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 Sixteenth Day
A portion of the tree was dyed deeply red, making it visible from a great distance. Marzipan and Langcorn journeyed there to learn what caused it, finding the Diocese of Bloodletting, a magnificent stone building, the exterior of which was covered in large sluices that ran crimson with a seemingly endless flow of the Chrismon Tree’s blood.
It roared as they drew nearer, but that roar became like silence. It devoured the sound of gentle wind through the fields of pine needles. It so muffled their words that they had to point where they wanted to head rather than tell each other. There wasn’t much for it to take beyond that, as those branches felt abandoned.
Not so much as a pagan mosquito crossed their path on the way to the stone steps at the foot of the building. There was no saint or cherub to greet them, but also no chains barring entry, so it was one of the nicest welcomes they’d received.
As they ascended they saw one of the sources of the tree’s injury: a great curved metal spike. It was embedded in the bark by nails the size of redwoods. Blood spilled forth from the puncture, a wound held open by a never-retracting cat claw. Yellow sap foam jiggled in frothy banks at its sides, but the flow itself was nothing but familiar red. Marzi wandered over to the edge of one of the swirling reservoirs of the stuff after they’d finished climbing the many steps. She dipped her finger in and tasted it. Her eyes lit up. She skipped back to Langcorn, urging him to lean down so she could shout in his ear.
“It tastes like maple syrup! But mostly blood!” He didn’t think this was particularly interesting or good news, but her giant grin indicated otherwise. He followed as she scampered deeper into the stone hall. The tributaries grew smaller, and the thick walls and columns started absorbing the din outside. They could talk normally once again.
“What reason could they possible have for hurting the tree so?” he wondered aloud.
“Pagans and saints both really like blood,” Marzi explained. “I don’t know why; it’s just food.”
“It’s not really food dear.”
“Yes it is. Blood sausages. I’ve heard of those. And when people eat a red steak it’s red because there’s blood in it. It’s just like… body broth!” Rather than respond to that Langcorn pointed out the pipes overhead, many of which had glass sections showing the flow of the blood as it was redirected.
They followed one deep into the diocese, to a place of round pools that were currently empty. Dried blood was caked and browned over their interiors, but they could still make out the shapes of benches and single seats within.
“They’re like bowls full of scabs!” Marzi said as if she’d discovered a den of baby bunnies. She got on her stomach and scratched at the side of one until she pulled off a flat chunk the size of a chessboard. She held it up to the light from the quintuple-layered stained glass windows, which shone through it with a sickening swirl of color like amber, desert grit, and spit all mixed together.
“Please Marzipan!” He looked away. The stench of blood saturated his nose and his empty stomach. “Don’t play with such things.”
“You ever wonder why religions love blood so much, but not scabs?” she asked. “Like, if a person bleeds but they’re not hurt it’s a miracle. Or blood can be sacrificed to a god. But nobody cares about mystery scabs showing up, and nobody sacrifices big piles of scabs. It’s all the same stuff.” She did a few experimental twists, and then threw the plate of dried blood like a discus. It sailed away gracefully and disappeared behind a column.
“I suppose it’s because blood is less gross,” Langcorn guessed. “We just assume that whatever gods are out there, they share our distaste for such things. That’s why there will never be a god of pus or bile.”
“Or armpit hair.”
“Yes, or that. I think we should leave Marzi. There’s nothing for us here. Let’s just let this wound stay a mystery.” He turned to leave, only to stall at the sight of a man in long robes of pale blue with red trim. He was around Langcorn’s age, with the eyes of a frightened deer and the nervous hands of an accountant handling dirty money. In those hands he held the large scab Marzi had tossed.
“Oh, good heavens, what are you two doing here?” he gasped.
“We didn’t mean to intrude,” Langcorn offered. He was undercut by Marzi ripping another scab out of a pool and pulling it to see how far its whitish parts would unfurl before breaking. “My name is Langcorn and this is Marzip-”
“Yes I know who you are!” he interrupted. “You’re the calendar folk running around disturbing everybody, and now you’ve come to disturb me.” His distress was obvious, but Langcorn couldn’t sense any hostility. The man rushed around him at a wide angle, looking away, over to Marzipan. He took the fresher scab from her and threw both of them back into the pool, ordering her not to touch the tree’s holy effluence.
“Oh like you were using it,” Marzi spat, sticking her tongue out at him. She grew more petulant with each rejection, and it might have caused the saint to scold her further, but he was disturbed by the dark red of her tongue, wholly unwilling to ask if she’d drunk from the tree’s wound.
“I don’t want any trouble is all,” he said, defeated. “I am Saint Wulfram of Fontenelle, invoked against the dangers of the sea.”
“The sea of blood?” Langcorn questioned.
“Well there isn’t a proper sea in the tree, so these red rivers are the closest they could give me,” he said indignantly.
“Tell us, what is the purpose of torturing the tree this way? Why not let it heal?”
“It’s not torture! Its blood has many uses in ritual, and it is occasionally analyzed for signs of illness by saints with medical focus. In addition, we let its blood run to keep it from growing further.”
“Why would you want to do that?” Wulfram clearly didn’t want to answer the question, but when he turned around Marzipan was right at his feet, staring up at him with eyes so wide that they frightened him. He tried to step back, but that would’ve meant a fall into a scabby pit.
“It’s… It’s so we don’t get any more of you.”
“What’s wrong with us?” Marzi asked. “We’re super nice,” she said through gritted teeth and with clenched fists.
“I’m sure y-you are,” Wulfram stammered as he slipped out and gave himself some room. “The Chrismon Tree was grown to accommodate you. Advent calendars are carved from its heartwood, and only so much can be taken each year for that purpose. If the tree were bigger, there would be more calendars.”
“I don’t understand,” Langcorn said. “Would that not be good? More people could find their patrons.”
“This place is a seed of mercy,” the saint explained, “but it’s really best kept hobbled to a sprout. The calendars show that god’s representative Prester John and the pagan beast Triluna care about you, despite the failings of church structure… but… you have your own failings that are deeper than their mercy.”
“Are you saying the calendars don’t work?”
“Rarely they do, but we can’t be expected to exert every effort on lost causes. It’s tiring, especially when you have to do it for eternity. We bleed the tree so there aren’t more of you, so there’s less disappointment in the end.”
“You could just not disappoint us,” Marzipan suggested with crossed arms.
“That would require us to turn little boys into little girls, which we don’t do!” Wulfram shouted at her.
“Excuse me!” Langcorn said, asserting himself, puffing out his chest like a hot air balloon. He walked right up to the man, cornering him without any corners nearby. “We are as we were made! These calendars give us the right to be here, to have your help, no matter how much you try to limit them. This tree is for us! You are in our employ!”
“Okay!” Wulfram conceded, cowering. “Just don’t touch me!” Langcorn deflated somewhat. He looked into the man’s eyes, seeing something. Back in his time, in his humble village, he never noticed his particular power of observation, but this was the second time it had triggered since finding himself in the Chrismon Tree. The first was Marzipan, and now the pale blue saint before him. Langcorn recognized the fear in his expression, the default lump ready to jump into the throat at a moment’s notice. The fear that his identity would be discerned and that he would finally lose his corners and fall through the round hole beneath him.
“You don’t believe what you just said,” he accused the saint. It wasn’t immediately denied, which was all the confirmation Langcorn needed. “I’d very much like to see what you do here Wulfram, when nobody is watching you.” He relaxed deliberately, allowing the saint to see the rise and fall of his chest, the quiver in his throat, and the flutter in the delicate skin under his wrists.
“I… I have a boat,” the saint offered, surprising himself.
“Take me aboard,” Langcorn requested. “Show me your sights. Just the two of us.”
“What about your friend?”
“Oh I’ll be fine,” Marzipan assured him, eyes darting to every scab and trickle in the grand place. “You guys have fun; I’ll wait here.”
“You’re not going to do anything to the wound or the effluence are you?” Wulfram asked her.
“Nope.” The saint somehow sensed many more words in that one, but Langcorn’s hand was on his shoulder, pushing gently. Together they ascended more stairs, Marzi and the scabbed pools disappearing behind them. Wulfram finally took the initiative and set their path, taking them to a rectangular basin, the largest built structure Langcorn had ever seen, several times the size of anything that existed in his own year.
It was filled by a lake of the blood, a waterfall at one end. The yellow foam, with a smell of sweet iron, dotted all edges. A light layered scabbing, where waves had briefly overflowed and been drawn back in, surrounded it. The stuff crackled under their feet as they came closer. Langcorn could see a single vessel out in it, a mast with no sails that had been converted into a cross.
“This is him,” Wulfram said softly. He waved. The boat, seemingly unmanned, turned and headed towards them.
“He is a beautiful vessel,” Langcorn complimented. He waited. They were alone. The air was open now, no muskets to shoot down anything that might take flight from them.
“He has performed many of the miracles attributed to me. No matter the weather, no matter how many ships sank around us, I always made it to shore.”
“I’m sure your contributions matched his.”
“There was this one time, this one miracle…” Saint Wulfram admitted as his vessel neared. “There was a young boy, and he had accidentally swallowed a sharp brass pin. His family came to me for aid. I told them I knew nothing of medicine or foreign bodies in the stomach. They said it didn’t matter.
‘You know the safest path through all the waters of the world,’ they told me, ‘just as you found your way to our shore unharmed. The body is full of waters. The stomach is a sea, the intestines rivers. Guide the pin as you would your ship. Bring it safely out.’
The boy laid down in front of me and removed his shirt. I couldn’t see anything, and god did not show me his interior. Without any sign of what to do I put my finger under his ribs, pressed against his skin, and traced a path as best I could, based on anatomy texts I’d seen. He never twitched or cried out.
When I reached the soft skin beneath his navel I felt that the voyage was over, and I retreated. The ship always coasts the last leg on its own, impregnated by your forward will up until that point. Moments later he got up from the table and went to relieve himself. He came back with the pin. Not a spot of blood on it. Not a pain anywhere in him. I actually did it. I saved him from a most painful death, a gushing wound he would never be able to staunch himself.”
“Pity you couldn’t save the Chrismon Tree from the same fate.” It came off harsher than intended, so they stood in silence until the boat came within reach of the scabby shore. Wulfram climbed aboard and assisted Langcorn in doing the same. It immediately departed again. Langcorn waited patiently for them to be so in the middle of it that they could not go ashore quickly; then he spoke. “The smell is potent. Do you think perhaps we could go below decks?”
The saint obliged. The cabin was much more pleasant, smelling of sandalwood and olive oil. There was a table and a bed, the latter perfectly made. Langcorn sat on the table’s edge and tucked his long legs under, making his head level with the shorter man’s.
“This is the cabin where I was kept safe, as god steered this vessel across the sea dozens of times. It is where I most feel my faith because, even in storms that shredded the sky, I felt completely safe in here. Nothing bad can happen in here; he wouldn’t allow it.” Wulfram’s breath caught as he felt something. He looked down. Langcorn’s hands were on his waist. Resting gently.
“This is happening here,” he reasoned. “So it must be good then.”
“What are you doing!?”
“I will stop, if that’s what you want, but I see your truth. You are alone here, so very alone. The others want you to be that way don’t they? They stranded you on an island in this sea of blood, where the tree licks its wound. They’re ashamed of you.” Wulfram’s fingers touched the back of Langcorn’s hands to push them away, but they didn’t get that far. Instead they pressed, compressing their heats together, a rush like steam traveling through an empty sleeve.
“None of them will say anything of it, but they know,” the saint said bitterly, softly, like the skin of a bruised plum tearing. All at once he gave in, collapsing against Langcorn, cheek pressing into his chest. “They know I am a sinner.”
“God knows too,” Langcorn whispered, “yet this vessel is still safe from the storm. He’s not upending us and drowning us.” The saint looked around. Everything creaked only as it always had.
“Can it be? Can it truly be that this is not forbidden?” His hand slid around the back of Langcorn’s head, fingers splitting up and journeying into his hair, mapping the forest of follicles. They kissed experimentally. The sea of blood did not swallow them in a viscous bubble. “It must be good then.”
They moved to the bed. Forged a new faith in it. Each could keep it to remind them of the other, like a pendant around the neck that weighed nothing. Wulfram’s ship rocked more than it had in the worst maelstrom, but they still reached their destination unharmed. Wulfram reached it twice.
In the afterglow of their union the saint offered to be Langcorn’s patron, but he did not accept. They were equals, living the same life, and so it was unfair for one to have to safeguard the other. They faced the same dangers, and with the same grace. Instead Langcorn told him that if there was ever a time that the tree was healed, that the saint was no longer stranded on a deserted island, they could be united in more than patronage.
It bruised Langcorn’s soul deeply to leave without proposing much more, like marriage. Like a lifetime of running beside each other. Like perpetually staring into each other’s eyes the way Marzipan stared at a Christmas ham.
The boat took them back to the stone and they disembarked, careful not to be close now that any eyes could be watching. If they were watching closely they would see anyway, for Wulfram couldn’t help but shed tears as they said goodbye. They weren’t like the red tributaries around them; he couldn’t just pull a lever, turn a pipe, and take them back. They were falling. When they struck the ground they were sensed by those that monitored him, and for that he cried even more.
Langcorn found Marzipan near the entrance, slumped against the stone wall of a reservoir. Her lips were red, her stomach swollen. She stood up and tottered to his side.
“I drank too much blood,” she admitted.
“Do you need to vomit?”
“Like I’d waste it.” Together, slowly, they descended the steps.
Long after they’d left, Saint Wulfram stood at the end of a wading pool of Chrismon blood, in the deepest darkest part of his lonely diocese. He removed his robe, standing in his underthings, opening himself to the judgment. He scratched his side. It didn’t take long for a figure cloaked in black to emerge from the shadows, hood pulled over his eyes, hands lost in giant joined sleeves.
“You have sinned,” the figure said with a voice deeper than the oldest cavern.
“I have sinned,” Wulfram agreed without turning to look at his visitor.
“For man to lie with man is an abomination. Your failures reflect on the tree. God may chop us down because of you. Prester John may throw you from the highest bough. You could land down on Earth, live and die as a mortal all over again. You would not be canonized this time.”
“I would no longer die on the Chrismon Tree’s vine.”
“What was that?”
“You must repent and do penance. First, be cleansed. Baptize yourself in the blood of the saints that came before. Feel their devotion.” Saint Wulfram took the first step into the deepening red. When it was around his waist he crouched and leaned back, submerged completely. The men of the past, all sniffs and magnifying glasses, invaded his nose and mouth, looking for signs of Langcorn’s kiss so they could be righteously disgusted. They owned him; his body was their property. When he passed he wouldn’t be a corpse, just relics waiting for a yard sale.
He scratched his side, not knowing what was dislodged and taken into the blood pipes as a result. Marzipan had ringworm, and she had it bad, sometimes feeding it like a pet since she wasn’t allowed a proper one, smearing condiments under bandages meant to conceal it. Her calendar, coming from the tree grown of bones, was part man. The spores were happy to transfer to it. And again to Langcorn when they switched calendars. And again to Wulfram from him when they fell in the love they made. And back into the tree’s grieving fissure.