Up On The Roof: a short story

Introduction: the magazine that originally published this story is no longer active. I don’t want Grawlix the gargoyle to disappear, but no one is clamoring at me for reprint rights, (hahahahahaha) so I’m pasting the story here in my own corner of the interwebs.

It’s about a little girl, a big gargoyle, and the power of belief. Happy Spring.


 

Every Friday, the girl on the roof planted snowmen. I watched her in silence every time she crept out the fire door and did her little ritual, and every Friday it bugged me more. Patrons aren’t allowed on the roof. The hulking HVAC units, the crunchy gravel, the slanted, begrimed skylights, and above all the wide parapets that made such perfect roosts—all those things belong to me and my sister and brothers.

That’s the Agreement. The Librarians guard the contents of the building, both the mundane and the secret, and we guard the outside. Four times a year the Administrators do their dances and chants to refresh our wards, and twice a year the Pages scrub us and the skylights, spread a new layer of tar on the gravel and change air filters. We watch over them all, and they go away when they’re done.

The roof was ours. Patrons stayed in the Down-below. Except this one.

Every Friday this winter, this little girl showed up with her puffy red coat zipped up to her tiny nose and a cup full of ice cubes clutched in both hands. She would spend an hour sticking ice cubes into every snowdrift and whispering to them, and then she would creep away. She never once looked at us, the watching guardians. It was insulting, that’s what it was.

The kid was so sure those ice cubes would grow into snowmen, too. She told each chunk of frozen water what she wanted it to do until it dripped through her fingers, but of course the trick never worked. She didn’t have the power to make the magic work. She said please, and you can do it, and I believe in you as if the words would make a difference, but power has nothing to do with faith or courtesy.

Like all the other Patrons, she was nothing but blind ignorance wrapped up in wet flesh.

The ignorance didn’t bother me. The way she kept ignoring all of us did. We’re huge, all of us. We’re designed to look terrifying, but she just didn’t care. It irked me.

This Friday she crept out the fire door onto the icy gravel just like always, and after a look around, she headed straight for the snow piled in the lee of the north parapet. That put her right under my great big nose, just like previous week and the one before that, and she still didn’t even look up.

It was enough to make any gargoyle feel insecure. Why couldn’t I impress a kid whose whole head would fit in one nostril? What was wrong with me?

I should’ve kept my mouth shut. Be silent is one of the big Rules, right up there with never let them see you move. We have a lot of rules. No one can follow all of them all the time, and there’s only so much rudeness a person can take.

Besides, the kid broke the rules first. Patrons didn’t belong on the roof. She must’ve sneaked past two locked doors to get to the roof stairs, and children weren’t allowed to wander unsupervised. That made three rules she’d broken right there. Who knew what else she’d done?

So I opened my big mouth, figuratively speaking. <What’cha doin,’ kid?>

She shrieked, which was satisfying, and she ran all the way to the fire door. I laughed so hard. Her stubby, little legs almost blurred, she was moving so fast.

Then she stopped and turned around, slowly, with her little brown hands all tight-fisted and her lumpy brown face scrunched up in an expression any gargoyle would be proud to display.

“Rawr,” she said, and marched right back to me. “Rawwrr.”

Right. In. My. Face.

She waved her hands over her head and did it again. “RAWWRRR!”

I admit, I was taken aback. I have big ears. The yelling was actively painful.

She was missing three teeth on her lower jaw, and the remaining teeth didn’t look useful. I’d never noticed how pointless Patron teeth were. Not that I use mine for biting, but they’re nice and sharp. The Pages see to that, filing off mineral buildup from rainwater and polishing them smooth.

Maybe she was defective. That would let me off the hook for talking to her. I decided to risk satisfying my curiosity. <Is that supposed to frighten me, or are you incapable of forming words?>

She lowered her arms and closed her mouth, only to open it again immediately. “Ha! I knew it. You did talk. Your mouth doesn’t move, but you speak. You’re alive.”

I’m not, actually. I’m a construct. That’s an important technicality when it comes to things like souls and immortality and blah-blah-blah secrets of the universe stuff. Precision is important. I turned my thoughts to condensing those ideas into idiot-Patron vocabulary without revealing any secrets.

Something wonderful distracted me.

There was a smell, a scent so penetrating and rich that it stopped all thoughts except one: want. This scent was delight distilled; it was sweet and pungent, so thick with creamy tones and smooth notes that my nose went into spasms trying to catch them all.

I did mention the nose, didn’t I? It’s big. There’s a reason. I’m a not simply a grotesque, not a mere stony ornament. I’m a gargoyle, and gargoyles are designed to channel things in through their bodies and out through their noses and mouths.

Traditional gargoyles channel water off roofs. That’s why they face outward. Library gargoyles? We channel magic. We’re designed to capture the universal forces drawn to stored knowledge. We catch it and safely direct it all down into the building where it can be tapped, stored, or eliminated as the Librarians choose.

The work is done by big wings, broad backs and bellies, yawning cavernous mouths, and huge noses—and our noses are sensitive, too. How else could we sense evil trying to thread its way into the guarded places? Forget sampling parts per million. I can detect the odor of one fallen demon among the infinite crowd of angels in an air molecule. We’re all about the sniffers.

I had never smelled anything like this in my life. <What is that?> I demanded. <What is that smell?>

The kid jumped back, tripped and bounced her butt on the gravel. That defective mouth of hers gaped open again, and her eyes filled up with water. I braced myself to be deafened. The screams from Patron families dragging kids out the front door Down-below always hurt my ears, and this little creature was a lot closer.

She sat and made sniffly noises. No screams. I tried again. <You smell delicious. What smells so delicious?>

“I don’t know. Are you going to eat me?”

The idiocy of Patrons never ceases to amaze me. The Library histories are full of their incredible feats of intellect, but most of them are as thick as bricks. <Don’t be absurd. I’m made of stone. How could I eat anything? Please come back so I can smell you better. You smell wonderful, and I want more.>

The kid got up and came closer. The smell came with her. When she wrapped both her hands around my upper tusks where they curved over my lip, the heady, powerful scent grew so thick that I thought I might pass out from it. <So sweet. So tangy. So perfect. Can you stay there forever?>

She climbed higher, onto my front paws, and tugged my ear. “I don’t think so. Uncle Hector would miss me. Mom and Dad, too. What does absurd mean? Is it worse than stupid? Uncle Hector’s assistant calls me stupid all the time.”

Most of that went in one ear and out the other. Despite the vast knowledge the Library gives me, my area of expertise is pretty limited. I’ve never left the same rooftop where I was brought to life seventeen years ago. I know Patrons have complicated hierarchies and relationships inside and outside the Library, of course, but assigning meaning to facts is difficult without a frame of reference.

The name Hector had meaning. <You know the Head Librarian?>

“Is he head of something? He has the tiniest office. Mom has to work late on Fridays in her new job, and I can’t walk home alone because it’s too dangerous, so I come here until Uncle Hector can take me home. He brings groceries and stays for supper.”

That explained how the kid got here. If she was under the Head Librarian’s protection, no door in the building would be locked to her, and his office was above the wards that made Patrons ignore the floors filled with curiosities and books in dead languages. His office would look like an archivist’s cubby. All the Librarians have mundane job titles as well as supernatural duties. Patrons don’t do well with magic past a certain age, not even family members.

This kid obviously hadn’t reached that age. She was climbing all over me now, poking at my decorations and brushing snow off my eyebrows, perfectly comfortable with a talking statue. It felt delightful. Spring equinox cleaning was a long way off, and grimy city air always gets into crevices. I decided to add to my Patron experience base while my neck fringe was being scratched. Relationships were hard things to work out. <Do you love your uncle?>

“Of course I do. Don’t you love your family? Aren’t those your family?”

A little hand waved in my peripheral vision. I decided that if I was going to ask questions, it was only fair to answer some. <Those are my brothers and sisters, but gargoyles don’t do love and families. We have audacities.>

“That’s a funny word.” She hopped down to duck in front of me. “Do you have names? Do the others talk too? Why are you here?”

<I’m Grawlix. My sister Nittle is facing us, and my brothers Agitron and Briffit are on the left and right walls. They sleep more than me.>

They sleep almost all the time, honestly. Our cornerstone was only laid twenty years ago, and it takes a lot of time for a construct to build up enough residual magic to awaken without a Librarian’s help. <We collect magic from moonbeams and starlight at night and pour it into the Library.>

We also guard against the demons who lurk in darkness and storms, and we assist the Librarians in repelling attacks against the minor works of Power stored here. I didn’t mention that. Kids don’t need to know everything. I’d been awake ever since this one started puttering around on the roof, but she didn’t need to know that I’d initially thought she was a threat.

“Gathering starlight sounds pretty,” she said. “I’m Krissy Pollux. Nice-to-meet-you-Grawlix.”

I couldn’t see her now with my nose in the way, but something bumped heavily against my tongue, and then I had the strangest sensation. <Are you inside me? I thought you were afraid I’d eat you.>

Krissy’s voice echoed. “You said you wouldn’t. How odd you are! Hollow like a cave, and warm. May I eat my snack in here? It’s nicer than the corner of the top floor where I usually go to hide from Barton.”

The kid was sitting in my belly with her feet on my lips. It had to look undignified, but oh, heavens, who could care while that happy smell permeated my body? <I like you there. Why do you hide from Hector’s assistant? Patrons aren’t usually allowed on the roof, you know, and children are supposed to stay with adults.>

“I’m not a child. I’m almost six. And Barton is a snotty snotball.”

Wet smacking noises punctuated her words, and the glorious scent intensified a million times. Its sweetness gained deeper, richer tones, some earthy, some astringent, and I belatedly realized something. The smell was the kid’s snack, not her. <What are you eating? Where did you get it?>

“It’s a banana. Oh, I’m so sorry.” She squirmed a bit, which tickled. “Are you hungry? I should’ve split it in half.”

Banana. Associations fell into place. Chemistry. Botany. Horticulture. Shapes and sizes, nutritional profiles, growing conditions, shelf life and pricing—I tore my attention away from the data flow. Nothing in it hinted at the incredible wonder of the smell, not even descriptions of aromatic molecules like crystalline spindles. Nothing could substitute for the experience.

Krissy said, “I’ve eaten most of it, but you should have the rest. You said you wouldn’t eat me, so I –I’m sorry. Being hungry is awful.”

If gargoyles had hearts, mine would’ve melted, right then and there. <Don’t be sorry. I don’t eat anything. Not little girls, not bananas. If I did eat food, I think I would only eat bananas forever. Where did you get it?>

“Uncle Hector. He gave it to me. I didn’t steal it.”

Of course the kid hadn’t stolen it. Hector was a the Library Administrator. A thief couldn’t take dust from this building without his knowledge. Where she’d gotten it wasn’t important. I was more interested in why no one ever brought us one before now, and most of all, how soon I could get more.

Those weren’t questions Krissy could answer, but she could keep helping me understand Patrons better. <Why don’t you stay in your Uncle’s office?>

“He’s always busy, and Barton is mean whenever he isn’t looking. He says I’m a stupid little ape, and every time he loses things, he says I stole them. I like the stacks better, and the pictures in the books. And it’s pretty out here on the roof, only I get cold and lonely.”

<Is that why you make snowmen? To keep you company?>

“No, I want to make them dance because Uncle Hector wouldn’t do it this winter for me. He says I’m too old now and should start forgetting about them soon. I don’t want to forget. I want to make my own and prove that Barton’s wrong and I’m not stupid.”

The last few words came out so loud they made my ears ache. A limp, yellowish-brown thing landed with a splat on the roof nearby. Sweet rapture trailed along behind it, which meant it was the remains of the banana. I forgave the littering, just that once.

Gritty boots pressed against my teeth. Krissy said, “You never told me what absurd means,” she said.

That was true. I’d forgotten already. <Absurd means deserving of derision or mockery. See also ridiculous, silly or frivolous.>

“So it is like stupid.” She kicked my left lower tusk. “I guess I’m all those things. I’m stupid, and silly, and ridiculous.”

Kick, kick, kick, kick. Every syllable.

<Ow. If you keep doing that, I will call someone to take you away.>

Silence. Snuffling. “Go ahead. I don’t like it here anymore. I hate being too stupid to do magic.”

<Who told you magic was about brains? That’s absurd too. Magic is about spirit. You can’t do magic because you’re a Patron, that’s all. It’s how life works.>

Krissy kicked my other tusk, gently. “I don’t want to be a Patron if it means forgetting magic. I don’t want that. I want to make dancing snowmen, and learn to read books, and grow up and work in the library so I can come at night to watch you collect starlight.”

Her breath hitched, and her voice got very small, at the end.

I’m a gargoyle, not a monster. I may be made of stone, but let me tell you, there’s no force on heaven or earth as powerful as the cry of a heartbroken child. It could move mountains. It moved me, that’s for sure. She’d shared banana with me. How could I send her away in tears?

Short answer: I couldn’t.

She might only be a Patron, but when I thought about it, there were no Rules against Patrons doing magic. If one could do magic, one became a Page and then a Librarian. Patrons couldn’t, and that was that. One did not become the other. That didn’t mean it was impossible. Only one thing in the universe was Unchanging, and it surely wasn’t a mortal’s state of being.

No matter what happened next, my siblings and I were going to get a good few decades of debate over the existence of this epistemological loophole.

Meanwhile, I had an unhappy kid to console. <Stop sniveling. Please remove yourself and stand where I can see you.>

Hiccupping and scuffling led to crunching across gravel. Krissy picked up the banana carcass along the way and put it in her pocket, and my heart got all mushy inside, seeing that. A Patron who picked up after herself. Miracles did happen. She wiped at her eyes and frowned up at me. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Grawlix. I’ll come to visit until I forget, I promise. And I’ll bring you your own banana, next time.”

I said <I might be able to help. Even if I can’t, you can visit any time, with or without bananas.> Although she wouldn’t. Patrons stopped playing, when they reached a certain age, or so the research on file indicated. <Today, if you’re willing to listen hard and do exactly what I tell you, we might be able to make snowmen dance together.>

That would make a nice beginning, I thought, and Krissy showed all her defective little teeth at me in a big grin. “Really, truly?”

<Really, truly. Is that a yes? You’ll do exactly what I tell you?>

“If it means I get magic, yes! You can give that to me? Will it hurt?”

<I don’t know. I need to make a call first.>

Gargoyles channel power. We don’t control it, and we don’t direct it. Librarians do, and Administrators of course. What I wanted to do, though—this was out of their league too. None of us on the lower planes handle States of Being. This kind of philosophical paradigm shift would take the work of a Higher Power.

So, I called on the Powers. It’s another thing gargoyles can do.

All the records indicated that there would be a wait to get an issue like this into the queue for resolution. I was prepared for a delay involving explanations, consultations, passing to other Powers for discussion, and then lots and lots of specific instructions about prayers, drawings, and rituals. Sometimes there was singing. I expected to receive a lecture and a liturgy and maybe a hymnal.

I was wrong. Someone Up There must’ve already had an eye or six hundred on little Krissy, because no sooner did I pass along my request than an answer came back. A shaft of white light lanced down from the sky and struck the kid like a bolt of lightning.

If I’d known she was going to scream, I never would’ve made my offer to her, because the kid had a set of lungs on her fit to call down Judgment Day. At least she only had time to scream once. One long shriek, and it was done.

She sat down on the gravel and sat there blinking. The sky felt dark without the light of Heaven coming down. My ears rang with the sound of more than Krissy’s screams. The music of the sphere went silent again, and I strained to catch the last echoes.

Krissy jumped up and squeaked and started dancing around like a tiny little dervish. “I’m full of ants!” she yelled. “Ants, and rainbows, and baby camels, and a narwhal, and so many other nice things are filling me up, and oh—” She stopped dead and said in the tiniest voice ever, “Oh, but some of this doesn’t feel good at all.”

<Having magic won’t only be about playing with the pretty parts of the universe, or the nice ones. It’s about the dark and the painful and the dying, too.> I felt sorry for her, in that moment, I did. But not too sorry. <Do you want to make dancing snowmen now?>

“Yes!” She walked over to her line of ice cubes and poked at them. “I have all these bubbles inside now, but I still don’t understand what I did wrong. I said all the words Uncle Hector did.”

<You did everything wrong, and nothing. You couldn’t tap into the energy of Creation until now. Say the same words you were whispering earlier. You’ll see the difference.>

She picked up an ice cube and told it that she would love it to become a snowman please, and she laughed like a ringing bell when snow spun up in a cloud that condensed into a lumpy, bumpy white mannequin around the symbol of her heart’s desire.

I might’ve added a little power boost. A tiny, tiny bit. Just to be sure it worked, her first time. The snowman bumbled over to her and hugged her finger, an she said, “Go and play, now, and I’ll make you some friends.”

By the time Hector arrived, barely a minute later, Krissy had a whole parade marching around the roof, up and over my paws and down again, and the commotion in the aether was beginning to wake my siblings.

The Administrator watched from the fire door. He wore a Patron suit, not his official robes, and he had on one of those expressions that might make more sense to me when I have more experience. His mouth was open, which could be surprise or fear or anger, and his eyebrows were moving up and down too, which made the rest hard to interpret. He has extremely bushy white eyebrows.

I had no doubt he’d heard the noise of Krissy’s baptism in power, but he didn’t approach her. After a long interval of silence broken only by Krissy’s laughter and ridiculous instruction for the snowmen, he looked right at me and frowned.

There was no fooling a Librarian. <Hello, Administrator.>

Now he definitely looked surprised. He came over and peered closely into my right eye. Snowmen danced a jig over his feet, and Krissy said, “Hi, Uncle Hector. I’m sorry I yelled, I know I’m s’posed to be quiet in the library, but look! I made my own this time!”

“I see that, honey,” Hector said. “And I’m not mad about the scream, as long as you’re safe. Those are excellent snowmen. Why don’t you let them have a snowball fight?”

She squealed, painfully high-pitched, and started lining up sides for an epic battle. Once she was distracted, the Administrator put a hand on my nose and leaned in. “Hello, Grawlix,” he said. “No one expected this for another few decades. I would’ve kept a closer eye on Krissy if I’d known. I apologize for the disturbance.”

<I’m not disturbed.> I had to presume that the unexpected this referred to my alertness. <This is an powerful Library, and you manage its collections with great skill. It’s no surprise that we’re coming into sentience on the early side.>

“Not surprising? I might dispute that, but it’s never wise to argue with a gargoyle.” Hector regarded his niece for several moments before sighing. “Those damned snowmen. I knew it was a mistake, but she has such a happy laugh. Do stop powering them, Grawlix. I’m sure you mean it for a kindness, but she has to adjust and grow up. It’s hard on us, letting our Patron relatives go, but it’s for the best.”

<About that…you’re going to have to put her in Page training now.>

“What?”

Once I explained, he looked at Krissy again, and then at me, then at her. “Well, now. This should be interesting.”

That was a singularly uninformative statement. <Could you clarify, please?>

He laughed, and it was Krissy’s laugh, only softer and deeper. “I could try, but I won’t. You’ll understand eventually.”

I wanted to understand now. <Is this one of those experience gaps?>

“In part. You’ve done something amazing today—so amazing I can’t begin to predict all the repercussions. Frankly, I don’t care about any of them. Thank you, Grawlix. You’ve given me a precious gift, and I don’t know how to express my gratitude.”

That was the opening I needed. <Do you know about bananas?>

### The End ###


Copyright 2015 K. M. Herkes
Art credit: convention sketch by Buzz

I hope you enjoyed! If you want to read more words by me, I have lots of stories available on Amazon & beyond.  All are available as ebooks, most are in paperback, and some are on audio.

You can go straight to the ‘Zon via this link: author.to/kmherkes,  see other vendors by clicking on titles here: books2read.com, or take a no-pressure peek at the descriptions right on this website: All The Books.

Why didn’t I put this story up for sale? Because I don’t have time for formatting and then re-proofing and finding cover cover art etc right now.  Why not let it sit? Because then I would be distracted by the constant temptation to fuss with the language and structure.

Distraction is my life. The only cure that works for me is knowing a work is posted somewhere. Even if it’s here. So…here ’tis. Thanks for reading!

Story notes to self

Here be two story nuggets I need to put somewhere I can’t lose them. This way I can come back to them when I get the itch to do a short story later this year (which will happen, it seems to be an annual, seasonal kind of thing like hay fever)/

First, one about a young woman, poor and desperate,  who lives in a land where passing ghosts freeze solid in the winter and brave hunters harvest the souls for…I dunno what, but I know this will be somewhere near the beginning:

The music of winter rolled across field and forest during the dark months.  Snow and ice crunched loud underfoot, tree limbs rattled and cracked to pieces, and bitter storm winds howled their harsh melodies down every chimney while snow whispered rippling descants around the walls.

Everyone huddled close during those long, cold months, and they sang their own songs, long stories of winters defeated and warm summers to come. They sang of hopeful things, knowing the wild music was the sound of survival.

When the skies cleared and the the ice moon shone down bright on a still, silent world, the night air turned so cold it froze the dead and the living alike.

Sometimes, when that stillness held the wilds hostage, a careful listener would hear the rare, delicate chime of spirits shattering against snow.

Then there’s a short story in the Rough Passages universe that I know will start off with this gross little bit:

The black, furry thing by the side of the road was the size of a refrigerator, smelled like a landfill, and had entirely too many flies buzzing around it for Jane’s comfort.

“Hey, Janie, look!” Her sister poked it with the trash stick. The thing squelched and deflated to half its original size with a soft, messy noise, and the stench of decay made Janie gag.

“Ew, Megan, what are you doing?” She backed away fast–too fast.  The shoulder of the road was narrow, she wasn’t watching her footing, and her heel slipped off the graveled edge onto slick grass.  She flailed for balance, then desperately flung herself forward onto hands and knees.

She landed with a jolt of pain, but it was better that than sliding ten feet backwards into the muddy weeds at the bottom of the ditch. Her sweaty, filthy, too-large leather work gloves saved her from scraping her hands raw, but her knees stung through her now-ripped jeans.

They were wet, too. Blood? She got to her feet.  Oh, no. Not blood.

She brushed at the sticky, yellowish ooze. Her stomach lurched, and disgust prickled all along her skin. “Megan, it’s a good thing we’re family, or I would kill you. First you get caught shoplifting like a juvenile delinquent and blame me so we both have to do community service, then you pick trash duty of all the ungodly things under the sun, and now look at me?”

“What?” Megan kept her eyes on the dead thing as if mesmerized by its ugliness. She poked at it again with the stick. “I wonder what happened to it.”

“Stop it! Who cares?” Janie got to her feet and caught Megan by the arm. “Come on, we’re way behind the rest of the crew already.”

“Who cares?” Megan jerked loose and dug in her heels.  “It’s huge. We can’t just leave it here.”

“Yes, we can. We’re supposed to leave road kill for the crew with the shovels. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

The last part came out in a shriek as Megan pulled off her work glove to lay her palm flat against the thing’s hairy side.

It gathered three legs under it and lurched upright, dangling half of a fourth limb, dripping fluids, and sending the swarm of flies into angry flight. When it shook itself, bits of fur, flesh, and gravel flew in all directions. It wobbled unsteadily  down the steep slope into the ditch and disappeared into the tall grass at the bottom.

Janie shrieked again. “THAT WAS THE GROSSEST THING EVER! GROSSER THAN YOUR HOME BIRTH VIDEO. OH. MY. GOD. WHAT DID YOU JUST DO?”

Megan was staring at her own hand. “Uh. I’m not sure, but I want to do it again?”

Unfortunately,  I have no idea what’s going on with these two, beyond Meg rolling unexpectedly into a power that animates dead things. Oh, well. More will come eventually, I’m sure.

Until later!

 

Solstice Dance: a midwinter tale

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.christmas-1872849_640

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.”

background-914370_640The 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 img_2024with 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.”

img_2020Wren 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)

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Winter Wishes on Kindle

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