Every Christmas when I was a child, much of my extended family would gather at my grandparents’ farm outside a small town in Illinois. My own family would usually arrive early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, and many other relatives who lived nearby would come out to the farm for dinner that night.
My grandparents had raised seven children, so there was always plenty of room for everybody at the farmhouse. My uncle Dick, who’d never married, still lived there and helped out around the farm. Dick was a bit of a drinker, and a big, jolly fellow.
One year when I was maybe five or six years old, Uncle Dick corralled all the kids—probably close to a dozen of us—after our huge potluck dinner.
“Everybody get bundled up,” he said. “I’ve got a big surprise to show you.”
“Oh Jesus, Dick,” my grandfather said. “Go on and leave that thing alone.”
It was later than most of us were accustomed to staying up, and I remember it was a cold, clear night with a good deal of snow on the ground. After we’d all pulled on our boots and zipped ourselves into our snowsuits we headed out into the farmyard with Uncle Dick. I imagine he’d had a few drinks by this point, and he had a big, hissing Coleman lantern that sent dark angles of shadow swaying before him as he walked. We followed him across the yard and along the fence that separated the feedlot from the fields, trudging through the snow and struggling in his tracks through the deep drifts.
Uncle Dick led us way back along the fence to the edge of the property, where the corn field gave way to a wood lot and a frozen dumping pond. He paused and bent low to illuminate something in the snow. We gazed with a combination of horror and wonder at a pink, hairless thing, wincing, glazed with ice, and curled up like a grub in a cradle of snow.
There was a sustained silence as we all crowded around for a closer look, the steam from our breath billowing in the lamplight.
“What is it?” somebody finally asked.
“That there is an elf fetus,” Uncle Dick said. “A dead little baby elf.”
“What happened to it?” one of my cousins asked.
“You know how it is with Santa on Christmas Eve,” Dick said. “He must have had an elf with him who started to have herself a baby, and when she finally squeezed that thing out they flung it over the side of the sleigh as they went flying by. That’s how much Santa Claus and his elves care about getting presents to you kids. On a night like this they’re just too damn busy to mess with a little baby elf when they’re out buzzing around the world. They had to toss it overboard and go on with their important business.”
A couple of the kids started to cry.
“Aw, don’t you worry about a thing,” Uncle Dick said. “Them elves are like rabbits; they have all kinds of babies. There’s more where that one came from.”
Someone suggested we bury the elf baby.
“Nah,” Dick said. “Santa Claus will take care of it eventually, once he’s done with his chores.” Then he reached down into the snow, grabbed the tiny creature by the head, and pitched it toward the dumping pond.
We all followed Dick back along the fence to the house, our heads—or mine, certainly—full of disturbing questions.
The next morning I went back out with my brother and some cousins to look for the elf fetus, but sure enough, it was gone.
I think I believed in that dead little elf longer than I believed in Santa Claus, and it wasn’t until years later that my brother told me that what Uncle Dick had shown us that night was actually a stillborn pig.
My brother, of course, claimed he’d known all along.