My food ran out days ago and there’s no prospect of rescue up here at the top of the world. I try to put up my tent, but the arctic wind bludgeons and tears at the fabric. My compass is gone, my GPS is behaving strangely and the whiteout obliterates the stars. I no longer know which direction to walk in. The next time I fall, I stay there, slumped in the snow, ready to give in to sleep at last.
I drift, watching flurries of snow dart past my goggles. The snowstorm cancels out any differences in the landscape. When my eyes close it’s darker, but that’s the only difference, it seems, between being awake or asleep.
There is something tugging me. Something rough and insistent. I try to shrug it off but it gives me no rest. I open my eyes to a blur of dark movement. It takes a moment to focus. There is a small figure pulling at my arms. At first, I think it’s an animal, it is wrapped so tightly in furs, but no, there are two arms, two legs, and the shape is distinctly human. The storm is too loud for speech, but the figure is clearly attempting to pull me up. I’m resentful at the inconvenience but something tells me I should follow its lead.
There shouldn’t be any settlements this far north, so I can’t imagine where this person has come from. It’s random luck that they’ve come across me in all this whiteness. But the figure is strong and determined, clutching my hand. A child? Surely too strong for that. I stumble to my feet and follow.
Trees appear where no trees should be. Is it possible I’ve drifted south in the storm? But trees were days and days ago, I couldn’t have re-traced my steps that far. The figure pulls me into a clutch of pines and immediately there is calm. The whiteout is gone, replaced by gently drifting snow. There is a soft, subdued light akin to twilight, a relief after the glare of the tundra. This is not some small bunch of straggling trees, it’s a forest. The green is a shock to my scoured eyes. Among the trees, there’s time and space to relax from the effort of survival. I pull off my goggles and my hood. It’s hardly warm, but the absence of the blizzard makes it seem so. The frenzied, maddening wind is gone, replaced by the muffled silence of a snow-clad forest.
I look down at my helper. The figure pulls back its own hood and loosens the fur around its throat. Wisps of grey hair cloud the face. But I can tell it’s a woman, neither very young nor very old, with burnished skin and fierce green eyes.
‘Come,’ she says, beckoning me forward.
‘Where are we?’ I ask. She shakes her head and moves off, confident I’ll follow. The walking is easy, though if this is a path it has long been covered in snow. My energy has returned, despite lack of food and rest. The scent of the pines is intoxicating. I’ve smelt nothing but my own sweat for weeks.
Soon, I see light at the edge of the twilit forest. Lanterns hang from branches, not LED lights these, but candles cupped in glass. They dance, casting amber shadows on the snow. And there are shapes between the trees, I think, circular structures of wood, peaked roofs covered in moss. I stop, because there are other scents now flooding my nostrils: woodsmoke and cinnamon and cooked meat. There is the faint sound of music, the soft tinkle of bells. After the nothing out there, this is too much stimulation, too much colour. I have to steady myself on the nearest tree. The woods are coming to life around me, but how can that be?
There are paths between the trees, narrow curving paths. I see now that the wooden structures must be dwellings. They have lighted windows that hint at warmth and frivolity inside. I glimpse Christmas trees and rustic garlands. Lanterns deck the trees along the paths. This place is filled with dancing light. It’s the middle of June, but here, it seems, it’s Christmas.
I don’t see any other people, but I sense them. As though they wait and watch just out of sight, holding a collective breath. More than once, I glance behind me, expecting to see a huddle of followers. We walk endless paths, twisting and turning into the village, if that’s what this is, until we come to a clearing. In its centre is a spruce, much larger than the others and trickling with lanterns. There are things tied to the branches: pieces of cloth, small bells, trinkets of wood and glass. Some are frayed and battered, some so ancient they’re covered in lichen. A Christmas tree, but like no Christmas tree I’ve seen before.
I sink to my knees before it. Overwhelmed by all the remembered scents of Christmas. By a medley of echoing carols. I sense the roots of this tree stretching for miles beneath snow and soil. And a sound, half-way between hum and heartbeat. This is a tree that goes beyond Christmas, beyond time itself perhaps. It has always been here and always will be. I have nothing to offer, but I’m compelled to offer something. I tear a fragment of fabric from the inside of my pocket and carefully tie it to the end of a branch. The leaves caress me like a comforting hand.
The woman beckons me on. I don’t want to go, but she’s determined, dragging me forward. We follow a wider path until we reach a building different to the simple roundhouses I’ve seen before. It has the same foundation but it is bigger, with makeshift extensions so it looks like some strange confection of timber, moss and glass. The door is enormous and decorated with an intricate garland of evergreens. It opens the moment we reach it.
The light that spills out is diffuse and silver. There’s a figure silhouetted in the doorway. I think my companion bows and fades away, but I’m not sure because I can’t look away from the man on the threshold. Tall and portly, with acres of white hair and a beard that falls almost to his feet. He wears a robe the colour of the pines, edged in fur. His face is dark and weather-beaten, his eyes the shade of the forest lanterns.
‘Well,’ he says in a voice that is loud but gentle. ‘You must be Annie. We’ve been expecting you.’
I move towards him without thinking to ask how he knows my name. I want to walk into his embrace and tell him everything there is to know about me. A sudden memory comes, of my father hoisting me onto his back and dancing around the room as I cling to him laughing and squealing. For a moment, I’m caught up in the memory, unwilling to shatter it, but I feel a hand on my arm and I’m guided into a room warm with wood, cluttered with knick-knacks and lit by a crackling fire. The room is decorated with evergreens and a large Christmas tree stands by the hearth. But it isn’t Christmas, I remind myself, not in the world I’ve come from.
A woman stands in front of the grate. She is as tall as he is, broad and strong. She also has white hair to her feet and a face creased with lines. When she moves, she has a sinuous grace in contrast to the man’s bulk. She takes my gloved hands in hers.
‘Welcome Annie,’ she says.
She leads me to a simple room, containing a bed with a patchwork cover. A robe of pale green is laid out on it. She leaves me to change. I’m relieved to take off the suit I’ve worn for weeks, to get rid of my boots and sodden socks, to be able to wash and change into something that is warm and soft against my skin. All changed, I sit on the bed to catch my breath. It seems like years since I was out in the blizzard, ready to give in to a sleep I wouldn’t have woken from. Perhaps I’m dreaming, because how else could I be here in this strange, unexpected place, where it seems I was expected. I’m unusually shy as I open the door, but a loud voice greets me.
‘Come and join us, my dear.’
The couple have moved to a table, laden with food – simple soups and stews, vegetables and bread. My stomach tilts at the sight. I haven’t eaten for days and even then I was eating survival rations. I’ve had nothing fresh for weeks. ‘Tuck in,’ the woman says and I don’t need to be asked again. Any curiosity I have about them or this place is curtailed by the desire to eat. My manners desert me as I load up my plate and waffle it all down, until, sated, I sit back and remember where I am. I should be exhausted, but I’m wide awake. I scan the room and my hosts. They watch me. Carefully. Silently.
‘Thank you,’ I say. They both nod and it seems I’m watching them in slow motion.
There’s a tension that I’m loathe to break because it might undo all my ideas of what is true. But I can’t wait any longer.
‘Where is this place? Who are you?’ I ask.
‘Oh my dear,’ says the woman. ‘Don’t you already know?’
I think I do, but I’m reluctant to say it. It’s ridiculous. But they’re waiting. There is expectation in the silence. These are the questions they’ve been waiting for me to ask.
‘You’re….Father Christmas.’ I blurt.
The man laughs, nodding. ‘But you can call me Santa!’
‘And this is my wife, Frija – or Mrs Claus.’
I shake my head, more to clear it than in denial.
‘You don’t believe it?’ he says.
I ponder the question. Of course I don’t believe it. I haven’t believed in Santa since I was a child. But here I am and I somehow knew it from the moment I saw the big tree and there doesn’t seem to be another explanation that I’m happy with.
‘I believe it. Right now I believe it. But how? I know there aren’t any settlements up here. This place can’t exist. You can’t exist.’
They both laugh then. Mrs Claus leans forward and her face is suddenly serious.
‘This is a world between worlds,’ she says. ‘It’s not a place you can touch from the outside. And not a place that just anyone can visit – or even see. Call it a dream, call it a mirage, whatever you like, but it’s as real as the world you come from.’
‘So I’m not dreaming then? I’m not still out there in the storm?’ She doesn’t answer, only smiles.
Santa pushes his chair back suddenly and claps his hands. ‘You’ll be wanting a tour,’ he says. Mrs Claus rises too and they wait for me to follow. They lead me through convoluted passageways, up and down stairs, past bedrooms, sitting areas, studies and kitchens, but nothing I see is what I imagine Santa’s village to be. This is just a house, if an eccentric one.
In the end I blurt it out: ‘Where are the workshops…where are the…elves?’ I shrug apologetically. This still seems ridiculous.
‘Ahhh,’ he says. ‘You want to see where the magic happens.’
Mrs Claus nudges him playfully. ‘Of course she does.’
He nods. We’re standing in front of an arched door. He sweeps it open and I peer in. Not another bedroom or living room this time, but a tunnel. Narrow and smooth and carved from the earth itself. I can see soil and roots and worms. Like everything in this world it twists and turns, but finally we reach another door, labelled ‘workshop’. I take a deep breath as Santa turns the handle.
This is like no workshop I’ve ever seen – or imagined. There are no work-benches. No tools. No piles of toys. The room is huge, circular, sloping up to a skylight. Every wall is lined with shelves and on every shelf there are rows of books. There are piles of books on the floor too, some in stacks, some lying open. And between them, figures roam – small figures with pointed ears.
‘But this is a library!’ I say.
‘Of a sort,’ Mrs Claus says. ‘Come and see.’
I follow them further into the room. The elves are engrossed in their work, but I’m not sure what work that is. They gesture and dance, sing and sway, shout and mutter. I realise that the room, which seemed silent when we entered, is a blur of noise and movement. And when I look more closely, I see the pictures. Suspended in the air. Transparent, moving images. Like holograms, though I suspect Santa’s village isn’t computerised. There are dozens of them. Mirages. I gasp and stutter, swinging my head from side to side to try to grasp what it is I’m seeing.
‘This isn’t what you expected.’ Says Santa.
‘No.’ I tear my eyes away from the kaleidoscope and focus on Santa.
‘I expected workshops full of elves making toys for you to deliver on Christmas Eve.’
‘I don’t deliver toys,’ he says.
I stop in shock. ‘But you do! You’re Santa. That’s what you do.’
‘Is it?’ he says.
I nod my head vehemently and Santa smiles.
‘It’s true,’ he says. ‘There was a time I loaded my sack with toys and delivered them around the globe. You could be sure there would be a gift from Father Christmas under your tree.’ He looks a little sad.
He spreads out his arms in a big shrug. ‘Nobody needs toys from Santa anymore. They have quite enough under the tree as it is.’
I’m stunned into silence for a moment. ‘But…but surely that’s not true. You’re still needed. Not every child has toys.’
He nods. ‘And I still have something up my sleeve for those boys and girls.’
‘But on Christmas Eve, what do you do…have you retired?’
He laughs. ‘I do what I’ve always done. I get in my sleigh and I travel the world.’ He walks through the workshop and I follow.
‘But you said…what’s the point?’
‘Do you know what the elves are doing here?’ he says.
I shake my head.
‘They’re conjuring dreams.’
‘My purpose was never to deliver toys,’ Santa says. ‘It was to deliver dreams!’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You had a dream once,’ Santa says. ‘To go to the North Pole and visit Father Christmas. That’s why you’re here. Do you remember?’
I shake my head. ‘All children dream of that.’
‘Mm, that’s true. But not all of them end up on a North Pole expedition. All the years of training, the fund-raising, the sacrifices…’
‘But that wasn’t to see you. That was to see the arctic, to test myself, to see if I could do it.’
He’s silent, watching me question myself. ‘That’s what it is now,’ he says. ‘But in here…’ he rests a hand over my heart. ‘In here you never stopped seeking the magic.’
Warmth spreads through my chest at the touch of his hand. Suddenly, I’m not the woman pursuing a determined quest for the arctic, but the child wishing for Santa Claus. I am a girl again, standing vigil at the window on Christmas Eve, desperate to hear the tinkle of bells and to see the sweep of a sleigh across the rooftops. I nursed the wish to meet Father Christmas long after other children had discarded it and perhaps somehow I knew that I would have to come here to do it.
‘Come,’ Mrs Claus says. She leads me to a bay of shelves and with a small push, the wall opens. I gasp. Stretching away into the heart of the earth is a catacomb of sorts. But not filled with death or bodies, filled with books. Some look new, some are crumbling, and each is labelled with a name. She takes one off the shelf and opens it. Immediately the pages begin to dance with shapes and colours and letters and faint images. It crackles in her hands.
‘A book of dreams,’ she says.
‘Every child has one. It’s the elves job to create the possibility of the dream. Elves are masters of magic you know; they conjure dreams out of nothing. They can build toys too, of course, but their skill and their purpose is much greater than that. Santa’s job is to get each dream to the right child – that’s his gift.’
‘But not everyone has dreams.’
Santa nods. ‘Oh but they do.’
‘Some get lost along the way,’ says Mrs Claus. ‘Some don’t have the opportunity to fulfil them.’ She is sad. ‘But they remain. We hold them in trust. You might call me the librarian of the North Pole,’ she laughs. ‘It’s my job to keep them safe. Dreams never go away, do they?’ she says softly. ‘Not really. And that magic you feel on Christmas night – even if only for a short while – that vein of hope and anticipation, it’s a reminder to everyone that dreams are still possible.’
I turn back to the workshop. Step into the chaotic flurry of the elves’ work. I reach out a hand. Just beyond is the image of a child on horseback, galloping along a shore. When I touch it, it has no substance, but for a moment there is joy, movement, the sense of wind tugging my hair. I step back quickly to find myself looking into the face of a young elf. He’s smiling at me.
‘Good?’ he says.
I look around me. The room has gone silent. The elves are still. The air is full of dreams, paused, waiting for their conjurers. I nod.
‘Exquisite,’ I say. I bow and step away, back to Santa and Mrs Claus. The cacophony starts up again.
‘Now.’ Mrs Claus says, ‘It’s time for you to go and fulfil your dream. You’re almost there you know.’ She takes my hand and squeezes it. Then Santa takes the other. I see myself looking out of the window on a frost-filled Christmas many years ago, hoping to see Santa, wishing I might visit him in his village one day. I hear a faint laugh.
I wake smiling. My eyes are filled with orange. Not the soft amber of lanterns, but the garish fabric of my tent. All is calm and still. I feel rested. There is no hunger in my belly. The despair of knowing that I’m not going to make it is gone. You’re nearly there….I sit up suddenly. A moment ago – surely it was only a moment – I was with Santa and Mrs Claus. Wasn’t I? I look outside my tent and there is only white. Was it a dream then? But my tent is up, my belly is full and in the corner there are new supplies, enough to keep me going for days. A dream, yes, but not the kind you have when you sleep. I don’t know what day it is, but somehow I know I’m on time. I’ll reach the pole when I’m supposed to. My support team will be waiting for me.
I pack up my things with renewed enthusiasm. The sled is light. My muscles are strong. The landscape is little more than a wash of white, with a faint blue tinge in the sky. But I know now that somewhere in this wilderness is a world between worlds that only a handful of lucky dreamers get to see. My most treasured dream is almost over, but somewhere, in a magical library tended by the most diligent librarian, there is a book with my name on it in which other dreams wait.