In which we witness the dodgy goings-on behind the scenes at the North American Aerospace Defence Command, visit the Christmassy but not so snowy Land of Hence and follow a flock of crows north to feast on edible domestic architecture.
Christmas Eve at NORAD
Everything in NORAD Commander Lieutenant-General Bucky Bungard’s office was big. He reclined in his massive desk chair with his gigantic feet on his enormous desk and watched the huge screen on the far wall, which was very big as well, even for a wall, which was expected to be big in the first place.
The movie on the screen was Dr. Strangelove, one of his favourites. It was coming up to the scene where Slim Pickens rides the warhead down as it descends over Moscow. Slim goes down toward glory a-whoopin’ and a-howlin’ all of the way, like a cowboy riding an apocalyptic buckin’ bronk. Lieutenant-General Bucky Bungard loved that scene with all of his heart. It was folk art. It was high art. It was goddam Americana. Even though the director was probably a hell-spawn commie homo Islamist. God worked in mysterious ways.
Canadian Air Force Major Wilfred Milk knocked and entered Bungard’s office.
“Paperwork, General,” Milk said. “Usual stuff. Thought I’d drop it off personally, rather than leaving it with your secretary, and wish you a Happy Christmas.”
General Bungard paused the movie with a remote. It was the scene where Slim Pickens was still in the weapons bay of the B-52, sitting on the bomb. “What’s on the radar screens?” Bungard said, steely-eyed.
“Nothing untoward, sir. Just the usual traffic.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means there’s nothing on the radar we should worry about. But then if there were, we’d have contacted you.”
“No, I mean that word – untoward. What the hell kinda word is that?”
“An English word, Sir,” Milk said, cautiously.
“You messing with me, Milk?”
“Goodness no, Sir.”
“I took English in school. I don’t remember untoward. It’s one of those words that contradict themselves, isn’t it.”
“You mean an oxymoron, Sir?”
“Yeah. One of them.”
“No sir. It’s impossible for a single word to contradict itself. An oxymoron is actually a figure of speech that positions apparently contradictory elements together ….”
“And what’s with that accent of yours, Major? I’ve been meaning to ask.”
“I wasn’t aware I had one, Sir.”
“That’s just it. You don’t. I thought all you Canadians were either French or British.”
“Well, I think you mean English, Sir, not British. British is more a term used to describe being of the United Kingdom. As far as the French and English languages are concerned, both are spoken with different accents and intonation in Canada than in their mother countries. My father is of English ancestry, but has no accent.”
“And your mother?”
“Your mother, man. Where’s she from?”
“No, dammit! Where are her people from?”
“Oh. Lithuania, Sir.”
“I flew over Lithuania once in a B-1 Bomber full of nukes. Didn’t look like much.”
“No, Sir. I don’t imagine it would have from up there.”
Milk stepped up to the desk now and held out the papers for Bungard to take. Realising too late just how massive the desk was, he leaned forward ever so slightly with his arm out straight in front of him and the weight of the stack of papers in his hand. Bungard remained unmoving in his colossal desk chair. They looked at one another for a moment. Then Bungard leaned forward toward Milk, but not to take the papers from his hand. Instead he said, “I’m re-evaluating NORAD’s role, Major.” Then he leaned back in his chair, put a cowboy hat on his head and lit a cigar.
“That’s fascinating, Sir,” Milk said with an awkward smile, still holding out the papers over the seemingly endless expanse of the General’s desk. Beads of sweat were forming on his upper lip. “Great year-end fun, eh?”
“Why should we have to monitor the skies over North America at such a great expense? Why not just create a no-fly zone.”
“Be bad for the ol’ economy I imagine, Sir. And we’d still have to monitor it, perhaps even more than now.”
“We’d have to monitor it at first, but that’ll all be over after we shoot down a few planes. A couple passenger jets to show our resolve. A stray unauthorised Chinese cargo plane. Something Russian, maybe.”
“That sounds like a very bad idea, Sir.”
“Most good ideas sound bad at first. That is until they’re executed and the world sees their genius.”
“I see,” Milk said, still leaning forward over the desk with his arm outstretched and the pile of papers in his hand. “I wonder, would you take these papers please? I’m afraid this is getting rather painful.”
the Land of Hence
Children believe in it, hence the land exists. That explains the name: the Land of Hence. It is perhaps an over use of one particular word, hence in this case, in the first two sentences of an introductory paragraph, but it does get us off to the right start. And that is to emphasise that the existence of the Land of Hence is indisputable, and that it is appropriately named. Who named it thus? Likely as not, some incorrigible discoverer of places whose own name is now lost in a world of cast-aside things. So, we’ll ignore that question and move on to the intended story.
Klaus looked out of the bevelled, leaded glass windows that separated the sunlight into prismatic colours on the floor at his feet. He drew on his pipe. Smoking was considered wrong these days, but what could he do? He was a nicotine addict. He had been for centuries. And he loved the sweet and mild Kentucky Cavendish he had sent in from the Dire World outside.
Through the window, he observed the retreating ice and snow. Even the Land of Hence was affected by the phenomena of global warming. Global warming had transformed the elegant year-round white expanse once visible through the window. Now, most of the year, it was gravel and a few icy pools of melt water. His once inaccessible, snowbound land of magical elves and flying reindeer now looked like a roadhouse parking lot. And the Dire World’s rejection of almost everything enchanted and mysterious had reduced him to mere memory. A vastly exploited memory that rescued whole economies at the end of every November. He let his pipe go out.
There was much on his mind these days. Things changed so rapidly in the Dire World. But the Land of Hence resisted change. The elves would only make toys of wood and tin, and refused to build anything with a microchip. And oh how they squabbled! Klaus recalled a recent exchange between Roger Elf, a poet, and Daphne Elf, an accordionist. What a lonesome and antisocial pursuit poetry is, Daphne had said to Roger. Not as lonesome and antisocial as playing the accordion must be, replied Roger. Daphne Elf then clobbered Roger Elf with a rolled up yoga mat which made Roger morose and uncommunicative for the whole of the spring.
Now Klaus himself was under pressure to lose weight. Not for personal health reasons – he was immortal, after all. But for branding purposes. Plump was out. Thin was in vogue. The Dire World was obsessed with good and bad cholesterol and the body mass index. Children sat on their rear ends all day gawking at computer screens. How could an obese bearer of gifts be a good example?
And then there were the reindeer. All of them refusing to fly round the planet another year. Klaus felt his grasp on Christmas slipping.
Was it worth fighting for, he wondered. It was just a festive bit of forgery. Christ was born in the spring, not December. The Church simply stole a pagan holiday to sell its stunted dogma. So much for the eighth commandment. The Dire World even got the reindeer names wrong. Did they ask him for their real names? No, they relied on a poem by an anonymous author. If they’d just shown the common courtesy to consult, he’d have told them that the names aren’t Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. No, not at all! The actual reindeer names are Sid, Nancy, Norman, Daryl, Gwendolyn, Vickie, Morrie and Jessica. And now Sid, Nancy, Norman, Daryl, Gwendolyn, Vickie, Morrie and Jessica wanted to skip the Christmas run all together.
It was Sid who started it all, claiming that the event had been stripped of all meaning ever since 1955 when NORAD began tracking them by radar every Christmas Eve. How long would it be, Sid asked, before the warmongers at NORAD scrambled fighters by mistake and blew them out of the sky. And maybe he was right. Why should they be immune? Just look at the US drones that were dropping on Pakistani wedding parties.
And then there was the issue of animal rights. Where, asked Nancy, whenever she had a chance, does the world get off expecting reindeer to fly the globe every Christmas Eve for the sole reason of human gratification? Don’t reindeer possess the right to self-determination? And what was the benefit to reindeer of spending all of Christmas Eve flying and stopping, flying and stopping, so Klaus could go on a worldwide break-and-entry spree by shoehorning himself down the planet’s chimneys and exhaust conduits? Surely for any reindeer, the time would be better spent pursuing opportunities for personal growth and spiritual betterment. They weren’t just common reindeer, after all. They were magical. They were self-aware.
Things were no longer how they’d been, that was for sure. Klaus sighed deeply and considered once again his doctor’s recommendation of a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor.
It is not the fault of crows that enchanted vortexes exist that might carry them into regions that they would otherwise never visit. It is also worth mentioning that crows are up for whatever misdirected adventures come their way as a result of an encounter with such a vortex, especially if that adventure involves the discovery of tasty bits of food and shiny bits of stuff to pilfer. So, when the flock to which Tibbit crow girl belonged took flight out of Vancouver that December 24th morning and ultimately found itself having been transported quite far north and into the Land of Hence, none of the crows thought much of it. They simply came to perch like a murder of black spectres on the snowy ridge of the steeply pitched roof and smoky red brick chimneys of the Klaus house, and calmly observed the coloured fairy lights and breathed the gingerbread air.
“This be a strange place,” Tibbit crow girl’s mother rattled as she shifted from claw to claw. She marvelled at the aurora borealis above the unchanging twilight. “I think we turned wrong more than once during this flight.”
“It’s pretty,” cooed Tibbit. “But I’m hungry. Where is the food?”
“I smell it on the air,” cooed her mother. “There be something nearby.”
It was then that they saw a flock of white ravens with golden eyes fly above them in the sky. “Greetings, sister and brother crows,” they cawed. “There is food for all of you where we fly.” And they proceeded toward a distant wood.
“What be the food in those woods?” Tibbit’s mother cawed, suspicious of ravens.
“This is the Land of Hence,” the white ravens cackled. “Come there and see what waits.”
“Raven tricks,” Tibbit’s mother rattled.
But Tibbit cooed, “I’m going to see.” And she flew off after the white ravens with golden eyes.
In a moment, her flock followed and they flew dark against the northern lights until they reached the woods and saw a house there made of salted pretzels logs with a chocolate shingled roof. It was decorated with candy cane columns, gum drops and colourful marzipan wreaths, and it stood behind a wall of rock candy. Tibbit saw there was light coming out of the windows. And as the ravens and crows descended, a smallish bearded man and an equally smallish but unbearded woman in a crumpled pointy blue hats came out of the front door. The smallish bearded man shook one fist and held a torch in the other, while the smallish but unbearded woman wept hysterically.
“Blast you ravens,” cursed the smallish bearded man. “You’ll eat me out of house and home. Again!”
“But you build such tasty homes,” the ravens cackled, as they tucked in.
The crows stood back a moment and watched. The smallish man ran at the ravens and waved his torch at them, hoping to scare them off. But there were too many. Each raven he attacked simply moved out of his way as he approached and then resumed munching when he moved on to attack the next.
They feasted on the house and the PEZ brick chimney. They pecked at the colourful marzipan wreaths, the tasty chocolate roof shingles and the candy cane columns. And they nibbled blissfully at the salted pretzel logs and gnawed on the Jolly Rancher stained glass windows. The crows soon jumped in and feasted along side. When the outer walls fell and the roof was gone, they found inner rooms full of overstuffed marzipan and marshmallow furniture, beds and easy chairs, and fat pillows made of Turkish delight. There were china cabinets and sideboards made of hard crack caramel and a peanut brittle fireplace. There were pieces of candy art in dark chocolate frames and gaudy vases of spun sugar. There were gummy fish in the pantry, along with bushels of candy corn. In the end, all that was left was liquorice whip carpets on the peppermint floorboards and the birds ate all of them too.
The white ravens with golden eyes flew away when the house was gone, but Tibbit perched in a tree with her flock. They quietly watched the smallish couple, who now sat on stumps staring at the empty space where once their house had stood. Tibbit wondered if filling her belly was worth leaving them both homeless. She flew down to speak with them.
“I’m sorry we ate your house, mister,” Tibbit cawed apologetically. “But it was very delicious. Perhaps it was a mistake to build it using such appetising building materials.”
“They said it was a mistake building the first edible house,” the smallish woman said, now staring at her husband with vicious squintiness. “Someone’s bound to come along and eat it, they said. But did he listen? Noooooo! He went and built it anyway. And guess what, someone came along and ate it, that’s what. And when he said he’d build another one after that, everyone said that he was a total nutbar. But did he listen then? Noooooo! He just went ahead and did it again.”
“But it was cheaper to build a pretzel and candy house,” the smallish bearded man said. “There’s so much of those things roundabouts in the Land of Hence.”
“What good is that, though?” the smallish woman snapped. “Now we’re homeless again. Oh, what ever shall we do?” She buried her face in her hands and wept.
“I guess we’ll return to Elf Manor at the Klaus Compound.”
“You said we were done with that, that we had a right to our freedom and autonomy. I’ve had enough of stitching doll clothes and painting eyes on rocking horses twelve hours a day. And what kind of living is it? Three meals a day, sure. A warm bed, sure. But are there any real wages? Any benefits? None! We’ll be Klaus’ slaves again, if we go back.”
“But Klaus doesn’t make any money to pay us,” said the smallish bearded man.
“Well,” said the smallish woman, “for him it’s a nice hobby, isn’t it. It’s a nice way to guiltlessly pass his immortality. For us, on the other hand, it’s slavery.”
“Oh, there’s that word again,” the smallish bearded man sighed.
“It’s the non-ownership of our personal labour,” the smallish woman continued. “It’s a civil association in which one individual has complete power over another and controls his or her life, independence, and fortune. And are you prepared to tell me that there’s nothing linking slavery with sexism, racism and heteronormativity. In the end, it’s all about bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism. And what are the antecedents of this little arrangement? Which of our smallish ancestors decided one day, Oh! I’d truly enjoy performing a jolly bit of unpaid labour for an obese obsessive compulsive with a fondness for tight sooty places and who practices a perverse form of second-story work. And why are we expected to tolerate it? For the milk and cookies?”
“The milk and cookies are nice,” said the smallish bearded man dreamily.
“You’re wearing me out, Arlo,” said the smallish woman.
“That’s not my intention, Lilibeth.”
“I’m not going back.”
“Well we have to go back tonight,” said Arlo. “We have nowhere to live. I’ll have to rebuild.” Arlo thought a moment, rubbing his chin. “Hmmm,” he said. “This time, maybe I can use Marmite and saltines.”
“Okay, Frank Lloyd Wright,” Lilibeth said, taking Arlo by the ear. “We’ll go back to Elf Manor tonight, but only because we’re homeless and it’s Christmas Eve. Tonight at least Klaus won’t be conning us into schlepping for him. But the day after tomorrow, we contact a proper architect.”
Tibbit crow girl’s flock took off and flew above Lilibeth and Arlo as they walked across a once snowy, now gravely, landscape toward the Klaus Compound. And when the two smallish people entered the silvery gates, the flock perched all round on the walls, roofs and chimneys.