THE TREE IN THE HALL
K. Bachus, 2014
She’d been a driver longer than any of the others.
Even longer than Bede, though the others often made the mistake of thinking that the lanky, weathered-faced man was the first. Bede had become the anchor of the barn, the stables. The barracks. Eye of winter’s storm, quiet and sardonic. The one they all went to, when inevitably something caught fire, fell down, when once again the old man’s world, the yearly ritual, teetered on the brink of disaster.
But Bede wasn’t the first. He wasn’t the first driver to hitch unwilling, stubborn reindeer to a rotting bucket of wood with aging leather traces. He wasn’t the first to learn that the old man’s rituals worked only for the old man, that each driver must find for herself the way of untethering sleigh skids from the drag of ground and snow.
It began with Katja.
It began with the snap of leather, a whip crack in the air like the sound of an icicle suddenly breaking, falling deadly point first into the soft yield of snow.
It began with her leather glove pounding on the wood of the old man’s door, here, as today once again she banged hard enough to rattle thick, stubborn oak in its frame.
“Get up,” she hissed, though who could hear her through five inches of wood, or her own heavy pounding? “Get up, you bastard. Show yourself.”
But as it had been, the cabin was silent. The door remained closed. The old man hadn’t so much as shown his nose even last year, during the sugar plum fairy massacre or the weeks of sticky cleanup afterwards.
She lifted a big boot, kicked the door a few times for good measure. “OPEN UP.”
But the house was still quiet and this year even lacking of the ubiquitous smells of gingerbread and apples. As though the old man weren’t just hiding, but gone altogether.
“Maybe he’s finally… you know.” Katja found Bede in the barn, engaged in the perpetual task of mending harness. He looked up, his tone almost hopeful.
There was a mythical bottle of port somewhere in the barn, a gift sent from the Enchantress one year that the old man refused, or rather ignored hoping it, like the woman, like her place in his life, would simply go away.
Every driver swore someone had stashed it in the barn, not quite having the balls to drink it right away, in case the old man, the Enchantress — one or the other — finally claimed it, and then no one could find the thing. Accusations flew, the place had been searched, sometimes twice, three times a year since, always in vain.
Katja replaced the loose floorboard she’d pulled up, stomping it into place again over the dusty hole that contained neither a bottle of port nor anything else of interest. “How many drivers?”
Bede shrugged. He held leather to the lamplight, and these were painfully familiar things, the smell of kerosene, the sure way his hands ran over waxy stitches. As always, she missed him most sharply in moments like these. When he was here, most close at hand. “Six. Seven if we can sober Hudak up.”
He sat patiently in the ensuing silence. This was part of the reason, she reminded herself. This silence, that waited for her word, for her opinion, for her bidding.
You’re his fucking knight, she thought viciously. The fucking Knight of Winter. For once, make a fucking decision. Do something, DO something.
The silence continued.
“Fine,” she breathed, about Bede, about the old man, about the ride, about this season, about all of it, altogether. She cast around again, and then went to the axe, the big one they kept by the barn door for the inevitable times deer and reins and sleigh became dangerously entangled, or for antlers with antlers or antlers with trees or drivers or whatever else reindeer stick antlers into.
“Katja,” Bede called behind her, as she went out with the axe, into the deceptively light snow. Little flakes, with all the dark spaces between them. But for all those darknesses and silences, all those spaces, there was steady accumulation.
She knew Bede wouldn’t follow.
Enough, she thought. Enough.
For the second time that day, the steps of the old man’s house rang with her bootfalls. For the second time that day, she banged on the door.
“We will keep doing this,” she called out, “for whatever our reasons are. But you don’t. Get. To. Hide. Anymore.”
This, punctuated at the end with the first thud of the axe into oak. The sharp blade bit deep, sticking. The one sound echoed through the surrounding black fingers of trees with total disregard for the stilling, muffling snow.
She wasn’t sure what she had expected. Certainly not the door to be flung open, and at last the glowering face of the old man inside. More certainly this. Unyielding oak, though there were keys, though the door had once or twice opened, when a driver’s hand tried it.
She landed the second blow with even more force behind it, and after the axe stuck, there was a hissing sound and then the soft whump as a misshapen island of snow slid off the cabin’s roof to the ground below.
It took bracing her foot against the wood and levering the axe back and forth to get it free, and the thick scar left behind was deeply satisfying. She lifted the axe again. Swung.
By the time Katja could see the cabin’s dark interior through a jagged, chipped fissure — heart height — a small, straggling crowd had gathered behind her. Drivers, one or two dour-faced foremen.
No one said a word. No one tried to stop her. Maybe deep down, they wanted this. Maybe it was simply they accepted that where Bede was the eternal calm eye, Katja had always been the storm.
She rested the axe against the door and leaned forward, one eye to the hole.
“You’ll get the sack,” Arnie’s nasally voice came from behind her, and that particularly unfortunate choice of words made her want to laugh, and laugh.
“Listen, you useless bastard.” She hissed it, through the gap in the oak. “I remember when I was a little girl and these trees looked like giants, and so did you. I remember when the deer had sleek, beautiful coats and their hipbones didn’t show.
“I remember when you and the Enchantress still met in the grove each year, for a few hours of …reconciliation.
“I’m not asking for polichinelles and aurora. Just –“
She stopped, forehead leaned against the wood. “Something. Anything. One thing, to go on.”
Silence and snow.
She closed her eyes.
“Stop,” she said again to Bede, whom she knew was about to put a hand on her shoulder, behind her. As always he fell back, and the worst of it was that all of the things about him she had come to hate were the things she would never want him to change.
Katja lifted the axe again.
She lifted the axe again and this time when she swung and it struck the door’s thick oak, it stuck. Permanently. Stuck.
Past the dull silver of the blade, deep, right up to the smooth wood of the haft.
Now she turned to the motley assembled.
“I dare you,” she said.
To any of them. Arnie, Hudak, to the mournful bedraggled deer looking on. To Bede, with his calm and sad blue gaze.
To whatever was left of the old man, behind the door.
“I dare you,” she repeated, and then took the jet whip from her belt and walked through all of them on her way to her deer and sleigh and the flight through darkness and snowy storm.
It goes like this.
Put one hand on the dash.
Face the brown gazes of the deer to the east.
Let the whip snake out over their heads and the cracker split the air so loudly that they jump forward, all in unison.
Watch their brown backs strain, hear the inevitable hiss of runners in snow, at once the sound of both promise and failure.
Crack again, just as the sleigh has gained its own momentum.
If the road disappears and you have not cracked the whip a third time, if you pass the lantern’s high mark on the last tree and the sound of the runners has not suddenly silenced, then you have failed and in the morning, in the wan fragile light of winter’s dawn, you and reindeer and sleigh will all be gone.
She woke many hours later in Bede’s arms and burst out laughing at the ludicrousness of it.
“Katja,” Sig insisted, from where she peered a red-apple face around the curtain, and Bede waved a go-away arm at her but Katja pushed at him and then reached over him for the half bottle remaining of port at the bedside.
“Let me guess. The reindeer are all dead of rat poison. The warehouse burned down. Again,” she added, taking a warm, perfect, velvety draught of the port. She offered Sig the bottle, and when the driver realized what it was she came all the way into the curtained space and took it, despite the other drivers’ warm, naked tangle. “It’s the next day. You’re alive. There’s no disasters on the next day. Go find someone to fuck. Better still, leave the north altogether.
“You have forty-nine weeks. For god’s sake do something other than be here.”
“There’s something you should see,” Sig told her, handing the bottle back to Bede’s outstretched hand. “You really need to see it.”
Bede rolled to his back, after a few swallows, bottle nestled against his other side.
“Something more spectacular than charred, melting sugar plum fairies?” he wondered.
Katja shrugged. “Apparently so.”
She’d found the port when she’d returned to the compound just before dawn. As usual half-frozen, bruised and bloody but alive, journey complete, oath fulfilled for another year. She had reached under the seat of the sleigh to pull out a piece of branch that had almost dragged her to her death, and the bottle had been there behind it. Dusty, battered from rolling around in the sleigh, but whole.
“Stay if you like,” she told him, but she snatched the bottle up after she’d pulled her battered leather longcoat on.
Invitation, in her usual way. And in his usual way, Bede followed.
Sig’s tracks led through the gray snow, between the trees and up the hill to where the old man’s cabin stood.
There, on the hill, were only the cabin’s skeletal remains. As though a storm had come through, destroying only the old man’s home. Or as if some immense giant had gone after it with a giant-sized hammer.
Amidst the wreckage, approximately where the thick door had been, a single unseasonally green and reaching oak tree stood.
They drew closer, to join Sig and the others, passing the bottle around.
To gaze on the tree, and the snow and the anemic northern morning sun shining on the axe, stuck deep through the oak tree’s heart.