You’ll forgive this reversal of roles, but I have much to say to you.
You’re a voluptuous twenty-three year old now, a college graduate, and possessed of the coldest diligence I’ve ever known. You came to my attention when you were five, when I read your letter left by the cookies near the tree. The folded letter, more from your parents than you, as it was typed, began, Dear Santa, I have been very good this year. Please leave me a pony. Generic fare. The accompanying photo, however, revealed you. A little girl grinning as she held the head of a decapitated snowman, the snowman’s torso pathetically slumping into its own melt over your right shoulder. Who took that photo? Who printed it for you? Not your parents, I think. They did not know how you must have crept out of bed to insert the picture into the letter. Or perhaps they heard and only smiled to themselves, thinking their precious Jane, believer in Santa, was getting up to see if he’d arrived.
How prec—ocious, I thought as I angled the image against the annoying casino blink of the tree lights. Then I ate the Oreos and closed my eyes to detect the heart’s desire of your family, which I’d then manifest under the tree, nicely wrapped package and all. Magic is a wonderful, handy thing. For your mother, I found she already had the gift she wanted in her husband. Such love, such devotion. Your father, too, had the only gift he wanted: you. Such fierceness there, I could only believe it to be love. But when it came to you, what I saw in the darkness of my closed lids was you holding the snowman’s decapitated head, your fingers digging until it crumbled into bits of ice and fluff. You wanted another head in your clutches, but this head had hazy human features.
Shaken, I tucked your photo into my coat and decided to leave you a doll. I’m sure you decapitated it by January.
When you were six, you left a crayon drawing of large black birds flying under an enormous sun. The sun had a face so sinister, so evil that I could not help being struck breathless a moment. It was like Raisin Bran’s Sunny the Sun turned cruel, two scoops to dig mass graves with, gloating over a world baked into desolation. Such . . . imagination, I thought, and also tucked it into my coat. Then I read the desires of your family and again found nothing I could give your parents that they did not already have. For your mother, her husband. For your father, his daughter.
And for you . . .
You’ll recall that I gave you another doll. And then, frankly, I fled your house so fast I forgot to even touch the cookies.
You took this as a slight, didn’t you?
Jane, let me pause a moment to say your body is magnificent. The hours each week you must put into exercising, the pride you must have in your flesh. Or is pride the right word? Your beauty is your greatest weapon. Did Jack the Ripper take pride in keeping his blade sharp? Or were the hours spent honing it only a matter of duty, of readiness? I see you dancing up on the narrow catwalk with four other young ladies, and I know their names—their real names, not whatever they call themselves as performers—and I remember what I brought them when they were young. Chemistry sets, STEM products, Legos. How girls have changed over the centuries, though this is not a bad thing.
Oh, Jane, do you even notice me at this table near the back? If so, what do you see? A bearded old fat man leering at girls young enough to be his grandchildren? (In reality, many more generations removed than you can fathom). It seems I just caught your eyes. Could you be thinking, That bastard looks like Santa Claus. Maybe when I’m done I’ll go over to his table just to flirt and fuck with him. I hope you do not, as that would mean I have to interrupt this letter to you.
And by the end of it, you will see that it’s a little early to meet in person yet.
The Christmas Eve of your eighth year brought me some ease. You desired a kitten, and toward that kitten I detected the same secret protectiveness your father felt for you. From your mother, a touch of anxiety—but only a touch, as if she’d noticed the barest imperfection in the otherwise perfect diamond of her husband. It pleased me very much to give you that cat. You named him Nicholas.
Only eight years old and already gifted with so much irony. How advanced you were.
Your ninth Christmas Eve found Nicholas under the tree where I’d last left him. He seemed well fed and alert, detecting me with that special animal sense of his as soon as I appeared. He leapt onto my chest. I’ve never been clawed so furiously. He kept trying to poke his head between the black buttons of my coat. At last he managed a breech and squeezed his entire body against my belly. How he shivered. And I realized he wanted me to take him away. The gifts I give cannot be taken back. They do break, they do expire—so safe, that term for death—but such things are out of my hands. I stroked Nicholas and said soft things under my breath, then placed the cat back on the ground. Others will disagree, but cats do not, in my opinion, have expressive eyes. At that moment, I was very glad you’d not asked for a dog.
You left no note this time, and I thought the gap of silence, the gap of age had started. Nine year olds typically don’t write letters to Santa, do they? It’s too childish. Sometimes teenagers will write, often to be sarcastic or sardonic or frivolous. People in desperate middle age will write out of some sense of catharsis, asking for everything and nothing, the return of innocence. But more often, an adult writes to me only in extreme old age, when senility has returned the mind to childhood wonder. These letters touch me the most.
So when you were nine you left neither letter nor drawing nor photograph. But there were cookies, homemade, a little strange in texture and taste. I knew you’d baked them, and I thought their foulness a result of your inexperience. She is only just learning to cook, I told myself. Maybe she refused her mother’s help to show her independence. Of course I ate them all regardless of the bitter flavor and an aftertaste like liquid Mercury. Then I sought and found your heart’s desire. A book called Enyclopedia of Poisons and Antidotes. How I wished I’d not eaten the cookies first. Forewarned is forearmed.
Regardless, I gifted you the book. How in the world did you hide it from your parents?
The next five Christmas Eves told me you’d studied its pages well, each new plate of cookies doused or baked with increasingly elaborate toxins. I ate them to show you I was not afraid. To annoy you, I thought I might leave you a toy fit for a three year old, something you’d smash in disappointment and rage. But then I saw your heart’s desire was for light. Light against a darkness blacker every year. Not understanding, I left you a flashlight. Then my thoughts turned toward your mother. She wanted escape in some undefinable way. I considered leaving a new car in the driveway, but that did not seem adequate. It was more transformative, a desire for wings sprouting from her back.
She received a gift certificate for flying lessons.
Less and obscure over those next five visits was the desire of your father. But he was still enjoying his favorite gift.
You’ll forgive my prior blindness.
But of course you forgive no one and nothing.
Were the vile cookies even meant for me in the first place, Jane? Were they always for your father, reasoning one bite and swallow might give you freedom and your mother her wings? The plan could have worked, but each time it was I, bumbling old Santa, who ate them first, working each nasty, painful bite down in a misunderstood war of spite. Did it make you fear your father all the more because you assumed he did eat the cookies, he must have, and now he came to you early on Christmas morning alive and invincible? How you must have submitted in deepening resignation. But never fully resigned. There’d be another Christmas, another plate of cookies, and a stronger, more exotic poison to try. It was, after all, a thick encyclopedia. One had to work eventually.
I noted Nicholas was gone. I take it you needed a test subject?
Jane, you are alone on the stage now, moving like a ribbon in the wind. The men crowd around with their dollars waving as you toss your top away. You’re a wonderful pole dancer. Bitterness might provoke me into making a North Pole reference. But is that how a jolly old elf behaves?
Have you still not noticed me? Well, I haven’t much presence outside of Christmas Eve, when my strength gathers. If I visited here two days from now, you would know it.
But of course I’ll be too busy doing my thing elsewhere—everywhere.
I want to say that I’m sorry I did not prevent the abuse. I know some of what you are now is because of what you endured then. But nurture isn’t everything. You and I know the excuses just as we know the score. Nature has its role regardless, and I have to think you agree with me that your tastes would have brought you to murder one way or the other. We rationalize what we do—or don’t do. “Reason is also choice.” That’s a line from Paradise Lost, and if you think it strange that I quote something so Christian in nature, I will remind you of something—
I’m rumored to be a saint.
But what am I really? A genie that comes once a year, tries to make sense of and please human desires, eats the cookies, and then moves mistily from house to house, apartment to apartment, visiting mansion and hovel alike. What is my nature if not persistent permissiveness?
Strangely though, Jane, I’ve come to feel you’ve nurtured me into something else.
On your sixteenth Christmas Eve, you asked for the knife.
Your subconscious must have crafted it over many years. I saw it so clearly behind my closed eyes. Platonists would call it the KNIFE, the ideal that all other knives strive to be. Not quite as long as a machete, not quite as curved as a katana. Jagged teeth near the tip for sawing. I even saw—and this, Jane, is rare—what you wanted to saw and cleave and rend. Such a red fever dream. Then I knew all three of you were upstairs awake, though your mother had become so cold and insensate she might as well be dead. Her heart’s desire had no ambiguity now: beating wings, wings so huge their gusts could bow trees. She had forged her own wings and riveted them in her head, and that’s where she took flight. She was sailing over some distant ocean, too far away to hear your cries through the adjoining wall.
Your father played with his toy again, but his satisfaction had at last begun to fade. All presents and gifts lose their appeal eventually, Jane. Most people outgrow their toys. His was the tragic case of the toy outgrowing him.
And your eyes were open and you wanted nothing but the knife, its image becoming clearer and clearer. I heard the sounds from upstairs. A creature was stirring, whimpering, pleading.
I held out my hand toward the tree.
Then turned it toward the ceiling and your bedroom.
Was there any bafflement when the knife appeared in your grip? Could you believe it at first when your fingers squeezed around the handle of your heart’s desire?
Christmas came early that year.
When I visited the house on your seventeenth Christmas, I found no one home. No furniture, no tree. You didn’t seem to exist in the world that year, but eventually I did locate your mother in the arms of another man. Her wings had stopped flapping. A new baby was her heart’s desire. I’m sad to say her lover wanted a sex doll for Christmas. Pliant as your mother’s always been, it seemed to me he already had one.
But that is cruel.
Where were you that year, Jane? What cave did you dwell in?
I found you again on your eighteenth Christmas Eve. Upstairs with Ryan Cannady, alone in his parents’ vacation home. No tree, no lights, no trappings of the holiday spirit. But the cookies were there, and you’d kept your special little tradition. You fed them to him as you both lay naked on the floor beside a roaring fire. He made a face and but didn’t complain about the taste because he didn’t want to blow a chance for sex. And you crammed the rest of that cookie past that big, goofy smile of his while I watched from a darkened corner, unable to grant any gifts. Ryan had his desire—you. You had your desire—him. No, more than just him.
You clutched his lifeless head in your lap until morning came.
How many have there been since then, Jane? I make sure to find you every Christmas Eve. Crisscrossing the world, scouring every nook and cranny, every apartment and crack house and prison cell and homeless shelter. Remember the Christmas of your nineteenth year, which you spent in a college dorm? You must have been the only person in the whole building. You were in bed, whispering gibberish as the knuckles of your left hand swept back and forth along the floor. You had a little Christmas tree in the corner. It provided the room’s only light, those little bulbs of yellow, green, blue and red.
I saw the plate of cookies nearby.
And this time I wasn’t the first to try them. I looked between you on the bed and the half-eaten cookie on top and understood suicide was your heart’s desire, a gift you’d tried to give yourself. You would be dead now except for me. For the only time in thousands of Christmas Eves, going back before the night even carried that name, I answered to my own heart’s desire. I stretched my hand out, touched your face, and said, “What do you want for Christmas?”
Your brow creased. Your lips organized the gibberish into a single word. “Daddy . . . Santa?”
“What if it’s either, Jane? What if it’s both?”
“I killed . . . will kill . . .”
You said nothing else, and I saved you from the poisoning. I left you in a deep sleep. Perhaps you woke up thinking it’d all been a dream. I wonder what your reaction was when you found the empty plate of cookies.
How many more people died because I let you live?
If only my powers of mindreading extended beyond the ability to detect desired gifts so I could know the tally of your murders. So that I could know whether it’s your father’s face you see when you kill them, and if you still use the knife of your sixteenth Christmas. So that I could know if you ever look at all the thousands of images of me on billboards and Coke bottles and begin to tremble and think, Why didn’t you stop it? Why didn’t you hear me? You’re the reason I am like I am. My father is secondary.
I want to believe you only kill on Christmas Eve, an annual reminder of your first success. Then at least there would be fewer victims.
But I suspect it’s always Christmas in your mind when you murder, and with you Christmas comes more than once a year.
Jane, your dance number nears its end and you have a wreath of dollar bills in your garter. The holly berry pasties are a nice touch. You have the eyes of a snow owl scanning a field of mice. Which one have you singled out? Which one is on your list?
A nauseating word. Did you ever think that we both might be sick of Christmas, sick of pretending there’s a naughty or nice list? If I enlisted the CIA, MI5, Mossad—every spy resource that exists or ever existed—I still could not compile such a thing, nor would I want the depression their disparate lengths.
But therein lays the problem, doesn’t it? The frivolous amorality of my gift giving. Naughty or nice—no matter. Gentlemen merry or murderous—no difference. You’re not the first sinister person I’ve encountered. You’re not the first serial killer I’ve met. All received their gold watches or new radios or cookware or whatever their heart’s desire happened to be that Christmas Eve. I gave and left without a second thought. But you are, believe it or not, truly the first to catch my attention. Like a snowball rolling, accreting size and presence. You are massive in my mind now. You almost make me heavy. You were the first to leave me a photograph of a decapitated snowman. You were the first to leave a drawing of haunted black birds soaring under a devilish sun. You were the first to poison the cookies left out for Santa.
I believe we must haunt each other’s dreams.
Dear Jane, the music has ended. Your dance is over and the boys begin to filter back to the empty tables. You’ll visit them soon, all these Santas with hungry laps. I’m tempted to stay long enough to figure out exactly which one you plan to kill.
Writing this letter has been cathartic. For the second time, I’ve given myself a gift. Of course I mean for you to have it. There is a man in the corner, one of the security staff, and I talked to him a bit before you and the other dancers came out. I’ve been here for some time tonight, you see. His name is Mark and he said, “Dude, you look just like Santa. Do you go out to malls and do photographs? You’d make serious bank.”
I’m going to fold this letter a few times and write your name on it. Then I’m going to ask Mark to give it to you. Surely a gesture to set off warning bells, but because I look like Santa he’ll likely oblige. And should he open it (hello, Mark, if you’re there), he’ll just be confused and think the kindly, jolly man who looked like Saint Nick was really a madman the entire time. Not the first he’s encountered in a place like this. Still he might give it to you just for kicks.
Or maybe he’ll throw it into the trash.
One way or the other, though, you’ll read this letter from Santa. Call it fate. Call it Christmas magic. This is just a note to say we need to talk in person at last, and we will, and I want you to be ready. Have the cookies made, Jane. Between them and the heavy topics of nature, nurture, what makes us what we are, and how do we forgive ourselves for acting accordingly, there’s going to be a lot to swallow.
In closing, to humor Mark if he’s still reading, I should simply echo the time-honored conclusion of every madman’s missive—I know where you live.
And I will see you soon.