NICHOLAS OF THE EVERLASTING NIGHT
by Colleen Cooper
It was midnight. It would be midnight for a very long while.
The Timeless One’s black furred feet touched down upon snow-covered cobblestones, and he slipped from shadow to shadow into the village. He drew his wings beneath his cloak and wrapped the cloak tight all around him, grateful for whatever small measure of protection it might provide. While he found the gas-lamps bewitching, as he found all light to be, he knew their radiance would burn his skin. As always, he marveled at the cunning of the apes, that they could harness and tame such a fearsome thing as light.
He’d come to this world eons ago, with a multitude of his kind. They did not know their own names–if they’d ever had names. They could not remember where they’d come from, nor why they’d left. They had floated through the void of space for billions of years–though such divisions of time, like time itself, were meaningless to them. They’d seen galaxies unravel, stars bloom and wither, planets spin loose from their orbits and vanish into the flotsam of the universe. And all the while, the Timeless Ones had despaired of ever finding life. What if they were alone in all of existence, destined to drift for eternity, endlessly undying, until all their senses left them?
And then, from a single planet in a galaxy of four hundred billion suns, they’d felt it: A living world.
It was not then called “Earth,” of course. Like the Timeless Ones, the world had no name. But its primordial oceans sang out across the universe, pulsed with the energy of life, thrummed with the promise of rejuvenation.
Drawn by the world’s ineluctable lure, the Timeless Ones suffered its terrible sun, and burned as they fell–burned and burned until they were mere charred husks when at last they plunged into Earth’s oceans and sank into the depths.
For untold millennia the Timeless Ones rested and were restored, feeding on whatever quivered in the murky abyss. They grew stronger. They took on the nature of their sustenance. Some became pale, slippery, sightless. Some became tentacled, powerful, cunning.
Eventually, a few of the Timeless Ones grew bold, and began to explore the upper realms of the ocean. The others did not care to ever float again, not after all those eons drifting in space, so they prowled and probed the muck of the ocean floor. But the bold ones who ventured away from the bottom encountered new creatures, massive creatures. Creatures that could punch through the membrane of the “surface,” into an alien world above. Creatures who told their history in song.
The Timeless Ones fed from these creatures, and took on their nature. But it was too much. Their Timeless minds were overwhelmed by the shock of such majesty, and by searing glimpses of the world above–a world bathed in terrible light. All but one of the Timeless hastened to feed on simpler creatures; creatures with colder blood, an unending supply of teeth, and a single-minded hunger.
All but one of the Timeless. For he alone was haunted by a feeling he had no language to express–longing, he would one day learn from the apes. And he was haunted by a vision of strange shadows that he’d never seen before. No–not shadows. Colors, he would learn, in time.
When he next fed from one of the great singing creatures, and took its song into his being, he discovered that he too was a verse in its song. The creature knew of him! It had never occurred to the Timeless One that any time-bound creature might have an awareness of his kind. But perhaps this great creature that could peer from the water-world into the air-world, could peer outside of its time as well?
For once, The Timeless One considered himself as he was considered. It was as if he were feeding upon himself and learning his own nature. From the great singing creatures he learned a new sentiment. He became…curious.
Leaving no perceptible tracks in the snow, The Timeless One approached the first feeding-place he would visit that long midnight. It was a tiny stone cottage he had visited on many other midnights. He always came here first, though he had no word for the feeling that made him seek out certain dwellings before others, and remember their inhabitants more acutely than others. In such cases, it was not so much the feeding that he anticipated. Here, for instance, he knew there was a child who always left him tributes of curious trinkets and treasures. That was unusual. No one else left him gifts, except the occasional flat, round offerings and white protein fluid that he supposed were meant to be sustenance.
But much to his surprise, when the Timeless One arrived at the cottage, the usual symbols of invitation were nowhere to be found.
No ring of pine on the door, nor garlands of holly on the porch rail. He looked through the front window, but found no sign that he was expected or welcome. No colorful baubles and bells. No ribbons of red and boughs of green. He was not permitted to enter this time; it was clear. How could this be?
He paced before the front steps, dumbstruck.
Before turning away–for of course there were many other homes prepared to let him feed–he decided he wished to glimpse the child. Just…glimpse. Why, he could not say. Ever since becoming curious he did many things he could not explain.
He crept around the cottage and found the child’s window. And just as he peered in, he saw it: the child had fastened a drawing inside the window, with a depiction of the Timeless One. Well…it did not look very much like him, but he supposed there was a general resemblance. And there on the drawing, the child had offered greetings to the son of the seas. While the Timeless One had never thought of himself in this way, perhaps it was how the apes regarded him. This, surely, was an invitation–was it not?
The Timeless One slipped through the window, into the child’s room.
For millennia the Timeless One–the Curious One–had lingered near the ocean’s surface, suffering a futile longing for the world above. During the blissful dark-period which he would come to know as night, he could break the surface, feel the air, smell the wind, peer at the stars. But all too soon the terrible light would return, and if he waited too long to begin his descent, his flaming skin would boil the water around him until he’d reached a depth beyond light’s reach.
He began to drift away from the others of his kind. The Timeless Ones thought him foolish–those who thought at all–for believing in a dry-place where the sun never shined. So he learned fins, and used them to journey toward colder waters. Sustenance grew scarce. But each time he surfaced, he knew that he was closing in on the domain of darkness. The sun, when it appeared, was weaker, and it vexed him ever more briefly.
The place where the Timeless One finally crawled out of the ocean seemed as dark as the ice-worlds he had passed in space. But this new place was not a dead world. He quickly shed his fins and learned wings; of snowy owl, bunting, and ptarmigan (though he did not yet know their names). He took on the nature of arctic fox and learned its changeable fur of rust and white, which delighted him though he was still to learn color. He took on the gentleness of the hare, and the whimsy of the bearded seal. Later, he encountered the wise-apes, and he took on their nature as well: the tool-makers, the discoverers, the story-tellers.
As the wise-apes multiplied and spread across the Earth, they carried with them their tales of the Timeless One, and as they built their villages and traditions, they built on his story, too.
They also whispered stories of the other Timeless Ones, which had finally risen up out of the seas; slippery and scaled things, web-winged and fanged and clawed, they had taken on the manner of perfect hunters, and fed without discrimination or mercy.
The Timeless One approached the resting-place of the child, his favorite child, the boy who gave gifts. He anticipated the unique timbre of the child’s life-force, with its flavors of kindness and wonder and that thrilling rush of vision the wise-apes called inspiration.
Gently he raised the boy’s chin, and turned the small head to the side, exposing the fragile neck. The boy did not wake. Sometimes when the Timeless One fed, the children would wake up. Until he made contact, the Timeless One was moving too slowly or too quickly for the children to perceive, beyond a certain disturbance in the air, an unaccountable shadow on the wall. When he touched them, they were jolted by the impact, knocked out of time. If they awoke, they were frightened, but not a second passed before they slept again, sensing only that they had tripped or fallen in a dream. Even so, he did not like to frighten them.
The Timeless One bent down to feed.
For the child’s life-force, always so very strong, could scarcely be felt. And the Timeless One now noticed that the child had changed. He almost did not recognize the boy, whose head–partially concealed by a stocking cap–was no longer covered in fur. Whose body was smaller in mass than it had once been, which was not the usual way of things.
How could this be so? What had altered the child?
Was he not the only Timeless One to feed on the boy? At that thought…for the first time, he began to grasp the sentiment, anger.
Steeling himself, he dipped slowly into the time-ocean. The plunge came as a shock. Everything became so heavy; the seemingly empty space around him turned oppressive, almost too thick to move through. He could feel fatigue overtake him almost immediately. He grabbed hold of the child, and pulled him out of time.
The child awoke. He startled at the appearance of the Timeless One, who had arrived seemingly out of nowhere. The child’s eyes grew large and he shrank back, and with balled fists he drew his bed-coverings up to his nose. He stared and stared at the Timeless One, taking him in head to toe.
And then, the little brows raised.
The Timeless One struggled to order thoughts into words, and words into vocalizations, as the wise-apes could do.
“Tell me,” he finally said, “why are you old, yet small? Why are you old before you should be?”
“I’m not old,” said the boy, softly. “Only eight and three-quarters.”
“I feel no force of youth in you.”
“I’m just sick. That’s all.”
“Your life-force is spent.”
“I’m going to get better,” said the boy. “Mama says….” He trailed off, then a moment later said, “I can hardly see you. Let me light the lantern.”
“Are you here to make me better? I’ve been very good. Did you find what I left you?” The boy pointed to some items near his feet; drawings. “I didn’t know where to put them. Mama said this year, she just ‘couldn’t bear it.’ All the….” The boy swooped his hands around in the air. “You know.”
The Timeless One did not know.
He picked up the drawings and puzzled over them. He understood drawings because of the child. The boy saw the world in a different way, a dream-like way–and drew the world as if it were the dream. From the boy, the Timeless One had learned, art.
“If I lit the lantern, you’d see the pictures better….”
The Timeless One tapped a white-furred finger on one of the drawings. “What is this circle, here?” he said.
“Can’t you tell? It’s the sun.”
“The sun!” The Timeless One almost dropped the drawing in fright. “But…it is small. And, it does not burn.”
The boy made a noise called “laughter,” the purpose of which was still a mystery to the Timeless One.
“And what are these bits? These lines?”
“Rays of light, I guess. Haven’t you ever seen a drawing of the sun before?”
“Well, that’s a smiley face, of course.” The boy seemed displeased.
“You do not like my questions?”
“You don’t like my drawing.”
“I like it very much.”
“It’s all right. I can make a better one.”
“No. I wish to keep this one. I am not afraid of it now.”
The boy seemed not to understand, so the Timeless One explained. “You have made me feel very strong, to look upon the sun and hold it and not be burned. And I see by its smile that the sun does not mean to burn me. It is simply its nature.”
The laughter again. “You’re strange.”
“I have been told that, by others of my kind.”
“There are others like you?”
“There are others of my kind, but they are not like me. I am singular. Apart.”
“You mean…you’re alone.”
“Oh.” The boy inclined his head. He nodded slowly. “Then, I’ll be your friend.”
The Timeless One had learned a great many things from the wise-apes, but first among these was regret.
Regret for all the creatures that, when he had fed on them, had ceased to be. In time he’d discovered there was another way. The energy on which he fed was strongest in the very young. It was a force that could be found in their blood, but was not their blood, and found in their breath, but was not their breath: that lingering energy from when their life first sparked into being. If he fed on the old, whose life-force was too weak, they would cease to be. But if he fed on the young, whose life-force was strong, and he took just a tiny sip from each, they were not harmed. He needed, of course, to feed on a great many to be sustained.
So he had taken a number of the young wise-apes, the Norse-man and Lapp-man and Inuit-man young, to keep with him and to care for in his dark paradise, and in turn they would give him perpetual sustenance.
This too he came to regret. He had not understood that the young belonged to the old. He had not understood that the old would feel loss when the young were absent, nor that the young would suffer such longing for their homes. He had made a mistake. So he’d returned the young, with an oath never again to enter their dwellings uninvited.
“Please, can’t I light the lantern, just for a moment?” the child asked again. “I only want to see you better.”
“That sort of light would hurt me.”
“What about moonlight?”
“Is there any sort that doesn’t?”
“It is not here. I could bring you to it…. Yes. Yes! You must come with me.”
“Is it very far?” the boy said, pulling on his slippers.
“Oh, but I shouldn’t be out in the cold…. Will we be gone very long?”
“It will not take us any time to get there, at all.”
The boy tugged his stocking-cap down over his ears and smiled.
The Timeless One took the boy by the hand and led him to the window. He loosened his cloak and unfurled his snowy wings.
“I didn’t know you had those!” the boy marveled.
“I have had many wings.”
“Many…? But how?”
“By learning them, from flying-things.”
“Can I ‘learn’ to have wings too?”
“Perhaps,” said the Timeless One. “I have seen the wise-apes do many clever things. Some day they might make wings of their own. But not the way I make them.”
He wrapped his red-furred arms around the boy, and stepped out the window. They flew into the night.
The Timeless One, and the Boy Who Drew the Sun, stood at the very top of world. They gazed up at the cool green light, which rippled across the sky and glowed with the luminescence of infinite fireflies.
“I must be dreaming,” the boy whispered.
Beneath the green light was a palace of ice and snow. All manner of young creatures, from polar bear cubs to seal pups, ventured from the palace toward the boy. Like the Timeless One, they were curious.
“I’m not even cold!” the boy said.
“You have been here no time at all; you have not had time to get cold. When midnight struck, you were warm in bed, and it is midnight still.”
“I don’t understand.”
The Timeless One tried to find words to explain. He knew the apes had words for all the things which had ever been known, and even reserved a few words for things that might never be.
“There is a crack in time,” he finally said, “and you are standing in it.”
The boy may or may not have been listening. He was nuzzling the velveteen nose of a reindeer fawn, and making that “laughing” noise again.
“It was my mistake, you see. I tried to make things better, and I fractured time.”
“What?” said the boy at last.
“It was my mistake,” the Timeless One repeated. “I tried…. I tried to make the Earth learn me.”
“What? I don’t understand. You tried to teach the Earth?”
“Yes: teach. I tried to teach ‘Timeless’ to the Earth. I no longer wished to be…separate.”
“Are you making fun? Time isn’t something you can teach or learn! It’s– I don’t know.”
“I am using the wrong word, I think. ‘Timeless’ is not what I mean. It was simply how we came to understand ourselves, when we found creatures different from us. Creatures whose lives are ordered by time. Creatures that live and then–cease.”
“You mean, die?”
“Yes. Die. I am undying. I tried to teach undying to the Earth, and to all the living things upon it. So I could be together with the creatures of the Earth, not apart.”
The boy’s eyes grew wide in astonishment. “You tried to make the Earth immortal?”
“Yes. That is the word. Not timeless: immortal. How is it that you apes have words for things you cannot understand?”
“I’m not an ape!”
“Yes…I forget, sometimes. You see, you ‘men’ were apes not a moment ago.”
“I’m a not a man, either. I’m a boy. My name is Evan.”
At that, the boy began running in circles, teasing a lynx kitten that was chasing the end of his stocking-cap. Then he ran off toward the palace, flapping his arms and shrieking with delight. The kitten scampered behind him. After a moment, the Timeless One followed.
Later, over hot cocoa–which the boy drank in great quantities while the Timeless One drank none at all–he endeavored again to explain. The boy was distracted, awestruck by the eclectic spectacle of the place, which was stuffed with every sort of curiosity that struck the Timeless One’s fancy. It was a kind of museum which gave equal weight to a Grecian urn and a broken tin whistle.
“…Because I fractured time, I can only visit your world on the longest night of the year. Tonight. This is the night I feed.”
“But it isn’t the longest. Everyone knows the solstice is the longest night.”
“No. Between the last second of tonight, and the first second of tomorrow, is an extra space that lasts a whole year. You do not notice because you skip over it. That space is my passageway. If I were to take you back home now, it would seem you had never left.”
“A year between two seconds! But that’s nonsense!”
“Yet you have sensed it. Have you not? The feeling that tomorrow morning takes a very, very long time to come–much longer than it ought to?”
The boy considered this, as he dunked marshmallows with a fingertip. “Well, I’ve always thought so, but Papa says it isn’t true.”
“Elder ones do not sense it, but young ones do, because they are not yet as fixed in time.”
They were quiet for a while, the boy’s wide eyes taking everything in.
Finally the Timeless One said, “I have decided. You will stay here with me, forever, and not die. You will teach me many things, and make many drawings.”
“I could stay here?”
“Would I still go to school?”
“No, you could never leave this place, except on the longest night of the year.”
“Not even to visit my parents?”
“But I can visit them every Christmas?”
“You can visit them, but they would not see you.”
“Then, you’ll have to bring them here, too.”
“But–why? It isn’t fair!”
“They are too old; they would not survive. It is difficult to explain. The older are much more…habituated to time. They are caught up in the time-current.”
“Current, like a stream?”
“Yes. Or a river. Strong, fast.”
“And the young…?”
“Are still in the shallows and eddies.”
“And where are you?”
“I am on the shore.”
“Well…if they can’t come, then I can’t stay.”
“But if you leave here, you will soon cease to be!” The Timeless One’s voice shook with a force like anger. He searched for the words that expressed the importance, the immensity of what would be lost, for surely the child did not grasp it. “You are…unique. You must not die.”
“The doctors say, if I fight very hard, I might see spring….”
“What is ‘spring,’ compared to all eternity?”
“No, you don’t get it at all. If I have four more months, then my family has four more months with me. If you keep me here, you take those months away from them. Don’t you see? Can’t you see how that isn’t fair?”
“But–no–you must understand! If you leave…and change your mind…I cannot come for you. I can come only once a year. This night. And you–”
“–I won’t see next winter.”
“But I do understand.”
The boy grew quiet, and pushed away his empty mug. Drops of water formed in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks.
The Timeless One was alarmed that the boy’s precious life fluids were leaking out through his eyes. The Timeless One expressed this to the boy, whose snuffling noises gave way to the laughter sound.
“Haven’t you ever seen crying before?” the boy asked, wiping his eyes. The Timeless One was relieved that the water leak seemed to be mending.
“I have seen other children leak life-water in such a way, when they were brought to live here. They explained they had contracted ‘home-sickness.’ The leaking grew worse and it became necessary to return the children to their homes, where they recovered. The leaking disease does not seem to afflict any other beings–only the wise-apes.”
The boy then tried to explain crying to the Timeless One, but it was just as mysterious to him as laughter. The boy said that they were in fact opposites, and it was necessary to understand one to know the other. There were so many things the Timeless One had yet to learn.
“If you cannot stay forever,” the Timeless One finally said, “Will you remain with me until the end of midnight? Will you journey the world with me until tomorrow?”
And so, during the year of midnight, the boy accompanied the Timeless One as he traveled the world. At each home, while the Timeless One fed, the boy chose just the right gift to leave behind in gratitude. He was much better at this than the Timeless One, who could only guess at the sort of things young children wished for. The boy saw many exotic places, all as dark frozen tableaus. He strolled through silent zoos and climbed upon motionless beasts. He tried on the crowns of kings, jumped on castle beds, cartwheeled through the aisles of cathedrals. He touched everything that children are not allowed to touch, and ran everywhere that children are not allowed to run.
Sometimes, the Timeless One and the boy returned to the palace with the green lights. The boy played with all the animals, read books, made hundreds of drawings. After a while he grew lonely, and the Timeless One pulled other children out of time, to visit the boy and play with him during the long midnight. Some of the children–orphans, they were called–did not have anyone to belong to.
Perhaps, thought the Timeless One, some of them might be immune to the home-sickness. Perhaps, thought the Timeless One, some of them might stay.
Eventually, after a time–a not nearly long-enough time–midnight ended, and tomorrow came.
Just before the year of midnight came to a close, the Timeless One flew the boy home, and carried him back to his bed.
“I must hold fast to every single moment,” the boy said. “To all the things I’ve done, and the places I’ve seen! Tell me I’ll remember.”
“When you wake, it may seem like it was all a dream, but the feeling will remain.”
“I’m afraid I’ll forget you! Will you forget me?”
“No, Evan,” the Timeless One said. “Not ever.”
“Promise you will practice laughing, at every chance. If you practice a lot I know you’ll learn it.”
“I promise,” said the Timeless One, thrice imitating the sound that the boy had made so often. But he found instead, to his surprise, that his eyes were leaking.
The Timeless One left one of the boy’s drawings on the mantle, where stockings should have been. It was a drawing of the ice palace and the green lights. Perhaps, thought the Timeless One, it would help the boy remember the year of joy that was his yuletide present.
The Timeless One knew he would not see the boy again, not ever. Only he could truly know how long a time that was. He thought of the apes’ words for such an idea. Never. Forever. How did the apes have names for things they could not possibly grasp?
Even the Timeless One was not nameless any more. To the children of the world he had so many names.
Weihnachtsmann, some called him. Jultomten. Kris Kringle. Père Noël.
Nicholas, he was called by the boy who’d drawn the sun, who’d given him gifts, who’d taught him friend.
And so he would know himself, ever more. Nicholas of the Northern Lights.
Nicholas of the Everlasting Night.
Colleen Cooper is a professional screenwriter who was awarded a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka, those “Oscars” people). Many of her screenplays, both sold and unsold, are currently said to be propping up the short legs of wobbly desks at production companies all over Hollywood. Her first novel, The Myth of Wile E., will be released in August of 2017 by Torrey House Press. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner, science fiction/horror writer Peter Clines, and a worrisome number of cats. You can find her on Twitter @WednesdayMcCool.