The Night Before Christmas
Christmas Eve, 1963.
Illya poured the last drop of Stolichnaya into his glass and downed it, grimacing at the bitterness. He tossed the bottle to the floor. It rolled across the carpet, colliding with a litter of empty vodka bottles and dirty dishes. He winced at the sound.
Outside his darkened apartment, the storm raged on. A cold front had moved into the New York area earlier in the day, bringing with it a mind-numbing blast of frigid air, and the advent of the season's first snowfall. Napoleon had been thrilled, practically jumping up and down with excitement, a little boy who'd gotten his wish.
“Nothing like snow on Christmas Eve,” he'd crowed, twirling Waverly's secretary about the office, the two of them singing White Christmas, complete with the Bing Crosby buh-buh-buh-boos. Illya had merely rolled his eyes.
“I do not see the advantage in celebrating a meteorological event that makes for slippery roads and hazardous driving conditions,” he'd observed coolly. “For that matter, I do not see what is significant about a holiday based on pagan myths, a jolly man in a red suit, and dubious Christian apocrypha.”
“Better not let Santa hear you,” Napoleon had replied laughing, “or you'll get coal in your stocking.”
“Coal is a valuable commodity where I come from. Many of my countrymen must do without heat in winter.”
Napoleon sighed. “I think you may have missed the point, tovarisch. Anyway, Aunt Amy is expecting us for Christmas brunch tomorrow morning at eleven, so I'll pick you up at ten o'clock sharp. Dress is casual -- anything but that damned burgundy blazer, I beg you.”
“I have no wish to intrude --”
“For the thousandth time, you're not intruding. Aunt Amy will have my hide if you're not there. Not to mention, my sisters have been dying to meet you ever since they saw the photo of the blond god I work with. Now go home and get some sleep. And don't forget to put out the cookies and milk before you turn in.”
He'd decided on the vodka instead.
The snow swirled madly down, hissing against the windows, frosting the glass until Illya could no longer see out. Wind gusted and howled, rattling the windowpanes. The street below his apartment building was buried in a sparkling blanket of white. He wondered if it was snowing in Moscow.
The communique from the Politburo had come three days ago, signed by General Yevtushenko himself. Incredibly, Waverly had apologized as he delivered it.
Illya read the message again, hoping the words might have changed.
Soviet citizenship revoked.
Terse and to the point. His vision blurred.
Apparently the generals -- the same ones that had ordered him to join UNCLE -- now considered him a traitor for obeying their orders. In their eyes, he was guilty by association, irreparably corrupted by Western ideals. Persona non grata, forbidden from returning to the Soviet Union, now and for the foreseeable future.
A man without a country.
It was like being stabbed in the heart. Russia was in Illya's blood, in his soul. As happy as he was in America, it had always been his plan to return home one day.
In his mind's eye, he saw the vast beauty of Mother Russia stretched out before him: her farmland, rich and fertile, glorious mountain ranges framing fields of ripening grain, salmon running the ice-crusted rivers that flowed to the sea.
His countrymen, Mother Russia's children -- stolid, pragmatic, forged by crisis, sustained by courage.
The delicious aroma of schki and blini, and pirozhki stuffed with onions, wafting in through open windows in summertime. The tender thrum of balalaika bands in Gorky Park.
Gone. All gone.
He was cold. He thought about getting up to raise the thermostat, or at least get a blanket, but it seemed like too much effort. He pulled his ancient bathrobe around him and slumped back onto the sofa. His eyes drifted shut.
In the wee hours of the night, a sound penetrated Illya's stupor -- a loud thump that shook the rafters and set the venetian blinds to trembling. It was followed by a tinkling sound, like glass breaking. Illya sighed. Prob'ly the newlyweds on th' floor above. Always a party up there... He turned over, curling himself into a fetal ball, hands over his ears.
Thud. More tinkling. An odd scritching sound. An all-too-human grunt.
Chyort, they were having sex up there. Again.
Another grunt. A crash, followed by a cry of surprise, quickly muffled. That came from the kitchen, Illya realized with a start. Someone was breaking into his apartment.
He struggled through the dense fog in his brain and, after a few moments, achieved something approaching consciousness. He lurched to his feet on wobbly legs, groping for his Walther.
He tried enunciating this time. “Who. Is. There?'”
A silhouette appeared at the kitchen door. “Do you always greet your guests with a gun, Illya Nickovetch?”
Illya blinked at the use of his patronymic. “Guests gen'r...gen-er-ally do not break in.” He flipped on the lights, and winced at the sudden glare.
The intruder was small and round, with cheeks ruddy from the cold and blue eyes that sparkled with laughter. He wore a suit of red velvet, trimmed in ermine and dusted with snow. On his head, a red stocking cap framed snow-white hair. An enormous sack rested at his feet. The sack was cinched with a green velvet drawstring and, judging by the way it bulged, it was crammed full of all sorts of oddly-shaped items. “Ho ho ho,” the man said. “Merry Christmas!”
Illya swallowed a hiccup. “Isn't this a bit crude, even for THRUSH?”
“Sending an assassin dressed as Santa Claus.”
The man ho-ho-ho-ed again. “I'm not an assassin, young man, and I'm certainly NOT from THRUSH. Spoiled hooligans, that bunch! Every last one of them is getting coal in their stocking.”
Coal again. Chyort, I must be dreaming. He squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to banish the vodka-induced apparition, but when he opened them again, the jolly man was still there. He scowled. “You are not real.”
“Ho ho ho! Spoken like a theoretical physicist.”
Illya rolled his eyes, but the movement only made him dizzy. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“It's Christmas Eve, Illya Nickovetch! Ho ho ho!”
“I know the date. What I want to know is, who are you?”
“Why, Santa Claus, of course! Kris Kringle, Père Noël, Santa No Ojisan, Sinterklaas, Joulupukki! You would know me best as Ded Moroz.”
Illya raised the gun a fraction. “Don't be ridiculous. Ded Moroz is a myth, a fairy tale told to small children. And anyway, you look nothing like him. Ded Moroz is slender. He wears a long blue coat and valenki, and carries a staff.”
“Ho ho ho, so you do remember!” The man's eyes twinkled. “That's how I appear when I deliver gifts in Russia. This is America, so I'm dressed as American children see me.”
Illya decided that he had a headache.
“Sorry about the mess in the kitchen by the way. I couldn't find your fireplace.”
“I don't have a fireplace.”
“Ah, that explains it.” The man reached toward his pocket.
“Stop right there.”
“I'm not armed, if that's what you're worried about.” He shook his head. “Guns. Personally, I can't stand them. Especially those Red Ryder air rifles that were all the rage a few years back. Darned things''ll shoot your eye out if you're not careful.”
“I'll try to remember that,” Illya said, but he did not lower the weapon.
The man gestured toward his pocket once more. “May I?”
Illya nodded. “Carefully.”
He reached in, more gingerly this time, and withdrew an ornate scroll. Illya watched him unroll a seemingly endless ribbon of parchment across the living room carpet. “This is my list of all the good girls and boys around the world,” the man explained, “and you're on it. See? Right there.”
Illya took a step forward, squinting. Handwritten. And there was his name, neatly inscribed in Cyrillic. “Clearly there has been a mistake,” he growled. “As you can see, I am not a child.”
The man's cheeks, if anything, grew rosier. “It's pretty embarrassing, actually,” he replied, digging the toe of his boot into the carpet. “You see, Illya Nickovetch, you've been on my list of good children every year since you were born --”
“-- and every year I waited for your Christmas list, as I do the lists of all good girls and boys in the world, Only yours never came. All those years, and you never asked me for anything. I couldn't understand it. So this year, when you popped up on my radar again, I decided to make an unscheduled stop to see if we couldn't straighten out the problem. And here I am! Ho ho ho!”
Illya winced. “Please stop doing that.” He lowered his weapon, too tired to hold it up any longer. He clicked on the safety. “Look, I would really like to go to bed, Santa, or Ded, or whoever you claim to be. Please leave the way you came in.”
“But I've gone to a lot of trouble to find you,” the man protested cheerfully. “Won't you at least tell me what you want for Christmas?”
Illya's stare was glacial.
“No? Not even a hint?”
“Nothing. I want nothing.”
The old man's eyes softened. “Everybody wants something, Illya Nickovetch.”
“I want a good night's sleep. Does that count?”
The man laughed. “Surely you can do better than that.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully, oblivious to Illya's icy glare. “What about when you were a child? Wasn't there something special you wanted? Something you wished for with all your heart?”
Illya's eyes shuttered. His expression grew guarded. “Children wish for many things they cannot have.”
His stomach churned. He felt nauseous. Too much vodka, he thought. A dull ache opened in his heart.
“Don't be afraid, Illya Nickovetch.”
Sudden as a bolt of lightning, an image, long-forgotten, flashed into his brain.
He was three, visiting Kiev for the very first time with his parents. The noise of the city was overwhelming, intimidating to a little boy from the steppes. Cable cars rattled by every few seconds, bells clanging out a warning to unwary pedestrians. Trains chugged into the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Railway Station, their engines belching clouds of thick black smoke. Automobile horns blaring. Soldiers; everywhere, soldiers. The crush of people the sounds the smells the --
“Don't be afraid, Illya Nickovetch,” his Papa said, ruffling his long blonde hair. “You're perfectly safe with us.”
And Illya knew it to be true.
They passed a toy store on Pochanskaya Street, and Illya stopped, mesmerized by an item in the window. It was a wooden toy, of the sort popular in Ukraine in those days -- a carving of two bears rocking on a see-saw. The perfect counterbalance of the bears' weights made the see-saw move as though propelled by a motor, but Illya, too young to understand such things, thought it was magic. He was fascinated by the perpetual motion of the bears; he couldn't stop looking at it. Papa had laughed, and promised to make one like it for Christmas, but a month later, the War came. Papa's unit was sent to the Front, and that winter, he --
Suddenly Illya couldn't breathe past the sorrow welling up in his heart. He sank to his knees.
“Have you remembered, Illya Nickovetch? What it was that you wanted?”
The answer was torn from him, leaving a gaping wound. “What do all children want?” he replied softly. “A home. A family to love them.”
The man sighed. “Of course they do.” He bent down, and kissed the top of Illya's head.
He retrieved his sack, and slung it over his shoulder. “Good night, Illya Nickovetch. S'Rozhdestvom Khristovym. Please believe me when I tell you that things won't always be so bad.”
Illya remained on the floor, listening to the strange old man tromp his way back through the kitchen. He heard the odd scritching noise once more, and the tinkling of glass, only now it sounded like the bells of a troika.
When he was sure the old man had gone, he got up and went to the sink. He drank four glasses of water to combat the monster hangover raging inside his head. His thirst assuaged, Illya stumbled into the bedroom, buried himself under the covers and cried himself to sleep.
Aunt Amy's penthouse in the East Nineties was as festive as a Christmas Village, and ten times as grand. A Douglas fir, lovely enough to rival the tree in Rockefeller Centre, dominated an entire corner of the living room. It was decorated with ornaments from around the world, collected by Amy and her late husband on their travels. The tree's bubble lights twinkled a merry counterpoint to the Christmas carols blaring from the stereo. Above the fireplace hung a wreath of fresh balsam branches adorned with chinaberries and a red satin bow. Matching garlands draped the bannisters and the mantle. A buffet table in the adjoining room groaned under the weight of its offerings.
The apartment was in a state of chaos by the time Napoleon and Illya arrived. Relatives and friends clutched their plates of eggs Benedict and smoked salmon, perching wherever they could find space. A gaggle of children knelt at the base of the tree, eyeing the mountain of gaily wrapped presents and chattering excitedly in a half-dozen languages.
Napoleon's sisters squealed in delight when they saw him. They descended upon the two men, greeting Illya like a long-lost comrade, and smothering their brother in hugs and kisses. Aunt Amy, resplendent in palazzo pants and a Mondriani silk tunic, enveloped the pair in a bear hug that left Illya feeling slightly breathless.
“Merry Christmas cher neveu! About time you two got here!”
Napoleon's first instinct was to dive headfirst into the celebration, greeting old friends and catching up on the latest gossip, but he held back, sensing Illya's shyness. Instead, they filled plates from the buffet, and Napoleon settled the two of them on the window seat in the corner of the room, where they could watch the festivities in relative privacy. Artemesia brought them each a glass of ice cold champagne.
When the last guest had arrived, Aunt Amy announced that it was time to open gifts. As though a starter's pistol had gone off, adults and children alike attacked the pile of presents. Wrapping paper flew in every direction, ribbons were discarded, and gifts were opened.
Napoleon's gift to Illya was a cashmere sweater that complimented the color of his eyes. Illya presented Napoleon with the new Dave Brubeck album, Time Changes. Everyone oohed and aahed at the tennis bracelet Hippolyta received from Sergio, her boyfriend of the moment, and Artemesia positively beamed at the copy of Pushkin's Boris Godunov that Napoleon had found at a Parisian book stall near Notre Dame. Aunt Amy, not to be outdone, gifted her nephew and nieces with impossible-to-obtain tickets to Neil Simon's new play, Barefoot In the Park.
When it was over, the children gathered up their mighty haul and migrated to the nursery to play with their toys. Friends departed for other engagements; other friends stopped by to drop off gifts. Artemesia snagged Illya for a game of chess that turned into a battle royale, the pair drawing appreciative applause when lllya finally won -- barely.
When the last guest had gone, Aunt Amy threw herself into her favorite club chair and kicked off her shoes. She wiggled her toes in delight. “Ooh, it feels wonderful to take those damned heels off, I don't mind telling you!”
“Barefoot or in heels, Aunt Amy, you are the hostess with the mostest,” Napoleon declared happily. “It was a wonderful Christmas, the best ever.”
“Thank you for inviting me,” Illya said, bending down to kiss her cheek. “Your family has made me feel most welcome.”
"A pleasure, dear." She studied him, noting the lingering sadness, carefully hidden, about the eyes. “It must be difficult to be so far away from home,” she guessed. “Do you miss it terribly?”
Illya looked to his partner, unsure of how to respond to such an intimate question, but Napoleon merely shrugged.
“Yes,” he answered truthfully. “I do.”
Amy nodded to herself. “You know, Illya, we Solos have a saying -- 'A house is built of walls and beams. A home is built of love and dreams.'" She took Illya's large hands in her own. "I would be honored if you would consider this your home here in America, and us, your family. You will always be welcome here.”
Illya blushed to the roots of his golden hair. He felt as though his heart would burst, so absurdly grateful was he for the kindness of these extraordinary people.
“Careful, Napoleon, dear,” Amy said, glancing over Illya's shoulder. “You'll knock the tree over.”
Illya turned. Napoleon had slipped off his shoes, and was on his belly, crawling under the Christmas tree.
“There seems to be something stuck in the back. A box.”
“Oh, no,” Aunt Amy exclaimed, “don't tell me we forgot a present.”
“Looks that way.” He emerged covered in glitter, the elegantly wrapped gift cradled in his hands.
“That's funny,” Amy said. “I don't recognize the wrapping paper. I wonder who brought it.”
Napoleon glanced at the card. “It appears to be for you, Illya.”
“See for yourself.” He slid the package toward his partner.
“S'Rozhdestvom Khrystovym, Illya.”
He frowned. “This is your handwriting, Napoleon.”
The senior agent chuckled. “Who were you expecting, Santa Claus?”
“But you already gave me a present.”
Napoleon grinned shamelessly. “I couldn't help myself.”
“Why don't you open it, dear?” Amy suggested reasonably.
Unable to think of a reason not to, Illya untied the blue satin ribbon and eased off the silver foil wrapping. He opened the box, brushed aside a small mountain of tissue paper, and gasped.
Nestled amid the clouds of white tissue, two exquisitely carved wooden bears perched atop a miniature see-saw. Every aspect of the bears was true to life, rendered with painstaking accuracy down to the tiniest detail. The wood was ash, exquisitely grained; it had acquired a marvelous patina with age. The entire piece seemed to glow from within.
Across the room, Napoleon opened his mouth to say something glib, but stopped in his tracks when he saw the look on Illya's face. It was something akin to wonder.
“I never told anyone,” Illya whispered, stunned. “How could you possibly have known --?”
He lifted the toy with trembling hands, and set it carefully upon the Aubusson carpet. He gave one of the bears a light tap, setting the apparatus to rocking. He folded his legs under him, and settled in to watch.
Napoleon sank to his knees beside his partner. “I was afraid you wouldn't like it. That you'd think it was silly, childish.”
“Oh, no, Napoleon! It's wonderful!”
“Well, that's a relief! I found it in an antique shop in Vienna a few months back. I was looking for a present for you, and the dealer suggested this. I took one look, and I just knew I had to get it for you.” He chuckled at the memory. “Strange fellow, that dealer -- “
“Mmm. He talked as if he knew you.”
Illya's hands stilled. “What -- exactly -- did this dealer look like?”
“Elderly, plump, full white beard. Would've made a great Santa Claus. Why, do you know him?”
“We -- may have met in passing.”
“No kidding? Small world. Anyway, he said you'd love it. The toy is a kind of perpetual motion machine.”
Illya nodded. “The bears will keep on rocking like that for hours. They are perfectly counterbalanced, you see.”
“Perfectly counterbalanced.” Napoleon echoed softly. “Like us.”
Illya looked up, his eyes shining. “Yes, Napoleon. Like us.”
“'S'Rozhdestvom Khrystovym, Illya.'”
“Merry Christmas, Napoleon.”
A tinkling sound, like a heart mending.