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: 16 minutes)
On the Twelfth Day
Saint Kentigern was a bust, a bully of a man who did nothing but taunt, thinking it excused because he did so on his knees in endless prayer. His floor had been covered in scuff marks from the pads on his knees he used in place of shoes. With no need for a high ceiling he had lowered it to the point of discomfort for anyone standing at their full height. This forced his visitors to bow just for the privilege of being insulted.
Saint Macrina the Elder was no better. She lived in an opulent palace and passed judgment on her guests at no closer than thirty feet, claiming they had a cloud of sin about them that she did not want to contaminate her. Perhaps she had gotten the idea from Saint Perpetuus, or vice versa, as she spoke at a normal volume and could barely be heard at the enforced distance.
They would have made for two dispiriting days in a row, but they were visited on the same day, by a person bearing an Advent calendar. Langcorn’s back was sore from waddling around Kentigern’s. Marzipan’s face was red from shouting to the distant Macrina, who clearly feigned deafness.
Both left with drained hearts and heads hung, eyes following the cracks in the cobblestones. This was one of several alleys built atop the branches, the only signs of the tree being the needles above and the alley’s strangely winding path.
With half his doors darkened, Langcorn felt like garbage, expressing this feeling by leaning on a wall next to one of his new brethren: a dumpster. He expected a foul stench to commiserate with, but his nostrils were instead met by warmth, by vanilla, by cinnamon. Curious, he lifted the wicker lid and was taken aback.
Instead of sympathetic, floppy, rotten fish he saw a pillowy mound of baked goods, some of its peaks dusted with snowdrifts of powdered sugar. Trickling streams of honey and jam converged into glossy red pools. He thought them freshly discarded, but they’d actually been there for several days. The Chrismon Tree harbored no bacteria or other decomposing microorganisms, the only ones within its boughs those that the calendar wearers brought with them. So until it was taken away the bounty would remain as fresh and tasty as the moment it came out of the oven.
Langcorn scooped up several rolls and muffins and held them in his shirt, taking note of the cross patterns most were decorated with. Perhaps consuming blessed blintzes would improve his mood, and his godly aura among the saints. Before anyone had a chance to catch and berate him he went back out into the alley and walked toward the entry hall, munching on cinnamon raisin bread.
Marzi followed the scent subconsciously. She had a theory that smelling food was technically the same as eating it, just much less effective. After all, in order to smell a thing some of it had to go into her nose, and that minute amount stayed in her body, surely converted into nourishment. Sometimes just looking at food seemed to sate her appetite the tiniest amount, as the images became thoughts that tricked the body into thinking it had the food.
She was considering how long a person might survive on nothing but the pictures from a cookbook when someone shouted from a high window. They called her a freak, an arm briefly appearing to whip a steaming roasted chestnut at her head. It was headed straight for her eye, but a hand appeared above her and caught it.
“Ahch!” Langcorn hissed as he dropped the heated nut and shook his hand. “No more freakish than the person throwing things from on high!” he shouted at the window, but it was already closed.
“Thank you,” Marzi offered, staring at how strangely familiar he was. No horns. No wings. No halo. He was just a man, in strange clothes no doubt, but not strange like the saints’. Langcorn turned, seeing her for the first time.
“Oh, hello little girl.” Her eyes lit up. His words stung her heart and scorched its edges. At home all she had to do was keep quiet, keep her femininity outside under a rock like the house key, and Mom would never bring it up. Being in the tree, having to constantly defend herself, had turned her feelings to leather, but Langcorn’s acknowledgment shredded it.
He didn’t even know why he addressed her as such. Her hair was short, she had on pants, there was no powder or rouge upon her cheeks, but something about the way she stood, and the way the corners of her eyes directed the rest of her face, convinced him. When he saw her tears well up he thought he had erred. He opened his mouth to incorrectly correct himself, but she didn’t let him get there.
“Yes hello!” she blurted. “Thank you for catching it.”
“Honestly I thought it was being thrown at me! It wouldn’t be the first time in this mad place.” He noticed her Advent calendar. “You’re like me! You’re the first one I’ve seen. Tell me, how goes the patron search?”
“Yes, as am I.” He leaned down to whisper. “Some of these characters seem quite insane, which I suppose should be expected of people living up a tree.”
“I know, right!? One of them tried to take my skin off.” Marzi’s most vocal element hadn’t introduced itself yet, so it interrupted her. The growl of her stomach gave itself many honorifics, going on for several seconds.
“My name is Langcorn by the by. Would you like something to eat?” he asked, picking out a muffin coated in glittering cinnamon sugar and holding it out to her.
“I’m Marzipan. I can’t,” she admitted as the scent of the bread took over her head. “My calendar says I can’t eat anything in the tree or I have to leave. Do you have a rule like that?”
“I do. I’m not permitted to touch anyone, of my own volition, or I face the same consequence. But… if you can’t eat here why didn’t you eat something before you came in? Someone as young as you needs plenty of food so you can grow.”
“I did eat,” Marzi insisted. “I had two sugar packets.” She looked around; they seemed completely alone. “Can I ask where you got all that food?” He offered to do her one better by showing her. Together they walked down the alley and into the alcove with the dumpster. He lifted the lid to show her, startled when she immediately clambered inside like a raccoon. The girl rolled around in the bakery runoff. She grabbed a pretzel roll and smelled it like she was eating it, turning it over and over in her hands to sniff at spots her skin hadn’t touched yet.
Langcorn folded his limbs in order to get in alongside her and closed the lid. Light came through the wicker above, covering them in a handwoven blanket of shadows. Given her restriction, he thought it rude to eat in her presence, so he dumped the food back into the rest as if releasing fish back to a pond.
He asked her if food was in short supply where she came from. Marzi answered in the negative, insisting there was plenty but that her picky stomach didn’t allow her to take full advantage.
“The stupid thing won’t even let me eat moss without getting sick.”
“Moss? Perhaps the pagan creatures eat moss, but I wouldn’t call that a fit food.”
“Why not? It’s green, so it’s just a vegetable. Like really short lettuce. It’s probably full of vitamins, and there’s a ton of it where I live.” She shook her spine, nestling into the mound. Her arms swept sweet buns and biscuits over her chest and lap as she tucked herself into a toasty crusty embrace. She closed her eyes and smiled, even as her stomach loudly demanded she handle the food properly.
“The real picky ones are whoever threw away all this perfectly good food,” Langcorn commented.
“I think it was made for me,” Marzi said, pointing at all the crosses cut into the bread. “These two saint ladies tried to trick me into eating it so I would have to leave. They said it was communion so it didn’t count.”
“How nefarious,” he growled. “It’s one thing for me to be treated this way, but a little girl like you? Unconscionable. There’s something very wrong with this tree.” He joined her in the bakery bath, pulling a layer over his legs and pushing them so deep his feet hit the bottom. He was prepared to linger there all day, cozy with an understanding ear. Even if she had nothing else to say her stomach would make better conversation than the residents of the tree.
“Is there like… something they don’t like about you?” Marzi asked after a silent minute. “They gave me a calendar because no god ever paid attention to me even though I wanted them to, but now that I’m here they still don’t want to. They all have the same reason for not liking me.”
“And what is that?” Marzi braced herself. As soon as he was sure he would leave, maybe even knock the dumpster over and say she wasn’t good enough to root around in god’s refuse. It had to be done though. Fertilica was out there, having declared victory when she didn’t submit herself to public scrutiny. Someone had to counter that.
“Have you ever heard of a person being trans?” Langcorn shook his head. “That’s what I am. It means that your soul is different from your body. My body is all boyish, but I’m actually a girl.”
“I see,” Langcorn said, tapping his chin with a wafer cookie. “I thought you were a tomboy.” He saw Marzi tilt her head. “That’s when a girl runs around wearing boys’ clothes and playing boys’ games. They are often chastised for this. I never understood it myself, but perhaps it’s because I don’t have any children of my own.”
“The people here don’t think I’m a girl, even though god or Triluna had to make me this way. They think I’m gross, or stupid, and that’s why none of them want to be my patron. So is there a reason they’re not picking you?”
“Yes. They have the same attitude as the people of my town. They don’t like that I fall in love with other men instead of women.”
“Oh you’re gay.”
“Normally, yes, but I don’t feel very gay now.” Marzi thought the phrasing odd, but then she remembered that particular word used to mean ‘happy’ a long time ago. She glanced at the parts of his clothing that weren’t buried in bread. He looked a little like one of the people on the cover of a book she had to read back when she was in school: Johnny Tremain.
“This might be a weird question… but what year is it where you’re from?”
“Oh my gosh. I’m from 2020. When I go home you’ll be dead, like hundreds of years dead.”
“I remember now,” Langcorn said, rummaging through his early memories of the tree. “Someone told me that this place was timeless, and that there was a little b- child from 2020 who had a calendar too. That must be you. Tell me, what is the world like in that distant future? The crown hasn’t tried to take us back have they?”
“Do you mean England?” He nodded. “No, they can’t do anything. They just keep getting smaller. We got really big. There are fifty states now.”
“Fifty!” Langcorn gasped. “How does one fit so many!? Are some of them underground!?”
“No,” she giggled. “It’s coast to coast, and two more places that aren’t even attached. A lot of stuff has happened. There’s no more slavery. We kind of fought each other over that; it was called the Civil War. Then a bunch of stuff got invented. We have machines that do almost everything now, and you can talk to people on the other side of the world the same as we are in this dumpster.”
“Incredible,” he muttered. “Yet… there must still be problems. You are here after all.”
“Yeah, everybody’s got problems. I need to get these things called hormones so I can turn my body into a girl like my soul, but I don’t really know how to get them. I really thought the pagans would help me, but they think I’m faking it.”
“How foolish,” Langcorn spat. “I can see the honesty in your eyes. Could you imagine being so silly? They run around saying the moon is a woman, a woman is a goddess, and a pile of rocks and sticks is magic, but a girl can’t look like a boy. No, that would just be a step too far! Ha! Hahahaha!”
“Yeah, ha! It is stupid!” She threw herself into laughter alongside him, rolling around, crusts cracking and crackling under her. She laughed so hard that her lungs wound up as empty as her stomach, her face deep red.
“Never trust a person with a small imagination. Anything off their front step is heresy.” He looked at her calendar when she rolled onto her stomach. He saw her darkened doors, numbering the same as his own, igniting an idea. “Say, would you be interested in risking our place here in order to make it much more enjoyable?” She stopped and sat up with folded legs, hands around her ankles cutely, as if waiting for a campfire story.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve noticed that the doors go out after each visit?” A nod. “To me that suggests the calendar is the record of our journey, which further suggests it might be the record of everything about us here. The calendar tracks whether or not we follow our restrictions.”
“If it monitors whoever is wearing it, perhaps we could just switch. I’ll put on yours and you mine. We have the same number of days left, so it’s fair. If I’m right, I’ll be able to touch people and you’ll be able to eat without consequence.”
“But if you’re wrong we have to leave, and no one will ever care for us.”
“That is the problem, but I grow weary of these games. I say it’s worth the risk. Why don’t we swap, and I’ll test it first, since these ‘hormones’ that you need sound harder to get a hold of than anything I want.” Marzi looked apprehensive, but was forced to agree by the scents they were submerged in. Carefully she took off the calendar’s straps, even though she’d happily rolled onto her back just moments ago.
Langcorn did the same; they exchanged their decorative planks. Both shook their shoulders to test them. They felt the same, looked the same. Langcorn lifted his hands wordlessly. Marzipan crawled forward and sat on her knees in front of him, presenting her upper arms for him to touch. He warned her not to touch him back.
“Here goes Christmas!” he said as he clapped both hands around her biceps and held them there. They both braced for an alarm, or for the candle flames in the calendar chimneys to engulf them, or for armored riot cherubs to rip the top off and dump them into the street, but none of that happened. Just to make sure friction wasn’t the catalyst, Langcorn rubbed the sides of her arms like he was shining a pot. Still nothing.
They waited another thirty seconds in silence, not even a footstep beyond their hideout. He turned so Marzipan could examine her former calendar. All the lights were still in the right places. The chimneys still smoked. She turned so he could examine the other. All appeared well.
Before he could suggest it had worked Marzi had already buried her head in bread. She came back up with cheeks full to bursting, breath barely finding room to whistle out of her nose. The girl ate like it was her purpose and she was behind schedule. She ate like every morsel was a cursed villain that might turn back to human form if left untouched for a minute too many. Langcorn wasn’t sure how she could even swallow any of it, her face taken over by a compacted plug of bread and sugar that seemed only to grow.
He waited patiently for her to have her fill, though she didn’t stop until she had a whole family’s worth of fills. With a painfully bloated stomach that couldn’t puncture her euphoric delirium, she fell back into the mound and moved just enough to make a snow angel in the powdered sugar.
“Just remember that you have my restriction now,” he said. “It’s fine if people touch you, but you can’t deliberately touch them. And I,” he looked around as if just realizing what he’d done, “can’t eat anything… is that right?”
“Or drink,” Marzi added as she sucked the golden apple jelly out of a pastry. Her eyes rolled up into her head as if possessed, tilting and falling back again. “Mr. Langcorn… nobody’s ever made me as happy as you just did.” The statement struck him. His act had been so simple, but then again so too had the acts of the running satyr. The creature had just asked for them to run together. That meant everyone had such weak points, small and particular kindnesses that could make them crumble, ticklish spots on the Achilles heel.
“I’m glad. We shouldn’t let this happiness go. We’re in the same boat, so why shouldn’t each of us take an oar? We have been going in circles without each other it seems. What do you say, little Marzipan?
“You want to look for patrons together?” His confidence in the idea was only growing, so he affirmed it with even more zeal than he suggested it. “We could meet each other in Saint Perpetuus’s place every morning and leave from there. You touch anyone we might need to touch and I’ll eat anyone we need to eat!”
“Any thing we need to eat.”
“Uhuh.” They couldn’t shake on their deal, so instead they broke bread. Marzi ate both halves.