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: 15 minutes)
On the Fourth Day
This door of the saints was more humble than many of the others Langcorn had seen. This time he was further out on the branch than ever before, the door to Saint Perpetuus more than ten minutes of careful walking beyond sight. His many scratches from the earlier tumble hadn’t healed yet and, knowing he wasn’t looking his best, he’d decided to proposition anyone he could find who was more of the laborer persuasion than the academic.
The door before him rose from the branch with a braided leafy archway, darker older boards making up its body. There was no message nailed to it declaring that it was not taking applicants, as he’d seen a few times already, including one instance where the person doing the nailing had seen him coming, hastily finished the work, and slammed the door in his face just as he approached.
This one had no placard or knocker of any kind, just a hole where a knob might have gone. Langcorn put his long fingers through and gripped, relieved that nothing bit them immediately. He pushed it open and entered, the character of the place changing entirely once again.
In the branches of the Chrismon Tree it was just a door standing on its own, like a single leaf, but it somehow led to a grand hall not too dissimilar from Saint Perpetuus’s entryway, though this one’s character was much dimmer and more lived-in. The person doing the living-in was right there, lighting candles along the wall. He turned to greet his visitor.
“Might you be the man called Langcorn?” the slightly older saint asked.
“Why yes,” he answered enthusiastically. Whoever this man of god was, he was certainly welcome to be a man of Langcorn as well, given his handsome chiseled features. His colorful vestments hid his body, but Langcorn had subconsciously trained himself to recognize physical fitness through bedclothes, the sheets, and a curtain on the window. The only real problem was the saint’s atrocious haircut, shaved bald on the top while leaving a halo of goldenrod hay just above the ears.
“I’ve been expecting you.” A sudden breeze came through the hall, along with a distant echo, and blew out the candles he’d just lit. “Blast,” he grumbled, lighting them again quickly before hustling to Langcorn’s side. “Would you turn around for a moment please?” The visitor obeyed, striking a bit of a pose reflexively. “What a lovely Advent calendar. The craftsman is really honing his woodworking skills. It’s a shame we won’t have him again next season.”
“Sorry, why am I expected?” Langcorn asked. “And did I miss your name?”
“Oh yes, how rude of me. There usually isn’t so much time for introductions. I am Saint Lancelotto Avellino, patron saint of sudden death. You are expected because, if not for that,” he pointed at the calendar, “you would have come straight to me.”
“I wish I had,” he said cheekily. “I suppose you mean my tumble off the bridge and the drowning that I didn’t get to.”
“Yes. Sometimes we bicker over who gets to send who up to the star or down to the bones because there’s an awful lot of overlap in our areas of expertise. If there’s a patron saint of choking and one of allergies, who gets the man who died with a closed throat full of pistachios?” He laughed. It was a good thing Langcorn was on solid stone rather than the narrow branch, given that he couldn’t help listing as he swooned. “But you fell, which is firmly in my territory, especially because you did do the falling but didn’t do the drowning. If you had, Saint Hyacinth or Florian would’ve had much stronger claims to you.”
“Is there a competition for who can save the most souls?”
“There is something of a tally, mostly between us you understand, the infallible beings above us take no part in such petty things, but I’ve never claimed to be perfect and I’m not interested in giving up my place in the standings over a twenty-four day technicality like yours. Would you like to come with me?”
“I would love to.” Together they made their way deeper into the stone hall, slowed only by Saint Avellino’s compulsive need to stop and light every candle they passed, even when there were ten to a sconce. The gust and echo came again, but this time he held up his hanging sleeves and used his body to protect the little flames. Langcorn thought he recognized a shout this time, but didn’t think it polite to query.
“I hope you’ll excuse things being a little hectic,” the saint said to put him at ease. “So many people take the plunge during the holidays; it’s my busiest time.”
“It sounds like those people could use calendars of their own.”
“Oh no. We don’t give them out like candy. They’re only for people who have reason to lack faith entirely, people who have never known a single significant blessing.”
“Well then I’m not sure I deserve mine,” Langcorn said, slowing. “I have my Beau, and he is a very significant blessing.” The breeze came again, Avellino shielding his candlestick with one hand. He looked frustrated with their pace, his other hand flailing, urging Langcorn forward.
“I’m sorry but we never err in these things, so this ‘Beau’ might not be as genuine as you think he is. Come, come.” They resumed. “Now the nature of your relationship is not blessed, but that would not matter if you had found happiness or fulfillment. Most of the others would say those things aren’t possible for people of your… persuasion, but not me! All are welcome to fall into my arms.”
“Are you saying you’ll be my patron?” Langcorn asked hopefully.
“My son, of course I will!” Avellino laughed, but stopped and carefully recoiled with his head like a turtle, as he’d almost put out the candle himself. The next wind finally succeeded in snuffing it, as it was the strongest yet, made up of several intertwined screams of terror.
“Does someone need our help!?” the lanky visitor asked, hunching over to let the wails fly overhead.
“They already have mine, don’t worry,” the saint assured. “These are sudden deaths remember. Everyone here is taken by surprise.” They finally came to a turn, and around the bend Langcorn saw the company he would be joining.
Open copper pipes hung down from the ceiling, big enough around for a horse to fall through, but they produced only men and women. Some of them were unconscious, but most screamed from top to bottom, and when there were three or more simultaneously they combined to create the gust Langcorn had felt in waves.
The pipes were only open to allow for the briefest inspection, as the floor beneath them was riddled with dark holes their voices quickly disappeared down. There was a thick layer of bluish-gray waxy grease on the rim of each one, claw marks going all the way around like a slimy gaping bloom, apparently to keep them from latching on in their confusion.
Langcorn watched, aghast and mesmerized, as they were born from the ceiling, lived a brief life of panic and fear, and were swallowed by the darkness. Their skin came in colors he’d never seen, their flashing faces either races wholly new to him or distortions of speed and air in their flapping cheeks.
It was impossible for him to recognize them as such, but their clothes came from all different cultures and eras. He would’ve rather liked the bell bottoms that went fluttering by if he’d seen them on a person standing contentedly. No matter if they wore kimonos, saris, or a beekeeping suit, they all screamed in the same tongue. Saint Avellino turned his back on their dragging hair and wide eyes, smiling at Langcorn.
“Here we are my son. You’re very lucky; you may have your pick.” From the ensuing wave of the smoking candlestick Langcorn inferred that the saint meant his pick of dark bottomless hole to throw himself into.
“I’m afraid… I don’t understand. I didn’t die when they tossed me over that bridge, and I don’t think it’s within the obligations of polite society to make sure their efforts go through.”
“Have no fear,” Saint Avellino chuckled. “You didn’t die because you needed to come here first. You did that. The oversight has been corrected, I am your patron saint, and now you can complete your fall and perish as you were supposed to.” A real estate agent holding a steering wheel, who had taken a mountain turn much too sharply, flew by over the saint’s shoulder and disappeared.
“What happens after that?”
“Once you’re dead you will be judged and your soul sent to its appropriate resting place, either among the stars or among the bones.”
“Yes, but which one?”
“Whichever you deserve based on your faith and Earthly deeds.”
“Yes, I understand that, but which one will I go to specifically!?” Langcorn stressed as a fifteenth century executioner who had come a little too close to his cliff-perched victim went screaming by.
“That I cannot say, as judgment is not up to me, but to god. You are my responsibility only in life.”
“Forgive me if this is rude, but your offer doesn’t seem worth much if you’re going to just be rid of me immediately.” The saint’s face darkened, prompting Langcorn to take a step back. His heel slipped a little on the grease. A breeze of death blew on the back of his neck.
“There’s no way I could be so very accepting if I had to spend time with any of you,” he reasoned, looking at Langcorn not like a person, but an amount of candles that could be lit if he was allowed to redirect his efforts.
“I still have a life to live, and my patron should be someone who wants to live it with me!” the visitor asserted, crossing his arms, hoping the hair on his neck didn’t stand so fully erect that it was visible from the sides.
“Counterpoint,” Saint Avellino said, stepping toward him. Instead of words he expressed himself with a powerful push on Langcorn’s chest. The man reeled, the grease under his feet doing its work. Langcorn fell backward into the nearest hole and disappeared. The saint took one brief look down the middle and saw nothing. “Peace be with you, whoever you were.”
His retreat to fetch a match was a mite hasty, for Langcorn had slid in at an angle rather than plunged downward, allowing his long arms to reach for anything hanging underneath the hole’s rim, in this case a clump of woody vines. They didn’t belong to the tree itself, but rather had grown from numerous seeds transported there in the folds of falling clothes. Avellino was the sort who never bothered cleaning under things until they had to be moved, and the holes hadn’t been altered since their creation.
Langcorn was lucky none of the grease had gotten on his hands, otherwise he would not have been able to keep a firm grip as his legs dangled into the abyss. His heart thundered as he tried to convince his palms to stop generating grease of their own. There was no way he could climb back up, not through the slippery holes anyway, so he had to get moving while he had energy.
Swinging from vine to vine, only every third one or so breaking, he weaved his way between the lit openings. Suddenly they seemed to go on forever, and there was no sign of anything else.
“Why do I keep falling?” he lamented quietly through clenched teeth. “Am I clumsy?” He felt the strain in his current vine and scrambled to the next one. “Nobody clumsy could do this.” There wasn’t any risk of him becoming too relaxed, but the random screams intermittently coming from all directions kept him on the move, until he noticed a patch of light that looked different from the others. With no other goal, he swiveled toward it and began what would hopefully be a journey less than five minutes long, as that was his highest estimate for how much longer he could keep up the effort.
Unfortunately he had to cut that amount in half when one of the falling proved a little too aware of their surroundings. Langcorn was mid-swing from one vine to another, his body clipping one of the light shafts, when a jogger from 1997, who had a run-in with a news van, passed through the same one. The screaming man latched onto Langcorn’s waist with both arms. The sudden drag snapped the previous vine and Langcorn only barely managed to wrap his elbow around the next one.
“What’s happening!?” the jogger screamed up at him.
“I… hate to be the one… to tell you this,” Langcorn grunted. There wasn’t time to stall, so he kept the both of them going toward the strange light patch, which now looked more solid and deeper than the others. “You’ve passed on.”
“I’m dead!? It… Channel Six! Screw the Channel Six news, man! Where am I? Why are we hanging?”
“You’re on your way… to judgment.” He could see what it was now: a few stone stairs. They hung in the darkness, just four of them, with a door at the top. It must have been for maintenance or cleaning, but was abandoned thanks to Avellino’s certainty that any hole that was empty was already clean. Langcorn grabbed and swung awkwardly, like a gibbon with a bag of ballast tied around its waist.
“Who are you!?”
“Nobody worth… knowing… apparently.”
“Don’t drop me man!”
“Wouldn’t… dream of it.” Somehow he found the time to angle his red face down a little and glance at the other man’s. Terrified, but not homely. “You’re too… lovely… to drop.” The dangling jogger’s nostrils flared.
“What are you gay?” Langcorn didn’t know how to respond, given that word wasn’t really used in such a way during his time, so he just encouraged the man to hang on. They were nearly there. The jogger didn’t like his answer, and was suddenly very aware of how close his face was to Langcorn’s groin.
“Screw this!” he yelped, letting go. He fell, screaming, disappearing into a dark fate. Langcorn couldn’t understand such a strange act, but with the weight off his confidence returned, allowing him to swing the final few feet and latch onto the steps. He gasped, which turned into a cough when he inhaled the centuries worth of dust on the unswept steps.
Eventually he sat on the last step, feet dangling into death like it was a warm bath. He pulled his Advent calendar off his back and examined it. The door of the fourth day was now without glow, but all those remaining still had it. Though Avellino had agreed to take him, it appeared the transaction had not gone through. It required his consent and participation as well.
The smoke from its chimneys further set him at ease. He had worried that the saint’s shove and the man grabbing him just now had counted as violations of his sacrifice, since he had touched two different people. Since he was still there, and the calendar still active, it was safe to assume either that touching through clothes did not count, or that touching initiated by others did not count.
When he had his composure back, and when he was thoroughly tired of seeing people fall and disappear like coins sinking in murky water, he tested the door and found it open. It led back to the saint’s hall, but a different wing he had not seen yet. There were more holes in front of him, these much busier, a veritable curtain of doomed people forcing him to put his back to the wall and sidle along.
It was such slow going that Saint Avellino reached the end of the chamber before he did, dropping his candlestick as well as his jaw at the sight of Langcorn.
“You disobey both me and gravity my son?” he snarled. He rushed over, standing on the other side of the wall of fading screams, looking for an opportunity to jump across and wrangle with Langcorn again.
“I’m just trying to leave!”
“I told you I won’t lose a tally mark just because you liked having yours stroked by other men! Get back in the hole!”
“No!” The saint lunged twice, but pulled back when he was nearly grabbed by two of his plummeting charges. Eventually there would be a gap, a time across all times where people happened to be cautious around ledges and automobiles, and then Langcorn would be caught wrestling with him on a greased floor. As fun as that would be in a different light, there was only one way out that came to mind.
He grabbed at the next person to drop within reach, an 1820s woman who literally couldn’t ride a horse to save her life. A tug on her dress brought her against the wall, and as expected she panicked immediately, wailing and flailing, slipping and sliding. Langcorn hopped to the left, out of her grasping reach, and pulled out another one.
The first woman fell back in, but not before two others had grabbed at her long dress, altering their own trajectories. People flopped around on the grease like seals, cushions and handholds for the outpouring rest. Before Avellino could shove them all back in, a wriggling pile-up formed.
It grew mountainous, and when their collective shouting had surely snuffed every candle in the place, the saint’s priority shifted to addressing it. He had to run and fetch his very wide broom meant to poke them back in, but with this many he would likely have to talk most of them down the hole.
“You better hope you don’t die suddenly now!” he shouted after a fleeing Langcorn. “If you do I’ll be making it a lot slower!” Moments later a distant door opened and shut, and the screams were replaced with the groaning sway of a bridging branch.