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  • Alan Allinger

Once a Heartless Child


I looked out the front door and saw our neighbor at the bottom of the steps. She was talking and laughing.

“Will you ask the Lightning Girl if she needs anything?” my mother asked.

“Of course,” I said. I stepped onto the porch and looked down to where the Lightning Girl stood at the bottom of the stairs. “Good morning,” I called out to our visitor. “Will you come in for juice and toast?”

The girl was standing by the newel post, and she turned with a child’s jerky rapidity to look up the stairs at me. The Lightning Girl is one of our more powerful and unpredictable neighbors. It’s wise to be cautious around her, but she’s always been social enough. We wave and smile at one another when we cross paths, but we apparently have very different schedules. Mother and I looked at the streaks that hung above her, and the Lightning Girl laughed as she saw us inspecting them.

“I ought not to be inside just now,” she said gaily, putting one hand on a lightning bolt by way of explanation, “but if you can bring something out for me, I am feeling peckish. Thank you.” For a creature with such power, she’s remarkably polite and considerate. Mother pulled toast off the rack and I poured a glass of orange juice and we all met at the bottom of the stairs with plate, napkin, and cup. We must have looked curious, or perhaps she was just feeling chatty, because she launched into an explanation.

“The story goes,” she told us, clearly savoring the strawberry jam on her very buttery golden-brown toast, “that once, long ago, a brave but lonely girl walked into the heart of the storm and asked the lightning to play with her, and to be her friend. The lightning had never had a friend before, and it was lonely too, so it agreed. Now they accompany one another even on the prettiest of days.” She smiled, and the lights about her glowed brightly.

This morning both bent bolts and irregular spheres of power twined about her, and she was giggling as if the lightning tickled. More than once, I have seen her talking to and playing inexplicable games with the brilliant, deadly streaks and blobs of bright voltage. I could not be certain if the lightning was laughing, but it flickered as it moved about, looking like the reflections off a river’s rapids on a sunny day. The Lightning Girl finished off her toast in two huge bites and drank all the juice at a single long go.

“Your heart must be brave and true,” I said, “to have such friends.” She put her fingers to her lips, but not in a shushing way, more like she was just shy and unused to compliments in conversation. She spoke up from behind her fingertips

“My heart stopped forever when I entered the storm,” she said, in a tone that sounded as if she was only now realizing that grown-ups might be incapable of seeing something so obvious for themselves. “Now my heart is sustained by lightning. It means that I will never die, but I will never grow any taller, or older.”

I took this in for a moment, as it’s rather a lot. Mother, having heard more odd things over the years than I have, recovered faster. She gestured at the collection of bright shapes and asked a question of her own.

“Do your friends all have different names?” Mother smiled at the girl, and the girl smiled back, answering in a friendly fashion.

“Ah, but surely they do,” she said, with a shy, small grin. “Because they’re all different, each from the other. You can see that by looking?” My mother and I both nodded in reply, impressed with her strength. To keep three separate bolts and a couple of static spheres floating beside her spoke of immense power. “Now,” the Lightning Girl announced, “I promised my friends that we were going to go on a trip, but I’m not sure where we should go.”

This explained why she had come to our house. We live by a gateway, so at the bottom of our porch steps is a broad piece of flat earth that branches off into thirteen different paths. Two are paved, three are raw dirt of various colors, a few are gravel or granite, and the rest are set with bricks or paving stones. Each one begins with a single small square of the different material that defines it. From here, a person leaving our neighborhood can go anywhere, as long as they know where they want to end up. My mother pointed at one path.

“Have you ever been there?” Mother asked the girl. The child stared at the snaking path of bright yellow bricks that curved to spiral into the distance. Slowly the little girl nodded her head, and the lightning seemed to brighten as we watched her consider the pathway.

“I do like the Emerald City,” she said thoughtfully. “And we’ve made friends there with a person made entirely of metal, and another made of straw. They’re not afraid of us.” Mother and I looked at one another and smiled, then looked back at the Lightning Girl.

“We’ve been there several times,” I said, “and it’s always an adventure. A lot of strange and wonderful people live there. It’s very pretty this time of year.” But the Lightning Girl pointed at another path, one that was covered with rime and snowflakes. She shook her head as if recalling something.

“Oh, I nearly forgot,” she said. “We need to go to see Mother and Father Christmas.”

“How does one forget to do that?” I asked her, and she once again gave me the look children reserve for slow adults.

“One only forgets Christmas,” she said simply, “if one’s heart is stopped.” There was a brief pause while Mother and I digested this information. “But they need my help to add power to their sleigh. The Clauses are very very old now, and there are so many people to look after that they can’t manage it all with just the reindeer.”

I thought about what she had said. It was clear that she was right. The Clauses are some of the oldest sprits on the planet, and the tasks of giving they undertake in order to bring Christmas into being are enormous.

“Thank you,” I said without thinking, “for helping the Clauses do their work. The world needs them now more than ever.” She smiled at us.

“Thank you for breakfast,” she said, and she gave my mother a little curtsey. She straightened, raising her arms. The bolts and spheres of electricity spiraled around her until brilliance cloaked the child entirely, becoming the Lightning Girl’s long winter coat. Waving and smiling brightly she took a couple of long steps onto the snowy pathway.

“Merry Christmas,” I called out and she laughed in delight as the wind came up, blowing a huge blast of snow across her path. In a few more steps she had vanished from sight. Mother and I stood looking after her.

“I suppose,” my mother said at last, “that it’s somehow fitting that a little child without a heart of her own goes every year to help the eldest of beings, the ones with the biggest hearts of all.”

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