by Alan Loewen
(Author’s note: This story takes place in my as yet unpublished Lord of All Futures post-apocalyptic novel which describes the adventures of Brother Theodore and his bodyguard, Odell traveling on a mission to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They are accompanied by two young fugitives they meet along the way: Sarah, a hedge witch in exile, and Frost, a hunter accompanied by two large wolves. In the ruins of Harrisburg, the four rescue a little girl named Marl from two men who control several monstrous dogs. After her rescue, the adventurers discover that Marl, with her cat-like eyes and other feline features, is certainly something more or something less than human. The following story occurs after Marl’s rescue and three months before the flight from Harrisburg from strange men who will do anything to retrieve the mysterious girl-child.)
Sarah blew on her chilled fingers to keep them nimble enough to work on the rose hips she had found. The seed pods, though low in true nourishment, contained a mysterious element that kept people from scurvy during the long winter months. She sighed as she remembered her life back in Berkeley Springs before the town was invaded by scavengers, before animals in human form killed her mother and sent Sarah fleeing into a huge, strange world. Her mother had taught her all she needed to know of hedge witchery and though Brother Theodore insisted that Sarah was nothing more than an herbalist, she knew her talent was far more than just knowing the names and purposes of plants.
For a man, she mused, who claims to follow a god that once walked among men, his unbelief is quite odd.
A knock on the door brought her back to the present. “Come in,” she called.
Frost entered with a smile. “Good news,” he said.
A smile came to Sarah’s face. “You got us meat? Real meat?”
“Lobo and Lupus got a deer. Odell is stringing it up now with Marl trying to help.”
“Venison,” Sarah sighed. “I’m so tired of rat.”
“Marl seems to like rat,” Frost smirked and ducked from a thrown rose hip. “Sorry! Sorry!” he said quickly in apology. Sarah’s affection for the strange little girl they had rescued made her sensitive to any reference, however indirect, to Marl’s cat-like eyes and the secret kept hidden underneath Marl’s baggy dresses.
“Just for that, Marl gets your share of the brisket,” Sarah said.
Frost bowed. “I repent in dusty ashes,” he said. “Have you seen Brother Theodore?”
“He told me he was going over to the pub. Now help me with these rose hips. We have sick people waiting.”
Brother Theodore made his way through the ruins of Harrisburg toward the Unicorn & Gryphon Pub. Dirty snow and the occasional traveler wending their way back to their own hovels made for a dismal picture for the priest who remembered the cleaner environs of his home in Winchester, Virginia.
And as the year drew to its close—Anno Domini 2068 by the best reckoning they had—the Westminster Baptist Conclave would now be celebrating the end of the Advent vigil and its comforting traditions that survived even in a world gone mad.
Outside the pub, a few guards stomped their feet and blew on their hands before nodding at the priest. The pub master's only desire was to run his establishment in peace and quiet and well-fed guards who now knew a limited prosperity were delighted to stand guard with chilled ears, fingers, and toes to keep it that way.
The warmth of the pub’s interior brought a sigh of relief. The pub had just opened for the day and already men and women sat at a ragtag assortment of tables and chairs. They sat over their bowls and cups having already bartered for simple meals. The nourishing beer that was actually little more than boiled wheat, dried hops and wild yeast served as the universal drink of choice.
The pub’s owner stood behind the bar, his bald head reflecting the light in the fireplace. His reddish gray beard rested on his chest, carefully braided to stay out of mischief. He nodded at the priest and reached for a mug of beer and placed it before the priest.
“Still within my tab?” Brother Theodore asked.
“Those knives you traded me are still good for a few more beers,” the pub master replied with a toothy grin. “The missus made some cattail and acorn bread. Would you like some?”
“With rat broth?”
“Nothing easier in this world to run other than a rat farm, but you give me some venison and we’ll talk. Hey, I heard that there are feral pigs running around the woods south of town.”
"I’ll talk to Frost,” the priest said. “Until then, if rat broth is your only offering, bring on your finest.”
The priest ate in silence trying hard not to think of the source of the broth that soaked his bread. The pub master dealt with other customers, sometimes dickering over a trade.
When the barkeep wandered by, Brother Theodore waved him down to get his attention. “Tell me,” he asked, “if it’s not too personal a question, how old are you?”
The barkeep frowned for a moment, not over irritation at the question, but thinking on the answer. “I’m 59," he said after a pause, “a very healthy 59 years old. Still got all my teeth.”
“So you remember Christmas?”
The pub master paused in stunned surprise. “Why, yes,” he said. “I remember Christmas. I haven’t thought of it for years. I was five when the Change hit.”
“Then,” Brother Theodore said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I wonder if you would consider helping me out three evenings from today with a plan?”
The brisk wind cut through the canyons of Harrisburg’s ruined streets, empty except for five people, their heads tucked deep into their ragged coats and hats.
“I’m cold,” Marl complained. Her baggy dress didn’t seem to hold back the winter’s cold.
Sarah scooped the child up and hugged her tight as Marl nestled into her arms. “Just a little further, dear heart.”
Frost blinked his eyes from the stinging wind. “If it wasn’t you promised me good food, Brother, I’d stay back home in bed.”
“It will be worth it,” the priest said. “And those two feral pigs you hunted down will be cooked to perfection. The pub master promised. And he claims he also has some dried venison left.”
Odell said nothing, his muscular bulk leading the way as he tried to block the wind’s worst effects from the four people who walked behind him.
As they neared the Unicorn & Gryphon Pub, warm, brilliant light spilled from those unboarded windows that still stood intact. Even out in the street, the smell of roast pork and other tantalizing smells made the five drool with anticipation.
The guards opened the door and Brother Theodore’s party hustled in, pushed by a stiff gust of icy air.
Once inside, as Brother Theodore smiled with anticipation, the little group stared in open-mouthed surprise.
A huge evergreen tree stood in the middle of the floor. Candles, an incredible luxury in a shattered world, illuminated the scene before them having been carefully positioned in front of fragments of mirrors. Hanging from the tree, shiny round objects shot the reflected candlelight back in a dazzling prism of color.
Marl squirmed out of Sarah’s arms, her little hands reaching out for the tantalizing sight. “Pretty tree!” she squealed. “Pretty tree!”
“What is this?” Sarah asked.
Brother Theodore laughed as Odell smiled at the sight before them. “It’s a Christmas tree,” the priest said. “It used to be a tradition before the Change.”
“Looks like you found a use for those worthless DVD’s and CD’s,” Odell said. “Where did you find them?”
The priest shrugged his shoulders. “In a number of the stores around here. They’re not edible so there are piles of them just lying around for the taking.”
Suddenly, a large vision dressed in red came from where it had been standing behind the tree. The owner of the pub shouted Ho! Ho! Ho!, his belly shaking inside a large red, ragged coat clearly intended for a woman. He had whitened his beard with precious acorn flour procured from his wife's larder.
Frost and Sarah looked at Brother Theodore quizzically while Marl squealed with delight at the apparition. Odell leaned against a wall in a paroxysm of laughter.
“Why, it’s Santa Claus!” Brother Theodore exclaimed in a melodramatic tone. He knelt down beside Marl. “Marl, they say Santa Claus brings gifts for good boys and girls. Why don’t you see if he has something for you?”
Tentatively, holding on to the priest’s hand for dear life, Marl approached the large, grinning man.
“Have you been a good little girl?” the pub master asked as Marl stared up at him with wide eyes. She nodded mutely.
“Well then, I have something for you.” The barkeep reached under the tree and pulled out a bundle wrapped in a rag. “Here you go.”
Carefully, Marl reached out for the bundle and stared at it.
“Open it up,” Brother Theodore said. “Go ahead.”
Marl unwrapped it to find a doll, amazingly clean and whole. Marl, eyes wide open in wonder, turned to look at Sarah.
“Looks like you got a baby doll, Marl,” Sarah said. “Now what do you tell … umm … Santa Claus?”
Marl turned and looked up into the eyes of the pub master. “Thank you,” she whispered. She hugged the plastic figure and looked at it again. “It’s really mine?”
Santa failed to keep the tremor of emotion out of his voice, “Yes, sweetheart. It’s yours.”
Two other packages appeared from under the tree: a mortar and pestle for Sarah and a whistle for Frost.
“It’s amazing what you can find in the rubble if you know where to look,” Theodore whispered to Odell. “Now,” he announced to the group, “let’s see what Santa Claus has prepared for us this Christmas.”
And with that, the pub's doors swung open for business and people looking for food and warmth began to fill the large room. Most looked at the Christmas tree in puzzlement. The older ones who dimly remembered life before the Change stared with obvious emotion.
At a table of their own, the priest’s little group, along with the barkeep and his wife, shared a repast of roasted pork courtesy of the hunting prowess of Frost and his two wolves. Boiled venison from the private larder of the barkeep added to the meal along with bread and the ever present rat stew.
Sometime later, Sarah sat back with a contented sigh. “Brother Theodore, what is this Christmas you talked about?”
The priest sat back in his own chair. “Let me tell you the story,” he said. “Many, many years ago a powerful king named Caesar Augustus decided that all his subjects had to give him some money. He made them all travel back to the places where they were born and two people named Joseph and Mary had to go to a town named Bethlehem …”
Those sitting about the table hushed their own conversations at overhearing the novelty of a story until only Brother Theodore’s voice spoke out clear and bold, telling once again the never-aging story of the world’s first Christmas.
And as the priest told the tale, far above the pub the dark winter clouds parted and one bright shining star illuminated the streets of a shattered city.