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"THE NINTH REINDEER"

Written by Mason McDonald

Poppy’s cabin was my favourite place in the world. Many of the best moments of my life happened there. I learned to swim in the lake at the bottom of the overgrown path that elbowed behind it. I had my first kiss with Kimmy Collins behind the old beat-up Ford Poppy kept parked by the side of the cabin. We huddled together, soaked from swimming, laughing, neither of us knowing what we were doing, and then her daddy came looking for her and caught us. He owned the nearest cabin about 2km away. He and Poppy would sometimes swap beers and hunting stories at the end of the lane where their drives met. I learned to drive in Mom’s old Buick on the dirt road that connected the two. When Poppy was sick, I went to visit him there, and he taught me how to wind his ancient gold pocket watch. When I asked why, on my last visit, he slipped it into my hand and closed my fingers around it. He told me his father had brought it back from Germany. “He brought the watch but left his soul,” he said, his face sunken and pale. He wanted to give it to Mom, but he said this was something shared between fathers and sons, of which he had one but not the other. I learned to wind it and I wore it in my breast pocket when we scattered his ashes over the lake.

It wasn’t always summer at the cabin, although that is when we spent the most time there. Every year we all battled through the snow and wind, and Poppy opened up the shutters and got the wood stove going, and we spent Christmas Eve gathered there. Mom would bring trays of cookies shaped like trees and little men, and Aunt Carol would always bring eggnog. We’d laugh and pretend it was a big surprise when Poppy’d bust out his bottle of whisky and toss some in the bowl. When I was a kid he’d pour me a glass first before adding the liquor, or Mom would do it ahead of time, but when I was sixteen—the year of Mom’s Buick with the sticky transmission—he told me I was old enough.

“Don’t tell your mother,” he said and splashed some in my cup. It tasted like gasoline and pancake batter.

Gathered around the wood stove, we’d exchange presents. My cousins and I would play with our toys while Mom, Carol, and the other adults drank and watched and told stories under the same flashing red and green bulbs Poppy would put up every year. They glowed softly and made the rough wood planks of the walls look alien and out of this world. The tree in the corner would be decorated in assorted ornaments, most from before my birth. Poppy would go and chop it down and drag it inside himself the day before. As I got older, and indeed I was the oldest of the grandkids and still the only boy outside of the husbands, I started to ask Poppy if I could go up to the cabin the day before with him and help out. I thought I could stay the night and we would sit up late, sharing tumblers of whisky while the snow blasted the cabin walls and windows, and the fire burned and crackled, and Poppy would tell me about his time at the steel plant, or the time he and Donnie Bracks broke into the Junior High School and got drunk in the gymnasium playing floor hockey at three in the morning, or he’d tell stories from his childhood when his father was overseas “fightin’ Hitler.”

He always told me no. He’d say this was something he did by himself, no offence to me or anyone else. Just something he had to do.

His last year, the sick year, he relented. He just couldn’t handle it by himself anymore.

Poppy’s last year was hard. Christmas was three months after the doctors told us the tumor couldn’t be removed and it would eat the rest of his brain in a matter of weeks, and it was three months before he died. Right in the middle. Like every year, the whole family was heading up to the cabin. We all knew it was his last year. Aunt Carol would shake her head at this and tell us all to stop being so negative, that Poppy was a fighter. But I think even she knew, deep down. Poppy got worse by the day. Sometimes his fingers wouldn’t work in unison the way he needed them too. Other days, he could only move his left leg. Once he told Mom that every time he tried to say yellow, for an entire week, he’d say green. He knew he meant yellow, knew what he was trying to say and what he was seeing, but his mouth would only perform green.

That year I went up early with him and chopped down the tree, loading it into the cabin. I ended up decorating the entire place for him, clearing the snow and the ice, and bringing in the rotted firewood from the shed out front. I cleaned the place up, aired it out, and got it ready for everyone.

“You didn’t have to come,” Poppy said. “I’d’ve gotten it all eventually.”

“I know Poppy, I know you would.”

He wouldn’t, though, but we both knew the words we said were just words and there weren’t secrets between us regarding this. He was dying, I was his blood, this is what we did.

We stayed up late that night. We sipped whisky, listened to the snow, watched the embers, and Poppy told stories. He got tired easily in those final days, so he asked me if I had any good ones. I laughed and said maybe I did.
Just a couple.

I told him about Kimmy Collins and he just about keeled over from laughing when I got to the part about Mr. Collins putting the run on me. He slapped his knee and turned red, the whole bit. “I can see ol’ Barney now!” Poppy exclaimed. “Running down the drive all outta breath! Aha!”

We exchanged stories until the bottle was almost empty. The fire started to die down and I was ready to call it a night. Poppy was slumped in his chair, his glass almost toppling out of his hand. I reached for it, preparing to put him to bed for the night, when he stopped me.

“Toss another on there,” he nodded at the fire and then to his glass, “and top me up. I got another for you, and this is a good one.”

“Poppy, I think it’s time we call it.” I tried to take the glass again and he yanked it back, clutching it to his chest like a petulant child, and stared up at me with his striking blue eyes that had long ago lost their shine and turned a milky shade the colour of December evenings.

“I said I got a good one,” he growled.

What some people don’t know about mind degeneration, whether it be dementia or Alzheimer’s or a brain tumor, is that sometimes, especially at night, it can play with their emotions and turn them sour. Sometimes downright mean. I’d learned with Poppy, who didn’t have a mean bone in his body before the cancer, it was best to ride these episodes out.

“Okay,” I said and poured us both another drink. I tossed another small log into the fire and sat back down in the wooden rocking chair that mirrored his. “Go on, then.”

The story was short, but it wasn’t sweet. By the end, my glass was still full and I was as chilled as the frosted window panes.

Nanny died young. I knew this. She was like Dad and went away long before she should have. Poppy was left with two young daughters to care for and not a ton of help in doing so. Times were tough for a long while. Eventually though, he found his stride, hit that perfect work-life balance, and things started to get better. Much better, he said. He got a promotion at the plant, could afford to properly pay for a sitter, and he saved up enough money over time to buy the cabin, something he and Nanny always dreamed of doing.

It was perfect. Nestled in the birches and pines of Eastern Nova Scotia, covered in blueberry bushes and mayflowers, it resembled something from a fairy tale. Of course it was in rough shape and he spent a good enough amount of time fixing it up, but it was his, it was theirs, and it was all they needed.

The first summer there wasn’t much of a vacation. Poppy spent it on a ladder patching holes in the roof with nails stuck in his teeth like the smokes he gave up after lung cancer took his wife, and on his back in the dirt with the worms under the floor as he fixed the meagre plumbing and replaced dry-rotted boards. Mom was almost a teenager by then and she spent her summer vacation taking care of Carol while Poppy worked. It wasn’t a miserable time for them, but it wasn’t a perfect vacation either. There wasn’t much swimming or hiking. It was all work.

This is how the Christmas tradition started. There were never plans to winter at the cabin, it wasn’t designed to hold heat. It was built, as are most cabins in the Maritimes, as a summer getaway. In the winter, the place would chill you to the bone and freeze your blood solid. Yet, Poppy felt he owed his girls something.

Christmas in an honest-to-God Winter Wonderland sounded like just what they needed. He would call the sitter over for a few nights and tell them he had a work trip. Never mind he’d never had a work trip before in his life, he was a steelworker for Christ’s sake, but they wouldn’t know any better. He’d go up to the cabin and really make the place come alive. He imagined string lights hanging from the eaves and dancing through the rungs of the front porch. Candy cane torches lining the walk and the soft gentle glow of a neatly decorated tree inside. The snow on the trees and the roof would tie it all together. It would be like a snow globe, he’d thought. Just like a Christmas snow globe.

“Like a snow globe,” Poppy said and swirled the last of his whisky around in his glass before downing it in one big, final gulp. “Then the damn deer showed up.”

On his first night there, he worked well past midnight. The snow had fallen the previous day and luckily had subsided to just flurries by then. The air was still freezing cold and the wind could tear through even the thickest jacket and rip at your flesh, but after he’d been out in it for a few hours, he’d effectively gone numb to it.

It was out in the cold, with the wind snapping at his neck as he hammered the steel pegs of the candy cane torches into the frozen ground, when he first saw the deer.

Around here, the only deer you tend to see are whitetail. And with that, they’re mostly does or fawns, rarely a buck if you weren’t out tracking one. So when Poppy saw the silhouette of long, twisted antlers flashing in and out from the dancing lights he’d lined the cabin with, it took him by surprise.

What surprised him even more was when the deer walked further into view, circling around the front of the cabin and breaking free from the branches, it revealed itself not to be a deer, but a reindeer. Hunched and wooly, its antlers thicker and wider, covered in brown velvet. At first Poppy thought it was a caribou. Even though they’d long since lost their population in these parts, he supposed it would be possible for a stray to remain unfound by man. But as the animal got closer and wandered down the centre of the drive, illuminated by the colourful lights behind it, Poppy saw the faded grays and whites that dotted its fur. It was a reindeer alright, and it was on the wrong side of the country.

Poppy stayed perfectly still as the animal kept on coming towards him, one careful step at a time. Its hooves made nary a sound save for the crunching of the hardened snow underhoof. Its breath came chuffing out of its nostrils in white tufts of steam.

The beast stopped about two metres from him. For a moment, the two stood there regarding one another, perfectly still. What had started as wonder turned to fearful realization; no matter the illogical reasoning behind the creature’s appearance, a deer is a deer. If this thing decided to rush him, he was dead. No one knew where he was, no one would be out to find him, and that is even if the deer leaves enough of him behind to save at all.

He focused on maintaining eye contact and not moving.

The longer he stared, the more he felt something was off. Wrong. It was more than just seeing a reindeer, it was more than the ethereal glow from the coloured lights. Something was off with the creature. Its eyes seemed…human. They looked as if two human eyeballs were plucked from a person’s skull and inserted under the heavy brow of the deer.

As Poppy discovered these human eyes, more movement appeared in his own periphery. Soon, another reindeer emerged from the shadows of the trees. Then another. And another. Until, finally, there were eight animals scattered about the drive, all flashing reds and greens, all staring at him with uncomfortably human gazes.

One of them, swollen and fat with pregnancy, lurched forward from the back and came the closest out of them all to Poppy. Something inside him told him to run, to just turn and get out of there, but he couldn’t move. He was stuck in place. Frozen.

The antlers of the pregnant deer bobbed and lowered as the deer arched its back. A sickening, wet slurping sound started and Poppy instantly knew what was happening.

The deer screamed in agony, the sound somewhere between a mating donkey and a murdered woman. The other reindeer stamped their feet in unison as the birth happened. From between the creature’s rear legs sprouted two smaller, spindly legs that twitched and kicked in the air. The mother continued howling as she pushed free her child. A body Poppy could barely see followed, and was joined by two more legs. The calf hung momentarily out of its mother by its head, swinging on its neck like a swivel, breeched. Scared or not, Poppy’s heart broke for babe and its mother. He found himself hoping the calf would be okay.

With one final, deep, soul shattering wail, the mother pushed out her child and quickly spun around, cleaning it, the afterbirth trailing behind her like a sick tail.

The other reindeer seemed to back up, giving the mother and child some room. Poppy thought to do the same but was still too frightened to move.

As the mother adjusted herself to better clean the calf, she moved her body out of the way and thus gave Poppy a clear view of her child.

What he saw, he told me, is the only thing he’d like the tumor to take from him.

There was something horribly wrong with the calf. Its legs were long and thin as they should be, but where the rear had hooves and fur, the front were naked and covered in chaffed, cracking pink skin. Where hooves should be were two curled, crooked human hands, stretching and squeezing, trying themselves out. The body was only deer up to the chest where it became more of a starved and burnt child’s torso.

The head.

Oh, the head.

On top of a bloodied neck yet to be cleaned was a horribly misshapen calf skull, half-covered in light brown fur and half in wet skin. The eyes and top of the skull were distinctly human while the long protruding snout was all reindeer. Two pointed, triangular ears sprouted from the top of the skull, naked and pink. The eyes themselves were wild white balls with no discernable irises, scanning the area wildly.

The mother finished cleaning the tip of the snout and when the nose could be seen, Poppy had to cover his mouth with a gloved hand to muffle the scream that sprouted and erupted from somewhere deep inside of him.

The nose was all peeled flesh and gore, exposed veins and mucous coated muscle and sinew. It pulsated a deep, dark light the colour of strawberry jam and gunshot wounds. The red light reflected in the stained, white snow beneath them. As the child stood, and it did so on two legs not four, the light traveled upwards with it and Poppy followed it, mesmerized.

The child was wobbly, uncertain on its new legs. It approached Poppy and before he knew what was happening, it bowed its head into him, nuzzling his legs. When it lifted its head back up, it left behind strands of afterbirth and clots of blood on his pants.

As quick as the child entered the world, it left. One by one the reindeer began to move as a herd and disappeared back into the woods on the opposite side they had entered, continuing on their path, and the child left him and followed its mother, walking like a cross between a toddler and the undead.

The red light was the last thing to disappear into the darkness.

“I come back every year and check on him,” Poppy finished. “I leave some food out and wait and sometimes he comes back with his herd, sometimes just himself.”

Poppy never had a son. This dawns on me as he finishes his story and I finger the watch through the breast pocket of my flannel. Poppy doesn’t look at me, hasn’t looked at me the entire time, and continues to stare into the dying fire, lost in his words.

Finally he stood, sighing, and stretched. “And I tell ya, he got big.”

I stayed up late, unable to find any sort of sleep with that story weighing on my mind. Poppy didn’t seem to have the same trouble, as no sooner had he left the room and gone to bed had I begun to hear his wood-sawing snores from the bedroom at the end of the hall.

I wanted to chalk it up to his decaying mind, his memories becoming twisted up with delusions. Or maybe he’d been having some fun at my expense. None of that felt true, though, and you’d understand if you saw the way he looked as he told it.

And you’d understand it if, like me, you sat until the embers were little more than orange specks in the stove and you stared out the frosted windows into the snow and trees, and you saw the same red glow I did, bobbing up and down just beyond the shadows of the treeline.

Poppy was right. He got big.

mason mcdonald 01Mason McDonald is the author of A Time For Monsters. When not inventing yuletide boogeymen, he can be found drinking booze and fist fighting his own personal Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. He currently lives in Port Morien, NS with his wife Jenna and their collection of animals.

You can pick up his collection by clicking one of the links below!

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