By Kenneth Books
A Shocking Discovery
It was a perfect day at the North Pole the day before Christmas. Snow blew nearly sideways across the windows of Santa’s house. The panes were frosted like so many cakes. The thermometer hadn’t gone as high as zero in two weeks.
Santa rose from his bed early that day, as had been his habit for thousands of years. The only day of the year that was busier than the day before Christmas was Christmas itself.
Before the day was done, Santa knew he would have to inspect tens of thousands of toys and gifts, taste hundreds of goodies, check a pile of lists that nearly reached to the ceiling of his workshop and spend hours helping his army of elves to load his sleigh.
Besides all that, there were the usual chores to take care of. He pulled on his long johns and covered them with his heavy, fur-lined red suit. He topped his flowing white hair with his pointed cap, donned his thick leather boots, combed out his white beard and strode through the waist-deep snow to the heated stable, a bag of reindeer feed on his shoulder.
It was Santa’s habit to feed his eight tiny reindeer and Rudolph before he had his own morning meal. He could wait, but he knew a bowl of reindeer feed was one of the high points of their day. “Here you go, Dasher,” Santa cooed, rubbing a gloved hand over the bridge of the nose of the first magical reindeer and pouring a generous portion of deluxe food into his bowl. “Now, Dancer,” he said, as the next deer poked his nose into Santa’s pocket to see if there were any extra goodies today.
Santa moved briskly down the line of spotless stalls, pouring large amounts of reindeer feed, which included such delicacies as pineapple, figs, candied cherries and apples. Comet, then Cupid, then Donner and Blitzen got their breakfasts and dug in gratefully. Prancer, who always ate too fast, and Vixen, who ate slowly and almost delicately, happily began their meal.
As he came to the southern end of the stable, Santa stopped, looked and stood dumbfounded. There he saw a spacious stall, filled with warm, comfortable hay that no one had slept on. Hanging on a hook in the corner was a large bottle of glass polish.
Santa turned and dashed at top speed from the stable. He fairly glided over the deep snow as he zoomed toward the house with its gingerbread decorations. Santa was running so fast he couldn’t stop in time. He crashed into the door, bounced off and landed in a snow bank. He shook his head once to clear it, flung the door open and shouted: “Mother! Call the Royal North Pole Mounted Police! Rudolph has been kidnapped!
The mood was somber in the Clause household. With Rudolph missing, Santa dreaded his annual trip around the world. If he should run into fog or a storm, he would have to fly his sleigh on experience and instinct, just as he did in the old days before Rudolph came to him.
But Santa, the elves and the other eight reindeer were depressed for reasons besides the difficulty of the trip ahead. Rudolph had become a family favorite, always ready with a prank and also always reader to lend a hoof and get whatever needed doing done. After the annual Christmas Eve delivery around the world, some of the other reindeer would sometimes be dog-tired and cranky (we won’t say which ones). But Rudolph was always cheerful, even when he had bags under his eyes from lack of sleep. That was because Rudolph remembered the days when his bright, glowing nose made him the butt of jokes.
All that had changed the night Santa took him onto the team, and Rudolph never forgot.
But now Rudolph was missing. And standing in the Claus living room was Inspector Holly Carroll, one of the finest detectives in the Royal North Pole Mounted Police.
Santa, Mrs. Claus, the elves and even the reindeer tried hard to answer all of Holly’s questions. But there weren’t many answers they could give. Rudolph seemed fine the night before when he and the other reindeer went into the heated stable after a day of frolicking. He gave Santa his usual good night lick on the nose. None of the other reindeer had heard or seen anything out of the ordinary. Of course, the night before Christmas Eve, the reindeer routinely slept well as something inside them told them they had better stock up on rest for the night ahead.
The snow had blown hard all night. So, if there had been footprints outside the stable, they were long covered over. And the sound of the wind would have drowned out almost any other noise.
In short, Rudolph was missing and there was not a clue to his whereabouts. “What makes you think Rudolph has been kidnapped?” Holly asked. “He’s always been so reliable,” Santa said. “It’s not like Rudolph just to take off like this. And last night, of all nights!” He dropped his bearded chin into his hand with a moan.
Holly asked the last of her questions, then put her hand on Santa’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Santa,” she said. “There’s nothing for me to go on. That doesn’t mean I’ll give up – I’ll never give up until we find Rudolph. But there’s not much chance you’ll have him back in time for tonight’s ride.” Santa nodded sadly and patted Holly’s hand. He understood she was doing all she could. Unfortunately, given the lack of clues, that wasn’t much!
Santa moved slowly, as if he were carrying a heavy load on his back, as he stood up and went to the workshop. Rudolph or no Rudolph, he had a job to do, a job he hadn’t neglected in more than 2,000 years. And Rudolph or no Rudolph, this was not the year he was going to start neglecting it.
The afternoon before Christmas, the workshop was a quiet as a workshop can be. The labor of building toys, assembling packages, filling sacks and loading the sleigh went on in as sprightly a manner as ever, but there was a dark cloud over the proceedings.
The elves read plans, conferred over toys and talked about the situation. “I don’t think we should even try to make the trip with Rudolph gone,” said an elf named Skank, whispering, as was everyone, in his worry about Rudolph. “Santa’s not getting any younger and he needs Rudolph. The kids will understand. They’ll wait.”
“Not go?” said an elf named Trok. “Not go? After more than 2,000 years? How will anyone ever trust Santa again? He has to go!” Similar conversations took place all over the workshop. No one was sure what to do with Rudolph missing.
Out in the stable, the reindeer were worried, too. “I haven’t led the team in nearly 60 years,” Dasher fretted in Reindeer Lingo. “I’ve come to depend on Rudolph.”
“If you stop suddenly, I’ll smash right into you,” Dancer said, his brow furrowing. “And Comet will crash into me and Cupid into him and… We could actually wreck the sleigh!”
The thought of such a catastrophe was too much to bear. The reindeer went nervously back to their regular activities, but their thoughts were centered on Rudolph and only on Rudolph.
Meanwhile, Santa, who could read the thoughts of the elves and reindeer, knew how much dread was spreading through his home. He knew he should do something to calm everyone down, but erase their fears, to make them think everything was all right. But who would make Santa think everything was all right?
Mrs. Claus seemed to be the only one who wasn’t affected by Rudolph’s disappearance. She bustled about through the house, taking inventory, polishing the sleigh, offering a word of encouragement here, a motherly hug there, always in control and always smiling. “There, there, it will work out dear,” she told Santa, who was sitting in a big easy chair, lost in worry. “I know, Mother,” he said, patting her hand. “I know.” But Santa didn’t believe himself.
A Rudolph-free ride?
As the sun began to set at the North Pole, Santa and his elves began loading the last of the presents onto his sleigh. Usually, this was a time of excited chattering, laughing and good-natured jokes and teasing. Today, for the first time in many years, Santa would make the trip without Rudolph’s nose blazing a trail through the dark night. Santa wasn’t looking forward to this trip, the first time he could ever remember not looking forward to his annual Christmas Eve journey.
Dasher, Dancer, Donner, Blitzen, Comet, Cupid, Prancer and Vixen were equally hesitant. A reindeer doesn’t remember as well as a human being and some of them had forgotten completely how it used to be before Rudolph showed up for the first time. They felt as if their trip would be made blindfolded.
“That’s the last of it, Santa,” said an elf named Humna-Humna as he put a bag chock full of toys and goodies onto the sleigh. “I guess it’s all up to you and the reindeer now.” Humna-Humna frowned with the thought of Santa venturing out into the night without the little deer who had served as his beacon for so long.
Santa sighed, already weary even before he started his trip. The elves, usually so jubilant at the beginning of a Christmas Eve voyage, were quiet. Most of them looked at the ground or the sky. Few looked right at Santa. “On Dasher,” Santa said, a little more subdued than usual. “On Dancer! On Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On Cu…”
“Wait!” came a voice from the house. All eyes turned toward the shout. There, running across the snow, was Mrs. Claus. She carried a bag, presumably filled with sandwiches for Santa and the reindeer, and a leather strap. On the other end of the leather strap was Rudolph! His nose beamed brightly across the North Pole, casting a glow on the snow, the sleigh, Santa, the reindeer and the elves. “I’m sorry, Santa,” Rudolph said in Reindeer Lingo. “Where have you been, Rudolph?” Santa asked his voice somewhere between anger and joy. “We’ve been looking all over for you!” “I’m sorry, Santa,” Rudolph repeated. “I guess I should have told you. You see, ever since I came here, I’ve visited my mother two nights before Christmas. I never wanted anyone to worry. So, I’d visit during the night and get back before daylight.”
“What kept you this year?” Santa asked. “Your mother – she’s all right, I hope.” “Mom’s fine,” Rudolph said. “But this year, she knitted me a sweater for Christmas. Usually, the beaming of my nose keeps me from oversleeping and lets me get to the North Pole on time. But look!” Rudolph slipped on the sweater. And a fine sweater it was. It was a bright red turtleneck, heavy and warm. It was also four sizes too big. The collar covered Rudolph’s nose and no light could escape! “I had to wear Mom’s sweater,” Rudolph apologized. “I never realized I could sleep so well with it on.”
“Of course, you did,” Santa said. “We’re just thrilled to have you back. And from now on, you’ll wear that sweater every night – as long as you’re in the stable! Now, though, we have a full night of work ahead of us.”
He hitched Rudolph to his customary place at the head of the team and climbed back into the sleigh, putting the sack of sandwiches and goodies under the seat. Santa pulled back on the reins and called out, this time with gusto, “On Dasher! On Dancer! On Prancer and Vixen! On Comet! On Cupid! On Donner and Blitzen!” Then with a grin as wide as the Arctic, “On Rudolph!”
As the sleigh rose from the snow-covered ground of the North Pole and arced south, the elves below let out a cheer that rattled the shutters. But, Santa couldn’t hear it. He was too busy cheering himself. And so were the reindeer!