Apollo Christmas

“Tell me a story, Daddy?” Eleven-year-old Elizabeth was sprawled on the carpeted floor beneath the Christmas tree. When the family lived aboard her father’s spaceship, the Cousteau, they had a holographic tree that held virtual copies of all the real ornaments. But now they were in their house on Centaurus, so the whole tree was real, and she loved to lie beneath it and breath in the piney scent.

Basil glanced across the room at his wife, and the pair shared a look. They knew their daughter would soon be too old to ask for stories, but it was Christmas Eve, and even a synthetic lifeform was willing to indulge his daughter during the holidays.

Still, he hesitated. Seasonal tales were not really in his oeuvre, and he knew the night was special to the organic members of his family.

“Do you mind if the story comes from me?” his wife asked, saving the night for all of them. “I have a family story that might appeal to you, Lizzie-Bee.”

The little girl rolled over and sat up, smoothing out her brand-new dress as she did so. “That would be acceptable,” she said, sounding uncannily like her father.

“Alright then.” Zoe put down the tablet she’d been reading from and centered herself by taking a sip from her mug of tea. “This story takes place many years before you were born, or before I was born, or before Gramma Emily was born. It’s older than Grampere. It’s even older than Nonna. In fact, it’s from Nonna’s, Nonna’s, Nonna’s Nonna. Or even a few generations before that.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about family, and Christmas, and space.”

“I wanna hear that story.”

Zoe smiled at her daughter. “Alright then, let’s take a deep breath—” and she drew in an exaggerated one “—and begin.”

December 24th, 1968 –

They could have gone to mass at the local church, as they always did. St. Agnes had been the family’s parish of choice for decades. It was an old building, formidable gray stone on the outside, but once you were inside the vestibule it was all wood and warmth, and the bulletin boards were hilarious, reminding you that there was still time for a turkey raffle, or that the scout troops earned money if you ate at Burger King through the first of the year.

But Uncle Giovanni – Nonna’s brother – also known as Father Pescatore – had been back in town after being sent to serve elsewhere, and a private family mass seemed appropriate. So, they’d set up an altar on the ironing board, and prayed for the people, and the world leaders, and the pope, and the world, and then they’d said a special prayer for the astronauts in space.

We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

They watched the newscast and heard these men of science read words of faith, and they saw the camera feed of the men in the giant aluminum can hurtling toward the gray surface of the moon.

And maybe they thought about the way God exists in each of us as a spark of divine self-gift, or maybe they just went through the ritual out of habit. But no matter what they thought, their eyes were riveted on their tiny television screen, and their thoughts were in the stars.

Christmas Eve – 2269

The family continued to grow and change, but the one thing they all shared was a fascination with space. They watched as the first lunar orbit became the first lunar landing. They watched as Mars became the first planet to be populated entirely by robots, and then the first to host human colonists.

As space travel became something accessible to everyone, part of the family embraced the unknown, and joined the first colonization missions to Betelgeuse and Centaurus.

The latter planet was destined to become the family’s new home. They were Harrises now, instead of Morellis, having married and bred and married and bred through the ages, and their faith was not so formal as it had been a century before on Earth, but when the first church was planted in Beach Haven, they joined their community for Christmas Eve services.

“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Christmas Eve – 2368

“I don’t think that’s much of a story,” Elizabeth said.

“That’s because it’s not finished yet,” Zoe explained. “We’re going out, sweetie.”

Basil had left his chair while she’d been speaking, and now he offered his daughter her coat. “It is cold out tonight. You must dress warmly.” He assisted the child in putting on her winter gear, then repeated the process with his wife.

Together, Basil and Zoe guided the young girl through the front door. “We’re not taking the flitter?”

“Nope. We’re walking.”

The night air was cold, but it was also clear, and each star seemed to shimmer more brightly than the last. As they walked toward the center of town, first along the coast road, then turning east, away from the water, the small family was joined by friends and neighbors, all making the same short journey.

Our Lady of the Sea and Stars was as gray as the old stone church on Earth, but it was built of titanium from the hulls of the first colony ship, and its surface shimmered like a more delicate version of the starlight.

Almost the entire community gathered inside, and there were many greetings exchanged with Captain Harris and Ambassador Harris and all the oldest relatives gushed over Elizabeth, cooing over her advanced age – “Eleven? Wow! Who said you could get so old?”

As they took their seats, the little girl nudged her mother. “Church? Seriously? The end of the story is church?”

“Not quite.”

The congregation hushed as Mother Celeste entered with the processional and took her place on the altar. “Welcome friends,” she began. “About a hundred years ago, the members of this community came together in this building for our first Christmas Eve. We were blessed, then, to be in a new home. Since that time, our community has grown. The founding families have been joined by newer additions. But we still gather here, to share the same words, and sing the same songs, that people of Earth have been sharing and singing for generations.”

She paused and scanned the rows of pews, apparently meeting the eyes of each person seated there. “Before we begin, I’d like to share with you some other words. Words that aren’t part of the Christmas tradition, but are attached to it. They were read four hundred years ago by a group of men who were on one of the first journeys to Earth’s moon, and they’re from the Book of Genesis.”

She nodded to an unseen media technician, and after a moment, scratchy audio filled the green-garlanded and candle-scented space.

“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.”

Elizabeth listened to the ages-old recording, and – at least for that moment in time – understood her mother’s message, and her father’s dedication to the Star Navy.

Later that night, with bedtime cocoa still staining her lips, she kissed each of her parents goodnight. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “I love you.”

Basil and Zoe replied that they loved her too, and would see her in the morning when they would discover what Santa might have brought.

“Did you know,” Basil asked, once he and Zoe were alone in front of their own crackling fire, “that the Apollo Eight recording would be shared?”

“I did,” Zoe admitted. “Mother Celeste is descended from one of the astronauts. She’s been waiting to share that audio clip since she moved here. She thinks her ancestor would have approved, and I think she’s right.”

“And the ironing board story?”

“Totally true,” she said, “I’ve heard Mom tell me about it only a thousand or so times.”

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

Notes: The audio clip from the Apollo 8 mission features the voices of William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman. The mass on the ironing board was a memory shared by my mother earlier tonight. You see, my great-uncle Eugene died last night. He was a Franciscan priest, and he was old and sick, so his death is a release in many ways. I don’t have any specific memories of him, except that he was kind and funny, but I wanted to mark his passing and mom’s story gave me the idea.

The Coziness of Silent Night

eugenivy_reserv-1214404-unsplash

Silent Night

 

Out of habit, Jane tossed her keys onto the small table in the entry of her house, forgetting that they might mar the antique surface as they slid across the top. This table, new to her, had been salvaged from her grandmother’s house just before her aunts and cousins had arrived to haggle over the remnants of the old woman’s life.

 

Grams, as she had called her grandmother for as long as she’d known how to talk, had called the piece of blonde furniture a telephone table, and indeed, it did have a small drawer just large enough to hold a few pencils, an address book, and a scratch pad, even though it hadn’t played host to an actual telephone in more years than Jane cared to count.

 

As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Jane moved through her customary evening routine. Coat on the hook by the door, shoes at the edge of the bench, purse slung over its arm. She didn’t bother turning on any lights, but as she padded in stockinged feet across the cold tile floor, she did pause to plug the Christmas tree.

 

Barely five feet tall, the tree stood in the center of the bay window that gave Jane’s living room much of its charm. She’d meant to hire someone to hang outside lights on the window, but had never gotten around to it, so the tree was the lone representative of Christmas, save for the four empty stockings hanging from the mantle. One was hers, of course, and one would hold the dog’s annual treat, but the other two were for her parents, even though they had made it clear they weren’t doing Christmas that year.

 

“We can finally afford to bask on the beach in Mexico, Janie,” her mother had said. “You’re almost forty. You don’t need us to have a good holiday.”

 

Except she did.

 

Resisting the urge to curl up on the couch and call it a night, Jane went to put sneakers on and release her dog from his crate, accepting the happy sloppy kisses the aging Airedale offered. “Walkies?” she asked the curly-haired canine, who was absolutely on board with that suggestion. He cooperated while she put his harness on, but once the final snap had been clicked into place, he was a blur of frenetic energy once again. “Hang on, Winston,” she coaxed, but it was useless.

 

Just at the bottom of the porch stairs, Jane and Winston came to a sudden halt. “Sorry,” she said to the man she’d nearly crashed into. “Are you looking for an address?”

 

“Sort of,” he said. “I just moved into the house across the street, and my daughter – she’s ten – says I have to introduce myself to all the neighbors.”

 

Jane grinned. “Well, tell your daughter she’s very wise. I’m Jane, by the way, and this is Winston.”

 

“Oh, I’m Vince. Vincent really, but…”

 

“Welcome to the neighborhood, Vince.” She scanned the block. “Your daughter isn’t with you?”

 

“Ah, no,” he said. “She’s with her Mom, actually, until after the holiday. It’s just me this year.”

 

Something in his expression, in his posture, resonated with Jane. “Listen,” she said. “I’m alone this year, too, but I have a turkey breast I was going to heat. Why don’t you join me?”

 

“Seriously?” Vince seemed surprised by the offer.

 

“Well, my dog seems to like you, and Winston is an excellent judge of character.” It was true. The dog had plotzed on the sidewalk and was laying across both humans’ feet.

 

Vince reached down to give head fusses to the dog. “Well, who am I to argue with such a wise creature. What can I bring?”

 

“Salad? Cranberries? Whatever you like.”

 

“I can do that,” he said. “Around two on Christmas Day?”

 

“Sounds like a plan,” Jane agreed.

 

She continued on her walk and didn’t even complain when Winston had to pee on every signpost and fire hydrant, instead of just some of them. Maybe Vince would become a friend, and maybe he would just be a good neighbor, but either way, she’d have company for the holiday, and who knew? Maybe in a year or two she’d be hosting an annual gathering of Holiday Orphans.

 

After the walkies and dinner for both herself and Winston, Jane curled up on her couch with a book and a mug of tea. The lights on the other houses were reflected in her window, and for a change the silence of her house – punctuated only by the soothing sounds of her sleeping dog – felt cozy instead of constricting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noche de Paz

La Paz Xmas

Noche de paz, noche de amor,

Todo duerme en rededor

entre los astros que esparcen su luz

viene anunciando al niño Jesús

Brilla la estrella de paz

Brilla la estrella de paz.

 

The bonfire is warm and the salt pines shelter us from the wind. We’re given wine and cheese, chicken mole and freshly pressed corn tortillas. The food is simple, but the starry sky is glorious, and if we strain, we can hear the water lapping at the shore.

 

It is the first night of our first Christmas trip to Mexico.

 

Christmas Eve, we join other members of the community where my parents now live. We drink homemade Rompope which is sort of like really lethal eggnog, and also nothing like it. It’s made with rum and stirred with stalks of sugar cane. When we’re buzzed enough, we go caroling through the sandy streets, but the entire group only knows two songs: Jingle Bells – which we sing in English – and Silent Night – which we sing in English and Spanish.

 

Noche de paz, noche de amor,

Todo duerme alrededor,

Sólo velan en la oscuridad

Los pastores que en el campo están;

Y la estrella de Belén

Y la estrella de Belén.

 

The years pass and our visits to Mexico change. Instead of drunken caroling we invite some of the post-doc students my stepfather is working with to join our family celebrations. One of them, an Italian woman of roughly my age, brings her guitar.

 

We spend Christmas Eve decorating cheap felt stockings with puffy paints, while we listen to the Lessons and Carols service from England streaming over the speakers of an ancient HP laptop, too kludgy to be used as anything but a music player.

 

Our repertoire of carols expands by one: Happy Christmas, War is Over. Our new Italian friend strums her guitar while we all sing along. The next morning, though skeptical, she comes to breakfast in her pajamas and sits on the floor just like the rest of us as we open presents. The youngest of us is in our thirties, but we are happy and the coffee is hot, and we laugh like children.

 

Noche de paz, noche de amor;

Todo duerme alrededor;

sobre el Santo Niñito Jesús

Una estrella esparce su luz,

Brilla sobre el Rey,

Brilla sobre el Rey.

We miss a few Mexican Christmases, hosting some here in our own home in Texas, and visiting Fuzzy’s family for others. In the years we’re not together Fuzzy and I go to midnight mass at the local Episcopal church, which actually begins at ten-thirty. Some years there is carol singing before the formal service, but even when there isn’t, we pass the flame from hand to hand in the darkened church, and somehow, the simple act of voices raised in song is both mysterious and magical.

 

We didn’t know our last Christmas in Mexico would be the last Christmas. We are welcomed into my parents’ friends’ homes for a midnight dinner on Christmas eve, and a boozy brunch on Christmas day, and wherever we go, people wish us Felices Fiestas – Happy Holidays.

 

That last Christmas, I fry latkes, brought to mark my stepfather’s Jewish heritage, and we eat them with smoked salmon and leftover cranberry sauce. The lights twinkle across the bay. The sound of the wind makes us almost believe it’s cold outside, and we finish the evening reading and sipping tea and talking.

 

Noche de paz, noche de amor

Todo duerme alrededor

Fieles velando allí en Belén

Los pastores, la Madre también

Y la estrella de paz,

y la estrella de paz.

 

My stepfather left this world in July, and my mother has their house in Mexico listed for sale. She’s due here in a week, and we’ve waited to decorate until she gets here. Mostly, we don’t really feel like Christmas – or I didn’t, but then today in the chocolate shop I saw truffles made with mole and as we walked back to the car with our purchases, I felt like maybe Christmas was coming this year, after all.

 

Brilla la estrella de paz

Brilla la estrella de paz.

 

 

 

 

Pelt

0459 - Pelt

The snow was cold beneath the pads of her feet, and there was ice matted between her claws, but she reveled in the bitter cold, the bracing wind. To move on four feet instead of two was to embrace her true self, the one with thick fur that was designed for life in a harsh environment.

She sniffed the air and caught the familiar scents of home and family – her human family. When she’d told them that she needed to go for a walk, her husband had understood what she meant, but her children had not. They didn’t know what she really was.

A rabbit scurried across her path. She considered chasing it, bringing it home for dinner, but she knew what the kids would say… “Rabbit’s gross. It’s so stringy. Mama, we can’t eat Thumper.”

She would never judge them for their human tastes, but sometimes – most times – she missed the chase, the kill, the way fresh venison had that slightly gamey undertone.

A mournful howl cut through the wind. It wasn’t one of her kind, but she answered anyway, her return song one of reassurance. “You will be alright,” she sang. “Winter won’t last forever.”

The sunlight was beginning to fade as she turned for home and she paused at the edge of their property just to look at the cozy house, all aglow with lamplight. Subtle wisps of wood smoke emanated from the chimney. Wood smoke and beef stew. Her husband had been cooking.

Shaking the snow from her back, she climbed the three steps to the back porch. She stepped out of her pelt, as she climbed, laughing as her shadow appeared to have six limbs at one point.

She dressed in the clothes she’d left on top of the bench, and bundled her cast-off fur into a soft, cloth bag.

Her husband was waiting just inside the mud room. “Feel better?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you.” She leaned to nuzzle his neck and then kiss his whiskery cheek. “Here,” she said. “You keep this.”

But her husband shook his head. “You know I can’t accept it. I want you here out of free will, not out of some compulsion.”

They had the same argument every time.

“You’re not taking it from me,” she explained, yet again. “I’m giving it to your care, just as you’ve given me your heart.”

“But I can abuse it,” he said.

“But you won’t,” she countered. “Any more than I would abuse your heart.”

Reluctantly he accepted her offering. “The second you want it back…” he began. But he didn’t finish; she knew what he’d say. Instead he simply asked,”You hungry? Dinner’s ready.”

Sometimes, she thought, a bowl of stew and the smiling faces of a family meant more than any hunt.

 

An Open Letter to Santa Claus (2018 Edition)

Letter to Santa Claus. Christmas decorations and a sheet of pape

Dear Santa,

Every year I write an open letter to you in my blog, because I feel like a child-free house doesn’t need the special magic of a personal visit in exchange for warm milk and cold cookies. While you still haven’t managed to deliver on that pony – come on, Santa, I’ll be fifty in two years! – what I’ve received in exchange for my letters is hardly pittance. They bring me clarity of thought and a direction for the coming year, among other things.

As usual, I’m not asking for material goods this year, because one of the most important lessons you’ve taught me over the years is that the most important gifts don’t come in boxes.

Santa, it would be easy to ask for enlightenment. We’re doing so many horrible things to the environment, the economy, each other… If there’s one area where humans excel it’s in forgetting – even ignoring – the greater good. And it’s not like I don’t want an end to unsafe drinking water, chunky air, people rationing their medications because they can’t afford refills, or toxic masculinity, but… those are big picture, and this year, my wish is a little smaller.

So many of my friends this year are making posts and comments about how they wish the holidays didn’t have to be so stressful and commercial, or how things were more fun when they had money. And I get it, I do, because I’ve succumbed to that push to be the perfect host and felt the pang of not being able to get my husband the Big Thing he really wants or telling him not to get me the Big Thing I really want.

We’re doing okay this year, but I’m not working for money right now, so even at our house things are tighter than I wish them to be.

I’m not a parent, as you know, Santa, but I was a child of a single mother during the early part of my life. Mom and I have had many conversations about how she felt guilty for the times she had to work on Christmas Eve, or my birthday. Similarly, I was never the kid who got the name-brand sneakers or tech. Seventh grade, my sneakers were from the store that is now Big Lots. They looked like Nikes, but the swoosh was upside down. My first Walkman-type thing (yeah, I’m that old) was something we bought for $20 at a swap meet. It lasted for years though, and worked perfectly well, even if it wasn’t sleek and sexy.

And the thing is, those aren’t the things I focus on. Mostly, those aren’t even the things I remember. I remember the way mom and I would make cocoa and eat pfeffernusse cookies while decorating our four-foot-tall artificial tree, or that when having personalized everything was in vogue, she found a stamp with my name on it, and stamped sweatshirts and notebooks and a bunch of other stuff.

I may have never had the pink, plastic Barbie dreamhouse, but my dolls were decked in handmade couture from my mother’s sewing room. On the other hand, until I was eighteen, I got packages of cute underwear from my mother or grandmother every year. Now? I’d kill to not have to pay $35 for five pairs of panties. And truly, the years when we agreed to $20 limits and stocking-stuffers only were some of my favorite Christmases, because it forced us to be creative. And I say this as the least crafty person in the world.

Look, we all want that perfect Hallmark holiday with snow that doesn’t make you cold or wet and food that seems to spring forth from the kitchen with no effort (or mess), but the reality is that life is messy, and Hallmark literally uses a checklist when they churn out those holiday movies.

And yeah, Christmas is more fun when you can be extravagant. But that doesn’t mean it’s more meaningful.

I can’t remember most of the gifts I’ve received over the years, but I remember the way our plastic tree somehow transforms into something magical when the last ornament has been placed. I remember getting a new nightgown for Christmas eve almost every year. I remember bundling up and getting in the car to drive around and look at lights, and then come home for cocoa.

We rarely had a ton of family around, even after my mother and Ira got married. Instead, we’d have a festive meal, watch something special on tv, and maybe play a board game. Most years, our gifts were books and pens and the afore-mentioned underwear, and bath stuff. Sure, there would be one big thing, but even that was never the coolest, greatest, hottest thing on sale.

As I recently reminded a friend, five-year-old Laura Ingalls was thrilled when her Christmas presents one year were a tin cup, an orange, a penny, and a stick of candy. (I think it’s only when you re-read the Little House books as an adult that you realize how poor that family really was.) But even today, most little kids are more excited about the box their super-awesome-toy came in, than they are the toy itself.

So, Santa, this is what I’m asking for this year. I’m asking you to use your magical staff and sprinkle some gentle cheer over everyone. I’d love it if you eliminated stress, but since that’s not likely, how about a reminder that, just as no one knows the truth of any relationship except the people in it, no one knows the truth of your holiday practices except the people you choose to include.

Remind us, Santa, that it’s okay to simplify. It’s okay not to have a cookie-cutter Christmas. It’s okay to focus on meaning and caution against mass consumerism. And Christmas is an excellent time to embrace the concept of no-money fun.

Can you sing? Go caroling through your neighborhood (my friends and I did this in high school and one family invited us in to sing for about half an hour). Can you bake? Give someone the gift of something homemade – or invite them into your kitchen and make something together. Can you sew? You don’t necessarily have to make anything big. One year, I gave a friend the gift of an hour of replacing buttons on shirts. This year, I’d really love it if someone came to help me clean out my closet.

Maybe it’s because we’re experiencing our first holiday season without either of my husband’s parents and without my stepfather, but I feel like it’s important to remember that memories are way more important than the things we buy with money. Give us a hand with that reminder, won’t you, Santa?

Oh, and if you could work on the whole peace, economic stability, and social justice for all thing, as well, I promise to stop harassing you about the pony.

A Capella Podcast Blues

dolo-iglesias-487520-unsplash

There’s a song that’s been haunting me since just after Thanksgiving. It’s a lullaby that some people think is a Christmas song. It’s not; it’s really just a lullaby. But when songs get stuck in my head, what that usually means they’re sparking a story.

I know that doesn’t seem like a problem, but it became when I realized two things:

1) The story I’m working on will have to be part of my podcast this month.

2) Since I can’t find a podsafe version of the song, I have to record it myself.

Well, okay. I can sing. I’ve been singing since before I could walk – literally. I can also play the cello, koto, dulcimer, autoharp, and musical saw, but I sold my cello a year ago when I realized my carpal tunnel had gotten too bad to play it, and I don’t own any of the others. (Well, we own a saw, but not in my key.)

What I cannot do – could never do – is play the piano.

It’s not for lack of interest.

It’s for lack of ownership. To play the piano without a piano, is kind of a trick.

So, I’m trying to learn this song well enough to do a decent job of singing bits of it as punctuation to this story I’m writing, but there’s this weird key-change in the middle and I can’t find a version to sing with (for practice) that’s in a key where I’m comfortable. (The perils of being a lyric mezzo / belter, and not a true alto or true soprano.)

My frustration led to the following exchange with my husband about an hour ago:

Me: Fuzzy, if you hear singing, ignore it. I need to be comfy with this song so I can use it on pod.

Him: I don’t hear a thing.

Me: Keep it that way. (beat) I really need this about a third lower.

Him: You can’t find it in a key you like?

Me: No. I want a holographic accompanist for Christmas.

Him: I’ll get right on that.

And this doesn’t even take into account that I don’t really have my full voice back after two weeks of sinusitis, pneumonia, and pleurisy (but at least I’m done with the medications).
And on that note (pun absolutely intended) I’m going to make a hot toddy and take myself to bed, so I can sing another day.

 

 

A Winter Tale

 

Christmas-Altar-Flowers-1

 

My breath forms frosty clouds in the cold night air every time I open my mouth to speak. My companion, on the other hand, is impervious to the cold, so when I can’t hide my shivers, he removes the navy pea-coat he’d put on as a fashion statement and wraps it around my shoulders.

“You should have worn a coat, Zoe,” he chides gently.

“I know,” I say. “But I thought my sweater would be enough. I’ve become soft, living on the Cousteau with you. I forgot how weather works.”

“The weather-cast clearly stated the projected temperature for the evening,” he reminds me. From anyone else, it would be the beginning of a lecture, maybe even an argument, but from him, it’s just a statement.

“I wasn’t paying much attention to it,” I admit. What I don’t say is that I’d been watching him. In three years of dating, it was the first time Basil had come home with me, and watching my synthetic boyfriend examining our Christmas tree had been entrancing. Ornaments I’d seen every year since birth had taken on new meaning as I’d told him the story that went with each one and watching his elegant fingers touch some of the truly special pieces, as if he could tell which ones they were because he knew me so well, had made me melt inside.

“I will endeavor to remind you, in the future,” he says, and again, there’s no judgement. Just a new subroutine to be added to the many already in play.

I can almost imagine his internal process. ‘Subheading: weather, cross-reference: Zoe. If weather is inclement, remind Zoe to dress appropriately. Save instruction. Execute.’

By the time I’ve been through this imaginary scenario, we’ve arrived at our destination: First Episcopal Church of Foggville, on the planet Winter. Like the church I grew up attending in Beach Haven, on Centaurus, it’s a small building, driftwood gray with bright red doors. I’m not even particularly religious, but my father is on Winter conducting the capitol city’s orchestra in their holiday program, and we’ve used the occasion to introduce Basil to the family.

We haven’t really spoken much about faith or beliefs, Basil and I, and I wonder what his AI brain makes of all the pageantry. The pine wreaths and garlands that deck the church are Tradition to me, but he’s stated that the extent of his holiday observances was dinner at the officers’ club, when he was on Earth, or in the officers’ mess, when he was billeted on a spaceship.

We enter the narthex and are greeted by the locals. They don’t know us, but it’s Christmas Eve, so everyone is family. Most of the women are wearing fancy head gear and I grin to myself and then share a memory: “When I was little,” I tell him, “I used to count the number of women with hats.”

He lifts his eyebrows in response and turns back to the crowd, but a breath or two later he informs me that the ratio of women with hats to women without them is 3.479 to one. I laugh and squeeze his upper arm, because he’s completely predictable about things like this, and I love that about him.

We find seats about a third of the way back, near a woman and her young child, the latter obviously wearing her brand-new Christmas dress. For a moment, I’m seven years old again, and sitting with my mother. But she’s retired to Pacifica with her new partner, and Dad is remarried now, as well, and I haven’t been seven in a really long time.

The organ music begins, but I refrain from turning to see if it’s a proper pipe organ or a synthetic substitute. Tonight, being in the moment is more important than music snobbery.

For the next hour, we sit, stand, and kneel as guided by the priest and her acolytes. Basil asks if it’s merely ritual that dictates what we do when, and I whisper that it is, but that typically you sit to listen, stand to sing, and kneel to pray.

He surprises me by participating. His warm tenor has likely never sung these songs before, and I make a mental note to ask if it’s just an experiment to him, or if he means it. There’s an old saying, after all, that there are no atheists on spaceships.

The one thing Basil does not do, is approach the altar during communion. He simply makes room so that I can step past him to get to the aisle when it’s time.

After the service has ended, we leave the warmth of the church and find that they’re serving hot chocolate under the stars outside. One of the clergy members offers us candy canes to go with our cocoa, and we thank her for the refreshments and tell her we enjoyed the service.

“Are you local?” she asks.

“No, just here for the holidays.”

“But you’re part of the Star Navy, aren’t you, sir?” she asks Basil. “I can tell by your posture.”

“I am,” my partner confirms.

“Do you know… my brother serves on the Ballard and I haven’t heard from him in weeks. Do you know if they’re at the front? Or if they’re okay?”

Ordinarily, an officer wouldn’t have that information at their fingertips, but Basil’s neuro net gives him some benefits we organic types will never be able to match. He takes a few seconds to find the desired information then pitches his voice low and tells her. “The Ballard is patrolling the border, but there have been no incursions so far this month. It is likely distance that is affecting your communications.”

“Thank you,” she says.

We take our leave, linger a bit longer while we finish our drinks, and then begin the walk home.

Just down the street, we run into our former pew-mates, and we notice that the little girl has lost her candy cane. I touch the woman on the shoulder, and Basil knees before the child. “I am not fond of sugary foods,” he tells her. “Will you do me a favor and take this confection from me?”

I stifle a giggle at his formal language, but the child seems to find it enchanting. “Thank you!” she says.

Her mother echoes the sentiment.

Basil takes my hand and we walk back to the bed and breakfast that my family has taken over for the month. All too soon, we’ll be back on the Cousteau, where life is a mix of incredibly routine days punctuated by sudden bursts of danger, and I know we’re both feeling time ticking away from us.

“You were good with the little girl,” I tell him. “You’ll be a good father, someday.”

“You know I cannot sire children, Zoe,” Basil reminds me.

“I know,” I say, “but there are lots of ways to have a family.”

“You would want that, with me?”

“Of course, I would,” I assure him.

We arrive at the B&B, but instead of going inside he leads me to the bench on the front porch. We sit, and he reaches into the pocket of his coat – the one I’ve once again been wearing – and removes a small box.

“I am aware,” he begins, a slight electronic quaver evident in his voice, “that dating a synthetic life form has sometimes been challenging, and I am equally aware that our commitment to one another does not require formal agreements or legal documents. However, sharing your traditions over these last three years, four months, and seventeen days has taught me that rituals and practices matter. Weddings are one such ritual that I know to be of particular importance in your culture.”

My breath catches, but I manage to ask. “Basil, are you proposing?”

“Yes, Zoe, I am.”  He hesitates for only a split-second before imitating my speech pattern. “Zoe, are you accepting?”

“I am. I am so much.” I tell him.

As he slides the delicate engagement ring – a garnet flanked by two nearly microscopic diamonds – onto my finger, the mist which has been present all day turns into a soft snow.

The Coalition of Aligned Worlds may well be facing war with the Coprenium Empire, but right here, right now, it’s Christmas Eve on Winter, and we exist in a bubble of relative peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Counting Down

tree

I’m participating, this year, in three simultaneous daily projects related to the holiday season.

On Twitter, I’m doing #MusicAdvent, which involves sharing a youtube music video every day for the first 25 days of December. Every year there’s a theme, and this year it’s super-easy, just covers. I’ve been participating for years, but for some reason, this is the first time it occurred to me to create my playlist before the first day, which has made my life a lot easier.

On my blog, MissMeliss.com (where you’re reading this) I’m participating in Holidailies, which involves writing every day from December 1st – January 1st. I’m two days behind at the moment, though I will catch up, because what I thought was a severe sinus infection turned out to be pneumonia with a side of pleurisy. I have a z-pack and steroids, but steroids really mess me up – I haven’t been sleeping, I’m edgy, and when I took the pill on Friday, it sent me from zero to acute migraine with no aura in about ten minutes (the weather didn’t help) and then I had to take Imitrex, which basically flattens me. There was no way I was going to write. I didn’t have enough brain.

That leads to my third project this month, which is happening on my podcast – you can find out about that at BathtubMermaid.com  the Dog Days of Advent, which is flexible, in that some people do twenty-four or twenty-five episodes, some people do twelve, some people count down to Christmas, and some people span it. It’s from the same community as the Dog Days of Podcast that I’ve been doing every August for several years now. Earlier in the week, before I knew how sick I was, I’d lost my voice, and another participant offered to read for me, but I didn’t have enough pre-written to get an episode in on Saturday.

My doctor told me that even writing and recording in bed was more than she wanted me to do, but except for chills and a fever than comes and goes, I’ve mostly just been off-kilter, but Saturday was spent rearranging furniture in four rooms of our house, and between the pneumonia, which has left me too winded to exercise, and the physical work, I managed to push my recently-reconstructed knee too hard. It’s hurting in a way it hasn’t since right after surgery, but it feels stable. I suspect today, Sunday, will be spent in extremely sedentary activities like watching Hallmark Christmas movies in bed.

But enough whining.

The cleaning and rearranging, the various December projects, even the medications I’m on, all share a common theme: counting down. The cleaning is part of counting down to my mother’s arrival in about ten days. The pills are me counting down until I feel better. And the projects are counting down to Christmas, which still and always sends me into a mood of childlike delight, and the end of the year.

And in the midst of all of it, I open doors on my advent calendar – a tradition my godmother has been sharing with me for as long as I can remember. We don’t do chocolate or cheese or tea in our calendars. Nor do we have cool treasure boxes of toys and trinkets for each day. Sometimes I wish we did that, but mostly, I like the simplicity of the oversized greeting card with the tiny doors on the front.

Counting down seems to be a human need. We cross off days, check completed items off our to-do lists, and feel the every-present ticking of time.

 

Fair is Fowl

0456 - Cauldron

“Double, double, toil and trouble,” rasped the feathered being behind her.

The Scottish Play? Really?” Agathe replied as she cracked the egg into the cauldron. Its shell fell away in pieces, dissolving into the concoction she was brewing. Then the yolk plopped in. She stirred gently with a wooden spoon, resisting the urge to taste it. Sure, it looked and smelled like egg drop soup, but there were other… ingredients… that were not so benign.

“You turned me into this half-human, half-bird,” the other replied. “You’re stuck with me until you manage to turn me back.”

“I’ve told you,” Agathe reminded her, “it was an accident. You weren’t supposed to sip the tea from that mug. It was supposed to be sprinkled over the hens’ feed to increase their laying capacity.”

“Because you’re too cheap to build a separate enclosure and buy a second rooster.”

Agathe rolled her eyes, ignoring the other’s comment.

“Admit it! You are; you are!” the other said.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have to be so cautious about spending,” Agathe said, accenting her oblique correction, “if someone I know helped bring in some income.”

“Like this? How could I possibly do that?” the other was incensed.

“I don’t know, give folks rides on your back? Go out on street corners and recite ‘The Raven?'” She turned the flame up under the cauldron, and the contents inside began to hiss and roil.

“Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” came the gravelly commentary from behind her.

“Merlin’s shriveled balls! Must you?” Agathe complained. Then she sighed. “Alright, I need the sword now.”

“Mine,” said the other.

“I know it’s yours. We have to dip it into the soup and then you have to lick it.”

“Lick it?”

“Yes. Lick it. Lick it good.”

“You know, this form isn’t so bad. I mean… I don’t mind it, except the egg-laying thing.”

“The egg-laying thing is what’s going to turn you back,” Agathe said. “The sword please?”

Her temporarily feathered friend relinquished the weapon and watched as the witch dipped it into the soup – spell – concoction – thing. “Do I really have to lick it?”

“If you want to be returned to your original form, yes.”

Warily, the feathered one allowed the sword to be drawn gently – oh, so gently – through its beak. “Well? I don’t feel any different.”

“It takes a minute.”

“Oh.”

They waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And finally, there was a puff of grey and white smoke and the feathered hybrid had disappeared, replaced with a woman who looked like a slightly younger version of Agathe.

“I’m back,” she said. “I’m me! I’m back.” She danced around the room, laughing and crying at once. Then she looked at her sister. “I think you should taste the soup.”

“We don’t know what it will do.”

“Turnabout’s fair play,” the younger woman said.

“Alright, fine.” She dipped her wooden spoon into the mixture, then lifted it out and tasted it.

“Well?”

“Needs salt.”

“But… you’re not changing. Why are you not changing?”

“Oh, the soup had nothing to do with it. I just wanted a recipe to win the tasty treats contest. I could have turned you back any time.”

“But… Agathe. I’m your sister!”

“Yeah, but you stole my favorite pointy-toed boots.”

“You turned me into a bird thing for that?!”

“Well, foul is fair and fair’s fowl.”  She giggled. No. She cackled. Get it? Fowl? F-o-w-l.” She cackled some more.

There was a splash as Agathe’s Exotic Hybrid Egg-drop Soup became Agathe’s New Dress.

The other turned to leave, but her Agathe called her back.  “Doris! Come back here. Doris! I’m sorry.”

But the younger woman just called back over her shoulder. “Nevermore.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Briar Wreath

454 - Wreath

It was a delicate task, and one that was crowned with honor, to gather the wreath that would be displayed above the capitol doors.

In seasons past, Master Gavrel had led his party to the greenwood and the pinewood, selecting individual boughs from the trees there, and then he and the other masters and mistresses (who were also called ‘master’ now, but forgave him for using the old ways because he was old) would weave them into the Great Wreath.

But this year, this year, Master Gavrel wanted something different, something organic. So, he went to the winter wood. He knew that others had gone before him, seeking a wreath from the Order of the Brambles, and that most had come back injured and empty handed, while others had not returned at all.

He had prepared though. He had learned the prayers and practiced the ritual bows and walks. He had brought an offering of fresh soil and nutrient-rich mulch, and not one in his company carried an axe or saw.

Gavrel’s party reached the clearing, and he alone moved forward, through the impaled skeletons of those who had made this attempt, and failed, his movements precise, deliberate.

He spoke the words of the prayers and made his offerings of soil and mulch. He made his bow, and walked in a circle around the offerings, then bowed again.

And then he waited.

He was expecting drama. A sudden storm, perhaps, or trees come to life. But none of that happened.

Instead, there was a rustling sound, then a strong shake, and the suspended wreath dropped to the forest floor. He gestured for his companions to step forward and retrieve it, and then he bowed again and backed out of the clearing.

The wreath, wrapped in white lights, was hung above the capitol doors, and while some people complained that it looked like a bunch of dead sticks, most passersby understood that it was meant to represent the stark beauty of winter, and the idea that death is part of the entire cycle of life.

Master Gavrel stood among the crowd on the last night of the winter festival and smiled.