Ray Bradbury was in failing health during his final years, but he could still reminisce about his love for books and finish a brief and mysterious Christmas story.
Two pieces released this fall were written late in life by the science fiction/fantasy master, who died in June at age 91. He contributed "The Book and the Butterfly," an introduction to this year's edition of "The Best American Nonrequired Reading." And he conceived a stark encounter between a young boy and a man he believes is Santa Claus in "Dear Santa," which appears in the holiday issue of Strand Magazine, based in Birmingham, Mich.
The publication of each work was made possible, in part, by deep admiration for the author. Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli, who befriended Bradbury in 2009, has featured several Bradbury works and had an informal agreement with him for "Dear Santa."
"I never heard anything back or received a contract for a couple of months," Gulli wrote in a recent email, adding that final word did not arrive until the day of Bradbury's death. "I was picking up my mail and opened up an envelope to find Ray's signature on the contract."
Dave Eggers, who edits the "Nonrequired" series, once contributed a story to a Bradbury tribute anthology and knows a close associate of Bradbury's, the author and journalist Sam Weller. Based in San Francisco, Eggers helps a student committee compile the anthology and allows the students to choose a writer for the introduction.
"In the past they (the introducers) have ranged from Beck to Guillermo Del Toro to Judy Blume," Eggers, a National Book Award finalist for his novel "A Hologram for the King," wrote in an email Thursday.
"Last year the kids voted to ask Ray Bradbury, and because I knew Sam, and because I grew up a few towns from Bradbury's native Waukegan, Ill., I thought we might have a shot. When Sam let us know he agreed, the students and I were flabbergasted. His intro was wonderful of course — so full of undiminished joy. He passed on a few weeks after sending it to us."
"The Book and the Butterfly" is a three-page tribute to reading and how it nurtured Bradbury's extraordinary imagination. He describes visiting his local library in Waukegan at age 7 and startling the librarian by borrowing 10 books a week. On "magnificent autumn nights," he would hurry home and read about everything from Egypt to physiology.
"The books I brought home from the library caused me to think about the origins of life and the universe," writes the author of "The Martian Chronicles," "Fahrenheit 451" and other classics. "How did it start? Where does it end? I recall Midwestern summer nights, standing on my grandparents' hushed lawn, and looking up at the sky at the confetti field of stars. There were millions of suns out there, and millions of planets rotating around those suns. And I knew there was life out there, in the great vastness. We are just too far apart, separated by too great a distance to reach one another."
His mind was a rocket ship, but "Dear Santa" is a written in a clipped, chilly style, as if Dashiell Hammett had been commissioned to write a sketch for The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. No names are given, except for Santa. The location is not identified. The mood is dreamlike and much of the action takes place through dialogue.
"Oddly enough the older Ray got, the less patience he had for adjectives and the more skeletal his style was, which for an editor is a dream," Gulli wrote in his email. "Often times authors will slip into phases especially when they start getting in years where they will pad a very simple story with a lot of things that should be edited out of the manuscript."
The story begins with a boy standing in the back of a long and slow-moving line to meet Santa. A tall stranger stops the boy and asks his age.
"Twelve," the boy says. The stranger warns he may well be older when he finally gets to Santa. As the boy approaches the front, he whispers his age to Santa, who insists the boy is lying and sends him away, complaining the boy is too heavy to sit on him, as if the boy himself might be turning into Santa.
Outside, the boy spots a tall, blue-cheeked man and they walk together. The boy is convinced the man is Santa, the man gives nothing away. The boy says he will write him during the next holiday season, and insists he knows where to address the letter. As they part, the boy has a final question.
"My dear Santa, sir, please tell me, do you believe in you?"
"Maybe right now I'm beginning to believe," the man says. "I think I owe you thanks."