“Basil. The next time I decide I want pie at midnight, you’re getting it.” Zoe said to her fiancé as she returned to their bedroom with a slice of pumpkin and a stricken expression.
“What is wrong, dearest?”
“Apparently, Mom and Ed polished off the champagne from our engagement party.”
“Is that unusual? Is it not tradition that one must never leave a bottle unfinished.”
“Well, yes, that is the tradition, but typically you don’t do that and then get naked in the middle of the living room when you have guests in the house.”
“Your mother insisted just yesterday that we were not guests, but family.”
“Okay, but that was when she wanted me to set the table and you to help hang garland from all the arches.”
“I do not understand.”
“Let me put it this way… you know the song ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?'” Zoe waited for partner to nod. Then she continued. “Well, Mom wasn’t tickling Ed underneath his beard. She was… let’s just say I got a full-frontal view of Ed’s wedding tackle and I’m suddenly grateful to be committed to a man who doesn’t age.”
“Was there something about seeing your stepfather’s genitals that alarmed you, dearest?”
“Snow,” she answered, shuddering. “It was like… his… nether… hair was like barbarian snow at the bottom of his… oh, god, I can’t believe I’m even talking about this. You asked if I was alarmed? More like scarred for life!”
Basil had always found humor a bit difficult to navigate. It was such a subjective condition. What made someone laugh might offend another. Still, his partner’s flustered state made him chuckle, at first, and then laugh outright.
“It’s not funny!” Zoe protested.
“Dearest, you are judging your parents unfairly. While it is true that their behavior is a bit questionable while we are in the house, if they truly imbibed as much champagne as you implied it is likely that they simply got caught in the moment.” He gave her a few seconds to process. “And I might remind you that just last week you used the color of my skin to inspire a song while we were… similarly engaged. Or must I refresh your memory with a chorus of ‘Silver Balls?'”
Zoe stared at Basil for a long moment. Then she burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just… I never expected to be the one who caught my mother in a compromising position. It’s more normal for a parent to walk in on their child.”
“Dearest,” Basil said in a reproachful tone. “As you have frequently observed, very little about our relationship is ‘normal.'”
“There you go being right again,” Zoe grumbled good-naturedly. “Well, at least I got pie.”
Much later that evening, Zoe nudged her partner. “Basil, promise me something?”
“Even if you decide to write an aging subroutine someday, swear to me you will never allow yourself to have a saggy old-man ass.”
For the second time that night, Basil was amused, but he managed to stifle the laughter, and all he said was, “I promise to try.”
We’ll fly to the sky on champagne
And shout to everyone in sight
That since the world began
No woman or a man
Has ever been as happy as we are tonight.
“The Night They Invented Champagne” is from the musical Gigi, and was written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
Harmony surveyed her underwater domain and used her tailfin to push herself backward so she could see the very top of her tree.
Oh, it wasn’t a decorated pine, like the dry-landers had. She’d always thought pine was what you did when you missed someone so much that your heart hurt, the way she did when Oskar wasn’t able to visit her for long stretches of time.
Rather, her Christmas tree was a living kelp plant she’d coaxed into the shape of a tall triangle, then adorned with shells and sea glass, and – with a bit of bribery – even a sea star at the top (actually a family of them that she fed well with krill and brine shrimp.)
Studying her work, Harmony moved a shell one level higher and replaced it with a piece of blue sea glass. Blue and red were her favorites, and they were also the rarest colors. She’d heard the humans on the beach make similar comments, which is why she was certain Oskar would appreciate her gift to him.
Oh, the thunder god she’d been in love with for half of forever didn’t really celebrate Christmas the way her kind did. Rather, he observed the winter solstice and the way it marked the end of the increasing darkness in his world. But he brought her gifts every time they met, and she was all too aware that she had little to offer.
A great boom that was more a feeling than a sound rocked Harmony’s cave, and she grinned. Gathering the woven bag that held the gift, she swam out of her home, and up to the surface.
Her lover, her Oskar, was waiting for her on an ice floe just big enough for two, and he was smiling. “Here you are, my breath-and-blood. Here you are. Here I am. Is full moon. Is solstice. You ask. I come.”
Harmony reached up and allowed the burly rainmaker to hoist her from the water. As always, their floating meeting place was covered in thick furs, and as her tail split into legs, he wrapped her in the warm pelts. “It’s a special day in my world,” she told him. “I brought you a gift.”
“You are gift,” he countered.
“That’s sweet, but I have a different gift, something to share with your loved ones. Hold out your hands.”
He did as she bade, and she poured out the contents of her bag – red and blue sea glass – letting the pieces flow over his fingers. “We decorate with this,” she explained. “I thought…”
But she never finished her thought because Oskar was laughing. “Red and blue…” he said. “My favorite. Red for the lightning fire and blue for the water. Is brilliant. Is us.”
Harmony smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, it is.” Then she tickled Oskar under his beard. “You always sing for me. This time, it’s my turn.” And she launched into another chorus of her favorite holiday song: Jingle Shells.
“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?”
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.
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.
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.
We all know the story: a young husband and his heavily pregnant wife seek a safe place where she can birth their child. With no room at the inn, they find shelter in a stable and lay their new babe in a manger. There are shepherds and wise men and a star to follow. There are gifts of silver and gold, frankincense and myrrh. There is a promised savior, a symbol of hope and love and all that is holy.
It’s the first noel. The first Christmas. But it’s far from the last.
Over time, that old story, the one with the babe in the straw and the star in the sky, has been turned into a song or several. We sing their tale and celebrate its anniversary with symbols incorporated from other traditions. We try our best to remember that message of peace and love and hope and add in a sprinkling of patience, a dash of wisdom, and the occasional burst of innocent delight.
But at the same time, we’ve commercialized that chronicle. Merchandised it. This second noel – really the two-thousand-and-somethingth noel – finds us juxtaposing stuffed stockings and decorations on sale since Halloween (a different old story, that) with the pressure to buy the perfect gift, make the perfect dinner, be the picture perfect family.
And yet, as humans we are imperfect. Our families are created, cracked, recombined. We have half-these and step-those, inlaws by marriage and relatives-by-choice, and some of them mix well and others repel each other like the matching poles of the strongest magnets.
But the star still shines in all our hearts, even though we may interpret it differently.
Christmas, far in the future.
The third noel is the once-and-future noel. It sees the star – that star – leading us to new worlds. We plant new communities, feed and water them, and hope that they bloom. We sing the old songs of a far-away place and time and realize that we have used our technology to repeat the journey. We are now that husband, that wife, looking for shelter in unwelcoming places, and making the best we can of what we find.
The children born in the age of the third noel, may not be the saviors of the expanded universe, but they still hold promise and potential.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
I smell the scent of oranges before I see that my husband is at the table with a bowl of Clementines and a mug of coffee and his iPad. I’m not sure if he’s reading one of the novels I bought him for Christmas, playing a game, or doing a crossword – all are equally possible.
He’s eating the oranges one at a time, methodically peeling and sectioning each one, then slowly savoring each petite section. These tiny, sweet, citrus fruits are his latest addiction, and a welcome replacement for the near-constant stream of gummy candy that came before them.
“Those smell amazing,” I say, by way of a greeting. I have my own iPad with me. “Peel one for me?”
He made enough coffee for two, so I pour a mug of my own. He takes his with cream and sugar. Like eighty-seven percent of American women, I’m avoiding carbs, so mine is black. I’ve learned to tolerate it that way, but there are times when I long for the creamy taste of a full-fat latte.
Oranges aren’t exactly low-carb, but one cannot live on kale alone. Sometimes, you have to indulge. And the sweet-tart tang of the brightly colored fruit is what I’m choosing as an indulgence right now.
I sit across from my husband. He’s already peeled and sectioned one of the oranges for me, and it’s waiting on a white paper napkin. (I know, I know, we should be using the seven thousand cloth napkins we already possess rather than putting more non-recyclable waste into the world, but somehow, we never do.)
“Thank you,” I say, popping a section – meticulously cleaned of pith (he’s more particular about this than I am) – into my mouth. “Oh, god. That’s so good.”
My husband lifts his head from his reading and grins at me, his blue eyes full of mischief. “I heard a news story the other night, that studies have shown that men find it really sexy when women eat oranges, let the juice dribble down their chins, and let their partners lick it off.”
“No, please,” I said. “For one thing, you know I hate being sticky.”
“For another, you’re usually the one who feeds me fruit. I wouldn’t want to ruin our dynamic.” I bite into another section of orange, and we both laugh when the juice squirts him in the face. “Close enough?” I ask.