Here’s a bright little story to enjoy as we wind down toward the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
I wrote it for a charity anthology a few years back. The book is called Winter Wishes ( <– click that there link if you’d rather buy the whole anthology right now) and I plan to post my contribution here every year around this time.
Why? Because I can. Because I love the story. And because it makes a nice sign-off before I go offline for mid-winter hibernation.
Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Yule, Merry Christmas, bright Lohri, joyous Kwanzaa, festive Festivus and good holidays to all. I’ll see you all on the far side of the New Year. In the meantime, enjoy Solstice Dance.
Long ago in a little town far beyond the farthest sea…
Wren’s brother elbowed her in the bruised spot under her ribs. “I dare you,” he whispered in her ear. “Don’t be a scared little baby. I did it last year.”
She shoved him with her shoulder. “Shut up, Danyl. Just stop it.”
He dropped a dusty cup painted with holiday patterns into her dishpan. It splashed high enough to soak her apron and drip onto the sideboard where they were working. Behind them, their mother said calmly, “If you break any of that china, your father will be very upset.”
Wren’s heart thumped faster, and she widened her eyes at Danyl, pleading. He winked at her and mopped up the spill. “We are being careful, Mama.”
Then he mouthed, “You have to do it.”
Wren shook her head: no.
She did not want to spend the bitter cold Midwinter night waiting in the woods for creatures that didn’t exist. She was twelve now. She was too old to believe that magical spirits gathered in the deep forest to dance for the returning sun. That was a story to tell babies in the church attic while the grownups shuffled through rituals down below. So what if she was the oldest child in the village this year? She couldn’t dance, and she wasn’t going to sneak out of the attic for a stupid old tradition.
After Midwinter Night would come Midwinter Day’s feasting and partying, and Papa always hosted a dance on behalf of the Royals, whose tithes he collected. If Wren spent the night in the woods she would be too tired to enjoy any of it. She had been working twice as hard a usual to be ready for that party, and she was not giving up the payoff.
“Not going to the stupid woods,” she said under her breath, so Mother wouldn’t hear.
Now their mother sat at the head of the formal dining table with her head bowed over the crystal glasses she was cleaning. Wren dried down the plate she had rinsed and picked up the cup. Danyl grabbed a handful of her clean dishes and added them to his own stack.
He looked down his nose at Wren, and his eyes twinkled. They were green like hers and Mama’s, not brown like Papa’s, and he had fine, thin bones like theirs too. That was why he’d often gotten the side of Papa’s hand when he was younger. “No son of mine will be soft,” Papa would roar when he shoved Danyl out to hunt rats in the barn or worked him in the fields like the older, bigger boys.
And now Danyl was older and bigger and technically a man after spending his thirteenth Midsummer in the Youth’s Cabin. Sometimes he could be as mean as Papa now, only more clever about it. He raised his eyebrows over those green mischievous eyes, and then he quite deliberately chipped a bowl against a plate in Wren’s stack.
Their mother looked up at the noise, and when she saw Wren’s horrified expression, her frown was the stormy one that always made Wren feel slow and useless. “What did you do now, Wren? Can’t I trust you with anything fragile?”
A pained whimper escaped Wren’s throat. She knew better than to rat on Danyl. She’d learned that lesson years ago. Mother loved him best and didn’t even pretend otherwise. She backed away as Mother approached to inspect the damage, and of course she tripped on the knotted rag rug. Her fall made the dishes rattle and added bruises on top of bruises.
“I’m sorry,” she said from the floor. “I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, honestly, Wren.” Mother set aside the cup and put her hands on her hips. “How can one child be clumsy enough for two? Danyl, pull the ornament box down from the attic for her to unpack. She can’t break those.”
Wren burned with resentment, but she only bared her teeth at Danyl when he gave her a hand up and led her away. He was not Papa or Mother, and she did not have to obey him. Not even if he tormented her straight through until Midwinter was done.
“Midwinter is stupid,” she said, following Danyl upstairs and then up the ladder into the attic crawl space. “None of it is real. It’s all an excuse for dancing and drinking. No one believes the stupid old stories.”
“You will,” said Danyl. “Once you go.”
He set the dark box on the carpet in front of the parlor couch where Mother and Papa sat and read on cold evenings next to the fireplace. He even loosened the tightly-knotted string for Wren and went to fetch a polishing cloth from the dining room.
The box lid squeaked when Wren lifted it, revealing a patchwork rainbow of fabric pieces. The ornaments smelled of dust and sweet oils, and tears welled up in her eyes. Every year, she forgot how much she loved this part of the holiday—the memories of laughter and fun, the moments of peace, the tingle of anticipation before the Day—she always forgot all that, until it was almost time.
After every Midwinter’s giddy whirl came the months of cold and fear and counting every last grain of wheat. Midwinter was promise that they would survive the season’s icy grip. The sun would come back, spring would follow, and times of plenty would come again. All the stories, all the songs, all the traditions came down to one thing: hope. It was easy to forget about hope, most of the year.
Danyl knelt beside her and offered her the cloth and a smile. This smile was softer, even a little sad around the edges. “Please, Wren. I know you don’t believe, nobody does, these days, but it’s important, it truly is.”
She pulled out a figurine at random and began gently unwinding it from its wrappings. The brass points of a sun emerged. “You said it was cold and boring. You said you didn’t do anything, last year.”
Danyl rose to his feet, and for a weird instant he didn’t look like her stupid brother, standing there with that odd smile on his face and his hands dangling loose at the ends of his too-short sleeves. He looked like a sad stranger.
“I lied,” he said. “I’m begging, Wren. Swear to me.”
Wren shook off a chilly touch of apprehension. He looked so serious. The promise burst out of her in a surly growl. “All right, fine. I swear. I’ll go.”
Danyl nodded firmly, just like Papa did sometimes on those rare occasions Wren pleased him. After he left, the fire crackled in the fireplace, and in the other room, Mother began to hum a hymn to Rayani: a jig tune for the Midwinter Day celebration, not one of the mournful pleas for the night services. Wren wiped away the tears and went to work. One by one, she polished the carved gods and goddesses until every inset glass chip and line of silver gleamed bright.
Arranged on the mantelpiece with evergreen boughs around their feet, they made a pretty display. Rayani stood off on one edge with wooden hands outstretched, holding the brass sun. The lesser gods of field and forest stood on the other edge in a clump with their backs to her, discussing how to tempt her back to the world and keep humanity from drifting into never-ending cold and darkness. Wren stroked a finger down the backs of her favorites: Chiala the Fox, lover of fools, Brack the Frog, lord of change and clean water, swift Heffel of the long mane and tail, protector of pasture and paddock. In the center stood Rayani’s children Stella and Steil; earth and sea both abandoned when Rayani went wandering away.
Tomorrow night, the other gods would join them, and Papa would light candles that made their shadows dance. In the church, everyone in the village would perform the songs and dances of the faithful. And Wren would dance in the deep woods. Oldest child of the village this year, on the dividing line between immaturity and adulthood, on the night that divided the season in half, she would beg Rayani to come back to the world for one more year.
Alone of course, because it was all just stories and rituals.
At least no one would see her stumble and trip. Clumsy child, all thumbs and elbows. “No child of mine will be this stupid and slow,” that was Papa’s roar for her, and she didn’t even have Mama to defend her. Honestly, Wren, was Mother’s favorite phrase. I’m not angry, I’m disappointed.
Mother called out, “Honestly, Wren, how long does it take to set up some statues? Are you done yet? The pies are baking, and we need more wood for the oven.”
Wren touched the sharp points of the brass sun, gleaming now from her hard work. Rayani’s joyful smile, carved into the wood grain, taunted her. “If I were you,” Wren whispered, “If I could escape my family, I would never, ever come back.”
* * * *
Snow fell on Midwinter’s Eve. Fat, fluffy snowflakes came down in veils of white, piling high and heavy on the window sills, and drifting in the village streets. By the time the family trooped from the house to the church, Wren was wading knee deep in it and wishing she had never given her promise to Danyl.
At least she had on her thickest socks. Her felted boots were waxed and waterproof, and her woolen cloak was lined in fur. She wore her warmest winter clothes beneath her holiday finery, and her gloves had not a single hole. Tonight would be dreary and cold, lonely and pointless, but she wouldn’t freeze to death.
Once inside the attic, she didn’t even have time to take off her coat before she was being pushed towards the window, hugged and jollied along the way. Everyone had a gift for her to take along. The strap for a flask of hot cider went over her head, paper packets of cookies ended up in her pockets, and handmade trinkets were pressed into her hands. One of the younglings still in diapers presented a lumpy clay horse daubed in inks, then shrieked with laughter as he ran back to his sister.
Her arms were full in no time, and she started to drop things, of course. Her best friend Gerri tidied everything into a knapsack: that was her gift. Gerri hugged her at the window, whispering, “Make up a good story for tomorrow, won’t you? Danyl was so dull, last year. I’m teeny bit jealous, too. If Mama had popped me out one day sooner, it’d be me getting all the treats tonight. Goddess bless, and oh, be careful, Wren. You know how you are.”
She was careful, sliding down the icy cedar shingles. She only slipped once, bruising her elbow on the copper gutter and catching splinters under her nails. Then she was standing in the dark, snowy street, sucking on her torn fingernail and feeling a tingle of excitement. She hadn’t expected the gifts. It was tradition like all the rest, but she really hadn’t thought anyone would care, not with it being her, this year. Tears stung her eyes, an upwelling of happiness so sharp it hurt, coming out.
The congregation’s singing voices pushed her toward the sheep pasture and the trees beyond. She hummed the same tune and mouthed the words, and the rhythm carried her feet forward. “Return to us, Rayani bright and kind, return your blessings to the world this night. To us give light and warmth again, embrace your sad and lonely children.”
The falling snow muffled all other sounds, wrapping her song in a veil of silence, and her breath fogged before her face. The moon rose beyond the clouds, teasing a faint glow from bare birch limbs and the white-draped evergreens. Wonder overwhelmed her, a chill that was somehow also warm and exciting. Magic might be a story for babies, but this night was beautiful and wild, and it was all hers.
She still had one verse to sing when she reached the Midsummer fire circle, deep within the forest. She spread wide her arms and shouted it to the sky, grinning to herself. Maybe this wouldn’t be a bad night after all.
She reached for the cider and was taking the first, sweet swallow when someone spoke, behind her. “You have a donkey’s voice, but I like your enthusiasm. We’ll have a fine dance this year.”
She dropped the flask and fell on her butt trying to spin around.
Laughter filled the air— one voice at first, then a hundred, a thousand. Thousands. Wren gaped up at an audience she knew had not been there a moment earlier. She had walked past row after row of empty log seats, lumps under drifted white snow. Now the whole clearing was packed with bodies.
Gods and goddesses surrounded her in a crowd so closely packed she could hardly pick out one form from another. She glimpsed thick leaves and narrow reeds, ears and antlers, beaks and black noses. Scales and fins flashed, here and there. Every power in the universe was represented in that throng, and they were all laughing at her.
Humiliation soured her happiness, and a lifetime of being a disappointment poured out of her in outraged tears. She got to her hands and knees, and screamed, “I can’t help being clumsy! Don’t laugh at me. Stop it! Shut up and be nice!”
Silence fell as if all noise had been sliced out of the world. The crowd of gods stood waiting with wide eyes, laid-back ears and flattened crests. A stand of grass rippled uneasily. One form separated from the rest, treading forward on delicate paws until it stood nose to nose with Wren. Its eyes were like glowing emeralds, green and bright.
It looked like Wren’s favorite statuette come to life. The bright red fur on the fox’s back was white as the snow on her breast, shaded to black around her muzzle and feet. Wren’s heart clenched in her chest. Is this real? Can that be Chiala? The goddess of fools and mischief is real?
The fox licked her cheek. Its tongue felt real, warm and wet, and it left behind a chill track of slobber. Wren sat back on her rump and scrubbed her face against her coat sleeve. “Hey! Behave yourself.”
Chiala sat in the snow, tucking her fluffy tail around her feet, and her tongue lolled out of her open mouth in a doggy smile. Then she tilted back one triangular ear, as if to say, Well? What now?
Wren stared back. “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”
The goddess’s laugh was as soaring and joyful as bells ringing, as fresh as the first cool breeze of autumn blowing away summer’s humidity. The other gods murmured and stirred, looking worried, especially when Chiala trotted proudly around the ring with her tail flagged up high, yipping the whole way.
“Tell me what’s so funny,” Wren said when the fox sat down in front of her again.
“You, child. Humanity. Chaos. Look at them.” Chiala indicated the crowd with her muzzle. “You silenced us, and now you’ve asked me what to do. Me. I’m the family troublemaker, yes? What if I say, ‘dismiss us all, and let the world freeze’? What if you listen? Oh, yes. You’ve put a proper scare into them. Well done, child. Well done.”
Wren looked at the sea of faces large and small, and they did look fearful, but why? How could I silence gods? Then she remembered. They danced for Rayani this night, and only a child could lead them. They were hers to command, for this one night, for these few hours.
For a moment, one horrible, unworthy moment, she wanted to say, “Let Rayani run free forever if that’s what she wants.” There would be no more disappointing her mother and enraging her father. No more mockery and embarrassment. Let it all freeze.
Paper crinkled in her pockets, and in her mind, Gerri’s voice said, “Bring home a good story.” She bit her lip, remembering little Ben giggling as he handed her a stupid ugly toy. She would not wish to see that joy die starving in the cold and dark.
“It’s tempting,” she told Chiala, “But I promised to do this right. If you ask me, it’s a really stupid idea letting a twelve-year-old decide the fate of the world.”
“It was my idea, can’t you tell?” Chiala’s mouth dropped open in a smile, and her green eyes twinkled. “Now pick your three partners, and we will square off to dance the sun back!”
“I would rather sit and watch the rest of you,” Wren said. “I’ll only trip and fall.”
A rumble of disapproval ran through the gods, and Wren shrank, inside. “But I can’t,“ she whispered. “You’ll laugh at me again. Don’t make me cry.”
Chiala came close and licked at her hand. “It is no small thing to give gods the gift of mirth,” she said proudly. “I’ve made it my specialty. Watch, and I will show you how to dance like a fool.”
Then the fox laughed again like bells and breezes, and she leaped into the air, giving her body a twist. She landed on her back in a drift, so that only her legs showed, sticking up out of the snow. The rest of the gods roared with laughter, and this time Wren could hear the happy note in their voices. It was funny, when it wasn’t her.
Chiala stuck her head up, and her mouth was open and laughing as well. “Grace is not the gift we need tonight,” she said. “Pick me, and we shall be fools together.”
As soon as Wren nodded, the other gods flowed around her, a sea of furry backs and leafy branches, until she could not help but laugh while they all murmured and buzzed and bragged about their dancing skills. They made her stumble among them, but she shoved and tickled and laughed her way to where Heffel stood waiting, one rear leg cocked patiently, tail swishing.
“I choose you,” she said, stroking his muzzle. He swung his head to look her over with one liquid dark eye, and then he neighed happily before saying, “I’m honored.”
Wren had a feeling he wasn’t often chosen. His heavy feathered feet were not made for sprightly jigs. With him beside her, the crowd was easier to manage, and she soon found her last partner lounging beside the reeds. ”There you are, Brack,” she said, lifting the frog to Heffel’s back, where he puffed out his throat pouch in surprise and pride. “Me? Me? Me! She picked me!”
Wren explained her choices as she led them to the center of the ring where Chiala waited. “I’m not as clumsy when my feet are off the ground, you see. In the water, on horseback, there, I feel graceful. If I have to dance, however badly, then I want to do it with you two.”
Chiala yipped, and Heffel snorted, but it was Brack who said in his burbling voice, “You cannot be bad at this. Rayani forgets that we care, and we remind her. It’s the doing that matters, not the how. Now, child. Make your bows to the sun’s other children, and we shall begin.”
Wren gaped at the tall pale man and his taller broader sister, sitting on the clean swept log behind Chiala. Had they been there all along? The man smiled and waved, and his green hair floated and waved as well. He cradled a guitar in his arms, and his sister raised a drum with one wide, strong hand. Ready? Stella’s sad eyes asked, and the ground shivered underfoot as her fingers brushed the drumhead.
No. Wren held her breath and nodded. Ready.
Brack closed his eyes and drew in his head. Heffel bent a foreleg, Chiala leaped high, and then the drum spoke. It thrummed through Wren’s bones, and when Steil plucked the first note from the guitar, the tune rippled in her blood.
There were proper steps to the dances, but Wren didn’t know them well, and she went the wrong way so often that her companions quickly abandoned their attempts to school her. When Wren tripped over her toes and fell to her knees, Chiala used her as a vault to leap onto Heffel’s back. He bucked, startled, and snow cascaded over Brack’s head, burying him completely. The frog hopped out, croaking and shaking his long back legs—and Stella laughed aloud.
Wren stood stunned, knees shaking at the glory of that voice, and for an instant, the universe stood still. Then Chiala leaped off Heffel’s back, running between his legs, Brack tripped the fox with a flick of his long sticky tongue—and Wren pelted them all with snowballs.
The other gods danced too, in a swishing, growling lively whirl, but the center of the ring belonged to Wren and her unorthodox partners. She laughed and ran and jumped and forgot to be careful, and when the drum stopped and the guitar fell silent, she was clinging to Heffel’s mane with a frog on her shoulders and a fox hugged to her chest, while the horse god trotted in circles with his neck arched and tail held high.
That was when Wren finally noticed that she had a shadow. The whole fire circle glowed with the rosy gold of sunrise, although the woods and sky were still black with night’s shadows. Heffel stopped in his tracks, and as he turned, he bowed low. Wren slid right off him, over his head, into the snow at Rayani’s feet. Brack burped in her ear.
The goddess stood with her head bowed and her hands tucked into the sleeves of her robes. The statue makers got one thing wrong, Wren noticed. Rayani didn’t carry the sun. It followed her like a brilliant hummingbird, hovering at her shoulder. The weight of it bowed her shoulders, though, and the power of it thrummed through the air. When she lifted a hand, the circle was suddenly empty of all but her. Even Stella and Steil vanished, leaving only Wren and her dance partners.
The snow looked untouched, as if no dancers had spent hours trampling it beneath root and hoof, paw and claw. Wren marveled at the glistening, pristine blanket of white covering the clearing. Then Rayani raised her head.
Her smile burned a mark on Wren’s soul. Every smile that ever existed had been born in that smile, every loving glance took its glimmer from the light in those eyes. All that was love, joy and the cozy contentment of belonging had sprung from this goddess’s essence.
“Um,” Wren said. She hugged Chiala a little tighter, for courage. “Hello? Have you come to dance with us?”
Rayani’s eyebrows went up, quirking at the center, and then she clapped her hands. “Oh, if only I could. I do believe that was the most entertaining dance I have seen in centuries. No child, I must hurry along, if I’m to make my Midwinter deadline. I almost missed it, as usual. Thank you for pulling me back to face the right way with your joy. You have the gratitude of us all.”
Chiala squirmed around, “She means you get to ask her for a gift. Anything within the abilities of the gods can be yours. Make me proud, little fool. Be creative. Ask for something expensive or impossible.”
Wren thought about it. She had a lot of wishes stored up. No one had ever told her about this, and she knew, somehow, that she would leave this out of any story. Some secrets simply could not be shared.
“What did Danyl want?” she asked. “My brother. Last year. What did he do?”
Rayani rolled her eyes, which only made Wren love her all the more. “Like every boy ever, he picked dryads and naiads to dance with, and joy he got from it, but it’s so predictable, I sometimes despair of my creation. Then he asked to know who his father was, as if that mattered in the least. I hate to tell you this, but your brother is a very shallow person.”
Heffel snorted. “He is a colt. It comes with the territory. He’ll grow out of it.”
Brack croaked an agreement, and Chiala licked Wren on the ear. “Be clever,” the fox said, and then sprang away, vanishing into a shadow between tree trunks. Heffel nodded heavily and followed, tail swishing behind him as he vanished without leaving even a hoof print to mark his passage. Brack said, “Brrrack,”in a pleased tone, and disappeared without bothering to move.
Their departure caught Wren by surprise and left her feeling bereft and empty. Rayani said gently, “You must choose a gift now, child of earth and ocean, and return to the world. Don’t take Chiala too seriously. None of us do. It needn’t be something showy or impossible. Ask what’s in your heart.”
“I want—” She wanted tonight again. She wanted this forever. “I want to bring joy and laughter to others,” she said to herself, thinking it through. “I want to dance like a fool and sing like a frog and feel the earth pass under my feet as fast as if I could fly. Every day. Forever.”
Silence met her words, and she looked up with a sudden lurch of fear. “Is that a bad thing? Is it something you can’t give?”
“Oh, sweet one, I can give you all that except for the forever part.” The goddess bent close, and dizziness washed over Wren. Rayani’s breath smelled like flowers and cut hay and was as warm as the fire on a cold evening. Her lips brushed Wren’s forehead. “And I will give you a gift for yourself too, as a reward for your clever generosity. Chiala will be more than proud when I tell her.”
Wren’s dizziness turned to light and weightless exhaustion. As her eyes fluttered shut, she heard the sun goddess mutter, “And knowing that mangy mutt, she’s eavesdropping now.”
A fox’s squalling laughter was the last sound Wren heard as sleep claimed her.
* * * *
She woke in the gray light before dawn, cold and alone in the fire ring. The only footprints in the snow were her own, and her stiff muscles were the only proof that she had danced away the night alone or in company—the muscles and the crushed cookies in her pockets. She grinned, remembering a dive under Heffel’s hooves that sent Brack flying into Chiala’s face.
Her stomach growled, and she shivered. If she hurried, she could be in bed in time to come down for Midwinter breakfast. If she really hurried, she might have time to sneak in a snack first. It was worth a try, and the exertion would keep her warm, at least until she planted her face in a snowdrift.
She took off running for town, working on her story for the other children all the way down the trail. Only when she got to the pasture did she realize that she hadn’t tripped once. She scared a few goats, whooping with surprise and joy, but no one else heard.
It was the best Midwinter Day ever.
~~ The End ~~
This tale and seventeen more excellent stories about holidays can be found in the charity anthology Winter Wishes, presented by The Dragon’s Rocketship Publishing. (all proceeds benefit the Make A Wish foundation)