I was in ninth grade. I was taking home-ec because I wanted to learn to cook, but we weren’t always in the kitchens — often, our class sat in desks and did bookwork, which I tended to get through quickly. So home-ec soon became my daydreaming time, and so I could look busy, I took to daydreaming on paper.
Which is how I started writing my first short story.
A couple years before, I’d started an action novel during seventh-grade English, when we had “sustained silent writing” time each week. But I never managed to finish it, and by my freshman year of high school I’d basically given up on the book. But as Christmas approached, I came upon an idea for a complete story that I knew would be much, much shorter than a novel.
At the time, I’d not read many short stories beyond a few tales in textbooks and my newfound taste for Poe, and I hadn’t started the tale with the idea of it being a short story. But once I knew where it was going, I knew it was going to be only a handful of pages long (in the handwritten manuscript, which I still have around here somewhere, it’s eight pages), and I thrilled at the idea of putting together something so compact.
I wrote several other stories, including a tale about sentient fireworks that died on explosion but reincarnated into mice, and later entered my horror fiction phase with stories of madness and nightmares and murder and necrophilia, which I wrote in spiral notebooks and later typed on my dad’s office computer at his insurance agency, the monochrome monitor’s green text dark in the lamplit office and the whir of the dot-matrix printer a thrill to hear.
But this first short story, which I wrote when I was barely fourteen years old and which features my family’s actual pet dogs, is a Christmas story. So for Christmas, I thought I’d share it with you.
Snow from a Cloudless Sky
“Shh,” the dogs heard. “I have much work to do, and I need as little distraction as possible.”
The four puppies needed no words to keep them silent. They knew from the start that this man was sacred—and secret. They knew that if they so much as uttered a whimper the family inside the house—their family—might wake up. The family might see this man in the red cloak. They might see the topless car he floated in on, or his large dogs with long legs and many-pointed horns that pulled it. The mongrels did not speak. They only turned their eyes back to the nothingness of sleep. They tried to ignore the gentle scraping, rattling and jingling from the roof, but the clamor proved irresistible. At last the tall one, called Buck by the People, glanced up. It was a quick glance, one that should have allowed only a short view of the roof. But this night it wasn’t quick. This night things were different. This night was magical.
When Buck glanced up he didn’t see an instantaneous flash of the roof and the man upon it. What he saw was trapped in the spider-web of time. A slow passing of star-filled sky and scraggly, withering trees and silent houses. The roof, luminescent in the moonlight. The big, red-clothed man slowly moved his left index finger to the side of his nose. His eyelid gave a hesitated wink. And he exploded.
Or so it seemed to the puppy. In the fat man’s reality he simply transformed into a million point of light not unlike stars. They floated in the chilly night air due to frozen time and then, as if in a dream, the armada of tiny lights crowded together and floated down the dark, sooty chimney.
Buck finished his glance of the man on the roof. Now the larger of the four puppies, gray-streaked black fur dripping into his eye, looked up again. Forgetting his accidental plunge into the water bucket, he watched the roof still occupied almost completely by the open car and its . . . eight, yes eight strange dogs with horns. That roof that still sat gloomy and radiant in the moonlight. The roof that so shortly before had held the big fat man in the red cloak. The roof. Then, so abruptly that Buck was startled to his feet almost before it happened, the man was on the roof and retying his sack. The confused little puppy stared at the man as he loaded his car with such an air of the practiced ability that it was almost ritual. The man who only moments earlier had blown up, his glowing cinders floating down the chimney with incredible delay, now stood in his red cloak and smiled down at Buck. That man that Buck had heard about but had never seen and still did not fully understand flew off into the night leaving the poor puppy to sit and wonder for hours. The man called Santa Claus.
Moments after the man left it began to snow. Magical snow. Snow from a cloudless sky.
*** *** ***
Buck had heard about the man, Santa Claus, before. At first he thought the stories were totally unreal, that his parents had made them up one day in an attempt to shut him up. He had often teased his sister Mittens about trusting the stories. But soon he came to doubt that his disbelieving attitude was justified. Eventually, becoming more daring and venturing out later at night, Buck happened across another story about the big red man. Only the story about the “generous wizard” wasn’t mean for youthful ears. It was a serious conversation between adults.
As he approached his parents’ nocturnal nest he heard a name. It was a name that hung in the air and echoed through the night. His own name floated in his mind, haunting him. He froze, barely acknowledging the air impatiently pushing at his lips. He stood and listened. But what he heard frightened him even more.
“Do you think the wizard is coming this year?” Benji asked as he looked on his wife and sister with seemingly endless, pleasing, Beg-for-a-Bone eyes.
“I think so. That’s what the People are saying,” Randi answered. She met his eyes with younger, more thoughtful eyes.
Buck could see his mother’s small black back. It caused him to wonder many a time how fur so stunning could refuse any and all attempts of the Moon and the Sun to see themselves in the coat’s shimmering black. How had his mother come to possess the fur that was so unlike her brother’s. He could see that thick thatch of softness and had almost lost himself in his own amazement again when her words brought him back to reality so fast that he almost slammed through it.
“I heard that Santa Claus has a special gift for us. I hope Buck stays up this time and watches for him. Maybe this year he’ll get a present, too.”
The fat wizard was real!!!
There was more, but Buck didn’t hear. He didn’t want to. Didn’t dare. He just headed back to his bed, head lowered in thought. He would never have believed it, but his parents weren’t talking to him and Mittens, they weren’t trying to hush anyone. They were just talking amongst themselves, and they weren’t kidding around. The big red man was a reality. The idea left him dumbstruck. It was like the Moon had suddenly sprouted lips and eyelids, opened both, and began to eloquently describe everything in sight. It was too large to grasp. Like someone had thrown a gargantuan seven-foot-high cage ball and said, “Fetch!” And by some overwhelming instinct he went after it and persisted in trying to grab hold. He darted forth, snapped his jaws together, and missed. Drew back, contemplated a new approach, and shot forward again. And missed. Until finally his teeth sank into the ball and it blew up in his face. That’s what happened on the final realization that this man was somehow real. All of the real world, all he had known before, all he anticipated, everything, simply blew up. And just as the deafening explosion of the cage ball, the death of reality scared Buck. Scared him to death.
And so Buck sat there, remaining terribly awake for the rest of the night. Sat and thought about the fat man. “Santa Claws,” as the People called him. Claws. What kind of name was that? Was he vicious and menacing? Not according to his parents. Or the People. And yet what kind of man would venture out every year and bring the People gifts—wonderful gift—and treat the dogs kinder than their own family and still be named Claws? It made no sense! But then again, neither did anything else about the man. The flying car with no top. No top, on a cold, wintry night! The car had a name. Something like “slay.” Another gruesome, murderous name. It was pulled by a strange species of dog called “rain, dear.” Beloved rain? At least it wasn’t something horrid. Unless it was “rained ears.” A very strange man. A fat man who could climb down narrow chimneys with armloads of presents. From what Buck could see this was a pretty impressive feat. From what he had heard, however, this was impossible. His parents had one told him that inside the chimney was, instead of a large open space, a long thin pipe almost too small for his minute little sister to fit through. For a moment he caught himself smiling at the thought of Mittens struggling to escape the cavernous, carnivorous tube. Then he was laughing. Laughing at the hysterical picture of the big red man, mummified by colorful boxes, floundering around like a fish, desperately trying to wriggle himself into the pipe. But slowly the laughter faded. Slowly Buck began to wonder how a man that large could fit into a cylinder that small. He supposed it could be magic—the did call him a “wizard.” But the pondering little puppy had never heard of anyone—or anything, for that matter—that could do this. Not a single Person, no matter how unique the People were supposed to be. So . . . how?
The question remained in his mind, unanswered, throughout the night. Eventually Buck confused himself into a deep, dreamless sleep.
*** *** ***
That had been about three weeks ago. And the whole thing was still puzzling enough to remain freshly imprinted in his mind. Yet, upon witnessing the mystical acts of the fat man’s annual visit, Buck understood it all. Everything that he had heard and disbelieved in the past was now perfectly clear. All the times he had taunted his sister (. . . “Hahahaha, Baby!” he teased as Mittens began to cry . . .) and argued with his parents (. . . “Ridiculous!” he yelled at Benji . . .) over the stories he now fully regretted. And for every time he had questioned his family’s sanity he wished he could go insane himself. Then, after thinking of all the horrible things he had done, Buck began to cry.
Actually, a few short, sharp, shrill cries escaped his throat and several small tears trickled down his soft, furry cheek and rolled into his mouth, leaving a salty sting. But it wasn’t nearly enough to call a cry. It would have been considerably longer—Buck had intended it to be—had it not been for the soft, comforting voice that interrupted him.
“Calm down, Buck. Everything is forgiven.”
“Who are you?” Buck asked, terrified.
“You know who I am. You met me tonight on the roof.”
“But . . . how? How can you be talki—”
“I believe you can answer that, too, Buck.”
And Buck could. Did. And with the satisfaction of finally understanding, Buck smiled to himself and fell asleep.
*** *** ***
The sunlight spilled over the hilltop and flowed out and down into the woods The brilliant golden color plowed through the trees and rocks and over dirt. It littered the cold, damp ground with somehow—as if by magic—warm shadows. It made its way down the hill, toward the creek bed and began to climb again. But none of this was important. All of this was natural. What was important was that it woke up Buck. And Mittens. And Benji and Randi.
The first thing the puppies heard, however, was not the sweet melody of singing birds or the ploink-ploink of melting icicles letting go of their origins and plummeting to the snow below, exploding into a brilliant microscopic shower and freezing within the blinding brightness of the millions of tiny crystals. What they heard came to their ears before they even fully awoke. Before Buck sat up and stretched his forelegs out unbelievably far in front of him. Before Mittens could haul her squat little body up and waddle out from underneath the back deck. And before Benji could trot over to the food bin, releasing Randi from the hay-heated dog house. What the young mongrels heard that quiet Christmas morning was the gleeful laughing, shuffling of paper, name-calling and thank-you murmuring that accompanied the celebration of what Santa Claus had brought them.
Buck smiled a secret smile and thought, “Even I got a gift.” And, to his complete surprise, there came a reply.
“Yes, Buck, I give gifts to everyone. Even dogs.”
“But why? Why do you do it?” But before he had finished his question he knew the answer.
“Because I love the world. And it loves me. And I hope to teach them to love each other. That’s why I travel the world and give to all the people of the world. Now do you understand?”
Buck managed a deeply hypnotized monotone “Yes,” in response to the question and more so to the previous explanation.
“I thought you would.”
“So did I,” said Buck.
There was a warm and hearty HO-HO-HO! The laughter trailed off into the day but stayed with Buck forever. He was happy and . . . mellow the rest of the day. He was a different, better dog. And he vowed to pass the tale down through the generations, and to make them take the same vow. Then, content with this promise, he lay down and went to sleep.
Moments after Buck drifted away it began to snow. Magical snow. Snow from a cloudless sky.