Volume 5 Number 4

MYTHOLOG

Autumn 2007



The Cabin at the Top of the World

by Mark Allan Gunnells

Dr. Andrew Kinard wasn't sure how long he'd been stumbling through the snowstorm when he saw the cabin in the distance. At first he assumed it must be some type of mirage, a hallucination brought on by his exhaustion and the cold. No one lived out in the middle of this barren arctic wasteland; the elements were harsh and unforgiving, far from ideal conditions for habitation.

And yet as Kinard neared—his cap pulled down to his eyebrows and his scarf covering his mouth and nose to protect him from the biting wind and the snow that pelted him like pebbles—the cabin materialized out of the shifting curtain of snow and ice. It was perfectly round, made of some kind of maroon stone, its roof tin, smoke puffing up into the air from a brick chimney. Off to the right was a large barnlike structure with an enclosed paddock behind it. There seemed to be other, smaller structures farther off, but he couldn't be sure.

Kinard reached down inside himself, seeking a core of strength and resolve, and forced himself to increase his speed. He stumbled and fell onto the ice that covered the ground like a frozen shield. He wanted so to just lie down and close his eyes. He knew that would be akin to suicide, but his body ached all over, and he felt almost as if death would be welcome at this point. But no, he could not give up with salvation so close. He pushed himself to his feet and continued on. His fingers were beginning to go numb inside his thick, insulated gloves, which wasn't a good sign.

A few yards from the cabin, Kinard fell again. He landed hard on his side, knocking the breath from him. His scarf unraveled and blew away on the wind, exposing his face to the frigid air. He tried to push himself up to his knees, but his trembling arms were too weak, and he collapsed back onto the ground. The cold seeped into his flesh until he felt as if his bones were encased in a layer of ice. He turned his head until he could see the cabin, canted to the right due to the angle he lay in the snow. It was tantalizingly close, and yet he knew he'd never reach it. The snow would cover his body, and he would be entombed in a coffin of ice.

Flickering light spilled onto the ground ahead of him as someone opened the door to the cabin. He could not see the person; they were only a bulky shadow outlined by the light behind them. Feeling his strength siphoned away like water down a drain, Kinard shut his eyes, ice encrusting the lashes, and surrendered to the darkness. Distantly he heard a crunching—Footsteps in the snow, he thought, but the thought seemed unimportant to him—and felt hands gripping him beneath his arms, dragging him through the snow.

In his disoriented state, Kinard imagined it was Death itself, carrying him over into the afterlife. The idea did not distress him as much as he would have thought it might. His survival instinct had been frozen along with the rest of him. But when the ice melted from Kinard's eyes, finally allowing him to open them again, he found himself not in any chamber of heaven or hell. Instead, he was lying on a narrow bed—really more of a cot—with a fuzzy white blanket atop him. He was in a large, round room full of simple, wooden furniture, a fire blazing bright and hot from a stone hearth. An elderly woman, plump, with rosy cheeks and pure white hair pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck, sat next to the bed, holding a steaming cup in her hands. Surely this was not the woman who had dragged him to safety.

Kinard opened his mouth to speak, but his lips were so severely chapped that they cracked open and blood began to dribble down his chin. He looked down at his hands curled on top of the coverlet and was frightened by what he saw. They were raw and blue, hooked into claws. He tried to move them and found he couldn't.

"Doctor," Kinard croaked to the old woman, his throat feeling like it was full of broken glass. "Frostbite. May be too late already. Need doctor."

"Nonsense," the old woman said with a gentle smile. "All you need is a bit of Sandra's homemade cider." She held the cup up to Kinard's bleeding lips. "Go on now, take a sip. It'll make it all better."

Kinard did not have the strength to argue. He parted his lips and felt something hot and creamy pour into his mouth and down his throat. It tasted like honeysuckle, its sweetness soothing his sore throat and warming him from the inside out. The cup returned to his lips, and he drank deep, gulping the nectar. When the cup was dry, he licked his lips and was surprised to find them smooth and whole again. He glanced at his hands with consternation. The color had returned to his skin, and he flexed his hands, finding the fingers moved easily and without pain.

"How are you feeling now?" the old woman asked. "Better?"

"Much. Thank you. What was in that?"

"Just an old family recipe. You're just lucky I found you outside before you froze to death."

Kinard started to sit up against the headboard, but the room began to spin, and he slumped back onto the mattress.

"Don't try to get up just yet," the old woman said, clucking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "You'll need to rest awhile to regain your full strength. The dizziness will pass in time."

"Who are you?" Kinard said. With the firelight blazing behind her, illuminating her hair, he thought the old woman looked very much like an angel.

With a girlish giggle, the woman said, "I am Sandra."

"Andrew, Andrew Kinard. You live out here alone, Sandra?"

"Oh, no, I live here with my husband as well as his workers."

"Workers?"

"Yes, my husband runs his own business."

"From the middle of the arctic?"

"He likes his privacy. Tell me, Andrew Kinard, what circumstances brought you to our doorstep?"

"I'm an archeologist," Kinard explained. "I'm a member of a team that was sent here to unearth some ruins that were recently discovered."

"Ruins?" Sandra said, leaning forward with interest. "Around here?"

"Yes. We found what appeared to be a primitive village of some kind. There was a large habitat—surrounded by other, smaller quarters—and what we surmise to have been a workshop of some kind, with fragments of what look to be children's toys made of wood and stone. We also found the remains of a stable, suggesting the villagers kept animals of some kind."

"Ah, the old homestead."

"Uhm, no," Kinard said, frowning up at the strange old woman. "We estimate the ruins to be hundreds of years old, perhaps as much as a thousand."

With another of her smiles, Sandra patted his leg through the coverlet and said, "How about I make you a bowl of soup?"

"I don't want to put you to any trouble."

"No trouble at all. I was about to fix some for my husband anyway."

"Where is your husband?"

"Working. He'll be home soon." Sandra took a large, deep black pot—Looks like a witch's cauldron, Kinard thought—and placed it over the fire. While she worked at preparing the soup, Kinard took another look around at the cabin.

It was rustic and sparse. There were a few wooden chairs, a rocker, a wooden table, a threadbare round rug in the center of the space, and another narrow bed like the one Kinard presently occupied. The only light came from the fire, filling the room with dancing shadows. There were a few windows, but the glass seemed thin, and there was no insulation around them. As harsh as the wind was outside, the cold should really have been seeping into the house; the fire alone should have been unable to combat it. And yet the house was warm, cozy, the heat almost stifling.

"The soup will be ready in just a bit," Sandra said, stirring with a large wooden spoon. "While we wait, why don't you tell me how you ended up here?"

"I told you, I'm working with a team to—"

"Yes, yes, I know that, dear. But your team is not with you now. How did you end up all by yourself, wandering around in this storm?"

"Well, I'm not really sure about that myself. We were finishing up for the day, gathering our supplies and preparing to head back to the tents. We were furnished with special insulated tents and portable battery-operated heaters for this expedition. I was bringing up the rear when I heard a noise. Sounded like a voice. I turned and squinted through the snow, and I saw what I thought was a child running away from the site."

"A child?"

"Yes, at least that's what I thought I saw. I yelled for the others, but they could not hear me above the storm, so I pursued the child on my own."

"How very brave of you."

"How very foolish, is more like it. I ran after the child, and I kept catching glimpses through the snow of a green jacket and red cap. Eventually I lost sight of the child altogether, and knowing nothing else I could do, I turned back toward the camp. In this whiteout, however, I quickly lost all sense of direction. I don't know how long I wandered around out there before happening across your cabin."

"I'm just grateful you did," Sandra said, ladling soup into a wooden bowl. "Any longer, and I fear even my cider would not have been able to revive you."

Kinard took the soup, blew on a spoonful to cool it, then swallowed it. The soup itself looked like nothing so much as hot water, but its taste was a wonderful mixture of flavors. He tasted oranges and apples, salty nuts, a hint of smoked turkey and possibly ham, and there was even a suggestion of sweet potato pie. It was like an entire Christmas feast in a single spoonful.

"This is delicious," Kinard said. He sat up against the headboard now without getting dizzy. Staring at one of the windows, listening to the wind howl outside, he sighed and said, "I fear the child I saw—if indeed I did see one—could not possibly have survived the elements."

"Well," Sandra said, biting on her lips and looking guilty, "I think perhaps you saw Edwin."

"Edwin?"

"Yes, one of my husband's workers. He likes to wander."

"No, the person I saw was much too small to be a man."

Sandra opened her mouth to say something, but then the cabin door blew open, the wind catching it and slamming it against the inside wall. A man walked in, stomping his black boots on the floor to dislodge the ice and snow that clung to them, and shut the door behind him. Kinard stared at the man, his mouth agape. The man—Sandra's husband, Kinard assumed—was tall and large, a rotund belly bulging against the front of his red jacket with white fur trim. He removed his pointy red cap, revealing a bald head. The lower part of his face was obscured by a thick beard as white as his wife's hair. His nose was bulbous and red, his eyes squinty and twinkling in the firelight. He looked exactly like the common conception of—

"Santa," Sandra exclaimed, rushing to her husband and throwing her arms around his neck. "I'm so glad you're home. There's someone here I want you to meet."

***


"Well, Andrew," Santa said, peeling off his red jacket to reveal a plain white T-shirt underneath, "I hope the Mrs. has made you feel at home."

"Uhm, yes," Kinard stammered. "She's taken very good care of me."

"A natural caretaker, that's my Sandra. I see she's fed you already."

"Yes, the soup was amazing. Best thing I've ever tasted."

"You should try her meatloaf," Santa said with a laugh, placing his hands over his stomach as the waves of laughter rolled through him, making his gut bounce up and down.

Like a bowl full of jelly, Kinard thought absently.

"Andrew was just telling me that he followed what he thought was a child through the storm," Sandra said, taking her husband's coat, shaking off the melting ice, and hanging it on a hook by the door.

"Ah, Edwin," Santa said with a nod. "He went out wandering earlier."

"I'm sorry," Kinard said, "but your wife tells me that you run your own business."

Santa smiled and said, "Really more of a calling, but yes."

"What kind of business is it, if I may ask?"

"Mass production, distribution. The elves and I run the workshop for most of the year, preparing for the Christmas rush."

"Workshop?"

"Yes, the toy workshop."

Kinard laughed uneasily and said, "I'm afraid I'm missing the joke."

"What joke?"

"Santa's workshop. Located at the North Pole. I suppose you're going to tell me that this Edwin character is an elf?"

"One of many, yes."

"So you're saying you're the Santa? Santa Claus? Old Saint Nick? Kris Kringle?"

"That's me. In the flesh."

"You realize, of course, that's insane, right?"

"Perhaps," Sandra said, placing a hand on her husband's shoulder, "you should prove it to him, dear."

Santa took the chair next to the bed, the one in which Sandra had been sitting when Kinard had first awakened. When he learned forward, Kinard instinctively cringed back. "Andrew James Kinard," Santa said, "from Salt Lake City."

"How—?" Kinard started but stopped himself. Clearly, while he was unconscious, these two had gone through his wallet, which is how Santa knew his full name and where he was from.

"Your mother called you Handy Andy when you were a boy. You wrote your first letter to me when you were six years old. You asked for a wagon and a set of army men. The next year you wrote requesting a model airplane and a puppet. The year after that it was a bicycle. Then, when you were nine years old, you wrote your last letter to me, asking for your father to come back home."

Kinard gasped aloud, he couldn't help it. He couldn't be expected to remember the letters he'd written to Santa Claus as a child, but he did specifically remember the letter he'd written in his ninth year. The summer before, his father had walked out on his mother, moving in with a younger woman. Kinard saw his father only sporadically after that, and he'd felt the absence in his life like a hole in his gut. He'd written to Santa, saying that if the jolly old elf could somehow return his father to him then Kinard would never ask for another gift for the rest of his life. His father had not returned, and Kinard had stopped believing in Santa, long before any adult confirmed that it was only a myth. But how could this crazy old man know any of that? And how did he know that Kinard's mother used to call him Handy Andy?

"It was a heartbreaking letter," Santa said, wiping a tear from his eye. Behind him, Sandra was dabbing at her own eyes with a handkerchief. "Not easily forgotten. Such pain in it, such genuine longing. I wish I could have granted your Christmas wish, but alas, I have no power over the human heart."

"I'm dying," Kinard said softly, without inflection. "I'm still outside in the snow, freezing to death, and this is some crazy hallucination produced by my expiring brain."

"No hallucination," Santa said with a smile that was as warm and bright as the fire. "Hard to believe, but you are in Santa's cabin."

Kinard laughed, the sound a bit hysterical. This couldn't be happening, of that he was sure. It was a vivid dream, a result of misfiring synapses as he froze to death in the arctic. But if it were, what harm would it do to play along?

"So I must be the first person to ever actually meet Santa Claus, huh?"

"Not exactly," Santa said, rising and crossing to the fire. "It is rare, but people do happen across the cabin from time to time. Although you must be the first visitor we've had in ... oh, how long would you say, Sandra?"

"At least five hundred years."

"Five hundred years?" Kinard said. "So you two are immortal then?"

"Very much so. We were granted immortality by God Himself so that we could provide joy and wonder to children around the world."

"It would have been nice if He'd granted us youth as well as immortality," Sandra said with another of her girlish giggles. "But I'm not one to complain."

"And the ruins I've been unearthing...?"

"We're immortal; our home is not," Santa said. "Eventually things begin to deteriorate to the point that repair seems pointless. When that happens, we build anew and move the operation. You've unearthed one of our old sites."

"Incredible," Kinard said under his breath. He'd had no idea his imagination could be so inventive.

"Say, Andrew, would you like to see the workshop? The stables?"

"Where you keep the reindeer?"

"All eight of them."

"Eight? What about Rudolph?"

"Rudolph is just a fiction. A red-nosed reindeer—who would ever believe such nonsense?"

Kinard laughed again, this time with considerably less hysteria. Now that he wasn't fighting the hallucination, he was actually quite enjoying himself. "Sure, I'd love to see it."

"But Santa," Sandra said, "you haven't eaten your soup yet."

"I'll warm it up after we're done. I want to give our friend here a tour of the facilities."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Kinard said, throwing off the coverlet and getting to his feet. Let's go."

***


Even though he knew none of this was real, Kinard still could not stifle a gasp as he stood just inside the doorway of the workshop. The place was cavernous, like a large warehouse, and it was filled with at least a hundred little people. Most sat at assembly lines as toys ran down large conveyor belts. Each elf would add a new piece to the toy until it came out completed at the end. In the far corner, behind protective screens, some elves worked with blowtorches. There was even a bank of computers, at which several elves sat, hard at work programming what appeared to be video games.

"Things have certainly changed," Santa mused, standing next to Kinard with a hand on the man's shoulder. "There was a time when the elves and I made all the toys by hand. That was a time of real craftsmanship. Nowadays kids are wanting more and more high-tech gadgetry. Do you know what the number one requested item was last Christmas?"

Kinard shook his head.

"Cell phones. Kids as young as six and seven were asking for cell phones. Who does a six-year-old have to call?"

"This place is simply amazing," Kinard said, genuine awe in his voice. Before coming into the workshop, they had gone around back to the stables. The reindeer were magnificent, large and muscular, with elaborate antlers that seemed too heavy for their necks to carry, but the animals had moved with sublime grace and regality.

"I'm glad you like it," Santa said, then turned his attention to a small elf with a green jacket and red cap that was running up to them. "Andrew, this is Edwin. I believe he is responsible for bringing you here."

"Hello, Santa," Edwin the Elf said, his voice high-pitched and child-like. To Kinard's ears, the elf sounded like one of those chipmunks from that cartoon he'd watched as a boy. "Did I do good?"

"You did very good," Santa said, reaching into his coat pocket and bringing out a piece of hard candy, which he offered to Edwin. "Very good, indeed."

"Will you be needing me to go back out for the others?"

"I think not," Santa said, scratching his furry chin. "I believe the rest of the team will come searching for their lost member, which will bring them right to my door."

"What are you two talking about?" Kinard said, frowning.

Santa turned to him, and there was something in the old man's eyes that made Kinard take a step back. It was a cunning, predatory look. "You see, Andrew," Santa said, and his voice had the oily slick tone of a used car salesman, "I have not been entirely forthright with you. It was not happenstance that brought you here. Edwin lured you to my cabin, reeling you in like a fisherman reels in a bass."

Kinard looked down at the elf, who was preening, smiling up like someone who'd just won the lottery. "Why would he do that?"

"My wife and I are immortal, Kinard, but our elves are not. Oh, they live much longer than the average human, but eventually their little bodies wear out and die. Especially with all the arduous labor I require of them. So from time to time, it becomes necessary for us to replenish the ranks."

"So you're saying, what? That you brought me here to be slave labor?"

"To be blunt, yes. But the work is not without its rewards. You will be helping to bring joy to the lives of the children of the world. That is something truly worthy of sacrifice."

"Well, I've had a lovely visit," Kinard said, backing toward the door. "But I think it's time I got going."

With a wave of Santa's gloved hand, the large double doors behind Kinard slammed shut, and a large lock clunked into place. The elves were leaving their posts, converging on the front of the workshop, an army of little people advancing with a fierce look of determination on their faces.

"You'll grow to accept your position in time," Santa was saying. "Everyone does."

"I'm not an elf," Kinard said, his voice trembling slightly. "I mean, just look at me. Do I look like an elf to you?"

Santa smiled and said, "Not quite yet." He held up a hand and blew, sending a cloud of glittery dust into Kinard's face.

Kinard involuntarily inhaled the dust, and he doubled over as a fit of explosive sneezing tore through him. He sneezed half a dozen times, snot and saliva flying from his nose and mouth with the force of each sneeze. When it passed, he straightened up, opened his eyes, and ...

... found himself staring at Santa's knees. He tilted his head back and saw Santa towering over him like some fairy-tale giant. He glanced over at Edwin and saw the elf was now at eye level. Kinard looked down at his own body and gaped at his stubby little legs and stubby little arms. He had shrunk, his clothes along with him, going from a man of over six feet to a dwarf of no more than three.

Santa turned to his army of elves, his slaves, and said, "Edwin, Wally—you two take Andrew and start the indoctrination. I will expect a progress report by morning. I need to get back to the cabin; I sense we may have more visitors already."

Without another glance at Kinard, Santa left the workshop. Edwin and another elf grabbed Kinard by the arms and started dragging him across the floor. Kinard tried to break away, but the elves were strong and continued to pull him forward. There was a doorway ahead, stairs leading down into darkness. A foul smell wafted from the doorway....

Kinard was no longer sure if this was all a hallucination, but he certainly prayed it was.


Bio: Mark Allan Gunnells is one of the longest-running and most frequently requested authors in the pages of MYTHOLOG. See our archives page for more.


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