We are pleased to publish a special Christmas publication by Matthew D. LaPlante! While we always bring the spirit of the weird around Halloween, we’d love to be able to do it all year long. We’d love to publish more seasonal pieces all throughout the year in the future, so if you have anything you think would fit, send it our way. Enjoy!
The FOREVER CLAUS
by Matthew D. LaPlante
I always loved the job. And for the first few centuries that’s all I needed to keep my mind off the other part of the deal.
‘Deal.’ There I go, trying to make it seem like I had a say in the matter. A ‘deal’ is something with multiple parties. Something with consent. What I got wasn’t a ‘deal.’ It was either a blessing or a curse. I guess it depends on how you look at it. And that probably depends on how you look at your own life.
See, I didn’t ask to be immortal. Life was blown into my lungs the same as it was yours. The only difference is that the breath you got bought you a century on this planet, give or take your genetic baggage and your life choices, and the breath I got was immortal.
Not eternal, mind you. Gods are eternal. Me? I’m a living embodiment of human imagination and, as far as I can tell, I’ll exist to the ends of what the humans who imagined me could imagine.
“He lives forever,” a newspaper editor once told a little girl named Virginia who wanted to know if I was real.
“A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now,” the editor promised I’d still be alive and kicking.
A human forever is a very long time, for sure, but it’s not eternity.
Even when all of this began to come into focus for me, when I realized my immortality wasn’t unlimited, it still seemed like a decent deal—or blessing or curse or whatever you want to call it. I mean, I really only worked one day a year. The elves took care of pretty much everything else.
And I didn’t have to die. Not like you did, at least.
People. Generations. Societies. Kings and empires. Nations and city states. They rose and fell before me like the passing of an afternoon.
I’ll fall, too. At least I think I will. Mind you, I don’t have anyone to ask about this, but I reckon when our star finally implodes, I’ll get to go.
I didn’t think too much at first about what would happen once the humans who made me were gone. I either didn’t know to think about it or I didn’t want to think about it, and it was probably the latter. In any case I didn’t think about it because there was a job to do. The job was all I thought about. Even when I wasn’t working. Even when I was piddling about, trying new things, killing time. Even when I was just sitting around on my giant South Pole, drinking akvavit and downing kringle—not the pretzel-shaped ones, mind you, but the big-ol’ oval ones, those Wisconsin Lutherans knew their baked goods, let me tell you. Every synapse in my brain was dedicated to the one day of the year when I did my thing.
The work got easier over time. Not just because I got better at it, although I did get better at it, but because there were just fewer people to serve.
Fewer and fewer and fewer.
Some of them were pretty freaked out about the whole thing but the others just kept moving, as they always had, to places where they could find water and food, and where the storms weren’t so violent. They finally made their way up near my home, after everywhere else on the planet got so elf-lickin’ hot. And I did for them what I had done for all the others. By then the job was really easy, you know, because I didn’t even have to go that far. And the reindeer, let me tell you, they got fat.
And then, in the space between one Christmas and the next, those people were gone. Just like all of the others.
I looked for stragglers and orphans, as I always had in the past. Survivors of pestilence need Christmas, too. More than most, probably. I found two boys in Greenland. A girl in Siberia. I brought them presents one year, but the next they were all gone. I got to thinking, afterward, that it’s possible I might have delivered their death to them, virally speaking, and then I got to thinking that maybe I’d done that a few times over, in the past. I mean, I really got around. There wasn’t a border I couldn’t cross. You know those thermal-imaging cameras airports were using to detect passengers with flu fevers? Yeah, I didn’t have to deal with that.
I prefer not to dwell, though. There’s no way to know, right?
In any case, it seems pretty clear there was some sort of disease. I can’t tell you much about the infection or virus or whatever the elf it was. You might think I would have become an expert in these sorts of things, what with all the time I had to dedicate to giving a yule log. I get that. It makes sense. It’s just not where I was.
There were always other things to learn about, and I did become an expert in fly fishing and electrical engineering and the baking of French pastries and, well, I could go on and on, because I had a long, long time to learn things I was interested in learning. But I could fish. And I could fiddle around with batteries and switches and resistors and whatnot. And I could bake a kouign-amann like nobody’s business.
But the first rule of immortality, I had long since come to learn, is that you may only intervene in the matters of mortals insomuch as it pertains to your immortal role. And my role was not to save people’s lives. My role was to make their lives happier one day out of every calendar year, and in doing so give them something to hope for, and dream about, on all of the rest of the days.
I liked my role. I was good at it. People were happy when I brought them gifts. Children sang songs about me. Parents told stories about me. For a while there was a thing called a shopping mall, and men would dress up to look like me and invite children into their laps to share secrets. I want to be very clear, here: I did not approve of this, let alone license my image for this purpose. But there were a great many things the humans did of which I did not approve. It was not my place to set them right and, in any case, my only weapons were small, handmade toys and even smaller pieces of coal. Some of the humans, toward the end there, actually came to desire the coal, and would engage in acts of savagery to acquire it. I cannot judge. I cannot say how I might have behaved if my life were so short as theirs, how much I would zealously guard every last second, even if it meant murder on Christmas Eve.
Holy holly, back then a piece of coal could be the difference between life and death on a winter night at The Pole. Even though the Earth had warmed, The Pole was still The Pole.
I suppose I knew it was inevitable. That even though I had been born of them, I would not die with them. That they would go first and I would be alone.
And yet, when it happened, I fell into a state of shock for a very long time. Not because I was lonely; I had always been alone, even among the mortal elves, even with my mortal wife. No, I was in shock because I had lost my purpose. I had no role. I had no reason to be immortal, and yet immortal I remained.
For a very long time afterward, there were still animals. To be sure, a lot of them had been wiped out over the years, but when the humans disappeared the animals reclaimed their dominion once again. It was not quite the same to make and bring presents for the animals once a year, but it was something. Over time, though, there was sickness and changes to the climate and drought and even an outbreak of locusts. Over time, the animals began to go away, too.
You probably won’t believe who the survivors were. After the dogs and cats and pigs and horses and deer and possums and raccoons and rodents of every sort went away. After all the birds fell from the sky and I no longer saw any creatures in the air. After my reindeer were gone. There were still the polar bears. The last of the terrestrial animals were the jingle-belling, fish-fart-smelling polar bears, and the sea animals upon which they feasted remained plentiful, at least for a time.
So there we were. Me and the polar bears.
Duty-bound, I spent all year working on one special gift for each of the bears. For the one I called Leroy, who was a lazy bear if ever I met one, I built a bear-sized adirondack chair. For Crystal, who was missing a patch of hair on her back, I knitted a sweater. For Li-Yuen, who was reasonably intelligent as bears go, I carved a large chess set out of whale bone and onyx.
They were not as ungrateful as the humans had tended to be, because bears can’t really be ungrateful, but they didn’t seem to like my gifts. The next winter Leroy died, and so I butchered his carcass, smoked his meat, sliced it up and put it into small gift bags for each of the other bears. The bears all seemed to agree this was the best Christmas ever, and not just because Leroy had, quite frankly, been kind of a krampus over the years.
None of the bears died over the course of the next year. This was a problem. As Christmas approached, and knowing what joy it would bring them, I killed Crystal and made a gift of her body to the other bears. The next year I found the bear I called Number 47 cowering behind my home and bashed in her head with a cinderblock. A few decades down the road, as I recall, it was Akah who I sacrificed; he was a big boy and, since there were a lot fewer bears by that time, everyone ate well that year.
Eventually it was just me and Li-Yuen. By this time, thankfully, she had become quite adept as a chess player. As bears go, I mean. She was never good enough to beat me, but we both considered it a success when she would at least manage to put me into check.
Li-Yuen seemed upset the next Christmas when she did not get her usual gift bag of polar bear meat. I worried endlessly during the next year, tossing and turning in my sleep over what to do for my last remaining animal companion. I considered drugging her and amputating one of her limbs to provide her with a Christmas gift befitting her expectations.
I’m glad the decision was taken out of my hands. She died one day after we celebrated Thanksgiving, and I dragged her body to the edge of the remaining North Pole ice and pushed it into the water for the sharks and other fish to devour.
With that, I was truly alone. Some people might think you can make friends with fish, but I am here to tell you that it is impossible.
By this time, most of the signs that humans had ever even been on this planet had disappeared. The evidence of their existence had been grown over. It had tumbled and turned to rubble and the rubble had turned to sand and the sand had turned to dust. By some strange manner of luck, a single cell phone tower managed to survive not far from my home, but eventually I got tired of looking at it, and I went out one day to tear it down. It actually took a lot longer than I thought it would, but once I had disassembled it and thrown the pieces into the ocean, I never saw another vestige of human life again.
The days and weeks and months and years and centuries and millennia all blurred together after that. I went on long walks through the forest listening for anything stirring, hoping perhaps Mother Nature would try again.
Forests don’t last long without animals, though, and eventually the woods were gone as well. What remained for a long time was nothing more than desert vegetation. Ultimately, of course, that died away, too. And yes, I got skinny, but no, I did not die.
How long ago was that? I have completely lost track of time.
I still celebrate Christmas. I chisel away at a rock all year long and then, on Christmas morning—I’m not sure how I know it’s Christmas, but I do, every year—I make myself a gift of a statue. For many years the statues took the shape of the animals I could remember, and once in a while I attempted to make a human, too, but I never got very good at that. Over time I forgot that humans looked like I do, and by the time I remembered the statues I had created had come to look more human to me anyway.
These days I simply create statues of creatures that I think Mother Nature should give to me as a gift. I dream sometimes that they have all come to life and that I am a god among them and that they worship me, and that every Christmas I remind them of my love for them by giving them each a gift and telling them the story of the years I spent alone in preparation for their creation.
At night I lie on my back and look up at the stars and try to pick out the ones that are dying. And during the day I stare at my star and curse its name.
-Matthew D. LaPlante is a journalist, author and associate professor of journalism at Utah State University, where he teaches news writing, crisis reporting and feature writing. He is currently at work on a book about what scientists are learning by studying organisms that have evolved to have superlative characteristics.