Tonight is Christmas eve, tomorrow is Christmas. Tomorrow is the day when a million boys and girls, throughout the whole, wide world, would awake to find secret treasures, glittering and inviting, with their own names inscribed upon them, laying underneath an evergreen tree. Glittering like a street parade, silent as a lonely guard, the tree had promised so much for days now and tomorrow would be its time to deliver. With all these thoughts riding merry in his mind, Eddie slowly slipped off to the land of sleep.

                                                                      *

            The druids stood in a circle of silent appraisal within the clearing of the ancient forest. The object of their appraisal lay motionless on the stone slab in the centre of the clearing. She is to beauty as diamonds are to jewels, she is to innocence as a snowflake is to winter and today is the day that she will be offered to the sentinel guardians of the village, to the bringers of fitful rain and the bearers of plentiful harvest, the conduits of the gods, the mighty evergreen trees.

                                                                        *

            Eddie skipped along the cobbled path with a grin of pure malice and a heart of blackest coal. You see, Eddie is a bad, bad, bad, boy, with the eyes of the coldest blue.

At home, he made his parents wish he had never been born. At school, he would make all the girls cry and all the boys promise to silent hosts that they will not bully anyone, ever, ever, ever, again. The teachers (many of whom were at their wits end and seriously considering alternate career options) were at a loss with just what to do with such a recalcitrant child.  Time, time and time again, they sent Eddie to see the Head Mistress for bullying, lying, cheating, stealing and now this! It was this last crime that had convinced everyone that Eddie had gone too far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

            Every year the school held a Yuletide feast where there would be great merriment and celebration in the clearing of the village forest. The adults would eat, drink and be far too merry whilst the children were left to run helter skelter throughout the trees, high on the presents given and the freedom they had temporarily acquired. The village council had stressed the importance of community spirit for countless generations but this apparently meant nothing to Eddie. He had been caught red handed stomping up and down on the presents donated to the school and covering the glorious banquet in his own urine. These acts, as rotten and horrible as they may have been would have been forgiven in time but, it was this final act, this crushing blow to community spirit, wherein no lenience could be given. The burning of the ancient and of the sacred, the burning of the original evergreen tree.    

                           *                          

            Erik sat shivering from the snow up on high and watched as the druids performed the initial motions of the ceremony. He smiled gravely to himself as the chanting closed and the circle came to a end. He knew the next stage, he had watched this ceremony for many, many, many years now. In the past, it had served as a form of great gift and wonderment. To observe the last icy exhalation of air, the last drop of water from the parched sky, suggested a cosmology of meaning beyond the principals of village lore. But not this year for it was She who guided his silent vigil on top of the sacred evergreen. She, pale & motionless lying on the ancient stone, beautiful... He could not allow the anointing of the sacred dagger to come to pass, no invocation to be made or even symbol to be carved onto unwilling flesh. 

*         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Two new sensations had been introduced into Erik's spectrum of existence. The sensations of love and of loss. The loss of She would leave him without joy, or even hope, for the rest of his living days and this he realsied was the fear aligned with the sensation of love. He could not suffer this loss, he could not suffer the fear. The village had offered very little in the way of excitement or adventure to Erik. Throughout his formative years, he had dreamed of far off lands where great beats roamed awaiting the cut of his blade and the might of his steel. As a blacksmith’s apprentice, Erik had forged many a fine sword and fashioned many a fine bow but it was not just steel he wished to be by his side. She, in all her comely splendour and feminine grace, She, in her secret wishes and silent pleading, She was his and no order of officious, bothersome druids would keep him from fulfilling his destiny.

*

           

            Eddie sat twitching outside of the Head Mistress’ office on the rickety wooden chair. He wondered if this would be it? That this would be the last act of mischief followed by false contrition. The last unwholesome deed he would perform at this tiresome school (or would he have to go one-step further to be free of this prison forever?). It was of no bother. No physical pain or incarceration would come to pass. He knew of adult law well enough. But, what if his own gift were denied him? His own tree taken away? This he could not bear (for like a magpie, he would swoop down on the parcels of ribbon and artificial snow, year after year, in selfish and violent glee). His parents had been terrified into submission by his malevolent ways for many a year now, so no fear of physical punishment awaited him at home but would they dare take away the tree to teach him an all too significant lesson? These thoughts raced in Eddie’s mind and began to coil their way around his heart and for a moment, he felt his eyes soften and their ducts swell as a drop fell to the linoleum floor.  

                                                                  *

            Erik held the crossbow more true to his line of vision as tears began to swell in his cobalt blue eyes. The head priest broke from the circle and walked with somber gravity towards the ancient stone and upon reaching it stopped. He revealed the ancient dagger and projected it to the northern most point of the circle and mouthed the final word of invocation as a vocal tremor escaped Erik’s lips, “I’m sorry Father.” The arrow flew true.

                                                                         *

            Eddie awoke to the sound of his mother’s gentle waking. “Eddie wake up, wake up, it’s Christmas Eddie, It’s time to open your gift’. That one word -gift- was the only impetus that Eddie needed to shake off the fetters of sleep. Pushing his mother aside, he rushed out into the living room to ransack the evergreen for all it was worth. All previous worries of ‘going without’ this Christmas were nullified by the previous evening’s performance of apologies, promises and tears enacted by a boy with a heart of the blackest coal. As Eddie tore into the fist gaudily coloured pile of wrapping paper, ribbon, and artificial snow, he felt a sinuous tightening of his throat and then he saw a sight which filled his blackened heart with pure panic. The Tree, the mighty, mighty, mighty Evergreen that had promised so much, was now, alive before him! An avatar of ancient prophecy, self-fulfilling through an act of terrifying animism!

Branches lashed out, tearing away at his flesh as years of atonement pored and oozed their way into his ears, eyes, mouth and any available orifice as it lifted Eddie like a gelatinous fetish doll before his parents. The pleading, the terror and the fear reflected not in his parent’s eyes for Eddie’s parents they were no longer. Whatever sanity Edward had left was gone, utterly and totally, gone. An old, old, old, bearded men in white robes stood before him. He held in one hand a dagger and in the other a sphere of fire which glistened like the geraniums of his mothers garden as it licked towards his very heart.

                                                                   *

            It was this ancient druid who uttered the last sound Eddie would ever hear. ‘I am sorry son.” The flame flew true. A girl could be heard crying and then it all went black - the heart and its ashes. 

Gene Von Banyard's short story: The Gift

Editorial

by Gene Von Banyard

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