Last year I awoke just after midnight on Christmas morning, with my face wet and scalded. I had been crying in my sleep.
Before I fell asleep I had lit a candle. Now newly awake with my eyes still wet, the room seemed filled with a golden mist that felt warm against my sore cheeks. I sat up slowly and looked around. In the chair by the fire a man sat haloed in that gold.
He was a large man, almost too big for the small velvet chair, dressed in a dark scarlet suit with a long, lustrous beard the color of a magician's dove. The bright white beard appeared to be studded in sequins and curled softly up against his temples.
He was cleaning his glasses with their oval panes and plain metal frames. He looked over at me and smiled. "You were talking in your sleep," he said gently.
I nodded and got out of bed to sit at his feet by the fire. He had taken off his coal-black boots, still damp around the edges from the ice on our roof he told me. Their slick silver buckles gleamed in the fire's glow. His feet were wrapped in thick heavy stockings adorned with sickle moons. He wriggled his toes and sighed. He seemed very weary somehow and by my calculations he still had a ways to go around the globe before he could head on home.
"Would you like some coffee?," I asked him quietly, shyly, suddenly realizing his celebrity status and the utter importance of his being able to continue his arduous journey. He nodded and I moved to the stove in the corner, fingers shaking as I measured grounds into the pot and added water. When the coffee was done I brought two cups to the fire and handed him one.
From his pocket he retrieved two candy canes, one for each of us. We stirred the coffee with the peppermint canes and sat for a time in silence. Only the sound of the sleet on the window pane, like tiny diamonds falling, disturbed our reverie. Until the pitter-pattering began, a noise like someone river-dancing on the roof tiles above, a lovely rhythmic lullaby I could have fallen asleep to.
"Reindeer are getting restless," he said, taking a long draught of coffee His eyes were luminously translucent blue in the firelight, like ocean waves just before they touch the shore, like gorgeous stained glass. It was then I noticed what a beautiful man he was with his long eyelashes, soft mouth and perfect teeth. A single scar crisscrossed the dimple in his left cheek. It was with such sincerity that he touched my face.
"Would you like to meet the reindeer?," he asked me, bending to slip on his boots and lifting what looked like an ermine throw blanket off the back of the chair to slide across my shoulders in a gentle caress. "From my sleigh," he said.
We went to the back window that opened out onto the top of the old porch and climbed through. There they were in the wind, nine caribou, dusky-dark as semi-sweet chocolate, with the huge hooves of Clydesdales, snorting iridescent fog from their nostrils and dancing in the downpour. Each wore a twisted crown of antlers lined in tattered velvet as though they had been scraped upon the stars.
As if I were a child at the zoo, he handed me a fistful of carrots that had seemingly materialized out of thin air. "It's true," he told me, " and not a myth at all. Reindeer love carrots."
As I approached I saw myself in the mystery of their glossy eyes. Their snouts were soft against my fingers, satiny, silky. I giggled as their tongues kissed my skin. While they nibbled, the bronze bells that wreathed their necks jangled and sang. I could feel the music along my scalp and behind my eyelids. I began again to cry.
He put his arm around me then and tightened the blanket across my shoulders. "I am so sorry about your dog," he said. Our dog had just died recently, only 5 years old, still full of wonder and silly irrepressible willfulness, still in love with us and with his world. How in heaven did this man know that?
The sleet had suddenly changed to snow. Big white glittering flakes filled the air. "How did you know?," I asked him, breathless in the blizzard.
We climbed cautiously back down into the house and he led me to my bed and tucked me ever so tenderly under the covers.
"You didn't stop here because you were tired and needed a break, did you?"
"Not everyone wants a smart phone for Christmas or a Kindle or a tablet or a bunch of toys," he replied.
"Some want solace, don't they? And so you come and sit with them while they sleep," I told him.
"I thought your beard was full of stardust when I first woke up and saw you," I said. But now I knew that what I saw were tears.
"I am sorry about your dog," he told me again, blowing out the candle with a sweet hush of breath that closed my eyes and sent me slipping back into sleep.
And for many days and for many nights after that I was certain that he had only been a dream. Until I realized that my heart did not hurt nearly as much as it had before. And until I found the coffee-stained candy cane under the cushion of that velvet chair by the fire.