Fiction – “The Gift” by Christie Yant
It was on a cold winter night following a cold winter day that Remi’s father came home with the gift. Remi’s two sisters played with rag dolls in the corner of the small room, their high-pitched voices rising in protest occasionally as the baby tried to put them in his mouth. Remi’s belly growled and he scooted nearer to the fire.
Papa burst into the room, a leather sack over his shoulder, bringing with him a gust of cold air and a flurry of snow. “Christmas dinner!” he cried, and pulled two skinny rabbits out of the sack by their ears, displaying them proudly. Remi could see the relief on Mama’s face, followed by worry that there was so little. She reached for them, but Papa stopped her. “And something else,” he said with barely suppressed mirth. “I’ve brought you all a gift!” He wrapped his arms around Mama’s waist and lifted her into the air. She laughed like a young girl and kissed Papa’s creased forehead, but when he put her down she grew somber and concerned.
“Papa, we can afford no gifts,” Mama said, her voice low. “Where did you get money for such things? You didn’t–”
“Steal it? Do not fear for my soul, Mama, for God will surely forgive me. I took it–” He paused and turned conspiratorially to Remi, “–from a villain!”
“A villain, Papa? Like a robber?”
“Exactly, a robber! A villain like no other, my son, a wealthy robber. I caught him in the very act!”
Mama smacked Papa’s arm and looked disapprovingly at him.
“Don’t tell such stories to the boy. You did no such thing.”
“Oh, didn’t I?” He puffed out his chest and stroked his great black beard, then swung around and pointed at the girls, who shrieked and then giggled. “You believe me, don’t you?”
“Yes, Papa,” they said in chorus.
“But he wasn’t really a robber, was he?” Remi asked.
“Oh, but wasn’t he?” His father hung his rifle and coat by the door and sat down in the chair that no one but he could sit in. He pulled off his boots, and the children moved closer. “I had been in the woods for hours, and had found nothing. Signs of deer, yes, trees where the bark was chewed away by the starving things, but I did not see a single one. A rabbit, here and there, but even those were scarce. This has been a harsh winter,” he said solemnly, and they all nodded in agreement. “But I promised my family a Christmas dinner, and we would have one, by God!” he declared, striking his knee with his fist for emphasis. “Finally, I spotted something through the trees–the points of a buck, young but certainly good enough for us. I followed it, but it evaded me for many hours. I was so intent on the buck that I did not notice that I had walked all the way to Le Prieuré!” They all laughed. To Remi the valley of Le Prieuré was a place of excitement and wonder, a place so important that the bishop himself visited. Remi thought there must be one hundred people there. His parents assured him there were more, but to Remi that seemed ridiculous. One hundred was the highest he could count, how could there be more? “I was cold to the bone by then and thought that perhaps I could warm myself in the village, and so I started up the road, passing by the houses with their fires glowing within, my hands stiff and ice in my beard. Then I saw him!
“Never have I seen such a man as this. Corpulent with excess, fatter than any good man has a right to be. Gluttony is a sin, and well it should be when so many people starve! And his clothes–Mama, you wouldn’t believe it. He wore a cloak as red as blood, stolen from a bishop, I’d wager! It was lined with fox fur. Such fine fur could only be taken from the kits of the winter fox. Such a man as this,” he spat into the fire in contempt, “probably skinned the tiny things alive.” The children recoiled in horror.
“Papa!” Mama protested.
“I crept from house to house, keeping him always in my sight. My blood boiled as I observed the ease with which he slipped into each house, just as if it were his own! And each time, emerging with his giant sack, bulging with his stolen goods. His sleigh was fine, well-crafted and pulled by a team of sturdy deer that could surely whisk him out of harm’s way should he be caught in his villainy! It was then that I realized it was up to me–I could prevent him from getting away by freeing his team.
“The wicked man had slipped into another house when I sneaked up beside his team. They stamped their feet and huffed in the cold, but they did not startle. The lead of the team looked straight at me–” Papa turned to Marie and Elise, his hands splayed at either side of his head like antlers, making the little girls giggle–“and I knew that this was no ordinary robber, but a master thief, who collected the strange and the exotic as well as gold and silver! Neither King nor Pope has seen such a creature as this stag–sleek and strong, the tines of its antlers perfect in their symmetry, its eyes as intelligent as yours or mine–and its coat was not the dusty browns of the rest, but pure white, white as the very snow, and the nose was glossy and red!”
They all gasped, the girls clapping their hands in delight.
“And so I took my knife,” he brandished his hunting knife, “and cut the harness that held the beast!” With two swift motions he cut through the air and freed the imaginary white stag.
“No sooner had I freed the white stag than the man returned. I hid myself in the trees, where I watched him flee the scene!”
Papa could see Remi’s disappointment.
“He got away, Papa?”
“He did. I returned home through the forest, heavy in my shame at not having stopped the criminal. But God is good, and I caught the two rabbits that sit there, and surely He in his wisdom will bring the man to justice, here or in the Hereafter.”
“That’s enough,” Mama said. “I should get these rabbits cooking. Marie, Remi, help me with these.”
“A moment longer,” Papa said. “My tale is almost told.”
“What happened to the white stag?” Elise asked.
“Ah, there’s a question. No normal beast was this, my girl. I had crossed the frozen stream that meant I was nearly home when I spied it again, its white coat disappearing into the moonlit snow, but its red nose giving it away. It had been left behind by its master, as foolish as he was greedy, and it had followed me home!”
“Papa, you tease the children!” Mama said, her hands on her hips.
He turned back to the children. “I tease, your mother says. She does not believe my tale. But do you?” He peered around at Remi and his sisters, who sat rapt with wonder.
“I have something for each of you.” A present? Remi had never had a Christmas present before, except for the new trousers Mama had sewn for him last year and that she had just let down for what would surely be the last time, judging by the way they barely covered his ankles now. Papa stood and asked Mama for a knife, grabbed his bag off the table, and turned his back on the room. With an impish look over his shoulder and exaggerated secrecy he cut something inside the bag. “One at a time, line up here beside me,” he said. The children did as they were told. “Now Remi, you first, you’re the oldest. Hold out your hand.”
Papa placed into his hand a round, shining silver bell, as big as a baby’s fist. Its surface was richly engraved and perfectly polished. He held it up and shook it lightly; it made a sound as soft as a rabbit’s fur, as clear as ice, and as pure as joy.
Marie promptly threaded her bell onto a ribbon pulled from her hair, and begged her mother to tie it around her neck.
“I wish I had seen the white stag, Papa!” said Elise, admiring her bell in the firelight. The baby took his in chubby hands and shook it wildly before he tasted it.
Remi tried to imagine it, a stag of pure white, with a red nose. It was like something from a dream, or a legend, like the bell he held in his hand.
“See it? You want to see it?” Papa asked with a mischievous smile. “You shall wear its fur on your coat next winter!”
“Papa! You didn’t! Surely we will be caught,” Mama spoke in an urgent whisper, as if the horrible robber was just outside. “An animal like that surely belongs to a noble, and he will know its very hide when he sees it!”
“This was no nobleman, Mama,” Papa soothed. “He is long gone, I saw it myself. He fled as fast as his team could take him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were on the other side of the world already. A man who runs like that is a man who fears the rewards of his sin.”
Mama relaxed at this news, and finally got the joke–there would be no rabbit for Christmas dinner! She began to talk of how to prepare the beast, while the girls all fluttered around her, with ideas for best how to use the luxurious white coat.
As the scent of roasting meat filled the tiny cabin, Remi examined the beautiful silver bell. He shook it gently and thought how wonderful it was, his first Christmas present. Surely no Christmas could ever be better than this.
Christie Yant is a fantasy writer, Assistant Editor for StarShipSofa, and an audiobook reviewer for The Way of the Wizard, and Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, forthcoming from Prime Books in 2011. She lives on the central coast of California with her two amazing daughters, her boyfriend, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Her website is Inkhaven.net. Follow her on Twitter at @inkhaven.