The Christemas Tree – a Christmas story
a Story From The Edge of Christmas
“What if the magic of Christmas was really a curse?”
HERE WILL NOT BE A FOURTH TIME, KING.”
The music stopped. The dancers cooled their heels. Even the children hushed and stared at the willowy-white pole of a man as he stood raging at their leader. Only the fire kept about its business, roaring from the centre of the great hall in this, the Northern-most fist of the green world.
The first time he had come to this place, the man had ridden in on a pig. A saddle of polished oak lifted him high above its ears but even so his knees disappeared into his beard as the hog squealed beneath his weight. The sweating beast was pale, so pale it might have been carved from snow gathered in a land without hope of summer or even daylight. He had been dressed in a shabby coat of dusky blue and his white beard carried the breeze in its knots.
On that first visit he had encountered no resistance and had delivered his message directly into the ear of the toymaker. And then he had left, not knowing if his words would be heeded as children gobbled more than their share of sweets beneath timber beams dripping with wax.
The second time, the old man had ridden a mighty stallion which bore its own shadow close to its skin. Around the stallion’s neck was a harness carved from walnut wood. The man had worn green that time, faded like the grass after a picnic.
On that second visit guards had been posted. Nothing more than farmers really, for this was a place which had not known war in many years. They tried to bar his way but the man had ridden through them, scattering them like skittles. He spoke once more to the toymaker king and then left.
Then there was the third visit.
This time he rode a great elephant draped in silks and steered by rods of rosewood. The man was clothed in red, ripe as a blood moon. He had ridden the beast through the welcoming doors of the great hall and stopped.
The toymaker king was in his usual place, not far from the fire. He watched as the man climbed down from the elephant.
“There will not be a fourth visit,” the tall man repeated. “I have tried pleading. I have tried reason. I warn you now, Nikolas – you will listen and change, or before the night is out you will be sorry.”
The throng turned to look at Nikolas, their toymaker. As a young man he had been visited by kings who were eager to purchase his remarkable toys and listen to his wisdom. As an old man he had been made one, replacing the old despot who had done nothing but amass great wealth and send boys to war.
If it was unusual to raise a toymaker to be king over a people, then this was the place for it to happen. For here was where night replaced day and winter replaced summer. Why not, the people reasoned, replace nobility with craftsmanship? His rule was a kind one, bringing joy into the hardship of so many lives.
Whispers brushed through the hall. What would the king do? He was not known to have a temper, but then none had threatened him as the tall man did.
A wooden soldier broke free of its owner’s chubby fingers and clattered to the floor. The child cried and reached for the arms of her mother – one of the king’s many wives. Another of his children let out a snigger but then the whispers began to die down.
Letting the rumble of his voice subside behind the hill of his throat, the tall man stood his ground and his eyes flashed.
Nikolas, sitting upon his wooden throne, raised his hands in a gesture of peace.
“Is there any reason to stop the festivities? Are you so miserable that other people’s happiness means so little to you?”
“It is the happiness of others which brings me here to you, toymaker,” the man said. “As well you know.”
“I remember you, old man. I know who you say you are. Twice before you have threatened me and I have been kind. But now you have disturbed my celebrations. We work hard, my people and I, and need these times. They are our sunrises, and you do nothing but darken our skies.”
The old man pointed at the king, his nail-free finger long and unerring. “If you remember me then you will listen to me once more. And if you know who I am then you will do as I say.”
The king gave a short clap of his hands and smiled. The fierce firelight smudged the shadows beneath his eyes.
“I said I know who you say you are. Though I love my toys, I am not a child. I do not listen to stories, only to my people and my craft. But join us. Eat with us. Take a gift and then leave in peace. We will do nothing to harm you. Your anger is misplaced.”
The king beckoned to those stood around and ten or fifteen of his younger children flowed across the polished floor to stand beneath those great arms. Each child carried a smile and a toy.
“Do not play with me, Lord Christemas,” said the old man. “You have heard my cries and the cries of my kin in my visits and in every turn of your lathe.”
Nikolas knocked upon the arm of his throne. It rang a hollow sound. “Cries? It’s wood, old man. Wood. Good wood. The best wood. But just wood. I need it. I am a toymaker. Don’t make this to be something from a fable.”
“A fable, Nikolas? You take the light from our forest and turn it into soldiers and wizards, dragons and horses, woodcutters and knights. You turn our lives into cats and dancers so that you and your people might be distracted for a while, feel young for a while.”
“I only take…”
“You take the Realm Wood, play-king. You take the Realm Wood and as you do you hear…”
Christemas banged his fist once more upon his throne and stood. The children near him shrank back but he reached out and grabbed one, lifted her into his arms. “I hear nothing but the laughter of my children and my people. I wish only to serve them with my skills,” said Nikolas Christemas. His voice soaked into the great hall like oil and the child looked into his eyes with wonder.
“Let me show you,” said Christemas, placing the child on the floor and crossing to where the old man stood. “Allow me to make you something new. You walk, you breathe. You are more like us than you think. Let me carve you a game like no other. It will be a game of fantastical beasts who move like the stars. When you play this game you know how it feels to touch creation. You will return to the forest and make it richer than ever. We can all benefit. We can all win.”
The gathering people held their breath. They wanted to see such a game being made before their eyes. Upon occasion, their king did this for them. He would swap his fur-lined coats for the wool and leather of his trade. He would roll up his sleeves and sharpen his chisels and work the wood in silence. And in the silence something magical was always created. Something that changed as fire changes.
“WIN?” The old man summoned the thunder of his voice once again and a light blazed in his eyes. “Win, Christemas?” he said. “Are your toys not carved from the trees in the forest at the edge of the world?”
“They are,” Lord Christemas replied. “I do not hide this.”
“From the deepest part of the forest?” pressed the other.
Lord Christemas yawned and turned to the fire, toying with a loose brand which awaited its turn to be consumed. “I have said they are carved from wood. One tree is much the same as another,” he said. “Now go. If you will not accept my gifts this audience is at an end.”
The old man was not so easily dismissed. Two farmers on either side of him tried to guide him away but his legs were rooted to the floor. “My Lord Christemas,” he urged. “Some trees are not the same as others and the deepest part of Edge is not like the deepest part of other forests. You must not cut there. I ask you…” The old man’s voice split and softened like the echo after an avalanche. “I ask you to stop cutting.”
Lord Christemas did his best not to appear unsettled by the old man. He gave a laugh that sounded as hollow as a knock upon bad wood. “Elder, it is the craft that makes the toy – not the wood. Leave now.”
“It is Realm Wood, and it is not for you to cut.”
The words scattered through the hall, fluttering in undercurrents of trepidation. Firelight blazed across Christemas’ rich crimson robes and his wrinkled face darkened. Heads turned, eyes shifted and a baby stifled a cry as it lay in its little wooden manger.
“Realm Wood, Lord Christemas,” the old man said. “I have warned you three times now.”
The two men stared at one another as the fire gobbled its fuel. There were perhaps a handful of moments in which storms raged across the king’s features. And then the elephant bellowed and emptied its bowels upon the floor.
Clutching his belly, Lord Christemas howled with laughter. One by one his laughs were taken up by his subjects and soon the hall echoed with frivolity. The old man scowled and stamped upon the floor but his hold over the proceedings had evaporated, even as the smell lingered.
“Realm Wood?” Lord Christemas chuckled. “Realm Wood? And whose realm does this wood reside in?” The king smiled and softened his tone and stood, not waiting for an answer. “Do not stretch your head, old man. I have humoured you too long.” Wading through the crowd, the king stopped when he was within hugging distance of the old man. “This is my realm. My people chose me because I could make them happy. My craft made them happy. Every day in my realm is Christe…”
“BUT AT WHAT COST?” The old man’s robes shook and his face twisted into a knot. “DO YOU EVEN KNOW THE COST, TOY KING?”
Nikolas Christemas placed his great hands on the old man’s withered face. “Ho, ho, ho,” Christemas said. “Happiness has no cost, old man. War has a cost. Misery has a cost. But happiness? Let me make you a toy. Let me show you the joy of my realm. See what I have built here and then you will see what your trees can be a part of.”
The old man put his hands over the king’s. They were thin hands but strong hands, brown hands and warm hands.
“We are a part of something. The Realm Forest has pulled itself back from you for too long. We withdrew to make way for your needs. We made paths through our tangled halls so that you might pass from one place to another. We thinned our numbers so that your food might find root. And we lost our tongue so that you might speak. You were born and grew in our boughs and we expected you to care for us in our dotage. But you have cut us and shaped us into toys.”
Nikolas stepped back and opened his mouth but only hollow laughter echoed from his throat. “Ho ho ho.”
“LAUGHTER, TOYMAKER?” The old man tightened his fists. “You laugh? The Realm Wood is living. You brag about not killing your own kind but happily destroy mine. You are a sham, a puppet of your vanity.”
King Nikolas Christemas, so used to deference and praise, felt a heat flood his body. It was more potent than the fire he stood beside and it animated him in ways he had never known.
“Puppet?” The king trembled beneath his heavy robes. “I have offered you everything and yet you belittle me?” With a swift movement, he reached for the brand he had been toying with and pulled it out of the fire. It glowed, glowed like the eyes of a wolf released into a crowd. And once again the two men faced each other.
Until Nikolas thrust the fire brand forward into the old man. The fire leapt and in an instant the king saw the shape of something he could never make. He saw nature alive and he was horrified and enthralled. To copy that…
But his thoughts dried up as the old man caught fire. There was no panic, a forest does not run from fire. Instead, the old man raised his hands and reached out.
“Endless consumption is not peace,” he said. “But we will give you your toys. We will give you your celebrations. For every year at this time you must answer the cries of those who want more. Every year you will pay tribute to the fallen trees. Make your toys, bone king. But make them from your own children.”
The old man’s face grew darker as the fire ate him. Nikolas pulled away and looked around as, one by one, his children moved to gather around where the old man and he stood. They formed a circle, several bodies deep. He watched as their legs became rooted to the ground and their arms twisted into branches. Some managed to cry out before they changed, cries like creaks on windy days. Some of his older children grew upwards and splintered the roof of the great hall whilst others spread into the boards the dancers had trod upon.
And the king of Christemas watched, aghast at the loss of his children but alive with the possibilities this new wood held for him.