I wasn’t expecting presents this year, I hadn’t been good. The 1throne told me so.
It was a tale I heard many times over many years. A truth I came to accept as readily as the sunrise. But we were in Dawson City now, the high north, where the sun had not risen above the mountains in weeks. Darkness buoyed my spirits, offering hope.
“His German name is a blind, this man is a Yukoner,” I heard The 1throne say in the days leading up to Christmas.
He muttered such things to himself, sometimes in a whisper, more often a bellow. The latter was enough to bestir me to attention from a nearby room or hall.
“Reindeer? Cunning for Mr. Claus to promote that term. Even the most ignorant know the Yukon teems with Caribou, though precious few realise Caribou and Reindeer are the same animal.”
What cause The 1throne had to hunt Santa Claus, I could only guess. Yet hunt he would. Thoughts of a confrontation with Santa Claus consumed him.
Looking back at it, I laugh. On my first Christmas with The 1throne, I delighted at the presents beneath the tree. I assumed, like a child, that those addressed to me were intended to remain in my possession.
But like a Greek God riding a great steed through thundering clouds, The 1throne strode forth to rescue me from that delusion. He sat me down as if to inform me of a death, and with that same compassion explained there was never anything under the tree addressed to him. Mr. Claus was the centrepiece of a Christmas tradition and thus, naturally, a traditionalist himself. It was only protocol to entrust The 1throne’s presents to me, his retainer.
“No one would try to train Caribou to pull a sled. Southerners know nothing about the Yukon and its ways. A north story passed along a million times through the south's great unwashed… a million chances for a mistake.”
With his candle long since burnt, I would intrude upon The 1throne hunched over a desk. It was so large and well-appointed I initially mistook it for an ornate raft. Laid upon this desk: a map that recorded the locations and times of present delivery. As winter went on The 1throne scribbled this over so thoroughly with red that I was confident none but he could even make out its continents.
Finally, in these last few days:
“If not 9 reindeer pulling that Yukoner’s sled, then what?”
Though he never outright shared his plans, over time even one as unmindful as I was able to comprehend that to ensnare Santa Claus The 1throne intended to bait his nine escorts. Stalking nine beasts to hunt one man.
As Christmas approached, The 1throne refused to leave his study until he answered this final question. His physical and mental health suffered.
Then tonight came. I heard our front door click, footfalls on snow. The time of reckoning was at hand.
The 1throne’s tracks were not hard to follow. Snow crackles at 40 below. Suspecting what was to come, I did my penance on those white coals barefoot, each step sounding a shot to my heart. His tracks terminated at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers.
“You have come to rob me of my glory,” said The 1throne. He was standing on the frozen Yukon, observing me on the bank.
“Sire, please, I would never do any such thing.”
“Nor would you ever succeed.”
He was silent some moments, then sighed.
“I thought you abed.” said The 1throne.
“I have come to help hunt him."
“Him? You speak of our prey as if it were but a man.”
“Please, let us not quibble about terms, sire. Man? Beast? Creature? They all bleed red.”
My rejoinder appeared to satisfy The 1 throne. He turned to walk further onto the river.
Why the river, I asked myself? The answer came quickly: this was his hunting ground. In summer when we weren’t panning for gold we would fish. Always here. On his very first throw The 1throne caught a salmon big as a man… if salmon it was. It was difficult to tell since that triumph was strictly catch and release; well, more release than catch, as The 1throne had not yet pulled it out of the water before sympathy overtook him and he released it. The 1throne assured me this fish had been larger than any other, its size frightful to behold. I shuddered.
Many more weeks we returned, long after the salmon run. That same salmon kept biting. When I asked how this was possible, The 1throne told me, “I fear this fish has too often tasted the ecstasy of my line. It is powerless to leave behind the possibility of further temptation. I have rearranged its genetic structure, it will not forsake me.”
Having had such luck, it was no surprise that The 1throne chose these blessed grounds to set a trap for even bigger game.
I now turned my attention to examine The 1throne on this night, glistening beneath the stars. He was carrying nothing apart from a velvet red-cape draped upon his shoulders. This flapped majestically, undaunted by the stillness of the wind .
“Behold. The prey will be ours.”
The 1throne’s ceased flapping his cape, and grandly gestured with both arms to a wide circle of black. I found myself erupting in applause. His gesture alone was unlike any seen by human eyes since Bismarck’s in the golden theatres of Prussia.
As for the circle: a hole in the ice, five-times the diameter of an average man. Beside it a saw, and beside that, lying prone on the ice, a massive hook of the type they use to hang cattle in a meat locker.
Little was clear to me. What did, however, appear clear was that whatever plan The 1thone had, Santa Claus was in grave danger. I allowed myself a bereft smile.
“Will we truly have him then, sire?”
“You keep using that word, ‘him,’ but yes our prey is nigh at hand.”
“How long must we wait?” I asked.
“This Christmas we are gifted with the joy of anticipation. Allow yourself to accept it.”
“But I have not been good.”
“I have. I share my gift with you.”
A shared gift. On Christmas Eve. A solitary tear froze on my cheek.
We long stood, then sat, then laid beside the hole that night as partners and equals. It was the first such Christmas I can recall; more than that, the first such occasion, ever, I remember. The constellations seemed brighter, air fresher. I was experiencing the world as The 1throne would, as no common man had a right to and may never again.
And then the anticipation ended. The beast was upon us.
I confess my heart sank when I saw it. It was only the fish. The fish from the summer, it had gone for the hook.
I say “only” but the fish was big as a man, bigger, thrice as big. At first I thought it must have been part man, part salmon. Its salmon half allowed it to jump a full eight-feet clear of the water and onto the ice where The 1throne had positioned his hook.
The beast almost landed on top of me. Two massive, hairy feet wiggled in my face. And that’s when I knew: Sasquatch. A Sasquatch had mated with a salmon, and this was what The 1throne was hunting. He wanted to treat himself to this rarest of feasts on Christmas Eve. That was all.
The hook was firmly down the Salm-squatch’s mouth. The beast wriggled and writhed and flopped on the ice. Its odour was a pervasive combination of fish and sweat. I picked up the saw. The next gruesome task was not fit for a royal, pure of heart; but was, regrettably, fit for his retainer. I approached the Salm-squatch and crossed myself with my free hand.
“For the love of God, man, stay away,” said The 1throne.
I heard howling far in the distance. Wolves. Did they smell it? The Salm-squatch wiggled.
“Sire, we may only have an hour –“
“I said get away!”
The urgency in his voice caused me to discard the saw and dive beside the beast on the ice. I waited there a moment.
“Sire -- ”
Howling again. Much closer. Barking.
Then warm breath.
Santa Claus’ magic does not only give his sled dogs impossible speed, but impossible smell. The sled was there, overflowing with presents, and Mr. Claus was in a panic.
“Ho! I say, ho!” Speech slurred. Even above the stench of the Salm-squatch, I smelled Brandy.
“Dancer, Prancer, Donner, and Vixen,” Santa Claus wailed like a child. “Rudolph!”
Rudolph paid him no heed. I knew Rudolph from his red nose, the only dog’s nose I’ve seen red from the cold. He was the first one on the Salm-squatch, and from the look of it, intended to be the last off it. His canines tore into raw flesh, but yet not menacingly. In that instant I admired Rudolph. Much like The 1throne he was. Even at his most barbaric he carried himself with elegance, he made the flesh of the Salm-squatch look tasty.
The 1throne was irate. “Sir, what cause do you have to disturb me in this fashion?” asked The 1throne of Santa Claus, simultaneously stealing a glance at the presents on the sleigh. Though he complained of being disturbed, The 1throne did not at all look surprised.
“You…” replied Santa Claus, “You!”
“Yes, I!” said The 1throne, “Who else but I have you come to deliver all these presents to?”
The presents were a sight to behold. The sleigh was a sleigh, large for one, but a sleigh nonetheless. The distinction was its presents soared towards the heavens, perhaps beyond, and surely numbered in the billions. Crammed so tight they pressed Mr. Claus against the sleigh's front rail. I knew from personal experience The 1throne had been very good this year and was entitled to each one. I only wondered what I could do to prove my worth to Mr. Claus myself, to perhaps convince him to have another magically appear for me.
Santa Claus was laughing at The 1throne. I couldn't explain it. Was it the Brandy? No, not just that. Santa Claus was weak. The type of man who spends a lifetime devoting himself to others with no one, including himself, devoting the slightest care to him. He could find only the most minor solace at the bottom of a bottle. Faced with a truly great man like The 1throne, Santa Claus was breaking.
These revelations of mine spurred another. Santa Claus and I were in some small way kindred spirits, neither having ever received a Christmas present. Pity quietly stole into my heart, where loathing once resided.
“These presents? For you?” asked Santa Claus.
“Mr. Claus, you keep asking that question. It is indeed I, The 1throne, King of all the Internets. Please compose yourself. This is your opportunity to make amends for your treachery, your one chance to ask for wisdom, and your best chance to be generous to the worthy; your life’s mission is ready to be fulfilled. If only you give the word, my servant will gladly unload this sleigh.”
The 1throne and Mr. Claus exchanged more words over some minutes, I could not hear. It seemed heated. The dogs were getting louder.
In the end, The 1throne gestured for me to approach. It was Santa Claus who spoke.
“The 1throne will get a present.”
This earned Mr. Claus a raised eyebrow from my master. “Sorry. Presents. A few. Many.”
The 1throne nodded. He proceeded to smile knowingly at the exchange that followed.
“He says I can have your help. Christmas Eve's almost over, I got to get my dogs off that fish and I can't get down! Too many presents in here. I usually just toss 'em down chimneys.” Santa Claus’ side-to-side swaying augmented his statement, adding the complaint that he was so inebriated he could barely stand, let alone move.
Reader, please understand: while I had already been on a great personal journey tonight, one aspect of my being remained pure. The word “presents” still birthed an aching in my breast like one felt for a distant lover. As I looked up-and-up, and side-to-side at a mountain before me, I knew something: I wanted one. I would do anything for it.
“Mr. Spokesman --”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, straightening my back to attention.
“The presents I have to deliver…”
“Are some of them mine, sir?”
He did not satisfy my curiosity. “Get dogs. Then talk.”
“I can and will do anything to assist my fellow man, sir.” I repeated the sentence twice more to ensure Mr. Claus caught every syllable. His glassy eyes left me doubtful.
I turned to face the dogs. They were all over the Salm-squatch now. And it no longer looked tasty. Rudolph was howling and barking after each bite, in euphoria. Donner: I’m not sure what Donner was doing. I suppose some would call it eating, though I’ve never seen man or beast eat like that before. The magic in these dogs was powerful.
I dove on the Salm-squatch, headlong.
“What in the world --“ asked Santa. The 1throne simply stared.
It was a gamble. I thought that if I could cover the entire Salm-squatch with my body, the dogs would not be able to get at it. And being dogs, they would not want to eat me. Of course, my leg might get a few stray bites out of it… but the present. Surely there would be a present.
The bites kept coming, however. These dogs were really trying to get at the Salm-squatch. And then I thought, are they trying to get at the Salm-squatch at all? Or are they trying to eat me? No, of course not, these were dogs. Then another thought came. These were very big dogs. Could they have been wolves?
My panic was short-lived. The dogs, for they were dogs, stopped chewing on me. At some point I passed out, more from relief than fear, I think. Perhaps blood-loss. I woke up alone Christmas morning with my head lodged partway down the Salm-squatch’s mouth.
I dusted myself off and looked at it. It was about two-thirds eaten, with bones sticking out in the lower half. A note was pinned to the tail.
“Sorry, it was late notice. Enjoy your present. Santa.”
The cold had kept the Salm-squatch reasonably fresh. I dragged it home.
I was happy to find The 1throne safe. He was seated by the fire and playing with a roomful of toys, half yet unopened, and in unusually good spirits for a Christmas. I showed him Santa Claus' note. Just to be sure The 1throne inspected the Salm-squatch and confirmed this present was indeed meant for me, not him.
I saw Santa Claus the next day, and the next, and next, in town with all his dogs. The 1throne and I find no need to tell anyone. With everyone looking for reindeer, Mr. Claus is able to hide in Dawson City in plain sight. People think he is simply another dog musher. I often see his sled crossing the frozen Yukon river, back and forth to the endless woods and mountains behind West Dawson, where his workshop likely lies.
Out of all the times I’ve seen him though, I always think back to that one time. And out of all the Christmases I’ve had, I always think back to this one. And let me tell you something.
Best meal I ever had.