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 Eighteenth Day
The saints and pagans alike breathed easy that day. Several of the more paranoid were poised to trick, assault, or threaten the visitors if they had to, but Marzipan and Langcorn never made it past the hall of Saint Perpetuus. Instead they simply stood in the middle of it, having some sort of argument, until they both left, but, curiously, it was through the same door this time.
The only one disturbed by this development was Perpetuus himself, as he had seen them turn around, as little more than distant dots from atop his pedestal. The dots weren’t supposed to do that. This was the welcome hall. They entered from one end and joined the tree’s branches through the other. If that wasn’t going smoothly it would be his neck on the line, so for the first time in years he decided to descend and investigate.
“What are you doing?” one of his attending cherubs asked as it fluttered alongside him. He was descending the many stairs to the floor and it was proving quite a challenge for his stiff knees and quaking ankles.
“What does it look like I’m doing? Going down. Something’s not right down there.”
“Everything’s fine Perpetuus. Go back.”
“No everything is not fine you little gnat! I saw them. Those calendars came in, lingered, and then left, without spending any time in the tree! Who wastes entire days they could spend in these wondrous boughs?”
“It had nothing to do with us,” the cherub groaned, pulling on its cheeks that couldn’t look haggard no matter how much it tried.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the saint insisted as he took the final step and hobbled to the exact spot where Marzipan and Langcorn had their argument. He stared at the floor tiles as if they would reveal the truth with some kind of lingering reflection that included sound. When that was fruitless he spun around, looking for chips in the rest of the floor. Perhaps one of them had tripped and skinned their knee.
“I saw the whole thing,” the cherub assured. “It was nothing.”
“Oh? Then you won’t mind performing it for me.” He took a deep breath, preparing to shout. “Who else saw this disaster this morning!?” A few cherubs moving wreaths and other wall hangings paused, hesitantly raising their chubby little hands. Perpetuus pointed at one of them and snapped, beckoning it over. It dropped its wreath, only for another one to catch it before even a loose needle could touch the floor.
“Yes your grace?” the second one asked.
“I want to hear everything those two calendars said. You be the little one.” He pointed to the would-be haggard cherub. “You be the big one. From the top.” The saint’s clap was a clear order, and they could not disobey, but they could sigh heavily, roll their eyes, and fly with limp hanging limbs like bumblebees with heat stroke.
“I guess she was…” the Marzi-cherub began, flying in a path that mimicked her walk. “She was… gurlurlurlurl.”
“That was her stomach growling. That’s what started it.”
“I see. Continue.”
“That’s when he stopped,” the Langcorn-cherub said, hovering in place and turning to face its kin. “Then he said… We haven’t come across much food lately. You should be eating at home.”
“I am,” the Marzi-cherub said. “I ate…” It struggled to remember her exact words. “…food coloring. Two whole blues with a side of yellow. A three course green.”
“That doesn’t sound like enough for a growing young woman,” the Langcorn one said flatly. The Marzi one tried to fly past, but stopped suddenly as if something blocked its way.
“You,” it hissed to the other one, “You’re supposed to be stopping me. That’s what he did.”
“A little enthusiasm for your work please,” the saint requested. “You’re lifting me right out of this. You should have no trouble getting into a character you could literally fit inside of.” The Langcorn one obeyed, moving over and gently pushing the other cherub back.
“Come on, we’ve got to go,” the Marzi one recited.
“Not until you’ve had a decent meal,” the Langcorn one chided listlessly.
“I’ll find something here.”
“You live with your mother, yes? Why has she not fed you?”
“Mom forgot to shop this week. It’s fine.”
“The week is ongoing. Is she shopping today?”
“No, but she’s tired from work okay? She knows I can take care of myself.”
“What is she eating? The rest of the rainbow?”
“We handle our own food. She has an emergency cupboard with a bunch of cans of stuff and rice packets.”
“You have stored food, but you didn’t eat any of it. Your mother, your creator, didn’t see fit to offer you any. That’s it.” Finally committed to the bit, the Langcorn one flew toward the exit, swinging its arms with machismo and puffing out its chest.
“Wait, where are you going?” the Marzi one said as it pretended to struggle to catch up to the long strides they couldn’t mimic. Perpetuus followed alongside, hand stroking his chin.
“Through your door. I will speak to this woman and set her straight. She is neglecting her child, my dear friend, and I can’t allow it to happen any longer.”
“But if we leave we’ll waste our day!”
“These days are a waste anyway since none of them will lift a finger for us. We only have each other, and you will, absolutely, have me the way you should have a guardian angel. No matter what your mother throws my way I will handle it. I survived being thrown off a bridge after all.” The cherubs stopped at the wooden door Marzipan had entered through, reaching for the knob while refusing to touch it.
“And then?” Perpetuus asked.
“That’s it. They went through. They were still arguing.” The saint took a deep breath and let it out through his nose. All the cherubs paused and looked his way as he stared at the knob like he could see an entire galaxy of possibilities in its curved reflections. Moments passed, but if he lingered too long somebody might enter and expect to speak with him, so he made his judgment.
“It’s clear… that none of this has anything to do with me.” The relieved cherubs went back to their busywork as their master made his way back to the stairs. His eyes got tired climbing them. “Oh chestnuts,” he cursed.
Outside the contentious door, Marzipan and Langcorn found themselves in the gray damp woods behind her house. She had a few extra moments to collect herself, as Langcorn was trying to make sense of the air. It was full of scents utterly foreign to him. The reeking of the nearby highway and refinery was not, however, enough to dissuade him.
“Well?” he quacked, holding his nose. “Which direction is your home?”
“I’m not telling you Langcorn! You don’t belong here.”
“That’s what they say no matter where I go, as if I’m the one who smells!” He leaned forward, catching her off guard. Once more he searched her eyes, accessing the same instinct that allowed him to sense her identity when they first met. With intense focus on her irises he was able to ascertain the direction they were trying hardest not to turn toward. “Aha!”
He marched past her with greater confidence than he actually had, but she confirmed it when she chased after and pulled on his long arm. They splashed through the creek, convincing Marzi to change tactics. She crouched down in the water and scooped up muddy handfuls of rotting leaves from the bottom. When she caught up to Langcorn she ran backwards in front of him, stuffing the detritus in her mouth.
“See? Mff… Iw’m eathing! Hurk-” She thought she had murdered her gag reflex about a year ago, but she’d finally met her match thanks to the conflicting textures and tastes of mud, gravel, crayfish husks, and leaf rot. It all spilled out of her as she doubled over, but it did succeed in turning her into a roadblock. Langcorn stopped and crouched down with her.
A shame she did not understand washed over her, and she started sobbing. She should have been able to keep it down. Leaves were just salad. The creek water was just the dressing. Everything that was alive or that had ever been was made of the same fundamental material. So her salad was just as good as any they served at fancy restaurants. Her girlhood just as good as any swaying their hips down a red carpet. She just needed an iron stomach, an iron will.
She buried her face in Langcorn’s chest, her own heaving. At some point he scooped her up and carried her. They were walking again, but she didn’t hear any splashes. Too upset to find any words, they kept darting into the bushes as her trembling hands dove for them, Marzi searched for an even breath instead.
Eventually he stopped. She twisted around in his cradling arms and saw her home: the peeling paint, the scrawny dead trees, the window with the trash bag over it, and Mom’s car parked haphazardly in the grass at an angle, like it was drunkenly swerving to miss the front door.
“Is this a house?” he asked her. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” His attention turned to the tiny gray car that was almost as outdated as he was. “And what is that thing?” Marzipan seemed to be calming down, though it was just the knowledge that if she hyperventilated anymore she might pass out. He gently set her back on her feet.
Her face finally gave him pause. He’d never seen such fear, not even in his watery reflection when tossed over the bridge’s side. Something was wrong, and not just neglect. The child hung on her sanity by a mere shred of tinsel. He saw that all her joy, every last speck of it, came from the shallowest things. She loved pastries, and beautiful clothes, and sounds that were even slightly musical, because she could have them in moments, no opportunities for reality to sink in.
Langcorn again dropped to her level and hugged her tightly. He stroked her hair and thus devastated her. She couldn’t keep it in any longer. She whimpered, gasped, squeaked, and mewled all at once. He removed the calendar from her back to hold her closer.
“You cannot live here Marzipan. Not any longer. We must get you out.”
“I have n-nowhere to go! Dad’s gone. I don’t have a-any friends. I keep giving god presents and they won’t even talk to m-me! Why am I alive!? Why did they make me so that everyone would hate me? Is there too much hate? Do they need garbage cans to put it in? Is that what I am?”
“No,” he said as firmly as he could, but tears streamed down his face now as well. “You are a beautiful, wondrous, little beast Marzipan. You are a miracle of creation. The greatest ornament to ever hang on the Chrismon Tree. Every place is robbed of you when you are not there. In fact, I am being most selfish. I refuse to be in places without you, for they are far too dull and dreary. I will steal you away from here and keep you, and you will know what it is to have the love you deserve.”
“Mars? Is that you out there?” a woman’s voice hollered from within the thin walls. Marzi broke away from him and stiffened.
“Yeah Mom,” she called back, voice disturbingly steady. “I’m just playing.”
“Alright. Don’t forget to get the mail when you’re done.”
“I won’t.” She thought she was in the clear until she saw Langcorn’s face. He was certainly capable of anger; she’d seen his puffy affronted swagger before. This was new, darker. The man was enraged, nostrils flared out like the hood of a cobra. His knuckles popped and whitened as he made fists.
“Your name is Marzipan,” he hissed.
“I know, but she doesn’t like it. Mars is the one she gave me.”
“And that appears to be all she’s given you. That name was no nourishment.” He took a step forward, but she slapped her hands on his stomach and held him back, pleading desperately and quietly.
“Please don’t! You have no idea what 2020 is like! If you do anything to her the police will come and put you in jail forever and they’ll put me somewhere bad too! Everything is trouble here! That’s why I’m always out in the trees! Please, Langcorn, please stop! I promise to go with you, but I want to finish my calendar first!”
He was inches from what he assumed was a door, though its material was foreign to him. From that angle he could just peek past the loosest hanging flap of the garbage bag window and see a woman’s head from the back, transfixed by a box full of moving pictures. She scratched at her curly hair and belched: a satisfied sound that could only come from someone well fed.
“I am a thief,” he told Marzi in a whisper. “So you can’t reason with me. I will steal you and you’ll just have to accept it… but I suppose I can wait a few more days to commit my robbery… but that is all.” She nodded her swollen red face, more tears leaking out, steepling her hands and covering her lips.
She took him by the hand and led him away, back into the gray of the dying trees. They tried to use their calendars, but since they had already gone through that day’s door the others wouldn’t budge. Langcorn was stuck there for the rest of the day and night, but his smile suggested a little outdoors December sleeping had never troubled him.
“You still haven’t had anything to eat,” he noted. “It’s a shame those mushrooms popped right off my hide when we left the other day, otherwise I could’ve made a fire and roasted them up for us.”
“I do have something, but it’s only for super bad emergencies.”
“You won’t be here much longer,” he assured her, “so you should use it.” She told him to wait there and disappeared into another copse for a few minutes, where she located the three stones she’d arranged into a triangle, marking the burial site of her cache. The girl returned with a single granola bar still in its wrapper.
Months ago a hiker had come through while she was dancing around a fake fire pit of red autumn leaves, chanting to a fake god. The woman didn’t like the look of the path she’d stumbled on, more abused than beaten. She took one grimacing look at the place and its gaunt denizen before turning around, but as she did she dug the bar out of her pack and tossed it to Marzipan wordlessly.
Langcorn and his new daughter unwrapped it like a Christmas present. She insisted that they share, so they took turns pinching away tiny clusters of oats and eating them, savoring the chocolate chips.
A few more days and then they could do that every night, be it in bounty or scarcity.