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  The Legend of Rudolf.                                               Page 11 of 22
 

             That was how Rudolf joined Santa's operation in the advancing whiteness of that difficult and storm-tossed year.  He was given a stall at the end of the barn, and while it was warm and dry, still it was a little ways apart from the others.  There were a few ordinary-sized reindeer stabled in the compound.  They played various roles for Santa:  moving stones and logs for a new building, or thatch for a roof in need of repair; and they helped bring in materials for toys.  However, they kept mainly to themselves, regarding Rudolf as unusual, marked by Santa, not a true reindeer:  not one of them.  And there was his strange nose, too, which added to their sense that here was a different creature altogether.  So they shunned him, crossing to the opposite side of the clearing in the center of the compound if he approached.

            Santa's team also paid scant attention to him.  Donder and Blitzen wanted nothing to do with him whatsoever, and they seemed to take great pains to ignore him.  Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen were less disrespectful, nodding to him with an occasional "Good morning!"  Still, he could see a certain brittleness in their downward glances, a certain reserve, as though they had judged him already, measured him against standards he could not hope to understand, and had found him wanting.  What was it?  What had he done?

            Only Cupid seemed genuine in her greeting, her eyes warm and accepting.  Of all the reindeer, only she would occasionally say, "I hope you are happy today!" or "Good luck with your instruction!"

            And Courage, who had to spend the most time with him, instructing him in the leaping and bounding ways that would ready him for flight, did so with a certain abruptness, a shortness of speech and an all-too-often severe look, as though she resented the obligation to teach this strange creature too small to be truly a part of Santa's team and too different to join the ordinary reindeer resented the teaching that she expected would fail.  He did his best, but his best often seemed to fall short.

            And at the end of these wearying days, he would eat alone in his stall at the end of the barn.  A few of the elves would see to his grooming and would clean his stall.  In their faces he could read nothing, could interpret nothing but duty in their touch.

            He seemed then to live between two worlds, belonging to neither, and if, late at night and all alone, he answered the crying inside voices with his own soft bleats and moans, crying at the great indifferent emptiness of the world, no one came to comfort him.  But sometimes, the light that tricked the edges of his sight would seem to expand, filling his stall with the barest glimmer of warm radiance.  When this happened, he would sigh and settle into the straw, giving himself up to a restful sleep that would prepare him for the rigors of the following day.

***

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