Tuesday, December 6, 2016

From The Christmas Crawl Space

Every Christmas when I was a child much of my extended family would gather at my grandparents' farm outside a small town in Illinois. We'd all trek there from various points around the Midwest. My own family would usually arrive early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, and many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived nearby would come out to the farm for dinner that night.

My grandparents had a big farmhouse. They'd raised seven children, so there was usually room for everybody. My uncle Dick, who had never married, still lived at home and helped my grandfather out around the farm. Dick was a bit of a drinker, and a big, jolly fellow.

One year when I suppose I was maybe five or six years old uncle Dick corralled all the kids --there were close to a dozen of us-- after our huge potluck dinner.

"Everybody get bundled up and come with me," he said. "I've got a big surprise to show you."

"Oh, Jesus, Dick," my grandfather said. "Go on and leave that thing alone."

It was already later than most of us were accustomed to staying up, and I remember it was a cold, clear night with a good deal of snow on the ground. After we'd all pulled on our boots and zipped ourselves into our snowsuits we headed out into the farmyard with uncle Dick. I imagine he'd had a few drinks by this point in the evening, and he had a big, hissing Coleman lantern that sent dark angles of shadow swaying before him as he walked. We followed him across the yard and along the fenceline that separated the feedlot from the fields, trudging through the snow and struggling in his tracks through the deep drifts.

Uncle Dick led us way back along the fence to the edge of the property line, where the corn field gave way to a wood lot, on the edge of which was a frozen dumping pond. He paused there and bent low to illuminate something in the snow. We all gazed with a combination of horror and wonder at a pink, hairless thing, wincing, glazed with ice, and curled up like a fat grub in a cradle of snow.

There was a sustained silence as we all crowded around for a closer look, the steam from our breath billowing in the lamplight.

"What is it?" somebody finally asked.

"That there is an elf fetus," uncle Dick said. "A dead little baby elf."

"What happened to it?" one of my cousins asked.

"Well, you know how it is with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve," Dick said. "He must have had an elf with him who went into premature labor, and when she squeezed out that baby they flung it over the side of the sleigh as they went flying by. That's how much Santa and his elves care about getting presents to you kids. On a night like this they're just too damn busy to fuss with a little baby elf when they're out buzzing around the world. They had to toss it overboard and go right on with their important business."

A couple of kids started to cry.

"Aw, don't you worry about a thing," Dick said. "There's more where that one came from. Them elves are like rabbits; they have babies all the time."

Someone suggested we bury the baby elf.

"Nah," Dick said. "Santa Claus will take care of it eventually, once he's done with his chores." He then reached down, grabbed the tiny creature by the head, and pitched it out onto the ice of the dumping pond.

And then we all followed Dick back along the fence to the house, our heads --or my head, certainly-- full of all sorts of disturbing images and questions.

The next morning I went out with my brother and some of my cousins to look for the elf, but --sure enough-- it was gone.

I think I believed in that dead little elf longer than I believed in Santa Claus, and it wasn't until a few years later that my older brother told me that what uncle Dick had shown us that night was actually a stillborn pig.

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