‘Mrs. Ishtar Claus’ By Bryan Nickelberry
The girl’s sightless eyes stared up at the sky and her mouth hung slightly ajar. Her clothing was askew and her neck was bent at an angle that matched the handprints which stretched around it. “Cops been called yet?” the man standing over the girl asked quietly.
The white hair coming from under his cap matched his long white beard. His hair wasn’t terribly well kept, and his rosy cheeks may have designated him a drunk, while the black grime on his fingers and the dust on his clothes may have shown him to be homeless. Lack of a home would certainly explain what he was doing in this part of New York at three a.m..
The woman he’d spoken to looked sad, but shed no tears as if she’d seen this all too often. She was a plain looking middle-eastern woman somewhere in her 40s, though she wore no ornamentation from her homeland, just a simple dress and jacket. She may well have been a social worker. Lowering the well-worn spiral tablet she’d been holding, she shook her head. “No.” she said just as quietly. “They won’t find her for another three months.”
The man began walking toward the support columns of the bridge. “It’s no use!” the woman called after him. “You know the phone is dead.”
The man wrapped his hand around the receiver and looked at the woman. “It’ll work for me,” he said fiercely with a twinkle in his eye.
Pulling the phone from it’s hook, he put the receiver to his ear, and his smile softened as he heard the dial tone. The man dialed three numbers: “9-1-1” then waited as he heard the operator connecting him through.
“9-1-1, please state your emergency,” came the voice from the other end.
“I’d like to report a corpse, found beneath the City Island Bridge,” the man said.
The dispatcher would never be able to explain why the man’s voice sounded so familiar, just like the phone company would never be able to explain how a phone that hadn’t worked in years managed to make a call. The man didn’t concern himself with those things though. He dropped the phone after that single sentence, but left the line open for tracing. The man wrapped his arms around the woman and held her close while she held back tears.
“Thank you,” she finally said. “They’re all my girls.”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t save her,” he said. “But I’ll be damned if I let her lie there unfound a moment longer than necessary.”
Three months later, the pair raced through the doors of the nicest hotel in New Delhi. “No time for the elevator!” the man called, speeding past the bewildered front desk agents, and bursting into the stairwell. He wore a pair of plain, stained khakis, and a similarly stained red shirt along with his sandals.
“I don’t… have your stamina, Nicholas…” The woman panted as he leaped up the stairs two and three at a time.
The man stopped and turned, the plastic grocery bag in his hand swaying. Then he leaped back down the stairs and scooped the woman up, throwing her over his shoulder. “My deepest apologies for my presumptuousness,” he said, beginning to take the stairs in fours and fives. “But time truly is of the essence here. Just use this time to rest and breathe.”
The woman closed her eyes as she bounced and spun up the stairs on his shoulder. “Nicholas, it’s alright; we tried.” She sounded exhausted.
“I am not a god,” he said, breathing hard, as he began taking entire staircases in single bounds, “So I’m not as bound to the List as I would be if I were.” He moved as fast as he could in the cramped quarters. “I’m just a well-meaning man,” he said, as doors whizzed by and the ceiling came ever closer, “doing the best I can. And as long as there’s a chance…” He slid to a stop and wrapped his hand around the handle. “I’ll take it!”
Nicholas opened the door and slid, unseen, into the hallway. He walked right past the guards, opened the penthouse door, sat the woman gently on the floor, then moved down the aisle through the auctioning men. They were all different creeds and colors, all fabulously wealthy, and all unaware of the hunched-over man moving among them until he stopped, and gently touched the arm of a man halfway down the aisle.
The man started at Nicholas’s touch, but Nicholas whispered in the man’s ear, handed him the plastic grocery bag, then moved back.
All eyes were on the two men. Some eyes were hungry, others were curious, while still others were annoyed at the interruption. But as the man opened the bag, he stopped moving. Reaching slowly into the bag, his expression changed from one of cold rage to one of absolute grief as he slowly pulled out a wet teddy bear. The man’s tears began to fall and he hugged the bear to his chest. Its rusty bracelet glinted in the light. “Is there a problem?” the auctioneer called politely.
“There’s no problem,” the man said, voice cracking. “None at all.” He rose to his feet and Nicholas faded from sight as he slowly moved toward the back of the room. “The auction is over. I’m buying the whole lot.” He pulled his wallet out with his free hand and kept a death grip on the bear with his other. “Here’s a check. Enter whatever amount you want, but keep it reasonable.” He looked the auctioneer in the eyes. “Or I call the police. I don’t care anymore. I don’t know anyone else in the room well enough to say whether they were here or not,” he said, making sure the whole room could hear him. “And I’m not turning around, so you can all leave without any consequences. You can go too.” He nodded at the auctioneer. “But all of the girls stay. Profit or not, it’s up to you.” He pulled out his phone.
The man turned to the side, with eyes only for the bear in his hand. “Get me some interpreters,” the man told his assistant as he looked over the bear. “We’re bringing these girls home.” He smiled and began to shed new tears.
“That man’s son was born with diabetes, and it was almost never under control, despite the best efforts of the boy’s parents and the best doctors in the world,” Nicholas said to the woman as men, annoyed and curious, streamed past. “Two years ago, his wife was driving their son home from the hospital. It was very cold that night in Tokyo, and two young men had the bright idea to race their cars across a bridge. To get in front of the other young man meant that the first one would have to use the oncoming traffic lane. He was a good driver with fantastic reflexes, and the nearest oncoming lane was empty.” The penthouse doors closed. “He’d just watched his favorite racing movie, and he’d figured out that he only needed the lane for three and a half seconds. The connection point joining the bridge and dividing the two lanes of traffic was formed entirely from metal plates.” Nicolas helped the woman to her feet. “It was undriven over for days at a time and covered in icy spray from the winter sea. That young man never stood a chance.”
The pair turned back to the man, who was on his knees, hugging the bear, and sobbing into his phone, begging for forgiveness from an astonished female voice. The auctioneer was walking quickly toward the door. “When the front wheels hit the ice, the young man’s car went into a spin. He crossed three lanes and smashed into the car of that man’s wife, going somewhere near 150 miles per hour. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He basically died on contact, but his car stopped. Hers flew into the bridge’s side, smashed into stone, and tumbled into the icy water below. That man’s son died at the age of five,” Nicholas said with a nod toward the man by the podium. “His wife barely survived, and he’s hated her every day since that terrible accident. His heart died along with his son. So a monster grew and festered in its place.” A door on the side of the room opened, and girls began to walk into the room.
Some girls looked to be no older than five, while others were in their teens, and girls falling everywhere between the two ages slowly walked in to meet their fate. The man’s phone tumbled from his grip and he began apologizing to the girls, even bowing to them. Then one little girl gently patted his head. As he looked up, she patted the head of the bear in his grip. The man hugged her close as he sobbed, then moved back as his assistant entered the room. “I’m personally taking each of you back to your families,” he said, regardless of whether they understood him.
“That man’s son was quite smart for his age, and when, at the age of four, his parents explained that he needed to wear a bracelet to let people know about his diabetes for emergencies, he asked if his favorite bear could have one too. So they made a matching bracelet for his bear, with all the necessary contact information printed in the stainless steel. And I… I found that bear this afternoon.” Nicholas held the woman’s hand. “That bear became a gift to save his soul before he took that last step.”
The woman closed her notepad and gave Nicholas’s hand a kiss. Then she pulled him close, as he began to cry. “We can’t save them all,” she said.
“I don’t care what the List says,” Nicholas said, looking her in the eyes. “I can’t give up on them; I won’t! If there’s the slightest bit of a chance, then I’ll take it, every single time.” He spoke as interpreters came through the door.
A month and a half later, a nine-year-old girl in La Paz was thrown onto a dirty mattress. The girl cried and begged, but the suit-wearing man in his mid-40s standing over her was silent as he blocked the rest of the room with his body. He began to take off his belt. “Your parents had only one job,” the man said in the girl’s native Spanish. “It was a simple job. Move the things I told them to move. Nothing more. They could not accomplish that simple job.” The man lowered his pants. “But now they are dead. And from now on you will have one simple job.” He knelt on the bed and reached down.
The low growl of a large cat caused both the man and the girl to freeze. The room was dark, but not dark enough to hide a big cat. Stranger still, the growl seemed to have come from the corner the mattress was pressed against.
The girl began to shake as a whole new fear gripped her. She almost thought she could feel the hot breath of the cat on her neck. The man, meanwhile, couldn’t explain how and why a corner he was only inches from seemed to be extending back into impossible darkness, but two eyes were most certainly looking back into his.
Slowly the man leaned back and put his feet on the floor. As his fingertips left the mattress, a golden-furred paw extended from the shadows and came to rest on the mattress between he and the girl.
The girl dared not move, and forgot how to breathe, as the man’s breathing became ragged. It wasn’t until the second paw came to rest on the mattress that the man realized he was praying to Jesus for forgiveness. The man felt a moment’s shock. He hadn’t prayed since he was a boy.
The lioness’s head emerged from the shadows and her expression was not a happy one. She kept her eyes focused on the man as he shuffled slowly backward. The shadows behind her dissipated as the last of her tail came through, but she stopped at the edge of the mattress before the little girl, ready to pounce, and growling intensely, but not moving from her place between the man and the child.
Slowly the man raised his hands. “G… g, good kitty…” he stammered. Then he stopped as his butt touched something cold and wet.
“It’s common knowledge that lions hunt in groups,” a voice said from the man’s left, near the door. The voice was feminine, but there was an inhuman ferocity and power within it, causing the man to think of a lioness who’d learned to talk like a man.
“Hello, Mya,” a different voice said. The voice was male, and sounded kind, though advanced in years. Turning his head an inch or two, the man before the lionesses saw another man, an old gringo with a long white beard, and black dust all over. He was talking to the surprised girl in accentless Spanish and, strangest of all, the man felt he knew this gringo from somewhere… “Yes it’s me, Mya, you don’t have to be afraid.” The girl’s surprise became confusion. “We’ve come to take you home to your mother, and your father and your brother,” he said, smiling gently. “I’ve been to your house nine times already over the years, and this will be an early trip for me, but I think this time I’ll be delivering the most important present of all.” And that was it. Just as the girl smiled and took the gringo’s outstretched hand. That was the moment it all came rushing back to Manuel.
He’d been about five or six years old, and George down the street had said that Papa Noel wasn’t real. So Manuel had stayed up all night on Christmas Eve waiting and hoping… and just as he was nodding off, just as the grey light filled the windows, Manuel heard a noise. A noise that didn’t fit the house or the neighborhood. Forcing his eyes open, he beheld a gringo in a red suit covered with grey and black dust. The gringo had turned as if he’d known Manuel was there, winked, and run across the room. Manuel had hopped up, and run to follow; but the man was gone as if he’d never been. As if Manuel had simply had a dream. But he’d told George what he’d seen with a proud smile, and he’d kept smiling right through the beating that came afterward, and through all the laughter and mocking which came over the following months. Then Manuel’s block was destroyed by the military. He’d survived. His family hadn’t. He hadn’t smiled or thought of Papa Noel a single time since then… until now.
“Papa Noel!” the girl shouted at the same time Manuel’s mind made the connection. His arms dropped along with his jaw. Papa Noel smiled and took the girl in his arms as if he had no cares in the world as if the room weren’t filled with lions, and the motel room wasn’t in a complex owned by drug lords.
Papa Noel placed the girl gently on the floor, then took her hand again. “Let’s go outside, Mya,” he said, gently as ever, as they began to walk toward the door.
“Papa…” Manuel said, making Nicholas stop. “Please… I’m sorry.” He croaked out of a throat which didn’t seem to work right anymore. “Please! Don’t let them–”
“I really do wish I could save you all,” Nicholas said quietly. “If there was even a chance, Manuel… But you’ve gone too far.” He looked down at Mya’s curious face, and he gave a sad smile. “Let’s go see your family,” he said.
Thinking for a moment, Nicholas bent down and said, “I’m going to carry you, ok?” The girl nodded. “I’ll bet you’re tired after all this,” he said, lifting the girl and resting her head on his shoulder. “I want you to close your eyes, and think of your family. You’ll be seeing them sooner than you think.” He began to walk again and this time, he didn’t stop. He closed the door behind him.
Manuel’s heart felt like it was going to explode from his chest. At the same time, though his legs felt too weak to hold him up. “I heard the little girl begging,” The lion-woman’s voice said. “As if she knew this was not meant to be. I heard her family begging, as well. And now I’ve heard you beg. Turn around, Manuel.”
Manuel managed to make two-thirds of the turn, then he fell to his knees. A needle prick on his chin helped him to look up. The woman was naked and covered in a thin layer of leonine fur. She had the wings of a bird, and her feet were bird’s talons, though lion’s claws extended from her fingers. Her expression was simple and unamused, yet Manuel saw the netherworld through her eyes, and as he watched, a star rose behind her head with eight shining rays of light extending in different directions. In other circumstances, she might have been beautiful. “Mortals are unique in that they can change the destinies of themselves and others. But not all changes need to be made, Manuel. Do you know who I am?” she asked.
Manuel shook his head slowly and gently.
“I am called Ishtar,” she said. “You fancied yourself something comparable to a king here, with your designated lands, servants, and riches.” She brought her claw from beneath his chin. “But did you know that my many duties and functions include the ability to bestow divine right to rule?” she asked quietly.
Manuel closed his eyes and rested his head on the carpet as he sobbed.
“I do not give you that right, Manuel,” she said as she rose from her squatting position. Her lions began to creep closer. “Your false kingdom offended me. So I tore it down.” Manuel began to feel hot breath on his body. “I stand in judgment of you, Manuel. And I find you wanting.”
Manuel began an impressive scream, but it was cut off before he could wake the girl sleeping on Nicholas’s shoulder. Nicholas skirted most of the gore, but he made sure to walk through the dust to his car, trying to at least coat any blood he couldn’t get off his boots.
Placing the girl gently into the back seat of the red, open-top jeep, he climbed in and shut the door gently, but didn’t even turn the engine on until the middle eastern woman climbed in.
Miles later, driving through the Bolivian heat, Nicholas finally broke the silence. “I wish the violence wasn’t necessary,” he said so softly that he almost wasn’t heard over the road noise.
Ishtar gently rested her fingers on his shoulder while she watched the jungle go by. “I have smiled while covered in blood on battlefields, Nicholas,” she said. “But I took no joy in Manuel’s death or the destruction of all that was his. It was necessary. That is all.”
Five months later, winter gripped Earth’s northern hemisphere, and two people climbed off a small plane into the darkness, and onto snow that no human had walked on that year. “Thanks, Tim,” Nicholas said, shaking the hand of the smiling Inuit man inside the plane. “You make the trip a whole lot better than traveling alone could ever be.”
“Between terrorists and scared governments, you stay safe, Nick,” the man in the plane said. “I expect to see you two next year.”
“Count on it,” the woman said, smiling wide. The time was drawing near.
Together the two watched the plane get up to speed and return to the air, watching till the lights faded from sight. “Well, my dear…” Nicholas said, holding out his arm in the darkness. “Shall we?”
“We shall.” She took his arm as they trudged through the snow.
They could both see perfectly well in the Arctic darkness, though they didn’t need sight to know where they were going. They knew the way by heart.
Less than an hour later Nicholas and Ishtar stood before the crowds of gathered elves. “Ladies and gentlemen…” Nicholas boomed. “We spend all year preparing for one event: You, taking care of reindeer, building toys, and mapping out the route for the big night. While Ishtar and I spend the year doing our best to make sure that the people of Earth match up to her Karmic Record.” Ishtar held the list high to cheers and applause. “But tonight’s the night, and in moments it will be midnight.” He looked deep into Ishtar’s eyes as the crowd fell silent again. “And you know what that means,” Nicholas said with excitement.
“I do, indeed,” Ishtar said. “And I thank you this year, as I do every year, for this opportunity to reaffirm my vows, Nicholas. When I first realized how good of a job you were doing taking care of my girls, I was stunned. As the primary god of prostitutes, I didn’t think they had anyone, aside from a few of my sisters and I, to care about them, to see their lives if they passed. Then there was you.” She smiled. “So I spent many an hour trying to find a way to repay you.” Light began to swirl around her body. “But in the end, you gave me a gift instead.” With a flash, the light vanished. “And what should I have expected from you, but a perfect gift? So for the next day and a half, my husband, I will happily let Ishtar rest, and instead, I will be your Mrs. Claus!” She took him in her arms and kissed him deeply as the elves cheered.
“That’s my girl,” he said gently, as he brushed her cheek with a thumb, and the elves began to scatter back to their duties.
“The naughty/nice list,” she said, handing Nicholas the Karmic Record.
“Thank you, my sweet,” he said, sliding the scroll into his innermost jacket pocket. “I won’t let it out of my sight.” Then with a mischievous grin, he asked, “Are you ready?”
“That comes after you return,” she said blushing.
Nicholas chuckled. “Not what I’d meant, though it’s good to see you’re as eager as I. It’s a big year this year, more children than ever.”
“Well I guess we’d better get started, then,” she said with a grin, turning to the stairs and hiking her skirt up for a race. “Last one down shovels the reindeer stalls!”
“Ready…?” Nicholas asked, getting down into a stance himself. “Seeeeeeeeeet…?” He and his wife took turns glancing at each other, and at the course ahead. “GO!”