He was named Rudolph when he was born, but like so many born different, he eventually shed the one he was given. And if it hadn’t been for a foggy night and a hard decision, the rest of us freaks would still probably be tucked out of sight, waiting to be useful in some way that pleased the perfect, and in the meanwhile, to hell with us…
But wait, I’m telling it out of order.
It doesn’t actually start with Dolph. It doesn’t start with Klaus, either, though it involves him.
If it’s not about Dolph and it’s not about Klaus, then where does the story really start, you wonder. Well, it starts with a woman. A woman both powerful and visionary, which is probably not the way you’ve heard it told before. Most of the time, in most of the stories, she doesn’t even get a name when she appears, but I promise you, she has one. And I promise you, she’s the one that mattered the most.
Every one knows about Klaus and his gift—though we’ll get to the truth of that in a second—but not very many know about her. It’s important to know where she came from, though. See, this woman, she was the one and only daughter of Father Time.
And, like most of the people in this story, she was gifted.
So when people talk about Klaus and his wife—and that’s always her role, isn’t it?—they never seem to mention how she’s one of a kind. And she truly was, for damned sure. And it’s her gift—to hold time at bay—that makes everything possible. She saved Klaus’s life, helped him find a purpose when he was ready to walk out into the snows and take a nap.
The thing about the big guy that no one really gets is he’s up there in the frozen nowhere because it’s where a guy like him needed to be to stay sane. To my mind, that’s just more proof of how special she is; I don’t think I could run away from the world to be with someone that broken for a lifetime, let alone a “forever.”
Yeah, you heard me. The big guy? He was broken. Understand, Klaus is a man with a curse. He takes one look at people, and he knows. He knows the colour of a human soul. That takes a toll on a man, and so… snow. There’s no dark stain anywhere to be had on the endless snow. He was always a builder—keeping his hands busy helped keep his eyes from knowing too much about the people around him—and together they built a home.
And then he started making toys.
You ask me? I think the toys were her idea. The big guy, he has great hands for that kind of thing, and with her gifts, he has all the time in the world. Together they made for a happier couple than most I know, at least. But I also know he was done with children. He’d seen too many of them start out so good and end up…not. She, on the other hand, loved children. She can’t have any, of course—ain’t no baby that’ll grow in a body that lives outside of time—so I always figured she does the next best thing she can: she tries to do good by all the kids of the world.
Now, If you’re noticing most of the magic is in her, and only a little to do with him, and thinking that ain’t much like the story you’ve always been told, well, welcome to a world where some stories get retold more than others, and some truths aren’t found to be worth retelling.
Holding onto moments is one thing; using them proper is another. In her endless time in an endless home, Klaus surpassed apprentices and tradesmen both, and soon he was an expert craftsman of nearly every kind. And though he’d been an old man when they’d met, he grew no older, and in between the forevers, the light in his eyes came back.
They were happy. And when he was happy, she asked that they might take all those beautiful crafts he’d made and give them to the world. To children. And because he was happy again, and it had been so long since he’d seen a bad soul, he agreed.
Now, given enough time, any living creature can learn. And it was not too much for her to spread her reach a little wider and snare a dozen reindeer into her influence. Klaus, he was never one to worry about animals—his gift only ever worked with people—and the longer those reindeer existed out of time, the more they learned. Eventually, they were as smart as you or me. Inside her reach, they kept their antlers, they earned names for themselves, and in time they even learned language of a sort, simple words from their thoughts to Klaus’s or hers or each other.
And, sometimes, they could see the other reindeer outside her reach, and sometimes they even wanted to go back, to grow older, and to pass on from this world. And though it made her sad, she let them go. As the Daughter of Father Time, she was well aware that for all things that breathe there will be a time of breathlessness, though she herself might hold it at bay for as long as forever for some.
Klaus made bells and harnesses and a beautiful sleigh, and she wrapped timelessness in the ringing of the bells, so powerful that the air itself would hold still around their sound, and the reindeer could walk right up into the sky, their hoofs stepping on the edge of air made as solid as stone. And so it was she and Klaus would visit the world, all between an infant’s blink, and leave behind those wonderful treasures inside all those homes, for all the children. When the world was asleep, and time didn’t pass, Klaus could willfully not look at any man, woman, or child if he didn’t desire to.
He only looked at the children, and only the good.
That’s how it was for a forever for them that was centuries even for the rest of the world. Sure, the reindeer would sometimes ask to be released, and though she mourned, she always allowed them to go and live out the rest of their lives with others of their kind, though they might not have the speech or understanding of Klaus’s former team.
And that’s how Rudolph came. Always a little different, a little more courageous at some things, but shy of others. Klaus watched him grow, outside their home, and swore he caught something of a light from him. Not like seeing a soul—Klaus had never been able to read the souls of animals, only his fellow humankind—but something else. Something palpable. Something visible to all.
It was a soft light at first, but as the young creature grew to adulthood, it grew brighter. Challenged by the other animals around it—nature is never kind to the unique—Klaus watched the young life, and the light, grow stronger moment by moment. Through the window of his home, from inside timelesness, it seemed to happen in a blink, and it’s possible Klaus didn’t know how difficult a time this reindeer had. He was, after all, a man capable of knowing all about people, and used to that sudden understanding. Looking beyond the surface of things was a skill he’d never needed. But when he saw the creature use his light to scare a wolf pack away from a stray youth, Klaus decided. Even though he had the dozen reindeer he’d always maintained, he brought the lightbringer into their fold.
Rudolph, they called him, a name meant for someone brave enough to face off a wolf. And as Rudolph grew to thought and speech, he also grew in his understanding of his light.
And if neither Klaus nor his wife saw how the rest of the proud and ageless reindeer treated Rudolph, it is perhaps not to their fault. For their speech was mind-to-mind, and what the others said to Rudolph they would never dare to say to Klaus, nor especially to the woman who had made them what were. And Rudolph, in the way of the different, believed their claims that he could be cast out at any time for his differences, and thus never spoke of his fears.
They tormented him. Lied to him of how other reindeer like him had come and gone through the forevers, and how every time, Klaus took pity on the different one and tried to teach it not to be different, but eventually gave up in disgust, banishing those once chosen back to the world where they would lose their speech and their thought—and, of course, their light.
Rudolph became kind, and honest, and tried to learn the limits of his light in order to have better control over it, and to learn how, someday, to leave that light behind. But that light had other ideas. It started to show him things, and cast shadows from elsewhere. Rudolph saw how others—especially others like him—were treated. Kittens born without tails, or puppies missing an ear or an eye; little human girls who cared nothing for dresses or frills or babies; even wolves, who Rudolph struggled to like, chasing off their own when their own were all black or all white; or little human boys who knew from the start they they were different and that different meant wrong. Mostly, Rudolph saw people. People pushed to the side. Children who were not what their parents desired were as tormented as he was, and without anyone like his Klaus or the woman who made time stand still. Some ran. Some were forced to run. Some were silenced. All were alone.
Then came the fog.
To Klaus, the fog was the castoffs of dark souls: a mist made of all the hurt and bad people had been doing to each other. To the daughter of Father Time, it was the stain of too many horrible yesterdays, memories of bad times trying to force a way into their home. To the reindeer, it was a shadow on the eyes, and a noise in the mind, drowning their kindnesses to each other, and making them all the crueller to Rudolph. But to all of them, it was one thing most of all: opaque. The lady rang one of the bells, and though the fog froze, there was no seeing through it. It gathered around their home, and she looked at all the gifts that her husband had made, and for the first time in her piece of forever, she grieved.
Her sadness brought a bravery to Rudolph, who had an instinct that this stain was not immune to everything. And so, despite the merciless threats of the others, Rudolph brought his light, as bright as he could make it, and they could see into, and through, the fog.
Klaus asked Rudolph, mind-to-mind, if he would lead the rest of the team, walking on air held apart from time, with his light to guide the way.
And oh, the things those other reindeer said to Rudolph to frighten him, but Rudolph agreed. There was steel to the lightbringer’s thoughts. And the lady? She was happy, then, knowing with Rudolph’s aid, that the gifts would find homes, and she thanked him.
Rudolph did not meet her gaze.
Klaus made him a harness, and bells. She brought time to heel and bound it in the ringing. Rudolph tried on the harness, shook the bells, and learned to walk into the sky, casting his light before him to lead his way to, and from, their home in the snow and ice that was surrounded by the fog.
The night they were to go, when she pulled on the thread of the year and drew a whole world into one moment of a single night, Rudolph was gone. His bells, his harness, and—the biggest betrayal of all—many of the gifts had all vanished with him. The nature of her ability, and Rudolph’s crime, meant it was, for those left behind in their home, a breath at most, but in that breath, Rudolph had acted, and returned. His head was held high, until he saw her, and he knelt before her in apology.
He did not reply when Klaus demanded to know where he’d been and what he’d done. The others tried to incite him the only way they knew how, but Rudolph was stronger than their games. But when she asked him kindly what it was he had done, Rudolph found himself unable to hold his quiet in the face of the lady.
Rudolph had visited only those his light had shown him. The cast-offs, the broken, the unwanted and the unloved. Those who woke each morning knowing they were wrong, and prayed each night they would not wake up so the next day. Those who fit in the roles of others, or who missed fitting at all. Those who hurt. Those who cried. Those who had forgotten how to do either.
She listened to him, and asked him why. She was a woman aware of infinities, and knew the power of a ‘why.’
Rudolph admitted he could not break his light, and knew it was only a matter of time before, as the other reindeer had explained to him, she and Klaus would send him away for being so different. And he had wanted, just once, to make a difference for others like himself, so he left them a little of his light.
He would not do more. He would not deliver the rest of the gifts to those who allowed so many to be left aside. He would not help the other reindeer. And he would not apologize for what he had done.
Rudolph waited to be punished.
He was not.
Klaus wanted to send the other reindeer away, but the lady prevailed upon him to wait until they showed no ability to change, or at least until there were others capable of taking their place. The thread of this one night, pulled so taut, would have to be released, and they did not know what it would mean. And with the fog, and Rudolph refusing to lead the others, there was no reason to hold on any longer. She let go, and the night resumed, and morning came.
Those who woke to Rudolph’s presents were the ones most affected. It didn’t matter the gift itself, the presence—and the light Rudolph had left—was the thing. To be singled out, and celebrated, and rewarded, and seen, and heard… And to see others, others like themselves with the same gifts, was to know they were not alone. The light Rudolph had given them drew them to each other. They gathered, and they spoke, and they found in each other something they had never had before: a family.
But the world around them was angry.
That the broken and strange and weak and different were rewarded when the strong and the normal and the common and the celebrated were not was an outrage and a dark confusion. There was no denying how the gifts had been bestowed, and yet the world refused to see the reasons why these people had a light of their own. That same light revealed some who the world had always held as one of their own, and it led to revelations that tore many apart.
In the fog, the lady could not see these things happening, and so Rudolph showed her. He called his light, and showed the lady and Klaus and the reindeer all the shadows of the people he had helped, and those who he had angered. There were joys, yes, but the hatreds were there, too. Klaus looked away first—he knew where these things were likely to go, having seen dark souls enough during his life where time passed.
As the things Rudolph’s shadows revealed grew worse, the lady couldn’t help herself. She reached out, and snared another thread, calling it all to stop before another fist could fall.
Holding forever in her hand, she asked for help. The reindeer, knowing now they’d had no small part in making this happen, agreed. Klaus, wanting to make her smile again more than anything, agreed. And Rudolph, even Rudolph, seeing that the other reindeer were terrified of what might come of them once this was over, and knowing those he’d helped had only been singled out for violence, agreed.
She was not her father. Holding time still, standing between moments, making a second count more than years, those were her gifts. And so, when she wound the thread backwards, she knew it was done imperfectly. Some things would have to be allowed to remain, lest the whole thing unravel, and she chose those things carefully.
Rudolph led the others, and Klaus’s sleigh of gifts, out into the fog, and his light, bolstered by the knowledge that his difference was welcomed by the lady and Klaus, broke the fog away into nothingness as they passed through. They walked on air through the whole world, a world blurred twice over as the same night replayed again, differently, but also the same.
The second morning of that same night, some woke knowing that the day had happened before. Those chosen by her, the ones Rudolph had visited, opened their gifts knowing what would be inside, and knowing that the real present had nothing to do with what was in their hands, but in a kind of light they could see in others. They left the places they slept, whether they were homes or shelters or the streets, and they saw that light inside people they had already met on the other version of this same day. They knew each other again, for the first time.
The world around them didn’t notice. Not at first.
The broken, and the strange, and the weak, and the different, and those who fit the wrong role, or missed fitting at all had found each other, and in each other a strength. They brought their own light, and found they were not alone.
The world around them would notice. And now and then, they’d even have a moment that almost felt like a memory: they’d feel like they’d seen these people before, and had faced them in numbers, and had done them wrong. The memory would be uncomfortable, and unreal enough to ignore, and easily forgotten. But it would return. Often enough, perhaps, to make them think a little differently.
Though sometimes not.
Now, the big guy and his wife and his animals, they all live outside of time. Dolph—he calls himself Dolph now—shows Klaus and his wife shadows of those who might need an extra special gift, and Klaus and his wife are more careful now about a lot of things. But she and Klaus and Dolph, they’ll remember both nights forever.
The rest of the world? Well, they’re still growing old. Less and less of us are still here from the night that never was, and the story—like all stories—is fading in the retelling. We try to find those born like us in the new generations, but sometimes we miss some, and with so many of us having our own memories of that night, the details change. Ask three people for the truth and you’ll get three stories.
Sure, it makes for a happier tale when everything rhymes and the only villain is a bit of bad weather, but I see these other folk like me getting shoved aside. I see even those of us who are different stepping down hard on those who are more different than us. I see less folk happy to welcome them in. Less folk happy to see any difference for what it is: a gift.
And me? I still see the light in my people. I keep telling this story. But I look around, and I see the way the world is treating the different, and I can’t help but think there’s another fog rolling in.
I just hope Dolph is willing to shine his light again.