Christmas Eve morning and it is good to be alive. Rudolph, the twenty-seventh reindeer of that name and the twenty-sixth generation since the great legend, prances out of the barn to his personal manger for his annual treat.
His favourite lichen, the one that makes his nose glow red, is missing. He will not be lighting the way for the sleigh tonight. Is he being retired?
“Ho, ho, ho!” Santa says from behind.
“Is this a joke?” Rudolph grunts and turns to face him nose-to-nose, his breath freezing on Santa’s beard. “If so, it’s not funny. Where’s my lichen?”
“There’s a problem.”
“You bet there is.” He nudges Santa to force him to bend a little backwards.
“There was none to harvest this year.”
That is a pathetic excuse. The idiot must be lying. Rudolph snorts to freeze Santa’s beard solid and stomps off to the forest.
“Where’re you going?” Santa shouts.
“Don’t know,” Rudolph yells back.
Rudolph reaches the birches that shield the pines from harsh winds. He glances up at the dancing green and ultraviolet aurora. Pretty. They are bright enough to light up the forest’s depths for him. He looks back along his trail of hoofmarks cut into the crisp snow to Santa, who stands out in scarlet against the log cabin’s lighting. The rest of the reindeer herd watch with amused grins.
“I’m not staying here for them,” he nods his antlers towards the herd, “to tease the hell out of me.”
He leaps between two birches and gallops deeper into the forest, swerving round the pines. The aurora throws no shadows but makes the snow pale green and ultraviolet and the evergreens black bristling shapes. Ahead, a dark grey zigzag cuts across his path.
As he closes in, it becomes a series of frozen waterfalls over granite rocks that glint under the aurora. The trunks are thicker and new saplings have grown, but there is no mistaking the stones. As a nimble light-footed calf, he had secretly followed Santa up this stream. Further on, Santa had rooted through a tumble of stones under a huge pine to pull out handfuls of red threadlike fluff and packed them into a sack.
The excitement of his first Christmas had pushed that strange event out of his mind until now. That red fluff had looked familiar – a kind of expanded red lichen, much like… his lichen before it was dried.
He bounds from boulder to boulder upstream. The stones lying between an old pine’s roots at the stream’s edge are glassed over in ice. He kicks at it with his sharpened winter hooves. Chunk by chunk, freed icicles skitter down the frozen stream. Then his hoof strikes rock. He cracks more ice away and pokes his nose into the hole. Dust prickles his nose. He sneezes.
When he looks, the stones are covered in dust. It must have come from beneath the rocks. He takes a cautious sniff – dried mushrooms. No surprise there, but the earthy oak moss scent of lichen is missing. His red lichen is dead. Santa was right.
He sniffs and snivels. How can he face Santa, filled with his own shame from being wrong and openly so nasty to him? The sleigh-pulling reindeer will hate wearing the heavy lamps and grumble about him not showing the way with his glowing nose. In their eyes, he is a failure. No, he cannot go back; certainly not today or tomorrow.
His tears drop onto the trunk of the old pine. Its pale sheen turns to a glistening reddish black. This tree would have sheltered the extinct lichen. He tongues the damp patch to share a little of his warmth as a thank you for past happiness. It tastes of salt and pine with a hint of dried earthiness. Delicious. He continues licking until thirst drives him to bite into the snow to melt in his mouth.
The tree’s lower trunk has turned a lovely dark red. The snow is yellowish-green and the rocks are lighter shades of browns and grey. The aurora is playing tricks on his eyesight. He must be tired. Time to find somewhere to hunker down.
He follows the stream down until he glimpses a sparkling snow-covered clearing and the streaky grey veneer of a frozen lake peeping through some birches. The faint tinkling of sleigh bells disturbs the silence. Santa is on his way round the world without him. He shakes his head to throw off more tears.
A nest of fallen pine needles within a circle of boulders under a tree catches his eye. That would make a comfy bed. He trots over and snuggles down, but sleep will not come.
The bells become louder. Flying reindeer carrying their heavy red lamps pull the sleigh to swoop down over the lake. With one smooth curve, they land elegantly in the clearing. Show-offs!
Santa removes the lamps from the sixteen reindeer, placing them under the tallest birch. He attaches a spare harness in front of the team and stares in his direction.
“Rudolph, come on out,” Santa says. “We’re on a schedule.”
A chance to reconnect with Santa. He had better take it. After all, it is Christmas. He scrambles towards him with his head bowed down. “I’m sorry.”
Santa gives him a hug. “Good to see you again. Come on.” He holds out the harness.
Rudolph glances at the reindeer. “What about the lamps?”
“Don’t need them.”
“How can you see through the bad weather and clouds?”
“Same way I found you.”
“Well look at you, all lit up like a Christmas tree.”
“What’re you on about?”
Santa frowns. “You don’t know, do you?”
“Go look into the lake’s ice.”
Rudolph does just that. Staring back at him is a handsome reindeer with a glowing red nose throwing off a yellow light. “I… I don’t understand.”
“The golden light’s easy to explain. Your red glow is mixing with the aurora’s green light. Basic physics I learnt from playing with the children’s toys.”
“Not that. Why’s my nose glowing?”
“You must have found some lichen to eat.”
“I didn’t. Honest. All I did was lick some bark and eat some snow. Mind you, the bark did have a strange red colour.”
Santa strokes his beard. “Well, well, well. It was the algae part of the lichen. All these years and I never knew.”
“All lichen’s a combination of fungi and algae working together to help each other.”
“You mean like we work together?”
“Exactly.” He waves the harness to make an inviting jingle. “Shall we go flying?”
“Oh yes!” Like the lichen, it is good to be part of a team.