I hesitate to mention this to anyone, because I know they're bound to say: (a) she fell asleep in the hayloft again; (b) must have been that leftover rum eggnog in her coffee cup; or (c) looks like it's time to check out adult day care.
But I wasn't dreaming, tipsy or hallucinating.
I was fully awake, wielding pitchfork and rake with my usual expertise while humming "O'er the fields we go," (off key) when I heard a voice behind me gently scold, "One week 'til Christmas and all you've bought so far is a box of marshmallow snowmen. And it's my guess they'll never see wrapping paper."
"Well, you've got to have some incentive to kick-start a shopping trip for a family our size," I retorted, whirling around to find myself face to forelock with an enormous chestnut horse wearing an iridescent Santa hat.
"Girlfriend, a six-horse trailer chock full of peppermint angels won't help get you in gear unless you pull on your galloping boots and hit the mall right this minute," he said with a snort.
"Whoa! Two things," I retorted in shock. "First, as you can see, I'm a little busy to be out 'hitting' the mall. And, second, I'm a really terrific shopper once I get going, so don't worry about it. Besides, I'm not paying any attention to what you say because you're not even real."
"Real is relative, sugar lump," he answered, draping a hoof casually over my shoulder.
"You see, I'm the Ghost of Christmas Presents, your dream pony come true. For about two centuries now it's been my job to give horsefolk a leg up on their Yuletide shopping. Not all of them, mind you, just the most hopeless cases. Although, come to think of it, that's just about all of them.
"Talk about your job security," he added thought-fully. "And for more holidays than I care to tally-ho--I mean up--I've watched you flailing around at the last minute in search of suitable gifts for relatives who don't share your passion for slinging straw. And, frankly, sweetcakes, every year your batting average has been at the bottom of the oat bin."
"That is so not true," I lied.
"Oh sure, trotting down to the tack shop at a quarter to Santa's touch-down might work when you're buying gifts for--would I be politically correct to say 'your kind'? But when it comes to choosing for family and friends who don't know how to cinch a girth, you're clueless," he finished, tapping one hoof impatiently.
"I am not! I'll have you know I have a whole raft of relatives who aren't horsefolk, and they loved their gifts last year. Besides, I don't need any advice from some cow-hocked illusion, so get lost!" I retorted, stamping my own foot for good measure.
"Temper, temper," soothed the equine incubus. "Remember, you're talking to the old record-keeper. Besides, I'm here to help, not hinder. So, even if you think I'm just a Mustang mirage, how 'bout giving me free rein to get on with my assignment? I have a reputation to protect here, you know. So, I'll talk, you shovel," he said, sitting back on his considerable haunches.
Your Reputation Precedes You
"For starters, I've been around the paddock long enough to understand how difficult it is for honest-to-goodness horsefolk to take time out for Christmas--you know, fixing meals that require actually turning on the stove and entertaining relatives who think a running martingale is a bird that can't fly," he explained.
"Don't be silly," I snapped, adding another scoop to my overloaded wheelbarrow. "I love Christmas. It's just that I'm too busy to be wandering around a bunch of stores for hours on end."
"Oh yeah," the mirage answered, wrinkling his nose. "Like I haven't heard every excuse about holiday shopping since the beginning of time. If you think it's oh so hard to find that perfect pair of earrings at the mall in mid-December, just try digging up some frankincense and myrrh at 11:55 p.m. on Christmas Eve!
"Well, it wasn't as if I didn't know I'd run into this with you, because, quite honestly, your reputation precedes you in the Elf Helper ranks. So, believe me, when your name came up on my 'to-do' list, don't think it was an alfalfa moment for me, either. You're a full-time mission, if you want to know the truth," he huffed, tossing his forelock.
"Look, I appreciate your, uh, appearance, and your willingness to help, but I really don't need it," I said primly, moving through him toward the next stall. And then I assured him that last year I'd finished shopping in plenty of time to wrap everything, and I was confident every single gift was appreciated.