By Elijah David
Rating: PG-13 (Violence and discussions of death)
Summary: The spirit of St. Nicholas roams the earth seeking to do good. On his way he meets a fallen angel…
Snow fell unseen in the moonless night air, each flake making its journey without notice or proclamation. Nick liked the snow on nights like this. It went about its business anonymously, as he did on the best of nights.
Nick was neither angel nor demon, but he wasn’t, strictly speaking, human. To be human, one must possess both body and soul, and Nick was a bit short in the corporeal department. Had been for centuries now. He wasn’t the only spirit wandering the earth, but he hadn’t met another like him in a month of Christmases.
He never introduced himself—on the rare chance an introduction was needed—as Nick. It wasn’t his true name, or even his favorite of the names others had called him over the centuries, but he supposed it was the best to use in the current age. It was an easy name to grasp, a simple identity to hold onto as the numberless winters faded into springs.
In the town Nick was visiting, the sparse yellow lights made the snow seem black as the flakes flew through the dim halos feebly holding back the winter night. It was odd, Nick thought, how two symbols of goodness—light and snow—could be turned into one of evil when brought together just so. Yet the snow passed through, pure as ever. It completed its mission, compelled just as Nick was to move on until the task was done.
The few people out at this time of the night would not have noted Nick’s passing, except perhaps to idly think the chill of the air a little less and the warmth of the lights a little greater for a moment before dismissing such fantasies for what they were and getting on to whatever business they had, planned or unplanned, for the rest of the night. The most perceptive of people might have thought they felt the presence of a lost loved one nearby, but those cases were rarer than Nick could guess. No human ever saw him, spoke to him, or thanked him. He was less than a ghost to them.
Only a few blocks from his first stop, Nick paused and turned away from his destination. A tired man of about thirty years stood outside an office building, his coat ill-fitting despite its obvious luxury. His face was heavily lined for one so young. Grey flecked his hair like snow that had melted into the surrounding hairs without losing its paleness. A shadow of black and gold hovered beside the man’s ear—a trick of the light to human eyes—a spirit of despair to Nick’s.
Nick crossed the street, quieter than snow on snow, and touched the man’s shoulder. In most cases, that was all it took. A light touch, half a moment’s kind thought could work more than a hundred years of heavy-fisted domination. The glinting shadow by the man’s ear shuddered, but his weariness seemed to abate slightly. Nick held on another moment. The shadow squeaked in protest and dissipated. The man’s face smoothed out, the wrinkles turning to laugh lines, and he walked down the street, almost unconsciously dropping a few folded bills into the lap of a sleeping homeless woman.
The woman woke with a start, though the impact of the bills had been barely more than that of the falling snow. She pushed her hat and scarf away from her eyes to see more clearly what had been left for her. Nick felt the joy well in her heart as she stood hastily. She would have slipped on the cold sidewalk, save for Nick’s hand steadying her. She made her way as quickly as she could to the makeshift shelter a few blocks away, where her children were sleeping under her brother’s care.
Such was the nature of Nick’s work: kind thoughts producing actions producing kind thoughts, each lending itself to multiplication the more it spread. He allowed his sight to follow the woman’s journey, committing the sight of her joyful face to memory. It would join the other memories stored by, held close on cold nights when hope was hardest to find. Years weighed down spirits both in and out of the flesh, and the burdens of others were easier to lift than Nick’s own worries. Despite his choice to wander rather than seek the rest of his faith, Nick sometimes felt swept along by his mission to the point that he was never as effective as he ought to be.
But Nick had given the weary man hope enough that he would be a happy presence in his home this night, and the man’s generosity, unconscious though it might have been, had sent the woman back to her family and out of the cold. Such connections might seem inconsequential to the humans who experienced them—they often were, from all Nick could gather—yet Nick treasured them as though he had been the one to arrive home more cheerful than usual. No matter how many lives he touched, each one carried him forward to the next.
Which reminded him, he needed to be off to the next house, the one he had been aiming for before his delay with the tired young man. Contrary to folklore, he did not visit each household in a single night. Indeed, he hardly visited every “believing” household in a night. Time bound him as tightly as the snowflakes falling through him to the ground. But he could reach those who most needed him quickly enough, and he did eventually circumnavigate the Earth every few years or so. It all depended on the number of stops. And delays.
The apartment building was typical of the breed, the brick exterior hiding a hollow sort of living space that had potential for comfort or congestion, depending on the occupants. Nick’s destination was on the third floor. He made his way up the chilly stairwell and down the hall to the apartment where his latest charge lay in fitful sleep, her once-dark hair damp with sweat from a fever.
The woman’s dreams nestled around her like dark serpents. They did not threaten. They had no need of threats. The presence of one nightmare was enough to unsettle any human’s sleep. When this many were gathered near a single person, particularly the very young or very old, the effect was disturbingly tremendous.
Nick stepped into the room and shooed the nightmares, but they only raised their sluggish heads to reveal open, many-toothed mouths.
Nick did not recoil. He drew the sword at his side and severed the heads from the rest of the nightmare bodies. The dark dreams faded with unheard shrieks and the woman’s sleep grew peaceful again. Nick put a hand on her forehead, hoping to send a pleasant dream or perhaps a dreamless sleep into her mind.
“I wondered what was keeping you,” said a familiar voice from beside Nick.
Nick did not turn to see who was speaking, nor did he respond. Instead, he straightened, moving closer to the sleeping woman, his sword still bare and ready in his hand. He laid the other hand back on the woman’s forehead and felt the fever leave.
“Sleep well, child,” Nick whispered in a voice that he supposed might become a haunting reminder of the night if she ever remembered hearing it.
Satisfied with his work, Nick turned and addressed the other speaker. “I stopped to help a few others on the way,” he explained.
“You always do,” said the other spirit. He was tall and had handsome features. In the right light, he might have been objectively beautiful. Incandescent bulbs in the living room/kitchen of a small apartment in Illinois did not provide the right illumination. Instead, the other spirit’s features seemed flawed at a subconscious level, so that, although he was handsome, there was always a slight something about his face that made onlookers shift nervously.
“It’s almost not worth setting up these little visits in advance,” the other spirit continued. “I mean, look at how long it took you to get here for a woman in the throes of fever and a dozen nightmares. One would almost be tempted to think you’d stopped caring about them.”
The other spirit was the reason Nick didn’t much like his own name, despite the fact that he couldn’t quite hold onto the fullness of his original name. “Nick” was part of a name humans had given to the type of being standing across the room: Old Nick.
“Nick,” said Nick, “why do you torment them? It doesn’t change anything.”
“Nick,” said Old Nick, “why do you care about them? It doesn’t change anything, either.”
Old Nick was not the devil, but one of the other rebellious angels who wandered the earth trying to drain the hope and faith from humanity, rather than inspiring those virtues. His hungering, empty eyes moved from the sleeping woman before him to the weapon in Nick’s hand.
“You’re carrying a sword again,” said Old Nick. “What happened to ’peace on earth, good will toward men’?”
“Men have nothing to fear from me,” said Nick, “so long as they do not hold darkness in their hearts.” He held his sword out to the side, and Old Nick’s eyes flickered as he understood the earnestness with which Nick would use that sword against anything as dark and unhuman as him.
“But that’s such a tricky thing for them, isn’t it?” asked Old Nick. He traced delicate patterns on the forehead of the sleeping woman, his fingertips passing through the same places Nick’s had touched moments before. “The darkness is always there, waiting to surge up. And it only takes a little thing to bring it out. Like a careless thought brought on by weariness.” He tapped the woman’s head and, to Nick’s eyes, a small dark tendril snaked its way between Old Nick and the woman before snapping.
“I like to think I help some of them push back the darkness,” Nick said.
“And the ones who don’t want to push it back, or mistake it for the light?”
“All the more reason to help them,” Nick said. He leaned forward, his sword at Old Nick’s chest. “Your business is done here. Leave.”
Old Nick eyed the sword with a false air of confidence. “I could say the same to you.” He raised his hands in mock surrender and backed away. “Just remember, Nick. You chose this existence.”
Old Nick vanished and Nick sheathed his sword before kneeling by the woman’s side. He laid his hand on her head and was surprised, though not wholly, that Old Nick had not planted a thought in her mind, but instead had tapped into the weakened wall of a small blood vessel.
Nick bit his lip and considered his options. He was not an avenging angel or a healer. He was a messenger of hope, an easer of burdens. He had asked for that when he first presented his request to wander the world on the same mission he had once held in life. He could try to wake the woman in the hope of giving her the chance to reach medical care. Or he could comfort her as she passed, keeping at bay the dark dreams and fears that lingered in the cold night.
The decision affected Nick in a way he had not known in years; humans called it heartbreak. He had chosen this existence, had pleaded for it, and now he was faced with a choice whose options would not, could not fulfill his purpose or his mission.
“Father, give me grace,” he whispered as he eased the worry welling up in the woman’s soul.
As he stood, he noticed that the woman’s eyes were now open. She stared at Nick, though he told himself she must be looking through him. She could not see him; none of them could.
“Am I going to die?” the woman asked.
“I—” said Nick before he could remind himself that the woman could not possibly be speaking to him, even if she were on the threshold between life and death. Despite this reminder, he responded with a question that often haunted him on his visits. “What is your name?”
It was one of the shortcomings of his existence that he never knew the names of those he helped. Names, though trivialized in the modern world, held power over a person. Without a name, a person wasn’t complete. Without names, they were faceless and void.
And how long until Nick could no longer remember even that much of his own name? What awaited him then?
“Luci,” said the woman. “My name is Luci.”
By the Risen—the woman could see him! She could hear him!
“Am I going to die?” Luci asked again.
“I don’t know,” said Nick. “You might be all right if you get a doctor here.”
“But then again I might not, sí?” Her hand fumbled for the telephone on the table beside her. As she dialed the emergency number, she asked, “Are you going to keep him away? The diablo who was here?”
Had she seen Old Nick as well?
“Yes,” Nick said. “Whenever I can, wherever he is.”
“Good,” said Luci, closing her eyes. “Thank you for stopping my dreams. They were not . . . very nice.”
Nick could hardly think while Luci spoke with the dispatcher on the other end of the call. She saw him, spoke to him, and knew what he had done for her. None of the others had done so, not in more than a thousand years of wandering. Why this woman? Why now?
When the dispatcher had her name and address, Luci turned the phone to her shoulder and asked, “San Nicolás, are you going to stay? Surely there are others to see tonight. Niños y niñas with stockings, sí?”
Nick almost responded that he couldn’t stay, as if some instinct told him this was impossible. Yet he wanted it as soon as the woman asked. He wanted to stay, to guard her forever from the wiles of Old Nick and his ilk.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Would you like me to?”
“Please,” she said. “Until the ambulance gets here.”
Nick nodded, but even as he settled into the apartment, leaning against a wall near the couch so he could watch over Luci, he felt a resurgence of doubt that he could fulfill those words.
They sat in contemplation of themselves and each other. Nick could not say what the woman thought of him, and he wondered how he appeared to her. To him, she seemed a woman deep into her old age, yet still innocent at heart despite the world’s cares.
“Will he come back?” Luci asked.
“Perhaps,” Nick said. “I hope not.”
“You can’t keep him away forever, can you?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“But you’ll try?”
She reached out for his hand, though neither of them could feel the other, and said, “You aren’t used to people talking to you, are you?”
“No. Most people can’t see me.”
A good question, Nick thought. “I suppose because I don’t have a body right now.”
“So you died,” said Luci.
“Are you going to get a new body?”
“Someday,” he assured her, “but not yet.”
“Is that something everyone does after they die, or are you special?”
Nick wasn’t sure of the answer. Though he wasn’t the only spirit to choose this life—afterlife, he supposed—there were far too few of them for it to be a universal calling.
“Not everyone,” he said. “But some.”
The EMTs arrived then, and Nick pressed himself back against the wall to keep out of their way. He even sheathed his sword, though there was no need. The EMTs quickly got Luci transported to the ambulance, and Nick followed, making certain Luci could see him every step of the way. As they closed the doors of the ambulance, Nick recalled Old Nick’s words about the darkness lurking in men’s hearts.
He pushed through the EMTs and the icy metal of the ambulance. When he had reached Luci’s side, he whispered to her, “Cling to the light, Luci. No matter what dreams come to you, no matter what happens. Cling to the light.”
He hadn’t meant to reach her so quickly. He had started moving again, and with great speed, and now he felt himself drawn to his next charge. There would be no years of rest here, keeping watch over Luci, becoming a friend known only to her. He must go on. No, he couldn’t allow himself to think of it that way. As he had told Luci, he was allowed to keep moving, helping others as he went.
“I will,” Luci said as Nick was drawn out into the night’s snowy winds.
Nick imagined that the EMTs, if they had noticed Luci’s words, would have asked her about her conversation partner. He wondered what she would tell them.
As he rushed out of town on the winds of his calling, Nick spotted Old Nick crouched in an alley. With whispered words and the quiet dread that leached into the mind like cold into bones, Old Nick was trying to drown the hope of the homeless woman Nick had helped earlier. Already she seemed on the brink of walking into the storm and abandoning the family that had brought her joy.
Nick drew his sword and called out to Old Nick. The other spirit turned and stared at Nick, as though not recognizing him with a sword in his hand. He pierced Old Nick’s un-body with the sword and carried them both away so quickly that he did not have a chance to ease the woman’s fear. Old Nick clung to the sword and tried feebly to remove it from his chest.
“You are a blight upon the world,” Nick said, keeping up their momentum so that Old Nick was bent nearly double around the silver blade. “You haunt old women with nightmares when they might be beacons of hope in the world’s winter.” Old Nick clawed at Nick’s face, leaving scratches as deep as nail scars. “You steal joy from those who have nothing else.” Old Nick’s hands cut themselves on the blade as he tried again to release himself from its grip. “You do nothing for gain or pleasure. The only thing pure about you is your spite.”
“You’re . . . spending . . . yourself, Nick,” sputtered Old Nick, his voice nearly lost in the wind of their passing.
Nick pushed on a little farther before slowing down and dropping a weak and broken Old Nick in the snow. His sword bore no mark or stain to witness carrying the spirit for so many miles.
“That’s the reason I chose this life,” said Nick, who for a moment almost thought of himself once more as Saint Nicholas, “to spend myself.”
Nick turned his back on Old Nick, now a withered and snow-drifted husk. As the night enfolded them, he added, “Merry Christmas.”