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: 10 minutes)
On the Nineteenth Day
The tree had been mostly green during their visits. They thought the blizzard they’d trudged through with Saint Defendens’s wolves was localized, either magically summoned and kept there or a storm that roamed between branches the way a hurricane might alligator crawl across a coast before dying.
It turns out it was just the first snow of the season, and now that the solstice and Christmas were close the snow was everywhere. It fell in curtains and rested as blankets. The buildings of saints sometimes doubled their height with the packed snow atop them forming soft white towers, turning them all into fantasy castles.
Pagan creatures disappeared into knots and nests of woven branches, leaving their places eerily quiet. The ground was also treacherous in their parts, since all the needle carpets were hidden. A few times snowbanks collapsed right next to Marzipan and Langcorn, starting a chain reaction that created a chasm of injurious fall, then fatal, then fatal to everything below it.
When they realized they could go no further, they would brush their heads off and have new snowy hats within seconds, they looked for the nearest place to take shelter until the conditions lightened up. What they found this time was a knot, its edges carved like the open mouth of a bearded and horned woman. There was red light coming from within.
It wasn’t a fire as it turned out, but clusters of glowing mistletoe berries on the curved ceiling. The wooden floor was covered in leaf litter as well as the detritus of a pagan feast: acorn tops, walnut shells, fish bones sucked clean, and knobby carrot tops still clinging to their greens. All of that was at the center, and Langcorn cleared much of it away with a sweep of his leg as he sought to take advantage of one of the large white cushions pushed up against the edge of the den. He sat and leaned on it, only for it to kick out a leg tipped in thick black claws.
“Oh dear! The furniture is alive.”
“They’re all asleep,” Marzi noted, walking around and peering into their furry folds in search of open eyes. As far as she could tell they were all women-beasts, half-bears, half-beavers, and half-badgers. Every last strand of fur on all of them had gone white as the snow, and they were fluffed up to almost twice their normal size. “I think they’re hibernating.”
“Then they won’t mind if we rest here,” Langcorn said, taking his calendar off by the straps and setting it aside. Marzipan did the same, staring at her companion’s closed eyes and relaxed pose. His tranquility wasn’t allowed to last however.
“I’m kind of bored.”
“With all that has happened to us,” he sighed, “don’t you think it could be fun to be bored for a little while?” His eyes stayed stubbornly shut, but he could hear her squirming, her bottom convincing itself it would never get comfortable on the wood.
“Not if it’s this boring… let’s play a game.” He still refused to look, so he had to guess at what she was doing by the sounds she made. A calendar scraping as she pulled it between them. The sweeping of nut hulls. The tearing of greens from carrot ends. “Okay, it’s ready.” Maybe she wasn’t addressing him. “Langcorn, it’s ready.” He sighed again and leaned forward, his eyes admitting defeat.
“And what is it?” he asked as he stared at nothing more than her calendar with some orange chewed pieces resting on some of the doors. There was a pile of hulls and tops by her side, and one by his.
“It’s a board game.”
“Because you’re bored?”
“No, because it’s on a board… but also yes.”
“Is it like chess? I never had the patience to learn. After all, I am a man. If I ever feel I am being defeated by little white totems I can just pick them up and throw them.”
“Chess is dumb because the pieces only get to move one way,” she agreed. “This is my game. The pieces can move any direction they want, but only one door at a time.” She demonstrated by moving a carrot bit from door thirteen to fourteen. “We try to capture each other’s pieces and you lose when you have none left.”
“And what are those?” he asked, pointing at the piles.
“That’s our money. We’re gambling to make it more fun. Mom does it all the time with lotto tickets. For our first game I wager… seven walnut halves.” She pulled them out one by one and set them aside. Langcorn responded by pushing one acorn top out with a fingertip. “Oh come on! That’s a baby bet.”
“It’s the first game! I don’t even know how to play yet. There will be more once the rules are clear to me.” The game began in earnest, with Marzipan showing early dominance. She took three of his carrot ends in minutes, popping them in her mouth and chewing them up to mock his lack of skill. Only the last one bothered him, as he hadn’t seen the move coming.
“I tricked you,” she said after swallowing her latest conquest down. “Don’t feel bad. I’ve been working on tricking people because I’m going to play poker one day.”
“It’s a card game where you trick people a lot. You have to use a thing called your poker face. It’s a face that doesn’t show any emotion. I already have one of those, so I’m going to be really good at it when I get some friends to play with.”
“I see,” Langcorn said, making an ill-advised move. Marzi claimed another morsel. “You know, your poker face could never beat that of my Beau. He’s a master of hiding his true feelings.”
“You keep talking about this guy,” she noted. “Are you guys going to get married or something?”
“No I don’t think so. We’ve never made a formal commitment to one another, and now he thinks I’m dead! I may very well be by the end of this given the hostility of these needles. I’ve also been acting a little like I’m dead, falling in love with other ghosts here and there as if his warmth could never be felt again.
Beau is a playwright. He told me that when he directs his actors he shows no emotion, offers no advice or hints as to how their faces should look, their voices sound, their hands tremble or wave. They need to inhabit the role completely on their own, find the feelings within the words. If they can’t then it is his words that have failed, and he scraps the entire production.
The poor man, he was forced by circumstance to use that face when he never should have had to. Where I live, and when I live, the know-nothings about us disapproved of our many unions. They saw us one day, and, there’s no kinder way to say it, attacked us.
The only chance either of us had for survival was a lie. Beau could tell it better, and he was in better standing, so we both knew it had to be him. They forced him to say that I attacked him. He had to call me the spawn of the devil.
There was no love in his eyes when they dragged me to the bridge. I couldn’t see one of the memories we share in his cheeks, or his lips, or even the blush atop his ears he sometimes suffers.
Now there is only pain between us, because I know how much it hurt him to pretend I was nothing. He knows how much it hurt… to be thrown off a bridge and drowned.” The knot was quiet, so he looked at his companion and saw her hand poised over a piece. She looked reluctant to take it; apparently he had suffered enough. She moved hers away.
“Langcorn. I don’t think Beau loves you.”
“What? Don’t be silly. We’ve told each other things that we’ve never told another soul, each one a link in our bond. What we have became unbreakable. Not even my death could break the chain.”
“Love is… there’s a word for it, but not the word love. It’s like…” Her gaze drifted to the vibrant berries in the ceiling, lips muttering as she searched for a phrase. “It’s when somebody recognizes you, or a little bit of you in something else, but nobody told them to look for it.”
“Acknowledgment,” he guessed.
“Yes! That’s the word! Love is acknowledgment. Beau wasn’t acknowledgmenting when they tried to hurt you, so I don’t think he loves you.”
“What do you know of love? You’re just a child.” He regretted it so reflexively that his hand flew over his mouth. Marzipan didn’t look away. She knew well enough by now that he could make both sides of the argument in his head, and all she had to do was stare back. He would see every bit of pain in her eyes, how she was willing to be weathered by it if it could serve to silently correct him.
The game went on. Langcorn lost, but they went for another round. He put much more of his stockpile on the line, but now he couldn’t stop thinking about Beau. Had he put so much as a single acorn top on the line? He sat across from Langcorn at the board, but did he ever even move a piece?
“It could be good to know nothing of love,” he said after successfully taking one of her pieces. “You will know it eventually. Once you do it stops transforming. It’s one person, one path. When it’s amorphous it makes you feel as if your heart can’t contain it, like it’s spilling out everywhere, like you’re a leaky barrel giddy with flagging structural integrity. That’s why I like to fall in love so much.”
“I can’t wait,” Marzi admitted, her voice full of the last kind of hope that could ever be stripped from her. “There’s always somebody right? That’s why there are so many people, so that everybody can have somebody.”
“It’s certainly a calming thought, but a question for Prester John or Triluna I think.”
“I know there are lots for you, but I think there’s only one for me,” she explained, moving a piece into a vulnerable position. “Which is fine. I don’t need more, but I’m worried we’ll never find each other.”
“The world is a big place,” Langcorn conceded.
“And it’s bigger than I thought. Like, what if the boy for me lives in your time? I think god makes it so there’s always a person who can love you, but god might not get it right. The Chrismon Tree doesn’t have time, not like we do. So if they make people here and send them out they might not pay any attention to the time thing.”
“That does sound… frighteningly believable.”
“So… I guess I have to prepare for… you know… not falling in love.”
“A poker face for the spirit,” he mused, his distaste for the idea obvious. “No, I think being hurt, and showing it, would be far better. A creature of pain is at least a creature of something. You are something Marzi, and I won’t have you pretending you’re so much nothing eager to get out of the way.”
“No, you’re going to get out of my way,” she snickered as she took another piece. Langcorn cursed, making her laugh all the more, but she had to stifle it when a few of the bulky hibernating beasts snorted and kicked. From then on they played in silence, but not without joy, until the snow lifted enough for them to depart.