This is a Christmas story. That said, it is not a story about Santa, or the Christ child, or Scrooge. It’s my Christmas story.
I am not a person given to a lot of nostalgia. I think I should make that clear from the beginning. I had left my old life behind me some years before to pursue the family business, and that had left no place in my life for Sandra. I knew she would not approve of my new lifestyle, so I never bothered to explain to her what had happened. She was ever a practical person, so I was sure she would mourn for a time, find someone new, and move on with her life. When I saw the golden locket around the neck of my latest subject, however, it reminded me of her. She had always worn such a locket, and, although this elderly woman was not her, it made me think, for the first time in ten years, about my Sandy. In a fit of nostalgia, I took the locket from her, knowing she would not miss it.Oh…the elderly woman was dead. Perhaps I should’ve mentioned that.
You see, in any culture or society, there are those who must deal with the dead. No one likes the idea, but someone has to do it, otherwise the world would be covered in bones and rotting flesh. I am one of those who does so, although it makes most people shun me. So be it. Amongst ourselves, we “dead-tenders” have our own society, so to speak. Even if humanity at large shuts us out, amongst each other, we have company. And perhaps that’s for the better.
Perhaps some of you are now repulsed by the concept that someone who manages the dead should see fit to take something that was obviously placed on the corpse with the intention that it should be buried with the deceased. Perhaps I would’ve been repulsed by the idea myself, once. But perhaps not, for I have always held a fascination with dead things. And now, having spent so much time tending to the dead, I can say one thing with a feeling of absolute authority: the dead have no morality. Whatever animate force once caused a cadaver to walk, talk, think, and live is long since flown by the time they pass into my hands, and all that is left is a cold clay that possesses no sense of outrage. So the occasional trinket goes home with those of us who tend to them, usually for sentimental reasons, as it was now with me.
If that outrages you, so be it. I do not come craving your friendship. Tend your own dead if the idea bothers you.
Anyway, where was I. Oh yes, Sandy.
Later on, back at my home, I sat and looked at the locket. My memories came flooding back. She was so lovely and full of life; what I had done with my life was the very antithesis of what she was. Surely it would never have worked between us. But was that true? Was there any way we might’ve found a way to live together, given our disparate natures? I was filled with doubt, and my memories haunted me like Ebeneezer’s ghosts. He had changed, too, and it had lost him the love of his life. Had I done the same?
I walked outside, looking up at the beautiful stars wheeling overhead. At all times, when care had overwhelmed me, or when I had questioned who and what I was, I had always turned to the stars for comfort. I gazed up at them, longingly, for they had always seemed to be so lovely and distant, like the eyes of faraway gods, gazing down benevolently on their creation. And as I stood there with my fancies, the bells in the church near my home began to chime, ringing out like the clear voices of the stars themselves.
I felt a wetness on my cheek and was astonished to find a tear there. It was Christmas Eve, I realized. It was a night for miracles, if ever there was one. I recalled that Sandy would be at Christmas Mass, which would just now be letting out. I realized also that if I set out on foot that moment, for I owned no car, I could arrive at her home just after her and talk with her for a time before she went to sleep. A smile curled my lips. What a Christmas surprise this would be! And perhaps, with a little Christmas magic, we could be reunited with one another. I set off, feet crunching in the deep snow, and headed for Sandy’s home at the edge of town.
In my excitement, I fairly loped across the terrain. Dogs barked and cats hissed, but I did not heed them. In my desire to arrive there quickly, I cut across someone’s back lawn, startling some late night strollers. I suppose I must’ve been quite a sight in my agitated state, for they shrieked and ran back inside. I laughed, the sound causing a babe sleeping inside a nearby house to wail. Then I ran down the ill-lit street, a few mere blocks from the home of her whom I once had loved, my body illuminated at times only by the twinkling of multi-colored Christmas lights.
As I came in sight of her house, her front lights went out, but other light in the house stayed on. I felt a tremor of excitement run up my spine; she was both home and still awake! Now, on the threshold of our reunion, however, I hesitated. How could I best approach her? I knew it had to be tonight, for the morning would find me without my courage. Should I knock? What if she would not answer? Then I recalled the sliding glass doors around back, and the spare key she kept under the mat. Was this too bold? It had been ten years. Suppose she was living with someone else?
As I pondered, paralyzed by this sudden doubt, I saw her pass by the window, wearing a flannel nightgown. Oh, but she was still so beautiful. Trembling to the very core of my being, I crept closer to the house, the darkness concealing me from any prying eyes. I walked from window to window, peering in, stealthily. I saw no other within, and my courage began to rise again. And then she went into the bedroom. I hurried to the other side of the house to see!
In her bedroom, she looked for a time in the full-length mirror, and I could see that some lingering sadness was upon her. Then she sat on the edge of the bed, her auburn hair concealing her face. When she looked up, tears trickled down her cheeks, and I longed to reach out and brush them away. She reached out and picked up a framed portrait, and I felt a wild surge of joy in my breast, for it was a picture of the two of us. She kissed it, tenderly, and replaced it on the table. I wanted to shout my exaltation to the stars. She still loved me! The miracle was ripe for the plucking! I had but to extend a hand and take it.
She lay down, upon her lonely bed, the tears still bright in her green eyes. I had to go in to her, to take her in my arms and apologize to her for ever leaving her side. She reached out and turned out the lights, and I knew it must be now or never. I crept around to the sliding glass doors, lifted the mat, and took the key in trembling fingers. Turning it in the lock, I heard the stealthy click, then slid the door aside. The warmth of her home enveloped me as I stepped inside, taking a moment to politely scrape the snow from my feet.
I heard her start up in bed. “Who..who’s there?” she called.
I hesitated only a moment, then called back, gently, “It’s me.”
“Robert?” I heard her say, in a voice tight with emotion. “Robert, is it you?”
I stepped into the doorway, gazing down at her form, which I could easily see in the darkness against the white sheets. “Robert,” she whispered. “Where have you been?” Emotion choked me, and I could not speak. I sobbed once, feeling all the loneliness of the last ten years welling up within me, and stepped closer.
“Robert?” I heard her say, and a note of nervousness entered her voice. “Robert? What…?” She reached out, turned on her light, and looked at me.
Her scream was an awful thing, full of terror and pity and horror. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I had forgotten how changed I had become, for those of us who tend to the dead can only rarely remain unchanged. Pointed my ears had become, and my face had grown into a rather canine snout, filled with wickedly sharp teeth for the rending of tough flesh. My flesh was caked with the grave mould, and dried old blood was upon my cheeks and chin. My hair was long and unkempt, my body lean and hungry, my claws strong and sharp. Surely she must see how well I have adapted to my work? Ah, but my eyes were the same bright blue, and I could tell that this is what disturbed her most.
I sighed, for as she scrambled backwards on her bed, fighting to get as far from me as possible, I realized that there could be no reunion between us. It made me sad, but I had long ago accepted that my work must keep me away from my old life. The truth of this came back to me now as I looked down at the terror-stricken face of the one who had once had my heart.
Putting my nostalgia aside, I did what is needful, for the tenders of the dead long ago decreed that no living one could look upon us and be allowed to tell another. Even though our feeding habits are all that keep humanity’s world from being buried in its own charnel waste, they would destroy us if they knew of us. I reached out, touched her lovely auburn hair just once, and then brought my teeth down to her throat, smelling the sweet perfume of her skin as my jaws closed. Her struggles were brief, and I console myself that she perhaps understood that I did what I did with nothing but love in my heart. For the deaths that are usually visited upon living men by my kind are far crueler than the one I gave her.
I ate well, for the journey to her home had tired me, and then I wrapped what remained in the sheets from the bed to make it easier to carry. As I made ready to go, I spotted the locket whose memory had sparked this whole event. I took it, leaving the elderly woman’s locket in its place. My trip home was more secretive and sad, but my sorrow was short-lived. I had my work, after all, and humans don’t stop dying just because its Christmas.
I kept her bones in my vault, and they were amongst my favorites to gnaw, and I would often save them for Christmas Eve, to remind me of our last meeting. Even after I had gnawed them to splinters, I still kept a lock of her auburn hair in the golden locket, and I have kept it to this day. I have found a female of my kind, and we have children, and I often tell them about my life when I was amongst humans. I’ve never told them about Sandy, though, and they must wonder why their sire keeps to himself on Christmas Eve, looking at a little golden locket and caressing a lock of auburn hair.