The bril­liant win­ning short story, here in full.

SFX - - Contents - By Emma Wood­cock

The sound of bolts snap­ping back. Hushed voices. A crack of light, thin as a hair, but blind­ing. It’s been months, I sup­pose. Time ceases to ex­ist in the dark­ness. The first latch flicks back, then the sec­ond. The door eases a lit­tle, as though drawing a breath. There’s a pause be­fore it’s thrown open, and the light floods in, un­bear­ably bright. I re­coil – as far as the re­straints al­low – see­ing noth­ing but form­less, liq­uid shapes. “He’s fright­ened.” Mila. She’s still here then. “Non­sense. He al­ways does this. Come on. Wakey wakey.”

And Gus­tav. Of course. It’s al­ways Gus­tav. “Up and at ’ em, big guy.” “Should I do the-?” Gus­tav makes an impatient ges­ture, and Mila picks some­thing up from the ta­ble, weav­ing back and forth in front of the light. My eyes are ad­just­ing now, mak­ing sense of the fig­ures. More are crowded be­hind th­ese two, peer­ing for­ward fear­fully.

A small voice from the back, “Is he danger­ous?”

Mila presses her lips to­gether, as though to pre­vent any an­swer es­cap­ing.

“Not if han­dled cor­rectly,” says Gus­tav. “Ob­serve the dou­ble re­straints. They must re­main in place un­til the in­hibitor is ad­min­is­tered. Mila, if you would?”

She leans closer, touches my arm. Her fin­gers are warm with sweat. Af­ter so long with­out sen­sa­tion of any kind, the touch is star­tling, rev­e­la­tory.

Please, I want to say, but it comes out an in­co­her­ent croak. She re­coils, al­most drop­ping the sy­ringe. Gus­tav rolls his eyes. “Shall I do it?” “Sorry, Sir. No, I can man­age. But, are you sure? I mean-” “We’ve been over this.” “I know, but see­ing him like this-” “And over.” “It just doesn’t-” “And over.” “Seem right.” “Ob­jec­tion noted. Please con­tinue.” She swal­lows. “Yes, Sir.” No doubt she tries to be gen­tle, but to my height­ened senses the scratch of the sy­ringe is mon­strous.

A heav­i­ness comes to my still bound limbs. But it is an odd ef­fect of the drugs that even as they dull my senses and in­hibit my ac­tions, my brain be­comes more alert, mem­o­ries sharper. To Gus­tav it is a year since we last be­gan this game. To me, no time at all. My thought pro­cesses pick up where they left off when he closed the box, 11 months, 30 days ago.

Mila un­fas­tens one strap, and then an­other. I droop for­ward, al­most col­laps­ing with­out their sup­port.

“Come on out, then,” says Gus­tav. “My team have out­done them­selves this year. We have Minecraft plushies. We have re­mote con­trol quad bikes. We have robot dinosaurs that pee their pants. I’m not even kid­ding. That’s what kids want.”

I curl a hand around the box, steady­ing my­self be­fore I lurch for­ward with rusty, awk­ward steps. Gus­tav stands his ground as the younger ones shrink back. “No,” I tell him. “Don’t be like that. We all agreed, this is for the best. Would you leave the poor kid­dies dis­ap­pointed?”

I glance at Mila. She drops her gaze, mur­murs, “There are other ways, Sir.”

“Don’t start on about on­line shops!” he says, anger flar­ing. “Trans­ac­tions. Paypal. Postage and Pack­ing! It is not the elf way. We cre­ate for the joy of it. We give freely of our skills. I will not sully our tra­di­tions with fi­nan­cial ex­changes!”

Her cheeks flush. “Come and see the team,” she says to me. “That al­ways cheers you up.”

I let her lead me past the cow­er­ing oth­ers, down a nar­row cor­ri­dor where strings of coloured lights twin­kle on the walls. She opens a heavy door, and an­i­mal smells sur­round me: hay

and fur and rot­ting meat. Even here, flash­ing lights are strung across the stalls.

Re­luc­tantly, I draw closer. “Vixen, old girl.” I lay a stiff hand on the crea­ture’s head. Her ears are cold, ragged. She glances at me, as boneweary as I am. How long has it been now? Since age and ill health claimed me – and the elves, my im­mor­tal helpers, my mak­ers, claimed me back again.

“Bl­itzen.” I move to the next stall. He is in a sor­rier state than Vixen. Ribs show through the parch­ment skin. His eyes droop, see­ing noth­ing. I move on, greet­ing each of them in turn, look­ing for some spark of recog­ni­tion, some re­main­ing spirit. I reach the fi­nal stall. “Ru­dolph?” He raises his head just a lit­tle. One eye swivels to­wards me, and the ears come for­ward. He still knows me, and it breaks what re­mains of my heart. A beast’s suf­fer­ing is al­ways no­bler than a man’s. A man knows why he is pun­ished, or can guess. He can blame him­self for a thou­sand small mis­takes and wrongs – whether they have any bear­ing on the is­sue or not. A beast un­der­stands noth­ing but that it is in pain, and it can­not fathom why – or why those it loves do not help.

“It’s al­most time,” says Mila. “I’ll fetch your jacket.”

I don’t re­spond. My fin­gers stroke Ru­dolph’s cold, drib­bling nose. He shiv­ers, gives a wheezy bark.

“I know, old friend. I want it to end as much as you do.”

I glance at the coloured lights, wink­ing on and off end­lessly in pre­or­dained pat­terns.

She has left me alone. She is not sup­posed to do that. He will be an­gry with her.

I snatch down the lights, swiftly wind­ing the ca­ble around Ru­dolph’s scrawny neck. The lit­tle bulbs shat­ter, jagged edges pierc­ing his des­ic­cated hide, and my own. He still has a bit of fight left in him; kicks at the stall, shakes his big head from side to side, work­ing the wire deeper into his flesh.

The com­mo­tion brings the oth­ers. A twit­ter of high, anx­ious voices, and then Gus­tav bark­ing or­ders. A sy­ringe is found, and an­other dose ad­min­is­tered. The sense of pur­pose drains from me, and I al­low the lit­tle hands to sub­due me, steer­ing me away from the thrash­ing rein­deer.

A sud­den si­lence sig­nals Mila’s re­turn. “It was only for a mo­ment!” she says, be­fore he has a chance to ac­cuse her. “I thought it would be al­right. He seemed so quiet.” “Just get the jacket on him.” I al­low them to dress me, pulling the huge red coat over my sag­ging body, fas­ten­ing the but­tons and buck­ling the belt. “He doesn’t fill it like he used to.” They stand guard over me as the skele­tal rein­deer are led out and har­nessed to the sleigh. Last comes Ru­dolph, stag­ger­ing, his big head droop­ing. My swollen hands are ringed with blood where wire and crushed glass has dug in. The lit­tle fin­ger is al­most sev­ered, hang­ing at an odd, help­less an­gle.

“What were you think­ing?” Gus­tav’s voice is soft, like that of a con­cerned friend. “Stran­gu­la­tion wouldn’t end him. You know that. Don’t you re­mem­ber when you tried to hang your­self ?”

I was aim­ing to de­cap­i­tate him, but there is no need to tell him what I know and what I re­mem­ber. There is al­ways next year. There is al­ways an­other at­tempt.

I look up at my team of un­dead rein­deer, my sleigh filled with presents for chil­dren who don’t know what it takes to bring them this joy each year.

Mila cranks the han­dle, and the gramo­phone starts up. Tinny sleigh bells jin­gle. I sit up at once, tense, alert. I have tried to fight it. As of­ten as I have tried to end my un­en­durable ex­is­tence, and that of the rein­deer. But it is im­pos­si­ble. What­ever they have done to me, they have done it well.

Rean­i­ma­tion. Mind con­trol. Th­ese things do not con­tra­dict the Elf Way.

The pi­ano comes in. Next year, I prom­ise my­self. Next year I will es­cape.

The scratchy voices begin: Dash­ing through the snow, in a one- horse open sleigh…

And I am gone. Only Fa­ther Christ­mas re­mains. He climbs into the sleigh, he takes up the reins, as he is pro­grammed. He waves to the elves as they load the last presents onto the back. He launches into the sky with a hol­low, “Ho Ho Ho!”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.