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: 12 minutes)
On the Sixth Day
Despite spending his night sleeping on a riverbed, finding a body of water proved quite difficult for Langcorn. Clumps of dirt had dried into the back of his hair, and he didn’t think it appropriate to present himself for inspection to any divine creature while in such a state. He was searching deep in the boughs of the tree, looking for a pond or waterfall in which to bathe.
The nature of the sky above, invisible through many layers of needles, eluded him. If this entire space was magically metaphorical, was there even anything that could be helpfully represented by rain? He’d gathered from questions and whispering that there was some sort of throne at the very tip of the plant, occupied by the pagan goddess of the moon until the solstice, and then by a fulgent Christian figure called Prester John until Christmas eve. But no mention of rain.
The forest offered no stones either, so he walked for hours without a place to sit and rest. The best he could do was lean on a sprig of a tree and hope not to be pelted with nuts, thrown by little heathen rodents that liked to hiss and jeer at his presence. Still, stops had to be made with feet as achy as his, so he leaned up against another twig, staring into its upper reaches, waiting for the bombs to fall. Nothing. Several seconds of unblinking nothing.
“Ah finally,” he sighed, relaxing his shoulders and closing his eyes. The calendar was set against his leg. In feeling its weight he reminded himself that a quarter of his time in this place was gone already, and he hadn’t found a soul that seemed to care for him. The nicest thing he’d been called in the realm of the saints was a ‘predilection-haver’ and the nicest in the boughs a series of snorts and grunts.
Not wanting to be his patron he could understand. Trouble followed him everywhere, something he didn’t understand given his impeccable manners. He’d never started a fight in his life, yet his poor mother had been forced to wash blood out of his clothes so many times. He supposed being his patron saint would be a bit like that, constantly distracted by one charge’s scrapes and bumps as they failed to navigate the social loom.
“I’d settle for an equal,” he told the needles above as he rested. “Someone to suffer with. Even Beau, through no fault of his own, wound up above me.”
“An equal would be nice,” another voice agreed from the other side of the tree. Langcorn froze. The voice’s quality was somewhere between melodic and a bleating goat. Its tone could only be described as quite ready to feast on an unpeeled carrot still bearing strands of root.
“Hello,” Langcorn greeted without lifting his head from the tree. He wasn’t sure he was ready to see yet another amalgamation of man and woodland creature just yet, even if they weren’t throwing pine cones. “I thought I was alone.”
“So did I. I was just catching my breath, but I didn’t think anyone was even close.”
“Are you… in a race of some kind?” Langcorn asked.
“Of course! Were you not competing? There’s not a lot of time to sit this one out.”
“Well, I am in a race of sorts,” he said, forging a commonality swiftly enough for first place in any race of friendship. “I’ve only twenty-four days to reach my goal.”
“Twenty-four days!” the creature gasped. “That’s four lifetimes at the rate I’m going. You are a slow one.”
“We’re resting in the same place, so I’m just as fast as you,” Langcorn defended.
“Good point,” the other voice panted. Then Langcorn heard huffing, hooves across the needle mat. He finally tore himself away from the tree, and what he saw was the back of a satyr as he jogged into the undergrowth. Langcorn swept up his calendar and pursued, thoroughly out of breath by the time he matched the creature’s pace.
“It wasn’t my intention to make you leave!” he assured the furry man.
“You did me a favor!” the satyr bleated. “Slowing down doesn’t do me any good.” The creature looked overjoyed as he pumped his muscular arms and legs. His fur was very blond, almost white. A pair of horns swooped close to his scalp like hair slicked back. Quickly adjusting to the floppy ears and dangling goat beard, Langcorn thought him quite an attractive thing. He looked as if he should be cast in a pastoral bronze, emptying a jug of wine over his knee.
“Say, do you know of anyone around here looking for some… company?” Langcorn asked, struggling to speak while sprinting. The satyr leapt over a branch while the man, already feeling his physical limitations in every limb, vaulted over it instead. They crashed back to the needles, spraying them everywhere. Several stuck to the thickening sweat on their necks and jawlines. The creature reached out and brushed a few of them off Langcorn. He very nearly returned the favor before remembering his restriction.
“I am. It’s lonely when you’re winning.”
“Really? Do you have any interest in being my patron?”
“Mmm… I can’t really afford to be looking over my shoulder. Don’t want to miss what’s up ahead. Duck.” Langcorn barely turned his head in time to see the low-hanging limb. He stumbled under it and caught back up.
“Where are we running to?”
“The rest of our lives.”
“How do you win such a race?”
“You’ll see.” The satyr turned sharply, catching Langcorn off guard, as there wasn’t any structure to suggest they should turn. Were they curving? Perhaps going around the Chrismon Tree in a big circle?
“I’ve been having the hardest time finding a kindred spirit in this place,” Langcorn admitted. “The woe is beginning to slow me.”
“Then you must leave it behind,” the satyr advised. “Nothing that slows you is worth keeping. That is the woman’s way.”
“It is? How so?”
“They’re always putting on weight! Slowed by sloshing milk. Slowed by swelling litters. Slowed by mounting rungs in their braids. All these things slow the thoughts; they don’t even realize they try to turn themselves to weights around the necks of us men.” He slapped Langcorn on the back. Though it stung it brought a smile to his face. This contact, each instance like a drop of rain in his parched throat, made him feel more alive.
“I must confess,” he chuckled, “I’ve never had much interest in the ways of women. Men seem to enjoy life more, but… perhaps I just enjoy seeing their expressions of joy more.”
“That’s the spirit!” the satyr encouraged. “Never leave my side friend.”
“I mean it! Run with me. Together we’ll get there.” Langcorn didn’t know what to say, so he poured himself into the effort, shunting the burning of his lungs back into his muscles. He made his breath rhythmic. As they went a state of acid serenity settled in. Each curve of tree gave way to more of the same. Each pat on the back he received was a single second ticking by on the grand clock.
“This is… is wonderful,” he eventually said. They shared a look, from his round pupils to the satyr’s, shaped more like a bar of soap. “Being here with you.”
“We’re going to spend the rest of our lives together!” the creature bellowed to the upper boughs. “Ahahaha!”
“Oh my!” Langcorn uttered, somehow feeling a blush in his cheeks despite the constant exertion. “Such certainty! You don’t know anything about me!”
“I know what I need to know. You are a fellow man and you can keep up. Why complicate it? Be my partner.”
“This is so sudden… but that’s the way we do things, right? Haha!” He surged forward with a sensation of gliding thanks to the needles slipping under his feet. “Slowness is… just more chances to fail! More… chances for people to see that they… don’t like you. So let’s go, yes! I will be your partner! We’ll live together! Even faster! I love you! I don’t know your name and that makes me love you all… the more! What… What is your…”
It was difficult to turn his head and maintain speed. The satyr wasn’t there. Langcorn’s head attempted to stop and turn around, but the rest of him took too long to get the message. He pitched forward and twisted his spine painfully, skidding across the matted needles, several embedding in the flesh of his cheek and arms.
“My love!? Where did you go?” Ignoring the pain he scrambled back the way he came, scanning under every branch and shrub. Eventually he found where his running partner had fallen, face buried in the green, chest still. Langcorn rushed to his side and reached out, barely having the presence of mind to stop himself. No touch was sanctioned. A patron didn’t matter anymore, not if he knew he wasn’t alone, but breaking the rules might’ve gotten him booted from the tree, might have torn them apart.
Instead he pulled his calendar off and wedged it under the satyr’s chest to flip him onto his back. Those soap bar eyes, to the depths of which he had already cast his most luminous love and affection, were open and empty. His whitish fur was limp, suddenly looking fit to line a collar.
“No… why? Were you ill!? You were ill and you never told me! We were spending our lives together; I deserved to know!” Langcorn collapsed next to the cooling body, crying into his hands because he couldn’t bury his face in the creature’s chest. He sat like that, sense of time lost, but time spent in mourning certainly lapping the amount spent in love. Eventually someone came out of the brush to investigate the scene.
She was a woman of middle age in a long green dress, brown hood pulled over her hair, an empty basket on her hip. She circled around them, examining, like a buzzard waiting for the hunter to leave the dregs of its kill behind. Impatience got the better of her.
“Excuse me, but are you finished with this?” she asked Langcorn, pointing at the body of what was technically, by verbal contract, his spouse.
“What?” he blubbered.
“I would like to harvest while he is fresh.” She dropped to her knees and started pulling all sorts of tools and containers out from hidden pockets in her dress, including a handsaw.
“What do you mean by harvest?”
“This is a male fae thing,” she explained, taking a tape measure to the body’s horns, since that could reasonably be done without permission. “The solstice nears, so he was full of vitality, virility, vigor… all the Vs really… with valuable being the most important to me.”
“Surely there is no money circulating in the Chrismon Tree.”
“No, but his materials are valuable to my work. Powdered male horn is vital to many potions. Almost everything on him can serve a magical purpose: eyes, teeth, blood, fur, organs, bones…” She took out a pair of scissors, grabbed a tuft of the satyr’s arm fur, and positioned them, but she stared at Langcorn without cutting.
“Is this… customary?” he asked, wiping snot on his forearm.
“I’ve done it before if that’s what you mean.” Shnick. The tuft disappeared into her basket. Shnick. Shnick. Her eyes kept darting back to the horns, which she clearly prized most, but the handsaw still seemed a little too insensitive. “My name is Fertilica; I am a witch. You’re dressed a little like the people who burn people like me, but I warn you I have great power here.”
“I am Langcorn and I have no intention of burning anyone,” he insisted. “Do you know what happened to him?” He wiped his nose again, feeling the need to excuse the rude behavior. “We were in love you see. He just, he just fell over.”
“That’s what they do. He is a male deity, so he does not last the year. They make for the top of the tree, for a chance to lie with the goddess Triluna before their hearts give out. It is the way of nature. Men spend, women cycle.”
“Do you mean his entire life was less than a year? From birth to this?”
“Yes.” With the fur cleared she finally went for the head, saw grinding against the base of the horn. “Don’t feel bad for him. He loved every moment of it, and he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he lasted any longer.”
“This Triluna does not perish?”
“She waxes and wanes, but is eternal. Her name means ‘the three phases of the moon’, symbolizing the three stages of a woman’s life: maiden, mother, and crone. She and we are all at once, only the angle of the light determining which we are in time.” Krokt! The first horn broke away and was stashed in her basket. She immediately went to work on the second.
“I see. Is there any point to my search for companionship in the pagan realm? I am no woman, and I’ve already had attempts on my life, even without being compared to this beautiful mayfly.”
“Men have their place here. You are human, like me. The wondrous possibilities of her magic are open to you, but sometimes you have to grab at them yourself, even if reaching rudely across the dinner table.” Krokt! “As his lover I must ask you step away for this part. If you had his heart there’s no reason to see it in my hand.”
“Yes of course, I… thank you kind miss. Please, whatever you’re doing with him, make it good.”
“You have my word.” Langcorn stood and whirled around, and no sooner had he done so than he heard skin start to peel. Perhaps she had to work swiftly because the body decomposed as fast as it lived. As he walked, pulling evergreen needles from his follicles, he wondered if he was doomed to die in the tree. He certainly felt spent, his heart empty and gasping somewhere outside his chest.