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 Tenth Day
Langcorn had gotten word of something that could actually be helpful. This something was in fact an object, which gave him confidence, given how poorly the living beings of the Chrismon Tree had treated him thus far.
The information looked reliable as well, as it had not come from a pagan or a saint, but, by his guess, from another person with a calendar. The message was scratched into the bark of the tree behind one of the doors. It was simple luck that had him hiding behind the frame to relieve himself.
Beyond the door of Saint Quiteria there is a pond. I do not know its nature, but it can show you your future as reflection. I learned which door to take from it. It served me well.
It was the most promising lead he had, so he followed it. Quiteria’s door was on a dark gnarled limb, and it was covered in scratches that looked like the grievances of small rabid animals. There was a sign posted that said she was not taking human visitors or applicants at the time, and Langcorn was all too happy to oblige and go right past it.
The wood of the limb gave way to a floor of matted needles. Their smooth crisp crunching brought back painful memories of them speaking under his feet while he ran with the nameless satyr, his Beau of the boughs. He tilted his head up to try and drain the tears back into his skull; it wouldn’t help to have them fall and turn his prophesied future into muddled ripples.
“Hammer me bent!” he cursed as his foot plunged into tepid water. He fell backward and scuttled away from the edge. If it could be ruined with splashing he’d already done it. Waiting for the surface to calm before he examined it, Langcorn instead looked at the pond’s surroundings. There wasn’t much indication the place was special. No cairns like little pagan skyscrapers. No carvings. The only attendants were frogs, though they were present in the hundreds, glued flatly to wet rocks and curled around thin branches like globs of snot. Not one of them so much as peeped.
“Are you talking frogs?” he asked them, the format of the question now second nature. They didn’t answer, and their lack of focal point, heads and eyes in random directions, convinced him they were mere animals.
He crawled forward up to the water’s edge. His splash had scattered needles all over its surface, but they were drifting away from where his reflection should have been. It only appeared when the last one was out of the way.
Langcorn saw himself. While it was impossible to describe, he realized he was looking at multiple instances of himself, a sort of collage of his future. It was a single Langcorn, but the left eye was the left eye of a man who had a cozy house to call his own. The right eye belonged to a man who worked with post riders, helping his community’s elderly hermits send and receive letters. The nose liked to read, sometimes letters that weren’t really its business. The mouth had two children, one boy and one girl.
The man’s actual mouth grimaced. He was not averse to the idea of raising a family, but he knew what it took to create such children, and he couldn’t imagine that future easily. He looked closer. The chin had a wife, and it tensed every time she approached to kiss him. She didn’t know the truth about his chin.
This face of instances, this Langcorn yet to be, was one that would never get himself tossed off the side of a bridge. It was written in every crease of his face that his true feelings smoldered inside him, never to touch the air again. He renounced his ways to keep on the bridge. Married to keep on the bridge. Was fruitful to keep on the bridge. Went to church to keep on the bridge. Insulted any effeminate man he came across to keep on the bridge. Yet he always felt like it was slippery, like any misstep would undo years of effort.
“This is no future of mine!” he declared. “To think I would be such a coward! Walk across that bridge every day while it is slick with the determination of the brave men who could actually be my companions. This is an insult. You insult me, sir or madam or sexless peering puddle!” It didn’t respond to his outrage. The same suppressed Langcorn stared back, hugged the woman for whom he had respect but no love.
He knew he would sooner die, so his hand slapped the surface, unconcerned that the possibility of disrupting his future might mean instantaneous death. The watery Langcorn broke apart, the instances choosing different ripples, different directions. When the water settled it was blank once more, but not for long. A new Langcorn appeared, made of just as many moments, but he represented a new path entirely.
This human hypothesis belonged to a religious order, the kind that held services every day of the week where attendance was not optional, even those on their deathbeds carted in to hear. He spent all day studying the bible and other texts, sometimes the whole night by candlelight. The order was full of men who had lived together for years, but they didn’t know each other at all.
They confessed their sins to each other, but nothing else. In seeing this, Langcorn invented something all religions were clearly lacking: confessionals of joy. These men needed places, alone with their fellows, to smile, to tell another openly and honestly something that made their heart feel ready to burst.
Yet the watery Langcorn, if he had this idea as well, never spoke up. He never complained about knowing only the dark thoughts of the others, only their shadows, never their souls. One instance, the corner of the mandible, was clear about how it would eventually die, in a dark stone room at the age of ninety.
“Every year an empty one,” he complained. “This is the Langcorn the lonely that Saint Christina must have seen. At least she could have saved him from boredom, if nothing else.” He slapped the water again, with a snap of the wrist, a deliberate technique to mimic slapping a face. The dull moping monk disappeared as the next Langcorn in line came to the window for assessment.
This one looked happier, but in a sly fashion. He had the eyes of a fox, honed to such skillful seduction that man and woman alike were highly vulnerable. There was a wife, but not the same one as before, and no children. She loved him and he hated her, a hate he expressed by secretly bedding men every chance he got, and only other men with the same fox’s eyes.
“This one’s a scoundrel; I don’t like him. And why are you drowning me in women!?” He slapped it again and met a Langcorn living alone in the woods, subsisting by foraging and scavenging, conversing only with birds. Slap! Married to a woman so large he could hide behind her at public events and avoid the knowing eyes of the others. Slap! So many children clinging to him that he had no time to plan his own life. Slap! A villain and murderer skulking in the shadows, taking what he wanted from homes and bodies alike. Slap! Two brides this time, in a community that somehow tolerated that but not a pair of men. Slap! Slap! Slap!
He no longer wanted it to reform. Better for there to be no set future if this was all that was on offer. Chaos was better; walking into a storm and seeing where he landed and with what injuries was better. Whoever planned these was doing a worse job than someone picking randomly from a hat.
“-Stop,” something like a voice warned him. Each word was a croaking peep, and heard from differing directions. Langcorn was too jaded at this point to be confused. It was the frogs, each taking turns. They had simply hoped to avoid speaking to him, until he refused to accept his gifted future with humility.
“Why should I?” he snapped at them. “If you’re going to tell a man that you control his life, no matter what he does, you should at least have the decency to give him the things he wants. The things he is fully capable of pursing on his own, if only you would move your boulder bodies off his road.”
He saw the little creatures respond this time, each word accompanied by a ballooning quivering throat. Still, not all of them, even some that spoke, faced him. Something was talking through them, using them like the pipes in a pan flute to create a single melody. A pagan spirit of the tree seemed obvious, but not when paired with the actual words.
“You’re one of the saints, or some angelic creature,” Langcorn guessed. “You will show me a future where I’m a killer, but not where I live contentedly with a man? That! That implies you think murder is closer to god’s path than what is in my heart.”
“Easier to atone!” Langcorn thought the statement over, which only stoked his anger. “I see. Murder is an act so heinous that no heart can commit to it fully. There is always a voice, no matter how small, telling them they are wrong. On their deathbed it can grow loud, and in an instance be forgiven.
Yet there is no voice for me. I truly have no regrets in my love of other men. You would rather I murder, and beg with explosive pathetic force at the last moment, than live happy and certain. You give me an acceptable future right now, or… or I’ll take matters into my own feet.”
“No.” Langcorn threw up his right leg and brought it down as hard as he could, punching through the needles at the bottom of the pond. There were several more layers, but he went in again and again, ignoring the pinpricks all over his ankle. Eventually he found a hollow in the needles the water could drain into.
The pond emptied quickly. Langcorn waited until the clinging skin of water on the needles could no longer even hope to create a full reflection. When he was sure those awful Langcorns could not be assembled from the terrible one-note suggestions of whatever judgmental angel or saint created them, he left.
He already knew his future. It was portioned out in doors, carved into the wood of his Advent calendar. He would have his new life by the last one.