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? (This way to Day One!) 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…
(reading time: 9 minutes)
On the Second Day
It was the second time he had taken a tumble in as many days, and though this one was far more injurious it didn’t feel anywhere as damaging as the first. The first was positively fraught with jagged emotions, a terrible thing for Langcorn, who would describe his own personality as positively fraught with jagged emotions.
The second fall was incidental, his own fault if anyone’s, but the first… oh there was just no telling what Beau had meant by it. Everything had happened so quickly, and Langcorn couldn’t quite remember which of the two of them had first suggested it. That was what he chose to mull over rather than a way to get himself off the tree branch he was currently doubled over like a hanging rug.
Eventually something crawled out of the thick dark needle banks below him, about two feet from his dangling toes. At first he thought it was a squirrel, it was about the right size, but then he saw its very human face and torso. It carried a sack full of slim green pine cones over one shoulder, and appeared to be searching for more.
“Hello down there,” Langcorn greeted it, managing a loud and friendly tone despite his draped lungs. The little creature was startled so badly that its sack tipped over and most of its cones were lost to the branches below. He watched them bounce and break on the way down, further, and further, and further. This was quite the tree, and though he could see perfectly well there wasn’t a single shaft of sunlight to be found.
“That’s just great,” the satyr-squirrel griped. “What do you want?”
“Nothing in particular, I was just being friendly,” the man said, blowing his hair out of his eyes ineffectively. “Though now that you mention it… Perhaps you could tell me something about this tree. It caught me by surprise.”
“It’s a tree. It doesn’t move. How did it catch you by surprise?”
“I wasn’t moving when I caught you unawares just now.”
“Fair enough human,” it squeaked with narrowed black eyes. It examined him more fully. Langcorn, when not bent in half, was quite a tall man, but thin enough that he was incapable of intimidation. His dark hair was long and silky, which the satyr-squirrel would never admit looked perfect for nesting in. He had a long face, a little like he had tried to hold a polite smile for an interminable evening and it had begun to stretch and melt. His eyes were a touch vacant, as if melting wouldn’t change their outlook at all. Of most note to the climbing critter was the Advent calendar strapped to his back. “Oh you’re one of those. Figures they didn’t tell you anything.”
“That Perpetuus fellow told me a few things, but it was rather hard to hear him. I’ve gathered that there are several important people here vying for my affection.”
“More like the other way around.”
“What he didn’t tell me was that here was the biggest tree I’ve ever seen! So big there are buildings in its heights! I stepped out of the saint’s hall, barely saw all the other doors across the winding branch, took a bad step, and now I’m here having the time of my life with you, my little hallucination.”
“I’m no figment of your imagination,” the squirrel thing insisted. “This is the Chrismon Tree: covenant between the Christian god and the heathen magic of the wild.” It scratched its ear with its back foot. “You can guess which one I’m with.”
“You don’t get a door?”
“Doors are for saints. We keep to the tree.” Its hands stretched across the bark, feeling a grand slow pulse, the heartbeat of a heavenly city. “We made the seed, and planted it in the holy relics of saints, their bones and teeth. From them this grew, blood under its bark and heat in its leaves. Where the living can mingle with the eternal.”
“I see.” Most people would have a sack over their shoulder of their own, overflowing with questions, but not Langcorn. He didn’t care what the tree held up if it couldn’t hold up one end of a conversation. “You know, it’s funny. This was a painful fall, but I had a worse one yesterday.”
“It didn’t kill you. Dead people have their own places.” The squirrel started looking about, both for more pine cones and anyone else to transfer the invader’s attention to.
“I thought for sure it had. I was with my lover you see, Beau, and we were having a beautiful evening out on this wooden bridge. Usually it’s a very secluded spot, but I’m afraid this time we were seen. If only I had looked away from him sooner, but he is just so damned beautiful! He’s a playwright you know.”
“Your lover was a man? That’s your calendar right there. None of the saints will touch you, but you might have some luck around here.”
“Alas, not a soul can touch me!” Langcorn lamented, putting his palm to his forehead as if checking for a fever. “Perpetuus, keeping his distance as if to mock the very fact, told me that I had to sacrifice that to gain anything from this place. He told me my sacrifice was abstinence, and that I couldn’t so much as embrace another living thing.”
“That means I can’t help you down,” the squirrel pointed out.
“You’re right,” the man realized. “I’ll have to do it myself, now that I’m… alone.” A bomb of a tear dropped from his eye and landed on the little creature’s balding noggin.
“So what happened to Beau?”
“We were on the bridge, and our own townspeople showed up in droves, furious at the sight of our love. They called us devils, and with the river right there they thought it best to douse our fiery passions in it. I was thrown over the side like so much pig slop; several of them knew I couldn’t swim.”
“Not your lover?”
“There was no sense in both of us dying you see,” Langcorn explained. “So we played the encounter as unwilling. Beau had a reputation to keep up, and I was already not respected. Logically I had to be the attacker, so he shouted at me, not meaning a word of it of course, and helped them send me over. My poor Beau must be overcome with guilt. He surely thinks me dead, but I’ve decided I can’t let this opportunity go to waste.”
“It sounds like he saved his own skin.”
“Oh no, no, no. Plunging to my doom was my idea.” He paused. “Almost certainly. No matter. I have no memory of water under the bridge, ha. Figuratively anyway. What I do remember is sitting on the riverbed, completely dry, nothing but a skin of water overhead. I could see the rippling shoulders of the leaning voyeurs, waiting to see if I would come back up, but they couldn’t see me.”
“You couldn’t die because you hadn’t been properly introduced to the powers that be,” the satyr-squirrel explained. “Most people get it in church or the wilderness, but you were overlooked. It wouldn’t be fair if you didn’t get a shot first, so here you are.”
“So it was the calendar that saved me?” Langcorn mused. “I did find it down there, dry as my clothes, little fires burning in its chimneys. When I emerged after the first day the river was still safe for me, even warm. I’m living there in secret until I’ve found my patron.”
“Well, best of luck to you. Don’t let another bough hit you on the way out.” The fleshy rodent started clambering away.
“Wait a moment!” Langcorn shouted. “You wouldn’t have any interest in being my patron, would you? I feel we’ve gotten along swimmingly. You’ve heard me confessing while hung on this wood and bleeding, as if standing at the side of my death cross. I could tell you anything.”
“You didn’t even ask my name.”
“I meant no disrespect. I didn’t think squirrels had names.”
“As it turns out, I don’t, but that’s on purpose. I don’t have one so I don’t get roped into being what you want me to be. You’re not responsible if people don’t even know how to pray to you.”
“So no interest then, despite us getting along famously?”
“No. Check your calendar.” Langcorn obeyed, but it took him thirty seconds to slip the slab off his injured shoulders and hold the large thing in front of him. At first he didn’t notice anything, but then he saw it, an absence. The glow was gone from behind door number two, just like the front door. He’d just used up the day’s allotted request.
His shoulders slumped, and it was all too easy to let them after hanging there for more than ten minutes. One hand let go of the calendar; it swung open like a saloon door. It revealed the squirrel once more, staring at his face and clothing.
“By the way,” it said, raising his hopes, “what time are you from?”
“What do you mean? The same time as anyone else, same as you.”
“The Chrismon Tree is timeless.” It rolled its pinprick eyes. “What year was it when you fell in the river?”
“The year of our lord, 1796. Twentieth anniversary of the declaration freeing us from the British. I was only a child then of course.”
“Thank you. That’ll be handy next time we’re taking bets on when calendars are from. I heard there was a little boy that just came through too, but from the year 2020. You probably just missed him, even though out there you’ll miss each other by centuries.” The creature looked out into the horizon of endless pine needles wistfully, perhaps glad it never had to worry about the painful demarcations of time.
Langcorn was so amazed by what it had said that he didn’t even notice when it crawled away without a goodbye. People from other times? Up until that moment he’d thought himself an anomaly, the only man ever to clumsily stumble out of the eye of god. If there were others it meant the flaw was not with him, but the system. That was a relief, something he would surely share with his Beau as soon as this was over.
For now he put his ear to the tree as he gathered his strength for an attempt to climb back up to the many doors. He too heard its pulse, felt heat emanate. It was the antithesis of the splintering dead bridge he’d dropped from. This was a place of life, of emotions stained darkly on the sleeve, and it reminded him of one of Beau’s shows as it kindled on the stage, actors shouting until their talent showed red in their faces.
“Looks like I’m not alone, O Chrismon Tree.”