He was sitting on a rock, overlooking the vast, uncharted plain that stretched to the far horizon, when the child, fresh as a cherub, approached.
"Hi, Dad," said the youngster. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm always here," the ancient replied. "It's my job. I've got to be here. There wouldn't be a here if I wasn't here, child." He gazed at the innocent, entire galaxies floating in his eyes. "I've been here from the start."
"And that's why I'm here," said the infant. "I want to ask you about the start. My start. I'm beginning in 24 hours, yes?"
"Yes, more or less."
"So what am I supposed to do?" the child continued. "Go off with a bang?"
"Ohhh, no," said the wizened one, gently running a whetstone down the curved blade of his scythe. "We've already had one of them. That's quite enough for any universe. No, you just take things quietly, pet. Stick to the basics. Concentrate on getting through your whole months. You do that and I'll be a very proud Dad."
"Are you saying I won't?" the cherub gasped, deeply alarmed by the thought of a truncated term.
"Well, you never know in our game," the sage replied, "It could be all over tomorrow. Or in 5 billion years. It's anyone's guess, really," he added, idly picking a neutrino out of his beard. "Hmmmm. Most peculiar," the old man muttered, peering at the tiny particle through his kaleidoscope.
"How did that get here so fast? It wasn't due for another 60 nanoseconds."
"Forget about that, Dad," the child replied. "It's just the speed of light. It doesn't matter. What matters is me surviving for a year. Tell me, Father! Please! What should I look out for?"
"Well, you should steer clear of asteroids, for a start. Nasty little blighters, those. Wouldn't have a moon without them, you know."
"Is that all?"
"Good heavens, no. There's perils everywhere. Always have been. Plague, pestilence, locusts, boils. Plus, you've got a lot of new stuff now - Iranian bombs, tottering euros, gluten intolerance, ohh, and then there's what I think is the worst natural disaster of them all ..."
What?" shrieked the child.
"Al Gore. He can ruin a whole month, that man, with a single shonky prediction. Speaking of which ..."
"Ruin," the wise one said. "Oblivion. The end of days. Annihilation. I'm sorry to tell you this, sweet infant, but you've got the Mayan Calendar on your watch. Right at the end. In December. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes on the 20th, put it that way. It'll be bigger than Beatlemania, in terms of hysteria, except the songs won't be as good. Believe me, if a tenth of what they say about that wretched calendar is true, you'll need to be super careful, my child."
"This is awful!" wailed the cherub. "Are things always so bad?"
"Not at all," smiled the wise one. "Sometimes they're worse. Take this year - which is almost done, thank goodness. One tantrum after another, right from the start. I hate to say it about one of my own but, as years go, it should have. Before it arrived, if you get my drift. Not my best work, 2011. Year of the Rabbit, apparently, in some places. Well, where was the myxamatosis? A dose of that might've kept the fractious little brat in line. Honestly, child, if 2011 was a car, it would've been a Lada."
"Really?" sniffed the infant. "That bad?"
"Absolutely! Definitely! Totally unreliable. Thoroughly unwelcome. Most of our customers will be glad to see the back of it, I'm picking." The old man paused. "Which reminds me. I must have a word with your Mum, Mrs Nature. Tell her to calm down a bit. Folk would like that, I think."
"Whoopee!" whooped the child, suddenly cheered." That means they'll like me too!"
"Don't you worry about that," the old man smiled. "They'll like you. Or they will at the start. It could be a different story later. If there's any of the usual malarkey, you know, punch-ups at Waitangi, a black Budget, no gold medals at the Olympics, that sort of thing. But they'll be all over you tomorrow night, like a rash, smooching and snogging and generally leering up. You'll hear them making resolutions; giving up this or taking up that. They do it every year."
The old man rose from the rock and put his hand on the child's head. "Remember, the next 12 months belong to you. So get out there and knock their socks off, kid! Show 'em what a good year looks like. Mark my words, they need one."
"Thanks, Dad," said the brave little Year of the Dragon. "I promise I'll do my best."By Jim Hopkins Email Jim