01: Waiting for Grandfather Frost

Snow had been falling for two days, transforming the dark and gloomy December streets to a dazzling whiteness. Wrapped up in thick winter coats and scarves, men and women shuffled passed glowing shop windows, while children slid along icy patches on the pavement and threw snowballs at the slow moving cars and busses.

In early afternoon the snow stopped falling and the sky cleared to a cobalt blue, revealing a bright star that burned from the east. Those who stopped in the street and raised their heads to admire the Magi’s legacy all saw flash by what looked like a silhouetted sleigh.

“It’s him,” said a small boy, his forehead a fierce frown. “It’s Father Christmas. Look.”

His pal, who had been too busy compacting a snowball round a stone, squinted upwards.

“No it isn’t,” the taller boy said. His body seemed longer than his legs, and his head too small for his body. “There’s no such thing as Father Christmas.”

A third boy, younger than the two pals, who’d been left outside the entrance to the town church a long time ago, in his hands a sheet of paper rolled up to make a kind of begging cup, stared hard into the darkening sky. “Father Christmas,” he whispered, and he tried to smile. But the freezing weather had chilled him beyond chillness and it felt as though his cheeks cracked. He brought his numbed hand to his face. But just then a snowball slammed into the side of his head.

The beggar boy slumped forward into the snow, which turned slowly pink in a halo about his head. Next to him, the unrolled paper cup danced like a leaf on the wind, and the spilled coins given him by passers-by burrowed into the soft snow.

The first two boys, who, strangely, had only now noticed the beggar boy, looked at each other and then around the streets. Nobody had seen what had happened.

“Quick,” the taller boy said. “Get his money.”

The smaller boy hesitated, but his pal pushed him forward. The two scrabbled in the snow, working their dirty fingernails beneath the coins. Before dashing off, the older one heaved the beggar boy over onto his back and searched the boy’s trousers’ pockets. Apart from a curious looking pen made from a feather, they were empty.

In the tiny church garden behind the beggar boy, there perched a robin redbreast atop a single holly tree. Helpless, the little bird watched the child lying in the snow. From its throat came a trembling, high-pitched, warbling lament. And into its breast bled a deep crimson.

Another bird had also witnessed the scene in the street. On a white-capped gargoyle that sprouted from a flying buttress, a raven cawed his deep-base caw after the two boys melting into the distance.

Slate-grey now was the sky and the snow had begun again to fall. Like a billion sheerie, those tiny, evil fairy spirits of dead, unbaptised children, the snowflakes whirled and chased each other round the street lamps.

Spiralling upwards, though, through the blizzard, was a giant snowflake, the white page used by the beggar boy as a cup, which might have been a goblin disguised, intent on causing misfortune or fatality to the living.

The robin and the raven watched the corpse-coloured snowflake climbing skyward until it disappeared into the blackness.

Unseen by mortal eyes, the sheet of paper transformed first into a snowy owl and flew on silent wings until it could go no higher. It then took on the shape of an eagle, its plumage blacker than black, until it too reached its flying limitations and contorted into a thunderbird, powering on towards its destination.

When the thunderbird could make out in the farthest distance what it had been seeking, the sleigh moving across the night sky, it revealed itself as that creature of seasonal peace and calm, the halcyon bird.

Too late, however, did the halcyon bird realise its mistake. The sleigh did not belong to the genial one known to many as Father Christmas, and to others as Grandfather Frost. And the sleigh was a chariot, its owner the Goddess of Winter, the Snow Queen.

The Winter hag, the Snow Queen, her hair a blizzard and her blue eyes colder than an iceberg, reached out of her chariot and grasped the halcyon bird by the neck. At the Snow Queen’s petrified touch, the bird became what it had been in the beggar boy’s hands, a sheet of paper.

The Snow Queen read the header written in black at the top of the page: ‘NAUGHTY AND NICE’. And in small print: ‘Final Report by Alabaster Snowball December, 2010.’

“Hah!” the snow queen said, the death rattle of her icicle necklace sounding like a million souls gurgling and fluttering for release from imprisonment in her throat. “Grandfather Frost and his elves have saved me time.”

She dragged her frozen fingers down the page until she came to the last names and addresses on the list. Quicker than a lightening crack, her winter-chariot twisted in the night-sky and sped towards the earth and the street where two ragged boys, one crying the other laughing, rounded a corner.

She brought her chariot to a halt before the boys so suddenly, the two slid and slipped into the gutter.

The snow queen recognised at once the one destined to be hers.

“You,” she said to the taller boy. “Come with me.”

Mesmerised, the boy obeyed the snow queen’s order and beckoning finger, and climbed into the carriage. The smaller boy backed away and shook his head. The woman, to him, appeared the way a perfect mother should: striking, tall and scary. Never having met his mother, he decided then that the strange woman in the carriage was how she would have looked – beautiful and terrifying. Her skin, whiter than the freshly fallen snow, seemed to glow in contrast to her mouth as red as the berries on the holly tree in the church garden. But for him her eyes showed no interest. As blue and uncaring as the sky he awoke to that midwinter morning where he’d slept the night in a doorway, her eyes were filled with indifferent cruelty.

A jingle jangling in the sky turned the heads of the two boys and the snow queen upwards.

“Father Christmas,” a voice called from up the street.

The small boy turned round. Running in his direction from the church he recognised the beggar boy. But he ran in strange short steps, as though his legs were shorter than other boys’ legs, and his clothes were different. On the beggar boy’s shoulders perched a robin. Then over their heads and into the carriage flapped a bird darker than a moonless night. The raven.

“Away,” the snow queen commanded, and her chariot carved from ice took off and sparkled as it rocketed through the sky.

The beggar boy and the small boy watched from the street the snow queen’s chariot shrinking among the stars. But just as it shrunk to a dot, it appeared to grow again and was zooming back to earth. But was it?

The jangling and jingling of reindeer bells peeled through the night sky before the boys in the street saw the silhouetted reindeer, behind the animals’ splayed antlers the bulky figure seated in his sleigh.

Quicker than a streaking comet, Father Christmas reached the earth and brought to a halt his sleigh in the same place the snow queen had parked her chariot.

“Whoa there Dasher, Prancer, Vixen,” he called to his reindeer team.

The reindeer, excited after their long journey, pawed the snow with their hooves, lifted and raised their heads, plumes of steam snorting from their nostrils.

“Alabaster,” Father Christmas addressed the beggar boy. For that is who he was, Alabaster Snowball, in charge of Father Christmas’s Naughty and Nice list. “Your work here is almost done, my little friend. Take the boy home.” And over them he sprinkled stardust. Within seconds the small boy was in a single-roomed house with an old woman shivering in a tatty armchair.

“Grandmother,” the boy said.

“Oh,” the old woman said, tears streaming from her swollen eyes. “You’ve come back.”

There blew through the room a gust of wind as the elf departed through the chimney, and in the empty hearth blazed a fire that would burn till springtime.

At that very moment, far away in the Land of Permafrost, the Snow Queen’s chariot had arrived. Out of her palace of snow and ice rushed her goblins. They seized the tall boy and brought him to join the countless others that had gone missing that Christmas Eve, destined to suffer forever the unbearable misery of perpetual winter.

Critique: You mix too many myths into one story—Magi, elves, Santa with modern reindeer, Grandfather Christmas, Snow Queen. I'd recommend you drop all but the Snow Queen and keep the tone eerie and gothic for a truly luscious and dark holiday story. It wouldn't work for this collection, but I bet you could find a home for it somewhere.

Watch out for sentence structure. Deepen the characterizations. Use your extra word count to give us smoother transitions, a more satisfying ending, and more of that wonderfully creepy imagery.

What I liked best: The gothic tone.

Publication ready: No. Needs reworking and tightening up, but it has potential.


Jennifer Ricks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thoughtful Reader said...

This story has some intriguing fantasy elements, but I feel like it's trying to tackle too much when the word limit is so short. This is evident in how quick the wrap-up is at the end; it feels like the author ran out of space. Maybe taking a look at how long it takes to get things started in the beginning and balancing things out a little would help. On the other hand, the story would probably be lovely if it had the space to finish out at a good pace, just that wouldn't work for this contest.

Some other notes:

-Very compelling and descriptive writing. Full of detail.

-There are a few awkward phrases in the story, just something to watch for, such as "all saw flash by what looked like..." in the first paragraph or "Slate-grey no was the sky..." Sometimes it feels like the sentences are inverted for no reason. It's an easy voice to adopt for a fable/fairytale-like story, but it's not very clear or direct.

-I really like the part when the one boy looks up at Father Christmas in the sky and his forehead is frowning. It made me ask why the boy wouldn't want to see Father Christmas. Is it because he's naughty and felt guilty and uncomfortable? This was the most intriguing part of the story to me. I would love to see it developed more.

-Why would the boys attempt to rob a beggar boy? Isn't that an oxymoron?

-The ending feels pretty harsh. Don't the naughty boys get any second chance?

-Is the title right? Shouldn't it be Father Christmas, not Grandfather Frost?

Overall, full of great detail and fun ideas. I really feel like the little snowy town and these boys really exist.