SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN
Nicholas Saint wasted no time as he left the infarmary. Had this been any normal situation, even though normal for Saint meant the world was teetering on the precipice of destruction, he would have taken time to organize himself, to prepare for what lay ahead. But this was different. This was Caruthersville, Ohio.
Saint entered into one of the buildings north of the Workshop, a playful name for the compound’s primary structure given it over the years as Saint’s librarians collected tales and anecdotes of Santa Claus. The building he currently occupied, however, resembled an Iroquois Indian longhouse. What it was inside, however, proved more garage than domicile.
Vehicles of varying descriptions lined the walls and filled the floor of Saint’s Motorlodge. Most resembled machines outsiders would recognize to some degree, from bicycles to automobiles and beyond. Some defied modern technology, however, such as the conical white pod on the far left, two black scalloped wings arching out of its sides. And others were exactly what they appeared to be, but so much more. Like the exquisitely crafted crimson and gilded sleigh that held its place of prominence in the center of the lodge. Saint’s pride and joy, the sleigh was held in high esteem by all, not only for the legends and truth associated with it, but the story behind how a man truly could guide a sleigh at night through the sky.
Even though that journey was just days away, Nicholas Saint walked past his guilty pleasure for travel and to what appeared to be a red walled additional room jutting out from the back wall of the lodge. The room was about ten feet in height and approximately seven feet across, extending six feet out into the lodge. The front appeared to be a solid wall, except for a seam that ran from top to bottom.
Normally, two attendants would be present to assist their benefactor, but Hieronymous’ call for a Round Table meeting went out as Saint walked from the barn to the lodge. Left to his own devices, Saint approached the box, pushed a switch depressed into the left side of it, and stood back. Noiselessly, twin doors on the front of the room opened to reveal one of Nicholas Saint’s most astounding achievements, nearly rivaling the sleigh and glowing reindeer.
The Pogo, so named for its partial resemblance to the child’s toy that came into vogue around the time Saint developed his latest technological miracle, looked to be nothing but a red pole with horizontal handles at the top and black boots, at least the front half, attached to its base. Before Saint stepped into the room, he reached inside his red coat with his left hand. In his fingers when he pulled it out was a small silver box, no markings or labels on it. Saint pushed one end of the box with his fingers, sliding it open, and then lifted it to his lips, letting the two white pills inside it fall into his mouth. Replacing the box, Saint grinned as he remembered the first time he had tried out the Pogo and why Hieronymous had devised and given everyone ‘Pogo Pills’ after that.
Slipping the box back into his coat, Nicholas Saint walked straight ahead into the cabinet like room. He slid first his right foot, then his left into the boot like stirrups and took hold of the handle with both hands. Taking a breath, he squeezed the left handle hard, pressing a switch inset on its underside. Gears and cogs ground around him as from each side jerked two golden halves of a capsule. The two pieces came together, a sharp whoosh of air and a loud snap indicating they were sealed. Closing his eyes as he always did riding the Pogo, Nicholas Saint squeezed the right handle, activating a second switch. A mechanical squeal and a sound much like thunder later, a hatch opened up beneath the golden capsule holding The Saint of Adventure and the Pogo fired into the specially constructed reinforced pneumatic tube beneath it.
As the capsule torpedoed through the tube, Nicholas Saint calculated how many stops he would have to make between the North Pole and Caruthersville. Although the Pogo tubes were on every continent and even some uncharted land masses on the globe and most connected to the others, the first leg from the hidden enclave wasn’t a straight line to anywhere except a departing depot in a hidden fortress in Siberia. From there, Saint would enter a chamber literally lined with over one hundred Pogo portals and take one to Anchorage, then from there to New York, and finally on to Caruthersville. Even with the changing from tube to tube, he would be in Ohio long before any other means of transport could get him there, thanks to the almost inconceivable mechanism by which the pneumatic tubes worked. Except for the sled. But that was only used one night a year. No exceptions. Not even Caruthersville, Saint thought.
The small Ohio town haunted Nicholas’ thoughts as his Pogo collided with the cushion of air meant to stop the capsule without destroying it at the Siberian end of his ride. Wasting no time with pleasantries, although he knew he should have, with the natives from the Village assigned to man this post, Saint climbed into the capsule bound for Anchorage and was off again, his mind still on Caruthersville.
Two days before Christmas, 1922. Leon Jarvis, a young man who’d given his all and then some at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918, was the resident Santa Claus of Caruthersville, Ohio even then. Many considered Leon addled or made simple by his time in the War to end All Wars, but Saint always knew it was something more than that. He’d gone to war a boy with dreams of glory and returned a man with scars time wouldn’t heal and a need to hang onto hope every day thereafter. And hope for Leon Jarvis was found in every aspect of Christmas.
It was Leon who sent the jingle to Nicholas Saint in 1922, but in no way was Leon alone in his devotion to the holiday, at least not until then. No, Caruthersville was known far and wide as “Santa’s Hideaway,” transforming every year right after Halloween into a postcard’s vision of a Christmas village. It was what had drawn Nicholas there many times, allowed him to make Leon’s acquaintance and recruit the young veteran as one of Santa’s helpers. Bette and Nicholas had even spent time alone there, allowing themselves to be away from the Village, but wanting to feel that closeness, that same atmosphere somewhere else. They found it in Caruthersville.
Children. That was what had caused Leon to use the radio device Saint had given him a few months before to contact the Village. A week prior, Leon reported, he’d heard parents talking about waking up in the middle of the night to find their boys and girls, all under the age of 18, awake. Awake and dancing. Hopping around like fireflies and frogs, Leon had said. It was a few at first, two or three, but as each day passed, more and more reports came in of children dancing in their homes at night. The strangest aspect had been that all of the children didn’t know why they were dancing and could not stop on their own. And, Leon said, they all to a child said they only remembered a song, a tune that each thought he or she had dreamed.
As Nicholas disembarked in Anchorage, his eyes misted over as he thought about that night, how his body, as near to human perfection as possible according to many, even ached with exhaustion and battle fatigue. The greatest conflict he’d ever faced, the very reason that he felt he’d been allowed to live as long as he had, had finally ended just three days before Leon’s jingle. It had been War, plain and simple, Saint reminded himself as he entered the capsule bound for New York. A War with the whole world at risk that most of its population never even knew about.
And fortunately Saint and his companions, those who walked away alive, had proven victorious. Beings and creatures that many thought only populated children’s stories and mothers’ disciplinary legends stood toe to toe, each casting their lot either with Saint or with one as evil as The Man Called Claus was good. And though he shook hands with Death itself and endured tortures and agonies no one could imagine, Nicholas Saint walked away, wounded, but alive, leaving his dreaded foe mired in darkness and shrouded in blessed mistletoe.
So, when Leon’s plea for help came in, saying that now everyone in Caruthersville was anxious, that children and their parents no longer slept, they simply sat up at night waiting for whatever caused them to climb out of bed and dance. Boys and girls complained of hearing the music even when awake the two days before Leon had contacted Saint, and that they had to fight not to dance in the broad daylight.
Saint told Leon himself that it was indeed something he and his teammates would check out, that someone would be en route to Caruthersville as quickly as possible. He’d sent Jack on ahead then, just as he had now, only then more out of plan than convenience. Icy devil, as Black Peter called him, or not, Frost definitely had a charm that garnered him much grace and luck in all the years Saint had known him.
Hours after Jack had left, one of the first to ride the Pogo, Saint was with Hieronymous Virginia tending to the animals of the Village’s bestiary injured in the War when a sudden, horrifying thought occurred to him.
There had been no music during the War. As a pastime or a weapon. Not one note from across the battlefield. Bette had mentioned it, noting that their opponents never went into battle as an army without music, never until this final conflict. Nicholas agreed with her, but foolishly overlooked it as unimportant, as meaningless in light of the blood shed and the stakes at hand. But, then, as he tended to the broken wings of turtle doves that had proven instrumental in the final battle, Bette’s observation picked at him again. No music. And, he recalled, the one responsible for the music every time before, his body was not among the dead nor one of the prisoners that Saint hoped to rehabilitate.
No music. And no Piper.