The 12-year-old New York City boy had always felt very close to animals (spiritually), and loved to be around them (although he didn’t get to be very often, living in a Manhattan top-floor apartment where his parents weren’t allowed to have pets).
Occasionally he would talk his mom into taking him to the Bronx Zoo for an hour or so, and he would stand entranced outside the fence at the monkey compound, the lions’ area, the pool and artificial mini-mountains where the polar bears roamed. He would stare, fascinated and feeling a kinship with the members of the animal kingdom, who often sensed his extreme interest and would make prolonged eye contact, or even approach the fence to get a closer look.
The fences were constructed in such a way as to prevent any reaching through them, or Jody would have been trying to shake hands with the monkey, or pet the big cat or the huge bear. But he did talk to the animals as if they were his friends, sometimes make faces at them (in a good-natured way), dance around in front of them, and show that, to him, they were just friends of his with four legs and fur.
AND THE creatures of the wild nearly always responded favorably. The monkeys would pull their big, toothy grins on him, and jump up and down with excitement. The big cats would sit, fascinated, occasionally making a gentle growl as they stared at him. The polar bears acted as if they’d love to jump over the fence — and hug and cuddle him like their favorite cub.
Jody’s 10-year-old sister, Amanda, wasn’t like that at all. She was a typical New York City kid, certain that she knew a lot more than those hayseeds from west of the Hudson River, “up” on all the latest stuff that kids that age in a big city know and enjoy. And she had already announced to her parents — and her dreamy older brother — “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus! He’s just a figment of my imagination!”
Jody was conflicted about that. Yes, as most 12-year-olds have “progressed” to not believing in the Jolly Old Elf — not literally, anyway — Jody doubted, in a general way, that Santa lived at the North Pole with hundreds of elves, and his eight tiny reindeer (oops! make that nine; forgot Rudolph).
And yet … and yet … Jody couldn’t help thinking, at times, “Yes, there is a supernatural world … maybe the little kids are right, and Santa does live at the North Pole … with his elves, and the reindeer … I’d love to get to pet them and talk to them …”
Both Schneider kids were smart, but each in their own way. Jody had more of a sense of humor than Amanda. She had started teasing him by calling him “Critter” for his love of animals. Jody generally took it in stride, although occasionally he would put his face up to hers, growl, and say, “Better watch it, Sis, or I might bite you!” It always took Amanda by surprise for a second or two, and then her brother would laugh loudly. She didn’t like that.
ONE WEEK before Christmas, a major Yuletide parade wound its way down the street nearest the Schneiders’ apartment building, with many thousands of kids and adults crowded around the sidewalks, cheering and yelling, the children dodging into the street to grab the hundreds of small pieces of wrapped candy scattered by “elves” and others scampering between the various floats and high school marching bands.
Tom and Kathy Schneider took both their kids to see the parade, and Amanda enjoyed it all, cheering the bands, the floats — even waving and yelling, “Hi, Santa!” to the Jolly Old Elf she said she didn’t believe in any more.
Jody — well, he watched and waved, but he was waiting impatiently for the animals he knew would be included. And suddenly, there was the first one. An attractive young lady dressed like an elf was leading her large Golden Retriever down the street on a leash. The dog was beautiful, majestic, walked gracefully and looked around curiously at the crowd. Until he spotted Jody, and their eyes met.
It was like Jody and Golden both froze in place for a few seconds. Jody had never seen such a beautiful dog before; the animal stared back as if he’d just met the guy destined to be his best friend. The dog let out a delighted cry and lunged toward Cody, straining at his leash. Jody yelled out, “You’re great, boy!” and lunged toward Golden.
The dog’s mistress pulled him back, hard, with her leash, and Tom grabbed his son by the shoulders and said, “Son, don’t go racing out onto the parade route like that! You might get hit by one of the floats!”
As Golden and his mistress moved on down the street, the dog kept looking back over his shoulder at his new friend. And Jody made eye contact with the dog every time he did so. He wanted to pet the dog and talk to him so bad, he broke down and cried — quietly — and breathed to himself, “Boy, I’m gonna see you again! Somehow or other, I’m going to find you!”
JODY RELUCTANTLY turned back to the approaching side of the parade. More elves; more Christmas floats; another high school band … And then suddenly, Jody’s eyes opened wide again. Coming down the street was the Budweiser beer wagon, pulled by the biggest, most beautiful horses he’d ever seen. Clydesdales, Jody learned later. Huge. Statuesque. With thick manes, and fluffy hair extending back from their ankles, just above their hooves. And glorious, beautiful tails.
Jody was speechless. Then, his voice finally returned, and he took a step forward, yelling, “Hey, you guys, wish I could ride one of you! I’d like to ride you right off into the sunset!” Despite their blinders, the horse closest to him heard him, turned her head, and looked briefly but searchingly right into Jody’s eyes. The look seemed to say, “Hold your horses, youngster! You may get a big surprise soon!”
Amanda and her parents were excited and happy as they wended their way back to their apartment building. But Jody was so excited he could hardly stop talking.
“Calm down, son,” Kathy said. “Yes, they were very beautiful and impressive, but remember that they’re just animals. And that we couldn’t bring them into the apartment, even if we wanted to. Which we don’t.”
“You’re mom’s right, Jody,” added Tom. “You need to get more in touch with the human world. That’s what we are, you know.”
“I liked the Santa Claus float — even though he doesn’t exist,” said Amanda, then stuck her tongue out at her older brother. “Aw, shut up, party pooper!” Jody answered, smacking her on the butt with his stocking cap.
“Eek! Mom, Jody hit me!” screamed Amanda.
“Don’t you hit your sister, young man,” Kathy warned him.
AND THERE it ended for that day. The Schneiders put up their Christmas tree and other decorations, talked about the Christmas movies coming up on TV, thought about what they were going to get each other as Christmas presents.
But always, in the back of Jody’s mind, were memories of the Golden and the Clydesdale, and his devout wish to see them again — pet them, talk to them. Even though they would only be able to whinny and bark in return, he thought.
Christmas Eve finally arrived. The Schneiders prepared to celebrate, all four of them happy and excited. Jody and Amanda had apologized to each other about their little tiff of a week earlier. They really did love each other, despite their occasional brother-sister spats.
After their Christmas Eve dinner — ham as the main course, with turkey to come tomorrow — and a pleasant evening spent listening to Christmas CDs and watching “It’s A Wonderful Life,” then going out for a short walk on the streets near their apartment house, padding in the newly fallen snow which had stopped earlier, parents and kids headed to bed.
Amanda still was sticking like glue to her “There’s no Santa Claus” insistence. But she stopped on the way to her bedroom to glance longingly back at the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad will put the presents out after we’re asleep … There’s no Santa Claus … Is there? …
JODY WAS ready for bed, but this time he did something which wasn’t usual for him: He knelt down to say a Christmas Eve prayer.
“Hello, God; this is Jody. Hope you still remember me; I haven’t messaged you for a while. Anyway, I hope you’ll see to it that all my friends have a Merry Christmas — especially that beautiful dog and horse I saw a week ago. Hope I can meet them again some time. And I hope you’ll make sure Mom and Dad and Amanda have a real good Christmas, too. And, here’s one other thing, God: Amanda says she doesn’t believe in Santa any more. She’s too young to be that cynical! Could you do something to prove to her that Santa is — uh — well, at least sorta the real thing? Jody signing off, God! Have a good Christmas!”
He got into bed then, and in a reasonably short time, was asleep.
A few hours later, Jody suddenly woke up. Wide awake. He lay there wondering what had happened. Then, he heard a quiet, soft voice right in his ear. It said, “Jody, get up and get dressed, put on your coat and cap because it’s cold outside, take your phone with the video device, and go up the stairs to the flat roof. Someone’s waiting to see you. Hurry, now!”
Jody sat up, terrified for a few seconds. He could see no one in his darkened room. When he turned on the bedside lamp, he looked around and saw that he was all alone, just as he had been when he came in. Shaking, but determined, he quickly dressed and put on the cap and coat, grabbed his cellphone, went out into the hallway and climbed the stairs to the door to the roof.
He opened the door, stepped out onto the snow-covered flat roof — and froze — so to speak.
THERE STOOD the big Clydesdale, devoid of any harness. There beside her sat the Golden Retriever. Both seemed to be grinning at Jody.
“Hey, man, where you been? We thought maybe you weren’t comin’!” a voice said.
Jody jumped in alarm, then looked around quickly. There was another human up here — wasn’t there?
“Naah; it’s just us — Rusty and Big Bertha,” the voice said again, and then he could hear laughter coming from two human voices.
Then Jody looked closely at the dog — and saw that Rusty was talking to him! Real people talk! Not barks, howls or whines!
“You … you … you’re talking! Like we people do! How are you doin’ that?” gasped Jody.
“Well, buddy, you couldn’t have understood us if we’d just barked and whinnied, now, could you?” Big Bertha put in. She and Rusty laughed again, and this time Jody joined in. “This is crazy! But I love it! I can finally talk to my critter friends!” he shouted.
“Wanna take a ride, kid?” asked Big Bertha. “Here — I’ll kind of kneel down so you can get on my back.” Jody was starting to get into the rhythm of the thing now, and he hopped up on the horse’s broad back. Rusty leaped up right behind him.
“Are we gonna fly right over the moon?” asked Jody excitedly.
Big Bertha snorted.
“No, I can’t do that, with you riding. Too dangerous. We’ll just do a short swirl around above Manhattan.”
THE BIG horse took off like Rudolph leading Santa’s reindeer, and the three began whooping with glee like three boys having the time of their lives. Well, one WAS a boy, wasn’t he? They flew over Central Park, circled in the sky above Harlem, swooped down over Yorkville, then headed south for a few blocks over Greenwich Village, turned and flew north again over the top of Hell’s Kitchen — and finally zoomed back down onto the flat roof of the apartment building where the Schneiders lived.
Suddenly Jody remembered his cellphone-camera, and said, “Hey, you guys, could I take a little video footage of you?”
Rusty and Big Bertha glanced at each other, and then the Golden Retriever responded, “Sure! Why not?”
Jody started the camera, and chatted with the two critters as he recorded them on video. They even did a short dog-horse dance for him, while singing “The Sidewalks of New York.” Jody had never heard the song before, of course, but he loved it.
His friends having finished their entertainment, Jody sat down on the flat roof, in the snow, and the three chatted for a while longer.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” asked Rusty. “Well, I don’t know,” said Jody. “Hadn’t thought about it much so far.”
BIG BERTHA gave him a knowing look, and said, “How about a veterinarian, or an animal trainer? Since you’re so fond of … uh, OUR kind … I’ll bet you’d love those occupations.”
“Wow!” said Jody, his head down, thinking. “That’s a couple of good suggestions, Bertha! You guys not only can talk, but you’re SMART, too!”
Both laughed at that, and then Rusty got up from his prone position and said, “At least we’re smart enough to know when it’s time to go. Enjoyed being with ya, kid, but we’ve got other stops to make.”
“Awww! Don’t leave!” cried Jody, his voice breaking as if he was about to start crying.
“Now, Jody,” said Big Bertha. “We knew you wanted to see us again — but we’ve gotta do our shtick for a number of other folks tonight, too. And besides, somebody else will be wanting to land here before long.”
Jody sighed and got up. Rusty said, “Hey, buddy, could you give me a boost up on the old gal’s back?”
“Aw, he’s just lazy,” answered Big Bertha. “And watch that ‘old’ stuff, Fido, unless you wanna walk home tonight!” All three got a final, rousing laugh out of that one.
“Will I see you guys again?” asked Jody as Bertha started to move.
“Well, we can’t say for sure,” said Rusty. “But it’s sure possible! Bye, and Merry Christmas, youngster!”
“Merry Christmas to you guys!” Jody answered. Then the big horse took flight, with Rusty waving his front paw at their human friend until they were out of sight.
WHEN HE couldn’t see them any more, Jody went back inside, and back downstairs to his bedroom. He was cold, but exhilarated. He undressed and got back into bed. He lay there a long time, still marveling at what had happened to him. Then, just as he was starting to get drowsy, he heard, up on the roof: Sleigh bells! They sounded just as the ones had in Christmas movies he had seen.
Jody was excited all over again. He thought, “Should I go up there? Is it really HIM?” As he pondered and debated with himself, he gradually dozed off.
When he next awoke, it was Christmas Morning. The night he would never forget was over.
Jody was almost dizzy with excitement. He couldn’t wait to tell his family about what had happened. But then, he thought, “Oh, good grief, they won’t believe it; they’ll think I dreamed it, or I’m making it up. Or maybe that I’ve gone nuts!”
He opened the door and went out into the hallway. And there was Amanda, standing in the door of her bedroom. She looked dazed, shocked, discombobulated — you name it. Jody put his arms around his sister and said, “Merry Christmas, Sis! What’s the matter!”
“Oh, Jody, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I heard … I heard … ” And she couldn’t go on.
“I know what you heard, hon,” her big brother said. “I heard it, too. You still sure you think there’s no Santa Claus?”
“Well, I … I … I don’t know, but I’m sure not as sure of it as I was,” Amanda answered.
Jody suddenly remembered the cellphone video. “Hang on; got something to show you,” he said, ducking back into his room and re-emerging with the phone.
“Take a look at this,” he said, starting the video and watching her face with anticipation.
Amanda looked, then caught her breath and said, “Bro, where on earth did you shoot that?”
“Up on the roof, last night,” he answered.
She looked at him, doubtfully, but then noticed a couple of buildings in the background as being neighbors to the Schneiders. But then she said, “Why do the dog and horse keep barking and whinnying?”
Jody’s head came up, and he said, “They’re talking, just like we are! I talked to them for an hour up there!”
Amanda shook her head and said, “Doesn’t sound like talking to ME. Just barking and whinnying.”
Jody thought for a few seconds, then his eyes brightened. “Well, sis, it’s a critter thing. You wouldn’t understand. At least not yet.”
His sister laughed at that. Then he said, “Listen, Amanda, don’t ever tell Mom and Dad about this. They’d think I’ve gone crazy. And PLEASE don’t show them this video!”
With a knowing grin, she said, “OK, Critter. Merry Christmas!”