Welcome to what is likely your first advent calendar fantasy novel! Each day is a chapter, and should be read as such, but who am I to stop you from catching up? What follows is the story of one Marzipan Ridner, a young trans girl aching for the fulfillment of the holiday season. When a mysterious wooden Advent calendar shows up she opens the first door, and finds herself whisked away to a world-tree of contrasting deities and binding bureaucracy. She has less than a month to find someone willing to be her spiritual patron, but the denizens of the tree don’t seem very hospitable…
Twenty-four Days of Ringworm and Religion
On the First Day
The little box she held in the pocket of her torn jacket once contained a three dollar ring with a glass stone. To Marzipan Ridner that was jewelry, finery. It meant the box it came in was fancy, suitable as a coffin for her latest sacrifice to the pagan gods of the creek in her backyard. It was less of a backyard and more unusable land adjacent to the unlivable land her house was parked on, but its thin leafless trees and howling winds would serve the purposes of the ritual well enough.
She marched deeper into the trees, the place having a few too many drainage ditches to be called a forest, frigid hands in her pockets and every breath foggy around her red nose. Marzi was very slight, but too short to be summed up as a broomstick, perhaps one of the wispy ash brooms kept near the hearth.
Really in all ways she was the opposite of her old namesake, Mars, the Roman god of war. Mom told her that her father had won more money in the lottery between the two of them during the pregnancy, which was a wager over who would get to name her when she was born. It took eighteen dollars to win the privilege.
She guessed that he wanted her to be strong, but he didn’t stick around long enough to see how wrong he was. She was eleven now, but she still liked to imagine that he had known the Roman gods from his community college days, and that when he left in his van, which had many nymphs painted on its side in support of her theory, he was returning to celebrate with them. Parties with gods took years, probably.
When he got back he would learn he actually had a daughter instead of a son, and hopefully he wouldn’t mind the modifications she had made to the name. She kept Mars in it mostly, but thought Marzipan sounded more like a girl’s name. There wasn’t anybody to tell her it wasn’t much of a name at all, or what marzipan actually tasted like.
She knew it was sweetened almond paste, and she’d asked for some the past two Christmases, but no dice. It was December first again, so there would be another chance soon. The odds would surely go up if they liked her offering. Mom would fill the cupboards with holiday delights: canned peaches she could put extra sugar on, graham crackers that weren’t broken up into little pieces, snack cakes filled with cream with red ribbons around their individual plastic wrapping, mixed roasted nuts that included cashews-
“Oof!” she squeaked as she stumbled over a large rock, silly considering that she had placed it there herself a few days ago. It acted as the leftmost boundary of her sacrificial alter. Rounded stones from the creek, pale and speckled enough to be songbird eggs, lay end to end in a big circular design that she tried to make look like a Celtic knot.
She got on her bare knees before the flattest widest stone and gingerly took out the cardboard ring box. Off came the lid. Inside rested a crunchy flattened cockroach, a yellow dollop of innards still hanging off the back end. Ending the creature’s life had been an accident; she had just been getting a glass of water in the middle of the night to soothe her growling stomach when she stepped on it in the dark.
As far as she knew there were no rules in animal sacrifice that said it had to actually be killed on the altar, and there was no reason for the little body to go to waste. She had similarly sacrificed other bugs and tadpoles, but so far the blessings hadn’t manifested. The witches and pagans and devil worshipers on TV usually used goats or chickens or human infants, so Marzi thought it might take a few hundred tiny ones to add up to something noticeable.
To help it along she pulled a sharpened twig from its flagpole posting beside the sacrificial stone. Its tip was dark brown from previous uses; again she pressed it into the skin on the side of her wrist until it produced a drop of blood that splattered onto the dead cockroach. She clasped the stick between her numb hands in prayer, closed her eyes, and pleaded with the guardians of the drainage ditches.
“Hear me creatures of the forest. I sacrifice this animal and this blood to you. I ask that you please help me. Santa’s being lazy.” She giggled a little, but that was just to put the spirits at ease. It really wasn’t funny. “It’s almost Christmas and I, your loyal servant, would like a few things.
Can I please have hormones? I’m pretty sure I need them to have a girly body now that I’m becoming an adult witch. I know you can get them from doctors, but Mom says we can’t afford one and she doesn’t think I’m a girl anyway.
Dad knows a few gods who can just turn into whatever they want… so this should be easy for you guys right? If you do help me, can you convince Mom to buy me clothes that fit my new body too? Thank you in advance; I hope the bug is tasty.
Oh, I almost forgot, can I have some marzipan as a treat on Christmas day? I still haven’t had any. Thank you… I’m gonna hang up now.” She pulled her hands apart and opened her eyes. They darted this way and that, but there was no sign of dissipating guardians. She stayed until her knees were sore and red, figuring it was fine to step outside the circle once the blood had dried.
She hadn’t gotten the ritual out of a book, but cobbled it together from clips of supernatural dramas and stories she overheard from some of the older girls who liked to smoke outside the one convenience store that still let them as long as they also bought candy or ice cream. It was all much messier than the church services Mom dragged her too, but that was the point. Witches were freer. They liked nature, which meant they liked Marzi’s nature, and they wouldn’t care if the leaves or stones or guts were a little disorganized.
When she turned back she saw the creek had frozen in the short time it took to perform the ritual. The thin ice was full of striations, like snowflakes, and it was so inviting to them that it started to snow. It was the first of the year, and Mom wouldn’t notice if she wasn’t there for dinner. She didn’t need any help making her soup or opening her beer. So Marzi skipped around, catching snowflakes on her palms and in her mouth.
Scattered flakes turned into a flurry, but a soft one that seemed to encapsulate her without letting any strays melt on her head. It obscured the creek, buried her circle, hid the trees… Everything, sky and ground alike, turned white. Her breath caught. She could feel it. Finally. Magic.
By the time she took another step she was already leaving footprints in the powder. All sense of direction was gone, so she wandered in no particular direction at all, getting her right where she needed to be. There was a tiny house in the distance, barely visible through the falling feathery curtains.
Marzi giggled through her teeth and ran for it, wondering if a little witch lived there. If it was a Hansel and Gretel type of witch she would at least get a good meal before being devoured herself. As she got closer, and the house didn’t get much bigger, she adjusted her expectations to something more bite-size: fairies perhaps.
She’d seen fairy doors at an antique store once when Mom wanted to pick up a fresh VHS of her favorite detective show from the 80s. This house definitely had doors, doors aplenty. Doors for days. Twenty-four days to be exact.
Dropping to her knees again, she examined it without touching. The house was actually a flat piece of rectangular carved wood, nearly the size of her bathroom mirror. It stood as if it hung on the wall even though its base was as thin as the rest of it. It had two chimneys on each corner, each producing real flickering candle flames that ignored the snow.
Beneath its dark painted shingles sat the doors, most of them neatly arranged in rows, taking the place of any windows. Their minuscule brass knobs were just big enough to pinch. A glow like a fireplace leaked from their seams and she could hear all sorts of sounds of merrymaking from behind them: the clinking of foamy cups, the shiver of Christmas trees as new ornaments were hung, the laughter of children, and happy sounds she was sure had never come out of her own mouth.
Finally she recognized it: an Advent calendar. They were like toys that lasted the whole Christmas season, one door opened per day to reveal a gift inside, usually tiny chocolates and playthings wrapped in bible verses. Marzi didn’t know how big a dose of hormones was, but if it could fit in a pill or a shot it could definitely fit behind one of those doors.
The front door was the largest, standing atop a few wooden stairs. The number one was posted on it in curly gold paint. She reached for it, barely able to contain her glee, but a thought gave her pause. Advent was much more a Christian tradition than a pagan one. Was it Jesus who had sent this gift?
The only reason she had turned to paganism and witchery was because the sermons she heard in church and Sunday school never gave her any answers, never even mentioned what she was going through. If he had actually been listening this whole time she might have to apologize, but she couldn’t do that out in drifting show. She pinched the knob of door number one and twisted.
The transition would only baffle her much later, in fact it would wake her up in the middle of the night, but for now she didn’t notice that walking through the two inch door posed no difficulty. She shut it behind her and stopped to adjust the straps around her shoulders. Those hadn’t been there the moment before… It felt like a backpack, but when she reached back and tapped it she realized it was the advent calendar. She was inside it and it was on her back. If it didn’t have to be magic before, it certainly did now.
A grand hall of stone welcomed her, not that it was easy to tell what the walls were made of, as they were almost entirely covered in decorations and greenery: portraits, wreaths, colorful curtains, crucifixes of blown glass, giant carved acorns, walnuts, chestnuts…
The festooning was done by small creatures fluttering around, and their work never seemed to be finished. Each time they took down a banner or wreath they moved it to an empty spot and rehung it, as if there was someone perpetually dissatisfied with the arrangement ordering them around. Marzi thought they were fairies at first, but when a pair came down to put a wreath at eye level she saw they were pink and chubby, with wings like doves and golden faces like babes. Cherubs.
“Excuse me,” she addressed them, but they scowled at the interruption. Instead of answering they just pointed their fat little fingers down the end of the hall, at an ornate wooden structure that rose almost as high as the absurdly high painted ceiling. She thanked them anyway and skipped all the way there, though she was winded by the time she reached its base.
Head craned as far back as possible, she squinted. There was definitely someone at the top of this thing that was probably an exaggerated pulpit, given that the hall looked like one of those historic European churches during its office Christmas party. There was a head looking down at her, arms in big sleeves flailing. She heard shouting as well, but it was too distant and echoing for her to make any of it out.
“What!?” she yelled back at the top of her lungs, making all the cherubs wince, one of them even dropping an ornament that shattered on the floor. Another one quickly went to clean it up, pulling out a red dustpan with gold trim, leading her to believe the holiday season was endless in this place. Why else would they need a matching dustpan?
“He’s just welcoming you,” yet another cherub said. Marzi whirled back to the podium. The hovering genderless creature was dressed in a long purple robe, like something Marzi thought should be hanging from a trumpet, dignity undone by its thick blond eyebrows and pouting expression. There was a dripping quill in its hand, suggesting it had been in the middle of something.
“Who is?” she asked.
“Saint Perpetuus.” It pointed up toward the flailing shouting blur.
“The hall of Saint Perpetuus,” it grumbled.
“Who are you?”
“I’m his assistant. I check the lists.” Its altitude increased slightly so it could get a better look at her back. “You’ve got a calendar I see. Somebody already explained it to you right?”
“Nope.” The little creature smacked its cheeks, but it didn’t have enough fingernail to scratch the way it wanted to. “Are you going to?”
“Do you need it?”
“I think so; I’ve never done magic before, unless you count all my blood sacrifices.” The cherub’s glossy pink mouth hung open. She was in the presence of a saint, technically, so perhaps it was best to can the pagan talk.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph… okay. The calendar is a gift. You got one because you slipped through the cracks. You don’t have a patron in Heaven or Earth.”
“You know, someone who watches out for you specifically.”
“Isn’t god supposed to do that for everybody?”
“Everybody who keeps their eyes forward and doesn’t fall through the cracks,” the cherub chided. “You must have done something that caused you to get passed over, but god is merciful, so you have one more shot to find somebody who wants to take up the cause that is you. Lots of saints live here.” He pointed behind the pulpit, to a massive wooden door covered in golden numbers like those on the calendar. “You can talk to them directly and ask them if they want to be your patron.”
“If they do… I get to keep them? Like, they’ll always keep an eye on me and give me stuff that I need?”
“The faithful are rewarded, yes. Will there be anything else young man?” It started flying back up to its combination bird bath and desk about halfway up one side of the pulpit.
“I’m a girl.” Its flight hiccuped; it looked down on her.
“One of those eh? There’s the crack you fell through.”
“Nothing, you’ll figure it out. Mind all the rules so you don’t get kicked out early.”
“What rules? I don’t know anything. I thought you guys were a bunch of fairies and witches at first.”
“Those are here too,” it explained. “You’re welcome to try your luck with those savages if you so desire, though meeting with them counts as using one of your doors.” It saw her puzzled expression and frustrated shrug. “Look, I have a copy of the rules, but they’re all the way up there.” He pointed at his desk.
“So you don’t really want me to fly all the way up there, get them, and come all the way back down, just to go over all the specifics, do you? You’re a smart… person. You can figure it out.”
“Rules please.” The cherub groaned, but it was either spineless or lacking the actual power to reject a direct request. She watched its chubby feet ascend for twenty seconds, then kick around as it rummaged through its papers and wax seals. Moments later it was back, yellow scroll in hand, scanning it to remind itself.
“-and so as each dawn arrives, from the first until the eve of Christ’s birth, the forgotten lamb may select one threshold to explore. Within the servants of god will be waiting, eager to share the unique aspects of the glory they bring to the one true god and his one true son. As long as the lamb observes his or her sacrifice they shall not leave without the bounties of Heaven and a noble and willing patron. So sayeth Prester John, Amen.” It rolled it up. “There, satisfied?”
“What sacrifice? I already gave you guys a bunch of bugs. Plus there was that opossum I found that had that big hole in its belly like it explo-”
“It just means you’re required to abstain from something when you are inside your calendar!” it clarified, holding back a dry heave. Marzi wondered what cherubs threw up, postulating apple sauce with gold leaf in it.
“Okay, so what can’t I do?”
“It’s different for everybody.” She stared expectantly. “Yours would be on your scroll.” She stared. “Which is on my desk somewhere.” She stared. “Which I suppose I should have grabbed when I was up there, but I didn’t so…” The stare did not relent. “Uuuuughh… fine. Okay. It is the charitable season after all.” About a minute later it returned with a much tinier scroll, like a sticky note, one appropriately sized for its infant hands. It looked at it, and then her, skeptically.
“What’s it say?”
“I don’t know if this is yours. It says it’s for Mars Ridner.” She rolled her eyes. How could she find a patron if silly god was giving people the wrong name?
“My name’s Marzipan, but that’s me.” The cherub suppressed a chuckle, but not as well as it did the dry heave from earlier.
“Sure. I thought your sacrifice would be something along the lines of not wearing a dress, but it says here that your sacrifice is fasting. You are not to eat or drink anything, not a bite or a sip, while you are here searching for representation.” Suddenly she was much more keenly aware of the smell of roasting and toasting nuts in the air, their buttery earthy tones overpowering the pine of all the greenery.
“Okay… so I just go through that door there?” She pointed behind the pulpit.
“Yes.” She started to walk past. “-but not today!” it yipped. “You’ve already met Saint Perpetuus today, so that’s all you get.” She stared up at the distant robed blob that might have been staring back. “You’ll have to try again tomorrow,” the cherub stressed. Despite its best efforts, her wide-eyed stare came back.
“Go ask him,” the impetuous girl requested, stern enough that the delicate disagreeable creature felt a whip crack between its shoulder blades.
“Ask him what?” it queried, playing dumb.
“Go and ask him if he wants to be my patron. I don’t really care who it is. I need hormones and I want them for Christmas so I can be the real me by the new year.” The cherub didn’t know enough about human biology to correct her assumptions about the speed of such processes, but its lackluster trip to the tip of the pulpit practically took until the new year itself.
She watched, squinting intensely, as the chubby pink dot dodged the gesticulating sleeves. She could almost make out the saint’s words, he was definitely shouting now, and they sounded angry. Perhaps he was stuck up there, as Marzi noticed a distinct lack of stairs when circling around the structure’s base. The cherub was nearly back after her investigation.
“He said no,” it said, rubbing its shoulders because of the intense wing workout. “Don’t feel bad. He’s very busy because everybody who gets a calendar asks him first. Besides, saints are usually patron saints of specific things, like professions or illnesses.”
“What is he the saint of?”
“Ummm…” it muttered, looking around at the walls. No matter the punishment it would not be ascending again, even if Perpetuus threatened to make its babe’s hide into a pair of gloves. “…wreaths.”
“Then he should be my saint,” Marzi argued, “because I have wreaths.” She pulled one side of her jacket back and lifted her shirt, revealing a trio of red scaly circles across her skin that were about the size of a dime with two bodyguard nickels.
“Good heavens, what plague is that?” the cherub asked, suddenly finding the energy to fly three feet higher. It grabbed a banner hanging from the pulpit and held it over the lower half of its face.
“It’s just ringworm.” She poked at them to show the spots wouldn’t bite. “It’s a fungus, and it’s in a circle so it’s basically a wreath.” She didn’t want to share that she’d previously thought of them as more like fairy rings, circles of mushrooms found in forests and meadows, but there was something she added proudly. “Back when I was in school the nurse said she’d never seen a person get it this bad, mostly cats.”
“I assure you Perpetuus does not want to be the saint of that or you!” the cherub barked. “Now go, and take your wreaths with you!”
“See you tomorrow,” she bubbled as she skipped back toward the entrance. Until the eve of Christ’s birth. That’s what the plucked pigeon said. She would have twenty-three more days of magic.
Leaving was just as odd as entering. Somehow pulling a large door became gently pushing a tiny one with two fingers wrapped around its ant-sized knob. Marzi lifted her once again strapless calendar and held its base against her hip, the way she might a large picture book. For now the magic had died down, the glow and merrymaking gone from behind all the doors. No flames on the chimneys. No snow on the ground or in the air.
She went home slowly, taking time to think about where she would hide it so Mom wouldn’t find it. The woman described herself to anyone who would listen as ‘team Jesus all the way’, but her daughter still didn’t want to explain what felt like a magical bureaucracy to a person who had been escorted out of the post office for shouting no less than three times.
Plus there was her new sacrifice to think about. If she was going to be spending all day running around without anything to eat, dinner had to be as big as possible. She was covered for that first night though, with almost half a bottle of ketchup in the fridge.