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 Thirteenth Day
The centerpiece of the smugglers’ den was a tall stove of black iron with a bulbous base and clawed feet. Its top disappeared into the twisting tree roots of the low ceiling, but it must not have gone very far, given that curling fingers of smoke still slipped into view. The stove’s door hung open, waves of sweltering heat and orange glow filling the pocket of dirt.
It couldn’t be called a cave, because the whole world around them was the Chrismon Tree, and there was not enough natural rock anywhere to make up the walls. The compacted dirt under them was rough and had an unnatural color, so Marzi and Langcorn guessed it was mostly dust scraped from the saints’ homes. It must have taken a century to gather that much, and all to simulate the sensation of being secluded in a rudimentary burrow.
The creatures were not forthcoming with their origin, but the humans guessed they had been born of the tree itself, perhaps as a result of the blood coursing under its bark. They were diminutive, several inches shorter than Marzi on average, though some were so small they could hang as pendants around the necks of the others.
Their bodies were made of gnarled dry wood, as if every inch of growth had been indecisive chaos between root, stump, and twig. They had two arms and two legs, but that was an oversimplification. Each limb was several pieces twisted together, and some had become untwisted and now hung off shoulders, sides, or hips, bouncing whenever they moved.
Only the eyes gave them any semblance of actual life, set deep in asymmetrical cracks on the lumps that sat where heads should be. They were bright red and glossy, but the gloss was less like tears and more like the surface of a stagnant pond. One of them opened its hatchet-hack of a mouth.
“We can do anything,” it claimed in a voice like a bundle of sticks dropped into a campfire.
“Can you do… a wedding cake?” Marzi asked, eager to see, and perhaps taste, a demonstration. She could stand, but the enclosed space forced Langcorn to sit beside her, knees scrunched up near his chin. They were surrounded by the creatures on all sides, but by his estimation they could fight their way out pretty easily if necessary. While he’d never combated driftwood directly it still never gave off a threatening aura.
“We can do anything alive,” the splintering creature elaborated.
“Okay, show me a duck.”
“Easy. I’ve got this one mates,” another one of them said, emerging from behind its brethren. Its body tightened up and fell over, looking like a walking stick. Then the stick quaked, shortening as it deformed. The creaking mass of wood grew two little feet and a head at one end. Its red eyes popped open, but they were very small now and they quickly faded to black. Tan bark shifted to colorful feathers and pale orange feet. It waddled around and quacked, waving its tail feathers in Marzi’s face.
“Bravo,” Langcorn praised, applauding. “I assume the ducks in 2020 look the same way.”
“Exactly,” she assured him. “Now do a lemur.” Another one crawled over the others and clattered as a stick on the floor. The end became a tail. It sprouted white and black fur. When its transformation was complete it picked up the duck and waved it around, screeching.
“Now do a-”
“We’ve demonstrated plenty,” one of them barked. “You can see we are as we say: changelings.”
“In the stories I’ve heard about you there’s always children going missing,” Langcorn mentioned. “Fairies steal them away and replace them with one of you. The fairies get a child to raise as one of their own, but what is it that you fellows get out of the arrangement? Free food? Maternal love?”
“We like breaking their hearts,” one of them said with a wicked creaking grin that drooled sawdust. “You should see their faces when they realize they’ve been taking care of one of us, sometimes for ten years. It’s like this.” The changeling’s face swelled and contorted, a long crop of hair growing from the top. “Oh god my baby!” it screamed in a woman’s voice. The others cackled, some fusing their legs and bouncing up and down in their own form of applause.
“That’s awfully cruel,” Langcorn pointed out.
“Because they’re cruel to us,” a changeling defended. “We break a lot less heart than they do heartwood. You people chop up trees everyday, burn them up to heat your soup.”
“You don’t even need soup,” one of the smallest ones hanging around the neck of another creaked. “You can live just fine with bread and rainwater. If you get the luxury of hot food we get the luxury of you making stupid grieving faces.” The agreement was universal among them. “Besides, that’s not why we’re here. We want to work for you. So what do you say to our proposal?”
The two humans conferred in whispers between their cupped hands, and for quite some time, which made it all the more impressive when they came out of the meeting just as confused as ever.
“So you guys want to be my patron?” Marzi asked to clarify.
“You’re still young, we can still do you,” one of them claimed, pointing a knobby finger at her. “Him, he’s too big. There’s never been a changeling log before. Only sticks.”
“Alas, my search continues,” Langcorn sighed.
“So, as my patrons, what would you do for me?” the girl asked.
“Well we hear things,” said one with big peels of bark that looked like bat ears. “As we understand it, you’re having some trouble with your mother. Bad mothers are our specialty. So one of us could take your place, go live in your home. You can stay here, hiding, even after your calendar runs out. That’s a good deal right?”
“Mom’s not bad,” Marzi defended reflexively. “She’s just not very nice or smart. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”
“Right, because she chose to make you the way you are,” one of them scoffed. “Definitely whittled you into this shape deliberately, didn’t just stand there scowling as you grew zigging and zagging instead of straight.” The ziggers and zaggers among the changelings agreed most vociferously.
“Is it enough?” Langcorn interrupted. “All of this so you sneaky twigs can upset the woman?”
“Well first we get to see her mom make a stupid face,” the tallest one, nearly as high as a broomstick, said. “Then, when she chops up her kid we’ll reclaim what’s left, bring it back here, and send them off to their peaceful end.” It banged on the side of the furnace.
“You end up burning anyway? You won’t do it for soup but you’ll do it to make mothers cry?”
“When we burn ourselves we do it when we want to. It’s better than decomposing.” It saw Langcorn’s skeptical look. “Would you want to slowly fall apart, getting squishier all the time and growing mushrooms out of your eye sockets?”
“No, I suppose not,” the man admitted.
“Plus, we want some respect around here,” another changeling added. “We’re not just tools. We can scheme too. If we’re a patron they have to take us seriously. We can torture people just as well as they do, better even. Our shtick is way more convincing.” The others laughed at the joke.
“You’re good at ducks and lemurs, but I’m a lot harder,” Marzi insisted. “Show me that you can do me.” One of them was happy to oblige. It thinned to its walking stick form, but didn’t fall over. Instead its base split in half and bent to form knees. Arms broke away in a similar fashion, splinters becoming chopsticks becoming fingers. Marzi squealed in delight as she saw her face grow as figurehead, finally knowing what it would look like if someone loved her so much that they put her on the front of a masted ship.
As the color lightened to flesh, clothing appeared as well. The eyes, complete with lashes, opened and blinked. Blinked. They definitely blinked. That wasn’t right, she thought. She knew how her own eyes moved in the mirror, how they felt. Her eyes fluttered, sometimes awkwardly like a wet butterfly, but always a flutter.
That wasn’t the only issue. The clothes didn’t match what she was wearing. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but the changeling’s outfit wasn’t something she would choose to wear, even among her extremely limited wardrobe back home that technically could fit in a single wardrobe drawer.
The changeling’s expression was alien as well, somewhere between smugness and boredom. Marzi rarely got bored. There was always something missing, or something to find, or something to run from. Her mind could never stand that still. If it had, she was certain she would be long dead already.
“See, you did it wrong,” she said. “That doesn’t look anything like me.” Langcorn looked at her. He too sensed a difference, but nothing he could concretely state. As far as physical features went the two children were identical.
“Oh, it looks perfect,” the one that looked like Marzi claimed in a voice like hers but snottier. “You just don’t like the sway.”
“You know, how branches in the wind look the same but don’t sway exactly the same. We need a different sway in this situation because we want to convince your mom that her kid has been fixed by the love of Jesus. We want her affection for you to grow until it is at its maximum. That’s when we pull the rug out from under her.”
“What’s wrong with my sway?” she asked defensively.
“We don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” the changeling said for its kin, “but your mom does. She hates that you’re pretending to be a girl.”
“I’m not pretending. I am a girl, right Langcorn?”
“Not a doubt in my mind,” he agreed. “You wouldn’t get a calendar over a game of pretend. From what I gather these things are only for the most profoundly unfair situations, so I must infer your truth is profound.” He spoke louder for all the changelings to hear. “Marzipan is a girl.”
“We’re all friends here,” the Marzi changeling conciliated. “You don’t need to be that way with us. There’s nothing wrong with playing pretend. We do it all the time. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter if you are or not. Your mother wants a son that acts like a son. So that’s what we’ll give her. Say hello to Mars.” It twirled around and stuck its hands in its pockets, as if striking a pose after a dance routine.
“I already said goodbye,” Marzi seethed. “You can’t do that. That’s not me.”
“My name’s Mars,” it went on, ignoring her. “I like football and breaking things made of glass and pulling girls’ pigtails.” It laughed with a laugh that wasn’t hers. It strutted back and forth, its gait only stoking her fire, putting the actual furnace to shame.
“Stop it,” she ordered, but the creatures were enjoying themselves too much. Another Mars face appeared in the bundle of them, then another, and another. The burrow filled with crackles as they all became her distorted mirror image. The original Mars was quickly lost among them. They laughed and roughhoused, the smallest ones hanging from the earlobes of the largest, swinging and kicking their legs. “Stop it!”
“No!” several of them spat back, laughing at her. She was on her feet without realizing it, boiling bubbles of rage popping under her, moving one foot and then the other. She pushed a false Mars into some of the others, but it bounced right back and pushed her in turn. Langcorn wanted to intercede, but he was having trouble crawling forward thanks to the low ceiling. By the time he scurried to her she was already in the thick of them, grabbing ears and ripping them off like corn husks. It was lucky the wooden imitations didn’t seem to count as living things, otherwise Langcorn’s calendar upon her back might have protested touching them.
“Oh sweet Triluna! Look at her face! She’s so mad!” one of them mocked, laughing uproariously even as she painlessly tore off a patch of its hair. It stuck its tongue out at her and kicked at her shins. She felt all the pain they couldn’t, but her anger was far beyond it, her face redder than it had ever been, to the absolute delight of the changelings.
“I’m Mars! I hate dolls and witches and pink things! I’m going to grow up to be a car driver!” They didn’t seem to understand exactly what a human career entailed, but Marzipan felt the sting of their intent all the same. She held her forearms up and pushed into as many of them as she could.
They were much flimsier than they looked, many audibly bending at the ankles as she forced her way deeper. One in the back stumbled and fell into the open furnace. Its impetuous boy legs flailed and kicked as the rest caught fire, but the creature was laughing the whole time.
“Forget her mom; she’s just as good!” one of them cackled, showing no concern for the kin that had become tinder. Marzi spotted an ax leaning against the furnace, perhaps meant to chop the tallest in two so they could fit inside. She snatched its handle from between her own ankles and swung, cleaving several Mars from their feet. The severed soles and toes hopped around on their own, like corn popping.
They couldn’t defend themselves, too paralyzed with cruel glee. The collective echoing laugh that wasn’t hers put Marzi somewhere deep inside herself. The blazing anger, the burning acid in her arms as she swung, were just the firing of the outer defense systems. It was all automatic. The real Marzi was running away from her crimson face into the darkness of her spirit, looking for a place to be alone, a place where she could shout out who she was and never hear the contradictory echo.
She was dangerous with that ax, so Langcorn backed up to a wall and waited it out. This poor child, he thought. How could the world of 2020 be less understanding than his own? There was an itch on his lower back, and by the time he had scratched enough to soothe it Marzipan’s rampage was complete. There wasn’t a single Mars left intact.
He was able to deduce which pieces of her body she hated the most by what she burned first, picking out the hips and waists and tossing them to the flames. The laughter faded as the last severed head lost whatever energy allowed the changelings to imitate being properly alive. He didn’t know if he should help her, choosing silence instead, a significant burden for him.
They turned to ash with unnatural speed, so it didn’t take long for her to clear the burrow. The smoke was thick and hazy around their heads, prompting a few coughs. That was when he spoke up, suggesting they leave.
“I’m hungry,” Marzipan said once they had lungs full of clean alpine air. “I want soup.”