"When the snow is whirling and the wind is thicker than your winter coat, when the moon is hiding and the darkness covers everything like a contract, when you can’t see your feet below you; that is when you want Rudolph." - Santa
Rudolph had led Santa’s sleigh for years. He led from the front, a beacon to govern the bleakness that threatened his band. He enjoyed a decorated career, leading a fabled team through a fabled time. Dancer, Comet and Blitzen, all one in a generation type talents, all in the one harness, were a trick of fate and a force of nature. A legend. But nothing lasts forever. A summer sun fades, a romance falters, a red nose flickers, flickers, flickers and quits.
Rudolph had never been the strongest runner or the best flier, his talent was spectacular but limited, a very impressive one trick pony. He was adored by Father Christmas, Father Time treated him less kindly. Each Christmas eve Rudolph would circumnavigate the globe in a furious clamour of belles and sweat, magic, vigour, gifts, milk and carrots. Each Christmas morning he would return to the North Pole, his heart beaming brighter than before, at odds with a nose slowly, surely, sadly dimming.
Rudolph knew it was his last Christmas in the harness. They all did. Santa strapped him in, scratched his nose and playfully cuffed him on the chin, playing along like it was any other day in the locker room. Santa wasn’t into milestones, he hadn’t made a big deal of Rudolph’s 100th flight and he wouldn’t make a big deal of his final one either. Christmas comes first, and no individual is bigger than the team and all that stuff Santa had stencilled onto the side of sleigh, he believed in it.
The sleigh was packed, the team was strapped, Santa was saddled and so the shed door was opened. An honour guard of the best elves lined the runway, cheering and singing and wishing them well. Rudolph led the team through that wash of laughter and applause, confetti rained down like, well, confetti. Rudolph drank every moment like thousand dollar champagne; his nose glowed like a two dollar knock-off. Rudolph took to the sky as a legend, a veteran, a spent force.
The snow blustered, the wind was savage, everything was darkness, Santa needed Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, but that nose wouldn’t glow. They’d been in tight spots before, even with Rudolph glowing like a sun, but this Christmas eve was particularly bad. It was virtually invisible, the three top that clipped the sleigh and sent them hurtling into the frozen wood. The crash was inevitable. The crash was a disaster.
Opening his eyes, Rudolph lay still and focused on his breathing. It hurt. A smashed rib had torn a nasty little rip into his lung. Concussion spun the silhouette trees over head in a slow lopsided circle, it took a few rotations before Rudolph clocked the fact he couldn’t hear Blitzen or Prancer (the two closest him in the harness) breathing. In the deep ink darkness, everything somehow grew oddly darker, Rudolph laughed to himself and dripped into a sleeping pool.
A familiar voice dragged him up and out of sleep. Santa had lit a fire and was talking to him. Rudolph opened his eyes and let them search Santa’s face; he’d been crying. Blitzen and Prancer were dead, so too Dasher. And Donna. Each name stuck in Santa’s throat as he gave Rudolph the news. They were all gone, all except Rudolph, Santa, and Taffy; a young reindeer making his first flight in the harness. Taffy had miraculously landed in fairly good health. He was cut and bruised, but he could function, he could fly.
Santa looked sick, he took Rudolph’s front right hoof in his hand and tried on a sad smile. “I hate to ask you this, my friend, but I must.” Santa trembled; the lump in his throat was fatter than a tractor tyre. “Rudolph, I need you to save Christmas one last time.” Rudolph tried vainly to get to his feet, but Santa quickly, gently, placed a gloved hand on his nose and shook his head. “No, old friend, broken legs aren’t much good for standing on.” Just the effort of keeping his eyes open was taxing Rudolph now, and that whistle in his chest sounded loud and fake. His body felt a long way away. He knew he was dying. Hooves crushing snow stole his attention from the old man’s face. Rudolph looked across to young Taffy, tall and slender, a reindeer flying his first mission. Santa’s request suddenly made sickening sense. A bitter smile found it’s way into Rudolph’s mouth and slowly wriggled to the surface.
Understand this - Rudolph could have let death take him gently, he could have died quick, calm and cosy. Instead Rudolph stayed awake, alive, in bitter bloody agony for hours. Rudolph lay still. He forced his heart to keep pumping blood, his brain to keep screaming. He did this all through thick, slow, hot sticking misery. Santa sat with him, he spoke gently into his ear and stroked his neck. He told Rudolph he loved him, he would miss him, he was grateful and he was sorry. He told him most of all to stay awake, to allow the magic to transfer.
For the magic to pass, Rudolph had to be alive. He had to be conscious when Taffy sunk his teeth into the soft flesh of his stomach, and tear it. He had to be aware of his steaming guts slipping out into the frosty forest night. Rudolph had to be breathing as Taffy slurped down his entrails, his liver and most importantly his nose.
Taffy dutifully chewed and swallowed, and chewed and swallowed. Santa cried. Rudolph continued to breath. Through the noisy crack of bones, through the sloppy gobbling of fatty flesh, Rudolph listened to that eulogy. Rudolph the red nosed reindeer was giving one final Christmas gift.
That Christmas morning, as boys and girls across the globe ripped into presents and screamed with excitement, a bright red star flew toward the North Pole, swift and true. Santa was heading home, on the back of a hero, on the back of a legend, on the back of Taffy the red nosed reindeer.