Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gryphon and Tiger and the Big Solstice Blizzard

Winter Solstice was without question the happiest time of year in Town. All the Townsfolk bought presents to wrap in colorful paper and ribbon, and decorated trees with bright newfangled alchemical lights and shiny glass balls, and baked gingerbread critters with cinnamon drop eyes and mittens made of frosting. This year, Eagle’s famous partridge popover recipe appeared in the Town Chronicle, and soon no partridge within fifty miles of Town was safe. Children practiced their Solstice carols and watched the night skies with impatient and longing gazes for the arrival of Jolly Red Elf. As day broke on Solstice Eve, Townsfolk rushed out to run errands and buy last-minute presents and stuff their faces with quiche and rumballs. Everyone looked forward to spending the longest night of the year at home with their families, and the children were so excited that Jolly Red Elf was finally coming!

This year, however, catastrophe struck.

Gryphon and Tiger spent Solstice Eve afternoon shopping for presents. A light snow started falling right after lunchtime while small children were still a little woozy from their rumballs. Tiger saw the snow and danced for joy because he loved snow, especially on Solstice. Gryphon did not like how snow accumulated so quickly on his huge wings, but it made him glad to see Tiger so happy on their first Solstice together, so he didn’t complain.

The snow kept falling harder and harder. After buying the last of their presents, Gryphon and Tiger went to Tiger’s home to wrap gifts and bake partridge popovers, and Mr. and Mrs. Tiger made the boys some hot chocolate. Mrs. Tiger was still a bit frightened of Gryphon’s enormous size, but she overcame her fear and handed Gryphon directly his steaming mug of hot chocolate. Tiger gave his mother a huge hug, and told her she was very brave.

Outside the windows, the snow kept falling.

And falling.

And the wind blew, and more snow fell.

Soon the pudding and pickle carts were having trouble maneuvering down the snowy streets, and the King’s Dim Knights’ hot water bottles started to freeze. The evening paperboy, who was very small, wandered into a snowbank and got lost, and when he finally dug his way out of the snow he was on the other side of Town.

When it was full dark outside and Gryphon was getting ready to go to his own home, Girl burst through the front door of the Tigers’ apartment without even knocking. No one scolded Girl for this because they all knew that was just the way Girl did things.

“Gryphon and Tiger,” Girl cried. “It’s terrible! The snow won’t let up and the zeppelins are grounded and the trains have stopped running, and Jolly Red Elf can’t make it through even with his eight flying rhinos! And he’s bringing me a new stone to sharpen my sword, and my own rock-climbing gear so I can go to the troll caves and keep the trolls in line! Jolly Red Elf can’t cancel Solstice!”

Gryphon and Tiger were both fifteen, and felt they were a little too old to be worried about Solstice presents from Jolly Red Elf. But Girl was twelve and it was important to her, not to mention to every other child who lived in Town.

“Where,” Gryphon asked, “is Jolly Red Elf right now?”

“Oh, it’s dreadful,” Girl cried, and it must have been so because Girl usually never fretted at anything. “Jolly Red Elf’s eight flying rhinos saw the zeppelins huddling around the tall silver zeppelin tower atop Town Central Station, and the rhinos thought the zeppelins were great big beautiful girl rhinos!”

Tiger blinked his gold eyes. “They did?”

Girl nodded. “I think the rhinos had snow in their eyes. Anyway, Jolly Red Elf in his sleigh tried to keep his rhinos from nuzzling the zeppelins, and before you could say pickled pepper partridge popovers, the eight flying rhinos crashed into a snowbank in the street next to Town Central Station! And now the rhinos are too cold to fly!”

Tiger smiled at Gryphon and said, “You know what this means, don’t you?”

Gryphon sighed and groaned. “I’m gonna get snow all over my wings again, right?”

The snow was falling so hard that Gryphon couldn’t fly; so with Tiger and Girl he slogged through the snow in the streets of Town to get to Town Central Station.

They found something of a fluffy kerfuffle at the Station, for Jolly Red Elf, in a desperate bid to keep his grounded and snowbanked rhinos warm, had waylaid eight of the King’s Dim Knights and stolen their hot water bottles.

“Oh dear,” said Jolly Red Elf while he fussed around his rhinos. “ ’Tis the night before Solstice and here I am quivering, with my poor rhinos all snowbound and blue, and quite shivering!”

The eight King’s Knights kept chasing Jolly Red Elf, and the Knights clattered and rattled because their rucksacks were filled with silverware they had stolen from the King’s castle to give to their wives as Solstice presents. (The Knights’ horses had already bucked off the Knights hours before and run off, because the horses were tired of getting their rumps stuck by forks.) But Jolly Red Elf kept moving from snorting rhino to snorting rhino, trying to warm them with the hot water bottles. The Knights kept slipping in the snow and couldn’t catch Jolly Red Elf, who was very nimble for a round little man.

Gryphon waved at Jolly Red Elf. “Hallo!” Gryphon said. “You look like you need help.”

Jolly Red Elf looked up with his twinkling eyes, and then sneezed hard enough that the twinkle went away for a few moments. Then Jolly Red Elf said, “It’s Gryphon and Tiger, the heroes of Town! The workers’ kids love them, but think me a clown.”

Tiger ran after the waddling Jolly Red Elf, who was dressed in red pantaloons and a red coat and a red turban, and had a red nose and red ears, and red eyes from too many rumballs; but his beard and his hair were silvery white.

“Jolly Red Elf,” Tiger cried. “We’ll watch your rhinos for you while you finish delivering presents to the children of Town!”

“I’m sure I can’t do that,” Jolly Red Elf said, “I’m a fair labor boss; and if a rhino got sick, ’twould be a sad, sorry loss.”

Girl leaped over a snowbank, tugged hard on Jolly Red Elf’s sleeve, and actually got him to stop moving. Behind Jolly Red Elf, all eight King’s Knights stopped short, and fell in a pile into a snowbank.

“Jolly Red Elf?” Girl said while she blinked her big, dark, pleading eyes.

Jolly Red Elf smiled, and his face glowed like a jolly red ball. “Why, isn’t it Girl! Such a sweet lovely child! I hear that you’re brave, quite adventurous, and wild!”

“Jolly Red Elf?” Girl said. “Stop talking like that. Seriously.”

Jolly Red Elf cleared his throat. “As you say, if you wish, my dear Girl! The children of the workers are the red stars of the worl—…er, um…future!”

“Good work, pops,” Girl said. “Look, let’s give the presents to these silly Knights back there and let them deliver the gifts to Town’s children while you take care of your rhinos.”

Jolly Red Elf leaned over and whispered to Girl, “D’ya think we can trust them?”

Girl said, “Why, did somebody bust ’em?”

“Well, you hear how they’re rattling.”

“Not over your natter… Aw, fer cryin’ out loud,” Girl cried. “Now you’ve got me doing it!”

“Ho-ho-ho,” laughed Jolly Red Elf. “Ha-ha-ha! Ho-ho-ho-ha-ha-ha!” And he kept on laughing until Girl gave him her most serious look from under her wild, dark curls, and put her hand on the pommel of her sword.

“Um, yes,” Jolly Red Elf said. “Girl, I like your idea! The strong legs and backs of the soldiers of the proletariat put to good use, for a change!”

Gryphon whispered to Tiger, “And I always thought they called him ‘Red’ because of his clothes.”

Tiger chuckled, while Girl helped Jolly Red Elf distribute the presents to the King’s Dim Knights. The Knights stood tall and swore they would not stop until every Solstice gift was safely delivered to its child. In fact, the Knights were filled with so much resolve that they forgot to ask for their hot water bottles back.

So off the Knights marched through the heavy snow, and their boots crunched and their rucksacks teetered and their toybags tottered and their legs trembled, and before long the King’s Knights slipped and tripped and fell. But they bravely stood up, brushed themselves off, and set out all over again, marching further and further down the street. Once more they slipped and tripped and fell, but again they regained their footing and soldiered on. Just as they were about to round a corner and disappear from view, the Knights slipped and tripped and fell again.

This time the Knights began crying, and refused to go any further.

“These Knights are hopeless,” Girl cried. “What are we gonna do?”

No one had a chance to reply because right then, from out of the side streets, Girl’s best friend Blue Girl came hiking through the snow. She was followed by Black Cat Boy and his great friend Fuzzy Bear Boy, and even Eagle, who swooped in and dropped her dear friend Boy into a snowbank, which gave Boy the giggles. Eagle helped the children gather up the presents from the Dim Knights, and took the gifts back to Jolly Red Elf.

“That’s it,” Jolly Red Elf cried. “Solstice is finished! My rhinos are freezing, and I feel quite diminish— ”

“Mr. Elf?” Girl said very sternly.

“Ah, um, yes. Sorry.”

Girl got an idea and ran off down one of the side streets. The snow was still falling in big fluffy flakes, and the rhinos were all covered with a white fluffy blanket. Gryphon shook snow out of his wings amidst his own miniature blizzard.

“I could fly,” Eagle said, “and drop off presents as I go.”

“But,” Jolly Red Elf said, “that takes bags and lists and boxes galore; and you’ve got but two sharp-taloned feet, no more.”

Under his breath, Gryphon said to Tiger, “I hope Girl gets back quickly.”

Tiger said to Jolly Red Elf, “My cousins in Town Zoological Gardens might help us carry the presents. Tigers love snow!”

“The tigers might eat the children,” Gryphon said.

“Not if every child leaves out meat for them,” Tiger said.

Girl came back at last, leading a very irate and frustrated horse through the still-falling snow.

“Surly Horse!” Tiger cried. “Oh no, Girl, you didn’t steal Town Constable’s horse, did you?”

“Nope,” Girl said. “Town Constable let me borrow him!”

Surly Horse snorted. “Lucky for you, Girl, that he thought you were kidding with that s— ”

“Shh!” Girl said, and quickly put her sword away.

Jolly Red Elf cheered. “Hook the horse to the sleigh, while I watch my rhinos! Deliver all the gifts safely, and swiftly, and, um…uh…”

“Quick,” Girl said, “let’s get outta here before he finds a rhyme for ‘rhinos’!”

And soon Townsfolk heard a commotion pass by in the snow. They looked out of their windows and, in the pure white snow-covered streets, they saw what came to be known as The Great Town Solstice Blizzard Parade.

Gryphon marched through the snow leading the way, while Eagle scouted overhead since she didn’t mind getting snow on her wings when she flew. Tiger rode in the sleigh and held the reins of Surly Horse, who complained that the sleigh was much too heavy, and it was really too nasty out for anyone to expect Solstice presents to be delivered, and really, the selfish and greedy children of Town should just learn to do without. Girl came next, leading the eight tigers from Town Zoological Gardens. Each tiger carried a sack of presents, and the big cats romped and roared joyously in the thick falling snow. Down each street the parade marched, and Blue Girl, Black Cat Boy, Fuzzy Bear Boy, and Boy delivered presents to each house along the way. Very nice Townsfolk gave fresh meat to the tigers, which made the tigers extremely happy as tigers love nothing better than fresh meat. Townsfolk gave mugs of hot chocolate to the children, and between houses Girl walked very close to Blue Girl, and Black Cat Boy held hands with Fuzzy Bear Boy, and Gryphon nuzzled Tiger, and Boy watched everyone in love and sighed. Soon the snowbanks were so high that Townsfolk could barely see the parade in the street, so the Townsfolk stood on their stoops and sang Solstice carols to keep the gift-deliverers company. The snowfall grew lighter and, finally, just as the last snowflake fell and the first rosy light of a new day peeked through the clouds in the east, the exhausted marchers delivered the very last present to the very last house at the very edge of Town.

But no one had time to be tired, for all of Town burst out in joy!

The city bells rang and the Townsfolk came outdoors, and hot chocolate and eggnog and hot spiced cider flowed. Children shrieked with happiness over their presents, and the tigers roared, and everyone sang. Girl took Surly Horse back to Town Constable, and even Surly Horse smiled for a moment — but only a moment — when he saw the big bag of oats that Jolly Red Elf had left for him. In fact, the only unhappy people in Town were the eight Dim Knights, whose wives bashed the Knights over the heads with their rucksacks of used silverware, and made the Knights return the stolen stuff at once. Not only did the King look sternly at the Dim Knights, but the poor Knights had to requisition new hot water bottles since Jolly Red Elf’s frigid rhinos refused to give theirs back.

At last, all the Townsfolk went home to eat their Solstice feasts. Tiger’s family went over to Gryphon’s home for a combined feast, and Mrs. Tiger and Mrs. Gryphon got along so famously that Mrs. Tiger was never frightened of gryphons again.

After the feast everyone was sleepy, so they all napped in the Gryphon family’s great room; except for Gryphon, who invited Tiger to his room, and there the boys slept together for the first time in the very same bed, like spoons.

The rhinos soon moved into Town Zoological Gardens and declared they were through delivering Solstice presents during blizzards. So now, each Solstice Eve, Jolly Red Elf borrows the Zoo’s tigers, who are actually disappointed if there’s no blizzard to play in while they deliver presents, because tigers love romping in fresh snow almost as much as they love eating fresh meat. And next to the milk and cookies for Jolly Red Elf, the children of Town always leave out a big, juicy chunk of meat for the tigers.

This is exactly how it happened, and it is not at all true that Jolly Red Elf once had eight tiny reindeer that got eaten by the tigers, as some very mean people say. Admittedly, there was once almost a horrible accident, which is why Jolly Red Elf’s better-known cousin still refuses to speak to him, to this very day.

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