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: 14 minutes)
On the Fifth Day
Marzipan followed the branch out to a narrow limb, on which she had spied a solitary cozy door. Even with both her arms out she had trouble balancing on such a narrow and gnarled way, stumbling to the end and latching onto the knob. When it swung open she was dragged along a cobblestone floor, but pleasantly so. Somehow the stones were soft, not quite pliant, but with the smooth give of driftwood.
The door clicked shut gently behind her. It was looking like giving the saints a chance was a good decision, though it really wasn’t much of a choice considering how the last pagan representatives had treated her. She was still nursing the bruises and the snakebite on her ankle that at least matched the burn on the other.
“Oh no,” she groaned as she brushed herself off and took a good look at the place. It was cluttered and cozy, the walls mostly covered in tied and bunched curtains of maroon and purple. The space was filled by two long tables leading to the back: a kitchen. Two women scurried back and forth, disappearing and reappearing from clouds of steam, sometimes from pots over an iron stove and sometimes as belches from a great stone oven with an archway door.
Further obscuring them were the mountains of baked goods on the tables, a spread like Marzipan had never dreamed. One breath through her nose devastated her as it traveled down her throat and turned her stomach into a raisin. She doubled over and supported herself on a table, the slight bump enough to send dollops of whipped cream and globs of golden jelly wiggling.
Tears sprang from her eyes. She’d never been to a bakery before, the grocery store her closest experience. What she knew of the art was processed snack cakes wrapped in plastic that smelled wet and tasted dry at the same time, or vice versa. The towering wedding cakes she’d imagined were just bigger versions of the same, but this smell alone taught her, like a slap across the tongue, that the tastes in this room were a revelation, a higher plane of nourishing existence.
Buttery crackers, stamped with a cross pattern, were arranged into something of a mix between a gingerbread house and a house of cards, rock salt glistening on the eaves. Dark buns, blistered almost to blackness, tormented on the edge of burning without ever achieving its relaxing ash, rose as domes until they cracked open, again as crosses. Blonde pastries oozed creamy white filling that flowed like candle wax rivulets in the cracks of the tabletops, even hanging underneath as stalactites.
Hunger, long convinced it couldn’t control Marzi, mostly just kicked its way through its nightmares, like a sleeping dog, but now it was awake. The only thing she wanted more than a bite was to leave, but she understood the calendar wouldn’t forgive the ingress. This place was her only chance to find a patron that day.
“Oh, she’s here,” one of the women said when they took notice. Apparently there was too much work being done for both of them to step away, so it was just her that came to greet Marzi. She was young, in at least the image of her twenties, wearing an apron with a hundred stains, all of which Marzi would’ve been happy to suck out of the cloth. There was something like a stain on her neck as well, crimson, going all the way around as a banded slit in the flesh. “Hello little girl, might you be Marzipan Ridner?”
“Yes!” she squeaked, enthusiasm tempered by the crumpling in her middle. She still couldn’t stand without the table. This was the first time she’d been acknowledged, fully, in the Chrismon Tree. “Is there a saint living here?”
“There are two,” the woman answered proudly, placing one hand over her heart and pointing to the woman pulling a sea turtle-sized loaf of bread out of the oven with the other. “You didn’t think all saints were men did you? I am Saint Regina of Autun, and that is Saint Rita of Cascia.”
“What happened to your neck?”
“Oh this old thing,” she giggled, touching the wound. “I was beheaded because I wouldn’t renounce my faith to marry a man that wanted me all to himself. He did not understand that I belong to god, and it’s trivial for him to glue my pieces back together. Many saints wear marks of their ordeals. Rita has her stigmata. Rita, come show Marzi!” Once the massive hissing loaf was safely on the counter top the other woman approached. Marzi saw that she was much older, with long gray hair. There was a mark on her forehead, like someone had pressed a seal of red wax there. When she looked closer she recognized it as blood that refused to drip. Saint Rita smiled at her with closed lips.
“Do you not talk?” the girl asked.
“That’s just her miracle,” Regina explained, putting her hand on Marzi’s calendar and leading her between the tables, toward the kitchen. The intoxicating smells became wetter, stronger, and more cloying as they approached the steam crawling across the ceiling. “When Rita was just a babe her parents witnessed a cloud of bees about her, flying in and out of her mouth harmlessly. It was a sign from god that the trials of the Earth could do nothing to harm her.”
“So there are bees in her mouth right now?”
“Yes, she’s quite fond of the creatures, so they have a small colony in her lungs. The honey they make is truly divine.” Saint Rita’s hand joined Regina’s on Marzi’s back. When they reached the stone step up to the kitchen the younger woman stood before her while the older grabbed a plate and started stacking sugary goodies on it.
“I’m here to ask-”
“-if one of us will be your patron saint?” Regina finished.
“Yes!” Marzi couldn’t help it; the hope was welling up inside her again. If they could seal the deal quickly she might not need to perform her sacrifice anymore, being thus free to stuff herself full of the cakes and crackers, and some of the dark frothy grape juice Rita was pouring into an earthen chalice.
“Nothing would please us more than to take you under our wing,” Regina declared, beaming, arms wide. “I have long been a guardian of the impoverished, so when I heard about you I knew you would eventually make your way to me. The lord has lit your way to my doorstep.”
“The impoverished? What does that mean?”
“Those without a stable home.”
“But I have a house. We moved it a few times, but it’s stable now.”
“You poor sweet dear.” Regina pinched her cheek and ran her hand through Marzi’s hair. She couldn’t help but close her eyes and enjoy it the way a dog might. “Poverty is not just about a roof. It is often invisible. I see that you are kept from others your age, that you are out of school, that you are underfed.”
“Well that’s my fault,” Marzi said. “Mom said it was my responsibility to feed myself since she’s the one who buys everything. I’m just bad at it. My stomach’s too picky.”
“Your mother is wrong to treat you this way,” Regina said, scolding the absent parent. “It is her job to provide for you.”
“She said that god provides everything,” Marzi recalled. “She likes this one story where the Jews are wandering in this big desert and they have nothing to eat so god tells them to look down. There’s this stuff called manna at their feet, right there in the sand, and they can eat it and it’s delicious. I look for food on the ground all the time but I don’t think I’ve found any manna.”
“My dear,” Regina said softly. There was a look in her eye, a dash of the pupil, as if she reconsidered something. “God does provide, but he doesn’t want you to eat off the ground. He wants you to live, and eat, with dignity. Please, kneel. We will take communion to seal our bond.”
Marzipan did as she was told, her stomach moaning viciously at the new position. Rita handed the goblet to her partner. She grabbed a cross-topped bun and tore a large flaky piece from it. With a knife she spread a glob of pale butter on top, and then she kissed it, depositing a single curl of golden honey at the summit. Regina took it and the goblet.
“Eat,” she began, “for this is the body of Jesus, who gave his life to redeem your sins.” She thrust the morsel toward Marzi, and then the cup. “Drink, for this is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”
“I drank blood once,” the girl said nervously, knotting her fingers in her lap. “It was mine though. I thought it was a neat trick, like, I wasn’t bleeding if I was taking it back, but then I got sick and threw it back up.”
“Please dear, take it. You don’t need to suffer any longer.”
“No, I’m fine. I had breakfast this morning.” Saint Regina seemed to look into her, then her eyes widened, like she was witnessing a car accident.
“Marzipan… that was not a meal.”
“You know what it was?” The saint nodded. It must have been a divine power of hers, and hers alone, for Saint Rita looked back and forth between them questioningly. Marzi decided to share with her so she wouldn’t feel left out. “I found a dead salamander in the creek,” she said proudly. Rita threw her hand over her mouth, the shock risking a bee jailbreak. “Oh don’t worry, I microwaved it.”
“Eat,” Regina encouraged again. The hunk of bread was practically up Marzi’s nostril, the smell claiming more and more territory in her mind. Saliva filled her mouth. She couldn’t remember the last time that had happened; it was enough to drown in.
“I don’t think I can,” she admitted, “but it smells really good. The flying baby that works for Perpetuus told me I’m supposed to do this sacrifice thing while I’m here. I can’t eat or drink anything or I’ll get kicked out.”
“Nonsense, this isn’t food. You’re imbibing the holy spirit. It does not count; now open wide.” She moved it in spirals, like a plane looping through the air.
“You have to tell me that you’re my saint first, and that it’s all done.” She pulled the calendar off her back, ran a finger across the striations in a few doors. “When it’s done the lights will disappear, and then I can eat all the Jesus I want.” Her starving eyes shot up, pleading with the saints. “Please just say it.”
The women looked at each other; a silent decision was made. Suddenly Regina dropped to her knees as well, planting them on Marzi’s to hold her down. She grabbed Marzi’s mouth and squeezed, trying to force it open and drop the shred of Eucharist in. Marzi squealed and locked her teeth together.
“We will not be your saints dear,” Regina growled as Rita circled around to grab her shoulders. “The lord made you a boy. You need to accept that, but I can’t watch any child, no matter how confused, go without food. We baked this scrumptious communion for you. You must have some.”
“No!” Marzi yelled through gritted teeth. She squirmed, but Rita had a hold of her now. It was another trick, another torture chamber. As soon as the bread touched her tongue she would lose, go straight back to the quiet ditches beyond her home, never to see another magical snowflake as long as she lived. Forced to drink the regular ones.
The Eucharist touched her lips. Her head was the only thing left to move, so Marzi used her neck like a flail, flinging it back and forth, succeeding in smacking her forehead against Regina’s. The saint’s head rolled right off her shoulders and hit the floor. Rita scrambled to help her, freeing the child. Marzi’s head reeled from the impact, a shadowy dumpling knot already forming between her eyes. The two tables looked like four, but she knew the way out was at the end, so she staggered between them.
“I’m fine, get him!” Regina’s severed head ordered Rita. The older saint whirled around and chased after her while the headless body wiped the butter from its apron and then fetched the missing piece. She still had the goblet, so she poured the dark juice both into her mouth and then down the stump of her neck.
A hand grabbed Marzi’s calendar by one of its straps. She could’ve easily slipped free, but there was no leaving the item behind. It was her only friend in the world, the only one that had come and found her, introduced hope into her life. The adult’s grip felt so much stronger than her own, so rather than fight she went limp. It was enough weight to break free and scurry under one of the tables.
She crawled on all fours for the exit. There was the door. Her path was only clear for a second; Regina’s head, hair hanging from a clenched fist, appeared under the table. She squeezed her inflated cheeks, spraying purple juice in Marzi’s face. The girl dropped her head and let it drip off. None had gotten in; her mouth still tasted a little like singed salamander toes.
Clothes now thoroughly stained red, Marzi wriggled free from under the table like a bloody mouse squeezing under a door gap that was just a little too small. Rita was on the other side, a blessed croquembouche between them. Rather than vault over the table the older saint simply opened her mouth, unleashing the swarm.
The bees flew straight for her, through the holes between the stacked cream puffs, black compound eyes instead locked on the sticky sugary juice all across her flesh. Marzi screamed and ran for the door again, picturing bees puncturing her calendar and holding firm like thrown darts.
Saint Regina’s neck unleashed a mighty spray of vaporized Jesus blood from its opening, enough for a macabre rainbow to form in the midst of it. Marzi ducked under it as if it was just the wave of a sprinkler and kept going. Even in her panic there was a flash of an idea, a way for them all to get what they wanted. She snatched a rectangular cookie off the end of the table, stamped with the shape of the savior himself, hanging upon his cross.
“Thank you for the food!” she shouted as she ripped the door open, threw herself out onto the branch, and slammed it. Only one bee made it through, delivering its sting to her left cheek before falling, spinning, to its death. Marzi barely felt it, every other part of her body already stinging, from the prickle in the tips of her fingers, to the sandpaper across her lungs, to the deep gouging stab in the pit of her stomach.
It was alright though. She clutched the cookie close to her chest, like a bible, as she carefully made her way back along the narrow branch, weeping tears of joy. The cherub had made it very clear. She wasn’t allowed to eat while she was in the Chrismon Tree, but nothing had been said about taking food from it and eating it once she had left for the day.
Back through the hall of Saint Perpetuus. Through the front door. Before she knew it she was on her knees again, this time in the twigs and mud next to the creek, cold numbing the welts on her face. She cackled. It was the way chipmunks might laugh if they could, staring at a hoard of nuts in the subterranean dark.
She opened her hand to look at her savior’s face one more time before she devoured it, but it was gone. There was nothing in her palm but a mound of ash. A finger sifted through it, looking for a single remaining crumb, perhaps Christ’s heart. Nothing. She licked it clean.