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 Ninth Day
Marzipan was only wearing half a shirt that day. Her mother told her she could have some new clothes for her birthday, but that was still months away, so she couldn’t bring herself to discard any of the four she had left, even when one of them was so dirty it had permanently changed color. To make use of it she tore the bottom half off, choosing to wear it only on days where the ringworm on her side was too itchy to bear, as airing the infection out seemed to help a little.
The low route through the tree that day became so cluttered with doors and walls that it only looked like itself when she stared up into the boughs. Otherwise it was a brick alley, windows replaced by doors that didn’t seem to have any way for her or anyone else to access. She continuously heard them slamming far ahead of her, but never saw so much as a responsible hand.
So she wandered the stony limb, hunched over, scratching at her exposed sides and back like the wretch they all perceived her to be. Scaly red spots climbed her like squirrels, nesting in her armpits and drinking her sweat.
“Deck the halls with balls of holly,” she sang weakly, wrongly, noticing her parched throat more than her shriveled stomach that day. “Fa la la la la la la la la. Tis the season to be… jolly. Fa la la… la…” Her bleary eyes turned. Was someone there? Perhaps, but only watching through a peephole. “Be jolly. Just be jolly. They’ll like you more if you’re jolly.” The ringworm flared again. She stopped and clawed at it, grunting and whimpering. “Tis the season to be itchy! Fa la la la… stupid… la!”
“Did someone say itchy?” One of the doors, thankfully on street level, flew open. Out came a man of long gray beard, which was parted like curtains held open. He wore thick gold spectacles that made his eyes look like the iridescent spots on butterfly wings. A walking stick, a carved beheaded snake wrapped around it, propelled him into the street and to her side.
The old man examined her rash, head moving back and forth precisely, like a chicken trying to pick out the best seed from a pile on the ground. He made an expression she’d never seen before, somewhere between repulsion, fascination, and satisfying catharsis. It was accompanied by a sound, something breathy, like he was thinking aloud that there were far too many options on the menu before him.
“Are you infectious?” he asked. “What am I saying, of course you are. Come with me.” He grabbed the air; it took a moment for Marzi to realize he was miming taking her arm. She followed rather than have him embarrass himself pretending to drag her toward the door.
He closed it quickly behind her and led her into his cozy cottage, which would have been much cozier if there weren’t medical textbooks stuffed with notes piled in all the corners and empty glass vials on every surface that would hold them. He told her to have a seat, but she couldn’t, not until he swept all the beakers off a stone table to the floor with a crash.
She hopped up happily, feet kicking over the side. She didn’t know the last time she’d had a proper one, but she felt the relaxing truth. This was a doctor’s appointment. She readied her tongue for sticking out, hoping his staff wasn’t the planned depressor.
“Is this your office?” she asked when she saw him grab a magnifying glass and a swab instead of anything mouth-bound.
“And my laboratory and my home,” he answered as he examined her spots and poked at them. “I am Saint Gangulphus, patron saint of skin ailments and adultery.”
“It’s what my wife did when she ran off with the lousy priest who eventually murdered me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry… What does adultery have to do with skin problems?”
“After I was murdered my wife and her lover fell horribly ill and perished, covered in boils. The outward appearance of the skin can indicate both physical health and spiritual health. The trick is in determining which one is being expressed.”
“What does my skin say?” she asked, ready to be told something awful in either department. He put down the swab and glass.
“It says you are in pain; that much is clear. I’m sorry to see you suffer child.”
“Thank you,” she squeaked, fighting back surprise tears. She took the calendar off her back and set it aside so his examinations would be easier. “Will you be my pa- doctor?”
“There’s nobody more qualified on the Chrismon Tree,” he answered without answering. “First we must diagnose your condition.”
“Hah! God would not send you to me if it were something so common. Ringworm is the disguise it wears, but let’s peel that back.” He fumbled around on another table, selecting an instrument that seemed more than capable of peeling things back. Marzi winced, but he merely used it to poke and prod some more.
“It’s bad today, but it’s usually not,” she said. “I try not to get mad at it. It’s just eating me a little bit, and that’s what everything does. I eat little pieces of this and that and they probably don’t like it, so I don’t think I should get mad at the ringworm for eating me.”
“With that attitude we’d never be cured of anything,” Gangulphus pointed out. “Hardships are meant to be learning experiences, not curses. Ringworm should teach you to stay out of wet ditches.”
“So I shouldn’t eat breakfast?”
“What? Of course you should. It doesn’t matter, because this is not ringworm. Could be an expression of a serious underlying infection. It might be the devil’s ablution, that can manifest as itchy red spots.” He puttered away, muttering, looking for something in his piles of glass and paper.
Marzi didn’t want to interrupt a professional who would certainly, by the end of the physical, see her need for female hormones. Instead she investigated his walking stick, which he had left leaned on the table right next to her. She’d seen plenty of snakes in the woods, but she couldn’t identify the carved one with its missing head.
She picked it up to check its spiraling body for markings, but in the process she accidentally tapped its end on the wooden floor. There was an immediate sound of bubbling water; she leaned forward to see a small fountain between her feet. The crystal clear liquid gave off such an aura of mountain chill that she felt it on her soles.
“Umm excuse me,” she said, but it took another try. “Saint Gangulphus!” He turned. “I, sorry, I spilled something.” She didn’t know if that was the best way to phrase it, especially since the water had become much more than any graduated cylinder in the place could hold. Already the entire floor was drowned in a half inch of it. Marzi pulled her feet up, worried the walking stick might have to transform into a paddle before the saint could get back and take it.
“That damn thing is always acting up,” he said, splashing his way over and reclaiming it. He thrust it up and down several times, banging it on the floor, only growing the fountain each time. Finally the flow ceased, but not before the water level had risen to his knees.
“It was an accident; please don’t kick me out.”
“Have no fear child,” he said softly, “or at least redirect it to the horrors spreading across your back if you do. That’s just my miracle. One time on Earth I successfully made fresh water spring up from dry ground by poking a stick through it, and up in this damn tree I can’t seem to stop doing it. It will drain in a few days… ahh, at least it has done some good this time.”
The flood caused a mostly empty jar to float out from under a table. He snatched it off the surface, twisted the lid off, sniffed the contents, and recoiled with satisfaction. With an applicator from the pocket of his coat he pulled out a thick glob of pale yellow, like pastry cream, and proceeded to apply it to Marzi’s rash.
“What is that stuff?” she asked. The smell was good enough to eat, at least by her standards.
“It’s the ointment that cures devil’s ablution. It’s a miracle cure as well, so it should work in the next ten seconds.” He stared at her back, unblinking. Marzi made small sounds with her lips to pass the time. “Alright! Let’s see.” With a hand towel he wiped it away to reveal an unperturbed meadow of ringworm.
“It didn’t work.”
“Then it can’t be devil’s ablution,” the saint reasoned, tugging on one side of his beard. “As I feared, it’s something worse: spots of the false emperor. Felled many kings and conquerors it has, and quite painfully too.”
“It’s just itchy.”
“That’s how it starts, and how it ends, but in the middle you’ll be begging for death and not even it will want to touch you. There is but one treatment.” He splashed away again, digging through drawers. Wanting to check a submerged one, he held his breath and went under, coming back up a few seconds later with a waterlogged beard looking like a drain clog forced through two straws. Marzi was not pleased to see the instrument he returned with, a wooden knob with a flat side studded with a dozen iron needles.
“Maybe I could just live with it?” she suggested. “There’s something else I want to talk to you about.”
“I’m afraid this is the top priority,” Gangulphus dismissed. “I can’t have anyone infectious running around here. Long have I warned the others, their deaf ears surely a sign of some other malady they refuse to address, that the Chrismon Tree is vulnerable to an outbreak.”
“What do you mean?” She hoped to distract him from the treatment, but his ramblings didn’t slow him at all. Out came two dishes with colorful ointments of their own, purple and orange, both graced by the many tips of the needle knob. When combined they somehow left green spots in each other.
Marzi winced as he tapped it into her irritated flesh, trickles of blood further adding to the colorful concoction. It wasn’t as simple as an inoculation either, as he repeated the cure more than a hundred times, wanting to puncture every spot before waiting to see if it worked.
“I mean that the other saints are complacent; they think this place is indestructible. For them it is an outpost of Heaven, but it’s more like an anchor hanging off the side of a ship. If need be, it can be cut loose. Plus it’s crawling with pagans, none of whom care for science and all of whom like to exchange diseases like party favors.”
“So all these magic people can get sick just like I can?”
“Most of them, yes. Hold still, I need to get your neck. That isn’t the worst of it though. The tree could get sick itself.”
“Really? Trees can get colds and fevers and stuff? Can they puke?”
“Goodness no,” he said, contorting his face in disgust even though he would’ve been more than happy to peruse a book where every page was an inadequately dried sample of diseased skin. “If that could happen I would never feel safe seeking shade again.”
They shared a giggle. Marzi was used to the little stabs by now, finding them almost like a massage, but her left arm was trembling, perhaps trying to catch the copious amount of blood running down her side and into the miracle waters under the table.
“And a regular tree doesn’t suffer human illnesses,” he went on, “but the Chrismon Tree can. You see its bed is the bones of saints, its sap the blood of pagan creatures. Its biology is very close to ours.”
“Has it been sick before?”
“I wish it had been! Then someone might listen. For now it is theoretical, and I am the only watchdog. Can you imagine? Even if this tree just had childhood pox the welts would destabilize the foundation of many of our buildings. We’d fall out of the sky and land who knows where!”
“Back on Earth?”
“Quite possibly.” He rinsed the needle knob in the waters and then let it sink. With the clean side of the hand towel he dried her arm, side, and back. Gangulphus stared at his handiwork, smile growing.
“Did it work?” she asked hopefully.
“It made it worse,” he said, but apparently this was a revelation. “Since it got worse it can’t be spots of the false emperor, and there is only one possibility left: the feminine epidermal degeneracy. I’ve seen it before. It’s quite fatal if not treated quickly.” He took a deep breath and dove. Marzi searched for him, but her own blood clouded the waters near the table too thoroughly.
One of the ointments must have been a numbing agent, for it started wearing off. Marzi hissed as her side came alive with pinpricks of pain, wreathed in ringworm itchiness. If he couldn’t figure out a rash perhaps he wasn’t the best hormone supplier. Or perhaps she should just grin and bear it, even if his treatments turned her into an inside out porcupine, or worse, an inside out male porcupine, because at least he seemed to care about her well-being. That idea was sorely tested though, as he came back up from his dive with a sharp instrument that was almost certainly called either a stripper or a shredder.
“What’s that?” she asked, dreading the answer.
“One piece of your cure! There is some assembly needed.” Before she could respond he swallowed air and went down again, pawing around in the debris. Miraculous water had a natural light and clear quality to it, so as long as he avoided his patient’s bloodletting cloud he would have no trouble finding the other two pieces.
The next one was called the separator, vital to the procedure, as no respectable physician would want to do any stripping or shredding until they’d properly separated. He surfaced and slammed it on the table boastfully, wet beard whipping around when he looked to his patient. She was still waiting, smiling nervously.
Saint Gangulphus went under again, but not for long. The plower was the largest piece of the instrument after all, and thus the easiest to find. With all three sections screwed together he would make quick work of all the infected hide. Her chances of survival were decent as long as he threw her into the holy water immediately after the partial flaying. The baptism of her exposed arteries might even speed recovery.
“We’re ready!” he declared as he hit the air and waved the plower triumphantly. He turned to see an empty examination table. When he waded over there was a short message on the stone, written in blood with a fingertip: just ringworm.