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: 13 minutes)
On the Seventeenth Day
They were hoping to see some giant birds, as that was what one would assume lived inside a giant bird’s nest, but it had fallen out of use. The closest thing they could find were shards of speckled eggshell. It looked as if it should have been filled with cobwebs, but the pagan spiders of the tree probably had cozy little homes of their own, perhaps palm-sized cottages hanging from single threads like ornaments.
Still, the nest made an excellent place to lounge and rest while Marzipan and Langcorn worked out their next tactic. The girl had a bag with her, little more than a tied cloth, that she had fished out of a hiding spot near Saint Perpetuus’s that morning. She untied it and revealed six glass bottles shaped like bookmarks. They were unlabeled and each full of liquid of different colors: clear, lilac, bubblegum, black, gold, and something like rainbow sherbet.
“What are these concoctions?” Langcorn asked in genuine fear, given some of the things he had seen Marzipan consume. He uncorked the lilac one and smelled it, displeased with its unfitting barnyard odor.
“I stole them from a witch,” she admitted proudly. “They turn you into things.” She turned the black one over in her hands a few times, looking for a label that wasn’t there. “I don’t know what though.”
“And what do we need these for?”
“I thought one of them might give me a girly body, but I don’t know for sure. I bet each one does something different. I was thinking we could try them, because they’ll probably turn us into things that look like pagans. Then we can sneak around in disguise and see if they say anything about us or, like, how to find Triluna, since they don’t want to help us.”
“Is that not a terrible risk?” he asked. “What if they turn is into… corpses?”
“They might, but I’m still going to do it. Nobody but you likes me here, but the tree is still magic. I have to do everything I can here to get what I want. If I don’t… I’ll be super sad every time I look at a Christmas tree.” She saw his apprehension. “You don’t have to do it. You can be the lookout or something.”
“No no,” he insisted. “We’re doing all of this together. I will not leave you alone in any aspect of it… but perhaps one of us should go first so the other can help them if they need it.”
“Good idea,” Marzipan said, but didn’t feel any elaboration was necessary. She popped open the black and sherbet bottles, taking swigs from both of them simultaneously. She had set them aside before Langcorn could even register what he’d just witnessed. Marzi wiggled a little in anticipation, helping it down. Several seconds passed.
“Do you feel anything?”
“Not yet, but they tasted great. Like… cream filling with some clay in it.”
“You’ve been eating clay as well?”
“Uhuh. It’s got loads of minerals. I saw on a show that there’s a tribe somewhere that just eats big handfuls of clay off the ground to get their min…” She stopped, one eye twitching. Langcorn hopped to his feet, but she held out one hand to keep him back. That was only possible for the briefest moment, as her arms changed.
The fingers fused and receded, then the palm, then the wrist, then the forearm, elbow, and bicep. She was armless, but still found the balance to stand. Her pants dropped as her trunk extended down, legs melding, feet disappearing and swelling into a lush lump. Her skin faded to a creamy gray. Her shoulders disappeared all at once, like a book closing, her shirt falling to the straw of the nest.
Her head dipped, letting Langcorn see something like a bald spot on her crown, but it quickly bubbled up and expanded. It overtook her hair, flattened out, and turned a rich ochre like ground mustard. He thought it looked like a very large hat until he recognized its fleshy texture.
“Marzipan? Are you a-alright?” He leaned in. The cap tilted up and struck him; it might have knocked him over if it wasn’t so rubbery and pliant. Underneath it he saw Marzi’s face lost in a stalk, but still very much hers despite the new color and blended border. She tried to look down, but the stalk that had become her body wasn’t very flexible. She hopped back and forth on her stump.
“I’m a mushroom!” she declared, twirling like a parasol and giggling.
“A large one,” Langcorn said, stunned. “And you’re not in any pain?”
“Nope. Your turn.” Langcorn’s face suggested a long argument with no substance, so instead of expressing it he cleared his throat and picked up the clear potion. He uncorked it. “Oh wait! You can’t drink it because of my calendar.”
“You’re right. I wasn’t thinking of this as a drink because… well because I don’t want to drink it. I’ll try applying it topically.” He poured some out on one forearm and rubbed it into the hair before switching hands and repeating the process. Then some went on his face, though he was careful to avoid his eyes, nostrils, and mouth.
He had to wait longer than Marzi, just long enough that he was hoping there would be no effect, before anything happened. At first his skin tingled, like little eels slithered across him popping the bubblegum in their mouths. His body hair shot back into him as his skin, everywhere as opposed to just the spots where he had applied it, turned a shocked ivory white.
Nodules like giant goosebumps formed, stretched, curled upward. Their tips turned red and bloomed out the same way Marzi’s cap had. Langcorn was covered in a coat of colorful toadstools, with so many pushing against his shirt that he was forced to remove it. He tried to rub his eyebrows nervously, but they had become lips of fungal flesh.
“You look like you’re covered in drink umbrellas,” the Marzi-shroom told him gleefully.
“What’s a drink umbrella?”
“Doesn’t matter. You look super. How does it feel?”
“It’s… It’s terrible!” He spun around, trying to look at his own back, to see the things he could feel growing along his spine. “I can feel them all, as if they’re extensions of my body. I’m covered in extra useless fingers and I feel the weight of them. It’s not painful, but it feels very… wrong.” He looked at Marzi’s far more drastic transformation. “How are you so resilient child?”
“I guess it’s because I’m used to it,” she said with a slight tilt of her stalk that was likely meant to be a shrug. “I feel wrong all the time.”
“All the time?” He flicked one of his toadstools and grimaced at the look and feel of it. “I should count my blessings then. You don’t suppose this is permanent? After all, a man that gets drunk doesn’t stay that way for very long.”
“Even if it is I think we’ll go back to normal when we leave the tree,” Marzi guessed. “Other people have used this place right? I’ve never heard anything about surprise mushroom people on the news.”
Once they had adjusted as best they could, they left the nest and chose a single direction to walk in, marking their path with a smudge of yellow spores Marzi’s cap was copiously producing. He walked and she hopped, hoping to find some pagans to speak to, but it was the pagans that found them. Greetings fell on them like acorns from some higher branches. When they looked up they saw vines, braided instead of tangled, draped everywhere with red and white flowers in them.
“You two, come talk with us,” a feminine voice offered.
“We can’t climb,” Marzi shouted back. Moments later some of the braided vines came down, tied into loops they could sit in. When they did they were hauled back up effortlessly, like an octopus coiling one of its tentacles. They slipped out onto a branch with a deep divot filled with pillowy moss.
All around them lounged floral pagan sprites, women of green skin and leafy crops. The braids turned out to be attached to them, sometimes the head and sometimes the underarm. They were still in the process of braiding much of it, and they had baskets full of full blooms and individual petals.
“Oh,” one of them said when she noticed Langcorn’s details. “We thought you were a poinsettia.”
“Yeah we’re running low,” another moaned. Her hand twitched over the luscious red flower held in her other hand, sorely tempted to play a game of ‘she loves me, she loves me not’.
“What are you doing?” Marzi asked them. She tried to contort into a sitting position, but she just ended up rolling along the rim of the divot until Langcorn grabbed her cap and rolled her back.
“We’re readying for the solstice,” one with Rapunzel underarms said. “Just a few days now sisters.” With their calendars left back at the nest and their fungal disguises they were free to ask questions, but they knew they couldn’t ask exactly what happened on the solstice. Any true pagan or fae creature would already know.
“Shouldn’t you be looking for her?” the nervous one with the untouched flower asked Langcorn.
“Triluna of course!” As vibrantly rotting as his appearance was he was still clearly a man. Still doomed to die in just a year’s time. Only so many chances for romantic and sexual conquest.
“Ah yes, well… I already know I could never stand a chance with the goddess.”
“So you’ve corralled this poor maiden?” Rapitzel asked. Marzi withheld a gasp. They couldn’t judge her gender in her current pizza topping form. “You know you don’t need him tying you down sweetie.” Marzi’s lean sent her rolling again, making it all too clear she did, in fact, need him to tie her down.
“Oh we’re not dating,” she said, beaming. “We’re just friends.” It was yet another thing she’d never gotten to say, that all the people Mom watched on TV said. The words drizzled inside her warmly like candle wax, a sensation entirely the same in her old body as in her current one.
“Good, because you could do far better,” one lounging on the highest branch said as she combed her vines. “No offense… what was your name?”
“Ehm… Beau- dstool. Beaudstool,” Langcorn concocted.
“And I’m Pizza,” Marzipan added, drawing stares. “It’s a nickname.” The sprites shrugged and went back to their decorating. The mushroom couldn’t wait any longer. “So… have you guys heard about those two calendar people?”
“Don’t remind us,” the nervous one said, accidentally plucking a petal out of irritation. “It’s all anybody’s talking about this season. Apparently they’re among the most stubborn we’ve ever had.”
“So you think they’ll get patrons?”
“No of course not,” she said, making a very rude noise with her emerald lips. “We’ve been at this for centuries and only six patrons have been assigned, for how many hundreds of calendars? Everyone will say no and they’ll run out of time, like the rest.”
“What if they make it to Triluna?” Langcorn asked. “Or Prester John?”
“That would be dreadful,” Rapitzel said, shivering at the thought. She caught a few petals that escaped her when she did. “Imagine having to explain to the mother goddess why we let them through to bother her.”
“The calendars were her idea,” Marzi remembered aloud.
“Yes,” the lounging one yawned, “but the goddess is the source of all ideas. We’re the execution. It’s up to us to bring the ideas to life. We can’t do it exactly as she imagines it, because she’s an idealist. She speaks in alls, everythings, everywheres, and always. It’s not realistic down in the world. She’s too busy seeing the grandiosity to see the specks of disgusting dirt kicked up by her planting.”
“And, in this scenario, the calendar folk are the specks?” Langcorn guessed.
“And this time around, extra disgusting,” the nervous one said, practically crushing her poinsettia in quiet rage. “At least the little boy one that is. The man’s just a queer fellow. Lots of males could avoid disappointment if they just took that road. But the child. The child would dare to stand, snot-nosed, under her moonlight and demand that she, I don’t even know, chop off his boy parts or something.”
“I don’t want to get chopped!” the mushroom shouted.
“Then… stay away from pot roasts,” Rapitzel advised, the others giggling.
“I mean, she says she’s a girl. It’s just the wrong body,” Marzi defended herself. “That’s what I heard anyway.”
“Triluna doesn’t give wrong bodies,” the lounging one said authoritatively.
“But you said she doesn’t handle the minor details,” Langcorn pointed out. “It very much would be inconsequential to Triluna, but not to the poor unfortunate detail.”
“If that were the case we would get far too many people saying they were these details,” the nervous one, now thoroughly just the furious one, yipped. “What’s next? ‘Oh, everyone look at me, I’m actually supposed to be a dog! A flamingo! Actually, I have the soul of a fire-ravaged windmill! Please fix this oversight Triluna!”
“But a girl is something a person can… you know… be,” Marzi said weakly. Her cap was looking dark and swollen. Langcorn thought perhaps her blood, if she still had any, had rushed to her head, so he pulled her up and held her steady like a walking stick.
“In my estimation, y- we,” Langcorn elaborated, “have perhaps been looking at such people with undue skepticism. After all, we live in a world of talking animals and immaculate conception. Why be so disbelieving of someone who says they simply have a soul that differs from its vessel? I’ve certainly seen coins accidentally struck with two heads.”
“Two heads is definitely what they’ll be asking for next!” Rapitzel joked.
“You’re just mad because… because if that little girl is right it means you’re not doing what Triluna wants with her details. You’re making the mistakes, not her. You’re the one who can’t figure things out,” the mushroom lectured.
“Don’t talk to us that way decomposer,” the furious one snarled. She looked around, having dropped her flower at some point, or perhaps it had escaped being crumpled, crawling away like some fae starfish.
“I am no poinsettia, so we can’t help you,” Langcorn said to defuse the tension. “We’ll be going now. It’s been enlightening ladies.” Before they could speak he grabbed one of Rapitzel’s densely braided underarm ropes and jumped off the divot, Marzi wrapped in his other arm.
“Wait w- Ow! Ow ow ow ow!” The others rushed to help Rapitzel as the man’s full weight tugged on her arm. They could barely keep her on the branch, and by the time she was on her back fanning the pain away from her armpits, the fungal creatures were gone.