The Reader of the List
The list had no end. The yellowed, six-inch wide span of parchment, thin as a Bible page, spooled out of the old man’s hands both above and below, falling on the floor in a tangled, Gordian mess. It filled the room, piling up in great drifts of paper that had to be swept aside so others could pass, obscuring the cupboards and bookshelves that lined the wall in an imitation of the snow that fell endlessly outside the single, circular window. A fire blazed in a great hearth at the opposite end of the room, a heavy iron grating covering its wide mouth so that sparks wouldn’t set the never-ending list alight. That had happened but once, and the repercussions had been terrible to behold.
Spectacles perched on the tip of his large nose, the old man peered through the flickering firelight and woodsmoke at each entry on the list—a name and birthday, written in a neat, efficient elfish script. He would read each name to himself, mouthing the words carefully, as though tasting each syllable. On occasion he might stroke his beard and sit back, puffing on his pipe for a moment, his eyes far away. The name would glitter in his mind, a constellation of memories and feelings, each as sudden and as real as though he were experiencing them himself. Sometimes he would laugh at this, a small smile playing across red lips; other times he would sigh heavily, and his lips would retreat behind the snowy tresses of his beard in a deep frown. When this happened, he would produce a small stick of charcoal and draw a thin, black line through the name in question. His inspection through, he would take a deep breath and move on to the next name.
Every few hours, the parts of the list which had been reviewed were snipped off by silver shears and carted away in a wheelbarrow of gold and deep green. It was from there to the archivists, who would record which names were unmarked and marked for posterity. This was, arguably, the most important part of the process, but the old man paid it no heed. He hadn’t the time anymore. All that concerned him, all that could concern him, was the present—the inexorable, pitiless present which consumed his every waking hour.
Name after name after name paraded before his tired, old eyes—the lives of countless people dancing through his heart. He felt the warm glow of a child’s happiness and the lovely flutter of a youth’s discovery; he felt the trembling excitement of young love and the warm pulse of a love well-worn with age. These things made him happy, yes, but also brought with them his own memories, keen and tinged with grief, of times he would no longer see. More and more, however, he found himself drawing his charcoal across the names. These brought with them other feelings—the sting of bitter resentment, the slow burn of buried anger, the shuddering horror of a cruel act, and sometimes even worse things, things which he could scarcely bear to feel. These things made him weary beyond words; they weighed upon his ancient bones like Marley’s chains, and sometimes he would close his eyes for a while before going back to the list.
Once, a long time ago, there had been an end to the list. He could have done it all in a matter of weeks, sent it off to the archivists, and then seen to other duties. Those days, though, seemed far away. He had been forced to delegate so much of the work upon his elves. They, of course, had readily accepted—they were tireless and so very loyal—but he missed the work just the same. With every name on the list that he spoke, that longing grew, until it felt as though there were some massive, black hole at the center of his great belly, gnawing at the edges of his body with feelings of frustration and doubt.
There was nothing to be done, though. The list was more important than his feelings. The list was more important than him, more important than his workers, more important than anything else he did of had ever done. It was a solemn duty he had undertaken long ages ago, and he would not set it down for the sake of his own comfort.
“A fresh pipe, sir?” A shrill voice asked.
The old man looked down at the elf, dressed in the red livery of a house servant, and shook his head. “It is time for my dinner. Surely you know that, Sörig.”
The elf doffed his pointed cap and bowed. “Yes, of course, but…”
“But? No ‘buts’, Sörig, or I’ll have you back down in Sweets and Candies! I’ve a schedule to keep, and a late meal will throw it all off.”
The elf trembled beneath the man’s gaze. “I…I’m very sorry, sir, but I…”
“Dinner, elf, now!” The man roared, his beard shaking with rage.
“Yes, at once my Claus!” The elf bowed even lower and then vanished in the blink of an eye.
“Nicholas,” the old man grumbled, “My name is Nicholas.” He took a last puff from his dying pipe and then tapped the ashes out on the floor. “Nicholas.” He said again, tasting the name.
This time he felt nothing.
Author’s Note: This is the prologue of yet another project I’ve got simmering. Though I’m not actively working on it now, I’d be interested to hear what you think. Want to read more?