A Christmas Story
Astrid stared morosely at her creation. This was the final project for the young elves in Doll Making 101. The task should have been simple.
Each elf selected a packet of materials and made a doll. The final grade depended not only on workmanship, but also on how the recipient reacted to the doll on Christmas morning. They would have to wait for their final grades. And, Astrid thought sadly, to see if she even passed at all.
Astrid had taken a packet with dusky fabric for skin, shining black eyes, a long fall of straight black hair, just like her own. And bright red for outer clothing. Other components were standard—lace, ribbons, stuffing, shoes and white cloth for underwear.
She decided on a large girl doll with cheery holiday overalls.
It should have been simple, she told herself again.
But she ran out of fabric for the skin. Her doll’s right arm ended at the elbow. How could she have miscalculated so badly? Had she made the doll too chubby? The legs too long?
She tried to think of what she could do. Take a bit of fabric from the tummy? Remove the other lower arm and hand, make a pair of elbow-length gloves and sew them on?
Time was running out.
Otherwise the doll looked fine. Not great—Astrid knew she wasn’t the inventive and talented toy maker that some of her classmates were. But the work she produced was usually solid and presentable.
Not this, though. How could anyone expect Santa to even deliver this to a child for Christmas?
Before she could decide if the doll was salvageable, the dismissal bell rang. Time to turn in the project. Discouraged, Astrid tried to deposit it in the bin so that the missing limb was not obvious. It wouldn’t fool the instructor for one minute, but maybe she could avoid her snickering classmates when they saw how she’d failed.
It didn’t work. She heard Gretchen choke back a chortle and whisper something to another elf.
As they tumbled out of the school building into the snowy town square, they were met with hazy air and an acrid smell.
Usually the square was a scene of organized, deliberate bustle. Now it was chaos, elves running every which way. Some of them held onto the halters of nervous, snorting reindeer.
“What’s going on?” Astrid gasped.
“Fire!” one of the elves said over his shoulder, keeping his voice preternaturally calm, as he lay soothing hands on the reindeer he led. “In the barn hayloft.”
Gretchen peered through the haze. “How did that happen?”
The elf shrugged. “Not what we’re worried about right now. Old Otto came stumbling out of the barn, shouting for help.”
“Did all the reindeer get out?” Astrid asked,
“Yes. Although a few of them bolted out into the woods. We’ll have to go find them.”
She stared at the frantic activity. “What can we do to help?”
“Well, the fire’s pretty much out. But there’s a group forming in front of the warehouse to go search for the missing reindeer. They could use help.”
The young elves hurried over.
Otto, the elderly herdsman, was standing on a crate, trying to straighten his arthritic back. “You can see the hoofprints in the snow where the reindeer took off. We’ll start there.
“We need to form a line, standing about six feet apart,” he said. “Then we can walk through the woods and make sure we didn’t miss anything. The reindeer are frightened. They may try to hide.”
Gretchen frowned. “Aren’t the woods full of brambles and burrs?”
“Yes.” Otto nodded. “Especially in the thickets. But that’s exactly where a frightened reindeer might seek shelter. So we have to plow through them.”
“Otto.” Hans stepped forward. “I’ll organize the search. You’re a little old to go tromping through the woods. You stay here.”
“How can I stay behind when there are reindeer missing?”
“Suppose they come back and you’re not here? And if we find a reindeer and somebody brings it back, you’ll need to be here to take care of it.”
Otto’s shoulder sagged, but he nodded.
Astrid and Gretchen moved to the end of the line. It started to move.
“Watch for hoof marks,” Otto called after them. “And reindeer poop. That might let you know you’re on the right track.”
“Reindeer poop?” Gretchen scrunched up her nose. “Suppose we step in reindeer poop? It’ll ruin our boots.”
“Our boots can be cleaned,” Astrid said.
“Go up to the tree line,” Otto continued. “Then move the entire team over and come down again. We’ve got a lot of territory to search.”
“What do we do if we find a reindeer?” Gretchen asked.
Otto raised his eyebrows. “Why, bring him back here, of course. One elf can do that while the others close the line and continue searching.”
“Reindeer kick hard,” Gretchen muttered under her breath. “And I bet frightened reindeer kick harder.”
Otto climbed down, and, leaning on his cane, led everyone to the place where the reindeer had burst through the fence into the woods. Then he stood back and watched as they set off.
Elves are accustomed to frigid weather, but soon the wind picked up and they began to feel the cold through their tunics and tights. Their elfin boots kept them on top of the snow, but off the trails, the going was rough. The balsam-scented air carried a sharp hint of snow to come.
Astrid concentrated on peering closely to either side as they advanced. She checked behind boulders and stopped to scrutinize thickets. The team moved slowly up the mountainside.
The hoofprints became fewer and more scattered.
“This isn’t working,” Gretchen complained. “Here we are, freezing our patooties off. I bet the reindeer will all come tromping home when it’s time for their dinner.”
“Suppose they don’t? Suppose they’re still scared?” Astrid said.
Gretchen rolled her eyes and sighed loudly.
Astrid, on the very edge of the line, skirted large rocks and the edges of ravines.
Some of the hoofprints led to a flat rock outcropping to where a cliff rose above the forest. Others circled back into the forest.
As they reached a thicket, Gretchen stopped short. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Astrid asked, peering into the brush but not seeing much beyond the tangled vines and branches.
“There.” Gretchen pointed. “Something moved. Something pretty big.”
The line halted as they examined the pile of brush.
Astrid looked where Gretchen had pointed. She didn’t see anything. “Aren’t you going to get in and find out what you saw?” she asked.
Gretchen looked at the thorny mass, then down at her tunic and tights. “I guess it was just my imagination.”
“We ought to check it out.” Astrid took a deep breath and pushed her way in. Brambles grabbed at her clothes and hair. Her hat caught on a branch.
“I don’t see anything…” she started to say.
As she took a step, her foot encountered something solid but soft. She peered down.
A quivering lump lay on the ground, almost invisible among the bushes. She leaned down and touched it. It was warm and furry. And it moved.
Gently, she ran her fingers along the creature’s body. It narrowed into a neck. She felt an ear. When she scratched behind it, a reindeer raised its head.
Now she could make out the shape. She reached for its halter, catching her hand on a thorn.
“Good for you, Gretchen,” Astrid said softly. “You found one.”
Gretchen preened. “I did, didn’t I?” She turned her pleased smile to the other elves. They smiled and nodded back.
Astrid pushed branches away from the reindeer’s head, turning his muzzle around as she guided him out of the thicket. The reindeer came reluctantly, shivering.
“That’s Mercury,” one of the elves said. “He’s barely a year old. Look how cold he is, lying on the ground like that.”
“And frightened.” Astrid ran a hand over his neck, murmuring gently in his ear.
“Are you going to take him back?” someone asked Gretchen.
She looked horrified. “He might kick me. Or bite,” she said shrilly.
Mercury threw up his head in alarm and tried to back away from her.
Astrid continued to run her hands soothingly over him. “I’ll take him, if you want.”
“Yes!” Gretchen’s voice was loud and piercing. Mercury trembled. “You’ll tell everybody I found him, won’t you?”
“Of course. You found him; you deserve the credit.” Astrid grasped Mercury’s halter firmly and tried to turn him back toward the village. He planted his feet and dug them into the snow.
“You’re gonna have to push him,” someone said.
“You go on ahead. I think I can get him going in a minute, after he calms down a bit.” Astrid hugged his neck and hummed wordlessly into his ear.
The young reindeer shook his head.
“Okay,” the elf said doubtfully. “But if you need help…”
The line moved on, closing up the opening left by Astrid’s absence.
As the search line got farther away, Mercury’s tense body relaxed a bit. He still didn’t want to head downhill. Astrid led him in a big circle, then around again toward the village. This time, he came willingly. Walking close by Mercury’s side, Astrid continue to murmur comfortingly.
As they approached the barn, she realized that the frantic activity had ceased and the scent of smoke in the air had grown faint. Otto came limping out to meet them, his already aged face creased with worry. “Mercury! Thank goodness you found him. He’s so young—almost still a calf—and he’s kind of nervous anyhow.”
Mindful of what she’d promised Gretchen, Astrid said, “Actually, I didn’t find him. It was Gretchen.”
Otto ran a practiced hand over the reindeer’s legs. “No matter who found him, just as long as he was found. And you were able to bring him down safely.”
“Yes.” Astrid looked up at the threatening sky. “I’d better go see if I can rejoin the search group.”
But Otto was concentrating on Mercury and didn’t seem to hear.
Astrid turned back up the trail and hurried to catch up with the search line.
About halfway up the mountain, she encountered an elf hanging onto the halter of a skittish reindeer and trying to keep him on the uneven trail. “We found him hiding between a boulder and a big tree, but he really doesn’t want to go back to the barn.”
The whites of the reindeer’s eyes showed as he rolled his eyes and tossed his head.
“Can’t really blame him. Last time he was in near the barn, it was on fire,” Astrid pointed out.
The reindeer jerked his head up, shaking it and pulling the elf almost off his feet.
“Stop it!” the elf hollered. “Can’t you see I’m doing this for you own good?”
The reindeer kicked out, missing the elf’s legs by inches.
Astrid grabbed the reindeer’s halter and pulled his head toward her, running her hands gently over his broad face. “Do you want me to bring him back?”
“You’re just a kid,” the elf said. “You won’t be able to hold him. He’s liable to hurt you.”
“I don’t think he’ll hurt me if I wait until he’s calm. I’ll just stand here with him for a while, then I’ll lead him down slowly.”
“Well, okay, if you don’t mind,” the elf said, frowning.
He turned and hiked back up the mountain.
The reindeer stood still, pawing the ground and tossing his head.
Astrid leaned into his broad shoulders, making comforting sounds.
Soon she could feel his muscles relax and his feet stopped moving.
“Come on, fellow,” she said, starting down the mountain.
This time, Otto was not standing anxiously by the barn door. Astrid led the reindeer inside.
He pulled her toward an empty stall. “Is that yours?” she asked, unlatching the door. When she opened it, he dashed inside and stuck his nose in his empty feed bag.
Astrid laughed. “I don’t know if you should be fed right now or not. I’ll have to find Otto and ask him.”
Otto was in the feed room, mixing molasses with reindeer pellets in a bucket. He looked up as Astrid came in. “Yes?”
“I brought another reindeer in. I don’t know his name. He seemed to want to go into one empty stall, so I put him in it.”
“Okay. I’ll check on him.” He bent down to pick up the bucket and winced as he lifted it.
Astrid reached for the bucket. “Let me get that. Just tell me what I’m supposed to do, and I’ll take care of feeding the reindeer.”
Otto looked at her. “Eh, you’re young and strong. Bring the bucket along and I’ll show you who gets fed next.”
They walked down the well-swept aisle between the stalls. Otto stopped to look at the reindeer who Astrid had just brought in. He was still poking at his feed bag.
Laughing in his throat, Otto pulled the feed bag over and scooped some reindeer pellets and molasses out of the bucket. “Can’t be in too bad shape if he wants to eat so badly. He must not have been too nervous.”
“Oh, he was nervous, alright. Tossing his head and rolling his eyes. Kicked at the elf who was trying to bring him down the mountain.”
Otto turned and looked at her. “Then how’d you manage to get him so calm?”
Astrid shrugged. “I just waited. Talked to him gently and petted him. It wasn’t long before he was ready to go home.”
By the time they’d gotten the rest of the reindeer fed, the search crew straggled back into the village, heading for warm fireplaces, hearty suppers and a good night’s sleep.
Otto stepped outside the barn, his forehead wrinkled in worry. “You didn’t find any more reindeer?”
“No.” Hans shook his head. “How many are we still missing?”
“Four.” Otto scratched his chin. “And two of them are Vixen and her new calf.”
“An exhausted search crew is likely to miss something. We’ll get right back on it in the morning.”
There wasn’t much they could do about it. Otto turned back into the barn. “I hope Vixen’s got enough sense to find a sheltered place. That calf is much too young to be out in the cold.”
Astrid helped Otto finish up. She rinsed out the last feed bucket and glanced over at him. He was sitting on an upturned water pail. “Do you know how the fire started?” she asked.
Otto lifted a hand to his face and rubbed his forehead. “I think I started it,” he said glumly. “I was up in the hayloft, checking to see if we needed to bring in more hay. I had a lantern with me. After the fire was out, I went looking for the lantern and couldn’t find it. I must have put it down in the hay and forgotten to pick it up again.”
Astrid frowned. “Wasn’t it a battery-operated lantern? Even if you left it in the hay, it shouldn’t have started a fire.”
“You wouldn’t think,” he said glumly. “But it wasn’t working. And I rewired it. Maybe I didn’t get it right, and it sparked. The fire did start right where I’d been standing.” A sob escaped him. “And now four reindeer are still missing. Including a tiny calf.”
Astrid didn’t know what to say. “It’s not your fault…”
“Yes it is.” Otto got up and went to the barn door. “Starshine! Lightfoot! You’ve come home!”
Astrid hurried over to where two reindeer stood just outside the barn. Each of them took one to its stall, getting food and murmuring comfortingly the whole time.
The two elves finished up and left the barn. Otto gazed up at the night sky. “If only I were younger,” he said. “I’d go out and find Vixen. But I bet I’d only end up needing to be rescued myself, and waste time the rescuers could be looking for her.” He shook his head and limped toward his cottage next to the reindeer barn.
Clouds scuttled across the moon in the frigid sky. Astrid was tired, but she was young and strong. Elves have eyes like cats. They can see in the dark.
She watched Otto’s door close behind him, and looked up the trail, remembering the hoofprints leading across some rocks toward the cliff.
If it hadn’t been for discovering Mercury’s hiding place and bringing him down the mountain, she would have pointed them out to the searchers. As it was, probably no one else had noticed them.
Making up her mind, she set off up the trail, hoping she could find the spot again. She did remember it was at a point where the cliff loomed high over the forest floor.
Astrid could move much faster on her own than as a member of a methodical search line. To her surprise, the cliff seemed to rise steeply at numerous places along the trail. She hadn’t noticed that before. After a while, she thought she must have missed the flat rock outcropping with the hoofprints.
Discouraged, she decided to go as far as the next sharp turn of the trail. She could only hope that Vixen had found someplace to shelter with her calf out of the freezing wind.
Just as she was about to turn back, clouds cleared the moon and the moonlight shone brightly on a flat rock. The cliff rose behind it.
Cautiously, she crept along the edge of the rock.
There. The faint hoofprints led from the forest floor and disappeared on the hard surface. She left the trail, her eyes scanning the open expanse of the rock. On a cold night like this, no creature would stay out in such a windswept area. She stepped gingerly across the rock to the face of the cliff.
What had looked at first like a smooth unbroken surface had many indentations and nooks. Astrid hurried along the cliff as quickly as she could while stopping to examine each depression that might be big enough to hide a reindeer.
She came to a deeper crevice that turned a corner. Several large rocks were perched on either side of the opening. Eyeing them and wondering how stable they were, she slipped into the entrance and crept toward the turn.
There, wedged against rock walls on three sides, stood a reindeer, her head drooping down toward a huddled figure on the cold ground. Astrid approached slowly. “Vixen?” she said softly.
The reindeer raised her head and shook her antlers menacingly.
“It’s okay, Vixen,” Astrid murmured softly. “I’m here to bring you and your baby back to the warm barn.”
Vixen pawed the ground and snorted, but she let Astrid approach.
When she could finally reach out and touch the calf, Astrid felt him shivering uncontrollably in the cold.
“Can you get up?” Astrid lifted the calf’s front end and tried to set his feet under him. As soon as she let go to try to lift the back end, his forelegs buckled and the calf tumbled to the ground.
Putting both arms under the calf’s middle, Astrid heaved him up to a standing position, but when she tried to remove her arms, he began to fall.
Vixen nosed the calf anxiously.
Astrid realized she had to get the calf to a more sheltered spot. Quickly. But where would that be? The stable was the best option, but could she ever get the calf so far?
She picked him up in her arms and headed out of the crevice.
The surface of the flat rock was slipperier than she’d remembered. Wind dashed across the surface. The calf was like a dead weight.
When they got back onto the trail, they were a bit more sheltered by the trees, but the calf seemed to grow heavier. Astrid thought his shivering was not quite as violent, but that might not be a good sign.
They wouldn’t make it like this, she realized, clutching the calf to her chest. Her arms and back ached.
A thicket would block the wind a bit better than staying on the trail, but it would still be freezing.
When Astrid paused to get a better grip on the calf, Vixen crowded in next to her, and her boots slipped.
Vixen was strong. Much stronger than Astrid. So why, Astrid mused, was she, a weak elf, trying to carry the calf when she had a strong reindeer right here?
Using her last bit of strength, she heaved the calf over Vixen’s back.
The reindeer was surprised, but she stood still.
Astrid grabbed Vixen’s halter with one hand and steadied the calf with the other. She guided them toward the barn.
As soon as they approached the village, Vixen lifted her head and picked up speed.
No lights shone in any of the cottage windows. Astrid struggled to keep up with Vixen, who stopped at the barn door and pawed at it.
When Astrid swung the door open, Vixen headed for her own stall. Gently, Astrid eased the calf off his mother’s back and into the deep straw that lined the floor.
He tumbled onto the floor and lay still, unable to even lift his head. Vixen nudged him anxiously.
Astrid ran her hands over his sides, piling straw against him. She stroked his face. To her horror, she realized his ears were frozen stiff. The saliva on his chin was icy, and his nose was raw and swollen.
But he was breathing.
Astrid hurried out and knocked on Otto’s door.
She knocked harder.
Still no response.
Finally, in desperation, she banged on it and hollered, “Otto! Answer me.”
After what seemed like an eternity, a very groggy Otto pulled the door open. He was dressed in a stocking cap and a nightshirt that reached below his knees. His breath smelled of alcohol and apples. He’d been drinking hard cider. Behind him, his living room was in disarray.
“What’s all the racket about?” he demanded, rubbing his bloodshot eyes.
“Vixen. And her calf.”
“Yes, I know about Vixen and her calf. Vixen might survive the cold, but the calf…” Tears spilled out of Otto’s eyes and dripped down his beard. “And it’s all my fault.”
Astrid glared at Otto. “You’ve got to get to the barn. They need your help.”
He shook his head. “I can’t help. I’m too old.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself and go take care of Vixen and the calf. They’re in her stall, but the calf’s very cold. He can hardly move.”
Otto’s eyes opened wide and focused. “They’re in Vixen’s stall?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Get in there.”
Grabbing a blanket from the couch, Otto ran through the snow in his stocking feet into the barn. He slid into the stall, wrapping the blanket around the calf.
Astrid followed him. Otto sat in the straw next to the calf, his skilled hands prodding and exploring the little face.
“Is he gonna be all right?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” Otto brushed a tear away. “He’ll live. But his face is pretty frostbitten. His ears will probably be okay—they’re covered by fur. But his poor nose…”
Leaning closer, Astrid peered at the calf’s swollen nose. It was very red, and in the dim light in the barn, it seemed to be glowing slightly.
“Oh, Rudolph,” Otto crooned softly. “We’ll take care of you. You’ll be all right.”
Astrid brought a bucket of feed for Vixen. Then, leaving Otto in the straw next to the calf, she slipped away, heading back to her cottage to grab what sleep she could before the village awoke.
The elves returned to preparing for Santa’s midnight flight. Vixen showed no ill effects from her ordeal. Rudolph, nourished by Otto’s ministrations and his mother’s rich milk, was well enough for Vixen to take her place on Santa’s team. But his poor nose remained red and swollen, although it didn’t seem to hurt him.
As the sleigh rose out of sight, the entire village breathed a sigh of relief. The elves slapped each other on the back, smiling and yawning, ready for a well-deserved rest.
Gretchen sidled up next to Astrid. “I can’t wait to see how the person who got my doll will respond! It’s a work of art, a collector’s item.”
Glumly, Astrid nodded. She knew Gretchen was among the most talented of their generation of toymakers, and her doll would have been a masterpiece.
Unlike Astrid’s own deformed creation.
Before the assembled elves could disappear to their cottages for their well-deserved suppers and slumber, Otto climbed up on a box and held up his hand for silence.
“I want to thank everyone for their response to our emergency last month,” he said, “when we had the fire in the barn. All the elves pitched in, and what could have been a major disaster was averted. All the reindeer were saved, and the barn still stands.”
He peered around the crowd. “A special thank you to those whose extraordinary efforts contributed to the successful outcome.”
Gretchen preened. “Like me. I found one of the reindeer. Mercy…” She paused, frowning. “Or some name like that.”
Otto nodded. “Mercury. Yes, he was the first of the missing reindeer to be brought in. Good work finding him.”
Gretchen brushed her hair back from her face. “It was nothing.”
Astrid thought about pointing out that Gretchen would have continued on rather than going into the thicket, but that would serve no purpose. The important thing was that Mercury had been saved.
“And now,” Otto continued. “I have an announcement to make.”
His gaze swept over the assembled elves. “My announcement. I hope I’m not being presumptuous—I haven’t spoken to the principal party involved—but I’m sure you’re all aware that I will be getting past the point where I can continue as chief herder. It’s time for a replacement to be named while I can still be a mentor.”
He looked toward where Astrid stood next to Gretchen. “Our next chief herder may come as a surprise to many of you. But only a few elves ever develop into true reindeer whisperers. We are fortunate to have one such elf among us now.
“You may be young, Astrid, and of course you will have a lot to learn, but I hope you will accept the position of chief-reindeer-herder-in-training.”
Astrid stood frozen, a mixture of emotions rising in her. Reindeer herder! A respected, honorable position in Santa’s village, working with the affectionate animals. Much better than the barely-competent toymaker she always thought she was destined to be. Tears pricked at her eyes.
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Gretchen gave her a sideways glance and wrinkled her nose and said under her breath, “Better you than me. A life-time of shoveling dirty straw and having reindeer slobber all over you.”
Yes, thought Astrid. Better for all of everyone. Gretchen would be a standout toymaker; Astrid would work with the animals she’d come to love; and the reindeer would have a caring elf to look after them.
That night, after Santa returned, Astrid joined her classmates to see the reaction of the children who received the dolls they had made.
As Mrs. Claus passed around cider and gingerbread, an elf tuned up the naughty-and-nice monitor to focus in on Christmas morning in several homes.
That seemed so long ago to Astrid. She was still ecstatic about her new role as herder, where her lack of talent in toy-making would matter not a whit.
But had Santa really delivered that defective doll to a child? She cringed when it was her turn to look into the monitor.
A girl with long dark hair sat on the floor in front of a modest Christmas tree. Her mother handed her a big package. She reached for it with one hand. Using that hand and her teeth, she tore the paper off it.
Inside it was the doll Astrid had made.
“Look, Mama!” the child cried as she examined her gift. “It’s a doll! She only has one arm. Just like me! This is the best present ever.”