“I never liked Santa Claus. I thought he was scary and creepy. I had a problem with him. But the look on those little girls’ faces, when they caught sight of the reindeer and the sleigh – I don’t think I’ll ever see more pure wonder and joy. The girls’ eyes were just huge. One of them said, ‘Oh! Oh!’ And they ran to the window and looked out, and they were saying, ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’ It was just pure joy and credulity. Their utter belief in what they were seeing was just the most beautiful thing. And all the… all the… I’m sorry, but all the shit I’d been through in California, it just got washed away. It was like I was being reborn, just watching those girls and their reaction.”

“That does sound beautiful.”

“But what does this have to do with anything?”

The dumpling inclined her head suggestively.

“Russ didn’t see it the way I did,” Marion said. “He didn’t get it at all. And I couldn’t tell him what it meant to me, because I couldn’t tell him what I’d been through.”

“It’s never too late to tell him.”

“No, it’s definitely too late. That Christmas Eve would have been the time to do it. ‘I had an affair with a married man, I tried to break up his marriage by telling his wife, and I got so crazy they had to lock me up on Christmas morning.’ There was no way that story was going to fly, not with Russ.”

“You were institutionalised on Christmas?”

“Had I not mentioned that?”

“You hadn’t.”

“Well, there you go. That’s how the leopard got his spots.”


“Now you know why I hate Christmas. We can call it a breakthrough, and I can go home and eat some more sugar cookies. Tra-la-la, tra-la-la. I can live happily ever after.”

Sophie frowned.

“We had a horrible fight that night,” Marion said. “Russ and I, in New Mexico. It was our first real fight, and I promised myself we’d never have another one. No matter what it took, I wasn’t going to raise my voice with him again. I would love him and support him and keep my mouth shut. Because he saw something very different when he looked at those two girls. He said he was disgusted by the parents – that they were encouraging their children to worship a false idol. That they were lying to their kids and neglecting the true meaning of Christmas, which had nothing to do with Santa Claus. And I went out of my mind again. I felt like I’d experienced a kind of magical rebirth – something truly Christian, by the way, which was to forgive, oh, not forgive, but to get over… well.”

She felt herself going red. The dumpling’s eyes were on her.

“It was… I’m not explaining it right. Santa was… Santa wasn’t… I could see that it was only an illusion. It was just some cowboy in a Santa suit, not… And somehow that, plus the girls – I was sharing in someone else’s joy and wonder. I knew it was only an illusion, but because it was only an illusion I could be an innocent little girl again myself. And that mattered so much to me, and Russ didn’t get it. I was screaming at him, just out of control. I hated him, and I could see I was scaring the daylights out of him, and I said to myself, nope, never going to do that again, ever. And you know what? I never did. Tomorrow will be exactly twenty-five years that I’ve been keeping my mouth shut.”

The dumpling seemed preoccupied. She glanced over her shoulder at the falling snow. “I’m sorry if this is a difficult question,” she said. “But I feel I have to ask again. Is there something important you’re not telling me?”

A coldness surged through Marion. “What kind of thing.”

I’m not quite sure. There was just – something in your tone of voice. I’ve thought I might have heard it once or twice before, and just now I heard it again, very clearly. I’m not saying I’m a world-class practitioner. And, by the way, in case you didn’t know, I don’t believe in Just So stories. I don’t believe there’s a single key that unlocks everything.