I had just started feeding the Phenacodus when the chieftain walked in. He flashed a friendly smile that had become only too familiar: he had a favor to ask. Clan members who had till then been idly chatting away suddenly became tremendously busy, recalling a fence that wanted mending or a spit that needed turning. Unlike the others, I didn’t have to fabricate an excuse. My hands were already deep – too deep, perhaps – in a noble task: collecting Phenacodus poop. Mix it with a little straw and you have a great fertilizer. But there is always an unavoidable (though not unappreciated) lull between handling food and feces, and it was then that the chieftain spoke up from where he leaned against the barn door.
“I was just checking the calendar. It’s December. And you know what that means: Christmas.”
Christmas? There was an obnoxious, rosy cheer about him. Whatever he was about to sell me he had already drank the eggnog.
The chieftain went on…
“It’s been a rough year. Hell, it’s been a rough couple of years. We’ve been so busy just trying to survive that the holidays have passed us by again and again… but not this year. We all deserve a little merriment, a little celebration of all we’ve done to make us forget our hardships, if only for a day. We’ll get a Christmas tree, build snowmen… Just talking about it makes me kind of warm and fuzzy. But all of this is just some fantasy… unless you’d be willing to lend me a hand. What do you say?”
I almost said I’d rather be shoveling crap, but that might’ve been a little too on the nose.
The chieftain disappeared with a smile before I could reconsider.
I’m not sure why I agreed. A Christmas tree? Snowmen? For Pete’s sake, we’re on a tropical island.
I suppose we do at least have some less-than-festive trees, but I don’t foresee ol’ Frosty springing to life any time soon. I’d hesitate to make even a sandman, as hot as the beach gets during the day. Maybe I’ll just give him a bucket of water and call it a build-your-own-snowman kit. Just add arctic temperatures! But the chieftain is not one to take promises lightly, and I’m not one to idly make them. There was no going back.
Although the chieftain asked for a traditional white Christmas, I thought it might be useful to find out how they celebrated in hotter climates pre-Warp. Mele Kalikimaka, and all that. I did find someone in my clan from Brazil, but it turned out she never really had any friends or family to celebrate with. A sad story, sure, but not the best one for spreading Christmas cheer or answering my questions. I even went old school and tried to find a book on the topic. Turns out the only hallowed tome our meager “library” had was a phone book, and not even one with the last name “Christmas.”
A couple of the Phenacodus got sick while I was doing my research. I spent the next few days in the pens looking after them. The chieftain came in again as I was brushing the smaller Phenacodus’s coat. He had better not make a habit of this.
“I can practically hear those Christmas bells ringing! How are the plans coming along?”
I was trying to take care of these animals, and all he could think about is Christmas? I didn’t have time for Christmas; there was enough on my plate already. But as much as I felt a “bah, humbug,” coming on, I kept it cordial just to get him out of my hair.
Once the Phenacodus were on the mend, I found myself out of excuses to delay fulfilling the chieftain’s request. I began to make preparations for my trip, including putting the two animals under the care of a trusted friend. After all, two of them were pregnant. I couldn’t afford to leave them unsupervised.
I took a boat as soon as I was ready and set off for an island that supposedly had some snow. I was joined at first by a flock of pterosaurs circling the raft, but they soon lost interest when they realized I wasn’t giving handouts. The island turned out to be just the type I was looking for. Bison roamed its snow-covered fields, their furry coats a warning of the climate I would soon face. I foraged for kindling and started my fire just before nightfall. Hungry wolves serenaded me with a lullaby of howls while I tried – and failed – to sleep. All those songs romanticizing the “winter wonderland” were full of it; this place was terrifying. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a group of hunters woke me up. They had seen my campfire and wanted to share the warmth. I finally understood why Scrooge was so irritated with Bob Cratchit for always wanting to put more coal in the furnace. Still, it was safer than sleeping alone.
“Fine… Just don’t burn up all the wood.”
The hunters took turns sleeping. The ones who stayed on watch gossiped to no end. I was soon longing for the company of the wolves instead.
“You can’t be here to hunt unless you mean to clobber the animals to death with your bare fists… But you sure don’t look the part of explorer, either. So… what are you doing here, all alone?”the head hunter asked me on his shift.
I said that I was looking for a Christmas tree. He laughed loud enough to wake up the others. They all got a good chuckle out of my predicament before they began reminiscing amongst themselves.
“We used to decorate our office tree, back when cubicles were a thing. That was probably about ten years ago now…”
“We never realized how good we had it. More food than you could ever eat a grocery store a few blocks away, and a fridge to bring it even closer… I never imagined I’d be hunting mammoths with spears; I was more concerned about climbing the corporate ladder.”
“Whether you’re fighting with mammoths or fiddling with spreadsheets, it all just becomes busywork after enough time…”
They were swept up in their memories, and none of them went back to sleep.
When morning came, the hunters gave me some salted fish to eat for breakfast. One of them told me about a spot he found deep in mammoth territory.
“I stumbled upon a crater while hunting smilodons the other day. The trees surrounding it were beyond beautiful. I had no idea gorgeous plants like that could exist in this climate. They reminded me of my mother. She used to fish our tree out of storage every December, just to add a bit of holiday flare to our home. It wasn’t real, of course, or as spectacular as the trees around that crater. But we loved it all the same. Thinking back… she worked so damn hard. My father couldn’t walk after the accident, so my mother held two jobs just to keep us afloat…”
He went on for another hour before I finally excused myself to find the crater. I could have written his mom’s biography, but I barely knew anything about my destination. I suppose he did say he was hunting smilodons at the time, which should have told me something. I just never thought I’d find them first.
The trees were as beautiful as he said, and for a moment even I felt a surge of Christmas spirit. This vanished, of course, by the time I broke into hour two of cutting one of them down. It was then that I heard snow crunching behind me. I spun and felt my heart stop: a giant smilodon was crouched no more than twenty paces behind me. I pulled the bow from around my shoulder and drew an arrow. The beast froze, eyes cold and unblinking. Its hide looked thick, thicker than anything my crude arrows would pierce. The next few moments passed in brutal, crawling clarity, stretching into what felt like an hour of regret and fear. The stalemate was only broken when a small bison broke into the clearing, the hapless creature becoming the predator’s new target as both disappeared into the brush. I let a long, trembling breath escape my chest. As fast as the arctic cat pursued its new target, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. I was lucky to still have my life.
I finished felling the tree, bound it with rope, and dragged it across the snowfield. A solo trip hadn’t seemed so bad at the outset, but the realities of bringing all this gear back by myself began to settle in. I should not have been sent alone. How could my chieftain be so callous? Careless, even? Why should I even stay in such a misguided clan? It’s not like I didn’t have options. A chieftain from another clan had once complimented my taming skills and asked me raise Compsognathus on his ranch. Maybe I’d contact him after all this was over. If I were still to be alive, anyway.
It took an entire day just to get the tree to my raft. I started a small fire and lay on the beach, doing my best to recover my strength. I had sweat clean through my clothes, and the chill in the air had me shivering despite a pile of blankets. Too cold to move and too sore to sleep, I resigned myself to watching the starry sky above. Even someone like me has to admit the stars gain an odd kind of clarity when the only thing obscuring them is the fog of your breath. I nestled a few potatoes in the glowing embers of my fire and waited for them to start steaming. They tasted sweet.
The next day I rolled up a few snowmen. They weren’t much too look at, but I was proud of them nonetheless. One of them even ended up on the raft as my first mate. I knew the tropics would be the death of him, but I didn’t care. I needed someone to talk to.
My next stop was a Base Island famous for its junk dealers. These merchants didn’t care at all about my tree or Reginald Snowington, my newly named first mate. I expected as much, though: they’re only interested in collecting Lost Packages and looting sunken ruins. A clear night sky or a friendly dino mount are simple pleasures they’ll never know. Though I suppose, on the other hand, I’ll never be one to understand what it’s like to covet your neighbor’s literal box of junk, so to each their own.
An airstrip had somehow made its way through the Warp, and the junk dealers had wasted no time in flanking it with a makeshift bazaar. They hawked their piled goods to passersby and in daily auctions, offering a cornucopia of items from the old world: real estate papers from Singapore, broken DVD players, the canopy of a fighter plane… rarity was often prioritized over utility, and few things were off limits. In the rare situation that they would not part with an item, they sold information on the location of where they found it instead. Such was the merchant who told me where I might find more of the ornaments he had on display for the price of half my tools, which was just as well. I already had the tree, so why hang on to the axe?
I already knew my destination was an Unstable Island, but there was no way to tell just how close it was to collapse. I passed another raft heading away from the island as I made my way to the shore. The conversation that followed was all too familiar.
“Hey! You’re not planning on posting up on this island, are you?”
“Well, it’s your funeral, buddy! Happy Holidays!”
The island was already beginning to splinter apart, its Warp Holes giving off strange, ominous static. Perhaps they were tuning in to the signal of their next destination? I wondered if the merchant might’ve tricked me before I saw it: massive delivery trucks literally spilling over with gift-wrapped boxes. Many of them were postmarked only a few days before Christmas, likely sent by desperate procrastinators whose priority mail fees had only ensured a hastened delivery to Durango. A little digging found me everything I needed: snow made of cotton, glittery stars, candy canes, stringed lights, and more. I even managed to find a little insulation for my frozen first mate. Maybe he would make it after all…
I took everything I could carry and left just as the island began to collapse. It was a Christmas miracle my raft held as much as it did, though I swore it might sink at any moment. Examining my bounty of yuletide gear, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of sadness come over me. I should have brought someone along with me… Why was I out here alone?
My return was met with more surprise than cheer. The others had not known about my errand but were still eager to help unpack my bounty. We got the tree up and decorated, filled the generator with gasoline, and had the lights shining in a brilliant rainbow. I had arrived a day late – December 26th, by the chieftain’s reckoning – but the clan didn’t seem to mind. Everyone gathered around the fire and we dug into steaks wrapped with leaves. Someone started playing a two-stringed guitar. Others began singing and dancing.
As much as I had disliked my isolation on the waves, I only felt more alone amongst the others. I found a quiet place off to the side, picking over my Christmas feast. Burnt, of course. I should have realized the chieftain would find me, as he had so many times before. He approached with a smile and patted me on the back.
Seriously? “Good job?” Two words for all of my backbreaking work? I swallowed my anger as best I could.
That was it. I knew right then that I had to leave the clan, to find a place that respected my time and talents. I excused myself from the party and went to the pen to get my supplies. I was greeted by the excited cry of a Phenacodus. They were mothers now: the pregnant pair had given birth in my absence, one baby each. The friend to whom I had entrusted their care patted me on the shoulder as he walked out to the party, giving me some alone time with the babies. Their mothers didn’t even budge as I entered, a trust built over months and years. They were warm and as soft as anything. I suddenly found myself getting unreasonably worried that the babies might freeze to death despite the constant hot weather, that fading memory of the cold I endured tingling at the edges of my bones. I put food in their manger and watched them eat, brushing the matted fur of the weary mothers as they fed.
I hardly even noticed when somebody came in and sat next to me. I picked up my beer stein and sipped. Herbal tea. We had managed to preserve the face of Christmas, but some things just couldn’t be helped.
“They trust you, don’t they? Though I suppose it’s for a good reason. Just look at what you brought us: that tree out there is incredible. It’s like something off of a postcard… And that snowman? I mean, wow! In the tropics?! Did you do it all by yourself?”
I finally turned my head, spying for the first time a woman with eyes to rival the arctic night sky. In an instant, I felt lighter, warmer, the chilling aches that had echoed through my body only moments before banished with a glance. I would have recognized eyes like those… she must have joined the clan while I was gone. For the first time in my life, I was more tongue-tied than irritated.
“Wow. That’s incredible. It’s nice to know that some people in this place are still willing put others before them.”
“Ah… it’s nothing.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but… Would you like to grab another drink with me? It’s not right that you should be in here by yourself after all you’ve done for us. You deserve a toast, at least.”
“By all means! …Ahem… I mean, sure… sounds good.”
Hmm… Maybe I’ll stay after all. For the Phenacodus, of course.