Marcus McGivery was scuffing his boots sadly on the way home from school when he first saw the naked man in the tree.
It was the last day of school before the holidays. Snow had fallen the night before, and in the morning the entire playing field looked like an iced cake. When he'd arrived at the playground, Marcus flung his backpack into a snow bank and helped two friends write HO HO HO in the snow with their boot prints before the bell rang.
But at recess everything changed. At recess Donald Gourdmocker had told Marcus that Santa Claus did not exist. Marcus' cheeks had flushed with embarrassment. "I know that," Marcus said, and hung his head and bit his lip. Marcus had tried to act nonchalant with his new-found knowledge, but all through math, open-space free-time and quiet reading, he felt the terrible creeping black feeling that comes when you realize a belief you hold dear is entirely made-up. Even though it was pizza day for lunch, Marcus was having an existential crisis. Thanks to Donald Gourdmocker, Santa Claus was dead.
Marcus might have missed the naked man in the tree altogether, had it not been for the black boot lying in the middle of the sidewalk. The boot had a shiny gold buckle and fur-lined trim. Marcus bent down to pick it up when he heard a voice from the tree.
"Minun saappaani!" the voice shouted.
Marcus looked up.
An old man clung to the branches of an ancient poplar.
And then in English, with a thick accent Marcus didn't recognize, "Help!"
Marcus put down the boot and ran to his house for a blanket and a step-ladder.
He helped the old man down from the tree and wrapped him in the quilt. Marcus noticed that the man had kindly blue eyes and the hairs of his long white beard were badly singed. The man bent down and put on the boot. It fit perfectly.
Not knowing what else to do, Marcus took the old man home. The stranger was shivering badly and his lips were turning blue.
Grandfather, who watched old movies with Marcus after school, had recently moved into a care home. Marcus' mom would not return from work at the restaurant until eight o'clock. Marcus had been given a key on a shoelace. And now, standing by the hall closet, Marcus realized he had five hours to figure out who the old man was and what exactly to do with him.
Marcus gave the man a set of fresh towels and ran him a warm bath. He stood in the hallway and listened while the old man sang in a strange language, unselfconsciously and joyfully from the bathtub. The man's voice was radiant. He sounded like an entire choir. Suddenly Marcus felt like he was standing at the entrance to a great cathedral with candles blazing. Everything felt warm.
Once the man was clean, dry and wearing an old pair of grandfather's pyjamas, they sat together at the kitchen table.
"Would you like some coffee?" Marcus asked opening the canister of coffee grounds to show him.
"Kiitos," the man said politely, and nodded his head.
Marcus prepared the coffee as he had seen his mother do every morning.
Standing on the step-ladder, Marcus rummaged around in the cupboards. "Cookies?" he said, and held up two boxes from the highest shelf.
"Ei pikkuleipiï," the old man said and shook his head and made a face, which Marcus understood to mean "Yuck, no cookies."
"No cookies?" Marcus asked, incredulously.
"Ei pikkuleipiï," the man said again, and made an action that suggested being sick.
Marcus held up a package of his grandfather's salty black liquorice.
"Liquorice?" Marcus asked.
The old man smiled.
The reindeer appeared while the old man and Marcus were playing checkers. One minute Marcus was being kinged and the next minute the entire lawn was covered in reindeer, chewing on leaves of the forsythia and blades of grass sticking up through the snow.
The man clapped with delight when he saw the deer on the lawn. "Minun armaat poroni!" the man laughed.
"Are they yours?" Marcus asked the man. "Who are you, old man? Where did you come from?"
The man was tapping on the kitchen window and waving at the animals like they were old friends.
Marcus fed carrots to the reindeer from the back porch, while the man dressed in a pair of Grandfather's corduroy pants, a plaid shirt and a pair of red wool socks. Marcus also found a warm lumberman's jacket in the closet. When the old man returned to the kitchen he tapped his wrist and asked Marcus what time it was in his strange language.
"Do you have to go?" Marcus asked.
The old man nodded and looked kindly at Marcus.
"Won't you tell me who you are?"
The man mimed drawing, so Marcus fetched some paper and his pencil crayons.
The old man sketched madly. "Porot, porot! Bruump...Krack! Onnettumuus!" the man shouted, drawing shooting lines of light across the page. It looked like a comet falling from the sky and beside it was a picture of a man holding onto a tree. "Onnettumuus," the man said again quietly.
Then the man drew something that Marcus would never forget. He drew Marcus with his head hanging down and Donald Gourdmocker talking to Marcus on the school field.
"No believe," the man managed in English. "No believe," he said again pointing to the drawing of the boys.
"Onnettumuus," the man said pointing to the falling comet.
"Onnettumuus?" Marcus said. "Crash?"
The old man nodded fiercely.
"Donald Gourdmocker made you crash?" Marcus asked.
The man shook his head. "No. Marcus, no believen Joulupukki."
Marcus and the old man went into the backyard, where he stood with a red wool sock on one foot and his boot on the other. The reindeer immediately came to the old man and nuzzled his palms. He touched each one on the top of the head and scratched between their antlers.
The old man turned to Marcus and held up the small bag of salty liquorice. "Lakritsi?" he asked.
"Yes!" Marcus laughed, "take the liquorice! I'm sure grandpa won't mind."
"Kiitos," the man said and put the bag in his coat pocket.
Marcus knew the old man had to go. It was already getting dark.
"Nïkemiin," he said, and laughed his belly laugh, then bent down on one knee. Marcus sat on the other knee, wrapped his arms around the old man's neck and leaned into the coat that smelled of his grandfather.
They stood up and the old man shooed Marcus into the house.
"Secret get-away," he said and winked.
Marcus went back into the house and looked out the kitchen window. The old man and reindeer had gone. Marcus went upstairs to his bedroom. Neatly folded on the bed were his grandpa's pyjamas. Right beside them, Marcus lay his head down.
Heather Jessup is at work on her first novel. She teaches literature at Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s and rides her bike in the snow.