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…
On the Third Day
A liberal pinch of powder tossed into the fire pit turned the flame a ghostly blue, dying the surrounding trees the same color. They weren’t actually trees of course, just more branches of the Chrismon Tree, but this was so deep in its greenery, so close to the trunk, that it was like a forest. Each twig broke through the matted layers of needles, rising thirty or forty feet before striking the next ceiling layer.
The fire was in a stone bowl, amply supported by the surrounding compacted mats. To walk on them was like walking on grumpy moss, or perhaps vindictive grass, but it was comfortable enough to the myriad youthful creatures that sat around the flame, some with two legs folded under their bodies and some with four.
They had mostly human faces, but there were proud patches of fur everywhere and several of the foreheads bore small sets of deer antlers, just about right to hang a hat on. Hair was both wild and braided, adorned with flowers and berry-loaded sprigs of mistletoe.
“Goddess Triluna, Mother Moon, starring atop the tree, we pay tribute to you now, with this flickering moonlight,” the leader of the ceremony said. She was a creature with white freckles like speckles on a doe and shoulder pads of silky brown fur. She swirled one long finger in the open bag of moonlight powder.
“We cycle with the moon,” the others recited, lifting their arms and joining hands. One pair of hands shot up a little late.
“We gather here to cast our spells in your glow, to make requests of the whipping wind of the wild. The solstice approaches, as does your union with Virdihorn. Hear us, and grant us greater magic, virile as your mate, swift as his hooves through the advent canopy.”
“We wax and wane with the moon, and now is the season of might,” the others said.
“Sisters, send your voices to the night sky!” Another pinch of powder made the flame double in size. It began to dance, taking a shape like a circle of ample hips and thighs. They stoked it with their desires.
“Grant me strength Triluna.”
“Send my love’s eyes my way.”
“Clear my future of obstacles.”
“Swell the harvest, sweeten the wine.”
“Hormones please.” They dropped their arms, several leaning around the flame to see who had made such a ridiculous wish. Marzipan sat there, legs crossed, smiling back at them. “Girl ones.” The pagan creatures immediately felt the urge to ridicule her appearance. The young human had wandered into their ranks with no more of a disguise than some leaves shoved in the collar of her shirt and the ends of her sleeves. The only other effort was the mud across her cheeks in two streaks like war paint. They didn’t mock immediately because she had actually sat down and participated without any of them noticing.
“That’s not how we talk to Triluna,” the leader snapped. She stood, sweeping her arm across the top of the flame, forcing it down. The shapes of feminine legs within knelt or collapsed is if onto a fainting couch. Spotting the calendar on the girl’s back, her tone became even more abrasive. “This is for serious pagans only, no tourists.”
“I’ve practiced magic a lot,” Marzi offered as qualification, “but I couldn’t find a witch to teach me.”
“Oh, that’s sad,” one of the dimmer creatures whistled through her buck teeth. “Everybody needs a teacher; maybe you should join us.” There were a few murmurs of agreement.
“Shut up Daisy,” the leader barked. “Humans get human teachers. They’re super easy to find kid. Just go to school, and during your lunch break step outside. There will be a couple girls, a few years older than you, leaning against the building, maybe smoking. They’ll either have tattoos or wear purple lipstick. They’re witches and they’ll be your teachers, okay?”
“I don’t go to school anymore,” Marzi said, embarrassed.
“What do you mean you don’t go to school?”
“Mom took me out two years ago because she said Satan was running all the public schools. She was supposed to home school me, but then she got really busy with her job at the greeting card store.”
“Oh, that’s sa-” Daisy started to say again, but a snake-eyed glare from the leader quieted her.
“But it’s okay now! I’ve got this.” Marzi pulled her calendar off and showed it to all of them, letting the more animal-like lean in and sniff its varnish. “Somewhere in this tree there’s a witch who’ll teach me everything I need to know about magic… and being a woman.” There were a few derisive snorts, one particularly foul thanks to the pig snout it came from. The creatures looked at each other skeptically.
“Why do you need to know about being a woman?” the leader challenged, putting her hands on her hips authoritatively even though, in her life cycle, she still wasn’t an adult either.
“Well Mom’s supposed to teach me, but… greeting card store… and… and she doesn’t believe me when I say I’m a girl.”
“That’s because you’re not,” the leader said, cohorts backing her up. “A woman is a moonlight goddess, swollen in heart and fury, smoldering and blazing with the seasons.”
“Yeah, see, that’s the kind of stuff I need to know!” Marzi exclaimed. “I definitely feel like a goddess sometimes, but I don’t know all the moon stuff.”
“No you don’t, because you’re a boy,” the leader finally said aloud. The others looked to Marzi to see how she would respond. Even the feminine components of the fire seemed to lean toward her.
“No I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. You’ve got a boy face and a boy voice and you stink like one too.”
“I’m trans!” Marzi argued, standing up for herself quite literally, clutching her calendar to her chest like it was her diary. Her heart was racing, as it was the first time she’d ever used the word out loud. She’d never gotten to it with Mom, as the slapping had come first. “That’s short for transformative!” It most certainly wasn’t, but being taken out of school had taken her from all her peers who could have, even in malice, corrected her. It was a pretty good guess.
“Oh I get it,” the leader said, unable to decide if she wanted to keep her arms on her hips or cross them, “you’re some weirdo that wants to cast a spell and change your sex. Like a pervert. You just want to invade our moonlight because you can’t stand that it’s no boys allowed.” She reached down and cinched the bag of powder, pushing it behind her with one cloven hoofed foot.
“If there is a magic way to do it I want to know,” Marzi confirmed, “but the magic could just give me the hormones instead. I heard those work.”
“You’d need a lot more than hormones to fix what’s wrong with you. Boys don’t cycle; they just die. So why don’t you go and do that?”
“God… and your goddess… told me I deserve to be here!” Marzi shouted. She pushed the calendar forward. “I was overlooked, and I can’t die until I get a fair chance at fitting in here somewhere. Nobody at school helped me, Mom won’t help me, Dad’s gone…” Her rant ran off her face as hot tears. “…You’re supposed to want to help me! Somebody is!”
“This is the Chrismon Tree,” the leader said, preemptively shushing Daisy with one finger. “Everything is in order here. If you’re with the saints then men run everything and the women revere them. If you’re with us the women run everything and the men run around until they tire themselves out. Just tell me what’s between your legs and then I’ll tell you where you should go.”
“That’s private,” she sniveled.
“Nothing is private from Triluna.”
“Then I should be talking to her instead of you! Where is she!?”
“She sits at the top of the tree until the winter solstice. After that Prester John from the saints takes over until Christmas. Please, please, do try to get to her. Even if you manage it she’ll put you in your place.” Marzi flipped her calendar around and examined the doors, ignoring the gathering as the creatures began to move and stand.
She hadn’t noticed them before, but there were symbols below the numbers on each door, right where the peephole might go. The shape and color was a little different on each, but the changes were gradual and consistent. Phases of the moon, along with any special moons. She knew from weather reports on TV that sometimes moons had crazy names with words like ‘blood’ and ‘worm’.
Angry as she was, it was impossible not to imagine these pagan beings forced to sit under a moon dripping worms, suitably icky punishment for treating her this way. They were keen on deserving worse. One of them, with a deer’s head and neck, scooped up the fire dish, which settled perfectly between their wide antlers.
“Oops,” they hooted, swinging their head and spilling one pair of flaming feminine legs about six inches high. The blue fiery sprite ran around, pine needles popping at its feet. Marzi’s calendar was practically kindling, so she was forced to hold it over her head as she tried to shoo the circling flame with her feet. The pagans walked away.
“Ow!” The sprite kicked back, and it was anything but playful. Marzi knew the sting of dozens of little burns, sparklers held too long, stepping on cigarettes, testing if their broken stove was hot or not yet, but she’d never had a full one before, a bite with all the teeth. The legs jumped and locked around her ankle, using up all their heat to cook and bubble her skin.
Marzi collapsed onto her bottom as the flame became smoke. Her ankle was dark red; the pain consumed her thoughts. She didn’t know if she should touch it. It looked so different from the area surrounding it, like it was a sock she could just roll off, but if that was possible she feared what would be beneath.
She wanted to cry out for her patron, but there was nobody yet. Her voice could only cry out for Mommy now, not Mom, but she wasn’t sure that person had ever existed. She didn’t have memories of being held, not by either of them. Her earliest recollection was being curled up in a soft dog bed when she was a toddler, a bed she still used as a pillow most of the time. At her age she shouldn’t have been able to still fit inside it, but some mornings she woke up snug in its confines, arms around her knees.
The depression in the pine needles left by the fire bowl was just about the same size. Marzi crawled into it and wound herself into a tight ball. It was still warm: the warmth of a community. She sobbed into it, dangerously close to inhaling a few needles.
“I’m so glad everyone’s here,” she choked quietly. “I don’t know what I’d do without all my friends.” Her mind went back to the dog bed, to its smell. It still smelled like the animal, even though she had never met him. Mom told her his name had been Herbert, but Marzi didn’t think that was quite right. Dad would have named him Cerberus, and Herbert would’ve been the closest thing Mom was willing to call him.
Herbert disappeared before she was born, and Mom didn’t seem to care what had happened to him, but Marzi had found him one day, nearly two years ago, under the house. He didn’t need the bed anymore, because he was just bones. Even then the little girl guessed he had given up because he was too hungry. Dogs didn’t know how to find food as well as she did. They turned their noses up at the dandelions in the yard and they couldn’t even open the bottles of expired vegetable oil under the sink.
Marzipan took his remains, respectfully, out to the creek and washed the last shreds of mummified flesh off him. Dogs loved to chew bones, but did they chew those of their fellows? She gnawed on the biggest ones experimentally, but it hurt her teeth. Still she persisted long enough to tear off and swallow one shred.
Her mother never allowed her to have a pet of her own, but with one bite of Cerberus in her she would always have one. When she got it down she buried the others, arranging them like he was sleeping curled up in his bed so he could rest peacefully.
“It doesn’t hurt that bad,” Marzi whimpered in the bowl of needles. “Don’t worry about me. Let’s just have fun.” Her stomach contracted and groaned, telling her that the burn was no excuse to forget about its plight. She lifted her shirt, saw her skin clung to her ribs the same way Herbert’s dry dead flesh had.
“It looks like it does.” Marzi looked up. There was the diminutive creature called Daisy, looking down at her. “I’m sorry they were mean to you. Maybe I can help?” Marzi quickly rubbed the tears from her eyes.
“Do you want to be my patron?”
“No… I don’t want the others to make fun of me,” Daisy said, not aware of how devastating the answer was. It didn’t really show in the girl’s demeanor, as she was already hyperventilating from the burn. And she was hungry. And her ringworm itched. And now another door on her calendar was dark.
“Is there anybody here who won’t hate me?”
“There is a witch, a human one. She came from your world, like the saints did when they died. I don’t know exactly where she lives, but it’s higher than this, and her name is Fertilica. She might be your patron, or know some magic that can help you.”
“Okay… thank you Daisy.”
“No problem. You just looked so sad.” With that the creature wandered away and silence, except for the rustling and swaying of the tree, set in. Her stomach protested again. She couldn’t stay there forever, not when that most vociferous part of her body knew there was a three course meal of three cough drops waiting, squirreled away under Herbert’s bed.