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 Eleventh Day
The state fair was Heaven to Marzipan, and she still thought that after seeing several flavors of the real thing within the Chrismon Tree. She had only been once, and only because Mom was trying her hand at selling handmade greeting cards at a stall of her own. The little girl wandered about in a daze, watching cotton candy drift by, doughnuts sparkle like veins of diamond, and sausages dance on glistening rollers.
Mom didn’t give her any money, but the fairgoers, who must have been stupid, kept abandoning or discarding portions of their food. To think that someone would dump a cup of strawberry lemonade just because all the ice had melted into it. That was a sweet treat and fresh clean water all at once; it was only improved.
Marzi never ate so much in her entire life. She went after it all ravenously, even scaring off the stubborn yellow jackets that only briefly thought they wanted the glaze and meat drippings as much as she did. The two stings she received on her hands did nothing to slow her down. The way she grabbed at the morsels, regardless of how many six-legged things had already laid claim, made it clear she would consider them nothing but additional protein if they didn’t make a hasty retreat.
Hapless staff and vendors tried repeatedly to shoo her away from the trashcans, to no avail. When they chased her she simply hid in the crowd, sometimes coming back before the offended even got back to their stalls. In less than a day people were already talking about the raccoon child, wondering where her parents were, and if they needed to call the police. Nobody did, but only because she finally got distracted from the smorgasbord as the sun descended and the gaudy incandescence of carnival games took over.
In her scavenging she had neglected to pick up any loose change, so she couldn’t play. It was free to watch however, and she did that closely enough to make several participants uncomfortable. She even fielded some blame for a jet of water missing the gap between a wooden clown’s front teeth, something that could’ve won the competing college student a water gun not limited to a narrow aiming cone and circus employee targets. He shoved her for that, but she never took her eyes off the game.
They were beautiful things to her: simple prizes with simple requirements. Toss enough rings. Whack enough moles. Pick up the floating duck with the name of your desired reward written on the bottom. She wondered why the whole world couldn’t be like that. Any time she tried to do something that seemed as simple there were a hundred things in her way: no way to get there, no way to look presentable while doing it, no way to pay for it, and no friends to help.
The games didn’t care if you were alone. They also didn’t police their prizes once they left the hook on the wall. Marzipan watched one from a distance while she stuffed a churro into her already painfully bloated stomach. It was a game of runaway brides, where the brides were wood cutouts on tracks all fleeing from a starting line of startled grooms.
In order to race the other brides you had to crank a wedding cake lever back and forth as fast as you could. Marzi thought it was a nice theme, because even the brides that lost would get to be married. The little girl playing it at that moment was more than determined enough to win though. She was shouting as she cranked, and the intimidation tactic distracted the others and netted her the win.
Her prize was a stuffed otter nearly as big as her, wearing a dress the color of a warm tropical sea. Her loving father congratulated her, patting her on the back. Marzi thought about patting herself on the back in the moment, just to complete her game-by-proxy, but she didn’t want to smear sugar and grease all over her best shirt, the one with only two holes.
The other girl didn’t like her otter’s dress, perhaps preferring the creature to be as it appeared in nature, so she rolled it up like a sleeve, up and over the otter’s head, discarding it in the trashcan just ten steps from Marzi. Her eyes went wide as those of a goldfish having a cosmic revelation.
On her quick scurry over she dropped bother her arms, running her hands through the crushed grass to clean them. She snatched the dress off the top and let it unfurl before her. The weave was so wide it was more like a net. Every strand was coated in some kind of shiny plastic. There was a prominent asymmetrical tag informing her it was made in Taiwan. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
Mom wouldn’t think so though. Boys weren’t allowed to wear dresses. So she hid it, bringing it out only on occasions where she knew she would be alone for hours. Whenever she looked at herself in the mirror with it on she couldn’t help but cry, but it was a good cry. They were tears she could float on if she had enough of them, and she thought that would be just perfect to do in a dress made by some doting otter mom for her newly buoyant daughter.
She kept it safe from the grime of outdoors as well as her blood and animal sacrifices, but now that she faced the many challenges of the Chrismon Tree she thought it was time to bring it out, to assert her girlhood as best she could with her best chance at a patron yet. She had found the cottage of the pagan witch called Fertilica, so deep in the magical woods that the needles were nearly black.
Marzi didn’t approach the first time she saw it, choosing instead to go back the next day with her dress on, and with flowers in her hair, and a little blue eyeliner she was sure Mom forgot about, given that she’d found it under the couch, right next to a dusty pamphlet about Satan sprinkling fossils, like so many fish flakes, into Noah’s floodwaters to trick later scientists into believing in evolution.
She was ready, and she knew she was beautiful, yet Marzi couldn’t bring herself to knock on the cottage door. Her courage choked up under her clavicle, turned spiny. Her breathing accelerated enough to make her feel lightheaded. This wouldn’t do, she decided. The nerves were just because of the others working ceaselessly to undermine her. She was supposed to be there. Knocking was the same as asking permission, as being unsure, which was what made her nervous. So instead her hand shot out and grabbed the knob. She twisted. Open. She let herself in.
Finally, a place in the tree that looked the way the she expected. Green flames crackled in the fireplace, lapping at the black bottom of a hanging cauldron. The thatched roof was crawling with colorful spiders, all looking soft and freshly molted. Brown mice as fluffy as cats chased after each other across the floor. Cupboards with cracked panels of glass contained endless ceramic jars, baskets, and bottles.
A woman in a black cloak stood over a workbench, struggling to get some kind of animal horn tight enough into a vice to then, presumably, attack it with the large file sitting next to her. Her long wavy hair swished back and forth, destabilizing the reading glasses she wore. Marzi wondered why she didn’t take them off, especially since they were fogged from the cauldron steam, but with two steps forward she saw some of the witch’s hair tangled up in their hinges.
“Excuse me,” Marzi said.
“Oh!” The startled witch let go of the vice, rattling the table, which rattled the wall, which rattled the spiders in the ceiling. Several dropped on lines of silk and started their climb back up. “Well hello child! What a pleasant surprise! It’s not often I get human visitors. And what is that? A calendar! Just like that other fellow. What a busy season this is…”
“Are you Fertilica the witch?”
“And you’ve heard of me!? Praise Triluna! I’ll prove I belong here yet.”
“You look like you belong here more than anyone else I’ve seen,” Marzi complimented, the praise having a greater effect than she could have imagined. Fertilica cackled and spun around the exterior of her home in a one woman waltz. The spiders and mice followed her circle, as did the steam from the cauldron.
“Thank you my dear! Now, what is it that I can do for you? You’re lucky my stores are overflowing at the moment, thanks to the solstice.”
“Will you… will you be my patron?” Fertilica stopped dead.
“What is your name?”
“Marzipan Ridner. I like Marzi.”
“Marzi, beautiful. My being your patron would be a boon to us both I think. I would be the first human who wasn’t a saint to be one. They’ll have to crack open the history books and scribble me in, and oh how they’ll hate doing that.” She cackled again. “I must help you to be your patron. Tell me, what magic do you need in your life? I’ve got it all here, alphabetized.”
“Okay…” Marzi tried to expel her nerves in a narrow breath. “I really want to be transformative. I want to transform.”
“Trivial!” Fertilica boasted, turning to a set of cabinets and opening them. “With the right combination of ingredients from this tree I can make potions that could turn you into just about anything. I could make you a glob of blood and you could ride the tree’s very arteries. I could turn you into a vulture and you could chase those dumpy little cherubs until they wet their togas.”
“That sounds fun,” Marzi giggled, “but I don’t need anything that strong.”
“Don’t limit yourself!” Fertilica encouraged. “That’s what the men back in your world will try to do at every turn. They fear your womanhood, as it means magic and nature itself are on your side.”
“Oh yes, just look at the plight of man in nature, away from his company job and his bank account. The male praying mantis is a tenth the size of the female, and when she’s done with him she eats his head.” She cackled again. Marzi took note of all the animal horns lying around, wondering what exactly had happened to the skulls, brains, eyeballs, and tongues. “Male peacocks must lug around the stage dressing for a one man show, all just for a chance to catch a woman’s eye.”
The witch flung open a few cupboards and started gathering potion ingredients. Each piece or bottle she touched she then tossed over her shoulder like a pinch of salt meant to break bad luck. They sailed through the air slowly, magically turning and settling on the workbench. Dried bat wings in a bundle. Intact balls of dandelion fluff. Powdered rose thorns. Dried blood fallen from the wounds of high soaring birds.
“I just want to look like what they fear. I want them to see my nature… and I want to see it in the mirror,” Marzi explained.
“What are you talking about Marzi? You’re beautiful just as you-” She cleaned her glasses with the hanging end of her sleeve and looked at her new ward. Her expression suggested she would’ve been more pleased to see the otter that had once owned the dress standing before her instead. Fertilica bit her lip bitterly, hung her head, and closed the cupboards. She trudged back to the workbench.
“Is something wrong?” Marzi knew from the swelling anxious dread in her chest that something was. She’d seen that look before. On a scout leader telling her it was a private meeting. On a photographer who didn’t want her in the picture. On a coach who said she ran like she was chasing a football. No Mars. You aren’t, and you can’t, and I would never.
“Boys should go to the saints,” Fertilica said, eyes wandering off to the notion of the proper apprentice she feared she would never get.
“I’m not a boy.” Marzi felt like a collapsed tilting candle with very little wax let, still blazing, desperately eyeing the wood of the table and the sensitive correspondence laid out on it so brazenly.
“You want me to give you a potion that turns you into a girl,” the witch inferred, “which means you are not a girl right now. Which means you are a boy.”
“It’s just my body!”
“Women’s bodies are who they are!” she shouted at the child. “Women and the moon, which is the face of Triluna, are one because they both function in phases. A woman is maiden, mother, and crone. You, no matter what you do, even if I gave you a draught of bountiful bosom, would never be capable of being a mother.”
“That’s fine. I’ll take the bosom anyway please.”
“No you will not you filthy little thing!” the witch shrieked, pushing all the ingredients back behind her as if they were her children and Marzi a wolf.
“Do you have one that can give me hips?” Marzi asked, craning her neck around the witch’s obstruction. “Like real hips? Like wuh-bam hips, the kind that can knock people over if they walk too close to your walk. I want those.”
“You’re disgusting. You have every advantage you could want back on Earth, but you’re not satisfied. You have to come here, get your grubby little fingerprints all over my things, because everything has to be yours. You’re an invader.”
“I was invited,” Marzi insisted, pulling her calendar over her head and holding it forward. “God and Triluna gave this to me. It feels like the only advantage I’ve ever had, and it sucks too. Nobody here listens.”
“I don’t need to listen on matters of settled science,” Fertilica said. She moved to whip off her glasses dramatically, but had to reverse course when they pulled on the hair around her temples. “I’ll show you.” She practically flew to the other side of the cottage, to the cabinet that stood out the most by standing out the least. Where the others looked hand carved, this one appeared fresh off the some-assembly-required assembly line. It had no glass panels revealing its contents.
Fertilica pulled it open. Marzi saw stacks of stapled packets on modern white paper, and with the sight came the smell of a hot printer. While the witch rifled through them the girl took the liberty of leaping over to the workbench and silently snatching a few bottles. None of them were labeled with long flowing hair or an hourglass figure as far as she could tell, but of all things she’d never been picky. The otter dress had no pockets, so she put her calendar back on her shoulders, pulled its straps as tight as possible, and wedged the thinnest bottles between the wood and her back.
“Here!” the witch declared as she hauled out a stack big enough to print the bible on. It slammed onto a table, sending mice off into their holes in all directions. A few tiny doors slammed shut over them. There was the click of a tiny lock. Marzi faced her, spine stiff as a shovel so the pressure would keep the bottles in place and out of sight.
“A peer-reviewed sociological study of over a thousand transsexuals, documenting their mental illnesses and suicide rate. This is what you are. Some of the top doctors in the world worked on this.” Marzi waddled forward, close enough to see, but it was upside down and full of jargon she didn’t understand. Only one detail caught her eye.
“It says 1988 on it.”
“That was when the study was published.”
“That was like thirty years ago.” This caught Fertilica off guard, but only momentarily.
“Has it been that long? Time flies, in fact it circles overhead endlessly, when you’re in the Chrismon Tree. But it doesn’t matter. The data is right here.”
“I’m not here for data; I’m here for boobs and stuff.”
“You’re not interested at all in a document that tells you exactly what you’re doomed to be? This disproves you.”
“I’m not disproved; I’m right here!”
“Well obviously no peers reviewed you, so you’re hardly trustworthy,” Fertilica reasoned. A scaly screeching scheme hatched in her head. She sneered. “I’ll tell you what little Marzipan. We’ll have a contest.” The witch returned to the bland cabinet and brought out more packets, piling them atop the first study until she had a tower.
“What kind of contest?”
“A debate! We’ll invite saints and pagans alike. It will be me and these documents versus you and your dress. I’ll settle this issue for everyone, and finally get a little respect around here.”
“Everybody here hates me already. They’ll clap at everything you say no matter what I say,” the girl argued.
“Are you familiar with the work of the Home Free Institute?” Marzi stared sullenly. “It’s essential reading if you’re even going to think about calling yourself a transsexual.”
“I’m transformative,” Marzi repeated.
“What’s your genital configuration? Hopefully you don’t come from a time where people perform surgery on children.”
“That’s private,” Marzi said, only eighty percent sure she knew what ‘genital configuration’ meant.
“You’re walking around in a dress! You want people to look at you. The last thing you want is privacy. You want to flaunt your degeneracy in front of the whole world, so I’m giving you a chance. We’ll debate. How does tomorrow night sound? We’ll need a venue…”
“What happened to all the magic stuff you were talking about? You sounded fun before you got mad at me for being a kind of girl you don’t like. You said I shouldn’t limit myself.”
“Girls shouldn’t limit themselves! As a male you already live without limits, getting away with all sorts of dastardly behavior. It is allowed because you have a natural built-in limit. Men die earlier, from war and misadventure, from living too fast. Their purpose is to seed the next generation; it is that of women to raise them. You’re nothing more than a brief erection of bravado, flimsy and doomed to topple in an imminent and inevitable violent event!”
“I’m leaving,” Marzi spat, but she couldn’t storm off without the stolen bottles falling, so she had to shuffle backward, fists balled, staring venomously at the witch.
“You’ll be back tomorrow for the debate, yes? If you don’t show up it’s the same as admitting defeat. You’ll forfeit any respect the tree might give.” Fertilica’s glasses slipped off her nose and hung by her hair as she scanned the piles of documents. Her finger ran under several lines, searching for the perfect footnote to unravel her opponent’s identity. By the next time she looked up, Marzipan was gone.