The old man squints through the cold air and down to rooftops and up-drifting chimney smoke, silver-snow farm fields, the golden glow of streetlamps, dark holes of wilderness. The night surrounds him as he sails in air, his eight trained beasts heaving vapor from the effort. Their legs kick rhythmically, their breath deep and chugging as they drag on their reins, pulling.
The old man sighs and feels his tired bones.
"I am old," he murmurs.
He tugs off heavy mittens and kneads, with gnarled fingers, the thickly bunched muscles of his hands, exhausted. Downward he looks, ever downward to the earth, watching the small world rolling.
Instinctively, he banks his sleigh, lowering his altitude, and the animals respond, kicking frantically, their legs swimming in air, anticipating the feel of the rooftop snow. Upon landing, the old man sits silent, listening to his animals, his ancient, beloved animals as they snort and cough and bob their magic heads to the shingles, pawing nervously there, waiting.
His memory is thick and stiff with trenches of time, laid in rows upon themselves like lumber or bails of grain. He recalls the rooftop, its slope and its shadows. He recalls the spirit of it, its nature.
There had been a girl in the house once, a young and lovely child, dark and solitary, with secrets. She had spoken to him years ago when the town was small, its streets narrow, its edges fully wooded. She had spoken to him in dreams of mystery and hope, filled with the desperate magic of childhood.
He had heard her, answered her dreams, fulfilled her wishes, fed her mystery, and she had been thankful — thankful that she could hold her secrets all to herself and still be heard for the wishes dared.
The old man looks hard at the snow on the rooftop and bows his old head, his face plunged into his beard. He remains thus for long moments as he recalls the girl, her growing to adulthood, the arrival of her own children, then theirs, and theirs. It had been long ago, indeed, but a mere instant relative to the spirits he knows, their memories collected, saved and cared for in his great and weary head.
He steps off his sleigh and climbs the slope of the roof, his boots crunching loudly in the dark.
"Right back," he says to his beasts which nod and twitch and nose the night air.
At the chimney, he passes a bare hand through the thin stream of smoke there and it quells, instantly, as if familiar. The old man then, with some difficulty, perches himself over the chimney well and stuffs an ancient boot into its depth so that his leg disappears to the knee. With that, he lay his index finger against his nose and, again, bows his head for several moments, calling on the spirit of goodness and hopeful mystery that has supplied his magic and his life for centuries.
Once inside, the old man takes an account of the home, considers the changes, looks into the rooms, the cupboards, the refrigerator. He takes an apple and gnaws at it as he passes through the place, peeking in on the inhabitants who sleep, heavily drowsed with the fog of their own good will.
In one room a child is awake, sitting upright in his bed, beaming at the large, old man walking toward him. The old man eats his apple and chuckles deeply.
"It's been a long, long time since I've been caught," he says to the boy, kneeling at the bed, his leather boots squeaking. "Your name is Jeffrey," the old man says and the boy nods. The old man bites the apple again and the sound is loud in the house.
"My dad will come," the boy says. "He'll wake up and think you're a robber."
The old man puts his thick hand on the boy's blond head.
"Your dad can't hear a thing."
"All right," the boy responds, satisfied. He likes the feel of the old man's hand in his hair and he reaches up his own hand to feel the skin of the old man's big hand. "You're old, aren't you," the boy says.
"And tired," the old man answers and stands, his giant shadow bending off the room's walls and ceiling.
"Can I come with you?" the boy asks, leaning with hope.
The old man doesn't answer, but watches the boy, the small body he inhabits, the thin, mousy hair, the round, brown eyes. He sets the vision of the boy in the near places of his memory, safe and kept, forever safe and kept.
"Come where?" the old man says, finally.
"Anywhere," the boy answers, his voice still hopeful, but fading.
The old man leans close, his great, ancient face a breath from the boy's ear. "You are anywhere," he whispers, and the boy nods, dumbly and slips off, dreaming.
Back on the roof, the old man quickens his team to flight. They climb into the wind and bank toward the moon, the old man picking apple skin from his teeth.
Editor's Note: This is columnist Parnell Thill's annual Christmas column. You may have seen it before and hope you enjoy it again.