My name is Vladimir Berchov and I am not Norwegian, I am Canadian. I married a Norway girl I met in college and moved to that country. We had studied to become scientists and scientists we became. Norway sent us to a station in Antarctica to dig in the snow and study core samples.
We spent our first year together at the bottom of the world, pulling samples and making friends. It was a happy time for us. We loved the snow. We loved the cold. In June Inga discovered that she was pregnant. In late November we discovered a new life form in one of the core samples, you could see it on the side of the sample, still moving alive, a crab of some sort with ten legs and a bell-shaped body, right in time for the Christmas season, so we christened it a Clausite. We named our particular Clausite Santa.
Our late-season discovery put us behind schedule. As the rest of our team was packing up and boarding flights out for the winter, we were tagging and cataloguing and dealing with malfunctioning equipment. We just had to say goodbye to them and remain behind, but Olav the pilot promised to return for us. He did, but he found us still trying to fix the machinery. We couldn’t bring in the core with Santa in it because the core had to be carefully thawed out and the warming unit in the room where that was to happen simply would not work.
Olav couldn’t wait forever. The weather service reported a storm on the way. We were about to tell him that he would just have to leave us, when Inga started having birth pains. I had to say goodbye to my love on December 8 and remain behind, alone.
I watched the Piper fly off, dried my eyes, then went inside to work on the warming room, that’s when the blizzard hit.
For two straight weeks the wind blew hard and the snow fell. My little station was buried until the snow covered the roof. I had never seen so much of the stuff. Now I understood why the windows were small and thick, like ship windows. I received word through the radio that Inga had our baby, a girl named Noelle, then the radio went silent.
I never felt so alone, locked up in my tomb of white. I had days, weeks to spend, and soon the days and nights blurred together. I played all the board games and card games I found in one of the closets, wrote poetry which I am very bad at, and spent a lot of time in the weight room. I tried making new and unusual foods for the many meals. And I spent hours lying on my cot, thinking about Inga and imagining what Noelle was like. Inga barely had time to describe the baby to me but I knew she had blonde hair and green eyes.
One long day, after I set up the dominos in a long and elaborate line, then knocked them all down, I decided to see how the weather was faring. I could not open the front door, but there was a hatch in the ceiling above a ladder built into the wall so I raised it, shook my hair as some powdery snow fell in, and looked out. The white was blinding as the sun shone bright. Nothing but snow in every direction, with the mountains in the near distance like sentinels guarding the emptiness. The lonesome sound of the frozen wind did nothing to raise my spirits. Christmas was only a week away, and for the first time in my life I would spend it alone.
The warming room was not cooperating with my efforts. I was no mechanic, but I put in my best efforts, stared at all of those controls and electronics, threw up my hands, and let out a loud, guttural yell. Nobody could hear me. Why not? Back to the living quarters I went.
I decided to decorate, but the station was always closed at Christmas, so there weren’t any festive trees or decorations squirreled away in a storage room. I would have to improvise. I searched the facility for castoff items I could turn festive.
I made my tree from some metal paneling I remembered that had been left leaning against a shed outdoors. That meant more hours of digging in snow before I could pull the frozen metal out, then leave it for a while to thaw, hit it with a hammer until it bent into a tree shape. I knew enough about riveting that I could attach the metal pieces together and make the oddest looking Christmas tree I ever did see. But it was my tree, and that was enough.
For decorations I used some of the emergency light bulbs. I told myself I would return them to their sockets once Christmas was over, long before the crew would return. I had orange, blue, white, and a lot of red. I found some colored copier paper in a back closet, cut the sheets into narrow pieces, taped them into circles and attached those together to make garlands, the way we used to do in grade school. I crumpled up paper and foil from the kitchen into balls, then taped them onto the tree.
With the tree done, my next task was to decorate the rest of the facility, and this I did. Soon the station was as Christmasy as it could get. Macy’s would be proud. I lay on the floor, admiring my work. It was Christmas Eve.
With communications systems down, I had missed my chance to buy Inga a gift. I had my eyes on a set of gold earrings I saw on the web, but when I finally was ready to buy … poof, no internet. I had nothing for her, no way to leave anything with her on the holiday. This depressed me. That evening I lay in bed, the window covered to keep out the constant light, and imagined my newborn baby.
I couldn’t sleep. For two hours I lay there, trying to sleep but sleep wouldn’t come. At midnight I looked at the clock and saw 00:00. “Merry Christmas,” I muttered with no emotion.
Then I heard a sound.
Were those hooves hitting the roof above me? I sat up and rubbed my tired eyes. Perhaps I had lost too much sleep, but I had only been up since ten a.m., only about fourteen hours. That was not the recipe for hallucinating.
There, I heard it again, unmistakable. Something was clomping around up there.
I sat up in my cot and put on my slippers. I didn’t feel the need to dress for company. This wasn’t exactly either a normal home or the Ritz Carlton. I also didn’t feel the need to grab a shotgun. I didn’t believe in yetis and I didn’t think gang members or criminals traveled this far south. No, I would meet up with whoever and whatever it was completely unprepared.
I crossed the room and opened the door, scratched an itch on my lower back, and stepped over to the ladder, climbed it, and opened the hatch. The wind blew against it, making it a chore to push open, but it lifted, and the light flooded the ladder and I had to cover my eyes. I couldn’t see anything for a moment, but what I heard was completely unbelievable.
“Ho, Ho, Ho!”
All right, now I knew that somebody was playing a trick on me. Even if there was a Santa Claus, which I knew couldn’t be, then why would the big man come this far south? There wasn’t a deserving (or undeserving) child for probably more than a thousand miles in any direction. Didn’t he have his home and workshop at the North Pole?
My eyes adjusted to the light, and I gazed through the spaces between my fingers. I saw black, buckled boots and a red pair of snowpants.
The wearer of those boots leaned over and looked straight at me. I could see grey eyes and signs of a white beard, but he wore a ski mask, so it was hard to see much else.
“You had better get back down inside in those PJs, it’s eighty below up here.” The man had a jolly demeanor even when he spoke serious, or maybe that was just my imagination playing on old clichés.
The cold hit me like a bomb. I ignored my shock and started back down, closing the hatch behind, but a thick, black-gloved hand stopped it from closing and that jolly voice called down, “Mind if I come down there too?”
I yelled, “Sure!” knowing I shouldn’t just trust him but trusting anyway. He was the first human I had seen in almost a month.
When I reached the bottom of the ladder, I stepped back and watched him come down. I still couldn’t believe my eyes. An expansive white beard poked out from below the ski mask and a red hood attached to his coat. Once off the ladder he removed the mask and revealed rosy cheeks and a warm smile.
“Ho, ho, ho!” His entire body shook with the laughter. “I’m sorry about the ski mask. It’s just too cold out there to leave my skin exposed. I can’t be catching frostbite on the busiest night of my year.”
I asked a question I felt stupid to ask. “Are you Santa?”
“That’s what most people call me,” the jolly man answered with a wink. “My real name is Chris Kringle.”
Yes, I had heard that one. A part of me still thought this was some kind of an elaborate joke, but I couldn’t figure out who would go to such lengths to make me look like a fool. All I could do was play along.
“What brings you to my humble station, a thousand miles away from the nearest child?”
Santa crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “I am so glad you asked, Vladimir.” Now I suspected he was fake. How could he know my name? “I’m afraid that Rudolph caught a sickness and so I had to set off without him. I’m afraid my flashlight is no match for the storm to our north. Then again, everything is to our north, right? Anyway, I was blown off course. Yes, not including little Noelle, the nearest child is 3,500 miles away, but I often fly over Antarctica. It saves time when traveling from Argentina to Australia, and there’s no air traffic down here.”
“What do you mean, ‘not including Noelle?” I asked.
Santa smiled wide. “Come on, let’s go to the kitchen. I’m thirsty and hankering for a cup of milk. Got any cookies?”
Of course we had cookies; the boring Dutch kind. “What about your reindeer? Aren’t they gonna die in eighty below weather?”
Santa laughed. “They’re reindeer, my man! Don’t worry, I have ways to keep them warm.”
That’s all I needed to know. I hadn’t actually seen reindeer up there. I hadn’t been up there long enough in my Snoopy pajamas, so I let it go. I led him to the commissary where I poured him a cup of milk and set a plate of cookies. Santa snacked on one. “Ah, I love those Dutch. They make such delicious cookies. Oh, I love what you’ve done to the place. Quite festive.”
I poured myself a vodka tonic, sat down across from him and just stared. What does one say to Santa Claus? I figured out some reasonable conversation.
“So, how do you reach every home in one night?” I asked.
“Well,” he started between munches, “there’s the time zone issue, so really the night is twenty-four hours long. I don’t have many stops in the Muslim countries and some of the other non-Christian nations. The reindeer are really fast …” he paused. “But the biggest saving of my time is the fact that very few people actually believe in me.”
I took a big swig of my drink upon hearing this. “I’m afraid you have to explain that better.”
“No problem, Vlad. You see, in olden times I had a daunting job, delivering millions of gifts to millions of children. That was the Nineteenth Century, when people would believe just about anything, and my job got harder as the population grew, but along with that growth came a cynicism about old traditions, and a belief in logic and proof. Parents didn’t believe I would come down the chimney with a sack of gifts anymore yet they still loved the mythology of it. They still wanted their children to have that sense of wonder. So the parents began to do my job for me. They would fill the stockings. They would buy the gifts then wrap them and label them as from me. Imagine it, Vladimir. Someone else pulls your core samples, studies them, and marks the discoveries as being from you.”
My jaw dropped.
“Pretty sweet, eh? There’s no way I could deliver gifts to the five billion children of the world in one night. Instead I only have to deliver five hundred million, to the kids with parents who don’t care, or who don’t have parents. Still a lot of gifts, but I manage.”
“Shouldn’t you be out there delivering those five hundred million gifts?” I asked.
Santa finished his last cookie and took a big gulp of milk. “Yes. That. Vlad, I am here because I had to come here in order to fulfill one of my gifts.”
I downed the rest of my drink and felt just a little woozy. “What … gift is that?”
The big man stood up. He was all about action now. “Come on. Let’s get your warming room working. We have a new species trapped in a core sample. Which way do I go?”
The idea of having the warming room issue solved made me forget my previous unanswered questions. I led Chris Kringle to the warming room, where he had a quick look at the malfunctioning electrical panel. “Ah yes. You know Jakob (our electrician) would have had this fixed in five minutes.” Santa began moving wires around. “Of course, he wasn’t here when it broke down. You have a knife or scissors?” I grabbed a pair I knew were lying nearby. “Thank you. There.” Suddenly the lights of the room turned back on and the heater hummed to life. “Now we just have to get Santa the Clausite in here. I love the name, by the way. Don’t know too many people who have a mollusk named after them.”
I had to say something. “Actually, crabs are not mollusks. They’re crustaceans. In order to be a mollusk …”
Santa waved me away. “Yeah yeah. Of course. But I’ll have to study up on crustaceans on the other 364 days of the year. I’ve got a route to run. Come on, where’s the crustacean?”
“I don’t know if we can reach him. He’s buried under snow in one of the outbuildings.”
A great big grin painted the big man’s face. “You’re talking to the expert on snow. Come on. We’re going above, but you’ll need to dress a little warmer than that.”
Santa tucked his expansive white beard back under his ski mask. I went back into the living quarters and put on some warm clothes, then a parka, boots, and thick gloves. We climbed up the ladder and opened the hatch. Snow was blowing hard. I saw the shadows of reindeer and heard one blowing out a stream of air. “Are you sure they’re all right?” I asked.
Santa gave me a look. “This way?” he asked, pointing in a direction. I had to get my bearings in the wintry outerworld. Once I did, I knew he was spot on.
“Yes,” I mumbled.
“Alrighty then!” he shouted, ready for business, and started footing it in that direction, ten feet, before he suddenly sunk down deep into the snow. I stepped over and gazed down the hole he’d made. He wasn’t there.
“Come on down!” I heard his voice.
I shook my head, then let myself down into the hole. Santa was tunneling on ahead. “You’re really something!” I called.
“Just part of the job,” he answered. “You should see some of the places I have to deliver to. It’s given me a lot of talents through the years.”
Yes, he was a tunneling pro. He had us the ten feet to the outbuilding in ten minutes. By this time I no longer had a doubt that I was with the real deal. I had seen things in the last hour that I had never dreamed of before. If there ever was a Santa, this guy had to be him.
“Made it!” he called. “Just have to clear the door.” Snow flew behind him, then … “You remembered the key, right?” I hadn’t. Twenty minutes later, after searching all through the station for the key, then finding it in my pants pocket in the laundry, he had the door open. I grabbed the core sample and we made our way back to the warming room.
Once the crustacean was safely returning to room temperature, Santa turned to me and said, “Now we must go.”
“I can’t just leave that guy.” I pointed to the core sample.
“He’ll be fine, believe me. I need you to bring a GPS, okay?”
I chose to believe Santa Claus. He led me back up to his sleigh. For the first time I had a clear view of it, along with the reindeer. It was the largest sleigh I had ever seen, a four-seater with a trailer attached and the largest red sack I had ever seen just bulging with presents.
“You have five hundred million gifts back there?” I asked.
“I have five hundred back there. When I need more, I radio the elves and they dump them into the Transporter One.”
“The Transporter One?” I asked.
“Tesseract technology. I learned about it from the Andromedans. They gave me the Transporter One. Thank God it’s lasted all these years. There’s no way I could do my job without it.”
Santa gave me a side glance. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you about that.” He motioned for me to get in the sleigh. I did, and he sat in the driver’s seat.
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
“I love that poem,” he added, “but I don’t usually say all that.” He slapped the reins and we took off. Those reindeer really could fly. We were soon rushing through the air, the snow flying all around, blocking sight of anything else. We should have been freezing cold, way up high in Antarctic air, yet something kept the wind from hitting us full force.
“Why isn’t the cold air hitting us?” I asked.
“Reindeer breath!” Santa yelled, then added, “Ho Ho Ho!”
“Reindeer breath?” I stammered.
“Yes! It’s obvious these aren’t your average reindeer, right?”
I couldn’t argue with that. “Well, no. I don’t think your average reindeer flies.”
“Right! In order to fly, these guys burn a lot of calories, and they breathe pretty hard. All that hot air coming out of their mouths does a great job of keeping me from dying of frostbite up here.”
“But why doesn’t it stink? It smells like candy canes and sugar plums.”
Santa laughed. “What do you think I feed them? And do you even know what a sugar plum smells like?”
“I don’t even know what a sugar plum is.”
We both laughed.
“Hold on tight, we’re coming in for a landing.”
“So soon?” I grasped the back of my seat.
“Yes. Our first stop, and your last, is the main American station on Antarctica.”
Santa said no more. He deftly handled those reins so that I didn’t need to hold on. We flew in smooth and steady like an eagle on a pond. The runners soon touched snow and slowed to a stop. He motioned for me to get off.
“Shouldn’t you grab a gift or something?” I asked as he headed straight for the main building’s door.
“My man!” he called back. “You’re the gift!”
He stopped by the door, waited for me to come near, then opened it and motioned for me to go inside.
I stopped before entering. “You gotta do better than that.”
Santa smiled. “Your wife had her baby here, Vlad. She hoped and prayed that you would be able to be with her and Noelle for Christmas. I merely helped answer her prayer. Goodbye, my friend. It has been a pleasure meeting you.”
Santa stepped away from the door and disappeared into the blizzard. I looked back, but could see nothing but driving snow, then came the sound of his shouts. “Now Dasher, Now Dancer, Now Donner and Blitzen! Ho Ho Ho!” and his voice faded with the sound of the sleigh bells.
I knew I had a goofy grin on my face and tried to wipe it off before I stepped into the American station. I closed the door behind me and listened, but only heard the hum of a generator. I walked deeper into the concrete building. My watch told me it was four a.m. A little early for anyone to be stirring. Santa had used up a lot of time on me but I had a feeling that time, to him, was relative. All I could do was explore, and explore I did. This station was similar to our own, only everything was in English. It was a little more modern and much larger, like the main Norwegian station. I found the commissary, and a bored man was firing up the oven.
“Who are you?” he asked, still bored.
“My name’s Vladimir Berchov. I’m Canadian, in from the Norwegian station.”
“How the hell did you get here through that slop?” He shrugged in the direction of outside.
“I … uh … I got a ride.”
“Jesus! Who drove you through that?” “I don’t think I really know.”
The man looked sideways at me. He had massive arms and a bald head, but he was short. Something softened his stare, and he let me off the hook. “Merry Christmas, Vlad. What are you here for?” He finished with the oven and stepped away, then turned and walked to the refrigerator.
“Is there an Inga Berchov here?”
“A who?” he asked as he opened the freezer and pulled out some eggs.
“Inga Berchov, she’s my wife. She had our baby here a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh!” he lit up. “The mom! Yes! She’s sleeping with the baby!”
“Do you know where?” “I’ll have to show you. By the way, my name’s John. John Cohen.”
He didn’t look to me like a John Cohen, but then I wouldn’t be able to tell you what a John Cohen looked like anyway. He led me down a long hall to the living quarters, then opened a door. There lay my Inga, sleeping on a thin mattress with a baby held close in her arms. I gently nudged her awake, careful not to wake the baby.
Inga looked up at me with her deep blue eyes, said my name wistfully, then asked, “How did you get here?”
“Santa Claus brought me,” I said.
She smiled and whispered, “you’re never going to tell me, are you?”
“I just did,” I smiled back.
Inga motioned for me to come close. She kissed my cheek then silently pointed to a nearby bed. “Get some rest,” she said. “We’ll talk about it in the morning. Merry Christmas, Honey.”
For years I told the story of how Santa brought me back to my wife and baby. Noelle has babies of her own now, and I tell them the story. I don’t think Noelle believes it anymore but she listens and loves it all the same. There’s no better Christmas story she knows.