The Christmas Mystery

Jostein Gaarder; Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan; Illustrated by Rosemary Wells

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Christmas Mystery
... perhaps the clock hands had become so tired of going in the same direction year after year that they bad suddenly begun to go the opposite way instead ...
DUSK was falling. The lights were on in the Christmas streets, and thick snowflakes danced between the lamps. The streets were crowded with people.
Among all these busy people were Papa and Joachim. They had gone into town to buy an Advent calendar, and it was their last chance, because tomorrow would be December 1. . They were sold out at the newsstand and in the big bookstore in the market square.
Joachim tugged Papa's hand hard and pointed to a tiny shop window. An Advent calendar in bright colors was leaning against a pile of books. "There!" he said.
Papa turned back. "Saved!"
They went into the tiny bookshop. Joachim thought it looked a little old and worn out. There were shelves from floor to ceiling along all the walls, and on all the shelves the books were tightly packed. Almost no two were alike.
A large pile of Advent calendars lay on the counter. There were two kinds. One had a picture of Santa Claus with a sled and reindeer; the other had apicture of a barn with a tiny Christmas elf, a nisse, eating porridge out of a big bowl.
Papa held up the two calendars. "There are chocolates behind the doors in this one," he said, "but, of course, your dentist wouldn't like that very much. The other has small plastic figures."
Joachim examined the two calendars. He didn't know which one he wanted.
"It was different when I was a boy," said Papa.
"What do you mean?"
"Then there was only a tiny picture behind each door, one for each day. We were so excited every morning! We used to try to guess what the picture would be. Then we opened the door ... well, we opened it, you see. It was like opening the door to a different world."
Joachim had noticed something. He pointed to a wall of books. "There's an Advent calendar over there, too."
He ran over to get it and held it up to show Papa. It had a picture of Joseph and Mary bending over the Baby Jesus in the manger. The Three Wise Men from the East were kneeling in the background. Outside the stable were the shepherds with their sheep, and angels floated down from the sky. One of them was blowing a trumpet.
The calendar's colors were faded, as if it had been lying in the sun all summer. But the picture was so beautiful that Joachim almost felt a little sorry for it.
"I want this one," he said.
Papa smiled. "You know, I don't think this one's for sale. I think it must be very old. Maybe as old as I am."
Joachim wouldn't give up. "None of the doors are open."
"But it's only here for decoration."
Joachim hadn't taken his eyes off the calendar. "I want it," he repeated. "I want the one that's like none of the others."
The bookseller, an older man with white hair, came over. He looked surprised when he saw the Advent calendar.
"Beautiful!" he exclaimed. "And genuine--yes, original. It almost looks homemade."
"He wants to buy it," said Papa, gesturing toward Joachim. "I'm trying to explain that it's not for sale."
The white-haired man raised his eyebrows. "Did you find it here? I haven't seen one like that for many, many years."
"It was in front of all the books," said Joachim, pointing.
The bookseller nodded. "Oh, old John must be up to his tricks again."
Papa stared. "John?"
"Yes, he's a strange character. He sells roses in the market. Sometimes he comes in and asks for a glass of water. In summer when it's hot he'll pour the last drops over his head before he goes out again. He's poured a few drops over me a couple of times, too. To thank me for the water, he sometimes leaves one or two roses on the counter; or he'll put an old book on the bookshelf. Once he put a photograph of a young woman in the window. It was from a country far away. Maybe that's where he comes from himself. 'Elisabet,' it said on the photo."
"And now he's left an Advent calendar?" Papa asked.
"Yes, apparently."
"There's something written on it," said Joachim. He read aloud: "MAGIC ADVENT CALENDAR. Price: 75 ore."
The bookseller nodded. "In that case, it must be very old."
"May I buy it for 75 ore?" asked Joachim.
The man laughed. "I think you should have it for nothing. You'll see, old John had you in mind."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," said Joachim. He was already on his way out of the bookshop.
Papa shook the bookseller's hand and followed Joachim out to the sidewalk.
Joachim hugged the calendar tight. "I'll open the first door tomorrow," he said.
JOACHIM woke up many times that night. He thought about the white-haired bookseller and about John with his roses at the market. He went to the bathroom and drank water from the tap. He remembered that John had poured water over his head.
Most of all, he thought about the magic Advent calendar which was as old as Papa. And yet nobody had opened any of the doors. Before he went to bed, he found all the doors, from 1 to 24. The twenty-fourth was, of course, Christmas Eve, and that door was four times bigger than the others. It covered almost the entire manger in the stable.
Where had the Advent calendar been for over forty years? And what would happen when he opened the first door, in a little while? He and Papa had hung the calendar on a hook above his bed.
When he woke up again, it was seven o'clock. He reached up and tried to open the first door, but his fingers were so impatient that it was difficult to hold it properly. At last he managed to loosen a tiny corner, and the door opened slowly.
Joachim gazed at a picture of a toy store. Among all the toys and the people were a little lamb and a small girl, but he couldn't look more closely at the picture because, just as he opened the door, something fell out on his bed. He picked it up.
It was a thin sheet of paper, folded over and over. He smoothed it out and saw that there was writing on both sides. He began to read.
"Elisabet!" her mother called after her. "Come back, Elisabet!"
Elisabet Hansen had been standing staring at the big pile of teddy bears and stuffed animals while her mother was buying Christmas presents for the cousins who lived in Toten. All of a sudden, a little lamb popped out of the pile, jumped to the floor, and looked around. It had a bell around its neck, and the bell started to jingle in competition with all the cash registers.
How could a toy suddenly come to life? Elisabet was so surprised that she started to chase the lamb. It was running across the floor of the department store in the direction of the escalator.
"Little lamb, little lamb!" she called after it.
The lamb was now on the escalator, which led to the floor below. The escalator moved quickly, and the lamb leaped even faster, so that Elisabet had to run faster than the escalator and the lamb together to catch up with it.
"Come back, Elisabet!" repeated her mother, severely.
But Elisabet had already jumped on the escalator. She could see the lamb running across the ground floor, where they sold underwear and ties.
As soon as she had solid ground beneath her feet again, she went the same way as the lamb. It had bounded out to the street, where the snowflakes were dancing amid all the strings of Christmas lights hanging from the streetlights. Elisabet knocked over a display of winter gloves and followed it.
The street was so noisy that she could only just hear the bell jingling over on Church Road. But Elisabet did not give up. She was determined to pat the lamb's soft fleece.
"Little lamb, little lamb!"
The lamb dashed across the road against the light. Perhaps it thought a red man on the traffic light meant "Go!" and a green man meant "Stop!" Elisabet thought she had heard that sheep were color-blind. At any rate, the lamb didn't stop at the red man on the light, so Elisabet couldn't stop either. She was going to catch up with the lamb even if she had to follow it to the ends of the earth.
The cars honked their horns, and a motorcycle had to swerve onto the sidewalk to avoid colliding with Elisabet or with the little lamb. The people doing their Christmas shopping stared. They didn't often see a little girl running across Church Road against the light to catch a lamb. In any case, it was unusual to be running after a lamb in the middle of winter.
As they ran, Elisabet heard the church clock strike three. She noticed it especially, because she knew she had come to town on the five o'clock bus. Perhaps the clock hands had become so tired of going in the same direction year after year that they had suddenly begun to go the opposite way instead. Elisabet thought that clocks, too, might get bored with doing the same thing all the time.
But there was something else. When Elisabet had gone into the departmentstore, it had been almost completely dark outside. Now it was light again, and that was odd, because there had been no night in between.
As soon as the lamb had the chance, it turned onto a road leading out of town and trotted on toward some woods. It leaped onto a path between tall pine trees. Now it had to slow down a little, because the path was covered with the snow that had been falling during the past few days.
Elisabet went after it. It was difficult for her to run, too. But the lamb had four legs that were dragging in the snow, while she had only two. Perhaps that would help her to catch up.
Her mother's cries had been drowned long ago by the noise in the street. Soon she couldn't even hear street sounds. But something was still singing in her ears: "Should we buy this one or that one? What do you think, Elisabet?"
Perhaps the lamb had come to life and run away from the big store because it could not bear to listen to all the cash registers and all the talk about buying and selling. And perhaps that was why Elisabet was following it. She had never been very fond of shopping.
JOACHIM looked up from the thin sheet of paper that had fallen out of the magic Advent calendar. He was amazed by what he had read.
He had always liked secrets. Now he remembered the little box with the key in it, the one Grandma had bought him in Poland. Mama and Papa had made him a solemn promise that they would never look for the key and open the box when Joachim was asleep or at school. It would be as bad as opening someone else's letters, they had said.
Until today, Joachim hadn't had any real secrets to hide in the box. But now he put the paper from the Advent calendar there, locked it up, and hidthe key under his pillow. When Mama and Papa woke up and came to look at the Advent calendar, too, they would see only the picture of the lamb in the department store.
"Do you remember?" asked Mama, looking up at Papa. "It was just like that when we were small."
Papa nodded. "Then we used our imagination and made up a story about each little picture. It was much better than plastic figures that end up being swallowed by an angry vaccuum cleaner."
Joachim was laughing inside. only he knew that there had been a mysterious piece of paper inside the calendar.
He pointed to the picture of the lamb. "The lamb has decided to run away from the shop," he said, "because it can't bear listening to all the cash registers and all the talk of buying and selling. But there's a little girl called Elisabet in the shop, and she runs after the lamb because she wants to pat its soft fleece."
"See what I mean?" Papa said. "What does the boy want with plastic figures?"
For the rest of the day, Joachim wondered whether Elisabet would catch up with the lamb so that she could pat its fleece. Would he find out tomorrow?
For then surely there would be another thin piece of paper.
Translation copyright © 1996 by Elizabeth Rokkan