladder-like enough to be the way in.
Lillef was at her plush seat next to the fireplace. She had lounged there all day, twisting the hair of servants who got too close. She admired her new shoes, which had heels and pointy, curled-back toes. She stared into the flames. An ember popped, sounding like it was the size of a calf’s brain. Lillef stared more intensely, her black eyes reflecting the flames – more embers crackled, but in a new direction; they weren’t falling from the logs, but sparking down from within the chimney. As the embers shot and the soot billowed she snuggled deeper into her bearskin and thought Finally, the time has come. For what, she was not sure so she bellowed to the servants – Out! – and when she again faced the fire, she found her view blocked by a large figure in a blackened reindeer robe trimmed with wolf’s teeth.
Santa, she said with disappointment. She had avoided his presents since she was eight.
I made it in, he replied. That’s quite an entranceway you have.
That’s the chimney, she said wearily, the door is that way. I can’t stand it, the way you just show up now and then.
I’ve brought you toys. You haven’t had any for –
I have my own toys, Lillef stated. Yours are so lacking, they don’t have colors, or smooth edges, or parts that move, or…
As she spoke her long list of complaints, Santa sat and gazed at her. No one had ever given him anything in return, except for when he grabbed and they acquiesced. The elves never spoke about their materials or their process of creating or their color preferences. Lillef talked on and on. He caught her many words, like a flock of birds landing one by one in a tree, and then he understood: Lillef had the something more he was looking for.
… I have a book of them, Lillef mentioned, and stood up. Santa rose as well, stood in her way, and then they kissed. He knew that Lillef was his Mrs. Claus; Lillef knew that he was the unexploited resource for her. The soot of the chimney on his lips was their communion. She obtained the undead vitality that made Santa strong enough for flight and impervious to most cold and much death; he became subservient, in many matters, to her imagination and standards.
Lillef walked out the front door with Santa that night, onward to his workshop that she made into their home, easily as turning over an hour glass. First, she had a bench made entirely of stuffed bear skins, with carved beehives for armrests. She demanded that the akatuq be scraped from the tabletops. She ordered the elves to scrub each other with icicles. An abundance of glacier flowers were planted. Then she turned her attention to the massive bone chandelier. She had it gilded so that it glowed ten times more brightly – her elves needed to see her plans, and implement them correctly, for the new toys she designed. Her toys that didn’t only stab, spark fire, or spread a disgusting stickiness. And Santa loved to deliver them, sometimes with the turn of the earth, sometimes against it.
The Chimney by Lisa Annelouise Rentz was read by Max Berendt at the Liars' League Give & Take event on Tuesday, December 13th, 2011, at The Albany, Great Portland Street, London.