When you think of the True North, strong and free, you think – of course – of Canada.
There is a place even farther north, but it is less true. It is a place where, if you lived there and said that you wanted take a vacation in the South, you could fulfill that desire by vacationing at any other point on planet Earth. However, this staggering convenience overlooks an unfortunate truth. And that unfortunate truth is that you do not exist.
No one lives that far north.
Only a child would think so.
The farthest north that anyone does live is 82°30′05″N. Nestled up close to the northernmost border of a town called Alert, in the northernmost province of Nunavut, in the truenorthernmost country of Canada, stands a small, strange house. In front of that small, strange house stands our hero, Lumberknight.
He is clad in flannel and discomfort, only one of which is the traditional garb of the noble lumberjack. His sword – a meter-and-a-half long claymore that gleams so brilliantly it would take two languages to describe fully – rests on one shoulder, bouncing up and down as Lumberknight taps it distractedly.
“I’m not exactly cut out for immigration enforcement, eh?” he says with a lopsided grin.
The man to whom he speaks is the new mayor of Alert. The first to be voted into that office since the creation of Nunavut not so very long ago. As such, this is the first time he has ever personally interacted with Lumberknight. He is a short man, lightly dressed against the blistering cold, carrying a faux-leather briefcase in one ungloved hand. And he is not impressed.
“Are you not the True Spirit of Canada?!” the mayor asks.
“Yes!” Lumberknight says resolutely. “Yes, I’m… not? Wait, I mean – No, I’m not-not. Hang on, that doesn’t work, either…”
The mayor stomps his foot, cracking the smooth ice underneath it with the heel of one thick boot. “Then how does it not concern you that there is a house here that was not here last week?”
Lumberknight inspects the house, but sees nothing obviously concerning. It is a red, single-storey house with a holly wreath on the front door and candy canes hanging in the windows. Whoever lives there has not yet taken down their Christmas decorations.
He shrugs and says, “I don’t know, eh? New houses are built all the time in a vibrant, growing nation –”
“Not,” the mayor interrupts, “in Alert.”
In truth, Lumberknight wasn’t totally enamored with the idea of returning to Nunavut so soon after its creation. This isn’t what he expected when he hopped onto a speed Zamboni at the PM’s office on Parliament Hill.
The speed Zamboni is one of the preferred ways to travel around Canada. Her snowy hills are overlaid with countless shining, icy trails that crisscross their way a mari usque ad mare. It is far faster than the national walk of trudging, and far more comfortable than being transferred from hospital to hospital free of charge. While those from other parts of the world may only know the kind of Zamboni that comes out between periods of a hockey game, Canadians maintain a wide variety of Zambonis for a wide variety of purposes.
(Once, the Québécois successfully stole Canada’s strategic reserve of Zambonis – speed and otherwise – but that is a story for another day.)
Why, the very Trans-Canada Highway was laid down by a series of asphalt Zambonis. The stretch between the towns of Milverton and Wawa, both in the province of Ontario, was laid by a single, hard-working Zam operator. This operator was, for her achievement, commemorated in Wawa with a giant statue of a goose.
But no one can remember why they chose a goose to commemorate her…
“I don’t think that’s a problem, eh?” Lumberknight replies. “You could use the population boost. There’re only five people who live here, eh?”
“Look, Mr. Knight –”
“Oh, please, just call me La… umberknight.”
Lumberknight very nearly lets his secret identity as Larry Hartman, mild-mannered Tim Hortons employee, slip out!
These Boots of Nunavut are still pinching at my feet, he thinks. I didn’t want to have to come back until I’d broken them in. I wonder if mink oil works on magical leather…
“Yes, just Lumberknight,” he continues aloud. “It’s one word.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I should have known,” the mayor says.
“No, I’m sorry. I should have business cards or something, eh?”
“I’m sorry, it’s in the newspapers all the time. I was trying to be polite.”
“And succeeding, eh?” Lumberknight says.
But this only after a pause.
For, you see, there is no concept in Canada that is commonly represented by the words “to be polite.” The nearest verb is merely “to be.” This is similar to how, in English, there is no word for “to speak truth” – it is assumed that all speech is true, and only the opposite, “to lie,” is separately denoted. “To be impolite,” when such a concept is necessary, is represented by opening one’s mouth and screaming a single black, silent tone.
“In any case, Mr. Lumberknight,” the mayor says, returning to topic, “do you know why this town is named Alert?”
“Is it because every hour, on the hour, you fire off the –?”
From behind Lumberknight, a loud air raid siren sounds.
“Oh, it’s two o’clock, eh?” he says brightly.
“Actually, it’s three,” the mayor corrects. “We’re in the same time zone as Ottawa.”
“No, that is just for timekeeping purposes. The reason we are called Alert is that we must be constantly on alert.”
“Well, of course!” Lumberknight says. “You stand on guard for the True North, strong and free.” He waves his sword about merrily. “And given how lightly everyone I’ve seen is dressed, I’d say you have the first half of it down pat, eh?”
The mayor has heard of Lumberknight’s habit of being somewhat… cavalier… with his sword swings, and took a step backwards at the first sign of waving.
“We stand on guard for a very specific purpose.” He gestures Lumberknight closer now that his blade is still. “We stand on guard against…”
Here he whispers.
“From the north,” the mayor whispers again.
“From the north?!”
“The False North,” the mayor says, not bothering to whisper this time. He counts his blessings that the entirety of Alert’s small population is busying themselves with unloading newspapers and supplies from the trunk of Lumberknight’s speed Zam.
Lumberknight does not exclaim anything at this. Instead, he narrows his eyes and turns northward. He scans the bleak horizon, that horizon in the middle of nowhere, then turns back to Alert’s mayor.
“Not a lot of north left, eh?” he says.
“Mr. Lumberknight, look here.”
The mayor opens the snaps on his briefcase and rummages around inside of it. He pulls out a large manila folder, stuffed full of raggedy-edged papers.
“This,” he says solemnly, “has been passed down to every mayor of Alert. Going all the way back to the original Inuit who lived here.” He pauses for a moment. “They didn’t have ‘mayors,’ of course. Nevertheless, you are the first non-Alerter to see this.”
Lumberknight takes the folder from the man’s outstretched hand and opens it. At the top of the pile are crisp, white sheets of paper. But as he looks deeper and deeper, he sees that what he thought were raggedy-edged sheets are actually old parchment. He pulls one out – it is stiff and well preserved thanks to the Alert climate.
“Those have been kept from our ancestors’ time,” the mayor says. “They write of creatures that invaded from the north.”
Lumberknight traces the surface of the parchment with one finger. It speaks to him on a level he so rarely gets to experience. These are among the oldest documents in Canada. It would be similar to finding new baby pictures of yourself, ones that you never knew existed.
Even this simile is insufficient, for pictures are just pictures. Images. They hold no magic, being nothing greater than ink on special paper created by a mechanical process.
But this parchment holds within it the efforts and care of weeks of work by ancient Canadians. Scraping and drying the skin, flattening and stretching it, making the ink and even the pen. Lumberknight can feel the power within it. The power that is, in a strange, circular way –
The mayor continues to speak, explaining things that Lumberknight knew from the very moment he touched the parchment. The Inuit considered the creatures short and ugly, and respected their ability to make tools. They had an aptitude for what we would now call mechanical engineering. A few of them could be spotted at any particular time, but they would appear en masse just after the shortest days of the year.
Lumberknight’s thoughts are interrupted as his finger glides over one part of one image. He moves his finger upward in a gentle curve, then sharply downward to the other side of a different curve.
The creatures have points on the sides of their heads. Pointed ears.
“I know what to do now,” he says to the mayor.
“…years go by, we – Oh, you do?”
The mayor is not overjoyed at being interrupted – he kind of thought he was on a roll, actually – but has no time to express it. Lumberknight presses the manila folder back into the mayor’s hands and begins briskly trudging toward the small, strange house.
He pauses to look at the house’s mailbox, and he laughs softly.
From his safe distance, the mayor of Alert cannot see all of the details of what Lumberknight is doing. He can tell that Lumberknight has sheathed his sword, and that he has knocked on the door – right in the center of the holly wreath. But Lumberknight stands in a way that the mayor has not seen in any newspaper photograph. Not supplicative, but more than simply polite.
Lumberknight stands… respectfully.
The door to the house opens slowly, revealing a heavyset man with a great, white beard. The beard is easily as great as Lumberknight’s own, but much, much whiter. The man looks Lumberknight up and down for a moment, then adopts the same stance. The two men stand there, simply respecting each other.
The mayor cannot hear them saying anything – he does not even think that their lips are moving. Their gazes are locked onto one another’s as surely as any deadbolt. But the bolt that connects these two men is very much alive. The air is nearly electric, reminding the mayor of the heavy, ozone smell that follows a lightning strike.
He realizes that he is breathing hard. His vision of the two men is swimming before him.
No, that’s not right.
The air around the men, the very space that they occupy, is distorting. It waves and tumbles, magnifying and shearing all around. Still, the two men do not move, the intensity of their inactivity serving as a counterpoint to the intensity that surrounds them.
The mayor can no longer stand, the area around him bucking and jumping more violently than in any earthquake. He falls to the ground, gasping. Reaching out toward the men who seem so oblivious to the pandemonium that he knows, somehow, that they are causing. He opens his mouth – to try to speak, to try to call out to them – but all that comes out is a single black, silent tone.
The stillness is once again still.
A soft, chilly breeze blows over the mayor’s face, and he pulls himself back up to his feet. The men are shaking hands and speaking to one another, as though what he witnessed hasn’t happened at all. He cannot hear what they are saying, but it is entirely convivial. The small, strange house’s occupant laughs, his stomach shaking like an expensive dessert. The door closes once more, and Lumberknight trudges back to the mayor.
“You’re right,” Lumberknight says, scratching his beard sheepishly. “I should have introduced you, too. Terribly impolite, eh? Must’ve just slipped my mind.”
“What, um… What did you…?” The mayor is still dazed, and has trouble gathering his thoughts into words.
“The man who lives in that house is very special, so he has a special arrangement.”
The mayor boggles – with what brain resources he can spare – at the understatement of the word “special.”
Lumberknight continues, “He’s only going to live here in January each year – everybody needs a vacation, eh? But he’ll pay a full year of taxes. I think that works out well for you, eh?”
He picks up the manila folder from where it has fallen and begins to thumb through its contents.
“Also, he’s a Canadian citizen now.”
“Is he, now?” the mayor asks through his fatigue.
Lumberknight looks up sternly.
“He is if I say he is.” Then he adds, “Eh?”
“Eh,” the mayor agrees.
Lumberknight can still feel the mayor’s misgivings. “Don’t worry,” he says, smiling. “I’ll take care of all the paperwork with the PM. I’ll just need this, eh?”
He holds up the very oldest of the parchments. The one he had been lost in earlier. It is true that he will need that parchment when he speaks to the PM, but also… he needs it on a deeper level.
Leaving that part out is terribly impolite, he knows. He decides to scream silently at himself for it later.
The mayor nods, acquiescing, and the two men shake hands. They share polite, Canadian goodbyes as the whole town of Alert watches. All six of them.
Lumberknight begins trudging back to his speed Zam. His mind is already on the next Canadian adventure, as it so often is. But as he glances down at the parchment, a thought strikes him, and he turns around.
“Mr. Mayor!” he calls.
“Yes, Mr. Lumberknight?”
“I think you’ll feel a lot better about this if you check the mailbox, eh?”
He tosses his hand upwards in a final farewell, then climbs atop his vehicle and speeds away. The sun shines on the icy trail that he leaves behind. They don’t get a lot of sun in Alert at this time of year, and it feels almost like a gift from Canada herself.
It could never be said that the mayor of Alert is a man with a lot of free time. Nevertheless, he slowly and carefully inspects the newspapers and supplies that Lumberknight has left. He is pleased to find that they are not just perfect, but Canadian perfect.
With true patriot love, he takes the first newspaper from the pile and folds it in half. He trudges over to the mailbox in front of the small, strange house that has caused him so much consternation and places the newspaper inside. The mailbox is made of hard wood, and intricately detailed – as though it has been carved by very small hands.
The mayor steps around to one side of the mailbox and sees the name that is inscribed there.
That name is Claus.