Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

December 26th, 2005

A Christmas Meeting
(Fiction, of course!)

It was chilly, but not intolerable. He had fished in worse. Oh, the ride in the boat was a little bit more frigid, but then, it was only about fifteen minutes. He could stand that, dressed as he was in fleece socks, a tee shirt under a flannel long-sleeve and a heavy jacket. The gloves on his hands kept his fingers warm as he held the steering wheel. Only his cheeks were a bit flushed from the cold.

Just after dawn, and he was working the edge of round, flat-topped lilies, beads of water on their dish-sized faces like smooth gems. He slowly, painfully slowly, dropped a small beadhead around the base of the lily. He felt like he was moving so slowly he was frozen in place. The lake stretched out behind him, just as the sun peeked over the horizon like a great orange eye.

He cocked his head, thinking he heard something just on the peripheral. A tinkling, of sorts. But then it was gone. He worked the little nymph carefully, waiting for the tell-tale twitch of his floating line, anticipating the slight tug under his finger, but his quarry was cold and it would take incredible patience to get him to bite.

There. Again, a slight tinkling, but from the other side of the lake now. A jingling sound, like chimes. Then it was gone. He imagined his ears were so cold they were playing tricks on him, his eardrums slightly frosted.

But then he heard it: A distinct ringing of bells, a whoosh! through air, and he spun around just in time to see the most incredible of all imagined visions.

The sleigh came in at a bevel; one skid hit the surface of the lake, slid sideways and, still cantered, piled forward like a runaway barge, pushing a great swell of water ahead of it. The eight beasts of burden scrambled at the water, splashing each other in the faces, trying to get a foothold.

The angler leaped out of his pedestal seat and nearly threw his rod overboard. He thought at first he had frozen his brain on the ride to the lake, but no, there it was, a sleigh, coming down across the lake surface in a giant spray and fantail, reindeer struggling frantically to regain control, and the red-suited, red-faced and bearded man within holding the reins was shouting, "Whoa! Whoa! I said, WHOA!"

It came straight at him, this vision of lunacy, approaching sideways and quickly. He fell on the deck and hit the trolling motor foot control with his fist, but the boat only lurched toward the oncoming apparition.

At the last moment, the reindeer gained control. The sleigh righted itself, both skids touched water, the old man in the seat tumbled backwards into an empty cargo carriage, and the deer - feet forward, braced for impact - managed to stop the calamity in the nick of time. Still, a gush of water leaped at the boat, drenching him. He stood there, dripping and trembling, mouth agape.

The sleigh sat there, miraculously floating, and the reindeer even more amazingly standing on the water's surface, panting heavily and looking as if they were in desperate need of egg nog.

While the angler stood there, staring in dismay, the old codger popped up from behind the seat of the sleigh, all red and white, his face now more flushed than before. He eyed the reindeer in disgust.

"Do we understand that 'whoa' means 'stop everything and don't move'?" he asked the reindeer in a tone reeking of frustration. The reindeer just shrugged, as if they were used to being so chastised.

The driver eyed the angler and sighed. "Venison," he muttered. "Great on the grill, worthless when it comes to navigation."

"I..." said the fisherman. "Who...?" He swallowed. "Huh?"

"And you!" said the old man, his fat tummy rolling in giant tremors with the exclamation. "You! You're the cause of all this!"

"Muh-muh-me?" He wondered if he still had that flask of scotch in his pack.

"Yes, you," said the old elf. "Don't act surprised. I've been circling around looking for your house for hours. It's daylight, man! I am vulnerable! I am exposed! Lucky thing Blitzer here spotted you, or we'd probably still be circling this lake and causing quite a media circus."

The angler opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. He figured the flask was empty. It had to be, because he was surely dead drunk.

"Well?" asked the curmudgeon in the sleigh. "What, no cookies and milk for old Santa?"

"Cookies?" the fisherman blurted. "Milk?"

"What's wrong, abominable snowman got your tongue? Jeesh. Four hours of circling, almost barreled into a cell phone tower" - at this he glowered menacingly at the lead reindeer, the one with the red nose - "and all I get is 'Cookies? Milk?' I coulda got electrocuted."

The angler sat down. He shook his head. "You're not real," he said at last.

Santa guffawed loudly. "Philistine," he said. He rummaged around in the back of the sleigh, picking up package after brightly-wrapped package, muttering. "Jamaica. Moved, no forwarding address. The White House. Couldn't get through security. Toledo, alarm system tripped. Beijing. Surely a practical joke." Finally he found a long box wrapped in red. "Ah-ha! Here, catch."

The package flew toward the angler, and he caught it but barely, nearly fell overboard into the chill water in the process. "Way to go, Ace," Santa said. "By the way, your handwriting is atrocious. I've gotten pre-kindergarten letters easier to read."

He eyed the fisherman with interest. "So, what the blazes possesses a man to go fishing on Christmas morning?"

"Uhm," sputtered the fisherman. "Well...that is to say... er..."

"Wisdom," growled Nick. "From the mouths of babes. Not married? No kids?"

"Married," the angler admitted. "Three kids. They'll be up in a few minutes. It's still only 6 a.m. I'll make it home in time, really. Just a couple more casts and..." He trailed off helplessly.

Santa snorted. "I'm not surprised. I've known lots of fishermen, chased them all over God's blue waters on Christmas morning. Never understood it. One time, I had to deliver a gift in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Can you believe that? Nearly zero degrees, and this guy is fishing in the middle of Chesapeake Bay!"

"Why don't you just leave them under the tree like you do for everybody else?" the fisherman wondered. He suddenly heard himself speaking to the hallucination and shook his head. "Madness," he whispered.

"Because," Santa explained, rolling his eyes as if speaking to a simpleton, "If I leave your precious new fly rod, or your Orvis waders, or your stinking woolly buggers under the tree and the cat rips up your waders, the kids break your rod, or the dog eats your woolly buggers, who are you going to blame? Me! I'm the culprit, I'm the bad guy!" He glanced around at the lake, the pond lilies and cypress trees. "Say, you ever catch anything here?"

The fisherman shrugged. "Sometimes. You gotta work at it in the winter."

"I bet." He eyed the rod. "Nice. Five-weight? Fishing beadheads, real slow, I'll bet."

"Uh, well, yes." Madness, he thought again. Who would pay the therapy bills?

"So slow it makes you feel like time stops," Santa noted, his eyes glazing over.

"It's like that, you're right."

"But," Santa went on, gazing dreamily at the rod, "when that line twitches, or you feel that barely noticeable tug, lookout! It's the lunker of a lifetime! The catch of the day!" He laughed, jolly and wholesome.

"Wait a minute," said the fisherman. "I know. You don't leave the presents under the tree because you'll get blamed if they get messed up. You leave them there because you want to fish!" The revelation stunned him.

"Me?" The old elf laughed again. "Yeah, right. It's a boring, pathetic sport that keeps you away from home on Christmas morning. Besides, you ever tried to fish through ice five hundred yards thick?"

"That's it," he said. "You're dying to go fishing!" The satisfaction overwhelmed the angler.

"Bah," Santa spat. "At the cost of out-of-state fishing licenses? You're kidding me. To sit in the bleak cold, waiting for a pea-brained creature to bite a bead-headed nymph, then you gotta reach into that cold water to get him, and all for what? You're going to put it back in the water. Just to say you caught a fish? A moron with a spear could catch a fish. All that casting, those open loops and double-hauls…" Now his eyes began to glaze over again. "Those roll casts. That clicking drag. Oh, that sweet, sweet smell of floatant!"

The angler said, "I have an extra rod."

Santa recoiled as if he had been struck a blow. "Madness!" he agreed. "Out here in the broad daylight? Why, I might as well march right down Broadway and get it over with."

"It's a sweet little Winston," the angler prodded.

Shaking his head vigorously, like a gambler trying to make it out of Vegas alive, Santa waved his hands in protest. "No, no, no. I gotta get back to the Pole. You need to get back to your family, you reprobate. Fishing on Christmas morning! The nerve! The gall! The...oh, just hand me a rod, quick."

So they fished, the angler in his boat, Santa in his sleigh. While the fisherman guided the boat along the lily patch with the trolling motor, the old elf whispered instructions to the reindeer: "Not so fast. Come out a little, you beasts, I can't even load the tip this close. Slow down!"

In all, they managed a few large bream and Santa hooked into a great largemouth that broke the tippet right at the skid of the sleigh. He was so furious he howled, kicking Dancer in the tail.

Then it was over and Santa handed the rod back. "Thanks," he said, grinning. "That was fun. It's been a long time since I had a 'one that got away' story to tell. Now, you need to get home. The kids are stirring in their blankets. They'll be rushing out to the tree by the time you pull up the driveway!"

"You know that?"

Santa grinned more widely. "There's still some magic left in this old elf!" he said. He picked up the reins. The reindeer shuffled anxiously, ready to be off. "Next year," he warned, "put up a signal light to home in on."

With a wave and a hearty laugh, he twitched the reins and the reindeer leaped skyward, carrying the sleigh with them. They swung out in a wide arc over the lake, feet pumping at air, and narrowly missed the top of a huge cypress at the last moment. "Watchit!" he heard Santa raging. "Watchit, watchit WATCHIT!" Then they were gone, jingling, fading into memory.

The angler sat there for a few moments, wondering if he would ever tell anyone what happened that Christmas morning. Probably not. He packed his gear and sat behind the wheel of the boat. The long package leaned at his side. He picked it up and tore through the wrapping, opening the end of the box. Peeking inside, his face turned from grin to grimace.

Looking up at the brightening sky in the direction Santa and his sleigh had gone, he yelled, "Cane ROD! I said, cane ROD!"

As he started the boat and pointed the bow toward home, he figured he could at least save the walking cane in the package until his old age. It had, after all, come from Santa Claus himself! ~ Roger


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