The king of the rocks hid down in his tunnels. The renegade bands had been crawling the city surface unrelentingly for days. A light snow had fallen, and Caesar knew that if he left his safe home behind, even to sing, they would find and follow his tracks.
It was a lonely day down in the caves, and without anything interesting having happened there was not even any carving to do. And it was the worst day of the year to be lonely, too. Caesar hadn’t much of a mind for calendars or knowing any day from another, but somehow deep in his mind he had remembered that as a boy, though he didn’t remember a boy as anything different from himself, he had never been alone on this day. It was a day he had given gifts to others, and his parents had given gifts to him.
People wore funny hats on this day, too, he remembered. They were like red cones with white little balls on the end. They there the only fuzzy things left in the king’s memory, having lost almost all his hair himself. He thought that maybe he had one down in one the unused tunnels. He could have a celebration!
The king bounded down through his domain from tunnel to tunnel, not able to remember where he had left the stretchy and fuzzy trinket, or even what exactly it looked like. His search took him down into rooms he had not used since the last time this day had come.
It was not a good time of year to be out and about anyway. The days were all shorter than normal and darkness often came down while he was still just halfway through his song. And it was no use singing if he couldn’t see the audience anyway, so he would be obliged to step down and accept the sorrowful nods of all his adoring fans. They understood he couldn’t just go on in the dark. He had to find his way home.
And then there it was, in the third room that Caesar searched for the second time. Tossed off in a dusty corner, the reddish silly hat. He gripped it up between his massive fingers and tried the delicate task of fitting the hat onto his head for the next ten minutes. At last, it slipped down his lumpy skull and clung on with elastic tightness.
Caesar had no mirrors down there. He had always run to the river if he really needed to see his own face, which was only to make sure that it was fine if he ever got really ambushed by the renegades. But he could not go up to the surface. There were the renegades there, and they had the shiny guns.
Caesar tried to remind himself of this, but he could not find any good reason to wear the hat if he could not see what he was about. Just when he was sure he was going to have to run outside if this day was to be at all festive, he remembered something more. There had been something about socks. He thought he had one of those somewhere, though it wasn’t much good above ground in terrain like that.
The king rummaged around his treasuries and libraries for half an hour more before he found it, in the same room, exactly where the hat had been. It was giant and pink, of a stretching knitting. On it were some letters that he could not read anymore. It wasn’t a word, the king was sure of that. Clearly, he thought, it must be a name, though whose he could not imagine. He slipped it on over his right foot and admired it. It did look something of a happy thing, though only suitable for this special day.
But that only reminded him that he still did not know what his hat looked like. He had to find out. He had to.
There would still be a little daylight left out there. He could make it down to the river. Even if it had done that thing where it turned to slippery, see-through rock it would still let him see himself. That was a strange thing, too, that he could see through it and still see himself and it, all three. But that was not the strangest thing the king had seen in all his domain, and it troubled him not the slightest, so long as he didn’t fall through it.
The king hopped along his tunnels with the stocking and the cap right to the base of his ascending shaft. He cocked the side of his head towards the opening at the top. There was no noise.
He climbed the shaft with only two arms and one leg, since he did not want to get the sock dirty, and so it took him a while longer and was a good bit more exhausting than it ever was. Once he got up he looked around. It would not do the hop around without using that foot any longer. Anyhow, the snow was white, and so it should not make him dirty to step in it. He crawled out of the tunnel and checked again. There was no sign of renegades.
So the king took off to the left of his usual path, running straight for the river. He could just dart down that way, carefully hidden among the rocks, and sneak back. Actually, he would take a more roundabout way back, maybe, so that if they followed his tracks they wouldn’t see him.
Making an odd trail of uneven footprints he bounded along, bouncing lightly with each step but keeping his head down in what must have been a most odd combination of hilarity and terror.
When Caesar crested the last hill that ran down into the river he remembered one more thing. Many years ago he had done a thing that began with the same letter as pillar, but he couldn’t remember what. It had the middle sound of tunnel in it twice, and somewhere once it had the starting sound of gun. In fact it ended with the gun sound, too. And it was named after a funny flightless bird, too. They had done a thing like it with something called sleds, but the gun sounding thing hadn’t used them.
This sort of day brought back so many memories to the old king that he wished it would happen more often. In any case, penguining (he had remembered) was quite fun (and actually consisted of sliding down a snowy hill in just the snow jacket, without a sled), and so he leapt at the edge of the hill on his chest, hoping he would slide down like he had when he was a boy. Instead it turned into a crazy roll and tumble, but he didn’t remember what penguining had been anyway, and he found the tumble enjoyable, so to his mind it was exactly what he expected.
Then he realized the hat had nearly come off, and he daintily slipped it back down to his eyebrow ridge with his massive forefingers.
The king peered down at the ice. But he did not know what to think.
It looked strange, different, of course, to have a red and silky thing with what was now a greyish ball on the end, dangling by one side of his face. It did not make much sense. But then, this day did only come once a year or so, maybe it was okay to not make sense. Perhaps that was what this day was all about, doing things that don’t make much sense at all, like giving things away.
They had done more than just penguining and silly hats though, and even more than the socks. There was something more missing. They had sang back then, too. Not the one song he could usually remember and that he usually sang. It was a different one. He had sung it in something like the theater once, with lots of other boys. Maybe he’d remember over there.
Caesar looked up. The sun was still in the sky, and he had to go home by a roundabout way anyway. With greater urgency than his last trip the king bellowed his way across the snowy landscape towards the theater. He had a compass in his mind that always pointed to it and to his home, so he could find them any time. He found himself humming a tune with words he could scarcely recall, one or two at a time. The stage would help him recall.
He climbed over the back like he always did, and more of the memories came. He had entered from stage left, and walked in to the middle. The king did just that, and stood staring out. Only his parents were there this time. In fact, Marcus was there, standing next to him. He must have sang that song back when he was a boy, too.
Then they began to sing. Marcus was the high voiced one and Caesar had the low voice. It was something about harking to a herald that was singing about something Caesar thought he remembered but couldn’t get on. He found himself mouthing the word “watermelon” like he had been taught to when he couldn’t remember the words.
Then all at once the situation changed. They had heard him and followed him in. A dozen of them stormed up on his seats from above and charged in from the side entrances, guns fixed on Caesar. Caesar looked around at their gleeful faces, faces that he remembered from this day when he was a boy. People who got lots of things from others but never gave much themselves had those faces, the king concluded.
They say that some people learn best under pressure, and that is exactly what Caesar did. He remembered the song! Not that he knew what the words mean exactly, but in some small degree.
Hark the herald angel sings
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled…
And so he just went on singing, recalling words as fast as he could sing them. The renegades all looked around at each other. This was not at all the song they had been expecting. It was one they all knew, somewhere deep inside, that they had heard before. Some heard it in survival villages far off that they raided in previous years, some from their childhood, and others just from contraband recordings. They knew what it meant even better than the king, though they did not like it.
Gradually they each lowered their guns, then once the invisible awkwardness built up for them they all scrambled out of the building in many different directions.
The king concluded that this day was certainly about, at least in part, doing things that did not make sense. It was about sparing things of pain that you could cause them, and about giving people things, things they didn’t even expect or deserve. That was something, but hardly worth celebrating as wildly as he thought he had as a boy.
That song was strange, too. It sounded like it was quoting something else, something that Caesar vaguely remembered, too. It was something he had back in the tunnel. The sun was coming down now, anyway, and it would get cold, and he had none of the warm brown stuff he had drank on this day in the past, so he charged off at his tunnel, ignoring the retreating renegades that scattered in front of him. They didn’t seem to mind him on this day, and he never really minded them when they weren’t shooting.
He leapt straight down into his tunnels and started going down in. Then he remembered the special lights he had seen on this day, and pressed his electric bars together to turn on all his lights. He would need them to read by, anyway.
So the king tumbled down to his main chamber and drew out the little black book he kept hidden away behind the bomb. It was something started with an L and the second one in it. There one was. But it was the wrong words. He flipped farther in and found another. This one worked better. He read all the words by memory, not really knowing exactly what shepherds or sheep were, but something filled his imagination. And as he read on he realized what this day was really all about.
He had been right all along. It was about doing things that didn’t make sense because other people didn’t deserve to have you do them. Things like giving gifts or singing songs or baking cookies (he had just remembered those, too) were nice things. But the ultimate thing that didn’t make sense was right here, and this was the reason that they all did things that didn’t make sense. And it seemed that silly hats and stockings weren’t even in there at all, though they didn’t make sense and certainly were fun and nice. This was where it was really at.
Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, Peace, Goodwill toward Men.